These . . . cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger. .…
These . . . cities shall he a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger. . . . —Numbers 35:15
Like Canaan, Provence is eloquent with sunlight. The landscape, harsh, dry, and brilliant, with white vestiges of antique civilizations, recalls Biblical Palestine: olive trees spring from the rocky hillsides, and the vines, like those in the Old Testament, are heavy with grapes. Irrigation canals, branching from the Rhone and its tributaries, filter through fields and orchards which yield melons, asparagus, apricots, and berries that are the primeurs of France. Yet much of Provence remains desert, a land swept by sun and wind, and alive with color.
Governing the region with the authority of Sinai, six thousand feet above the plain, is the bluish peak of Mount Ventoux—the “Mountain of All Winds,” including the wicked mistral. But the mistral rarely blows in summer, when the hot countryside undulates as in a Van Gogh; and then the mountain looks down on the cities of the plain with the same austere kindness as when, from the 14th to the 18th centuries, this corner of southern France provided refuge for the children of Israel.
Until the French Revolution, northern Provence was the Papal State of the Comtat Venaissin, stretching eastward from the Rhone to the first ridge of the Alps. Its boundaries, marked by great gilded crucifixes, were opened by the Holy See to the harassed; and the Jew, exiled from England in 1290, from the crown territories of France in 1394, from Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1497, found that he could live here on terms which, for the times, were relatively humane. In the ghettos of Avignon, Carpentras, L’Isle-sur-Sorgue, and Cavaillon were established four tiny republics—the Arba Kehilloth, or four Holy Communities. In spite of intermittent persecutions and vigorous—sometimes violent—proselytism by the surrounding Christian population, these communities clung to their religious and cultural heritage during four hundred years of isolation from the rest of world Jewry. On occasion, when they received permission, they also constructed synagogues; and the temples of Carpentras and Cavaillon, which are all that remain of their creations, stand as the most handsome examples of monumental Jewish art in France.
Jewish history in Provence, however, goes back further even than the medieval foundations of these 18th-century synagogues. Some Jews, drawn from the community at Rome which by Cicero’s time was already wealthy and influential, were present in southern Gaul, it would seem, from the early days of the Roman occupation which began in 125 B.C.E. They probably did their share, as commissary agents to the legions, merchants, and slave dealers, in making the colony the opulent Provincia described by Strabo. Nevertheless, Jews cannot have come to Gaul in great numbers until after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of our era and after the failure of Bar Kochba’s uprising in 135 C.E.
The Roman impression upon Provence has never completely faded. Descending the Rhone, as the first cypress and ilex appear along shore, the traveler feels that he is on the threshold of Italy. Almost every Provençal city has imposing Roman remains; even the market towns of Carpentras and Cavaillon have their Roman arches. Under Imperial rule—especially after Caracalla in 212 conferred citizenship on all freeborn males—Jews lived in relative calm and, very likely, affluence in the rich southern province. Their ships plied between the Rhone delta and the mouth of the Tiber, carrying corn, wheat, oil, and wine to Ostia and Rome, and returning to Marseilles and Aries with textiles, spices, papyrus, and gold. Jews were free to practice law and medicine, to serve in the administrative bureaucracy, and to hold military command. They also enjoyed liberty of residence; yet even in classical times they ordinarily congregated in a single quarter surrounding the synagogue, thus creating a proto-ghetto environment which would not be officially forced upon them until more than a thousand years later. Jewish freedom of worship, which included the security of synagogues from hostile pagan or Christian mobs, was guaranteed by law.
These synagogues evidently compared in decorative splendor and design, if not always in size, with other religious monuments of the period. Unfortunately, however, Jewish archaeological remains from late antiquity are extremely rare. Only the astonishing 3rd-century structure at Dura Europas,1 on the Euphrates, its walls covered with representational murals, has been found more or less intact; and its simple rectangular plan differs considerably from the more complex basilican plan which was probably employed in Gaul. For ground plans at Elche in Spain, at Aegina in Greece, and at Beth Alpha, Jerash, El Hammeh, and other places in Palestine, reveal that the later classical synagogue in the West usually resembled a Hellenistic basilica. Two lines of pillars, running parallel to the long side of the building, divided the interior into a central nave and flanking aisles. Often the pillars supported upper galleries which, in accordance with Zechariah 12:12-14, were reserved for women. The greatest synagogues had not two, but four rows of pillars which formed a double aisle on either side of an immense nave. Such a structure was the famous monument at Alexandria which, the Talmud boasts, could contain more people than Moses led out of Egypt.
To visualize these classical synagogues, it is necessary today to piece together fragments of walls, portals, and colonnades. But ruins such as those at K’far Birim and Capernaum (Tell Hum) in Palestine, mosaics such as the fragment from Hamman-Lif in Africa which is now at the Brooklyn Museum, and of course the magnificent Dura murals, indicate that the buildings were fastidiously decorated, both within and without. The Jew was not afraid to display his art on the exterior of his buildings, and their Doric or Corinthian façades, sometimes surmounted by entablatures and pediments, were generously conceived and executed. Significantly, too, in later times pagan motifs mingled esoterically with traditionally Jewish decorative themes.
The ancient synagogues of Provence have vanished, but near Saint-Rémy is the excavated city of Glanum, destroyed in the 3rd century C.E. by one of the first barbarian raids that marked the downfall of the Western Empire. Among the ruins are those of a basilica approximately 120 feet long and 40 feet wide, terminating in a semi-circular apse, and preceded by a forecourt which contained a ritualistic well. Almost surely this was a pagan temple, although it could also have been an assembly hall or law court, but a synagogue would not have been much different in basic plan. Nor can the Hellenistic houses of Glanum, whoever occupied them, have been distinguishable from the homes of Jews throughout the classical world. Perhaps more than the colossal arena at nearby Arles, these houses, with their delightful interior courtyards, show what was lost when wave after wave of barbarians swept over Gaul, bringing to an end, together with all human security, the security of the Jew.
Cities which escaped destruction dwindled in size and population. Their open Roman patterns gave way to twisted networks of medieval streets. The reduced perimeters were walled, and men learned to live in fear, locking themselves within fortified strongholds whenever danger threatened. Avignon, never as important during Roman days as the neighboring river ports of Arles and Orange, became a city of consequence because of the strategic value of its lofty rock dominating the Rhone. The superb Roman public works, such as the aqueduct of the Pont du Gard, fell into disuse. The roads deteriorated. Pagan and Jewish temples, too, were converted to churches, for the barbarian invaders, together with the old Gallo-Roman population, were now Christian.
The Jew, rather than a citizen with full rights, became a stranger without clear legal status. Henceforth, until modern times, his fortunes would vary according to the caprice and piety of local overlords. The lords themselves at first changed frequently as Burgundians, Goths, and Franks, and, from the 8th century onward, Saracens, contended for Provence. Too often—Isidore Loeb pointed out—legends have been accepted which allege that during this violent period Jews participated in anti-clerical revolts (they are said, for example, to have joined a popular rebellion against Bishop Stephen of Avignon in the year 390) or else that they opened the gates of Provençal cities to Moslems or heretical Goths. Much as they may have preferred Saracens or heretics to the devoutly orthodox Franks, the Jews would have been hard put to it to accomplish the treachery attributed to them by Church historians of the later Middle Ages.
The long era of barbarian and Moslem incursions, which did not subside until the 11th century, has been called the Dark Ages. Yet in some ways it was a progressive period: the West was gradually creating the society which would one day erect the Gothic cathedrals; and in spite of a growing number of pariah laws, including some which restricted synagogue construction, the Jew has known blacker moments. At worst, anti-Semitic legislation, in Provence and elsewhere, was only haphazardly enforced; at best it was openly disregarded by Christian and Jew alike. During stable intervals such as the reign of Charlemagne, a catch-as-catch-can economy offered rich opportunities to entrepreneurs of intelligence and daring, qualities which many Jews apparently possessed. Until the Saracens closed the Mediterranean to commerce, Jewish ships, commanded by Jewish captains, dominated the international luxury trade between Gaul and Asia Minor; Marseilles, one of the busiest ports, received from Bishop Gregory of Tours in the 6th century the epithet Hebraea. By the 9th century, to believe the outcries against them by the zealous Agobard, Bishop of Lyons, the Jews, made prideful by wealth, high political position under the Carolingians, and their own stiff-necked religious convictions, openly proselytized among a population which had scarcely emerged from paganism, especially in rural areas.
The Jews not only survived the Dark Ages, they emerged from the period of invasions as a prosperous and—until the massacres that coincided with the Crusades—tolerated minority. As much as to commerce and finance, they were given to crafts such as weaving, engraving, and armory (Chaucer would write of “a fyn hauberk . . . all y-wroght of Jewes werk”). By the 12th century, there were more Jews than ever before within the territory of modern France: perhaps 100,000, or nearly one-tenth of the population. More than half of them were concentrated in the south where, in places, they constituted imposing minorities of one-fourth or even one-third of the population, with wealth and influence far exceeding their numbers. As often as not, they were assigned the contemptible title of serf, but in reality they were tributary vassals of the great lords and, in this capacity, their “men.” Jews could not change their residence or transfer their allegiance, but they bore no resemblance to agricultural workers bound to the soil.
These southern Jews resided in the same cities as in antiquity, often, it is thought, in quarters they had by now occupied for a millennium. In the complex feudal mosaic of the Mediterranean coastlands, many of them lived under either the direct or indirect rule of the Counts of Toulouse. These enlightened princes governed a vast system of fiefs, extending the width of Provence and Languedoc, which even in the first half of the 12th century were so penetrated by heterodox beliefs that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux came there to preach angrily in the name of the Church Militant. With the exception of Spain, nowhere else in medieval Europe did Jews possess such ease in social intercourse and as much prominence in commerce, finance, and politics—in spite of periodic humiliations such as the ceremonial cuffing of a Jewish elder by the gauntleted Count on Good Friday.
When Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela made his celebrated journey in the second half of the 12th century, he found sizable Jewish communities flourishing throughout the Midi. At Beaucaire, a few miles below Avignon on the opposite side of the Rhone, where great annual fairs were held, there were four hundred families; at Marseilles three hundred families; and two hundred at Arles. Since families resembled small clans, and included married children and grandchildren as well as Jewish retainers, these figures should be multiplied by at least five to arrive at conservative totals for the population of the communities.
Rabbi Benjamin did not mention Avignon, but this should not be taken as proof that the community there was necessarily small and undistinguished. Other sources reveal that the city had its share of noted Jewish doctors. In 1122, to cite a happy example, King Louis VI summoned to Paris an Avignonnais physician named Zour,2 who was also an astrologer and clairvoyant. Zour detected the hiding place of jewels which had been stolen from the royal treasure, and restored them to the delighted monarch.
The Avignon which Zour knew, rather than the notorious, half-Italian later city of the Popes, was a thriving mercantile town of some fifteen thousand inhabitants. Its splendid situation near the confluence of the Rhone and the Durance, where it served—as it still does—as the hub of the major roads of the region, made it a center of both river and overland trade. This resulted not only in prosperity but in a rare degree of municipal independence. In 1129 the bourgeoisie obtained from the Count and the Bishop the concession of an oligarchic republican constitution, on the order of Venice’s, which made Avignon a free city.
Little remains of this Avignon. Not even the Romanesque portions of Notre-Dame-des-Doms (dating from 1140 to 1160) were standing at the time of Zour’s visit to Paris in 1122; a now vanished 11th-century cathedral was there. The Palace of the Popes was not dreamed of—its construction would not begin for nearly two hundred years. But between the Rhone and the great square which now lies before the Palace, is a quarter which Zour would not have found much different in his day. Its medieval houses, some of whose substructures are Roman, are pressed together on twisting lanes and alleys which occasionally become stairways on their steep descent to the river.
Here stood the Old Jewry, possibly since Roman times. The irregular area measures no more than sixty by thirty yards, less than a modern city block. The narrow street which runs half its length is still known as the Rue de Vieille-Juiverie. Intersecting this Street of the Old Jewry are two even narrower passages; and at the corner of one of them, the Rue Reille-Juiverie, stands a building whose nondescript exterior scarcely distinguishes it from its neighbors but whose interior is quite another matter.
This oblong room, only ten by fourteen feet, and vaulted by a pair of round arches, is said by an old tradition to have been the early medieval synagogue of Avignon. In the absence of a modern archaeological investigation, it is at present impossible to confirm the tradition, much less to date the construction accurately. The arches seem Romanesque, as does the round window of the southern wall. In northern France this would be enough to assign the building to the 12th century, or to the late 11th. But Romanesque forms lingered late in Provence, where round arches can be found dating, not from the 12th, but from the 13th and 14th centuries.
There is some reason to believe, however, that this is a 12th-century structure, and that it did serve a specifically Jewish purpose. The remaining traces of the eastern and northern windows show they were slightly pointed—that is, Gothic—in style, and this in turn indicates a reconstruction in the 13th century: thus the rest of the building may be presumed to be of an earlier date. Historical evidence supports this conjecture. The Jewry was damaged during the siege of Avignon in 1226: the walls may have been hit at that time and rebuilt. As will be seen, after the siege the Jews were moved from the Old Jewry, where they apparently had lived by choice, to a New Jewry which was a true ghetto. The old Synagogue and its dependencies were probably given over to the Church, as was usual in such cases. The building would then have been converted into a chapel, and presuming it escaped damage during the siege, the new cult must surely have wished to make some structural alterations. The presence of Gothic windows, in fact, when rectangular ones would have been cheaper, indicates that this was no ordinary dwelling.
Still another piece of evidence suggests that the building once had Jewish liturgical associations. At one corner a well descends fifty feet; the requirement of a ready supply of pure water for ritualistic ablutions made a well a necessity for the medieval synagogue, as it had been for the ancient Temple.
Yet unless the Avignon community was exceedingly small, this chamber, with room for no more than twenty-five worshipers, could not have sufficed as its synagogue. In all probability this was not the temple itself but an adjacent dependency, a study hall or beth ha-midrash—perhaps even a hostel for travelers. Or it could have been an auxiliary worshipping place for women, as at Worms, adjoining a more imposing men’s temple. Possible future excavations might clear up the mystery.
This venerable quarter, in which no Jews now live, has become a melancholy slum; it is hard to realize that eight hundred years ago its sleepy streets brimmed with the kind of economic and intellectual vitality which produced, in 1177, the great Bridge of Avignon. No civic improvement on this scale had been attempted in Provence since the Pont du Gard. The powerful Rhone, even today, is a formidable river to bridge, and to span it with stone arches rather than with reinforced concrete or steel was a prodigious feat which the Romans themselves, content with a bridge of boats downstream at Arles, never attempted. As much as any cathedral, the Pont d’Avignon, much changed and half-ruined as it stands, displays the imaginative vigor of the Middle Ages at its best.
Until the Pont Saint-Bénézet, as the bridge has always been known, was built, the river could be crossed at this point only by ferry, and in the popular legend that turned its construction into a supernatural event, a Jew figures as a ferryman. The legend has it that Saint Bénézet—“Little Benedict”—was a shepherd lad who, tending his lambs, heard a voice from Heaven; the Lord was instructing him to go to Avignon and build a bridge there. Bénézet arrived across the river from the city with three farthings in his pocket, and asked a ferryman to take him over “for the love of God and Our Lady Holy Mary.” The ferryman, a Jew, replied: “You must pay me three pence as all do.” Bénézet appealed to him once more in the name of God and the Virgin. The Jew only answered: “What care I for your Mary, who has no power in Heaven or on earth? I would rather have three pence, there are many Maries.” Then Bénézet offered him what money he had, and the Jew took it, and ferried him across. Once arrived in Avignon, Bénézet is said, by the legend, to have accomplished even greater marvels. To convince the skeptical Bishop of his divine mission, he lifted a stone “that thirty men could not have moved . . . as if it were a pebble, and carried it away and laid it down as the foundation stone for the bridge.”3 This supposedly took place in 1177. It required eleven years for the bridge to be completed. The difference the bridge made in the commercial life of Avignon may be appreciated today by anyone who crosses the Rhone by boat. It still costs only a penny or two to take the little ferry to the recreation ground on the Ile de la Barthelasse. The boat is strung on a cable, and after the ferryman poles it into the stream, the strong current carries it along swiftly. Medieval boatsmen had no guiding cable, and without it a boat is difficult—in heavy weather, impossible—to control.
Now the already flourishing town of Avignon attained a new prosperity. Southern France by the turn of the 13th century had fully revived economically. Not even under the Romans, perhaps, had times been so good—the standard of living so high—for the bulk of the population. Ironically, this wealth meant the doom of an independent southern civilization in France. The Albigensian Crusade, waged ostensibly to eradicate heresy, had as its main results the downfall of the brilliant House of Toulouse and the acquisition of the territory by the French Crown and the Holy See. In 1226 a French army, led by Louis VIII, appeared before Avignon, which had been under the ban of the Church for ten years. In the siege that followed, disease and famine compelled the city to capitulate after three months of furious resistance. Heavy indemnities were exacted by the victors. Three hundred houses were razed, probably many Jewish houses among them, together with the city walls which were later rebuilt by the Popes and still give a strong impression of the fortified medieval town. Northern princes—Alphonse of Poitiers and Charles of Anjou, both sons of Louis VIII—became the chief lords of Languedoc and Provence. The old Midi life was forever gone. If defeat was painful for the heretics, it was disastrous for the Jews. Henceforth they were banished from public life: a clause of the peace treaty of 1229 specifically barred them from administrative posts. Those few Jews—there were never more than a few during the Middle Ages—who had amassed large fortunes as bankers were crowded from the field by favored Christian rivals; especially, they could not compete with the powerful Florentines who had extended their operations to France. Within a century most Jewish financiers found themselves reduced to pawnbroking, although several managed to continue large-scale dealings.
At the instigation of Christian competitors, Jewish merchants were now confined to second-hand transactions in cloth, apparel, and other goods. Some were still able to trade, as they had for centuries, in spices, grains, wine, oil, honey, wax, alum, leather, horses and other animals, silks, coral, pearls, and gems. These were spirited businessmen—we know one edict forbade them to accost passers-by and pull them by force into the shops. But only extraordinary energy could cope with the oppressive legislation and arbitrary taxation that had cut heavily into profits.
Jewish artisans were even less fortunate. The guilds, which had long excluded them, achieved a virtual Christian monopoly in most crafts. Jewish seal-makers, illuminators, and jewelers long retained their skills, but Jewish gold and silversmiths, once so famous, grew rare. Franz Landsberger has pointed out that it was in the south of France, so far as can be learned, that for the first time a non-Jew, Robin Asard of Avignon, in 1439 made a Torah crown for the congregation of Aries.
It was at this time, too, that the Jewish peddler, rather than the princely traveling merchant, made his appearance on the roads. In the cities a Jewish proletariat rose, chronically unemployed and dependent on alms. The French saying “as poor as a Jew in Avignon” came into usage.
