Thursday, March 16, 2017

Balfour, A Century Later

Last week, I wrote to you about the various issues I see hiding behind the assertion I hear made constantly that the only path forward to peace in the Middle East is the so-called two-state solution. Today I would like to go back even further in time than the Transjordan Memorandum of 1922 that I mentioned in passing last week, and consider the document upon which the two-state solution itself rests, the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Nor is this just ancient history: as its one hundredth anniversary approaches this fall, the Declaration was suddenly back in the news last summer when the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, Riyad al-Malki, told Muslim leaders gathered in Mauritania that the Palestinians intend to sue the United Kingdom in international court to force it to rescind the Declaration and to indemnify those who suffered financial damage because of its promulgation. At first, this sounded more amusing than sinister, something like some white supremacist group suing the federal government to force them to void the Emancipation Declaration—or, even more amusingly, the Thirteenth Amendment—and indemnify all those poor slaveholders who suffered financial distress when their “property” was summarily taken from them. Or, even more to the point, like a teary nine-year-old with a skinned knee threatening to sue Sir Isaac Newton to compel him posthumously to withdraw the laws of gravity that drew him to the ground when he fell off his bicycle and hurt himself…without realizing that the laws of gravity are no more dependent on Sir Isaac than the inalienable right of the Jewish people to thrive as a free people in its own national home were dependent on Arthur James Balfour.

Clearly, the suit won’t go anywhere. It isn’t even obvious in what court such a case could, or would ever, be tried. But the Palestinian leadership was right about one thing, though: the Balfour Declaration—and all it implies—is in many ways at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

It would be easy to wave it away as nothing more than a late expression of British colonialist imperialism: if the British Empire could seriously talk about its “ownership” of countries all over the globe like India or Kenya to which it had no moral, legal, or historical claim without feeling foolish, so why should they have felt odd announcing that they look with favor on efforts to realize the nationalist ideals of the Jewish people in its own homeland as though this were a point in need of British endorsement? But, as usual, there is more here than meets the eye…and a reasonable case can be made that the Balfour Declaration retains, even a century later, its importance as an important stepping stone towards the eventual founding of the State of Israel.

Of all the world’s wars, World War I remains the most confusing for most of us. It appears not to have been fought over any serious issue. Its alliances seem more like arbitrary couplings of nations than the thoughtful affiliation of nations with similar ideals and agendas. The casualties were almost unbelievable—about 11 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians killed, another six million (soldiers and civilians) missing and presumed dead, and about 20 million (also a combined total of civilians and soldiers) wounded in some serious way. It ended, as everyone knows, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, and was formally wrapped up (at least as far as our country was concerned) with the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919. And then came the divvying up of the losers’ territory, both at home and overseas.  Austro-Hungary was dismembered entirely. German overseas colonies like Tanganyika, Togoland, Namibia and Cameroon went to the British and the French.  And the part of the Ottoman Empire that wasn’t Turkey itself was parceled out to the victor nations as well: France received League of Nations mandates to run Syria and Lebanon and the U.K. received mandates to run Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan. It was all much more complicated than that…but the basic principle is that the Land of Israel, dominated by the Ottoman Turks since Selim the Grim defeated the Egyptian Mamelukes in 1516 and added Israel to his empire, was placed under the governance of the British.

An interesting question to ask is why the United States, which more than happily acquired bits and pieces of the Spanish Empire after winning the Spanish-American War in 1898, did not have any of the territories taken from the loser nations placed under its authority. That too is a complicated issue, but it mostly has to do with Woodrow Wilson, who had no interest in taking on the governance of foreign lands to which the United States had no moral or legal claim. This, of course, suited the other victor nations just fine!) And so the Brits came to Israel.

What exactly they thought they were getting themselves into, I have no idea. They knew plenty of the place, because they had participated in battles against the Turks in Palestine starting with the First Battle of Gaza in 1917 and continuing up until the final fall of Jerusalem to General Edmund Allenby in December of that same year. Or perhaps that’s exactly the point—because they had fought the Turks on the soil of the Land of Israel, they came away feeling entitled to add its territory, if not precisely to the empire as a colony, then at least to their in-those-days vast sphere of global influence as land under the legal stewardship of Great Britain. The locals were not consulted, not the Arab ones and surely not the Jewish ones.

Jewish immigration was well underway as the First World War was wrapping up—the so-called First Aliyah began as early as 1882 (in the wake of the anti-Semitic agitation that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881) and had melted seamlessly into the wave of immigration known as the Second Aliyah around 1904. Indeed, about 70,000 Jews came to Ottoman Palestine between the early 1870s and the end of the First World War. (Just as an aside, that figure can be very interestingly compared with the fact that about 2 million Jews left Eastern Europe during those same years; the rest, my ancestors among them, headed west, not east.) Added to that figure were, of course, the small number of Jewish souls who simply lived in Israel, whose families hadn’t ever fled, who didn’t need to realize their Zionist longing by immigrating to Palestine because they hadn’t ever lived elsewhere. And, of course, there were also the descendants of earlier waves of Jewish immigration—those who came with Rabbi Yehudah He-hasid in 1700, for example, or the thousands who came in the 1740s along with Rabbi Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzatto and Rabbi Ḥayyim ibn Attar. So the Jews of Ottoman, now British, Palestine were well established in their ancestral homeland as the First World War came to its eventual end and had no intention of renouncing their dream of an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

There were, of course, also Arabs living in the land and they were actively hostile to the notion of a Jewish state. It was already clear in the 1920s that this was going to lead either to peaceful compromise or endless friction, and it was in the context of that morass of mutual mistrust and apprehensive suspicion that U.K. Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent his now-famous two-sentence letter to Walter Rothschild, the 2nd Baron Rothschild, on November 2, 1917. The letter read as follows:

His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

It was already a jam-packed month for the Brits. The Battle of Beersheva, in which the British eventually beat the Turks soundly, was still underway. The Battle of Mughar Ridge, victory in which was considered indispensable if the British were to fulfill their plan of seizing Jerusalem by year’s end, was about to begin. Clearly, the British felt that they needed the support of the yishuv more than they needed to worry about irritating the Arabs…and that, rather than a sudden surge of unprecedented philo-Semitism, was surely what motivated the British to make their unexpected “declaration” when they did.  And that is exactly what did happen. The Jews of Turkish, soon to be British, Palestine were
energized. They clearly understood that their future lay with the land passing from Turkish to British rule, which is why General Allenby was greeted by the Jews of Jerusalem as a conquering hero when he, combining the role of military hero with pilgrim, got off his horse and walked almost humbly on foot through the Jaffa Gate into the Old City on December 11, 1917. The Arab population, needless to say, was not at all pleased and saw the British move as a craven effort to win the support of Jewish residents as they attempted to secure Palestine for themselves in the post-war period. Craven, it surely was. (They have that part right.) But what if the British, acting wholly in their own best interests, also came down on the side of reasonableness and justice? Does one necessarily preclude the other?

