Friday, July 24, 2015

Mercy and Responsibility in Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream

If there is a list somewhere of great American novels, Henry Roth’s remarkably accessible and powerful masterpiece, Mercy of a Rude Stream, must surely be at, or near, the top.  Mercy is Roth’s massive, four-volume follow-up to his classic first novel, Call it Sleep, published in 1934, when he was 28. Roth’s first book is an autobiographical narrative of Austrian- born David Schearl, the son of Jewish immigrants opening when the two year old David and his mother joined his father in the U.S. in 1908. David’s family lived first in the tenements of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and then on the Lower East Side. The novel ends with a dramatic incident when David is 6 or 7.

After Call it Sleep Roth didn’t publish another novel for 60 years until the first volumes of Mercy appeared in 1994.  Mercy picks up the story of the same youth in 1914, now an eight year old named Ira Stigman, when his family moved to Harlem. Ira is uncomfortable in his new surroundings since he is removed from his circle of friends as well as his cheder --  his after- school  Jewish studies class  -- which helped to center and give him focus. There are few Jews in his new neighborhood and he is often too intimidated by the local Irish boys to go out and play like he was used to.

 As the years of the Great War (1914-1918) come and go, we follow Ira through his ups and downs -- mostly downs -- in grade school, middle and high school up until his last year at City College. Academically, with one or two outstanding exceptions, he never rises above the mediocre. Nevertheless Ira shows sufficient personality and promise to win the heart of Edith Welles, an NYU professor ten years his senior, and to befriend Larry, a popular Jewish boy from the upper middle class who also recognizes something special in him.

Reviewers have noted that the narrative momentum of Mercy builds until the end when Ira is involved in two tension- filled, highly suspenseful incidents, one which is drawn out for more than forty breathtaking pages. Roth achieves a narrative tour de force perhaps unequalled in serious 19th or 20th century fiction. Roth’s great gift is the way he manages to invest everyday life with drama and conflict. His style has been called lyrical. His writing is down to earth and immediately draws the reader in.

As in Call it Sleep, his father is the great ogre of his life, intimidating when not terrorizing him. His mother is his great teacher and protector, creating the security and love that will in time allow his genius to blossom. Unlike some of the  great talkers in his two books --  his  father and grandfather, his mother and her sister Bertha -- both David and Ira are generally quiet and monosyllabic, reserving their talk for their narration.   Roth is a great master of dialogue, brilliantly capturing the slang and rhythms of everyday life and including something of the Yiddish flavor of David’s and Ira’s talk with his family, especially with his mother.

It was only in 1979, forty five years after Call it Sleep appeared, that Roth began to write the drafts that eventually made up Mercy.  Ira’s mature perspective is incorporated via discussions with Ecclesias, his computer alter ego, set off in different type.  This device affords Ira the opportunity to fill in some of the key details of his declining years, living in a trailer in New Mexico with his wife M. of 50 years and suffering more and more with the years  from rheumatoid arthritis

 Most critically, Ira employs Ecclesias to prepare the reader for the stunning revelation of his youthful “abomination” -- Ira’s incestuous relationship with his sister Minnie, beginning when she was 11, and he was 13.  Only when Minnie was 17 did she put an end to their sexual relations.  At about the time their intimacy ended, Ira began to have sex with his fourteen year- old cousin Stella. The book ends when 21 year old Ira begins his first of his two adult relationships -- his ten year long affair with Edith Welles.

Only after hundreds of pages in Mercy is Ira is ready to divulge his secret – the guilt and shame surrounding which we infer has been at the heart of Roth’s decades long writers’ block. A considerable difficulty Roth/Ira confronts is that neither in Call it Sleep, nor until well into the second volume of Mercy, has the existence of his kid sister Minnie been mentioned.

 (It’s noteworthy that while David Schearl in Call it Sleep doesn’t have a sister, Ira Stigman does. At one point David is directly asked if he has a sister and he replies that he doesn’t. Perhaps Roth is signaling his real life sister Rose that however closely his novel may mirror events in their lives, he nevertheless intends to keep their secret.)

With Ecclesias, Ira wonders how he will manage now that he has decided he must include Minnie if he is to continue his writing.  Must he go back and rewrite the first 350 plus pages of his text or can he get away with simply inserting Minnie into the narrative at this point? Thus, by means of Ecclesias, Ira prepares the reader and solves his problem. Ira may have left Minnie out of the first part of Mercy in order to avoid  portraying  a clever and determined 12 or  13 year old imposing his sex drive  on a reluctant  but finally compliant Minnie as is later suggested.

