UNICEF AND TEXTBOOKS IN PALESTINE
Fouad Moughrabi's "Battle of the Books in Palestine" [Oct. 1] incorrectly states that UNICEF evacuated its staff from the West Bank and Gaza at the outset of the intifada one year ago. In fact, staff were not evacuated but remained on the job in order to insure UNICEF's longstanding support to Palestinian children. Only relatives of some staff members, a volunteer and a consultant at the end of her assignment were sent home. The article also gives the mistaken impression that international agencies like UNICEF have not extended any help to Palestinian children suffering psychologically as a result of this most recent period of conflict. This is not true. UNICEF promptly mobilized up to $480,000 at the outset of the current situation to assist children suffering from stress and other psychological problems, in cooperation with our Palestinian partners. We continue to do so. Our most recent effort is to help others working to help children reach a consensus on practices and ethics for this important work. Rather than being left to "cope on their own," as Moughrabi states, children in the West Bank and Gaza can continue to rely on UNICEF's support during this difficult period.
UNICEF West Bank and Gaza
Professor Fouad Moughrabi's article is, in fact, a reprint of a piece to which the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP) has already responded. We invited Professor Moughrabi to "openly and honestly examine and discuss the content of the textbooks themselves." To date we have received no response from him.
Moughrabi is disturbed that CMIP has placed the issue of the educational policies inherent in Palestinian and Israeli school texts on the public agenda. Textbooks are not simply another educational device but a clear expression of what governments instill in the minds of the young to further their long-term agenda.
Nothing in Moughrabi's article does anything but reinforce the conclusion that he has no real answer to the analysis put forward in the CMIP report. The objective reader is still left with the conclusion reached in the report that Palestinian textbooks incite against Jews, against Israel's very existence and coexistence with its neighbors. Certain Palestinian textbooks still depict Jews as greedy, treacherous, racist liars and thieves. They are the "enemies of the Arabs," of "the prophets and believers" and even of God. They aspire to rule and control the world, and they view the "non-Jews as pigs just fit for servicing them."
With regard to the work by Mustafa Dabbagh, CMIP would like to clarify the following points: (1) Our Country Palestine was not originally printed in 1947. In 1947 there existed a manuscript, which was lost at sea during Dabbagh's flight from Jaffa to Egypt. This volume was first printed in 1965 by the Dar al-Taliah printing house in Beirut. The same house printed Volume 2 in 1966. (2) Our Country Palestine is not "merely mentioned" in the chapter of the Palestinian Authority's sixth-grade textbook Our Beautiful Language, devoted to Mustafa Murad Dabbagh. Most of this chapter is actually a long quote from the introduction that Dabbagh wrote in 1964 for the first edition of his work. Moreover, in the eighth lesson, for example, the pupils are asked to write a detailed account of the importance of their cities or villages. The lesson suggests using Dabbagh's book to perform this task. So, the pupils have to use Dabbagh's work, which provides a detailed account of each town and village in Palestine from the archeological, historical, geographical, geological, botanical and economic point of view.
(3) Our Country Palestine was reprinted by the University Graduates Union of the province of Hebron, Volume 1 in 1973 and Volume 2 in 1985. Also, one of the copies of Our Country Palestine that was used by CMIP during its research came from the library of one of the intermediate schools of Hebron. (4) The quote "There is no alternative to destroying Israel" appears in the 1965 edition. In the 1973 edition this sentence was changed to "There is no alternative to the complete destruction of Israel." In spite of the Oslo accords, the State of Israel still does not appear on any map in any of the Palestinian textbooks or teachers' guides. One cannot find the slightest hint of recognition of the State of Israel, within its borders of 1948 or even within the framework of the 1947 UN Palestine partition plan. There is no reference to the peace process or to the content of the Oslo accords, to the mutual recognition between Palestinians and Israelis, or to their mutual commitment at Oslo to solve their conflict exclusively by negotiation. Unfortunately, certain Palestinian educational materials advocate the opposite approach--the obligation to liberate Palestine by jihad.
One can find numerous quotes propagating this indoctrination, including excerpts from Palestinian textbooks on the CMIP website (www.edume.org).
DR. YOHANAN MANOR
Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace
Ramallah, West Bank
In October 2000 most international agencies in the West Bank and Gaza evacuated what they call their "nonessential" staff. In those grim days, UNICEF in particular was not answering our phone calls or responding to our e-mail requests. More significant, however, is the fact that UNICEF's intervention here was minimal, mostly geared to increasing general awareness about the psychological effects of trauma on Palestinian children, by placing ads in newspapers and by distributing a useful booklet designed to help teachers and parents recognize the symptoms and try to deal with them. Pierre Poupard recently sent us a letter in which he claims that UNICEF has also done a limited amount of training of teachers. In other crises throughout the world, UNICEF intervened immediately by conducting large-scale screening and by devising intervention strategies, thereby gaining a wealth of experience in responding to children who suffer the effects of trauma. Excellent and useful work was carried out in neighboring Lebanon with the help of Dr. Mouna Macksoud, who translated screening measures to Arabic and adapted them to local needs. This was not done here, despite the nearly half-million dollars allocated to the task. Palestinian children and their parents continue to cope on their own.
Dr. Manor's response is consistent with a pattern of lies that permeates the entire work of CMIP. He claims that CMIP responded to me and invited me to "openly and honestly examine and discuss the content of the textbooks themselves" and that I have not answered. This is another lie. I never heard from them.
A much longer version of my Nation article is forthcoming in the Journal of Palestine Studies. It will contain even more proof, on the basis of text analysis, of CMIP lies and distortions.
If textbooks are indeed a "clear expression of what governments instill in the minds of the young," as Manor suggests, then I invite him to take a look at Israeli school textbooks, which to this day view Arabs as thieves, killers and marauders; present a map of Israel that includes the entire area from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River as the eternal Land of Israel; and describe the occupied Palestinian West Bank as Judea and Samaria, where no Arabs are said to exist. His obfuscatory remarks about Our Country Palestine notwithstanding, the fact is that CMIP deliberately misquotes and badly translates in order to force a point about a book that various scholars consider to be a classic reference work on the history of Palestine during the British Mandate.
I am more than happy to enter into an honest and open debate on the issue of Palestinian and Israeli school textbooks with knowledgeable and professional Israeli colleagues, but not with extremists whose political agenda is to show that peace and coexistence with the Palestinians are impossible.
I don't think it was fair for Katha Pollitt to object to my observation that embryonic stem cell research, "'rightly or wrongly' summons up visions of Dr. Mengele's Auschwitz experiments" ["Subject to Debate," Aug. 20]. That's exactly how many people feel, and for those debating the issue it's important to know what motivates all sides. Nevertheless, I must say Pollitt made some good points in illuminating the inconsistencies of some of those favoring funding for embryonic stem cell research.
She correctly summarizes Orrin Hatch's position as: It's "OK to destroy a frozen embryo because the embryo is only a person if it's in a woman." Dubbing this the "location theory of personhood," she notes that by this logic, "You put the cells in the woman, it's a person, you take them out, it's not a person, you put them back in, voilà!--it's a person again. You might as well say Orrin Hatch is a person in his office but not in his car." Well put. But it would be nice if Pollitt would apply her wit and reasoning to the "convenience theory of personhood." If the mother wants it, it's called a "baby," cards are sent out, the empty bedroom is decorated with stuffed animals and a crib is installed. If the mother doesn't want it, it's called a fetus and aborted.
The Hudson Institute
Katha Pollitt suggests that antichoice women be recruited to gestate the 100,000 frozen embryo children in need of homes. But how responsible is this? If half of all fertilized eggs fail to implant, we would be condemning 50,000 embryo children to death. Really, the safest place for an embryo child is the freezer. In fact, we might require all fertilized embryos to be removed and frozen for their own safety. What responsible parent would want an embryo child to be faced with the perils of gestation and birth--and ultimate death? Besides solving the problem of death, freezing all embryo children would save money spent on education, medical care and other things that we are too prone to provide for unruly children. Frozen embryos are certainly the best behaved, least troublesome children we will ever get.
Patriotism requires no apologies. Like anti-Communism and anti-Fascism, it is an admirable and thoroughly sensible a priori assumption from which to begin making more nuanced judgments. Nor does patriotism need to be exclusionary. I am an American patriot, a Jewish patriot and a New York chauvinist pig. My patriotism is not about governments and armies; it's about unions, civil rights marches and the '69 Mets. It's not Kate Smith singing "God Bless America"; it's Bruce Springsteen singing "This Land Is Your Land."
Of course, not everyone on the left concurs. While many nonpatriots share an idealistic belief in a kind of cosmopolitan, humanist internationalism, some--like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the right--really do hate this country. These leftists find nothing to admire in its magnificent Constitution; its fitful history of struggle toward greater freedom for women, minorities and other historically oppressed groups; and its values, however imperfectly or hypocritically manifested in everyday life. This became obvious in a few of the immediate reactions we heard in the wake of September 11. How could anyone say with certainty why we were attacked when we couldn't be sure who attacked us? All they could know, really, is why they thought we deserved it.
This "Hate America" left must be rejected for reasons of honor and pragmatism. It is difficult enough to "talk sense to the American people" in wartime without having to defend positions for which we have no intellectual or emotional sympathy. Many on the right are hoping to exploit a pregnant political moment to advance a host of antidemocratic policies. Principled dissent is never more necessary than when it is least welcome. American history is replete with examples of red scares, racist hysteria, political censorship and the indefensible curtailment of civil liberties that derive, in part, from excessive and abusive forms of superpatriotism. We are already seeing the beginnings of a concerted attack on civil liberties, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Given the importance most Americans place on patriotism as a bedrock personal value, it is folly to try to enjoin them in a battle that fails to embrace their most basic beliefs.
Moreover, the refusal to draw this line invites the kind of McCarthyite thuggishness we see on display in the writings of pundits like Andrew Sullivan and Michael Kelly, and in the pages of (predictably) National Review and (sadly) The New Republic, tarring anyone with a wartime question or criticism as a pro-terrorist "Fifth Column" (Sullivan's term). Casting as wide a net as possible for their poisonous attacks, they choose examples so tiny as to be virtually nonexistent. In defense of his slander of the people of New York as well as virtually everyone else who voted against George Bush in the "red" areas of the nation, Sullivan pointed to an obscure website based in Denmark run by something called United Peoples. To smear opponents of unfettered free trade and globalization, TNR editor Peter Beinart seized on a bunch of anonymous postings to another, no less obscure, website whose name I cannot even remember. Kelly has now devoted two Washington Post columns to attacking all pacifists as "evil," "objectively pro-terrorist" and "Liars. Frauds. Hypocrites." But in neither column could he find the space--or the courage--to name a single one.
Because none of these writers have yet developed the reputation for malevolent hysteria enjoyed by, say, Marty Peretz on Israel or David Horowitz and Ann Coulter on everything, there is a serious chance that the larger mass media, never good at making distinctions on the left in the best of times, will swallow and repeat their reprehensible assertions. The net result will be the exclusion of all progressives, America-hating or no, from the spectrum of "responsible" debate where decisions are made and the nation's future is determined.
