Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bureaucratic Politics of Pesach

The paradigm I am most capable of applying to a situation is bureaucratic politics - it was my dissertation after all and has also been a focus of my more recent work.

It is fundamentally about how policy is shaped by the push and pull of actors (heavily shaped by their institutional affiliations). It has only limited explanatory power, but it is not negligible. From a personal standpoint it is appealing because so much political science focuses on big structural forces while bureaucratic politics is, fundamentally about people. Studying it has helped imbue me with critical empathy - a healthy respect for the man in the arena.

Graham Allison, who wrote one of the sacred texts of bureaucratic politics, began with this quotation from the great Alexis de Tocqueville:
I have come across men of letters who have written history without taking part in public affairs, and politicians who have concerned themselves with producing events without thinking about them. I have observed that the first are always inclined to find general causes, whereas the second, living in the midst of disconnected daily facts, are prone to imagine that everything is attributable to particular incidents, and that the wires they pull are the same as those that move the world. It is to be presumed that both are equally deceived.

As I sat through Seder and heard the story of Passover, of the Jewish people's redemption from slavery, my mind drifted to bureaucratic politics. Certainly the story lends itself to theology and philosophy (the redemption from Egypt and the later revelation of the Torah, the great human quest for freedom and self-government and the balance between liberty and responsibility.) It also lends itself to more traditional IR power political analyses. But, when you have a hammer, every problem is a nail...

Notes on Reading the Bible
In thinking about bureaucratic politics and the story of Exodus we must wrestle with the question of how true is the Bible? Did everything happen exactly literally as it was described? Or is it based on true stories that over time have become myth. It is also entirely possible that the Bible is entirely fantastic and untrue. This does not diminish it, false stories can reveal deep truths. Nonetheless, I am inclined to take the middle path, that something extraordinary happened. I don't believe in miracles, but I believe in the miraculous. I don't believe in lighting coming from heaven, but rather that incredibly unlikely things occur. I view the founding of Israel in this light. There was nothing supernatural. It was merely very unlikely, yet it happened and - who knows - in 300 years Ben-Gurion will be seen as a wizard and miracle-worker. Maybe he was...

Marc Chagall: Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh from the Jewish Museum
So in that vein, something incredible happened in Egypt a few thousand years ago. But let's dispense with outright magic. Did Moses part the Red Sea, perhaps not. But he knew a place where the waters were low and a band of refugees could safely cross. Perhaps an advance guard of the pursuing army was trapped in the mud and massacred and drowned.

Putting aside the fundamental theological argument that Exodus is a precise, literal transcription of what occurred, this view reduces the fundamental wonder of it all. People crave wonder, religion is based in wonder. Personally, I think there is an astounding amount of wonder in the world as it is. But a realist version of the Exodus story has some advantages for making the text make sense.

The "negotiation" between Hashem/Moses and Pharaoh always seemed problematic. A plague occurs, Pharaoh relents, and then Hashem "hardens" his heart and another terrible plague occurs. It seems cruel, and why ten times? Why at all? All powerful Hashem could have brought the Jews from Egypt without effort.

The general answer to the endless plagues, rather than a single overwhelming miracle, is that Hashem needed to demonstrate his great power to the world. But the bureaucratic politics interpretation, in which Moses - using asymmetries of information and maybe some clever early biological warfare - in attempting to leverage a weak position to his advantage, actually makes the story more compelling.

The story of Pesach is the beginning of humanity's quest for freedom and effort to come to terms with that freedom. If Moses is a bureaucratic politics David, outwitting Pharaoh's Goliath (an anachronism) it puts humanity front and center in the story - which only strengthens the story of how we obtain the freedom Hashem grants us.

I won't tell the entire bureaucratic politics version of the story here. But, like the story of Joseph, I think it would make an amazing novel. But let's at least take a look at the players.

Moses as Policy Entrepreneur
Could anyone have had a better resume for liberating the Jewish people than Moses? First, he was born into a leading Jewish family. His brother (Aaron!!!) was the High Priest. So he had credibility within his community. But he was raised in Pharaoh's house. He knew the ins and outs of the place. He had, as do most policy entrepreneurs, blended knowledge that included substantial expertise and tacit knowledge of process.

But, Moses was exiled to the desert - where he married into a leading clan. While he was off tending flocks he was learning the ways of the desert and making contacts among the tribes - gaining critical information needed for his people to survive their Sinai sojourn. Was there manna from heaven? Or was Moses calling in favors from Jethro's kinfolk? How did he know just where to cross the Red Sea when the water would be low?

