Stuff from Way Back #28: Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare a Myth?

The early parts of the Biblical book of Genesis involve a great deal of water, which might seem odd in the mythic tradition of a society that emerged and evolved in the relatively arid environs of Palestine. There is of course the Mediterranean Sea, but the land itself is very dry, depending for the most part on rainfall for agriculture. The local rivers are mere rivulets compared to the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile, which river systems witnessed the birth of the first urban civilizations, Sumer and Old Kingdom Egypt. Yet the creation story in Genesis begins with a watery chaos, and later the first human society is destroyed in a world-wide flood, a somewhat unlikely proposition in a land that experienced only the very ephemeral flash floods common to desert regions. Such stories would make much more sense in the hydraulic societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

 

And indeed in the creation myths of these areas the emergence of the familiar universe involved aquatic beginnings. For the Egyptians the process was peaceful, reflecting the confidence of a culture whose world-view was shaped by an isolated, secure, bountiful and essentially unchanging environment. The primeval hill arose from the waters, and there Atum (or Ptah), a self-created god, generated other deities by spitting out or ejaculating them or in a later more sophisticated account simply speaking their names. They in turn produced more gods and ultimately men in an ordered world without end.

Atum

Atum

The Sumerians, on the other hand, lived in a far less hospitable environment: the Tigris and the Euphrates, unlike the Nile, were wild unpredictable rivers, there were extremes of weather and life was very insecure because of the constant warfare among the city-states and the periodic incursions of barbarians. Consequently, in their view (and that of subsequent societies in the region) creation was a struggle, and the forces of order under Enlil (later Marduk) had to wage an epic battle against Tiamat, the chaotic salt waters. Further, creation was not necessarily permanent and could collapse back into chaos, just as the Sumero-Babylonian societies were continually threatened with natural and man-made catastrophe.

Water world

Sumer

 

Enlil

Enlil

The Sumero-Babylonian tradition also features a global flood, a tale so ubiquitous that some actually hold the utterly nonsensical idea that there was indeed a planetary deluge. Southern Iraq, the location of Sumer, was frequently flooded by the Tigris and Euphrates overflowing their banks and the sea driven in by storms, natural disasters that early on gave rise to the tradition of a universal flood. Significantly, the Egyptians did not produce such a story, since while the Nile did flood, it did so on a regular annual basis, rejuvenating the farmland rather than creating havoc. Sumer was a land of natural and human conflict; Egypt was not.

 

Here then is the source of all that Biblical water. With the rise of empires, such as the Babylonian and Assyrian, communications between the Land of the Two Rivers and Syria and Palestine on the Mediterranean coast were greatly enhanced, and along with goods and people ideas and tales traveled eat and west. The story of Abraham coming from Ur, the most important of the Sumerian cities, is a reflection of this. As the Yahwists, the future Hebrews, absorbed Canaanite groups, many of the local traditions of these peoples were woven into the evolving tapestry of early Hebrew history. Very probably a group that had come from the east preserved a memory of its origins, and the birthplace of Abraham, himself a local cult figure from Hebron, was transferred to Ur. Thus the watery story from the Sumero-Babylonian creation epic, Enuma elish, traveled west to become, with many alterations, part of the mythic tradition of a distinctly non-watery people.

 

So also did the flood story make its way to the Hebrews. The tale is most fully recounted in the epic of Gilgamesh, the tablets of which date from the reign of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BC, but there is a Sumerian version from about 1700 BC, and it undoubtedly draws upon even earlier accounts. Long ago the gods sent a flood to destroy mankind, but the god Ea (Enki) took pity and warned Utnapishtim (Ziusudra in the Sumerian version) of Shuruppak to build a huge boat. He did so, and when the flood came, he boarded with his family and clan and “the beasts and the birds.” But the gods relented and the deluge ended, and the ark came to rest on Mt. Nimush. Utnapishtim released a “watch-bird,” which returned, then a swallow, which also returned, and finally a raven, which did not. Humanity was saved, and Utnapishtim was given the gift of eternal life.

 

Utnapishtim

Utnapishtim

Ea/Enki

Ea/Enki

And so a group of people in Palestine, who would never have seen any real flood, came to accept a universal deluge as part of their mythic history. That oral tradition was ultimately recorded and became part of the Hebrew testament, later accepted as valid by Christianity and Islam. As a result for almost two millennia half the population of the planet believed in the literal truth of a story created by a “pagan” people they had never heard of and would despise as unbelievers if they had. Even today there are those who ignore the overwhelming and obvious evidence of science, Biblical analysis and common sense and insist on the historicity of a flood, diligently searching the mountainous interior of Anatolia for traces of the ark of Ziusudra/Utnapishtim/Noah.

Rare photo of Noah

Rare photo of Noah

A sucker born every minute

A sucker born every minute

Joshua Redux

The current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems the embodiment of intransigence and resistance when it comes to the West Bank and peace with the Palestinians, but he appears almost liberal when compared to his Economics Minister, Naftali Bennett. Bennett is head of the extremist Jewish Home party, the third largest group within the coalition currently controlling the government, and he is willing to bring that government down should “Bibi” continue showing such weakness. His is a sweeping mission: “My task is to keep Judaism alive, to make it stronger and to fight its enemies.” Inasmuch as slightly more than half of world Jewry lives outside Israel, his mission statement might be a bit too sweeping, but conservative Israeli politicians seem to feel that Israel is Judaism.

Joshua Redux

Joshua Redux

In his struggle Bennett’s main concern is the West Bank, the territory that in the eyes of the world is to become the Palestinian state. In the eyes of Bennett, however, the West Bank is Israel. He actually has a point, at least to the extent that this territory was once Judea and Samaria, the heart of ancient Israel. But that was a couple of millennia ago, and one can hardly claim, as he does, that the land has belonged to the Jews for 3000 years. There have certainly been Jews living in the area all that time, but the state of Israel disappeared in antiquity and until the creation of modern Israel Jews were a minority. If any group can claim the land on the basis of continuous habitation, it would be the Arabs. Bennett’s reply to this argument is simple: anyone who makes it does not understand history, at least history as he imagines it. Thus, referring to the Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank is completely wrong, because, as Bennett puts it, “You can’t occupy your own land.”

 

 

This is of course nonsense, and in any case, claiming territory on the basis of prior occupation, especially so long ago, is an extremely dangerous principle. But Bennett would doubtless point out that Israel is a special case because of the history of the Jews and especially the Holocaust, a proposition perhaps more palatable to the West because ancient Israel and its “history” are so important to Christianity. Special case or not, the problem is that people who are not Jews have been living on this land for more than a thousand years and are wondering why they must be displaced because of the actions and guilt of the West. Palestine was manifestly not, as the Zionist catchphrase put it, “a land without a people,” and in 1948 the Palestinians saw half of their homeland given to the Jews by an international organization created and dominated by a country whose President was anxious to secure the American Jewish vote for his reelection.

armed non-people

armed non-people

But historical fact notwithstanding, Bennett, like many others, fervently believes Judea and Samaria are part of Israel, and consequently, settling Israeli citizens in the West Bank, seen as a gross violation of international law by the rest of the planet (quietly by the US), is quite proper. And like the Lord of Hosts once smiting the idol worshippers in the land He gave unto His people, there is the Israeli Defense Force, smiting their modern enemies, though they are no longer idol worshippers. These are the Chosen People, chosen a second time by the United States, the closest thing earth now has to a Judge of the Nations. The world is treating Israel unfairly, according to Bennett, an ironic supposition given that under the protection of the United States Israel is permitted behavior condemned by international covenants (which we are pledged to uphold).

