Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Yigal Amir: Colonizing, Also, Traditional Judaism

This article was published today in Haaretz

Of all the troubling details of Yigal Amir’s murder of Yitzhak Rabin, twenty years ago today, perhaps the most revealing — anyway, the one I cannot get out of my mind — is that Amir attended synagogue on the morning of the assassination, where the chanted portion of Torah, mandated by the yearly cycle, was “Lekh Lekha,” translated as “Go forth!” Amir believed the portion was fitting, even portentous — so Dan Ephron reports in Killing a King — since it recounts God commanding Abraham to go to Canaan.  “In effect,” Ephron writes, repeating views Amir shared more or less openly with his interrogators, “it is the biblical moment when God promises the real estate that is now Israel (and the West Bank and Gaza and parts of Jordan) to the Jews.” Rabin was willing to abandon some of that promised land in the context of the Oslo Agreements, and, according to the precepts of Amir's rabbis, needed to be stopped by force, even killed.  When the Sabbath ended, Amir climbed on a bus, and went to perform his awful ‘duty.’

It has become common to speak of Amir as a “religious extremist.” Ephron does — understandably so. Amir told interrogators that his slipping through Rabin’s security forces, and remaining alive, was proof of divine will. Polls show that rigorous Jewish observance is the clearest predictor of hard-right views in Israel today, and included in these is the belief that Amir should be pardoned and freed. (In 2006, about 30 percent of the Israeli public, roughly the same number who wanted Jewish halakhic law to replace democratic norms, supported Amir’s release; today, over half of self-identified “national-religious” Jews refuse to believe that Amir even killed Rabin.)  Still, I can’t get “Lech Lecha” out of my mind, because it has been lodged there since I was a pupil in Montreal’s Talmud Torah school; its tales remain vivid and suggestive. I never quite knew what qualified as an observant Jew — and still don’t.  But an observant reader is easier to rate. Amir’s failures on this score leave one wondering what kind of Torah he ever paid attention to and if his Judaism is “extreme” or of a different order.

What does “Lekh Lekha” really say?  God does not tell Abram to go to Canaan (Abram does not become “Abraham” — literally, “exalted father” — until later). He tells Abram to leave his father’s house and go to “a land I shall show you”: “I will bless you and I will aggrandize your name, and you will be as a blessing.” The obvious point here, disturbing and thrilling to a child, is that Abram’s grandeur begins with a mysterious courage: to break the bonds of home, treat a father’s comforts and wisdom as idols to be broken. (The Talmud later speaks of Abram as breaking the household idols of his father, Terah, who himself had left his father’s home.) It is true that this land will prove to be Canaan. And the text then has God “giving” the land Abram surveys there to his descendants. But Abram did not know any of this when he left.  We know only that he was quickened by vison and ambition. And the plot thickens.

Abram goes to Egypt to escape famine. His wife Sarai is beautiful, so Abram, convinced of Egyptian depravity, is certain that his hosts will kill him to have her.  He tells her to pass as his sister. Sarai does indeed get the Pharaoh’s attentions. The Pharoah takes her — and is afflicted by plagues. He figures out that she must be married. But he does not kill Abram. Rather, he scolds Abram for bringing sin upon him, and releases him with generosity: Abram returns to his lands in Canaan heavy with cattle, silver and gold — also with an evolving humility. Abram’s nephew Lot is also in the land, as are Canaanites and Perezites; Abram’s and Lot’s herdsmen begin to quarrel, apparently over grazing and watering. Abram, speaking the majestic line Amir seems to have willfully ignored, tells Lot: “Is not all the land before us?  Please part from me. If you go right I will go left.  If you go left I will go right.”