It was a time of new ideas. As noted in passing above, President Wilson was personally responsible for insisting that the treaties that ended the First World War grant self-determination to the peoples of the losers’ empires rather than merely award new baubles to the victors’ own colonial holdings. His nation—our nation—wanted nothing of other people’s countries. But Wilson was thwarted in the end by allies who were prepared to concede the right of self-determination to the peoples of Europe, but not the Middle East or Africa.  And it was thus as a kind of a compromise that the notion took hold that the territories of the vanquished should be awarded not as colonies to the victors, but as temporary mandates, in effect as trusteeships of the League of Nations, until the people of those places could be trained to govern themselves. Leaving aside the almost surreal paternalism, racism, and chauvinism hiding behind such an idea, the foundational idea—that nations have the right to govern themselves—is not only sound, but entirely so. And so the San Remo Conference of 1920 awarded the “mandate” to rule over Palestine to Britain.  Two years later, the League formally included the Balfour Declaration in its formal vision for the future of Palestine, thus charging the British with working towards the creation of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.

And so things worked out that Lord Balfour, with two brief sentences, altered the course of world history by indicating that his government would shoulder the burden of governance in Palestine until the Jews were deemed capable of governing themselves. Eventually, the League of Nations endorsed the notion that the Jewish people, like any people, is entitled to govern itself on its own land and in its own place. And this just and reasonable policy was eventually transmitted to the United Nations which, before it turned away from its own ideals and became a grotesque caricature of its former self, ended up promoting its own version of the two-state solution when it ordered that Palestine be partitioned into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. And that is how the two-state solution ultimately has its origin in the Balfour Declaration.

And then, less than two decades later, came the Shoah—the ultimate demonstration of the consequences of Jewish powerlessness in the world. The blood of the martyrs called out then and still calls out…inviting all who dare to ponder their fate and determine in its light whether or not the League of Nations was right in adopting the Balfour Declaration as the basis of its own policy with respect to Jewish self-governance in the Land of Israel. The Balfour Declaration was key in giving Zionism a respectable home among the political philosophies that the world brings to bear in determining which peoples’ right to self-govern are given international credence and which not. To imagine that the British weren’t acting in their own best interests would be naïve in the extreme. But, at least for once, their own best interests led them to help actualize the Jewish dream of a free Jewish state in the Land of Israel…and we should applaud, and not cynically, a remarkable and remarkably daring statement that, in a few lines, granted to the Jewish people the natural right of all peoples to chart their own future forward in their own place and according to their own lights.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Irredentism and the Middle East

With this letter, I would like to return to the topic of the two-state solution I broached a few weeks ago but still have more to say about.

To begin by stating the obvious, there is surely no axiom relating to the Middle East more often repeated and more fervently believed—if not quite by all than surely by most—than the one that supposes that peace in the Middle East will only come when some version of the United Nations’ original Partition Plan of 1947 is somehow put into place, yielding the desired—if long overdue—dismemberment of Mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.  This truth is so often repeated, and in so many different quarters and by so many people from such different political camps and orientations, that it has acquired the feel of a basic truth, of being the kind of foundational idea that one can damn someone, and not faintly, merely by suggesting that he or she is only paying lip service to its reasonability but doesn’t really believe in it or think of it as the sole workable solution to what would otherwise be an insoluble problem. Actually to reject it as unworkable foolishness is, in at least most non-extremist quarter, unthinkable.

I’ve spoken about the two-state solution in public many times and always positively. But now that I force myself to revisit the basic concept and to consider the parts before coming to judgment regarding the whole, I find myself surprised by how many of the ideas that constitute those parts strike me as naïve, even utopian, when considered on their own.

There is, at any rate, something surreal about the whole discussion—the endless, ongoing, passionate discussion—regarding the two-state solution, and specifically because there actually are two states, one Jewish and one Arab, on the territory of Turkish Palestine. But, of course, even that assertion is complicated and depends, at least in part, on how one views the long-forgotten Transjordan Memorandum of 1922, the British proposal ratified by the League of Nations in September of that year that allowed for the dismemberment of Ottoman Palestine into two regions, both to be administered by the British: the part west of the Jordan to be called Palestine and the part to the east of the river to be called Transjordan. This would just be so much boring administrative history, except for the detail, made explicit in the memorandum, that the point of the proposal was specifically to prevent Jews from settling in Transjordan. Nor is this a point to gloss over lightly, because it was as a direct result of that dusty memorandum that the Partition Plan of 1947—the United Nations proposal that is the bedrock upon which the two-state solution rests—only ever applied to the lands west of the Jordan, the part that was called Mandatory Palestine. And so, because the land on the east side of the river was excluded not because of historical or geographical reasons but merely because the British perceived doing so to be in their own best interests and got the League of Nations to go along with the idea, today’s proponents of the two-state solution remain mostly unaware of the undeniable fact that there actually are two states, one Arab and one Jewish, on the territory that the world took from the Turks after the First World War and gave to the British to administer.  That, however, is not what I want to write about today.

Nor do I want to focus on the obtuse unwillingness of so many who speak vocally about the two-state solution as the sole path forward to peace to take a long, hard look at Gaza…and then explain why Israel should not insist on ironclad guarantees that the citizens of some future state of Palestine will not follow the Gazans’ lead and give their nation over to radical terrorists whose whole raison d’être is the annihilation of the Jewish state. (For European nations like Ireland and Sweden that face no existential threats from without and whose right to live in peace on their own soil is contested by none to look past Gaza and pretend not to see the problem borders on the grotesque. But I’ll return to that set of ideas in a future letter.)

Instead, what I would like to bring to the discussion today are two ten-dollar words that denote related but distinct concepts, and which hardly ever appear in discussions of Middle Eastern politics: irredentism and revanchism.  The former, irredentism, denotes any popular movement rooted in the desire to reclaim “lost” territory that the proponents of the movement consider rightfully theirs. (The word derives from the Italian word irridento, which means “unredeemed” and was coined in the 1870s by activists who wished to “redeem” the Italian-speaking parts of Austria and France by making them part of Italy.) The latter, revanchism, denotes any political movement rooted in the desire to reverse territorial losses incurred through war or through some other political process, and to restore them to their original political status. (The word derives from the French word revanche, which means “revenge” and was coined by French nationalists who wanted to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine from Germany after losing those two eastern provinces in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.)  The Palestinian cause has elements of both, of course: the “redemption” of Arab land that somehow ended up as part of Israel and “revenge” both for the defeat in 1948-1949 that established Israel as an independent country and left the West Bank in the hands of Jordan and Gaza under Egyptian control, and also for the Arab defeat in the Six Day War that left the West Bank, the Golan, the Sinai, and Gaza under Israeli control.

