Thursday, October 20, 2016

Time to Go

You really should never say never. I would have thought, for example, that I simply could not think less of the United Nations, an organization so in the thrall of Israel’s enemies that all it seems capable of ever doing is passing even more one-sided, irrational resolutions regarding the Jewish state and providing a satisfying, supportive refuge for even its most vicious enemies. This has been going on for a very long time. It was more than ten years ago, for example, that Kofi Annan, then the Secretary General of the U.N., himself admitted openly that Israel was almost invariably judged by standards never applied to its enemies and that its sense of being under siege at the U.N. was thus entirely justified. So that was refreshing…but the Secretary General, for all his public handwringing, was unable to do anything substantive to change things. Nor was his successor, Ban Ki-moon. Whether the new Secretary General, former Portuguese prime minister António Guterres, will be able to bring about any meaningful change remains to be seen. But, given that systemic anti-Israel bias appears to function almost as the organization’s life-blood, his chances are probably somewhere between slim and none.

And then came this last week’s “Jerusalem” resolution at UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, a wholly one-sided resolution so embarrassing partisan that the front page of UNESCO’s website this week headlines a story not about the resolution itself but about the degree to which Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director-general, responded to its adoption by scrambling to distance herself from it. Nor did Mrs. Bokova mince her words: “To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site,” she said plainly, adding that any attempt to do so “runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list.”  In some sort of grim way, that was a satisfying statement to read. But it only truly serves to underscore the degree to which UNESCO itself has allowed itself to become little more than a mouthpiece for Israel’s enemies in defiance of its own impotent leadership.

In the wake of the resolution, the two candidates vying for the American presidency condemned the resolution clearly: Mr. Trump called it “a one-sided attempt to ignore Israel’s 3000-year bond to its capital city” and Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy advisor issues a statement clearly stating that it was, in her candidate’s opinion, “outrageous that UNESCO would deny the deep, historic connection between Judaism and the Temple Mount.” Naftali Bennet, Israel’s education minister, said that the UNESCO decision “denies history and encourages terror” and announced Israel’s decision to suspend all cooperation with UNESCO. Would that our country would follow suit and make a parallel decision! Still, there was some slight silver lining to the vote in Paris in that its outcome more or less extinguished any possibility that Congress might vote to restore the funding of UNESCO cut off in 2011 after the organization admitted the non-state of “Palestine” as a member.

The good news is that there is no reason to expect the UNESCO resolution to have any actual effect on the ground. Jerusalem remains the capital of Israel. Jewish access to Jewish holy sites—and, indeed, the access of all to those sites and to the holy sites of other faiths—remains guaranteed. The level of security maintained by Israel at sites deemed plausible terror targets remains as it always has been. Visitors to Jerusalem will therefore not have any different experience next week than they would have had last week. And that, of course, is all for the good.

But it would be wrong to dismiss UNESCO’s resolution as a mere expression of basically toothless anti-Semitism on the part of Israel’s crankiest foes. (And I use that term carefully: by crossing over from condemning, say, Israel’s position regarding West Bank settlements to implying, more or less unambiguously, that the holiest sites to any Jew, including the Western Wall itself, are really Muslim holy sites that Jews have somehow magically co-opted as a way of buttressing their own claim to someone else’s property, UNESCO has openly and shameless crossed the line from “mere” anti-Israelism to true anti-Semitism.) Indeed, there is something important here to consider even if the resolution will have no effect at all on the actual city of Jerusalem or its residents or visitors because, by adopting it, UNESCO has now stepped through the looking-glass into a topsy-turvy world of make-believe that would be almost amusing if it weren’t so deeply sinister.

I read the resolution in its entirety. (Click here and you can too.) Even looking past the deeply offensive reference to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel, as being part of “occupied Palestine” and the almost humorous way the resolution’s authors express their deep regret regarding Israel’s lack of interest in granting visas to UNESCO’s “experts” so they can pursue their hate-filled agenda on the ground in the Holy City, the resolution has to be understood as part of an ongoing attempt on the part of Israel’s enemies to deny the historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel and, particularly, Jerusalem. And that is no laughing matter. Indeed, once the discussion transcends historical reality and feeds solely on the fantasies of Israel’s enemies, we risk entering a realm of discourse in which reality itself plays only an ancillary role and is easily overwhelmed by fairytales spun out by people whose interest in actual history is minimal.

There are no archeological sites or ancient literary sources that suggest, even indirectly, that Jerusalem was not the capital city of ancient Israel both in the First and Second Temple periods, yet UNESCO seems unaware or uninterested in acknowledging that detail, let alone thoughtfully responding to it. And yet the sources are hardly hidden or obscure: readers interested in learning more would do best to find a copy of Menachem Stern’s exhaustive three-volume work, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, published by the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities between 1974 and 1984, and reading it carefully. I read all three volumes and attempted to master their contents as part of the preparation I understood before taking the oral examination in ancient Jewish history that preceded my doctoral defense, and the magisterial nature of the work stays with me still. It is, to say the least, a stunning piece of scholarship…and one even non-experts would enjoy enormously. The author’s erudition is stunning. And the resultant image of ancient Israel among the nations is riveting.

Of special interest in Stern’s work is the fact that almost none of the scores of authors cited was Jewish or had any special affinity for Jews or Judaism. Just the opposite was the case: some of the authors cited were openly hostile to the Jewish people; others were merely interested in including the Jews in their surveys of the ethnic make-up of the various peoples who were in their day part of the Roman Empire. Still others were curious about Judaism as a religion and understood to research the matter as best they could either from a distance or, in some few cases, from close at hand. But what’s remarkable about the three volumes is their unanimity on the very points that UNESCO wishes to deny. These authors lived from roughly 300 BCE to 300 CE, so they cover a period of literary history lasting more than half a millennium. They don’t all touch on the same topics, obviously. But a general consensus regarding the topic at hand—the Jewishness of Jerusalem—easily and quickly emerges when you start reading. Jerusalem is a Jewish city because its residents were Jews and because it was built by Jews. Perhaps even most importantly, it is a Jewish city in many of these authors’ minds because the Temple, the spiritual center of ancient Judaism, was located there. Interestingly, even the most rabidly anti-Semitic authors included by Stern in his anthology do not dispute the fact that Jerusalem was a Jewish city in their day and for as far back historically as they could research; if there is a single detail upon which all seem to agree, it would be the quintessentially Jewish nature of Jerusalem. Readers interested in reading more can click here to read Rivkah Fishman-Duker’s appraisal of Stern’s work as it applies to the UNESCO resolution that was published earlier this week on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. With her conclusions, I concur totally.

Of course, none of this matters to the scholars of UNESCO. That the first Muslim invasion of Israel took place in the sixth century CE, so more than 1500 years after Jerusalem became the capital of David’s kingdom, is ignored entirely. Nor is it merely Jewish history that UNESCO wishes to erase: its history as a place of Christian history and sanctity is apparently as of little interest as its Jewish history. (For more specifically on the way the UNESCO resolution ignores the Christian presence in Jerusalem, which also antedates the Muslim invasion by centuries, click here.)  But, of course, the point here has nothing to do with history at all, and least of all with the kind rooted in the thoughtful analysis of actual facts. What we are dealing with is a concerted effort to present Jerusalem—and the rest of Israel too, only in a less direct way—as an essentially Muslim city under “occupation” by Israel.  Nor, speaking frankly, is it possible to imagine someone sufficiently naïve seriously to wonder why UNESCO, so deeply concerned about Jerusalem today, seemed so totally unconcerned when synagogues were being razed, Jewish graves were desecrated, and every conceivable effort was made to eradicate any trace of Jewish presence in the Old City during the years the Old City of Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan in the years leading up to the Six Day War.