 
Bennett believes time is on his side since the settlement program, despite the (empty) objections of the Washington, is actually accelerating, and every Israeli colonist is, as they say, a fact on the ground. There are already more than a half million Israelis (including almost half the ministers in the Netanyahu cabinet) living in the West Bank; send in enough and it is Israel, regardless of quibbles about silly international law. But Bennett is not an unreasonable man and is willing to compromise. Israel will annex only Area C, which is to say, 68% of Palestinian territory, and the Arab inhabitants (180,000) will be offered the blatantly second class citizenship already enjoyed by their cousins in Israel proper. The other 32% of the West Bank will be administered by a toothless Palestinian Authority, protected of course by the Israeli Defense Force and Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police. This sounds a lot like the Generalgouvernment, the Nazi administrative structure that ruled Poland. And sooner or later the entire area would almost surely be annexed.

Apartheid plan

Apartheid plan

Bennett and friends apparently do not see the underlying problem in all this – or they simply do not care. Apart from the fact that outright annexation of that much territory, acquired through conquest, is likely to be difficult for even ever compliant Washington to swallow, Israel would then control a huge and ever growing Arab population, confined to obvious Bantustans. Not only would this guarantee eternal hostility and instability, but Israel would be not just a Jewish state but also an Apartheid state. On the other hand, so long as the United States puts up with it, what do the Israelis care what the world thinks? The Palestinians are doomed. Where are the Romans when you need them?

 

 

(I just discovered a related news item regarding the West Bank, one that demonstrates the strength of Israel in American politics.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was speaking before the Republican Jewish Coalition and happened to refer to the West Bank as “occupied territory,” which characterization did not please the crowd.  He promptly apologized to billionaire Zionist Sheldon Adelson for his “misstatement,” though of course the West Bank is as much occupied territory as Poland was under the Germans.  The UN resolution of 1947 created the state of Israel, and the West Bank and Jerusalem were not part of that state.  That the Arabs did not accept the partition is irrelevant; the resolution also created a Palestinian state, the territory of which Israel is now occupying (and settling).  And the American media?  A former White House hack, Bill Burton, responded to a question from Candy Crowley of CNN by saying that the remark showed that Christie is “not on top of his game,” which is perhaps true if he dared to speak the truth to this particular audience.  But Crowley then told viewers that presidential candidates are “all going to make really stupid mistakes, which that was one.”  She could not be bothered to even mention that this “really stupid mistake” involved stating a fact.)

 

 

And question it they did. Former Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday that Christie’s remark is “the sort of thing that shows he’s not on top of his game like you need to be when you’re a presidential candidate.” Instead of pointing out the absurdity of Burton’s statement, Crowley validated his point, saying, “They’re [presidential candidates] all going to make really stupid mistakes, which that was one.” Just like that, the self-described “most trusted name in news” assured viewers that there is no Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Stuff from Way Back #27: Achilles and Aeneas, Alike and Unlike

he Greeks and Romans are, at least since the Renaissance, inevitably associated with one another and clearly differentiated from the Near Eastern societies that preceded them and the barbarian societies that succeeded the collapse of the Roman Empire. They constitute Classical history/antiquity/society, their architecture, arts and languages are Classical and their literature constitutes the Classics; the two millennia of urban civilization before them are pre-Classical. And in many ways Roman civilization appears to be simply Greek society translated into Latin. The two societies do indeed constitute a recognizable and unique period of history, easily distinguished from what came before and what came after, yet the two peoples were very different in character, which accounts for the obvious differences in their histories. The Greeks were the Beatles of antiquity, dabbling in everything and pumping their genius into almost every aspect of culture and politics; the Romans were the Rolling Stones, incredibly good at one thing, the hard-driving rock and blues of the maintenance and expansion of power.

Romans

Romans

Greeks

Greeks

Originally barbarian cousins in the extensive Indo-European migrations of the second millennium, both peoples began with roughly the same social and political institutions, common, it seems, to all the Indo-Europeans, at least while they are still on the move. Most critically, this included a weak kinship and the tradition of an informal assembly of warriors that heard and advised the king and was theoretically the source of his authority, an idea radically different from the sophisticated kingships of Egypt and Asia, which derived their authority from heaven. The Greeks and Latins would be the only groups that developed agriculturally based urban societies without losing these core political institutions characteristic of their hunting and gathering past and would consequently be the only ones to evolve actual constitutional polities in which the power exercised by the state was considered to derived from the people, at least in theory.
This accounts for the remarkably parallel political development of the Greek and Latin city-states from petty tribal kingships to sophisticated democratic republics. The driving engines behind this were the changing economic environment, as growing wealth produced new economic elites that challenged the traditional arrangements, and the emergence of the citizen army, which gave increasing reality to the old notion that the people were at the root of political power. Thus the Latin and Greek proto-cities eliminated their kings and established the basic mechanisms of the constitutional state: precisely defined law, citizen assemblies and elective limited term magistracies. With as many as a thousand independent city-states the Greeks had a larger social laboratory and produced in some cases the most complete democracies the world has ever seen, whereas in Italy the dominance of Rome over the other Latin towns resulted in a single powerful city-state, Rome.
But there were differences, some of them profound. The Greek kingship apparently withered away over a period of centuries during the Greek Dark Age, while the Romans clearly overthrew their last king in historic times. The Greek transition from aristocracies of birth to oligarchies of wealth took a generation or two (the Age of Tyrants) and in many cases involved violence, whereas in Rome the transition required two centuries (the Struggle of the Orders) and was remarkably free of political violence. The Greeks produced radical democracies, but Rome, though technically democratic, never went beyond an oligarchy of wealth. The Greeks excelled in the arts and affairs of the mind; the Romans were great administrators and engineers. Despite a common language and culture the Greeks remained fragmented, and the empires of the fifth and fourth centuries were short-lived; even the huge Macedonian controlled empires of Alexander and his successors were relatively fragile. The Romans of course steadily expanded their power, conquering Italy and the Mediterranean world over a period of little more than three centuries and establishing an immense empire that would endure for almost another five hundred years. This power thing in particular baffled the Greeks, who could not understand why the Romans, who began with the same political, social and military equipment as themselves, could so easily become the stable imperial power that always eluded them. And being almost effortlessly conquered by a people they considered in so many ways intellectually inferior did not help.
Greek thinkers, like the historian Polybius, had trouble seeing beyond the institutions that made the two societies appear so similar. What apparently escaped them, at least in trying to understand Roman history, was something relatively simple: national character. The most important facet of the Greek character, affecting everything they engaged in, was agōn, the need to compete and struggle, which consequently enhanced the importance of both the individual and his city. The Greeks were most definitely not team players. The Romans were. Their prime character directive was pietas, duty, the compulsion to fulfill ones obligations to the family, the gods and the community, which ultimately meant the state. They were incredibly conservative, which slowed their evolution, but at the same time they were also eminently practical, which saved them from that conservatism. While the Greeks theorized, the Romans just did it – and did it differently if the traditional way no longer worked.

 

Consider the national heroes of the two cultures. For the Greeks it was the Homeric warriors, especially Achilles, extreme and narcissistic individuals who ultimately cared for only one thing – themselves. For them the major importance of the group was simply defining their individual honor, in defense of which they would gladly sacrifice their lives. The Roman heroes, on the other hand, were all men whose defining quality was the willingness to sacrifice for the group. Aeneas, the premier Roman hero, abandons Dido and the kingship of Carthage in order to fulfill his destiny as the ultimate founder of Rome. At great cost to himself he honors his duty to a state that will not even exist for another four hundred years.  Incidentally, Aeneas, though technically a Trojan, is a figure out of Greek literature, a Greek creation, yet the Romans  came to believe that he was the ultimate founder of Rome.
Why these character differences? It probably had much to do with their respective environments. The Balkan Peninsula, especially in the south, is a land of limited resources, notably arable land, and scarcity inevitably encourages competition. In contrast Italy possesses a great deal of good farmland, and Latium, the coastal area where Rome is situated, is particularly bountiful. This is not to say that the early Romans were devoid of any competitive spirit, but rather that survival in the relative economy of scarcity that was Greece instilled in the Greek psyche a far larger measure of competitiveness and aggressiveness. This is hardly a completely satisfactory explanation, but then, I am not a cultural anthropologist.
The Greeks competed in everything (even sex was seen as a kind of competition), which goes a long way in explaining their history and society. They competed in athletics, music and drama; trierarchs competed in equipping the fastest trireme. The incredible cultural explosion of the sixth and fifth centuries clearly has its roots in agōn; societies that are comfortable simply have less motivation to ask questions, to think new thoughts, to create new things. Archaic and Classical Age Greece (8th – 4th centuries) was, like the Renaissance, filled with struggle, and the result was the perhaps the most important intellectual discoveries in history. By way of contrast Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (27th – 18th centuries) was the most materially and spiritually comfortable society in antiquity, and in the course of a millennium virtually not a single new idea was produced.