 Once Minnie is introduced Ira writes unreservedly about the joy of his transgressions. As Nathaniel Rich writes in the New York Review of Books (“A Prodigal Struggle with Demons,” April 23, 2015), Ira, despite his deep feelings of shame, writes shamelessly about the thrill of incest.” For Ira, incest is “the jackpot of the transcendental abominable... Better, more obsessively sought after, for being a sin, an abomination!  Boy, that fierce furor ... He wouldn’t miss it, exchange it, for anything else in the world.”

But Ira pays a terrible psychological and emotional price. Rich lays it out.

Ira is painfully aware of how his desire cripples him, warps him, stunts his growth, and turns him inward. He is immured by his sexual appetite, “appetite always mortised to fear and self-reproach.” His life shrinks to the size of his incestuous compulsion. His sin infantilizes him, keeps him in a perpetual tawdry adolescence. He feels that he’s been ruined for adult relationships, and adult responsibilities. And like any obsessive, he can’t stop.

By 1979, most of the principals in Roth’s life  had died, including his parents as well as Eda Lou Walton (1890 -1961), the model for his lover, Edith Wells of Mercy. His sister Rose was still alive. She stoutly denied the affair, threatened to sue, and received a $10,000 settlement    

Only in his 70s was Roth finally able to rise above his guilt and shame and take up his mission. Both in Mercy and in An American Type, the continuation of his story, we get the portrait of an aging, and after his wife’s death in 1990, a grieving and inconsolable old man. Despite all his physical and emotional struggles, for the five years Ira survived M., he persevered, using all his remaining energy to finish his novel and to oversee the publication of as much of Mercy as he could. In the end Roth lived to help direct the publication of the first two parts of Mercy, and he left the rest of his thousands of pages of typescript in capable hands.

Redemption in Mercy

The theme of compassion and clemency is in the very title of Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth opens his novel with an epigraph from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII where the King, old and broken, fears that the “rude stream” will show him no mercy.  

... My high flown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream that must forever hide me.

In a unique commentary to his epigraph, Roth declares that, unlike Shakespeare’s Henry, whose reference to mercy Roth reads as ironic, he, another Henry, in another age, intends the mercy of his title to be taken literally.  “The rude stream,” he insists, “did show me Mercy.”

Robert Weil, in his “Editor’s Afterward,” confuses the issue but he does so instructively, posing the question some might ask: 

[Why would Roth] so deliberately debase his alter ego Ira? Few people like seeing their idol so compromised or disgraced; no one indeed wants to see his revered novelist revealed to be a predator, an agent of incest, and victimizer himself. So why then did Roth in his eighties [choose] to make Ira as sexually compulsive and loathsome as possible?  (1258-1259)

Weil’s comment seems to indicate that either he doesn’t believe that Henry Roth committed incest with his sister; or that if they did, Roth either should not have admitted it or should have softened the characterization of Ira. I suspect that most readers would reject Weil’s notion that Roth chose to make Ira “sexually compulsive.”  Instead, Roth’s difficult choice was whether or not to tell all of his story, a choice it took him decades to make.  Roth began to write only after he found his way to fashion his novel with the Universalist themes of mercy, absolution and responsibility.

Weil’s comment is instructive because he points to the courage that it took for Roth to own up to the disgrace of his youthful behavior, even if it meant putting his reputation at risk.  Some authors, like Roth, have one story to tell – their own.  Roth believed that he had the ability and thus the responsibility to recreate his world.  By the time he came to write Mercy he had come round to understanding that if he were not to remain silent he must wholly confront his past.  Thankfully he embraced his responsibility and recognized that his youthful transgressions and his unique abilities had put him in position to blaze a trail, to serve as a type for others who might also be living with discreditable secrets.

Roth lived and believed in the possibility of a second act.  He offered his story  as an example to show that people can graduate from their mistakes, even their outrages, and go on to live meaningful and valuable lives.  Moreover, Roth wanted to do for his readers what literature and in particular, James Joyce, had done for him. He credits Joyce with providing him with a model, showing him how to turn leaden everyday existence into art.

