Friday, December 7, 2012


Generally I try to stay out of my students' personal lives, but sometimes, no matter what I do, I get dragged in anyway. Take Ophir. Ophir is one of the brighter students in my class on gender and political thought, but he is especially striking as one of the few Ethiopian students here at Ramat Aviv U. He talks, and thinks, like a Tzfonik, like an upper-middle-class kid from North Tel Aviv. This was explained, though, when I found out that he had been adopted at age four by the famous Professors Zeilengold (he is a law professor, she teaches French literature, both at Ramat Aviv U.), after both his parents died on the trek to Addis Ababa. Ophir was a serious student, a committed political activist (for the Left, of course), and had served in Lebanon as a paratrooper before coming to study with us in the political science department.

I had just given my lecture for the week, on Montesquieu's Persian Letters. Ophir followed me up to my office with a group of students after class. When I had finished with the others, and they had left, Ophir asked me if he could speak to me privately. "Sure," I said, and we walked into my office. I wasn't in any hurry to get home, since my wife had gone back to the States for her grandfather's funeral.

Ophir closed the door behind him, and sat down "You've heard a little bit, I suppose, about my story; that I came here, a four-year-old orphan from Ethiopia, and was brought up by the Zeilengolds," Ophir began.

"Yes, I'd heard that," I said.

"I don't have many Ethiopian relatives left at all; the only one I knew of was my biological mother's old Aunt, who lives in Kiryat 'Arba. But the Zeilengolds have always treated me like their own son, and even my adoptive brother Erez, who was sixteen when I came along-- he and I are really brothers. But now..."

"What's the problem," I said.

"Everybody's mad at me, my father won't speak to me; my mother just cries when I come home, and Erez hangs up when I try to call him in Finland."

"In Finland," I said.

"Yes, Erez married a Finnish woman, they have two kids, and he runs a grocery store in a little town north of Helsinki.

" "Oh. But what happened?" I asked.

"Well, see, I've been going with this Ethiopian girl, Hagit, for a year, since about a year-and-a-half after I got out of the Army. And we want to get married."

"And your family doesn't like her."

"No, they think she's really great, or at least they did. It's just that she is my sister."

"What?" I couldn't believe I'd understood him correctly.

"Yeah, she's my sister, my half-sister, on my father's side. I never met her in Ethiopia, I don't think, and I certainly didn't remember meeting her under THAT description. We were introduced at a party a year ago. You see, my father was the only Jew in Gondar, my aunt says, who knew how to fix radios. So he walked from village to village, fixing a radio or two at each stop; he must have walked thousands of kilometers a year."

"I see."

"So you know, what with traveling all the time on the one hand, and making a nice living on the other hand, he had a number of wives, though each of them lived in a different village. My aunt says he was very handsome, which couldn't have hurt. When she wants to tease me she says I look just like he did."

"Go on."

"Well, he'd married my mother, and then about two or three years later, he married Hagit's mother. She must have been pretty small when he died: she doesn't remember him, certainly. Hagit was their only child who survived, just like I was his only child with my mother."

"Yes," I said.

"But I didn't know anything about this, nor did my Aunt. I mean, she knew that my father had several wives beside my mother, but that's all she knew. Hagit and her mother came to Israel about the same time I did, and settled in Dimona. But Hagit was too smart for Dimona; she got a high-school matriculation certificate, was drafted into Intelligence, in fact she's an officer, which is better than I did. She was working at Defense Headquarters when I met her, and she's still there. Don't ask what she does though. Well, we met, and we're in love, and we want to get married. But everyone says we can't." "You understand why, though."