Roman genius

Roman genius

Greek genius

Greek genius

But the drive to compete had a down side. City-state governments were very unstable, and political violence was always just outside the door. More devastating of course was the seemingly endless warfare, as each city competed with its neighbors, not just for resources but also status. The city-state was a narcissistic entity, a polity with attitude, and warfare was the ultimate expression of superiority – at least if you won. So deeply ingrained by constant competition was the idea of autonomy that inter-city structures were inevitably based on force or the threat of force, as with the Athenian Empire or the Peloponnesian League, and unity eluded the Greeks until it was imposed from without. Common efforts, such as the defense against the Persian Empire, were extremely difficult, and Greece’s ultimate downfall emerged from her inability to cooperate for the common Hellenic good. It was left to the Macedonians monarchy, the most backward of Greek states, to dominate the Balkan Peninsula and conquer Persia.
The Romans of course also enjoyed a powerful sense of superiority – what successful culture does not – but it was not so all-consuming as with the individual Greek cities. In establishing control over the other Latin towns Rome was able to some extent to share authority and even her citizenship, something unthinkable for the Greeks. Roman arrogance took a back seat to practicality in dealing with defeated non-Latin peoples in Italy, and the Romans were able to create alliance structures that left them stronger and in complete control but offered sufficient mutual benefit to provide for long-term stability. The so-called Italian allies were thoroughly subordinate to Rome yet came to regard themselves as actual allies and ultimately as Romans, thus providing the manpower base that would allow the conquest of the Mediterranean world.

Roman genius

Roman genius

Greek genius

Greek genius

The Roman saw the world around him as a network of obligations, and honor was rooted in fulfilling those obligations. This makes for a very well-knit community, and the political factionalism that plagued the Greeks remained well leashed until the last century of the Republic. The Roman was inclined to accept rather than challenge authority, at least if he considered it legitimate, and as a result, the Senatorial elite smoothly governed Rome for four hundred years, even though for most of that period the Senate possessed no actual constitutional powers but was simply an advisory body. Once again, unthinkable for the Greeks. The system only broke down when the Senate was corrupted by power and wealth, and serving oneself edged out serving the state.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, both peoples initially considered the other barbarians. The Greeks clung to this notion well into their role as provincials in the Roman Empire, an idea perhaps sustained in the face of overwhelming Roman success by the fact that the new masters were so clearly impressed by the Greek cultural achievement. The Romans could hardly deny that achievement, as they learned Greek, imitated Greek arts and looted the statuary of the Hellenic world. So, the Greeks were not barbarians, like the Gauls and Germans; they were just effete.

 
The Hellenizing of Rome began long before Roman legionaries were traipsing about the Balkan Peninsula, and “captive Greece” captured Rome centuries before it actually became captive. The Greek Age of Colonization (late 8th – 6th centuries) saw Sicily and the coastal areas of southern Italy so thickly settled with Greek cities that the area became known as Great Greece, and young Rome could hardly resist the influence. Cumae, the northernmost and possibly earliest Greek establishment in Italy, was barely a hundred miles southeast of Rome, and the tendrils of Hellenism were already caressing the city on the Tiber while it was still being rules by kings. Roman culture was not quite a blank slate, but a couple of centuries behind the Greeks in their development, the Romans were simply overwhelmed.

Greek genius

Greek genius

Roman genius

Roman genius

The Latin alphabet is derived from the Greek, and the more defined and sophisticated Greek gods had such an impact that native Italic deities gradually disappeared, supplanted by the Greek pantheon with Latin names. Greek literature was so far advanced that the earliest examples of serious Latin literature are written in Greek. The Romans copied the hoplite phalanx, the more efficient heavy infantry formation invented by the Greeks, though characteristically, when it ran into trouble operating in the central highlands, they seriously modified it, copying weapons used by their opponents. Greek heavy infantry ended in the dead end of the Macedonian phalanx, while the Roman version grew into the legions.
In a very real sense Rome’s major legacy was preserving virtually intact the Greek achievement. The Greeks simply could not create stable long-term imperial structures, and while the discoveries of the Greeks would not have simply vanished without the Roman Empire, they would have suffered. Hellenized at such an early stage, Rome and her empire embraced Greek culture, and the extent and incredible duration of that empire insured that the grand ideas of the Greeks would be fixed at the heart of European civilization.

Herr Wachtmeister, Wo Ist der Dom?

I was out of town, so I am plugging in a piece I wrote for an anthology of articles on German studies.  This will be boring for most of you, but the German speakers should find it amusing.)

 

Stray Notes From the Periphery of German Studies

Let me make it clear immediately that I am not now nor ever have been seriously engaged in German Studies, most certainly not as a scholar. I am a classical historian, and German has for me essentially been simply a tool in my examination of antiquity. But one can hardly study the German language without being exposed to some degree to German literature and culture, and I have in any case long been in love with things German. The intent of this piece, then, is not a sober march through some aspect of German Studies but rather a somewhat less than serious meandering about the edges of die Deutschkunde.

 
I was born in 1946, so my earliest association with German culture came in the movie theater and the schoolyard, where I was hardly exposed to its loftier aspects. Post-war Hollywood of course portrayed Germans as sinister people and incompetent soldiers, but neither that nor the vague awareness that some horrible things had been done could dampen the enthusiasm of young American boys for the trappings of the Third Reich. Militarism is always a draw for young males, and these particular militarists had especially sharp uniforms, great parades and a very cool iconography (swastikas, deaths heads, runes, etc.). Sieg Heils and Hitler salutes and the odd ditty learned from Uncle Mac (“Hitler has only got one ball…”) were consequently part of the recess repertoire, and making it even more attractive was our knowledge that for some reason this sort of thing really annoyed adults. “But Mom, didn’t they fight the evil commie Russians?”

 
When I entered high school and was required to choose a foreign language, there was absolutely no question. French and Spanish were the languages of wimpy second-raters, and why in the world would anyone want to study a useless tongue like Latin (an ironic assessment given what I ended up doing for a living)? No, German was the cool language, if only because it conjured up images of the Wehrmacht, and in any case I knew it was also the language of science, and that was where I was headed. I thus found myself, along with many of my brainy (or nerdy) friends, in Jens Shurk’s first year German class, where we quickly discovered from our new dictionaries that the teacher’s name was seemingly an anglicized version of Schurke! And so my career of insufficient respect for authority began, literally auf deutsch in this instance.