The potential for politically motivated official censorship--beyond that which is genuinely necessary to protect the safety and security of our troops--is never far away in wartime. Politicians and generals quite understandably find the temptation to abuse this power irresistible. We saw countless such examples during the Gulf War, and we can discern hints of future threats from the lips of presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer, who endorsed the attempts of a few Madison Avenue mullahs to withdraw advertising from ABC's moronic talk show Politically Incorrect when host Bill Maher used the word "cowards" regarding the US military's use of cruise missiles. "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is." (Speaking of cowardice, the White House edited Fleischer's remarks in its official transcript of the exchange.)
Yet another wartime peril to democracy derives from hyper-caution and self-censorship on the part of the media themselves. Why are newspapers like Newsday and the Daily News censoring comics who raise even the gentlest questions about George Bush? Exactly whom does the communications conglomerate Clear Channel imagine it is defending when it instructs its deejays not to play "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "Ticket to Ride" on the radio? Why do newspaper publishers in Grants Pass, Oregon, and Galveston County, Texas, feel the need to fire writers and editors who wondered why the President "skedaddled" into a "Nebraska hole" on the day of the attack? Most disturbing of all, why has the consortium of national news organizations decided to postpone, apparently indefinitely, the news of who really won the Florida election last winter? The estimated publication date for the collective effort, overseen by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center and costing more than $1 million, had been September 17. But New York Times political reporter Richard Berke wrote that the now "utterly irrelevant" report "might have stoked the partisan tensions."
In other words, the threat of "partisan tensions" arising from a potentially stolen election is more dangerous than continuing to live the lie. How wise of our media minders to decide that America needs to be protected--not from terrorists, but from truth.
The new war on terror isn't going to be of much use in combating the present plunge in America's well-being. Well before the twin towers fell to earth the country was entering a fierce decline, and it is assuredly going to get worse.The fall in growth and investment from early 2000 to early 2001 was the fastest since 1945, from 5 percent growth to zero. So fast, indeed, that people are only now catching on to the extent of the bad numbers, and battening down the hatches as bankruptcies begin to rise.
How did we get from the Merrie Then to the Dismal Now? The bubble in stock prices in those last five years sparked an investment boom, as corporations found mountains of cash available, either from the sale of overvalued stocks or by borrowing money from the banks against the high asset value of those same stocks. And as the Lewinsky years frolicked gaily by, there was a simultaneous consumption boom as the richest fifth of the citizenry--the Delta Force of national consumer spending--saved a lot less and spent a lot more.
The shadows were there for those who cared to look for them. In 1998, 1999 and 2000, when the boom was reaching historic proportions, when annual borrowing by US corporations had reached a historic peak as a percentage of GDP, when Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was vaunting the power of markets, the rate of profits was falling in the nonfinancial corporate sector, significantly so in manufacturing.
The bubble was due to burst. Now, with the market going down, corporations have less money, can borrow less and invest less. Consumers have less to spend and have begun to lose their appetite anyway. Down go the rates of investment and consumption, and the amount of government debt that the Bush Administration can muster as a Keynesian stimulus will be more than offset by a decline in private debt, as people turn prudent and ratchet up their savings.
But the problems go deeper. The corporate investment boom of the late 1990s took place against a backdrop of falling profitability. Who builds new plants when the bottom line is turning sour year by year? Answer: US corporations in the late 1990s. There was no correlate of investment against the rate of return, hence the amassing of overcapacity on a herculean scale. Between 1995 and 2000 retail store space grew five times faster than the population. Earlier this year, Business Week reckoned that only 2.5 percent of communications capacity is being used.
The most notorious sector was telecommunications, where borrowing was vast and stocks insanely inflated, with analysts boiling up ever more ludicrous ways of claiming profitability for their favored stocks. The degree to which stocks rose above profits was greatest in technology, media and telecommunications (TMT). In this sector, the leading edge of the boom, between 1995 and 2000 the value of TMT stocks grew by 6.1 times, but their earnings by only 2.1 times.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's survey of the United States for 2000 makes for chastening reading. By that year, the final distension of the bubble, the value of Internet companies reached 8 percent of the total value of all nonfinancial corporate assets in the economy. But most of those companies made only losses. Of 242 Internet companies reviewed in the OECD study, only thirty-seven made profits in the third quarter of 1999, the prepeak of the bubble. Their price-to-earnings ratio was 190 to one; precisely two of these accounted for 60 percent of profits. The other thirty-five profitable companies traded on an average p/e ratio of 270 to one; the 205 remaining companies made losses. For 168 of the companies for which data are available, total losses in the third quarter of 1999 amounted to $12.5 billion at an annualized rate, even as their stock-market valuation reached $621 billion.
You want a definition of a bubble? That's it.
So was there really a "New Economy" emerging in the sunset of the century, as proclaimed by so many exuberant choristers? True, the 1995 to 2000 economy did do better than in any five-year period back to the early 1970s. By all standard measures, such as productivity, economic growth, wages, growth of investment, unemployment and inflation, it was a pretty good time. But as Professor Robert Brenner of UCLA, whose Boom, Bubble, Bust: The US in the World Economy is about to be published by Verso, aptly asks, "If the five years 1995 to 2000 truly saw the emergence of a New Economy, manifesting 'extraordinary performance,' as Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers put it, what are we to call the period 1948 to 1973, which excelled the recent period in every respect?" Productivity growth was about 15 percent slower in those five recent years than in the twenty-five years between 1948 and 1973.
Obit writers for the great boom of 1995-2000 usually avert their eyes from the fact that despite all the exuberance of those giddy years, in terms of growth of gross domestic product, of per capita GDP, of wages and productivity, the 1990s as a whole did worse than the 1980s, and the 1980s worse than the 1970s. In other words, the golden end of the twentieth century was a continuance of the long stagnation of the world economy that began in 1973.
For now? On the one hand, overcapacity; on the other, a drop in investment and consumption, driven first by the drop in the market, then by fear. It will be quite a while before anyone feels the need to invest, hence to borrow. Give the rich a tax cut? It won't help. They'll put it in the bank. Government investment? Yes, if it were done on an appropriately vast scale, but only public investments of a sort that Republicans have never countenanced and that vanished from the political platforms of the Democratic Party decades ago. For sure, planes and missiles for the Navy and Air Force, plus the millions in food aid dropped on Afghanistan, plus new computers for the Office of Homeland Security, aren't going to do the trick.
The war in Afghanistan, coming after the atrocities of September 11, provokes a welter of contradictory emotions. On the one side, a desire for justice and a yearning for security. And on the other side, dread of a war unrestrained by national boundaries, time frame or definable goals.
We believe that America has a right to act in self-defense, including military action, in response to a vicious, deadly attack on US soil by a terrorist network identified with Osama bin Laden. There is a real threat of further attacks, so, as Richard Falk argues on page 11, action designed to hunt down members of the terrorist network and those in the Taliban government who collaborate with it is appropriate.
But acknowledging a right of response is by no means an endorsement of unlimited force. We must act effectively but within a framework of moral and legal restraint. Our concern is that airstrikes and other military actions may not accomplish the ends we endorse and may exacerbate the situation, kindling unrest in other countries and leading to a wider war. They have already triggered bloody riots in Pakistan and Indonesia and on the West Bank, where the cease-fire is in shreds.
This effort ideally should have been carried out under the aegis of the United Nations Security Council and bin Laden and his associates brought to justice for their crimes by an international court. The United States should still seek a mandate from the Security Council for its military actions. This would give the campaign the international legitimacy it needs to avoid playing into the hands of those charging an American war against Islam, and it would offer some protection against the calamity of a wider and uncontrolled war. It would also help strengthen the UN's policing and peacekeeping capacity.
If limited military action in self-defense against bin Laden and his backers and cohorts is justified, an open-ended "crusade" against pariah nations to stamp out ill-defined evil is not. There are already ominous rumblings in the Pentagon that such interventions are contemplated. The Administration has notified the Security Council that it might pursue terrorists in other nations. This may be more of a threat than a promise, especially as it pertains to the Philippines and Indonesia. But it is no secret that hard-liners hanker to expand the war to include strikes against Iraq, Iran, Syria and other hard cases.
Military actions inside Afghanistan must be circumscribed by limited political objectives and carried out with a minimum of civilian casualties. The report of the killing of four Afghan UN employees (engaged in clearing the deadly harvest of mines sowed by two decades of war in that nation) in the second day's bombing underscores the potential costs when vast firepower is unleashed against a poor nation with comparatively few military targets. As civilian casualties mount and more refugees are driven from their homes, international support for the US effort will dwindle.
The US air war has already magnified humanitarian problems that call for urgent attention. In addition to 7.5 million Afghans facing famine before the war, which has interrupted overland shipments of food, half a million refugees have fled the bombing. American cargo planes dropping 37,000 box lunches cannot mitigate this problem, so US contributions to international agencies giving food and medical aid must be stepped up. With fleeing Afghans massing at border chokepoints, the Pakistani government should be pressured to allow aid to go through. The UN, with US assistance, must expand the number of camps that will take in the uprooted.
Also looming in Afghanistan is the prospect of the Taliban government falling and leaving a power vacuum, into which rush the furies of anarchy and civil war. The UN should immediately convene a coalition of opposition groups (including those representing Afghan women) in an attempt to ease the transition to a new government that is broadly representative of the Afghan people.
Here in America, responsible members of Congress should demand clarification of the Administration's goals in this war and oppose the President's attempts to curtail Congressional oversight of the conflict. In this regard, we hope that the courageous statement of Representative Jim McDermott that the Administration lacked a "fully developed and comprehensive strategic plan" will hearten more of his fellow Democrats to engage in similar scrutiny. And let us also praise Senator Russell Feingold for at least slowing down an antiterrorism package that the Senate leadership was trying to rush through Congress by severe limiting amendments or debate.
As the fog of national security closes in Washington, the press must resume its appropriate watchdog role. Civil liberties groups should stay on high alert, flashing early warnings against unconstitutional laws and violations of civil rights--especially those of innocent aliens apprehended in early antiterrorist sweeps.
As we have said before, military means are only one weapon in the fight against terrorism--and a very limited one. Of greater importance are diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence efforts. Beyond those, instead of more US military attacks we need a multinational coalition dedicated to attacking the conditions breeding terrorism--the endless Israel-Palestine conflict, the corruption of US-supported Arab regimes, the world inequality and poverty spawned by globalization. And on another front, as Jonathan Schell warns on page 7, the question of weapons of mass destruction has acquired a new salience as a result of the recent events. Nuclear disarmament, a test ban and stronger nonproliferation measures are sorely needed. We should not let the military action overshadow these greater challenges.
As Schell writes, "The world is sick. It cannot be cured with America's new war. The ways of peace--adopted not as a distant goal but as a practical necessity in the present--are the only cure."
President Bush has stated that his global campaign against terrorism will be a "new kind of war," in which traditional military approaches will give way to a more innovative mix of tactics. Or, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, "The uniforms of this conflict will be bankers' pinstripes and programmers' grunge just as assuredly as desert camouflage."