Roth and Joyce

Roth had mixed feelings about James Joyce. After the first few pages of Ulysses, Ira labored to get though much of the rest of the novel. (He never mentions Joyce’s best book, Dubliners.) Ira believes that it was due to cowardice that Joyce took the road to obscurity. He guesses that obscurity was Joyce’s means of escaping critical personal issues. Finnegan’s Wake, says Ira, is “a verbal shroud.”   Yet Ira credits Joyce with showing him how the banality and the tawdriness of his own poverty-stricken, immigrant background, “the baseness of his days,” could be transmuted into art.

...Ulysses demonstrated to him not only that it was possible to communicate the dross of the mundane and the sordid into literary treasure, but how it was done. It showed him how to address whole slag heaps of squalor, and make them available for exploitation in art. ...
Weren’t fourteen years of school, from kindergarten to college, the raw material of literature? Didn’t it qualify for alchemical transformation? ...  If that was latent wealth in the domain of letters, why, he was rich beyond compare: his whole world was a junkyard. All those myriad, squalid impressions he took for granted, all were convertible from base to precious, from pig iron to gold ingot. (710)

I suspect that one has to share something of Roth’s genius in order to glean the writing lessons that Roth learned from Joyce. Roth’s style on the other hand is much more accessible to readers than is Joyce’s.  Roth’s fiction is vibrant and sparkling with the tensions and turmoil of his character’s life, amazingly and breathtakingly crafted into art -- an open road with many signposts.

Absolution from Edith

At the end of the novel, Ira reveals all, understanding that he will get the absolution that he needs from Edith.  He tells her first about his affair with Stella, and he finally also admits to his years-long sexual relations with his sister. He also confesses that once, when her period was a few days late, he contemplated murdering her in order to shield himself from disgrace and ostracism.  In love with Ira, Edith is ready and eager to begin their affair and she gives him the total absolution he seeks.

[Edith ] quelled [his] fears and guilts, as if bleaching them out of sight with her objectivity.... She reduced the onus of his wickedness, eliminated much of the sense of heinousness, quenched the shimmer of guilt, stealth, risk ...,”
                                                                                          (1208. Quoted by Weil 1261)
But Ira argues that his sins are irremediable: he is a “louse,” he says, “a schlemiel.” He confesses that he began with Stella when she was only 14; he is not fit to be considered someone worthy of a real relationship, someone fitting to be with her.  Edith  understands what he needs and she continues with her rationalizations.
“The thing I wanted you to realize ... was that in other times and places, other cultures, [a fourteen year old girl like] Stella would be considered nubile, marriageable.. You needn’t feel as if you had committed a grave offense. You needn’t feel you were vicious. You’re not.”
                                                                                                                  ( 1206 -1207)
An admission Ira makes to Edith that was perhaps even more difficult than others, was that the earth moved when he had sex with his sister Minnie.  It wasn’t like that with Stella.
With Stella I told you most of the time I felt like a criminal. ...That was bad enough. But when I was with Minnie – everything started to dazzle, the walls, the green-painted walls, when she said yes. The calendar on the wall, the furniture  ... They lilted.   (1218)

(I couldn’t help speculating that this might be one of those admissions intended more for Roth’s readers than it was for the particular fictional character, in this case,  Edith Welles. Perhaps Roth felt that he needed to go into the darkest, most shameful of his secrets, if he were going to complete his mission to serve as a  model for others.)    

 Edith’s love for Ira comprises her understanding of his potential as a deep and worthy human being and especially a gifted writer.  Ira had patiently waited for his chance to be with her, because he correctly understood her nurturing mission and how many were the ways she could help him.  He came to her because he understood that she would not let him sink, despite whatever she might learn about his abominations.  He registers no surprise when she says:  “I’m not going to let you go to waste, do you understand?” (1217) In real life, with the support and love of Eda May Wells, the woman to whom he dedicated Call it Sleep, the young author wrote his first  masterpiece,

Mercy and Responsibility 

Ira makes plain in an exchange with Ecclesias that writing his novel and telling his story is the motive, the purpose that gives meaning to his last years. Their discussion comes immediately after one of the most explicit of Ira’s descriptions of his trysts with Minnie. Ira narrates that afterwards the two young people haggled over how much money he should give her for her complaisance. This time she wants an extra dollar.

