Wednesday, January 17, 2018

An Inspiring Tale of a Politician we Sorely Need Today

Bobby Kennedy: a Raging Spirit 
Chris Matthews (2017)
Simon & Schuster (345 pp.)


On May 29, 2012, Lee Cullum interviewed Chris Matthews about his then new book Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero (2011). Matthews, it appears, had dug hard into the John F. Kennedy story, and he knew his subject well. Elusie Hero was his second book about John Kennedy, after Kennedy and Nixon (1996). The interview reveals Matthews as loquacious, avuncular, breezy but reasonable sounding in his judgements of people.

Turns out we have reason to be suspect when it comes to Matthews judgments of people, especially women. The Daily Caller reports that Matthews regularly "rates his female guests" who appear on his show, that his operation is "openly derisive" and "brazenly sexist," to the point that some staffers describe themselves as victims of "battered wives syndrome." In 1999 his network settled a sexual harassment complaint against Matthews for making inappropriate and juvenile sexual remarks to a co-producer.  According to former staffers he "frequently objectifies his female guests and staffers," and he "inappropriately comments on their appearance and clothing." And Matthews allegedly uses pet names like “cutie” and “sweetie pie” to refer to female guests and constantly makes uncouth and “boorish” remarks about women. Then, last week, we learned this:



"You've got to, at some point make a judgment about who knows what they are talking about," said Matthews to Lee Cullum. So knowing all this, should we trust that Chris Matthews knows what he's talking about, and--more importantly--should we trust his judgments?

When it comes to this new book about Bobby Kennedy, it doesn't much matter. This book does not purport to be a history. Matthews seems to be working off previous research on Jack Kennedy and some contemporaneous news accounts of some of the well known facts in Bobby Kennedy's life. So the value of this book is not in its detail, or in Matthews' judgment of the man. It does not appear Matthews has done enough heavy lifting here to offer a definitive judgment of the man worth paying attention to. Most of what you'll learn here is well known and you could refresh your recollection--or learn the basic facts--through an hour of reading the Wikipedia entries on the Kennedy brothers. That is not the value of this book.

The merit of this book--and I do think it has merit--is that it tells a brisk and readable story of a politician who learned the hard skills of electoral politics, learned how to play hardball, but managed to evolve in a positive direction despite this. It is a tale of the politician as hero, told by a man who clearly admired Bobby Kennedy. It's like going to the movies: if we suspend disbelief, we can come away with hope. Maybe, just maybe, a politician like the Bobby Kennedy who is depicted here will emerge once more. We could sorely use one in these bitter and cynical times.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Our President is in Debt to the Russian Mafia

Denver Post
The FBI is still investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton, but as voters, we already know enough. We have learned that Russia did in fact interfere with our election by hacking into computers and strategically releasing information harmful to Democrats, and by flooding social media with more than 150 million tweets and Facebook postings from fake accounts with the purpose of influencing voters. We also know that the Trump campaign was aware of these efforts and cheered them on. In light of this, it hardly matters whether the Trump campaign formally coordinated its efforts with the Russian hackers, or not. Even if the Mueller investigation does not yield sufficient proof for criminal charges, or sufficient proof to bring an early political end to this administration through impeachment, there is no doubt that the election of November 8, 2016 is marked with a huge asterisk.

What are Trump's business connections to Russia, and more recently, what are the Trump campaign's connections to Russia?  The timeline compiled by BillMoyers is jaw dropping and damning.

"There was no collusion," Trump keeps assuring us. This morning he objected to Senator Diane Feinstein's release of the Glenn Simpson testimony (before the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22, 2017) in a tweet:

But for voters, whether there was formal collusion, or not, hardly matters. When we look at the Moyers timeline and the 315 pages of Simpson testimony, there is no doubt that the Russians believe they are responsible for the outcome of our election, and that Trump knows this. There is no doubt that the Trump team was aware of Russia's efforts to sway our election for Trump, and that Trump and his team were cheering the Russians on. We don't need to wait on Mueller for that.

The Russians think their cybercrime made the difference, and Trump knows it. How does that feel?

Reading the Simpson testimony, we are reminded that our president built his personal fortune with stolen money from Russian crime figures. "They are really nice people," Trump reported to David Letterman on October 17, 2013, "just don't owe them any money."  Trump may have stayed on the right side of the equation in his dealings with the Russian mafia and other crime figures, but there can be no doubt that he is hugely indebted to Russian crime for both his presidency and his personal fortune.

