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September 2, 2014 / 7 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Purdue University’

Global Denuclearization And Israel’s Survival (First of Four Parts)

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Back on September 24, 2009, immediately following a speech by President Obama to the UN General Assembly, the Security Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting “a world without nuclear weapons.” In direct response to this resolution, Obama approvingly exclaimed: “This resolution enshrines our shared commitment to a goal of a world without nuclear weapons.”  To be sure, we may assume there was nothing here to indicate anything but a commendable personal commitment to world peace.

Nonetheless, as I indicated in an earlier column, there are substantial logical and intellectual problems with the president’s denuclearization hopes. The core error in Obama’s reasoning concerns an allegedly inherent undesirability of nuclear weapons; that is, the unexamined idea that such weapons are somehow always corrosive and harmful in and of themselves.

Contrary to this nicely intuitive but still sorely-mistaken idea, nuclear arms are not per se destabilizing or “warmongering.” They are not necessarily anti-peace. Rather, in certain identifiably volatile circumstances (and this is something that we should all have already learned from protracted Soviet-American coexistence during the Cold War), nuclear weapons can actually be indispensable to the avoidance of catastrophic war.

It is plausible, of course, that further nuclear proliferation to currently non-nuclear states would be more or less intolerable, and that any such “horizontal” spread should be prevented and contained. Yet there are also certain readily-recognizable nation-states in our decentralized or “Westphalian” world system that could not survive in our global state of nature without nuclear deterrence. Israel is the most obvious and urgent case in point.

Should Israel ever have to face its myriad enemies without nuclear deterrence – even in the absence of any specifically nuclear adversaries – the prospect of catastrophic or even existential defeat could become intolerably high. This is the case whether Israeli nuclear deterrence continues to rest on longstanding policies of “deliberate ambiguity,” or whether Jerusalem begins to move emphatically toward selected forms of “nuclear disclosure.”

If it should ever be left without nuclear weapons, Israel could not long endure. More than any other state on earth, and perhaps more than any other state in history, Israel requires nuclear weapons merely to continue its existence.

Periodically, within the United Nations, Israel’s enemies introduce resolutions calling for a Middle East “Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.”

Should Israel ever be compelled to heed such deliberately destructive and one-sided resolutions, possibly in response to assorted pressures from Washington, it is possible that nothing of any decisive military consequence would stand in the way of certain coordinated Arab and/or Iranian attacks. Ultimately, in all war, as Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz noted, “mass counts.”

Without nuclear weapons, appropriately configured and purposefully recognizable, the indispensable core of Israel’s capacity to deter major enemy assaults could effectively disappear.

With his publicly proclaimed and deeply-ingrained antipathy to nuclear weapons, Obama certainly means well. Still, it is imperative that he now look beyond any too-idealized visions of an improved world order. The same imperative applies equally, of course, to all of his potential successors as president of the United States.

From the particular standpoint of Jerusalem, what is needed intra-nationally is a comprehensive and systematic re-examination of Israel’s core nuclear doctrine. When, sooner or later, Israel is forced to defend its nuclear posture from various and manifestly disingenuous calls to enter a regional nuclear weapons free-zone, the leadership in Jerusalem should already have available a thoroughly lucid and compelling explanation of its correct refusal to join.

Why should Israel remain a nuclear power? In the case of Israel, are nuclear weapons a source of peace rather than war? The following explanation represents a detailed, dialectical and comprehensive answer. Prime Minister Netanyahu should prepare to transmit this very precise answer to Obama, or to his successor, and also to any other national leaders who might still fail, wittingly or unwittingly, to recognize the unique fragility of an imperiled micro-state in the Middle East:

1. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter large conventional attacks by enemy states. The effectiveness of such Israeli nuclear deterrence will depend, among other things, upon: (a) perceived vulnerability of Israeli nuclear forces; (b) perceived destructiveness of Israeli nuclear forces; (c) perceived willingness of Israeli leadership to follow through on nuclear threats; (d) perceived capacities of prospective attacker’s active defenses; (e) perceptions of Israeli targeting doctrine; (f) perceptions of Israel’s probable retaliatory response when there is an expectation of non-nuclear but chemical and/or biological counter-retaliations; (g) disclosure or continued nondisclosure of Israel’s nuclear arsenal; and (h) creation or non-creation of a Palestinian state.

2. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter all levels of unconventional (chemical/biological/nuclear) attacks. The effectiveness of these forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence will also depend, on (a) to (h) above. In this regard, Israel’s nuclear weapons are needed to deter enemy escalation of conventional warfare to unconventional warfare, and of one form of unconventional warfare to another (i.e., escalation of chemical warfare to biological warfare, biological warfare to chemical warfare, or biological/chemical warfare to nuclear warfare). This means, in military parlance, a capacity for “escalation dominance.”

Israel And A Palestinian State: A Look Behind The News (Second of Two Parts)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

In the strict Islamic view, not merely in the more narrowly Jihadi or Islamist perspectives, Israel must be seen as the individual Jew in macrocosm. The Jewish state must be despised on account of this relationship – that is, because of the allegedly “innate evil” of each individual Jew.

This insidious understanding is a far cry from the widely fashionable idea that Israel is despised in the region only because it is an “occupier.” Generally, the Israeli is despised in the Islamic world because he or she is a Jew, a condition of presumed infirmity, and one that can never be “remedied.”

A current Egyptian textbook of Arab Islamic history, used widely in teacher training colleges, expresses these sentiments:

“The Jews are always the same, every time and everywhere. They will not live save in darkness. They contrive their evils clandestinely. They fight only when they are hidden; because they are cowards…. The Prophet enlightened us about the right way to treat them, and succeeded finally in crushing the plots they had planned. We today must follow this way, and purify Palestine from their filth.”

In an earlier article in Al-Ahram, by Dr. Lufti Abd al-Azim, the famous commentator urges, with complete seriousness:

“The first thing that we have to make clear is that no distinction must be made between the Jew and the Israeli…. The Jew is a Jew, through the millennia…. in spurning all moral values, devouring the living, and drinking his blood for the sake of a few coins. The Jew, the Merchant of Venice, does not differ from the killer of Deir Yasin or the killer of the camps. They are equal examples of human degradation. Let us therefore put aside such distinctions, and talk only about Jews.”

Writing also on the “Zionist Problem,” Dr. Yaha al-Rakhawi remarked openly in Al-Ahram:

“We are all once again face to face with the Jewish Problem, not just the Zionist Problem; and we must reassess all those studies which make a distinction between “The Jew” and “The Israeli.” And we must redefine the meaning of the word “Jew” so that we do not imagine that we are speaking of a divinely revealed religion, or a minority persecuted by mankind…. we cannot help but see before us the figure of the great man Hitler, may God have mercy on him, who was the wisest of those who confronted this problem…. and who out of compassion for humanity tried to exterminate every Jew, but despaired of curing this cancerous growth on the body of mankind.”

Finally, we may consider what Israel’s first Oslo “peace partner,” Yasir Arafat, had to say on January 30, 1996, while addressing forty Arab diplomats at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. Speaking with the title “The Impending Total Collapse of Israel,” Arafat remarked, without hesitation:

“We Palestinians will take over everything; including all of Jerusalem…. All the rich Jews who will get compensation will travel to America…. We of the PLO will now concentrate all our efforts on splitting Israel psychologically into two camps. Within five years, we will have six to seven million Arabs living in the West Bank, and in Jerusalem…. You understand that we plan to eliminate the State of Israel, and establish a purely Palestinian state…. I have no use for Jews; they are and remain, Jews.”

Despite these plainly intolerant and potentially genocidal Arab views of Israel’s physical existence, international law still need not expect Palestinian compliance with any pre-state agreements concerning armed force. This is true even if these agreements were to include certain explicit U.S. security guarantees to Israel. Also, because authentic treaties can be binding only upon states, a non-treaty agreement between the Palestinians and Israel could quickly prove to be of little or no real authority, or effectiveness. This is to say nothing of the still critical connections between Fatah, Hamas, al Qaeda, Hizbullah, the Islamic Resistance Movement and the (Egyptian) Muslim Brotherhood.

What if the government of a new Palestinian state were somehow willing to consider itself bound by the pre-state, non-treaty agreement? Even in these very improbable circumstances, the new Arab government could still have ample pretext, and opportunity, to identify fully usable grounds for lawful treaty termination.

Palestine could withdraw from the “treaty” because of what it would regard as a “material breach,” a purported violation by Israel that had allegedly undermined the “object or purpose” of the agreement. It could also point toward what international law calls Rebus sic stantibus. In English, this doctrine is known formally as a “fundamental change of circumstances.” Here, if Palestine should decide to declare itself vulnerable to previously unforeseen dangers, perhaps even from the interventionary or prospectively occupying forces of other Arab armies, it could lawfully end its previous commitment to remain demilitarized.