Ecclesias is abashed at the details of Ira’s escapades. Echoing Conrad, Ira acknowledges “the horror, the horror,” of his actions, and he pleads for forgiveness and understanding. Ira begs for “a buffer against my demon, my dybbuk, my nemesis.”
“[H]aven’t I changed [over the last fifty years],” Ira begs, and he quotes an Italian text, perhaps from Dante, “O  me, Angnel, come ti muti!“(Oh my Angel, how you’ve changed!)
 Nevertheless, continues Ira, even so my past crimes are such that I have reason to wish that I had never been born.  
Well, now you’ve reached this advanced age, responds Ecclesias, what stops you from putting an end to your life?
Ira’s answer is that he has the “illusion,” that he still “owe[s] something to the species, as a specimen.”  Even Ecclesias must agree: “Your offering may be of value. There’s no telling. In any case since you’ve chosen this mode of oblation, chosen to live, to scrive, then there’s no undoing the done. There’s only the outwearing it., the outwearying it, the attenuating of remorse, and guilt.  ... there’s always room for enhanced comprehension,” (p, 391)  

Finally Ecclesias puts into words the author’s hope and his mission:  “[Y]ou’ve breached a mighty barrier within yourself, and done so, witting or unwitting, for the benefit of others.”

It’s hard to think of another great writer who has breached such a barrier, telling his transgressive story, risking his reputation. (Perhaps Proust comes close, broadly hinting in the early 20th century, that he was a homosexual.) Through Roth’s brilliance as a writer, his mastery of narrative, and his courage, his work triumphs as a model, showing how he searched deep into his rude stream for mercy and redemption -- for his own benefit and for the benefit of others. [1]

The End

[1] In 2014, the four parts of Mercy of a Rude Stream were reissued in one 1279 page volume. It includes an “Introduction,“   by Joshua Ferris as well as an “Editor’s Afterward;” and a glossary of Yiddish terms.   An American Type, the continuation of Roth’s story ending with his marriage to M. in 1939  --  crafted by Willing Davidson, an assistant at The New Yorker, from 1900 pages of Roth’s typescript -- appeared posthumously. Roth died in 1995 at age 89.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Obama and the Iran Deal: NYT Stenography Supports US disinterest

Whoever Moon Over Alabama is, he (or she) is a good writer.

His blog title for June 25, 2015 is : "The New York Times  Pre-Announces Iran Deal Failure" and he explains in 400 words or so,.

I've been saying for years that all the signs have been that O has never intended that a deal should be signed. .
 Here's a sample paragraph from Moon's blog.

 The NYT editorial says Khamenei's points are "at odds with a framework agreement reached on April 2". That is a bit weird as the actual full framework agreement has not been made public. So how do the editorial writers know this? "Western officials also say Iran has agreed to ..." Oh, western officials claim something. Then of course they, not Khamenei who has repeated the above points over and over again, must be right?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Galileo disrupts heaven and earth in 1610

Massimo Bucciantini et al, authors of Galileo’s Telescope (2015) sums up the difficulties that orthodoxy had with Galileo’s findings.

Page 246

If the Earth is a  planet (like Venus) circling the Sun, then the Earth is  in the sky.  That means  that the  sky is corruptible like the Earth.
Then how can  the sky continue to be the home of angels and saints?.
And how can Hell be at the center of the Earth, when the  Earth is in the sky  and thus is no longer in the region furthest from heaven?

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo massacre: Martyrs to U.S. Endless War?

One sentence stood out in a NYT article on the two brothers --- not yet captured at the time of writing – who are allegedly responsible for the  terrible Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

"Chérif’s interest in radical Islam, it was said at the 2008 trial, was rooted in his fury over the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, particularly the mistreatment of Muslims held at Abu Ghraib prison."

What Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld did  by initiating massive war with their invasion of Iraq was horrible enough, made even worse in that their agenda has not been broadly understood. In a word, their purpose was to destroy the country and keep it destroyed as a means of fighting endless war. They (still do) believe that war fighting is the only legitimate foreign --- and domestic --  policy activity.

And thanks to President Obama, the U.S. has been continuing and expanding their work. The public watches as the U.S. pours oil onto the fires of many countries, either overtly with drone attacks and U.S. troops on the ground, or covertly where  reportedly dozens of countries suffer as U.S. special forces do their dirty work.

Is it not worth asking whether the Paris attacks would have happened if President Obama had brought significant change to the destructive U.S. policies  he inherited in 2009? Is it not a real question whether those poor victims and their families and their society, along with scores of millions of Iraqis, Syrians, Afghanis, Yemenis, Pakistanis, and others are not martyrs to President Obama’s  dedication to endless war?

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld had the excuse of their ideology. They believe war fighting is good – for Israel and for the United States.  But President Obama knows it’s wrong.. What’s his excuse?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Is Now too Late to Fix Climate Change?