"I do and I don't. But let me tell you how this all came out. Hagit and I, we used to go out in Tel Aviv, after she got off work and I was done with class. Sometimes she'd stay with me at my parents' house; sometimes she'd go home on the last bus. We always had a great time. My parents adored her; they thought she was wonderful, just like me. And I guess she was... Well, anyway, about a month ago we decided it was time for me to go to Dimona, to meet her mother, her stepfather, and her brothers and sisters. We were a little concerned because her next oldest brother has become quite religious, a Chabad chassid, even, and you know, I'm as secular as can be. But we decided that if we were going to get married we'd just have to give it a shot. So I went with her after she got off work, we drove down to Dimona. Her siblings were home, and her stepfather, we were talking, seriously but not too seriously. Her Chabadnik brother, he wasn't too bad, he just asked me questions about the Army, and about Lebanon. Then her mother came in. She came in, she took one look at me, screamed, 'But you're dead!' And fainted."

"Oh," I said.

"Yeah, my Aunt always said I looked just like my father. When Hagit's mother recovered, she started screaming in Amharic. I didn't understand any of it. Then she said, very calmly, in Hebrew, 'Your father was Musa,' wasn't he, 'Musa the Radio Man?' "'Yes, my Aunt tells me so, but I don't remember him,' I replied.

"'Hagit is Musa's daughter,' Hagit's mother sobbed. Then she almost fainted again. "Huh," I said.

"'Hagit is your sister, on your father's side' Hagit's brother said. 'That means, the two of you together, it's incest, the worst sin of all 'You shall be killed and not transgress.'' By the time I figured it out, everybody was screaming at me and Hagit. 'Whore,' they called her. Her stepfather said that if I didn't leave right now he'd kill me or Hagit."

"So what did you do?" I asked.

"I left. What else could I do. I needed to think. On the drive home, I realized, we weren't hardly brother and sister at all; I mean, we were only half-siblings, and we had never met until our twenties. If there's some law that says we can't be together, it's just a silly, old-fashioned religious law, like the one about the Cohen and the divorcee, or the one that doesn't allow a woman to give a divorce even if her husband beats her. The kind of laws we're always protesting about. And I love Hagit. How can some old law keep us apart?

"I got home, it was pretty late. I just went in and lay on the bed. I couldn't sleep, not a wink. I though of all the times we'd made love, on that bed. Her brother, her stepfather, they wanted to call it a sin. But I knew, we knew, it was love, the real thing, that couldn't be a sin. When my parents got up, I went out of my room into the kitchen, where they were eating breakfast. They could see that I was upset.

"'Did something happen with Hagit's parents,' my mother asked.

"'I'd say,' I said. 'Did you know I had a sister?' I asked.

"'No,' my mother said. My father just stared blankly, the way he always does when he looks up from Ha'Aretz before he's finished his coffee.

"'Hagit is my sister, my half-sister, on my father's side' I said.

"'What?!' my mother said.

"'Hagit... is... my... sister...' I spoke very slowly. 'We never knew this, till last night. Her mother was another of my father's wives back in Ethiopia. She recognized Musa's, our biological father's, features in my face.'

"My mother screamed. My father, who has seen everything (he was a child in Buchenwald) just stared. Finally, he said, 'I guess you won't be getting married.'

"'Why?' I asked. 'I mean, she's not really my sister: we didn't grow up together, for twenty-two years we didn't know of each other's existence. Why should a little biological fact, from Ethiopia, of all places, make a difference.'

"'Because,' he said, 'it's incest.'

"'And that's ham,' I said, pointing to the meat he was eating, that he'd brought back from a conference in Florence ten days before. 'And last Friday night you two drove to the theater, and I and Hagit drove to a party in Ra'anana'.

"'Don't get smart with me, young man. This is different. It's against Israeli law, not just the religious law, the halacha.'

"'That didn't stop you from bringing in the ham. Or for suing to get that Russian kid whose mother wasn't Jewish a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall.'

"'We lost that case,' my father said. 'Besides, that's not against the law, just the Halacha.'"

"Never argue with a law professor," I interrupted.

Ophir went on: "I said, 'It's just a silly old law, whether it's Halacha or state law. What law can't be silly, that keeps two people apart who love each other.'

"'Why couldn't he at least have found a shiktsa, like Erez did' my mother said, sobbing.

"'You can never get married here,' my father said.