There is another factor that explains why Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hope for Palestinian demilitarization remains misconceived. After declaring independence, a new Palestinian government, one likely displaying openly genocidal sentiments, could point to particular pre-independence errors of fact, or duress, as appropriate grounds for agreement termination. Significantly, the usual grounds that may be invoked under domestic law to invalidate contracts can apply equally under international law, both to actual treaties, and to treaty-like agreements.

Thinking The Worst: Israel’s Best Path To Survival

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Jorge Luis Borges, the very special Argentine writer and philosopher, sometimes identified himself as a Jew. Although lacking any apparent basis in halacha, he clearly felt himself to be a kindred spirit: “Many a time I think of myself as a Jew,” he is quoted in Willis Barnstone’s, Borges at Eighty: Conversations (1982), “but I wonder whether I have the right to think so. It may be wishful thinking.”

The ironies here are positively delightful. After all, any such explicitly philo-Semitic sentiment is extremely rare, especially when it is uttered, in sincerity, by one of the modern world’s most accomplished authors. It ought to follow, therefore, that Jews in general and Israelis in particular should pay very close attention to certain still-hidden implications of Borges’s ecumenical wisdom.

In one of Borges’s best stories, a condemned man, having noticed that human expectations rarely coincide with reality, purposefully imagines the circumstances of his own death. Because they have become expectations, he reasons, they can never actually happen.

Now, also recognizing that fear and reality may go together naturally, the people of Israel should consciously begin to imagine themselves living within the contingent space of both individual and collective mortality. Then Israel could suitably undertake the effective political and military policies that are needed to secure its survival.

Some, of course, may conclude that God’s eternal promise of permanence would allow Israel to sit back complacently and to confidently assume a palpably “higher” sphere of protection. Yet such an effortless conclusion, with its plain disregard for prudent strategic preparations, would misunderstand the Torah.

On another, more secular, level, any advice to encourage Israel’s existential apprehensions might appear contradictory and self-destructive. After all, isn’t human death fear debilitating? Anxiety, we are routinely taught, is an expression of weakness. What possible advantages could there be to deliberately nurturing any thoughts of national fear and collective trembling?

The answer: Truth may sometimes emerge through paradox. Imaginations of a collective immortality, notions that are generally encouraged by false hopes and inflated egos, will predictably discourage Israeli steps to self-preservation. Even in those enviable circles of enlightenment, oases of reason where there no longer is any delusional faith in a so-called peace process, most Israelis will instinctually resist intimations of national annihilation. Nonetheless, although counter-intuitive, the result of any such wrongheaded resistance would be a still-greater level of Jewish national transience.

In the fashion of many of its enemies, Israel insistently imagines for itself, either scripturally or strategically (or both), life everlasting. Unlike these assorted enemies, Israel does not see itself achieving immortality, individually or collectively, via the ritual murder of its enemies, through war and terrorism. Rather, it identifies its collective survival as the permanent product of divine protection, reasoned diplomatic settlements, and/or smart military planning.

Singly or collectively, and in any conceivable configuration, there is nothing inherently wrong with these expectations. Still, they should never be allowed to displace a pragmatic and prior awareness of an always-possible national impermanence.

Any asymmetry of purpose and expectation between Israel and its implacable foes will place the Jewish state at a notable disadvantage. While Israel’s enemies, most evidently Iran, manifest their “positive” hopes for immortality by the doctrinally-intended slaughter of Jews, Israel’s leaders display their country’s own expectations for collective immortality by agreeing to incremental surrenders of “territories.” To be sure, in the impending matter of Palestinian statehood, Prime Minister Netanyahu had expressly added the requirement of Palestinian “demilitarization,” but this remains an utterly implausible and thereby dangerous expectation.

In the end, the protracted clash in the Middle East between Arab/Islamic believers in sacrifice and Israeli believers in reason will likely favor the exponents of war and terror. Unless this prevailing asymmetry is replaced by new, far-reaching and deliberate Israeli imaginations of existential disaster, Jewish believers in “mutual understanding” may have to depart once again from the Promised Land. Exeunt omnes.