It’s hard to know which is worse when contemplating   the climate crisis – the inability of our collective politics to address the issue, or the vast new power of nature to overturn our world now that we have supercharged  its processes via the burning of fossil fuels. Since it’s hard to face such a crisis when we can't see a practical path to viability, it’s too tempting to escape into denial.

Thus, when I first noticed an article on the climate crisis by Moishe Blechman, Sierra Atlantic’s  Chairman of the Publication and Climate Crisis Committees in their Fall 2014 newsletter, my first reaction was to skip it thinking I already know all the bad news I can currently handle. But later I was drawn back perhaps by its provoking title, “Arctic ice is the key indicator of climate crisis,” and perhaps also by its brevity. In the space of less than 1200 words, Blechman was able to effectively draw attention to three of the crucial issues. Interestingly, it was only after I decided to look more closely into the details of the article, that I was able to puzzle over just how sweeping and desperate is his conclusion.

Blechman points to three climate tipping points. Perhaps for reasons of space, he doesn't define “tipping point.” I found Wikipedia’s definition helpful.

A climate tipping point is a somewhat ill-defined concept of a point when global climate changes from one stable state to another stable state, in a similar manner to a wine glass tipping over. After the tipping point has been passed, a transition to a new state occurs. The tipping event may be irreversible, comparable to wine spilling from the glass: standing up the glass will not put the wine back.

The first tipping point Blechman outlines is the change and speed of the jet stream. It’s a change, he stresses, that is permanent. He explains that the new path of the jet stream circumscribes a huge loop bringing cool air much further south than it has in the past.  As we might have feared, the new cool air in the south allows mid-latitude warm air to flow into the Arctic in a warming cycle that reduces its ice cover at disquieting speeds.

The second tipping point is the warming of the oceans that are delivering extraordinary heat to Arctic ice which is melting faster than Antarctic ice because the former rests on water instead of land. We are temporarily insulated from some of the effects of global warming because 70% of the extra  heat is absorbed by the ocean but this warming is melting Arctic ice  so rapidly that  that it’s  now predicted  to be gone by 2016!

 Loss of  Arctic ice entails loss of the reflectivity of solar energy not only from the Arctic but from all of the northern lakes and expanses of Canada and Siberia, destabilizing the radiative balance.  Blechman avers that humanity is already under siege with only the 0.80 C increase in average temperature since the advent of the industrial age so that the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change call for average temperature  increase to be limited to 20 C is wholly inadequate.

The third tipping point

The third tipping point is the melting of the permafrost now gaining momentum throughout the Arctic seas and across Alaska, Canada and all of Siberia.  The permafrost consists of ancient deposits of organic matter which are released as methane and CO2..  Even scarier than CO2, methane  is released in uncountable numbers of gigatons and is 125 times more powerful than  other greenhouse gasses, with CO2 merely the trigger.  Blechman reports that in the Siberian tundra a crater emerged between 60 and 80 meters wide, reaching deep into the earth and spewing explosive vents of vast quantities of methane. Later, two more such craters were found.

Blechman underscores the threat that methane may become the “dominant climate forming agent, warming the planet inexorably … creat[ing] unsupportable changes.”  He says that the key to stability is maintaining historical Arctic ice.  And then he writes: “The only possibility to avoid a dead world is to start to cool the Arctic. A living Earth depends on putting the ice back.”
What did he say? 
He wants us to put the ice back!!!!

I guess Blechman means to emphasize that we have to start now!! if we’re going to have a chance at holding back the catastrophic loss of the Arctic ice sheet.

Yes, indeed, many will agree that it’s well past time to look the devil in the eye.  While we still have energy and hope, we must do what we can to preserve as much as we can of our global heritage.
Blechman ends with pointers to more information. He suggests that we Google the following important resources.
Arctic Emergency: Scientists Speak

Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG); and

Arctic News, especially a video: The Arctic Monster’s Rapid Rise


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The 2014 Assault on Gaza: Israel’s Intentionality; with Remarks on Left Zionism

Operation Protective Edge begins July 8, 2014
 “Locals describe intense bombardmentBBC radio report, July 29, 2014

 On August 7th    near the end of the first three- day cease fire and the exit of Israeli ground forces, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, producer and guiding spirit, cited some of the grim statistics. In addition to about 1900 deaths, and many more injured, Democracy Now reported that some 500,000 Palestinians have been displaced with 187,000 still living in U.N. emergency shelters. An estimated 10,000 homes completely destroyed, and 30,000 homes partially destroyed. At least at least 11 UNWRA officials  in Gaza were killed and electricity, sewage and water facilities were destroyed.

