Thursday, July 09, 2020



Like all civilizations, Judaism reacts – albeit cautiously – to seismic events.

Take for example the development of Hasidism which was partly a response to Cossack brutality in Poland. Or Hassidism’s Mitnagdim opponents who were reacting to Shabbetai Tzvi’s false messianism. Reform developed because modernizers worried Orthodoxy was ill-suited to take advantage of emancipation. Zionism was a reaction to the failure of that same emancipation. Likewise, Conservative Judaism was a reaction to Reform’s radical reformations.

And so on.

Combined with the unravelling of the American polity, the Coronavirus pandemic will transform Jewish civilization in ways we cannot yet envision. 

We are already seeing the sociological and psychological impact of Coronavirus on religious life. Worshippers miss gathering as a congregation. Even where services take place in person face masks, and physical distancing creates a stilted experience. That does not mean when all this is over, everyone will be content to resume their usual places in the pews.

A new coronavirus Responsa is developing in the classical Orthodox world. (Do you need to fast during times of plague? Are you allowed to drive home after taking someone to the hospital on Shabbes to avoid further exposure to the virus?) Meanwhile, some in the open Orthodox minority have joined with liberal streams in allowing Kaddish to be recited at weekday Zoom minyans.   

Much has also been written about the uptick in antisemitism. Unlike the Black Death which unleashed a wave of pogroms, the 21st-century Coronavirus is accompanied mostly by increased dissemination of Jew-hating messages. These come from white and black supremacists as well as from PLO and other anti-Zionists. 

My interest here is less sociological, psychological, Halachic, or even political and more theological. An observant and erudite friend of mine thinks I am engaging in a fool’s errand. He says Random events happen, and not to make the pandemic a God issue. This sounds like a variation on Richard Elliott Friedman’s hypothesis that God has withdrawn from intervening in human affairs.

My sensible self finds the view that God is not a micromanager utilitarian. Yet I think this is a discussion worth having. Israel’s job is to struggle with God.

Perhaps the Coronavirus will change how people think about the Creator. Will the need for religious certainty increase? Or will God become irrelevant to more Jewish young people?

The competition is not necessarily better situated. The Humanist camp can offer uncertain science, meager pastoral support, and impermanent community. In a COVID-19 foxhole this may be insufficient. 

Perhaps that is why some who seldom pray are telling pollsters they have been appealing for divine intervention. 

Or, maybe, this in-your-face, social-media-saturated, 24/7 cable news covered pandemic will reinforce existing befuddlement.

As social scientists consider how people are thinking about God, theologians will want to focus on what religious convictions the crisis is raising. But also, what clerics are saying that is new.

You may have seen this poignant moment of religious self-criticism from Haredi Rabbi Gershom Edelstein head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in B’nei Brak. Edelstein is a significant figure in the Lithuanian or non-Hassidic stream of ultra-Orthodoxy. His yeshivashe milieu leans toward a religiosity that is obsessive, insular, and puritanical.

So, when Edelstein engages in public self-criticism it is worth paying attention: “There’s something we have to understand here … the Haredim have died, in comparison to the general population, at a much higher percentage. Abroad as well, Haredim have died at a higher percentage than the rest of the [Jewish] public. What does this mean?”

His conclusion was that God judges the religious more harshly than Jews raised in the ignorance of what I would term the Muggle world.

On first blush, he was challenging Haredim to set a good example for ethical behavior and interpersonal relations or derech eretz. Was he insinuating that his followers should be more courteous behind the wheel or in the public square? To be kinder to each other in the synagogue and gentler to their wives and children at home?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Conceivably he was really calling for added stringencies in the Haredi lifestyle. New restrictions on permissible foods, additional layers on female bodies, and more frum signalling.

Some clerics were playing an altogether different blame game. Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Meir Mazuz, a Sephardi chauvinist of Tunisian ancestry, intuits that God is punishing humanity for its postmodernist social mores, especially regarding homosexuality.

Reform Judaism in contrast is blaming no one (well maybe Donald Trump) but does want its adherents to use the time of Corona to promote racial and social justice.  

The challenge is to promote universal social justice while not shape-shifting Judaism into something it isn't. 

The modern Orthodox theologian Rabbi Irving Greenberg seems to suggest that no one is to blame for the Coronavirus and it is not a punishment. However, perhaps the Lord is calling on humanity to take part in repairing the flaws of His unfinished creation (Tikun Olam).

At the very least we should not make things worse.