It is difficult to ask Israelis to resist American-style “positive thinking” and to imagine the worst. Yet as Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt says, “The worst does sometimes happen.” It would now be far better for Israel to err on the side of excessive pessimism. Then, spurred on by the most conspicuously dreadful imaginations of disaster, the people of Israel could finally begin to contemplate and consequently ward off the insufferable interstices between Palestinian statehood, Iranian nuclearization, and regional war.

 

Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of political science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.

After Bin Laden: Assassination, Terrorism, War and International Law (Second of Two Parts)

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

The following is based on a lecture presented by Dr. Beres at Case Western Reserve University School of Law on September 9, 2011.

“Everything in this world exudes crime,” says Baudelaire, “the newspapers, the walls, and the face of man.” But this “face” does not belong solely to what classic seventeenth-century international law scholar Hugo Grotius called “men of deplorable wickedness.” However counterintuitive, the core problem of international law enforcement is not hostes humani generic – “common enemies of mankind” – but rather the “normal” human being.

We know today, in part because of the early and controversial work of Hannah Arendt (Eichmann in Jerusalem), that it was generally this “normal” human being, not the expressly wicked monster of traditional world politics, who made possible the Holocaust; the Armenian genocide; the mass murders of the Khmer Rouge; the killings of the Hutu in Burundi; of the Tutsis by the Hutu in Rwanda; of the Ache Indians in Paraguay; the Buddhists in Tibet, the Muslims/Croats and Serbs in Bosnia, and on and on and on.

Yes, “bad people” do exist, and they do play a pivotal role in most international crimes. But before international law can truly work, it must first learn to look beyond “inhuman cruelties” to what Nietzsche called the “human, all-too-human.”

Here, the true problem is a delirious collectivism of thought that somehow identifies “success” with the perpetual slaughter of “others.” In the final analysis, the seriousness with which we approach international law “in crisis” will depend upon the extent to which we can change the “human, all- too-human.”

There is a related issue – the always-standard presumption of reason in legal analyses. Oddly enough, this ubiquitous presumption is fundamentally flawed. Any look at history reveals that the Greeks, and Cicero, and Grotius, and Vattel, and the American founding fathers, are trumped here by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Freud.

In other words, from now on any progress we can expect in improving international law at the individual human level must begin by accepting the primacy of unreason in world affairs. Such an acceptance will muddy all of the usual analytic waters, because it will, by definition, make a reassuringly precise and broadly theoretical jurisprudence impossible. Still, we do need to fashion our international law reforms, the ones needed to counter current crises, upon accurate and truthful understandings of basic human behavior.

We can do nothing else. And the truth is that we are not generally a species that operates according to reason.

What can we do right away?

For now, for today, my proposed remedies for alleviating “crisis” must remain more narrowly jurisprudential and orthodox. For the immediate future, for example, we should refine our thinking about assassination (targeted killing) as (1) permissible counter-terrorism; (2) humanitarian intervention; and (3) even as anticipatory self-defense. Such notions of permissible violence as remediation must continue to be regarded as distasteful and bitterly ironic, but this is still not yet “the best of all possible worlds.”

In my written paper, I expand on certain ways in which permissible violence might be better regulated under international law, with reference to both jus ad bellum (justice of war) and jus in bello (justice in war) criteria. But, here, too, there will always be a problem of Realpolitik, or rather the always-overriding expectations of presumed national interest and power politics. Many of these pertinent issues of assassination, humanitarian intervention, preemption and anticipatory self-defense can be applied directly to our assigned areas of concern, Northern Africa and the Middle East.

To what extent shall we now act, unilaterally and/or multilaterally, on behalf of aggrieved human rights in Libya and Syria? To what extent should we now act with force, unilaterally and/or multilaterally, on behalf of non-proliferation goals in a still-nuclearizing Iran? Shall Israel and/or the US have the right to preemptively destroy Iranian nuclear infrastructures? If so, with what operational limits?) To what extent might we act correctly, unilaterally and/or multilaterally, to oppose terrorism with armed force in such places as Lebanon; Gaza; Yemen and Somalia? Gaza, of course, is part of an aspiring state, not an existing state. In exercising any such presumed rights to anticipatory self-defense, would international law be served better by selective assassinations than by more usual (and larger) forms of military action?

In assessing such choices, should we use solely utilitarian calculations, or are we obliged to also consider some underlying and unchanging and universal principles of justice? What are these principles? Is the right of international legal authority to use military force as remediation (for counter-terrorism, anticipatory self-defense or support of human rights) in any way contingent on the degree or urgency of expected harms? And on the time-urgency involved?

