Remembering the USS Liberty and Rachel Corrie on this Memorial Day, on which a flotilla of humanitarian aid ships bound for Gaza was attacked by Israel in international waters.

It is doubtful that I could say anything about this event that would shed much light upon the subject. Having seen the footage on the BBC this evening, supplied to it by the Israeli military using night photography, I can acknowledge that there was, indeed, a scuffle on board the largest ship, and that the people on board fought back. But, what do you expect when you send paratroopers with machine-guns against an unarmed, civilian vessel at night in international waters? At last count, there are nine to nineteen aid workers dead, and sixty injured. Turkey has the right to consider such an attack an act of war.

The blockade of Gaza has gone on too long, and Israel should lift it. For my own part, I am tired of hearing endlessly about the righteousness and suffering of one people while the sufferings of another people are ignored and dehumanized, and while all criticism of the actions of the one people towards the other puts one outside of polite society and is treated as evidence of moral blight. Judge Goldstone, who wrote a detailed report criticizing Israel for completely disproportionate overkill in its behavior towards the Gazans, is not an anti-semite. And the notion that any nation is above rational criticism is an idea destructive of democratic freedom.

If President Obama does not act to condemn, in explicit and forceful terms, this attack on peaceful vessels, he is a coward. So far, his silence speaks volumes.

Back to work

May 28, 2010

I have been on the road recently. Last week I drove down to Florida to visit my sister and her family and to attend my nephew Michael’s graduation from medical school, which occurred last Saturday in Gainesville; he was one of a class of 130 students, and received honors for research. The trip took me through parts of the country I had not been to before, and was, indeed, undertaken partly with a view towards seeing them, partly, also, to visit old friends, some of whom put me up on various stages of the journey. One of these previously unseen places was Charleston, South Carolina, the original home of states’ rights political philosophy, a major port of entry for the slave-trade, and the place where the Civil War began; I made a stop there on my way down, sat for awhile contemplating a statue of John C. Calhoun, which stands on top of a pillar at the edge of a public park, visited the old Marketplace and the museum of the Confederacy which sits above it, and made my way briefly down to the Battery, a rectangular sea wall enclosing a remarkably beautiful park lined with palm trees and old mansions, from which I was able to catch sight of Fort Sumter, faintly visible on the horizon. Animating all this sightseeing was a desire to understand the South, a world that remains quite foreign to me and to whose merits I generally give insufficient recognition; I am, in most ways, an archetypical Northerner, in my habits of mind and body and speech, and, like most of us, I take on such habits from my surroundings without fully understanding how the societal form which I instantiate got to be what it is.

After driving on Interstate 95 for twelve wearisome hours on Monday and spending most of Tuesday in the nation’s capital and Annapolis, I arrived back in New Jersey late Tuesday night, and have since been trying to resume my work on John Bekkos. Some readers of this blog may be wondering where this work currently stands, and why they haven’t heard more about it recently.

For much of the past three months, I have been transcribing the Greek text of John Bekkos’s unpublished work Against George Moschabar from a microfilm copy I acquired of a manuscript owned by the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence, Italy. On May 4th I completed a handwritten transcription, and since then I have been entering the text onto my computer, checking it against the microfilm as I go along. This is one of the few works of Bekkos that have never been edited, and it has, accordingly, remained largely unknown and unread for most of the past 700 years. I began reading it with the expectation that it might help clarify certain obscurities in Bekkos’s history; in particular, there are questions about exactly when John Bekkos began publishing books in defense of the Union of Lyons; from the evidence of the work Against George Moschabar, it is clear that there never was a hiatus in his writing, as might be supposed from the testimony of George Pachymeres’ History. (Pachymeres, Book V, ch. 28, states that Bekkos, probably around the year 1276, promised a friend of his, Theodore Xiphilinos, that he would not write in reply to the attacks that were being made against the Union in various tracts that were being circulated anonymously at the time. This testimony has generally been interpreted to mean a promise not to write at all in favor of the Union, a promise which, according to Pachymeres, Bekkos eventually broke, around the year 1280. But in his work Against George Moschabar, written around 1280, Bekkos refers repeatedly to other, earlier writings of his, and gives no indication that, in writing this new book, he is taking up his pen again after a long intermission; the only difference he indicates is a difference of manner: in this new book, he says, he will not be so deferential as in previous writings, but will give a plain counterattack to this new disseminator of lies.)

