Thursday, May 28, 2015

Visiting Germany to better understand the past, as well as the present

In May of 2015 departing German Consul General Rolf Schutte thanked friends and colleagues at a reception held at the Goethe Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
In a little more than one week I depart for Germany -  a someway strange thing to write, and perhaps even stranger to contemplate. And yet, this trip feels oddly natural: As someone who has taken on many different volunteer and professional leadership roles in the Jewish community, I figured in the back of my mind that one day I would visit Germany, but I had no idea when or how. Within my own family, my maternal grandparents traveled all over Europe, but as far as I know they never went to Germany, while my great aunt Betty, an inveterate world traveler, visited both East and West Berlin. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I don't know whether any of the family members who stayed behind when my great-grandparents came to America survived or perished in World War Two or the Holocaust - I do know that sometime in the 1920's or 1930's the last letters from those who remained in Eastern Europe, written in Yiddish and describing conditions of desperation and poverty arrived, followed by silence.

So for me, Germany - as well as Poland and Russia and the Baltics - sit in my mind like distant ghosts shrouded in a fog, present, but somehow not quite real. In thinking of these places I am reminded of "A Tale of Love and Darkness," the great, sad memoir of Amos Oz, in which he evokes the vanished Europe of his mother's youth, rendering it as some combination of terra incognita, mythic homeland and blighted landscape.

In most of my work and writing I tend to focus on events in the Middle East and North Africa, sometimes touching on Central Asia and Europe where relevant, but when an opportunity to visit Germany came up, at the invitation of the former German Consul General to New England Rolf Schutte and the German Foreign Office, I jumped at the opportunity to go and see for myself what Germany looks (and feels) like today.  But it's not only this invitation from someone for whom I have great respect and admiration that made me want to go - there are other important factors as well. In my work for the American Jewish Committee, the Israeli Consulate and the Jewish Federation I've had the chance to get to know several representatives, both official and otherwise, of Germany, and in getting to know them I've been struck by the ways in which they connect with the Jewish community are not for show but have real meaning and depth.

The connections that I saw Mr. Schutte and his predecessor, Friedrich Lohr, form with Jewish organizations and individuals, was not merely intellectual, but clearly based on mutual respect and genuine friendship. This was on display at the farewell reception for Mr. Schutte, which was attended by Israeli Consul General Yehuda Yaakov and Israel Arbeiter, a leading figure in the Holocaust survivor community in Boston. As I stood there listening to remarks by friends and colleagues of the departing Consul General, especially those who represented the Jewish community, I was struck by the impact that German diplomacy has had, at least in New England, in furthering German-Jewish relations.

The other thing that makes me feel like I should go to Germany is that there has been a significant revival of Jewish life happening there. I'm sure I'll learn more about the composition and character of this revitalized community while there, but I'm especially looking forward to meeting Israelis who've made their homes in places like Berlin and finding out more about what it's like to be Jewish in Europe today.

When I come back from Germany I plan to write more about the experience and share some of what I saw, learned and felt, and when I'm in Berlin, Frankfurt and Potsdam I'll try to Tweet (@DanielELevenson). I hope that if you find this topic to be of interest that you will follow along with me on social media. I don’t know exactly what I will find when I get to Germany, but I'm looking forward to learning as much about the present and future of Jewish life in Germany, as I am about the past.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Review of Anand Gopal's "No Good Men Among the Living"

In more ways than we can imagine, the course of history following the September 11, 2001 attacks and the 14 years of ensuing war in Afghanistan have shaped not only the lives of tens of thousands American military personnel and their families, but those of the people of Afghanistan as well. While events in this far-flung, mountainous nation have drifted in and out of the national consciousness as the extent and nature of U.S. involvement waxes and wanes, for the ordinary people who live in Kabul and Kandahar and any number of small villages, the war that began following the Al-Qaeda assault on New York and Washington is a constant presence.

In his book "No Good Men Among The Living," by Anand Gopal, it is life in this climate of violent instability and its impact on the people of Afghanistan, that takes center stage. While the media has profiled individual Afghans in newspapers and magazines, it is in this book-length exploration of the lives of three individuals doing their best to survive, that we get a sense of what it must be like to live life perpetually at the edge of ruin. At its core, this is a book about survival in every sense- emotional, political, physical and intellectual - in a landscape of constantly shifting allegiances, norms and rules.

It is on this shaky ground that Gopal introduces us to the person who may be the most compelling figure in the book, a woman by the name of "Heela," who sees her life and family torn apart by the war, shattering her comfortable, middle-class urban reality and condemning her to one of rural poverty, misogyny and fear. One of the brilliant things about this book is that Gopal humanizes issues by taking us into the lives of individuals, but also manages to tie what's happening on a small scale in someone's life to larger challenges in Afghan society.

One area where he does this well is in regard to the treatment and status of women, highlighting the clash that occurs when traditional ideas and male-dominated leadership structures come into contact (and often conflict) with modern, western ideas about the role of women in society. On this topic, Gopal writes, "For the ancient Pashtun mountain families, anything that marauding rivals could plunder was worth protecting and controlling - and this included women. Females were a family commodity; in some cases mountain clans even tattooed their animals and their women with the sane markings."