To economic hardship were added social indignities. Badges of infamy—the little red or saffron yellow wheel, sewn on the coat—were imposed throughout the West after Church policy hardened in the anti-Semitic measures of the Lateran Council of 1215. The Council also founded the Inquisition, and laid the way for the establishment of ghettos which could be sealed off by walls and gates.
The forced change of residence by the Jews of Avignon was typical of the ghetto development. Shortly after the siege, the Old Jewry was ordered evacuated, and the Jews transferred to the exact center of the city, a quarter formerly occupied by Christians. The reason for the location is clear. The Jews were suspected of dissatisfaction. To the medieval mind, as to the modern authoritarian mind, dissatisfaction was indistinguishable from disloyalty. Tales of Jewish treachery far in the past, during the Saracenic wars, were invented, and used as a pretext for placing the Jews as far as possible from the city’s outer fortifications.
The new Jewry was a city within a city, and is in fact referred to as “la cité juive” in one document. Today its changed outlines can be recognized only by such street names as the Rue Abraham and the Rue Jacob, but the original appearance of the ghetto is known from old pictorial maps. It was roughly one hundred yards square, and was connected to the rest of the city by two gates. One, at the end of the Rue Abraham, from the year 1398 onward was closed by a drawbridge, which the Jews were said to have requested “for their own security” (pro securitate ejusdem) .
The ghetto system made no provision for an increase in population. As the community grew to more than one thousand people in the 14th century, the only solution to the housing problem was to build upward. Tenements of five and six stories were constructed, some of which survive, surmounted by shabby penthouses of later date. These tall structures cut off all light from the labyrinth of narrow, dead-end streets below. The chronic shortage of water made it impossible, in spite of valiant efforts, to keep the area clean. The houses, packed together, were poorly ventilated. The lower floors were not only perpetually dark, but dank and miserable. In times of plague, which struck Avignon repeatedly, the ghetto became a deathtrap.
Yet it was during outbreaks of plague that the intellectual vitality and moral courage of the Jews came strikingly to the notice of their Christian neighbors. The Jewish physicians were beyond praise. In the epidemic of 1506 Master Videz, an exceptionally gallant figure, voluntarily visited cadavers after the first alarm to identify symptoms of pestilence: this was considered far beyond his duty as a doctor. Together with Moses Alphandery, Samuel of Lunel, and Joshua of Cavaillon, Videz joined with Christian civic leaders and helped organize municipal resistance to the plague through remarkably modern quarantine techniques, including the burning of victims’ possessions, which unfortunately caused the sick to conceal their symptoms as long as possible.4 At first a hospital outside the walls was denied to the Jews, but a barn was at last provided for this purpose in the 17th century. The hospital proved a mixed blessing. The patients were attended by Dominicans, who zealously tried to convert them, and occasionally baptized the helpless against their will.
In addition to their traditional distinction in medicine, the Jews were preeminent in the study of all the natural sciences. Southern France was one of the great cultural transmission points of the Middle Ages. It was through the passes of the Pyrenees that from half-Moslem Spain—the Spain Maimonides knew—many Semitic words came into Latin and thence into French and English. A large proportion of them, significantly, were scientific, artistic, and musical terms: azimuth, zenith, zero, alembic, azure, lute, guitar, fanfare. Jews translated learned treatises from Greek and Arabic into Hebrew, and aided Christian scholars to translate them into Latin. The debt of modern civilization to the Jewries of the Mediterranean shorelands, particularly to the great Talmudical academy at Lunel, has perhaps yet to be appreciated fully. Too often, for reasons of prudence, the Christian scholar concealed his association with Jewish colleagues, and the collaboration has been lost to history.
But Jews did more than act as intermediaries between Moslem and Christian culture. They were outstanding scientists and speculative thinkers in their own right. One of the greatest of them, Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344)—Gersonides—lived in the ghetto of Avignon. If Gersonides was not actually the inventor (he may have been preceded by Jacob ben Makir, one of the great Jewish physicians of Montpellier, who died in 1308) of the Jacob’s Staff, the quadrant used by all the famous Renaissance navigators, including Columbus, he was at least among its earliest and foremost developers. As an astronomer, he anticipated Copernicus, and his work was still valuable when Kepler took pains to consult his writings in the 17th century. As an applied physicist, he experimented with a camera obscura long before Leonardo da Vinci. As a courageous independent philosopher, he was a forerunner of Spinoza, and like him earned condemnation by his coreligionists for impiety. Gersonides’ masterpiece, Wars of the Lord, was called “Wars Against the Lord” by his more orthodox critics. Christian readers were not so severe. Pope Clement VI, from the eminence of his massive palace high above the Jewry, in 1342 ordered the astronomical portions of the work to be translated into Latin. This was a stroke of luck for posterity, for when the original Hebrew version was printed in the 15th century, these sections of the manuscript were omitted for their lack of theological importance.
In the development of printing, too, the Jews were pioneers. Cecil Roth has shown that, some six years before Gutenberg is thought to have set up his press, a member of the Avignon community in 1444 commissioned a wandering German craftsman to cut a Hebrew font “according to the art of writing artificially.”
In spite of the humiliation of ghetto life and the marked costume, in spite of the misery and congestion of their locked-in community, the Jews remained intellectually and spiritually dynamic. The source of this vitality, as it had been from antiquity, was the synagogue. Today, facing the pleasant little square of the Place Jerusalem (it was merely a tiny open space during the days of the ghetto), a 19th-century temple stands on the emplacement of the medieval synagogue which was erected after 1226. Although it was remodeled several times, its location was never changed during the six centuries before its destruction by fire in 1844. The present synagogue, coldly neoclassical, can tell very little of its predecessor. Nor do the modern Jews of Avignon, none of them descended from the old community, but immigrants from Eastern Europe, Turkey, and North Africa, much resemble the vanished residents of the ghetto, even in their religious devotions. How great a loss there has been at Avignon, will be seen at Carpentras and Cavaillon.
The road to Carpentras, which is fifteen miles northeast of Avignon, follows the easy terrain of the Comtat Venaissin through lines of cypress and eucalyptus trees; on either side stretch fields of asparagus, tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries. Set well back, the stone farmhouses and outbuildings are massed together architectonically, as in a Cézanne.
This rich province (approximately embracing the territory of the modern department of the Vaucluse) fell to the share of the Church after the Albigensian Crusade, and was formally ceded by France to the Holy See in 1274. Seven French-speaking Popes, all heavily obligated to the French Crown, were to find the Comtat a fortunate acquisition during the 14th century. Rome, torn by the savage feuds of the Colonna and the Orsini, became uninhabitable for them. Under strong pressure from Philip IV of France, the first Pontiff to exile himself from Italy, the Gascon Clement V, in 1309, came to Carpentras to live. The city proved too small, and too far from the main routes of communication to serve as the seat of the Papacy. Therefore Clement’s successor, John XXII, five years later established the papal court at Avignon, which had not been included with the Comtat in the peace settlement, but which Clement VI purchased in 1348 from the tragic Jeanne des Baux, Countess of Provence and Queen of the Angevin House of Naples.
It was during the reign of Clement VI (1342-1352) and of his predecessor Benedict XII (1334-1342) that the immense Papal Palace was constructed and fortified and the city walls rebuilt and strengthened. Today these formidable installations, confronting the castle of Philip IV across the Rhone, still give a spectacular impression of the resurgence of Avignon under the Popes. But for all their brilliant show, the fortifications were defensive in spirit and strategy, a sign of weakness and fear. The Popes could not find troops even to crush the bands of brigands who roamed the countryside, but instead bought them off. In 1377 Gregory XI found the courage to return to anarchic Rome. He was followed on the throne of Peter by an Italian.
The Popes came to southern France at a particularly trying moment for the Jews of Western Europe. The new national governments, now that their centralized fiscal systems had been established and a class of great Christian capitalists had arisen, one by one despoiled and expelled their Jewish populations. Jews had been exiled from the royal domain of France as early as 1182, but the first permanent expulsion on a national rather than feudal basis was from England, in 1290. France followed suit in 1306, but then recalled the Jews at the demand of the people, who were exacerbated by the cupidity of Christian moneylenders. Periodically throughout the 14th century the Jews were chased from the kingdom of France and readmitted, in continually dwindling numbers, until at the time of their final exile in 1394, they were reduced from an original one hundred thousand to twenty thousand.
Refugees thronged the papal possessions. The Popes, who were themselves in political and financial straits, received them. This clemency held more than just a materialistic motive: the “Vicars of Christ” were morally bound, as defenders of the Old Testament, to protect the Jews and, if possible, convert them to the New. Christian charity, moreover, and humanistic enlightenment (demonstrated in Clement VI’s admiration for Gersonides) played some part in Church policy, which also extended asylum to other cast-outs: to lepers (who with the Jews were accused of poisoning wells in time of plague), and even to heretics.
Criminals and escaped prisoners, smugglers and counterfeiters, swarmed in, too, as well as a floating population of gamblers and prostitutes, plying their trades at the fairs of nearby Beaucaire. Hundreds of hangers-on attached themselves to the pontifical court, to profit from the extreme laxity in the entourages of the cardinals. Simony was widespread, and Avignon became notorious. Petrarch, castigating the city as “a sewer in which runs all the filth of the universe,” retired to the lovely Fountain of the Vaucluse; the laureate failed to add that Avignon in the 14th century was surpassed in venality and licentiousness only by Rome.
As early as 1303, Avignon and the Comtat were called “the paradise of the Jews.” The description needs correction. The comparatively mild conditions of papal rule constituted a refuge for Jews—for a handful of the wealthy ones, perhaps a comfortable refuge—but hardly more. How far from being a paradise they were could be seen at a glance, miles away, before the destruction of the ghetto of Carpentras in the last century: in a painting by Bonet at the municipal museum, depicting the city as it was in 1804, after five centuries of papal administration had ended, one sees rising out of the heart of the town, surmounting not only the ramparts and towers but also the churches and the cathedral, a rickety pyramid of Jewish dwellings, some of them small skyscrapers ten stories high, leaning against one another for support. This slum—in his splendid study of the community,5 Isidore Loeb called it a citadelle de la douleur—had been forced upward into the Provençal sky by a tight band of bigotry. As at Avignon, the Jewry was severely restricted in area. The population expanded in later times until it eventually approached two thousand, but the perimeter was never permitted to enlarge.
With the demolition of the ghetto, the aspect of Carpentras changed considerably. The city lies on a broad rise of ground, brilliant in sunlight. The cathedral, as the Church always wished, now dominates the skyline—although the synagogue remains the city’s most interesting building. A distinct air of well-being pervades Carpentras—not altogether pleasing. Carpentras is a ville fermée, a closed, self-centered provincial city on the order of Lyons and Bordeaux, unlike Marseilles or Avignon. The calculating faces of its shopkeepers seem indeed still to bear traces of the narrow smugness which once caused much pain to the residents of the Jewry.
Yet carpentras can be extremely pleasant. In place of the medieval ramparts, which rivaled Avignon’s, there is a circle of tree-lined boulevards. Beyond the city to the north and east, very near now and vivid, the foothills of the Mont Ventoux sweep upward from broad meadows.
How long Jews have lived here is a mystery. Since Carpentras is at some distance from the Rhone, the community may have been established much later than those along the river. But the town existed in ancient times, and it is possible that Jewish slavers led away the fettered Gauls who appear on the Roman arch, which dates from the reign of Augustus. Jews are known from an inscription to have penetrated to Peyruis, near Sisteron on the other side of the hills, by 352. In the Dauphiné, farther north and more inaccessible, Jews were settled at the latest in 894. But the earliest extant document which mentions the Carpentras community is a codex of rabbinical decisions, very likely compiled by Jacob Tarn, a grandson of the great Rashi of Troyes, and therefore probably written in the first half of the 12th century.
The rabbis of Carpentras subscribed to the codex, together with the rabbis and elders of Troyes, Auxerre, Reims, Paris, and Lyons, the major Jewish centers of medieval France. Thus it may be assumed that the community was already venerable, and its rabbis had by this time established their theological leadership in Provence. Carpentras long held this local supremacy in religious matters. After the Four Holy Communities stood alone in France, it remained their spiritual chief. Avignon, even though its population was usually slightly larger, looked to it, as did Cavaillon and L’lsle-sur-Sorgue, as the arbiter of doctrine. Avignon had its scientists and poets, Carpentras its learned commentators on the Pentateuch and the Talmud.
There was also a difference in the political status of the Jews of the two cities. At Carpentras they were liegemen of the Lord Bishop, rather than (if only in a nominal sense) serfs—as were the Jews of Avignon. This distinction theoretically gave the Carpentras Jews many rights, including freedom to leave the city if they wished. Yet it did not prevent their being forcibly expelled at some unknown date, for an unknown reason, in the 13th century. They were recalled in the 1260’s, however, and were residing in Carpentras when the papal officials took formal control of the Comtat Venaissin in 1274.
As the Pope’s subjects, the Jews were under the over-all jurisdiction of the Papal Rector of the province; but a charter of 1276, signed by the heads of sixty-four Jewish families,6 and which was invoked in a dispute as late as 1789, made it clear that they were still the Bishop’s men. In this charter they were accorded the title of cives—citizens—and as such given guarantees against arbitrary tax levies and mob violence. The Bishop was to receive in exchange a heavy yearly tribute in cash and kind. Among their obligations, the Jews were enjoined to deliver to the Bishop the untrimmed tongues of all the cattle they slaughtered, and to furnish bedding for his guests at the episcopal palace. If the terms seem severe, they were scarcely more so than those imposed on Christian burghers, who protested bitterly against the Bishop’s exactions. In fact, the arrangement worked well for half a century. It left the Jews free to regulate their internal affairs, which were administered by elected elders known as baylons. Property requirements made it impossible for poor Jews to stand for election; and therefore, in each of the other communities as well as at Carpentras (internal autonomy took virtually the same form in all four Jewries) the councils of baylons constituted self-perpetuating oligarchies of wealthy Jews, very similar to the municipal councils which governed Christians. The rabbis had no place in the civic government of the communities.
One of the most interesting articles of the charter of 1276, which is altogether one of the most illuminating documents of the Middle Ages, mentions both the urban and rural real estate of the Jews—a strong indication that no ghetto yet existed. It also speaks of a synagogue and of the possibility of its being rebuilt or remodeled. This temple stood on the street still known as the Rue de la Vieille-Juiverie, near the walls, in a situation very like that of the primitive Jewry of Avignon. Evidently it had been a Jewish street for ages.
In 1322 disaster fell. Two years previous, when the fanatic rabble known as the Pastoureaux staged massacres throughout France, Pope John XXII had loyally protected the Jews in his domains. During the plague that erupted in 1321 and 1322, he denied tales of contamination of the water supply, and again warded off pogroms. But late in 1322 he vacillated, and at last gave way to the hysteria. Refugees were crowding into the Comtat from the ravaged northern Jewries. Outraged, local Christians appealed to the Pope, who responded with the kind of caprice that often bent pontifical judgment of the Jews: he banished all Jews, the old residents with the newcomers, from the province, which fortunately did not include Avignon and southern Provence. The synagogues of the Comtat were demolished, and churches erected in their place. The Jews, compelled to leave on short notice, suffered heavy financial loss.
They were permitted to return at the end of 1343, twenty-one years later. Only twelve of the original sixty-four families came back to Carpentras. They were impoverished, and the Bishop (who, since they were a source of revenue, wished them to stay) eased their obligations until such time as the number of families reached ninety. For an annual payment of six pounds of ginger and pepper, or the very considerable equivalent in money, he also permitted them a synagogue and a cemetery.
The Jews did not resettle in the Old Jewry. Instead—it would seem voluntarily—they occupied the Rue de la Muse in the center of the city. There they rented a building from a Christian notary, Bertrand Pauli, which served as a synagogue until the landlord asked them to move, in 1367. Thereupon three Jewish dignitaries, Isaac Tauroci, Jacob Tamani, and Caracausa Bonafos, presented to the authorities a request for a permanent house of worship. The request was modest enough. The Jews asked only that the edifice be equal in size to the temple destroyed in 1322, which had measured no more than forty-five feet in length and twenty-six feet in width and height. When permission was finally granted, the length was reduced to thirty-three feet, and the Jews were warned that their ceremonies must be “no more beautiful, ample, and pompous” than those held in the old synagogue.
The authorization contained another provision to which little significance may have been attached at the time. It specified that the new synagogue be located in a street where more Jews lived than Christians. As it turned out, a suitable site was found near the building just vacated in the Rue de la Muse. Perhaps it was the same building: the eviction and subsequent proceedings may have been merely a device to enable Pauli to sell the property.
Construction of a new building—or refurbishment of the old one—began immediately; no records of the project have survived. It seems possible that the Jews not only erected a completely new structure, but also provided the necessary skilled labor themselves. Although it was already 1367, well into the Middle Ages, and Jewish craftsmanship was in decline, a Jewish stonecutter and a mason are known to have lived in Avignon in the 14th century and to have worked at Arles—which was ten miles farther from their homes than Carpentras.
What dramatically distinguished the synagogue from those of antiquity or of modern times, and even from contemporary structures in central European cities such as Prague, was its tightly compressed plan. Rather than a generous open hall, freely developed architecturally on an adequate site, this building had to make the most of a tiny lot. Accordingly, a two-story scheme was adopted, with the upper floor reserved for men and the lower for women. Since the height of the building was also restricted, additional space could be got only by digging. Therefore at Carpentras, as elsewhere, the lower level was not a true ground floor, but a half-cellar to which one descended by a flight of steps. This allowed the men’s chamber above to be relatively high-ceilinged and thus achieve an effect of relative grandeur. It also honored a Biblical formula of the Diaspora, when temples were first placed slightly below ground level to echo the somber music of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.”
The two-story arrangement was usual in the West during the later Middle Ages. It was employed at Rouen in Normandy, as well as at Carpentras and its sister communities in the south. At Lincoln in England, much altered but partly intact, survives a similar and very fascinating 12th-century structure called “Jews’ Court,” which Helen Rosenau has shown to have been a synagogue: the main feature of its upper floor is a simple niche which housed the Scrolls of the Law. Possibly it owes its traditional name to the fact that it served also as a law court. In their confined situations, medieval synagogues were used for a variety of purposes. The two stories gave the small buildings a needed flexibility and privacy for different functions. Their thick walls and narrow windows could make them doughty little fortresses too, if need arose.
The upper portion of the Carpentras synagogue of 1367 has vanished, but beneath the beautiful room that replaced it in the 18th century the Gothic vaults of the dark, half-subterranean women’s synagogue hold staunchly. Here, by candlelight, the women followed the men’s services through a vent in the ceiling. They also had an aged rabbi of their own, who led their responses in a Judeo-Provençal patois, for unlike the men they knew no Hebrew. At Avignon, where the synagogue was similarly divided, a Christian visitor7 in 1599 noted that the women’s rabbi was blind.