In other words, does this right expand when the “danger posed” involves threats of mega-destruction and/or is imminent? Do these considerations also allow international law greater latitude in the level or amount of armed force applied – that is, permit a “bending” of the usual engagement rules for discrimination; proportionality; and military necessity? And what if the delinquent state or insurgent group has resorted to “perfidy,” specific violations of the Law of War involving wrongful deceptions?

Post-Bin Laden: Terror, War and Int’l Law (Part 1)

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

The following is based on a lecture presented by Dr. Beres at Case Western Reserve University School of Law on September 9, 2011.

 

Everyone who has taught international law, or written about it, knows that the idea of crisis in actually inherent in the subject. More than anything else, this crisis, this continuing or protracted dilemma, is one of efficacy, of effectiveness. In the final analysis, whether we study Northern Africa and the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter, the core problem is always less a question of To Where? than of Who Cares?

Why should anyone care about international law?

Clearly, whether we assume that our adversaries are rational or irrational, it seems unlikely the particular sanctions and rewards associated with legal compliance are apt to figure very importantly in the decision-maker’s calculations. It is also true that actually knowing what is or is not lawful in particular circumstances is not always plain and straightforward. It can, in other words, be a very confusing field of study and practice.

We all know we live with a largely subjective kind of jurisprudence, and that the antecedent questions of “legal” or “illegal” will often depend on many imprecise and interpenetrating factors. It follows from all this that, in the end, we will need to identify and conceptualize a whole new understanding of international law as a disciplined field of inquiry, one rooted in far greater clarity and in a far greater expectation of both punishment and reward: Nullum crimen sine poena – “no crime without a punishment,” the critical legacy of Nuremberg.

Lately, there have been certain tangible signs of “improvement,” most obviously in the areas of international criminal prosecution, in the form of a now permanently constituted International Criminal Court, and also in the appearance of both assorted ad hoc criminal tribunals, and various domestic court venues.

For the moment, it also seems this enlarged resort to prosecution for egregious international crimes suggests (in this area of law, at least) that international law is making real and obvious progress. It is also obvious we humans are a species that has somehow managed to scandalize its own creation, continuing to engage in war, terrorism and genocide with considerable enthusiasm and with little respite or effective opposition.

Sometimes, it is almost as if there were no international laws at all.

What shall we do?

We who study and teach international law need, at least in part, to go back to “the beginning,” to reconsider the basic raw materials of international relations and world politics, and to examine ways in which problems of seriousness and efficacy can be addressed at the critical individual human level. In short, to alleviate the crises of international law and in international law, we will first have to inquire about what I call behavioral transformations. For now, we are likely to regard any such transformations as far beyond the pale of reasonableness, and to focus instead on the persistent anarchy or “Westphalian” character of world politics.

This focus is largely understandable (for we are not very tolerant in these times of what would appear to be flagrant idealism or utopianism), but, ultimately, our “realism” will leave existentially perilous conditions unchanged.

Back at Princeton in the late 1960s, I was part of the World Order Models Project (WOMP). At the time, I was intrigued with this unprecedented vision of “blueprinting” new systems of international law, yet, looking back, I can see now that even it had remained too static, too structural; essentially, WOMP was conceived and executed as world federalism in “new bottles.”

Now, finally, it is high time for a new jurisprudence, one that would accept Immanuel Kant’s observation: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be built.” This “new jurisprudence” would acknowledge the persistently thin veneer of human “civilization” (remember Lord of the Flies?), and begin the search for practicable ways of transforming people. Despite the overwhelming odds against any near-term (or any term) successes, this new way of approaching international law would build upon the understanding that we can never escape from the “crisis of international law,” or even use international law to escape from our current global crises, by improving  rules, or by centralizing structures of power and authority.

It is quite reasonable to assert, as indeed I am doing right now, that either we learn how to change the raw material of international interactions at the source – i.e., the level of the individual human being – or we shall continue to face relentless crises within a system of international law that is increasingly inoperable.

My formal paper for this important conference was prepared at an eminently more “practical” level. It deals, quite predictably, with time-urgent questions of assassination (targeted killing); humanitarian intervention (the so-called “duty to protect”); permissible and impermissible forms of counter-terrorism; alternative venues for international criminal prosecutions; and “anticipatory self-defense.” In this more formal paper, too, I offer, predictably, a broad assortment of more-or-less authoritative standards, criteria and thresholds.