Unfortunately, despite this rhetoric about fighting a new kind of conflict, the only thing new about the military budget in the wake of September 11 will be its size. Once emergency funding, previously requested increases and a forthcoming supplemental appropriation are taken into account, military spending for the current fiscal year could hit $375 billion, a $66 billion increase over last year's total. Rarely has so much money been thrown at the Pentagon so quickly, with so little public debate. Most of this new funding will be used to bail out existing weapons programs, not to finance new equipment or tecshniques designed for the fight against terrorism. The Pentagon's latest strategy review, released in early October, makes numerous mentions of "terrorism" and "homeland defense," but it is essentially a status quo document that will not require the cancellation of a single major weapons program.
Given this anything-goes approach, look for Republican Representative Curt Weldon to seize the opportunity to shore up the Boeing V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft built in his district that has been plagued by a series of fatal crashes and falsified test results. Likewise, the Georgia and Texas delegations will use the new, more generous Pentagon funding environment to fend off challenges to the Lockheed Martin F-22, an overweight, outmoded fighter plane that now costs more than $200 million each. And the list will go on, to include costly artillery systems, attack submarines and combat ships, all of which were originally designed for battle with a Soviet military machine that no longer exists, and none of which have any obvious application to the President's current war on terrorism.
Of course, the most expensive item on the Bush Administration's military wish list is its multibillion-dollar missile defense scheme. The low-tech means used for the September 11 attacks underscore the fact that a long-range ballistic missile is the least likely method a hostile power would use to attack the United States. But Congressional Star Wars boosters, like GOP Senator Jon Kyl and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, have rushed to the program's defense nonetheless. Meanwhile, Democratic critics, like Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, are holding their fire for the moment, after agreeing to put aside plans to restrict the Pentagon's $8.3 billion missile defense budget for the current fiscal year in the name of national unity.
In a recent address to the Heritage Foundation, Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim did manage to specify a handful of items that he argued would be useful in tracking down and targeting terrorists, including unmanned surveillance vehicles, like the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, and specialized reconnaissance aircraft like the RC-135 "Rivet Joint." But these systemsare small change compared with the tens of billions the Pentagon will continue to devote to big-ticket, cold war-era white elephants like the F-22.
Lockheed Martin and its industry cohorts will also benefit from the stepped-up US arms sales to the Middle East and South Asia that are being offered as a quid pro quo for joining the US-led antiterror campaign. The Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which handles government-to-government arms sales, recently established a "war room," known as the "Enduring Freedom Response Cell," which is intended to put weapons requests from US allies on a "fast track." Uzbekistan has been cited as one country that could benefit from the new, streamlined procedures. Pending sales of F-16 aircraft to Oman and the United Arab Emirates and multiple-launch rocket systems to Egypt are being rushed through in the name of coalition-building.
Even if there were an effective military solution to the scourge of terrorism, the Pentagon would be hard pressed to explain how most of the items included in its current spending spree could be put to use in such a battle. It's time for skeptics on Capitol Hill and in the country at large to speak out loudly and clearly, before our leaders in Washington write out a blank check to the Pentagon that could distort federal budget priorities and the conduct of our foreign policy for years to come.
The press conference that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held shortly after the United States began bombing Afghanistan on October 7 was painful to behold. The questions posed by reporters tended to be either trivial--Did the B-2s involved in the mission depart from the United States?--or thoughtless. Since September 11 Rumsfeld had repeatedly said that he would not divulge any information that might endanger ongoing operations, but that did not stop reporters from trying to elicit it. CNN's Jamie McIntyre, for instance, kept demanding to know whether the United States planned to send ground troops into Afghanistan. Rumsfeld did his best to ignore him, but, as McIntyre persisted, the Secretary finally fixed him with an icy stare and said, "We don't discuss operational details."
The briefing reminded me of the famous Saturday Night Live sketch aired during the Persian Gulf War, in which reporters--despite being warned not to ask about matters that could aid the enemy--posed questions like, "What date are we going to start the ground attack?" and "Where are our forces most vulnerable to attack?" The sketch captured the public's disdain for the media's mindless aggressiveness and reinforced the first Bush Administration's inclination to restrict the flow of information about the war.
Now, with a new conflict upon us, the second Bush Administration seems intent on imposing similar controls. "Although the administration says it is not engaged in censorship," Elisabeth Bumiller reported in the New York Times, "officials throughout the government readily say they have been ordered to be circumspect about their remarks." This is certainly troubling. Without access to battle sites and timely information, the press--whatever its faults--will have a hard time assessing the success of US actions. Accordingly, US news organizations have been pushing the Pentagon to be more open.
That seems unlikely to happen, however. As during the Gulf War, the public seems to support the Administration's approach. Rather than sit around and grumble, though, reporters and editors should rededicate themselves to the real task at hand, which is providing the fullest possible coverage of the complicated new era we have entered. That, in turn, requires journalists to show such qualities as independence, enterprise and, yes, courage. Regardless of how much information the government provides, the press must pose uncomfortable questions, challenge broadly held assumptions and solicit opinion from a wide range of sources.
There are some hopeful signs. During the Gulf War, the press uncritically accepted Pentagon assertions about the accuracy of its missiles. Postwar studies showed those claims to be vastly exaggerated, and many journalists felt burned. A month into the current conflict, some journalists have shown their determination to avoid a repeat. Thus, after the Rumsfeld briefing, Richard Hawley, a former US general turned ABC news consultant, told Peter Jennings that in bombing Afghanistan, the United States was using precision-guided weapons so as to avoid "collateral damage." Jennings immediately pounced. During the Gulf War, he observed, generals "repeatedly talked about precision-guided weapons, and they turned out to be anything but precise. How much better is it now?" Hawley said that US missiles now have GPS-aided navigational devices that make for "far fewer stray rounds." Whether that's so remains to be seen, of course, but the exchange shows how some journalists, at least, have learned from that past conflict.
The current one, however, offers a host of new challenges, especially in covering the political dimensions of the conflict. And here the press could do much better. To cite one example, the Pentagon revealed on October 7 that in addition to dropping bombs on Afghanistan, it was dropping humanitarian food packages. In all, it said, it was delivering about 37,000 packages. Most news organizations accepted at face value the Pentagon's explanation that this showed America's concern for the well-being of the Afghan people. In all, though, millions of Afghans face starvation, and the next day NPR reported that Doctors Without Borders had condemned the US food drop as "propaganda" and, further, that the bombing had caused the UN World Food Program in Pakistan to suspend its daily shipments of 700 tons of food into Afghanistan. In reporting this, NPR did not rely on handouts from the Pentagon; rather, it went into the field and developed its own sources of information. (In fairness, Washington says it plans to increase greatly the size of its food drops once it is safe to do so.)
Another, more serious example of the press's credulity has been its coverage of the US intelligence services. In light of the failures to predict the September 11 attacks, the press has almost unanimously concluded that the United States needs to beef up its spying abroad and to "unleash" the CIA to fight terrorism. In a piece for The New Yorker, for instance, Seymour Hersh, relying heavily on sources within the US intelligence community, lambasted the CIA for turning away from the rough-and-tumble methods it used during the cold war. "Look," one agent told Hersh, "we recruited assholes. I handled bad guys. But we don't recruit people from the Little Sisters of the Poor--they don't know anything." A piece in the New York Times's Week in Review section echoed Hersh. "The CIA's spies are ill-equipped to fight a dirty war in the world's back alleys," lamented Tim Weiner, who went on to cite the need for American intelligence to rebuild its capacity for "old-fashioned espionage" and satisfy the "urge for covert action to combat an invisible foe."
These articles offered no independent assessments as to how much impact such a buildup could actually have in combating terrorism. Even more troubling, they showed no awareness of the serious costs of past US covert operations, from the Congo to Cambodia to Latin America. This omission seemed especially dismaying in the case of Hersh, who over the years has broken so many stories about clandestine mischief abroad.
Clearly, the United States needs to improve its ability to confront invidious groups like Al Qaeda. We are indeed fighting a new kind of war, and it requires new types of responses. Yet the unthinking acceptance of premises like the need to "unleash" the CIA does not advance the discussion. More than ever, US journalists must avoid the temptation to engage in groupthink and--without seeming reflexively adversarial--must ask sharp questions. In the end, the danger they face is not just censorship, but self-censorship.
The attacks of September 11 have not only exposed the failures of our intelligence apparatus and the "blowback" problem of US foreign policy. They have also stripped bare how one branch of corporate America, the $273 billion airline industry, has successfully captured the government agency supposed to oversee it and bought off the people's watchdogs in Congress. This situation argues for far-reaching changes in how campaigns are financed and how government agencies are staffed.
The vulnerability of our airports can be traced, in part, to the role of the airline industry in lobbying year after year against any federal takeover of airport security and its insistence on contracting the work out to low-bidding companies that often pay little more than the minimum wage to the people who check passengers' luggage and X-ray their handbags. Last year the General Accounting Office found that starting salaries for screeners at all nineteen of the nation's largest airports was $6 per hour or less, with five boasting starting salaries of just $5.15 per hour. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), from May 1998 through April 1999 turnover at those same nineteen airports ranged from 100 percent to more than 400 percent. Argenbright, one of the four big companies that dominate the private airport security business in America, pleaded guilty in 2000 to several charges and agreed to pay $1.2 million in fines for falsifying records, doing inadequate background checks and hiring at least fourteen airport workers in Philadelphia who had criminal convictions for burglary, firearm possession, drug dealing and other crimes. In 1978, reports the New York Times, the FAA "found that screeners failed to detect guns and pipe bombs 13 percent of the time in compliance tests, while in 1987 the agency found that screeners missed 20 percent of the time. Since then, the agency has stopped releasing figures."
Despite these worrisome facts, the airlines and their lobby, the Air Transport Association (ATA), fought against any federal takeover of airport security because they didn't want to have to pay more for it and because they didn't want potential passengers scared off by longer lines or fears of a hijacking. And the FAA dragged its heels, in part because its mandate, written by a Congress addicted to millions in transportation-industry campaign contributions, has been not only to insure air safety but also to promote air travel. The airlines alone have given more than $65 million to federal candidates and parties since 1990, and spent roughly the same amount lobbying the federal government between 1997 and 2000.
Much of that boodle helped to weaken the implementation of new security procedures recommended by a 1996 presidential commission chaired by Vice President Al Gore, set up after the TWA 800 crash. For example, according to a report by Public Citizen, the commission's recommendation that the background of all airport employees be checked for criminal records was opposed by the industry because it would create administrative and financial burdens. Even Gore himself backed down on his commission's insistence that all bags be matched to passengers on all flights. The day after he wrote the ATA about his change of heart, campaign contributions started to pour in from the airlines to various Democratic Party committees at double their previous pace.
Many people in Washington have enriched themselves by maintaining this sordid status quo. Current or recent lobbyists for the airlines and/or the ATA include Linda Hall Daschle (wife of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle), Haley Barbour (former Republican National Committee chair), Harold Ickes (deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House), Ken Duberstein (chief of staff for Ronald Reagan and a crony of Colin Powell), Nick Calio (now President Bush's Congressional liaison) and former Senators Dale Bumpers and Bob Packwood. Three recent FAA administrators, including Linda Hall Daschle, have come from the industry.