For nearly a century the Jews of Carpentras worshipped in the synagogue without fear of molestation. The Rue de la Muse in time became known as the Juiverie de la Muse, and later simply as the Juiverie. Some Christian residences and shops remained among the majority of Jewish ones. The population of the community had increased again: forty-two family heads contributed to the repair of the cathedral in 1400 (they helped pay for the elegant south portal, in flamboyant Gothic, which is the outstanding element of the church today, and is called the Porte Juive). The departure of the Popes for Rome had caused a financial decline, but this was felt more keenly at Avignon than in the Comtat. The Vicar General at Avignon and the Rector at Carpentras were invariably Italian, and less disposed to be fanatics than the French. Conditions were not perfect, but could have been worse. Expulsions continued sporadically in the north: from the French-speaking provinces of the Holy Roman Empire in 1365, from Lorraine in 1409, from the city of Lyons (where Jews had been allowed to remain after the final exile from France) in 1420; there were few pockets of tolerance left in the West.
The Jews had reason to pray. And each year, in the autumn dusk, two virgins stood in the small synagogue garden, and held a white thread and a black thread against the sky. When they could no longer distinguish the colors, the long Day of Atonement would begin.
After eighty years of tranquility, during which the community gradually spread from the Jewry to three adjacent streets, and neglected to wear the signs of infamy, wrangling again broke out between the Jews and Christians of Carpentras in the middle of the 15th century. From 1450 on, the town records are filled with terse comments concerning the Jews, so cryptic, however, that it is difficult to know what the real disputes were about. Among the problems dealt with were taxes, allegations of unfair practices by Jewish brokers, a charge that the kosher abattoir was close to the Christian one. In 1455, apparently in a move to compel the Jews to yield certain concessions, the authorities threatened to transfer their quarter to some other part of the city.
The arrival of a new Rector, Angelo Geraldini, temporarily saved the situation. The Christians carried their case to Pius II at Rome, and in two Bulls of 1459 he made it clear that the Jews were not to forget their proper humility: he renewed several old pariah laws, and reimposed the rouella or little wheel. Christian emotion was stirred up when a rival delegation, led by Salves de l’Argentière and Vides de Lates, traveled to Rome and obtained abrogation of these edicts.
The residential clause of the synagogue agreement of 1367, seemingly innocuous in itself, appeared now to be open to conflicting interpretations. There were outcries in the city council that the Jewish quarter had been unlawfully and needlessly enlarged. Negotiations followed, and a compromise was arranged; then on Friday, June 13, 1460, riots shook the city. If there were other motives behind this outburst, anti-Semitism was doubtless the strongest. A mob pillaged the Jewry. The authorities, in response to popular clamor, reconsidered the settlement just made. Six months later the community was confined to the Juiverie and a single adjoining street—approximately half its former area.
Christian zealots were not satisfied. Additional complaints were heard, and in 1485 a tragic event brought matters to a head. The County of Provence, which except for the Comtat remained the last French- or Provençal-speaking territory open to Jews, expelled its ancient communities. Refugees began entering the papal enclave. The influx at Carpentras was particularly heavy. The new arrivals overflowed the area alloted to the Jews, and sought lodgings among Christians. It was difficult to maintain order. For some time it had been necessary to post special police in the Jewish quarter to prevent violence by the peasants who came to the city to market and celebrate the grape harvest. This October it was scarcely possible to control them. The burghers, who had never been happy about paying armed men to defend Jews, sought to rid themselves of this vexing autumnal expense. Simultaneously, they hoped to solve the problem of Jewish expansion to other parts of the city. The council suggested to the Jews that, in their own interest, they should be limited to a single street protected by security gates.
The Jews replied that although they found the solution distasteful, they were nevertheless disposed to accept it. They were weary of the onslaughts of the drunken harvesters, and they wished to be absolved of the charge that they were a financial burden to the rest of the city. They themselves drew up the document which made the Jewry a true ghetto.
The term “ghetto,”8 however, was not used. It appears only once, at the late date of 1736, among all the official papers which mention the Jewry of Carpentras. To both Jews and non-Jews, the Juiverie was known always as la carriero—Provençal for “the Street”—or, in French, la carrière. (From the Italian carriera, a place closed by barriers, originally for the purpose of horse racing.) In Hebrew the name for street is mesilla, and was used in the community’s records. But because, as their contacts with outside Jewry grew rare, the Comtadins changed s sounds, and sometimes th, to f, it was pronounced mefilla.
Among the ten articles of the ghetto agreement, the Jews insisted on several points:
- That the Carrière have at each end a gate which could be locked and barred from within. The gates were to remain open by day, except in case of danger; at night they were to be closed, providing no Christians were still within.
- That the doors and windows of Christian buildings facing the Carrière should be either walled up or barred.
- That the Jews should have a year in which to divest themselves of their property outside the Carrière, which they might rent to Christians in the interim.
- That although Christians should have free passage of the Carrière by day, ecclesiastical processions through the street were to be discontinued. In such processions, the clerks accompanying the priests had taken the occasion to pelt the Jews with stones.
The last seems not to have been acceded to, and the Jews were to experience much woe from future processions. The other articles were approved successively by the Rector, the Cardinal-Legate at Avignon, and Pope Innocent VIII in March, October, and December of 1487. Early in 1488, construction of the pointed Gothic portals closing in the Jews began. They stood until the 19th century.
The Jews found themselves enclosed in a street 270 feet long and dog-legged in shape. At the bend it widened slightly to form a small open place from which the synagogue, surrounded by a cluster of other buildings, could be entered. Overhead, the houses rose ever taller, until they reached an average of seven and eight stories. In the year 1743 there were some 50 such tenements lining the narrow street, divided into 168 apartments. The population was usually about 1,200. Occasionally the construction gave way and houses fell, burying their occupants in wreckage. The Jews were forbidden by papal edict to chant or carry tapers during their funeral processions, once these had reached the Christian streets outside the Carrière, on their way to the cemetery. By another pontifical decree, strictly enforced, Jewish tombstones were not permitted to be dignified by inscriptions.
It was impossible, the Jews soon found, to keep the Carrière clean. They appealed in vain for the right to a fountain; during three hundred years they were forced to send outside for water. The drainage system was an abomination. The street, even under the brilliant sun, lay in darkness. Only the poorest Jews, forced to live on the roofs, enjoyed the Provençal sky. Rather than carry their provisions up the many flights of stairs, they hoisted them with ropes and pulleys.
Under the pressure of the Counter Reformation conditions grew steadily worse. The 16th and 17th centuries were the most oppressive in history for the Jews in the Catholic countries of Western Europe. In 1525 Pope Clement VII, incensed that they were concealing the yellow badges which they had been ordered by law to display prominently, substituted a more conspicuous sign of infamy: the yellow hat. A fine of one hundred ducats—about $250 of our money—was the penalty for non-compliance. Boys were to commence wearing their pointed bonnets at fourteen, girls to attach yellow ribbons to their coifs at the age of twelve.
Demands for the expulsion of the Jews from the Comtat and Avignon never ceased. Twice they were successful: Pius V in 1569 and Clement VIII in 1593 issued orders of banishment which were at least partly enforced before they were annulled. Repeatedly, in 1606, 1612, 1614, 1617, 1618, 1620, 1622, 1623, and 1638—and still once more in 1693—Rome was petitioned by diehards to expel the Jews; but the requests were denied. There was now no place in the West for the Jews to go, except to the Protestant north, or beyond the Rhine to the communities of the Ashkenazim. Only the rich could afford the long journeys, hindered by a profusion of border regulations. The ghettos of Italy were even more miserable and overcrowded than those of southern France. In Spain and Portugal, autos-da-fé were in progress. Some Marranos escaped detection in the Crown territories of France, at Paris and other cities, especially Bayonne in the southwest where a small colony lived openly, but their existence was perilous: Louis XIII reaffirmed in 1615 the edict of exile of 1394, which carried dread punishment for evasion.
The Four Holy Communities at last stood completely alone. The small groups of Jews who had lived since the early Middle Ages in the villages of the Comtat—at Malaucène, Valabrègue, Monteux, and other outlying places—had been chased into the carrières of the cities. Even here, however, there was no real peace. The Holy See twice a month compelled the Jews to listen to conversionist sermons designed to prove that they were no longer the Chosen People. Adolph Kober9 has described these painful sessions, which sometimes turned into fiery debates. More often, the Jews attended with studied indifference, or cracked nuts, while impassioned clergymen—Father Justin of Carpentras was the most dedicated of these orators—harangued them. More outrageous still was the baptism of Jewish children criminally spirited away from their parents; apologies followed, but under canon law these child converts could not be returned to the Carrière.
The Jews never surrendered. The cycles of Holy Days were observed with devotion and joy. Each year the drama of Purim was enacted; Esther of Carpentras has been embodied by Darius Milhaud and Armand Lunel into a modern opera. At the Passover table, the family sang the “Had Gadya” in Provençal; and the father recited over the unleavened bread: “Iço es lou fan d’affliction que manjavoun nosti predecessur en terro de Misraïm—Here is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” The matzoth were prepared in a community oven built into the substructure of the synagogue; it has survived together with its appurtenances: the long-handled wooden shovels and the massive stone kneading tables, donated by Gad of Digne in 1652. The Jews, in a region fond of pastry, also baked condoles, cakes made with sweet wine and oil. Many Christians, forbidden by law to taste the delicacies, enjoyed them in secret.
In theory, if not in fact, all amicable intercourse between Jews and non-Jews was prohibited. The more enlightened members of both groups refused to accept such segregation, as is eloquently proven in the correspondence between the great humanist and nobleman, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, and Solomon Azubi, rabbi of Carpentras from 1617 to 1635. Rabbi Azubi, who was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, was one of the many noted scholars and theologians called from other countries by the Comtadin Jews. In an effort to keep their intellectual standard high, and their links with world Jewry intact, they imported rabbis from Amsterdam and Prague, and from cities in Germany and Poland. Another Jewish humanist, Juda Messer Leon of Avignon, in the 17th century wrote a rather garbled version in Hebrew of the story of Petrarch and Laura.
The Jews did not fail to relish whatever social and intellectual delights they were allowed. In addition to holidays, the residents of the Carrière of Carpentras celebrated two great local fêtes at the end of November and the beginning of April. Events unknown, in 1512 and 1682, were the occasions for extraordinary celebrations, with special thanksgiving prayers; kosher wine flowed at weddings, births, and circumcisions, and was dispensed at a tavern in the Carrière, which seems always to have been kept by women. The wine was made from the grapes of a vineyard adjacent to the cemetery. To go outside the walls to tend the vines gave the Jews a rare chance to relax in the countryside. There is an instance of a party of Jews picnicking outside the city on a Sunday, only to be reproved by the clergy for keeping the Christian coachman from mass.
Repeatedly, even when the rest of the populace was ready to cease bickering, the clergy exasperated the Jews by displaying the cross in the Carrière. Once, as the chant-ting clerks passed their homes, the Jews opened the sewage taps; in revenge, they were heavily fined. On another occasion, the Jews were accused of garbing a crucifix in a harlequin’s costume, capping it with a yellow bonnet, and parading it the length of the Carrière. For this sacrilege the Bishop ordered them to erect a marble cross before the cathedral, where it stood for two centuries until a Tree of Liberty was planted in its place in 1793. Jewish women were no more cowed than the men. They would spit irreverently when provoked by Christians, and earn public floggings for their courage.
Today, in her kitchen-utensils shop on the Rue des Halles, Mademoiselle Blanche Mossé—the only descendant of the old community who still lives in Carpentras—carries on the tradition. This proud, brave, scornful spinster stayed through the Nazi occupation, and by sheer moral force, rallying the other citizens around her, saved the synagogue. It is her synagogue. She remains aloof from the small colony of East Europeans who have prayed there since the end of the war. To her, “they are not Jews”—at least they are not on the order of her father, Armand Mossé, the erudite historian of the Carrière, or her ancestor Salomon Mossé who in 1786, possessing a fortune of 100,000 livres, was one of its wealthiest men, or of countless other Mossés, going back to the 13th-century family rolls, and further, into antiquity. The tourist must apply to her to see the synagogue, for she will not permit anyone else to act as guide.
The austere façade of the synagogue—an unadorned wall pierced by a single door—remains as unobtrusive in the center of Carpentras as it was meant to be. Centuries of persecution had taught the Jews of Carpentras, by the time the new synagogue was begun in 1741, that prudence must be the better part of their architectural wisdom. Today the synagogue, once in the thick of the ghetto, stands exposed as the community never dreamed; stripped of the surrounding houses of the Carrière, it seems excessively plain. It fronts on the Place de la Mairie, one of the many pleasant squares in France which have supplanted scabrous medieval quarters. The sunlight, pouring into what was once a dark ghetto, catches the usual inscription on the near-by city hall: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Inside the synagogue’s doorway is a modern vestibule (rebuilt in the restoration of 1930) whose staircase rises above the primitive women’s synagogue, which is completely hidden by later construction and no longer visited. At the head of the stairs, well away from the street, is the real entrance.
The doors open to a wonderful display of light: the precise and delicate light of the 18th century, entering through large upper windows, and passing across galleries into a lofty and sumptuous room. An effect of elegance pervades the rich classical detail of fluted columns and carven garlands, the handsome balustrades of the galleries, the wainscoting and ironwork, the chandeliers of crystal and bronze. The décor is profuse and gay and polite—as in a Watteau. It is Louis Quinze—at its best a winning enough style, for all its artifice. In this provincial southern town, it is captivating.
Directly across from the entrance, dominating the long eastern wall—the side of Jerusalem—is a resplendent Ark of the Law, neoclassical in style, showing in its marbled and gilded stucco a Mediterranean liveliness and warmth. Provence is close to Italy, and the great baroque Ark of Padua was not far away when this one was designed. But the preciseness and delicacy of the proportions are altogether French.
The central unit of the Ark itself, framed by engaged Ionic columns, and hung with velvets, is set off from the rest by a low pedestal and a grille of finely wrought iron. To either side of the Ark, set in large formal panels and wreathed in gilt moldings, are the Tablets of the Law. At each end is a niche: the one on the far left holds a vase which Madame de Pompadour might have treasured, but which must hold some hermetic Jewish significance; on the far right, a golden and tiny armchair, upholstered in red satin, carries a Hebrew inscription embroidered in gold thread—this is the symbolic throne of the Prophet Elijah, the harbinger of the Messiah.10
The ark determines the scale of the rest of this lordly room. The line of its cornice is continued in the skillfully turned balustrades of the upper galleries which run to north and south, where they cross the short sides of the building, and then, completing their circuit of the vessel, return to meet on the west. Here, mounted above the entrance way on four Doric pillars, opposite the Ark, is the synagogue’s other major feature: the bima, the elevated dais from which the services were sung, and the Torah—spread beneath the canopy of an elaborate lectern—was read to the congregation below. This liturgical arrangement, with its possibilities for drama, was used in all four of the Holy Communities. Although a similar scheme was employed in some Italian synagogues, it was apparently a local creation, designed to meet the special needs of the Comtadin Jewry, whose liturgy, as Cecil Roth has shown, developed quite independently from that of the rest of the Diaspora during centuries of isolation.
Such a synagogue, admirably designed, and spacious in its proportions, had long been desired at Carpentras. Until the 18th century, however, the ecclesiastical authorities had refused the Jews permission to enlarge, much less rebuild, their house of worship of 1367. Some repairs were made in 1677, and possibly at unrecorded earlier times; it was not until 1714 that any substantial alteration of the venerable structure was allowed: a wall was opened and a few extra square feet of precious space was gained. In 1730 the lighting of the men’s synagogue on the upper level was improved by the construction of an octagonal lantern tower; it was made of plaster, very likely a flimsy affair. At this time the decoration of the building was also renewed with plaster ornamentation.
The joy in the Carrière may be imagined when the Bishop, Monsignor Malachi d’Inguimbert, at last authorized extensive alteration and enlargement in 1740. The Jews seized this chance—it is doubtful whether the Bishop had so ambitious an undertaking in mind—to reconstruct the building virtually from the foundations upward. The women were to be given new accommodations11 aboveground; their lightless ancient chamber was to be abandoned, but since its vaults were solid, it was retained as a structural support. The bakery, too, was to be saved and incorporated with the foundations. Deeper down still, the women’s ritual bath, the mikveh, hewn with its dark twisting staircase from the living rock, would also remain.
The community had the wisdom to engage one of the most gifted architects of the time, a Christian—no Jews now practiced architecture in the West: Antoine d’Allemand, royal architect and engineer to the King of France. This nobleman (he was the Seigneur de Fenouillet) was also rumored to be a Free Mason. No investigation, fortunately, was made by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which was still in operation at Carpentras, for d’AIlemand’s subsequent loyalty to the Jews might point to the truth of the rumor.
No better man could have been found for the job. The Jews, from their cemetery and vineyard outside the walls, had a close view of his most recent project, a majestic aqueduct conceived on a scale which recalled Roman construction. In designing the synagogue, the architect’s one regret must have been that he would have to confine his imagination to the interior, and forsake a façade. The elegance he was capable of giving to the exterior of a building can be seen in the quietly rich façade of the Hôtel-Dieu of Carpentras, which was executed a few years afterward.
Work began on the synagogue in October 1741, with “a great number of workers”—probably all Christian—under d’Allemand’s supervision. The Bishop attended the casting of the foundations, in order to make sure the Jews would not exceed the new dimensions allowed them. For once Monsignor d’Inguimbert was affable. He remarked that the Jews were probably taking liberties, but allowed them to proceed nevertheless. The Jews were to learn to their sorrow that this avowed anti-Semite could not be trusted.
As the temple rose, the Jews found that they had made the mistake of wishing it to be beautiful and filled with light. A further mistake was in wishing it to be lofty, as the Talmud states a synagogue should be. Angry recriminations issued from zealous Catholics—li zelanti cattolici della Citta, as they styled themselves in Italian in a letter of protest to the Holy Office. They charged that the synagogue was “much more magnificent and vast than its predecessor” and, though not yet at its full height, so “dominated the whole of the city, that its superb mass could be seen from miles away.” The Jews had, in fact, raised it only from twenty-eight to forty feet, but this made it taller than two neighboring churches. “Such a situation,” the letter concluded, “should not be tolerated, for it would seem that the Jews, reduced to servitude by their own fault, would wish to demonstrate—by this structure—their superiority to Christians.”
