A Guide for the Perplexed: The Iran Nuclear Agreement - Thomas R. Pickering | July 27th 2015
This agreement is arguably the most important and the most complex of this century. It treats with widespread concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. It resolves a serious nonproliferation problem for at least 15 years and likely beyond. It sets U.S.-Iranian relations on a new course. It opens the door of possible change in the Middle East region while at the same time also raising issues for key U.S. relationships there. The agreement between Iran and the P-5 + 1 (Five Permanent Members of the U.N. Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany) was concluded after many years of negotiation on July 14, 2015.
This article describes the agreement, explores the arguments against it, and summarizes the views of experts on how to evaluate it. The agreement is 159 pages, technically complex as it deals with key elements of nuclear science related to civil nuclear uses and weapons. It is accompanied by a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution and is before the U.S. Congress until about Sept. 20, 2015. It has been and will continue to be the subject of debate, politics, and emotion. This guide is provided to be helpful in understanding its key elements and importance—politics and emotion are left to the individual reader.
First we should understand the objective—to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon—that and nothing more.
Secondly, we should understand the strategy followed by the parties to the negotiation in getting to the objective—strict limits on Iran’s nuclear activities as they touch on areas of potential military use; verification and inspection to ensure compliance; and sanctions and other pressures to open negotiations and then to craft a satisfactory result and finally to be available as the first resort to any violation.
Both the enrichment of uranium and the production in a reactor in the used (spent) fuel of plutonium provide routes to preparing enough material for use in a weapon.
Enrichment: Iran will be constrained for 10 years to just over 5,000 early type, IR-1 centrifuges to conduct enrichment at the Natanz site in Iran of low enriched uranium (LEU) up to a maximum of 3,67 percent of the fissile isotope U-235. Iran has over 19,000 centrifuges—14,000 will be stored under the supervision of the U.N. inspectors—the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). One thousand centrifuges will be allowed at the deep underground Fordow site for the production of medical isotopes and strictly limited R and D. No uranium will be allowed to be present at Fordow.
Iran’s current stockpile of LEU, 10,000-12,000 kgs, will be reduced by 98 percent to 300 kgs and will be required to stay at that level for 15 years.
There are clear and tight restraints on centrifuge research and development.
This set of limitations is positive insurance that under the agreement Iran will not be able to make a weapon with material and equipment in place, and if it violates the deal the time to make enough material for one weapon has been increased from the present two to three months to at least a year.
Plutonium: Iran is building a reactor of a type well suited to produce plutonium in its spent fuel for weapons purposes. That reactor at Arak will have its central core (calandria) redesigned and changed to reduce to a small quantity the plutonium output, which will be regularly shipped out of Iran.
Iran has agreed to 15 years of no reprocessing to recover plutonium from spent fuel and that afterward it still does not intend to reprocess.
Iran will accept to apply the Additional Protocol of the IAEA designed in the main to deal with inspection and monitoring more effectively for covert activities, an accompanying arrangement on early declaration of nuclear-related construction activities, and 24-hour access to nuclear sites.
Iran will accept monitoring of its entire uranium nuclear fuel cycle from the mine to spent fuel to assure against any diversion to covert facilities and weapons purposes for 25-years.
Centrifuge manufacture inside Iran will be subject to IAEA monitoring and inspection at all key locations and stages.
A special monitoring commission will be organized to ensure that all Iranian imports with a nuclear connection are monitored and controlled.
Access to sites where the IAEA has reason believe it must inspect is assured through a managed process that could extend for up to 24 days and be enforced by sanctions resumption if access is denied.
The last four arrangements are new and currently unique to Iran and designed to deal with the need to apply President Ronald Reagan’s dictum regarding the Soviet Union: “Trust but Verify”; in this case perhaps better expressed as “Distrust and Verify.”
The current agreement has a hold period of 90 days in part to accommodate the 60-day congressional examination in the United States that will end on Sept. 20, 2015. Following that period implementation starts.
Iran must comply with a dozen or so major steps before sanctions lift takes place. These include in the four most important steps the storage of 14,000 centrifuges; the reduction of the LEU stockpile to 300 kgs; the change in the Arak reactor; and the completion of the IAEA review of 18 questions regarding Iran’s past nuclear activities where nuclear weapons-related activities had taken place. The director general of the IAEA has signaled he expects that process can be completed in three more months. (Before 2003, Iran engaged in weapons-related activity. Since 2007, the U.S. director of National Intelligence has annually reported with “high confidence” that such activities have stopped and that Iran has not made a decision to produce a nuclear weapon.)