So far, nothing has changed in the wake of the September 11 attacks. According to Paul Hudson, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has "excluded all aviation security proponents, consumer or public representatives, air crash victim groups, former FAA security officials critical of aviation security and the manufacturers of advanced aviation security equipment from his advisory group" on new security measures, relying instead on the industry alone. The airlines finally came out in favor of federalizing airport screening, though by September 12 their lobbyists were already plotting the $15 billion taxpayer bailout. A month later, the thousands of laid-off employees, who lack a similarly well-heeled lobby, are still waiting to find out if they will get emergency unemployment, healthcare and job-training support.
As I write, the world is filled with fear. I am having one of those reactions that psychologists describe as a stress response. I suppose I'm not alone, though. A friend calls and says, "You hung a flag yet? Anyone who's been to Cuba, you better hang a flag." "Cuba?" I ask, startled. "You don't mean that weeklong human rights trip seventeen years ago?"
"You poor naïve child. I'm sending you a big one. Hang it on your porch."
In the newspaper, I read of Muslims who are shaving their beards and removing their veils. I read of blacks who are embracing suspect profiling. There's an unsubstantiated rumor on the Internet of Barney Frank hugging Strom Thurmond just before he fainted.
"It's that list they'll be drawing up in the Office of Homeland Security," explains a fellow paranoid as we shop for bottled water. "Nobody wants to be on that." Then she points out the physical resemblance between Tom Ridge and J. Edgar Hoover. She believes in reincarnation. I do not, but...it really is uncanny.
Another friend calls to say she's been reading the Washington Post. "Sally Quinn's got gas masks for everyone in her family. Her doctor gave her a stock of antibiotics, enough for her and all the servants." The word "triage" begins to rise uncomfortably in my mind. Who gets to stockpile antibiotics in this new world order? If I went to a doctor for a little "extra" medication, he'd turn me in for drug dealing. If minorities suffer from unequal access to medical treatment now, what happens when panicked hordes make a run on hospitals for limited supplies of anthrax vaccine?
Not that any of this will do any good anyway, I suppose. My mother reminds me of the bomb shelters that sprang up during the 1950s. "I worried too," she said. "But you can't control this sort of thing on an individual level. Will you never go to the beach for fear of being too far from the shelter? Will you never take off the gas mask for fear of smelling the roses?" A friend of mine who's a psychologist says that it is precisely the terrifying lack of control that is sending so many people over the edge. She says that lots of fragile sorts have been showing up at Bellevue to apologize for having driven a plane into the World Trade Center. The less fragile ones have been busy actually hijacking Greyhound buses and rushing into cockpits in states of extreme agitation.
On the news, crusty old senators disclose that they have participated in various government war games, in which they role-played all sides of the conflict in the event of hypothetical disasters. The crusty old senators worry me; they move stiffly and are so relentlessly formal that they refer to themselves in the third person, like Bob Dole. I suspect them of playing these games in the groves of the Bohemian Club, with the expectation that whatever happens they will retire to the bar for whisky sours afterward. All this is a too glib way of saying that I simply don't see them coming up with quite the same strategies and outcomes that Al Qaeda might.
I think that if the Pentagon really wants to role-play doomsday scenarios here at home, they need to lock Jerry Falwell in a small room with Elián González's Miami relatives, G. Gordon Liddy, Louis Farrakhan, Jack Kevorkian, Charlton Heston, Al Sharpton, Kenneth Starr and a horde of neglected, riot-prone, inner-city kids who under the circumstances feel as though they have nothing left to lose. We get O.J. Simpson to keep a body count and Larry King to report what's happening. We give them $43 million worth of weaponry (the sum George Bush, as recently as August, thought would be a nice amount to send to the Taliban), an airdropped bundle of peanut butter sandwiches and ten minutes to reproduce Afghanistan's religiopolitical structure. Does anyone seriously doubt that this much of an experiment would end up destabilizing all of human history?
"People are screaming through the cracks," says a colleague. I had never heard that expression before. She says it means that people are too scared to say what they mean when you ask them to speak on the record. "But if you ride the buses, talk to truck drivers, go to church, hang out with teenagers in the pool hall, they're terrified of this war. No one knows why all this is happening."
It is true that everyone has a different conspiracy theory of this war. When I first heard of the bombing, I thought it was retribution for Timothy McVeigh's execution and that "the terrorists" had chosen New York because it's a city of miscegenated minorities. A Jewish friend was equally certain that New York was chosen because "it's a Jewish city." A stockbroker friend finds it obvious that "they" were out to destroy world trade and global economics. Pat Robertson blames Bill Clinton. A Christian evangelical friend says that it's all about "the rapture," which is apparently that moment just short of end-time when the sanctified will be transported directly to heaven and the rest of us will perish. Maureen Dowd, Washington's favorite material girl, flips mournfully through the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue and concludes that it's because foreign agents don't want us to enjoy our "stuff." The White House blames "not all Muslims." And Ari Fleischer blames Bill Maher.
There's a brilliant trilogy by children's author Philip Pullman titled His Dark Materials. The tale features armored bears enlisted in the fight between good and evil--great clanking white bears who smash through enemy armies, clumsy but immense in their power. In my mind, I keep seeing those big armored bears as American warplanes bombing away, strong and accurate and deadly. But I am also visited by images of "the network" that they're fighting as more of a global spider web, very thin, fine lines of connection--tough, resilient and almost invisible. I keep worrying that armored bears aren't much use against a foe like that. The bears are entirely capable of wreaking havoc in a given spot, but the spider web is small, silent, hard to see--drawing strength from structure, not from size; from belief, not from force. And as long as we do not come to terms with the more subtle nature of that kind of adversary, I will not be able to visualize any good end in sight.
As early as the 1960s,
influential critics argued that American Jewish writing no longer
counted as a distinct or viable literary project, for younger Jews
had grown so assimilated, so remote from traditional Jewish life,
that only nostalgia kept it going. Ted Solotaroff wrote some
exasperated pieces about young writers whose work already
seemed to him derivative--thin, tiresome, voguish, strained or
sentimental. Irving Howe and Robert Alter launched similar
complaints. I once heard the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld tell a
New York audience that Jewish writing was grounded in the Yiddish
culture and way of life that had flourished in Eastern Europe,
something that died with I.B. Singer in New York and S.Y. Agnon in
Israel. Gazing down benignly at an audience that included his good
friend Philip Roth and the novelist E.L. Doctorow, he said that while
there were certainly writers who happened to be Jews, there really
were no more Jewish writers.
Other observers have been
equally firm in anchoring American Jewish writing to the immigrant
experience, a point brought home by Irving Howe in a famous attack on
Philip Roth in Commentary in 1972. Howe saw Roth, whose first
book he had warmly acclaimed, as a writer with "a thin personal
culture," the kind of writer who "comes at the end of a tradition
which can no longer nourish his imagination" or one who simply has
"chosen to tear himself away from that tradition." Certainly there
was very little sense of history, Jewish or otherwise, in Roth's
finely crafted early fiction. Yet in the light of his humor, his
characters, his subjects and above all his later development, Roth
hardly stood outside the Jewish tradition; instead, he had a family
quarrel with the Jewish world that profoundly affected everything he
wrote. Yet Howe's charge struck home. A good deal of Roth's
subsequent writing can be seen as a rejoinder to Howe's wrongheaded
attack, which so rankled him that a decade later he wrote a furious
novel, The Anatomy Lesson, lampooning Howe as a hypocrite, a
pompous moralist and even, in a remarkable twist, a fast-talking
What was the core of the Jewish literary
tradition that Howe and Roth, two of its most gifted figures, could
come to such angry blows over it? I'll try to show how Jewish writing has changed--even
grown--and survived even the best-informed predictions of its demise.
The conflict between Roth and Howe was partly temperamental, but some
of it was generational. Howe was the product of the Yiddish-speaking
ghetto, of socialism and the Depression; Roth came of age in postwar
America, a world he would alternately satirize and recall with
nostalgia. There is a streak of the moralist, the puritan, in Howe's
criticism, while Roth took pride, especially when he wrote
Portnoy's Complaint, in playing the immoralist, or at least in
treating Jewish moral inhibitions as an ordeal, a source of conflict.
For Howe, as for writers of his generation like Bernard Malamud, this
moral burden was the essence of our humanity; for Roth it led to
neurosis, anger and dark, painful comedy.
It comes as a
surprise to realize that the major current of Jewish writing in
America dates only from the Second World War. Howe once compared the
Jewish and the Southern literary schools with a provocative comment:
"In both instances," he said, "a subculture finds its voice and its
passion at exactly the moment it approaches disintegration." But in
what sense was Jewish life in America approaching disintegration in
the first two decades after the war, when the best Jewish writers
emerged? What was dying, quite simply, was the vibrant immigrant
culture evoked by Howe in World of Our Fathers. After the war
Jews became freer, richer, more influential. As they moved up the
economic ladder, professions like academic life opened up to them
that had always been off-limits. Thanks largely to the sense of shame
induced by the Holocaust, social anti-Semitism in America became
virtually a thing of the past. Surely the great literary flowering
owed much to the way Jews in America had finally arrived, although
the writers were often critical of what their middle-class brethren
did with their freedom.
In any ethnic subculture, it's
almost never the immigrant generation that writes the books. The
immigrants don't have the language; their lives are focused on
survival, on gaining a foothold in the new world and insuring an
education for their children. That education not only makes
literature possible; it ignites a conflict of values that makes it
urgent and inevitable. The scattering of excellent novels by
individual writers before the war belongs less to a major literary
movement than to the process by which the children of immigrants
claimed their own identity. In powerful works of the 1920s and '30s
like Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, Mike Gold's Jews
Without Money and Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, the writers
pay tribute to the struggles of their parents yet declare their
independence from what they see as their narrow and constricting
world. These works could be classed with Sherwood Anderson's
Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis's Main Street as
part of what Carl Van Doren called the "revolt from the village," the
rebellion against local mores and patriarchal authority in the name
of a freer, more universal humanity.
parochial world these writers rejected was the only authentic
material they had. Their painful memories of small-mindedness and
poverty, parental intolerance and religious coercion fueled their
imagination as nothing else could. In these works the driving impulse
of the sensitive, autobiographical protagonist--Sara Smolinsky in
Bread Givers, little Mike Gold in Jews Without Money,
the impetuous Ralph Berger, hungry for life, in Clifford Odets's play
Awake and Sing!, even young David Schearl in Call It
Sleep--is to get away from the ghetto, with its physical
deprivation, its materialism and lack of privacy, its desperately
limited horizons, but also to get away from the suffocating embrace
of the Jewish family--the loving but overly emotional mother, the
domineering but ineffectual father and the inescapable crowd of
siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors, all completely
entwined in one another's lives. These works were a blow for freedom,
a highly ambivalent chronicle of emancipation and often, sadly, the
only books these writers could write. Their autonomy was hard-won but
incomplete; this new identity liberated them personally but did
little to fire their imagination.