Viewing the struggle for an independent Palestinian state through the lenses of irredentism and revanchism is an interesting experience, because it allows us to view the whole situation through a much wider lens than usual. The irredentist and/or revanchist claims of nations are, it turns out, countless. But the world takes little note of most of them: the principle that law most reasonably derives from facts on the ground—in the Latin of international law: ex factis jus oritur—is broadly brought to bear to dismiss most irredentist claims as nationalistic fantasies that cannot be expected to trump the actual boundaries of existent nations. No one, for example, is prepared to take South Tyrol from Italy and hand it over to Austria merely because there are Austrians who haven’t made peace with its loss following World War II. Nor is the world going to dismember the United Kingdom and hand North Ireland over to Ireland merely because a large majority of Irish citizens think of it as an integral part of their island-nation, which it surely is geographically, and because its citizens are almost exclusively ethnically Irish. Nor did the world seek to head off the first Gulf War merely by handing over Kuwait to the Iraqis who claimed it as their own territory merely because the boundary between the two nations was yet another British line arbitrary drawn, this time literally, in the sand…much less because Saddam Hussein threatened war if they didn’t. European nations alone with irredentist claims on other countries’ territory include, aside from Austria and Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Servia, Bosnia, Albania, Bulgaria, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Norway, Russia. Asian nations with irredentist claims on other countries include India, Japan, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, and the Philippines. The list goes on. (For a full list, click here.) Indeed, as I reviewed these claims and was amazed not only at how many they are, but at how many different nations they involve, it struck me that the assumption so many of us seem to have that the mere fact of the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War implies some sort of obligation on Israel’s part to hand over land it has administered for half a century seems weak and not at all in conformity with the way the world views other similar disputes regarding territories lost in war or as a result of political adventurism abroad.

There is a counterpart to the principle of ex factis jus oritur mentioned above: it is ex injuria jus non oritur, which means that, for all law must and should rest on a foundation of reality, “unjust acts cannot create law.” That suggests a certain unsavory underside to the argument that Israel has some sort of unilateral obligation to create a Palestinian state on the West Bank when put forward by nations who themselves couldn’t be less interested in creating “two-state solutions” in response to irredentist claims on their own territorial integrity. (Just for fun, try suggesting to an Australian that Australia solve its aboriginal problem with a two-state solution…or to a New Zealander that New Zealand solve its Maori problem by divvying up the landmass so that the descendants of the nation’s colonial invaders and those of the natives they found in place can thrive in separate political entities.) Indeed, the supposition that Israel’s existence itself is a kind of unjust act perpetrated by the world on the Palestinians, an argument that has neither historical validity nor philosophical merit, would justify the assumption that Israel must cede land it won in a war foisted upon it by its enemies. But that argument—that Israel is itself an unjustifiable aberration the existence of which cannot be used as the basis to create law at all—is not only offensive, but suggestive of a deeply anti-Semitic worldview.

I am not arguing that the Palestinians should be made to pay forever for their huge error of judgment in 1947 when the world offered them an independent state and they specifically chose not to take it because taking it would have meant living in peace with the Jewish state next door,. But the assumption that the facts on the ground cannot and should not create the law that governs the parties to the dispute can only be sustained by arguing the illegitimacy of the Jewish state…and that is a position that principled people possessed of an unbiased sense of history may never embrace.

A two-state solution may in the end be a good thing for all parties to the dispute. I actually think that that probably is the case. But to argue that it must be, that it is immoral and unreasonable for the Arab side to bear the consequences of their own defeat in war both in 1948 and in 1967—that is simply a principle of law that none of the nations of the world seems to apply to itself. And that point—and also that Israel has every right never to agree to any sort of agreement that could conceivably lead to the establishment of Gaza East on the West Bank—those are the points that seems regularly lost on most, including those who speak the most fervently in favor of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Finding Friends in Unexpected Places

For years now, Shelter Rockers have heard me add the name of my friend, Ed Searcy, to the mi she-beirach list whenever we pause over an open Torah scroll to pray for our relatives and friends who have been stricken with illness. Occasionally, people ask who he is—some interested because I have been adding his name to the list for so long and others, I suppose, because it seems curious that a rabbi would ask his congregation to pray so assiduously for the recovery of a Christian clergyman without feeling the need to explain their relationship or to chart its history.

I admit it’s been a long time. Ed was diagnosed with the double whammy of multiple myeloma (a chronic cancer of the plasma cells) and amyloidosis (a rare but serious condition caused by the accumulation of proteins in the form of insoluble fibers within the tissues of one’s body) six years ago in 2011. When he told me about the diagnosis, I asked what I could do for him. His answer was that I could pray for his recovery. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Why wouldn’t I have wanted to do whatever I could to ease his burden? He’s been my friend, after all, for more than thirty years. But I’ve never written about the specific way we met, which I think I would like to write about this week.

But before I get to the past, I want to write about the present. It has been, to say the least, a worrisome week. The twenty bomb threats phoned into Jewish institutions on Monday brought the grand total of such threats to almost ninety, including some made to targets relatively close at hand to us at Shelter Rock. Nor has it been a week merely of bad words: there have also been some very bad deeds to go along with them in the desecration of the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia and the Chesed shel Emeth Cemetery in Union City, Missouri.  In a different world, we would hardly take note of such pointless hooliganism. But the combination of threat, provocation, vandalism, and a general uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in general lends these acts of sacrilege an ominous aura they might otherwise not have.

But more unexpected—to me, at least—was the response to the vandalism. In Missouri, Vice President Pence went out of his way to visit the cemetery last Wednesday and actually took part in the clean-up. The governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, did the same. And, while still at work at the cemetery, Governor Greitens took the opportunity to reveal that President Trump had phoned to ask him to convey the president’s good wishes to the clean-up crew for their work on behalf of the Jewish community and, more importantly, for their effort to show the world “that what happened [in Union City] the other night is not who America is.” Whatever any of us thinks about the current administration, yea or nay, the sight of the governor of Missouri and the vice-president of the United States rolling up their sleeves to restore a desecrated cemetery is a moving example of our national spirit and should be acknowledged as such.

But even more surprising was the campaign undertaken by two Muslim Americans, Linda Sarsour and Tarek el-Messidi, to raise funds, at first, to help restore the tombstones of Union City, which effort yielded $115,000 in just two or three days. And then campaign was expanded to include the effort to raise money to restore the damaged and/or toppled gravestones in Philadelphia. What the “real” motives of these people in doing this were, who knows? The cynic in me wants to imagine that this is just a good moment for American Muslims to raise their public profile in a very positive way. But the bottom line is that more than two-thirds of the donations have come from Muslim Americans, and it’s hard to see a conspiracy here even despite the million reasons to distrust unexpected largesse from unfamiliar quarters…and particularly quarters from which some of Israel’s harshest critics have come in recent years. I see that. And I certainly do not wish to assist people who otherwise work to hurt Israel and damage Israel’s reputation in their disingenuous effort to distance themselves from the charge of anti-Semitism merely by undertaking a LaunchGood campaign. I’m by nature neither a naïve person nor an overly trusting one.

