Thursday, April 20, 2017

Yom Hashoah 2017

This coming Monday, April 24, is Yom Ha-shoah V’ha-g’vurah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. (That last part, the Hebrew word v’ha-g’vurah, adds a reference to those who bravely resisted and did what they could to impede the progress of the Nazis’ war against the Jews. Why it is so routinely left off the day’s name, particularly in the diaspora, is an interesting question in its own right, one I’d like to address on another occasion.) But, whatever its full or less full name, the day is almost upon us. Again. Where it came from is slightly obscure, but not that interesting a tale: the need was felt early on to create some sort of memorial day on which all those who left behind no one at all to mourn their passing could jointly be remembered by the Jewish people as a whole, and the date of the 27th of Nisan was set into Israeli law in 1953 with an act jointly signed by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Israel’s second president, Yitzchak Ben Zvi, and quickly adopted in Jewish communities around the world. It and I are therefore exactly the same age. Readers who know me personally will find that more than reasonable.

Choosing the right date was a contentious business in the beginning. The original idea was to fix Yom Ha-shoah on the day in 1943 that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. The problem there was one of practicality rather than anything else: the uprising began on Erev Pesach, and it simply didn’t make sense to establish a national memorial day on the day before Passover when the entire Jewish people would be otherwise occupied and majorly distracted. Other days were proposed, among them Tishah Be’av, the midsummer fast commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem both by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE and the Romans in the first century CE, and the Tenth of Tevet, a minor wintertime fast day associated with the onset of the siege against Jerusalem in biblical times. Neither ended up being adopted in Israel, but other dates have gained currency outside the Jewish world. Of these, best known probably is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, recognized by the European Union since 1950 and by the United Nations since 2005, and scheduled annually on January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army in 1945.  Other nations too have formally adopted the January 27 date, including Germany, the U.K., Sweden, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Italy. Poland, for obvious reasons, sticks with the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising according to the secular calendar, April 19. Austria observes its Memorial Day against Violence and Racism in Memory of the Victims of National Socialism on May 5, the anniversary of the liberation of Matthausen by the American Army in 1945. A handful of other nations have adopted still different dates; some Canadian provinces have—in my own opinion rather touchingly—adopted the Jewish date, 27 Nisan, as an annual day to remember the k’doshim of the Shoah.

What surprises me still, even after all these years, is the ambivalence with which the Jewish world itself approaches the one day on the calendar that you would think all would adopt emotionally and wholly unambivalently. Yet there is no agreed-upon liturgy for the day. The Megillat Yom Ha-shoah (“Yom Ha-shoah Scroll”) published jointly by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel and the Rabbinical Assembly in 2003, is in use in some Jewish communities but remains unadopted, even unknown, in most venues. There is no agreed-upon addition to the prayer service akin to the paragraphs added for other fast days, including minor ones, or for Chanukah and Purim. It is not anyone’s custom to fast on Yom Ha-shoah, despite the fact that all the days formally connected to the siege of Jerusalem in ancient times—days like the Tenth of Tevet mentioned above—are observed in traditional communities precisely as fast days. Nor has anyone invented any sort of ritual for Yom Ha-shoah other than the custom within Conservative Jewish communities of lighting a yellow twenty-four-hour memorial candle to memorialize the dead and to recall the yellow stars so many were forced by their German overlords to wear before being sent to their deaths. There are thus many Jewish communities, including some otherwise characterized by intense devotion to punctilious observance, in which Yom Ha-shoah passes more or less wholly unnoticed.

One obvious answer, although not one I personally find all that compelling, is that the 27th of Nisan is not the anniversary of any specific event and was chosen primarily because it falls a few days after Pesach and a week before Yom Ha-atzma∙ut, Israel Independence Day. That may sound a bit random, but the choice was neither accidental nor arbitrary. Indeed, the parallel between ancient and modern times was precisely the point: the week of Passover celebrates the redemption of the Israelites from bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt and their flight to freedom, and the week between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha-atzma∙ut was similarly meant to memorialize the passage from the depths of catastrophe the Jews faced in Nazi-dominated Europe to the security offered by the independent State of Israel and its mighty army.  Even the specific Zionist orientation that animates the notion of the Jewish people moving from near annihilation in Europe to the exhilaration of independence in a free Jewish state in the Land of Israel has its ancient parallel in the Passover story: the Israelites, for all we Americans like to imagine them longing for freedom in the modern American sense, specifically did not long to become free citizens of some future Egyptian republic, but specifically wished to leave Egypt all together and settle in the land that God had promised to their ancestors, the Land of Israel, and there to establish themselves as a free people in its own land.