By the end of The Ten Commandmants (if not from the beginning) Moses is kind of a handsome dull Dudley DoRight. No doubt, no initiative, just faith, stoicism, and tenacity. But in this light he is clever, adaptable, and creative. It makes Moses a much more compelling figure who brings real agency to the story.

Pharoah: Standing Where He Sits
The expression "hardened Pharaoh's heart" has always troubled me. But with the bureaucratic politics paradigm, it makes more sense, he was being pulled in a lot directions. He was a tyrant, but a weak one, who (as the weak often do) feared appearing weak. When the Hebrew slaves agitate he is prepared to set them free. Moses (and Aaron!!!) make a good case and the slaves are proving to be more trouble than they are worth. But then his security advisors warn that the release of the slaves makes him look weak. Moneyed interests remind him of the value of this free labor. Pharoah goes back and forth.

Pharoah too, becomes more human, although no less monstrous for it. He is not the austere tyrant who imagines himself a god. Rather he is a man, limited, overwhelmed, and outplayed. He has, like most tyrants, been riding a tiger and knows only that when he stops riding he will be devoured.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Skybolt: A Historic Case Study of Pressuring an Ally

There has been some discussion about how the United States is carrying its allies and needs them to step up to the plate. I won't mention any specific presidential candidates so as not to violate a certain self-imposed rule. But our relationships with our allies are a complex web of dependencies. Nothing is simple and there are no easy gains. The recent discussion has inspired to me write about...

It was an air-launched ballistic missile that the United States started developing with the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Under JFK, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara determined Skybolt was a boondoggle that was much too expensive. The sensible thing to do was kill it.

But for the British it was very important. It was their only path to maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent. There was an alternative, the Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile, but the U.S. didn't want the U.K. to have it (for various reasons that were very important at the time.) The issue was playing out up and down the U.S. and British national security bureaucracies until, at a summit at Nassau in the Bahamas, JFK was blindsided on this issue.

He was not happy and had the distinguished scholar of the presidency Professor Richard Neustadt, write a report in April 1963 and it was handed in on November 15. Kennedy read it over the weekend and handed the report to the First Lady and said, "If you want to know what my life is like, read this."

Sadly, that was the only feedback Neustadt received. The President travelled to Dallas on November 22, the rest of the story is well-known.

The Report
Having survived the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, Kennedy looked forward to his meeting with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Then, as now, British Prime Ministers and U.S. Presidents were often friends - as much as two politicians can be friends.

But the British delegation was not in good humour, and they demanded a resolution on Skybolt. The discussion continued, the Americans were unwilling to continue the program and sought formulae in which the British would be part of a joint NATO nuclear force. But this was unacceptable for a proud nation. There must be Skybolt or the British must have Polaris.

Finally, Macmillan hit Kennedy right between the eyes. Neustadt quotes extensively from the notes National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy took of Macmillan's appeal and so will I:

Churchill had told him in 1940 that in logic it was impossible to win the war, but they had gone on. There were lots of people in Britain would would like to chuck it, which would enable them to have better pensions and a more satisfactory life. The....alternative [to a POLARIS agreement] was to say this is a complicated system - The Americans won't give it to us - we will go and make it eventually and be free. This would be better than putting a British sailor aboard a ship to have tea with the Portuguese. To give up would mean that Britain was not the nation that had gone through its previous history. We should consider that if the people who wanted to give up in Britain came to power, who would make the better ally? Those were the ones we were supporting in Britain by our policies....
Either Britain must stay in the nuclear club or he would resign and we would have a permanent series of Gaitskells [British Labour leader]
He would not engage in anything petty. We could stay at Holy Loch [nuclear submarine base]....Britain could make submarines - not nuclear ones - to carry missiles. This could be accomplished...but costs would have to be compensated elsewhere....They would have to tax their people more as well. Such a course would lead to a deep rift with the United States. He said he would not accuse America....
After that, Kennedy relented and agreed to share the Polaris with the U.K. It led a great expansion of the special friendship.

I could analyze this. Macmillan made his appeal and smart combination of emotional and hard political points. U.K. too had its history and values, which could not simply be ignored. At the same time, there would be an impact on British domestic politics which would not be favorable to the United States. It is not just about getting a deal. There is a relationship that continues on in time and space.