The United States voted against the resolution. So did the U.K., Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, and the Netherlands. Voting in favor were eight Muslim countries joined by China, Russia, South Africa, Vietnam, and a smattering of South American and African countries. Abstaining—which is to say, not being willing to support a resolution wholly rooted in the denial of history and yet lacking the moral courage actually to vote against it—were, among other countries, Sweden, Greece, Spain, Ukraine, France, Japan, and India.

For me, this is also personal. I passed my orals some time ago when I was still in graduate school. But Jerusalem is also my city, the only city in the world in which I own a home and the place in which my oldest child was born. It’s the place to which I retreat on an annual basis to recharge my intellectual batteries, to re-find the spiritual bearing that drew me to the rabbinate in the first place and upon which my rabbinate still rests, and to seek the inner peace that is the personal version of the peace of Jerusalem for which the psalmist enjoined all who would serve God to strive for…and to pray for daily as well. To deny the Jewishness of Jerusalem is to deny the validity of Judaism itself and of Jewishness as it exists in tandem with the faith that grants it its inmost nature and most enduring appeal. Even by its own abysmal standards, UNESCO behaved disgracefully last week. If you ask me, it’s time for our nation to withdraw from UNESCO. We’ve done it before too—the U.S. withdrew its membership in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan and remained absent for almost two decades before eventually returning under President George W. Bush. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016


My ears perked up during the 2nd presidential debate the other evening when Martha Radditz, one of the moderators, read out a question submitted by an individual from Pennsylvania identified only as Diana who wished to ask both candidates about the American response to the agony of Aleppo. That the candidates were asked about Syria was hardly a surprise, but the end of the question was the part that caught my attention: “Isn’t it,” Diana asked, “a lot like the Holocaust when the U.S. waited too long before we helped?”

What exactly we were supposed to understand as the antecedent of “it” in her question is clear enough: she was clearly referencing the American disinclination to do anything too truly decisive to thwart the Russian effort to support President Bashar al Assad by bombing the rebels fighting against the Assad regime who have embedded themselves in civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo without regard to the inevitable civilian casualties that their presence there will inevitably cause.

Like most of you, I suspect, I find the situation in Aleppo to be very confusing. The basic principle is that the eastern part of the city is in rebel hands, while the western part of Aleppo—with a population about five times the eastern half—is controlled by forces loyal to the Assad government. At the end of June, the Syrian army began an offensive against the rebel-held part of the city that involved primarily cutting off the sole supply route of food and goods leading to the rebel-held part of the city, the now-famous Castello Highway. By midsummer, the highway was closed. That would likely have been the end of the rebels—who are actually not a unified group at all, but a loose confederation of many different groups, each with a different agenda and a different vision of the future of Syria—but the rebels then launched a major counteroffensive. Non-stop fighting followed until, finally, a ceasefire, jointly brokered by the U.S. and Russia, came into effect. That lasted for about a week, at which point the Syrian regime unilaterally declared it to be over, whereupon the Russians, unabashedly supportive of the Assad regime, commenced bombing rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo from the air and assisting the government in its use of artillery to bomb out the rebels using ground-based launchers. And making the situation even murkier is the fact that the same region of Syria in which all of this is going on is also where the U.S.-led coalition is attempting to defeat ISIS.

The numbers are shocking. Almost 2 million people in both halves of the city are without fresh water. More than a quarter of a million are caught in rebel-held areas and are being bombed daily from the air by the Syrian government and by the Russians. (This last weekend alone, more than 200 people were killed.) Every Western power, including the U.S., has issued strong statements of disapproval and are strongly discouraging the continuation of the bombing campaign, yet the Russians remain adamant in their support of the Assad regime. The U.N., behaving impotently even by their own standards, has reduced itself to the status of handwringing outside observer. Plus, of course, this current bombing campaign is only part of a much larger picture: something like half a million civilians have died in the Syrian civil war since 2011, of whom about 50,000 were children. So that’s the background to Diana’s question when she asked, almost simply, whether Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton considered “it”— the American disinclination to do whatever it might take to save the lives of innocents dying daily—to be unsettlingly similar to what happened during Second World War, when America, in Diana’s opinion, waited “too long” before intervening on behalf of the innocent.

Good question, Diana, even though neither candidate actually answered it!

Obviously, the candidates both have positions on Syria. Mrs. Clinton opposes sending ground troops to Syria, but not the use of American special forces to aid the rebels on the ground. She favors arming the rebels too, and also establishing a no-fly zone over Syria (which would put the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia), and an expanded effort to defeat ISIS on Syrian soil. Mr. Trump is prepared to commit “tens of thousands” of American troops on the ground to the war against ISIS, but seems prepared to allow the Russians to pursue their pro-Assad policy without American opposition regardless of whatever collateral damage their bombing raids bring about. As far as I can see, neither candidate has proposed a cogent plan for saving the civilians of Aleppo while continuing the war against ISIS and not confronting Russia directly regarding its military support for the Assad regime.

But it was the next part of your question, Diana, the part that raises the Shoah parallel, that I’d like to write about today. Based on the way you phrased yourself, I’m guessing that you are of the opinion that the U.S. waited too long before entering the war to rescue as many of Hitler’s blameless victims as possible. The problem with that supposition is that United States did not actually enter the war to save the Jews or any others marked for extermination. Just to the contrary, we stayed out of the war for as long as we could, then entered after Pearl Harbor made any other course of action unthinkable. Nor did we declare war on Germany in the wake of Pearl Harbor. We actually declared war on Germany four days later, on December 11, 1941, after Germany declared war on us in the wake of our declaration of war against Japan on December 8.  So to say that the United States went to war to rescue the millions upon millions of civilians whom the Nazis were already attempting to annihilate seems, to say the very least, exaggerated. (Just for the record, Germany had occupied all of Eastern Europe, home to more than seven and a half million Jews, and were just 200 miles from Moscow on the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and made the question of American involvement in the conflict a non-issue. And even after our nation was fully committed to the war in Europe, we still declined to bomb the tracks along which travelled the trains that took millions to their deaths even long after we were more than capable of undertaking direct, decisive action to save countless otherwise-doomed innocents. In my personal opinion, there should be deep national shame connected with the decision to allow Auschwitz to function until the Germans themselves heard the Red Army in the distance and fled. (If this controversy is unfamiliar to you, Diana, I recommend Jay Winnick’s very interesting and well-researched book, 1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History, published last year by Simon and Schuster, which will provide you with some good, even-handed background.)

