Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my gun,” or so goes a famous line that is commonly (but wrongly) attributed to Hermann Goering and various other Nazi leaders.
Stripped of its odious associations, however, these words serve to remind us that culture is always a weapon in the clash of civilizations, “a sort of theatre where various political and ideological causes engage one another,” as the late Edward Said put it. The point is made by Jennifer M. Dueck, a post-doctoral fellow at Oxford University, with clarity, elegance and color in “The Claims of Culture at Empire’s End: Syria and Lebanon Under French Rule” (Oxford University Press: $85.00).
“Those who purported to lead, whether in a small community or on the national stage, did not fight solely over economic or political matters,” writes Dueck. “They also sought to control the institutions that would, in their view, alter or perpetuate the people’s understanding of the symbols that breathed life and meaning into the languages they spoke, the values they held, and the identity that made them part of a family, a community, or a nation.”
The focal point of Dueck’s monograph is a territory that is often overlooked when we consider the making of the modern Middle East — the portion of the defeated and dismantled Ottoman Empire that was handed over to France after World War I. Just as Palestine was a British mandate until 1948, Syria and Lebanon were ruled between the wars by the French, who took it upon themselves “to better the lives of ‘primitive’ indigenous populations by offering them the wonders of French civilization.” Thus did a former backwater of the Levant become, in Dueck’s words, “a crucible of international strategic interests,” and remains so today.
While Dueck maintains a tight focus on the “cultural enterprises” of French colonialism — language, education, cinema, tourism and even scouting — her book also offer a way to reframe the way we see the Middle East. Indeed, the subtext of her work includes the very notion of what constitutes national identity in a place where pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism were already in play. “One reason why scouting attracted such enthusiastic attention is the political symbolism with which it quickly became associated,” explains Dueck. “Frequently accompanied by one flag or another on their outings, scout groups associated themselves with particular political visions for their region, whether Lebanese, Syrian or Pan-Arab.”
Dueck’s book is a specialized work of scholarship, but she offers a crucial insight in to the latest efforts of the West to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. She compares the “cultural diplomacy” of France in Syria and Lebanon to “the soft power seduction trade” as it is being conducted today by the United States elsewhere in the Middle East. And she reminds us that the Arab street is also a kind of fighting front when it comes to culture war.
“The success or failure of foreign cultural initiatives ultimately depended on their reception on the ground,” she concludes, “where they might be welcomed, dismissed, or absorbed and reinvented.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.
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May 1, 2010 | 6:53 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Most journalists – and I am certainly one of them – work behind a desk. A few brave souls among us, however, insist on putting themselves in harm’s way. War correspondents have always been authentic heroes, no less so than the men and women in uniform whom they write about, and we have always depended on them for news from the front.
Daniele Mastrogiacomo is that kind of journalist. A longtime correspondent for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, he has reported from Baghdad, Tehran, Mogadishu, and the frontlines of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Precisely because he fearlessly puts himself where the action is, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time — Mastrogiacomo was taken captive by the Taliban while covering the war in Afghanistan in 2007 and forced to witness the beheading of one of his Afghan colleagues.
Mastrogiacomo allows us to relive his ordeal in “Days of Fear: A Firsthand Account of Captivity Under the New Taliban” (Europa Editions: $15.00, 181 pps.), expertly and lucidly translated from the Italian by Michael Reynolds. It’s the most harrowing of memoirs, a tale of adventure and survival, and — above all — a first-hand account of the special terrors that he endured as a prisoner of the Taliban under the constant threat of death by decapitation.
Mastrogiacomo returned to Afghanistan at a moment when, “for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, suicide bombers had appeared on the scene.” He wanted to find out “whether new blood is running through the Taliban’s veins.” And he felt obliged “to tell the story of this war that the world feels is far away, to measure reality against what passes for reality in the official bulletins.” Exactly here we see the sense of duty that explains why some reporters go to war: “My profession demands it.”
The book reads like a Graham Greene novel played out in real life. The landscape through which we move in Mastrogiacomo’s book is both beguiling and menacing, populated with colorful but dubious figures, rich with exotic sights and smells but always full of peril. At the cross-roads where he is to meet the Taliban for an interview, everything goes suddenly and terribly wrong — Mastrogiacomo and his Afghan colleagues are taken for spies, locked in the trunk of a car, and spirited away. We do not know until the end of the book whether any of them will escape with their lives. Some do not, although Mastrogiacomo lived to tell the tale.