It is too much to ask non-Orthodox rabbis to preach that left-leaning political activism ought not to supersede Jewish ritual commitment. That Shabbat needs to be taken seriously, and that peoplehood and covenant is integral to Jewish civilization.

Is it too much to ask Orthodox rabbis to accept that ritual commitment ought not to supersede menschlichkeit? 

 אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה

Jettison your religious haughtiness and accept (gasp) that no one, actually, has a Hotline to God.

Is it too much to ask?

Of course, it is too much! We are not on the cusp of the messianic era. 

I'd settle for a polemical ceasefire and for more of our spiritual leaders to set aside tribalism and partisanship -- just for the duration of the pandemic. 

What matters as our world slides into another miserable and suffocating wave of the Coronavirus? 

That is what we need to ask ourselves. 

And that is what our clerics need to ponder.










Monday, June 29, 2020

Baby Boomer Curmudgeon to Gen Z: 'Read a Newspaper!'

You feel strongly about Black Lives Matter, climate change, democracy in Hong Kong or Israel’s West Bank policies? What do you really know about the issues that are close to your heart? How confident can you be in an opinion that is based on a chance swipe and scroll that engaged you for, like, 22 seconds? It takes months maybe years of thoughtful, critical, informed, and in-depth reading to formulate an educated opinion. 

No one said adulting would be easy.

Plenty of people older than you make no effort to be informed. Or they read and watch only what they agree with. But look at the shape of the world you inherited from them. Your millennial elders have not set much of an example either with their laptops sharing random Facebook posts. 

You Gen Z people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s seem to have mostly dispensed with Facebook and laptops.

What you know comes from scrolling through your smartphones on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and lately the hyper-vacuous Tik Tok. 

Left to your own devices, how can you separate the wheat from the chaff? Chatter from substance?

You may think I am being extra. But I maintain you can’t be legitimately woke if you do not read a newspaper regularly – like every day. The routine is important. 

A literate, educated, grownup needs to know what is going on. Your best bet is to habitually turn to the same, single, cohesive, comprehensive platform. 

You need to get beyond the echo chamber that merely reverberates the whims of your social media cohorts. An acceptable platform is one that offers under one roof reliable news, views, literature, and culture.

You’re thinking “Ok boomer, what makes you think any news source is reliable?” Point taken. Nonetheless, the better newspapers and websites maintain standards and don’t hide their biases. Regardless, it is your responsibility to be a discerning information consumer.

Personally, I subscribe to the online editions of The New York Times and The Washington Post. I peruse both and usually read several articles from beginning to end in each. I also take the daily Hebrew-language Yediot Aharonot and Haaretz newspapers in PDF format. I don’t get through all four periodicals obviously. 

Haaretz and the Times give me little joy, but I read them anyway.

I always had a love-hate relationship with the Times. I began reading it on a regular basis in 1971 when in the eleventh grade at Mesiftha Tiffereth Jerusalem, a Jewish parochial school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I’d plop down 15¢ at the candy store at Canal Street and East Broadway above the F-train subway station. My money bought me a 96-page broadsheet jammed with seven columns of newsprint. (Most surviving newspapers today are tabloids and nobody uses seven columns anymore.)

In the afternoon I would buy Dorothy Schiff’s New York Post (another 15¢) to read the pugilistic writing of columnist Pete Hamill. The Times was an altogether more demanding experience. To read it made me feel grownup, part of a larger world. Like maybe I was going to go to college.

The Times was painstakingly compiled and meticulously edited and really was an early draft of history. I would force myself to deliberately read an article in newsprint from start to finish without any expectation that dopamine would wash over my orbitofrontal cortex. Instead, I could be sure that my fingers would be smudged with newspaper ink.

It took me years to learn how to read the Times and what interested me. 

Today little of what you read on the Internet is anchored in original reporting; much of what you read is aggregated, curated, and ideologically dogmatized. Where possible read original reporting.

Fifty years ago, the Times operated in a looser ideological straitjacket and – like other quality newspapers of the day – maintained bureaus in major US cities and across the globe. Because there were many prestigious newspapers around, it was theoretically possible to get different vantage points. 

When I came of age, telephones were rotary, newspaper pictures were not in color, the US was at war in Viet-Nam, Republican Richard Nixon was president, and Soviet Jews were barred by the socialist authorities in the Kremlin from emigrating. 

Reading newspapers I realized that politics, Jews, and Israel were the subjects that most captured my attention.