That being the case, there is something just a bit naïve about your question whether the American non-involvement on the ground in Aleppo now is “like” the American disinclination to act forcefully on behalf of the Jews of Europe then, and that’s not to mention the quarter of a million mentally and physically handicapped people, the almost two million Polish civilians, the two and a half million Soviet prisoners-of-war, and the thousands of Catholic priests and Jehovah’s Witnesses whom the Germans openly rounded up and shamelessly murdered. Obviously, we and our allies ended the killing by defeating Germany and bringing the war to an end. But we specifically did not intervene to save the innocents or the civilians marked for extermination by official German policy. So, to ask if we risk waiting too long “like in the Holocaust” is somehow insulting and flattering to us at the same time. We didn’t intervene “too late” during the Second World War. We didn’t intervene at all on behalf of the innocents then, except indirectly by defeating their persecutors, and we clearly are also not going to intervene on behalf of the civilians of Aleppo…not if it means confronting the Russians directly, which notion neither candidate supports.

It would also be reasonable, Diana, to approach your question by asking whether the comparison itself between now and then is reasonable at all. Elie Wiesel himself went on record in the 1990s to compare the massacre of innocents by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica and other sites to the Shoah.  So that surely legitimizes, at least in the minds of many (including myself), the use of Shoah-based analogies to reference genocide in other contexts. On the other hand, there is no actual effort underway in Syria to exterminate any specific group of people, including not even by ISIS itself: the residents of Aleppo are far more “like” those poor civilians in Gaza in whose civilian neighborhoods (and schools and mosques and community centers) Hamas set up the rocket launchers that were lobbing thousands of missiles against Israeli civilian centers in 2014, except that the people in Aleppo do not have the good fortune to have the IDF as their unwanted guests’ enemies, so there is no advance notice to escape their homes, no non-lethal advance “knocking” on the roofs of building scheduled to be attacked, and no effort at all to save innocents by clearing them from harm’s way. So they are victims in the sense that their lives are deemed expendable by the people dropping bombs on them even though it surely isn’t anyone’s specific plan to murder them other than accidentally. That being the case, it seems more than a bit overstated to use Shoah-based language to describe their fate: this is an instance of extreme insensitivity to the value of human life, not genocide. If you are on the ground hoping not to be killed, the distinction is surely uninteresting. But to label as genocide every instance in which human life is deemed expendable by people who don’t actually care if the innocents do or don’t die…that seems a bit insulting to the victims of actual genocide. Aleppo is hell. But it isn’t Treblinka.

All that being the case, the question I would have liked you to have asked Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump is how, yet again, the world can make itself both unknowing and uncaring as tens of thousands, including thousands of children, are put in harm’s way. The reason to care about Aleppo is because countless innocent lives are about to be lost to a bombing campaign undertaken by an alien power eager to shore up a dictatorial regime that is under siege because its own citizenry rose up against it in open revolt. From the U.N., we obviously expect nothing at all. The Russians seem wholly unwilling to tailor their foreign policy to address the concerns of other nations. So that leaves our nation itself in a quandary. Doing nothing means acquiescing at least tacitly in the deaths of innocents. Not doing nothing means risking an armed confrontation with Russia. I suppose it boils down to how much we are willing to risk to save a child’s life…and whether geopolitical considerations can make it right, or at least politically cogent, to look away. You know, Diana, maybe there was more to your question than I thought.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Muzzled and Not Liking It

It’s hard to think of anything more obvious than the notion that the free citizens of a democracy such as our own should be free to act in accordance with their own consciences and to do as they wish…other than when those wishes impinge on the rights of other citizens to live their own lives as they wish and see fit. In other words, the goal of law in a free society should be to create a peaceful setting for free people to flourish according to their own lights and to prevent others from impacting negatively on their right to do so. That much seems simple enough!

And yet there is—and probably always has been—a certain paternalism built so deeply into our American culture that it feels natural for it to be there.  I could make that observation from a lot of different vantage points, but today I’m thinking primarily of the way it impacts the electoral process…and particularly the election of our presidents.

The glory of our republic may be the unfettered electoral system according to which the citizenry chooses its leaders…but there are many rules and regulations that prevent citizens from voting for whomever they feel would make their nation’s best leader. We are, for example, prohibited by law for voting for such a candidate if he or she has already served as president for two terms. We all know that…but we rarely think about it and ask the obvious question: why is it specifically not a curtailment of citizens’ civil rights to prevent them from voting for the candidate of their choice simply because of that individual’s past success in the very electoral process under consideration? I am familiar with all the reasons invariably put forward to argue in favor of term limits. But, their cogency notwithstanding, I’m asking a different question: why should the basic civil right to vote for the candidate of one’s choice not override the perceived danger in electing some specific person to an office that individual has already held twice?  Or, to approach the matter from the opposite direction: why don’t term limits constitute an unlawful curtailment of such a former president’s civil right to run for office and to serve if elected? The question is not whether term limits are a good idea. The question is how it can be lawful to prevent the citizenry from choosing their leaders freely?

You could ask the same set of questions about naturalized citizens being prohibited from serving as president: why should a whole class of citizens be prohibited from serving in any office at all to which they are elected by the citizenry in a free election merely because of the circumstances of their births?  Or the age restriction: why should the winner of a presidential election under the age of thirty-five not be permitted to assume office? Or the residency requirement: to serve as president, a successful candidate has to have lived in the United States for more than fourteen years, but that effectively curtails the rights of the citizenry to elect someone who hasn’t lived here for that long.  I get it that there are all sorts of reasons to feel that these are thoughtful, wise restrictions intended for our own good. But, with all respect to our legislators, I really am a grown-up man capable of deciding for whom I wish to vote without being told that I may not vote for the individual I wish to support for president because of how old that person is or how exactly he or she became a citizen.

You’ll all be relieved to know that I personally could serve as president: I was born here, I’m old enough, I’ve lived here long enough, and I haven’t served as president even once (let alone twice). So I’m good! But I wish to write today not about restrictions that don’t apply to me (I’m not actually running for president), but about one—and, at that, a huge one—that does. Indeed, I write today as someone legally muzzled, as a citizen whose right to free speech has legally been curtailed by a government motivated by the same overprotective impetus I sense behind the rules mentioned above with respect to the presidency. And I am not enjoying it much. I comply. (I’d better—see below!) But I am not a happy camper…and I resent the rules that make me less free to speak my mind than almost everybody reading these words is to speak his or hers.

I am referring to the so-called Johnson Amendment, named for the future president (Lyndon, not Andrew) who was a senator from Texas in 1954 when he proposed the amendment to the U.S. Tax Code that now bears his name and which formally prohibits tax-exempt organizations or their leadership from publicly supporting or opposing candidates for office. Technically speaking, my First Amendment right to speak out in public as I wish is not being curtailed; I am as free as any of us is to say what I wish to whomever I wish to say it. However, the Johnson Amendment empowers the IRS to deny the congregation I serve its tax-exempt status were I to avail myself of that right with respect to candidates vying for public office. Since that would be a true catastrophe for any tax-exempt entity, most definitely including houses of worship like the one I serve, I hold my tongue. I’m just not much enjoying it, that’s all.  (Just for the record, the statute is interpreted broadly enough to include speech that encourages or discourages voting for a particular candidate even if his or her name is not used and the language of endorsement is avoided; even speaking negatively or positively about an issue that is unambiguously identified with a specific candidate—for example the they’ll-pay-for-it wall along the U.S.-Mexican border—is covered: if the speech in question could be construed by the average listener as implying support for, or opposition to, a specific candidate then a church or a shul could lose its tax-exempt status if its spiritual leader is caught indulging in it.