 How much of this carnage did Israel intend? The question seems almost silly.  Professor Noam Chomsky, on Democracy Now’s August 8, 2014 program addressed the question with his usual incisive clarity.

It’s a hideous atrocity, sadistic, vicious, murderous, totally without any credible pretext. It’s another one of the periodic Israeli exercises in what they delicately call "mowing the lawn." That means shooting fish in the pond, to make sure that the animals stay quiet in the cage that you’ve constructed for them.  (See below for another definition of “mowing the lawn.”)

About a week earlier on Democracy Now‘s July 30, 2014 broadcast ("They Thought They’d Be Safe. They Were Wrong": 20 Gazans Killed in Israeli Bombing of U.N. Shelter) , a correspondent described Israeli bombing protocols.  Viewers were informed that the assaults on Gaza

are always heavier at night. They continue throughout the day, but the heaviest assaults come at dark. And we wake up to see many people dead and to hear their stories and to see people burying their dead. And these people at this U.N. school in Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza were killed while they slept. Many of these people had come from border areas. They had heeded Israel’s warnings. Some came after leaflets were dropped on their areas, others came after their homes were destroyed by Israel, and they thought that they would be safe in a United Nations-run school. They were wrong.

None of this is new or even strange to many readers familiar with the issue. But perhaps because I was inured to (or cynical about) most major media coverage, I was more than surprised to see in the New York Times some of the details of Israel’s battering of Gazan industry.    ( “Conflict Leaves Industry in Ashes and Gaza Reeling From Economic Toll”) The Times gave the story a generous half page on A10 for August 7th and included a photo of a bombed out Gazan factory. The story went into some of the details of the destruction of 175 of Gaza’s most successful industrial plants.

The Times quoted Ali Hayek, head of Gaza’s federation of industries “whose group represents 3,900 businesses employing 35,000 people.” Mr. Hayek believes that the “occupation intentionally destroyed these vital factories that constitute the backbone of society.” (The Times article included a statement from the IDF “categorically” denying that factories were targeted;  only “facilities  and locations that have been involved in manufacturing or launching rockets” were attacked.)

 The Times article ended with a quote from Ahmad Tawasi, 30, a technician at Al Awda Co.’s  180,000 –square foot factory which had employed  600 workers. Mr. Tawasi said that if his home was destroyed he could “earn enough money to rebuild.  But without the factory, he said, ‘I don’t know what will happen.’”

The WWII Comparison

One of my colleagues likes to compare Israel’s barbarism to the Nazis. I tend to  avoid such equations  since they often provide interlocutors  with a knee-jerk, simple, means of  running away from  the issue.   Also, comparing Nazis to Israelis tends to blur the unique elements that distinguish each historical era, For example, Hitler had the military and political wherewithal to direct the death of about 6 million Jews, Gypsies, etc., and to oversee another two score or so millions of deaths of others, including about 5.6 million Germans.

Although the combined casualty lists in Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009, about 1400 killed);  the eight-day aerial assault o f November 2012, 100 Palestinian deaths); and the July - August 2014  assault on Gaza do not bear comparison with Hitler’s numbers,  I take my friend’s  larger point. The critical factor is the intentionality. What the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians in Gaza amounts to the most brutal and merciless savagery that current political circumstances allow. The death and devastation especially in the current assault has gone well beyond that which might have been predicted outside of elite Tel Aviv councils before July 8, 2014. 

There’s another and deeper personal connection. As a member of a family that narrowly managed to escape Hitler's exterminations, I grew up wondering how ordinary Germans were able to rationalize and live with the horror that their government was perpetrating.  Part of the answer must lie in the power of denial facilitated by media and government propaganda. An ambiguous, even uncertain example that somehow stuck out for me was the brief comment, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (April 8, 2014),   of a woman pained at news reports of civilian Palestinian casualties. At a  “communal dialogue” at a Jewish Community Center in Manhattan,  entitled “Israel Talks,” a woman affiliated with a  Jewish Reform Temple  who described herself as “deeply attached “ to Israel, asked, in regard to the ongoing Gaza operation, “Why do they strike at hospitals? Their mistakes are so painful.”  