A U.N. Security Council resolution passed on July 20, 2015, provides in part that should any violation of the agreement be raised and should the UNSC within 30 days fail to take action regarding that question, there is an automatic resumption in force of all previous U.N. nuclear sanctions against Iran. The U.S. veto in effect can be exercised to ensure that violations are sanctioned under this arrangement.
Concerns About the Deal—Pros and Cons
Most of these relate to questions arising around the impact and effect of the deal, but one at least is connected to the terms of the agreement itself.
Iran is subject to some limitations for 10 years (centrifuges), others for 15 (LEU stockpile of 300 kgs), and others for longer periods of time. Sanctions against conventional arms sales are set for five years and on missiles for eight years. (The missile sanctions to be removed are U.N. only; national sanctions stay, and all countries with missile sales capacity except North Korea are in the Missile Technology Control Regime, which would continue to block any such sales to Iran.)
For the opponents of the deal, 10 years is too short a time period. For supporters it is significant that some two years ago Israel argued for military action against Iran that both Israeli and U.S. military experts agreed would buy perhaps as much as a two-year stoppage of the Iran program. The limitation on the LEU that can be accumulated makes a 15-year period more relevant if Iran does not seek to violate the terms of the deal.
The Impact of the Deal—Iran Money Released With Sanctions Termination
It is estimated that Iran will have access to $50 billion (all in foreign banks and all Iranian money) upon sanctions termination. Opponents believe this can and will be used to support Iranian activities in the region favoring Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Assad regime in Syria among others.
Supporters argue that conclusion is far from certain. Iran has many very expensive priorities including repairing its oil-production base and stimulating its domestic economy.
Sec. John Kerry has stated that the U.S. intelligence community does not support the conclusion of nefarious uses by Iran, that the United States is committed to the Gulf States with new programs of support in cyber- and counter-terrorism among others, and that the United States will maintain a close watch and is committed to take actions to counter such Iranian activities.
Failure To Use Additional Sanctions To Seek a “Better” Deal.
There are two questions here: the use of additional sanctions, and what qualifies as a better deal.
For the former, the opponents argue that even tighter sanctions and the continued exercise of more leverage would bring Iran to accept stricter limitations and tighter terms. For the latter, zero enrichment and even no nuclear program has seemed to be the objective. They say the administration didn’t use all at its command and signed on too early.
The supporters of the agreement argue that additional sanctions require the full cooperation of the international community and especially our P4 +1 partners. They were not ready to go that far and are satisfied with the present arrangements. Pressure to do so would lose them, their support for current and continuing sanctions and the current deal, a counsel of folly since the only increased value of a better deal seems to be something that is a little easier to inspect and monitor. Iran knows how to enrich, and that cannot be taken out of their heads.
Sec. Kerry has said he walked away three times and had the president’s full support to do so when he felt it was necessary. Four years of U.S. involvement in negotiations, he said, should indicate clearly we have taken our time and been careful.
Concern That the Present Deal Signals a New U.S. Tilt Toward Iran and Its Ambitions in the Region
The opponents’ argument is clear. Israel and the Gulf States are worried by such possibilities.
The supporters of the deal argue that this is not the U.S. approach or policy. The United States accepts that Iran is not to be trusted and that 35 years of misunderstanding and mistrust do not disappear overnight. Certainly the United States at Camp David and with Defense Sec. Ashton Carter’s recent visit to the region and Sec. Kerry’s constant contacts have worked to make that point clear and that we are committed and ready to deliver on that in specific ways. Sec. Kerry will shortly follow up, and Iran has said they want an improved relationship with the region and are taking action to visit the Gulf States to seek that goal.
Experts believe the minimum requirements include: adherence to the Additional Protocol and its subsidiary arrangements; fixing the Arak reactor; no reprocessing; limits on the level of enrichment and the number and types of centrifuges; limits on the size and composition of the LEU stockpile; resolution with the IAEA of outstanding problems from the past; prompt and reciprocal sanctions removal; a process for timely investigation of violations; and provision for re-introduction of sanctions. (James Walsh of MIT provided excellent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 25, 2015. I strongly recommend anyone seeking a clear and simple template from a recognized scholar in judging the agreement to consult his presentation, here.)
The Bottom Line
No deal is likely to be perfect and can be usefully evaluated without looking at the alternatives. There appear to be three—the use of military force, increasing sanctions, and pressure and walking away.
One way or another each of these has been seen to be unfeasible because of lack of international support, failure to be able to achieve real improvement, or horrendous side effects.
Rational and logical thinking may well produce a conclusion in favor of the present agreement, of trying it, and of seeing how it works, and doing so against the backdrop that should Iran fail to comply there are additional remedies on the table that, however costly, would be widely supported in the case of a clear material breach of the arrangements.