What makes his book especially rewarding is that it allows the long-running war in Afghanistan, which we glimpse only in headlines and death notices, to snap into sharp focus. American lives are being lost in that far-off place every day, but we have only a faint notion of why we are there and what we are hoping to accomplish. Mastrogiacomo, at the risk of his own life, shows us exactly what is at stake.
I had the opportunity to meet and work with Mastrogiacomo at the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where he appeared on a panel that I moderated. He is ruggedly built and matinee-idol handsome, and he speaks English in the richly musical tones of his native country. If they ever make a movie of his book, he could play himself.
At one point during the program at the Festival of Books, I asked him if he had felt safer in Afghanistan because he was Italian, and he answered that all Western journalists are equally at risk. “The Taliban thought I was American,” said Mastrogiacomo, and a member of the audience cracked: “It must have been the accent.”
Mastrogiacomo joined in the laughter, another measure of his poise and courage. But his book, and the lessons to be learned from it, are no laughing matter.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 16, 2010 | 10:32 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Adventure has always provided the raw material for great books, ranging from “Robinson Crusoe” to “Alive” and much in between. That’s why I was thrilled to be asked to moderate a panel on “Stories of Survival” at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA on the weekend of April 24-25, 2010.
The panelists are all authors of recently published books about how the danger they endured and how they lived to tell about it. A couple of them confront us with the human face of terrorism in exotic locales, and the third one shows us that life-and-death ordeals can take place very close to home. From the comfort and safety of a UCLA lecture hall, we will witness three sagas of survival.
Daniele Mastrogiacomo’s “Days of Fear: A Firsthand Account of Captivity Under the New Taliban” (Europa Editions: $15.00) (Translated by Michael Reynolds) is the story of the Italian reporter’s ordeal at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2007. At the worst moment of his captivity, the author was forced to witness the decapitation of his Afghan driver by their captors. “Many consider this episode merely a terrible and bloody story,” writes Mastrogiacomo about his long confinement and ultimate liberation. “I prefer to remember it as an experience that cast me down into the depths of my soul, made me stronger, more convinced of the vital importance of many things: my relationships with loved ones, life’s small everyday moments, basic human values, my profession.”
Richard Phillips is the author (with Stephan Talty) of “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea” ( Hyperion: $25.99). Readers will remember his heroic exploits as the captain of a U.S. cargo ship that came under attack by Somali pirates and his rescue on the high seas by Navy commandoes. “When someone has a loaded AK-47 pointed at your face, you get to know his mood really well, believe me,” recalls Philips about one moment of peril in the waters of the Indian Ocean. “They wanted me to stretch out. No goddamn way, I said to myself. I’m not going to be your fatted calf.”
The third panelist is Norman Ollestad, author of “Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival” (Ecco: $25.99), an adventure story that takes place no farther away than the San Gabriel Mountains. As a young surfer and skier, Ollestad was flying to a championship ceremony with his father in 1979 when their chartered Cessna crashed into a mountaintop during a sudden blizzard. His father was killed in the crash, and the 11-year-old boy was forced to make his own way to safety from the ice-bound peak. “As much a thriller as a memoir,” wrote Carolyn See in praise of Ollestad’s book.
The panel on “Stories of Survival” will take place in Broad Hall 2160 on the UCLA campus at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 24, 2010. Tickets and information are available at the Festival of Books website.
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com
April 10, 2010 | 11:24 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
No one alive when Jesus of Nazareth was born had the faintest idea that it was the year one. Only by pious Christian tradition did the world enter the period of history known to scholars as the Common Era and to Christian believers as Anno Domini, “the Year of Our Lord.” And, thanks to the vagaries of calendar-keeping over the centuries, Jesus was probably born around the year 5 BCE, which would have made him six years old in Year One.
That’s why the title of Scott Korb’s wholly fascinating new book, “Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine” (Riverhead: $25.95, 241 pps.), is mostly fanciful. But the fact remains that the first century of the Common Era was crammed with history-making people and events, no less for Jews than for Christians, and Korb’s book gives us a glimpse of ordinary life for the men, women and children who lived in Bible times.
Jesus and his depiction in the Christian scriptures are a kind of benchmark for the author, but Korb is right when he insists that his book is not a religious tract. Indeed, he introduces Jesus as a flesh-and-blood figure: “He was a peasant. He was a healer who acted like a rabbi and a prophet. Some people see him as a revolutionary.” Nor is Korb’s book about Jesus himself: “f Jesus had been the kind person who had neighbor,” cracks Korb, “this would be a book about them.”
