IntelligenceSquared Debates, July 2011
Israel believes America's special relationship is vital. It is, certainly, to Israel. But what about for the US? Israel has no oil, enemies in many places, and a tendency to defy Washington when it perceives its own interests to be threatened, which is not infrequently. In a zero sum Middle East, does America's coziness with Israel cost us in good will with Muslim world, including those oil-rich Arab states whose dollar holdings come back to the US in the form of investments and loans, which the US economy needs -- especially now?
But there's an important connection between the US and Israel -- that goes deeper than finance or energy convenience. It's a foundation of mutual loyalty and shared values -- democracy being only the most obvious. There has also been a history of shared intelligence, military cooperation, and significant cross-fertilization of scientific knowledge. To sacrifice these connections to improve relations with the Arab world would be an act of betrayal — of an ally — and of what we say we stand for.
Should the US consider putting some distance between itself and Israel? Would such a change in policy serve American interests, or is it a move we would come to regret?
For: Roger Cohen, New York Times columnist
For: Rashid Khalidi, Professor of Palestinian History, Columbia University
Against: Stuart Eizenstat, Former US Ambassador to the European Union
Against: Itamar Rabinovich, Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States
By Michael Burleigh
Daily Mail, October 13, 2013
The Gulag Archipelago, by the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, is one of the greatest books of the 20th century.
It begins by describing the notorious Kolyma prison camps in the farthermost north-eastern corner of Siberia. The camps were the Soviet gulags at their worst, where temperatures dropped below minus 50f — colder than at the North Pole.
The Kolyma region had been chosen because of its gold mines, and the Communist leaders forced skeletal and ill-clad prisoners to produce 80,000 kg of refined gold. This was the mainstay of Stalin’s economy. Almost every kilogram cost a human life.
The camps, which were built in the late 1940s by the inmates themselves, often in the middle of nowhere, were surrounded with barbed wire and watchtowers. Provided that prisoners were shot so that their feet faced towards the perimeter fence, guards could claim their deaths were the result of an escape attempt.
These gulags (the Russian acronym for ‘Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies’) signified the whole Soviet slave labour system — a regime that reached its deadly peak under Stalin’s despotic rule and saw millions of men and women transported to Siberia and other outposts of the Red empire.
These horrific camps — there were more than 2,000 in total — had a joint economic and punitive purpose, whose prevailing philosophy was: ‘We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months; after that, we don’t need him any more.’
By Kurt Anderson
Vanity Fair, November 29, 2013
In the history of art, Johannes Vermeer is almost as mysterious and unfathomable as Shakespeare in literature, like a character in a novel. Accepted into his local Dutch painters’ guild in 1653, at age 21, with no recorded training as an apprentice, he promptly begins painting masterful, singular, uncannily realistic pictures of light-filled rooms and ethereal young women. After his death, at 43, he and his minuscule oeuvre slip into obscurity for two centuries. Then, just as photography is making highly realistic painting seem pointless, the photo-realistic Sphinx of Delft is rediscovered and his pictures are suddenly deemed valuable. By the time of the first big American show of Vermeer paintings—at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1909—their value has increased another hundred times, by the 1920s ten times that. Despite occasional speculation over the years that an optical device somehow enabled Vermeer to paint his pictures, the art-history establishment has remained adamant in its romantic conviction: maybe he was inspired somehow by lens-projected images, but his only exceptional tool for making art was his astounding eye, his otherworldly genius.
Jenison’s finished painting, the product of years’ worth of work. (Click image to enlarge.) At the beginning of this century, however, two experts of high standing begged to differ. Why, for instance, did Vermeer paint things in the foreground and shiny highlights on objects slightly out of focus? Because, they say, he was looking at them through a lens. By itself, Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, by a London architecture professor named Philip Steadman, might have stirred a minor academic fuss. But a mainstream controversy was provoked—conferences, headlines, outrage, name-calling—because a second, more sweeping and provocative argument was made by one of the most famous living painters, David Hockney. Hockney argued in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of Old Masters that not only Vermeer but many great painters from the 15th century onward must have secretly used lens-and-mirror contraptions to achieve their photo-realistic effects.
Leading art historians were unpersuaded. Hockney, people said, was just jealous because he lacks the old masters’ skills. “I don’t oppose the notion that Vermeer in some way responded to the camera obscura,” said Walter Liedtke, then as now the Met’s curator of European paintings (including its five Vermeers), “but I do oppose drastic devaluations of the role of art.”
