Podcast • October 1, 2010

John Mearsheimer: Why does a smart country act so stupid?

When Barack Obama delivered his defining “dumb war” denunciation of war against Iraq in October, 2002, he was a state senator standing in at Chicago’s first big anti-war rally for the invited keynoter, John Mearsheimer, ...

When Barack Obama delivered his defining “dumb war” denunciation of war against Iraq in October, 2002, he was a state senator standing in at Chicago’s first big anti-war rally for the invited keynoter, John Mearsheimer, who’d been booked elsewhere.

It was John Mearsheimer, the foreign policy scholar at the University of Chicago, who’d drafted the ad — op-ed in the New York Times on September 26, 2002 — that I keep pinned over my desk 8 years later. “WAR WITH IRAQ IS NOT IN AMERICA’S NATIONAL INTEREST,” was the headline. Signed by 33 university-based analysts, the ad was a marker then of rare vision, independence and mettle in the “expert” ranks. (My interviews with these uncelebrated heroes are here). Their ad came to stand also for the sorry truth that hitting the target smack-on in these surreal times is not often a good career move. All of that was before Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt at Harvard wrote the book that made them famous, The Israel Lobby.

In conversation here at Brown this week, Mearsheimer is reviewing a course that’s been “all down hill” for nearly a decade. We face four big unfixable fiascos abroad, in the Mearsheimer brief — all legacies of the “radical, reckless” George W. Bush. Afghanistan is being driven by demography and war back into Taliban control. Iraq, centrifugal by nature, continues to tear itself apart. Iran is not about to foreswear nuclear sophistication. And Israel, hell-bent on extending settlements, will defy the world’s pressure for a two-state deal with Palestinians; a Greater Israel, with apartheid rules, will be “a festering sore” on the American imperium for decades to come.

For President Obama, Mearsheimer sees no ways out, no “clever strategies” at hand. Obama might better have told the country in the Spring of 2009 that, on sober review, our problems were beyond solving any time soon — that we had to lower expectations and be prepared to shift directions. But Obama has mostly stayed the Bush course with softer rhetoric; and lots of people are angry at him because none of the problems are getting fixed.

Mearsheimer makes (to me) the intriguing argument that the great snare and delusion on the way to these quagmires was the first brief “successful” war on Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001. What felt like a quick and easy toppling of the Taliban so soon after 9.11 persuaded the Bush warriors that the combination of air power and special forces could wreck regimes and install puppets almost overnight. This was the premise for the invasion of Iraq — with dreams of turning over Syria and Iran after that, on the way to transforming the Arab and Muslim worlds. In time, that Afghan victory proved a “mirage” and a trap. The Taliban hid out, then resurged. Hamid Karzai proved both incompetent and corrupt. Iraq proved to be a bottomless quagmire, and nine years later we are still bleeding in Afghanistan.

The confounding riddle for Mearsheimer in all this is why the upper reaches of the American establishment have been so slow about examining the damage, so stubbornly set in doctrines that don’t work. He underlines the correspondence between the Iraq disaster and the money meltdown that Michael Lewis memorably set out in our conversation about The Big Short last spring:

The big question in the United States is how is it that a country with so much intellectual capital could have screwed up not just foreign policy so badly, but the economy as well. … Virtually all the economists and all the key business people thought that the American economy was in terrific shape, and hardly any of them foresaw the tsunami that hit us in 2008. Something is fundamentally wrong here.

Let’s go back to the discourse about the Iraq war. The fact that so few prominent people in the national security establishment foresaw a problem here is really quite remarkable. I don’t think you had to be very smart to understand that invading Iraq was likely to lead to disaster. …

So this leads us to the question: what is wrong in the United States? How is it that a country with all this intellectual capital could have been simultaneously wrong about two such fundamentally important issues, the economy and foreign policy?

Truth be told, I don’t have a good answer.

John Mearsheimer with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown University, September 27, 2010.

Podcast • May 14, 2010

Kai Bird: Cancel the Apocalypse

Kai Bird, as a Pulitzer-grade biographer and historian, is drawn to the apocalyptic. He’s been “obsessed with things atomic,” as he says — with bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer; with the Bundy “Brothers in Arms,” ...

Kai Bird

Kai Bird, as a Pulitzer-grade biographer and historian, is drawn to the apocalyptic. He’s been “obsessed with things atomic,” as he says — with bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer; with the Bundy “Brothers in Arms,” McGeorge and William; and now with the Middle East, where he grew up, and especially Jerusalem, “a city where apocalyptic literature was born and nurtured.”

So it is striking that opportunity is the keynote of Kai Bird’s memoir Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, from his boyhood past the check-points of Arab and Israeli Jerusalem in the 1950s. His half-century chronicle is of promising roads not taken, yet in both the book and our conversation, he is talking today about an epochal turn, in Arab and Israeli thinking, out of stalemate toward secularism and sanity. There’s an extension in spirit here of the stubborn pragmatism that Mustafa Barghouthi voiced with us about a non-violent route out of fanaticism.

At the core of Kai Bird’s vision, Barghouti’s too, is an old idea among Zionists, early and late, of a “Hebrew Republic.” It is the vision inside Bernard Avishai‘s writing from Jerusalem today and his 2008 manifesto The Hebrew Republic. It was much the same vision that fired a fabulous, largely forgotten character that Kai Bird introduces from the 1940s, Hillel Kook:

Even though he was a member of the Irgun and working with Menachem Begin at that time… [Kook’s] argument was that the new state should be secular, very much a division between synagogue and state; that this would open the door to a society inclusive of non-Jews, Christians or Muslims that were also in the state; … that the state would be imbued, drenched in Jewish culture as such; but the state’s identity would be based on its language: Hebrew. And as such, the state of Israel would become a state like any other state. The Hebrews of Israel would be Hebrews, like Frenchmen in France. It would be a modern 20th century secular state…

I would argue, as does Bernard Avishai in his brilliant book, that Israel is going in that direction. Most Israelis live along the Mediterranean Coast in Tel Aviv, and they’re highly educated, inventive, cosmopolitan, high-tech and productive members of their society. They’re secular, and yet they are drenched in Jewish culture and in the Hebrew language. And If Israel becomes more of a Hebrew republic and less of a Jewish state as such, that opens the door to becoming good neighbors with their own Israeli Arab citizens but also with their neighbors in the West Bank and Egyptians and Syrians. It becomes less a religious conflict, and more a question of where the borders are going to be between these states…