The difference between the Italian mafia and the Russian mafia, explained Simpson to the Senate Judiciary Committee, is that in Russia, organized crime is closely connected with government.
SIMPSON:  Russian organized crime is very different from Italian organized crime. It's much more sort of a hybrid kind of thing where they're involved in politics and banking and there's even a lot of connections between the mafia and the KGB or the FSB and cyber crime, things that the Italians sort of never figured out. Stock fraud in particular was the big thing in the U.S. In any event, all of that entered into my thinking when I saw that Donald Trump was in business with Felix Sater in the Trump Soho project and a number of other controversial condo projects.

Q. And what, if anything, did you conclude about the connection between and in the business dealings that then Candidate Trump had had with Mr. Sater?

A. . . .  I found it notable this was something (Trump) didn't want to talk about and testified under oath he wouldn't know Felix if he ran into him in the street. That was not true. He knew him well and, in fact, continued to associate with him long after he learned of Felix's organized crime ties. So, you know, that tells you something about somebody. So I concluded that he was okay with that and that was a troubling thing. I also, you know, began to -- I keep saying I, but we as a company began to look at where his money came from and, you know, that raised a lot of questions. We saw indications that some of the money came from Kazakhstan, among other places, and that some of it you just couldn't account for. 
The committee's lawyers asked Simpson about the Christopher Steele dossier. We have to evaluate this kind of information differently than open source information which may be beyond reasonable dispute, said Simpson. We need to ask whether the information is credible:
SIMPSON: Chris (Steele) deals in a very different kind of information, which is human intelligence, human information. So by its very nature the question of whether something is accurate isn't really asked. The question that is asked generally is whether it's credible. Human intelligence isn't good for, you know, filing lawsuits. It's good for making decisions and trying to understand what's going on and that's a really valuable thing, but it's not the same thing. So when you evaluate human intelligence, human reporting, field reporting, source reporting, you know, it's sort of like when you're a journalist and you're trying to figure out who's telling the truth, right. You don't really decide who's telling the truth. You decide whether the person is credible, right, whether they know what they're talking about, whether there's other reasons to believe what they're saying, whether anything they've said factually matches up with something in the public record. 
As voters, we ask the same questions. Is this information that our president is indebted to Russian crime for both his presidency and his personal fortune credible?  Reading the Moyers timeline, the Simpson testimony, and the Steele memos, we must conclude "Yes, it's credible." And no tweet can relieve Trump of this burden.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Friday, January 5, 2018

Cargo Cult Science and Integrity in Politics

Melanisian Cargo Cult: they want the planes to come back
Brad DeLong recently linked to Richard Feynman's 1974 Cal-Tech commencement speech: Some Remarks on Science Pseudoscience and How not to Fool Yourself.  Feynman's advice to this graduating class of scientists was to be thorough in their work and to conduct themselves with "bend-over-backwards" integrity in their science.

Don't take short-cuts, said Feynman. Put your ideas to the test to see if they bear out. Do your experiments, and if you are following up on another's idea and experiment, first see if you can reproduce the result. Does the idea hold up? Don't fool yourself (or others) about the findings.

If there is an idea you can't test, or if you skip testing an idea before you proceed (including confirming the results of others), you are engaged in cargo cult science, junk-science, said Feynman. And he explains what he means:
In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.
And Feynman suggested that mysticism, cocktail talk about many things, and much of psychology is filled with cargo cult science.

DeLong, an economist at Berkeley focusing on economic history, macroeconomics, economic growth, and finance has taken the credo of "bend-over-backwards-integrity" to heart. It's why you should be reading his blog, Grasping Reality, and follow him at Project SyndicateAs a public intellectual he demonstrates integrity, and regularly takes to task economists in his field for selling out, taking short-cuts, fooling themselves and us by taking partisan positions, and otherwise engaging in cargo-cult science.

Reasonable minds differ, and as non-experts it is often hard for us to determine who has the better of an argument. But by paying attention, we can spot "bend-over-backwards-integrity." And just like casual concert goers can identify a sour note in a professional orchestra, with a little help from well intentioned experts, anyone can spot the absence of integrity in our public discourse.

We should stop listening when we detect an absence of integrity, turn our heads, and start paying attention where integrity seems to be present.

What About Politics? 

Does the concept of "bend-over-backwards-integrity" hold in politics? Is it a virtue? Is integrity of individual legislators a meaningful concept in an environment of party-line votes and ideological soundbites aimed at an electorate that is woefully ignorant of the facts?

Politicians appeal to prejudices and fears of their perceived electoral coalitions. On the right, politicians appeal to self-reliance, religion, authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, and conservative views on issues like abortion, religion, personal responsibility, enforcement of criminal laws, guns, taxation, and regulation. On the left, politicians appeal to universal values, collectivism, human rights, equality, and liberal views on issues like environmental regulation, abortion, redistribution of income, gun regulation, and economic regulation to effect perceived fairness. The point here is not the accuracy of these characterizations, because they are slippery and inconsistent concepts, and labels (mea culpa, like "nativism," "nationalism" and "racism" etc.) come loaded with value judgments. The point is that electoral coalitions share prejudices and value judgments that politicians--if they are to be successful--must appeal to and exploit.

