They were holding a two-day conference on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration at Princeton and I got an Airbnb a mile from campus so I could be there for the first full day. Brian Klug, a senior research fellow in philosophy at Oxford, was speaking and I had his book Being Jewish and Doing Justice and I wanted to meet him. As well as Victor Kattan, who was leading the session.
I got to Princeton at 8:30 on Sunday May 7 and texted Klug and he told me to meet him on Nassau Street for dinner. He had a dinner date with Kattan but Kattan was evidently jetlagged from having arrived from Singapore. He told me I’d recognize him from his Greek sailor’s cap. We went to a farm-to-table place where the waiters all wore red flannel shirts. Klug told me he was vegetarian. There was a lot on the menu I would have ordered but I decided to go with the flow. I’d been thinking of going veg for a while, largely based on my interactions with dogs and bees, and questioning the man’s dominion over the animals arrogance. So I ordered the turnips and grains and had some cabernet and asked Klug about his decision to go vegetarian. Klug is very British, meaning he seemed to feel that it was unbecoming to talk a lot about himself. Still I pressed him, and he told me he’d written about it in Being Jewish. He had gone to slaughterhouses around London 30 years ago as part of his research into philosophical issues. He had investigated the idea of ethical slaughter. The chapter was called, the Kiss of Death…
We soon moved on to anti-Zionism, and found that we shared an understanding, a difference with the left with regard to Jewish history. That even if Zionism was a giant mistake, it wasn’t only a colonial movement, Jews had been seeking their liberation. I added that if people are going to criticize American nativism, there was Palestinian nativism too; though in that case they were right when they said that the immigrants were trying to overwhelm their society and impose their religion on the place.
I was drunk when I texted Gabriella* at the Airbnb. Her place was a mile from town. She said I’d recognize her house from boxes of papers for an antiwar group on the porch. My kind of human being. The place was a bit ramshackle. I had to go round to the back and knock. J told me stories of taking in the wretched of the earth as she showed me my room on the second floor. She adopted a lot of animals. Cats, ferret, python. Don’t worry I wouldn’t see him. A graduate student was in the front room.
There was a low wide hard bed and the house was empty but for the graduate student, and perfectly quiet, and I slept well and in the morning I made coffee and stood on the back porch drinking it. There was a big rabbit running around Gabriella’s backyard. Long, like something you’d see stretched out on a hunter’s peg in an English still life. Usually rabbits beat it, but this one was lounging around even as I drank my coffee. As I walked to campus I texted Gabriella to compliment her on the rabbit. It felt safe. She asked me if I took my complimentary bag of coffee. No.
The Programs in Judaic Studies and Near Eastern Studies held the conference in a small conference room on the second floor of one of the stone Princeton buildings. They had set out a breakfast of coffee and bagels and it was all free. Ivy League universities really are different. I had tea and watched the construction workers across the way working on a roof and considered the technique one had with a caulking gun and wasn’t sure of my place here. I used to have an Ivy academic set. Then I lost it in the last ten years thanks to anti-Zionism. We didn’t share values.
There were 25 people in the room for the conference, and the fanatics and freelancers had the good sense to take chairs along the wall while the academics sat at the big table. People really know how to sort themselves out. I had a hard time with the conference. Jonathan Schneer spoke first. He wrote a book about the Balfour Declaration. He told a colorful story about many of characters involved in the diplomacy and intrigues surrounding the first World War. He flashed portraits of T.E. Lawrence, who he said was “troubled,” and Henry McMahon, who was “a rather shifty looking individual who might not be all that careful with the truth,” and Henry Morgenthau, who “couldn’t keep a secret.” Schneer said that as a young man he had disdained the great man theory of history but that as an older man he had come to believe in it.
The actor at the center of his story was the chemist and Zionist operator Chaim Weizmann. The British had played the Arabs and Turks right and left so as not to alienate Muslims across their empire, and had a triple game going as the war went on—but meanwhile Chaim Weizmann an ill-mannered eastern European had dazzled the Brits and gained access to the Foreign Office by telling them a story about worldwide Jewish influence they fell for because they were anti-semitic. So they signed the Balfour Declaration.
I got more and more upset sitting in the corner. The Brits were not naïve or befuddled. They were expert at empire and knew their own interests. They had their reasons for giving Weizmann access, just as they had their reason to fear that millions of Muslims might go against them if they played the Ottoman empire wrong. They were trying to hold on to Jewish support in the coming war. So what did Jews have to offer? Influence, the same thing we offer now too, in the U.S. establishment.
