Thursday, July 19, 2012

Budapest Blues -



"Be sure not to wear a kippa on the street," a veteran Hungarian-Israeli businessman cautioned as we deplaned at Budapest's Ferihegy Airport.  I took warnings to be Jewishly discreet to heart throughout our visit to the Hungarian capital. In fact, the only time I was made to feel out-and-out uncomfortable was at the airport on our way back to Israel when two uniformed officials, one staffing the screening machine and the other a customs desk, separately, went out of their way to be antagonistic to me and another El Al passenger.

Even as they confirmed that anti-Jewish sentiment was spiking, Israeli medical students, longtime Israeli ex-pats as well as members of the local community seemed inured. Security is tight at all Jewish institutions though apparently the threat stems less from Islamists than from locals. In fact, Muslim visitors have not been immune to attacks from local thugs  and I saw few women in traditional Muslim dress. Some Roma (Gypsy) feel under siege. And, strikingly, unlike other European capitals there are no African street vendors. 
  
From a tourist's vantage point, Budapest appears clean, orderly and safe. Away from the pedestrianized streets, upscale malls, tourist restaurants and pubs catering to the soccer-obsessed, however, these are hard times in Hungary. The country is part of the EU though not the euro zone. A copy of the weekly English-language Budapest Times, for example, costs an inflated 750 forints (about NIS 13 or $3.25). Unemployment stands at over 11 percent, though considerably higher among young people. One in four Hungarians has had problems paying their utility bills, the newspaper reported.

The populist-oriented government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban finds it politick to kowtow to Gabor Vona's ultra right-wing  Jobbik Party which holds 46 out of 386 parliamentary seats. There are credible rumors afloat that Jobbik has received financial backing from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Embarrassingly, a regional Jobbik leader, Csanad Szegedi, recently learned that he had Jewish ancestry. With one genetic firm offering dubious tests to establish racial purity, Jobbik leaders now allow that, perhaps, what really matters is to behave like a Hungarian.

While I was in Budapest, Elie Wiesel repudiated a Hungarian state award he had received in 2004 because government officials recently attended a ceremony for World War II-era Nazi sympathizer Jozsef Nyiro. For the same reason, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin disinvited his Hungarian counterpart, László Kövér, from a Jerusalem ceremony honoring Raoul Wallenberg. Instead, President Janos Ader will represent Hungary.

Dominated by the Danube, Budapest is a charming river city incorporated only in 1873 with the integration of Buda, Pest and Obuda. Today's Hungarians are the progeny of the Magyars who invaded from central Asia in the 9th century. Their dogged paganism was bloodily overcome by Christianity, circa 1000. As for the Jewish presence, there have been Jews in Buda on and off since the 11th century; in Pest and Obuda since the 1400s.  Jewish fortunes were always subject to the capricious whims of Christian authorities. Not surprisingly, Jews preferred  the comparatively broadminded Ottoman rulers to Christian overlords.  The 150 years of Islamic administration ended by the late 1600s. Only in 1840 were Jews no longer officially restricted from settling in Pest.

The "golden era" of Hungary Jewry, upheavals such as the Blood Libel of 1882-1883 notwithstanding, mostly coincided with the height of the Austria-Hungary Empire (1867-1919) as emancipated, mostly German-speaking Jews pursued acculturation, assimilation, and economic and cultural advancement.  This was the Budapest milieu into which Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau (and also Joseph Pulitzer) were born.  

The Jewish community built synagogues, schools, mikvaot and colleges (since Jews could not routinely attend Hungarian ones). The stunning Moorish-style Dohany Street Synagogue, affiliated with the once dominant Neolog stream was built in 1859 (well before the nearby Basilica) using a state-of-the-art cast-iron foundation. The structure is able to accommodate 3,000 worshippers and was testimony to the confidence Hungarians of the Jewish persuasion had about their prospects given that it was completed before they were granted their right to citizenship in 1867.

Even today it is one of the biggest synagogues in the world. The edifice was refurbished after decades of Communist-era neglect with the help of Bronx-born Hungarian Jewish actor Tony Curtis and the Lauder foundation.
On a recent Shabbat morning fewer than 100 locals and tourists gathered for services.  The organ, actually played by a non-Jewish woman, remains integral to the liturgy. Egalitarianism, however, is not embraced. Men and women sit separately in the sanctuary and women play no role in the services.
The synagogue's interior courtyard is a graveyard and memorial to the city's Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

The compound is also home to the Jewish museum and impressive archives, described by senior historian Gabor Kadar as the one of the few continuous surviving community archives of the continent.

Herzl lived in a building that once stood in what is today the Dohany compound. The small square in front of the shul is named after him though in its prime the Dohany elders were anything but Zionists.

Nearby are some other architecturally interesting synagogues: the "status quo" traditionalist Rombach (1872) and the Orthodox Kazinczy (1913). The dilapidated Rombach is open to tourists but does not hold services. Further afield, I attended an inspiring Friday night service at the (traditionalist conservative) Frankel Leo Street Synagogue which has been rejuvenated by Tamas Vero, its dynamic rabbi and his wife, children's book author, Linda Vero-Ban. There was a parallel children's service; a dozen young women lit Shabbat candles, and part of the service was beautifully chanted by a cantor who also happens to be an opera singer. Again, women play no role in the service and sit separately in the sanctuary, but there was a genuine sense of community.

We ate Shabbat lunch with Chabad -- across the street from the Dohany -- which caters mainly to Israelis living in Budapest. While waiting for davening to end, I met a Holocaust survivor visiting from Australia. Accompanied by his son and grandsons he was visiting the concentration camps he had survived to memorialize members of their family who had perished. Though he did not hold the right papers, he had somehow managed to find refuge in the protected "International Ghetto" for Jews who carried life-saving passports from neutral countries.

As a Jew, you simply can't visit Budapest without encountering the Holocaust and what preceded it. The interwar years were punishing as Jews were made to pay the price for having been in the vanguard of two leftists revolutions that convulsed Hungary after the First World War. By 1938, discriminatory laws were well codified.

Under Miklós Horthy, Hungary sided with Nazi Germany and thousands of Jews were conscripted into dreadful labor battalions. Polish Jews living in Hungary were summarily expelled only to be murdered by the Nazis. A rescue committee headed by the controversial Rudolf Kastner was later established to assist Slovakian Jews who sought refuge in Hungary. Whatever outsiders may think, Kastner is remembered fondly in the Dohany compound.

Germany entered Hungary only in March 1944. By July, close to 450,000 Jews from the countryside were deported by the Hungarian authorities to Nazi concentration camps under Adolf Eichmann’s personal supervision. Budapest is also where Switzerland's Charles Lutz and Sweden's Raoul Wallenberg heroically used their diplomatic offices to save as many Jews as possible. (Lutz was punished by the Swiss government for exceeding his authority; Wallenberg disappeared into the Soviet Gulag).

