In Praise of Old Age

I was born in 1946. That means that Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison—here listed in the order in which they were born—all were or are a little older than me. Now I am 69, which is a few years more than the character about whom, in one of their most memorable compositions, they sang:

When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out ’til quarter to three, would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?

You’ll be older too
And, if you say the word, I could stay with you

I could be handy, mending a fuse, when your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside, Sunday mornings, go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?

Every summer we can rent a cottage
In the Isle of Wight if it’s not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck, and Dave

Send me a postcard, drop me a line, stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say, yours sincerely, wasting away
Give me your answer, fill in a form, mine forever more
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?

illustration_to_the_beatles_song_when_i__m_64_by_martinduefert-d5ff6xrThey wrote and performed the song, and I first listened to it, back in 1967. At the time my own parents were in their late forties and being sixty-four years old seemed so far away as to be almost inconceivable. Here I want to address the question, to what extent did the Beatles’ expectations—happy expectations—match my experience?

Thinking about it, I must say, to a very large extent. To proceed in reverse order, yes, my wife of thirty-something years is still with me. We keep nourishing each other in every sense of the word—day by day, week by week. Yes, we have several darling grandchildren, aged 11 years to six months, on or near our knees. Yes, we rent a cottage every summer—not in the Isle of Wight, mind you, but in Potsdam near Berlin. Luckily we do not have to scrimp and save for doing so.

I do work in the garden, a very small one to be sure, and I do dig up weeds. Dvora does knit a sweater occasionally (most of the time she paints). We often go for drives on the weekend, either taking a walk somewhere or visiting friends and relatives. We do enjoy anniversaries, birthdays, greetings, and a bottle of wine. And, yes, I have lost practically all my hair.

But there are also some differences. Turning around 180 degrees and proceeding from the beginning of the song to its end, normally it is she and not me who does most of the minor technical jobs that have to be done. She is also the one who deals with the occasional help we need to do work we cannot do or can no longer do; such as, for example, re-painting the townhouse in which we live.

The most important difference, though, is that, at sixty-nine, I do not just potter around. Instead I work harder than ever, writing one book after another. The reason why I do so is because I enjoy writing as much as, or more than, I have ever done. And the reason for that is because old age, in spite of all its problems, often brings in its wake certain kinds of freedom younger people cannot readily imagine. That includes freedom from the need to constantly worry about one’s offspring, who are now adults and fully able to look after themselves. Freedom from the need to please employers and/or clients; freedom (in my case) from publishers, given that I can post anything I please on this blog or on; and, finally, the freedom only the knowledge that death is no longer so very far away can bring.

And then there are the things that did not happen. True, physically neither of us is what we used to be. Where the lithe woman I once met? Where is the athlete who used to run miles and miles up and down the hills around Jerusalem, feeling like a god as he did so? The answer, in both cases: long gone.

On the other hand, neither of us is “wasting away” either. Perhaps that is because, over the last half-century people’s life expectancy has gone up by almost a decade. If so, bless the doctors, bless the pills, and bless whoever and whatever is responsible. And yes, we do suffer from some ailments—Dvora more than I—which the Beatles did not mention. However, to-date these are comparatively minor matters. All in all, “Who could ask for more?”

And that, all you hard-working, stressed, twenty- thirty- and forty-somethings with mortgages to pay and kids to raise, who worry about what life may have in store for you when you are sixty-four, is why I am writing in praise of old age.

Your old age, I hope.

Happy Birthday, Israel

polls_israel_flag_5311_565914_poll_xlargeBack in 2010, in my book The Land of Blood and Honey, I argued that Israel was the greatest political success story of the entire twentieth century. Today, on my country’s 67th birthday, I want to bring that story up to date. Most of the figures are taken from a recent posting by Dr. Adam Reuter, chairman of Reuter Meydan Investment House and CEO of Financial Immunities Ltd. The starting line is 1984; 1984 being the year in which the country, embroiled in Operation peace for Galilee (the First Lebanon War) and with a 450% inflation rate, was on the brink of bankruptcy.

As always, success had many fathers. The then minister of finance, Yitzhak Modai (1926-98), took the credit for himself. Nonsense, says then Prime Minister Shimon Peres. He, Modai, did not even know what was going on. Surely some credit must also be given to the extra $ 1.5 billion (coming on top of the annual $ 3 billion) in American aid. Be this as it may, Israel’s economic heart, which since the October 1973 War had been all but paralyzed, started beating again. Follow some of the results.