There are so many reasons that this is unreasonable that I have to think carefully before deciding how to list them all.

First, the Johnson Amendment strikes me as an imperious violation of the principle that the government should not intrude into the religious lives of the citizenry…and it’s hard to think of a better example than empowering the IRS to inhibit the natural inclination of clergypersons like myself to speak out forcefully on issues facing our nation merely because the candidates for some specific office have also expressed themselves strongly in that same regard. Should I not speak out about matters concerning the status of Jerusalem merely because all important politicians have public stances in that regard? What about talking about the question of immigration, and particularly with respect to refugees from Syria? Both candidates for president have opinions on that as well, and forcefully put ones. The bottom line is that the important issues our nation is facing are all things I’d like to express myself about and all things regarding which both candidates for president have expressed themselves…and my own opinion is more similar to one on some and the other on others. Am I really supposed not to speak about issues that go to the heart of the future of the Jewish community or of the State of Israel from the pulpit because I might inadvertently express myself more along the policy statement of one candidate than the other? It’s absurd. But it’s the law: I may speak about what I wish, but not if my opinion coincides too identifiably with either candidate’s position.

Second, to argue that my free speech is not being curtailed because there is no possibility of me personally being arrested or charged with a crime no matter what I say about any issue or any candidate is to miss the point almost entirely: by imposing a potentially devastating punishment on the institution I serve if I avail myself of my First Amendment right to speak out openly and freely on something that strikes me as relevant and important to speak about, the government is inhibiting my right to speak out at all. To argue otherwise is not to understand why people who work for a living are eager not to see the institutions the serve collapse…and are, generally speaking, prepared to do what it takes to keep that from happening.

Third, in addition to guaranteeing citizens the right to free speech, the First Amendment also obliged Congress to “make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That last part is called “the free exercise clause.” But I am specifically not free to exercise my natural prerogative to speak about issues of crucial importance to the Jewish community if my own stance mirrors the stance of one of the candidates for president closely enough for my remarks to be construe-able as a kind of veiled endorsement of that candidate. And that is how it works even if I have no specific intent to endorse, even obliquely, one candidate. How that squares with the obligation for the government not to inhibit the free exercise of religion, I can’t even begin to say.

Finally, I don’t just work for Shelter Rock, I live here too. Shelter Rock is my congregation spiritually as well as professionally, and I think of it, not just as where I work, but where I live as well. (And I am a member of Shelter Rock too, albeit an honorary one.) Incredibly, the Johnson Amendment covers private speech as well as formal preaching or teaching from the pulpit; if I run into a congregant in the parking lot of a supermarket and chat for a few minutes before we each go our separate ways, that speech too is covered by the Johnson Amendment because, even if we are also friends and neighbors, the clergyperson/congregant bond is deemed ever-present and, in terms of the Tax Code, decisive.

I do my best. I certainly haven’t ever endorsed a candidate from the bimah nor will I. I obey the law because I must, because the consequences of getting caught violating it would be truly ruinous for my congregation. But I feel muzzled and uncertain about speaking about anything at all current from the pulpit: since the candidates all have positions on every conceivable issue facing the nation, how can anything at all that I say not be closer to one side than the other?

I can see the rationale in clergy not taking sides in an election lest people in the congregation who support the other candidate feel excluded and marginalized. (I’m still not sure, however, why that needs to be enshrined in law.) But, at least in my opinion, the Johnson Amendment should be amended to permit people such as myself to speak out about any issues at all that seem crucial to the public weal and the future of their own communities.  The natural right of clergypeople to add the voice of spiritual leadership to the ongoing national debate about crucial issues facing our nation precisely as we prepare to choose a new national leader should be restored.

I’m even going out on a limb just by writing this out at all for anyone to read: the repeal of the Johnson Amendment is part of the platform of one party and not the other. So let me conclude by saying categorically that I am not recommending voting for that party for that reason, or any party for any reason. I am certainly not recommending voting for any specific candidate because of his or her stance on this issue. I just want my right to free speech restored so that I can speak out forcefully and, I hope, persuasively, about issues facing the American Jewish Community that I try faithfully to serve. No more than that! But also no less.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

As a New Year Dawns

One of the most famous tropes of our High Holiday season is the notion of the great Book of Life that God is said to keep in heaven and in which are imaged to be recorded the details of our destinies…but specifically not as predetermined at birth but rather as annually recalculated with respect to our success at living up to our own values.

It’s a bit of a difficult image to seize, however. There are about seven and a half billion people living in the world today. Does each have page? That would be one fat book if each does! Or do only those who formally submit themselves to God’s judgment on an annual basis have specific pages? That would make the book considerably thinner! But what of the rest of everybody in that case? Surely, you can’t escape the consequences of your own behavior merely by stepping outside the game in the manner of a jaded athlete who realizes at a certain point that he can guarantee never losing another game simply by not playing! Whatever else it is, life is surely not that kind of game!

And then there are all the fairly dour implications of the concept that we mostly choose blithely just to ignore. If our fates are sealed in the great Book of Life as the gates swing shut in the last moments of Yom Kippur…then does that mean that all who die in the course of the year that follows were sentenced to death by God? What else could it mean? And, indeed, the most famous of all High Holiday prayers, the Unetaneh Tokef, takes just that tack, not only promoting the plausibility of taking all of this literally, but actually going so far as to list the various fates to which God might choose to condemn those unfortunates not written up for another year of life. But even that we all take with a huge grain of salt. Drowning, dying in a fire, starving to death, being strangled…it’s a gruesome list that many can recite almost by heart. But does any of us really think that that is how it works, that people who die in some horrific house fire somewhere were sentenced to death-by-conflagration by their heavenly Judge and were specifically not the victims of a horrible accident or of someone’s deadly carelessness? Surely no one really thinks that! And we think that even less with respect to the victims of crime, that their assailants were merely fulfilling God’s decree for the individual in question and so were not really guilty of having committed a crime at all! Even saying that feels obnoxious and wrongheaded. It certainly feels unjust. But saying what then the Unetaneh Tokef actually does mean—or could mean or should mean—is not quite as simple as it feels that it ought to be.

And yet, despite it all, there is still something deeply attractive about the notion that we are all in God’s hands not metaphorically or merely poetically, but really and actually…and to the extent, even, that the future trajectories of our lives are not arbitrary or accidental but the thoughtful, rational, entirely justifiable response of God to our own behavior, to our own actions, to our own moral worth. In a sense, that notion all by itself is what transforms Rosh Hashanah from “just” a New Year’s celebration into something like the annual Jewish season of being taken seriously, of asserting that what we do matters, that how we act counts. Almost more to the point is the corollary to that idea, which is as arresting theologically as it is challenging spiritually: that the universe has a moral core and that the degree to which we earn the right to our place in it depends on the degree to which we make ourselves worthy of life itself, of the gift of life.