Ironically, the radical revisionists of the 1930s and 40s envisioned a secular republic. They did not talk about a Jewish state. They talked about a state where Jews could simply be modern human beings filled with multiple identities, not simply a religious label… But today we’ve been going for 60 years in the other direction, precisely because the conflict has been prolonged, because Israelis are drenched in a sense of victimhood, not only from the Holocaust, but now from all the wars and the suicide bombers. And they face an enemy, the Palestinians, who also are drenched in victimhood and see themselves as the victims of this 60-year conflict. So it’s a terrible tragedy. So this notion that a secular Hebrew republic as such, a more secular Israel, will evolve over the next 20 or 30 years of globalization is a hope, I would argue, that this conflict can eventually be resolved.

Kai Bird in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 7, 2010.

Podcast • April 30, 2010

Mustafa Barghouti: Is there Room for Gandhi in Palestine?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Mustafa Barghouti. (53 minutes, 32 mb mp3) Ask Palestinians why there is no Gandhi in their movement, and often the answer comes: but there are several, and Mustafa ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Mustafa Barghouti. (53 minutes, 32 mb mp3)

Ask Palestinians why there is no Gandhi in their movement, and often the answer comes: but there are several, and Mustafa Barghouti should be recognized more widely as one of them.

A medical doctor, born in Jerusalem in 1954, trained both in the old Soviet Union and in the US, he is the advocate of a strong, non-violent push to a two-state deal with Israel. He got his break in the show biz of American opinion last Fall on the Daily Show. His B. D. S. campaign this Spring in the world press and on American campuses stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to bring the pressure of international attention and law on the Israeli government.

Mustafa Barghouti has set his own course in the famous Barghouti family and in Palestinian politics. With Edward Said and others in 2002, Mustafa Barghouti helped found the Palestinian National Initiative. He was the Initiative’s candidate (and ran second to Mahmood Abbas) to succeed Yasir Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority in 2005. His Initiative banner waves for “a truly democratic and independent ‘third way’ for the large majority of silent and unrepresented Palestinian voters, who favour neither the autocracy and corruption of the governing Fatah party, nor the fundamentalism of Hamas.” In a long conversation at Brown’s Watson Institute yesterday, Dr. Barghouti seemed a model of the old virtues: patience, long-suffering, gentleness and a certain deep enthusiasm.

There isn’t any place in the world where apartheid is so systematic as it is today in Palestine… You are talking about a situation where we the Palestinians are prevented from using all our main roads because they are exclusive for Israelis and Israeli Army and Israeli settlers. This did not happen even during the segregation time in the [United] States. People could not use the same bus or same restaurant. But here you can’t use the same road even. I am an elected Member of Parliament. I ran for president in Palestine; I was second in the presidential race. I was born in Jerusalem. I worked as medical doctor, as a cardiologist, in a very important hospital in Jerusalem for 15 years. And since five years I am prevented, like 98 percent of the Palestinians, from entering Jerusalem. If I am caught in Jerusalem, I could be sentenced to seven years in jail.

This is unbelievable. You have a situation where a husband and a wife cannot be together. If a husband is from Jerusalem and his wife is from the West Bank, or the opposite, they cannot live together. Because if the husband or the wife comes to the West Bank they lose their ID, they lose their residency. And the wife or the husband from the other side cannot be granted citizenship in Jerusalem. We have never seen a situation where a country occupies a city like East Jerusalem and then declares the citizens of the city — who have lived there for hundreds, and some of the families for thousands of years — “temporary residents.” And if one of them goes out to study at Brown for five years for instance, they would lose their residency. This is what you see are acts of ethnic cleansing.

There isn’t a place in the world where officially the policy is, if I have a person with a heart attack and I need to get him to a hospital in Jerusalem or in Israel, I have to get a military permit from a coordinator in the military headquarters. And this can take hours or days, or it can not be granted at all. I’ve had patients die in front of my eyes because I could not get them through the checkpoints. We had 80 women who had to give birth at checkpoints, and 30 of them lost their babies. And to me, the fact that a woman cannot give birth in a dignified manner, and having to give birth in front of foreign soldiers out in the street, is equal to the utmost injustice. Tell me, where does that happen anywhere in the world? And this is happening by a country that is claiming that it is a democracy and that it is civilized. And by people that have had suffering in the past. I mean, that’s what amazes me, you know. People who understand how terrible it is to be discriminated against…

So we ask ourselves: how do we make the Israelis change their minds? How do we convince them to stop the oppressive system which is hurting our future and their future? …We have to make their system of occupation painful; and we have to make their system of occupation costly. This can be done through only two ways: either you turn to violence, which I totally disagree with, I don’t believe in and I think is counterproductive; or you turn to non-violence and mobilizing international pressures on Israel, as people did in the case of the apartheid system in South Africa. If it wasn’t for the divestment sanctions campaign in the 80s and 90s we would never have seen the apartheid system fall apart in South Africa, simply because the balance of forces between the regime and the people is so big in the interest of the regime. We have the same situation in Palestine. That’s why I speak about divestment and sanctions to encourage non-violence. This is the only way we make non-violent resistance succeed, by having an international component, especially in the United States. We are not talking about boycotting Israel, or Israeli people. We are talking about boycotting occupation and about divestment from occupation and military industry that is exploiting people, that is destroying people’s lives and that is consolidating an apartheid system. So we are calling for divestment from occupation and apartheid and injustice…

Let’s say we have a Palestinian state and an Israel state. This will make many Israelis calmer because they will not be afraid about the Jewish nature of Israel as a state, although 20 percent of its citizens are Palestinian today. Eventually there will be cooperation between the Palestinian state and the Israeli state, economically, say. I don’t see a problem with us and Israel joining the European Union together, for instance. But Israel has to answer a bigger question.