American political life also shows that emotion, ideology, and political attachments can and will play a large role in the answer both in the public and Congress. Let us hope that in the end our national interest and those of our friends and allies, including Israel, will prevail.
Members of the Xiangyang Commune in Jiangsu Province take part in the campaign to ‘Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius’, one of the last large ‘campaigns’ dictated by members of Chinese government in charge of the Cultural Revolution. Jiangdu Province, China. (Bettmann Collection/Getty Images)
This past May 20 marked the semicentennial of the start of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, and this past Aug. 29 marked the semicentennial of the hanging, in Egypt, of Sayyid Qutb, the master thinker of the Islamists—doleful events of long ago that may seem to have nothing in common. But I think that, in glancing back at 1966, we ought to notice a common trait in those two events, which no one at the time could possibly have detected. And the common trait ought perhaps to inspire in us a few rueful thoughts on human nature and one of its peculiarities.
This is the human capacity to succumb to contagions of political insanity—contagions that may get started anywhere at all and, in the name of one or another crazy idea, or in response to some kind of beautiful image, may spread with explosive speed to all points of the compass. Epidemics of insanity are not anything new. Euripides took note of the phenomenon, even if, in his day, the technologies of communication did not make it easy for insanities to spread very quickly or very far. But technologies have progressed, and that was true even in 1966.
Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in May of that year because he wanted to shake up the Chinese Communist Party and thought he could do so by mobilizing the students. He wanted the students to challenge the bureaucracy and to confront the new elite, though only in ways that would fortify his own dictatorial power. Mostly he wanted to launch a campaign for ideological purity within everyone’s brain—to excite a revolutionary enthusiasm capable of washing away the lingering stains of bourgeois and capitalist thinking, in favor of a single perfect idea, which was “Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought.” The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution resembled in this respect the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. It was a campaign against the very principle of debate, in favor of a rote and single dogma.
This was expressed by a sacred text, Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (in the orthography of that time), otherwise known as the Little Red Book, which was a compilation of maxims: “We should support whatever the enemy opposes, and oppose whatever the enemy supports”; “The army must become one with the people so that they see it as their own army”; “Every Communist must grasp the truth, ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ ”—and so forth, suitable for memorization and recital but containing no fully articulated thoughts. Mao Zedong Thought was meant, in sum, to be a catechism, and not a philosophy—a doctrine to be asserted, instead of argued. Then again, The Little Red Book was a fetish object. It was published on bible paper with a shiny plastic red cover, wallet-size, rather like the pocketbook street maps of Paris that used to be sold, except more stylish. Masses of people waved it in the air, as if it summarized the whole of human wisdom. I have noticed that, 50 years later, the plastic cover, shiny as ever, shows not the slightest sign of age.
Naturally, the campaign for Mao Zedong Thought was a Reign of Terror in other respects, too. The students stormed the villages and physically attacked the professors and the musicians and anyone else who could be accused of elitist tendencies. Some 3 million people are said to have been killed over the course of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and vastly greater numbers were injured. The damage to Chinese culture itself was immense.
Only, instead of proving repellent to everyone who observed from afar, the combination of extreme dogmatism and mob violence turned out to be, in the eyes of a great many people around the world, irresistibly attractive. The Communist revolution in China was obviously an enormous event, but, until 1966, it had failed to inspire much attention in other parts of the world, perhaps because the Chinese Communists chose to keep their country mysteriously closed off from the rest of the planet. But the Cultural Revolution aroused attention. The scenes of mass enthusiasm and purges and deportations, combined with the prevailing lack of information, allowed people all over the world to imagine that Maoism had come to embody something different and more revolutionary than Soviet Communism—as if, in Maoism, the worldwide Communist movement had at long last found a proper riposte to the gray failings of the Soviet Union.
Maoism stood for the revolutionary principles of Stalin, which Stalin’s mediocre heirs in the Soviet Union had abandoned—Stalin, in the perfected form of Mao Zedong Thought. And, around the world, there were people who fell into the belief that, under Mao, the utopia that had failed to emerge in the Soviet Union was indeed taking shape, and the horrors of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution were, on the contrary, grandeurs, and the turmoil in China was merely the traumatism of a magnificent and world-historical birth. The new proletarian civilization was emerging at last, except in the perfected form that allowed it to be, instead, a peasant civilization. The most astounding claims were made on Chinese Communism’s behalf. It was believed that, under the Cultural Revolution, a new level of altruism had been achieved, that individualism had disappeared, that a new kind of sexual purity had emerged, that mankind had very nearly become a new and superior species.