But perhaps I should just let the words speak for themselves. Allow me to quote another eloquent Englishman who pre-dated Macmillan by a few centuries.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
When you push countries around, expect to be pushed back.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Plan Colombia: Success & Ambiguity in Foreign Affairs

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos was in DC recently, to discuss how U.S. aid to his country will shift as the government negotiates with the FARC and Plan Colombia winds down. It should studied carefully, because it is that seemingly rare thing, U.S. foreign policy success on a security issue. When Plan Colombia started under President Clinton, the terrorist FARC was an existential threat to the state, as well as one of the world's largest drug trafficking organizations. Colombia faced a real risk of becoming a failed state.

Now, a decade and a half later the FARC has been dramatically reduced having suffered innumerable reverses, from the dramatic rescue of its most famous hostage to the violent deaths of many of its top leaders. All of these failures reflect massive penetration into FARC's communications and decision-making networks. They are engaged in peace negotiations and it appears likely that the conflict is finally, thankfully, winding down.

Unfortunately Colombia has not been transformed into a developed first world country. Nor has it stopped exporting drugs on a massive scale, with the attendant violence and corruption. Colombia, despite strong economic growth, continues to be mired in poverty, the justice system is imperfect, the security forces undoubtedly did terrible things - directly or by proxy - in the process of fighting the insurgency. Colombia will be wrestling with massive internal refugee crises for a long time to come.

Still, defeating the FARC was well worth doing. A vicious ideological group undermining a state is worse than huge criminal cartels. Their ability and willingness to extend disorder is greater.

The United States provided extensive financial and technical support to the Colombian government. The full spectrum of U.S. policy options were used. A full alphabet soup of intelligence and law enforcement agencies were engaged. The U.S. military provided training and operated closely - but was not supposed to be engaged in combat. The U.S. did engage in institution-building, helping Colombian courts develop the capacity to manage complex cases. There was even an economic component, in the ultimately established Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. But the reality of the success was due to the election of a highly capable president who was able to rally the nation. Whether the Colombian government could have prevailed without U.S support is an open question. Perhaps it was U.S. assistance that put them over the top. But most of the heavy lifting was done by the Colombians themselves.

In short, when there is a country in a dangerous place, but still with the resources to rally, the U.S. can help and contribute to a success. But if the country can't rally, there is little the U.S. can do. Despite conspiracy theories, the United States is not the Almighty, but in foreign policy the U.S. and those seeking its aid should adapt and adopt the old adage: the U.S. helps those who help themselves.

At the same time, we need realistic expectation of what is possible and what is necessary. Colombia is a more peaceful and prosperous country. Hopefully, with open civil war ended, it can continue to grow and develop. But rapid transformations do not happen and, specifically in the case of Colombia, drugs will continue to play an outsized role in their economy as long as there is a market for them in the developed world.

Still, a win is a win and should be studied carefully.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Phaedrus & Presentism Perspective

The first book I read when I started at St. John's College was Plato's Phaedrus. It is a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus in which - among many, many other things - Phaedrus is deeply concerned about this new things the kids are doing - reading books. Would people remember things if they could just write it down? Would people really understand ideas if they couldn't query the speaker? Written stuff seemed only fit to translate lightweight stuff, amusements.

There is nothing new under the sun.

It is an argument that has replayed itself so many times since, particularly in our own time. I remember a film in which the same argument was made regarding films vs. television. But in the Victorian era some worried about the deleterious effect of novels. Now some version of the Phaedrus is replayed almost weekly about some new technology or social media tool. I had my own little bout of it with GPS.

What we are afraid of is that somehow we are losing our essence, that we will stop being human. I grant that, superficially, being human seems to be under threat by modernity. But we are a bit more robust than that, we have something ineffable (literally that which cannot be f'd.)

Presentism & Policy
I may toy with philosophy, but politics and public policy are my bread and butter. I see the same phenomenon in politics as presentism. Some of this is journalists looking for a story, some version of "this changes everything." Howard Dean's online fundraising has fundamentally changed how politics works and indicates massive coming realignments. Sure, maybe. It is mostly choosing a choice detail, making some massive assumptions and extrapolating wildly. It is chasing the shadows on the walls of the cave (another fine Platonic dialogue.)