I mean, Israel is not an island in the ocean. Israel is an island in the Middle East. What we have so far is an Israeli government that is always in conflict with others. They seek conflict, in my opinion, and they use this conflict to justify oppression of Palestinians, and to justify a lack of solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. First it was the Soviet Union: they could not make a solution because a Palestinian state would be closer to the Soviet Union, for instance – or with Egypt which was at that time closer to the Soviet Union. Then it was the problem of Egypt and Syria, and then they had peace with Egypt and ceasefire with Syria. They had a problem with Iraq. Today they speak about Iran. Tomorrow if Iran is no problem they probably will start speaking about Azerbaijan. They keep looking for an external justification for a problem that’s internal.

Many Israelis speak of this. And they ask: in a globalized world when you have economic cooperation, why does Israel want us not to be a democracy? Why did they kill twice already our best experiences developing a democratic system – once in 1976 when we had the first municipatlity elections, and they didn’t like the results. At the time there was no Hamas; at that time Israel was cooperating with Islamic parties against the secular national democratic groups like us. And they killed the results of the 2006 elections which were praised by the United States and the world community as the best democratic elections in the Middle East. You see, I see racism here. Why are Israelis entitled to democracy and Palestinians are not? The question is why are they afraid of us being a democracy? Because we will have a government that cannot be manipulated?

Mustafa Barghouti in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown’s Watson Institute, April 29, 2010.

Podcast • August 5, 2009

Jeff Klein’s Excellent Adventure in Gaza

Jeff Klein’s excellent adventure this summer was a mission to Gaza, the Palestinian beachhead between Egypt and Israel, to witness resilience, as he says, amidst horrific destruction. From Jones Hill in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Jeff Klein ...

Jeff Klein’s excellent adventure this summer was a mission to Gaza, the Palestinian beachhead between Egypt and Israel, to witness resilience, as he says, amidst horrific destruction. From Jones Hill in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Jeff Klein is a retired machinist and union leader. He’s an almost regular working-class hero from the heart of the Boston melting-pot, with a highly irregular susceptibility to strangers and suffering, and a need to see things for himself.

He was going to a place that most of us Americans have chosen, or been persuaded, to put out of mind. It’s part of the charm of Jeff Klein’s voice to get us there matter-of-factly: The Gaza Strip, he notes, has roughly the size, shape and sandiness (and roughly ten times the population) of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. But his great gift is his eye for the human essentials.

Most of his fellow-travelers on this trip were Palestinian-Americans. Mohammed, an environmental consultant from Illinois, was going to see his 90-year-old mother in Gaza. Abu Raouf, who called himself Ralph, was going from Tampa to see his mother and brother. The most heart-rending story was about Maher, an engineer in Kansas City who’d left his American family in Gaza before the warfare last year.

And then the siege began, and his family, all American citizens, were effectively trapped in Gaza. They could not get out. And he was going both to see them – he had not seen them in over a year, and to try and bring them out… At the border there was this horrific confrontation. Here he was with his wife and small children, and told that they couldn’t leave. He could leave, but they couldn’t leave… In the end, he decided the only thing he could do was leave himself, and hope to go to Cairo and make some arrangements to get some pressure from the U.S. embassy to get them out. He was in tears, his children were hysterical. The oldest one looked to be 11 or 12. This was our departure from Gaza.

Jeff Klein in conversation with Chris Lydon, Boston, July 30, 2009.


The beauty of the human voice is that your ears can judge the authenticity of Jeff Klein’s story. He’s tried it on the neighbors:

My neighbors are curious – they say, you went to Gaza, why? To people who aren’t politically active it’s something odd, something out of the ordinary. So it takes a little bit of explaining, but people you have a relationship with, your neighbors, they’re prepared to listen to you in a way they wouldn’t otherwise… My neighbor knows now that his tax money is going to buy bombs to kill people in Gaza. And he doesn’t like it. And that’s the reaction I generally have: if you can get their ear, when you talk to people about it, I find they’re universally understanding and sympathetic about this issue, because as human beings there’s an empathy we have with people who are suffering. And if you make them human, people will respond as human beings. For people to accept the brutality against other people, part of it requires not considering them fully human. As human beings, we can’t be that cruel to people whose humanity we recognize.

Jeff Klein in conversation with Chris Lydon, Boston, July 30, 2009.

It seems to Jeff Klein “a miracle,” and a tangible reality, that the Palestinians have been able to sustain their national identity through generations of hardship and diaspora around the world.

And the second and third generations in the United States who’ve never even been to Palestine have this strong sense of identity with the land of their ancestors. It’s a little bit ironic that in some ways the Palestinians of today are what the Jews were of yesterday… Adversity has made them stronger… Soomood is an Arabic word that you’ll learn if you go to the West Bank. Soomood means steadfastedness, sticking to it. They have that, and they have kind of a determination and a calmness about it which is quite remarkable. Whenever I visit the West Bank, and I have friends there, I always feel like I’m the angriest person on the scene among my Palestinian friends… They’re in it for the duration, and getting angry doesn’t help. So they’re calm and determined. I’m more of an American – we want instant gratification. And I’m furious – every time I get to an Israeli checkpoint with my friends and see what people undergo, I’m angry, but they’re calm and steadfast. Of course, if they get angry it could cost them their lives – it’s a different situation for me, I have my american passport to protect me and they don’t.

Jeff Klein in conversation with Chris Lydon, Boston, July 30, 2009.

Jeff Klein finds it “almost embarrassing” to have found so much joy in a journey through a lot of misery and pain. Slow paperwork and delays let him digress to the pyramids at Giza and to the desk and chair of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria. Jeff had a copy of Cavafy’s poems along for the ride, and the Egyptian caretaker at Cavafy’s house inscribed it:

From a human being who was born in an area which is turbulent and full of problems, who has struggled since birth with bad news every day, and I keep asking myself how long I will be hearing bad news, I found the answer with common sense and logic: that each human should respect the other regardless of ethnicity, color or belief. God has created us to choose. He didn’t create to choose for us. All the thanks to Mr. Jeff in the path of goodness and love.

Inscription by Mohammed El Said in Jeff Klein’s book of Cavafy poems, July 2009.

“Can you beat that?” Jeff says. “I feel blessed.”