Later, when Lot is captured, Abram leads a party of fighters to free his kinsman. The King of Sodom offers Abram a tribute, but Abram swears he will never take “a thread or shoe-strap” that belongs to another. God then tells Abram that, in the future, his seed will serve another people as slaves and return to this land; but only once the “iniquity of the Amorites” will be complete — implying (though this seems rather obviously trumped up by later, apologetic redactors) that the new inhabitants will deserve to lose their patrimony on account of some vague wickedness, not because Abram’s descendants have a prior, superseding right; this was morally convenient for the descendants. As for the seed that will inherit him, “Lekh Lekha” continues largely with the story of Ishmael’s birth, whom Abram initiates into the covenant with circumcision, and to whom land and aggrandizement are also promised. It is only after Ishmael is born, in fact, that Abram becomes Abraham, and is assured he will become “father of a multitude of nations.” (Later still, in other chapters, Ishmael will be subordinated to Isaac in the family circle, but both sons’ lives are saved by divine grace; and they bury their father together at the Cave of Machpelah.)

The Torah portion introduces us to a promised land, but this is arguably a footnote to traits and imperatives of conduct suggesting a promising life: iconoclasm, restlessness, ambition — extend the benefit of the doubt, choose peace over avoidable contention, respect others’ property. Most important, since the claim to the land by divine right might clash with divine precepts, a sober reader would conclude that no one sentence is sacred but that the privilege of interpreting sentences is sacred. That privilege has been valorized by the Talmud since the second century.

In his Varieties of Religious Experience, the 19th century philosopher William James speaks of two types of religious people. The first assume a just order designed and enforced by transcendent power. He calls such people, with graceful irony (and barely concealed disgust), “healthy-minded.” The second type, with whom he clearly identified, were “sick-souled”: People “of tender conscience,” prone to “moral remorse and compunction,” who can’t stop wondering if matter matters — people feeling “inwardly vile and wrong, and of standing in false relations to the author of one’s being and appointer of one’s spiritual fate.” It is the latter people, James thought, who were candidates for genuine religious faith, accepting blessing in the face of oblivion. (James quoted from Ecclesiastes, included by ancient rabbinic genius in the Jewish canon: “However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many.”) The healthy-minded, in contrast, were stunted, dangerous, inclined to a disquieting, naive piety, providing them “passports beyond the bounds of conventional morality.”

Rabin’s murder, in this sense, was not the act of a Jewish extremist, but, in a way, a Jewish minimalist. “National-religious Zionism,” the pathetically “healthy-minded” community that produced Amir, has been growing since the 1967 war, when the settler movement, Gush Emunim, displaced the old guard of the National Religious Party. Their flattened Judaism, inspired by the fiery Rabbi Tzi Yehuda Kook, turned Jerusalem into an idolatry, incubated in institutions indirectly (and naively) supported by the state: the yeshivot of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, and the campus of Bar-Ilan University, where Amir attended law school. Little by little, in many subtle ways, the cult colonized, not just the West Bank, but the Judaism of my childhood.

The saddest, most common losses are often hardest to discern. The traditional blessing after the meal, for example, the Birkat hamazon, has a famous coda, taken from Proverbs, which Isaiah Berlin once called the “harshest lie in world.” This goes: “I was a youth, and I have become aged, and I have never seen a righteous man deserted, and his children begging for bread.” (Na’ar hayiti, gam zakanti, ve-lo ra’iti tzadik ne’ezav, vezaro mevakesh lahem.) Even as a child in Talmud Torah, I thought those words fatuous.  But the melody that accompanied the words — as sung by my father, aunts, uncles — was in a minor key and among the most mournful, lovely melodies I had yet heard. I could not articulate my feelings at the time, but the blessing’s claim, accompanied by that music, seemed deliciously ironic to me. They suggested, at once, a principle of justice and a lugubrious skepticism which, I dare say, made my little soul a little sick.

But when I first moved to Jerusalem in 1972, I noticed that something had gone awry with the prayer. Its haunting melody had been superseded by a new one — which had come, so I was told, from Bnei Akiva — a catchy triumphal tune in four-four time, reminiscent of the University of Michigan’s fight song. With that rhythm, and in that register, the harsh lie at the end of the blessing could only be taken as a kind of promised fate. I have often been offended by this melody, but could not spoil the warmth of somebody’s Sabbath table. I fear that the failure of traditional Jews to confront these simplifications now carries a heavy price.

