The End of the Road

It’s official: my career as a teacher has ended. It spanned 45 years during which I taught in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, Tel Aviv, Washington DC, Quantico VA, and Geneva. I taught both Israelis and foreigners, both civilians and soldiers. Here it pleases me to put on some of my experiences on record.

I always enjoyed teaching. Unlike some of my colleagues I never saw it either as largely irrelevant to my main work or as a burden. To the contrary, I always looked at it as an opportunity to interact with others, listen to what they had to say, and, from time to time, learn something important from them. As happened, for example, many years ago when a young female student opened my eyes to the fact that Sun Tzu’s famous Art of War is a Daoist text, causing me to totally rethink what it had to say. On another occasion another young woman asked me how I (like most Israelis) “knew” that most Jordanians are actually Palestinians, thereby forcing me to think it over. On yet another occasion a young man opened my eyes to the fact that women would only gain equality if and when they dropped their preference for hypergamy and started marrying dropouts. So let me take this opportunity to thank them, and my students in general, for everything they have taught me over the years.

Following from the above, I think that the seminar, or workshop as we at Hebrew University used to call those we offered first year students, are the most useful courses of all. Much more so than lectures in which students are merely passive listeners and in which feedback is necessarily very limited. Let there be no mistake: preparing lecture may be a most useful thing for professors to do. As has been said, the best way to master a field or subject is to teach it. Students, though, will not benefit nearly as much.

To be effective a seminar has to be neither too large not to be small. The minimum number of students present is around five, or else there will be insufficient room for discussion. The maximum is probably around twenty. The ideal, I think, is twelve. Jesus, it seems, knew what he was doing.

Meetings should start with presentations by students. The presentations should be presented according to a program, fixed in advance. Ideally each student, to benefit from his or her experience, should have at least two opportunities to present. Unfortunately, the way most seminars are constructed this is not the way things happen.

In conducting a seminar, the most difficult thing is to make students prepare. In my experience, as well as that of my colleagues, only a minority do. So what to do? You can, of course start each meeting by questioning some of them. Doing so, however, is largely a waste of time and can be humiliating to the students themselves. I am afraid that I only hit on the solution a few years ago: namely, to have them prepare questions about the material and use email to send them, in advance, to the student who is going to present next. With a copy to me, as the instructor. This method obliged me to read each student’s questions and reply to them very briefly. Quite some work, but worth it.

It is vital that students should treat each other with respect. I always told them that they could say anything about anyone or anything outside the classroom. Alive or dead. But that I would insist on them speaking to and about each other the way courteous people do.

That said, the best meetings were sometimes the noisiest. Let me give you an example. Years and years ago we were discussing Karl Marx. It was one of those occasions, which I tolerated and even encouraged up to a point, when students got so excited that everyone was shouting at each other. Suddenly a window opened, a young woman dropped in (the campus on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, had some odd places where you could do that, technically speaking) and asked us to keep our voices down because, in the class next door, they could not hear each other. Having finished laughing, we gladly obliged.

Students can be misleading. The most extreme example was Yuval Harari. When he first studied with me some twenty years ago he never opened his mouth during the entire 26 meetings that the course, whose topic was modern strategy, lasted. I hope he will forgive me for saying that I did not know what to make of him and thought he was completely autistic. In my defense I can only say that, no sooner had I seen his seminar paper, which dealt with command in the middle ages, then I realized the guy was a genius. By now, of course, he is world famous.

I always treated male and female students exactly the same. Doing so was in line with the kind of education we young Israelis received during the 1950s and 1960s, which in some ways was the most egalitarian in the world. It is my experience, though, that 1. In mixed classes, female students do not take nearly as lively a part in discussion as male ones do; and 2. That the most interested students, meaning those who sought me out in my office or wrote to me not just to ask for a deferment of this or that but to discuss all kinds of issues, are almost always male.

Let me conclude with a final point. Following in the footsteps of my reverend teacher, Prof. Alexander Fuks (see, on him, my post for 1.10.2014) I have always felt that teacher and students should work together to find out the truth as far as possible. Or else, why bother? To do this, absolute freedom of speech is needed. Even if it means the right to take up unpopular positions and follow them to wherever they may lead; particularly if it means the right to take up unpopular positions and follow them to wherever they may lead.