Usually, around page 46 toward the back of the first section, the Times published editorials – unsigned articles attributed to the editorial board expressing the official position of the newspaper. These were ordinarily uninspiring and eminently worth skipping. Alongside the editorials were letters to the editor that had arrived at the Times' offices on West 42nd Street via the US Post Office (some had been handwritten) and selected by a team of letters editors. I would skim this section; "letters to the editor" were often signed by professors, heads of organizations and retired diplomats who disagreed with something they’d read in the newspaper. They were comparable to talkbacks except that they adhered to standards for decency and grammar, you had to sign your real name, and it took an effort to submit one.

The page opposite the editorial page was the “op-ed” page. It carried articles by Times and guest columnists. I did not read staff columnist Russell Baker whose wry humor was culturally over my head or Tom Wicker because I did not have prerequisite knowledge of the political scene. Washington bureau chief R.W. Apple’s assessments were similarly beyond my ken. 

The guest columnists either wrote on apolitical subjects or shared the Times’ outlook. Nowadays, the Times is even more myopic, illiberal, and closeminded about giving a platform to those its editors disagree with.  

Then as now, it is worth paying attention to bylines (the writer’s name). 

Before any Times article was published, it was revised by layers of editors. The first paragraph or two of a news article often encapsulated the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of the story. Currently, because of the Internet, such "just-the-facts" journalism is passé. 

In the old days, reporters showed unique styles and covered beats (subjects) that made some more interesting than others to read.

The starting point for just about every article is influenced by the predispositions, inclinations, and leanings of its editors and writers.  Humans come to writing preloaded with bias. These days latent bias by a writer is not an issue since there is no longer any pretence of objectivity.

As Donald Trump reinvented what it means to be president, the Times (and the Washington Post) countered by unabashedly reinventing themselves from ostensible news and feature outlets to deliberate views-outlets. Content is seldom slugged (or explicitly categorized) to differentiate news and features, analysis, and opinion. It is all one mishmash.

But you at least get edited, vetted, coherent coverage on a wide range of topics by turning to an outlet like the Times.

Back in 1971, with 90-plus pages to digest daily, I soon found out where to focus. There was plenty of stuff to skip: theatre reviews (I had never seen a play), wedding announcements (dull), business/finance/stocks (yawn) and sports (the venerable Yankee baseball players I'd worshipped had been traded or put out to pasture). Shipping news? Nah. A long weather column? Usually, not. Classified job ads -- only when I got to college.

Officially, the Times was not a Jewish newspaper though when I began reading it the Ochs-Sulzberger clan which owned the company could still be charitably described as assimilated Reform Jews of German origin.

Many of the top editors, including Max Frankel, Joseph Lelyveld and A.M. Rosenthal were Jewish. Wolfgang Saxon wrote obituaries worth-reading about the Jewish departed.  (An aside: get into the habit of reading the obituaries; they are like mini-biographies.) The Yiddish-speaking Irving Spiegel covered the city’s Jewish beat with panache.

The Times was never comfortable in its Jewish skin. It had underplayed (though not completely spiked) coverage of what Hitler was doing to the Jews of Europe during WWII. The first mention of the Warsaw Ghetto on January 3, 1941, was a stand-alone photo with a single sentence caption. Earlier, in the 1930s, the Times had whitewashed Stalin’s atrocities in the Soviet Union.

The paper was anti-Zionist – its owners opposed a national homeland for the Jewish people. Once Israel fought its way into existence in 1948 the paper more than tolerated its existence – though it hardly ever sided with Israel editorially. After the 1967 Six-Day War, the paper advocated for Israel to pull back to the 1949 armistice lines – the boundaries from which the Arabs had initiated their attack in the first place. Even though the Arabs insisted they did not want peace with Israel not even in exchange for the land they'd just lost.  

With the election of Menachem Begin as Israel’s prime minister in 1977, the Times took a more robust adversarial stance – maintained ever since. It toiled to demonize Israel’s control over the former Jordanian West Bank and played up the claim that Judea and Samaria are “occupied Palestinian territories.”  

Only in 1984 did the paper send its first Jewish bureau chief to Israel – Tom Friedman. But only later did I learn that he had been a campaigner for Breira, a radical student group that advocated for the PLO (when Yasir Arafat was explicitly committed to "armed struggle").

Wait. So why do I want you to read the Times? Or the WP Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame)? Because with all their faults and aggravations both newspapers/websites provide a literacy you need – a literacy you just can’t get by scanning random stuff shared on social media by friends.