Is the ill-ease engendered by that kind of thinking about the perils of diaspora life the reason our American Jewish community has failed to find a way to make Yom Ha-shoah into the kind of annually cathartic day of remembrance it deserves to be? It might be!

We—and by “we” I mean particularly we American Jews—have, after all, managed more or less totally to suppress the “real” meaning of Passover and to replace it with the yearning for human rights and for personal freedom.  Nor do we ever stress the fact that Passover by its very nature promotes the view that the need for the Israelites to be redeemed from slavery in the first place was a function of their own ancestors’ tragic error of not returning to Canaan after the famine that brought the original seventy to Egypt in the first place ended a mere five years after their arrival.

When Jacob died a dozen years after the famine ended, the Bible reports that a huge entourage of Israelites—a maḥaneh kaveid me∙od—solemnly bore his body back to Canaan. That story, generally skipped over by most as filler between the extended story of Joseph in Egypt and the account of Israel’s enslavement and subsequent liberation from bondage, is worth considering carefully. First, we read of Jacob’s death at ripe old age, unimpressive only by biblical standards, of 147. Then, after a forty-day mummification procedure and a subsequent seventy-day period of formal mourning, Joseph approaches Pharaoh obliquely through some palace officials to ask permission to return his father’s body to Canaan for burial in Hebron in the sepulcher of his grandparents and great-grandparents, and where Jacob himself had buried his wife Leah. Why Joseph, the grand vizier of all Egypt and Pharaoh’s second-in-command, couldn’t just address Pharaoh directly with such a rational, easily justifiable request is not made clear. Nor is it explained why, after being approached obliquely, Pharaoh doesn’t respond similarly indirectly…but the text couldn’t be clearer: Joseph, strangely and uncharacteristically reticent, approaches Pharaoh through an intermediary, but Pharaoh, seeing no reason for go-betweens, responds directly to Joseph almost as a friend. “Go up to Canaan,” he says reasonably and generously, “and bury your father as you swore to him you would.”

Nor does the Torah omit to describe the entourage: Joseph went to Canaan accompanied not only by representatives of the pharaonic court plus “the elders of Pharaoh’s house” and “the elders of all Egypt,” but also by the entire House of Joseph, including his brothers and his father’s entire household. Indeed, the Torah makes a specific point of saying that every single adult Israelite traveled to Hebron to participate in Jacob’s burial, leaving behind only the livestock and the children.

By leaving their children behind, they were obviously signaling their intent to return. But was that the only course open to the House of Israel? Why couldn’t they have taken the children with them and just not returned? They weren’t slaves, after all, but still welcome guests at this point in the story. And even if Joseph himself would possibly have found it difficult simply to give notice and abruptly leave Pharaoh’s employ, surely a man of his unparalleled power could have arranged for his family to return to their homeland. The famine that brought them to seek refuge in Egypt, after all, was over! And that surely had been the plan in the first place!

But none of that happened. Joseph, his brothers, and their entire entourage simply turned around after the burial and went back to Egypt. A few lines later, the Book of Genesis ends. And then Exodus begins with the arrival on the scene many years later of a Pharaoh who felt no sense of allegiance to Joseph’s people and who, fearing their huge numbers and questionable loyalty to their host nation, set himself to thinning their numbers and enslaving them. The obvious question of why the Israelites chose to live on in Egypt instead of returning to their homeland in the course of the scores of years that passed between Jacob’s death and their enslavement is left unasked and unanswered. (Just to make that a bit clearer, Joseph was fifty-six years old when Jacob died. He himself died fifty-four years later…and the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites came to the throne after—perhaps even long after—that. So there was a very long period of time when the Israelites could have gone home. Yet none did.  Nor is the argument that they had to stay because God had predicted to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a land not their own for four centuries all that compelling; they could surely have left if they had wished to and allowed the divine prediction to play itself out some other way!