President Reuven Rivlin announced that he would never pardon Amir, though the soccer fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which Rivlin once helped manage, now cheer Amir’s name from the stands. (Yigal Amir’s brother, and now released accomplice, Hagai, recently threatened Rivlin’s life.) Yet Rivlin, like many decent Israelis, may despise Amir’s crime but seems helpless to convict Amir’s “Judaism”: The veneration of the land, the “unity” of Jerusalem, the sacred isolation of Jewish law. Amir may die in prison, but as Ephron suggests, he may die savoring his real triumph, which is not simply stopping the Oslo peace process.  Jews once thought of holiness as ineffable, unapproachable. Now when Jews say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” or more likely “in rebuilt Jerusalem,” many seem to think they can book a room next to God. Holiness is thought to be so physical for Jews that mainstream fact-checkers seem confident about mapping it.

Last month, correcting a story about frictions on the Temple Mount, America’s National Public Radio issued this apology: “[The] story mischaracterized the Western Wall as the holiest site in Judaism. It is the holiest site for Jewish prayer, while the adjacent Temple Mount is considered the holiest site.” Amir, no doubt, would be pleased that this was cleared up.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Knife-Attacks. What Provokes Them?

This past Saturday, in separate incidents, four young Palestinians—three of them teen-agers—were shot dead after knife attacks on Israelis, three on police, one on an armed settler. Since the beginning of October, ten Israelis and dozens of Palestinians have been killed in attacks or suspected attacks, or confrontations at street demonstrations. Many more on both sides have been wounded. “These random, unpredictable attacks have stumped Israeli police,” CNN reported last Thursday, just after police killed a young Palestinian man, dressed in combat fatigues, who had attempted a stabbing near the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. Israeli authorities, the report continued, could not find any connection between the attackers and organized groups such as Hamas and Fatah, and so found it “difficult to devise a streamlined strategy to fight them.”

The attacks have targeted soldiers, police, and Jewish civilians, most often in and around the Old City—where the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, has been increasingly contested by rogue zealot members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet—but also near West Bank settlements, especially around Hebron, and in Israeli cities as far away as Beersheba. Last Friday, about a hundred Palestinians torched Joseph’s Tomb, in Nablus, as if answering last February’s “price tag” torching of a mosque by Jewish settlers in Al-Jaba’ah, near Bethlehem. In Jerusalem, Mayor Nir Barkat, who wrestled a would-be attacker to the ground in February, has called for new police checkpoints to monitor the comings and goings from Arab neighborhoods, and for all Israeli Jewish citizens to arm themselves. The centrist leader Yair Lapid, otherwise stridently secular, has found inspiration in Talmudic precepts: “The rabbis teach that if someone comes up against you to kill you, you should kill him first,” he said. “That should be our working model.” He added, “Don’t hesitate. Even at the start of an attack, shooting to kill is correct. If someone is brandishing a knife, shoot him. It’s part of Israel’s deterrence.”

These horrible attacks have left Israelis questioning whether the violence is a new Palestinian uprising, incited by a weakened, opportunistic Palestinian Authority—if not directly led by underground Hamas cells—or, rather, a passing expression of rage by Palestinian youth. Social-media posts have encouraged Palestinians to participate in the “Knife Intifada,” and have even given instructions on how to stab victims. President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the violence in vague terms, and the attack on Joseph’s Tomb more pointedly. In 2011, he told me he would “never” return to armed struggle. But he has seemed to signal tolerance for these new attacks. On September 16th, Abbas said on Palestinian television, “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah.” Two weeks later, the stabbings began. One cannot help but be reminded of the grotesque suicide bombings of the al-Aqsa Intifada, which began almost exactly fifteen years ago.