In appealing and exploiting prejudices of their perceived electorates, politicians are shameless hypocrites: always have been and always will be.  And, of course, we are much more lenient in judging the hypocrisies of politicians who appeal to our particular prejudices, than we are in judging the hypocrisies of politicians who appeal to the prejudices of other political coalitions.

All this means "bend-over-backwards" integrity in electoral politics is too much to ask for. What we should expect and ask for in our elected politicians is "bend-over-backwards" respect for our institutions, for fairness in the political process, open-mindedness, and a respect for facts. We should expect elected politicians to honestly care about the effect of legislation, and to not fool themselves or us about the effect of legislation.  Call it political integrity.

When elected politicians lose political integrity: when they no longer seem to respect our institutions and political conventions, when they no longer seem committed to fairness in the political process, when they are no longer concerned about the effect of their legislation, when they are willing to fool themselves and us. . . , then we should stop listening, we should turn our heads, and we should vote them out of office with a swift kick.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Israel as a Perversion of Judaism and the modern Nation State

Yaacov Yadgar
Sovereign Jews: Israel, Zionism and Judaism
SUNY Press (2017), 
288 pages

In Sovereign Jews: Israel, Zionism, and Judaism, Yaacov Yadgar explores the ways in which Zionist thought and Israel as a state cope with Jewish traditions that preceded them. Jewish sovereignty shapes Jewish identity in Israel, with profound implications for non-Jews in Israel, and for the identity of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

Jewish Identity Pre-Religion

“Religion”—as something internal and private—is a concept that emerged during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, along with the “nation state” and the “secular,” says Yadgar. For a bit more on this, see my previous post HERE. During most of Jewish existence, Judaism was public and political, not religious and private in the modern sense.

When we think of the sacrificial cult of the Israelites centered on the temple in Eretz Yisrael, we see a practice that was public, communal, and political. During the rise of Ashkenaz (500 – 1,000 CE), says Norman Cantor we see a Jewish community that grew wealthy and powerful and that mixed peoplehood, observance of Jewish law, and politics. For 500 years, Jews had a virtual monopoly on banking and credit in Western Europe. Jews became the great merchant traders and financiers of the early Middle Ages. This Jewish community was ruled by a narrow, capitalist-rabbinic elite, says Cantor. Wealthy banking and merchant families intermarried with prestigious rabbinic families, and together this elite imposed Jewish law on the Jewish community. What was the identity of these early Middle Age Ashkenaz Jews? They looked to their local community as their polity, they kept (and were kept) separate from surrounding Christendom, and they were led by a capitalist-rabbinic elite. At the same time, they must have felt connected to other, similar communities around Western Europe, and around the Mediterranean basin, all observing the same Jewish law (halakha), and linked through a vast international network of trade and rabbinic regulation. Judaism in the Middle Ages was public and political, not a matter of individual, private faith.

The public, political, and communal quality of Judaism only strengthened as Jews lost their monopoly in finance and banking in the 11th century and Jewish fortunes declined in a great upsurge of Christian anti-Semitism. Jews were expelled from Britain in 1290 and not allowed to return until 1657; they were expelled from France in 1306; from Spain and Portugal in 1492. 



And as Jews moved to Germany and then to the eastern lands of Poland, Lithuania, and Galicia, Yiddish became their common language. The isolation and separation from surrounding Christian communities, as well as the observance of Jewish law, intensified. The bond of peoplehood was strengthened.

In the Talmud (Ketubot 100b-111a), says Yadgar, the rabbis relate that, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, God commanded His people to accept life in exile and to obediently submit to living under foreign sovereignty. The absence of sovereignty became a cornerstone of Jewish political thought. This exilic rabbinic tradition highlighted Jewish law as the foundation of Jewish identity: law, which governs every aspect of the individual’s and the community’s life.

Throughout the Middle Ages this communal, political-but-not-sovereign, identity based on observance of halakha, and an increasingly shared Yiddish language and culture, served as the collective Jewish identity.

The Challenge of the Enlightenment

Beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries Western Europe saw a great revival of Aristotelian philosophy and science that eventually flowered into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. A century of religious wars sparked by the Reformation ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, ushering in the modern nation state and the idea of territorial sovereignty.