The pop-eyed fascination aroused by these beliefs generated Maoist movements in every region of the world. In Cambodia, the Communist Party came to power in 1975 and imposed a thorough Maoist policy by emptying the cities, turning against the educated class, and, all in all, launching one of the most horrible campaigns of persecution and national auto-destruction of the 20th century. In other countries, Maoist movements fielded guerrilla insurgencies, of which the strongest may have been the Shining Path’s in Peru. The Shining Path, led by a philosophy professor, would surely have replicated the devastation of Cambodia if only it had succeeded in taking power. And yet, even in remaining a mostly rural insurgency, it managed to slaughter vast numbers of campesinos. Maoism in Peru was the most horrifying guerrilla movement in Latin American history. Or maybe the Naxalites in India proved to be the strongest of the Maoist guerrillas. There were Maoist guerrillas in the Philippines.
Maoism blossomed in Europe, too, partly because of the ardor of the Albanian Communists, under Enver Hoxha, in clinging to the heritage of Stalin, their hero, but also because, in the Western countries, the Maoism of China acquired an intellectual panache. The flower of French intellectual life—Sartre, Foucault, and many others—aligned themselves with the Maoist cause in the various ways that Richard Wolin has described in his book, The Wind From the East. The intellectuals, some of them, may even have derived from their Maoism, or to have attributed to it, a number of clever cultural insights, which made for an odd moment in the Maoist craze, a confluence of novelty and nonsense. And, in that environment, a number of Maoist splinter parties emerged in France, the most influential of which, the Proletarian Left, set about preparing for what would certainly have been a terrible guerrilla war—except that, at the last minute, the party leaders underwent an ideological crisis and called off the preparations.
In Norway, too, Maoism became exceptionally vigorous, likewise without generating a guerrilla war. Some of the finest of the Norwegian liberals eventually emerged from the Maoist ranks, after they had recognized their error. Maoism’s history in West Germany was not so agreeable. A variety of tiny parties sprung to life, the so-called K (for Kommunistiche) parties, whose fanaticism and sundry doctrines contributed significantly to the enduring German vogue for guerrilla war, as conducted by the Red Army Faction (which itself was pro-Soviet instead of pro-China) and the Revolutionary Cells and their guerrilla Arab alliances. Maoism in Italy proved to be still more influential. It was a major influence on the guerrilla struggles of the Red Brigades and other groups, whose violence, as in Germany, went on for decades, a terrible history.
Maoism enjoyed a bit of influence in the United States, too, though it may seem odd to say so. The original Maoist movement in the United States was a tiny splinter of the Communist Party USA, which itself was none too big by the 1960s. The splinter group eventually called itself the Progressive Labor Party, or PL, and it inspired the creation of a couple of other tiny Maoist parties after a while. You might suppose, along with John Lennon, that American Maoism could not possibly have influenced anyone: “But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.” But that was not true.
In France, the Maoists established a political base at the École Normale Supérieure, which is the elite college where Louis Althusser provided philosophical guidance (beginning with Lenin’s mad slogan: “Marxist theory is all-powerful because it is true”). And, in the United States, the Progressive Labor Party established its own base in the student movement at Harvard. The supremely brilliant young philosopher Hilary Putnam was one of PL’s Harvard intellectuals. And from those origins, PL succeeded, in 1969, in taking over a genuinely mass and popular American organization, Students for a Democratic Society, originally a social democratic organization with roots going back to Jack London in 1905, and just then at its highpoint, with a national membership somewhere around 100,000 people.
The PL Maoists influenced the American scene mostly in a vaguer way, however, and they did so by appearing to be insane. The Maoists dressed ultraconservatively in an era when everyone else on the American left was dressing ultrawildly. They stood up at meetings and said preposterous things about Chairman Mao and Chinese Communism in a flat tone of straight-faced fanaticism. And the message they conveyed added up to this, which was Maoism’s message everywhere: “You can exit from the bourgeois reality. You can enter into a different reality altogether, in which every set of facts and values and principles will turn out to be different from anything hitherto supposed. If you exit the bourgeois reality, you may appear to be, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, a zombie. But you will be, instead, one of the heroic figures in a Chinese poster.” The possibility of exiting everyday reality and entering into a zone of pure myth was the offer, and its allure was great.