In 1984 the country had 4.1 million inhabitants. By now the figure is 8.2 million, a 100 percent increase. Following the post-2008 economic recession as well as new anti-Semitism in many countries, immigration has been picking up. Moreover, compared to other OECD countries Israel’s population is very young, a fact that has important implications for the continuation of growth. Yet the tremendous demographic increase has not prevented the number of rooms per person from growing from 0.92 to 1.26, a 37 percent increase. The number of vehicles per capita has more than doubled, with results that can be seen on every road and street every day. GDP, calculated in dollar terms, has increased ninefold. Per capita GDP has increased 414 percent, foreign currency reserves 2,866 percent. The national debt has gone down from 280 percent of GDP to just 66 percent.

Whatever one thinks of the Second Lebanon War nine years ago, since then the border with Lebanon has been almost completely quiet. Whatever one thinks of Operation Protective Edge nine months ago, since then the border with Gaza has been almost completely quiet as well. That, plus the collapse of Syria and Egypt, helps explain why Defense, which used to take up 20 percent of GDP, has gone down to no much more than 5 percent. Taxation, which took up 45 percent of GDP, went down to 32 percent. American aid went down from 10 percent of GDP in 1984 to just 1 percent today. Exports, measured in dollar terms, went up 860 percent.

Back in 1984 Israel had zero—zero—indigenous supplies of energy and water. By now, thanks to the discovery of vast gas fields on one hand and the construction of the world’s largest complex of desalination plants on the other, both are available in very large quantities and can be increased almost at will. As a result of all this, even the Economist, the smart-Alec British magazine which back in 2008 honored Israel’s 60s birthday with a cover story about “the dysfunctional Jewish state,” has been forced to admit that, since the country joined OECD five years ago, it has done better than most of its fellow-members in that august organization.

“Israel has a disproportionate amount of brains and energy,” said Warren Buffet (who, putting his pocket where his mouth was, by spent some $ 2 billion buying some Israeli companies). In the UN’s Human Development Index it is rated nineteenth. The Wall Street Journal has rated Tel Aviv third in the world in high-tech, behind Austin and San Francisco but ahead of New York, Stockholm, London, Singapore, and others. In terms of innovation, Israel heads a list of 148 countries. In terms of entrepreneurship it comes second. 300 leading international companies, including Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Google, Apple, HP, Cisco, Motorola, Philipps, and Siemens either already have R&D centers in Israel or are building them now. During the first decade of the twenty-first century Israel also led the world in terms of the number of Nobel-Prize winners per capita.

Nor is it just a question of economic and technological development. Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees now than it did a century ago (living in Mevasseret Zion west of Jerusalem, and having in my possession photographs of the area taken by the German Air Force during World War I, I can testify to that fact). The number of museums per capita is the highest in the world.  So is the number of published scientific articles. The same applies to the share of R&D in GDP as well as the proportion of high-tech workers in the labor force. The bad reputation of Israeli drivers notwithstanding, the number of those killed in traffic accidents per 100,000 of the population is much lower than in most other countries.

Finally, polls show that, in terms of happiness Israel ranks sixth among OECD countries and eleventh among 146 countries world-wide. All this has been achieved in spite of the country’s small size; in spite of its location in the Middle East, not exactly the most peaceful or most benevolent part of the world; in spite of continuing security problems more dangerous and more persistent than those affecting any other developed country; and without for one moment surrendering the most precious possessions of all: such as democracy, human rights (for the non-Palestinian population, at any rate) and an independent judiciary.

To be sure, there are problems. There are several hundreds of thousands illegal immigrants (although, since the completion of a security fence between the Negev and the Sinai Peninsula, the number of new ones coming in has dropped to practically zero). The gap between rich and poor has been growing, as has the number of the working poor. Some communities, particularly the ultra-orthodox and the Arabs, are lagging behind in terms of socio-economic development (although, in both cases, change has finally got under way). There is still no peace with most of the neighboring countries. However, with the exception of the last-named two, all these are problems of a developed country, not of a developing one such as Israel used to be a few decades ago.