The concept of the modern European nation-state, “beyond asserting the state’s monopoly over the use of violence and its status above the law,” says Yadgar, strives to create and preserve “an absolute identification between sovereignty, territory, and identity.” People living within the borders of the state became citizens, and their identity became wrapped up with the state.

In order to accomplish this blending of sovereignty, territory and identity, the state was made secular and the church subordinate to the state. Christianity was turned into a “religion:” something private and internal, an impulse separate and distinct from the secular pursuits of politics and economics. The essence of this religion is belief. It allowed people to be Catholics or Protestants (and by now Buddhists, Muslims, Hindu’s, Wiccan witches, or atheists) and yet be loyal Frenchmen, Englishwomen, Germans or Americans at the same time.

Jewish identity, based on its cornerstone of halakha, and loyalty to tribe governed by a capitalist-rabbinic elite, was not readily adaptable to this modern nation state with its trinity of sovereignty, territory, and identity.

Turning Judaism into a Religion

The German Haskala, says Yadgar, sought to resolve this tension between adherence to Jewish law and loyalty to the nation state, by reconstructing Judaism as an apolitical private, personal matter that does not touch upon the public sphere. Moses Mendlessohn re-cast Jewish law as a religion. The state, he argued, is by definition the party that deals with power and violence, while religion, in the true sense of the term, does not. Since Judaism does not deal with power, said Mendelssohn, it does not inhibit loyalty to the state. By turning Judaism into a religion, Mendelssohn paved the way for the successful assimilation of Jews into the non-Jewish, modern, secular European nation-states.

The Jewish Reform movement in Germany, and later in the United States, notes Yadgar, resolved any tension between commitment to Jewish law and commitment to the secular nation state by giving up, in practical terms, on Jewish law. Staunchly loyal to the nation state, the Reform movement reinterpreted Judaism as a spiritual achievement whose essence is the apolitical, the religious.

Orthodoxy was a reaction. Nevertheless, says Yadgar, Orthodoxy accepts Mendelssohn’s basic premise that Judaism is a religion that in no way conflicts with the modern nation state. Orthodoxy emphasizes Judaism’s all-encompassing nature; nevertheless, it also accepts that Judaism, and especially Jewish law, are by definition not political. Orthodoxy agrees with Mendelssohn that Jewish religion is not coercive and concerns only the heart and mind.

But Orthodoxy, unlike Reform, is anti-assimilation. Its self-imposed sense of separation from the larger world of Jewish identities—not to mention the secular world—is based on a distinctly Christian, Western conceptual framework, one constituted on notions of ‘belief’, ‘spirituality’, and a distinction between ‘theology’ and ‘politics.’ “Orhodoxy is in a certain sense the most modern of modern Judaisms in viewing itself as a religion on the German Protestant model,” claims Yadgar (citing Batnitzki).

Zionism as the New Judaism

If the Haskala took Jewish identity and turned it into a religion in order to assimilate into modern European nation states, Zionism took this religion and turned it into a tool of the (modern) nation state of the Jews.

Consider this contention by  Shlomo Avinery and see if it resonates:

“Zionism … substituted a secular self-identity of the Jews as a nation for the traditional and Orthodox self-identity in religious terms. Zionism is not just a reaction of people to persecution. It is a quest for self-determination and liberation under the modern conditions of secularization and liberalism.”

We take for granted, says Yadgar, that Zionism is a revolution in Jewish identity. The early Zionists who settled the land and built Israel were militantly secular. Secularism, in their view, was a natural development of the human race toward reason, rationality, and enlightenment. But Zionism was their new religion.

And indeed, as we look around, we see that most Jews in the United States perceive their Judaism more as a matter of culture and ancestry than religion; two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish; a strong minority doesn’t believe in God; and most do not observe halakha in any meaningful sense. See Pew (2013). Israeli Jews are not significantly different (Pew 2016). This undermines any notion of a shared observance of a God-given Jewish law as the touchstone of Jewish identity. Israel, and the holocaust as its justification, has become the new touchstone of Judaism.

With secularization, says Yadgar, Jewish identity lost its normative and public standing. Observance of law and kehilla (Jewish Community), which served as the normative focus of Jewish existence, could no longer do so post Emancipation and the Haskala. Once Jews were liberated, at least in part, from the traditional religious framework in matters of practice [mitzvoth and belief], they were compelled to instill new public meaning in their being.

Zionism provided such meaning by building a secular alternative to Jewish collectivity in the form of the Jewish nation-state. As Avinery put it: “The state of Israel put the public, normative dimension back into Jewish life. Without this having ever been defined, and maybe it cannot be defined, it can be said that to be Jewish means—no more than anything else—feeling attachment to the State of Israel.” Today, noted Avinery, there is not one idea or one institution “around which all Jewish people can and do unite, except Israel.” The state emerges at the very heart of the Jewish people’s existence, notes Yadgar, as the only agent instilling a meaningful content into Jewish collectivity, and enabling Jews to remain a cohesive “people.” Jewish unity emerges as dependent upon the State of Israel. It’s a perversion of Judaism.