Meanwhile, in San Antonio, Texas, Tim Jenison knew nothing of the brouhaha. Jenison, now 58, is the founder of NewTek, where he has made a fortune inventing hardware and software for video production and post-production. He is a nonstop tinkerer in the rest of his life as well, building giant model airplanes and battle robots, and learning to fly helicopters. Curious, careful, soft-spoken, and comfortably schlumpy, he comes across more as a neighborhood professor you might see at Home Depot than as a guy who owns his own jet.
But in 2002, one of his daughters, then a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, recommended he read Secret Knowledge. “And Steadman,” Jenison says, “really got me thinking hard.” As a guy who has spent his whole career reproducing and manipulating visual images, and contemplating the deep nuts and bolts of how our eyes see differently than cameras do, Jenison had a strong hunch that Hockney and Steadman were right.
Chagall: Love, War and Exile Exhibition at the Jewish Museum
September 15, 2013 – February 2, 2014
By Ivan Kennealey, Open Letters Monthly
It’s a testament to the breadth of an artist’s body of work that more than one school of interpretation claims it, especially when those claims seem to be issued on mutually exclusive grounds. Marc Chagall (1887-1985) has inspired impressively schizophrenic critical accounts of his artistic efforts, at once called the “quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century” and a “pioneer of modernism.” He is often characterized as both a chronicler of provincial Jewish folklore and an urbane, cosmopolitan aesthete. Treatments of Chagall’s artistic achievements typically either highlight his nostalgic depictions of rural Jewish life in his Russian hometown, Vitebsk, or the sophisticated European universalism he imbibed in Paris. The apparent polarity of Chagall’s influences often translates into a wild cacophony of images inhabiting the same canvas: Christian and Jewish, Russian and Parisian, urban and rural, sectarian and secular, ancient and modern. It has become increasingly common for his critics to find only unresolved conflict as the abiding theme in his work, the result of which are paintings over-teeming with cramped symbolism, or what the art historian James Sweeny called “curious representational juxtapositions.”
This untidy melange of influences seems to issue from one perceived incongruence: Chagall’s Judaism, and the emphasis on his attachment to a particular community of people, and his modernism, or his magnetic attraction to a universal conception of mankind. The rise of the modern state dictated a split between church and state, relegating religion to a matter of conscience, a private affair conducted by individuals out of the public square. But traditional Judaism defies this compartmentalization, asserting itself primarily as a public practice, authoritative for the whole body politic. While individual Jews generally enjoyed a greater measure of freedom within this new configuration, the cost was the expression of an authentic Judaism which refuses to be numbered merely one pursuit among many, bereft of public power. The eminent Jewish historian Jacob Katz, writing about the tension between Jewish practice and modern German culture, articulated the conundrum for Jews with concision: “Jews had been emancipated, Jewishness was not.”
Chagall’s youth straddled the fault line that separated the explicit oppression of Jews and their qualified invitation to assimilation. In 1887, when he was born, Jews in Russia were still forced to live in the Pale of Settlement, cloistered into religiously homogenous shtetls, denied the advantages of full citizenship. As a child, Chagall’s mother had to bribe a headmaster to gain his admission into a Russian language school usually closed to Jews. But just prior to the First World War, Jews were given the opportunity to absorb themselves into political life, albeit at the expense of a full expression of their Jewishness. The model for this political emancipation was the Prussian edict of 1812, which openly encouraged the suppression of the communal, public character of Judaism for the sake of access to citizenship. Speaking to the French assembly in 1789, Comte de Clermont-Tonnere captured the spirit of the edict, and the political predicament of modern Jews: “One must refuse everything to Jews as a nation but one must give them everything as individuals; they must become citizens.”
Chagall lived during a time when Judaism was already in the throes of a self-directed transvaluation under the philosophical superintendence of Moses Mendelssohn, who attempted to reinvent it as a “religion,” a designation which, in the 18th century, meant its assimilation into the modern state. Chagall’s emphasis on individuality, his excursions into dreamy interiority, the search for moral lessons generalizable to the totality of mankind and his infatuation with refined, worldly European aesthetic forms have often been understood as a betrayal of his provincial Jewishness. According to this common narrative, Chagall fled the artistically arid soil of parochial Vitebsk for the lumière-liberté of Paris.
This blog reprints book reviews, interviews, videos, and scholarly articles for those who are interested in history and contemporary culture.