 
In four years with Herr Shurk I went through all of Zeydel’s A Basic Course in German, published in 1951, which meant that to a good extent it was illustrated with photos of a Germany that no longer existed and seemed in any case to have no history between 1930 and 1945. The German in the second half of the book was printed in Fraktur, which certainly looked cool but seemed of limited use to a student who had no idea that he would be reading nineteenth century German historians. Zeydel was an uninspiring book of the Ich bin Walter, du bist Marie variety (and did not list coolness as one of its reasons for studying German), but just learning German was a heady enough experience, and Shurk, who had been stationed in Germany and married a German woman, soon began exposing me to perspectives on German culture that extended beyond Teutonic knights and the Third Reich. Most important for me was Richard Wagner, the operas of whom Shurk, a true Wagner freak, played in class under the somewhat specious pretext that they were in German. I wonder about the linguistic value of this practice, given the frequently bizarre nature of Wagner’s German, but while the other students were passing notes or dozing off I was beginning a lifelong love affair with die Zukunftsmusik. The poetry of Christian Morgenstern, the other delightful discovery out of high school German, was a pleasure gained only through laborious translating; the Ring could be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. And it has provided for the effortless acquisition of poetic German handy for all occasions, such as the announcement of a pregnancy – den hersten Helden der Welt hegst du, o Weib, im schirmenden Schoss – or a query about the style of one’s eggs – weiche, Wotan, weiche!

still in print 60 years later

still in print 60 years later

The Shurkjahre provided me with a basic grounding in German and a growing appreciation for the more noble aspects of the Kultur, but for all the club meetings, class discussions, German dinners and movies, actually speaking German remained elusive, as did the legendary Sprachgefühl that Shurk promised would one day descend upon us like a blessing from on high. The opportunity to learn actually to talk the talk came in college, where despite abandoning science as a vocation I continued with German (advanced placement!) as a minor to my ultimate degree in ancient history. This provided a broader and deeper exposure to German literature, which ranged from the tedious (Mann) through the cool (Borchert) to the wonderfully absurd (Dürrenmatt). The down side to this great reading, of course, was that it was in a bloody foreign language, though my concurrent study of Greek and Latin increasingly made German seem a language of stark simplicity.

 
Far more important was the opportunity to attend Stanford-in-Germany, easily the best thing Stanford University provided me (apart from the piece of paper that got me the piece of paper that got me my faculty appointment). In June 1964 I left California for the first time, heading with some eighty other students for sixth months of classes at the Stanford branch campus in the village of Beutelsbach outside Stuttgart, which has subsequently swallowed it. Actually, the “campus” was ensconced in the Landgut Burg, perched on a hill above Beutelsbach, to which we could descend like visiting nobility in order to observe their quaint ways and try their rustic dishes, like Zwiebelkuchen and Spätzle. And their ways did strike a group of American eighteen to twenty year olds as quaint. This was 1964 and Germany and Europe were not yet completely awash in American culture and goods, and consequently one instantly felt he was in a foreign country rather that a German language version of the United States. This was especially so for peer conscious college students with their serious concern for what was hip and now. There were of course the vanishing traces of an older and more rural Europe – the resealable ceramic-capped beer bottles, the unshaven legs and armpits, the smell of the Misthaufen, horse-drawn vehicles – but what struck us most was our young German counterparts, who were in our arrogant estimation most definitely not hip and now. Their dress, their rock ’n’ roll and their dancing, the things that really mattered, were all several years out of date (eastern Europe was like a trip into the fifties), which convinced us more than anything else that these people were provincials, an irony that I can now appreciate.

Beutelsbach

Beutelsbach

Landgut Burg

Landgut Burg

Zwiebelkuchen

Zwiebelkuchen

Certainly not provincial at all in our underage eyes was the eminently sensible European attitude towards alcohol, which suggested that if you were old enough to vote and be drafted, you were old enough to drink. This resulted in an initial period of frequent inebriation, but the novelty wore off soon enough for most of us. There was a Ratskeller right bellow the classroom, but most preferred the experience of drinking in a foreign language and enjoying that almost unique German institution, the Gasthaus. Climbing back up to the Burg after a bout of Stein-lifting not being to my taste, I frequented the Gaststätte Hirsch in Eichelsberg, where under the tutelage of Hermann the Wirt and his wife I learned a great deal of the Volksbrauch, at least when it came to swilling beer. On a couple of occasions Hermann (whom we called ihr because of his size) brought a bottle of American whiskey after closing and crushed the cap, an indication that this was likely to end up a Kotzenabend. As I said, the periphery of German Studies.

 
At the Burg we had classes four days a week. We were divided into five groups by level of German, and since I had so much in high school I was put in Gruppe A, also known as the Wunderkinder, which included several native speakers. The seminars were consequently conducted entirely in German, which meant initially that for the first time in my life I did not have much to say. The other classes, economics and German philosophy, were taught in English, though the English of the German professor who taught the latter was certainly novel. Among other things he constantly spoke of “three-angles” and often began by saying “From begin on…” We never had the heart to correct him. It was, incidentally, in that class that I first read a non-mathematical book that I simply could not understand, Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Consider the following sentence: “The universal Apriori pertaining to a transcendental ego as such is an eidetic form, which contains an infinity of forms, an infinity of apriori types of actualities and potentialities of life, along with the objects constitutable in a life as objects actually existing.” You said it, Edmund!

 
But the whole point of the program was to get one off the campus into the bosom of Germany and its culture, so we were more than encouraged to travel on those three day weekends. My first trip was with some students who had a car and we visited Munich (with many jokes on the way about Ausfahrt and Einfahrt), where I had the exquisite opportunity to use a stock phrase from Zeydel that had been a constant joke back in high school German. We could not find the cathedral we wanted to visit, and I thus approached a policeman and asked “Herr Wachtmeister, wo ist der Dom?” That was truly a verweile doch moment for me. I subsequently traveled alone, hitchhiking, in order to pump up my German, and this did the trick, since as is clear from what I did for a living, I really like to talk. The flubs were part of the fun, as when I was telling one of the Dienstmädchen, Helga (die ewige Weiblichkeit zieht uns hinan – und hinein, especially when you are eighteen), about World War I ace Rudolf von Berthold: Er hat vierundvierzig Flugzeuge geschissen. An incredible accomplishment, when you think about it.

Rudolf von Berthold

Rudolf von Berthold

Not everyone spoke the German I was familiar with, however, inasmuch as regional dialects were still running strong. We certainly struggled to comprehend schwäbisch, though it was soon discovered that one could fake speaking it by adding –le to the ends of sundry words: Grüβ Gottle! (Much later I learned the reply and was able to use it in the Himalaya when a German hiker greeted me with Grüβ Gott: Wenn ich Ihn sehe!) I had frequent conversations with an old man who seemed always to be leaning out his window when I visited Beutelsbach, and I don’t think I ever understood a tenth of what he was saying. And schwäbisch was nothing compared to Schwyzerdütsch. One weekend I visited the departed Helga in St. Moritz, and the locals might have been speaking an entirely alien language. In fact, some of them were. I happened to be in one of the very few places where they spoke Romansch, apparently a vestige of Latin and the Roman Empire. I wonder about a country that can not decide what its national language is. My conversational ability nevertheless developed steadily, and after a couple of months I suddenly realized that I was sometimes speaking German without thinking about it, that I had developed some instinctive sense of what was correct and what was not. I even began to notice grammatical mistakes made by native speakers. The legendary Sprachgefühl had come upon me!

 
The entire group took field trips. Paris was certainly fun, but Prague was much more beautiful and certainly more interesting. This was Warsaw Pact territory, our ostensible enemy, though that hardly seemed the case with all the Czechs I met, and as a workers’ paradise everything was so cheap that many mothers, including mine, got that European crystal they had been dreaming about. On the other hand, one of the students later tried to smuggle a Czech friend to the west in his car and for two years got see the Czech penal system up close and personal. Easily the most exiting trip was to West Berlin. This was the front line of the Cold War, and the juvenile enthusiasm we had demonstrated in Stuttgart, Paris and even Prague was suddenly tempered in sight of the wall, which had gone up only three years earlier. There is something about tanks and soldiers with assault rifles that takes the fun out of stealing street signs. A showcase for the west and capitalism, West Berlin was like a city on amphetamines, wired up day and night and ablaze with neon and a terrific place for young Americans who couldn’t get into a night club back home. For me of course this was also the capital of the Second and Third Reichs, a place that oozed history, and I spent a lot of time imagining the Red Army advancing on the Tiergarten or the final events in the Führerbunker. Well, perhaps not as much time as I spent watching the girls on the Kudamm.