Henry Roth once told me
that only when he began to depart from the facts of his life did his
novel begin to take on a life of its own; it went on almost to write
itself. In Beyond Despair, Aharon Appelfeld made the same
point to explain his preference for fiction over autobiography. It
gave him the freedom he needed to reshape his own recollections,
especially the wartime experiences that bordered on the incredible.
"To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory,
which is only a minor element in the creative process." The early
Jewish-American novelists were not so lucky. They were stuck not only
with what they remembered but with a naturalistic technique that
could not do full justice to their experience. Their escape from
their origins, never fully achieved, became a mixed blessing; they
found themselves caught between memory and imagination, ghetto
sociology and personal need. Mere rebellion and recollection, it
seemed, could not nurture a full career. Their literary development
was stymied. Only the postwar writers managed to break through this
Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Delmore
Schwartz, Paul Goodman and their Yiddish cousin I.B. Singer were the
first Jewish writers in America to sustain major careers, not as
immigrant writers but in the mainstream of American letters. When
modernism replaced naturalism as the dominant literary mode, as fresh
influences like psychoanalysis and existentialism exploded the
sociological approach of many prewar writers, a new generation found
powerful new vehicles for dealing with its experience.
Straightforward realism was never an option for Jewish writers in
America; it belonged to those who knew their society from within, who
had a bird's-eye view, an easy grasp of its manners and values. As
newcomers dealing with complex questions of identity, Jews instead
became specialists in alienation who gravitated toward outrageous or
poetic forms of humor, metaphor and parable--styles they helped
establish in American writing after the war.
The key to the
new writers was not only their exposure to the great
modernists--Kafka, Mann, Henry James--but their purchase on Jews not
simply as autobiographical figures in a social drama of rebellion and
acculturation but as parables of the human condition. Though Saul
Bellow admired the power of an authentic naturalist like Theodore
Dreiser, though Flaubert helped forge his aesthetic conscience, his
first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, were
more influenced by Dostoyevsky and Kafka than by any writers in the
realist tradition. Bellow and his friends were the children of the
Holocaust rather than the ghetto. They did not write about the recent
events in Europe--they hadn't directly experienced them--but those
horrors cast their shadow on every page of their work, including the
many pages of desperate comedy.
The atrocities of the
Holocaust, the psychology of Freud and the dark vision of certain
modern masters encouraged Jewish writers to find some universal
significance in their own experience. Kafka was the prophet, not of
totalitarianism--that was too facile--but of a world cut loose from
will and meaning, the world as they experienced it in the 1940s. Saul
Bellow's engagement with the themes of modernist culture can be
traced from novel to novel, but even a writer as private as Malamud
was able to combine the stylized speech rhythms of the ghetto with a
form adapted from Hawthorne and Kafka to turn parochial Jewish tales
into chilling fables of modern life. This was the brief period when
the Jew became the modern Everyman, everyone's favorite victim,
shlemiel and secular saint. Yet there was also an innovation in
language, a nervous mixture of the literary and the colloquial, of
art talk and street talk, that was almost poetic in its effects.
Bellow himself brought the buoyant, syncopated rhythms of the
vernacular into his prose. As he put it in his eulogy of Malamud
after his death in 1986:
Well, we were here,
first-generation Americans, our language was English and a language
is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us. Malamud in his
novels and stories discovered a sort of communicative genius in the
impoverished, harsh jargon of immigrant New York. He was a myth
maker, a fabulist, a writer of exquisite parables.
find these effects almost anywhere we turn in Malamud's stories, from
animal fables like "The Jewbird" and "Talking Horse" to wrenching
tales like "Take Pity," which he put at the head of his last
collection of stories. It includes the following bit of dialogue,
supposedly between a census taker, Davidov, and a recalcitrant
citizen named Rosen:
"How did he die?"
"On this I am not an expert," Rosen replied. "You know better than
"How did he die?" Davidov spoke impatiently. "Say
in one word."
"From what he died?--he died, that's
"Answer, please, this question."
"Broke in him something. That's how."
"Broke what breaks."
Eventually we discover that
the man answering the questions in this Kafkaesque exchange is
himself dead, and his reckoning with the "census taker" takes place
in some bare, shabby room of heaven or hell, though it feels like a
forlorn pocket of the ghetto. (Malamud himself later described it as
"an institutional place in limbo.") Rosen, an ex-coffee
salesman, has killed himself in a last-ditch effort to impose his
charity, pity or love on the fiercely independent widow of the man
who died. Rosen takes pity on her, but she will not take his pity.
Even after he turns on the gas and leaves her everything, she appears
at the window, adrift in space, alive or dead, imploring or berating
him in a final gesture of defiance.
Like all of Malamud's
best work, this is a story of few words but resonant meanings.
Anticipating Samuel Beckett, Malamud strips down the sociology of the
ghetto into a spare, postapocalyptic landscape of essential, even
primitive emotions, finding eerie comedy on the far side of horror.
After her husband's death, as the business disintegrated, the woman
and her children came close to starving, but the story is less about
poverty than about the perverseness of the human will. Again and
again Rosen tries to help the widow, but she adamantly refuses to be
helped. Both are stubborn unto death, and the story explores the fine
line between goodness and aggression, generosity and control,
independence and self-sacrifice. Rosen will get the proud woman to
take his help, whether she wants to or not, but neither can truly
pity the other; their unshakable self-will isolates and destroys
them. And the interrogator, standing in for both author and reader,
makes no effort to judge between them. The story leaves us with a
sense of the sheer human mystery.
The raw power of
Malamud's stories is based on a simple principle--that every moral
impulse has its Nietzschean dark side, its streak of lust or the will
to power, just as every self has its anti-self, a double or shadow
that exposes its vulnerabilities and limitations. This dialectic of
self and other is at the heart of Malamud's stories and novels. The
"self" in his stories is often a stand-in for the writer, a worldly,
cultivated man--someone fairly young but never youthful, well
educated but not especially successful, Jewish but nervously
assimilated, full of choked-up feeling. Repeatedly, this figure is
brought up short by his encounter with some ghetto trickster, a
wonder-working rabbi, an ethnic con man who represents the
suppressed, tribal part of his own tightly controlled
Malamud's work is full of such symbolic
figures, half real, half legendary, including the ghetto rat,
Susskind, a stateless refugee in Rome in "The Last Mohican," who
steals the hero's manuscript on Giotto; and Salzman, the marriage
broker in "The Magic Barrel," whose ultimate gift to a young
rabbinical student is his own fallen daughter. These Old World
characters point to the ambiguous, even disreputable qualities that
the young hero has bleached out of his own identity. They are
slightly magical figures who come and go with almost supernatural
ease. At different times they stand for ethnic Jewishness, carnality,
wild emotion, even a sense of magic and the irrational. Or else they
are figures from another culture--the Italian helper in The
Assistant, the black writer in The Tenants--who test the
limits of the protagonist's humanity and sometimes put him on a
tentative path toward redemption and
Malamud's piety toward the past, the Jewish
elders, is not much in evidence in the next generation. Coming of age
in the late 1950s and early 1960s, writers like Philip Roth belonged
to a new group of discontented sons and daughters. This was the black
humor generation, rebelling not against the constraints of the
ghetto--they were too young to have known any real ghetto--but
against the mental ghetto of Jewish morality and the Jewish family.
If Anzia Yezierska or Clifford Odets inveighed against the actual
power of the Jewish father or mother, Roth and his contemporaries,
who grew up with every apparent freedom, were doing battle with the
internal censor, the mother or father in the head. (Much later Roth
would build The Human Stain around a character who jettisons
his whole family, including his doting mother, to shape a new
identity for himself.)
The work of these writers proved
deliberately provocative, hugely entertaining, always flirting with
bad taste and often very funny, but with an edge of pain and
giddiness that borders on hysteria. As Portnoy gradually discovers
that he's living inside a Jewish joke, the novel's comic spirits turn
self-lacerating. Like Roth, writers such as Stanley Elkin, Bruce Jay
Friedman, Joseph Heller, Jerome Charyn and Mark Mirsky have practiced
an art of incongruity, deploying a wild mockery in place of the old
moral gravity. Howe's charge against Roth--that he writes out of a
"thin personal culture"--could be leveled against them as well, but
it would be more accurate to say that they looked to a different
culture: satirical, performative, intensely oral. They identified
less with modernists like Kafka and Dostoyevsky than with
provocateurs like Céline, Nathanael West and Lenny Bruce. They
looked less to literature than to stand-up comedy, the oral tradition
of the Jewish jokes that Freud collected, the tirade of insults that
ventilated aggression, the vaudeville shtick that brought Jews to the
forefront of American entertainment.
The usual targets of
their derision, besides Jewish mothers and Jewish husbands, were the
new suburban Jews who had made it after the war, the vulgar, wealthy
Patimkins in Goodbye, Columbus, who live in a posh Newark
suburb, play tennis and send their daughter to Radcliffe, and--this
got me when I first read it--have a separate refrigerator for fruit
in their finished basement. (Actually, it was their old fridge they
were thrifty enough to save, the way they've held on to remnants of
their old Newark personality.) As a foil to the Patimkins of Short
Hills, Roth gives us the inner-city blacks of Newark, where the Jews
used to live. We get glimpses of black workmen ordered around by the
Patimkins' callow son, and especially of a young boy who runs into
trouble simply because he wants to read a book on Gauguin in the
local public library. At the heart of the book, then, for all its
irreverence, is a sentimental idea of the virtue of poverty and the
simple life, something the upwardly mobile Jews have left behind but
the black boy still seeks in Gauguin's noble vision of Tahiti.
Goodbye, Columbus was published in 1959, a prelude
to a decade in which outrage and irreverence would become the
accepted cultural norms. Even Bellow would take a spin with black
humor in Herzog (1964), as Malamud would do, unconvincingly,
in Pictures of Fidelman in 1969. Here these stern moralists
dipped into sexual comedy as never before, the comedy of adultery in
Bellow, of sexual hunger and humiliation in Malamud. But they were
soon outflanked by their literary son Roth, who would make epic
comedy out of Jewish dietary laws, rabbinical pomposity, furtive
masturbation, plaintive longing for shiksas and, above all, the
family romance in Portnoy's Complaint. With its deliberately
coarse comic stereotypes, especially of the histrionic Jewish mother,
the long-suffering father and their son, the young Jewish prince,
this was the work that elicited Irving Howe's attack, the book that
turned the vulgar spritz of stand-up comedy into
The Oedipal pattern in Portnoy belongs
to a larger history: Roth and other black humorists were rebelling
not only against their own parents but against their literary
parents, the moralists of the previous generation, who were still
around and did not take kindly to it. Bellow responded to the
carnival aspect of the 1960s by taking on the voice of the censorious
Jewish sage in Mr. Sammler's Planet, arraigning middle-aged
adulterers along with women, blacks and young people in one sweeping
image of moral decay--of "sexual niggerhood," as he put it in one
indelible phrase. The date was 1970, the bitter end of that
tumultuous decade; Bellow's and Howe's responses were extreme but
typical of the overheated rhetoric of the generation gap and the
culture wars. Bellow's outrage, perhaps, was tinged with the envy
that so many middle-aged Americans, not simply Jews, felt toward the
new sexual freedoms of the young.