Regrettably, there is no real alternative to the progressive Times – no genuinely liberal, centrist or enlightened conservative platform with global reach and intellectual depth. The Wall Street Journal is focused on business and is editorially Trumpian. Like Fox News, the Times of London, and today's New York Post, the Journal is controlled by the Murdoch family. (Only lately do the Murdoch’s seem to be distancing themselves from Trump.)

On top of it all,  the Times has gotten more insufferable for Boomers like me with its infantilizing how-to articles, transparent manipulation of semantics for trendy political ends, and supercilious social hectoring.  The paper is experiencing its own sort of cultural revolution (*). The Times riles and infuriates, even as it informs and illuminates. 

I can still handle it. I'm no snowflake.

Further Reading:

The Powers that Be by David Halberstam

The Lady Upstairs by Marilyn Nissenson

Double Vision by Ze'ev Chafets 

The Trust by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones

Personal History by Katharine Graham

A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill

(*) Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Planning to Vote for Trump? Don’t do it for Israel’s Sake

Whatever happens in November 2020,
Israel anyway needs to wean itself off America.

JERUSALEM - This is addressed to a decidedly limited demographic: the 30 per cent or so of American Jews who identify with Israel to such an extent that holding their noses they voted for Donald Trump and would do so again.

To them, I say: please do not. At least not for Israel’s sake.

I tell you this as a fellow American -- living in Israel -- as a Zionist and as a security hawk. 

If you plan to vote for Trump not because of Israel, but because you think he is a “very stable genius” and Lincolnesque in his pathos, then that is your business.

Here I am addressing myself only to those — and I include my rational Christian evangelical friends — who see Trump plain but would support him again for Israel’s sake. Please do not because Trump is bad for America and that needs to be your paramount yardstick. 

Moreover, in the longterm bad for America is bad for Israel.

In your heart of hearts, you know it. Not owing to this or that policy (even a broken clock is accurate twice a day) but because Trump is bad across a continentally broad canvas. The political culture upon which the American political system depends is unlikely to endure four more years of leadership by a man without a moral compass who surrounds himself entirely by quaking brown-nosing Sycophants.

James Madison’s model of republican democracy cannot much longer sustain unrelenting traumatization by Trump. Moreover, four more years and your children and grandchildren will grow up believing that it is typical for a US president to blatantly lie, spin conspiracy theories, and threaten political foes.

From the outset let me grant you that Joe Biden is past his sell-by date and not because he is 77 years old. Alas, your choice is not Trump or an astute, energetic, centrist, genuinely pro-Israel, charismatic Democrat. Play with the cards you've been dealt. 

Trump has all the advantages that come with demagoguery. Pray that Biden selects a running mate who shows potential to be a better-than-capable stand-in. If he goes with a flash in the pan leftie version of Sarah Palin he will almost certainly guarantee four more years of Trump.  

Let Biden be your Gerald Ford who at the very least can end America's long national Trumpian nightmare.

From a Zionist perspective, Biden has a dismal understanding of the zero-sum nature of Palestinian Arab conflict with Israel. You say that Biden will resurrect Barack Obama’s failed policies on Iran and the Palestinians.  

But his election on November 3, 2020, could make things better for America. And it can only on the margins make things worse for Israel.  

He might further bolster Palestinian Arab strategic intransigence, enable lawfare against Israel at the UN and engage in niggling public diplomacy attacks against “settlements” and the “occupation.” But I do not see him channelling Bernie Sanders breaking diplomatic relations or unilaterally  ending the US-Israel military relationship.

There is anyway a growing realization in the US foreign policy establishment that the two-state solution is unworkable. The minimal demands of the Palestinian Arabs are way beyond anything Israel can accept, and the minimum requirements of Israel are way beyond anything the Palestine Arabs can accept. This has been true for over 100 years. Yet every so often, a new generation of wonks needs to learn this reality anew. 

Whatever its intentions regarding Israel, any new Biden administration will have its hands full with reconstruction and rehabilitation of Covid-19 battered America. Even without the corona pandemic that has cost 100,000 American lives, your country’s social and political cleavages seem (from 6,000 miles away at least) to be approaching pre-civil war levels.

Biden and his J-Street crowd of advisers might be tempted to launch another "peace process" aimed at pushing Israel back (more or less to the 1949 Armistice Lines) but, trust me, we and our Arab partners will resist them.