Where the whole concept came from is hard to say. In the Torah, for example, there is explicit reference to such a book, but it’s difficult to say if the passage in question is meant to be taken literally or metaphorically.  The context is a dialogue between God and Moses in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident. God is more than annoyed with the Israelite and is considering their permanent eradication from the human family. Moses, ever his people’s advocate, takes it upon himself to attempt some sort of reconciliation. “This people has committed a great sin by fashioning for itself a golden god,” he admits humbly, “but even so I beseech you to forgive their sin. But if that should prove not possible, then erase me as well from the great book You have written.” That’s the first we hear of such a book and we are, naturally, confused: is Moses speaking poetically or is he making reference to some actual thing he somehow knows to exist in heaven, to an actual ledger in which the fates of all who live are recorded? God seems to presume the latter: Don’t worry, God says semi-soothingly, only “those who sinned against me shall I erase from My book.” So there is such a book! Or was God merely picking up on Moses’s image without meaning inadvertently (if an all-knowing Deity even can act inadvertently, that is) to endorse it as a reference to an actual thing? It’s hard to say!

But it’s in the Psalms that the idea has its first real traction…and it’s those two texts I’d like to present to you today.

In the 69th psalm, the context is almost clear. People who know the Psalms only from a distance tend to imagine it to be a collection of irenic odes to faith and are therefore unprepared for the level of violence, fear, and anger that characterizes so many of the poems in the book. The 69th psalm is a good example: the poet, like so many of his colleagues, feels despised and rejected by his peers and by his family. He is in fear for his life as well…and switches metaphors repeatedly so as to convey the feverish nature of the assaults he must somehow try to live through. He has no problem cursing his enemies too, which he does broadly and venomously, praying that God’s wrath overtake his foes, that their homes collapse, that they be stricken with blindness and that their bones become brittle and broken. And then he waxes theological in effort effectively to curse his enemies: “May they never atone sufficiently for their sins to warrant that You judge them charitably. / Indeed, may they be erased from the Book of Life and not written up with the righteous.” And there it is, almost baldly put: the poet imagines a Book of Life in which the righteous are written up for good…and from which the poet prays his enemies’ names never appear. Or that, if they somehow do appear in the book, then that they be erased. Permanently.

It’s an angry curse, but not the only reference to a divine book preserved in the Psalter. In the 139th psalm, the poet is written from a different vantage point entirely. Serene in his faith, the poet imagines God to have been watching him not just since the moment of birth, but long before that: “You knew me,” he writes, addressing God, “as an embryo, as a lump of unshaped protoplasm / You saw me even then for all that I was with Your own eyes; / each detail of my development you noted down in Your book. / All my days were thus charted, even the very last one.”  So it’s not just a book of judgment and verdict, but a kind of log of each of our lives…God’s book is literally the story of each of our lives starting with our earliest pre-born iterations and continuing up until we draw our final breaths and are no longer.

And it was that book—that book which is a log of our lives and the notebook in which Judge God notes down our fates and the record book in which King God keeps track of all humankind the better to rule over them justly and equitably—it was that book that made its way into Unetaneh Tokef and became the symbol par excellence of our holiday season.

But there is one final verse from the Psalms to quote in this context too. A different poet, the one whose poem became our 56th psalm, is in a state of high anxiety. He being watched…and he knows it. His enemies are constantly on the lookout for some misstep, for some critical error of judgment they can use to bring him down. He has his faith as his sole bulwark against those who would do him harm. But does he have the good deeds to warrant God’s protection? I sense we might think that he does, but the poet himself, in the manner of all truly righteous souls, doesn’t see it that way at all. In fact, he thinks of himself as unworthy, as base. All, he says, that he has to offer on his own behalf are tears—the copious tears of ill ease and apprehension he has shed over the years and continues to shed as he contemplates his enemies’ possibly lethal wrath. But where are those tears now that he needs them to speak out on his behalf? That’s the question! And the answer is, to say the very least, unexpected: “You catch my tears,” he says to God, “you catch them all in your divine wineskin. / Is that not exactly the same as recording my deeds in Your great book?”

And that is the idea I wish to offer to you all as my personal yontif gift to you all. The notion that, amidst all the splendor of the heavenly throne room, the Almighty has room for—of all things—an old wineskin in which are kept the tears shed by people who yearn for a better world…and that that wineskin is stored beneath the throne of God because nothing on high is more precious than those tears, which the Creator lovingly preserves as a reminder of the nobility of the broken heart, of the soul rent asunder—that notion is something for us all to keep close to our breasts as we make our way through the holiday season.

And the poet’s suggestion that a single tear in that wineskin is worth a page of words in the Book of Life itself is also worth keeping close at hand. To be irritated with the world is easy enough. To be disappointed in ourselves, easier still. But to find the emotion necessary to elicit even a single real tear of regret or remorse…and for that tear to inspire us to reframe our lives for the better…that is the real challenge, and precisely for the reason the psalmist gave: because that single tear is worth a whole page of flowery prose in the Book of Life. To stand before God divested of our finery and without the usual armor of word and accomplishment separating us from our divine Parent, and for all we have to offer to be one single tear prompted by the pure, unadulterated desire to live better and more meaningful Jewish lives—that is the poet’s gift to us all, and it is my yontif gift to you all as well.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Regular readers of these letters know that I have returned many times to the question of what constitutes a true hero in an age that so clearly values celebrity over moral valor.

Years ago, I wrote in that vein about Miep Gies, the woman who was personally responsible for hiding the Frank family in German-occupied Amsterdam. (To reread what I had to say about Miep Gies, click here.) More recently, I wrote about Janusz Korczak, the teacher who chose to accompany the children in his charge to their deaths, and to his, at Treblinka on August 6, 1942, rather than abandon them to their fate merely because that option was available to him. And in that same piece I also wrote about Lassana Bathily, the young Muslim man from Mali who selflessly risked his life to hide however many Jewish patrons of the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris back in January 2015 when it was suddenly under attack. (To read what I had to say about him, and also about Janusz Korczak, click here.)  And it was just this last February that I wrote about Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, the American officer captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge who put his own life on the line rather than assist the Nazis in identifying the Jewish prisoners they had captured. (To reread that letter, click here.)

All of these people had different stories that unfolded in different places and against different backgrounds. But the one thing they had in common—with the obvious exception of Korczak, who died before he could comment on his own behavior—is their common disinclination to describe their own actions as heroic. Let me quote specifically Lassana Bathily in that regard. Upon being granted French citizenship as a reward for his actions at the Hyper Cacher, he said the following: “People say I am a hero, but I am not a hero at all…I would do the same again too, because I was only following my heart.”  Using different language, that’s what all of the people mentioned above said or, I think, would have said had they had the opportunity: that there is something odd, perhaps even a bit perverse, about using words like “heroism” and “bravery” to describe simple acts of decency and kindness to others…and that this is true even in the extreme situation: whatever the real definition of heroism is, it should not be simply doing the right thing. When I put it that way, it sounds like an obvious truth.  But does any of us really not think of Sgt. Edmonds—who refused to abandon the men in his charge with the barrel of a German officer’s gun pressed to his forehead—as a hero? And so we have a bit of a paradox: the notion that normal decency should never be described as bravery or heroism sounds right enough, but we balk at following that thought through to its logical conclusion by agreeing with Lassana that he was just behaving normally and not heroically at all when he risked his life selflessly to help innocents.