Malamud responded just as
pointedly in a 1968 story called "An Exorcism," but it is scarcely
known because he never reprinted it in his lifetime. More than any
other text, this story brings to a head the Oedipal tensions among
Jewish writers, shedding light on their key differences. It is
closely related to another story of generational conflict Malamud
wrote the same year, "My Son the Murderer," about a bitter standoff
between an anxious, intrusive father and his 22-year-old son, who is
angry at everyone, unhinged by images from Vietnam and grimly
awaiting his own draft notice. (Malamud had a son just the same age.)
The central figure in "An Exorcism" is an austere older writer--like
Malamud himself, but far less successful--a lonely man rigorously
devoted to his craft, a kind of saint and hero of art. An aspiring
writer, a young 1960s type, attaches himself to the older man at
writers' conferences--virtually the only places he ventures out. The
older man, Fogel, is grudging and taciturn, but gradually his
defenses drop, for he feels "grateful to the youth for lifting him,
almost against his will, out of his solitude." Having won his
confidence, the boy betrays him; he publishes a story based on an
embarrassing sexual episode in the older man's past. Fogel first
confronts, then forgives him. But when the student, as a provocative
stunt, seduces three women in a single night, the writer feels a wave
of nausea and violently exorcises him from his life.
given to wielding fiction as cultural polemic, Malamud clearly felt
uneasy with the naked anger of this story, which indicts not simply
one unscrupulous young man but a whole generation for its
freewheeling life and confessional style. In the eyes of an exacting
craftsman who fears that his kind of art is no longer valued, these
facile new writers simply don't invent enough. (Fogel accuses the
young man of doing outrageous things simply to write about them, of
being little more than "a walking tape recorder" of his "personal
experiences.") When Fogel tells his surrogate son that "Imagination
is not necessarily Id," Malamud could even be referring to Portnoy's
recent line about "putting the Id back in Yid." Roth would give his
own version of his spiritual apprenticeship to Malamud and Bellow ten
years later in The Ghost Writer. In any case, "An Exorcism"
remained unknown, while Portnoy's Complaint became the
ultimate piece of second-generation black humor, a hilarious whine
against the neurotic effects of prolonged exposure to Jewish morality
and the Jewish family.
Portnoy's complaint was an Oedipal
complaint, but even at the time, long before he published
Patrimony, his powerful 1991 memoir of the death of his
father, it was clear how deeply attached Roth was to the parents he
mocked and mythologized--the eternally constipated father, the
effusively overbearing mother who loved and forgave him as no other
woman could, loved him even for his transgressions. All through the
1970s Roth kept rewriting that novel in increasingly strident works
like The Breast, a misconceived fantasy; My Life as a
Man, a vengeful account of his first marriage; and The
Professor of Desire. Roth seemed unable to escape the facts of
his life but also seemed desperate to offend. He attacked critics for
taking his work as autobiographical yet repeatedly fell back on
exaggerated versions of the known facts. In My Life as a Man
he even played on the relationship between fact and invention by
giving us what claimed to be the "real" story behind some fictional
versions. But of course he felt free to make up this story as
None of these almost military maneuvers against
critics and readers, which Roth also carried on in essays and
interviews, quite prepared us for his next book, The Ghost
Writer, which launched the next stage of Jewish-American writing,
the one we are still in today. Let's call it the return, or the
homecoming. If the second stage was debunking and satirical, even
parricidal, the third stage began with Roth's filial homage to the
two writers with whom his name had always been linked. Malamud
appears in the book as E.I. Lonoff, very much the ascetic devotee of
craft we meet in Malamud's own late work. Bellow (with a touch of
Mailer) figures as the prolific, much-married, world-shaking Felix
Abravanel, a man who, as it turns out, "was clearly not in the market
for a twenty-three-year-old son." Roth himself appears as the young
Nathan Zuckerman, a dead ringer for the author at that age. Zuckerman
has just published his first, controversial stories, as Roth himself
had done, and his own father is angry at him for washing the family
linen in public. ("Well, Nathan, you certainly didn't leave anything
out, did you?") His father has gotten the elders of the Jewish
community on his case, in the person of one Judge Leopold Wapter, who
sends him a questionnaire (!) that concludes: "Can you honestly say
that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the
heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?"
Wapter stands for all the professional Jews and rabbinical critics
who had been upset by Roth's early stories--stories which, after all,
had surely been written to ruffle people's feathers, even to offend.
With very broad, satirical strokes, the older Roth is now
caricaturing his enemies, nursing old grievances, parading his
victimization as wounded virtue. Roth demands from his readers what
only his parents could give him: unconditional love. He wants to
transgress and wants to be forgiven, wants to be outrageous yet also
to be accepted, to be wickedly clever and be adored for it. When his
women or his critics fail to give this to him, he lashes out at them.
This rehearsal of old grievances is the tired and familiar part of
The Ghost Writer, but the book included much that, in
retrospect, was daringly fresh:
First, there is a
surprising and resonant literariness that matches the book's
evocative tone and warm filial theme. Roth's angry iconoclasm, his
need to offend and outrage, has for now been set aside. The Ghost
Writer deals with Nathan Zuckerman's literary beginnings, and
Roth's virtuoso portraits of the older writers are perfectly in tune
with the literary allusions that form the backdrop of the
story--references to Isaac Babel, the great Soviet-Jewish writer
murdered by Stalin; to Henry James's story "The Middle Years," which
also deals with a young acolyte's relation to an older writer; and
most important, to the diary of Anne Frank. She is the figure behind
Amy Bellette, the young woman in Roth's story who may actually be
Anne Frank, and who may be having an affair with
Second, for all the shtick and satire in Roth's
previous fiction, this was his most Jewish book yet, not only for
Roth's tribute to earlier Jewish writers but in his tender retelling
of Anne Frank's story. Both the literariness and the Jewishness had
always been latent in Roth's work, just barely masked by its satiric
edge, its willed vulgarity. Roth's literary bent had been evident in
his essays on contemporary fiction, his brilliant story about Kafka,
the interviews he had given about each of his novels, and especially
the invaluable series he was editing for Penguin, "Writers From the
Other Europe," which launched the Western careers of such
little-known Polish and Czech writers as Milan Kundera. No critic, to
my knowledge, has yet tried to gauge the effect of this large
editorial enterprise on Roth's later fiction. As his own work bogged
down in Portnoy imitations and paranoia, this project took Roth
frequently to Eastern Europe, where he made a wealth of literary
contacts. Thus Roth found himself editing morally serious and
formally innovative work that, despite its congenial absurdism, cut
sharply against the grain of what he himself was writing. This
material exposed Roth to both the Holocaust and Soviet
totalitarianism, and ultimately gave his work a historical dimension,
and especially a Jewish dimension, it had previously lacked. These
books brought him back to his distant European roots. The angry young
man, the prodigal son, was gradually coming home.
Ghost Writer Roth still nurses his old quarrel with the Jewish
community, just as he would pursue his vendetta against Irving Howe
in The Anatomy Lesson. He eulogizes Lonoff as "the Jew who got
away," the Jew of the heart, or art--the noninstitutional Jew--and
portrays Anne Frank as a secular, detached Jew like himself. In a
bizarre moment, Zuckerman even imagines himself marrying Anne Frank,
perhaps the ultimate rejoinder to his Jewish critics, to all the
Judge Wapters of the world. But apart from this defensiveness,
there's a strain of reverence toward art in the book, toward the
Jewish historical experience, even toward the Jewish family, which
creates something really new in Roth. Instead of rebelling against
the father, he wants to be anointed by him: He's come "to submit
myself for candidacy as nothing less than E.I. Lonoff's spiritual
son." Adopted by Lonoff, married to Anne Frank, he will no longer be
vulnerable to the Howes and Wapters who criticize his writing for not
being Jewish or tasteful enough.
In retrospect we can see
how so much of value in Roth's later work--the wider political
horizons of The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, the
unexpected play with metafiction and magic realism in both those
books, with their ingenious variations on what is made up and what is
"real," and finally, his loving tribute to his late father in
Patrimony and to the figure of the Good Father in American
Pastoral--can be shown to have originated in The Ghost
Writer. Moreover, they are strikingly typical of what I call the
third phase of American Jewish writing, when the Jewishness that once
seemed to be disappearing returned with a vengeance. In this phase
the inevitability of assimilation gives way to the work of
There's nothing so surprising about this pattern.
The great historian of immigration, Marcus Lee Hansen, long ago
enunciated the influential three-generation thesis that came to be
known as Hansen's Law: "What the son wishes to forget the grandson
wishes to remember." Sociologists have shown that this return
actually begins in the twilight years of the second generation. In
Patrimony Roth presents his aged father as something of a pain
in the neck but also as the keeper of the past, the storyteller, the
Great Rememberer. Driving around Newark with his son, the former
insurance agent, like a real census taker, recalls every occupant of
every building. "You mustn't forget anything--that's the inscription
on his coat of arms," his son writes. "To be alive, to him, is to be
made of memory."
The father's motto is also part of the
artistic credo of the son, who remembers his past with a
hallucinatory intensity. Yet by the mid-1980s Roth also developed a
wider historical purview, a sense of all that life that was lived
before him, or far away from him--in Eastern Europe, where he sets
"The Prague Orgy"; in England or Israel, where some of the best parts
of The Counterlife, Deception and Operation
Shylock take place. This is a more cosmopolitan Roth, reaching
outside himself for almost the first time, in dialogue with Zionism,
acutely sensitive to anti-Semitism, finding new meaning in the Jewish
identity he had once mocked and scorned.
Much of The
Counterlife still belongs to the old self-involved Roth of the
Zuckerman saga--the fears of impotence, the scabrous comedy, the
Wagnerian family uproar--but the sections set in England and Israel
are something else. Until the early 1980s, there was as little trace
of the Jewish state in American fiction as there was of the old
European Diaspora in Israeli writing. American writers by and large
were not Zionists, and Israeli writers were not nostalgic for the
shtetl or the Pale. With its insistence on nationhood as the solution
to the Jewish problem, Israel was perhaps too tribal, too insular to
capture the attention of assimilated writers, however much it
preoccupied ordinary American Jews. Israel was the place where
Portnoy couldn't get an erection--surely the least memorable part of
that larger-than-life novel.
But more than a decade later,
when Zuckerman's brother Henry becomes a baal t'shuva, a
penitent, and Zuckerman looks him up among the zealots of the West
Bank, Roth's work crosses that of Amos Oz and David Grossman,
novelists who had written so well about the tensions dividing Israeli
society. Like them, Roth finds great talkers who can articulate sharp
ideological differences, which also reflect his own inner conflicts.
He begins to relish the sheer play of ideas, the emotional bite of
Jewish argument. The Counterlife inaugurates a dialogic phase
of Roth's writing that gets played out in Deception, an
experimental novel that is all dialogue; The Facts, where
Nathan Zuckerman appears at the end to offer a rebuttal to Roth's
memoir; and Operation Shylock, which returns to the Israeli
setting of The Counterlife. In this new fiction of ideas,
Roth's work acquired a real historical dimension, which would also
lead to an acclaimed but uneven trilogy about postwar America,
beginning with American Pastoral.