By providing historical context, the author helps us to better understand the present era in Afghan life, which is valuable considering that most coverage of the country today tends to lack both depth and nuance. Gopal does a service to his readers as well in offering a succinct overview of the legacy of damage left behind in the wake of the Afghan-Soviet conflict, the ghosts of Russian infantry and Soviet hegemony constantly whispering around the edges of his narrative. It was from the rubble of this earlier conflict that the modern Taliban would build their base of support, providing a sense of order in an otherwise chaotic place. Gopal observes that,  "In times of strife, taliban have usually mobilized in defense of tradition. British documents from as early as 1901 decry Taliban opposition to colonialism in present-day Pakistan. However, as with so much else, it was the Soviet invasion and US response that sent the transformative shock." This is a theme that appears again and again throughout this work, and Gopal presents a credible argument that while the history of the region is rife with violence and instability at every level, that this sequence of events has had a uniquely deleterious and perhaps permanent impact on the country.

Throughout the text he stays focused on the lives of his characters and the ways in which external forces, from senior Pakistani intelligence officials to provincial governors, tribal leaders and the US military influence their lives on a daily basis. This feeling of uncertainty, of being at the mercy of outside powers, echoes throughout the book and is illustrated in his portrayal of a Taliban leader called "Mullah Cable," who earned his nom de guerre by carrying around a whip to hit people he encountered who were, in his mind, engaging in "un-Islamic" behavior. For this man, the thirty years of war which have engulfed his country lead to a dizzying and often dispiriting array of highs and lows as he fought against US troops and endured starvation-level poverty.

None of the people presented in this book are hapless or cartoonish. The genius of Gopal's book is that while he could have easily slipped into stereotypical descriptions or coasted in places, he assiduously avoids such literary laziness, bringing the reader into the darkened rooms and conflicted mind of a widow entirely dependent on her husband's family for her survival, of a former Taliban commander forced back to the battlefield by abject poverty and of an anti-Taliban activist who sought to reform the political structure of his country at considerable risk to his own life. In doing this he humanizes the tragic trajectory of life in a perpetual war zone, bringing those of us for whom the war, and its consequences, seem impossibly distant, closer to the reality of life in Afghanistan. 

His work is also important because it provides a glimpse into a war in which thousands of American and allied forces were killed or seriously injured trying to uproot the Taliban and rebuild the country, all from a different angle than most media coverage. In telling the stories of these ordinary afghans he is contributing to our understanding of this complex and devastating war, and for this he deserves our thanks.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

At the EMK Institute in Boston, Senator Mitch McConnell and bipartisanship

The new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate features an accurate replica of the U.S. Senate Chamber. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
Anyone who has read something of the history of the United States Senate probably knows that it is an institution which sees itself as playing a unique role in the history of the country, a place where time-honored traditions set the tone and rules. Recently, an organization devoted to the history and study of this venerable body, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, opened its doors in a spacious building on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, right next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. With a replica of the Senate Chamber at its center, the Institute feels like it was designed to accomplish 3 main goals: to honor the work of the Senate, to educate visitors, and to provide a venue for events and programs. 

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend the first event in the Institute's Getting to the Point series, a talk by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). The senator was introduced by Victoria Reggie Kennedy, President of the Board of Trustees, who introduced him by recounting Senator McConnell's path to becoming Senate Majority Leader. Senator McConnell took the floor next, fondly recalling his late colleague Senator Edward M. Kennedy, offering his assessment that the replica of the Senate at the institute looks remarkably similar to the real thing, and reminiscing about his early days as a young senator.  

In this atmosphere of such intense partisanship it was frankly refreshing to hear a member of the United States Senate speak openly about bipartisan cooperation in a public forum. Senator McConnell talked about his love for the Senate as an institution, calling it the "... place where our country comes together to confront some of its most complex, intractable problems." Such sentiments are as important as they are rare these days, which is to say quite important and all too rare.

Senator McConnell also reflected on the impact that the Civil Rights movement had on his life and decision to continue his pursuit of a career in public service, recounting his experience of being in the room when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and his decision at the time to invite both Republicans and Democrats to the ceremony.

Toward the end of the event Senator McConnell sat down with New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes to answer audience questions on a wide range of topics. image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
Overall Senator McConnell's remarks highlighted the degree to which bipartisan cooperation was easier in an earlier era in the senate. In his remarks McConnell also mentioned how in his view the image presented by 24-hour cable news channels, with a strong emphasis on partisanship, makes it seem as though political leaders view their colleagues across the aisle in a completely negative light, which he insisted is not true. In my mind, from the outside it's hard to tell how much the 24-hour news cycle  does distort our image of politics and the degree of partisanship which actually exists in Congress, but I suspect that there is more than a kernel of truth in Senator McConnell's remarks.  At the same time, media reports of partisan gridlock are clearly not constructed out of whole cloth. The program drew to a close with Senator McConnell sitting with New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes and answering audience questions on topics ranging from the Patriot Act and wiretapping, to the national debt and government shutdowns.

Boston has no shortage of august venues or important institutions that host speakers on nearly every topic under the sun, from the JFK Presidential Library next door to university campuses to Symphony Hall. What sets the EMK Institute apart is clearly its focus on the United States Senate and its role as an educational resource designed to encourage enthusiasm for the legislative process and the difference it can make in the real world. If it can achieve this worthy goal it will make a significant contribution to the lives of those who visit; better still, if it can play a role in encouraging bipartisan or non-partisan cooperation on the most important challenges of our time, then its impact will do much more, contributing to the vitality and well-being of our democracy itself.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.