Not Just a Secular State: Abandoning the Trinity of Sovereignty, Territory, and Identity

In building the state of Israel, Zionism has deviated from the Enlightenment trinity of sovereignty, territory, and identity: in Israel sovereignty and territory are not co-extensive with identity.

The Israeli state has forged a Jewish national identity, not an Israeli national identity. It has done so, in part, by maintaining a population registry that records “Jewish” as a “nationality.” The Israeli Supreme Court has taken up the challenge of Jewish citizens who desired to have their nationality listed as “Israeli,” and the court concluded that there is no such thing as an “Israeli nation.” In other words, Israel self-identifies as the state of Jews, not of Israelis. The dominance of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel, suggests Yadgar, is intimately linked with this Zionist project. The state asserts its sovereignty over all Israelis, and over the territory, but only some Israelis (Jews) are true nationals of this state.

The registry, says Yadgar, makes the ideological point that Judaism is not just a religion, but primarily a nationality. This Jewish nationality is separate from, and superior to, “religious” Jewish belonging. The registry allows the state to distinguish Jews from non-Jews, and to put in practice a preference of the former over the latter. It leaves 20% of non-Jewish Israeli citizens—not to mention 4.3 million Palestinians living under occupation—alienated from the national character of the state.

The state maintains its Jewish identity by using symbols, national holidays, Shabbat, education, advertising, media, and the army as socializing agents. Palestinians are systematically excluded from this socialization. Orthodox rabbinic control over life cycle events, kosher laws, immigration, and conversion, further helps to preclude the formation of a national identity for non-Jews.

The degree to which the state has succeeded with its socialization is evident in the Pew polling. The Pew study of Israeli Jews (3/16) reveals that 79 percent of Israeli Jews say Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel. Israeli Jews universally report (97%) they would be uncomfortable if their child married an Arab Palestinian citizen of Israel. Nearly half (48%) “strongly agree” that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel. These views are not unfortunate accidents of transitory right wing politics. They reflect the degree to which Israel has strayed from the Enlightenment trinity of sovereignty, territory, and identity.

It’s a perversion of the modern nation state.

Statist Judaism and Statist Jews

A corollary of the state maintaining a Jewish character, notes Yadgar, is that Jews who are essentially liberated from the authority of Jewish tradition, who are comfortably ignorant of that tradition, and indifferent towards it, are nevertheless able to maintain a strong Jewish identity through an allegiance to Israel as “the state of the Jews.” By raising high the flag of nationalism, secular Jews can feel themselves part of the people, suggested Ahad Ha’am. This holds true for Israeli Jews as well as Diaspora Jews, and it may explain why Israel-focused non-profit groups are the largest recipients of American Jewish philanthropy.

The state of Israel, suggests Yadgar, adopted a national theology based on an ethnic myth (type-J blood and ancestry) as a substitute for the traditional mythology of Jewish peoplehood based on a covenant with God. It’s no accident that Richard Spencer—a spokesperson for the American alt-Right movement—has looked with admiration on Israel’s example.

The prominent Israeli essayist and novelist, A.B. Yehoshua has said that “a Zionist is a person who accepts the principle that the State of Israel does not belong only to its citizens, but to the Jewish people in its entirety." You don’t have to observe mitzvoth, or believe in God, or know anything about the Jewish tradition to belong to this Zionist Judaism. Under the extraordinarily broad Law of Return, you too can be granted citizenship upon landing in Israel if you are a Jew (born of a Jewish mother) or are the child or grandchild of a Jew, or the spouse of any of these. Come, “because you are only half a Jew in diaspora,” said Yehoshua, and upon arrival, the state will provide the content of your Judaism on a silver platter. You don’t need to lift a finger.

The state, by maintaining an Orthodox-officiated Jewish character, serves the same role as the temple priests of old: Jews bring their sacrifices to the temple priests, and they take care of the rest. But in the case of the modern state of Israel, the sacrifices brought by otherwise perfectly liberal Jews are the political rights, civil rights, and human rights of the Palestinians who are denied an equal stake in this state, and who are denied a national identity in this state.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Medieval Jewry in Western Europe

Before TED talks there was Norman Cantor; but what a TED talk!  

Medieval historian Norman Cantor, from Manitoba, taught at Princeton, Columbia, Tel Aviv, Chicago and many other illustrious places. The judgment, perhaps unkind, on his Wikipedia entry, is that he was a pretty boy talker and popularizer of medieval history more than a contributor of original scholarship.  