Israel, like Zuckerman recounting other people's stories in the
American books, is also Roth escaping from the self-absorption of his
earlier work. In England, cast among the not-so-genteel anti-Semites,
Zuckerman develops an extraordinary pride, aggressiveness and
sensitivity about being Jewish. With their layers within layers, both
The Counterlife and Operation Shylock are Roth's most
Jewish books, even as Zuckerman defends himself (and Jewish life in
the Diaspora) against the imperious claims of orthodoxy and Zionism.
They mark his return to the fold, as well as his most formally
complex fiction, pointing not only to the confusions between art and
life but to the multiple layers of Roth's identity.
giving so much attention to Roth, I run the risk of making it seem
like it's only his development that is at stake, not larger changes
in American Jewish writing. But every facet of Roth's later work has
its parallel in other writers who have emerged in the past twenty
years: the more explicit and informed Jewishness, the wider
historical framework, the play with metafiction or magic realism, and
the more intense literariness. In line with the wave of identity
politics in America, there has been a persistent search for roots
among younger Jewish writers, as there has been for older writers
from assimilated backgrounds such as Leslie Epstein, Anne Roiphe and
Alan Isler. If we add to the themes listed above a concern with
gender and sexual preference and a fascination with strict religious
observance, we would have a complete inventory of issues that have
attracted the younger generation, including Steve Stern, Allegra
Goodman, Lev Raphael, Thane Rosenbaum, Melvin Jules Bukiet, Pearl
Abraham, Rebecca Goldstein, Michael Chabon, Aryeh Lev Stollman,
Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Tova Mirvis and Ehud Havazelet. They
have written about subjects as varied as the old and new Jews of
Memphis, the lives of young Jews in Oxford and Hawaii, the Orthodox
communities of New York and Israel, the attractions of Jewish
mysticism, the problems of gay Jewish identity, the surreal
experiences of the walking wounded--Holocaust survivors and their
children--and the old world of the shtetl and of Europe after the
war. Some of their writing, arduously researched, smells of the
library. They work best in short novels like Stollman's hypnotic
The Far Euphrates or in collections of overlapping stories
like Goodman's The Family Markowitz, composed of scenes and
vignettes that allude nostalgically to the old-style family
chronicle. The larger synthesis so far eludes them.
interests of these emerging writers were foreshadowed not only by the
shifting stance of Roth but by the themes explored by another writer
of his generation, Cynthia Ozick. Like Roth, she spent many years
indentured to the 1950s gospel of art according to Henry James, and
only later discovered her own vein of Jewish storytelling typical of
what I've called the third stage. To put it bluntly, Ozick's work is
far more Jewish than that of her main predecessors, richer with
cultural information, proudly nationalistic, even sentimentally
orthodox. Some of her stories and essays, such as her angry piece in
The New Yorker on Anne Frank's diary (reprinted in Ozick's
recent collection Quarrel & Quandary), launched stinging
attacks on secular Jews. Yet she began as a feminist and became the
most articulate woman in a largely patriarchal line that rarely
produced strong writing by women apart from such isolated figures as
Emma Lazarus, Mary Antin, Anzia Yezierska, Grace Paley and Tillie
Olsen. This is something else that has changed dramatically since
Bellow and Malamud had Jewishness in their bones, but
what they actually knew about Judaism could have been written on a
single page. They knew the ghetto neighborhoods, the character types,
the speech patterns and what they took in at the kitchen table. They
were born into Yiddish-speaking homes. Their Judaism was instinctive,
domestic, introspective. But their determination to navigate the
literary mainstream prevented them from getting too caught up with
specifically Jewish subjects. They refused to be consigned to any
literary ghetto. "I conceived of myself as a cosmopolitan man
enjoying his freedom," said Malamud. Ozick, on the other hand, like
I.B. Singer or Steve Stern, was fascinated by the whole magical side
of Judaism--the popular lore and legend, the dybbuks and golems of
Jewish mystical tradition. For Singer this was part of his experience
of growing up in Poland, the curious son of a learned rabbi,
entranced by hidden and forbidden byways of the Jewish tradition. For
Ozick and Stern it sometimes becomes a bookish, vicarious Judaism
based on reading and research. But this very bookishness--a certain
remoteness from life--becomes a key theme in their
Until recently a fear haunted Jewish-American
writing: that the subject was exhausted, that we live in inferior
times, that giants once walked the earth and said everything that
needed to be said; the rest is commentary. From her first important
story, "Envy, or Yiddish in America," in 1969, to her keynote
"Usurpation: Other People's Stories" in the mid 1970s, to The
Messiah of Stockholm and The Puttermesser Papers, Ozick
repeatedly writes stories about writers, or stories about other
people's stories. This is a latecomer's literature, almost a textbook
example of the postmodern profusion of texts upon texts, or of Harold
Bloom's famous theory of the anxiety of influence, which emphasizes
the Oedipal tensions between writers and their precursors. We risk
becoming footnotes to our forebears.
Like The Ghost
Writer, Ozick's "Envy"--the very title is revealing--is most
memorable for its portraits of two older writers, one a lethal
caricature of I.B. Singer--widely translated, fabulously successful,
yet cruel, egotistical and rejected by most other Yiddish
writers--the other loosely based on the great poet Jacob Glatstein,
celebrated among fellow Yiddishists yet never properly translated
into English. (Ozick herself later did some translations of his
work.) But the key figure is a young woman, perhaps based on Ozick
herself, whom the poet seizes upon as his lifeline into English, the
potential savior of all of Yiddish culture.
This poet is
envious of the Singer character but even more contemptuous of
American Jewish writers for their ignorance: "Jewish novelists!
Savages!" he says bitterly. "Their Yiddish! One word here, one word
there. Shikseh on one page, putz on the other, and that's the whole
vocabulary." Like Roth's novella, this is a kind of ghost story; the
characters embody a dead culture trying to come alive. But it's also
a vampire tale, since the young woman eventually rejects them as
bloodsuckers trying to live at her expense. Fascinated by the high
drama of an expiring Yiddish culture, she decides she cannot allow it
to take over her own life. Cynthia Ozick is thought of as some kind
of pious traditionalist, but this, her best story, written with
ferocious energy and style, is a work that radiates hostility from
first to last, reminding the reader of the sharp polemical turns she
often takes in her essays.
In Ozick's story "Usurpation,"
the spirit of envy takes over the protagonist herself. It begins with
a young author at the 92nd Street Y listening to a reading by a
famous older writer. After two or three sentences, her ears begin to
burn, for she feels he's telling a story that truly belongs to her,
that she was born to write. As it happens, the writer and the story
can easily be identified, since Ozick retells it. It's "The Silver
Crown," Malamud's story about a wonder rabbi, which is precisely
about the conflict of generations that is virtually the signature of
this third, or latecomer's, generation. It's also a story of the kind
of Jewish mystery and magic so dear to Ozick that she feels a sting
of regret at not having written it herself. Malamud had been there
first, but Ozick, like Steve Stern, makes her literary belatedness
the theme of her story.
It's no accident that Ozick's
stories overlap with her eloquent literary essays, or that
metafiction and postmodernism here make a surprising entry into
Jewish writing. Postmodernism, as I understand it, conveys the sense
that all texts are provisional, that we live in a world already
crowded with familiar texts and images, that originality is a
Romantic illusion and techniques like collage, pastiche and
pseudocommentary are better than realism for conveying our sense of
belatedness and repletion. At the heart of Ozick's fine story
"Puttermesser Paired" (in The Puttermesser Papers) are some
brilliantly told episodes from the life of George Eliot, which the
heroine partly re-enacts, just as Ozick weaves a lost novel by the
murdered Polish writer Bruno Schulz into The Messiah of
Stockholm. As in the work of Jorge Luis Borges, this is writing
about writing, perched on the fine line between commentary and
It's rare that literary history so closely
mirrors social history, but the conflict of literary generations I've
described here is part of a larger pattern. It's no news that America
has experienced a revival of ethnicity, or that the world has been
rocked by waves of resurgent nationalism. With their longstanding
commitment to the universalism of the Enlightenment, to which they
owed their emancipation, Jews have been ambivalent about
participating in this process. Jewish life in America has become far
more assimilated, but younger Jewish writers have both taken
advantage of this and sharply criticized it. They have turned to
Israel, to feminism, to the Holocaust, to earlier Jewish history and
to their own varied spiritual itineraries, ranging from neo-Orthodoxy
and mysticism to Eastern religion, as a way of redefining their
relation to both Jewish tradition and contemporary culture. If they
have lost the old connection to Europe, to Yiddish or to immigrant
life, they have begun to substitute their own distinctive Jewish and
American experiences. They are not simply living on the inherited
capital of past literary generations. The new writing so far may lack
the power of a Malamud, a Bellow or a Grace Paley, but it is
certainly not enervated by the bland, assimilated aspects of Jewish
life. Jewish writers have quarreled with one another and with
themselves, but these have been family quarrels, not holy wars.
Whatever tension this creates, it certainly gives no sign that they
are about to give up the ghost, especially now that the ghost, the
past, has taken on new flesh and blood.
Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, whose essay deploring India's decision to test atomic weapons appeared in The Nation ("The
End of Imagination," September 28, 1998), is, as she told a reporter,
"deeper in the soup." Active in an anti-dam campaign in India, this
past spring she led a demo protesting the Indian Supreme Court's
decision to allow construction of a dam on the Narmada River that
will displace 200,000 people and harm the region's fragile ecosystem.
Some lawyers at the scene trumped up complaints about Roy threatening
them, and the Supreme Court charged her and two other leaders of the
protest movement with criminal contempt. That charge was dismissed,
but at the hearing Roy submitted a blistering affidavit calling the
court's action an attempt "to silence criticism and muzzle dissent."
The judges ordered her to withdraw the affidavit. She refused and
will go on trial for contempt at the end of October, acting as her
own lawyer and facing imprisonment. In our view, her affidavit has it
exactly right, and the Supreme Court is even deeper in the, um, soup.
Let the Indian Embassy in Washington know your view.
While the Bush Administration continues
to build an international coalition it hopes will allow it to strike
back effectively at those responsible for the September 11 attacks,
three issues that helped set the stage for those atrocious crimes
must be dealt with.
The first is the troublesome question of Israel and Palestine. Last year the two came within a hair's breadth of a land-for-peace deal. It failed, and Ariel Sharon's first instinct after the September 11 attacks was to cancel further
meetings with the Palestinians--exactly the wrong instinct, and one
now haltingly reversed by pressure from Shimon Peres and the White
House. But until that deal is signed--and the two peoples accept the
resulting settlement, however imperfect--there can be no peace or
security for any of us. Such a deal may finally require a long-term
multinational peacekeeping force placed between the two, but its
cost, however great, is less than we will all bear if we do not find
resolution to this central issue.
Second is the matter of governance. One hardly needs intimate familiarity with the human rights records of governments from Morocco in the West to Pakistan in
the East to realize that many of America's allies and enemies alike fail the most minimal tests of democracy and human decency--and that they must change. This is not to advocate invasion, CIA subversion or Iraq-style embargoes but rather to support concerted multilateral action that expands pressures for political and social reform and that works with forces within those countries toward that end. Nothing will come quickly or without risk, but to leave intact the power arrangements of the Middle East--as we did in the wake of the
Gulf War--invites the worst possible outcome. Terrorists are bred most easily among terrorized and humiliated peoples.