There was an academic pecking order in the question period, but at the end I got to ask mine. I’m terrible at public speaking. I sit there for an hour boiling with thoughts and they come out in no correct order. I spoke of the emerging Jewish presence in the west. I spoke about Zionists using the new engine of the American press to get out word of the Kishinev pogrom in 1903. I spoke about Jacob Schiff the American banker and his global influence: financing the Japanese in the war against Russia, pushing the Russian revolution and helping to elevate Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court.
Schneer was obviously a little shocked by my passion. His face flushed. He said it was “sloppy thinking” to say that Jews controlled the media and finance. I said it was sloppy thinking to not see any power on the part of Jews.
The conference broke for lunch and I got out of Dodge. People in the room had to be wondering about my intensity. I walked around the campus and looked at the trees. There are a lot of magnificent elms in the quad—and a group of young men walking by wearing straw boaters, just like you’d expect of Princeton. I called my wife and asked her if she thought I was smart, and she said I was very smart. I told her I was sitting with a bunch of academics and felt like a complete interloper and didn’t know how to control myself. She told me not to let go of my power but sit down in my own thoughts and understanding and not get distracted by anyone. My wife is in a different realm than me. She does yoga and goes to every form of therapy there is. I believe in facts, and she doesn’t, she thinks facts have a rapid half-life. She really watches out for me, but she also likes it when I’m out of the house because I have a lot of energy. She was looking forward to my going to Israel and Palestine a couple weeks after the Balfour thing.
I got back to the conference and ate some of the sumptuous lunch (tortellini/wraps) and looked through a copy of Princeton’s art museum magazine. They had an interview with the writer Jumpa Lahiri. “Writers react to suffering through language,” she said. “[A]s Flannery O’Connor said, ‘Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.’” I thought of something my mother said. I’d been arguing with her about bad things that had happened four years ago, and she was taking no responsibility for anything, and then in the middle of it she said when I was about 14 months old I was crying a lot at night and because she was pregnant with her next and trying to get sleep, she’d spanked me and told me to go to sleep. So I shut up. Then later she found out that I had salmonella. I wasn’t just bellyaching. I’d eaten chicken left in the sun at a picnic they took me to. She must still feel bad about it, 59 years on. Then I wondered if that is what did it to me. It was a little like Jim beating his daughter for letting the door slam before he found out she was deaf, in Huck Finn. Then Jim felt awful about it.
The afternoon session was worse. A scholar named Karin Loevy gave a talk about reimagining history. Scholars treated the Balfour Declaration in terms of the relations of nation states. No it was an effort by a European colonial empire to take a European problem, the oppression of Jews in Russia, and resolve it in a protected zone of empire. The talk was high-flown and correct. Jews were an oppressed group purely. There was no sense that we had any agency in the matter.
Again I sat there stewing. Well, I must be a very bad person because I believed that Jews had influence in the matter. These people were the other way round. I thought about Kafka’s “Jewish complex“: “the confusion that the natives are too alien to one, thus distorting reality, and the Jews too close, distorting reality, and therefore one cannot treat the latter or the former with the proper balance.”
At last the question period came and when it was my turn, I battened on to an aside Loevy had made: the British cabinet worried that if the Brits didn’t give the Jews Palestine, it might drive the Zionists into the arms of the Germans. I said that if we were really such a problem for Europe, the British empire would have been happy to let the German empire take us. In fact the Brits were bidding for us. We– meaning We Jews– weren’t just petitioners, we were players.
I’m making it sound better than it was. I was too upset. The words jammed and flooded and stumbled. I tried to slow things down but I couldn’t. I remembered my wife’s advice and tried not to look at anyone, but who can do such a thing? I was lost in the social scene of it: the faces that surrounded me and looked on, apprehensive, or embarrassed.
I slipped out of the conference, saying goodbye to Victor Kattan and Schneer too, who was unaccountably nice, and went down to the train. I felt good I’d asked the questions. I was tired of only hearing about our persecution. I had insisted on responsibility. The Balfour Declaration was a document of Jewish importance. The conference was simply in denial of this. Later I pulled books off my shelves that showed historians share my view. (“A keen desire to win the sympathy of American Jews for the Allied cause had prompted England’s action,” Naomi Cohen puts it her biography of the most powerful Jew of the time, Jacob Schiff. “The Allies hoped that, through a declaration recognizing the justice of Zionist aspirations, they would influence Jewish public opinion in the United States to aid them in their efforts to persuade the United States to join the war effort,” writes H.H. Ben-Sasson in A History of the Jewish People.)