Presentism: In the midst of a dip, it can seem like the world is coming to an end
Wages for unskilled labor have collapsed in the past few decades. This is bad and is making lots of people miserable. Multi-pronged efforts are needed to address this. But it does not mean our system has failed. 150 years ago these unskilled workers would probably have been doing backbreaking labor at subsistence agriculture. While there were virtues to that life, let's not romanticize it. Around that time, these laborers were moving into factory work - hard, dirty, impoverishing. Over the next several decades factory work improved, but at first it was derided, scorned as lesser compared to the honest decent life of farming. The gains in productivity and living standards in the past century have been nothing short of astounding. The fact that we are in a dip (and that dip feels pretty huge) doesn't mean our system is broken.

On another, completely different front, the same issue applies to political polarization. We often hear how Washington is broken and things are more partisan than they've ever been. But, compared to what? Our political history has featured some pretty nasty rhetoric, periods of remarkable divisiveness and gridlock - oh, and a huge continent-spanning civil war. Maybe our perspective is skewed because of the post-World War II period was one of relative comity.

This phenomenon applies to many, many issues. In foreign policy when I hear how dangerous the world is, I smirk - not compared to the height of the Cold War - to say nothing of WWII.

Limits of Presentism
Presentism is useful, it helps put things in perspective. It has its limits. First, sometimes there is a big change. It becomes all too easy to miss when there is a vast trend, a major shift. Generally, the safe bet is the t+1 will look a whole lot like t, which looked like t-1...

But that isn't the biggest problem.

Saying that progress in living standards over the past 150 years has been tremendous is small comfort to the laid-off worker with few prospects. For Syrians the world IS a more dangerous place than it was in World War II or during the Cold War. Telling African-Americans that the civil rights situation has improved dramatically in the last several decades is no comfort (and appears false) in the wake of seeming police impunity.

The way someone feels about their situation and the world cannot be argued away. It has to be acknowledged. That sounds easy. But it isn't.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Serious About Syria?

With the anniversary last month of Pearl Harbor and the horrible attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, the comparisons between this generation and the generation that fought World War II (my grandfather's generation) have been made - they have not been flattering to the young people of today. And there is the broader question of national purpose - how effectively the United States mobilized to defeat the twin threats of Nazism and Imperial Japan in comparison to our muddled response to ISIS. 

And in the past few weeks the GOP candidates have been promising to take ISIS seriously and defeat them, as opposed to our current feckless president who won't even say "radical Islam." 

The comparisons to World War 2 are not fair. The threats and the times are different. Germany and Japan were modern, sophisticated nation-states that - quite simply - went mad and threw their entire vast national resources and capabilities into conquest. They had to be stopped and it required national mobilization to do so. Criticism of the president has some merit, however but must be tempered by fundamental realities.

ISIS, in their black eschatological heart of hearts, is just as murderous as the foes we faced in World War 2. There is no significant moral difference, but that doesn't mean the response should be the same. They are not in command of a modern sophisticated nation-state. They are more akin to the Mahdi who over-ran Khartoum and but was ultimately destroyed by Lord Kitchener. Modernity, particularly the rapidity of communications along with the relative ease of moving goods and people, augments the capabilities of these local bandits. Ideology empowers them further, giving them both a medium and a message.

ISIS has shown that it can reach deep into the West to carry out mass murder. Nonetheless, is it truly an existential threat? Are multiple Paris attacks in the works?

Should we treat ISIS like the Nazis? Draft young men between the ages of 18-24 and, with a 10 million man army invade and conquer Syria and Iraq? We kind of tried that. It didn't go so well and was hugely expensive. Several people have made the argument that we just didn't kill enough and if we were serious we would ignore the constraining rules of engagement and laws of war. If we were truly facing a deadly nation-state adversary those rules might need to be bent - particularly if we were on the verge of an existential defeat.

There are innumerable old Soviet hands/Kremlinologists bemoaning the end of the Cold War when geopolitics was simple. It was of course nice to have an organizing principle. But the serious risk of civilization ending nuclear war, and a super-power with global reach stirring up trouble and promoting a dehumanizing ideology are not pasts to romanticize.

Islamism is NOT the Axis powers or the Soviet Union. They may be able to raid us and certainly there is a world-spanning global identity and some ambitious ideologies. But even the strongest Muslim powers are quite often the weaker parties seeking support from Russia, China, or us.

During the Cold War, whatever happened, the key question was where are the Soviets what would be good for us vis-a-vis them. Now, even the questions (to say nothing of the answers) are much less clear.

