Too Late Comes Too Soon
Is there a more trite observation possible than that no one knows his or anyone else's earthly end? But sometimes observations are trite because they reflect something that each of us experiences -- usually many times – in their life: The feeling that someone close has passed from the world before we have said what we ought to have said or otherwise settled accounts.
If we could truly learn to live with the recognition of the limits of our time and that of others, much would be gained.
TWICE IN RECENT MONTHS, I was surprised by the news of the passing of someone to whom I had become close in course of profiling them forMishpacha. Two months ago, Yehuda Avner, author of The Prime Ministers, passed away at 86; and May 19, Professor Robert Wistrich, the pre-eminent scholar of anti-Semitism, suffered a heart attack in Rome the day he was to address the Italian Senate.
Yehuda told me years ago that he had been diagnosed with cancer so his passing was not exactly a shock. Yet his final years after publication of The Prime Ministers were filled with speeches around the world and the production of two documentaries based on the book by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
There was nothing I could have given him. He knew very well how much I admired him. No regrets on that score.
Still I missed the opportunity to have spent more time listening to one of the great raconteurs of our time and a man of much wisdom.
What brought him to a new level of storytelling gift was his remarkable ability to leave himself entirely out of the story and focus on his protagonists. When he featured in the story, it was usually as the butt of the joke. Has any speechwriter ever had a more inauspicious beginning than he did with Levi Eshkol. In the middle of a speech for an Israeli Bonds dinner, Eshkol stopped and called out in Hebrew to his neophyte speechwriter, "What's this supposed to mean?" He then informed his audience that what he had just said was untrue and that the opposite was the case.
His ability to adopt the role of the fly on the wall reflected his genuine wisdom. Where modesty is absent wisdom is never found. Avner saw himself as a servant of the Jewish people and gave thanks to the Ribbono shel Olam for the chance to make his own small contribution to netzach Yisrael (Jewish eternity).
Robert Wistrich's passing, by contrast, was a complete shock. On the one hand, it is hard to believe he was only 70, given his astonishing productivity. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that someone that vigorous and active to the very end was suddenly felled.
I am now left with a debt unpaid. Little more than a year after the Mishpacha profile, focusing on The Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism – From Antiquity to the Global Jihad, Professor Wistrich sent me another large tome to review: , From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel. It seemingly took him less time to write these massive books than it takes the normal person to read them.
The topic was of great interest to me. Constructing a general theory of the Left is the intellectual project that most absorbs me. But though I dutifully carried the book on many transatlantic flights, I never fulfilled his request. I still hope to do so. But he will never know. A great man asked me to help him in his work for the Jewish people, and I dropped the ball.
I am unaware of any scholar of such productivity. He wrote 18 books, most of them quite long and densely packed; scripted a three-part PBS series based on his book The Longest Hatred; authored and, in conjunction with the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Rabbi Abraham Cooper, convinced UNESCO to sponsor an exhibit entitled "People, Book, Land – The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land," which was shown at the UN last month; and served as academic advisor to the Clarion Fund's documentary Obsession, detailing how Hitler's ideas on a cosmic world struggle against Jews have been transplanted to the Islamic world.
With his passing, the Jewish people lost not only one of its greatest scholars, but its greatest champions. Less than a week before his passing, he spoke at the Fifth Global Forum for Combatting Antisemitism. Departing from his prepared remarks, in response to the preceding speech by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, he asked, "If things are really so good, why are they so bad?"
REREADING MY INTERVIEWS with both men, I was reminded of the sheer delight of their company. But I was also struck by a common element, despite their very different backgrounds: Avner was a proud religious Jew; Wistrich's not identifiably so. His father was a member of the Polish HaShomer HaTzair.
Yet both expressed optimism about the future based on their faith. In response to a question about the many times the fate of Israel hung in the balance recorded in The Prime Ministers, Yehuda Avner told me, "I know a fair bit amount about Jewish history. I'm a firm believer in the G-d of Israel and the lessons of our history. And the central lesson is: Our enemies try to destroy us in every generation and in the end it is they who are destroyed."