Now as then, parents are keeping their children away from shopping malls, and guards are appearing at the entrances to restaurants. It is impossible, especially for those of us who have lost loved ones to terror, to see the knifings and hear talk of martyrs and not respond with instinctive revulsion. But there are proximate causes, and then there are material ones. Today’s attacks may appear “random” and “unpredictable,” but an increase in their incidence and intensity is entirely predictable. In 2012, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel found that eighty-four per cent of Arab children in East Jerusalem fell below the poverty line. The unemployment rate among Arabs in the city was about forty per cent among men and eighty-five per cent among women, Haaretz reported in 2012. Three hundred and twenty thousand Arabs live in East Jerusalem—although estimates vary depending on the inclusion of neighborhoods behind the separation wall—and constitute about thirty-eight per cent of the total population. Arab residents of East Jerusalem have no Israeli citizenship, only permanent-residency cards, which means that they are eligible for medical insurance and also have to pay Israeli taxes. They do not vote in national elections, though Israeli governments have claimed the united city as the country’s capital. Then there are the open provocations: not only the public agitation by government ministers for equal Jewish access to the Haram al-Sharif but also the encroachment by rightist archeological organizations on the neighborhood of Silwan, and the marches by tens of thousands of radical nationalist yeshiva students through Nablus Gate on Jerusalem Day.

But the statistics and political encroachments, however dramatic, do not fully capture the ambient pressure on Arab families—the humiliating limitations that steer most Jerusalem Arabs, no matter their intelligence or ambition, to the counters of delis and the steering wheels of delivery trucks. A number of highly educated Arabs find medical positions in Jerusalem’s hospitals or management positions in its hotels. They testify to the possibility of coexistence. They are also anomalous. A 2013 United Nations report found that more than half of employed Arabs work in “services, commerce, hotels, and restaurants,” and another quarter in construction and agriculture. In 2008, I told the story of Abed, who stayed in Jerusalem to marry, and hoped to start a business during the heady days of the Oslo peace process. He ended up running the meat department of our local supermarket and, after twenty years, had saved enough to build a stately home in a northern suburb. But then the separation wall, begun in 2002, put his new house beyond his reach, in so-called Palestinian territory. If Abed occupied it, he would lose his Jerusalem residency and health insurance; he had less than a week to move his family of five into a two-room apartment. (“It is a home for the birds now,” he told me, adding, “Bless God,” his eyes welling with tears.) Abed’s brother then tried to expand his home in the mixed neighborhood of Abu Tor, but was denied a permit, again and again. He put on an addition anyway, as Jews often do, and Jerusalem authorities demolished the entire house. More recently, Abed considered opening a fish store on the commercial street where he has worked for a generation. (I helped him with the business plan.) But he soon determined that an Arab could not hope to get kosher certification or a loan from Israeli banks—and no Arab banks are permitted to operate in the city. I have not seen Abed’s son, who is now a teen-ager, since he was a toddler. But I can only imagine the sting he has felt watching his father go off to work each day. Multiply such a sting by many thousands.

Read on in The New Yorker

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Iran, The Deal, And The Global System

Israelis overwhelmingly believe the Iran deal endangers them, but speak less about the world powers’ arrangements for Iranian nuclear facilities and more about Iran reaping an economic windfall – over $100 billion to increase regional mischief, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his American-Jewish allies.

Even now, after the Senate failed to block the deal, AIPAC still insists that sanctions should have been increased along with military intimidation; that ambient economic pressures, causing suffering in the street and bazaar, would have inevitably forced the regime to capitulate. Implicitly, the deal’s opponents have depicted Iran’s economy as something like a drug cartel under a criminal kingpin that’s currently boxed-in by the cops – and as soon as the heat is off and profits roll in, the neighborhood will be doomed. (Netanyahu even suggested, colorfully, that Iranian officials could foil inspectors who ask to examine suspected sites the same way that drug dealers, if tipped off, could “flush a lot of meth down the toilet.”)