The work to which Bekkos’s book was a response was published by George Moschabar anonymously around the year 1279. Moschabar was, in fact, a member of Bekkos’s own clergy, a man who held the official position of professor of scriptural exegesis at the patriarchal school at Constantinople. Bekkos does not know the author of the work which had been written against him — he refers to the writer sarcastically as “the Philosopher” or “the Aristotelian”; later, he found out who had written it, and he cites it as Moschabar’s in his Notes on his own writings (written sometime around 1286-1288). In the Florentine manuscript, Bekkos’s work against Moschabar is titled as follows: τοῦ αὐτοῦ ἀντιρρητικὰ τῶν κατὰ τῆς ἐκκλησιαστικῆς εἰρήνης ἀνεπιγράφων εὑρεθέντων κεφαλαίων, By the same author: A refutation of the anonymous chapters that have been found, which were written against the ecclesiastical peace. The fact that this title gives no indication of Moschabar’s being the author of the opposing work, something that was later widely known, corroborates Vitalien Laurent’s view that the Florentine manuscript (Laurentianus pluteus VIII.26) is an official copy of Bekkos’s works dating from the time of his own patriarchate.

About the content of this work Against George Moschabar, I would prefer, for the time being, to remain reticent. But I hope soon to write an article about it; I think it is theologically an important work, which raises issues that would reappear over a half a century later during the Palamite Controversy. Indeed, I might make the claim that it is the earliest statement of Antipalamite theology that was ever written, appearing some sixteen years before Gregory Palamas was born. For this reason, if for no other, it deserves to be published; my guess is that it may shed an important light upon the origins of that later controversy.

Today is my 51st birthday. In celebration thereof, I am giving readers of this blog a present, of sorts; recordings of the New Testament, read aloud in the original language. You will find this present on the sidebar, under the title The New Testament read in Greek.

I present here two letters. The first is a letter from the Nobel Prize-winning scholar Elie Wiesel to President Barack Obama, urging him not to pressure Israel to stop expanding Jewish settlements into Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The text of the letter was found on israelnationalnews.com, published 17 April 2010:

It was inevitable: Jerusalem once again is at the center of political debates and international storms. New and old tensions surface at a disturbing pace. Seventeen times destroyed and seventeen times rebuilt, it is still in the middle of diplomatic confrontations that could lead to armed conflict. Neither Athens nor Rome has aroused that many passions.

For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture — and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem. To many theologians, it IS Jewish history, to many poets, a source of inspiration. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming. The first song I heard was my mother’s lullaby about and for Jerusalem. Its sadness and its joy are part of our collective memory.

Since King David took Jerusalem as his capital, Jews have dwelled inside its walls with only two interruptions; when Roman invaders forbade them access to the city and again, when under Jordanian occupation, Jews, regardless of nationality, were refused entry into the old Jewish quarter to meditate and pray at the Wall, the last vestige of Solomon’s temple. It is important to remember: had Jordan not joined Egypt and Syria in the war against Israel, the old city of Jerusalem would still be Arab. Clearly, while Jews were ready to die for Jerusalem they would not kill for Jerusalem.

Today, for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And, contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city. The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.

What is the solution? Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be. Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely? Why not first take steps which will allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atmosphere of security. Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue, for such a time?

Jerusalem must remain the world’s Jewish spiritual capital, not a symbol of anguish and bitterness, but a symbol of trust and hope. As the Hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav said, “Everything in this world has a heart; the heart itself has its own heart.”

Jerusalem is the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul.