"'Maybe, if the story gets out to those Rabbis you are always complaining about, but we can certainly get married in Cyprus. Why, Musa's name isn't even on my ID card. It just says your name, father, Ephraim. And I am Ophir Zeilengold.'

"'You are Ophir Zeilengold the son of Musa, and Hagit is Musa's daughter, and so you can't get married,' my father said.

"'So you say, and your Rabbis say, and your silly laws say. But it's not fair, and it's not democratic.'

"'I know what's democratic and what isn't,' my father shouted, 'I wrote half of those laws, and taught half of those judges! And what about your kids... they'll be mamzerim! The Rabbis would never let them marry!'

"'Yeah, well, your friend Sarit Levitan, left her husband Joe thirty years ago, and took up with your friend Dudu Ben-Tzvi, they have three kids together, all, what did you call them, mamzerim, and you never batted an eyelash about it!' I shouted back. 'In fact, you even sued to get the kids' names taken out of the Rabbis' 'blacklist', you called it.'

"'We lost that case,' my father said. 'But we should have won, after all, Sarit married Joe Levitan in a double-ring Conservative ceremony in Long Island. Is it my fault that the Yemenite on the Bet Din didn't care for whatisname, Moshe Feldenstein? But that's not the point here. The point is that your kids, they'll be mamzerim, and what's worse, they are likely to have all sorts of genetic defects.'

"'Because we're so closely related, Hagit and I?'

"'That's right,' my father said.

"I thought for a minute. 'But if Hagit's mother had been my sister, the child of both my mother and my father, then Hagit and I would be uncle and niece,' I said. 'And if we were uncle and niece, we would legally be able to marry, even though genetically we'd be as closely related as a half-brother and a half-sister are. So scientifically, rationally, it's just like Hagit and I were uncle and niece. Wasn't there a professor of Bible at the University who married her uncle in Europe, back before the war?'

"'But it's not the same,' my father sputtered.

"'And why not?' I asked.

"'It just isn't.'"

"Well, that ended the argument," Ophir said to me, leaning back in the chair in my office. "When my father talks like that, he can't be reasoned with. So I called Hagit at work that morning. She told me that her mother, her stepfather, and her brother had berated her all night, and warned her repeatedly that if they ever saw the two of us together again they would kill both of us. 'You save them from sin at the price of their lives,' her brother quoted. Hagit also tried to argue with them, asking how they could be so cruel to me, Ophir, her brother. This just made them madder, she said. She told me she wasn't sure what to do, that she loved me more than ever, and that I would have to decide for both of us, because I was the one who was the big expert in moral philosophy. Since then we've talked, a minute here, a minute there, but she's worried that her stepfather, who cleans the floors at Bezek, has got somebody to bug our phones."

"The phones in Intelligence in Defense Headquarters," I said.

"I can't say that it makes much sense, but that what she told me."

"And you want my advice," I said.

"No. I know you are religious, and you'll say the same thing Hagit's brother said, more or less. I just wanted to tell you, so that you'd know why I won't be able to get my paper in on time. See, I haven't been sleeping hardly at all, with all the stress, and my doctor says that's why I can't study. I even brought a note from him" Ophir said, handing me the note.

"Oh," I said. I looked at the note: it was from a Dr. Har-Even, a psychologist practicing in North Tel Aviv, who wrote that "Ophir is suffering from extreme psychological stress, that has and will continue to interfere with his studies. If his studies stress him too, his stress levels may increase to a dangerous point."

"Well," I said, "just get it in when you can."

"Thank you, Dr. Kochin," Ophir said, and got up, opened the door, and left.

--Tel Aviv, 1999.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Abortion, halacha, and the jobs issue (reply to Debbie Greniman)

The overwhelming majority of abortions are motivated by the woman's economic situation. If good guys are out there, women will save themselves for them, and so an out of wedlock pregnancy will just produce a wedding.

As for halacha, you are right, Debbie, that there are nuanced positions out there. But are they correct? An unnuanced position (like that of Maimonides) seems to be the only one consistent with what Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi learned from Antoninus Caesar (Sanhedrin 91b).

