Thursday, October 1, 2009

Yizkor at Shelter Rock

I chose to speak about the prospect of a nuclear Iran from the bimah this year on Yom Kippur not because I couldn’t have expressed the same thoughts in some other context during the holiday season, but because what I wanted to say to the congregation was something that I wished to say aloud specifically in the company of the ghosts that habitually join us for Yizkor....and, for me personally, in the presence of my parents’ and grandparents’ lingering spirits. I don’t want to repeat myself here—I wasn’t speaking extemporaneously and I can easily mail a copy of my remarks electronically or by regular mail to anyone who wasn’t with us and would like to read them—but I do want to return to one or two of the core concepts I put forward on Monday and make some practical suggestions regarding where exactly I think we should go from here.

When I heard myself saying that we all become after-the-fact collaborators when we speak of the Shoah as though it was an historical inevitability, I actually shocked myself. Do I really think that? I meant it when I was composing my remarks! And I still thought I meant it when I reviewed my sermons before yontif to prepare myself to deliver them accurately and forcefully. And yet...when I actually heard myself saying those words aloud from the bimah, I felt a kind of dread come over me that made me wonder what I really do think. I faltered for a moment—perhaps some readers who were present remember noticing that—but then I pulled myself together and carried on with my remarks. To say the very least, it’s a challenging idea. We speak endlessly, and with endless contempt, about all those so-called “innocent” bystanders in Europe’s cities and towns who looked on silently and did nothing at all as our people were first degraded, then deported, then destroyed. But that thought becomes far less satisfying when we challenge ourselves to say what exactly we think those people should have done. Should they have...what? Gotten teacups full of water to use to douse the burning synagogues on Kristallnacht while the fire departments of Germany, themselves complicit in the crime, simply stood back and allowed them burn to the ground? Should individual men and women have risked execution by handing out home-printed leaflets that at most a few score people, or even a few hundred, might have seen but which ultimately would have done nothing at all to bring down the terror state in which they lived? (I wrote with the greatest respect a few weeks ago about the real-life couple depicted in Hans Fallada’s great novel, Every Man Dies Alone, who did just that. But even the Hampels themselves didn’t actually accomplish anything significant in terms of bringing down the Nazis. Nor did they think it was at all likely that they would.) Should people really have risked the safety and wellbeing of their own children to save the neighbor’s children from being deported to some vague destination they could not even name, much less accurately imagine?

To say what people ought to have done is complicated, but to agree that the only rational response to Nazi racism was for ordinary citizens to throw their hands up in disgust and make their peace with doing nothing at all to stop the horror seems almost grotesquely disdainful of the force of ethical suasion we generally insist any one of us can exert through the sheer force of our moral will to act. Indeed, to say that there was nothing that could be done, that once the Nazis came to power there was no hope for the Jews of Europe, seems impossible to accept. Could the Jews of America acting in concert and speaking with one firm, unwavering voice gotten the Allies to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz? Could the Jews of the U.K. spoken loudly and forcefully enough, and with a sufficiently convincing moral argument, to pressure the government into opening Palestine to Jewish immigration while there was still time? Could the Catholic Church have been convinced by large enough masses of ordinary Catholics speaking clearly enough that by signing a treaty with Hitler—I speak of the infamous Reichskonkordat of 1933—they were not entering into a savvy political agreement with a potential adversary but openly allying themselves with the devil? Could the decent men and women of the world have somehow wedged open a doorway somewhere through which the Jews of Europe might have fled merely by insisting vocally enough that not doing so was simply an unacceptable option for human beings attempting to live lives of moral worth? These questions do not have easy answers—really none of them does—but all of them are worth asking precisely because by their very existence they argue for my original point: that by referring to the events of the Shoah as though they were inevitable, as though there was nothing anyone could possibly have done to turn the tide of history in a different direction, we become, if not “real” collaborators, then at least after-the-fact collaborationists. And that is not a seat in which I personally wish to sit. Nor should any of us.

And that brings me to Iran. Is it inevitable that Iran become a nuclear power? Openly and implacably hostile to Israel, aggressively antagonistic towards our own country, governed by a clique so filled with contumely for their own people that they could not bear even to allow their own citizens to participate in a free election to determine who should be in power—these are the same people who seem well on their way to acquiring an atomic bomb. Is it inevitable that they succeed? I can’t quite imagine that it is...and yet, when challenged not just to assert that but actually to say what it is—what it is precisely—that I think we can all do to prevent that from happening, I find myself on far less sturdy ground.

One thing I never tire of suggesting that we do is communicate our views forcefully to the five people who represent us in the federal government: the president, the vice president, our two senators and our congressman. To write to President Obama, use the handy form at To write to Vice President Biden, use the form at To write to Senator Schumer, use this form: To contact Senator Gillibrand, use this form: Congressman Gary Ackerman can be reached by clicking here: There’s no need to wax eloquent or go on at length: these letters are tabulated and the results presented to the addressee for his or her all that matters is that you say what you mean and that you say it clearly.

In this matter, I think we should focus on a few key points and repeat them until we’re sure we’re being heard clearly:

· The key concept is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. Any effort that fails to prevent this will have to be considered a failure.

· Sanctions will only work if they have a devastating effect on the Iranian economy. Half measures cannot possibly succeed.

· Supposing the president of Iran not to mean it literally when he talks about wiping Israel off the map is to join the ranks of those who thought the Nazis were kidding when they spoke about obliterating the Jewish people.

· A military response should be our last resort, but there is no real doubt that a coordinated effort involving the military might of our country and its allies, including Israel, could and would be effective. Therefore, we have an obligation not to rule out the use of military force if it eventually appears to be our sole remaining viable option.

· There is more or less no chance this problem will be solved without the forceful leadership of the United States in the forum of nations. The possibility of the United Nations taking forceful enough action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is laughable.

That’s it. You don’t need to make every point in every letter. But that you write continually and forcefully to our officials is crucial. I suppose there are other ways to say the above, possibly with a bit more finesse, but the bottom line is that those are the points I’d make. In fact, they’re the points I myself did make when I sent my five letters off yesterday this afternoon. It’s not much. It’s not all we can or should do. But it’s a place to start. And, in that it couldn’t be any easier or cost any less, it’s an obligation that none of us should feel right stepping away from.

As the weeks pass, I hope other options will present themselves to us. We should all be prepared to come out for any rally, to sign any legitimate petition, to raise our voices in as many different forums as possible. Readers who belong to political parties should feel obligated to stress to the leadership of those parties where we stand. You can write to the leadership of the Democratic Party using this form: You can contact Republican Party chairman Michael Steele at

Finally, I would like to invite members of the community to step forward with ideas of their own regarding specific steps we can take to register our opinions with people who can make a difference. If we all think together, perhaps we’ll come up with something that conceivably could make a difference. I meant wholeheartedly what I said in shul on Yom Kippur morning: if you can’t stomach the thought of having nothing to say when your grandchild asks you how you could possibly have sat idly by and done nothing while nuclear weapons were acquired by people whose hostility to Israel is as vocally asserted and endlessly repeated as Iran’s, then this is your fight too. And this is not only Israel’s fight: the United States and all of our allies will be in very dire danger if Iran acquires nuclear weapons and then passes those weapons along to terrorist organizations sworn to our destruction. This is not a theoretical danger we are facing, but something of the most pressing urgency. History, I am convinced, will judge our generation based on how we respond to this specific issue.

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