Podcast • April 17, 2009

"Waltz with Bashir": the Art Director’s Cut at War

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with David Polonsky, James Der Derian, Amy Kravitz and Keith Brown about “Waltz with Bashir” (31 minutes, 14 mb mp3) David Polonsky: “Waltz with Bashir” is the Israeli war ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with David Polonsky, James Der Derian, Amy Kravitz and Keith Brown about “Waltz with Bashir” (31 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

David Polonsky:

Waltz with Bashir” is the Israeli war film that broke through to everything but an Oscar. It’s the “documentary cartoon” that uses the visual language of comic books to pry open the grotesque sealed memory of war.

Even as Israeli Defense Forces were smashing Gaza last December, the movie got high marks in Israel and around the world for resurfacing IDF complicity in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla camps in the “despised” war in Lebanon back in 1982.

Waltz with Bashir” recapitulates one soldier’s nightmares of the long-ago war to implant fresh nightmares in the audience. It’s an experiment with animation, of all things, to break the spell of war-without-end.

With the art director of “Waltz with Bashir,” David Polonsky, visiting Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, we’re talking about animation as a guess, a stab at simulation, of how memory works; and about story-telling as an “intervention” against the chronic continuity of official violence.

James Der Derian of the Brown faculty is the author of Virtuous War in which he extends the “military industrial” complex to include its partners in media and entertainment. He leads the conversation here in praise of animation as an artistic link between reality and the subconscious.

On the one hand, the defamiliarization of animation allows you initially to take some distance from the story. But at some point (I think it has to do with the way that the brain visually assimilates information) the filter or the rational distancing fell by the wayside. I felt like it was almost directly accessing a part of the brain, because after all, the brain, through evolution, processes visual images first in a primal way and then the images go up to the language center, which is actually a much smaller part of our brain.

Watching “Waltz With Bashir,” you almost got into some primal, visual — I am going to call it — the truth center. So I found the film much more disturbing and harder to understand in a kind of removed, intellectual way, than if it had been a straight frame that I am more familiar with, which is documentary film or Hollywood war blockbusters. I think that is why it came back into our nightmares.

We all know what Marx said about the unconsciousness of the past: that it weighs on us like a nightmare. That somehow triggered all kinds of past memories about war in my own family history. So I think it was remarkable how the film was able to achieve that kind of new channeling of a part of the brain that is not normally a part of film watching, film spectating. 

James Der Derian in Open Source conversation with David Polonsky at the Watson Institute, April 15, 2009.

David Polonsky take his artistic bows gracefully, but he is rueful about the frustration of a larger project here. I’d asked him if he and producer Ari Folman had thought of “Waltz with Bashir” as a sort of “intervention” in a pathological condition.

Yes, of course. Nobody involved in the work was thinking for a moment that this film will stop war in any place. But, yeah, it is expression. It is art. It is the need of the self to express itself. It’s not made to achieve a certain outcome but it is there to say: I’m here and I can’t stand it anymore.

CL: How did you and Ari Folman feel at the time of Gaza, December ’08, not just the massacre but the fact that the war seemed to be hugely popular in Israel?

DP: Deeply depressed. It is very unnerving and it is very hard to remain optimistic. The sense was that we lost the last strongholds of rationality — that everybody’s, well, insane. Again if there is some kind of hope, it is in chaos. It is in the fact that this is not the result of any kind of rational thinking. And when it is not rational it can change in a moment. Because if it doesn’t change in a moment, it was rational, and the end would not come in my lifetime. And I am not prepared for that.

David Polonsky in Open Source conversation with James Der Derian et al. at the Watson Institute, April 15, 2009.

Thanks and thumbs-up to the other guest movie reviewers here: Amy Kravitz of RISD for her wisdom on film animation, and Keith Brown of the Watson Institute for his anthropological eye.

Podcast • April 2, 2009

After Gaza: The road back from shame and silence

Henry Siegman: a “fierce urgency” How many setbacks does it take to induce moral clarity, or to create an opportunity? This seems to be the general question at the Harvard-MIT conference on Gaza this week. ...
Henry Siegman: a “fierce urgency”

How many setbacks does it take to induce moral clarity, or to create an opportunity? This seems to be the general question at the Harvard-MIT conference on Gaza this week.

In the short term, horror seems to freeze hearts and harden old positions. The hundred-to-one ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths in the Gaza bloodbath, the gross imbalance of forces and weaponry stir remorse and rage.

To what effect? As Meron Benvenisti observes in our conversation, the shaming of Israel (even the self-shaming in Israel) stir up defiance, too, and helped elect a new right-wing government of Israel.

My conversations on the sidelines at MIT on Monday and Harvard on Tuesday are with two stubborn peaceniks who never give up – on their almost opposite ideas.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with Henry Siegman and Meron Benvenisti (27 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

First Henry Siegman, a pillar of the liberal Jewish establishment in America (Roger Cohen’s hope, on the New York Times site) is using a direct channel to President Obama to say: only you, Mr. USA, can make and enforce a fair 2-state peace when clearly Israelis and Palestinians cannot.

Meron Benvenisti: the one-state reality

Then Meron Benvenisti, once the deputy major of Jerusalem. His answer is: No! the two peoples will learn to live (respectfully, as they now live contemptuously) in a single state. Civil rights and legal equality will be the substitute for Palestinian self-determination. Ireland and South Africa are his current-day examples of power-sharing as the alternative to separate-and-unequal sovereignties. As Benvenisti feels it, the inescapable reality of geography and history in Palestine-Israel is the common fate, the intimately scrambled fortunes of two peoples. In this main argument, Benvenisti sounds a lot like the late Edward Said. And it’s among the “occupied, dominated” Palestinians, Benvenisti says, that the logic of collective and civil rights in a unitary state will keep gathering momentum.

Podcast • November 25, 2008

The Indispensable Musician: Barenboim Backstage

Daniel Barenboim‘s conversation starts high as a kite on the fumes of the Wagner he’s been rehearsing, then lands with both feet on the Middle East. “The situation in the Middle East has never been ...