A full on assault on ISIS would almost certainly strengthen the position of Assad, which is good for Iran. If we decide Iran is the lesser evil and we need to defacto ally with them to destroy ISIS so be it. We aligned with Stalin to defeat Hitler. But is that actually the case? Obviously the ideal solution would be for a moderate third option to support that could defeat Assad and lead Syria to a not awful future. Unfortunately looking at Libya and Iraq gives less than overwhelming confidence that these options exist.

So what are we doing? We are doing the things we can do - supplying, training, intelligence-sharing, bombing, special operations. This stuff will hurt ISIS over time, while keeping us from making a major (and expensive) commitment. It will also buy us time for better options and resolutions in Syria (granted, this is a very low bar and yet still might be impossible to achieve.)

All the President's Mistakes
That being said, there are places where we were not serious. How did DoD spend $500 million to train a proxy force that ended up graduating 5 trainees. Bureaucracies, left to their own devices do some things very well but need to be nudged along if they are tasked with something new. Every President finds this to be the case and, if they are effective at all, figures out how to push and prod the various arms of the U.S. Government. Time and again, this president has not been terribly effective at this (which hasn't prevented him from a pair of diplomatic coups in the Cuba and Iran deals.)

There have been analytic failures on Syria, most notably at the beginning in not recognizing the regime wouldn't fall quickly. The administration was besot with the romance of the Arab Spring and, first believed there would be a better Middle East and second that the Baathists of Syria would fold. Unfortunately the Middle East has a bottomless capacity to disappoint. As for Syria, even a cursory knowledge of that regime, in which a despised minority rules, cruelly, over a restive majority, should have indicated that the Baathists and the Alawites on whom their rule is based, would fight like hell to hold on to power. Their alternative was to be massacred.

This was followed by a long period of paralysis. Syria presented few good options. There is the possibility that an early intervention on behalf of the rebels, before the humanitarian crisis exploded and rebel factions metastasized into vicious radicals, might have resulted in a better Syria. But, given what happened in Libya, it was still a long-shot. Good options are rare and this is a region where a Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddhafi is the least bad option.

Then there was the famous "red line" over using chemical weapons. There are intimations that the administration was quietly working out an arrangement to remove them, in which case the President's reticence makes sense - although even then, better contingency planning should have been in place. The potential that Syria might have used its chemical weapons was another obvious potential that needed to be discussed.

There have also been failures in rhetoric. When ISIS first emerged as something more than just another faction, first the administration derided it as terrorism's JV team. Later, the president admitted he didn't have a strategy to defeat ISIS.  A week later he announced air support, intelligence-sharing, and training local forces. That took a week to come up with? He could have said that off the top of his head and been on pretty safe ground.

Obama has a weakness for incrementalism, trying to protect his decision-making space with limited decisions. Problem is that this is as likely to get you sucked into a conflict as keep you out of it. 

Finally, after the San Bernadino attack, the President did not reassure the American people. Analytically I can respect his view point that in a diverse and open nation of over 300 million, preventing every single act of terrorism is not possible. It would require compromises on our civil liberties that are not in accord with our commitment to individual liberty and freedom of expression. (I am still surprised that such attacks do not happen more often considering the relative ease of carrying them out and persistent Islamist calls for them.) But at that moment, the American people sought to be reassured. The President did not deliver that message effectively.

There are analytical failures, there are management failures, but there are also communication failures. I read once that Bill Clinton's idea of leadership was, when he saw a parade forming, to jump in front of it. That can be cynical, but it is also part of leadership. As is talking up a modest initiative as a big deal. Much of what Obama is doing on Syria is about what would realistically be done. But he has presented it weakly. The president needs to look like he knows what he is doing.

War of No Ideas
Also, another area where we clearly aren't serious is public diplomacy/strategic communications. Public diplomacy is not easy, nor is it a panacea. Every think tank talk includes a call for "winning the war of ideas" but no one seems to have a clue how to do this. Nonetheless, after 15 years one would hope that at least the institutions would be established and funding be in place. Unfortunately that is not the case.

So, are we serious about ISIS? In some ways, very much so. The President is trying to keep the threat in perspective. While they are grabbing headlines they are not the only or even the most serious problem in the world. A resurgent Russia, the rise of China, Iran, and Pakistan - to say nothing of hard transnational issues. Syria isn't even the only civil war in the region (how about Libya and Yemen.) Serious people do not fly off the handle and go full bore at every single problem that faces them. That approach will win battles, but it may lose the war. We are applying force as appropriate, generating options - but preserving our capabilities in other areas as well. That is quite serious.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

How Do I Like Jo Walton's Among Others? Let me count the ways...

