Three Unrelated Books: Iran, Unions, Torah.

1. “Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution” by Shaul Bakhash (1984). A few weeks ago, I reported that I had heard Holleh Esfandiari speak and read her book “My Prison, My Home” about her horrific experienced being arrested by the Iranian authorities in 2006 when she went to Tehran (from Washington, where she heads the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center) to visit her 90+ year old mother. She had made this trip several times a year without a problem, but now was held in the country for about eight months (and in prison for half of that) being accused of acts against the Islamic Republic.

Esfandiari is married to Shaul Bakhash, former Iranian journalist, now American professor, who had written a book almost thirty years ago on the first years of the Islamic Republic (he and his wife had left Iran shortly after the 1979 revolt). Reading this book, and seeing how critical it is of the Iranian government (without any reason to think it inaccurate in any manner), I am not surprised that the Iranians were suspicious of Esfandiari, and am more surprised that it took as long as it did for them to confront her.

Bakhash’s story of Iran is an awful one. He is not one to sympathize with the Shah’s SAVAK forces, but he makes it clear that the new regime, from the beginning, had its security forces which were just as bad, although their targets may have been different, and the acts that they mean to punish were certainly different. But the story goes beyond this. It is basically a story of revolutionary chaos. The Shah is forced from the country, non-directed students take over the American embassy and hold hostages, Ayatollah Khomaini returns from his Iraqi/French exile, but there is no real government in place. The government must be created – pretty much from scratch.

What there are, are revolutionary committees all over the country which form governments in and to themselves, and seek vengeance over anyone connected to the prior regime, and any one sufficiently non-conformist. Vengeance means arrests, threats, torture, and thousands of public and private executions. Totally out of control. The “liberals” of the country, the intellectuals, are all pushed to the side. What started out as an optimistic change of control, with the hope of freedom and democracy, changed course almost immediately.

But even Khomeini’s power was limited – again, because the governmental structure did not exist. This was remedied, more or less, by a constitutional convention. Unfortunately, the convention was dominated by Islamisists (it was not necessarily going to be the case) and the convention that was adopted, after much discussion and debate, and approved by the voters, was one which left ultimate control with the clerics, and especially with the Great Leader, who could veto legislation, make appointments to high government positions, and do just about anything he wanted, overriding the prime minister or the president. The first president, Mehdi Bazargan, a moderate, stands no chance.

Khomeini himself does not come across as the worst of the Islamic fundamentalists. And when Bazargan is replaced by Bani-Sadr, moderation of a sort still controls. Bani-Sadr was certainly looking for a middle way, and he was a student of Khomeini and very close to the Great Leader, who at first gave him a significant amount of support. But the fundamentalist pressures were too great, and eventually, he lost the support of Khomeini, and like Bazargan was relegated far beyond the sidelines.

In addition to issues of arrests, torture and executions, there was much else to contend with. There was the war with Iraq that broke out within two years of the revolution when Saddam Hussein attacked the country and aimed especially at the oil fields in the south, and when the US was backing Iraq, not Iran. There was the question of public vs. private control of industry – a large number of industrial establishments were nationalized, a large change from the days of the Shah, and again a move guaranteed to have chaotic results. Foreign trade was nationalized to a great extent, to the detriment of the bazaar and business communities which had originally been supportive of the revolution. Banks were seized.

There was also attempts to break up large agricultural estates and distribute land to the poor – this was unsuccessful. There were attempts to provide massive housing programs, in part by authorizing squatting, by determining when families had more space than they needed, and confiscating their excess or requiring them to admit additional families – this too was unsuccessful. For both of these programs, unsuccessful is too weak a word. They were debilitating attempts to alter society, causing extreme damage and confusion.

As I noted, this book was written in 1984, so it cannot discuss later events. How Iran got through this initial chaos and moved to what appears (at least prior to the latest round of sanctions) to be a workable society, I don’t know. But it is clear that remnants of the initial days of the revolution continue to exist – as was demonstrated by Esfandiari’s adventures.

Bakhash gives a horrific picture of Iran (it seems as violent and irrational as Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia) – one that leads you to think that there are so many evil forces in the country that anything is possible. Even perhaps the use of an atomic weapon after it is developed?

2. “The Main Street Moment” by Gerald W. McEntee and Lee Saunders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), written this year as a political piece to spur on voters for progressive and Democratic candidates. It was lent to me by someone (an older former union man, now in his 80s) who asked me to look at it, and tell him what I thought.

It is a short book (under 200 pages) and easy to read. It is meant to have you say “right on” after every paragraph, and to an extent you would do so. It talks about the relationship between union activity and economic growth, wage growth and wage equality. It focuses on the problems wreaked by Gov. Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. Kasich of Ohio. It focuses on the stories of “real people”, individuals who have started movements, or lost jobs, or what have you, in reaction to right wing political success.

The problem with the book is that (unlike Fox News?) it is not fair and balanced. It does not give any arguments on the other side, it does not hint at any form of compromise on particular issues, it is careful in selecting only those facts that support its position, it does not explain the larger problems of today’s society, either domestically or globally.

So, is this a book you should read? Well, it gives you the union’s views, it provides a nice recap of some of the things that have happened this year, and it gives you some arguments to use if you are faced with right wing accusations. But you can’t take it as gospel. It just isn’t true that increased unions would automatically lead to better economic conditions for both workers and the country as a whole, just like it isn’t true that raising the tax rate on high earners would automatically lead the country into a recession and higher unemployment.

3. “The Torah Revolution” by Rabbi Reuven Hammer. Published this year, and given to me by a friend, I started the book with some skepticism. This is not the kind of book I normally read or like. I know, and greatly respect, Rabbi Hammer, and have looked at some of his earlier books (which I think were more scholarly than this one – and that is not a criticism, either way, just a fact), and didn’t think I would get much from this. But I was surprised and liked it better than I thought I would.

The premise of the book is that the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) gave the world a number of “truths” that were original and that have changed (or can change) for the better the course of history. While it is true that this book is, like “The Main Street Moment”, neither “fair nor balanced” in that it definitely takes a side on the issue, it deals with topics of even broader consequence, and deals with them in a way that I found to be thought provoking.

Hammer selects 14 topics that he thinks result from the writings of the Torah: simply put, they are (1) monotheism, (2) the non-existence of a supernatural force of evil, (3) morality as the prime requirement of the divine, (4) worship as serving humans, not serving a God, (5) the concept that human life is sacred, (6) human equality, (7) gender equality, (8) free will, (9) a king or sovereign should not have unlimited power or authority, (10), priests do not have magic powers, (11) the division of land and wealth should not be unregulated and should be regulated with equality in mind, (12) slavery is not absolute, (13) it is important to care for those who are needy, and (14) a day of rest is crucial.

Simple topics, in a way, but Hammer finds the origin of each in Biblical text. Of course, the text is self-selected in a way for the most part to ignore anything that says the opposite, but how extensive those opposing writings would be I am not in a position to know, and if the idea is to focus on these concepts as being contained in the Torah, the fact that the discussion is a bit one-sided may be OK. There are obviously things in these books that are not necessarily as positive. Take the concept, for example, of a jealous God, or the concept of God as a real estate agent, or the God of the Egyptian plagues. But these are not the subjects of the book. This is meant to be a feel-good book, I think, and one to get you to focus on the positive and, with this in mind, I found it quite worthwhile.


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