Works for me here . . . In 1997 he participated in a symposium at the International Center for Humanistic Judaism.  The institute "celebrates cultural Jewish identity through a human-focused philosophy of life." It offers professional training as well as general adult education courses.  I'm glad I ran across Cantor's presentation at this 1997 colloquium.

Cantor's topic at the '97 symposium was "The medieval Jew." Here's the summary if you have just eight minutes, but listen for yourself, below: 

A 500-year Banking Monopoly

A terrible disaster struck Western Europe in about 500 CE.   The great invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries from the Germanic north, and the Mongol east, brought an end to the 500 year "safe and secure" (tongue firmly in cheek) rule of Rome. New kingdoms replaced the "benign and beautiful Roman Empire." It was good for the Jews who had been discriminated against, isolated, and ghettoized under the late Christianized, Roman Empire in the West. 

The collapse of the Roman Empire ushered in the rise of Ashkenazi Jewry.  For the next 500 years Jews had a virtual monopoly on banking and credit. It allowed the formation of a Jewish elite of large scale bankers. Great Jewish merchant families accumulated the capital, commercial capability, and courage to engage in long distance trade. This trade was facilitated by a Jewish network along the shores of the Mediterranean, and into Asia. Jews were the great merchants of the early Middle Ages. They brought Jewels, perfumes, and spices, from around the Mediterranean, and from as far away as India: things the feudal aristocracy of Western Europe wanted "to make their crude lives a little more pleasant and beautiful."

These Jewish merchants exported furs, swords, and lumber from the great forests of Europe. And slaves. Jews were very much involved in white slave traffic in the early Middle Ages. They provided credit instruments, bridge loans when great lords died (to allow settlement of estates); they funded armed conflict. After around 750 AD the Jewish importance accelerated with the great Muslim expansion.  Jews were uniquely positioned and able to trade across the frontiers between Christian and Muslim lands.

These great capitalists of the early medieval world were protected by Christian nobility who protected them against Bishops and meshugena monks. 

A Rabbinic-Capitalist Elite

The Jewish community in Western Europe in this early medieval period was dominated by a rabbinic capitalist elite. Most Jews were craftsmen, small farmers, carriers of wood and water. But this community of craftsmen, small farmers, and carriers of wood and water came to be dominated—until the late 19th Century—by a narrow band of capitalist families who intermarried with great rabbinical families. Together these families formed an aristocracy. There was a small degree of upward mobility. A very bright young man, excelling at his studies, might marry into a rabbinic family, or a capitalist family, and start his own line. But it was rare.

This capitalist-rabbinic dynasty was accompanied by the rise of Jewish law (halakha). Halakha spread westward from the great schools of Iraq towards Western Europe, but the strict observance of the law took hold very slowly in Western Europe. By 1000 CE, however, Talmudic schools had been established in the West and the law became the dominant way of life, imposed on the Jewish masses by this narrow capitalist-rabbinic elite. 

Rashi (1040-1105) wrote his commentary on the bible in Troyes (northern France) to justify the halakhic code that Jews in Western Europe had come to live by. But the great Ashkenaz was already past its glory.

Christian Competition, Rise of Christian Religiosity, and Revival of Roman Law

After the middle of the 11th century three changes brought an end to the good fortune of the Jews of the early middle ages: the monopoly on banking and credit ended, there was a great revival of Christian spirituality, and there was a revival of Roman law.

The emergence of Christian merchants, bankers, and creditors provided intense competition to the Jewish capitalist hegemony. The field of competition was tilted when bishops and princes placed restrictions on Jewish trade.

At the same time there was a revival of Roman law with the founding of Roman law schools in Bologna and elsewhere. When Roman law was revived, those old late-Roman discriminatory statutes came roaring back. Roman law, complete with its anti-Semitic elements, was taught in law schools, and was enforced by Christian beurocrats.  It was a disaster for Jews.

There was a great upsurge of Christian spirituality starting in the mid-eleventh century. This reached far beyond liturgy and worship: it enriched the arts, literature, and music--the sublime. But it also revived and generated a great Jew-phobia among Christians. Jew-phobia and anti-Semitism was at the very heart of the flowering of Catholic spirituality.  Chaucer, St. Anselm, everyone, was consumed with the hatred of Jews. Jew hatred was central to this great Catholic culture of the High Middle Ages.