The reverend Father Inquisitor and the Bishop did not fail to agree. An inquiry was held. D’Allemand, plainly reluctant to see his work mutilated, defended it on technical grounds: the new roof height was necessary, he testified, in order to protect the structure from rain water draining off adjacent buildings. His objection was immediately ruled out: the old synagogue had withstood the rains for centuries. Any objection would have been ruled out—this was a malicious comedy being staged before the kangaroo court. It was claimed that the synagogue rose higher than the Cathedral of Saint-Siffrein, which like many provincial episcopal seats, is a comparatively small monument. The Jews replied that the Cathedral was actually taller by some twelve feet.12 They added that they were poor, and could not afford to demolish the new building, as some Christians were demanding. To this it was answered that, except for Livorno, the Carrière was the wealthiest of ghettos. Had not the Jews already expended an immense sum on the construction? The question was embarrassing: by 1743, some 30,000 livres—a large amount for the times—had gone to the temple.
The church’s decision came as expected. The imposing roof was removed, and the walls reduced by a total of fifteen feet. This was found to be lower than the old synagogue. Now it was the Jews who cried out angrily. Monsignor d’Inguimbert equivocated, but in September 1743, finally made concessions. The walls were raised slightly and the interior covered with a temporary shelter against the seasonal rains, which had begun to fall.
Still other difficulties had arisen. The windows of the synagogue, opened up into formerly blank walls, were declared an inconvenience by the Order of the White Penitents, whose church of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Charité backed on the Carrière. The Jewish services, the Penitents claimed, interfered with their own ceremonies. The Jews promised to chant softly, but the splendid east windows above the Ark (since reopened) were walled up. The Jews opened new windows elsewhere, only to have them blocked. The Bishop personally examined every modification. He brought experts with him who minutely measured the walls, as they were lowered again and raised. Costs grew, but the Jews strove desperately to preserve what they could of the original design. By 1748 it seems to have been much as it is today, with a permanent roof in place.
Still the affair dragged on. Quarreling had not ended when Monsignor d’Inguimbert died in 1753. The citizens of his native Carpentras, whom he had provided with a hospital and a library, erected a marble tomb for him, in the chapel of the Hôtel-Dieu. His bust shows a benign clergyman, accompanied by the allegorical figures of Charity nursing her infant, and Knowledge weeping.
Forty-three years passed between the commencement of the synagogue and its consecration in 1784. The community had put its soul into the structure—few religious monuments of the 18th century can boast its peculiar intensity. It shows the underlying seriousness of which the Louis Quinze style was capable, and which has been noticed too rarely. Here it achieves an impressiveness of purpose which was perhaps unattainable in the pleasure houses of the nobility or, for different reasons, in most churches of the period. The synagogue, like many Louis XV churches—the Chapel of the Pénitents Noirs, for example, in Avignon—has been described as “profane,” and compared to a salon. But its courteous mood and cheerful detail nowhere give way to frivolity. It speaks the gracious idiom of its time for the reason that it knew no other.
This temple, constructed at the end of the ancien régime, was a symbol of things to come. Once again, Jews were erecting spacious open halls, letting in the light wherever they could, as they had in antiquity. The new synagogues, drawing inspiration not only from baroque Italy, perhaps not even primarily from it, but from Protestant structures such as the lost Huguenot Temple of Charenton, near Paris, looked forward and not back. They anticipated the separation of church and state which the Enlightenment had made inevitable. The Provençal scola of Carpentras was part of a much wider movement, most conspicuous perhaps in the synagogues of Amsterdam and London, but present too, in the construction of the Touro Synagogue at Providence in 1763, in the New World.
From Carpentras it is fifteen miles south to the third of the Holy Communities: L’Isle-sur-Sorgue. As its name reveals, the city is an island embraced by two arms of the river Sorgue which flows down from its spectacular source at the Fountain of the Vaucluse, and spreads across the fertile country in twenty branches as it goes westward to the Rhone. The city, which has been called “the Venice of Provence,” is musical with flowing water. Canals pass beneath the spreading trees through the beautiful Renaissance quarters, whose mansions now are dilapidated and largely deserted. The development of a modern French textile industry has stopped the waterwheels in their turning, and the thread that was once a source of the town’s prosperity is now manufactured in the smoky cities of the north.
With the town’s commercial importance has also disappeared all trace of its Jewish community. Not even the size and exact location of the Carrière are known. A bare open space, called the Place de la Juiverie, defines the general area in which some three hundred and fifty Jews were living at the time of the Revolution. Probably there were never more than that; the records of the community have been lost, along with those of the entire municipality. That there was a synagogue in the Carrière, and that close relations were maintained with the Jewry of Carpentras, is all that is definitely known. Doubtless the community was ancient, although the earliest surviving document to mention it dates from 1296. It must have had some outstanding scholars: in 1633 Rabbi Azubi of Carpentras came to deliver an elegy for his friend, the learned Chaim Judah ben Jacob Sègre.
L’Isle, now so somnolent, was the scene, in 1773, of one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of Comtadin Jewry. From across the Rhine Jews had begun to re-enter France, and a colony of Ashkenazim lived more or less openly in Paris, together with rival groups of Sephardic and Comtadin Jews who had also discovered that the police were no longer strictly enforcing the expulsion edicts. Those Jews—most of them poor—who failed to find lodgings in the capital descended on the papal possessions. But the Four Communities, with troubles of their own, were reluctant to admit them, and voted alms to buy them off and send them on their way.
On September 18, 1773, a band of about one hundred wanderers, “speaking all the tongues of Europe,” burst into the ghetto of L’Isle. The community consented to take in those who were ill or pregnant—in all, about twenty. The remainder it tried to appease with a gift of twenty-five sous each. These left, but returned the following day, their numbers swollen by additional unfortunates who had been refused admittance to the other three Carrières. The refugees were desperate to the point of violence. They forced the gates of the city, and swarmed through the streets. Soldiers arrived from Avignon to expel them, but after camping in the countryside for two days, they were back. Again troops were called in to restore order, and the entire band was evicted from the territory.
On October 8, one hundred of them again appeared before the city of L’Isle and attempted to break down the gates. By the following day they had succeeded, and they ran through the streets attacking the local Jews, who were forced to barricade themselves within the ghetto. Grenadiers from Avignon once more chased the wanderers from the province, this time for good.
Times were changing. The Carrières had begun to empty. Population was shifting, as yet barely perceptibly, from the Four Communities to a number of cities in addition to Paris, all in theory forbidden to Jews: Lyons, Bordeaux, Nantes, Nîmes, Toulouse, Montpellier, and Béziers. Still no one realized how mighty a social and political upheaval was at hand, least of all, perhaps, the Jews. At Cavaillon, on the Durance seven miles south of L’Isle, in the same year the riots took place, 1773, a new synagogue had been built, as if the community expected to stay forever.
Mounted above the great round arch of the Carrière portal, the synagogue of Cavaillon floats as a vision of lightness and refinement. Here, finally, is a Jewish façade, so ingenious and enchanting that perhaps it has been worth the centuries of waiting. Seen from the far end of the Rue Hébraïque, across the fifty-yard distance of the Carrière, the high entrance terrace—adorned with a magnificent five-arched balustrade of wrought iron—seems inaccessible. The architect has placed the terrace a full story above the street, and he has cleverly concealed the approach to it by placing a staircase behind a wall at the left. With the arch open beneath it, and the blue Provençal sky above, the white temple seems to sit in the air, freed from the ghetto, as an incarnation of Jewish aspiration and idealism.
As the synagogue is approached, it seems to rise higher, its proportions gaining in grace and vivacity without losing vigor. All has been carefully considered: the display of ironwork against beautifully tailored stone, the baroque cartouche above the entrance—a conscious touch of richness which emphasizes the handsome exchange of proportions between the tall, chaste doorway, and the calm line of the windows above.
It is, nevertheless, a small structure, meant to serve a community of two hundred, who seem always to have enjoyed slightly better conditions than the Jews of the larger cities. Here, too, of course, the Carrière was a true ghetto, locked every night, but there was less congestion, the street was broader to admit the sun, and the houses not so tall. Many of the buildings have long since been removed, to give more open space and greenery than existed in the 18th century; but if the Carrière was not so pleasant as would appear today, there was not the extreme wretchedness of Carpentras and Avignon. The Jews were confined to their single enclosed street in 1453; they had evidently been living there since the preceding century. Earlier still, they had occupied a primitive Jewry in another part of the city, which was in existence at the end of the 11th century—and almost certainly before.
By 1498 the synagogue which once stood on the emplacement of the present one was in poor condition, and the Bishop of Cavaillon authorized the erection of a new building, which in turn was refurbished in 1615; its basic structure apparently remained unchanged until 1772,13 when the present synagogue was begun. Two years later the work was completed. The inscription over the doorway quotes in bold Hebrew characters from Psalm 118: “This is the gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter—1774.”
To enter this small room—it measures only twenty by thirty feet—is to step literally two centuries into the past. The building has been repaired on several occasions, and given a new roof, but otherwise it remains essentially as it was when the Jews of Cavaillon first stepped across the threshold. The fine light of the 18th century plays as delicately over the carved wainscots as at Carpentras, but the subdued intimacy, the hushed grays and green, evokes an atmosphere of a Fragonard. The decoration, more lively and more humorous, is rococo. The ironwork, light as filigree, spirals upward in the balustrades which follow the stairs to the gallery above and then sinuously trail downward again on the other side. The baldaquin lectern, from which the services were conducted, in an arrangement similar to that at Carpentras, is entwined with carven roses. The Ark, standing below on the east, is flanked by slender Corinthian columns, and surmounted by a corbeille de fruits, the melons, grapes, cherries, and peaches of the region. Hidden everywhere among the carvings are musical instruments: violins and flutes and tambours.
This superlative craftsmanship is the work of the Christian artisans of the Comtat; perhaps the greatest of them was François Isbard, the metalsmith, who spent three years on the ironwork. Christians also designed the building: a father and son named Armelin, master masons of Cavaillon, drew up the plans, which were later approved by an architect at Avignon. Even the financing was undertaken by Christian bankers, Pierre and Barnabeé Desandreé of Avignon, who loaned the community 6,000 livres.
Just a few years ago, after standing unused for half a century, the synagogue came into its own for a single evening. Candles were placed in the bronze chandeliers, and the eternal lamp was lit. The Grand Rabbi of Marseilles led a procession from the Ark to the upper gallery, and a service was sung. And then, in the candlelight, as the shadows lifted on the paneled walls, the music of Mozart was played.
High in the shadows, perched on a console carved to signify a bank of clouds, stood the Throne of Elijah. For centuries during the Diaspora, as synagogue replaced synagogue, the Jews had appealed to the Lord for the Messiah promised to them by the Prophet. The Messiah had not come. But in 1789, when hope seemed almost gone, came the portentous deliverance of the French Revolution.
The fresh wind of liberation blew open the gates of the ghettos, and the people of France wrested back their territory from the Church. The badge of infamy became a badge of honor. The Jews refused to remove their yellow hats, as they joined the Republicans on the barricades. The synagogues became Jacobin Clubs and Temples of Reason. Many of the precious lamps and candelabras were sent to the foundry for cannon, as the Republic fought to survive. Gold and silver Torah ornaments were cast into coins at the mint. In vain, and too late, the cities of the Comtat pleaded with the Jews to stay. But the Carrières were almost deserted now, and their demolition had begun. The Revolutions of 1830 and 1848 would remove virtually all trace of them except the synagogues. “Leave us our ruins!” cried a solitary Jew at L’Isle-sur-Sorgue. No one paid heed. The Four Holy Communities had left the Comtat Venaissin forever.
1 For a discussion of recent literature concerning the Dura synagogue, see the review by Moses Hadas, “Pagan and Jew in the Ancient World,” in COMMENTARY of July 1957.
2 A transliteration of the Hebrew word for “rock,” which indicates that he was called de Rocha in Provencal or, in French, de la Roche, and that his family had originated in the ancient Jewry of Roquemaure (“Moorish Rock”) on the Rhone ten miles above Avignon. Members of the family later emigrated to the Netherlands, where there were two physicians named Rocamora at Amsterdam to the 17th century. It was quite usual for medieval Jews to take the names of their dwelling places. Two eminent descendants of the communities at Milhaud and Monteux, villages near Carpentras, are the composer Darius Milhaud and the conductor Pierre Monteux.
3 The true facts are more fascinating than the legend. Bénézet, hardly a shepherd boy, was the medieval equivalent of a modern engineer, the head of an order of bridge-building friars who left impressive examples of their skill and diligence throughout southern France; their outstanding monument remained the bridge at Avignon.
4 Not all Jews were as unselfish as the doctor Videz. In 1721, after plague had erupted at Marseilles, strict precautions were taken at Avignon. But Mordecai Delpuget had purchased contaminated goods and secretly brought them to his house, thereby causing his death, his wife's, and those of seventy-one other Jews inside the ghetto.
5 In the Révue des Etudes Juives of 1886.
6 The document has survived, together with the signatures. The community was composed largely of southern families, bearing the names of Jewries in Provence and Languedoc: Avignon, Narbonne, Lunel, Monteux, Orange, Montpellier, Carcassonne. Others had purely Hebrew names: Cohen and Abraham.
7 It was usual for curious strangers to inspect the ghettos. In 1730 the Prince de Conti was delighted by his visit to the synagogue of Carpentras. Stendhal, when he passed through Avignon, did not fail to notice the beauty of the women of the Juiverie.
8 The origin of the term has been much debated. The famous ghetto of Venice was originally situated near a gun foundry, gietto in Italian, and this has been accepted by some scholars as its source. Another possibility, as Abram Leon Sachar has noted, is that it is a degeneration of Judaca, one of the many names given to Jewish quarters (in France, Juiverie and Juaterie were used most frequently). However, it was only into the later “ghetto” that Jews were herded by legal compulsion.
9 His article in Jewish Social Studies of October 1944 is excellent. For an account of the disintegration of the Communities in the 19th and 20th centuries, see the thorough study by Zosa Szajkowski in the same periodical, January 1944.
10 Although Elijah is traditionally the patron of circumcisions, the thrones which existed for the Prophet in the synagogues of the Comtat were never taken from their niches for such ceremonies. They signify only the Messianic tradition, and are quite different from the “Elijah chairs” on which babies were placed for circumcisions elsewhere in Europe.
11 These remained strictly separated from the men's. The women were placed in a narrow passage, hidden by lattice-work, behind the arcades on the north side of the room. In the last days of the community the women occupied the upper galleries, which in the 18th century were reserved for the choir of men and boys.
12 It is now impossible to say precisely what their height was at the time; but the argument seems reasonable.
13 The surviving ground floor beneath the present synagogue serves as its base. Next to the portal of the Carrière is a bakery in an excellent state of preservation which, it is hoped, will soon become a museum for the Jewish antiquities of the region. Other notable local collections of Jewish artifacts are at the museum of Carpentras and the Museon Arlaten at Aries. The synagogues of Carpentras and Cavaillon have been classified as national monuments and their care in the future is assured.
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The Four Holy Communities:The Jewries of Medieval Provence
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A monstrous regime's rational statecraft
ne of the more improbable geostrategic surprises of recent years has been the revival of the North Korean economy under the direction of Kim Jong Un. Just to be clear, that economy remains pitiably decrepit, horribly distorted, and desperately dependent on outside support. Recent estimates suggest that its annual merchandise exports do not reach even 1 percent of the level generated by its nemesis, South Korea. Even so, the economic comeback on Kim Jong Un’s watch has been sufficiently strong to permit a dramatic ramp-up in the tempo of his nation’s race to amass a credible nuclear arsenal and develop functional intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland. That is, of course, the express and stated objective of the program. Pyongyang today appears to be perilously close to achieving its aim—much closer now, indeed, than complacent Western intelligence assessments had presumed would be possible by this juncture. But then, North Korea is full of surprises for foreign observers.
The difficulty with analyzing the country’s weaknesses and strengths comes from the fact that the North Korean system—which is made up of the Kim dynasty, the North Korean state, and the economy constructed to maintain them both—is unlike any other on earth. By now, its brand of totalitarianism (“our own style of Socialism,” as Pyongyang calls it) is sufficiently distinctive that children of the Soviet or Maoist tradition also commonly find themselves at a loss to apprehend its logic and rhythms.
North Korea is no longer even a Communist state, if that term is to have any meaning. The once-prominent statues of Marx and Lenin in Kim Il Sung Square were removed some years ago. Mention of Marxism-Leninism has reportedly been excised from the updated but still currently unpublished Charter of the Korean Workers’ Party. The 2016 version of its constitution excises all references to Communism, extolling instead only the goal of “socialism”—and its two “geniuses of ideology and theory,” Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the grandfather and father of the current dictator). Small wonder that the world routinely misjudges—and very often, underestimates—the North Korean state and its capabilities.1
Despite its suffocating ideology, for example, North Korea is capable of highly pragmatic adaptation and economic innovation. Notwithstanding its proclaimed “self-reliance” and its seeming isolation, it is constantly finding new sources of foreign cash through ingenious and often remarkably entrepreneurial schemes overseas. And despite all the international sanctions, Kim Jong Un really has overseen a North Korean economic upswing of sorts since assuming power in 2011, the signal fact that best helps explain the acceleration in Pyongyang’s push for a credible nuclear and ballistic arsenal. Thanks to these and other apparent paradoxes, an economy seemingly always on the knife edge of disaster somehow manages to stay on course, methodically amassing the military might for what it promises will be an eventual nuclear face-off with the world’s sole superpower.
Though the hour is late, given all the progress that North Korea has been permitted over the past generation, it nevertheless looks as if there may still be time left to prevent Pyongyang from completing and perfecting its nuke and missile projects through “non-kinetic means”—that is to say, through international economic pressure as opposed to military action. For such an approach to work, however, we will need an informed and robust strategy—not the feckless, episodic, and intellectually shoddy interventions we have mainly witnessed up to now.
Indispensable to such a strategy must be an understanding of the North Korean economy—the instrument that makes the North Korean threat possible. In particular, we need to understand 1) how that economy functions, and to what ends; 2) how the “Dear Respected Comrade” Kim Jong Un brought to it a limited but critical measure of economic revival; and 3) how America and others might use the considerable financial and commercial options at their disposal to impair the North Korean regime’s designs, before Pyongyang wins what is now a race against time.
Despite the information blackout that North Korean leadership has striven to enforce for generations, we already know much more about all these things today than the Kim family regime could possibly want—more than enough to begin purposely defanging the North Korean menace.
One: The Economy of Command
Given its longstanding reputation as a basket case, it may startle readers to learn that there was actually a time when North Korea was regarded as a dynamic and rapidly advancing economy. Back in 1965, the eminent British economist Joan Robinson wrote that North Korea’s achievements put “all the economic miracles of postwar development…in the shade.”2
In those days, if Western intellectuals happened to talk about the “Korean miracle,” they weren’t discussing anything going on in the South. And it wasn’t just dreamy academics and well-hosted foreign visitors who seemed to hold North Korea’s economic prospects in high esteem. Between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Japan witnessed an exodus of ethnic Korean residents—in all, roughly 80,000 people—who packed up and steamed off under their own free will to the North, voting with their feet to join the Korean state they deemed to offer the greater promise.