Unfortunately, one field in which no progress whatsoever has been made is the question of the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem included. I do not want to enter into the question as to whose fault this is, Israel or the Palestinians. As the saying goes, one needs two to tango—a point of view, incidentally, that many Israeli Arabs also share. In the eyes of many both in Israel and abroad, the occupation is the most important problem that has to be solved one way or another. Personally I agree that such is indeed the case. Let us hope that, when I write another column on my country a year from now, there will finally be some good news in that department too.

Feminist Follies

feminist-adFifty-two years have passed since Betty Friedan with her book, The Feminine Mystique, jump-started the great feminist revolt against oppression, discrimination, and any other number of horrible things those bad, bad, creatures known as men have been doing to poor deluded women. Looking back, has women’s situation improved? Or has it deteriorated? Here are some of the facts:

* Today as ever, the higher one climbs on the slippery pole of power, richness and fame the fewer women one meets. Only about five percent of the world’s countries have female presidents or prime ministers. From the late Ms. Gandhi down, even many of those got their jobs mainly because they were the relatives of male ones. The percentage of top level female executives in Fortune 500 companies is considerably smaller still. The highest-paid female executive in America is Marillyn Rothblatt of United Therapeutics Corporation, ranks 20th on the relevant Fortune Magazine list. Interestingly enough, “she” was born a man.

* About two thirds of all working women in advanced countries are still employed in a small number of vast, low-paid, female ghettoes where there are few if any men: whether as teachers, nurses, social workers, communicators, administrators—the last two, euphemisms for what used to be called secretaries—or bank- and supermarket cashiers. As if to add insult to injury, many of those who head the relevant professional associations are men. A phenomenon sufficiently common to have acquired a name, “the glass elevator”.

* Starting as far back as the Roman Empire, and other things (beauty, sex appeal, education, etc.) equal, a female slave, owing to her lesser ability to do hard labor, has always been assessed at about two thirds of the price of a male one. In today’s developed countries, that is almost exactly the rate of female to male earnings.

* Most women, by joining the labor force, have failed to improve either their own economic situation or that of their families. That is because, as Senator (Massachusetts, D.) Elizabeth Warren in The Two Income Trap (2003) has shown, working mothers inevitably incur extra expenses. Such as an additional car; clothing; help in taking care of the household; and all kinds of people and organizations to look after the children either in the afternoon or during the holidays. As a result, and taking inflation into account, in many, perhaps most, cases their discretionary income, i.e. that part of it they are free to spend as they like, is actually less than it used to be.

* Another reason why going to work has failed to improve the economic situation of many, perhaps most, women is taxation. First, imagine a—much simplified, to be sure—situation where two women decide not to mind their own children. Instead they swap them and pay each other for doing what has to be done. As a result, both will start having to pay taxes. Second, many countries do not allow spouses to file separately. As a result, two incomes may well move a family into a higher tax bracket. Either way, the only winners are the statistics on one hand and that insatiable beast, the treasury, on the other. No wonder each time more women start working the lords of the latter boast of it as a feather in their cap.

* Interestingly enough, almost all of those who take the place of working women in any of the above capacities are themselves women. In other words, for every “successful” woman there are now several others whose “careers” consist of doing the kinds of work she no longer wants; such as cleaning, laundering, serving food, cooking, looking after children, and the like. Other women, mainly elderly family members, do the same work without pay. Either way, feminism has failed to liberate women from housework and childcare. Instead, what has happened is that “successful” women are exploiting less successful ones to an extent that has no precedent in history.

* Before World War II, it was often thought that the ability of most married women not to work was “God’s gift” to them. Now, since most young men can no longer support a family on their own, most women have to work outside the home whether they want to or not. Losing their freedom, they have been turned into wage slaves” just as their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons are. To say nothing about the famous “double burden;” which has resulted in any number of books that advise women how to manage their time to appearing on the best-seller lists.

* It is true that women are making gains in education. However, that is primarily a reflection of inflation in the field. As the number of students grew, the social prestige diplomas and degrees conferred on their holders went down. Especially since the start of the 2008 economic crisis, a situation has been created where a college education no longer necessarily translates into a good job. Meanwhile, thanks to their stronger bodies, blue collar men with considerably fewer years of school behind them can often make as much or more money as “pink collar” women who do have such an education. That indeed is one reason why more boys than girls are dropping out of school. Furthermore, at the highest levels men still dominate, and by a huge margin. Since Marie Currie early in the twentieth century there has not been one female scientist whose name has turned into a household word.

