Sunday, March 25, 2012

When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna

The great Civil War general according to his wife Julia issued an 'obnoxious' order expelling Jewish citizens from the general's war zone.  His general order no. 11 became an infamous rallying point for the American Jewish community to accuse U. S. Grant of prejudice against the Jewish people.  In Professor's Sarna's new book one reads a great narrative that rehabilitates Grant.  One sees that Grant overcame his blunder and went on appoint more Jewish people during his administration that ever before.

General Grant became frustrated with speculators and opportunists that exploited the changes in prices between the North and South.  Many of the those traders were Jewish merchants and the General banned the Jews as a "class" of people.  It was an outrageous charge, a generalization that could not possibly reflect the whole truth.

In reading this history, I was reminded of a theme mentioned by Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabbinovitz from his The History of the Jewish People, that Jewish heroism comes out of anonymity.  One anonymous Jew, named Cesar Kaskel, an immigrant from Germany dwelling in Paducah, Kentucky was issued the order having to leave the department within 48 hours.  Kaskel went straight to Washington DC to appeal to President Lincoln! He was not a famous rabbi or personality, only a simple person feeling the absolute injustice of the order.  The famous rabbi sees the president only later after the president rescinded the order.

This volume is a wonderful introduction to 19th century American Jewry where one is introduced to many major figures: Isaac M. Wise, Isaac Leeser, the Seligmann brothers, Simon Wolf and others.  We understand the empathy of Abraham Lincoln, moreover, we see Grant make great efforts to overcome his blunder and make long lasting relationships among the Jewish community.  The volume is a testament to this country's commitment to civil rights and liberties and how the Jewish people fit into its fabric.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Righteous Victims: A history of the Zionist-Arab conflict 1881-2001 By Benny Morris

If one would have an ax to grind against Zionism, Benny Morris' fine history could be easily taken out of context and misused to slam some famous Zionists.  In this hefty well written and well researched book one finds Ben Gurion opining for 'transfer' and Begin not wanting to give up an inch of Judea and Samaria.  We find Sharon instilling fear in his opponents because of his successful career as a soldier.  We read of Rabin being dressed down by his mentor Ben Gurion and about the courage of Ehud Barack for willing to deal and attempt to make peace with Arafat.

Morris sets out by explaining his unique approach: he will rely on the narratives and sources that are available to him and attempt to use their voice.  This could explain why the Palestinian narrative sounds sympathetic.  The author is less critical of Arafat then some of the Zionist counterparts.  His theme assumes that both sides have legitimate claims. Both sides have righteous victims.

Morris deals with many questions that have become flashpoints in the conflict.  For example, he discusses the dispossession of Palestinians.  He clarifies that the process of Jewish colonization of the Land Israel in the beginning was not a typical imperialistic push for conquest.  The evidence is very clear that the Zionists legally purchased land from absentee owners, much of it swamp without dispossession.  He mentions tenant farmers being legally terminated, however, the real dispossession of people did not occur until the War of Independence clearly initiated by invading truculent irredentist Arab neighbors.  War creates refugees.  (Israel's founding includes the absorption of Jewish refugees.)  Curiously the concept of Pan Arab-ism does not allow the absorption of Arab refugees to neighboring countries due to Arab irredentism and intransigence, a strident attitude not to compromise.

What I find extraordinary are Morris' concluding remarks.  As a critical historian with great ability to appreciate nuance and subtlety, he calls the Zionist enterprise nothing less than 'miraculous'!  He marvels at the speed, success and contribution of the State of Israel and concludes that it is Israel that is winning this conflict without predicting the future.  When the opportunities have presented themselves for peace, it has been the Palestinians who have allowed them to pass by.  The Israelis, however, may moan and groan but they make peace.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lies my Teacher Told me: Everything Your American History textbook got wrong by James W. Loewen

The first half of this book was fascinating in evaluating High School American History books and takes on the 18th and 19th centuries by showing that most Histories fail miserably in discussing the truth about Native Americans.  The concept of Manifest Destiny really meant the decimation of Native Americans.  Native Americans were wrongfully called "savages" and were really responsible for European settlement survival.

The author is brutal against patriotic textbooks at the expense of accuracy and truth.  When the author discusses the 20th century, however, I felt there seemed to be a bias in favor of Democratic administrations.  For example, JFK's flaws are revealed almost grudgingly. The author believes in the class struggle of the poor against the rich but does not touch upon how the Asian or Jewish immigrant communities brought themselves out of poverty.

The author also questions the American Foreign policy and believes that Middle east hatred would be due to the America/ Israel alliance.  Unfortunately, like so many Americans, there is a lack of understanding of the relationship of the Islam and the West.  For example, since the founding of the Marine Corps during the time of Thomas Jefferson, the USA has confronted a hostile Middle East.  Thinking that Israel is the problem is far too simplistic and historically not true. According to the scholarship of Bernard Lewis Islam's relationship toward the West and Christendom should be understood as a percolation toward conquest.

I thought the book was provocative and has taught me to be more skeptical and cautious in teaching history texts.  One always has to look for bias and attitude; there is no such history text that is "objective" including this one!