Hope after Romney (nine replies to Hans Kehl)

Hans Kehl writes (on my Facebook wall): There is little true in what you write...There is a lot of propaganda and fear mongering...I've seen birther stories, Benghazi conspiracy theories, Obama as a secret Islamic radical, and as a black power radical, America as the land of the damned, and the need to bomb Iran and increase military spending, kids being flushed down toilets, and the end of all hope. The reality is if this represents the thought leadership of the conservative portion of society, no wonder Obama won! Here's a thought - 1) Keep out of my house and don't try to legislate social or religious issues to me - I'll be responsible for my family - you worry about yours 2) Stop pushing for more military spending - in fact cut it 3) Balance the budget and address the debt...If Romney had been thinking like this, he would have won going away, but unfortunately, because of the extremists and out of touch white men that have taken control of the Republican Party, he never would have won the nomination. The gap will only widen the next time around, and all this other stuff that you keep throwing out is a distraction, tactically incorrect, and very frustrating to those of us who aren't happy with an Obama presidency, but are left with no other credible choice. I thought you were a political scientist...


Romney is yesterday's news, so let's concentrate on you, me, Obama, and hope.

1. Birther stories -- Obama was the first birther, as his (almost certainly) author supplied biography when he was trying to sell his first book claims he was born in Kenya. Presumably his college transcripts have a similar assertion, which is why they have never been released. But, for the record, Obama has documented that he was born in Hawaii.
How much does any of this matter? Well, it doesn't matter anymore.

2. Benghazi conspiracy theories – the picture is staring to clear, no thanks to the mainstream media. Having helped to overthrow Qaddafi, the administration sent Ambassador Stephens to Benghazi to try to track down and recover US-supplied weapons before the weapons went to Al-Qaeda. Stephens warned his superiors that his security was inadequate, but they turned down his pleas for better protection. It appears, now, that once the attack commenced the US did not have the forces available to respond constructively.
Because the administration did not want to embark on a defense of its intervention in Libya, it first blamed Stephens's murder on the reaction to an anti-Muslim Youtube video, and arrested the filmmaker.

3. Obama as a secret Islamic radical. No, Obama is not a Muslim; he is a professed Christian, a member of the (stridently anti-Israel) United Church of Christ. But the principal effect of his interventions in Egypt and Libya has been to empower Islamic radicals. And faced with the choice of standing up for the First Amendment or appeasing Islamists on the youtube video, Obama chose to appease Islamists by arresting the filmmaker, and by stating at the UN that "there must be no future for those who would slander the prophet of Islam."

4. Black power radical -- here, I think, Obama's record speaks for itself . Of course, his agenda is precisely the opposite of that of real black radical thinkers like Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams, which would actually empower black people by easing some of the barriers to productive employment black people face.

5. Need to bomb Iran – a Q+A with Tel Aviv University political scientist Michael S. Kochin:
A. Is Iran building a nuclear bomb? Yes.
B. Can Iran be prevented from building a bomb by the continuation of the massive sabotage effort in which pretty much every other country in the world is cooperating? Not forever.
C. Can Iran be prevented from building a bomb by a conventional military strike? Not forever.
D. Will "not forever" under option B (continued sabotage) be long enough to outlast the current regime? I think so.
E. Is a conventional military with strike worth the marginal gain in delaying Iran's nuclear program? I doubt it.
F. If Iran gets the bomb under the current regime, can it be deterred from attacking the US by the US's nuclear arsenal? Yes.
G. If Iran gets the bomb under the current regime, can it be deterred from attacking Israel by Israel's nuclear arsenal? I say yes – Yair Evron, "Israel's premier civilian nuclear strategist," agreed with me a few years ago. But I have to say that most of the Israeli commentariat seems to think that the answer is "no."