 
East Berlin was in some sense also a showcase – for the failure of socialism. There were, amazingly, still blocks of rubble from the war, and a notable absence of many sorts of goods in the stores. But the people, even some of the Vopos, were friendly, and on my first trip over I was invited to a family dinner, though they did ask if I might bring some fresh fruit when I came. When I returned that evening, a female border agent on the east side of Checkpoint Charlie looked at my bag of oranges and asked in all seriousness: “Haben Sie eine Pistole versteckt?” Visions of Rosa Klebb in my head, I stammered out a nein and watched a huge grin appear on her face. Here was an evil commie functionary with a sense of humor, something, as I discovered on later travels, that was conspicuously absent from American customs officials. For convenience I normally passed through Checkpoint Charlie, but in order to experience what ordinary Germans endured I once crossed through Bahnhof Friedrichstraβe and had one of the more unforgettable moments of my life. I got separated from my friends and had to wait an hour on the east side for them. The sun had already set, and sitting outside on a bench, I saw a squad of perhaps a dozen Vopos marching down the darkening street. Watching them in their black uniforms with their jackboots kicking up in the goosestep, I was suddenly transported into the past. All that was missing were the swastikas. Heavy stuff for an historically inclined eighteen year old.

 Bahnhof Friedrichstraβe in the day

Bahnhof Friedrichstraβe in the day

The grandest single moment of the entire half year in Germany, however, came on my pilgrimage to Bayreuth. I arrived on the day of the last performance of that year’s Festspiel, but knowing that tickets had been sold out since before Wagner’s death, I expected only to see the Festspielhaus, Haus Wahnfried and the graves of the Master and Cosima. But for the hell of it I went to the ticket office, and a ticket had come back! There were four people ahead of me, but for one reason or another they turned it down, and I realized that I was about to see (for about $15) Götterdämmerung at Bayreuth. Eat your Herz out, Jens Shurk! From then until the opera began I was floating several feet above the ground, watching the opera jet setters in their sometimes antique formal wear while they watched me in my not so formal wear. The production was by Wolfgang rather than Wieland Wagner and thus not that great, but who cared? I was in a box right next to the one Wagner and Mad Ludwig had sat in, and at the end of the performance the actual grandsons of the vile genius appeared on the stage. The ovation went on for the better part of an hour, and my hands were sore from clapping and my voice hoarse from yelling. I expect that I am the only person ever to have yelled “Bitchin’!” in the Festspielhaus.

the holy of holies

the holy of holies

Before I departed Germany in December for the Kindermädchenstaat I stayed a week with a German family in Schorndorf, a whole new experience in Haushaltskultur. I knew Germans did far more handshaking than we, but I was astounded to witness the children in the family shake hands with their parents before retiring for the night and upon greeting them in the morning. My guess is that this custom has evaporated as Germany has evolved – unfortunately – into a less formal society in the last three decades. Also enlightening was a trip with one of the boys in the family to his Gymnasium, where he studied a curriculum that would baffle many of the undergraduates in an American university. His English teacher was delighted to have a native speaker in the class and had me read the text they were preparing. Perhaps not so surprising to me after a half year in Germany, I was periodically interrupted by the instructor, who would point out “That is the way they say it in America. Here is the way it should be pronounced.” And I had thought I spoke standard, non-dialectical English.

 
My time in Germany in 1964 was clearly the high point of my tenuous association with German Studies, but I did visit the Vaterland again. In 1979 a sort of circle was completed as I traveled to Germany (and other countries) in the company of Herr Shurk, who thus had the opportunity to hear one of his former students actually speak passable German. In return I got to meet his wife’s family in Mainz (Gel!), including her father, a former Gauleiter (cleared during the denazification) now in his eighties. My historian’s heart was of course excited – a living relic of the Hitler government – but he was disinclined to talk about the old days. Less lofty, perhaps, was my return in 1984 with my brother, whose German was at the Bier gut! level. The Burg was now a sort of convention center, the Stanford-in-Germany program having expired from lack of student interest, yet another sign of the decline of higher education in the United States. In Munich I insisted we visit the Hofbräuhaus, since I had been there exactly twenty years earlier to the month and every beer drinker should stop in at least once in his life. Just an hour or so in the afternoon for nostalgia purposes; we staggered out after midnight, so schön ist’s im Hofbräuhaus!

 
Meanwhile, German had for me become less the language of literature and beer halls and more the Gelehrtensprache, as I obtained a doctorate in classical history. The language I had as an adolescent thought useful for science turned out to be along with my mother tongue the most useful for studying antiquity. It was after all the Germans who invented “scientific” history (“wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”) in the nineteenth century, better to examine the classical world they had fallen in love with in the eighteenth. Moreover, German can be just perfect for the nitpicking so dear to scholars, especially those in Classical Studies. Was the Peloponnesian League a Staatenbund or a Bundesstaat? This sort of elegance is impossible in English. It is hardly surprising that the most monumental work in classical history, at least in terms of size, is in German: Pauly, Wissowa, & Kroll, Real-Encyclopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft. This was a project that lasted longer than the Second and Third Reichs combined.

 
My conversational ability has gone dormant in recent years, requiring a one or two week dip in a German-speaking environment to revive, and I have not returned to Germany in twenty years. But I have of late spent a lot of time in Greece, and German has frequently stood in for my non-existent modern Greek, since there are so many middle-aged Greeks (and Italians and Turks) who speak German from their days as Gastarbeiter. Besides, Germans and Austrians have the tourist Euros to spend, which more than compensates for any hard feelings left over from the forties, and many shops and restaurants sprechen Deutsch. Indeed, every summer there is a mini-Indo-European invasion, as Germans, dragging their Wohnwagen behind their Benzes, stream into the Adriatic and Aegean, seeking the sun and bargains. And if you fly into Athens, you pass through an airport built and for the next thirty years owned by the Germans.

 
Here in Albuquerque, the land of Karl May, my dance about the fringes of German Studies is maintained through my friendship with Peter Pabisch and Fritz Cocron, a Dolmetscher on the Ostfront (more living history) and possibly the only Wehrmacht veteran ever to be decorated by the Polish government. Our conversations are for the most part in English, but snatches of German nevertheless slip past my lips on occasion and Sprachgefühl appears with me still, ready to be awakened by a sojourn in Germany.

 
Mein Sinn ist in Griechenland, aber mein Herz bleibt immer in Deutschland.

If You Had the Luck of Ukraine, You’d Wish you Were Russian Instead

In 1938 Adolf Hitler prepared to send troops into the Sudentenland, the western predominantly German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, on the grounds that the ethnic Germans there were being mistreated.  At the infamous meeting in Munich, to which the Czechs were not invited, France and Britain agreed to German annexation of the area, easing Europe a bit further down the road to war, which broke out a year later when the western powers refused accept the same justification for Hitler’s claim on Danzig and the Polish Corridor.  Vladimir Putin, czar of the reborn Russian empire, has now done the same in Ukraine, occupying the Crimea and threatening the Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine.  Unlike Hitler, however, he did not wait for permission from the west.

the Black Earth

the Black Earth

 

 

The history of Ukraine is to a large extent the history of Russia, and both groups trace their origins to the Kievan Rus’, the first great Slavic state, which took shape in the late ninth century.  Ironically, the initial ruling elite was not Slavic but Scandinavian, the Varangians, a Viking group that had settled the region via the great rivers from the north.  They quickly disappeared into the Slavic majority, but it was under their leadership that Kievan Rus’ was established, and under the Rurik dynasty it became in the tenth and eleventh centuries easily the most powerful state in Europe, controlling territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  The state began to disintegrate in the twelfth century, and in the thirteenth the Mongols showed up, devastating the land and destroying Kiev itself in 1240.  Kievan Rus’ fragmented into separate principalities, the most powerful of which was the kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, which in the fourteenth century fell under the control of the grand Duchy of Lithuania and the kingdom of Poland.  This complicated matters inasmuch as the new rulers were Catholics, and in 1596 they introduced the Uniate Church, which employed eastern rituals but was under the Pope, thus creating a sectarian divide.