So we are allowed to glimpse the Holy Land in the first century of the Common Era as it was experienced by ordinary people — the coins they carried, the language they spoke, the sights they saw on the street, the food they eat, and how they earned their livelihoods. The author considers Bible-era sex and birth control, food cultivation and preparation, disposal of human waste and burial of corpses, among many other things. He points out that the Hebrew word translated from the Bible as “leprosy” actually referred to psoriasis, eczema, and “any fungal infection of the skin,” and the disease that we call leprosy may been unknown to the authors and first readers of the Bible. He even devotes a chapter to “Baths in the Year One,” a crucial concern for people who “would have had to deal with lots and lots of filth.”
But each one of these mundane details is the occasion for a widening of the lens and thus sheds light on historical, political and theological issues, too. Thus, for example, Korb tells us that there were coins minted in Jerusalem in the first century that started over again with the year one, but the occasion was not the birth of Jesus; rather, it was outbreak of the war of national liberation that the Jewish people fought against the Roman army of occupation. But the calendar as marked on coinage ended in the year four with the defeat of Jewish resistance and the destruction of Jerusalem: “t became perfectly clear,” Korb points out, “that there would never be a ‘Year Five.’”
Some controversy about Korb’s footnotes can be found in the reviews posted at Amazon.com. To be sure, you will find an abundance of marginal asides at the bottom of the page, but I found them to be so full of interesting facts and observations that they constitute a kind of parallel narrative. Or, as the author himself puts it, “the footnotes offer a running commentary on the lessons we have and have not learned from our past.”
“Life in Year One” will endear itself even to those readers who are afraid of footnotes. The author is chatty, witty and well-informed, and his book is a kind of revelation about real life in the time and place that we read about in the Bible. Indeed, the biblical text itself will never seem quite the same once we know the facts of life in the Year One.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 1, 2010 | 9:57 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Not long ago, I reviewed “A Wall in Palestine” by French journalist René Backmann (Picador: $16.00, 264 pps.), an account of the security barrier that is nearing completion between Israel and the West Bank, in the pages of The Jewish Journal. My original review is archived here.
One reader of the review, Richard Blutstein, posted a comment that gave quite a different perspective on the wall, and I am taking the liberty of re-posting his message below.
Richard Blutstein wrote:
My son, Benjamin Blutstein, was having lunch while waiting to take an exam at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on July 31, 2002 when he was murdered. A Hamas cell with the assistance of the Palestinian Authority detonated a bomb next to him in the cafeteria. This bomb had been smuggled from Ramallah to Jerusalem twice, because the first attempt a few days earlier did not work. There were celebrations in Gaza. Arafat suppressed the celebrations on the West Bank because he was concerned about bad publicity.
If the wall had already been built then Ben might now still be alive.
The Palestinians are certainly suffering as a result of the wall, but they brought it on themselves. They voted for both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and have showed their support for mass murder by terrorists time and time again.
Peace will come to Israel and Palestine as soon the Arabs accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Until they do, Israel needs to defend itself.
Mr. Blutstein’s comment also prompted a communication from the author of “A Wall in Palestine,” who has given me permission to share his thoughts with the readers of The Jewish Journal.
René Backmann wrote:
Thank you for your very extensive and fair review of my book in The Jewish Journal. And thank you for thinking – and writing – that it is ‘A book that cannot be ignored.’ It was my aim, when I wrote this book, to bring to the readers the truth – whole truth – about the wall’s history. I read the comment that came after your post, written by a man who lost his son during a terrorist attack against the Hebrew University. I understand and share the sorrow of this father. I also understand what is in his mind when he writes that the wall, if built a few years sooner, could have saved the life of his son. As you probably know, after reading my book, I am not against the idea of building a wall (or a fence, or anything else) to protect the Israeli civilian population against terrorists coming from the West Bank. But such a wall should have been built inside Israeli territory, and along the Green Line, instead of meandering in large loops, inside the territory of the future Palestinian state, to annex the main blocks of settlements. I hope that this book — among a lot of others — will help Israelis and Palestinians to understand that there is only one solution to the problem: good faith negotiations and two states, living in peace and security side by side. But is seems that everybody — on both sides — is not ready to accept this solution and this future.
I, too, share the sorrow of a father who has lost a cherished son, and I know that no words can heal those wounds. On one thing, however, all of us seem to agree: There is a terrible human price to be paid when it comes to geopolitics, a price measured in blood and heartbreak. But there is another lesson here. Surely it will take vision, wisdom and courage on both sides of the wall to achieve some version of peace.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.