This presentd a terrible problem for the Jewish community.  The European nobility, who had been protective of the Jews, were overcome by mass hysteria against the Jews.  Pogroms, intense ghettoization, and exclusion of Jews from the business world they had participated in followed. This resulted in a great decline of the Ashkenaz. The crusades took their toll. There was a great diminishment of wealth. The Virgin Mary cult went up, and Jews went down. 

By 1300, Jews were expelled from England and they did not return until 1653. By 1350 Jews were expelled from almost all of France except for an eastern province of Alsace. Jews fled eastward into Germany. There they picked up German and carried it with them to Poland, as Yiddish, in the 16th century. Jews continued to live in Germany, but in the late middle ages there were terrible pogroms in Germany, too, and Jews moved eastward. 

Jews were blamed for the black death of the mid 14th century. Doctors testified in court that it was due to Jews poisoning wells. 

The Move to Poland and Eastern Lands

Jews moved to Poland in the 16th century, carrying their Yiddish, their rabbinical elite, and their law with them. There they were useful to the Dukes of Poland and the Polish aristocracy to stimulate international trade and to provide credit instruments. They served the Polish aristocracy by managing estates in Ukraine, recently captured by Poland. In exchange they were given a monopoly over the liquor trade in Ukraine. It did not endear the Jews to the greater population. 

Internal Decline

In response to this decline of the Ashkenaz during the high Middle Ages, in the 12 and 13th centuries there was a crisis in intellectual life among the rabbis and among Jewish intellectuals. Western Europe was undergoing a revival of Aristotelian philosophy and science, which was hard to square with revealed religion. It presented a great challenge to the traditions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism alike. In all three there was an intellectual crisis. How do we reconcile theistic traditions with philosophy and science?

Among Jews, Maimonedes (1135-1204) advocated a reconciliation between science and strict observance of Jewish law. He wrote his Guide for the Perplexed, attempting to show how you could be a devout Jew and still a believer in modern science (of his day). It's unconvincing, this Guide, says Cantor. And it was unconvincing to the rabbis of Southern France. They rejected Maimonides' philosophical works, and instead kept only his biblical commentaries. Instead of moving toward science, the rabbis moved towards the kabbala, and "the accentuation of a Hellenistic astrological mystical pastiche." Judaism moved towards an irrationalist, mystical  culture. The Jews of Ashkenaz were not only ghettoized externally, they withdrew into an irrationalist culture internally. 

Iberian Jewry

Spain was different. Jews had been there for centuries. They lived there peacefully during the Roman empire, and they accommodated themselves well to Muslim Arabic rule. Muslim Spain was a Golden Age of sorts. Jews were able to build up the great commercial corporations as they had in Northern Europe, and they developed a rich culture of Hebrew literature, liturgy, and music; and at the same time they pursued Greek and Arab philosophy and medicine.

The conditions of Iberian Jewry deteriorated in the mid 12th century, about a century after the decline of Ashkenaz. New Muslims from Africa, fundamentalists, arrived. A cold wind of intolerance blew. Christian princes invaded from the north to reconquer Muslim lands. By the middle of the 13th century, most of Iberia was back in Christian hands. In 1492 the last of the Muslim principalities (Grenada) was overcome. 

A practicing Jewish presence disappeared from Spain between 1390 and 1500.  The Jewish population in 1390 was perhaps one million in an overall population of 10 million. After 1492 no more observant Jews were left in Spain. 

Many converted. Pogroms were stirred up against this highly visible and  successful minority. But mass conversion in the 15th century was also the result of Jewish internal developments. Kabbala had transferred to Spain. The Zohar, the main text of Jewish mysticism, was written down in Aragon in the 14th century. Intellecutal leaders of the Jewish community in Spain, as in Europe, now rejected rationalism, and science, and learning. Instead they held fast to a marginal mystical culture. Young Jews were not attracted. Cut off from the learning of the late middle ages, which flowered into the Renaissance, conversion was an attempt to breach this intellectual chasm. Jews saw great things going on in the gentile world. It was an impetus to conversion.

And conversion worked. Jews rose to important positions in courts and the Church in Spain upon conversion. Some of the greatest scholar of early Christian Spain were converts from Judaism in the 16th century. 


Norman Cantor, "The Medieval Jew" (1997)
Cantor died in 2004

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Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Christmas Letter to Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley exercising veto in SC, December 18, 2017

Dear Nikki:

The Economist says you were unsure which party you should represent when you first entered politics. But you are ambitious . . . and from South Carolina . . . so you chose the Republican party. You joined the local religion, too. Good for you.

On this Christmas Day, we recall that near Bethlehem, there were shepherds out in the field, “and an angel of the Lord appeared to them. . . and the angel said. . . I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”  Luke 2. And we behold: the angel did not say “America First!” He said “This will be a sign for you,” and “suddenly there was … a multitude of the heavenly host … saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men.’” And I’m sure the angels meant “women,” too.