Daniel Barenboim‘s conversation starts high as a kite on the fumes of the Wagner he’s been rehearsing, then lands with both feet on the Middle East. “The situation in the Middle East has never been so bad,” he began. Barak Obama will be a huge relief after the Bush “disaster,” but “what is wrong in America — a unilateral way of thinking” has its own destructive inertia, in America and in Israel. “Which party in Israel is willing and able to give back the territories?” Barenboim inquired rhetorically. “None,” he answered. He did not sound impressed with the lame-duck Ehud Olmert’s speculation about sharing Jerusalem with Palestinian officialdom. “Until there is a Prime Minister in Israel who understands that there is an element of artificiality and injustice” in the making of Israel today… “until an Israeli Prime Minister can speak of injustice,” there will be no moving forward. Time is working for the Palestinians, he says, not for the Israelis or the Jewish people in general. American hegemony, even before the economic crisis, was coming to be a memory. There is much to be done.

We sailed into this conversation after Michael Steinberg at Brown’s Cogut Center for the Humanities opened all the doors for about 50 students and faculty — first to the red plush opera house in mid-morning at Lincoln Center, and then to Maestro Barenboim’s easy, open, stream of thinking.

Barenboim conducts “Tristan und Isolde” without a score (“But I can read music,” he interposed with a laugh. “I remember the choreography of the piece”) and he declaims on the politics of Palestinians and Israelis without a licence. He long ago broke with the choreography of the official peace processes. The brilliant mixed ensemble of Arab and Israeli players that he organized with the late Edward Said, the West-East Divan Orchestra, says more about Barenboim’s fundamental convictions even than his words can: “I am a short-term pessimist about the Middle East,” he has said before, “but a long-term optimist. Either we will find a way to live with each other or we will kill each other. What gives me hope? Music-making. Because, before a Beethoven symphony, Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, all human beings are equal.”

It’s Barenboim’s way, with the Met players and with us, to spell out the finest points of sound — the consonants “ta” and “da” that come out of horns, for example, and the uniquely Wagnerian manipulations of vowel sounds in the German language. The word “auge” (eye), begins with a double vowel sound, with implications for pitch and rhythm… Serious ear training, Barenboim convinces us, could make a happier world. “The economic crisis would not have happened if the bankers knew from music that everything is connected. When you risk making a modulation in the music you immediately have to pay the price: when you make a rubato you have to give it back.” And then he was off:

Tell me another profession where you know more than yesterday but you have to start from scratch? This is the great privilege of being a musician. It’s exactly that: to combine more and more because you’ll never get to the bottom of it, but you always have the freshness of starting from scratch… There are some pieces I play on the piano that I played when I was 7 years old, you know, I was 66 last week–that is a long time… There are pieces I have played one hundred, two hundred times. Yet when I start, there is nothing there because sound is ephemeral, and therefore you start from scratch. And it is this combination, if you want, intellectually and humanly: knowing more and more, and at the same time, having the freshness to start from scratch. That’s the difference between being a musician and a carpenter, no?

CL: Is there a chance that diplomacy or international relations corresponds here, in terms of building on the past but starting from scratch… We will have a new government in Israel and a new government in the United States. I keep wanting to ask you if you’re available to be secretary of state if Mrs. Clinton doesn’t take it. Do you see a start-from-scratch possibility?

DB: I would take Secretary of State. Her Senate seat? No. I think that the situation in the Middle East has never been as bad as it is now. And I think that it’s a wonderful step forward that you Americans have chosen Barack Obama. But if I may be bold, and not very polite, I think that what is wrong and what was wrong in America and therefore the world–namely this unilateral way of thinking–is not Mr. Bush. Who was a disaster. But Mr. Bush was not a foreign element in American society. Don’t misunderstand me, had I been an American of course I would have voted for Obama. And I would have tried to cheat and go and put in two votes if I could. But I think that the expectations that he’ll put the world in order are false. What is he going to tell the Israelis? You tell me what political party in Israel is willing and able, both, to really give back the territories? Honestly. Which are a conditions for dialogue with the Palestinians. None. You can put Barack Obama ten times in the White House and this is not going to happen.

CL: Has Prime Minister Olmert opened a new conversation, even as he leaves?

DB: It’s not having a conversation; it’s understanding the human needs of the Palestinians. The Israeli and Palestinian conflict is not a political conflict. It has been treated as a political conflict for sixty years, and this is why it has not been solved… A political conflict is a conflict between two nations… about water, about oil, gas, about borders. And that you solve diplomatically, and if that doesn’t work, militarily. But this not like that, this is a conflict between two people who are deeply convinced that they have the right to live on the same little piece of land. And until they have understood that this is so, that the other has the same conviction, it will not happen, it will only be nonsense… Because basically the Palestinians don’t see why there is a need for a Jewish state, for a state that is exclusively Jewish. They have been made to accept the fact that people from Ukraine, Argentina and New Zealand came there since the 1920s pretending to have the right to live there; they somehow swallowed that. It was never particularly pleasant experience but they did swallow that. But now they don’t understand why these Ukrainians and their descendents need to stay for only for themselves. And they say the Holocaust is dreadful, and what a terrible thing, but why do we have to pay for it? It is all actually very simple logic. And until there is a prime minister in Israel that is willing to understand that — I am not saying agree with it, but understand — that we have come, the Jewish people, that there is an element of artificiality, and that there is an element of injustice. And I’m not against the state of Israel, on the contrary, I believe in the right of the state of Israel to exist. But I know how many terrible mistakes that have been made, and I know that history has taught us that certain things you cannot change, but you have to recognize them. And therefore until there is a the prime minister of Israel that can stand up and say that there has been an injustice committed, and we really have to sort this out, it will not move forward.