In October 1944, as Horthy wavered in his fidelity to Berlin, the fascist Arrow Cross took direct control of the country. Death marches, pogroms and extermination followed. In November-December tens of thousands of Budapest's Jews were herded into a ghetto in a compact area bordered roughly by the Rombach, Kazinczy and Dohany synagogues.

Many other thousands remained confined to the “International Ghetto.” But in early January 1945 the fascists stopped honoring its neutrality. By the time the Red Army conquered Budapest on January 16, half of Hungary's Jewish population – some 564,000 souls -- had been wiped out.

Then, as was the case elsewhere in eastern Europe, there were pogroms carried out by the locals against Jews who had survived the war.

When the communists took over in 1948-1949, Hungary still boasted one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. (There were many more Jews in the Soviet Union.) Thousands would flee in the wake of the 1956 uprising against the Soviets. Yet relative to the Soviet Union, Hungary's Communist rulers allowed a semblance of organized Jewish life. 

Which brings me to today. The community numbers somewhere between 80,000 to 120,000, many of whom are unaffiliated and Jewishly illiterate. Some discovered only recently from elderly or dying relatives that they are Jewish. 

With all that historical baggage, and without minimizing the difficulties, Hungarian Jewish life appears resurgent stoked financially from abroad by family foundations such as the Rothschild, Balint and Lauders and by Jewish Federations from the US, the JDC and the Dutch JHF. The real burden on the ground falls to the locals who patronize and maintain the JCC, kosher bakery, grocery, restaurants, café, shops, mikva and chevra kadesha.  

It would be easier to be optimistic about Hungary's Jewish future were its political elites actively promoting the kind of tolerance that needs to go hand-in-hand with Western-style democracy and if public opinion surveys did not show it to be among the most anti-Semitic country in Europe.

###

Want to read more about this topic?

Jewish Budapest  Michael K. Silber,  YIVO Encyclopedia.  
At the turn of the 20th century, Jews comprised twenty-five percent of the Hungarian population.

Hungary Lauds Hitler Ally Zoltan Simon, Bloomberg.
The current government may be embracing parts of the ultra-right's xenophobic agenda.

Usual Scapegoats  Frank Bruni, New York Times.
Hungary, population 10 million people, could turn out to be a test case of the E.U.’s imperiled sway in these days of debt and austerity.

Wither Hungary?  Kester Eddy, BNE.
A new book suggests that the Budapest government is leaning away from democracy toward authoritarianism.
New Wave of Hate Erich Follath,  Der Spiegel.
Hungary has failed to come to terms with its anti-Jewish legacy.

Misunderstood Hungary  Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post.
The fractious Hungarian Jewish community is not of one mind about the prevalence of anti-Semitism.
###ENDS###

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Freudians in the Promised Land



Three Jewishly-conflicted German speakers changed the course of modern history. By the time the first, Karl Marx, had died in 1883 Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl were rising stars in their 20s; later, incredibly, they came to be neighbors living a few doors apart on a Vienna Street.

Herzl determined that solving the Jewish problem necessitated sovereignty and statehood. While Marx and Freud held that fixing what ailed universal man could not be achieved merely by tinkering with where or how their polities were organized. Marx believed that character could not overcome social and economic reality. Freud said that no matter the political system, the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction was omnipresent.

All three men had acolytes in Palestine during the British Mandate who tried to harmonize some or all of their disparate views.

How Freud's ideas and those of his German-speaking followers fared in pre-state Palestine is the subject of Freud in Zion by the Tel Aviv-based psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and historian Eran Rolnik.

The book's subtitle: "Psychoanalysis and the making of modern Jewish identity" is a bit of a tease. We really don't get any straight answers about the impact psychoanalysis had on shaping modern Jewish and Zionist identity. Instead, we are given to ponder whether there is a contradiction between "psychoanalytic man" and "Zionist man." What this book, intended mostly for a professional readership – the  2007 Hebrew edition was well-received by the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association – does offer is a deeply researched history of the coming of the psychoanalytic idea to Palestine.

Nineteenth century political Zionism understood the Diaspora as being mentally, physically, politically and culturally injurious to a healthy Jewish life. Recovery could only come by negating the galut. In contrast, in developing psychoanalysis Freud's goal was universal, to help people understand their drives, themselves and thereby ameliorate emotional pain.

With Hitler's coming to power in 1933, hundreds of German-speaking Jewish doctors came to Zion mostly because they had no other choice. Rolnik's history of the psychoanalytic profession in the Yishuv explores the challenges faced by its early practitioners in adapting to a non-European environment and tells how they competed for Freud's affections while feuding among themselves.

All the while Freud's overriding fear was that anti-Semitic attitudes would tarnish the all-embracing message of psychoanalysis. He did not want his theories to be seen as a commentary on the Jewish condition, writes Rolnik. Freud was thoroughly assimilated – the family celebrated a secular Christmas and Easter though not Passover – still it never dawned on him to convert perhaps because  he came to view all religion as neurosis. Raised Jewishly illiterate he and Martha Bernays brought up their six children in a similar fashion (though two sons flirted with Zionism). 

Yet he was not an ashamed Jew. He peppered his letters with Yiddishisms; stayed a member of the B'nai B'rith lodge where he had first publicly presented his ideas; admired Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann; and according to Rolnik, was not unsympathetic to the cultural Zionism espoused by Ahad Ha'am and took pride when his works first began to be translated into Hebrew in 1928.

But Freud was put off by any hint of Jewish chauvinism. Perhaps the zenith of his disconnect from Jewish civilization was his odd last book, Moses and Monotheism which, as Rolnik interprets it, was Freud's attempt to show that Jewish ethnicity, nationalism and Zionism were not prerequisites to its main gift to humanity.

It seems that as Arab opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state became ever more unyielding, Freud wobbled. He worried that by demanding the British honor the Balfour Declaration the Zionists were being fanatical. A product of his milieu, he hoped to ride out Hitler by keeping a low profile in Vienna. Earlier, he had refused to bequest his papers to the newly established Hebrew University (then riven by two factions, those who wanted to build the Mount Scopus campus as a Zionist citadel, and the camp that wanted it as a repository of Diaspora intellectual capital). Not coincidentally, the university rejected overtures from Freud's followers to establish a training institute in psychoanalysis. In the end, a Sigmund Freud chair in psychoanalysis was finally established only in 1976.

For a lay reader one of the book's highlights is the section on Freud's foremost and obsequious Hassid in Palestine Max Eitingon (1881- 1943) who was at once fabulously wealthy, himself a psychoanalyst, physician, and a pro-Zionist. The Nazi threat compelled him to move to Palestine in 1933 where he basically transplanted the Berlin headquarters of psychoanalysis to Jerusalem. It was a move Freud sitting in Vienna hoped would be only temporary until the Hitler thing blew over. Rolnik had access to Eitingon's papers and put them to excellent use fleshing out the rivalries between Freud's various followers, Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists.
Despite the upheaval caused by Arab belligerence and the world war, Eitingon's institute, which served as a sort of professional guild, conducted regular meetings (in German) while its members carried surprisingly heavy patient caseloads.  They also shared their frustrations. Eitingon, for instance, complained that neither Palestinian Arabs nor Orthodox Jews were suitable subjects for psychoanalysis. On the intriguing charge that Eitingon was -- on top of everything else – also a Stalinist agent, Rolnik comes down against the idea.

