Thursday, September 24, 2009

Isaac Bashevis Singer vs. Marc Chagall

Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel laureate in literature who wrote in Yiddish, is my favorite author. In 1975, taking a break from my regular work as a journalist who specialized in business, I wrote profiles about him that were published in the New York Times Magazine and the now-defunct Harper's Bookletter.

As I disclosed in my previous blog post, I am now preparing to move from my home in New Jersey, where I have lived for nearly 25 years, to become a year-round resident of Florida. This involves the painful need to explore and discard decades of files no longer needed.

Among my discoveries were voluminous notes of my interviews with Singer in his Manhattan apartment. In the course of the interviews, I told Singer that he had always struck me as being a literary counterpart of painter Marc Chagall, who like Singer was an East European Jew, rendering in print what Chagall had done in paint.

Like Singer, I said, Chagall concentrated on his own "shtetl" (Jewish village) background for material. And in Chagall's surrealistic paintings--the fiddler on the roof always comes to mind--I told Singer that I find the same enchanting mystical quality that I enjoy in his novels and short stories.

Singer was not complimented by my comparison. A close friend of famed painter Raphael Soyer and others in the New York art world of that era, Singer regarded himself as something of a maven on painting.

For reasons I cannot recall, Singer's colorful response to my comparison failed to appear in my old articles. I now find it so provocative that I am belatedly publishing it here in my blog.

"I'll tell you the truth," Singer said to me in his Yiddish-accented English, "I'm not too hot about him. As far as I can see, Chagall is an artist who repeats himself already for 50 years. I don't admire him as much as I admire a Cezanne or a Monet.

"I don't think that when you paint a man, and you put him with the head down and the legs up, that you accomplish something, that this is real originality. Anybody can do it. [Chagall] has a feeling for color, but he's not really dabbling with the supernatural. He is stylizing all his life, and there is a limit to stylizing."

So much for the great Chagall, as the equally great Isaac Bashevis Singer evaluated the painter's work.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Jimmy Carter: Enemy of peace

I don't normally publish material written by others on this blog. I am making an exception here to publicize this article by Israeli journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, which exposes ex-President Jimmy Carter as a phony "peace activist." As an accomplished Israel-basher, Carter continues to feed the Palestinian rejectionism that has prevented the establishment of a genuine and equitable peace in the Middle East.

Are the so-called "peace activists" actually the enemies of peace? The fascinating case of Jimmy Carter requires a special look. Carter recently visited Israel-–one of his many visits here--with a special delegation of "Elders." They are a group of such international personalities as Nelson Mandela, renowned for solving important global problems. There is no doubt that this group has good intentions, and maybe ability. They have considerable gravitas. But the main question is: What are they doing with their moral weight?

Immediately upon his return to the U.S., Carter published an article in the prestigious Washington Post, which was an invective against the State of Israel. Invective cannot rest on foundations of truth. It needs lies.

Carter tells a few, for example, about the Hanoun family, which was, he wrote, "recently evicted from their [Jerusalem] home of 65 years." Really? In fact, the entire compound in which they lived belongs to Jews who were expelled from Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence.

There is no argument about the Jewish ownership, which dates back to 1875. A Star of David is still to be found on one of the old stone structures at the site. The Hanoun family, by contrast, did not reach the place until 1956. If Carter would have checked, he would discover that this is a family of refugees from Haifa.

Haifa's Arabs were not expelled; they left voluntarily. They were moved into the Jerusalem structure, along with another family, by the Jordanian authorities. The Jewish owners of the property sought to exercise their proprietary rights. There is not a word about this in Carter's article.

There are thousands of tenants in Atlanta, Ga., Carter's home state, who were evicted from their homes because they could not make their mortgage payments. The rights of the Smith family, which was thrown onto the street, are much more established than the rights of the Hanoun family.

But Carter is not looking for justice. He is looking for invective. And therefore, he presents his readers with a partial picture, replete with erroneous details, and conceals the fact that the eviction was carried out only after lengthy judicial proceedings in which the proprietary rights were held up to detailed scrutiny.

It is worthwhile to be precise. The Israeli court granted the Arab families living in the compound the status of protected tenants. Moreover, some of the evicted families had the option of generous compensation even though they had no proprietary rights. But the families rejected every offered settlement and every legal defense due to political pressure, and received a political visit from Carter and his friends. Nobody offered compensation to the Smith family in Atlanta, and Carter did not visit them.

The criticism of eviction of the Hanoun family could be justified. Even if the eviction was legally justified, there is room for political criticism. And on the condition that if Carter seeks to deny the Jews' proprietary rights, he should also make it clear that the Palestinians have no right to claim abandoned property.

He has failed to recognize that property expropriated and confiscated from Jews in Arab countries as a result of legislation, pressure, persecution, flight and expulsion is worth more than the property that was expropriated and confiscated from the Palestinians as a result of flight and expulsion.

The Palestinians underwent the experience of flight and expulsion following the declaration of a war of annihilation against the Jewish State, which had barely been created. The Jews in Arab countries underwent a similar experience--of flight, expulsion and property expropriation--even though they had not declared war on the Arab countries. If so, whose rights are greater?