It therefore came as a surprise, and a most unwelcome one, to find that many students no longer share this idea. Instead, they regard the classroom as a place where their opinions, or perhaps I should say prejudices, should not be questioned. Any teacher who brings up a topic the local crybullies find “offensive,” as for example by daring to discuss nudity (as a young colleague of mine did) or suggesting that women, far from being oppressed, are privileged in many ways (as I did) is putting his or her head on the block. In several of the universities where I taught the outcome was likely to be a complaint. One which, having been launched, would almost certainly be backed by administrators who know only too well on which side their bread is buttered.

So farewell you students, the good as well as the bad. And shame on many of you, universities, for your cowardice in betraying your sacred mission: namely, to protect freedom of thought at all cost.


12Jaeger: At War with Denmark’s Elite Special Forces, is a book by former special forces soldier Thomas Rathsack. Originally it was published in Denmark where it was a best seller and is said to have inspired many youngsters to volunteer for the military; since 2015 it has been available in English too.

The book starts with a brief autobiographical sketch of the author’s life before he enlisted in the Danish special forces. Next, it describes the truly grueling training he and his comrades received; including insane physical effort and culminating in parachute jumps from 30,000 feet. Next, it outlines some of the action the author saw in uncongenial places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It concludes with the half-hearted attempts, and ultimately futile, attempts of the Danish military to try the author for allegedly having revealed all kinds of secrets.

While no literary masterpiece, the book is very impressive. I was especially interested in what made a young man decide on such a career, perhaps the toughest and most dangerous on earth; and one, moreover, which leaves those who embark on it with no time for anything else. As Rathsack says, repeatedly, it was the desire to test himself that made him tick. To the utmost, again and again and again. No surprise here, really, since the same has been true since at least the time of Homer on.

But what really caught my eye, and my mind, was something else. Let me use the author’s own words, as far as possible, to describe it:

“American drones—MQ-1 Predators—had over the past week kept a watchful eye on the… regions in the mountainous provinces” along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Their drones had captured pictures of Taliban and al-Qaeda members crossing the border… However, the unstable weather conditions of the late winter had made the Predator less effective. Task Force K Bar was therefore assigned the task of observing activities in the area. Fortunately for us, this meant boots on the ground…”

“We would be inserted by helicopter at night flying over hills, mountains and valleys, through areas swarming with armed enemies… The operation was expected to span 10 days,” which meant that each of them would have to carry up to 180 pounds, including water. Preparations included gathering and compiling intelligence: “We needed information about wind, light, rainfall and temperature. We needed to know where the enemy was expected to be, whether they were armed and organized, and what their morale was. And finally we’d need information about whether the local population was friendly or hostile, and where the nearest town or settlement was located… Advanced computer programs provided us with information about the altitude and gradient of the mountains. We sought out the best places from which to observe the villages and the tracks we were interested in…”

“The landing zone couldn’t be too close to our observation base, since the enormous CH-47 helicopter taking us in was extraordinarily loud.” Communications, medical equipment, and plans for enabling the team to be extracted in case things went wrong had to be prepared. “We were privileged in that the pilots who flew us in were the best in the world.” In support would be jet fighters and “the awesome American flying fortress, the AC-130 Gunship, which carries a whole arsenal of weaponry systems.” All this, so just five men could be landed on a mountain 250 miles from base.

“I was in the best company possible—with some of the world’s top soldiers.” Once the team had been flown in and were on the ground, “we quickly secured our position for all angles. A deafening silence set in. Not a sound in the night… It was as if we had found ourselves in a vacuum… Getting away from the landing zone as fast as possible was crucial The Chinook had probably been heard in the villages a few miles away. That meant Al Qaeda and Taliban forces would be aware of special forces in the area.”

The men spent the rest of the night marching to their predesignated observation post. Given the altitude (9,000 feet), the terrain, and the loads they carried doing so required an almost superhuman effort. On one side were a handful of the world’s best soldiers, trained at great expense for years on end until they became perfect killing machines. Backing them up were entire forests of machines some of which, such as the F-16 fighter bombers AC-130 gunships (which, however, being slow and vulnerable, were only allowed to operate by night) cost tens of millions of dollars each. And what were they after? “The village beneath me consisted of 14-15 single family houses, all made of clay and enclosed behind the concrete walls that nearly all Afghan houses had… The only sign of life was a herd of goats, bound to a tree in the western part of the village… just after 9 A.M two men stepped out of one of the bigger buildings in the village. They were dressed in loose, brown robes, and walked slowly to the small grove of trees where the goats were tied up. They sat in the shade, leaning up against a tree and began conversing. I noted it in the logbook It was the only activity on this watch.”