6. Need to increase military spending: since the US does not have the forces to meet its commitments, it is going to have to either increase forces or reduce commitments. Presumably, it is going to do both. Certainly some of the US commitments, for example to South Korea, no longer suit US interests. And I have been calling for the US to get out of Afghanistan for years.

7. Balance the budget and address the debt: Only trouble is, raising taxes will prolong the great recession. My hope has been that a Romney administration would lift some of the regulatory burden on business, especially on the energy sector, which will foster employment and increase revenues. Obviously, that hope is blown. What is yours, Hans?

8. Abortion: Abortion is the deliberate taking of human life, but under the US constitution the primary responsibility for preventing murder falls to the states, which is why Roe v Wade was the exact opposite of good law or policy. I am not sure that a moral politician can take a "don't care" stand on abortion, but see Lincoln's Letter to Horace Greeley.

9. Hope: A good society has to have an economy that gives men good jobs so that they are marriageable (something I learned back in grad school from reading William Julius Wilson). Is there any hope that Obama's America will reverse the trends and move the US in the hopeful direction? Hans?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Letter to Prince Harry

Your Royal Highness:

"What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."

Would that it were so!

As a father, a fellow subject of the Queen, and one who has given his life to transmitting what guidance can be found in books on how to live, I want to offer you some advice. Not advice on what to avoid: plenty of those who know you are not going to be sparing with that, but advice on what to pursue.

You are in a difficult situation because, your military duties apart, you have a hard time finding answers to the question of how to live the life you have been given, with its privileges and burdens. You must often feel that you can only be who you are.

People want to know you, to get close to you, because of who you are, and not because of anything you have done or will do. The question is, how can you use this weakness in them, which you have probably already learned to see as less than charming, in order to foster the kinds of things you find worthy.

Ask yourself what forms of excellence you find it easiest to admire and appreciate. It may be that you admire valiant military men and women, who, like yourself, put themselves on the line for their country and family. Is it athletes who dedicate themselves for years to excellence, scientists who discover new and profound truths about nature or humanity, engineers who turn those truths into marvels, businessmen and women who make their fortunes by making the lives of ordinary people a little brighter? Do you admire most and enjoy the company of those who devote themselves to caring for those who cannot care for themselves, of the politicians who take upon themselves the responsibility of making the ends of society fit its means, the artists who delight or enchant us, or the religious who remind us of our duties and show us the consolation of God's unceasing love?

A prince can afford only the company of the worthy and honest. You need to find ways to make the privilege of your company a reward to those in whose accomplishments you yourself take pleasure. In this way you will do good and do so in way you enjoy.

The existing societies, charities and foundations may provide frameworks for you to do this. If not, there are plenty of people with means who share your sense of what is admirable, and who will be thrilled to work with you to foster excellence in the things you care about.

As a soldier, a prince, and one day soon, a husband and God willing a father, you have it in you to do admirable things. It will all be easier when you find a wife who can bear up under your social role and hers, but who admires you for the admirable things you can do and will help you to do them.

I am,
Respectfully yours,
Michael S. Kochin
Professor Extraordinarius of Political Science
Tel Aviv University

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Obama's Immigration Amnesty

John Yoo is rightly upset about the Obama administrations announced policy halting certain deportations. The refusal to enforce immigration law as written is hardly new. Consider the “Mann Act,” and the legal fate of one Eliot Spitzer. If you don’t like what Obama is doing, the only remedy is to vote for the other guy, and (why not?) elect members of congress and senators who will impeach over this.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Cairo: Hero dog or hero sandwich?

{Having survived the raid on Bin Laden's compound, combat dog Cairo had a close encounter with his dog-muncher-in-chief}:
President [Obama] asked to see Cairo, the dog that had accompanied the SEALs on the raid. The SEAL team commander warned the commander in chief, “Well, sir, I strongly advise you to have a treat, because this is a tough dog, you know.” Cairo was presented to Obama, although a presidential petting was discouraged and the dog was wearing a muzzle.
{No mention if the President was muzzled as well...}
--quoted from Peter L. Berger, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad (Kindle Locations 3725-3728). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.