Has Carter ever told the Palestinians this basic truth? The answer is well known. Like other so-called "peace activists," he treats the Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular, like retarded children. They must not be told the truth.

They must not be told that if there are rights, then both the Jews and the Arabs have them. And if not, then neither the Jews nor the Arabs have them. He does not tell them that during the 1940s, tens of millions of people underwent the harsh experience of population exchanges, and there is no reason why only the Palestinians should have "the right of return." He does not tell them that more Jews fled and were expelled from Arab countries than Palestinians who were expelled from or fled Israel.

It is possible and permissible to criticize Israel over the settlements. Occasionally, this criticism is justified. But Carter, like thousands of other "peace activists," does not advance peace. Their demonization of Israel strengthens those who reject peace.

The position of Abu Mazen, the Palestinian leader, also appeared in the Washington Post. The sole significance of his demands is opposition to the existence of the State of Israel. He officially agrees, of course, to a two-state solution, but on the condition that one of them be a Palestinian state and that the second one also be a Palestinian state after the implementation of the right of return.

He admits that he received an amazing compromise offer from Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, that included the Israeli evacuation of 97% of the West Bank territories. But he rejected it outright because he insisted that masses of Palestinians flood the State of Israel.

Did Carter issue a condemnation of Abu Mazen? Instead, Carter published an article condemning Israel, one of many he has written. Instead of offering fair criticism, Carter has become part of the incitement enterprise against the State of Israel.

Carter is capable of much more. He has succeeded in making achievements in other areas. For some reason, when he touches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he loses his fairness and his balance. He does not contribute to the advancement of peace. On the contrary. This is Carter's contribution to strengthening Palestinian refusal to compromise and to pushing the chances of peace further away.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

MEMOIR: How I almost became a Texan

George W. Bush was born in New Haven, Conn. to a patrician family of staid New Englanders. When he was a child, the family moved to Midland, Texas. Their new home town was then a small, bustling oil town that was culturally and socially far removed from their prim, sedate community in Connecticut.

I have often wondered how different Bush would have been had his parents not moved to Texas with their children. Would the ex-President's personality have reflected the traditional style of his New England forebears? Or would he still have still turned out to be like the stereotypical, macho, cowboy-like Texan that he is?

The question is relevant to me because I almost became a Texan myself when my father seriously considered moving from our home in the Bronx to Texas during the mid-1930s when I was still a child.

My Dad was often unemployed during that period, after having worked for many years as a traveling men's clothing salesman. His territory ran from Georgia westward through Texas. He did not drive nor fly, and covered the region by train and bus. He took pride in his intimate knowledge of the territory, and particularly of its train and bus schedules.

He often passed through Colorado City, Texas, a small farming town with which he became very familiar. The town had very few retail stores. In 1936, my father decided to open a retail men's clothing store there, despite the grim economic climate plaguing the nation at the time. It was obviously a serious business gamble. Dad figured, however, that the absence of local competition would make the enterprise successful.

He left my mother and me behind in New York when he departed for Colorado City. Apparently, the venture did not require a significant investment because my father's sole New York supplier was my mother's uncle, who was very supportive of my father's plan. Dad intended to operate the store for no more than a year. If successful, my mother and I would then join him in Texas. If not, he would abandon the store and return to New York.

Texas was celebrating its one-hundredth year of independence from Mexico when the store opened. I still recall that my father mailed me an official centennial yearbook, which would probably be a valuable collectors' item if I had kept it. My father wrote home regularly (we did not own a telephone in the Bronx), shipping me such local souvenirs as toy bales of cotton and bags of pecans.

But my father's enterprise was a flop, and Dad was back home, as I remember, in less than a year. I was nearly 12 years old when my father returned from his unsuccessful Texas venture.

I have always wondered what would have happened to me if Dad's store had been a success, and we had settled in Colorado City. I would have been raised in an alien environment radically different from a Bronx tenement neighborhood.

Colorado City is in the heart of west Texas, 296 miles from the closest major airport in Amarillo. Its 2008 population was 3,888, down 9.2% from the 2000 figure. I doubt whether it was much bigger when my father opened his store.

If we had moved, would I have grown up to be a stereotypical Texan with George Bush's macho, cowboy-like personality? Would I have become a small-town redneck who preferred a pick-up truck to a sports car and whose friends included at least two guys named "Bubba"? Would I have sought recreation by clearing brush in the torrid heat of a West Texas summer?

Nearly three decades later, my superficial connection with Colorado City proved to be a valuable professional asset. I was working in Washington as the Pentagon correspondent for Business Week magazine. The chairman of the House Military Appropriations subcommittee was then Rep. George Mahon, a longtime Texas Congressman.

He was an important news source for journalists covering military affairs. I interviewed him a couple of times and never found him very helpful. And then I learned that Colorado City was in his district. I wasted no time on my next interview date with him, informing him about my father's unsuccessful store in that town.

Perhaps it was because he was sympathetic with my Dad's Depression-era business failure. But George Mahon suddenly became one of the most cooperative news sources that I ever developed during my career as a reporter.

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