Finally there is the issue of economic development
and aid. There are a billion Muslims, most of them desperately poor,
and most living in a swath of the globe stretching from the Strait of
Gibraltar east to the Indonesian archipelago. In the days following
September 11, Congress authorized $40 billion in emergency funds
without debate, then $15 billion for US airlines, and George W. Bush
has now proposed spending up to $75 billion more. Given such numbers,
and with the economies of America, Europe and Japan producing more
than $20 trillion a year, why pretend that we can do no more than
promote failed "structural adjustment" programs?
readies for war, America would do well to remember that 3 billion
human beings live on less than $2 a day, and at least 10 million die
of easily preventable disease and malnutrition each year. Then there
is the global impact of the terrorist attacks and US-led preparations
for retaliation. James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank,
predicts a "largely unseen" human toll, estimating that "between
20,000 and 40,000 more children will die worldwide and some 10
million people will be condemned to live below the poverty line of $1
a day." Wolfensohn attributes these effects to severe drops in
commodity prices and a burgeoning global recession; a World Bank
study predicts 2001 growth of less than 1 percent in the
Even if Osama bin Laden is dead
next year, given such realities, no new airport security measures or
Special Forces deployments or missile defense shields will protect us
from those who arise to take his place. Instead, we must re-engage
with the world, attacking not the enemies we cannot see but the
enemies we can. We need what has been called a "new era of global
Keynesianism"--a commitment to relieving the globe's most fundamental
problems of food and health and joblessness. That, plus a stiff dose
of political fairness and human rights, offers the best antidote to
"We need to make it very clear," said one veteran activist at a recent meeting of a nascent New York City antiwar coalition, "that we want to punish the criminals." She meant, of course, any living accomplices in the September 11 World Trade Center massacre. That night, activists were unable to come to any kind of agreement on the need to bring the murderers to justice, and their confusion and division mirrored that of antiwar demonstrators around the nation. During the last weekend in September, antiwar protests in the nation's capital underscored the movement's difficulty in articulating a message that might make sense to a broader public. That difficulty was amplified by the happy fact that, as one demonstrator put it, "it's hard to protest a war that's not happening." While things may yet get brutal, George Bush is not presently proposing to take any military action against innocent Afghan civilians, and the Administration is now seriously considering schemes that, when suggested by peace activists a week ago, sounded absurdly whimsical--like "bombing" Afghanistan with food.
Originally, more than 10,000 foot soldiers of the global economic justice movement, from the controversial hooded Anti-Capitalist Convergence (or "Black Bloc") to the AFL-CIO, had planned to show up to protest September 30's IMF/World Bank meeting. That meeting was canceled. Most protest groups canceled their actions too, and not only because there were no meetings to oppose. At a moment of sorrow and panic, demonstrators risked being ignored--or worse, reviled as unpatriotic or insensitive to the memories of the dead. In a statement explaining their withdrawal from the protests, United Students Against Sweatshops declared September in the capital "neither the time nor the place to gather in opposition."
Not everyone felt that way. The Anti-Capitalist Convergence decided to hold an antiwar demonstration Saturday morning, using, according to David Graeber of New York City's Direct Action Network, who works closely with the ACC, "less controversial tactics. None of these," he laughed, pointing to a brick in the middle of the sidewalk. The Black Bloc anarchists, known for illegal actions, refrained from any destruction of property, and the weekend ended with only eleven arrests. The ACC march drew about 1,000 (organizers claimed 2,000-3,000). Some--being anarchists--rejected any action that the state might take, even against terrorism, and rejected any international tribunal as a tool of the state.
The second, and best-publicized, march was organized by an antiwar front group assembled by the International Action Center (IAC), in turn a front for (if you're still following) the Workers World Party, which is justly reviled for supporting Slobodan Milosevic, among other gruesome dictators. Still, a few thousand people, from high school students to graying peaceniks, eventually joined by the ACC, showed up. IAC organizers subjected these demonstrators to three hours of speeches, none of which mentioned bringing the killers to justice, before the all-too-brief march from Freedom Plaza to the Capitol began. Bland sloganeering and predictable references to eclectic causes (Free Mumia!) had the effect of reducing the peril of World War III to the trivial status of another pet left crusade. There was no doubt about the sincerity of the demonstrators, who carried signs like Another Alaskan for Peace, but the IAC's involvement gave the event--which drew maybe 7,000 at its peak, though organizers claimed 20,000--the flavor of a kind of generic McProtest.
The third march, held on Sunday and organized by the Washington Peace Center and other groups, was smaller than the IAC event but achieved an appropriately serious tone. Some of Saturday's demonstrators (from the well-behaved Black Bloc to the Bread and Puppet Theater) turned up, along with many locals--a crowd of some 3,000. Speakers, many of them clergy, quoted venerable sources: the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Signs often bore scriptural messages, and one playfully queried George Bush, WWJD? Speakers read letters from family members of September 11 victims who did not want war in the name of their loved ones. Others stressed the need for reflection and the challenges of turning our grief into a cry for global peace. The event also suggested some practical alternatives to war, emphasizing justice and law over military force. Alan Mattlage, an organizer of the Washington Peace Center event and a member of the Maryland Green Party, echoed many of his fellow protesters in saying that the World Trade Center attacks should be treated not "as an act of war but as a criminal matter. [Those accused] should be tried before an international tribunal."
All three antiwar marches attracted activists who had planned to protest the IMF. Students showed up in large numbers (a nationwide network of more than 150 student antiwar groups, some calling themselves Students for a Peaceful Justice, has been holding campus vigils, protests and teach-ins). Labor organizations, by contrast, from the AFL-CIO to Jobs with Justice, were conspicuously absent. That makes some sense, given that many of their constituents may support military responses to the September 11 attacks. One of countless reasons to hope for peace is that a prolonged war--and antiwar activism--could test the warm solidarity developed in recent years between labor and other progressives, especially students. On the other hand, it's encouraging to see how quickly the global economic justice movement has embraced peace and security issues--and that peace organizations seem ready to tackle the economic roots of violence and to connect US militarism to global economic inequality.
Activists were united on a few points: There will be no peace without economic justice, and US civilians will not be safe until our government stops waging--and funding--war on other innocents. Some offered hope that our nation's suffering could open our eyes to the rest of the world's pain. At an interfaith service on peace and justice at St. Aloysius Church Saturday night, Njoki Njoroge Njehu of the 50 Years Is Enough Network advised Americans to "hold that vulnerability, to understand how people around the world live with US violence. And let us finally understand the obscenity of the phrase 'collateral damage.' Will it ever have the same casual reference again?"
Just once more, and
then we'll really have to get on with more pressing business. I could
subscribe myself at any time to any of the following statements:
§ An Arab child born in Nablus should have no fewer
rights in his or her homeland than a Jewish child born in
§ The United States of America has been the
patron of predatory regimes on five continents.
United States of America exports violence by means of arms sales and
You can probably fill in a few extras for
yourself. However, none of the above statements means the same thing
if prefaced with the words: "As Osama bin Laden and his devout
followers have recently reminded us..." They wouldn't mean the same
thing politically, that is to say, and they wouldn't mean the same
thing morally. It's disgraceful that so many people on the periphery
of this magazine should need what Noam Chomsky would otherwise term
instruction in the elementary.
Here are two brief thought
experiments that I hope and trust will put this degrading argument to
rest. Both of them, as it happens, involve the date September
I have long kept September 11 as a day of mourning,
because it was on that date in 1973 that Salvador Allende was
murdered and Chilean democracy assassinated along with him. We know
all the details now, from the way the giant corporations subsidized
subversion to the way that US politicians commissioned "hit jobs" and
sabotage. It took the Chilean opposition many years of patient
struggle to regain their country and their democracy, and the small
help I was able to offer them is one of the few things in my life of
which I can be proud. There was one spirited attempt to kill Augusto
Pinochet himself during this period, with which I had some sneaking
sympathy, but on the whole the weaponry of terror (death squads, car
bombs, the training of special killers) was in the department of
horror employed by Chilean and US officials working for, or with, the
dictatorship. And now Chilean dignity has been restored, and Pinochet
himself is a discredited and indicted figure, spared the rigor of law
only for humanitarian reasons. We may even live to see justice done
to some of his backers in Washington, though the holding of breath
would be inadvisable.
I don't know any Chilean participant
in this great historic struggle who would not rather have
died--you'll have to excuse the expression--than commit an outrage
against humanity that was even remotely comparable to the atrocities
in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. And I think I'll leave it
at that, since those who don't see my point by now are never going to
There are others who mourn September 11 because it
was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam
were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The
date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making
itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim
civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West,
went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I
think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain
antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And
if I am right, then it's not even facile or superficial to connect
the recent aggression against American civil society with any current
"human rights issue."
Why not pay attention to what the
cassettes and incantations of Al Qaeda actually demand: a holy war in
which there are no civilians on the other side, only infidels, and a
society of total aridity in which any concept of culture or the
future has been eradicated?
One ought to be clear about
this: The Ottomans who besieged Vienna were not of that primeval
mentality. But the Wahabbi fanatics of the present century are.
Glance again at the trite statements I made at the beginning of this
column. Could Osama bin Laden actually utter any of them? Certainly
not. He doesn't only oppose the entire Jewish presence in Palestine;
he opposes the Jewish presence in America. He is the
spoiled-brat son of one of our preferred despotisms and the proud
beneficiary of the export of violence. Why, then, do so many fools
consider him as the interpreter of their "concerns," let alone seek
to appoint their ignorant selves as the medium for his?
Thanks to all those who demand that I tell them what is to
be done. As the situation develops, they may even ask themselves this
question as if it really demanded a serious answer. We certainly owe
a duty to Afghanistan's people, whose lives were rendered impossible
by the Taliban long before we felt any pain. We might even remember
that the only part of Iraq where people are neither starving nor
repressed is in the Kurdish area, now under international protection
as a result of public pressure on Bush Senior's vaunted "coalition."
(See especially David Hirst's two engrossing reports from northern
Iraq in the London Guardian of August 1 and 2: Hirst himself
is probably the most consistently anti-imperialist journalist in the
region.) But wait! That might mean that one could actually
do something. Surely we are too guilt-stained for
Thanks also to all those who thought it was original
to attack me for writing from an "armchair." (Why is it always an
armchair?) As it happens, I work in a swivel chair, in an apartment
on the top floor of one of Washington's tallest buildings. In the
fall of 1993 the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism
urgently advised me to change this address because of "credible"
threats received after my wife and daughter and I had sheltered
Salman Rushdie as a guest, and had arranged for him to be received at
the cowering Clinton White House. I thought, then as now, that the
government was doing no more than covering its own behind by giving
half-alarmist and half-reassuring advice. In other words, I have a
quarrel with theocratic fascism even when the Administration does
not, and I hope at least some of my friendly correspondents are
prepared to say the same.