Can Freud be said to have a political philosophy? In an email exchange, Rolnik emphasized that Freud never claimed to be offering a solution to the Jewish people or to any other people. Freud's most political book, Civilization and its Discontents, addressed the inherent tension between the individual's quest for freedom and society's need for discipline, arguing that for a polity to function humans had to sublimate their desires. In the book, Rolnik writes that "from Freud's point of view, it makes no difference how humans decide to organize their lives together" for at the end of the day "inherently irrational components of social existence" preordain individual behavior.

The aims of psychoanalysis and the Zionist enterprise did not necessarily complement each other. Rolnik points to the pedagogical guidelines set by the HaShomer HaTza'ir youth movement (then infatuated by Soviet Communism) regarding teenage sexuality which were motivated not by helping the young people achieve psychological individuation but in enforcing collectivist group dynamics.

Rolnik wraps up Freud in Zion by airing his own worries – which he insisted to me were made as a psychoanalyst with no political axe to grind – about contemporary Israel. He worries about an Israeli political culture "in which violence, omnipotence…and victimization takes precedence over assumptions of responsibility." As he looks around, he sees an Israel colored by militant nationalism and religious fanaticism deluding itself that most of its problems are not, in fact, self-inflicted. The Shoah and now the existential threat from Iran have made Israelis ever more myopic. In a back and forth he told me that while paranoids have real enemies that doesn't make them any less paranoid. He believes that the psychoanalysis practiced in Israel today does not adequately take innate aggression into account. What we hate about ourselves is the key. Israelis, he told me, put too much blame on history which makes us less accountable for our aggressions. Too many therapists focus on childhood depravations, but Rolnik argues that Freud taught that unconscious drives within all of us better explain our antagonistic behaviors.

Freud died at age 83 in London exile just weeks after Hitler invaded Poland thus outliving the madly optimistic Herzl by 35 years.  Freud dreamed about Herzl. The rest of us can be grateful that Herzl's dream became the emphatic reality.  But Marx, Herzl and Freud operated on different planes and it is only fair to evaluate the founder of psychoanalysis not by his political acumen but by how he proposed modern man understand his frailties.

###



Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Shamir Paradox: Why Do Israelis Think Like Shamir But Act Like Netanyahu?


Most Israelis embrace Shamir's view of the futility of territorial concessions yet support withdrawals needed to implement the two-state solution 

Around the time the death, at age 96, of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir  was being announced in Tel Aviv, a Muslim Brother was taking the oath of office in Cairo as Egypt's new president.  


In Ramallah, the comparatively moderate – though politically and fiscally bankrupt –  Fatah-led Palestinian Authority was reveling in a "report" it had issued charging that Israeli textbooks engaged in "incitement" for describing the West Bank of the Jordan River as Judea and Samaria.


Even as his premier Salam Fayyad was pleading with Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer to use his good offices to help keep the PA solvent, an intransigent Mahmoud Abbas was reiterating his rejection of direct negotiations with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and promising never to accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.

On the East Bank, where the Palestinian Arabs have long been the majority, a wobbly King Hussein was welcoming Hamas chief Khalid Mashaal to Amman while a delegation of Palestinian Muslim Brothers from Jordan was in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Over in Syria, the weekend saw continued Sunni-Alawite bloodletting. 

And in nearby Lebanon, the fabric of the failed Hezbollah-dominated Beirut regime was strained further by Sunni discomfiture over Hasan Nasrallah's  support for Basher Assad.   

In other words, Shamir's assessment of Israel's neighbors as fanatically uncompromising was on display for anyone willing to take it in.

As the obituaries have made clear, Shamir was "laconic," and "stubborn." He did not have a need to be liked. 

A politically incorrect heretic, he dismissed the "land-for-peace" mantra; and certainly had no use for unilateral concessions such as Israel's Gaza pullout.  He would not play along with the description that any of the territories Israel captured in its 1967 war of self-defense against Egypt, Jordan and Syria as "occupied."

Egged on by the Reagan administration and then-Labor Party chief Shimon Peres, much of the organized U.S. Jewish community had opposed Shamir's "peace-for-peace" approach as unsellable and untenable.  

American Jews cheered Shamir's defeat by Labor's Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 that paved the way for the 1993 Oslo Accords which ultimately imploded with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2001.

Shamir believed that for the foreseeable future the conflict would remain a zero-sum game even if worldly-wise Arab spokesmen sometimes feign peaceful intentions.

To embrace Shamir's views nowadays is to place yourself beyond the Israeli consensus.

With eyes wide shut a majority of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state even though just 38 percent say they think that Palestinian aspirations would be satiated by a two-state solution.  

Of course, suspicions are mutual, yet overwhelmingly Palestinians tell pollsters that their end game after a peace deal is Israel's destruction.

So there is a paradox.  

Most Israelis have embraced Shamir's view of the futility of territorial concessions yet support territorial concessions needed to implement the two-state solution articulated by Netanyahu in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech.

Centrist Israelis know in the heart of hearts that Arab rejection of the Jewish state is at the end of the day not about settlements, boundaries or refugees.

Let me make this personal.  I have hanging in my study a stunning  photograph of Shamir sitting underneath a portrait of his mentor Ze'ev Jabotinsky that was taken by the great Jerusalem Report photographer Esteban Alterman. Yet I supported Ariel Sharon's disengagement from Gaza and reluctantly recognize the need for an Israeli pullback from parts of the West Bank as part of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

Journalist Yossi Klein Halevi has explained this contradiction  (Foreign Affairs, December 10, 2011) -- how Israelis like me can be simultaneously fed up with our country's continued administration over a hostile Palestinian Arab population in the West Bank, and the attendant de-legitimization of the Zionist enterprise this stokes among Israel's fair-weather friends -- while fully appreciating the Palestinians' real intentions.
   
As Halevi frames it, "Arguably, no other occupier has had to worry, as Israel does, that withdrawing will not merely diminish but destroy it." Our choice, he's written, isn't between "peace" and "Greater Israel" since neither has ever been a realistic option
So why do we back -- in large numbers -- Netanyahu's accommodationist  policies? 

Partly, to buy time and play along with Europe and America which, unbelievably, take Palestinian protestations of peaceful intentions at face value. 

And partly because we know that the Palestinians really are "occupied" even if we can't possibly be "occupying" our own heartland.

The Land is not occupied. The hostile population living there feels "occupied."

We tell ourselves that we're being pragmatic. If the world wants to delude itself about Palestinian intentions any dissonance on our part will be perceived as intransigence.