As we pass from the last days of Passover to Yom Ha-shoah and then to Yom Ha-atzma∙ut, I am always reminded of the way the past inheres in the present…and how particularly this is true when I ponder the patterns that repeat over and over in Jewish history. The State of Israel does not exist because of the Shoah and would surely have eventually come into existence anyway. But the notion that the precise circumstances that led to independence were integrally related to the catastrophe that decimated European Jewry during the Second World War does not leave me alone either. In the end, I think that the 27th of Nisan was just the right date: commemorating no single event, the date is suggestive of the Passover journey that precedes it and the week that leads forward to Yom Ha-atzma∙ut. Both could be rightly characterized by the Haggadah’s expression of a trajectory from g’nut to shevaḥ, from degradation to redemption. And both deserve to be considered thoughtfully and taken deeply to heart by all who would feel ennobled, not merely damned, by thinking of themselves as situated at the precise fulcrum between the past and the future, between history and destiny.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Benedict Option Option

After reading an essay by Emma Green in The Atlantic, I resolved to read The Benedict Option, a brand-new book by Rod Dreher published just a few weeks ago. (Readers may be familiar with his 2015 book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, which was very movingly written in the wake of his sister’s untimely death—and which I liked very much—or with his essays for The American Conservative, where he is currently a senior editor and weekly blogger.) Since it’s a book unlikely to land on the night tables of most of the people who read my weekly letters, but more importantly because it inspired me to think about our Jewish world in a new way, I thought I’d use this opportunity to bring the book and its author to your attention and to explain why I found his work so relevant and so personally challenging.

The book is a flawed work in many ways, and not only in terms of the author’s apparent inability to believe that “regular” people (i.e., citizens who are specifically not members of some vast conspiracy devoted to the furtherance of its own secret agenda) could simply believe in marriage equality and in the unambiguous right of gay people to be treated fairly, decently, and equitably in the marketplace and the workplace. That, along with his remarkably harsh view that in vitro fertilization should be outlawed as a version of mass murder no less heinous than abortion itself (the author’s other major bugaboo), would be more than enough to make most of us outside his world want to distance ourselves from the man and from his judgmental, harshly unforgiving worldview. But that would be a mistake, because he has something remarkable to say anyway…and it is something I think we should all feel challenged to consider honestly in terms of our own precarious place in the world.

The basic principle behind The Benedict Option is that the war between traditional Christians and their secularist enemies for America’s future is over and that, because (in the author’s opinion) the good guys lost, American Christians who believe in the principles that underlie their faith—and in the pursuit of a society rooted in its values and its time-honored sense of virtue—should abandon the fantasy that they can influence American social policy at all, and least of all merely by voting for Republican candidates. The author’s estimation of President Trump in this regard is particularly insulting, but what he has to say about the rest of the President’s party is only slightly less disparaging…and the bottom line in both cases is in any event the same: the author believes that the nation has turned decisively and irrevocably away from its Christian roots, the people have abandoned the only kind of Christianity worth preserving (which is, of course, the author’s own), the liberal churches have sold their birthright for a mess of tasteless (in both senses of the word) porridge that can neither sustain nor even really nourish them, and the secular/humanist/pro-LGBT (these are all used as roughly synonymous terms) forces that exist, as far as the author is concerned, in a permanent state of war with the spiritual heritage of “real” Christianity have won the day and will not relinquish their victory easily or, to speak realistically, ever.

It’s a harsh appraisal of our world. And it follows unsurprisingly that the author idolizes the monastic life—and particularly the version of that life connected with the sixth century CE saint, Benedict of Nursia, revered by Christians as the patron saint of Europe and famous both as the founder of a dozen communities for monks in Italy and also as the author of the Rule of Saint Benedict, a work in 73 short chapters about how to live a rich Christian life in retreat from the secular world. Dreher does not, however, think that the real solution to the modern Christian’s problems lies in retreat into secluded monasteries and convents—or at least not for those not personally called to the cloistral life—but rather in a different kind of withdrawal, one that entails a permanent retreat, if not from the entire public square, then at least from those parts of it that make it impossible for the faithful to remain true to their ideals while in it. He takes this idea quite far—strongly recommending that Christians withdraw their children from public schools, that Christians undertake to the greatest extent possible solely to patronize each other’s businesses, that efforts to influence those outside the Church be abandoned while congregations instead work on strengthening their devotion to their own heritage without the risk of pernicious outside influence, that parents severely limit their children’s exposure to television and particularly to the internet, and that, at least ideally, Christians withdraw from the urban nightmare that prevails in America’s godless cities and retreat to smaller towns in out of the way places—just like the author’s home town in rural Louisiana—where the world will just leave them alone and in peace. That, in a nutshell, is the Benedict Option.