Yet…even though I share the skepticism of many who have publicly questioned the motives of the givers, I’d like to think that we are witnessing an act of charitable kindness rather than a mere P.R. opportunity. A terrible thing happened. People responded…including people of whom we are reasonably wary. Still, I propose that we take the donations from Muslim America, and from so many other quarters as well, as well as the public gesture by the Vice-President and the Governor of Missouri (admittedly a Jewish person…but even so) and Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf and Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, at face value, and allow them to suggest that the haven we have found in this place is real, that the patriotism we feel in our hearts for our country reflects far more than wishful thinking, and that the values that we presume to underlie the republic are intact and well. For another example of recent Muslim solicitude for our Jewish problems, this one Florida-based, click here.

And that brings me to the Reverend Searcy. My first pulpit was in Richmond, a town just outside Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This was a long time ago. It was a season of brand new things for me: my first pulpit (although this was eight years after I was ordained, having taken a slight detour through the halls of academe on my way to the bimah), a new country, a new time zone, a new life style (it was the first time in my life I ever lived in a private home rather than an apartment), a new baby on the way…and a dozen other new thresholds to step over and new straits to negotiate.

Even though we had just finished a two-year stint in Germany, I don’t believe I had ever actually experienced real anti-Semitism until I came to Richmond. It looked calm. The people outside the congregation that I met here and there seemed pleasant and welcoming. The mayor of Richmond, Gil Blair, personally came to my installation to welcome me to his city. It all felt peaceful and good. And then, one Sunday morning only a few months after I was in place, the president of the congregation called me at 6 AM and asked me to meet him at the synagogue. I pulled on some clothes and drove over, and there I found what I had not even been savvy enough about the world previously to dread: the entire building painted with bright red swastikas and slogans so vile that even now, even after all these years, I still can’t quite bring myself to type them out for you to read. Trust me, it was awful. I was flummoxed completely.  Clearly, we had to do something. But it wasn’t obvious what. Someone had already phoned the R.C.M.P. and they arrived promptly, but didn’t seem to take the painted slogans seriously as death threats (which is what they were, and unambiguously so), preferring instead to wave them away as vulgar graffiti. Eventually, they agreed to open a serious investigation. But that was still to come as I stood there in the cool morning air with the members of the Board of Trustees and pondered the best course forward.

What happened next was remarkable. The adjacent property was owned by a Catholic church, St. Joseph the Worker, and the oldest priest, whom I hadn’t even met yet, was named Father Pascale. I met him that morning when he arrived around an hour later not just to express his regrets formally and in person, but with an army of parishioners bearing pails and brushes, soap and solvent. They set themselves to cleaning the walls of our synagogue! And they did a fairly good job, although we eventually painted over the whole façade to make the vileness disappear entirely. But that was only the beginning.

We received letters from all across Canada, most of which came with checks to assist us in the clean-up. We heard from all the right people, including from the Premier of the province and the Member of Parliament who represented our riding. Mayor Blair came by several times to offer some support and encouragement. And in the context of all that good will, Ed Searcy came into my life.

In those days, he was the pastor of the South Arm United Church. He sent me a note in which he introduced himself and asked how he could help. I phoned and suggested we meet for a coffee and talk this through: I was shaken by the whole incident and wondered if he, being a real Canadian, might possibly have some insight into the larger picture I was facing that I as a newcomer lacked. And that was how I met Ed. He was kind, welcoming, reassuring. He reminded me—I’m sure he himself doesn’t remember exactly what he said, but I certainly do—he reminded me that the presence of evil doesn’t imply the absence of good…and he reminded me that the only practical way to combat the kind of viciousness and blind hated we had just encountered was to affirm our faith in the goodness of God. It was a simple sermon delivered over coffee at the edge of North America by young minister to a young rabbi. More than his insight, however, Ed extended his hand to me in friendship. And that is how I got to know Ed Searcy and why I invite the congregation weekly to join me in praying for his good health.

When I read about the desecration of that Jewish cemetery in St. Louis and the way people who aren’t “supposed” to care suddenly showed up to restore and repair the toppled stones, and how other Americans, including people who aren’t “supposed” to care about the stones in a Jewish cemetery, anted up not hundreds or thousands, but scores of thousands of dollars to assist in the restoration—I was brought back to my first experience of anti-Semitic violence on otherwise calm and quiet Geal Road in Richmond, B.C., an otherwise tranquil town filled with friendly, welcoming people.

So it turns out there are good people in the world! But that thought in turn inspires an unsettling, more-than-slightly-anxiety-producing question for us all to ponder: when tragedy, and particularly prejudice-tinged tragedy strikes other groups…does our example inspire the confidence and courage in those aggrieved souls that the efforts of so many from outside the Jewish community did in Missouri last week and in Richmond so many years ago? That, if you ask me, is the real question to take away from this whole story…and, if we dare, to answer honestly.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Playing God

It’s funny how some events in the course of human history become universally understood as watershed moments and the individuals connected with them become correspondingly famous. The invention of the moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the fifteenth century is a good example: he’s famous, his invention is famous, and the shift from handwritten to printed books is widely understood as a true threshold in the development of world culture. You could say the same thing about James Watt’s perfection of the steam engine in 1781 or Alan Turing’s invention of the world’s first working computer, the so-called Turing Machine, in 1936. All famous men, all the well-known dates of famous events.

But other events fall away, just as do also the people connected with them. The real inventor of the moveable-type printing press, Han dynasty inventor Bi Sheng, is known to almost nobody today. Isaac Newcombe, the inventor of the steam engine that Watt was able dramatically to improve has long since been forgotten by all but historians of science. Charles Babbage, the British polymath whose 1822 “difference engine” was the forerunner of the computer, remains an obscure figure to most. My point in mentioning these three names is not to suggest that the people mentioned in the first paragraph don’t deserve their fame, which they all surely do. Rather, my point is to show how difficult it is to see these events when they are actually happening and to recognize them as momentous. Indeed, despite the fact that all three of the mostly-forgotten persons mentioned here—Bi Sheng, Isaac Newcombe, and Charles Babbage—managed materially to alter the course of human history through their work, all were eclipsed later on by the perfectors of their efforts not because the latter schemed to deny their predecessors their due but because, when the world finally got around to noticing that it was standing at a threshold moment, the people in the first paragraph were standing in the right place at the right time and not the people in the second.

Nor is it easy to notice when society has crossed a developmental line back across which it will never be able to step. And, indeed, all sorts of things that felt momentous in their day were proven later on not quite to be the breakthrough they seemed at the moment to be. I remember buying my first music CD and thinking that music would never be the same again. But that was then…and now the introduction of the music CD in 1982—for the record, a Philips recording of Claudio Arrau playing some Chopin waltzes—feels like a bridge between cassette tapes and the kind of audio files that seem to exist without physical space and which simply fly on command through the ether into the machines devised to 
play them.