And recall that Shamir was also pragmatic on tactical issues. 

As foreign minister he supported the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty though he didn't think it was worth paying for it with the Sinai Peninsula.  As prime minister during the First Gulf War he did not order Israel to retaliate against Saddam Hussein's SCUD missile attacks on Tel Aviv so as not to jeopardize  the American-Arab coalition. 

Shamir agreed to attend the October 1991 Madrid talks though these included West Bank Palestinians vetted by an unreformed PLO because he wanted American loan guarantees needed to re-settle a million Soviet Jews in Israel. [The loan guarantees came through only after Shamir was out and Rabin was in.]

Shamir famously said that, "The Arabs are the same Arabs and the sea is the same sea." Meaning not much was going to change. 

Of course he wanted a viable peace but one that did not diminish Israeli security; that did not sacrifice Zionist principles. He believed that "the search for peace has always been a matter of who would tire of the struggle first, and blink."
  
I think Israelis have blinked time and again.

And gotten little credit for their trouble.

Can the country that has become "Start-Up Nation," that wants to be normal in a crazy part of the world find the strength to realistically calibrate our desire to end this 100 year war with what we know about bellicose Arab intentions? 

The answer may depend on whether Netanyahu can better learn to channel more of the unflappable Shamir as he navigates us through the Islamist seasons ahead.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dismal Before Dark -- Bernard Wasserstein's new history on European Jewry during the interwar years

Bernard Wasserstein is a non-Zionist historian sympathetic to Israel while critical of its policies. Now based at the University of Chicago, the London-born Wasserstein has focused much of his intellectual energies on matters Jewish. He does so again in On The Eve, a rich and nuanced history of the 10 million Jews of Europe before the Second World War aiming to "capture the realities of life in Europe in the years leading up to 1939, when the Jews stood, as we now know, at the edge of an abyss."

 The new book is a sort of prequel to his Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe Since 1945 published 16 years ago. Wasserstein like many a liberal academic has convinced himself that the Arab-Israel conflict is fundamentally a non-zero sum game and that the two sides are bound to "reconfigure their tortured but inseparable relationship."

His latest work is not primarily about Zionism and except for his gratuitous hatchet job on Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Wasserstein approaches pre-war European Zionism with comparative sympathy.

Though in an odd turn of phrase, coming from the author of Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945, he seems to chide the Zionists for their "failure to persuade the British to relax immigration restrictions in Palestine after 1936." The striking thesis of On The Eve is that the prognosis for European Jewry, even before 1933 when Hitler came to power, was bleak: "The demographic trajectory was grim and, with declining fertility, large-scale emigration, increasing outmarriage, and widespread apostasy, foreshadowed extinction. Jewish cultural links were loosening… many Jews wanted to escape from what they saw as the prison of their Jewishness." Millions of Jews abandoned Europe in the interwar period, perhaps 10 per cent of the Jewish population; many headed to America.

Wasserstein well-chosen dedicatory quote is from historian Simon Dubnow (whose quixotic championing of autonomous Diaspora-based Jewish nationalism is itself a historical footnote): "The historian's essential creative act is the resurrection of the dead."

 Economically, most Jews made their living in commerce or in the professions since anti-Semitic strictures essentially closed academia, government and agriculture to them. Demographically, by the early
1930s most Jews in Germany were marrying out. Politically and theologically, across Europe they were riven by disunity: Agudas Yisroel against the Reform; both against the Zionists; the anti-Zionist extremist Hassidim of Satmar against the anti-Zionist fanatics of Munkatcher. The General Zionists versus Revisionists, and so on. 


 With portraits of life in heder, nigun-composing Hassidic rebbes, the workings of yeshivot such as Mir, Lublin and Ponevezh, and a sketch of the Musar movement, Wasserstein shows an Orthodoxy in decline yet by no means defeated. It faced minor competition from the non-Orthodox whose Budapest rabbinical school, for example, allowed its seminarians (gasp) to attend the cinema. 

The real challenge to tradition in much of Europe came from newfound access to the outside world while in the Soviet Union it was the jealous god Stalin. The book is not all doom and gloom. There is a charming segment on luftmenchen, those who had no visible means of support to sustain their lifestyles which ranged from poor to comfortable. The remarkable devotion of Jewish parents to their children also gets nice treatment.

Bit by bit, as the doors were closing, thousands of children were brought to safety in the 1932-33 youth aliya, the brainchild of a little known heroine named Recha Freier; the Kindertransport later delivered 10,000 children to England. Wasserstein's treatment of "anti-Jewish Jews" is compelling given the abundance of ashamed Jews coming out of the woodwork in our own day.

In their selbsthass or self-hatred, some Jews parodied anti-Semitic tropes. Of course, as Wasserstein points out, they did not literally hate themselves as much as they despised other Jews.

Some were outspokenly disdainful of the Nazis; most were fixated by Jewish issues; many ultimately renounced Judaism, assailed Jewish solidarity, yet paradoxically abhorred Jewish powerlessness while seeking to "liberate the self from compromising affiliations," in the words of one contemporary observer.

There is also a sketch of the far-left Jews who, much earlier, had quit Palestine to return to Russia after the 1917 Revolution to create Jewish colonies in the Crimea. No less engrossing is Wasserstein's treatment of the Jewish press. A considerable number of dailies were owned, edited and read religiously by Jews (as well as by non-Jews) including the liberal Pester Lloyd in Budapest, Berlin's Tageblatt and the Neu Freie Presse in Vienna, where Theodor Herzl worked. Mirroring our own day, "such papers did not, however, see themselves as Jewish publications," Wasserstein notes.

Add to this mix the scores of polemical and party newspapers of every stripe that did cater exclusively to Jews. And on the culture and Yiddish-language front, were the composers, artists, cantors, filmmakers, authors, and an entire world of books embodying intellectual and artistic vibrancy. Surprisingly, however, only a handful of Yiddish novelists were able to make a good living exclusively from their craft.

 Dispensing with maudlin nostalgia, On The Eve is a heartrending, unabashedly compassionate, portrait of doomed European Jewry. Wasserstein emphatically makes the point that they "were by no means all of a kind. Indeed, they were probably the most internally variegated people of the continent." In the absence of a sovereign Jewish state, however, they were friendless, powerless, and trapped -- everything and everyone they could possibly have counted on failed them.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Letter from Jerusalem -- Survival Strategies for Ordinary Living


When your hometown happens to also be a spiritual and political powder keg – a point of pilgrimage as well as strife – it's easy to find yourself struggling to maintain some emotional equilibrium. Don't get me wrong, it's a privilege to live in Zion. Jerusalem is a beautiful city on innumerable levels.

And yet, sometimes, plain ordinary life can get, well, intense. Besides being at the epicenter of the Arab-Israel conflict, what also wear down Jerusalemites like me are the intra-communal tensions – between Jewish people of different religious persuasions, traditional and non-observant Jews on the one hand against the ultra-Orthodox on the other.