March 26, 2010 | 3:43 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
I will readily admit that the title of Jerry Z. Muller’s book, “Capitalism and the Jews” (Princeton University Press: $24.95) is a bit off-putting. Indeed, the author himself understands how the phrase resonates for the Jewish reader.“Even today, some Jews regard the public discussion of Jews and capitalism as intrinsically impolitic, as if conspiratorial fantasies about Jews and money can be eliminated by prudent silence,” writes Muller. “For these reasons, the exploration of Jews and capitalism has tended to be left to apologists, ideologues, and anti-Semites.”
But Muller, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and The New Republic, among other publications, also insists that it is impossible to study the history of the Jewish people without examining and understanding the role that Jews have played over the centuries in commerce and capitalism, starting with money-lending in the Middle Ages and culminating in the vast family fortunes that turned the name “Rothschild” into a trope for money and power.
So Muller courageously unpacks the history of Jews and money in the four elegant essays that are showcased in his book. The first one focuses on “The Long Shadow of Usury,” one of the hot-button issues of classical anti-Semitism but also a fact of Jewish life since the Dark Ages. The second essay ponders why some Jews have been so contemptuous of capitalism while others Jews have been so successful at reaping its rewards. The third essay examines the radical response to capitalism among Jews who embraced socialism. And the final essay shows how nationalism — and, by extension, the Jewish form of nationalism known as Zionism — can be seen as “an inevitable development, deeply intertwined with many of the characteristic processes of modernity, and above all with the politics of capitalist economic transformation.”
Muller is temperate and thoughtful but he is not afraid to conjure up and confront all of the ghosts who have haunted Jewish history. “The true God of the Jews is money, Marx assures his readers, and like the jealous God of the Bible, who would tolerate no lesser gods before him, money tolerates no other relations.” Thus did Marx provide the anti-Semites, “from Richard Wagner down to the Nazi ideologist Gottfried Feder,” with a cudgel to use against the Jews: “[W]ith a twist of the argument one could suggest that the task was to rescue capitalism from its ‘Jewish’ aspects, and from the Jews themselves.”
He also reprises the argument of the late economist Milton Friedman that “the element of capitalism that has most benefited the Jews is free competition,” a credo of capitalism that “counteracts the forces of anti-Semitic prejudice.” Muller explains that “as the development of modern capitalism created new economic opportunities in Europe and its colonial offshoots, Jews were disproportionately successful at seizing them.” And he turns Marx’s ugly pronouncement on its head: “In an economic sense, and in the long run, capitalism was good for the Jews,” writes Muller. “And the Jews were good for capitalism.”
“Capitalism and the Jews” is a work of scholarship, but it’s an especially accessible and illuminating one. It is a book that every Jewish capitalist, actual or aspiring, ought to read and ponder. Indeed, Muller offers what can be regarded as a midrash on money. “Get wisdom,” we read in Proverbs 4:7. “Yea, with all thy getting, get understanding.”
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, can be reached at email@example.com.
March 20, 2010 | 12:04 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Ramat Shlomo is in the headlines today, but the next flashpoint may be the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank that is scheduled for completion in 2010.
That’s the subject of “A Wall in Palestine” by French journalist Rene Backmann (Picador: $16.00, 264 pps.). A best-seller when first published in France in 2006, and newly issued in the United States in an English translation by A. Kaiser, the book will be profoundly off-putting to many Jewish readers, but it makes a point that cannot be safely ignored — the wall is intended to be a barrier against suicide bombers, but it is also an obstacle to peace.
The wall is yet another painful example of how Israel can’t seem to win the war for hearts and minds. Confronted with the appalling carnage that resulted from “martyr operations” in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel resorted to the seemingly simple and obvious measure of making it harder for bombers and snipers to hit their targets. But critics like Backmann condemn the security barrier as an act of aggression and oppression against the Palestinian Arabs, and he speaks for many Israelis and Arabs who feel the same way.
“I still can’t believe that what the entire world saw fall down yesterday in Berlin,” writes Backmann, “could be a solution tomorrow in Jerusalem.”
“A Wall in Palestine” is a work of history, investigative reporting and human portraiture, and it affords us a rare opportunity to see the human face of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “My windows used to open on the rising sun,” says a man named Elie Yacoub, whose house is now only steps from the wall. “They now open on this monster.”
From the perspective of its architects and builders, as Backmann allows us to see, the wall is meant to encourage the peace process. “We are only holding on to it for the duration of the barrier’s mission, which is to get rid of terrorism,” says Netzah Mashiah, the civil engineer who was appointed by Ariel Sharon to supervise its construction in 2002. “We are working from the principle that this barrier is temporary. And that the length of time it stays up depends on how the Palestinians work toward peace. So, it can stay here five minutes or five decades.”