Despite the devastation North Korea suffered during the war it launched against the South in 1950, and despite the blazing economic takeoff in South Korea that commenced in the early 1960s under the Park Chung-Hee junta, North Korea may have been ahead of South Korea in per capita output for two full decades after the 1953 armistice. A CIA study in the late 1970s, for example, concluded that South Korea did not catch up with North Korea until 1975.3 Contemporaries at South Korea’s Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) concurred that the North was well ahead of the South on a per capita basis throughout the 1950s and 1960s, though they argued that the South caught up with the North a few years earlier than the CIA believed.
In retrospect, the wonder is that North Korea’s economy worked as well as it did for as long as it did. For from its 1948 founding onward, North Korea was not just another Cold War Soviet-type economy: It was a Stalin-style war economy on steroids.
As fate had it, the Japanese colonial overlords who controlled Korea from 1910 until 1945 constructed a heavy industrial base in its northern half—a forward supply zone to support their own greater Asian war efforts. Unlike the South, the North had major deposits of coal, iron, and other minerals, along with plenty of natural hydropower. “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung—the onetime guerrilla fighter and later Red Army officer who started North Korea’s Kim family dynasty—inherited this infrastructure when he took over the northern part of the divided peninsula in 1945 and used it as a base camp from which he directed an upward climb toward the summit to which he aspired: an economy set on permanent total-war footing.
Kim Il Sung came perilously close to consummating his vision. By the mid-1970s, the Great Leader would observe that “of all the Socialist countries, ours bears the heaviest military burden.”4 Even by comparison with places like the Soviet Union and East Germany, his North Korea was a garrison state. By the late 1980s, this country of barely 20 million was fielding an army of more than 1.2 million—a ratio comparable to America’s in the middle of World War II. Those military-manpower estimates, by the way, are derived not from U.S. or South Korean intelligence, but rather from unpublished population figures Pyongyang transmitted to the UN in 1989 (data that inadvertently revealed the size of the country’s non-civilian male population).5
Today, two Kims later, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reports that North Korea currently maintains the world’s fourth-largest standing army in terms of sheer manpower—ahead of Russia and behind only the globe’s demographic giants (China, India, the United States). For more than half a century—since 1962, the year Kim Il Sung decreed the “all-fortress-ization” of the nation—North Korea has been the most exceptionally and unwaveringly militarized country on the face of the planet.
But why? What possessed North Korean leadership to commit their country, decade after decade, to such an extraordinarily expensive and irrational economic posture? There was a method to this seeming madness. Kim Il Sung’s grand design for unending super-mobilization served many logical purposes, given the first premises of his North Korean state.
Enforcing permanent war-economy discipline comported nicely with perfecting the domestic totalitarian order the Great Leader desired. Further, given the unhappy realities of geography and 20th-century Korean history, having the might to stand up to any and all foreign powers—including his nominal Communist allies in Moscow and Beijing—may also have seemed an imperative. But above all else, North Korea’s immense military economy reflected Kim’s overarching obsession with unifying the divided Korea, and doing so unconditionally—that is to say, to finishing up that Korean War he had started in 1950, and finishing it up on his own terms this time.
In the eyes of North Korea’s rulers, the South Korean state was (and still is) a corrupt, illegitimate, and inherently unstable monstrosity, surviving only because of the American bayonets propping it up. The Great Leader wanted to be able (when the right opening presented itself) to strike a knockout punch against the regime in Seoul and wipe it off the face of the earth—“independent reunification,” in North Korean code language. This he could not do without overwhelming military force—and without an economic system straining constantly to provide that muscle.
As early as 1970, the Great Leader was warning that “the increase in our national defense capability has been obtained at a very great price.”6 And by the late 1980s, Kim Il Sung’s “economic miracle” was all but dead in the water. Decades of crushing military burden and systemic suppression of consumer demand had taken their predictable toll. And North Korean planners had compounded these difficulties with additional unforced errors of their own.
Their idiosyncratic application of the Great Leader’s Juche (“self-reliance”) ideology, for example, included a general injunction against importing new foreign machinery and equipment. This ensured that the country would have to maintain a high-cost, low-productivity industrial infrastructure. Juche also apparently meant never having to pay your foreign debts, whether to fraternal socialist states or to “imperialist” creditors in Western countries foolish enough to lend money to Pyongyang. By the 1980s, global financial markets had caught on to the game, and North Korea found itself almost completely cut off from international capital. And the longstanding “statistical blackout” North Korean leadership enforced to facilitate international strategic deception also inadvertently impaired economic performance by blinding domestic decisionmakers and requiring them to “plan without facts.”
But it was the ending of the Cold War that pushed the North Korean economy out of stagnation, and into disaster. Juche ideology notwithstanding, North Korea had never been self-reliant; sustaining its severely deformed economy required constant inflows of concessionary resources from abroad. Pyongyang was (and remains) consummately imaginative in devising schemes for extracting aid and tribute from overseas. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Kim Il Sung procured the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars in support from Beijing, Moscow, and the Kremlin’s Warsaw Pact satellites, expertly playing the Kremlin off against China, gaming aid out of each while aligning with neither.
In 1984, Kim Il Sung made a fateful error: He leaned decisively toward Moscow, a tilt signaled by his unprecedented six-week state visit to the USSR and Eastern Europe that same year. The gamble paid off initially: Between 1985 and 1989, the Kremlin transferred around $7 billion to Pyongyang, twice as much as the amount transferred over the entire previous 25 years, much of it in military matériel. In 1988, North Korea relied on the Soviet bloc not only for almost all its net concessionary foreign-resources transfers, but also for roughly two-thirds of its international trade, most of it arranged on political, highly subsidized, terms.
Then the came the Soviet bloc’s collapse. By 1992—the year after the collapse of the USSR—both trade and aid from the erstwhile Soviet bloc had plummeted by nearly 90 percent. North Korea’s worldwide overall supplies of merchandise from all foreign sources consequently plunged by more than half over those same years.
These sudden devastating shocks sent North Korea’s economy into a catastrophic free fall from which it would not manage to recover for decades. The socialist planning system essentially collapsed. Famine was just around the corner.
Two: A Man-Made Horror and Its Surprising Aftermath
The North Korean famine of the 1990s was a catastrophe of historic proportions. No one outside North Korea’s leadership knows just how many people died in that completely avoidable man-made tragedy, but the toll was certainly in the hundreds of thousands and could possibly have exceeded a million.7 It arguably qualifies as the single worst economic failure of the 20th century. It was the only time in history that people have starved en masse in an urbanized, literate society during peacetime.
It is noteworthy that the famine—usually dated from 1995 to 1998—did not commence until after the death of the Great Leader and the ascension of his son and heir, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. This was no coincidence. Economic failure was the Dear Leader’s stock-in-trade. His political rise almost perfectly corresponds to the decline and fall of the North Korean economy. It happens that the Dear Leader did succeed in what was arguably his primary political objective: to die of natural causes, still safely and securely in power. But economic progress worthy of the name would not be possible in North Korea so long as he was its supreme ruler.
Though both father and son were totalitarian tyrants enthused with their hereditary total-war machine, the differences in their economic inclinations and impulses were nonetheless striking. Dogmatic as he was, the Great Leader still possessed a peasant’s sense of practicality. Proof of his pragmatism is the singular fact that North Korea, alone among all Asian Communist states (and including Russia in this roster), avoided famine during its 1955–57 collectivization of agriculture.
On the other hand, the Dear Leader, from his sheltered Red Palace upbringing onward, was every bit the paranoid, secluded ideologue. He not only disapproved of any concessions to economic pragmatism but feared these as positively counterrevolutionary and potentially lethal to his rule. He likewise regarded ordinary commercial interactions with the world economy as “honey-coated poison” for the North Korean system. At home, he wanted total mobilization but without any material incentives; from abroad, he sought a steady inflow of funds unconstrained by any reciprocal obligations. Kim Jong Il’s preferred economic model, in short, was to enforce Stakhanovite fervor at home through propaganda and terror while financing his war-economy state through military extortion abroad. He called this approach “military-first politics.”
Unwilling as he was to address the country’s newly dire economic circumstances with reforms—in his view, there was nothing to reform—Kim Jong Il’s North Korea was trapped in deepening depression for most of the 1990s. We will know how close the place came to total economic collapse—to the sort of breakdown of the national division of labor that Germany and Japan suffered at the very end of World War II—only when the archives in Pyongyang are finally opened. Throughout the 1990s, in any case, heavy industry was largely shut down, with inescapable consequences for conventional military forces. The death spiral for the war-making sector redoubled the importance to the regime of the nuke and missile programs, both as an insurance policy for regime survival and as the last viable military instruments for forcing the South into capitulation in some future unconditional unification.
In retrospect, it is clear that Pyongyang had no intention of desisting from its quest for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, even as it played Washington and her allies for aid for years by pretending its nuclear program might be negotiable. Yet also in retrospect, the slow tempo of nuke and missile development under Kim Jong Il’s rule has to be considered a surprise. Any serious weapons program requires testing to advance—yet Pyongyang managed just one long-range missile launch in the 1990s and only three during his 17-year reign. The Dear Leader also oversaw two nuclear tests before his death in 2011—but only toward the end of his tenure, in the years 2006 and 2009.
Why this hesitant tempo if nukes and missiles were a central priority for the North Korean war economy? Although other possible explanations come to mind, the obvious one has to do with financial and economic constraints. Ironically, despite his vaunted “military-first politics,” North Korea’s nuke and missile programs may also have been inadvertent casualties of Kim Jong Il’s gift for stupendous economic mismanagement. (True, North Korea could undertake expensive nuclear projects internationally, such as the undeclared plutonium reactor in Syria that was nearing completion when the Israelis leveled it in 2007—but that was apparently a cash-and-carry operation, bankrolled by the Dear Leader’s friendly customers in Iran.)
There is considerable evidence that the North Korean economy hit bottom around 1997 or 1998. That bottom was very low indeed: Rough estimates suggest that, by 1998, North Korea’s real per capita commercial merchandise exports were barely a third their level of just a decade earlier, while real per capita imports, including supplies indispensable to the performance of key sectors of the domestic economy, were down by about 75 percent.
North Korea appears to have turned the economic corner not on the strength of new or better domestic economic policies, but rather on breakthroughs in international aid procurement. Pyongyang figured out how to work the West’s international food-aid system: Between 1997 and 2005, the year before its first nuclear test, it was bringing in an average of over a million tons of free foreign cereal each year, ending the food crisis. It is tempting to regard this as “military-first politics” in action, for military menace played an important role in the international community’s solicitude. It is impossible to imagine a helpless and stricken sub-Saharan population obtaining “temporary emergency humanitarian aid” on such a scale, for such an extended duration and with so very few conditions attached.
Central to this upswing in food aid and other freebies from abroad was the fact that North Korea got lucky with the alignment of governments in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. For a while, the leaders of this consortium of states were commonly willing to underwrite an exploratory policy of “sunshine” or “engagement” with the Dear Leader by offering him subventions and financial transfers. To secure his June 2000 Pyongyang Summit with the Dear Leader, for example, South Korea’s then-president had hundreds of millions of dollars secretly wired to special North Korean accounts—thereby committing crimes under South Korean law (for which he later issued pardons).
In the event, the “sunshine”-aid influx that may have rescued North Korea at its darkest moment would wane after its clandestine uranium-processing project surfaced in 2002—but the nuclear crisis that revelation triggered also made possible the next big round of North Korean international aid-harvesting.
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Beijing—alarmed by the possibility that the U.S. might also engage in a similar military confrontation with neighboring North Korea—organized and convened a “six-party talks” diplomatic process, ostensibly for deliberations over North Korean denuclearization, to cool things down. While the subsequent years of talking quite predictably led nowhere, North Korea’s price of attendance was apparently a steep increase in economic support from China. Between 2002 and 2008, China’s annual net balance of shipments of goods to North Korea—its exports to Pyongyang minus corresponding imports—more than quintupled, rocketing upward from less than $300 million to more than $1.5 billion. By then, North Korea had become just as economically dependent on Chinese largesse as Pyongyang had been on Soviet-bloc blandishments two decades earlier—but these inflows, and the politically subsidized trade they came with, were evidently sufficient to help at least partially revive the Dear Leader’s broken economy. From Chinese trade statistics, for example, we can infer that Chinese investments were instrumental in a resuscitation of North Korea’s mining and metallurgy sectors in the last years of Kim Jong Il’s life. (We must rely on inference here since Beijing to this day remains almost totally opaque about its economic relation with Pyongyang.)
All in all, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea took in more than $1 billion from its enemies in Washington, and nearly $4 billion from the “puppet regime” in Seoul (not including the South’s additional expenditures on “off-the-books” transfers and special economic or tourist zones in the North). And from China, North Korea scored more than $12 billion of net merchandise inflows under the Dear Leader—a sum that would look even greater if valued in today’s dollars. All the while, North Korea was also earning invisible revenues from a whole network of highly enterprising if generally illicit overseas endeavors: its “nuke-and-missile homework club” with Iran; à la carte weapons sales and military services provided to a host of dictatorships and terror groups; counterfeiting of U.S. currency; drug racketeering; insurance frauds perpetrated against firms in London’s City; and more. The Dear Leader was extensively involved in the world economy, after all—just in a Bizarro World, Legion of Super-Villains sort of way.
Thanks to highly skilled aid-wheedling, international shakedowns, and financial gangsterism, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea clawed its way back from famine to a low but acceptable new economic normal—all the while forswearing domestic economic reforms or genuinely commercial contacts with the outside world. North Korea did not completely avoid potentially fraught economic changes under Kim Jong Il, of course—that was beyond the powers even of the Dear Leader. Domestic cellphone use began during the Dear Leader’s reign, for example, as did a tentative marketization of private consumption (about which more in a moment). But these and other analogous economic changes during the Kim Jong Il era are best understood as “transition without reform,” to borrow an apt term from North Korea watcher Justin Hastings.8
The economy’s “new normal” in the Dear Leader’s final days was still at a miserable level. Although North Korean scientists could launch long-range missiles and test atomic weapons, and although North Korea’s population had reportedly achieved a fairly high level of educational attainment (higher than China’s, if North Korean figures are believed), the country’s international economic profile was Fourth World. According to the World Trade Organization, North Korea’s per capita merchandise trade levels in 2010 approximated Mali’s. Its share of world merchandise trade that same year was roughly the same as that of Zimbabwe, a country with half of North Korea’s population—and despite its measure of recovery after 1998, North Korea’s global trade share fell by more than two-thirds between 1990 and 2010, even more than Zimbabwe’s under Mugabe’s misrule in that same period.
The world is a moving target and, generally, an improving one—so national stagnation also means continuing relative decline. Although the Dear Leader bequeathed his son Kim Jong Un a system that had avoided total collapse, there was little else that could be said to commend his economic legacy.
Three: The Economic Upturn
Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un faced formidable odds when he took over in late 2011. The twentysomething was a novice manager at the time of his father’s demise. Unlike the Great Leader, who had groomed his son to rule from an early age, Kim Jong Il himself put off the whole business of naming a successor for as long as he possibly could, designating the child of one of his mistresses as the next Supreme Leader only after an incapacitating stroke made the naming of an heir an unavoidable matter of state.
As Kim Jong Un took office, the planned economy was no longer functioning, and to make matters worse, North Korea’s limited market sector was beset by galloping and seemingly unstoppable inflation. His father had experimented with a limited monetization of North Korea’s tiny consumer sector in 2002 but botched it—and only made matters worse with a surprise 2009 “currency reform” that effectively confiscated private holdings above $100, drastically degrading the already low credibility of the won.
From this unpromising beginning, Kim Jong Un has proved a relative success in delivering economic results in North Korea. There is evidence that the North Korean economy has enjoyed some measure of growth, macroeconomic stabilization, and even development under his aegis.
Pyongyang, “the shrine of Juche,” may be a Potemkin showpiece—but is showpiece-ier today than in the past. Construction cranes are whirring, and whole new sections of the city have risen up. Traffic jams now sometimes clog “Pyonghattan’s” vast, previously empty boulevards. Expensive restaurants and shops purveying luxury goods increasingly dot the capital, and their customers are mainly locals, not foreigners. The upsurge in prosperity and living standards evident in Pyongyang is reportedly reflected, albeit to a more modest degree, in other urban centers as well.
Furthermore, in sharp contrast to previous North Korean trends, or other earlier Soviet-type economies, the country today not only displays considerable marketization but also market stability. This much is demonstrated by cereal prices and foreign-exchange rates in informal markets across North Korea. Over the decade between mid-2002 and mid-2012, North Korea’s won depreciated against the U.S. dollar in such markets by a factor of more than 5,000 (no, that is not a typo). But that depreciation abruptly stopped a little over five years ago, and since then the won has traded around 8,000 to the dollar (fluctuating within a band around that average). In other words, North Korea now has a stable currency that is convertible into hard currencies. Likewise, the domestic price of rice in North Korean markets suddenly stopped soaring five years ago and has been in the vicinity of 5,000 won per kilogram ever since. Whatever else one may say of these new domestic price signals from Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, they are not what one would expect to see from an economy in mounting crisis and disarray.
Finally and by no means least important: In the military realm, nuke and missile testing has accelerated. In the 13 years between Kim Jong Il’s first Taepo Dong test and his death, North Korea launched three long-range rockets and detonated two atomic devices. Kim Jong Un has been in power just over six years; his regime has already set off four nuclear tests and shot off more than a dozen long-range missiles. Some of the speed-up could reflect long-term strategic choices and might in part be affected by improvements in efficiency (cost reduction) within the WMD industrial sector. All other things being equal, though, this sharp acceleration would seem to betoken a major new infusion of resources into programs already long accorded a top priority by the North Korean state. Without a bigger economic pie and substantially greater funding sources, it is hard to see how Pyongyang could have pulled this off.
All this said, North Korea is still shockingly unproductive, still punching far below its weight, still nowhere near self-sustaining growth. Kim Jong Un’s boundless self-indulgence is manifest in costly vanity projects like a spanking-new “ski lift to nowhere” resort, Masikryong, a venture otherwise inexplicable save perhaps for the memories of childhood days in Switzerland that it might elicit.
But by distancing himself from his father’s most economically destructive policies and practices, and navigating into previously uncharted waters of economic pragmatism, Kim Jong Un has opened up heretofore ungraspable opportunities for raising living standards and building military power at one and the same time. Thus the name of his signature policy: byungjin, or “simultaneous pursuit.”