- Elie Wiesel

The second letter is a reply to the foregoing, by an organization of Jewish Jerusalemites titled Just Jerusalem. I found this letter on the website of the New York Review of Books; the original site, with a list of signatories of the letter, is: http://www.en.justjlm.org/?p=97.

Dear Mr. Wiesel,

We write to you from Jerusalem to convey our frustration, even outrage, at your recently published letter on Jerusalem. We are Jewish Jerusalemites — residents by choice of a battered city, a city used and abused, ransacked time and again first by foreign conquerors and now by its own politicians. We cannot recognize our city in the sentimental abstraction you call by its name.

Our Jerusalem is concrete, its hills covered with limestone houses and pine trees; its streets lined with synagogues, mosques and churches. Your Jerusalem is an ideal, an object of prayers and a bearer of the collective memory of a people whose members actually bear many individual memories. Our Jerusalem is populated with people, young and old, women and men, who wish their city to be a symbol of dignity — not of hubris, inequality and discrimination. You speak of the celestial Jerusalem; we live in the earthly one.

For more than a generation now the earthly city we call home has been crumbling under the weight of its own idealization. Your letter troubles us, not simply because it is replete with factual errors and false representations, but because it upholds an attachment to some other-worldly city which purports to supersede the interests of those who live in the this-worldly one. For every Jew, you say, a visit to Jerusalem is a homecoming, yet it is our commitment that makes your homecoming possible. We prefer the hardship of realizing citizenship in this city to the convenience of merely yearning for it.

Indeed, your claim that Jerusalem is above politics is doubly outrageous. First, because contemporary Jerusalem was created by a political decision and politics alone keeps it formally unified. The tortuous municipal boundaries of today’s Jerusalem were drawn by Israeli generals and politicians shortly after the 1967 war. Feigning to unify an ancient city, they created an unwieldy behemoth, encircling dozens of Palestinian villages which were never part of Jerusalem. Stretching from the outskirts of Ramallah in the north to the edge of Bethlehem in the south, the Jerusalem the Israeli government foolishly concocted is larger than Paris. Its historical core, the nexus of memories and religious significance often called “the Holy Basin”, comprises a mere one percent of its area. Now they call this artificial fabrication ‘Jerusalem’ in order to obviate any approaching chance for peace.

Second, your attempt to keep Jerusalem above politics means divesting us of a future. For being above politics is being devoid of the power to shape the reality of one’s life. As true Jerusalemites, we cannot stand by and watch our beloved city, parts of which are utterly neglected, being used as a springboard for crafty politicians and sentimental populists who claim Jerusalem is above politics and negotiation. All the while, they franticly “Judaize” Eastern Jerusalem in order to transform its geopolitics beyond recognition.

We invite you to our city to view with your own eyes the catastrophic effects of the frenzy of construction. You will witness that, contrary to some media reports, Arabs are not allowed to build their homes anywhere in Jerusalem. You discover see the gross inequality in allocation of municipal resources and services between east and west. We will take you to Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families are being evicted from their homes to make room for a new Jewish neighborhood, and to Silwan, where dozens of houses face demolition because of the Jerusalem Municipality’s refusal to issue building permits to Palestinians.

We, the people of Jerusalem, can no longer be sacrificed for the fantasies of those who love our city from afar. This-worldly Jerusalem must be shared by the people of the two nations residing in it. Only a shared city will live up to the prophet’s vision: “Zion shall be redeemed with justice”. As we chant weekly in our vigils in Sheikh Jarrah: “Nothing can be holy in an occupied city!”

Respectfully,

Just Jerusalem (Sheikh Jarrah) Activists

These two letters articulate an essential debate of the present time. It is a debate in which, as an American citizen, I am unavoidably involved. My own view is that President Obama is right to be pursuing a two-state solution, which has been the official policy of the United States government for decades. The position of Jerusalem in any two-state solution presents particularly intractable problems; I am not convinced that Jerusalem can viably serve as the common capital of two separate states. But, if there is to be any progress towards peace in the Middle East, the expropriation of Palestinian homes has to stop.

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