And now I get to the real subject of this week’s letter: the joint announcement the other day by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine that they formally approve of the effort to modify human embryos by altering the genetic code in which are embedded the traits the people those embryos will eventually become will be able to pass along to future generations. It’s hard to know what to do with such an announcement. Is this one of those pivotal moments in world history that will be remembered as a real turning point in the development of human society, as a real break with the past? Or is it just a breakthrough moment in terms of human attitudes towards a specific kind of scientific research…but not a true threshold moment in the history of humankind? That is the question I’d like to explore this week.

The academies only noted their approval with respect to certain specific kinds of research, the kinds designed to enable the deletion of genes that cause “serious diseases and disabilities.” And even that is only to be considered acceptable when there exists no reasonable alternative to eradicating the disease by altering the genetic code of those who bear it into the world.

It feels unlikely, however, that the kind of discipline necessary to keep faith with those two strictures will be maintained for long. For one thing, the terms in play—the “reasonable” in “no reasonable alternatives” or the “serious” in “serious diseases or disabilities”— are open to a very wide range of definitions. Yet, even with that caveat, there surely are diseases that all would qualify as “serious” threats to health and disabilities that no one would think twice about referencing as “serious” disadvantages to the people obliged by circumstance to deal with them. It’s hard, for example, to imagine the argument against doing whatever it takes to eradicate Huntington’s chorea, a terrible affliction that leads through horrific disability to eventual death. And if there are unfortunates who carry the genetic code for that specific disease, but from whose gametes could be created an embryo that could specifically be altered not to bear that code and therefore not to have to fear the disease and its awful consequences or to risk handing it down to future generations—it’s hard to come up with a cogent argument against helping such people rid themselves and their descendants of a horrific genetic curse.

And yet there are those who look with disfavor on this kind of research, fearing that the moral and ethical brakes they deem requisite for looking positively on this kind of research will simply not be applied by all and, indeed, the whole specter of “designer babies” is something that really should give us all pause for thought.

Due to the development of something called CRISPR-Cas9, the concept is not as far-fetched as it once was. The first part stands for Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats. The second part, Cas-9, is CRISPR Associated Protein 9, an enzyme that somehow has the ability to act as a kind of molecular scissors capable of “cutting” a strand of DNA at a specific point in the genome so that it can be deleted or adjusted.  Come again? I’ve been reading websites all week looking for a simple explanation. No luck on that front! Still, to read the best (and, yes, the simplest) explanations I could find online, click here and here. Really, you need a background in molecular biology even to begin to get how this works, but the ethical issues do not inhere in the science and it should be more than enough for laypeople like ourselves to understand that CRISPR-Cas9 is a genome-editing tool that works well enough for scientists seriously to be on the verge of learning how to alter the genetic code of the pre-born.

From a certain vantage point, you could argue that the ethical concerns that so worry so many are being overstated. After all, we all do what we can to help our children succeed in life! We specifically do not teach our kids just to accept their weaknesses and inherent shortcomings, and to leave it at that. Instead, we do what we can to help them succeed and consider it irrelevant if their eventually performance only comes after long hours of training, practice, rehearsal, study, exercise, etc.  So why exactly shouldn’t, say, tone-deaf parents ask a scientist to alter their genetic code to include the gene for musical excellence for future generations to enjoy? Yes, of course, that sounds a bit frivolous. But the arguments against sound just a bit puritanical (and I mean that in a negative sense): if a child overcomes a natural, genetically-based disability through hard work, perseverance, and dogged tenacity and dedication, we consider it praiseworthy. But, and here we wander onto ethically thinner ice, if the means of overcoming some specific innate, inborn obstacle comes from without—from a friendly genetic engineer altering the child’s potential skill set to delete the specific traits that will hold him or her from succeeding in that very same arena—then we consider that to be unfair and morally suspect. It feels that way even to me! But more difficult, and by far, is saying exactly how those two means of assisting a child excel differ ethically.

Yes, one avenue will be available to the wealthy before it trickles down to the middle class, let alone those who live in poverty. But in a society in which the same could be said of a thousand other things—SAT prep courses, the kind of personal training that leads to athletic excellence, private music or art lessons, summers spent in camps devoted to the cultivation of the specific skills necessary to succeed, travel to distant lands to learn languages or some skill available in that specific place—it feels odd suddenly to climb up onto a high horse with respect to this specific means of helping children succeed. Don’t we specifically not care that the wealthy can provide more for their children than the poor? We certainly behave that way in most other contexts! And to tell the child of well-off parents that he or she can’t be helped to overcome some congenital inability to succeed because of his parents’ wealth also seems a bit perverse. Isn’t helping some children better than helping none?

And yet I also see the other side of the coin…and clearly. There surely is something unsettling about the notion of altering the genetic code that yields the diversity that now characterizes human society. But to oppose scientific research that could eventually assist people in ridding society of gene-based diseases and defects seems impossible to justify morally. So perhaps the real question before us is not whether the report of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine is right or wrong to support the latter while strenuously arguing against using this kind of technology to improve the lot of future generations other than by ridding them of terrible diseases or defects, but something incredibly more difficult to decide: if it were to be so that this particularly genie, once out of the bottle, will be impossible to force back inside…then would the notion of ridding the world of Huntington’s or Tay-Sachs disease or beta thalassemia be worth the risk of scientists, both at home and abroad, crossing the line to create people who are better than they might otherwise be in other ways as well?

To condemn the possibility of altering the genetic make-up of embryos as “playing God” requires having a clear sense in mind of what that thought even means.  Every significant medical break-through has altered the world God made in a profound way that could reasonably be qualified as unnatural. Yet none of us regrets the eradication of smallpox or would dream of arguing that Edward Jenner was “playing God” in 1798 when he developed the world’s first effective vaccine for any disease at all. But wasn’t he doing just that?

It seems to me that we are crossing a huge threshold with the report of this last week endorsing the kind of research into the alteration of the genome that we both eagerly await and reasonably fear. Is it worth going forward and merely hoping for the best? Should we shove this particular genie back in the bottle and throw it into the sea?  If you want a clear answer, ask a potential parent who carries the Huntington’s chorea gene!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

There must be something of the nineteenth century in my character, given the number of nineteenth-century-books on my list of books that I’d say materially altered the way I think about the world. Some titles, you could probably guess on your own: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Leaves of Grass, and Tolstoy’s Resurrection are all there, although possibly not in the order you’d have predicted. But those are all works of fiction—fiction at its most sublime, yes, but fiction nonetheless—and there are non-fiction books on my list as well and among them is the book I wish to write specifically about today, Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

It’s a remarkable book, even 176 years after it was first published in 1841. And it had a profound effect on me, one that altered my thinking in every way, even theologically, by bringing me to the realization that truths can elude almost everybody, that things that everybody “just” knows can just as likely be false as true, and that falsehoods can easily masquerade not merely as true statements but almost as societal axioms—that is, as the kind of “common knowledge” facts that people are made to feel foolish even to question, let alone to deny. It’s a big book (almost 700 pages in the edition I own), but it’s well worth the effort and the time necessary to read—indeed, almost every chapter is eye-opening and interesting. Mackay was a Scot who spent most of his working life in Belgium and England, where he worked as a lawyer without ever losing his predilection for writing. He was apparently the first to compile a dictionary of the language then called “Lowland Scotch,” the dialect of Gaelic spoken in the Scotland in his day. And he wrote Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, his masterpiece.