In short order after his ascension, Kim Jong Un demoted—or killed—most of the Dear Leader’s closest cadres and confidants. And less than five months after assuming power—at a ceremony commemorating his grandfather’s 100th birthday in April 2012—he made an astounding declaration, coming as it did from North Korea’s supreme ruler: “It is our party’s resolute determination to let our people…not tighten their belts again.” Translation: This is no longer your father’s dictatorship; aspiration for personal betterment is no longer a counterrevolutionary act of treason.
Dear Respected has deliberately and steadily reshaped the economy under his command. The fundamental strategic difference between Kim 2 and Kim 3 was this: Whereas the Dear Leader saw “reform” and “opening” as deadly “ideological and cultural poison” pure and simple, Dear Respected believes that North Korea could withstand a bit of that poison—actually, quite a bit—and even end up stronger for taking it.
Pyongyang’s new policy directives have been informed by this insight. In agriculture, Kim Jong Un promulgated the “June 28 Instructions” (2012), which permitted family-level work units and allowed farmers to keep 30 percent of their surplus—a bonanza compared with all previous official rules. For enterprises and industry, there were the “May 30 Measures” (2014), which allowed managers to hire and fire workers, pay them according to their productivity, and keep a portion of any profits they earned. People were, increasingly, paid with money for their work—and it was real money, as in, money that could buy things people wanted. The gradual marketization and monetization of North Korea’s civilian economy over the past two decades is a major transformation, and one critical to understanding the country today.9
By the late 1980s, North Korean leadership had fashioned a consumer sector that would have turned Stalin green with envy. No country on the planet had so tiny a share of total national output flowing to personal consumption as late Cold War North Korea—and no country had so low a fraction of its personal consumption accruing to citizens on the basis of their own market choices. By the late 1980s, North Korean planners had come closer to completely demonetizing their economy than any modern polity this side of the Khmer Rouge. Most goods, services, and supplies that North Korean families consumed were provisioned to them directly by the state, with no “interference” by actual consumer preferences. North Korean planners wished to cede as little control over their command economy as humanly possible.
Pyongyang’s near-total control of the consumption basket, however, presupposed that the state would be supplying its subjects with their daily necessities in the first place. That collapsed in the mid-1990s when the Public Distribution System simply stopped providing the full promised daily food rations to most of the population—and stopped supplying any food at all to some of the population. A terrible number of those who trusted the government to take care of them ended up perishing. To survive the famine, North Koreans had to learn to buy and sell in informal markets that began to spring up—even though such activity was against the law, and some “economic crimes” were punishable by death. The Kim Jong Il government loathed these new private markets, but it needed them to forestall wholesale calamity. Thus commenced the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dialectic of marketization that lasted the rest of the Dear Leader’s life—and after his death, marketization and monetization of the civilian economy gained further steam.
Today it is all but impossible to get by in North Korea on state-supplied provisions alone—and a wide array of goods and services, both foreign and domestic, are available for money in North Korean markets. Although formally prohibited, even real estate is for sale throughout the country, with a vibrant market for private flats in Pyongyang. And a wealthy marketeering caste has arisen: donju, or “money masters,” stereotypically a well-connected official and his enterprising wife, who use political influence as well as entrepreneurial savvy to enter this nouveau riche North Korean elite.
In case you were wondering: Yes, corruption is rife in North Korean markets. It is the necessary lubricant for all North Korean private commerce. In addition, the government expects a big cut, and such funds have been integral to the recovery of the North Korean state.
The marketization and monetization of its consumer economy, in conjunction with new agricultural and commercial incentives and a more tolerant official attitude toward informal activity, laid the groundwork for a domestic-production upswing in North Korea (and a veritable boom in private consumption, although from a very low starting point).
Unlike Asia’s “reform socialism” states, China and Vietnam, North Korea has never made a serious effort to attract private investment from abroad from real live capitalists. Pyongyang prefers large-scale foreign projects that are political in nature. Such projects are bankrolled by governments indifferent to profit, which is to say by the foreign taxpayers who can ultimately be left holding the bag. Examples include the ill-fated Kaesong Industrial Complex paid for by South Korea, as well as its doomed Kumgang Tourist Resort. For international trade and finance, the overwhelming bulk of North Korean activity still falls into two categories: 1) politically predetermined, highly subsidized economic relationships, or 2) what we might call “guerilla warfare” or “outlaw” finance.
Four: North Korea’s Friends
Preferential trade ties with China are pretty much the only game in town for Pyongyang these days. With the virtual shutdown of South Korea’s politically subsidized inter-Korean trade in 2016 following accusations that money from the Kaesong project was being used to fund the North’s missile program, China may now account for close to 90 percent of North Korea’s international commercial-merchandise trade turnover. And North Korea always receives much more than it gives in its arrangement with China, year after year.
There is, to be sure, an element of harsh capitalist bargaining within this overall relationship—but most of that is in the “people to people” bartering and petty trading at the border, largely for consumer goods. At the national level, judging by Chinese customs statistics, North Korea raked in well over a billion dollars a year in net merchandise shipments from China from 2008 through 2014—with no transparency on Beijing’s part about the mechanisms by which this ongoing transfer is financed, much less about the Chinese government’s objectives and intentions in extending this lavish lifeline.
Since 2015, official Chinese numbers suggest that Beijing’s de facto aid is down—but these look like figures deliberately fudged in the face of mounting international demands for sanctions against North Korea. It is at the very least possible that important aspects of Chinese support for the North Korean economy or its defense industries have not yet come to light. Given what is already known, though, it is indisputable that deals with China under the two latest Kims have been key to reviving North Korea’s heavy industrial sector. (For the year 2016, China reported shipping over three-quarters of a billion dollars of machinery and transport equipment to North Korea, 10 times the volume in 2003, when the six-party talks commenced.)
Vital as Chinese support may be to North Korea’s survival and economic revival, North Korea evidences no gratitude for Beijing’s largesse. Pyongyang does not “do” gratitude. Moreover, leadership in Pyongyang knows very well a bitter truth about Chinese aid that they can never utter: namely, that capricious cutbacks in free food from China in the year 1994 were the trigger for the Great North Korean Famine, which became impossible to conceal by 1995.
Apart from its Chinese lifeline, North Korea’s other main sources of international support come from “outlaw” forays into the world economy—including activities tantamount to state-sponsored organized-crime operations. These shady dealings typically attempt to generate revenues for the state that avoid international detection, often relying on the special protections and prerogatives of a sovereign state for cover.
One cannot help but be struck by the industry, ingenuity, and sophistication that have generally kept such schemes one step ahead of international authorities. Koreans in the North can be world-class innovators, too—it’s just that their chosen fields of excellence happen to be in smuggling, drug-running, money-laundering, and the like.
Some of these inventive schemes have been in the news. In recent years, for example, Pyongyang has made unknown millions abroad from what we might call its own style of human trafficking: profiting off the tens of thousands of workers in labor gangs it has sent to China, Russia, the Middle East, and even parts of Europe. No less inventive has been Pyongyang’s apparent monetization of its growing capacity for cyberwarfare through international bank robbery. In 2016, “unknown” hackers relieved the Central Bank of Bangladesh of $81 million in a spectacular heist; in late 2017, similar cyber-fingerprints were detected in a theft of $60 million from a bank in Taiwan. These are just two of many “hit and runs” orchestrated under the Kim Jong Un crime family. And as the WannaCry ransomware attack last year demonstrated by infecting hundreds of thousands of computers the world over, vastly greater dividends from cybercrime may lie just over the horizon.
Then there is North Korea’s signature global service industry: WMD proliferation. For obvious reasons, most of this work never makes the news. No one outside Kim Jong Un’s court probably knows just how much this nefarious business is bringing in these days. These unobservable flows, however, may be consequential. Consider this: Barely weeks after Tehran inked its September 2012 Scientific Cooperation Agreement with Pyongyang, the won suddenly ended its decade-long freefall and finally achieved exchange-rate stability. North Korea may have had additional, still concealed, operations that were also paying off at the same time as that Iranian deal, of course. But either way, the deal clearly marked a turning point in North Korea’s macroeconomic fortunes, and the stabilization of exchange rates and domestic cereal prices probably could not have occurred without an open spigot of foreign cash.
In sum, the hallmarks of Jong-Un-omics economics would appear to be new revenues from foreign sources, along with the new flows of funds derived from privatization and growth at home. These monies have apparently sufficed not only to stabilize North Korea’s previously toxic currency, and to bring an end to runaway inflation in North Korean key private markets, but also to abet Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions. This, at least, would seem to be the most plausible reconstruction of the limited but meaningful evidence from the jigsaw puzzle that is the North Korean economy today.
To repeat: While we should recognize the existence of this economic upswing we should also keep its scale in perspective. All one need do is consider the sad, stunning space photos of North Korea at night—the satellite shots revealing a territory almost pitch-black, while the rest of Northeast Asia is glowing with light. They attest better than any available statistics to the limits of economic recovery under Kim Jong Un.
Among the other implications of that space imagery, the North simply does not have the pocketbook for a wholesale modernization of its conventional army and a nuke-missile program. For now at least, most of the military’s equipment, apart from critical nuclear-related pockets like submarine production, remains outdated and ill-suited for the tasks originally assigned. Today, Kim Jong Un cannot credibly threaten to roll in and occupy South Korea. But Kim Jong Un is on track to manufacture enough nuclear matches to burn the place down, with Tokyo and Washington thrown in for good measure, in the foreseeable future.
Five: How to Put Pressure on Pyongyang
Given what we know about the North Korean economy, can America and the world community keep Pyongyang from reaching its ultimate nuclear objectives through a real economic-pressure campaign?
We do not know just how close North Korea is to perfecting its weaponization of ballistic missiles, or how many nuclear weapons the North currently possesses. We also do not know as much as we need to about North Korea’s strategic inventories and reserves. If Pyongyang were stopped in its tracks today, its nuclear and missile work would require unwavering vigilance and far-reaching containment for the remaining life of the regime. That said, a serious international campaign of trade and financial sanctions—led by America, ruthlessly executed, and starting immediately—could very significantly slow the pace of Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear-ballistic march. And if we are in it for the long haul, a serious sanctions campaign could eventually promise the effective suffocation of the entire North Korean military economy.
An international economic campaign of this sort won’t be easy (though America has many more cards in her hand than many now appreciate). It probably won’t be pretty, either. But in any case, it is the world’s last chance to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions by nonmilitary means.
Let’s start with the unpleasant truths. We must recognize that economic pressure will not alter the intentions of the Kim family regime—ever. We must dispense with the fantasy, still inexplicably maintained in various esteemed diplomatic circles and Western universities, that Pyongyang can somehow be pressured—or bribed—at this late stage into changing its mind about its multi-decade march to a credible nuke and missile arsenal. There is no “bringing North Korea back to the table” that ends with CVID—comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. Period.
So much for the bad news. The rest of the news about the outlook for sanctions against North Korea, fortunately, is better than we usually hear.
Many authoritative voices seem to think sanctions have little chance of influencing North Korea’s nuclear trajectory. Economic historians note that the record for coercive economic diplomacy is poor and has been for centuries. Policy wonks and foreign-affairs experts add that successive rounds of UN and international economic sanctions seem to have had no real bite so far against North Korea. These pessimistic assessments, however, misread the prospects for international economic pressure against North Korea on two important counts.
As poor as the general record of coercive economic diplomacy may be, North Korea is not exactly a typical economy. It is an outlier—it’s world-class dysfunctional, recent changes under Dear Respected notwithstanding. The economy is incapable of growth (or for that matter, even stagnation) without steady inflows of financial support from abroad to keep it on its feet. Remember: When net aid from abroad sharply dropped (but did not end) in the 1990s, that was enough to send North Korea spiraling downward into paralysis and mass famine. The North Korean regime in short, is a poster child for a successful international campaign of economic strangulation. Despite Pyongyang’s nonsense about “self-reliance,” it is uniquely vulnerable to the cutoff of foreign money and subvention.
Kim Jong Un has not yet faced anything even remotely resembling an international campaign of “maximum economic pressure.” The continuing stability of North Korea’s foreign exchange rate and domestic food prices pointedly suggest international sanctions have not yet greatly impacted North Korea. But few foreign-policy experts, and even fewer general readers, seem aware of how flimsy were the array of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN and U.S. during the George W. Bush and Obama years.
Consider first the successive rounds of UN Security Council sanctions lodged against the regime since its first atomic test in 2006. China and Russia flagrantly and routinely violate the very sanctions their own Security Council representatives voted to impose. Most countries around the world still ignore them, too. In early 2017, the UN’s Panel of Experts on the sanctions reported that 116 of the UN’s 193 members had not yet bothered even to file implementation reports on the then-latest round (UNSC 2270, levied in response to Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear blast). The previous year, the Panel noted that 90 countries had never reported on any of the sanction resolutions against North Korea (eight at that time, the first of them ratified a decade before that report). And filing a report on these sanctions resolutions is not the same thing as enforcing them. Several countries with whom Washington enjoys ostensibly friendly relations have turned a blind eye to illicit North Korean activities on their soil for many years (Malaysia, Singapore, and some of the Gulf States being among the more egregious examples).
When it comes to Washington’s own economic measures, furthermore, North Korea is still far from being “sanctioned out,” no matter the received wisdom. In the final year of the Obama administration, according to Anthony Ruggiero of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, fewer entities and individuals from North Korea were under U.S. Treasury Department sanction than those from seven other countries, including Zimbabwe and Sudan. While the Trump administration has been much more serious about sanctioning North Korea, Ruggiero testified that as of late summer 2017, North Korea nonetheless remained less sanctioned than either Syria or Iran. For some mystifying reason, moreover, North Korea was not put back on the State Department’s list of strictured “state sponsors of terrorism” until the end of 2017, after enjoying a nearly decade-long holiday off that roster.
As 2018 commences, three big changes augur well for the prospect of devastating “shock and awe” sanctions against the North Korean system. First: At the end of 2017, the Security Council endorsed a broad new writ and scope for sanctions against North Korea, dispensing with the earlier “marksman” approach of picking off particular military-related firms or individuals and embracing instead the “blockbuster” approach of crippling North Korea’s entire military-industrial complex. The new sanctions, among other things, ban all industrial imports by North Korea, severely cut permitted energy imports, and require UN member governments to “seize, inspect, and freeze” vessels violating some of the new restrictions.
Second: In late 2017, the U.S. Treasury announced new and much more sweeping authority for North Korea sanctions, granting U.S. officials wide discretion to impose what are known as “secondary sanctions.” Henceforth any business or person engaging in any kind of commercial or financial transactions with North Korea could be severely penalized, with punishments including fines, seizure or forfeiture of assets, prohibition against any commerce in or with the U.S., and being cut off from the worldwide clearing system for dollar-based financial settlements.
Finally, and by no means unrelated to these other changes, is the third change: the advent of the Trump administration. Under President Trump and his team, there appears to be a qualitative change in America’s North Korea policy—one that accords the North Korean threat a higher priority, and more unblinking attention, than it has been granted by any of Trump’s predecessors. The White House calls this new approach to North Korea a policy of “maximum pressure.”
Six: The American Role
Trump’s address before South Korea’s National Assembly last November on the North Korea problem was the most incisive, and moving, statement on the topic ever delivered by an American president. Whatever else may be said of him, Trump is keenly aware that the North Korean threat he inherited was allowed to fester and worsen under each of the four men in the Oval Office immediately before him. He appears to have no intention of continuing that tradition.
The Achilles’ heel of the North Korean economy—and thus, of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs—is its existential dependence on foreign aid and outside money. The fortress-prison country is an operation that cannot be sustained on its own. To date, North Korea has skillfully extracted wherewithal and extorted financial concessions out of a largely unfriendly world. To jam the gears of the North Korean war machine, the international community must recognize, and finally begin systematically exploiting, Pyongyang’s unique economic weakness. This will require a campaign of economic pressure worthy of the name—and the pieces for such a campaign are already falling into place.
In broad strokes, what would this “maximum economic pressure” campaign look like? It must be Washington-led, since it will not coalesce spontaneously. To carry it out most effectively, diplomacy will be crucial: Alliance coordination and the building and maintenance of motivated coalitions are obvious force multipliers for this exercise. But the U.S. has unique international strengths that allow us to act unilaterally and with great consequence when necessary.
For starters, now that we ourselves have relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, we have a stronger case for pressing governments around the world to shut down the regime’s embassies, trade missions, and other facilities located on their soil. Not necessarily to sever diplomatic ties, much less end all communication, with Pyongyang: just to deprive North Korea of safe havens for their illegal rackets on foreign shores. Given North Korea’s standard operating procedure overseas, affording Pyongyang an embassy in one’s country is like offering diplomatic immunity to the Mafia. The Trump administration has begun some of this advocacy already and has some initial results to show for its troubles. In conjunction with a consortium of like-minded states (including Japan), a full-court press could gain true international momentum. At the very least, this would disrupt some of North Korea’s illegal rackets and reduce the take from them.
Washington can also take the lead in lobbying governments to shut down the North Korean work crews operating within their own countries—these are too close to slave labor for comfort. This need not be quiet diplomacy. The complicit governments in question, including Beijing and Putin’s Kremlin, deserve to be called out publicly if they are intransigent. (The wording of the latest round of Security Council sanctions calls for shutting down such arrangements within 24 months, an amendment Moscow negotiated for—but there is no reason that the U.S. or independent human-rights groups should not try to speed up that timetable.) The U.S. also has options for penalizing trading partners who violate internationally recognized labor standards, which is to say we can affect the cost-benefit calculus for governments that tolerate North Korea’s odious practices in their own backyards.
This brings us to a rather larger diplomatic task: confronting China and Russia about their continuing financial malfeasance on North Korea. The scope and scale of China’s furtive support for North Korea dwarfs Russia’s, of course—but that is no reason to give the Kremlin a pass. These two states have long been playing a double game—one that must come to an end starting now.
Seven: The Russians and the Chinese
Contrary to some hand-wringing in Washington and elsewhere, the U.S. is by no means devoid of options in facing down China and Russia for their economic enablement of the Kim family regime. As already noted, Washington possesses an extraordinarily powerful tool for inducing their compliance: the U.S. dollar—the most important reserve currency in the world economic order. America gets to decide who can, and who cannot, engage in the dollar-denominated financial transactions with the myriad of correspondent banks serving the globe, for which the Federal Reserve Bank is the clearing house. Existing legislation and executive orders already provide the U.S. government with a panoply of instruments for inflicting nuanced and escalating economic penalties and losses on financial institutions, corporations, and private individuals who rely upon U.S. correspondent banks but engage in illegal or forbidden commerce with North Korea.
So far, the United States government has used only minor pinpoint-pinprick secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian parties that violate restrictions on dealings with North Korea. Both nations face potentially major economic costs if they do not address and control such violations, should we choose to impose them.