More and more, time is working for the Palestinians and not for Israel nor for the Jewish people. Because of the demography and because of the fact that the argument of Jewish suffering, of course, gets a little bit paler with the passage of time. People felt about the cruelty–the unbelievable and unique cruelty towards the Jews with the Holocaust in Europe–in 1948, 1950 and 1960 much more strongly than in 2008. And therefore in 2015 or in 2020, more and more people will start saying why do the Jewish people need to have a country of their own? That they have a strong army [so] why can’t there be a one state solution? And this, of course, is what Israel is most afraid of, and this is what has brought the country to a point where neither the one state nor two state solution is feasible. I was saying the other day, if I was a Palestinian — I mean, I have a Palestinian passport as well as an Israel — but if I was an active Palestinian and I could get everybody to agree on this, I would say that we should tell the Israelis that we have learned a lesson. We accept the fact that you have conquered the land and we accept you as the landlords and everything. Okay, now you can annex the country and now we will fight for equal rights. And what would Israel say? First, they would say that it’s a trap. But when, if, the Palestinians were to give up the arms, it is not a trap.

And now we have to make amends and live together. And all the Jews that live outside of Israel and have a bad conscience about not having moved to Israel but support the government of Israel in all of its stupidity are actually responsible as well. Not only in America, but especially in America.

I ask myself, American hegemony is going down, we’ve seen that long before this crisis happened. And we’ve seen how China and India and Brazil are getting important economically and otherwise. And then I think: we’ve [Israel has] put all our eggs in the American basket. Where is the Jewish lobby in Beijing and New Delhi that will take care of Jewish interests twenty years from now? It’s very short-sighted.

My criticism is not about the injustice to the Palestinians or not, because one can argue this and that. But that basically it’s a diminishing understanding of what Jewish history is about. We … were, for centuries, concerned with morality and with all of that. And, when I went with my parents when I was 10 years old in the 1950’s, there was no talk about the Holocaust then because individually it was too painful, and because collectively, no one wanted to talk about it. My generation did not want to hear about the Warsaw ghetto, we wanted to create a new profile of a healthy Israeli… I would understand an Israeli patriot who would say we have done that and now it is our duty to see to it that we can all work together, and really get it all going; and we stand for justice and we have a strong army and let’s make a federation and get it all together. That is patriotic language. But what we’re doing is making monsters of youngsters of 18 and 19 at the checkpoints to harass Palestinians, and who basically have no understanding and no knowledge of why they are doing this. And with the help of artificially importing one million Jews from the Soviet Union in 1990. Well now 25% of Israeli army are ex-Soviet immigrants. This is terribly unhealthy — forget about the Palestinians — for Israel! It’s very unhealthy. Don’t get me started…

Daniel Barenboim in conversation at the Met with Chris Lydon and visitors from Brown University, November 21, 2008.

Why is Barenboim so fascinating and, I think, so important? Just because a musician with courage can say and do things that almost nobody else can. I’ve observed this about Barenboim before: Like Yo-Yo Ma of the Silk Road Project, or Dizzy Gillespie with his United Nations Orchestra, or Leonard Bernstein leaping Cold War boundaries and the musical divides between Broadway, Hollywood and the New York Philharmonic, Barenboim — born in Buenos Aires of Russian Jewish parents, and an Israeli since his early teens — has made himself an icon of musical implications for a world-wide audience that hungers for a great deal more than performances.

Podcast • May 5, 2008

Israel at 60: the Etgar Keret Version

The writer Etgar Keret was our Open Source witness in Israel two years ago to a general (local, global, existential) disbelief and alienation from the war on Lebanon. And now we have the pleasure of ...

The writer Etgar Keret was our Open Source witness in Israel two years ago to a general (local, global, existential) disbelief and alienation from the war on Lebanon. And now we have the pleasure of meeting him in the flesh on a campus visit to Brown.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Etgar Keret here (24 minutes, 11 MB MP3)

etgar keret

Etgar Keret: “a Jew in a diaspora of Israel”

Edgar Keret’s bizarre, violent, popular short stories (in a collection The Girl on the Fridge) are cited as a register of Israel’s consciousness, post-Intifada and post-peace process. Crowbar beatings, sledge-hammer murders and other grotesque happenings abound in these fictions. In one, a kids’ party magician reaches into the hat and pulls out, first, a rabbit’s bleeding severed head and, later, a dead baby. He concludes: “It’s as if someone was trying to tell me this is no time to be a rabbit, or a baby. Or a magician.”

Keret’s Israeli characters are caught in states of mind and spirit between love and suicide, between boredom and brutal anger. As in this story, “Asthma Attack,” reproduced here in full, the writer keeps fighting through the frenzy, for words:

When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words, if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones — those cost you too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asmatic says “I love you,” and when an asthmatic says “I love you madly,” there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.

Etgar Keret, “Asthma Attack,” in The Girl on the Fridge, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2008.

In our conversation, Etgar Keret and I were both trying (and failing!) to remember the source of the notion that art, including fiction, is the layer of the human record (unlike the monuments of warfare and politics) that does not lie.

CL: Imagine a hundred years from now people are reading this red-hot popular Israeli writer from 2008, Etgar Keret, for the truth about Israel. What would they learn?

Etgar Keret: Well, I think that they would learn that people in Israel know a little bit less than what they pretend to know; that they’re a little bit bit less confident than they want their neighbor to think; that there’s a very strong ambiguity and confusion among the Israeli people — the same ambiguity and confusion that all human beings tend to share.

CL: Can you explain how you became the rage among young Israelis in the last few years? Not the familiar image of the Israeli writer, you’re anti-epic and anti-macho, a cuddly, eccentric vegetarian who writes about people who are beset with perplexity and pain and fearful violence and, as you say, confusion.

EK: Well, I think that growing up In Israel, I think the one thing that’s not allowed is to be confused. Being surrounded by so many enemies who want to attack us, the last thing you want to do is to raise more questions, or to be more confused and uncertain. But at some stage you realize it’s actually the fact that you live in such an unsafe situation that makes all those questions that you are supposed to postpone more urgent. Because if you know you are going to die for something you want to know what you are going to die for. You don’t want to postpone it for later.

CL: Are these stories written from the perspective of a writer who’s worrying what he’s going to die for?

EK: Well, yeah… It’s not to die for, or live for. There is something about life, especially when you come from Israel, in a region where everything is so extreme, there’s something very overwhelming about life, you know. And it leaves you with your mouth open, with your jaw falling down, you know. And this is the situation I wanted to write about. Because there is something about Israelis that whenever you speak to people they give you this feeling that they are certain about all those answers. And they have all those answers, but those answers don’t seem to be working all around us.