In the United States, the people who felt the allure responded, however, mostly by constructing Americanized and slightly watered-down Maoisms of their own, distinct from PL. There was a version that melded the orthodox Maoist vision of a Chinese alternative universe with the hippie world of drugs and rock ’n’ roll. This was the version of one of the largest factions within Students for a Democratic Society, the “Revolutionary Youth Movement 1,” which was anti-PL, whose purpose was to create its own guerrilla mini-army, the Weather Underground, with a politics of countercultural Maoism. SDS’s “Revolutionary Youth Movement 2,” meanwhile, generated a more conventional Maoist faction in California, the Revolutionary Communist Party, which still survives. The paramilitary Black Panther Party offered another version, with its own fully-military-armed guerrilla subsplinter, the Black Liberation Army. And still other factions and armed factions arose in the same Mao-in-America style, sometimes expressing a North Korean variation on Maoism (quite strong in the Black Liberation Army), or with a touch of Cuban Guevarism.
It is easy to look back on these American mini-factions today as hopelessly isolated, but in reality, they were no more isolated than were the guerrilla groups in West Germany, which managed to survive because they enjoyed a substantial support in the big countercultural zones of Frankfurt and Berlin and other towns, or the Red Brigades and other guerrilla groups in Italy, which enjoyed a substantial support in Pisa and Milan and elsewhere. And Maoism in its American versions sometimes entered into the social creativity of the moment. The gay-liberation movement, in the early phases of its eruption into public affairs in 1969, was visibly tinged with Maoist inspirations (even if, in the Maoist China that actually existed, homosexuality was monstrously punished).
Maoism triumphed nowhere, outside of unhappy China and a still more tragic Cambodia and an impoverished Albania. Still, its failure took a long while to come about. In a few corners of the world—Nepal, India, the Philippines—Maoism still clings to life. Even today, Maoism figures within French intellectual life through the influence of Alain Badiou, which means that traces of it figure in the university world everywhere else, too. Only, what was the cause of Maoism’s moment in world history, its cult of dogmatism and guerrilla violence and everything else? Its fashionability? Someone could argue that, in each country where Maoism went into bloom, the causes were multiple and different—but that is tantamount to arguing that, on a world scale, there was no cause. People wanted to be Maoists. That was why it spread. No one was argued into it. People looked at the slogans and the posters and the marvelous Little Red Book and the size of the crowds, and made the leap. It was an epidemic of political madness, occasionally sparked with moments of brilliance, as sometimes happens with the mad, but mostly dominated by a pathology of violence.
I think that, if you keep the history of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in mind, it ought to be obvious that the hanging of Sayyid Qutb in Egypt (under Nasser’s orders) in 1966, three months after Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, set off a parallel epidemic. The hanging inspired a cult of Qutb, the martyr, which spread at first within his organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. And the cult drew on Qutb’s own little book, which was Milestones, a pamphlet on Islamist themes. Milestones cannot be said to be a masterpiece. Qutb’s masterpiece, and that of the Muslim Brotherhood, is the gigantic In the Shade of the Qur’an, from which Milestones is drawn—just as Mao’s greatest literary work is, I suppose, his several military essays. Milestones nonetheless played for many years the same role within the radical wing of the Islamist movement that Mao’s Little Red Book played within the worldwide Maoist movement.
Milestones proposed and still proposes an alternative reality, in a pocketbook version. This is seventh-century Medina, which Qutb wished to reestablish in some corner of the world, yet to be determined, in order to launch the struggle for world conquest against the rival empires of Communism and the Western powers. And Qutb’s book proposed that, in the degree possible, you should begin to inhabit the alternative reality right now, even if the Quranic society has not yet been able to establish itself somewhere. Like Maoism, then, Qutb’s idea offers an alternative life, as well as a program for action. It lends itself to a utopian counterculture, which can be established anywhere, not just in regions where the jihadis have succeeded in taking power, as in the emirate of Afghanistan in Taliban times, when al-Qaida acted on Qutbite principles, or in the post-Qutbite Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in our own moment.
In France, for instance (as I learn from reading a superb new book by Gilles Kepel, Terreur dans l’Hexagone: Genèse du djihad français), an Islamist preacher from Syria succeeded for a few years in establishing a Quranic utopia in the little village of Artigat, outside Toulouse, which attracted converts to Islam and the descendants of North African immigrants alike. The Quranic utopians ran businesses; meanwhile, their community became an outpost of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Jihadis shuttled back and forth from France to the field of battle; sometimes they made France the field of battle.
Why did people join this community, or join the myriad other Islamist countercultures that established themselves in one neighborhood or another in different countries? They joined, and they continue to join, because they have wanted to adopt marvelous and heroic new identities—not the identity of a muscular proletarian or peasant from the Chinese posters, which was the attraction back in Maoist times, but the identity of a companion of the prophet in ancient Medina. Perhaps there are indications that, here and there around the neighborhood, geographical or virtual, a good many people are deciding to adopt such an identity. Then the attraction may become irresistible. In this fashion, the contagion may spread, and the newly established utopias may turn into Euripides’ Thebes, centers of insanity—with the only difference being that, whereas the women in Thebes abandon themselves to wine and Bacchic follies, the women in the Islamist countercultures abandon themselves to a life of teetotaling, self-isolation beneath a niqab, serial widowhood, and perhaps (as we have just now seen attempted in France) martyrdom themselves.