It is no secret, for example, that the Chinese banking system is highly leveraged and that some of China’s largest banks are in what we might call a financially delicate situation. Does Beijing really want to find out whether one of these major concerns can survive a Treasury Department-Justice Department inquiry for North Korea infringements, much less the weight of actual secondary sanctions—or to find out what happens at home and in international financial markets if it looks as if a major Chinese bank might fail on that account?
If the Kremlin and Beijing believe we mean business, they will have reason to suppress illicit deals with North Korea—but convincing them we mean business is our responsibility. Washington has been curiously hesitant here, possibly for fear that Beijing or the Kremlin, or both, would respond by sabotaging any further UN sanctions. But we now have pretty much what we need from UN resolutions for a campaign of “maximum economic pressure” on North Korea—so the time for horse-trading and slow-walking is over. And while we are at it, these governments’ official economic support for North Korea shouldn’t be off the table. Isn’t it time to spotlight and track those flows, too?
As we work to rein in China and Russia, we should not lose sight of the money that North Korea receives through arrangements with other governments—including states in Africa and the Middle East that receive U.S. foreign aid. Yet much of what Washington needs to do in this economic campaign, alas, is currently unknown. This is a failure of our intelligence community that must be immediately addressed if “maximum economic pressure” is to stand a chance of ending up as more than just a slogan.
By the very nature of intelligence activity, spy agencies cannot take credit for many of their successes. But the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t deserve a slap on the back for its performance in this particular area. It should be something of an embarrassment, for example, that some of the best work mapping out the connections between Chinese front companies and the North Korean military these days should apparently come from a small think tank, C4ADS, that relies entirely on open sources. And that is just one small example of intelligence insufficiency. Our government also appears to know much less than it should about the financial relations between Pyongyang and its backers in Tehran, North Korea’s money ties with terrorist groups, and its adventures in crypto-currencies and other harder-to-trace instruments of finance.
Much of what is currently unknown—by our government—about North Korea’s covert international financial networks and overseas holdings is in fact knowable, given better legwork and intelligence. The story of the U.S. government’s interagency Illicit Activities Initiative (2001–6), which methodically mapped out North Korea’s money trails before being derailed by bureaucratic infighting under the George W. Bush administration, provides an “existence proof” that such research can be done. North Korea’s overseas financial networks have had more than a decade since the demise of IAI to evolve and hide their tracks—so a new IAI-style effort would have to play catch-up.
With the information we could gather from a well-funded and coordinated intelligence initiative, we can help shut down North Korea’s worldwide criminal enterprises, arrest their international accomplices, freeze and seize violators’ overseas assets (not just Kim Jong Un’s assets: think Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and the rest), and levy potentially devastating fines against commercial and financial concerns that willfully aid North Korea in violating the law. We can also improve the efficacy of existing proliferation-security efforts.
With better intelligence, better international coordination, and the will to get the job done, an enhanced “maximum economic pressure” policy could swiftly and severely cut both North Korea’s international revenues and the vital flows of foreign supplies that sustain the economy. An enhanced Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), indeed, could use interdiction not only to monitor the goods entering North Korea but also to regulate and, as necessary, suppress that level. (UN sanctions, by the way, make provisions for humanitarian imports into North Korea a matter the U.S. and others must attend to faithfully.) Yes, this is economic warfare, and it can be conducted with much more sophisticated tools than were available in the 1940s. In fact, it should be possible through such a campaign to send the North Korean economy—and the North Korean military economy—into shock, possibly even in fairly short order.
Eight: Success and Its Failures
If comprehensive sanctions and counter-proliferation against North Korea fail, we enter into a new world with darker and much less pleasant options. But what if, by some measure of success, they turn out to succeed? What then?
In addition to their intended consequences, successful policies always have unintended ones. Three potential consequences of an effective economic-pressure campaign against the North Korean regime deserve special consideration in advance.
The first concerns the role of North Korea’s donju elite in a future where North Korea is increasingly squeezed economically. These “money masters,” who until now have enjoyed waxing wealth and have lived with rising expectations under Kim Jong Un, would stand to suffer very sharp financial loss. What would a serious reversal in the fortunes of this privileged element in North Korean society mean for elite cohesion and for regime dynamics? Even North Korea has domestic politics. Poorly as we may be able to apprise North Korean politics, it would behoove us to try to understand in advance how such a change would alter the realm of the possible within the country—and what new opportunities such internal developments might present.
Second is the all-too-likely possibility that North Korea would careen back into famine under an effective sanctions campaign—and not because Pyongyang would be incapable of purchasing or procuring sufficient food to feed its populace. The reason North Koreans starved last time was the government’s dreadful songbun system, still very much in force today. Songbun is a unique North Korean instrument of social control that carefully subdivides the North Korean populace into “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile” classes, lavishing benefits and meting out penalties according to one’s station. Life chances in North Korea—and no less important, death chances—turn on one’s assigned class. Just as it is a safe bet that virtually no one outside the “core classes” has amassed great donju riches, so too death from starvation is almost entirely consigned to the state’s designated enemies from the “hostile classes.” Only “intrusive aid” (provided on site by impartial outsiders) and public diplomacy, including calling out Dear Respected on this vile practice, stand to mitigate the toll of the impending humanitarian-cum-hostage crisis should “maximum economic pressure” work.
Finally, there are the countermeasures Pyongyang will surely adopt if the economic-pressure campaign is attaining a measure of success. These will be intended to terrify and to break the will of the sanctioners. North Korean leaders are practiced masters of white-knuckle, bared-fang diplomacy—and they would naturally regard the stakes in this contest as particularly high. No national directorate is so expert in brinkmanship or so consummate at carefully gaming through seeming “outbursts” well in advance.
North Korea will test the stomach and the will of the pressure alliance, threatening what sees as the campaign’s weakest and the most exposed elements and ranks. These probes and tests may be military in nature, with a range of options that could well include threats of nuclear war. Pyongyang will try to make Washington and the international community fear that they are facing a “Japan 1941 moment,” with a cornered Kim family regime: a déjà vu of the drumroll that led to World War II in the Pacific, only this time against a nuclear-armed adversary.
This would be a point of incalculable danger. There are good reasons to think North Korea would not resort to first use of nuclear weapons, most compelling among them, its own state-enshrined doctrine known as “Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideology.” (The essence of this doctrine: The Hive must keep the Queen safe, and at all cost.) But there is no sugarcoating the terrible risks, including risks of miscalculation, inherent in North Korea’s most likely countertactics.
Any way you look at it, North Korea’s adversaries are in for a long and bumpy ride. The alternative to thwarting North Korea’s war drive now is permitting Pyongyang to prepare to fight and win a limited nuclear war in the future, at a time and place of its own choosing, when the situation for America and her allies may be even more perilous.
Like it or not, Pyongyang plays for keeps, and we are in this with them for the long game. The next move is ours.
1 Full disclosure: I am one of those who seriously underestimated North Korea’s resilience in the 1990s. Twenty years ago, I would have thought it almost unimaginable for the North Korean state to survive to this day. Needless to say, subsequent events have proved otherwise, and studying my own mistakes has led to the analysis under way here.
2 Joan Robinson, “Korean Miracle” Monthly Review, January 1965, Vol. 16, No. 8, pp. 541–549.
3 Korea, the economic race between the north and the south: a research paper, ER 78-10008, January 1978, CIA.
4 Kim Il Sung, Works, Vol. 31 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1987), p.76.
5 Nicholas Eberstadt and Judith Banister, The Population of North Korea. (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1992).
6 Kim Il Sung, Selected Works, Vol. 5 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1972), p. 431.
7 On this man-made, and completely unnecessary, tragedy, see Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
8 Justin V. Hastings, A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy. (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).
9Perhaps the best analysis of this transformation is Kim Byung-Yeon, The North Korean Economy: Collapse and Transition. (New York: Cambridge Univer sity Press, 2017)
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s I write, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has become a mere husk of a book, emptied of everything consumable and tasty. And it’s only been out a week! In the hinterlands, the book is selling briskly, but here in Washington, we already find ourselves in the final phase of a mass hysteria, a hangover that we would call the Woodward Detumescence.
Woodward is Bob Woodward, of course. Every few years, for more than 30 years, Woodward has sent Washington reeling with a book-length, insider account of one administration after another, presenting government as high drama, with a glittering cast of villains and heroes.
The sequence of the symptoms seldom varies. First comes the Buildup. We hear premonitory rumblings: Freshly minted Woodward revelations are on the way! His publisher declares an embargo on the book, mostly as a tease. Another reporter writes an unauthorized report guessing at what the revelations might be. Washington can scarcely breathe. At last the first excerpts appear in a three-part serial in Woodward’s home paper, the Washington Post.
We enter the Swoon.
The excerpts tell of betrayals and estrangements, shouting matches and tearful reconciliations, tough decisions and disappointing failures of nerve, all at the highest levels of government. Woodward goes on TV shows to explain his findings. Sources attack him; he stands by his book. The frenzy intensifies, the breathing is labored, until, at last, comes the Spasm, as all the characters from the book refuse to comment on a “work of tabloid fiction.”
Then the newspaper excerpts end, there is a collapsing sigh, a dying fall, and the physical book, the thing itself, appears. The text seems an afterthought, limp as a wind-sock and, by now, even less interesting. If there were more revelations to be found in its pages, after all, we would have read them already. We skulk back to the routines of what passes for normal life in Washington, slightly abashed at our momentary loss of self-control. This is the Woodward Detumescence. Shakespeare foresaw it in a sonnet: “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.”
The Fire and Fury frenzy omitted some of these steps, prolonged others. It was touched off by an excerpt in New York, appearing a week before the book’s original publication date. Running to roughly 7,000 words, the excerpt was densely packed and so juicy it should have come with napkins. The article’s revelations about White House backbiting and self-loathing are by now universally known, and have been from the moment the excerpt hit the Web. One thing they make plain is that Michael Wolff bears little resemblance to Bob Woodward. Over a long career, our Bob has shown himself to be a tireless and meticulous reporter. He is a creature of Washington, besotted by government; Woodward never found a briefing paper he wouldn’t happily read, as long as it was none of his business.
Wolff, on the other hand, is an incarnation of Manhattan media. He’s a 21st-century J.J. Hunsecker, the gossip columnist in the great New York movie Sweet Smell of Success, although, unlike J.J., he has a pleasing prose style and a sense of irony. His curiosity about the workings of government and the shadings of public policy is nonexistent. “Trump,” Wolff writes with typical condescension, “had little or no interest in the central Republican goal of repealing Obamacare.” Neither does Wolff. Woodward would have given us blow-by-blow accounts of committee markups. Wolff mentions Obamacare only glancingly, even though it was by far the most consequential failure of Trump’s first year.
If you want to learn how Trump constructs that Dreamsicle swirl that rests on the top of his head, or the skinny on Steve Bannon’s sartorial habits, then Wolff is your man. He tries to tell his story chronologically, but he occasionally runs out of things to say and has to vamp until the timeline lets him pop in a new bit of shocking gossip. Early in the book, for example, after he has established that Trump is reviled and mocked by nearly everyone who works for him, Wolff leads us into a tutorial on The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s doorstop on the 1960s White House wise men and whiz kids who thought it would be a great idea to get in a land war in Southeast Asia. He calls Halberstam’s book a “cautionary tale about the 1960s establishment.” Wolff’s chin-pulling goes on for several hundred words. Apparently, Steve Bannon had had the book on his desk.
This is interesting, I guess, and so are the excessive digressions about New York real estate, Manhattan’s media culture, the evolution of grande dames into postfeminist socialites, and many other subjects that are orthogonal to the book’s purpose. If you’ve bought Fire and Fury, chances are, you wanted to learn things you didn’t know about the first year of the Trump administration. The New York excerpt was chockablock with such stuff, told in sharply drawn scenes and vivid, verbatim quotes. But the book dwells much more on general impressions, flecked here and there with scandalous asides. In these longeurs—most of the book—Wolff writes at an odd remove, from the middle distance. The prose loses its immediacy and becomes diffuse.
He’s not so much padding his book as filibustering his readers, perhaps hoping to deflect a reader’s attention from another revelation: He really hasn’t delivered the goods. All of Wolff’s most scandalous material was filleted and packed into the New York excerpt. Listening to discussions among friends and colleagues, I keep hearing the same items, all from the magazine: Staffers think Trump might be (literally) illiterate, Steve Bannon thinks the Mueller investigation puts Trump’s family in legal jeopardy, the president uses vulgar language when talking about women. He is a child, Wolff wants us to know, and the disorder of his government is directly traceable to that alarming fact.
And it is indeed alarming, but nobody who has followed Trump’s Twitter feed or watched his news conferences will think it’s news. Wolff wrote a scintillating 7,000-word magazine article; the problem is that he spread it over a 328-page book. The rumor has gone around (hey, if he can do it, so can I) that before submitting his manuscript, Wolff warned his publisher that it didn’t contain much that was new.
This explains a lot. Wolff clearly was unprepared for the explosion set off by the magazine article. You could see it in his halting explanations of his journalism techniques. When his quotes were questioned, he let it be known that he had “dozens of hours” of tapes. (Other news reports inflated the number to hundreds.) When quotes continued to be questioned, he was asked, by colleagues and interviewers, to release the tapes. He refused. Wolff said his book threatens to bring down the president—on evidence that he alone has and won’t produce.
Spoken like a true journalist! Much has been made of this modern Hunsecker’s techniques. One explanation for the candor of his sources is that Wolff gained their confidence by misleading them about his intentions; they had concluded he was writing a book that would show the administration in a kinder light. “I said what I had to to get the story,” he proudly told one interviewer. Many of his colleagues in the press have shrugged at his willful misdirection—his deception, in fact—as a standard trick of the trade.
They’re probably right. But they demonstrated again the utter detachment of journalists from normal life. Whole professions are generally and rightly maligned—trial lawyers, car salesmen, lobbyists—because ordinary people see that prevarication is built into their work. When it comes to the people who write the books they read, they have a right to ask how far the deception goes. If a writer will mislead his sources, how can we be sure he won’t he do the same to his readers?
“My evidence is the book,” Wolff responds. I’m not sure what he means. In any case, as the Detumescence recedes, it becomes clearer that his evidence is thin. The book isn’t particularly good journalism, but it’s a triumph of marketing. Our Trump hatred has been targeted with such precision that we’ll lower any standard to embrace Fire and Fury, even if the tale as told signifies nothing, or nothing much.
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An uncontroversial museum still manages to offend the ignorant
t one point during his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush gave his listeners a folksy admonition: “Don’t be takin’ a speck out of your neighbor’s eye when you got a log in your own.” This amused Frank Bruni of the New York Times, who called it “an interesting variation on the saying about the pot and the kettle.” Bruni’s words in turn amused the substantial portion of Americans who knew that Bush was actually quoting Matthew 7:3. To them it was simply unimaginable that someone could graduate Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in English and subsequently study at the Columbia School of Journalism, as Bruni did, without having once encountered the Sermon on the Mount. The anecdote revealed the extent to which, in the space of a few generations, America went from habitual Bible reading to biblical illiteracy, and of the most abject and utter kind. This is the justification for the Museum of the Bible.
The Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington, D.C., in November, is an enterprise of appropriately pharaonic ambition. At a capacious 430,000 square feet, it cost half a billion dollars to build, all of it contributed privately. It is the brainchild of Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, the chain of arts-and-crafts supply stores that successfully challenged the contraception mandate of Obamacare. Indeed, to those who felt the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby decision was a catastrophic setback to the separation of church and state, the coming of the Museum of the Bible seemed nothing less than the physical manifestation of that threat—an unwelcome expression of evangelical political power standing in plain sight of the Capitol. Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby has loomed large in the coverage of the museum, as has the Green family—as well as the $3 million fine levied on Hobby Lobby for illegally importing cuneiform tablets from Iraq.
But those who looked forward to exposing the museum as a bigoted and ignorant enterprise, with a laughably literal view of biblical truth, have been bitterly disappointed. Its exhibitions are conspicuously even-handed and scholarly, and not at all sectarian. The Museum of the Bible is no vehicle of theological indoctrination. If anything, it errs in the other direction. When it was first incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2010, it pledged itself “to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” It has quietly lowered its sights since, and now seeks only “to invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.” This makes the museum less objectionable (who can object to an invitation?), but a less incendiary Bible is also a less interesting one. The danger of the Museum of the Bible is that by sidestepping the question of biblical truth it might downgrade the Good Book, as it were, into one of the Great Books.W
ith all their resources, the Green family might easily have commissioned a celebrity architect to build a prodigy of a museum. But they did not want a building that would compete with its contents. Instead, they bought a 90-year-old cold-storage warehouse two blocks south of the Mall, and into its windowless brick shell they inserted six stories of exhibition and administrative space. The interior is intelligently planned but hardly remarkable, and nothing about its materials, finishes, or details speaks of the Bible or antiquity. If anything, it has the glossy impersonal cheeriness of contemporary hotel architecture.1
The heart of the museum is in the exhibitions of the third floor (The Stories of the Bible) and the fourth (The History of the Bible). These are utterly different in texture and tone, but they work in tandem—one delivering sensation and the other information. This is hardly a new distinction; it is the difference between the stained-glass window and the sermon.
The Stories of the Bible are told through crowd-pleasing “immersive” galleries—the fashionable term for displays in which a coordinated battery of sound effects, musical cues, dramatic lighting, and moving forms are combined to induce an overwhelming sensory experience in the viewer. These were devised by BRC Imagination Arts, a design firm that specializes in corporate branding—as they put it, in “creating emotionally engaging experiences that generate lasting brand love.” When it comes to emotionally engaging material, the exhibits Genesis and Exodus offer at least as much as the Heineken Experience (another recent BRC creation) and here the designers have outdone themselves. Noah’s Ark presents “a unique, stylized representation of the great flood, they tell us.”
“Stacks of boxes tower over them. Inside each box are artistic representations of animals—two by two—lit by flickering candlelight. Guests hear the raging of the storm outside and the creaking of the wooden ship.”
Somewhat later, although not until they have seen “a hyssop bush bursting into flames from the story of Moses,” visitors themselves can part the Red Sea, or an abstraction thereof, created by a web of taut metal cables shimmering under blue light. (It is curious how the highly cinematic events of the Hebrew Bible lend themselves to abstract expression.)
By contrast, the World of Jesus is rendered in literal terms, by means of a realistic re-creation of a first-century village complete with actors in period costume. In the Galilee Theater, visitors can watch a short film and see John the Baptist confronting King Herod (as played by John Rhys-Davies). Even those of us who are allergic to historic reenactments will see that it is carried through with extreme competence and attention to detail. What is there is done well; it is what is not there that has caused a good detail of quiet grumbling. To the bafflement of many, the central events of the Christian Bible—the Crucifixion and Resurrection—are not represented. Were there fears that a scene of unspeakable horror would disturb the museum’s upbeat, family-friendly ambiance? Or is it that its academic advisors come from the mainstream of contemporary Biblical studies, for whom the Resurrection is not a truth but a trope? Perhaps both factors are at play.