From a Jewish point of view, there’s a lot to say.  Here and there throughout the book, the author nods to the success of certain communities within the larger world of Jewish Orthodoxy in achieving that kind of separation from the world. And, indeed, we all know of communities in Williamsburg and Crown Heights that function roughly according to Dreher’s plan by avoiding public schools, living in closed communities, doing business solely or at least mostly with each other, denying their children contact with the world via television or the internet, etc. What Rod Dreher would actually make of such communities if he were actually to have to live in one of them for a few months is not hard to imagine. And also amusing is the author’s apparent belief that the specific lifestyle he so admires is how all Orthodox Jews live, not the lifestyle of a mostly marginalized subset within the larger Orthodox community. But those are just details, and the larger, more important challenge laid down at the feet of Jewish readers by The Benedict Option has do with us and our future, not with the author and his or his community’s.

I am not particularly interested in asking how specifically Jewish Americans fit into the author’s plan for the future, although that would surely be an interesting question to hear him attempt to answer without sounding regretful that we even exist in his—our—country. On the other hand, the chances that American Christians are going to embrace the author’s proposal, let alone embrace it holus-bolus and retreat from the world in order to have the time thoughtfully to re-acquaint themselves with the works of the earliest Church fathers are nil. Individuals might well be inspired by reading the works of John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople…but we simply do not live in the kind of idea- or principle-driven world in which the author’s idea could conceivably—in my own opinion, at any rate—gain serious traction.

But what does interest me is the kernel of Dreher’s idea: that, instead of endlessly beating their heads against walls they cannot possibly break down, spiritual communities would do better to focus inward and devote themselves to the cultivation of their own gardens. In some ways, we have led the way in doing just that: although I’d be hard pressed to find a way to describe the inclusion of Christmas on the list of federal holidays as anything other than an egregious offense against the separation of church and state, most of us have long since stopped caring or worrying about it. The same could be said of the off-putting presence of Christmas trees in federal post offices and in countless other governmental venues, but we certainly haven’t followed through with the other part of the equation, the part that calls upon us not solely to ignore that which we cannot alter, but also to turn within and work at fostering the kind of Jewish community that would thrive within its own boundaries precisely because it would derive its energy from its own inner life and not by campaigning endlessly for the approval of others.

Like Rod Dreher and the people for whom he’s written his book, we too are not called to the cloistral life. And, indeed, the idea of securing a Jewish future by retreating into closed communities in out-of-the-way hamlets (like Kiryas Yoel, for example, except seriously more remote) would interest almost none of us. But what does appeal to me is seeking the Jewish future not by endlessly campaigning for the approval of the world, but by strengthening the community from within.

In other words, the Jewish version of the Benedict option would have us giving up the endless moaning and groaning about our numbers—and, even more to the point, our ability to manipulate those numbers to get the world’s attention—and instead turning our attention to the propagation of a kind of Jewishness that was once basic and ordinary…and which has, in our day, become—to say the very least—rare.  Most of my readers will never have heard of John Chrysostom (just for the record, one of the originators of literary anti-Semitism)…but neither will they have heard of Bahya ibn Pakuda or Joseph Albo, just to name two of our greatest and most profound authors and thinkers almost completely forgotten by “regular” Jewish people outside the world of academe.

The most basic skills of Jewish life—being able to participate easily in Jewish worship, for example, or having enough Hebrew to read and understand basic classical texts…or even to follow along in a Ḥumash when the Torah is read aloud in synagogue—skills that were once the bread-and-butter abilities of any educated Jewish soul have become the province of the especially trained. Nor is this a problem merely of the masses: we have acknowledged leaders in our communities who have more or less no familiarity with the classic works of Jewish literature, no visible allegiance to Jewish ritual, no knowledge of Hebrew…and who don’t seem to feel even slightly burdened by their own ignorance. More to the point, perhaps, we have undercut out own ability to be in awe of our own culture heroes by tolerating a Jewish world in which those heroes are not only not revered in Jewish circles but are almost entirely unknown, their very names familiar to almost none.

If Dreher is right about his world, could he also be right about ours? Could the future of Jewish life in America end up having solely to do with our ability to create a kind of Jewish cultural milieu so rich with meaning, so suggestive of spiritual possibility, and so endlessly alluring both intellectually and emotionally that by ignoring our numbers we paradoxically end up increasing them? Dreher laments the degree to which the most foundational classic works of Christian theology and spirituality are largely ignored even by people who self-define as enthusiastic Christians. The same could surely be said of the Jewish community, but what I took from Dreher’s book is the thought—the siren, endlessly alluring thought—that it doesn’t have to be that way…and that the way forward could well be the way backward, the way out could well be the way in, and the way to grow could surely be, at least in the long run, not to care particularly if we grow at all. Now that would be an innovative approach to the endless questions we never tire of asking about our future but that none of us seems able cogently and convincingly to answer!

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 LaunchGood.com 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.