I wondered if she, unlike many of her co-religionists, understood on some level that there was Israeli intentionality behind attacks on hospitals, UN shelters, schools, etc. Of course, in the end, at least in public, she felt that she had to come down on the side of “mistakes.” Was it because he was a member of the Reformed congregation rather than Orthodox that she was unable to filter out news of some of the effects of the Israeli assault? I felt certain that while she could not accept  Noam Chomsky’s characterizations , yet perhaps it was possible that there was more of the Palestinian truth that  she might be able to absorb.

Interview with a victim –what means terror?

At the end of July, Democracy Now interviewed  Amer Shurrab  a Palestinian  from Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, currently doing his graduate studies in the U.S.. Shurrab is one of the survivors of a family ravaged by Israeli firepower and oppression. Five years ago, in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead operation, Amer’s two brothers were killed. They were shot while driving home  in the Fukhari region, in the middle period of a  “cease fire,” a few hundred yards after getting clearance from an Israeli tank crew.  In the end, Amer’s brothers died from their wounds when the Israelis refused to allow an ambulance to the scene for 20 hours.

Amer’s personal horror was compounded in July 2014 when he learned that four of his cousins had been killed in Gaza. On the question of intentionality, Shurrab was clear:  "Israel is deliberately targeting civilians from day one of this attack. …They have been bombing houses, wiping entire families to try to scare people into submission."

Shurrab’s last phrase raises the questions of whether it is Israel’s intention to “scare the people into submission? I doubt it. Palestinians have had more than six decades since 1948 to be familiar with the terror of Israel’s “purity of arms,” lately including drones, F-16s, shrapnel and phosphorous bombs, explicit graffiti and human waste left by departing Israeli soldiers.

Far from requiring Palestinian submission, it seems that, on the contrary, Israel deliberately provokes rocket attacks and as much Palestinian resistance as they can manufacture in order to create pretexts for their assaults, for mowing the  lawn.  And by “mowing the lawn,” we mean periodic pogroms on a scale of Cast Lead and Protective Edge. These large operations are intended emphasize the message that Palestinians  are not wanted in the land and that they will be made to suffer more and more until that time when one way or another they can be removed entirely.

 A review of the timeline of the 2014 assault by Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the  Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut, writing for the London Review of Books, (“Israel Mows the Lawn”)  helps set the context. Rabbani writes that, stymied by Palestinian diplomacy, Israeli Prime Minister,  Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed “a drowning man” when he was thrown a “lifebelt” with the  disappearance of three settler youth on June 12, 2014.  Rabbani  sees a connection between  Netanyahu’s escalation and the   June 2, 2014 inauguration of a new Palestinian Authority government following the April reconciliation agreement between  Hamas and Fatah. Despite the lack of evidence that Hamas had anything to do with the teens’ disappearance, Netanyahu

held Hamas directly responsible and launched a hostage rescue operation’ throughout the West Bank. It was really an organized military rampage. It included the killing of at least six Palestinians, none of whom was accused of involvement in the disappearances; mass arrests, including the arrest of Hamas parliamentarians and the re-arrest of detainees released in 2011; the demolition of a number of houses and the looting of others; and a variety of other depredations  … On the night of 6 July, an Israeli air raid resulted in the death of seven Hamas militants. Hamas responded with sustained missile attacks deep into Israel, escalating further as Israel launched its full-scale onslaught.

Rabbani’s  timeline adds piquant substance to the conspiracy theory that the teens were murdered, not by Palestinians, but in a false-flag operation  by the Mossad in order to create a suitable  pretext for the coming operation against  Gaza. (See Cintayati, “10 Reasons .. Hitchhikers June July 2014 was an Israeli False Flag”)

The U.S. Role

BBC radio interviewed a Palestinian with U.S. citizenship who voted for Barack Obama twice. The unnamed Palestinian said:  “It was a mistake [to support Obama.]   He  helping Israel.” 
                                                           4 August 2014

One of the points, touched on from time to time on Democracy Now’s  coverage is that the U.S. has done little or nothing to stop the slaughter.  On the contrary, President Obama seemed effectively to be smoothing the way and condoning the butchery, even past the point of previous Israeli operations.  On Democracy Now’s August 6 broadcast, professor and author Norman Finkelstein, a well known critic of Israeli policy, emphasized that the U.S. was uncritically signaling its full support for the Israeli assault when it repeatedly insisted that “Israel has the right to defend itself.”