So if there’s anything I want to say about this reality, it is maybe: take some sort of Socratic position and just say that we may know less about what’s right, and what we are feeling at a certain moment and what should be done. I’m saying I feel it’s important to admit our limitations and our confusion just so we can start finding the real answers, and it’s much better than kind of doing that than settling for some fake answers that seem to be going around in circulation for the last 60 years.

Etgar Keret, in conversation with Chris Lydon, May 1, 2008.

Podcast • January 10, 2008

George Bush in Jerusalem: Not Too Late for a Legacy

Bernard Avishai My friend Bernard Avishai suggests on his bracing, clarifying blog from Jerusalem that everybody traveling with President Bush in the Mideast this week should stop and see a popular Israeli movie, “The Band’s ...
Bernard Avishai

My friend Bernard Avishai suggests on his bracing, clarifying blog from Jerusalem that everybody traveling with President Bush in the Mideast this week should stop and see a popular Israeli movie, “The Band’s Visit.” It’s about an Egyptian policemen’s marching band from Alexandria that finds itself by mistake in a forlorn Israeli desert community, and then about the bandleader and the woman who welcomes him, unpacking their humanity and their love for one another. The film, Bernie writes, is “the best proof we have that, for ordinary people, peace is already here.”

The reason why this movie is so powerful and so loved is, I think, we’re sort of past these rather stale notions of national self determination and so on. After all the European Community, the European Union is this big mixed up thing. You know, people are starting to see in this country, (I’m talking about the educated elites in this country, really, but even people whose politics wouldn’t be reflected in their love of this movie) … it’s just that we’re all tired of this. We’re tired of this. We know already that there are human beings on the other side. It’s hard not to see it staring you in front of your nose every single day. And I think we are hungry here for us to be snapped out of this war, because we know that it doesn’t take much for the escalation to start, and the polarization to start, and once that happens you start demonizing the other side all over again. And that’s exactly why we need help. We need help, brother. We need help. We need to go for help.

Bernard Avishai, in conversation with Open Source, January 10, 2008

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Bernard Avishai and Steven Erlanger here (31 minutes, 14 MB MP3)

That plea for help is front-and-center in the compact power-point primer for Bush & Company on Bernard Avishai’s blog. And in our conversation today (with The New York Times’ Steven Erlanger) Avishai explains why the plea goes unavoidably to the President of the United States.

We need more Dr. Kissinger and less Dr. Phil here. We need an American president who understands that the difficulties both leaders have — Abbas and Olmert — are not difficulties of personal popularity. The reason why Abbas, the reason why Olmert, will be unpopular taking any stand in favor of “the deal” is because they know each of them are going to have to split their country, as it were, to get it. Abbas does not want to take on his Islamists and radicals and so on, the people running Gaza, he doesn’t want to take them on for the sake of the goodwill of the other side. Olmert does not want to take on his rightists, including the vast majority of the people of Jerusalem, in order to sell a deal which is supposed to be good for them and the other side. Nobody trusts the other side. So what each need to have is some third force — to trust, to sell, to fear — in order to sell something without having to trust the other side. And that third force can only be America. Olmert has got to be able to go to the Israeli people and say: look, it’s not me, it’s America. We can’t have distance between ourselves and the United States. We need to do this because the Americans need it. It’s in America’s interest. The world wants it. We cannot defy American interests over this. That puts his opposition on the defensive. Otherwise the opposition says: you want to do this deal for those Palestinians who are sending missiles into Ashkelon. That’s his dilemma.

Bernard Avishai, in conversation with Open Source, January 10, 2008

Steve Erlanger, the Times bureau chief in Jerusalem for the last three and a half years, wonders if George Bush after so much loss of altitude at home and in the Middle East, remembers how much clout he still commands.

Just look at Annapolis. Whatever you thought of the Annapolis meeting, the United States snapped its fingers and within a week got 49 countries to come to Washington, including the Saudi foreign minister and the Syrian deputy foreign minister. That was power. That power has not disappeared. George Bush may be considered — particulary at home — a weak figure and abroad he may be hated by many people. But this notion that American power is down the drain is simply wrong.

Steven Erlanger, in conversation with Open Source, January 10, 2008

Bernie Avishai wonders if President Bush ever reflects that as the occupying power in Iraq, he is effectively a member of the Arab League, in which his mostly Sunni Moslem colleagues “desperately want to get the Arab-Israeli conflict behind them, because it’s roiling their streets, and the biggest problem is Egypt. Everybody knows that Egypt could be next.”

Avishai is a tough analyst and an incorrigible optimist who leaves you believing not so much in George Bush’s late “legacy” play but in the complexity of local logics driving toward a resolution. Steve Erlanger notes that Bill Clinton was even later than Bush in bearing down on the Palestinian-Israeli puzzle. So there may be some unexpected comfort in this candid conversation.

March 7, 2007

Israel vs. Iran in 2007

Our many shows about a possible showdown with Iran — most recently with Seymour Hersh last week, but also here, here, here, and here, just to name a few — had, in retrospect, a rather ...

Our many shows about a possible showdown with Iran — most recently with Seymour Hersh last week, but also here, here, here, and here, just to name a few — had, in retrospect, a rather myopic focus. They all looked squarely at the U.S.

Israel, it turns out, has been having its own debate, which boils down roughly to this: if sanctions don’t work, and an Iraq-chastened Uncle Sam won’t bomb Iran, should we? Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael Oren, writing in The New Republic , say yes:

According to Israeli intelligence, Iran will be able to produce a nuclear bomb as soon as 2009. In Washington, fear is growing that either Israel or the Bush administration plans to order strikes against Iran. In Israel, however, there is fear of a different kind. Israelis worry not that the West will act rashly, but that it will fail to act at all. And, while strategists here differ over the relative efficacy of sanctions or a military strike, nearly everyone agrees on this point: Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran.

Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B.Oren, Contra Iran (registration req.), The New Republic, February 5, 2007

Halevi and Oren linger on Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial. They warn of “a new strain of Shia apocalypticism.” They quote Ayatollah Hussein Nuri Hamdani, who declared in 2005 that “the Jews should be fought against and forced to surrender to prepare the way for the coming of the Hidden Imam.” And they advocate a preemptive, decisive (though conventional) strike on Iran.