Another curious aspect of the display, though unhappy, is understandable: The Hebrew and Christian Bibles are rendered as two segregated and self-contained experiences, and like oil and vinegar, the exhibition paths are not allowed to mix. Unfortunately, the visitor who has waited for the one is unlikely to stand in line again for the other. One can appreciate that the organizers wanted to avoid a linear sequence in which the Hebrew Bible serves as mere prelude to the New, but in the process, the relationship between the two is lost. Surely a compromise might have been found, perhaps with the occasional physical passage between the two, so that the viewer might move back and forth and make his own connections—alas, a proposition that is heretical in today’s world of manipulative museology.
If the third floor gives us the stories in the Bible, the fourth gives us the book itself—not only the text itself but its translations, copies, orthography, printing, binding, illustrations and all else that is associated with a literary artifact. The oldest objects here (although of disputed authenticity) are tiny fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and from them to the most recent translations, one is struck by the fastidious probity with which the text was transmitted. Here we learn the high stakes of tampering with the Bible in the story of how the 14th-century theologian John Wycliffe was posthumously excommunicated for daring to make the first English translation. We also learn how the Bible acted to codify and order regional dialects into a national language; Martin Luther’s translation did this for the German language just as the King James translation did a century later for English. A remarkable display shows the innumerable phrases from the Bible that have entered vernacular speech in the world’s languages, some of which I did not know (e.g., “den of thieves,” “suffer fools gladly,” “at their wit’s end,” etc.
Here one senses a certain reservation—a curatorial suspicion, perhaps, that vellum manuscripts and printed books are intrinsically boring. There is nothing an exhibition designer fears more than a bored visitor. This would account for the rather plaintive effort to provide visual relief in the form of arresting objects: a facsimile of the Liberty Bell with its inscription from Leviticus, a tableau of books burned by the Nazis, and statues of Galileo and Isaac Newton. These diversions suggest that the designers did not trust the words themselves and their hotly disputed variants and interpretations to generate interest on their own.
This is a lost opportunity. For instance, the history of the English translations would have been far more effective with a comparison of representative examples. One might illustrate various renderings of the 23rd Psalm, juxtaposing the lapidary King James version (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”) with the explanatory translation of the International Standard Version (“The Lord is the one who is shepherding me; I lack nothing”) or the willful flatness of the Good News Bible (“The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need”). A few examples from the recent push to purge the Bible of any and all sexist language would also have been eye-opening. To refer to this trend blithely in passing, as the wall labels do, without confronting the viewers with the sobering reality of a gender-neutral Bible is a sign of either haste or indifference.
And for those who are not fascinated by the fact that the neuter possessive its appears just once in the entire King James translation, they still have the chance to take a peek at Elvis Presley’s personal copy of the Bible.T
he truth is, the Museum of the Bible is as innocuous, gregarious, multifaceted, and congenial an institution as one might have hoped. It certainly does not preach biblical inerrancy; the attentive reader will see that Noah’s flood is anticipated by the much older flood story in the epic of Gilgamesh, complete with divine instructions on building the ark.
Nonetheless, the museum has been greeted with extraordinary hostility, although of a strangely unfocused sort. It has hardly been “dogged by scandal,” as Business Insider charged, apart from the importation of antique materials with a false provenance (something of which the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Museum have both been guilty). The real objection is not its business practices or its theology (which it wears so lightly as to be invisible), but rather that it comes from the wrong side of the cultural tracks. One has the sense that the museum is a social faux pas, that the wrong guests have crashed the party, blundering uninvited into Washington and violating rules of which they are ignorant. CityLab, the digital magazine of the Atlantic, expressed this attitude most pithily when it called the museum “pure, 100 percent, uncut megaplex evangelical white Protestantism…megachurch concentrate.”
The charge that the museum presents a narrow and exclusively white version of Protestantism is undercut by a single visit; the audience is comprehensively ecumenical and international. But it has been repeated endlessly nonetheless, in part because of the recent publication of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, by Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden—a furiously ambitious attempt to discredit the museum, its theology, its founders, and Hobby Lobby itself. (This may be the first time a book has been published condemning a museum before it was built.) Moss first came to public attention in 2013 with The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, which charges early Christians with forging accounts of their suppression. Bible Nation is written in a similarly debunking spirit. For her, the “thousands of fragments of contradictory material” in the Bible make it pointless to try to make of it a coherent or meaningful document. The insights of contemporary biblical scholarship, she says with conspicuous exasperation, ought to be “a faith killer.”
Clearly they have been for her. But if anything, the museum’s fourth floor testifies to the opposite: This is a building built by believers for whom the analysis of the materials contained within is a noble task. The curators have taken painstaking efforts to get it right, as did those scribes who through the millennia worked to reconcile the discrepancies, to choose among the contradictory variants the ones that are most rigorously supported. And where the conflicting documents are irreconcilable—as between the two opening chapters of Genesis, or between the four Gospels—the procedure has always been to preserve multiple sources rather than impose an arbitrary uniformity. In the end, the Museum of the Bible pitches it about right.
Its greatest surprise is that it makes no truth claim. The central propositions of the Hebrew Bible (God’s covenant with his chosen people) and the Christian Bible (Christ’s Resurrection) are subordinated to the existence of the Books that carry those propositions. One might imagine that a museum devoted to other monumental culture-shaping books, say The Iliad and The Odyssey, would look similar in approach.
And of course they are right to have done so. The place to make claims to the truth in these cases is a church or synagogue, not a museum. But even the lesser claim that the Museum of the Bible makes, that the Bible is a foundational document of our civilization, is to many an unwelcome one. And as biblical ignorance grows, the claim grows progressively more unwelcome. The Bible seems to be one of those books that the less people know about it, the less they like it. And for those who know it only as a “Bronze Age document” (one of Christopher Hitchens’s favorite epithets) and from some of the livelier passages in Leviticus, it is an offensive absurdity.
Writing in the Washington Post, the novelist and art historian Noah Charney asserted that “in Washington, separation of church and state isn’t just a principle of governance, it’s an architectural and geographic rule as well.” It’s unclear who established such a rule, and in any case, the “principle” of the “separation of church and state” does not originate in the Constitution. Rather, its source is to be found in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” We all carry a stock of mental habits and moral values, and a language with which to express them, that ultimately derives from the Bible, whether we have read it or not. The Museum of the Bible merely proposes that we read it. And for all its shortcomings and missed opportunities, and all its fits of cuteness (there’s a Manna Café), it does so with refreshing sincerity and surprising effectiveness.
1 The building has one passage of real brilliance. The entrance portal on Fourth Street is flanked by a pair of immense bronze panels, nearly 40 feet high, that call to mind Boaz and Jachin, the mighty bronze pillars that guarded Solomon’s Temple. In fact, they are panels of text inscribed with the opening lines of Genesis, as printed in the Gutenberg Bible of 1454, the first mass-produced book to use moveable metal type. The letters are reversed, confusingly, until one realizes that this aids in making souvenir rubbings that themselves embody the printing process. The genesis evoked here is that of universal literacy and the cultural transformation wrought by the printed book.
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Review of '(((Semitism)))' By Jonathan Weisman
Now, two years later, Weisman has published a book about anti-Semitism—and, more specifically, about the supposedly grave threat to Jews springing from the alt-right and the Trump administration. (((Semitism))), for such is the book’s title, suffers from two grave ills. First, Weisman believes that political leftism and Judaism are identical. Second, he knows little or nothing about the political right, in whose camp he places the alt-right movement. Combine these two shortcomings with a heavy dose of self-regard, and you get (((Semitism))): a toxic brew of anti-Israel sentiment, bagels-and-lox cultural Jewishness, and unbridled hostility toward mainstream conservatism, which he lumps together with despicable alt-right anti-Semitism.
According to Weisman, Judaism derives its present-day importance from the way it provides a religious echo to secular leftism. This is his actual opening sentence: “The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” Thus does he describe a people whose binding glue over the millennia is a faith tradition literally designed to separate its adherents from those who are not their co-religionists.
This ethnic-Jew-centric perspective leads Weisman to reject not merely Jewish observance, which he finds parochial and divisive, but the tie between Judaism and Israel, which he subtly titles “The Israel Deception.” He laments: “The American Jewish obsession with Israel has taken our eyes off not only the politics of our own country, the growing gulf between rich and poor, and the rising tide of nationalism but also our own grounding in faith.” He sneers at Jews who promote the “tried and true theme of the little Israeli David squaring off against the giant Arab Goliath.” Weisman believes, like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, that members of both parties are guilty of “kissing the ring” at AIPAC, of “turn[ing] to mush when the subject was Israel.” In fact, Weisman says, the anti-Semitic BDS movement on college campuses “is worrisome as much for what it says about the American Jew’s inextricable links to Israel as for what it says about anti-Semitism.” In his view, “Barack Obama was the apotheosis of liberal internationalism.…The Jew thrived.”
Thus Weisman has this to say about his infamous Iran-deal chart: “I had my own brush with fratricidal Jew-on-Jew violence during that heated debate.” Was Weisman attacked? Assaulted? No, he received some nasty notes in response to running a chart. Weisman says he found the uproar “absurd” and laments that he is “still hearing about it.” Poor lamb.W eisman gets it right when he writes about the mainstreaming of the alt-right—the winking and nodding from Breitbart News and Donald Trump himself, the willingness of many in the mainstream to reward alt-right popularizers like Milo Yiannopoulos. (I left Breitbart in March 2016 due to differences regarding our coverage of the presidential campaign). Weisman is at his best when describing the origins of the alt-right and their infiltration of more well-read outlets.
But he can’t stop there. Instead, he seeks to impute the alt-right to the entire conservative movement and builds, Hillary Clinton–style, a fictitious basket of deplorables amounting to half the conservative movement. He cites “Christian fundamentalist” Israel supporters, to whom he wrongly attributes universally apocalyptic End of Times motivation. He condemns anti-immigration advocates, whose opposition to importation of un-vetted Muslim refugees he likens to anti-Semitic anti-immigrant movements of years past. He reviles “anti-feminists,” those who oppose political correctness in video games, Republican Jewish Coalition members who laughed at Trump making a Jewish joke, and free-speech advocates supposedly engaged in “forcible seizure of the free-speech movement” (a weird charge to level, considering that it cost Berkeley $600,000 to prevent Antifa from burning down the campus when I visited). In other words, pretty much anyone who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton gets smeared with the alt-right brush, outside of those specifically targeted by the alt-right.
The problem of alt-right anti-Semitism, Weisman thinks, is just a problem of anti-leftism. If we could all just give money to the notoriously left-wing propaganda-pushing Southern Poverty Law Center, watch Trump-referential productions of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Edinburgh National Festival (yes, this is in the book, and no, it is not parody), ignore anti-Semitic attacks at the Chicago Dyke March (I am not making this up), slap some vinyl signs on synagogues (no, I am still not making this up), and “not get too self-congratulatory” (seriously, guys, this is all real), all will be well. In the end, Weisman’s goal is to build a coalition of ethnic and political groups, cobbled together in common cause against conservatives—conservatives, he says, who represent the alt-right support base.
As the alt-right’s chief journalistic target in 2016, I’m always happy to see them clubbed like a baby seal. And there is a good book to be written about the alt-right. At times, Weisman borders on it, particularly when he seeks to investigate the bizarre relationship between Trump and the trolls who worship him.
But Weisman’s ardent allegiance to leftism leads him to misdiagnose the problem, to ignore the rising anti-Semitism of his own side (the DNC nearly elected anti-Semite Keith Ellison its leader last year), to prescribe the wrong solutions, and, most of all, to react in knee-jerk fashion to the alt-right by flattering himself as the epitome of everything the alt-right hates. Thin as the paper it was printed on, (((Semitism))) is a failure of imagination.
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Review of 'The People vs. Democracy' By Yascha Mounk
The save-democracy writers have generally taken two tacks in answering it. Some see a simple replay of the previous century: The West’s authoritarian spirit has resurfaced, they say, and seduced the multitudes once more. It is up to heroic liberals to fight back, as their forebears in the 1940s did. But others have tried to trace today’s crack-up to liberal missteps or even to flaws in the liberal-democratic idea. This is a more useful avenue for those of us concerned with the preservation of self-government.
Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy wants to be the latter kind of (subtle, thoughtful) book but too often ends up making the cruder arguments of the former. The author, a lecturer on government at Harvard, argues that while liberals took liberalism’s permanence for granted, voters became “fed up with liberal democracy itself.” Elections across the developed world, in which fringe characters and populists routed mainstream establishments, provide the main evidence. Mounk has also collected mountains of public-opinion data, mainly from the World Values Survey, which shows a deeper transformation: People in the U.S. and Europe increasingly reject democratic principles and even hanker for strongman authority.
Fewer than a third of U.S. millennials “consider it essential to live in a democracy.” One out of 4 believes that democracy is a bad form of government. One-third of Americans of all ages now favor some sort of strongman rule, without checks and balances, and 1 of 6 would prefer the strongman to don a military uniform. Similarly, a third of German respondents and an astonishing half of those from Britain and France support strongman rule. Parties of the far right and far left are rapidly expanding their appeal, particularly among young people. There are many more depressing statistics of the kind, presented in numerous charts and graphs throughout.
Mounk thinks there are two factors at play in these attitudes. The first is the emergence of illiberal democracy, or “democracy without rights,” as a serious rival to the current order. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narenda Modi in India, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, among others, exemplify this model. Once elected, these leaders chip away at individual rights and independent institutions until democracy is all but hollowed out and it becomes nigh impossible to remove the ruling party from office. Mounk strongly suspects that the Trump administration plans to pull something like this on the American public, though thus far the president’s illiberal bluster has proved to be just that.
The second factor is undemocratic liberalism, or “rights without democracy.” Here Mounk has in mind technocratic liberalism’s drive to remove an ever-growing share of policy decisions from the purview of voters and their elected representatives. This has been necessitated by the complexity of contemporary problems such as climate change and international trade, Mounk contends. Yet rights without democracy has generated mistrust and cynicism. Liberals, he says, should aim to “strike a better balance between expertise and responsiveness to the popular will.”
Mounk’s sections on the damage wrought by undemocratic liberalism should be instructive to his fellow liberals. But conservatives have for years stamped their feet and pulled their hair over the same phenomenon, only to be ignored by elite liberals on both sides of the Atlantic. Right-of-center readers might be forgiven for sarcastically muttering “no kidding” as Mounk takes them on a guided tour of liberal folly.
Conservatives have been warning about administrative bloat, for example, since at least the first half of the 20th century. It turns out that they had a point. Writes Mounk: “The job of legislating has been supplanted by so-called ‘independent agencies’ that can formulate policy on their own and are remarkably free from oversight.” Ditto activist judges: “The best studies of the Supreme Court do suggest that its role is far larger than it was when the Constitution was written.” And ditto the European Union’s democratic deficit: “To create a truly ‘single market,’ the EU has introduced far-reaching limitations” on state sovereignty.
He also strikes upon the idea that nations really are different from one another, and in politically significant ways. “After a few months living in England,” the German-born author confesses, “I began to recognize that the differences between British and German culture were much deeper than I imagined.” No kidding. What about the anti-Western monoculture that lords over most college campuses? Here, too, the right was on to something. “Far from seeking to preserve the most valuable aspects of our political system,” Mounk writes, liberal academe’s “overriding objective is, all too often, to help students recognize its manifold injustices and hypocrisies.”
Mounk’s discovery of these core conservative insights, however, doesn’t spur a rethink of his reflexive disdain for conservatives. This is most apparent in his coverage of American politics. The book is supposed to be a battle cry for democracy to rally left and right alike. Yet, with few exceptions, conservatives and Republicans are cast as cynical operators who rely on underhanded tactics and coded racism to undermine democracy and ultimately abet the populists. (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama receive adulatory treatment.)
He describes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings for Merrick Garland, Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, and GOP filibustering of Democratic legislation as “abuse[s] of constitutional norms” (they weren’t). But he pooh-poohs popular outrage at Clinton’s unlawful use of a private email server and elides the Obama Internal Revenue Service’s selective targeting of conservative nonprofits ahead of the 2012 election.
He also underestimates a third development of recent years—liberal illiberalism (my term, not his)—a liberalism that not only lacks democratic legitimacy but seeks to destroy, in the name of tolerance, the fundamental rights of those who stand in the way of full-spectrum progressivism. This is the kind of liberalism that compels nuns to pay for contraceptives and evangelical bakers to bake gay-wedding cakes, silences conservative speakers on campus, and denounces sushi restaurants as “cultural appropriation.”
Mounk isn’t ignorant of these tendencies, and he wants liberals to ease up (a bit). Yet, because he maintains that the censorious left’s heart is in the right place, he can’t seem to reach the necessary conclusion: that much illiberalism today comes, not from the right, but from ostensibly liberal quarters, and that this says something about the nature of contemporary liberal ideology. The true illiberal villains, for Mounk, are only ever the Modis, Trumps, and Orbáns—plus the troglodytes down South. Well-intentioned liberals who back censorship, he writes at one point, “ignore what would happen if the dean of Southern Baptist University…were to gain the right to censor utterances” he dislikes.
In fact, there is no such institution as “Southern Baptist University.” According to the most recent rankings from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, however, four of the 10 worst U.S. colleges for free speech last year were public schools located in blue states, while five were blue-state private or religious schools with longstanding reputations for progressivism (Mounk’s own Harvard among them).
His quickness to frame Southern Baptists as illiberal bogeys is telling and suggests that, for all its exhortations against liberal highhandedness, Mounk’s book comes from the same high-handed place. It colors the author’s approach to questions of nationalism and immigration that are at the heart of the current ferment. He concedes that liberal democracy is compatible with voter demand for limits on mass migration. But he can’t help but attribute those demands to irrational “resentment,” eschewing completely the—perfectly rational—fear of Islamist terrorism.
He sees the nation-state as an “imagined community” to which too many of our fellow citizens remain attached. Ideally for Mounk, the empire of rights and procedural norms would thrive independently of nationhood, civilizational barriers, and sacred communities. For now, he allows, liberals unfortunately have to contend with these anachronisms. His view is an improvement over the liberal transnationalism that is still committed to doing away borders altogether, even after the popular counterpunch of 2016. Still, why should Poles or Hungarians or Britons remain politically attached to Polish, Hungarian, or British democracy? What is it about Polishness as such that matters to Poland’s democratic character? Mounk has no answers.
No wonder, finally, that the author never satisfactorily links liberalism’s turn against democracy and the rise of illiberal democrats. He can never bring himself to say outright that the one (rights without democracy) is begetting the other (democracy without rights). Liberals, of the classical and the contemporary varieties, badly need a book that offers such uncomfortable reckonings. Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy is not it.