So I recently had the pleasure of listening to Hugo Award Winner, Among Others by Jo Walton. I really enjoyed it - as I write below, it kind of hit the spot for me. It was lyrically written, the narrator's voice was a precocious 15 year-old. All good. But it was more than that. Allow me to elaborate:
  1. 1970s science fiction: The book is first a lit review of the stuff I grew up reading. The main character is excited for the Heinlein novel, Number of the Beast. I remember my dad buying it. She loves Roger Zelazny, who I never really read, but maybe I should.
  2. England: The book is set in England, which I always enjoy. Canadian and Australian fiction I usually grasp seamlessly (not that I don't appreciate the different perspectives). But England is just a bit different, in fiction these differences are usually illuminated. At one point, the main character discusses class, an English obsession that is at best translucent to outsiders, in a way that makes sense. 
  3. Jews: When I read fiction by Jewish authors in which Jewish characters are prominent (I love Saul Bellow and just finished Phillip Roth's classic Portnoy's Complaint) it is a world I know. I'm at home among the cantankerous uncles and provincial small businessmen. But I am intrigued when non-Jewish authors have major Jewish characters. In the last installment of Updike's Rabbit series, Harry Angstrom had retired to Florida, where all of his neighbors in the condo are Jewish. In Among Others the main character's father (who she had never met before) turned out to have a Jewish father. So she gets to know her Jewish grandfather and a Jewish classmate (whose kosher meals look far more appetizing than the school's dismal fare.) At one point, she is in a spot of trouble that is partially magical and doesn't know quite what to do. In desperation, she phones her grandfather (who she's only just met) and he instantly understands. He travels to see her and smooths things over. He blesses her in Hebrew, which the main character doesn't understand. Of course I know the blessing - I recite it over my children every Friday night when the sun has gone down. In the book it seems to help. And that leads into what I really like:
  4. Magic! Magic in fiction ranges from Harry Potteresque in which it is effectively an alternative technology. People who have access to it can do incredible things. No one really understands its nature, but they have a pretty good understanding of how it works. On the other end of the spectrum is the Canadian magical realism of Robertson Davies in which there is just a hint of something other-worldly. There is a vast range in between these two poles from more magical magic realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez to magical worlds like MiddleEarth or Narnia where magic clearly exists but is not a carefully fleshed out system. I prefer my magic to be vague, mysterious, and well magical. I like the idea that there is a bit more to the world than we see - but I'm not seeing ghosts or fairies. There is a touch of dramatic magic, but mostly it is subtle - just a way of smoothing things in a particular direction, where they really want to go. (Fans of Davies Deptford Trilogy will recognize this trope.)
My regular readers (should I have any) know that magic has been on my mind lately. I am not big on the supernatural. So I'm not heading into a belief in spirits or elves or crystals. I'm pretty lined up with the rational. And yet...

When I think about the power of our emotions to move us, or bind us in knots and then - even more incredibly our ability to propel these feelings into the world and move others... even centuries later! I lose the ability to write complete sentences.

I enjoy Myers-Briggs tests. I know they have been proven to be fundamentally inaccurate. What they are is modern astrology. Fine, and like astrology, they are fun, and in providing a framework (even a flawed one) - assuming it isn't being used by a charlatan but rather the stranger who takes your life seriously - they are useful. I always came out as an ENTP. I just took one and came out as an ENFP. I'm Extraverted, Intuitive, and Perceiving. That's me. But in the past I came out as a Thinker, who prized and employed reason. Now I'm a Feeler, at least according to a test that took my 8 minutes on the Internet and that I already knew how it worked.

So, I'm thinking about magic. I'm going through stuff (not bad stuff, just stuff). And I happen to listen to a book about magic that frames it in terms that work for me, that clarifies some things.

Years ago I listened to The Lost Painting, about a Caravaggio painting that had been lost, but re-emerged. Somehow, when the painting surfaced in Dublin, at the same time some important scholarly information emerged in Italy that allowed the finders to prove the paintings provenance. Coincidence? Maybe. You could argue that for every instance of great work re-emerging, many are lost. As we enter the era of big data, perhaps data mining will reveal these kinds of finds all the time.