Where it all began

Where it all began

The southern area, along the Black Sea, became the Crimean Khanate, ruled by the Crimean Tatars, descendants of the Mongols.  At the same time a principality on the northeastern periphery of Kievan Rus’, Vladimir-Suzdal, grew into the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which would become Russia.  And there was of course the growing power of the Cossacks on the Dnieper and the Don, leading to the emergence of the Cossack Hetmanate, which dominated much of southern Ukraine.

 

 

In the seventeenth century the Ukraine experienced its own Thirty Years War, when from 1657-1686 the Poles, Russians, Cossacks and Turks (and a dash of Tatars) fought for control of the area.  The result was the “Eternal Peace,” which gave the land west of the Dnieper to Poland and the land east to Russia.   This divided the Cossacks, who nevertheless remained a powerful force in Ukraine, and in the early eighteenth century they joined Poland and Sweden in a war against Russia.  They were crushed, and the Hetmanate was abolished by Catherine the Great in 1764.  The last Hetman, Kirill Razumovsky, declared Ukraine a sovereign state in 1763, the first to do so.  When Poland was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia and Austria divided Ukrainian territory west of the Dnieper.  The Crimean Khanate was annexed by Russia in 1783.

 

 

A relatively backward agricultural area, Ukraine was of little concern to St. Petersburg and Vienna in the nineteenth century.  The western half, Galicia, enjoyed a greater degree of freedom under the Hapsburgs, producing a nationalist movement, while the eastern half suffered under a program of Russification, which attempted to eradicate Ukrainian culture and literature and even language.  Ukrainians fought on both sides in World War I, and the entire nation was swept into the chaos and violence following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  In the period 1917-1921 several Ukrainian “states” came and went, and while the bulk of the territory became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, parts of the west went to Poland, Belarus and the new republic of Moldava.

 

 

Then came suffering not seen since the days of the Mongols.  Some million and a half Ukrainians died during the Russian Civil War and the War with Poland, and an unknown number followed them into the grave during the famine of 1921.  During the twenties the Soviet government actually encouraged a revival of Ukrainian culture and language, but that changed with the triumph of Stalin at the end of the decade.  As a result of the forced collectivisation millions died of starvation in the early thirties, and during the purges more than a half million people were murdered, eliminating 80% of the Ukrainian cultural elite.  In the wake of this horror many Ukrainians in the west welcomed the Nazis as liberators, but German atrocities turned most to the unpleasant course of supporting the USSR, and during the war Ukraine actually regained territory previously ceded to others.

 

 

To the destruction caused by the war was added the deaths of tens of thousands during the famine of 1946-1947 and the deportation of hundreds of thousands prior to Stalin’s death in 1953.  Familiar with Ukraine and interested in establishing better relations, in 1954 Khrushchev transferred the Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, thus establishing the circumstances for the present crisis.  During the post-war period Ukraine enjoyed tremendous economic growth and influence, producing many prominent figures, including Leonid Brezhnev.

 

 

On 24 August 1991 Ukraine declared itself to be an independent democratic state, freeing itself from foreign control for essentially the first time in almost a millennium, and in December Ukraine, Belarus and Russia formally dissolved the USSR.  The Ukrainian economy suffered massively during the wild days of the nineties, but by 2000 real economic growth had been established.  Unfortunately, as with virtually all the former members of the Soviet Empire democracy did not come easy, and increasing fraud, corruption, concentration of power and the plundering of the national wealth led to the Orange Revolution in 2004.  Viktor Yanukovych, winner of rigged elections, was thrown out by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.  Two years later Yanukovych was back in power only to be replaced by Tymoshenko the following year.  In 2010 Yanukovych was elected president in a questionable election and had Tymoshenko thrown in prison.

Ukrainian military

Ukrainian military

the stooge

the stooge

Ukrainian Evita

Ukrainian Evita

Corruption was rampant under Yanukovych, who established a kleptocracy supported by the country’s oligarchs and became a puppet of Vladimir Putin, who, as is perfectly clear, wanted Ukraine in the new Russian empire.  This led to the current revolution and Yanukovych’s flight to Russia.  Having lost his stooge, Putin stirred up trouble among the majority Russians in the Crimea and sent in troops (with no insignia) to “protect” them and the Russian naval base leased from Ukraine.  This was a blatant violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by Ukraine, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state.

 

 

Vladimir Putin in not just the latest autocrat of all the Russias, he also a thug, nurtured in the bosom of the KGB.  Knowing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was terrified of dogs, he deliberately had his large dog present when they met for the first time in Moscow.  He may be the most buff ruler of Russia in centuries, but he is a thug, with a Mussolini-like propensity to bare his chest.  But then, he is the ruler of Russia, a country filled with a greater than average number of vulgar and cruel people.  He is also a liar and a hypocrite, but what national leader is not?  He constantly touts national sovereignty (“stay out of Syria”) and then promptly invades Ukraine.  Of course US protests about violating sovereignty also ring a bit hollow, since we do it constantly, especially in Pakistan, and give unqualified support to a state, Israel, which seems to have no concept of national sovereignty beyond its own.

macho czar

macho czar

So what can the west do?  Western leaders are of course “closely monitoring” the situation, expressing “grave concerns” and calling for calm, all while wondering what the hell they can do.  Who actually controls the Crimea is hardly a major security interest for the west (good luck with all those Tatars, Vlad!) and places like Germany are far more concerned about Russian natural gas supplies, but from the beginning of time major powers have been concerned about losing face.  And there is substance to the notion that if aggression is not countered, the aggressor will seek more.

 

 

Still, we hardly want an actual war with the Russians, despite the fact that their military is a shadow of its former self.  It is mighty risky policy to get into a shooting contest with someone who has nuclear weapons, and if Hungary was not worth getting nuked for in 1956, the Crimea certainly is not in 2014.  Of course there is John “Why Are We Not Still in Vietnam” McCain advocating activating NATO junior partner status for Ukraine and Georgia, failing completely to understand that this is exactly the sort of thing that drives paranoid dictators over the edge.  Look at the virtual wall of American bases encircling Iran, and one gets a better idea of why they are belligerent.

 

 

On the other hand, Barack “Everything Is Secret” Obama has hardly been inspiring in his relatively placid response to the crisis.  It certainly does not take an expert in foreign affairs to see the only options available and to begin to implement them.  Immediately pump money into Ukraine to stabilize the economy and provide relief if Putin turns off the gas.  Ratchet up the diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia.  Prince Vlad probably does not care that much about world opinion, despite the big Olympic splash, but his country is a relative economic wimp and might have serious trouble enduring major sanctions, although his people are well accustomed to enjoying a low standard of living.  Throw Russia of the G8, freeze her foreign assets, place a travel ban on her leaders and surround the country with a fence of economic sanctions.  The problem here of course is those trading with Russia are likely to be far more concerned with the money to be made trading with Russia than who controls the Crimea.