One by one, the author goes through beliefs that were either current in his own day or in some earlier time and shows how they achieved nearly universal credence despite the fact that there was no convincing evidence—and often no evidence of any sort at all—to support them. Let me quote the opening passage from the preface to the 1852 edition:

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.

And then he goes on to demonstrate that, to cite his own words, “men…go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."

Mackay and his book have repeatedly come to my mind as I have been contemplating the nation-wise brouhaha concerning the President’s Executive Order barring refugees from everywhere but Syria from entering our country for the next 120 days, refugees from Syria from entering indefinitely, and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering for the next ninety days. It may seem odd to reach back to a book written almost two centuries ago for insight regarding events happening now, but I have to say that I can’t recall ever hearing more people say more things that they somehow “just” know to be the truth without bothering to say how exactly they know themselves to be right, let alone unarguably true. And the more such “facts” are bandied about as though they were not groundless assertions but self-evident truths, the more I regret that Mackay isn’t around to prepare a twenty-first century edition of his book.

The President’s ban has maddened people because it was apparently promulgated without being formally vetted in advance by officials at the Justice Department or the Department of Homeland Security. I’m hardly an expert on these things, but that feels like a huge misstep: the people responsible for enforcing the President’s directive on the ground should probably have been given maximal, not minimal, time to prepare. But the specific problems connected with enforcing the two bans are not really the issue here…and it is precisely outside the issue of how exactly to enforce the ban that people on both sides seem to be campaigning for a place in an updated edition of Mackay’s book.

For people who support the Executive Order, the challenge seems clear. We are surely all in agreement that our government should not admit terrorists or criminals to our country merely because they present themselves as peaceful immigrants or refugees. And so, that being the case, the only convincing argument in favor of a ban on entering our country on the scale of the President’s Executive Order would logically have to be that the system to vet would-be refugees and immigrants that we already have in place is not working properly and that, time and time again, those charged with keeping our nation safe have failed to recognize dangerous, or potentially dangerous, people for what they are and so have naively and ineptly admitted them. That argument sounds persuasive, but it needs to be grounded in reality. Where is the list of those bad people we inadvertently let move here? Where is the list of terrorist acts, ones actually carried out or thwarted by law enforcement officials before they could be carried out, that people whom we incompetently let cross the border into our country either did manage to pull off or else clearly intended to pull off? If we have been screening people applying to enter our country ineffectually and inexpertly, where is the proof of that incompetence on the part of the very people being paid to keep us safe—proof that could only really be constituted by a long or even short list of bad people who somehow slipped through despite their best efforts to prevent such people from doing so. But there is no such list…or at least there has not been published any such list that I have seen.

That being the case, all those people insisting that the system is broken need to be asked a simple, pointed question: if the system is letting terrorists and criminals slip into our country, why can’t you list some of their names as proof positive of your assertion? And if the system isn’t actually broken, why do we need to fix it?

But the people on the other side of the aisle have their own unanswered questions to address…because so many assertions coming from the “opposed” camp also seem unsubstantiated and naïve. The President’s Executive Order is not a ban on Muslims per se, which fact is more than adequately demonstrated by the fact that there are dozens of Muslim nations not on the list and whose Muslim citizens are, therefore, not affected at all. Nor are non-Muslim citizens of the countries that are on the list free to enter our country: there was a story carried by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency just the other day about Jews from Iran and Yemen whose visas were cancelled before the Executive Order was put on hold by the courts. So it’s hardly true that the President has banned Muslims from entering our country…and yet I have heard and read people say exactly that now for days and days as though it were a self-evident truth.

Moving along, the assertion that we don’t have anything to fear from radicalized Muslims seems, to say the least, naïve. Perusing the Wikipedia page on “Islamic terrorism” (click here), it’s more shocking how many of these incidents—instances of barbarism that have led to thousands of deaths even just in the last twenty years—have been almost totally forgotten or are at least not regularly referenced in public discourse or in the press. So when people say that the President is behaving irrationally by worrying about the special security issues related to the admission of Muslim refugees or immigrants to our country, that seems, to say the very least, a bit naïve. The key, I think, is to avoid careening away from thoughtful caution and intelligent watchfulness towards xenophobia and the kind of blanket condemnation that makes it harder, not at all easier, to identify the bad guys: all Muslims are surely not terrorists, but there are large, well-funded groups of radical Islamicists out there who express themselves through violence and terrorism…and the foundation of whose worldview is precisely their particular version of Islam. Particularly bizarre, I should add, is hearing Jewish people who claim to feel a deep sense of allegiance with Israel—including, I am ashamed to say, some rabbis—who appear to feel called upon for some obscure reason not to take note of the phenomenon of radical Islamicist terrorism in the world and, just to the contrary, to brand as racist anyone who does. These people too deserve a chapter in Mackay’s book.

Our world would be a lot easier to negotiate if the prerequisite for being quoted in the press or appearing on television was that you had to read Mackay’s book and internalize its lessons. The basic facts in evidence are not only clear, but more or less universally agreed upon. All Muslims are not terrorists, and people who claim otherwise are simply wrong. There being versions of Islam that do promote the concept of worldwide jihad and for whom terrorism directed against innocents is fully acceptable, however, we need to guarantee that no Muslims admitted to our country are future terrorists because they do subscribe to the version of Islam that animates ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Shabaab, the Jemaah Islamiyah, Islamic Jihad, and the like…and people who do not see the cogency of that obligation really do belong in Mackay’s book as well. If the system we have in place to vet people from other lands who seek to enter our land to visit or to settle is not working, it needs to be fixed. But the burden of proof in that regard would normally have to rest with the people making that assertion…and just asserting it without being able to present any evidence to bolster such claim is also worth a mention in the next edition of Mackay.