* Today as ever, the most “successful” women tend to be childless or, at any rate, have far fewer children than the rest. So much do they seem to hate themselves that they are waging war on their own genes! Many other “successful” women are postponing childbirth until it is too late. Indeed it could be argued that the greatest beneficiaries of the feminist revolution are not women, who have to fork out and undergo all kinds of unpleasant and often unsuccessful procedures, but adoption agencies on one hand and fertility clinics on the other.

* As the most cursory look at women’s magazines and department stores will confirm, feminist attempts to convince women to stop pandering to men by dropping high heels, cosmetic surgery, makeup, and every other kind of beauty aid supposedly forced on them by men have been a total failure. Women undergoing cosmetic surgery, always at the cost of money as well as some pain and suffering, also outnumber men by a huge margin. Now as ever, the Biblical saying applies: “unto your man your desire and he shall rule you” (Genesis 3.16).

* Women’s attempts to make a significant impact on the military have been a miserable failure. Rather, what we got is a host of uniformed female medical personnel, public relations advisers, “organization experts” (who needs those?) and secretaries. As the fact that only about 2.5 percent of the casualties in America’s “war on terror” have been women shows, female combat soldiers remain as rare as water in the Sahara. Where there are bullets there are no women, and where there are women there are no bullets. And fortunately so; in all countries that tried to train women to male standards without exception, the outcome has been a very large number of injuries, some of them incapacitating.

* Finally, the first period in history when large numbers of women in Western countries started living longer than men was the early nineteenth century; precisely the period when the ideal of the non-working, stay-at-home woman was born. In both the US and Britain, the greatest gap in life expectancy between people of both sexes prevailed around 1975. Since then, as more and more women entered the labor force and took up what was long seen as a typical male activity, i.e. smoking, it has been cut by almost half. Feminism, in other words, is literally killing women.

Women, it is claimed, are as intelligent and as able to form their own opinions as men are. Therefore, how countless women around the world allow themselves to be led by the nose by a relatively small coterie of extreme feminists is by no means clear. But who cares? Certainly not I. If women, other than my wife of course, want to ruin their lives by trying to emulate men and become second-rate men, who am I to stand in their way?

Just Published! A Biography of Conscience

M. van Creveld, A Biography of Conscience, London, Reaktion, 2015.


Many would consider conscience to be one of the most important, if not the most important, quality that distinguished humans from animals on one hand and machines on the other. However, what is conscience? Is it a product of our biological roots, as Darwin thought, or is it a purely human invention? If so, how did it come into the world? Who invented it, where, when, and against what social background? What did the ancient philosophers have to say about it? How does it relate to religion, Judaism and Christianity in particular? How did conscience survive the secularization of the Western world after 1600 or so, and where is it today? Are there any societies that, not recognizing the idea of conscience, have developed and used other methods for internalizing social control? If so, what are those mechanism like?

The present volume, the only one of its kind, attempts to provide answers to these and other questions. Well-documented but written in simple, jargon-free language, it starts in ancient Egypt. From there it leads all the way to present day campaigns aimed at hammering issues such as human rights, health and environmental into our consciences. Readers will learn about the Old Testament which, erroneously as it turns out, is normally seen as the fountainhead from which the Western idea of conscience has sprung. They will also meet Antigone, the first person on record ever to explicitly speak of conscience, syneidēsis in Greek, as a basis for action.

Next they will encounter the philosophers Zeno, Cicero, Lucretius, and Seneca; outstanding Christian thinkers such as Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and, above all, Luther with his famous saying, “here I stand, I cannot otherwise;” as well as modern intellectual giants. The list opens with Machiavelli, the man who, drawing a sharp line between private and public behavior, admitting conscience into the former but not into the latter. Next come Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, and Burton Skinner.

Separate chapters are devoted to Japan and China. Both are societies that, rather than relying on conscience as a method of social control, put their trust in shame and reverence instead. There are chapters dealing with the Nazis—starting with Hitler and proceeding downward, did the Nazis have any kind of conscience at all?—as well as the most recent discoveries in robotics and brain science. On the way readers will follow the evolution of conscience in many of its numerous, occasionally strange and even surprising, permutations.