A few nights later, payoff! “I froze at what I saw through the scope. A group of men were walking along a trail from one of the values south of the village. I counted 12, all armed with Kalashnikovs…. The group was clearly on its way across the border from Pakistan.”

Not long thereafter the commandos were discovered. Whether by accident or because the opponent, alerted by the helicopter’s noise, had noted their presence and was actively looking for them is not clear. Probably the latter, since the village appeared to be abnormally quiet. Thus another operation had to be prepared to get the commandos out before they were overrun and the survivors, if any, put to death in any number of interesting ways. This time, in addition to a Chinook and F-16s on standby, 30 soldiers from the American 10th Mountain Division (plus at least one helicopter to carry them) and an Advance Warning and Control System (AWACS) costing perhaps $ 200,000,000 were involved.

All this, I could not help but wonder, only to observe a handful of bearded men issuing from clay huts while armed with locally made assault rifles? And only to end up by failing to achieve anything?

PS: Those of you who have not seen the following link showing US male and female Marine on training, do yourself a favor and take a look.


My wife is planning some changes in our house. Not just minor ones, but of the kind that will require demolishing half of it and will make it temporarily unlivable—the more so because, unlike modern American homes, it is made not of wood and cardboard but of reinforced concrete. Preparing for the builders, she has decided to deal with the accumulated rubbish of three decades. Collecting it, sorting it, putting it into plastic bags, and making me schlep it out to the place it belongs. It is the kind of work she likes and with which I, addicted to writing as I am, nilly-willy go along.

Her efforts were rewarded. On the way she stumbled on an essay I produced when I was fourteen years old. This was the spring of 1960. Just before I graduated from the eighth and final class of “Yahalom” (Diamond) elementary school which I then attended in my hometown of Ramat Gan, not far from Tel Aviv. Consisting of 400 words, it is written with the aid of one of those fountain pens I have always favored, in Hebrew, and in longhand. Apparently it was composed in one go, off the cuff, without errors or corrections. Proof, that, of a kind of self-confidence which, fifty-six years later, I no longer have; nowadays correcting often takes as long as, or longer than, writing, as it does in this case too. The essay must have been preserved by my mother, now dead.

The topic, apparently set by the teacher, was: “A Historical Age in Which I Would Like to Live.” I started my essay by making the rather philosophical observation that there was no good without evil and no evil without good. That, I said, applied to every field, historical periods included. History could be divided into three parts: ancient, medieval, and modern. Antiquity had been a time of “enormous achievements,” including writing, agriculture, and many kinds of art. The middle ages had witnessed a “general collapse” in all these fields, including art, trade, science, and culture. However, in 1492 progress resumed. Once again, the outcome was “enormous achievements” such as democracy. Again growing philosophical, I gave it as my young opinion that “every age has its advantages and disadvantages, but all have this in common that the advantages were greater than the disadvantages.”

“If there is a period in which I would like to live apart from what we call our own,” I went on, it is “the remote future.” In that future –

The world will reach an ideal state. All states will cease to exist, or at any rate abolish their frontiers and tariff-walls. All places on earth will be linked by scientific, cultural, commercial, and artistic ties. Armed forces, which today number millions of people, will completely disappear. Wars having come to an end, they will no longer be needed. As people come to obey the law without having to be coerced, even police forces will become more or less superfluous. In this future, remote though it is, class differences will disappear. The only way people for people to climb the social ladder will be by means of personal talent and knowledge. And even that ladder will not be material, as is the case today, but spiritual. Science, in its many forms, will govern the world. Everyone will recognize its power and will provide it with the wherewithal to make further progress. It will provide us with everything. Free us from our dependence on the weather and the earth’s orbit around the sun; [and] enable us to contact alien civilizations (supposing such civilizations exist or will exist) from which we shall be able to learn more than we could ever do on our own. Generally speaking, life will be ideal, similar to that envisaged by the prophets of our people.

I would like to live in that world because of the absolute equality and freedom on which it will be based. And also because of the material and spiritual wealth it will provide… Who knows? Perhaps this age will come one day.

I distinctly remember where I got my ideas about alien civilizations. It was Arthur C. Clark, Prelude to Space (1951), which had been translated into Hebrew and which I read several times. Looking back, I find that parts of it were truly prophetic, others pure rubbish. The words about the prophets of our people must have come from the Old Testament classes we took and to which I still owe most of such knowledge of it I possess.