And it's not only the big issues that can be wearying. Like any major city, prosaic worries dominate day-to-day life: high taxes, choking traffic, dirty streets, deficient schools and a dearth of public spaces – making it seem that the veneer of civilization is running thin.

So my wife Lisa and I have come up with five strategies that help us maintain our perspective.

Shopping – We found a great place to do our grocery shopping. For visitors I recommend shopping at the Mahane Yehuda outdoor market in downtown. I like it for its bustling and zesty ambiance, fresh produce and low prices. Fishmongers and spice merchants now compete with boutique fashion and ceramic shops, mom-and-pop Ethiopian eateries, gourmet cheese and wine shops and even a London-style fish and chips shop.
When we need to do a "big shop" to stock-up on household staples (cleaning supplies, paper towels and tuna fish) we skip our favorite – more about that later – supermarket (too expensive) and Mahane Yehuda (inconvenient because of parking and congestion) and head to one of several big hurly-burly discount supermarkets in the industrial part of our southern Jerusalem neighborhood usually Rami Levy discount supermarket.

Some Israelis treat shopping (and driving) like a competitive sport. Like the time we waited in line behind a man with just three items in his shopping cart, only to see him joined by his wife pushing an overloaded wagon just as he got to the checkout clerk. He had been "holding" her spot on line. Thursday nights – when what passes for the Israeli weekend begins – the big supermarkets tend to be jumping with pre-Sabbath shoppers.

Fortunately, for ordinary grocery shopping we discovered a small retrograde supermarket that caters to Israelis from English-speaking countries (called "Anglos" here), diplomats and UN-personnel. It is called SuperDeal (28 Hebron Road, near the Old Train Station).

It's not particularly fancy or nicely lit up and it doesn't offer the variety of the bigger supermarkets. The bargains are few and the prices, well let's just say they’re not cheap. Still, SuperDeal stocks many Anglo favorites not widely available in the country like Aunt Jemima pancake mix, ground coffee and Gatorade for the Americans; and Marmite, English tea and shortbread biscuits for the Brits. (Did I mention that Lisa is London born?) And when the lines at SuperDeal get long, the management pulls out all stops to speed things up; opening up more lanes and putting on more packers. If you spend over 300 shekels (about $80) you get a free bottle of soda pop.

Last Thanksgiving it seemed as if Super Deal's kosher butcher shop (which is professionally staffed by Palestinian Arab butchers) seemed to be supplying the entire ex-pat community in Jerusalem with turkeys.
Thank goodness for Super Deal.

Shabbat – Israelis lead hectic lives. What with Fridays being a school day and Sunday the start of the new work week – that leaves only Saturday to unwind. For those of us who are traditional and sanctify the Sabbath, that means no work, travel or even cooking from Friday night at sunset until after dark Saturday. A real "day of rest" as the Sabbath is called.

Yet Lisa and I often wonder how our fellow Israelis who don't observe Shabbat stay sane. At our place, off go the Blackberry, the Internet and television – and unless there is some kind of crisis afoot, we don't take phone calls or listen to the radio news. What we do instead is spend quality time with family and friends.
On Friday night we try to get to synagogue services. Lately we discovered a new congregation called Mizmar Le'David (Song of David) that welcomes the Sabbath Bride with song and joyful prayer. After services we either host or are invited for a traditional Shabbat meal. The meal always begins with a song welcoming the Sabbath bride and the benediction over wine. Lisa's a great cook (always experimenting with a new recipe) so if we're hosting guests can count on the food being delicious and ample. Sitting around the Shabbat table – whether on Friday evening or Saturday afternoon or both – gives us an opportunity to enjoy camaraderie with friends (usually from the neighborhood). It's a way of putting life on pause. We always sing Grace After Meals before leaving the table for conversation in the living room.
Thank goodness for Shabbat.

Walking – On Saturday mornings there is comparatively little traffic in Jerusalem. Most businesses, restaurants and shops are closed as are schools. The City recently created a new urban trail along the old railroad track (this historic line once connected Beirut to Cairo via Palestine). Nowadays it's a bike path and pedestrian mall making it a lovely place for a Shabbat walk.

Alternatively, we stroll along the Sherover - Haas Promenade which offers panoramic views of Jerusalem, the Old City and the Mount of Olives from the south. We just never tire of this outlook. For weekday sanity, I usually hike up to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel which sits astride Israel's 1949 Armistice Lines (what people confusingly call the 1967 boundaries). From the lookout point you can see the outskirts of Bethlehem (now controlled by the Palestinian Authority). When the weather is good, I bicycle up to the kibbutz and then have a quick swim in the pool.

Thank goodness that Jerusalem, though hilly, is a walking city.

Eating – Anyone who knows me knows I enjoy a good meal and Jerusalem is blessed with excellent restaurants. Since we adhere to Jewish dietary traditions the restaurants we frequent are either kosher "meat" or "dairy."

I'm partial to a simple mom and pop place called Ima (Mom's) at 189 Agrippas Street not far from the Central Bus Station and the Mahane Yehuda market which specializes in Israeli-Oriental-Kurdish style home cooking. Nothing fancy but I always feel revived after the Kubbeh soup of small pockets made of semolina dough stuffed with ground beef and pine nuts. Lisa and I would eat there a couple times a week after I finished my shift at the Jerusalem Post. Back during the dark days of the Second Intifada we were sometimes the only ones in the place. Now, it's best to make a reservation.

Our favorite special occasion restaurant is Angelica at 7 Shatz Street in the center of town. I've seen famous authors and politicians eat there. The food is usually very good -- I tend to order Entrecote steak or lamb-- and service is typically good. For "dairy" we take our chances at a small hole in the wall called Al Dente at 50 Ussishkin Street. The pasta is freshly made, the food almost always delicious, but the service can be painfully inept. A few months back when the renovated Israel Museum (11 Rupin Street) reopened we discovered their fancy European-style meat restaurant, called Modern (overlooking the Valley of the Cross). We like going there on a Tuesday night when the museum is also open late. The food is first-rate and the service is well-meaning.

Thank goodness for good food.

Culture – As you may have guessed we love the Israel Museum. For occasional visitors there is a long list of must-sees such as the Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and the enthralling 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period.
Lisa and I tend to go for the temporary exhibits. My recent favorite was Christian Marclay's mesmerizing The Clock which we saw twice. If it comes to your town be sure to see it. I also never tire of experiencing the lovingly reconstructed synagogues in the museum including the 18th-century sanctuary from Suriname (white sand floor); one from the 16th century called Kadavumbagam (“by the side of the landing place”) Synagogue from Cochin, India; and a 1735 synagogue from the market town of Horb in Southern Germany. I'm fond of the museum at night when you can see the nearby Knesset all lit up.