It makes no sense at all to talk about excessive diligence in keeping our country safe and our co-citizens secure—if we were talking about keeping your children safe, would you recognize a level of “excessive” diligence? On the other hand, a former president of our congregation, a physician (and we’ve had several), once pointed out to me that doctors can cure any disease if it’s not considered crucial that the patient survive the curative procedure, but that this is generally not considered the very best way to practice medicine…even despite the 100% cure rate.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Subjective Remembrance

Of all the various events of the last ten days, saying which will have the most lasting effect on our national character—or our nation’s image abroad or its sense of itself at home—would be, to say the very least, challenging. But saying which event of that same time period was the most grotesque is actually simple: surely, it would have to be the spectacle of so many eager to take sides loudly and vehemently in response to President Trump’s brief statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the United-Nations-sponsored memorial day scheduled each year since 2005 for January 27, the day in 1945 that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz.
The statement itself was innocuous enough. (I wonder how many of those who commented on it at such length and with such passion actually read it. Surely some…but also surely not all!) Because it was so brief, I would like to cite it here in its entirety:
It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.
Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest. As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.
In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.
A Martian visiting Earth and being presented with these paragraphs would probably find them moving. A wave of horrific violence, correctly characterized as one characterized by unfathomable depravity, engulfed the world and took the lives of countless innocents. Yet even in the context of such horror, there were those who chose to risk their lives to save at least some who would otherwise have surely been killed. And in response to those two thoughts—the loss of the many and the heroism of the few—our national leader pledges to devote both his years in office—and the rest of his life—to the effort of guaranteeing that the forces of evil never triumph over the powers of good, and that tolerance and love prevail in their place.
The response, however, was not as the President had surely expected or wished, and for one single reason: the omission of the detail that the primary victims of Nazi genocide were Jews, not “just” innocents chosen at random from the universe of the guiltless, struck many as vaguely sinister and not at all the kind of thing reasonably waved away as a function of mere naiveté. And that single fact—the President’s failure to identify the Jewish people by name in his statement—generated the storm of criticism that ensued, some of it thoughtful and some of it beyond shrill. 
As the days passed, new details emerged among which the most arresting was that the statement, which I don’t suppose anyone imagined President Trump himself wrote, was actually penned for the President by Boris Epshteyn, once the ten-year-old child of Soviet Jewish émigrés to this country but now a White House special assistant. But the Jewish bona fides of the author’s statement did little to suppress the anger over the perceived insult. In some ways, in fact, it only made people who were already angry even angrier.
There is no doubt that the Jews were not the Nazis’ only victims and the numbers of non-Jewish victims are both numbing and appalling: half a million Serbs, almost two million Polish civilians, almost three million Ukrainians,  somewhere between 2 to 3 million Soviet P.O.W.s, a quarter of a million Gypsies, another quarter of a million mentally-handicapped individuals, and hundreds of thousands of others: gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, Catholic priests, and more than thirteen million Soviet citizens (including the 1.2 million people who died during the siege of Leningrad alone between 1941 and 1943). And yet…it is also true that it was only the Jews that were the intended victims of genocide itself, the term used to denote the intentional effort to annihilate an entire people and to leave no survivors at all.  And that is where things get confusing: it is surely so that the Germans never intended to murder every single Pole or every Soviet citizen, just to bring those nations to their knees by decimating the population and thus weakening the national resolve to resist German rule. (The situation of the mentally handicapped is more complex, since the Nazis probably did intend eventually to rid the world of mental illness by murdering the entire mentally ill population…and yet that program, called Aktion T4 because it was headquartered at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, was in the end only used to kill German citizens and was not extended into occupied countries. Nor does it seem quite right to characterize mentally ill people as a nation that even could be the victim of genocide.)
And so we are left between a rock and a very hard place: not wishing to sound dismissive or unfeeling with respect to the countless non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, men, women, and children whose suffering was not only real but in many ways and details just as horrific as the misery inflicted on the Jews of Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe…but also not wishing to look past the fact that the Shoah itself—the Nazi war against the Jews—was a unique event both in world history and, needless to say, in Jewish history as well.
The figure of 11 million victims of the Nazis is probably incorrect—there is some evidence that Simon Wiesenthal came up with it himself without relying on the soundest of scholarship—but nitpicking about the number seems unworthy. (For a detailed account of that number and Simon Wiesenthal’s role in devising it, click here.) Nor is it a number without its own place in the history of Shoah memorialization: in establishing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, then-President Jimmy Carter made referenced to the 11 million victims of the Holocaust and there was, as I recall, no particularly vocal response at all. That figure appears all over the place as well, including as recently as last week, on the Facebook page of the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesperson’s unit. And I am personally aware of rabbis who regular reference the eleven-million victims of the Holocaust as though it would be unseemly to note the Jewish victims without folding the others into the batter so as not to appear concerned solely with Jewish suffering. I can follow that line of thinking easily. And the thought of turning the Shoah into some sort of ghoulish contest—and “ghoulish” would be to say the very least—to see who suffered more grievously or in larger numbers at the hands of the Nazis and those who chose to collaborate with them—the thought of entering into that kind of calculus of agony with other victims’ groups to see who wins the right to claim the more horrific fate under the Nazis seems revolting to me.
Under normal circumstances, no one would care. I myself, whose entire adult life has in a sense been guided by the self-imposed need fully and deeply to internalize the details of the Shoah and its deeply monitory message for my own generation and my children’s—even I can’t say with certainty that I would have reacted particularly negatively to the President’s remarks under normal circumstances. It was, I think I would have thought, impressive that the President even took note of Holocaust Remembrance Day, let alone bothered in the course of his first week in office to issue a formal statement in which he pledged to spend both the years of his presidency and the rest of his life after leaving office—a bit over the top, perhaps, but that’s what the man said—combatting the forces of evil exemplified by the Nazis.
But, of course, these are not normal times and we are not operating under normal circumstances. The presence among the White House staff of people who have been openly associated with anti-Semites, the open use of anti-Semitic slogans and graphic memes by the Trump campaign, the President’s own repeated, jarring use of the “America First” slogan in his Inaugural Address without any apparent awareness of the set of memories those words would awaken for an entire generation of Americans and particular for American Jews (for a brief history of the “America First” slogan, click here), and, most of all, the resurgence of the kind of rhetoric with respect to immigration that characterized our nation as its moral perigee during the FDR years when the gates remained shut even to children, let alone to adults, facing unfathomable torment and almost certain death—all of that provides the backdrop against which the President’s statement calls out to be read. And when considered against that background, the statement that the Martian I mentioned above would find both innocuous and moving, feels, to say the very least, unsettling.

I remember visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in 1977 and being shocked to discover that Anne’s Jewishness was left almost completely unmentioned in the displays on exhibit. That was my first experience of the Shoah universalized to the point of meaninglessness, of the effort to make the Shoah about oppression in general and not about anti-Semitism in its most extreme guise, of the notion that there was something at least slightly morally suspect in defining the Shoah as the apotheosis of rabid anti-Semitism and not, far less specifically, as an example of prejudice or extremism.  That was my first taste of that specific kind of anti-Jewishness, but not my last. I’d like to think that the President’s remarks were unfortunately but not maliciously phrased, that the omission of any reference to the Jewish people was a mere oversight by a naïve aide, that the larger concept that there even was a declaration is what we should be focusing on…and not on its specific wording. I’d like to think all those things! But whether that option will still be tenable a year from now—that is the real question for Jewish Americans—and for all fair-minded citizens—to contemplate as we move into the first months of the Trump administration.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Praying for the President

Regular worshipers at Shelter Rock know that we routinely recite a prayer for our nation as part of our Shabbat morning service, but I'm not sure that everybody realizes that I myself wrote that prayer as part of the effort to publish Siddur Tzur Yisrael back in 2006. It was a product of its time, too: written just a few years after 9/11, the sense of America as a nation under siege was audible throughout. (When a synagogue in Boston years later wrote to ask permission to use my prayer in their service and specifically asked me for permission to delete the line “May the wicked plots of whose would destroy us ever come to naught,” I acquiesced, suggesting—only mostly in jest—that we could compromise by shortening it to just “May the wicked plotz.” Either they didn’t think that was as funny as I did or else they didn’t feel the shortened line sufficiently undid what they clearly considered the line’s untoward bellicosity, but they didn’t go for it. I decided not to mind and so it entered their worship service as published in Tzur Yisrael, but without that single line.)