 

 

And how did this crisis take the US by such surprise?  We are able to monitor every phone call on the planet – to little apparent end – yet our intelligence agencies could not catch troops and equipment being slipped into the Crimean peninsula?  Once the revolution against Yanukovych began last year did no one in the government consider what might happen if he fell from power?  Is that not basic foreign policy planning?  Are we not supposed to mistrust characters like Putin and expect the unexpected?  And this in a country where the Pentagon is rumored to have gamed wars against zombies?  Perhaps the President and Congress were too busy raising money?  I’ll bet there are contingency plans to invade the Russian Commonwealth if they injure Israeli interests.

 

 

Well, too bad there is a nuclear component.   A naval battle in the Black Sea would be very cool.  Where is the Wehrmacht when you need them?

 

Sheol Welcomes Ariel Sharon

After eight years in a coma Ariel Sharon (1928-2014), Israeli military leader, Prime Minister and war criminal, died on 11 January. Ironically, but quite understandably, he was lauded as a man of peace by western leaders. American Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that Sharon was a man who attempted to “bend the course of history toward peace,” a truly ludicrous proposition that demonstrates the stranglehold Israel has on US politicians. Among Israelis he was more honestly known as the “Bulldozer,” while for Palestinians he was the “Butcher,” a recognition of his complete disregard for non-Jewish lives. Apart from his Jewishness Sharon was an individual who would have been quite comfortable in the Hitler administration, something that may be said about a disturbing number of Israeli politicians these days.

Joe  Biden is Jewish?

Joe
Biden is Jewish?

the world remembers the man of peace

the world remembers the man of peace

Sharon was a sabra, that is, he was actually born in Palestine, giving him marginally more credibility in his claim to the land than someone who had recently arrived from Brooklyn. To his credit he was not involved in terrorism against the British, as were two other Israeli Prime Ministers, Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, but this may simply be because of his youth. He fought as part of the Haganah in the War of Independence in 1947-48 and after the armistice in 1949 he remained in the Israeli military for the next quarter century. During this long tenure he showed himself to be a brilliant military commander, but he was also insubordinate and extremely aggressive, often losing more men than his superiors thought was necessary.

the young warrior

the young warrior

From the beginning of his career he also demonstrated a ruthlessness and complete lack of morality when dealing with his country’s enemies. Shortly after the armistice he organized Unit 101, a sort of special operations squad that conducted raids across the armistice lines in retaliation for Arab attacks, to some degree setting the standard for the Israeli military. Collateral damage among Arab civilians was not a concern, and responding in 1953 to an Arab raid into Israel, his unit attacked the West Bank (then controlled by Jordan) village of Qibya, which had been used by the Arab force. His men blew up 45 houses, a school and a mosque, killing between 65 and 70 civilians, at least half of them women and children. The operation was disavowed by the Israeli government.

the old politician

the old politician

Sharon performed brilliantly during the 1956 Suez crisis, the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but controversial political views led to his dismissal in 1974. His political career began the following year, and despite his lack of experience he was made Minister of Agriculture when Menachim Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. During this period Sharon became the major supporter of the settlement movement, which began in 1974 with the creation of Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful), whose members wished to see the West Bank annexed by Israel. Sharon’s policy: “Everybody has to move, run and grab as many (Judean) hilltops as they can to enlarge the (Jewish) settlements because everything we take now will stay ours. … Everything we don’t grab will go to them.” The Jewish settlement of Palestinian territory would be Sharon’s greatest achievement and his lasting legacy.

defenders of Greater Israel

defenders of Greater Israel

the legacy

the legacy

In 1981 Begin appointed Sharon Minister of Defense, and a year later Israel invaded Lebanon, providing the opportunity for Sharon to become an actual war criminal. On 15 September 1982 in response to the assassination of Lebanese president and Israeli ally Bashir Gemayel Sharon, Begin, chief of staff Rafael Eitan and foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided to reoccupy West Beirut, violating their agreement with the United States. The Israeli army surrounded the Sabra neighborhood and Shatila refugee camp, where thousands of Palestinians, mostly women, children and old men, lived, and the following day Sharon and Eitan invited the Christian Phalange militias (See Ironies from Israel #2) to “mop up” the refugee camps, providing Israeli jeeps to transport them. The Phalange, originally modeled on the Nazi SA, entered the camps and began raping, mutilating and butchering the inhabitants, all of this being observed by Israeli officers stationed in buildings around the area. When darkness fell, the Israeli army continuously fired flares, illuminating the camps. The following morning the army ordered the Phalange to stop. By that time more than a thousand Palestinians, including small children, had been killed.

"personally responsible"

“personally responsible”

The United Nations condemned the massacre as “genocide,” with which term the US and other nations disagreed. An independent commission headed by Seán MacBride concluded that Israeli authorities or forces were indirectly or directly responsible for the slaughter, while the Israeli Kahan Commission, created only after 400,000 protestors gathered in Tel Aviv, concluded that Israel was only indirectly responsible. Sharon, Eitan and some intelligence officials were found to “bear personal responsibility,” and it was recommended that Sharon be dismissed. He refused to resign and Begin refused to fire him until massive protests forced a compromise whereby Sharon would cease to be Minister of Defense but remain in the cabinet. He also acquired the name “Butcher of Beirut.”

 
International outrage subsided, and Sharon remained part of the cabinet for the next eighteen years, serving as Minister Without Portfolio, Minister for Trade and Industry, Minister of Housing and Construction, Minister of Energy and Water Resources and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He became Prime Minister in 2001 and served until his stroke in 2006. As a cabinet minister he vigorously pushed the settlement of the
West Bank, but in 2005 he “disengaged” from Gaza, forcibly removing some 7000 Jewish settlers. For this he was lauded as a “man of peace,” taking the first bold step towards ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state. What nonsense. Unlike the West Bank, which is essentially Judea, Gaza was never part of ancient Israel and consequently expendable in the creation of Greater Israel, and the move took some of the attention away from the massive settlement program in the West Bank. “Disengagement” meant turning Gaza into a huge prison camp, its frontiers, territorial waters and air space controlled by the Israelis, who periodically bomb its fading infrastructure.

 
In an attempt to end terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in 2002 he launched Operation Defensive Shield, the largest military operation in the West Bank since the Six Day War. Various international organizations concluded that both sides could be faulted for their behavior and that Israeli use of heavy weapons in urban areas resulted in civilian casualties. More critically, the Israelis purposefully destroyed much of the Palestinian infrastructure, including private property belonging to a number of NGOs. By deliberately debilitating the Palestinian Administration and weakening the economic infrastructure Defensive Shield dramatically aided the settlement program.

 
In 2002 private groups began the construction of the “separation barrier,” which after some hesitation Sharon’s government embraced, pouring in funds. The concrete wall, generally more than twenty feet high, and other obstacles, including exclusion zones, are designed to protect Israel, but it also allows the Israelis to begin transferring Palestinian land to Israel by running the wall east of the 1967 cease fire line. More than 8% of the West Bank has now been in effect turned into Israel.

 

passing the baton

passing the baton

a new crusader castle

a new crusader castle

Many Israelis see Ariel Sharon as an embarrassment and even a war criminal, but generally he is remembered for his heroic and brilliant exploits during Israel’s major wars. His lasting legacy, though, is the settlement of the West Bank, where more than a half million Israelis now live and enjoy rights and resources denied the Palestinians. Israel now directly controls about two thirds of the proposed Palestinian homeland, while the remainder is cut up by Israeli-only roads and military enclaves. In complete conflict with international law Israel is gradually annexing the West Bank and painting herself into a corner. If the Palestinians are granted citizenship in Greater Israel, it will no longer be a Jewish state, which is unthinkable. The only alternative is apartheid, a system that is slowly being established. And through inaction and political cowardice my country is abetting this loathsome development.

honesty!

honesty!

Free Speech. Where?