And now we come to the Sharps, Waitsell and Martha, the subject of a very well done documentary by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky that aired earlier this week on PBS.  By all accounts, the Sharps were unlikely people to end up remembered primarily for their death-defying sacrifices to rescue Jews and other dissidents from Nazi-occupied Europe. Waitstill, born in 1902, descended from some of the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was as born-and-bred a Yankee as they come. Martha, originally Martha Ingham Dickie, was born in 1905 and trained as a social worker at Northwestern University before marrying Waitstill in 1927, the year after he graduated Harvard Law School and the year before he walked away from a very promising career as a lawyer and decided instead to become a Unitarian minister. 

Once the Rev. Sharp was ordained, the couple settled in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where he became pastor of the Unitarian Church of Wellesley Hills in 1936. It must have seemed like an idea situation for them both: a respected pulpit, a lovely home, a peaceful town, a promising career. They eventually had two children, a son and a daughter. If some visitor from the future had come to Wellesley one Sunday morning and, taking a congregant or two aside, had showed them pictures of the Sharps’ trees along the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem and explained what exactly it meant to be honored in that place with that kind of memorial, I’m sure it would have been only slightly less believable than being told their minister and his wife were from some other planet and were only visiting Earth temporarily while the mother ship refueled at some interplanetary docking station. (The Sharps were the second and third Americans so honored. Roddy Edmonds was the fifth.)

It all began innocently enough with an offer from the Unitarian leadership that the Sharps take on the assignment of leading the church’s effort to assist refugees in Prague in finding countries of refuge and ways to travel to those countries. They had no anterior reason to feel engaged by the plight of European refugees or of Jewish victims of Nazi anti-Semitism. They had no ties to Europe at all. Yet, feeling called to act even though it meant leaving their children in the care of others while they would be away, the Sharps accepted their church’s offer and were present in Prague when the German Army, not stopping at the borders of the Sudetenland (which had been offered up to Germany by the French, Italians, and British as a kind of desperate peace offering at the Munich Conference the previous September), occupied all of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939.  For the next six months, the Sharps traveled in and out of Prague, personally bringing would-be refugees to the embassies of different countries that might agree to take them in, visiting prisoners in prison to attempt to secure their release, and attempting to arrange safe passage for many of the most severely persecuted people, including many Jews, whom they met and resolved to help.

At a certain point, it became clear that the Sharps were facing arrest and imprisonment by the Gestapo. They fled to Paris, were reunited there (after Waitstill had been denied permission to re-enter Czechoslovakia), and returned home. But they didn’t remain in Wellesley and the following year, in 1940, they returned to Europe to pick up where they left off. They arrived in Paris on the eve of the German occupation, however, and were soon obliged to relocate to Lisbon. (Eventually, they also opened an office in Marseilles.) In the course of their time in Europe, they assisted not hundreds but thousands of refugees to escape Europe. Not all were Jews, of course—many were political dissidents or just ordinary citizens who spoke out against Nazism and were now considered enemies of the Reich—but there were among those the Sharps saved many Jewish people, including especially many children.

This was, I hardly have to stress, not “regular” social work of the sort in which social workers routinely engage. Speaking at Yad Vashem, the Sharps’ daughter referred to her parents as “ordinary people” who did what they did not because they thought of themselves as heroes but simply because they could not imagine stepping away from the opportunity to do immense good in the world for others.

Those words, “ordinary people” stay with me possibly because I too think of myself as an ordinary person, not as a natural-born gibbor who laughs at danger or seeks out opportunities to demonstrate my innate bravery to the world. And, in most senses of the word, the Sharps probably were ordinary people. They went to college, married, worked, became parents, planned for the future. In most ways they must have resembled most people of their time and place. And yet…when the world was on the brink of war, when the savagery of the Nazis was becoming widely known to all who cared to see, when the opportunity beckoned to step into the light and to do something extraordinary, the Sharps responded easily, almost casually.  That they did not come to think of themselves as heroes once the war ended and they returned to their “regular” lives is probably a function of the same set of character traits that drew them to risk everything to do good in the first place. And it is that specific combination of character traits—the willingness to risk everything do good, and the disinclination to label such willingness as heroism—that draws me to the Sharps and their story.

Labeling people who do good as heroes mostly serves solely to make people who do not think of themselves in that way feel reasonable about doing nothing in the face of other people’s suffering…and particularly when alleviating that suffering would involve considerable risk. And yet what were the Sharps if not heroes? Years ago I read Hans Falluda’s truly great novel, Every Man Dies Alone. Set in Nazi Berlin, the book tells the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, called the Quangels in the novel, who undertake a futile, fully hopeless campaign of civil disobedience against the Nazis. Their efforts are both pathetic and incredibly noble; they risk everything to resist evil and, in the end, they pay an awful price for their refusal to do nothing. It’s an extraordinary book, one I recommend to all students of human nature precisely because the Quangels too cannot stand being thought of heroically and insist that they are simply behaving righteously and patriotically. But as the book enters its final chapters and it becomes clear how things are going to end up…I find myself unable not to think of them as true heroes, as people who exemplify the kind of selfless bravery I like to think I too would be able to summon up in an analogous situation. May I be spared ever from finding out if I’m right!

Standing up and risking everything to do good is heroism at its most exemplary, even if part of being a hero apparently involves not seeing oneself in that light. To honor such acts, though, by distancing ourselves from the possibility of mimicking them is to miss the point almost entirely. We honor our heroes by allowing ourselves to imagine doing as they did, thus growing into finer versions of ourselves because of the example set for us by others. Perhaps that is what it means to be a hero: to inspire others to do good…heroically.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Standing Up by Sitting Down

All readers who know me personally know that I’m not exactly a sports-guy. I occasionally follow baseball, although always from a safe distance and rarely in person at an actual game. I’ve attended exactly one NHL game in my life and one NBA game. I’ve never been to a professional football game and, no, I hadn’t ever heard of Colin Kaepernick until two weeks ago. But I’ve heard of him now!

For readers even more clueless than myself when it comes to professional sports, Colin Kaepernick, age 28, is a quarterback who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. He is, by all accounts, a remarkably good player and a true asset to his team. For people who do not follow football, however, he came to prominence only a few weeks ago when, before a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers at the end of August, he pointedly and publicly declined to join his teammates in standing up during the playing of the National Anthem. During a subsequent interview, he explained his decision to remain seated as a matter of principle and an expression of his reluctance to show pride in a nation that, to use his own words, “oppresses black people and people of color.” Furthermore, he commented that, in his opinion, it would be an act of personal selfishness to garner the respect of onlookers by appearing to respect the flag when, again to quote his exactly words, “there are bodies in the street and people…[are] getting away with murder.”

Then, in the 49ers final pre-season game on September 1, Kaepernick modified his protest gesture and, instead of remaining seated, instead knelt down during the playing of the national anthem. This, he subsequently explained, was his way of continuing his protest while at the same time showing respect to former and current members of our Armed Forces.

As could certainly have been anticipated, Kaepernick’s behavior was vocally lauded in some circles and just as loudly deplored in others. Some few other professional athletes have followed suit both as a way of expressing support for his gesture and, presumably, because they feel the same way about the state of the nation. The National Football League responded to the incident by issuing a bland statement noting that players are only encouraged to stand for the national anthem, but not specifically required to do so. For their part, the 49ers’ management weighed in with a more pointed statement that, by begrudgingly recognizing the right of any individual player to choose whether or not to “honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens” by standing during the anthem, somehow managed to be supportive and insulting at the same time. It didn’t take long for Kaepernick’s behavior to turn into a national cause célèbre with people of all sorts and with no ties to professional sports quickly taking sides and expressing themselves, some very aggressively, one way or the other.