At the time, it felt uncontroversial to include such a prayer in our prayerbook. Later on, however, I began to get regular queries about it, some sincere and others merely serving as a means for the asker to express his or her negative feelings about the president on whom the prayer invokes God’s blessings. My stock response was (and is) to note wryly the illogic of not wishing to pray that God grant wisdom and insight to someone the asker clearly considers in dire need of both, and so the prayer remained (and remains) part of worship at Shelter Rock.

The idea itself of praying on behalf of the government and its officials is ancient. Shelter Rockers all know the words “Pray for the peace of your city for in its peace shall you too have peace,” but not all know how old they are. And they are very old indeed: the prophet Jeremiah spoke them in the first decade of the sixth century BCE after the Babylonians exiled large numbers of ruling-class Judahites in the day of King Jehoiachin to punish them for their unwillingness to acquiesce to foreign domination and for their rebelliousness. Nor was this just the prophet’s personal take on things, but an actual divine oracle. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who are carried away captives, to all whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon,” the prophet reports in God’s name, “‘build houses and dwell in them. Plant gardens and eat their fruit…Seek the peace of the city to which I have caused you to be carried away as captives and pray to the Lord for it, for in its peace shall you too have peace.’” It’s true, I suppose, that the prophet doesn’t specifically tell the people to pray for the government, but praying for the peace of the city to which their captors had brought them comes to the same thing: the idea behind both efforts is to feel justified in praying to God for the city, for the nation, for its leadership…and all who exercise just and rightful authority in its governance. This is not presented as mere altruism either, for the prophet could not be clearer: the people’s security rests in the security of the larger place in which they live and in the success of its leadership in establishing that security.

The earliest reference to praying for the government per se, however, is probably in Pirkei Avot, where we hear that Rabbi Ḥananiah the Deputy High Priest, liked to tell people to “pray for the peace of the government, since were it not for the fear of the government people would swallow each other up alive.” He was in interesting personality in his own right, Rabbi Ḥananiah, serving as one of the few Temple officials to seek and attain rabbinic ordination, and thus serving as an unofficial link between the vanished world of pre-destroyed Jerusalem and the ongoing work of the rabbinic effort to create a version of Judaism that could survive the absence of the Temple. And this interesting personality makes an interesting point: that it behooves law-abiding citizens to pray for their government officials because it is the latter who are responsible for maintaining an orderly, peaceful society in which citizens specifically are not free to cannibalize each other’s work or property.

There were many attempts to formulate prayers for the secular governments of the countries in which Jewish worshipers lived, but the best known, called Ha-notein Teshu∙ah after its first words, was in very wide use by the middle of the seventeenth century. (For an interesting survey by Nathan E. Weisberg of earlier efforts to compose such prayers, click here.) The great Portuguese/Dutch rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657), for example, cited it in English translation in a book he wrote to promote the idea that Jews should be allowed to re-enter and settle in England, declaring it to have be  the universal custom of Jews everywhere “on the Sabbath Day or other solemn feast,” to bless “the Prince of the country under whom they live, that all Jews may hear it and say, Amen.”

On American soil, the very first published Jewish prayer published in the New World, called a “form of prayer” and published by Congregation Shearith Israel in New York in 1760, contained the Ha-notein Teshu∙ah and specifically called upon congregants to invoke God’s blessings on “our most gracious Sovereign Lord, King GEORGE the Second, His Royal Highness, George Prince of Wales, the Princess Dowager of Wales, the Duke, the Princesses, and all the Royal Family,” and also “the Honourable President, and the Council of this Province, likewise the Magistrates of New York.”  That suited the moment well enough, I suppose, but by the time the prayer was published for public recitation at the founding of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia in 1782, the royals were gone and in their place was a reference to “His Excellency the President, and Honourable Delegates of the United States in Congress Assembled, His Excellency George Washington, Captain General and Commander of Chief of the Federal Army of these States.”  So we’ve been at this for a long time, praying for our national leaders sincerely and, I feel sure, without any sort of ironic overtone.

Over the years, I’ve noticed versions of the prayer that mention—to cite only nineteenth century personalities—Kaiser Wilhelm I, Czar Nicholas II, Napoleon, and Queen Victoria. I’m sure there must be dozens of other examples—I’ve hardly conducted serious research into the matter and am only mentioning those names I’ve personally come across here and there in my literary travels. Nor was this a feature solely of Orthodox worship—by the time the Reform and Conservative movements started publishing their own prayerbooks, alternate versions of the prayer were routinely composed and used in place of the older version.  Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, for example, more or less all Conservative prayerbooks used some version the prayer originally written by Professor Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953) that asked worshipers to pray that God “pour out His blessings on this land, on its President, judges, officers and officials, who work faithfully for the public good.”

We all know the joke from Fiddler: “Rabbi, may I ask you a question?” “Certainly.” “Is there are proper blessing for the czar?” “A blessing for the czar? Of course! May God bless and keep the czar…far away from us!” Hah! But behind the joke is a piece of reality: prayerbooks from nineteenth and early twentieth century prayerbooks published in Russia absolutely did include a passage in which God is asked “to bless, protect, guard, assist, elevate, exalt, and lift upwards our master Czar Nikolai Alexandrovich, his wife the honorable Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, their son the crown prince Alexi Nikolaiovich, and his mother, the honorable Czarina Maria Feodoravna. And the entire house of our king, may their glory be exalted.” 

To ask whether we should or shouldn’t pray for the welfare of our president based on whether we do or don’t approve of his policies, his politics, or his personal bearing is to miss the point almost entirely.

We live in an age of extreme uncertainty. Even those who voted for President Trump are uncertain what specific campaign promises he will fulfill, or at least attempt to fulfill, and which he will jettison as undoable or unworkable. (He surely would not be the first president to do that.) Nor is it clear, even to his most ardent supporters, what the priorities of this administration are going to be and how vigorously or rigorously those priorities are going to be pursued. Indeed, by electing a president with no prior experience in government, our nation has opted for a national leader who in many ways is himself a tabula rasa, and whose policies and political stances are clearly still works in progress. Like all Americans, I am hoping for the best. But when people ask me if I think we should continue to pray that God bless our President with “wisdom and with a profound and unyielding devotion to justice, equity, and righteousness,” I can only answer robustly in the affirmative. Why wouldn’t we pray for something we all—regardless of our politics and specifically regardless of how we cast our ballot in November—for something we all fervently want and which our country unquestionably needs?