But the real impact of the wall is far more consequential than the view from Elie Yacoub’s window. The wall was intended to create a “zone of separation” between Israel and the West Bank, and that’s why it is called the “apartheid wall” by Arab activists. “Simple things have become complicated, ordinary activities impossible, and there are many new constraints and humiliations,” writes Backmann about life in the shadow of the wall. And he insists that the “meanderings” of the security barrier were “conceived and constructed to protect the settlements, to give them room to develop and grow, and to create territorial integrity with Israel.”
For Backmann, the victims of the wall are the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs who do not carry out acts of terrorism. “Contrary to what one may assume about a people living under occupation, the Palestinians are infinitely patient,” he writes. “Waiting at checkpoints, at vehicle pull-overs and verifications, at barrier doors; waiting at the Civil Administration office for travel permits; waiting for release of prisoners; waiting for the creation of the Palestinian State. Their lives consist of endless waiting.”
Of course, the Israelis are waiting, too. They are waiting for the assurances and conditions that they deem necessary before taking the existential risk that seems to be required in order to make peace with their adversaries. That day appears to be far off, and Backmann’s book makes a good case that the wall is not bringing it any closer.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 6, 2010 | 11:03 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
If you share my fascination with what human beings have imagined about the beginning and ending of the world, you will find plenty to ponder in the Bible. But there are other and more recent texts to consider, including John McPhee’s masterpiece, “Annals of the Former World,” a “deep history” of the earth as it is has been studied not by theologians but geologists.
“With your arms spread wide . . . to represent all time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life,” writes McPhee in my favorite passage. “n a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history” — an era of only a few thousand years that can be seen as “a small bright sparkle at the end of time.”
McPhee, a longtime contributor to the New Yorker and author of more than two dozen books, won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about rocks. Now he is writing about silk.
“Silk Parachute” (Farrar Straus Giroux: $25.00, 227 pps.) is a collection of essays, most of which first appeared in the New Yorker, and the title piece refers to a toy parachute that his mother gave him when he was eleven or twelve years old. That silk parachute is his Rosebud.
“Folded just so, the parachute never failed,” writes McPhee. “Always, it floated back to you — silkily, beautifully— to start over and float back again. Even if you abused it, whacked it really hard — gracefully, lightly, it floated back to you.”
So McPhee is stepping back from the heart-shaking and mind-boggling revelations of his writings on natural history and turning his attention to the delicate workings of memory in a single human lifetime. Even when he muses on the geological fact that a massive layer of chalk lies under much of Western Europe, he is attracted to what the human mind and hand have applied to the rock surfaces.
“Graffiti in the tunnels in the mountain — drawings, advertisements, people’s names — can be arranged as a sort of timescale of the ages of quarrying,” he writes in an essay titled “Season on the Chalk.” “There are names on the walls from 1551.”
Most of the memories that McPhee presents in “Silk Parachute” are pried out of his own life experience — canoeing at summer camp in Vermont, carrying golf-bags around the courses of New Jersey as a young caddie, following his daughter through New York City as she takes photographs with a 19th century view camera of the kind Matthew Brady used. Now and then, he offers an essay that is literally autobiographical, as when he presents a “life list” of exotic foods that he has sampled in his travels — lion, whale and bear meat, “bee spit,” and a fruit called a monthong that “smells strongly fecal and tastes like tiramisu,” among other exotic tidbits.
For purely personal reasons, my favorite piece in the collection is “Checkpoints,” which features one of my personal heroes, a former New Yorker editor named Sara Lippincott. I was among the many grateful reviewers who worked with Sara when she was an editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and I still see her at meetings of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC. The piece focuses on the New Yorker’s legendary fact-checking process and Sara’s role in making sure that the authoritative tone of McPhee’s writing was well-deserved. The thought kept occurring to me that “Checkpoints” ought to be required reading for anyone who contributes to Wikipedia, if only because Sara announces what ought to be an article of faith for authors and journalists.
“Each word in the piece that has even a shred of fact clinging to it,” she is quoted as saying, “is scrutinized.” And she explains why it matters: “Once an error gets into print it ‘will live on and on in libraries, carefully catalogued, scrupulously indexed [and] silicon-chipped, deceiving researcher after researcher down through the ages, all of whom will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on and on into an exponential explosion of errata.’”
And so passes the glory of the world, as I am always reminded whenever I read a book by John McPhee.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of “A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization.” He can be reached at email@example.com.