Or maybe, Caravaggio's deep feelings - the feelings that allowed him to paint such masterpieces - were placed into that painting and give it a certain energy. What is a painting? It is a bunch of chemicals applied to a canvas. Yet, the great painters do this in such a way that they can evoke feelings centuries later. How is that not magic? Is it too much to think that this painting, like Smeagol's Ring, could somehow (despite being submerged for eons) force its way out and re-emerge.

That somehow, there are deeper forces at work, patterns, networks of energy below the surface... magic!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Rav and the Refugees

Most engaged Jews knew of Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, author of the seminal Zionist Idea. But I have a soft spot for his father Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Herzberg.

As a first-born son, I needed to be redeemed in a ceremony called a Pidyan Haben. According to Jewish Law first-born sons are to be given to the priests. But priests became a hereditary group (the Kohen), so parents offer the priests a silver coin to redeem their son. It's all very cute and ancient. (Just to be a 100% clear for any conspiracy minded anti-Semites, this is all symbolic - no one is taking anyone's children!) The ceremony is to be held 31 days after the birth. My mother wanted the ceremony on a certain day that was not the 31th day after my birth.

(Another aside, the priest who performed my pidyon aben was a cousin. One of his sons performed my son's pidyon aben, and one of his grandsons, the late Dr. Ami Cohen, established Save a Child's Heart. If you are inclined on this Thanksgiving - or any day, because that is what this post is really about after all - to help those in need, this is a terrific cause.)

So my father and my mother's father (Grandpa Bernie) went to the Rebbe, Rav Herzberg, to see what could be done. My father, a product of the classic Reform movement, relates:
We went into a room packed with beards. Bernie talked to them for a bit in Yiddish and we went further in. As we went deeper into the forest of beards got bigger and grayer. Finally we reached the biggest whitest beard of them all.
Bernie explained the situation and the Rav got his calendar and counted the days. The day my mother wanted wasn't the right day. The Rav invited everyone have some schnapps. Then they counted again. Still not the day my mother wanted. Schnapps! Counting and then some more schnapps. After a few rounds of this, my mother got the day she wanted.
Cute story about a clever, flexible Rabbi with a sense of humor. We could use more of those. But Rav Herzberg was also made of steel.

When an African-American man from Toronto came with documentation to prove he was a Jewish cantor came to the synagogue and asked to lead prayers, the congregation shuddered and refused him. It was segregated Baltimore, they had their reasons. But their Rabbi was ashamed of them, took the man by the arm and walked out the door with him, announcing that he would never return because, "they'd insulted a human being made in the image of G-d."

In his 1940 Yom Kippur sermon, Rav Herzberg delivered a blistering sermon, castigating President Roosevelt for not doing enough to rescue the Jews of Europe. 
Our brothers are being killed in Europe by the Nazis. If we had any Jewish dignity, we would, at the end of this fast, get into our cars and go from Baltimore to Washington. We would picket the White House and we would demand of the president that he use his influence on the Nazis, as the great neutral power, to stop the killings....
His synagogue, within an hour of the end of Yom Kippur, fired him. 

The American Jewish community did not have its present day confidence in its standing. It shrank from overt political activism. And American Jews loved FDR. I'm reading the Phillip Roth classic, Portnoy's Complaint, in which he mentions his community saying a blessing for FDR. And this was a true blessing, not like the old blessing for the czar: May Hashem bless the czar and the keep the czar far away from us!

Herzberg did march on Washington, with 400 other Orthodox rabbis on October 6, 1943. These were not the polished Westernized American Jewish leaders - these were Eastern European Orthodox rebbes with accents in fur hats, giant beards, and long black coats. The President avoided them, claiming a busy schedule. He had advisors (including Jewish leaders), who told him avoid the rebbes. Vice President Henry Wallace met them briefly and "squirmed through a diplomatically minimum answer."
Image from The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

(Vice presidents are kind of my thing - but Wallace was not a player under FDR, he was used here as a political punching bag.)

FDR was a great, great man. Was there someone else who could have pulled the U.S. out of the depression and mobilized its vast power to destroy the Nazis and Japanese Empire? But on this, he was wrong. How good for the Jewish people, for America, for the world would it have been to rescue a few hundred thousand more Jews - or even a million.

Food for thought as we count our blessings - and we consider the many many millions dreaming of the same.