After Halevi and Oren’s article came out, The New Republic held an online debate (registration req.) between Halevi and Jerusalem Post writer Larry Derfner.

Derfner is betting on the mullahs’ innate sense of self-preservation: that no matter how abhorrent their rhetoric or scary their weapons, they wouldn’t risk the nearly total destruction that would follow an attack on Israel. In other words, the seemingly terrifying notion of a nuclear Iran wouldn’t change good old nuclear deterrence and its sobering calculus of mutually assured destruction.

It was a civil, if grim debate, one that turns to a large extent on your reading of Iran’s particular balance of rationality and madness. Both Halevi and Derfner agreed that a preemptive strike on Iran would lead to catastrophic reprisals against Israel — including, most likely, the use of chemical and biological warheads. But that’s just the price Israel might have to pay, Yossi Klein Halevi argues:

Why, then, bring certain, terrible war upon us when it is not at all certain that Iran will use the bomb? That’s the question Israelis need to ask ourselves as we contemplate our options. One argument for a military strike was provided by our article: Merely by possessing the bomb, Iran may well trigger massive Israeli emigration and flight of foreign capital, as well as plunge the Middle East into a nuclear arms race. The deeper argument, though, is that, as the state created to offer refuge to the Jewish people, Israel simply has no choice. If the alternative is between certain conventional or even chemical war which Israel will survive, as opposed to possible nuclear war which Israel will not survive, it seems to me that no reasonable Israeli government can opt for the latter. Arguably no other country faces such a cruel dilemma.

Yossi Klein Halevi, A TNR Online Debate: Israel vs. Iran (registration req.), The New Republic Online, February 7, 2007

Is this the dilemma you see?

Michael B. Oren

Senior Fellow, Shalem Center in Jerusalem

Author, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present

Larry Derfner

Columnist, The Jerusalem Post

Special correspondent, U.S. News & World Report

Extra Credit Reading
Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael Oren, Israel’s Worst Nightmare: Contra Iran (registration req.), The New Republic, January 26, 2007: “The French philosopher André Glucksmann has noted that, by threatening to destroy Israel and by attaining the means to do so, Iran violates the twin taboos on which the post-World War II order was built: never again Auschwitz; never again Hiroshima. The international community now has an opportunity to uphold that order.”

Larry Derfner, A TNR Online Debate: Israel v. Iran (registration req.), The New Republic, February 6, 2007: “Where I disagree with you is that 1) I think Israel can live with the risk of Iran launching a nuclear first strike because the chance of this actually happening, in my opinion, is nil, and 2) I think a preemptive Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities poses much, much greater risks.”

The Greatest Threat, SerandEz, February 22, 2007: “Why would Russia et al ever get involved? Why would this be worse than Osirak in 1981, which had more international support and led to… nothing? In the grand scheme of “world peace”, the world now looks back on that incident with a huge sense of gratitude towards Israel.”

Confused, Maybe Not, Iran, Israel, and Apocalyptic Questions, Philosophers’ Playground, February 2, 2007: “A nuclear Iran will be able to conduct its militias, such as Hezbollah, with impunity. (Remember when the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed by Hezbollah in the early 1990’s? And the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed? How would one respond to such conduct if Iran had nuclear weapons?)”

Marvin Schick, Containing Iran, Marvin Schick, February 9, 2007: “There are many in Iran, including parliament members and other influential people, who openly oppose Ahmadinejad. There is a decent prospect that containment can work, both to buy time and to provoke political and attitudinal changes within Iran.”

Rick Moran, Israel’s Dilemma Over Iran, Right Wing Nut House, February 25, 2007: “There are those who do not take the Iranian President at his word that he will “wipe Israel off the map.” But if you are an Israeli government official charged with the safety and security of your tiny nation, you cannot afford the luxury of wondering whether Ahmadinejad is serious or not.”

Israel, Iran and Deterrence, NewDonkey.com, February 8, 2007: “what’s riskier for Israel? Relying on the 100% success rate of nuclear deterrence against nuclear attacks since Hiroshima? Or unleashing a regional war at a time when the furies that would unleash are undoubtedly horrifying, not least for Israel?”


According to Israeli Mossad estimates — and this is from Mossad, which under the current government is really rather left of center — that the current regime in Iran is willing to give up about fifty percent of its population to destroy the state of Israel.

Michael B. Oren


The great danger between a nuclear Iran and a nuclear Israel — a greater danger lets say than existed between the United States and the Soviet Union — is that there’s no relation between Iran and Israel, like there was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis. There’s no communication.

Larry Derfner


I am skeptical about whether the Syrians would join in, and I find fault in the maximalist logic, the fear that Egypt and Jordan — both of which have peace treaties with Israel, for which Israel has made significant territorial concessions — would join in a war once Israel was perceived as being on the losing side.

Michael B. Oren


Of the many many people we interviewed for this article, Yossi Klein Halevi and I, we found nobody who believed that Iran was acquiring a nuclear weapon to launch an immediate strike against Israel, absolutely nobody. I don’t believe that either. As I mentioned earlier, the far graver danger is one of economic strangulation, and of the nuclearization of the entire Middle East, the end of all non-proliferation. That is a far greater danger. But you can’t eliminate entirely the possibility of a nuclear strike from Iran, and I would hate to be the person who would make that gamble.

Michael B. Oren


If you judge countries on the basis of what they do, more than on what they say, then there was much more reason to be afraid of Russia and China than there is of Iran. I mean, Stalin had nuclear weapons. Mao Zedong had nuclear weapons. They slaughtered tens of millions of their own people. Some people think they were clinically insane towards the end of their lives. America believed in MAD, but to say that America was sanguine about the threat of Russia or China lauching a first strike against America is not correct. America was scared stiff.

Larry Derfner


You asked earlier, Chris, whether this was a generational divide. Here are people who are rockstars singing about this, and most of them incidentally come from North African background, Jews from Arab countries. Almost invariably their grandfathers, great-grandfathers, parents, were not directly impacted by the Holocaust.

Michael B. Oren