We've finally gotten into the habit of going to the Cinematheque – the most civilized place in Jerusalem to see a film not counting the Jerusalem Theater and Performing Arts Center near the Prime Minister's Residence. The Cinematheque, situated near the Old City walls, is trendier. It's a Mecca for Jerusalem's secular population and tends to offer a heavy fare of left-wing European films and it's a bit too artsy for me though I'm not ashamed to confess that we've enjoyed live HD simulcasts of some great Metropolitan Opera performances from New York.

Of course there are a variety of lectures and classes in Jerusalem on any given evening. For instance, on Thursday evening the Menachem Begin Heritage Center offers a popular free lecture on the weekly Bible reading (in Hebrew) that has people lining up 20 minutes before the doors open. During winter 2012, Pardes, the Jewish creative learning institute, presented a series of lectures by the brilliant Bible scholar James L. Kugel.

When Lisa and I go abroad we like to get a sense of what life is like for regular folks. What's a grocery store like? How do they spend their down time? Where is a nice place to stroll? What cultural attractions appeal to locals? Where do locals eat?

If you feel the same way when you travel, make time to experience some of Jerusalem's local flavor on your next visit. Ride our new light-rail train; stroll inside the new Hamoshbir department store at Zion Square; visit a supermarket – it doesn't have to be ours. A journey to Jerusalem should leave you fascinated and uplifted. Living here is that too though also a challenge. It's a living breathing city warts and all – just as it was in the days of the Bible.


-- Published in "Israel My Glory" magazine

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Absentee Ballot -- Voting in U.S. presidential election 2012 from Israel

A Vote Not Cast

When my Labor Zionist cousins made aliya from New York City in the 1950s to an agricultural moshav outside Raanana they cast off comfort, kin and familiarity for the yoke of pioneering Zionism. It was inevitable that they'd lose touch with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Joe DiMaggio's love life and the fate of the Third Avenue El. Just getting hold of a delayed copy of the Herald Tribune would have been a coup. And the thought of casting an absentee ballot in the presidential contest between Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson did not even cross their minds .

Nowadays, Americans living in Israel will find voting in the 2012 presidential elections no trickier than keeping up with Season Five of Mad Men. As an ex-New Yorker, I am able to apply to vote via a Federal website or through my local board of elections. It seems I am eligible to vote in municipal contests and, for all I know, in school board races.

Having downloaded and filled out an application, all I need do is affix my signatures and airmail the forms to the Board of Elections on Ninth Avenue. Anticipating approval of my submission, the board has already emailed to wish me "a great voting experience this year!"

Filing overseas tax returns is a legal obligation, holding a second passport may simply be prudent, and feeling devotion to America is only natural. But as someone who has no expectations of returning to live in the United States I see voting as an exploitation rather than an exercise of my rights, and as a betrayal of my Zionist bona fides.

Did Herzl and Jabotinsky go to their early graves so that I could exercise my right to vote in America?

That's not the way Kory Bardash of Republicans Abroad sees it. A strong America, he argues, helps secure a strong and independent Israel. "By helping to elect officials that understand and support Israel’s struggle against an ever increasing hostile world that looks to delegitimize it, those that vote in the US election can help support [the Zionist] dream."

Advocates of absentee balloting also argue that with taxation comes representation. Ex-pats living in London have no compunction about voting in U.S. elections so why should those living in Tel Aviv feel differently? Israel's 300,000 Americans make it the fifth largest expat community, according to Bardash. And isn't it true that many maintain deep connections through family, friends and frequent visits. Moreover, 115 countries allow absentee voting and they can't all be wrong.

All true, but Israel doesn't allow absentee balloting. And there is no groundswell of sentiment to give 500,000 ex-pat Israelis (about 10 percent of the population) whose lives are permanently centered in America, Russia or Germany the right to vote.

On the other hand, Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser did lately direct a quasi-public think tank to explore whether and to what extent to enfranchise Israelis abroad.

He is weighing one option in particular that – if endorsed by the cabinet and passed by the Knesset – would extend limited voting rights to some 42,000 Israelis on a one-off basis who have been abroad for no more than four years among them university students, post-army trekkers, visiting academics, business people, tourists and airline crews. Given Israel's size that could be enough, cumulatively, to influence the outcome of two Knesset seats.

Historically, however, any reforms have been opposed by strange bedfellows: the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, some national-religious factions, the Arab bloc, and the leftist Haaretz newspaper.
While sensible reforms extending the vote to those temporarily out of the country could make it through the Knesset no one expects the franchise to be handed broadly to ex-Israelis permanently living overseas.

The consensus seems to be that those who have permanently made their lives elsewhere have ceded their say in life-and-death decisions affecting the Jewish state. Plainly, for ex-pat U.S. citizens the circumstances are quite different.

Some Israeli-Americans will vote out of a sense of patriotism; of those many will weigh to the moral dilemma of exercising power without personally having to pay the consequences.

There will be those who will not cast absentee ballots out of lethargy. And still others will consciously refrain from voting because for them answering the Zionist call for the ingathering of the Jewish people in Eretz Israel necessitates, perforce, abdication of involvement in the political affairs of one's former homeland.