Freedom of speech is easily the most important of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, the most important freedom in any society.  If the people can say and write what they please, a government will have a difficult time becoming repressive, at least against the will of the people.  (There are clearly many who do not care what the government is doing so long as life is comfortable – five thousand years of civilization has not been so much a march towards greater freedom as towards greater comfort.)  Free expression is at the same time a fragile entity, easily damaged by political, economic and even social concerns.  Even liberal governments and politicians are very uncomfortable with free speech.  They do not like to be questioned or criticized or circumvented, and they certainly do not like to be made fun of.

 

The greatest threat to free expression inevitably appears when a society’s security is being threatened or perceived to be threatened.  Security is far and away the most common justification for enhancing the power of the government and at the same time checking the free speech that might be employed to expose and oppose the state’s actions.  Threats to the country are also the strongest motivation for the people themselves to do the government’s work and curtail the speech of those with unpopular and thus unpatriotic points of view.  Any American publically suggesting in 1942 that the Japanese were not entirely evil and had some reason to attack the US would immediately receive a personal and violent lesson in the limits of expression during wartime.  The popular protests against the war in Vietnam were tolerated in part because the state failed to demonstrate that there was in fact a serious threat to America.  It also allowed its credibility to be shattered by a news media permitted virtually unlimited access to the war, a situation that was corrected during the war against Iraq, when “embedded” reporters were fed carefully crafted reports.

 

The popular repression of speech that followed the 9/11 attack was particularly virulent, undoubtedly because the United States itself had been assaulted and we were suddenly at war with shadowy figures who might be lurking right around the corner.  Any criticism of government policies constituted a lack of patriotism, and even the barest suggestion that the terrorists had anything to do with our policy in the Middle East or that they were sacrificing their lives for a principle, benighted though it was, was akin to treason.  An admittedly insensitive crack about blowing up the Pentagon resulted in death threats and demands from individuals and state politicians for my dismissal from the university.  Meanwhile, the administration of the university, a place that should be a bastion of free speech, while justifiably criticizing my remark, refused to defend my right to make it and treated me as road kill,  requesting my retirement.  This attitude is of course that accepted by government, and in response to my comment the presidential press secretary publically stated that “Americans need to be careful about what they say!”  This is an outrageous idea and represents the sort of governmental intimidation that was subsequently built into the Patriot Act.

I worked here

I worked here

 

A more insidious threat to free speech comes with our attempts at social engineering, a questionable enterprise.  The unvoiced premise lurking behind much of this thinking is that freedom of expression means freedom of popular expression or decent expression or socially useful expression, all things that hardly need Constitutional protection.  So we now talk about “hate speech” and “fighting words,” that is, speech that is not popular, decent or socially useful but in fact constitutes a threat to social harmony and public safety.  This is all pernicious nonsense.  The only valid parameter for limiting speech is whether or not it is likely to cause immediate physical danger.  Inciting a crowd to riot would fall into this category, but hate speech that might indirectly lead to some problem in the future does not.  In the second case who would decide when offensive expression is offensive enough to be considered a danger to society?  Some government body?  Popular vote?  Do this and freedom of speech begins to crumble.  Or the “fighting words” notion, which maintains one cannot use speech that is so offensive to an individual that he assaults the speaker.  More nonsense.  You may be stupid for saying such provocative things, but speech can never justify doing violence to someone.

 

People seem to have a difficult time recognizing the burden of free expression: tolerance.  Your right to say what you please entails tolerating what others choose to say, no matter how disgusting you find it.  In fact, your duty as a citizen is to defend that person’s right to spout hate or nonsense. The grandest moment of the ACLU was defending the right of American Nazis to march through a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, a principled act that led to the resignation of many members.  These hypocrites were in effect saying “We believe in free speech, but…,” a statement that guarantees that the speaker is ready to limit that free speech.  Many appear to believe there is a clause in the Constitution that guarantees the right to get through life without ever being offended.

Even these idiots have the right to spew their venom

Even these idiots have the right to spew their venom

 

Truth is clearly not a necessary component of free expression.  If it were, politicians and advertisers would be in trouble.  Apart from the fact that it is often difficult to define precisely what is true and what is not, speaking nonsense is certainly protected by the right of free speech.  There is, however, a specific case of untrue speech being prohibited.  In Germany and Austria denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense, which is an outrageous abridgement of free expression, designed, presumably, to hinder the emergence of obnoxious and threatening groups.  While it is clear why this particular topic is a sensitive one in these countries, this is a dangerous practice.  Who is to decide what bits of history may not be denied or distorted?  When is an event in the past so horrible that one is punished for saying it did not happen?  Why not outlaw all speech which appears stupid or ignorant?

 

In Israel it is now illegal to publically support any agency or NGO engaged in boycotting Israeli products or services as a protest against the country’s policies regarding the Palestinians.  People who do so are “delegitimizing” Israel, an assertion that now takes a place alongside “anti-Semitism” as a standard reply to critics of Israel.  It may seem a small thing in a society that enjoys wide freedom of speech, but while an Israeli citizen is free to say all sorts of nasty things about his country, he cannot support or approve any boycott directed against Israel, which is to say, there is one traditional form of protest that is denied to him.  Asserting that it is criminal to “delegitimize” the state comes seriously close to punishing people who insult the state.

 

And now this Israeli – or at least Likud – assault on free speech in the interest of politics may be coming to America.  Opposing Israeli policies in Palestine, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has initiated an academic boycott of Israeli institutions and universities, which has now elicited a response from Israel’s many friends in the Congress.  The proposed Protect Academic Freedom Act provides that any academic institution that participates in the BDS movement will be denied federal funds under the Higher Education Act.  This is bad enough, but the definition of “participate” is breathtaking: “The Secretary shall consider an institution of higher education to be participating in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars if the institution, any significant part of the institution, or any organization significantly funded by the institution adopts a policy or resolution, issues a statement, or otherwise formally establishes the restriction of discourse, cooperation, exchange, or any other involvement with academic institutions or scholars on the basis of the connection of such institutions or such scholars to the state of Israel.”  Whatever one thinks of the BDS movement and the academic boycott, this ironically named bill would obviously put limits on free speech on the American university campus.

 

The man who introduced this constitutionally questionable act, Rep. Peter Roskam, explained: “These organizations are clearly free to do what they want to do under the First Amendment, but the American taxpayer doesn’t have to subsidize it. The American taxpayer doesn’t have to be complicit in it.  And the American taxpayer doesn’t have to play any part in it.”  (A perfect of example of “I believe in free speech, but…”)  So, federal funding of academic institutions that merely fund an organization that in turn makes a statement against a foreign country is somehow an unreasonable burden for American taxpayers to bear?  And only in the case of this one particular country?  The Congressman does not explain why it is on the other hand fine that the American taxpayer has to be complicit in and play a part in sending $3 billion dollars a year to a country that is universally recognized to be blatantly violating international covenants the civilized world is pledged to uphold.  How far is this from denying federal aid to a university that allows its faculty to publically support a boycott targeting American policy?  Well, probably very far, since the Congress often seems more concerned about Israel than the United States.

A bit frayed these days

A bit frayed these days

I don't need to show you no stinking Constitution

I don’t need to show you no stinking Constitution

 

Freedom of speech is the most fragile of our freedoms, since it is so easy to slowly pick away at it, to eliminate free expression in this or that seemingly small area in the interest of social and political welfare.  And most Americans will simply not care because it does not affect them.

 

A final historical observation concerning free expression.  While Athens was engaged in what would be a life and death struggle against Sparta, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the comic play-write Aristophanes was producing very successful satires of Athenian society and policy.  Not only did he constantly lampoon the leaders of Athens, but he openly attacked the Athenian empire and the war itself, and he did this in a state that lacked any constitutional guarantees whatsoever, a state where the people in their assembly could take virtually any action they pleased.  It is hard to find a greater commitment to free speech.

"Take your war and shove it."

“Take your war and shove it.”