The book concludes by arguing that, the claims of workers in artificial intelligence and brain science notwithstanding, we today are no closer to understanding the nature of conscience than we have ever been. In the words of one contemporary computer expert cum psychotherapist, probably we shall be able to build machines able to mimic conscience before we ever know what conscience really is.

More May Be Better

“More may be better” was the title of an article published back in 1981 by the redoubtable political scientist Kenneth Waltz. Going against the prevailing wisdom, Waltz argued that nuclear proliferation might not be all bad. Nuclear weapons, he wrote, had prevented the US and the USSR from going to war against each other; as, by all historical logic since the days of Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC, they should have done. Instead they circled each other like dogs, occasionally barking and baring their teeth but never actually biting. Such was the fear the weapons inspired that other nuclear countries would probably follow suit. To quote Winston Churchill, peace might be the sturdy child of terror.

Since then over thirty years have passed. Though Waltz himself died in 2013, his light goes marching on. At the time he published his article there were just five nuclear countries (the US, the USSR, Britain, France, and China). Plus one, Israel, which had the bomb but put anybody who dared say so in jail. Since then three (India, Pakistan, and North Korea) have been added, raising the total to nine. Yet on no occasion did any of these states fight a major war against any other major, read nuclear, power.South_African_nuclear_bomb_casings

And how about Iran? First, note that no country has taken nearly as long as Iran did to develop its nuclear program. Started during the 1970s under the Shah, suspended during the 1980s as the Iranians were fighting Saddam Hussein (who had invaded Iran), and renewed in the early 1990s, that program has still not borne fruit. This suggests that, when the Iranians say, as they repeatedly have, that they do not want to build a bomb they are sincere, at least up to a point. All they want is the infrastructure that will enable them to build it quickly should the need arise. That is a desire they have in common with quite some other countries such as Sweden, Japan, and Australia.

Second, the real purpose of the Iranian program, and any eventual bomb that may result from it, is to deter a possible attack by the U.S. Look at the record; one never knows what America’s next president is going to do. There is a distinct possibility that another Clinton, who attacked Serbia, and another Bush, who attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, will occupy the White House from 2016. Thus caution is advised. The Mullahs have no desire to share the fate of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Khadafy. The latter’s fate in particular gives reason for thought. In 2002-3, coming under Western pressure, Khadafy gave up his nuclear program. As his reward, no sooner did the West see an opportunity in 2011 than it stabbed him in the back, waged war on him, overthrew him, and had him killed. Leaving Libya in a mess from which it may never recover.

Third, Israel is in no danger. Alone among all the countries of the Middle East, Israel has what it takes to deter Iran and, if absolutely necessary, wage a nuclear war against it. What such a war might look like was described in some detail a few years ago by Anthony Cordesman, an American political scientist and former member of the National Security Council. His conclusion? The difference in size notwithstanding, the outcome would be to wipe Iran, but not Israel, off the map.

Netanyahu has Iran in his head and effectively used it to win the elections. Yet truth to say, no Iranian leader has ever directly threatened Israel. To be sure, neither Iran’s presidents nor the Mullahs like the Zionist Entity. They do not stand to attention when Hatikvah is played. They have even had the chutzpah—how dare they?—to deny the Holocaust. Yet all they have said is that, if Israel attacked them, they would respond in kind. Also that “rotten” Israel would end up by collapsing under its own weight. All this serves to divert attention away from their real purpose. That purpose, as I just said, is to deter the U.S. And to draw as much support in the Moslem world as verbal attacks on Israel always do.

Finally, morality. Are the Iranians really as bad as some people, especially Netanyahu who would like to fight Teheran to the last drop of Western blood, always claim? If so, why did Iran sign the non-proliferation treaty whereas Israel did not? During the three and a half decades since the fall of the Shah the U.S has waged war first against (or in) Grenada; then Panama; then Iraq; then Serbia (in Bosnia); then Serbia again (in Kosovo); then Afghanistan; then Iraq again; then Libya. In many of these worthy undertakings it was supported by its allies which, like jackals, joined in the feast.

The Iranians are not angels—far from it. They have meddled in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as they still do. They have also assisted terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas. But everything is relative. They have not waged large-scale warfare against any other country. Let alone bombed it or invaded it.

And that, in the final analysis, is all that matters.