The July 31, 2014 edition of Democracy Now provided a lesson in how the U.S. can get caught in the middle as it attempts to balance its role as neutral observer with its unconditional support for Israel. On July 31 the U.S. condemned Israeli shelling of a UN school (see above) killing at least 20, but “refused to blame or condemn Israel for carrying it out.” That same day the Pentagon “confirmed its approval of an Israeli request to restock Israel’s supplies of ammunition.” Weapons  to be restocked included “mortar rounds for tanks and ammunition for grenade launchers.”  The very next day, Democracy Now reported that the U.S. got much more specific in its condemnation. The shelling of the school, Washington said, was “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible.”

At first I wondered why the U.S. would make public its restocking of Israeli weaponry since officials were well aware of international condemnation of both the U.S. and Israel. Later I theorized  that  the White House  decided it needed to reassure both the public and Congress that despite it’s denunciation of the Israeli shelling it continues its solid support of Israel.

It’s a world tragedy that President Obama has turned out to be as hostile to the Palestinians – not to mention other Arabs and Muslims, and others -- as were his predecessors. In his five years in office, I don’t recall him once acting in a way that would help Palestinians in a matter of any significance.  

The Limits of Left Zionism

One of the highlights of Democracy Now’s coverage was its interview with the charismatic Yonatan  Shapira, a former Israeli captain and Air Force pilot. Shapira was one of the organizers in 2003 of 27 Air Force pilots who refused to participate in Israeli military operations against Palestinians.

One point he made in the interview could serve as a reply to those who justify what the Israelis are doing as self-defense. He uses the analogy of the rapist and victim. Apologizing for his strong language, he imagines the Israeli onslaught as “gang rape.”

I would imagine it as gang rape. And forgive me for using this hard language, but when you have a group of people raping someone, and this person that is being raped [is] starting to scratch, the first thing you want to do in order to stop the scratches is to stop the rape. And what Israel … is trying to do is to continue the rape and deal with the scratches.

And I say, stop the rape, stop the occupation, stop the apartheid, stop this inhumane ghettoization of Palestinians, and then—then—we can start talking, and we can reach peace agreements and all these beautiful words that now don’t mean anything for us.

Yonatan is probably as good as it gets as a representative of the Israeli left. Yet I couldn’t help wondering what he meant by “stopping the apartheid.”  If he’s a Zionist, as I suspect, he would intend Jewish primacy over non-Jews. I guess also that like many left Zionists, he favors the Two -State Solution not as something real for he must understand that that no present or foreseeable Israeli government will permit an independent Palestinian state in the Middle East. This has been the case ever since November 1947, when the UN General Assembly passed the Partition Resolution opening the way for the Jewish state.

The so-called Two-State Solution is merely a talking point, a way of putting off serious consideration of a modus vivendi for both peoples.  I’s also a deliberately fanciful means of thinking about the “the demographic  problem” – the higher Palestinian birth rate  -- as well as the issue  of according human and national  rights to Palestinians.  As long as the Two-State Solution remains “on the table” Yonatan  can picture in his mind a future resolution that will deal with the practical problem that Palestinians face as all the land for their “state” is gobbled up dunam by dunam (about a quarter acre), not to mention the daily oppression and humiliation they undergo.

It’s a separate question to ask whether leftists like Yonatan worry that despite their opposition to certain Israeli policies, their moral and political support for Zionism – a Jewish state in the former Palestine – indirectly aids those policies including ongoing, never-ending pogroms – mowing the lawn?  Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian  takes up the question of “The Liberal Zionists,” in an article in the New York Review of Books  . He points to the phenomenon on the Israeli left of “shooting and crying” (yorim u’vochim) defined as condemning “the horror of killing Arabs … while the killing … continues.” The critique is that by doing both –crying and shooting -- the left has its cake – expressing condemnation for Israeli policy – and they eat it too – they enjoy the benefits of continued Jewish supremacy.  

The Wish and the Dream

I later wondered if I could be wrong about whether or not Yonatan is a Zionist. Is it possible that he’s anti-Zionist?  Wishful thinking soon inspired some daydreaming. I  imagined Yonatan seeking me out to say that  like me, he has dropped his Zionism; that he has come to believe  that Palestinians  and Israelis ought to be  equal before  the law. He has decided that Jewish preeminence in Israel/Palestine was no longer acceptable.

In my daydream Yonatan was super serious and as charismatic as ever, intent on the struggle to find a way for the twelve million souls between the Jordan and the Mediterranean to share the land in a spirit of equal justice, respect for human rights and democracy for all. In that case, he explained, it could make the need for U.S. resupply, or drones, or F-16s, or hostile graffiti, supererogatory.

The End