I do not mean to ignore the philosophical and practical chasms that separate Islamism’s alternative reality from Maoism’s. Still, it is interesting to observe that, from the standpoint of graphic design, nothing at all separates these alternative realities. If you look at the iconography of the Islamist terrorist movements—I had the opportunity to do this by attending an illustrated lecture by Ely Karmon in Tel Aviv some months ago—you will be struck by how closely the Islamist images of fists clutching AK-47s and other representations of the jihad follow the graphic-design concepts that were established many decades ago by the Chinese Maoists. But it is not just a matter of imagery. Mostly these political contagions resemble one another in their consequences, which have been, in Maoism’s case, devastating (by and large), and, in the case of the Islamic jihad, devastating (entirely).
Earlier in Chapter Nine of Tractate Bava Kamma, we learned the rules governing the repayment of stolen items. As we saw, the Torah instructs that a thief must return the item itself to its original owner, plus an additional one-fifth. But the Sages reinterpreted this law so that the thief can pay the monetary equivalent of what he stole, instead of the actual item. Indeed, the Talmud instructed that monetary compensation is actually preferable, since often thieves are unable to return the things they stole, and insisting on it might deter a thief from repenting for his crime.
This week’s reading returned to the question of the barriers to repentance. This time, the problem had to do with how much effort should be required of a thief to locate the person from whom he had stolen. According to the mishna in Bava Kamma 103a, the burden on the thief is virtually unlimited: a robber must bring the money to his victim “after him to Medea.” Medea or Media was a region of northwestern Iran, thus quite distant from the Babylonian heartland where the Bavli was composed. The implication is that even a very long journey should not be a deterrent to repentance.
But in the Gemara, we find that the rabbis modified this law in the direction of greater leniency, or perhaps greater realism. The Sages “instituted a great ordinance stating that if the expense required to return a stolen item to the victim is greater than the principal,” then the thief does not have to track down the victim. Instead, he can make restitution to a court. The Talmud does not go on to say what the court does with the money—does it have an obligation to send it on to the victim, or does it use the money for communal purposes?
But the justification for this provision is not just practical; it has to do, once again, with repentance. A thief who would have to spend months tracking down a man from whom he had stolen a small item is not likely to make the effort. Rather than put such an obstacle in his path, the Sages ease the process. Remarkably, and unlike most secular systems of law, the Talmud is concerned not just with punishment and restitution, but with the spiritual redemption of the guilty party. Indeed, the notes to the Koren Talmud say that this ordinance was singled out as “great” because it was such a marked contradiction of the biblical law. This is a measure of how far the rabbis were willing to go to smooth a sinner’s path to repentance.
The Gemara explores other dilemmas having to do with restitution. What happens if a thief steals an item without knowing whom it belongs to, and several people claim to be the owner? Is he obligated to compensate each of them, or is his duty simply to relinquish the stolen item and leave the claimants to fight it out? This is a matter of disagreement between Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva. Imagining a situation in which five claimants are arguing over the stolen item, Tarfon says that the robber “places the stolen item between them and withdraws”; but Akiva says “this is not the way to spare him from transgression.”
To Akiva, the thief’s repentance is not completed just by giving up his ill-gotten gains; he must also make sure that the original owner is made whole. This means that “he pays the value of the stolen item to each and every one of the five.” Here it seems clear that Akiva is placing an obstacle in the path of repentance: What thief would agree to pay out five times the value of what he stole? Accordingly, the rabbis “instituted an ordinance” that it was sufficient to follow Tarfon’s rule and place the stolen item “between” the five claimants. This is in the same spirit as the “great ordinance,” making the sinner’s repentance a higher priority than the compensation of the victim.
At the same time, the law places great emphasis on the need for the robber to seek out his victim to make personal atonement. Under ordinary circumstances, where it does not present an undue burden, a thief must pay back his victim directly. Unusually, the mishna specifies that he may not repay the victim’s son or his agent, only the victim in person. A face-to-face encounter seems to be necessary to acknowledge the full humanity of the victim, and thus the full gravity of the crime.
Still, the rule against using an agent to collect compensation creates other legal problems. If a victim wants to appoint an agent to receive his own stolen property back again, why shouldn’t this agency be recognized? This is what bothers Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yochanan, who insist that “an agent who was appointed in the presence of witnesses is a legally recognized agent,” regardless of what the mishna says in this case. Here the right of the victim to appoint an agent seems to come into conflict with the duty of the thief to make personal restitution.