As to the rest, I have no idea. Clearly, though, I was already taking a strong interest in what was to become my lifelong occupation: to wit, history in all its tremendous variety. Was my essay simply an expression of childish innocence? Did it reflect the “go-go” 1960s which, ere the Vietnam War took the fun out of them, may well have been the most optimistic, most hopeful, period in the whole of human history? Was it an outgrowth of what, now that I think about it, must have been excellent teaching indeed? Or all of these?

My teacher, bless her, whose name I can no longer recall, did not think any of these things. Near the end of the essay she wrote: “interesting and intelligent—but, ‘much to my regret,’ [apostrophes in the original] beside the point.”

Scholars, Journalists, Spies

spiesHere is a story I heard many years ago. On one occasion, someone asked US President Lyndon Johnson how important the various intelligence services—of which the US has plenty and to spare—were to his job. His response? I never got anything from the hush-hush crowd that I could not read next day on the pages of the New York Times. And there is a reason for that, Johnson is supposed to have added. Intelligence people are experts in gathering information. Journalists are also experts in gathering information. The difference is that the journalists are usually better.

The story may or may not be true. Assuming it is, Johnson may have meant what he said. Or else he may have been deliberately downplaying the role of secret intelligence so as to conceal the fact that he knew more; after all, dissimulation is said to have been one of his outstanding qualities. I can think of several other interpretations. No matter. Presumably we shall never know.

Why this story? Because, a couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to hold a public lecture here in Jerusalem. My topic was, “Where did the Iranian Threat Go?” A riddle indeed, considering the number of times Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to the issue; not to mention his repeated threats to bomb Iran so as to prevent it from building a bomb.

I took the occasion to argue, as I have often done on this site among other places, that the Iranian nuclear threat to my country was largely a myth. As I spoke, I did not have to wait for the Q&A to know what my audience was thinking—I have been through it so many times before. Do you, as a scholar, have access to secret intelligence? No, I do not (nor am I sure I would like to; such access creates its own constraints). If so, how do you know what you claim to know? Good question, that: and one which I want to address here.

Point No. 1. I do not claim to know nearly as much as the intelligence services about how many centrifuges Iran has, where they are located, by how many meters of concrete they are protected, how much enriched uranium they have produced, etc. Here I am largely dependent on the journalists, who themselves derive much of their information from the spies, who almost always have their own agenda in mind in releasing it at the time, and in the form, they do.

Point No. 2. Information of the kind just referred to, however accurate, is meaningless on its own. To understand its significance it is first necessary to answer much broader questions. Such as the roots of Iran’s behavior; its objectives; and its constraints. Briefly, its national strategy and the role its nuclear program is playing within that strategy. When it comes to these problems, the information at the disposal of scholars is often quite as good as, if not better than, that of the spies or, for that matter, the journalists.

Point No. 3. When it comes to still broader questions, such as the impact of nuclear weapons on international relations, the history deterrence and of proliferation, and so on, scholars may well be better informed than either spies or journalists. The reason being that members of these professions are unlikely to have the leisure to look into such problems as thoroughly as they should.

Point No. 4. Spies and the agencies for which they work often come under political pressure to tell decision-makers what they want to hear. An outstanding, indeed outrageous, example was provided by the attempts of the Clinton and Bush administrations to “prove” the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What things did they not do, what stories did they not invent! Such as mobile laboratories for manufacturing germs, and God knows what else. I once had the pleasure of spending an hour with Hans Blix, the UN commissioner who headed the team appointed to find those weapons. He told me, as he has told others, how the Americans did it. Scholars, working in an academic environment, are much less likely to come under pressures of this kind.

Briefly, spies have their advantages. For any government, military, and even large corporation they are a must. But they cannot operate on their own. To some extent, this is recognized by the intelligence services themselves. Or why else recruit, train and use “analysts” as well as “collectors”?

I myself have some experience with this. Time upon time over the years, I have had meetings with intelligence people and journalists from all over the world. Quite a few visited my hometown near Jerusalem specifically in order to discuss various issues with me. Including events in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Time upon time, I expressed my surprise at the fact that they, who had been to those countries, came to see me, who had not. The answer I got was always the same: by adding context, you can explain to us what we have seen, heard, and experienced.

To which I can only say, Amen.