President Barack Obama has not said much to counter this image, except to insist that the Iranian government has tens of billions in infrastructural investments to make. In rallying Democratic legislators to support him, he has insisted that the deal’s safeguards will work. In fact, though, the president’s most important motive – and the reason he considers this a signature diplomatic victory – is something he can’t really talk about publicly: namely, the transformative power of Iran’s anticipated integration into the global system. Iran is a country with its own politics, including an election in February, and reformers like President Hassan Rohani are counting on commercial advances to put the wind at their back. In time, Iran’s emergence from economic isolation will almost certainly undermine the regime’s hard-liners and theocratic radicals, not strengthen them – and not because of what is unique to Iran but what is universal in the global economy.

Obama’s Iranian interlocutors, not only Rohani but the U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and leaders of a burgeoning Iranian civil society such as political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam, have been daringly frank about the deal working to their advantage. Zarif wrote in a New York Times column last April that his government’s desire to reduce regional tensions is “not due to habit or preference,” but because “globalization has rendered all alternatives obsolete.” The assets of big global players used to be 20 percent knowledge and 80 percent stuff. That ratio is now reversed. As MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) put it recently, a commercially successful country must be a hub, not a fort.

Read on at Haaretz

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Chuck Schumer's Humilation

"You know, my name comes from the word shomer: guardian, watcher,” Senator Chuck Schumer told the host of a Jewish radio program in 2010. “My ancestors were guardians of the ghetto wall in Chortkov. And I believe Hashem actually gave me that name. One of my roles, very important in the United States Senate, is to be a shomer, to be the shomer Yisrael”—the guardian of Israel—“and I will continue to be that with every bone in my body.” Schumer and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s efforts to rally Democratic opposition to President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal have now failed. On Tuesday, the support of Senators Richard Blumenthal, Ron Wyden, and Gary Peters assured Obama that any Republican resolution of disapproval would not even come up for a vote. But the extraordinary identity Schumer was claiming—to be a “guardian of Israel,” without apparent fear of being at odds with American foreign policy or the Democratic Party—may be the greater loss. It’s hard to see how AIPAC, and Schumer, come out of the Iran fight with the authority they had going in.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s story, which he is sticking to, is that Israel and AIPAC have won a moral victory. Dore Gold, the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told Israel’s Army Radio that Netanyahu never intended to keep the deal from being approved but rather to raise awareness about its perils. “Most of Congress is against the deal,” as is Isaac Herzog, who leads the opposition in the Knesset, Gold added. He then returned to the claims that Netanyahu made in his speech before Congress in March—that the deal was bad, that it endangered Israel—which might have been mistaken for an attempt to convince American legislators to reject it.

AIPAC’s influence was first advanced, in the nineteen-seventies, by hard-line Democratic senators like Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who felt that the State Department was controlled by Eisenhower-era Republicans who were too indebted to oil interests and not adequately sympathetic to Israel’s plight. Ever since AIPAC managed to coƶrdinate the defeat of Republican Senator Charles Percy, in 1984 (Percy was then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had argued that Jewish settlements preĆ«mpt Palestinian rights), AIPAC has been able to present itself as a powerhouse, flush with money, focussed on Congress, and with strong claims on both Republican hawks and evangelicals and the Democratic center. Tom Dine and Steven Grossman, AIPAC leaders in the eighties and nineties, were Democratic operatives; Grossman went on to become the chairman of the Democratic National Committee under Bill Clinton. President Obama courted AIPAC’s support in 2008, assuring attendees of its yearly conference that Jerusalem would be “undivided.”

Israel, in AIPAC’s playbook, is the best judge of its defense needs, a sister democracy, and, besides, a strategic asset in a volatile region. (It proved this for the first time in September, 1970, when Israeli jets helped protect the Jordanian monarch from a Palestinian insurgency and Syrian invasion.) Schumer’s opposition to the Iran deal was supposed to signal that AIPAC remained influential among Democratic principals and fund-raisers, and that the man who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2005 to 2009, and is now the favorite to lead Senate Democrats when Harry Reid retires, could still fend off challenges to Israeli policy—if, for example, the U.N. Security Council were to vote on another resolution condemning West Bank settlements. The signal, meant to be cautionary, seems rather weak.