In practical terms, the Gemara explains, the prohibition of agency does not mean that a thief can’t send back a stolen item via a third party. But this third party cannot be considered a legal agent; rather, he is merely “a trustworthy person.” The difference has to do with the assumption of risk if something goes wrong in the process. Ordinarily, an agent serves as a legal replacement for the principal; in that case, as soon as a thief paid compensation to the agent, his obligation to his victim would be discharged. By ruling this out, the mishna effectively says that the thief remains liable until the stolen property has actually reached the hands of the victim. If he pays the agent, and the agent loses the money, the debt has not been discharged and the thief is still obligated to pay his victim back. Thus the Gemara tells the thief about the “trustworthy person,” “If you are willing to rely on him, then rely on him”: The thief is assuming the risk if he turns out to be unreliable.
Later in this week’s reading, in Bava Kamma 109a, the Talmud tests the principles of restitution by inventing some difficult and far-fetched hypotheticals. Say an only child steals money from his father, and then the father dies. Ordinarily, a thief whose victim dies must pay back the estate; but in this case, the thief and the heir are the same person. Can a thief forgive a debt to himself? Rabbi Yosei haGelili says that he can; but this seems unfair on its face, because it means he can continue to enjoy his ill-gotten gains. But in this case, whom else could he repay? Rav Yosef says that he may give the money to charity; other sages say that he must find some other relatives to compensate, such as his father’s brothers.
And if you should imagine a case in which the dead man has no other relatives, the Gemara flatly says that this is impossible: “But is there any Jewish person who has no kinsman”? This question, asked in the technical context of a dispute over inheritance and restitution, implies something profound about the nature of Jewishness. All Jews, the rabbis imply, are related, since we are all descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It follows that no Jew can ever be truly isolated, because he has a familial claim on every other Jew. This is an ideal that has always been honored mainly in the breach—whether we’re talking about biblical times or the present—but it is always a reminder worth hearing.
We are having a Spock moment. Not just because this year is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek; not just because Leonard Nimoy’s son Adam’s new documentary, For the Love of Spock, is playing in theaters around the country; not just because this summer saw the appearance of a JJ Abrams Trek movie; not just because the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on Pier 86 in New York City has launched “The Starfleet Academy Experience,” a 12,000-foot immersive exhibition that sounds, frankly, exhausting.
No, for me, the Spock moment is because there’s a wonderful new biography of Nimoy for children, and it’s one of the most unapologetically Jewish profiles for kids in ages. It made me cry.
Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy begins by introducing us to “Lenny” as a third-grader, singing “God Bless America” at a 1939 talent show at a Boston settlement house. He’d been discovered after the settlement house’s social director heard him singing the Shema in shul. The book quickly immerses us in the smells and sounds of Lenny’s immigrant West End neighborhood. The text is peppered with the word “fascinating” as ever-curious, ever-artistic Leonard observes the world around him, including watching men wrapped in tallitot on Rosh Hashanah making the familiar gesture of the priestly blessing that became “live long and prosper.” We meet his fearful parents, who’d escaped pogroms and didn’t want their son to be a risk-taker. We meet his bubbe and zayde, who encouraged Lenny to explore the world. We learn about his love of his Kodak camera, which helped him look closely at his father’s face and see the way his father worked to appear emotionless. Cast in Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing—a play about three generations of a poor Jewish family in a tenement apartment—Lenny gets a scholarship to Boston College’s summer theater program, and he soon decides to be an actor. “In September 1949,” the text says, “he was standing at South Station, wearing a blue double-breasted suit from Filene’s Basement and holding a train ticket to California.” (His father’s parting words: “Learn to play the accordion. … Actors starve, but at least musicians can eke out a living.”) While driving a taxi to support himself, Lenny hears a familiar Boston accent and winds up getting a pep talk from then-Congressman John F. Kennedy. We learn about Nimoy’s concerns about taking the role of Spock—“he would have to wear pointy ears and a silly haircut”—and how he considered the decision logically. “[H]e remembered looking at his own father through the camera lens and seeing all the hidden emotion in his face.” This informs his portrayal of the Vulcan, as does his own view of himself as an alien.