Regarding Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's plans for a Final Solution of the Zionist problem: Donald Trump, like Obama, Bush 43 and every president going back to Reagan will not go to war with Iran to stop that country from crossing the nuclear threshold. Not for the Jews. Not for the Arabs. Not for anybody. 

The North Koreans understand America. The Islamists in Teheran are no less shrewd.

And to give Trump his due, he has accelerated America’s departure from the world stage, but it was foretold. America is a spent force. Its nuclear deterrence stops at the water’s edge.

This is not the place to lay out a calculus of Israeli deterrence against a nuclear-armed Iran. Only to point out that if Iran was as suicidally committed to Israel’s destruction as many of you believe it would long ago have purchased two or three atomic bombs off the rack from Pakistan or North Korea and tried the Shi'ite version of a Hail Mary pass. 

Whatever happens on November 3, 2020, Israel has to wean itself off America. As anyone with a passing familiarity with ancient history knows the first two Jewish commonwealths fell in no small measure because of violent internal schisms and because Israelites fatally misjudged which world powers were on the ascendant.

To my friends, family and former comrades on the pro-Israel rational right in America — if you want to vote for a polarizing, despicable, ignoramus that’s on you – but do not tell me you’re doing it for Israel’s sake.









Wednesday, May 06, 2020

'War and Peace:' Done and Dusted

The Economist recently recommended that subscribers might find solace reading War and Peace: “The rhythm of the epic novel is eerily suited to life in lockdown.”
I was ahead of the game having ordered an edition for Kindle back in April 2013 as p
art of my cultural literacy catch-up game.  I had many times previously tried reading the book in paperback only to cast it aside. The print was too small and, more to the point, the pace too slow.
Yet the digital edition also gathered virtual dust.
Then came Donald Trump. 
I had become accustomed to watching a YouTube rebroadcast of the nightly PBS NewsHour mornings while on the treadmill in my Jerusalem gym. After Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the coverage out of the White House was so bizarre, unnerving, and relentlessly draining that I experimented with reading one thing or another on my early-generation Kindle device.
In June 2018, during a visit to the Lake District in England, we met up a relative who years earlier had read Russian at university. He spoke passionately about War and Peace as practically a life-changing experience.
I decided definitively – Tolstoy would exclusively replace Trump at the gym on Kindle in 30-minute treadmill installments.
When the gym shuttered after COVID-19 hit planet Earth I determined to read the book while seated and maybe for longer than 30 minutes at a stretch.
And that is how I managed to reach “the end” on May 3, 2020.
War and Peace is a melodramatic novel with heavy doses of Tolstoyan history and philosophy. It is set between 1805 when France defeated Russia at Austerlitz and 1812 when an exhausted France snatched defeat from the jaws of victory while deep inside Russia.
The overarching theme is the contest between Tsarist Russia and Napoleonic France for geostrategic hegemony. Tolstoy does not make explicit but the two sides were also fighting over how best to organize European political society.
Tolstoy's main take-aways:

Fog of war – It is impossible to know how a battle much less the war will turn out. Fighting occurs under chaotic conditions. Military command and planning are not determinative; if anything, wild luck probably matters more. Napoleon did everything right in carrying out his 1812 invasion of Russia yet still lost. 

Human nature – People don’t think, much less behave, coherently. What we ultimately do is therefore unpredictable; we are pulled in opposite directions in love, friendship, religion. We are steadfast until we are not.