A few nights later I remembered Brian Klug’s essay, and found my copy of Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life.
“Kiss of Death” was an unfinished narrative from the 1980s about Brian Klug’s efforts as a young scholar to scheme and slip his way into slaughterhouses around London to see what was going on. At the Princeton conference, Klug had said charmingly to the historians there that he studied philosophy, so he was bad at dates and places, and the slaughterhouse piece was more of a quest-narrative than a documentary. At each slaughterhouse he’d met characters who gave him the once-over and a lecture, and then let him go inside: Mr. Jolley and Mr. Partridge and Mr. Llewellyn.
The actual descriptions of the slaughter were restrained. “It was like watching a version of Russian roulette in which the player is oblivious of the game. For it was evident that the steer did not have the foggiest idea that each time the pistol was put to its head it brushed with death. It flicked away the muzzle of the gun as if it were a fly that twice alighted on its forehead.” Behind the words was a lot of moral outrage. It reminded me of American Notes by Dickens when he tells about all the abuses of slaves in 1842 and itemizes who is missing a finger, a toe, an ear due to torture. I won’t go into detail because this kind of information is widely available and you either know it, or you just don’t want to know it….
I didn’t really want to know it, but I knew it too. In a couple cases, the guys abused the pigs and lambs as they were herding them to chambers where one of the men clamped electric tongs on their heads, one at a time.
”Get yourself out, you cunt,” he told one animal whose hindquarters were wedged between the hoist and the wall of the pen. He encouraged the pig to free itself by repeatedly kicking it. “Fuck you”: This to an animal whose struggles made it difficult to position the tongs correctly.
Klug had never finished the essay because it wasn’t his area, and he had to get to his work. So the article ended without a lecture, just a Britishy footnote about its origins and half a sentence saying Klug didn’t believe in ethical slaughter. In a way the most disturbing thing to me was that for all its freshness, the essay was from the ’80’s. Klug had done all this when he was a young man. The guy I had met in Princeton wasn’t young. He was my age, older. The arc of our lives really is compressed! You get working on something you care ardently about, then you’re an old guy with a dry wit and a Greek sailor’s hat. Or you’re having coffee on the back porch and looking at rabbits. Klug had made a resolution when he was young and stuck with it.
I flew Aeroflot to Israel via Moscow and got caught up in two Russian movies. One was great. It was called “Farewell” and was about Matyora, a village in Siberia that’s going to be flooded to make way for a reservoir. The hero of the movie is an old woman who is so devoted to tradition and the island she can’t leave. When everyone is barking at her to move to urban flats, she takes counsel from the earth and a giant tree. It was like what my wife had told me to do at the Balfour conference, to go into my own being. The old woman (played by the late Stefania Stanyuta) had no trouble doing that. That was how she made her decisions. The movie’s core value was pagan religiosity. At the end the old woman cleans her house top to bottom and whitewashes the hearth and puts up new linen curtains, and then the state comes in and burns it down. It’s an incredible scene.
Later I found out that Valentin Rasputin, whose novel Farewell to Matyora the movie is based on, was a bit of a hack for Putin. But that only made the movie more challenging to me: that a person capable of such penetrating observations about nature and bureaucracy was a political hack. I realized, I don’t know a thing about Russia. People there love the earth and worry about mankind, and some of them know how to think about it.
The other movie was a Holocaust fable called Paradise. It wasn’t as good as Matyora but it’s more germane to the idea I am pursuing here, of personal responsibility. The three main characters are dead. They come to an intake desk in heaven and get interrogated by a faceless angel about the choices they made down here. They’re all flawed, but two are scumbags, a French collaborator and an aristocratic Nazi officer who supervises a death camp. The third is a camp inmate and lover of the Nazi officer. At the end she realizes how meaningless her life has been and she gives it up in order to save a fellow concentration camp inmate she’s never liked who has been sheltering two little boys. The movie is a bit didactic but it’s all about finding paradise in the cesspool of life. I stopped being a humanist a while ago; but that doesn’t mean you’re not one of them, with choices to make.
My first night in Jerusalem, I met a friend who had come over too and we went to his favorite restaurant, Azzahra, in East Jerusalem. He ordered lamb chops and I got hummus and eggplant. I was thinking, it’s not hard to be veg in Palestine. There’s a lot of beans here, plenty of protein.