The book’s beautiful, hip-but-not-achingly-hipster illustrations, in a palette of sepia tones and rich blues, are by Edel Rodriguez. One lovely spread shows young Lenny developing photos of his family in the tenement’s darkened bathroom, which Rodriguez sprinkles with dots of light, like a night sky. Like most children’s book writers, author Richard Michelson didn’t choose his book’s illustrator, but he was delighted with the choice. Rodriguez is a graphic designer (he did that recent, memorable Trump meltdown cover for Time Magazine ) whose cool sensibility should appeal to sci-fi types as well as fans of sentimental immigrant tales. “I didn’t know this when I found out we’d be working together, but I learned later that he’d been on the Cuban boatlift, and one of the ways he learned English was through Star Trek,” Michelson told me in an interview.
I talked to Michelson on Star Trek Day (Sept. 8, the anniversary of the airing of the first episode of the original TV show) about the book and about his friendship with Nimoy. Michelson still often slips into the present tense when he refers to his friend.
“Leonard and I met because of the National Yiddish Book Center,” Michelson told me. “He recorded my book Too Young for Yiddish for them and we hit it off immediately. I knew his photography when not many people did—that’s my business—and I liked it. We talked about art and literature and poetry, and our wives got along, and I offered to do a show of his at the gallery and it went very well.” Michelson wound up publishing several of Nimoy’s art books, including the controversial art book Shekhina, about the feminine manifestation of God, as portrayed by women—some nude—wrapped in tefillin. Artsy!
“I was a generation younger, but we had similar working-class backgrounds,” Michelson recalled. “Leonard grew up in a religious household in Boston three blocks from his dad’s barbershop and took his dad the newspaper at the shop. I grew up in an atheist household in East Brooklyn a few blocks from my dad’s hardware store, and I’d bring my dad the newspaper at the store. And we look alike! If I couldn’t get a restaurant reservation in New York City I’d make it under his name and then show up and say, ‘Oh, my dad can’t make it; my wife will be joining me.’ And I always got away with it, because people would take one look at me and just assume.”
Nimoy died last year, before seeing a finished copy of the book. But he did see Michelson’s manuscript. “One of my great pleasures of life was that I didn’t wait too long to do this,” Michelson said. “My advice to writers is: Go home tonight and write what you’re thinking. Sit in the chair and do it. I’d been hearing Leonard’s wonderful stories for 12 years and I don’t know why it never occurred to me to sit down and write them down until I did it. I had no idea he was going to die three months later. I knew he was ill, but he’d been ill for years.”
Michelson emailed Nimoy the text the night he finished (the two had a devoted email correspondence, exchanging 3,459 emails over the last 10 years of Nimoy’s life) and “he emailed me back 10 minutes later, saying, ‘I love this.’” Nimoy did have a few edits (“I forgot his third-grade friend’s name,” Michelson said. “And he altered some dialogue here and there. And I couldn’t remember which temple he’d gone to where he first saw the [priestly blessing], the one on his block or the one that the family later went to when they had a fight with the one on his block. Leonard always loved that ‘the one I wouldn’t set foot in for a million bucks’ joke!”)
I asked Michelson if his publisher had fretted that the book was “too Jewy.” He replied quickly, “People have told me some of my other books were too Jewy. With Lipman Pike [one of Tablet’s Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2011] there were questions about how much to emphasize his Jewishness or whether to have him wear a yarmulke. We did some interesting historical research and got a lot of different answers. For A Is for Abraham, some rabbis said it was too Jewish and wouldn’t bring enough people into the fold, and others said it was too irreverent and should be more serious, and others said why wasn’t there a woman rabbi. When no one agreed, I knew I’d written a truly Jewish book! My publisher was overwhelmed by the force and ferocity of the responses and thought I’d be upset when they told me, but I’m like, ‘Please! I hear worse than this at a family gathering.’”
In this case, Michelson’s editor was fully onboard with the story he wanted to tell and the way he wanted to tell it. “Growing up the way Leonard did, with an Orthodox family, speaking Yiddish, is the core of who he was,” Michelson said. “When Leonard moved to L.A., he had a psychiatrist he saw weekly because she spoke Yiddish, and he just wanted to spend an hour a week speaking Yiddish. And he was always delighted that fans made a gesture at him that, whether they knew it or not, was actually a blessing.”
Some of the stories of Nimoy’s Jewishness were cut from the book, but only for space, not content. (Fascinating is still pretty wordy for a picture book.) To illustrate the fact that Nimoy’s parents were worried about him becoming an actor while his bubbe encouraged him, Michelson originally used a scene of his bubbe reciting “There Is a Tree That Stands,” a poem by Itzik Manger. “Leonard continued to recite it in Yiddish all his life,” Michelson said. “It’s about a boy who wanted to turn into a bird and fly away, but his mom makes him put on a coat and scarf and galoshes until he can’t move. The last stanza says “And sadly then I see/The love that won’t let me become/The bird I want to be.”
Fortunately, Nimoy did learn to fly. As does this book.