Quest of understanding – Human perspective is limited. We can’t “grasp the cause of events in their completeness, but the desire to find those causes is implanted in man’s soul.”
So far, so good.
This is not a history book so you will need to go elsewhere to learn that Napoleon’s defeat does have an earthly explanation. For one, he lost many of his troops to typhus.
The author's thinking and conduct evolved over a lifetime that began in 1828 and ended in 1910.
The Tolstoy, who brought out War and Peace in 1869, identified as a Christian believer and Russian nationalist.
He opposed modernity and the enlightenment in favor of authoritarianism and monarchy. The characters in the book are grappling with determining which course of life is best. Arguably, though, individuals can only pursue their ideals in a nurturing political environment. How Tsarist Russia could be such a place is hard to fathom. 
My experience as a reader was uneven – which is fair enough in a book that has 587,287 words. The grisly battle scenes are cinematic and harrowing. 
Main characters are vividly drawn. Tolstoy lets us feel the intensity of platonic friendships; there’s romance and fraught family relationships. There are grand "Upstairs Downstairs" country estates and city mansions, fancy balls, debauchery, nihilism, incense, deathbeds, and icons.
Serfdom – a form of economic bondage in which the peasant class depends on the landed aristocracy for their livelihood – is another constant in the book. The serfs are presented as primitive, basically loyal, and satisfied.
It must be special to read Tolstoy in Russian.  In translation, the narrative is only episodically compelling. The dying and dream scenes are strikingly memorable. However, there are long dry stretches that tested my patience starting with the scene-setting opening soiree chapter. By the time I got to the second epilogue or was it the first epilogue, my eyes had glazed over. My twitch to check Twitter (and the several Leo Tolstoy’s who are active there) was intense.
Tolstoy sees God as the unfathomable transcendent cause of all causes. His “ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension.” Yet He is the power that moves people. All other explanations as to why things are as they are, fall short in Tolstoy’s analysis. 
Also omniscient in War and Peace is Tolstoy’s narrative voice. As he says about Prince Andrew: “He had read everything, knew everything, and had an opinion about everything.”
The cast of characters is long (and many have those difficult Russian names). Over 14+ sections and innumerable chapters, there were indeed stretches where I gave up worrying about who was who.
My book came with a list of characters in the back. Anyway, with months of reading and dogged efforts at recall, the important actors did become distinct personalities.
Among those that resonated for me was Mary, the long-suffering daughter of a curmudgeonly old prince. And her brother Andrew who falls out of love with his wife Elizabeth (who then dies in childbirth).
Pierre is arguably the most prominent personality of the book. The illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov, we meet him at that boring opening soiree. He inherits his father’s fortune (with the help of his mother who I think gets written out in the first season) and spends many a chapter dithering. He becomes super enthusiastic about various schemes searching for a place for himself in which he can maybe do the right thing. His idealism is matched by his naiveté.
He mercifully gets it right at the end.
My favorite minor character is Denisov, who thanks to a lisp, and a good heart emerges from a very crowded field. But don't confuse him with Dolokhov as I did for much of the book.
Be aware that the Tsar of War and Peace is Alexander I.
Remember the scene in Fiddler on the Roof”?
Leibesh: Is there a proper blessing for the Tsar?
Rabbi: A blessing for the Tsar? Of course. May God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us.
Alexander I is the Tsar who restricted one million Jews living under his rule to a Pale of Settlement (and later added more Jewish subjects after Poland was annexed in 1815).
A nasty piece of work, historians nonetheless consider Alexander I as not being among Russia's worst of rulers.  They set a low bar. While some advisers urged him to slaughter the Jews, he was willing to see if they could be absorbed into Slavic society. Pursuing a "resistance is futile" approach he stripped Jewish institutions of communal autonomy. As if rabbis depended on him for their moral legitimacy. 

To inspire acculturation, he held out the prospect of granting Jews the right to attend university. In practice those that had not completed Christian secondary school were ill-equipped to enter university and few did
He forbade Jews from leasing Russian land. He was ready to uproot thousands by tightening residential restrictions when in France (1806), Napoleon offered his Jews new rights and freedoms.
Alexander did not want Russian Jews sympathizing with Napoleon, so he rescinded the most egregious of his anti-Semitic decrees.
Naturally, iWar and Peace, I was rooting for Napoleon.
In real life, the story is more complicated. Napolean had mixed motives. And France’s Orthodox rabbinate was wary of him fearful (not unreasonably) that religious liberty would contribute to assimilation. 

Back in Russia, rank and file Jews preferred to keep a low-profile during Franco-Russian fighting. Ultimately, Napoleon’s forces pulled out of Mother Russia in disarray.
The departure of French forces spurred on the Tsar to ever more oppressive measures against the Jews.  
When Alexandar I died in 1825, his even more malevolent brother Nicholas I took over. 

Now, maybe, you understand why the "blessing" for the Tsar.
Tolstoy’s own record toward Jewish people adds up to ambivalent. His literary references to Jews were condescending. By my count, Jews are thrice mentioned in War and Peace always in passing and never in a positive way. In his later years, he condemned state-sanctioned Jew-killing sprees known as pogroms.
To sum up my experience with War and Peace. Done and dusted.


Howard Sachar in The Course of Modern Jewish History.  

“What Is A Jew?”

“Was Leo Tolstoy Really an Anti-Semite?”


The translation of War and Peace I read on Kindle was by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Various publishers use their translation.