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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