One interesting argument put forward has to do with the national anthem itself, the Star-Spangled Banner. For most of us, it’s a thing, a relic, a hymn…something that has always been there and presumably always will be part of our national culture. We learned it, or at least its first stanza, when we were children. It’s notoriously difficult to sing, but at P.S. 3 we did our best to sing it out with gusto as the opening part of our weekly schoolwide assemblies. I don’t recall learning much about its history. I’m sure I didn’t understand what it was all about. I liked the part about America being the land of the free and the home of the brave, but the rest of it was, to say the least, obscure. I’m sure I had no idea who exactly the “we” in the song were who watched the stars and stripes gallantly streaming o’er the ramparts. I’m not entirely sure I even knew what ramparts were back then, let alone which specific ramparts we were singing about the flag flying o’er.

Later, I filled in the details on my own. Francis Scott Key was thirty-five years old when, on September 14, 1814, he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by the British navy. Watching through the night to see if the flag was yet flying o’er the fort, Key was so inspired when, by dawn’s early light, he saw the same flag he had noticed in the last gleaming of the previous evening’s twilight still proudly flying over the fort that he was moved to song. Or at least to poetry. Key himself called his poem “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” but once it was set to a then-popular tune the song became widely known instead as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It became a popular patriotic hymn instantly, but slightly surprisingly—to me, at any rate—was only made our national anthem 117 years later by a resolution of Congress on March 3, 1931, which was subsequently signed into law by President Hoover.

At P.S. 3, we only sang the first verse. Nobody ever sings anything but the first verse. That, it turns out is all for the best, because later on the song takes a decidedly racist turn. Possibly. The background for that part of the poem has to do with the success the British had during the War of 1812 (which lasted until 1815 and of which the Battle of Baltimore was a prominent part) in recruiting American slaves to fight on their side by promising them their freedom in the wake of a British victory. These escaped slaves became the “Colonial Marines,” which regiment helped the British win the Battle of Bladensburg on August, 24, 1814, the victory that led directly to the occupation of Washington and the torching of the White House later that same day.

And it was possibly with reference to those slaves that Francis Scott Key wrote the now-infamous third stanza of his poem in which he wrote, slightly obscurely, that “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave. / And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

There are a dozen different ways to interpret those lines. Some take the “slaves” in question to be the British themselves, who—unlike the Americans—were still ruled over by a despotic monarch. Others imagine the lines to be referencing American sailors seized by the British and impressed into service as seamen in the Royal Navy. But, as far as I can see, most take the reference to be precisely to those American slaves who, disgusted with their lot in a slavery-tolerant United States, saw their best hope for freedom to lie with fighting for the British. That white America was not amused goes without saying. That Francis Scott Key, who was present for the Battle of Bladensburg as a volunteer aide, was enraged at the sight of escaped slaves fighting for his nation’s enemy, ditto: the burning of the White House shook Americans’ sense of their own security and the ability of their government to defend its own institutions, and was in its day probably no less traumatic than the attack against the Pentagon on 9/11 in terms of the degree to which it made the citizenry feel vulnerable and nervous.  That slaves didn’t feel the same level of patriotism in their bones that their masters did hardly needs to be justified. But that we don’t actually ever sing that third verse, or any of the song other than its first stanza, is also key: those lines may be regrettable and, if they do reference the Colonial Marines, they certainly suggest a deplorable worldview in which a nation founded on the bedrock principle of the freedom of the individual somehow managed to tolerate slavery nonetheless. But, at the end of the day, no one—not anyone, really, other than historians and scholars—knows about any of this.

To argue that the national anthem, and I quote from an online essay I read just the other day, “literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans,” is so exaggerated a claim as to be essentially meaningless. (For those interested, click here to see that essay.)  The War of 1812 was, in a sense, the true birth of our nation. Forgotten by most and confused by many with the Civil War (just ask yourself how many Americans can distinguish easily between the roles played by Fort Sumter and Fort McHenry in our nation’s history?), the War of 1812 signaled, not the birth, but the coming-of-age of our nation.

Independence had been achieved not even thirty years earlier when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. But, as we all know, being born is only the first step towards adulthood, towards maturity, towards “real” existence in the world of grown-ups. As children, we take our first steps, gather our wits about us, learn about the world. We grow into adolescence, test the boundaries, experiment with all sorts of possibilities…and then, at a certain moment, we step over the line into autonomy, into the state of personal freedom that characterizes true adulthood. And the same is true for nations. Becoming an independent American nation was a bloody, violent process. But once American independence was achieved, the next great question was what this newborn child would grow up actually to be. That, as with us all, was the great challenge facing our nascent nation at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

Things were not great. American trade was being inhibited by the British War with France. As many as 10,000 American sailors had been seized by the British and forced to serve in the Royal Navy. The British were actively fomenting armed revolt by native Americans on the western frontier. The time had clearly come for America to test its resolve to defend its own interests, to stand up for itself in the forum of nations, to insist that it be granted the rights of sovereign states. Finally, the people could take no more and, on June 18, 1812, President Madison signed a declaration of war already approved both by the House and the Senate.  The battle was joined. The great American victories at Plattsburgh, Baltimore, and, eventually, New Orleans made victory inevitable. When the Treaty of Ghent was ratified by Congress on February 17, 1815, America’s place as a sovereign state, and as a force to be reckoned with, was secure.

And that brings me back to Colin Kaepernick. I can’t imagine that he had the Colonial Marines in mind when he chose to disrespect the national anthem as a way of giving voice to his concern for the plight of African-Americans, nor did he indicate even in passing that he did. A few years ago, I wrote to you about Justice Salim Joubran, an Israeli Arab justice of the Supreme Court in Israel, who created a huge brouhaha by declining to sing Hatikvah at a ceremony honoring one of the other Supreme Court justices on the occasion of her retirement from the bench. His disinclination to sing aloud the ode to Zionist principles that is his nation’s national anthem was just as widely condemned and lauded as Kaepernick’s parallel gesture all these years later. I wrote there (click here if you wish to read my comments for yourself) that I thought the whole matter was a tempest in a teapot, a huge amount of rancor generated by a simple act of personal courage.