Empathy, Suffering, And Human Survival: A Jewish Perspective

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

According to ancient Jewish tradition, one that certain Talmudists trace back to the time of Isaiah, the world rests upon thirty-six just men, the Lamed-Vav tzaddikim. For those who remain unknown to themselves, the spectacle of the world is insufferable beyond description. Inconsolable at the extent of human pain and woe, for them, so goes the chassidic tale, there is never a moment of tranquility. From time to time, therefore, God himself, in an effort to open their souls to Paradise, sets forward the clock of the Last Judgment by one minute.

There are several meanings to this extraordinary tradition. One offers special hope in our incontestably growing nearness to vast global catastrophe. We shall soon require a whole world of just men and women. We shall, it seems, soon have to create the conditions whereby each and every inhabitant of our imperiled planet can feel the full anguish and portent of the Lamed-Vavniks. Only then will we be able to take the necessary steps back from defilement to sanctification. Faced with a choice between life and death, between “the blessing and the curse,” we shall “therefore choose life.”

The problem, of course, is not only that such creation would be a monumental task, one requiring a uniquely high level of creative intellectual understanding, but also that the remedy itself would be insufferable. How, indeed, could we endure, as individuals and as nations, if we were to feel with the same palpable pain and sorrow the distress of all others? Imagine, if we can, that the all-consuming empathy we now generally display toward our closest relatives and friends in distress would be extended, generally, to the broadest possible radius of human affinities. Truly, without the Lamed-Vav as intermediaries, we could not begin to survive such a torment.

There is, then, a dilemma. To survive as a species we must also survive as individuals, but the evident requirement of species survival – deeper and wider expressions of human empathy – would also render life unendurable for each and every person. To remediate a distinctly threatened planetary civilization, so it would appear, we now need a blessing that would simultaneously be a curse.

Shall we experience the dizziness of the existentially irremediable? How shall we respond? What shall we do?

To redeem the world, it seems, we must call forth certain indispensable metamorphoses, but the “success” of these transformations would simply place us within a new and equally destructive trajectory of harms. In any event, it is unlikely that we must ever even face up to this dilemma. Evidence abounds that the human capacity for empathy seems limited, and that for all practical purposes we will need to construct our best global survival ideologies with no more ambitious assumptions in mind.

There are important elements in our Jewish tradition that appear to warn against taking on too much of the suffering of others. Although we are certainly obligated to feel such suffering (we can learn from and be elevated by such suffering – Toras Avraham), we must also guard against too much empathy; that is, too-strong feelings that could cause our own personal destruction. At times, said the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, we must heed the following warning: “He who wants to live should act as if he were dead.”

Truth may sometimes emerge through paradox. It is hard for us to understand that an imagined death can sustain life, yet all things move in the midst of death and all individual life is part of a far greater whole. We learn from the legend of the Lamed-Vav not only that empathy is essential but that too much empathy is beyond human endurance. Indeed, implicit in the construction of the thirty-six just men is God’s direct affirmation of the Brisker Rav’s warning.

Truth emerges through paradox. It may also emerge from an awareness that, sometimes, reason alone is incapable of revealing what is most important. Such an awareness was deeply embedded in the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who, in the matter presently before us, would surely urge us to seek not “concepts of truth” but truth itself.

The mystery of eternity hovers above and beyond the temporal world, and the deepest reality of human love and empathy, as manifestations of God’s primary love, cannot be elucidated meaningfully only through rigorous analysis or systematic thought. Rather, it may be discovered in every element of our day-to-day reality, including even that which is manifestly impure: “It is,” says Rabbi Kook, “just from those thoughts which are mixed with evil and impurity that great light emerges, which renews the vigor of life.”

In itself, existence is good, and from all existence we can learn many things, including the vital mysteries of empathy and human survival. Apocalypse, let us remember, was pretty much a Jewish invention, and , according to Rabbi Kook, a Divine redemption must finally be undertaken by and through the Jewish People. A part of such redemption must certainly be a greater awareness of human unity, a dialectical oneness; this will ultimately give rise to the light of loving kindness and forgiveness. In turn, a “lofty” soul is needed to first generate the greater awareness of human unity: “The loftier the soul, the more it feels the unity that there is in all.”

Political Scandal, Public Emptiness And America’s Soul

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

We have seen this movie before. Already, Herman Cain is off the front pages, but there will remain readily accessible political scandals to enjoy in the wings. Ironically, whatever the particulars of these chronic humiliations, all of them will commonly disclose far more serious shortcomings about their “audience” than about their subjects.

