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.

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.  

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