Whether Justice Joubran should have allowed his allegiance to the State to trump his personal discomfort is a question I could cogently argue in both directions. And I feel the same way about Colin Kaepernick. His gesture was defiant and angry. He no doubt meant it to be both those things. But it’s important to take it for what it was, not what it wasn’t. It was a public way to attract attention to the cancer of unresolved racism gnawing at the underbelly of our national culture. It was not meant to insult the anthem or, I suspect, the nation for which it stands, one that, for all it may yet provide liberty and justice for all in precisely the same way, indubitably is already the land of the free and the home of the brave…including some brave enough to put their reputations and future earnings’ potential on the line for the sake of saying something challenging and provocative that fate has somehow granted them the audience and the framework to say powerfully and loudly.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Losing Me

How should we respond when allies, or people we thought of as allies (and still wish to think of that way), turn their backs on us? I suppose the answer depends on the context and on the details: if the people whose actions we are evaluating were personal friends or business associates, if there was a well-thought-out point to their decision to behave as they did or if it was a mere act of thoughtlessness, if the upshot of it all is that we are left merely with hurt feelings or if the consequences of the deed in question will be far-reaching and long-lasting in truly consequential ways, and if we—speaking wholly honestly—can say with certainty that we ourselves did nothing to provoke the incident. These are the questions I bring to last summer’s decision of the Black Lives Matter organization to label Israel an apartheid-state in its recently-published official platform and to accuse it of perpetrating genocide against the Palestinian people. At the very least, that made me personally—and morally, if perhaps not fully legally—into an accessory to genocide. I did not take it well, particularly because the real cause the organization exists to espouse is so personally resonant with me, and so meaningful.

To say that our nation has a racial problem is not something with which any thoughtful person would wish to argue. Black Americans, for example, comprise roughly 13% of the American population, yet 37% of the people arrested annually on drug-related offences in the United States are African-Americans….and no one considers that a mere function of the fact that three times as many black Americans as white ones use illegal drugs.  Just a few years ago, the United States Sentencing Commission determined that, on the whole, black people convicted in court receive 19% longer sentences than white people convicted of the same crimes. Some studies I’ve seen lately say that there are jurisdictions in which the police frisk 85% of the black people they pull over for driving offenses, as opposed to 8% of whites similarly pulled over.

All these statistics, of course, are open to interpretation. And, also to be sure, different groups put forward different sets of statistics to make their very different points regarding all the matters mentioned above.  Still, what does seem clear as day is that there are issues here in desperate need of sorting out, and it also bears saying that the issues do not have to do solely with police- or court-related matters: there is a certain inarguable inequity between the races in employment, education, and banking in our country as well.

And then there is the actual matter of black people’s lives. Here too the numbers are confusing. In 2015, twice as many white people as black people died in police shootings, but the percentage of black victims so killed was double the percentage of black people in the population. If the statistic is redone to include only unarmed civilians, the percentage of black citizens in the mix jumps from 26% to 37%. Again, there are dozens of websites offering not only different interpretations of these statistics, but different actual statistics. And the background against which these statistics need to be considered is itself a moving target depending on whose analysis you find the most persuasive. Labelling police officers as trigger-happy racists is beyond insulting to people who face incredible challenges in their daily work, including the daily obligation of making split-second decisions regarding their own safety and the safety of others. But to say that there are issues here in desperate need of resolution feels like the kind of statement that stands easily on its own. There’s a problem. It needs a solution. Upon that much, we can surely all agree.

All that being the case, the Black Lives Matter organization hardly need to prove, and least of all to me personally, why it needs to exist. But when the organization chose not to draw me in to the ranks of its supporters but instead to accuse me of being party to genocide…that’s where they lost me.

Let’s discuss this whole concept of genocide. According to Palestinian sources, there were 1.4 Palestinian Arabs living in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1948. Earlier this year, the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics determined that the global Palestinian population stands now at just under 12.4 million, about half of whom live in Israel or the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and half live in other countries. If Israel were committing genocide against the Palestinians, shouldn’t the numbers have gone down, not up? After the Second World War, there were six million fewer Jews in the world than in 1939. After one hundred horrific days in 1994, there were almost a million fewer Rwandans, of whom about 300,000 of the dead were children. The population of Cambodia declined by about 3,300,000 from 1970 to 1980 as a result of the in-house genocidal policies promulgated by the Khmer Rouge against its own people. Those numbers suggest how genocide actually works: regardless of the details, the numbers go down as the killing continues.

Even the rabbinic human rights organization T’ruah, which vigorously opposes a continued Israeli presence on the West Bank and which had been openly allied with Black Lives Matter, issued a statement condemning the use of the language of genocide as a casual insult: The military occupation does not rise to the level of genocide—a term defined as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” While we agree that the occupation violates the human rights of Palestinians, and has caused too many deaths, the Israeli government is not carrying out a plan intended to wipe out the Palestinians. There is no basis for comparing this situation to the genocides of the 20th century, such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, or Armenia, or the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, each of which constituted a calculated plan to destroy specific groups, and each of which killed hundreds of thousands to millions of people. The Black Lives Matter platform also does not address the use of violence by some Palestinians, including the rocket attacks against civilians that Human Rights Watch has classified as a war crime. One can vigorously oppose occupation without resorting to terms such as “genocide,” and without ignoring the human rights violations of terrorist groups such as Hamas.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, had this to say along similar lines: Whatever one’s position on the relationship between Israel, its Palestinian citizens, and the residents in the West Bank and Gaza, it’s repellent and completely inaccurate to label Israel’s policy as “genocide.” And the Platform completely ignores incitement and violence perpetrated against Israelis by some Palestinians, including terror inside the country and rocket attacks lobbed from Gaza. Unfortunately, these phenomena are not new but have been challenges that have faced the Jewish state since its inception more than half a century ago.

I couldn’t agree more. And I write as someone strongly predisposed to take civil rights matters to heart, as someone who does not need even slightly to be convinced that the fantasy many of us once maintained that racial discrimination was a thing of the past was just that, a fantasy in need of some serious revision. But to accuse Israel of genocide without being able to point to the actual killing fields, to the execution pits, to the gas chambers, to the extermination camps…or to the ever-declining numbers of their victims as the slaughter progresses—that is not just inaccurate, but libelous and insulting in a way that few charges made against Jewish people—or any people—could possibly match.

At the end of the day, an organization that promulgates hatred against Jews—and I don’t see how the use of the genocide-charge to defame Israel could reasonably be described otherwise—such an organization is not worthy of the support of decent-minded people. The decision of the leaders of Black Lives Matter formally to drive from their ranks anyone who stands with Israel is, I suppose, their decision to make. But it excludes me personally from feeling drawn to their ranks or interested in being known publicly as a supporter.

But where does that leave us actually? To walk away from the racial issues that divide our nation would be a huge error for the Jewish community. The Black Lives Matter movement is hardly the only organization that is working towards healing the wounds that racism inflicts on our society! The cause itself—the effort to create a color-blind society in which all citizens are treated equitably and fairly—could not be more worthy of universal support and should surely not be dismissed as something solely for the victims of racism to pursue. Our American nation is facing a problem that many of us imagined was quickly on its way to becoming a feature of the past, something we imagined our children would soon find strange to the point almost of being bizarre to contemplate in the way kids today find it odd to learn that women have been allowed to vote in our country for less than a century or that there was a time when it was illegal in every single state for gay men to pursue their intimate lives on their own terms and privately…and that the first state to repeal such laws—Illinois in 1962—was not joined by a single other state for almost a full decade.

To imagine that it isn’t possibly both to pursue the goal of racial equity in our nation and to refuse to associate with people who use groundless, deeply vituperative rhetoric to accuse Israel of pursuing a Nazi-style agenda of extermination against the Palestinians—that seems to me illogical in the extreme. I myself am proof positive that it is possible to do both those things and feel both those ways: I have nothing but contempt for racism and those who pursue a racist agenda…and yet I will never knowingly associate with people who make common cause with enemies of the Jewish people or of the State of Israel.