When we contemplate the good fortune of these United States, we see that we have secured peace among men through the rule of law. We have strong independent courts. Our courts are not immune from politics, but they are independent all the same. Judges are deliberative; they must justify what they do with reasoned arguments. We have a Supreme Court as a “decider” of last resort. Mostly the executive follows what the courts say, even if not always. And we think of that infamous son of the Carolinas, Andrew Jackson. See, Worcester v. Georgia. We like living under the rule of law. It’s a good thing. Surely you agree.  

Now that you are in a position of influence, Nikki, how will you help secure peace on earth among men? You are the daughter of immigrants. You’ve been blessed that your parents have made a home in our land of freedom under the rule of law. And you’ve done us proud, becoming a South Carolina legislator, governor, and now ambassador to the United Nations. How will you use this platform to secure peace among men (and women too)?

You were born in 1972, and you have not seen the scourge of war up close. Your husband has done good work in Afghanistan, helping farmers improve their agriculture, to help them transition to cash crops other than opium poppies. But in order to make this transition successfully, they will need the peace and stability that comes with the rule of law. They will need the support of the international community, working together. It means we can’t always act unilaterally; it means we can’t always do exactly as we please.

After the horrors of World War II, the nations of the world got together in San Francisco and adopted the United Nations Charter:

To maintain international peace and security,  . . . ;To develop friendly relations among nations . . . ;To achieve international co-operation . . . ; and To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.

Surely you agree, to secure peace among men and women is doing God’s work.

The nations tried to delegate more authority to the UN than they had granted to the League of Nations. Notably, in Article 41, the UN was given powers to implement measures not involving force, such as interruptions of economic relations, and severance of diplomatic relations; and in Article 42 the UN was given authority to raise an armed force to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Article 24 of the charter provides that the members of the UN grant to the Security Council the primary responsibility to take prompt and effective action to secure the peace as it sees fit. Article 25 provides that each member shall “agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.” As you know, as a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States has special privileges: it has the power to veto Security Council resolutions.

This week you rallied the nations of the Security Council to support you in new sanctions against North Korea. These measures will require cooperation from Russia and China. How will you feel when the Chinese and Russians undermine these sanctions? You won’t like it, and you will be right, because it will demonstrate a lack of commitment to international law by these nations, a lack of commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder to secure peace among men and women.

So we are surprised that this week you seemed annoyed that anyone should question your unilateral action to not accept and not implement Security Council Resolution 478. This 1980 resolution resolved that the nations of the world shall not maintain their embassy in Jerusalem until Israel complies with existing Security Council resolutions, or until a final status agreement is reached with respect to Jerusalem by the parties.

SC478 states in relevant part: 

The Security Council . . . .Reaffirming its determination to examine practical ways and means, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, to secure the full implementation of its resolution 476 (1980), in the event of non-compliance by Israel, . . . 5. Decides not to recognize the "basic law” (annexing East Jerusalem) and such other actions by Israel that, as a result of this law, seek to alter the character and status of Jerusalem and calls upon: (a) All Member States to accept this decision; (b) Those States that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions from the Holy City. 

As you know, Israel benefits from the legitimacy conferred by the United Nations with its 1947 partition resolution 181, which divided Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem to be administered as an international district. The sanction of SC478 that states shall withdraw their diplomatic missions from Jerusalem pending Israel’s compliance with prior UN resolutions, or a final status agreement (meaning the end of occupation), is surely the mildest of sanctions. It is symbolic, and it adheres to the oft repeated collective judgment of the UN. Standing together behind this collective judgment, in which we acquiesced, is an important endorsement of the rule of law.

You say “it’s what the American people want,” but you know this is not true. Polling released a week ago indicates that a mere 36% of the American public supports the move. And, of course, you are aware that fewer than half the people voted for Donald Trump for president, and that nearly 3 million more voters cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Don’t turn into an infamous daughter of the Carolina’s, Nikki.

Adhering to the rule of law in the context of the UN requires political will. The UN lacks enforcement mechanism, so it requires a commitment to collective action. The US could have vetoed SC478 in 1980, but we elected not to. By signing the UN Charter, we committed ourselves to “accept and carry out” the decisions of the Security Council that make it past the veto gauntlet.

By moving our embassy to Jerusalem we are violating SC478 and we are undermining the rule of law in the international sphere. We are setting a bad example. This is not a move to secure peace among men and women.

Your threat to reduce funding for anyone who has the temerity to object to your violation of SC478 further undermines peace and harmony of the international sphere. Don’t back away from the rule of law, Nikki. That is our wish for Christmas.

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