The Others Among Us - Two New Books About The Lower East Side

What most American Jews know about New York's Lower East Side comes from books like Irving Howe's World of our Fathers, memories of family shopping excursions to Orchard Street or tours of the Tenement Museum. My claim to fame is that I was born and raised in the neighborhood making my appearance when there were still pushcarts along Avenue C, street corner vendors selling knishes or ice cream (depending on the season) and shuls on practically every block. By the 1950s, just as the Lower East Side's Jewish heyday was behind it, a wave of post-World War II Holocaust refugees breathed new life into the area. The respite would be brief. Jews in the Alphabet City section (Avenues A, B, C, and D)would be forced out during the 1960s and 1970s by black and Puerto Rican violence while Jews south of Delancey Street would be incrementally bought out by the Chinese by the dawn of the 21st century. Hard to believe that a hundred years earlier there had been half a million Jews living in tenements from 14th Street down toward the southern tip of Manhattan. And that these denizens – immigrants and old-timers – were not alone. They shared the "Jewish Lower East Side" with other hyphenated Americans: Italian, Irish, German and Chinese. In An Immigrant Neighborhood Shirley J. Yee, a professor of Gender Studies at the University of Washington, focuses on the Chinese who settled on the LES before 1930 in what would become Chinatown. Once the reader gets beyond Yee's unselfconscious political correctness – talk of "normative white heterosexuality," "systems of power relations" and "patriarchal and heternormative assumptions" – there is what to be mined. Yee's basic discovery is that the various ethnic groups interacted "unglamorously" more than is generally appreciated. Chinese businesses employed non-Chinese workers and served a mixed clientele. Irish funeral parlors served the Chinese until the community was sufficiently established to provide for itself. Similarly, the Visiting Nurse Service co-founded by the German Jewish Lillian Wald ministered to the Chinese. Jewish physicians (there were 1,000 by 1907 despite medical school quota policies) such as Abraham Jacobi attended Chinese patients. Jewish plumbers unclogged Chinese drains. Her research even turned up the existence of "interracial households." Yee devotes a chapter to the Oldest Profession which was thriving in the neighborhood viewing anti-vice organizations as trying to impose "middle-class values on poor and immigrant people." In any event, the Chinese did not have it easy, trapped by policies intended to segregate the newcomers and facing hostility and prejudice from the authorities and from their neighbors particularly the Irish. Most Jewish historians note that the Educational Alliance on East Broadway was established by uptown German Jews to acculturate the East European Lower East Side Jews. Yee's somewhat censorious take is that the Edgies' ultimate purpose was to provide a venue for Jews to meet and marry other Jews. A good thing too because, as she remarks, settlement houses founded by Christian groups sought to proselytize Jews. Turns out that Orthodox rabbis opposed Jewish settlement houses fearing the immigrants would become too assimilated into the American mainstream; while some uptown Jews worried that outright opposition to the Christian settlement houses would stoke anti-Semitism, according to Yee. Gil Ribak in Gentile New York sets out to capture how Lower East Side Jews, between 1881 and 1920, perceived their non-Jewish neighbors. A postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona, Ribak fells even more straw men than Yee. The biggest revelation being that Lower East Side Jews were not innately liberal. Many arrived prejudiced and stayed that way. Dislocated, poor and struggling Jews did not straight away identify with people more marginalized than themselves. They stereotyped goyim – particularly the Irish – as Jew-haters, coarse and dangerous. On the other hand, they idealized blueblood Americans, Yankees they called them, as culturally and socially refined embodying cherished middle class values. By the end of the First World War some of these Yankees persecuted the Jews, celebrating the overthrow of the Russian czar, for their socialist and communist sympathies. Ribak provides a history of New York Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to contextualize the images Jewish immigrants held of non-Jews. "The first real-life encounter with Americans was unquestionably a harrowing experience for many an immigrant. It typically occurred at the port of entry, which in New York was at Castle Garden, at the southern tip of Manhattan, until 1892, and after that at Ellis Island." By the 1920s, once ensconced on the Lower East Side, a Jew could purportedly live for many years "without encountering a Christian," or so a Yiddish journalist then claimed. While dreadful reports from the Old World served as a stark reminder of what they had escaped, daily life drove home that anti-Semitism was endemic even on the Lower East Side. German union bosses blocked Jews from jobs, Italian ruffians broke labor strikes, but the Irish were by far the worst. In 1902, as the funeral procession of Grand Rabbi Jacob Joseph made its way along Grand Street past their factory building Irish workers "rained down iron bolts, screws, oil-soaked rags. Melon rinds, and sheets of water" on the mourners. When the police arrived they clubbed the Jew who had entered the building in pursuit of the hooligans leaving more than 200 people in need of medical attention. One Yiddish paper lamented: "Chinese carry their deceased through the streets of New York and no one assaults them. We are treated worse than the Chinese." Whatever the inference of those sentiments, Jews found common cause with Asians in opposing immigration restrictions. They saw the Chinese as hardworking and mostly law abiding like themselves. The Irish were another matter; they were referred to as "vile savages" or simply "Christians" in the Yiddish press. Incessant street violence hardened Jewish prejudices against them and the Germans. Irish louts could get away with a lot because their co-religionists dominated New York's corrupt police force. Even when the attacks were not physical they left their sting as when shouts of "Kill the Jews" rang in the ears of spectators at a 1915 basketball game between the YMCA and the YMHA. Is it any surprise then that immigrant Jews had a low opinion of their Irish neighbors? As for African Americans, contacts with them were sporadic and attitudes ambivalent. Speaking among themselves in the Yiddish press Jews consistently opposed discrimination against blacks. Yet as Ribak says, "identification coexisted with distance." Jewish property owners worried that the arrival of blacks would lower real estate values. Just like other whites, Jews sought out black domestic workers at so-called slave markets in the Bronx "sometimes offering them very low wages." For their part, black demagogues in Harlem such as "Sufi Abdul Hamid," active in the 1930s, virulently scapegoated Jews urging boycott and jihad. "Antipathy and attraction frequently coexisted," Ribak concludes. Mutual distrust competed with instinctive Jewish sympathy. Gentile in New York concludes with the thesis that immigrant Jews joined the mainstream by embracing universalism, liberalism, sometimes Marxism, and by elevating the defense of others over parochial self-interest, essentially trading assimilation for acceptance. So what remains today of a definable Jewish Lower East Side? Only a remnant, compact, lower middle-class, rather Orthodox, comparatively elderly enclave in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. Traces of the Irish have disappeared. Little Italy has become a restaurant district. Only Chinatown, throbbing and vibrant has expanded to encompass much of the neighborhood. Gentrification has cleared the slums around Alphabet City, including St. Mark's Place where I first lived, and public housing projects abutting the East River erected in the 1960s remain the preserve of the working poor. Back in 1907 when the Jewish Lower East Side was at its zenith, Oscar Solomon Straus, America's first Jewish cabinet secretary, astutely wrote in The American Spirit that "An unprejudiced study of immigration justifies me in saying that the evils are temporary and local, while the benefits are permanent and national." So it was. ###

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Getting Hitler -Andrew Nagorski's "Hitlerland"



Some cataclysmic events occur with the speed of a train wreck; others unfold over a period of months or even years. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 2007 sardonic bestseller The Black Swan put forth the proposition that the more earth shattering the event the less likely are news outlets to provide their readers with an early warning. A less condescending take on why journalists – and diplomats for that matter – are caught off-guard is that they are not fortunetellers. It is reasonable though to insist they accurately observe, astutely contextualize and plainly transmit that which they witness. The subject of Andrew Nagorski's exasperatingly non-judgmental new book Hitlerland is how well reporters and diplomats stationed in Germany after the First World War did in correctly assessing the path embarked upon by Hitler and Germany?

The main draw of Hitlerland is in its voyeuristic quality. We meet Hitler before he comes to power and can fantasize about myriad ways the monster might have met an early demise. For "without Hitler, the Nazis would never have succeeded in their drive for absolute power." Nagorski, a former Newsweek reporter and now policy director for the EastWest Institute think-tank, gives us a sense of what life was like for American diplomats and journalists and their ex-pat families. Though many newspapers and radio stations did not outlive the Great Depression that began in 1929 those that did managed to send over time some 50 journalists to cover Hitler's rise to power. Judged by their contemporaneous experiences – not 20/20 hindsight – Nagorski shows that some proved clueless; several became Nazi apologists, while only a handful proved sagacious in their reporting.

The story begins circa 1920 in post-World War I Weimer Germany which the Americans mostly found to be carefree, civilized, sexually racy and U.S.-friendly. Under the Treaty of Versailles (1919) Germany had been required to pay reparations to the victorious allies, disarm its military and give up its colonies. By attacking these stipulations, the Nazis were able to exploit the sentiments of a country that felt humiliated. When the Depression came, Germany's socialist government could no longer pay its bills. The bad economy gave the Nazis enormous traction and stoked claims by fascists such as General Eric Ludendorff that Jews and communists had stabbed the country-in-the-back and were responsible for Germany's rout. He joined Hitler's 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.