My friend had hoped to bring someone I’d never met out with him to see the occupation, but in the end she’d decided she didn’t want to deal with it. “She’s reactive not effective,” he said, dismissively. I found that helpful. Reactive means you let events carry you along and only do something when the flood comes. Effective means you see the flood coming.
The next night I went to a celebration of 50 years of unified Jewish Jerusalem outside the Jaffa Gate. I found it very disturbing; you can see videos of it and my description at the time here. There were tens of thousands of people jammed into the street, all celebrating Jewish control. But a lot of the people looked like my kind of people, seculars, bourgeois people. Only half the men were wearing yarmulkes.
The rat-a-tat-tat militarism of the lightshow on the wall made me anxious. It was too loud and whenever there was a change of scene in the lightshow, the stones of the walls cascaded down like a pile of dominos. Jerusalem is always on edge, anyway, because of the oppression and resistance; and I thought, something could happen instantly to turn this crowd into a desperate mob. Plus a lot of people have guns. The street was too crowded. There could be a stampede…
So I left the party early. I found the little stream of people leaving even as others jammed forward. They went along the side. You had to pick your way past baby carriages and groups of children and clumps of orthodox.
The majoritarian feeling in the upturned faces was scary: the people were joined in one body in the name of a biblical connection to Jerusalem, joined in an abstract belief like the fascia of a muscle. And all these people were doing something that the other residents of Jerusalem would find completely objectionable: just a few hundred yards away were thousand on thousands of people for whom this unification was an affliction. How could any of these Jews think they were in a fair relation to the other people? They obviously didn’t think about those people.
It was strange to think of Jews as composing a mass not that different from masses in Europe in the 30s but of course there was a sequence. Often in the occupation I thought that the Zionists had made the Palestinians into the new Jews: and everything that had been visited on the Jews we now needed to visit on another people. No not death camps; but pogroms, ghettoization, detention and deprivation of rights on a broad scale, yes.
I ate at a bar near my Airbnb in the Gaza road. I was staying in a trendy young district. The wait staff was like wait staff on the Lower East Side, except they were serving settler wine. I got the fettucini with tomatoes and olives and feta cheese. Boys from Australia and London sat at the bar with yarmulkes floating way out in their long uncombed hair, and switching from Hebrew to English as they talked about girls. They were friendly. They told me they were studying Talmud and Hebrew.
This Airbnb was down a leafy lane nearby. It was hard to picture any trouble here. These people had no clue what was going on in the occupied territories. They were doing fine. They didn’t want to know. They were completely irresponsible. Irresponsible for non-Jewish citizens. Irresponsible for global opinion.
My host had Israeli flags stretched out on his balcony and a yellow dog named Willie*. I had my own balcony in the shade of a big conifer. I didn’t like the way my host treated Willie. He left him at home all day and then at night he got to go out on the roof. Willie was thin and neurotic and pretty. When I was a humanist, I thought humans were the center of the universe. Now I was a lot closer to the pagans in the Russian movie. I believed that chaga from birch trees could prevent cancer and I had bee hives in my back yard for appreciation of the insects and I had had a series of dogs too.
The next night I went to a pro-Israel, anti-Trump demonstration in a park near the Old City. It was dark, and there were a couple of hundred people under the trees holding pro Israel signs and a line of Israeli soldiers with guns hanging from their shoulders to make sure nothing happened. It was overkill, but that was Israel. A Harvard student named Jacob Fortinsky who worked for Stand With Us opened the speeches. “We are Jews and we are Muslims,” he said. But if there were any Muslims there, none of them spoke. It struck me as another irresponsible statement, and it angered me.
I left the demonstration and met my friend at a nearby restaurant run by a woman who left Morocco a long time ago. Politicians eat there, and the menu is all French. I asked for something local and she recommended the shish kebab. It came with vegetables, but I’d forgotten that shish kebab was lamb without nuance, the way the wolves eat it. The lamb pieces were ground lamb formed into cartridges. I thought of the percussion crackers that Israeli troops fire at demonstrations that scare the living daylights out of you. I ate them because I’d ordered them but their bareness gave me misgivings. There is a passage in Gandhi’s autobiography where he thought he might overthrow the vegetarian rules of his Hindu origins, and with a friend he ate some goat. But later he woke up feeling that the goat was kicking in his stomach.
When I got back to the Airbnb no one was there but Willie. I got out the leash and he jumped up and down like a toy with springs in its feet at the door, clamoring to go. I took him across the Gaza road and up the next hill into south Jerusalem. I walked past empty yards and a warehouse doing late business. I got back and emailed my wife, I’m going veg.