In essence, eager public reaction to each new episode of alleged wrongdoing reveal just how little an incorrigibly voyeuristic American citizenry is able to care for itself.

As Jews, we should understand that every democratic society is ultimately the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption. In our increasingly fragmented American republic, “We the people” – always desperate for a chance to “fit in” – cheerlessly inhabit a land of incessant imitativeness, crass consumption, dreary profanity, and utterly shallow pleasures. Bored by the stunning banality of daily life, and beaten down by the grinding struggle to stay optimistic in a starkly polarized nation of great wealth and demeaning poverty, we Americans anxiously grasp for almost any available lifeline of distraction.

Unsurprisingly, “reality shows” remain the rage. Revealing, too, are the top Internet search terms of 2011. These include Casey Anthony, Kim Kardashian, and Katy Perry. Nothing having to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, revolution, assassination, terrorism, genocide, climate change or poverty made the list.

Where shall we discover any productive public concern for planetary survival and national improvement? Where can we still turn to witness any mutually reinforcing visions of social cooperation and personal growth? Where, for that matter, in these United States, is there any discernible evidence of a purposeful Jewish soul?

We the people are no longer shaped by any generalized feelings of reverence or compassion, or even by the tiniest nuances of complex thought. Instead, our preferred preoccupation is with an orchestrated hysteria of tantalizing indulgence in other people’s joys (envy) and sufferings (what the Germans call schadenfreude, or pleasure in the misfortune of others).

This frenzy of inauthenticity is artfully juxtaposed against the comforting and still enduring myth of American superiority. It is sustained by a gaudy national immersion in brutally raw commerce, vast social mimicry, and the unceasing barrage of versified drivel that is euphemistically called advertising or marketing.

What must we Americans endure amid this breathless rhythm of circus-like conformance and self-imposed littleness? More than anything else, We the people have learned to embrace a thoroughly corrupted and directionless national society, one that usually offers very little in the way of meaningful or reverential fulfillment. True, there currently exists an “Occupy Wall Street” movement that has substantially different ideas and ideals, and is even rooted (in part) in certain pleasing traditions of democratic protest. But the movement’s realistic chances of defying the iron law of oligarchy, or unavoidable government by the few, are nonexistent.

We continue to think against history. In the end, we have failed to notice; even the most democratic societies are easily transformed into fixed and immutable plutocracies. As we Americans are dutifully taught from elementary school onward, there will always be some tangible opportunity for wealth and advancement in the free market. Still, there may also be little hope of any corollary happiness.

Often, even the most affluent Americans now inhabit the loneliest of crowds. Small wonder, too, that so many millions cling desperately to their cell phones. Filled with a deepening horror of actually having to be alone with themselves (always a presumptively worst case scenario), these virtually connected millions are frantic to claim membership in the amorphous, but indispensable, public mass.

“I belong, therefore I am.” This is surely not what Descartes had in mind when, in the 17th century, he urged thought and doubt. This is also, inherently, a very sad credo. Unhesitatingly, it screams a plainly pathetic cry that social acceptance is equivalent to physical survival, and that even the ostentatiously pretended pleasures of inclusion are desperately worth pursuing.

Now a push-button metaphysics of “apps” reigns supreme in America. The immense attraction of cell phones and corresponding social networks stems in part from our society’s machine-like existence. Within this robotic universe, every hint of human passion must inevitably be directed along a distinctly uniform and pitifully vicarious pathway.

To be sure, we may still argue, correctly, that human beings are the creators of their machines, not their servants. Yet there is today an implicit and simultaneously grotesque reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially lethal pantomime between users and used.

Our adrenalized American society is now making a machine out of Man and Woman. Arguably, in an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it even seems plausible that we have somehow been created in the image of the machine. We must then ask, as thinkers and doubters, and also as Jews: “What sort of redemption is this?”

For the moment at least, we Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and suffocating crowd. Proudly disclaiming any interior life, we proceed very tentatively, and in almost every existential sphere, at the lowest possible intellectual level. Expressed in more palpable terms, our financial burdens are generally unfair and indecent in their distribution. Our air, rail and land travel is insufferable. Our universities are generally bereft of absolutely anything that might hint at serious learning.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/louis-bene-beres/political-scandal-public-emptiness-and-americas-soul-2/2011/12/29/

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