Among those who make cameo appearances in Nagorski's narrative of the interwar period are Ben Hecht, who spent two years in Berlin starting in 1918 as a cub reporter for the Chicago Daily News well before anti-Semitism had metastasized. Charles Lindbergh made his first visit to Germany in 1936, and at the request of the U.S. military attaché toured German airbases with Hermann Goering. The men hit it off and Lindbergh became an advocate for accommodation with the Nazis and an outspoken proponent of U.S. isolationism. John F. Kennedy came in 1937 after a "rowdy" European road trip recording in his diary an appreciation for the Nordic beauties he encountered. Former president Herbert Hoover arrived in 1938 to meet Goering and Hitler. The führer ranted against Jews, communists and democracy, leading Hoover to conclude that Hitler might possibly be insane but was his own man and not the puppet of some reactionary cabal. Returning home, Hoover lectured Americans not to interfere in how Germans ran their internal affairs. Then there was the irascible George Kennan who had volunteered for a Berlin embassy assignment, but when the time came for U.S. diplomats to be are evacuated in 1939 whined impatiently about the many places that had been inopportunely reserved for Jewish refugees on the ship sailing for neutral Lisbon.

Nagorski's descriptions of early meetings with Hitler are most intriguing. Karl Wiegand, the German-born Hearst correspondent who had grown up in Iowa, first met Hitler in 1921, and began writing about him a year later – fully 11 years before Hitler came to power. Wiegand initially characterized him as a new politician, "a man of the people" and a "magnetic speaker." Here he eerily introduced the future führer to his readers: "Aged thirty-four, medium-tall, wiry, slender, dark hair, cropped toothbrush mustache, eyes that seem at times to spurt fire, straight nose, finely chiseled features with a complexion so remarkably delicate that many a woman would be proud to possess it, and possessing a bearing that creates an impression of dynamic energy well under control…" The first U.S. diplomat to meet Hitler was Truman Smith a military attaché in 1922: "A marvelous demagogue. I have rarely listened to such a logical and fanatical man. His power over the mob must be immense."

Helen Hanfstaengl, the American wife of Ernst, a German industrialists and Nazi sympathizer, frequently hosted Hitler in her Berlin home. She described him as a "slim, shy [asexual] young man with a far-away look in his very blue eyes" who liked children. In adult company Hitler did the talking "his voice had a mesmeric quality." Her guest fancied black coffee and chocolates not to mention Wagner's music which affected him "physically."

Twist of fate: After Hitler's failed lurch for power in the 1923 putsch he and Ludendorff barely escaped in a hail of police bullets that claimed 14 Nazi lives. Devastated, about to be arrested, Hitler intended to kill himself with a revolver when Helen grabbed his arm and took the weapon away from him, "What do you think you are doing?" Thus was Hitler given a new lease on life. He thrived on the publicity he received during his trial and addressed the court with "humor, irony and passion." He ultimately served nine months under pampered conditions while dictating Mein Kampf. As for Helen, she would divorce Ernst and return to America.

Reportage made while Hitler was already a major figure but before he became chancellor is no less fascinating. Wiegand continued to cover Hitler quoting him in 1930 in the New York American saying, "I am not for curtailing the rights of the Jews in Germany, but I insist that we others who are not Jews shall not have less rights than they." Annetta Antona of the Detroit News interviewed Hitler in 1931 in Munich and remarked on the large portrait of Henry Ford over his desk. "I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration," Hitler told her of the anti-Semitic car magnet. Dorothy Thompson, wife of Sinclar Lewis, writing in 1931 also noted his "almost feminine charm" and his eyes. But "take the Jews out of Hitler's program and the whole thing collapse," she concluded. Thompson was eventually expelled by the Nazis.

Hugh Wilson, first assigned to the Berlin Embassy 1916, would become the last U.S. ambassador before WWII. He described Hitler as "a man who does not look at you steadily but gives you an occasional glance as he talks." He felt Hitler made policy according to his "artistic" instincts yet with efficiency. Parenthetically, in 1938, Wilson was briefly recalled by the Roosevelt administration for "consultations" to protest Germany's treatment of the Jews. Back in Washington, that same year cabinet member Harold Ickes also attacked "German Barbarism." But it was Sumner Wells, the undersecretary of state, who in March 1940 was the last major U.S. figure to see Hitler: "He had in real life none of the ludicrous features so often shown in his photographs…he was dignified, both in speech and in movement." With the US gripped by isolationism Wells did not even insinuate that Washington might join the war England was already waging against Hitler, Nagorski writes. Perhaps not incidentally, Wells proved particularly adept at giving U.S. Jewish leaders the runaround during the Shoah.

There were a few who did see Hitler plain. Among them were US counsel-general George Messersmith who early on assessed the Nazis as extremely dangerous and in internal State Department discussion revealed himself to be a hawk. Another was journalist William Shirer who found himself physically revolted while observing storm troopers marching below his window. Of Germans under Hitler's spell he wrote: "As an individual he will give his rationed bread to feed the squirrels in the Tiergarten [park] on a Sunday morning…but as a unit in the Germanic mass he can persecute Jews [and] torture and murder his fellow men in a concentration camp…" He recalled his reaction after meeting Hitler: "There is something glassy about his eyes, the strongest thing in his face [but] for the life of me I could not quite comprehend what hidden springs he undoubtedly unloosed in the hysterical mob." Perhaps, he opined, it was because the Nazis employed quasi-religious rites that turned their rallies into fervent, mystical-like experiences.

There were others, too, who were "rarely fooled" by Hitler. Nagorski points to Edgar Mowrer, winner of the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Hitler and author of Germany Puts The Clock Back. Challenging an exasperated Nazi yob over the blind irrationality of his tirade, the reporter extracted the retort: "The Fuhrer himself says true Nazis think with their blood." Another discerning observer was Sigrid Schultz who became the Chicago Tribune's bureau chief who spotlighted the Nazi propaganda machine and how it had warped the thinking of ordinary Germans. There was also Joseph Harsch of the Christian Science Monitor who recognized that the US would either have to eventually join England in fighting or become a satellite of "Hitlerland" – hence the book's title.

History never repeats itself literally. But what of those now shaping our views about events in Pyongyang, Tehran, Beijing, Moscow, Islamabad and Ankara? They probably have less expertise and less access to decision makers than Shirer, Mowrer and Schultz had in their day. With fewer foreign bureaus, many news outlets rely on local stringers who lack American sensibilities and professionalism. This deficit is hardly offset by parachuting in American pundits or letting lose armchair bloggers to influence perceptions of burning issues. Absent the gift of prophecy, there is no substitute for living in the place you write about, understanding the language and being attuned to its culture.

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