Even if, as some claim, Schumer came out against Obama only because he knew he could not muster the votes to override a Presidential veto, he surely expected to make a better showing. Now progressive groups like MoveOn have rallied Democratic insurgents to call Schumer’s prospective Senate leadership into question. AIPAC officials know that Netanyahu is to blame for emancipating Democrats from AIPAC’s embrace. “Netanyahu’s speech in Congress made the Iranian issue a partisan one,” an AIPAC official told Israel’s Walla!News. “As soon as he insisted on going ahead with this move, which was perceived as a Republican maneuver against the President, we lost a significant part of the Democratic Party, without which it was impossible to block the agreement.” AIPAC’s efforts to exploit Herzog’s opposition to the deal were almost as counterproductive, given that the deal has the support of Israeli Army and intelligence leaders, including Amos Yadlin, the man who Herzog said would have been his defense minister, had he defeated Netanyahu. As Channel Two’s veteran analyst Amnon Abramovitch told me, “Herzog’s effort to gain some reputation for ‘security’ and lean to the center is an understandable political move. But Iran is a subject that inevitably involves Israeli-American relations, and here Herzog got messed up.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Unremarkable Jewish Terror Underground

The NPR program, "Here and Now," looked into the Jewish terror underground yesterday and asked for some thoughts. Regular readers of this space will not be surprised by the line of questions--or my answers--but the dialogue produced ten interesting minutes. You can listen to the entire segment here. There is also an interesting piece on the subject by Ruth Margalit on The New Yorker site here

Friday, July 17, 2015

'The Trouble With Israel'

The following article, "The Trouble with Israel," is just out in the August Harper's. I try to make sense of things after the election and in anticipation of the Iran deal. (There is a pay-wall; but Harper's is well worth the 50 bucks a year.)

One day this April, two weeks after the Israeli elections gave Benjamin Netanyahu a fourth term as prime minister, the morning after the framework for a nuclear agreement with Iran was worked out — the morning, as it happened, of the Passover seder — I dropped in at my local cheese shop, which is set back from the main street of Jerusalem’s German Colony. The neighborhood, once the heart of the city’s secular community of Hebrew University faculty and government workers, is now dense with yeshiva graduates wearing the signature knitted yarmulkes of the settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, and the affluent “modern Orthodox” from Toronto, Paris, and Teaneck, New Jersey. The clerk behind the counter — we’ll call him Shachar — the clever, chubby grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants, whose eyes told you he thought he was meant for something better, had hooked me on truffle cheese some years ago, and we often had pleasant conversations when I came in for regular fixes. We did not normally talk politics, except for the occasional sigh over news of corruption or violence. (His grandfather, he had told me, had been a cadre in the Irgun, the militant Zionist underground group.) This time, however, he was buoyant, expectant. “Are you pleased with the election?” he asked me, using the Arabic colloquialism mabsoot for “pleased,” as casually as if he were asking whether Passover came in spring. 

“Are you out of your mind?” I erupted. “I feel shame for this country.”

Shachar stared at me, more surprised than wounded. I was taking advantage of him: I was his customer, after all. I shifted my tack toward patriotism. “Shachar, how can we be pleased? We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.” This gave Shachar his opening.

“No,” he replied, “the problem is with Obama. Experts say relations with America have never been better except for him. He doesn’t understand what we’re dealing with here. People on the left” — he meant me, but graciously kept away from the second person — “think they know better but never learn. My other customers from America say he is the worst president ever. Soon we’ll have missiles at Ben Gurion Airport.”