And Wistrich described to me how when he put on tefillin in the morning, he felt bound "to the Divine protection of Shomer Yisrael."
In his last speech, and a posthumously published oped based upon it, he concluded by focusing on Jewish self-understanding as the most important aspect of our fight against demonization of Jews and Israel: "We must clarify for ourselves our vocation, raison d'etre, moral priorities, and the deeper meaning of our near miraculous return to the historic homeland [in order to become worthy] of the scriptural promise that 'Torah will come forth from Zion and the word of the L-ord from Jerusalem.'"
The President Goes to Synagogue
President Obama invited The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, his designated messenger to the Jewish community, for another lengthy interview last week, followed by a speech in Goldberg's D.C. synagogue Adas Yisrael.
Goldberg asked the President about the contention of Walter Russell Mead that a regime like Iran's that is captive to a conspiratorial anti-Semitic worldview will have difficulty understanding the world as it actually works and thus cannot be counted on to be entirely rational. And that makes them a poor partner for nuclear negotiations.
Obama replied that while those who hold delusional anti-Semitic views might occasionally act irrationally at the margins, where the costs are low. But being a rabid anti-Semite "does not preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn't preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power."
From Obama's perspective, for instance, no leader would devote precious resources to the slaughter of Jews at the cost of military defeat. Yet that is precisely what Hitler, ym"Sh, did at the end of World War II, in pursuit of his Final Solution.
Iran's Supreme Leader may not be totally irrational in the sense that his means and ends bear no relation to one another. But both are well beyond the pale of what is conceivable to the Western liberal mind. Iran sent thousands of children to their deaths as unarmed minesweepers in the near decade-long Iraq-Iran war, wearing the "keys to Heaven" around their necks. And if one believes that a nuclear Armageddon will bring the eschatological end of history with the return of the missing Imam, triggering nuclear war is not technically irrational. Something other than just maximizing Iran's share of the economic pie clearly motivates its leadership.
INTERESTINGLY, MY HOURS of conversations with Robert Wistrich bore heavily on the issue raised by Goldberg. He lamented the "inability of the modern liberal imagination to take fanatically held religious dogmas seriously or to credit the possibility that they can actually hold sway over millions of people." (In a similar vein, Walter Russell Mead observed of Obama's response to Goldberg, "The President doesn't seem to understand diversity. He thinks . . . that people of different religious faiths, ethnic backgrounds and ideological convictions are not all that different in the way they look at the world.")
The crux of radical Islamic ideology, Wistrich noted, is the "call for jihad to restore the world-wide caliphate through conquest." Yet even after ISIS, it does not dawn on the president that the Islamic Revolution's founding goal of spreading Islam worldwide could be serious. Jihad is no more credible to him than Shiite doctrine that all non-believers are "impure," none more so than the Jews, or the Shiite fascination with and pursuit of martyrdom.
Wistrich made short-shrift of the idea that those like the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who was obsessed by Jewish conspiracies and described Israel as a cancer that must be excised from early in his career, do not really believe what they are saying. He described once interviewing then Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a soft-spoken physician, for the BBC, and how the latter was utterly convinced that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are authentic.
The tragedy, he once explained to a group of Muslim students, is that anti-Semitism is toxic for the body politic of any society in which it spreads, and has poisoned much of contemporary Islam. Thus he doubted that the Palestinians could presently create a state with even minimal human rights. Gaza today is the proof. And as long as Palestinian nationalism defines itself exclusively in terms of the negation of Zionism, there will and can be no real peace process.
At the end of our interview, Wistrich expressed the view, both historical and metaphysical, that those who set out to destroy the Jews – from Haman through Hitler -- self-destruct. He pointed out that only with Pearl Harbor did World War II become a truly universal war and convince Hitler that the cosmic battle against the Jews he had always anticipated was in full swing. Until that point, Hitler had shown remarkably keen political and military instincts. Thereafter, he made one disastrous decision after another. Similarly, the former seminarian Yosef Stalin downplayed his anti-Semitism for decades, until unleashing the Jewish Doctors Plot shortly before his death on Purim of 1953.
Pity that President Obama will never have the same opportunity I had to learn from Professor Wistrich.