I stiffened my back and told Shachar what I thought of his government, his experts, and his other American customers. But even before I ended my disquisition, I thought: I am missing the point. One lesson the Israeli left has refused to learn is that elections are not so much a clash of arguments as an occasion for trafficking in fear. Shachar’s instincts were closer to primordial, and it was such instincts that determined the vote in Jerusalem, and much else in Israel. Netanyahu played on this fear by warning about “Arabs voting in droves” during the election’s closing hours — but Shachar’s real impulse was to find safety in affinity: the sense that things very nearby were dangerous, or could suddenly be made so; that understanding both sides of an argument weakens resolve; that believing in negotiations makes you unfit to conduct them.

Read on at Harper's Magazine

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Does Greece Need The Euro? Ask Israel.

"The Greek financial nightmare is a reminder of why countries benefit from having their own currencies,” David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post last Tuesday, before the government of Alexis Tsipras grudgingly accepted terms for another bailout. This was “a reminder,” presumably, because there was no need to debate something so axiomatic. “In the old days,” Ignatius continued, “a flexible drachma could have been devalued to boost exports and economic growth.” Economists from Martin Feldstein to Paul Krugman have proposed this cause and effect as a solution to Greece’s crisis since it began, in 2009. Krugman made the point forcefully in his column on Friday, lashing out at European and American austerity hawks and pointing to Canada’s devalued dollar as the reason for its recovery from the 2008 meltdown. “Greece, unfortunately, no longer had its own currency when it was forced into drastic fiscal retrenchment,” Krugman wrote. “The result was an economic implosion that ended up making the debt problem even worse.”

There can be no doubt that, in the case of Greece, critics of radical austerity have the better side of the argument. All agree that the Greek economy has to grow at an accelerating rate if the country is to have a chance of meeting a good part of its debt obligations, however generously they are restructured. Krugman notes that the national debt, which was roughly one and a quarter times G.D.P. in 2009, is, after austerity, one and three quarters times that today. Almost a million people, in a country of just over ten million, worked for the government in 2009. You could insist, as advocates of austerity have, that this was unsustainable, but throwing a third of those employees out of work, cutting remaining public-sector salaries by a third, and drastically reducing pensions, as advocates of austerity did, inevitably suppressed local demand. They could not have expected private-sector entrepreneurs to invest in consumer businesses, either. Creditor banks in Germany will almost certainly have to take some losses to get the Greek government’s ledgers back into balance.

The supercilious tone of northern European bankers regarding southern European profligacy makes austerity proponents’ arguments hard to take, too. To make German unification possible, East Germany effectively received a one-time infusion of three hundred and twenty-billion Deutsche marks, in the early nineties, the equivalent of almost two hundred billion dollars at the time, which included a deal that allowed East Germans to trade their own pathetic marks for West German Deutsche marks at par. It is true, as many European Union leaders have suggested, that there is the issue of precedent with Greece: the more the European Central Bank proves willing to transfer wealth to poor southern economies, the shakier the euro will become. Then again, if the euro were the currency of the richer northern European economies alone, or, for that matter, if a united Germany’s engineering-rich, high-export economy were still on the Deutsche mark, a Volkswagen Golf produced in Wolfsburg would be too expensive to sell competitively in either the U.S. or Asia, no matter how many robots were put on the line. The connection between the value of currencies and the capacity to export cuts both ways.

None of this means, however, that the euro and the free-trade eurozone are inherently bad for weaker economies like Greece’s. On the contrary, the counter-proposal of cheapening exports through devaluation presumes an economy that makes things the rest of the world wants. That’s Canada’s, but not Greece’s: the sun can only do so much. Aside from tourism, the Greek economy mainly rests on exporting refined petroleum and processed agricultural products while importing crude petroleum and everything from cars to computers. You can’t devalue the drachma to the point that gasoline production, or olive oil and cheese production, would generate sufficient earnings for Greek workers to pay for cars and computers. (That’s why so many Greek workers borrowed euros on easy credit to buy them.)

Read on at The New Yorker