Thursday, December 23, 2010
WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 by individuals who have never been identified, but is represented to the public by the now famous/infamous Julian Assange, who coyly describes himself merely as a member of the organization’s advisory board. The concept behind the operation is also a bit unclear. In its own self-conception, WikiLeaks exists to publish data intended to embarrass repressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet Union, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, but also, to cite their own website, “to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.” To further these ends, the organization claims to have amassed a data base of more than 1.2 million documents, all presumably obtained from self-proclaimed whistle blowers who wish to embarrass the organizations, governments, or individuals to whose files they somehow have access. What the “real” motivation behind all this effort is remains unclear, however. (Even the use of the “wiki-“ prefix is misleading in that the website run by the organization specifically does not allow readers or users to add their comments.) But real enough is the praise the organization has garnered. For example, WikiLeaks won The Economist’s New Media Award in 2008 for exemplary service to journalism.
Up until this fall, most people probably knew of WikiLeaks it because of the huge amount of purloined data the organization has made public relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (92,000 documents related to Afghanistan were leaked to the press in July of this year, followed in October by a staggering 400,000 documents relating to Iraq.) But now WikiLeaks is primarily known for its release on November 28 of the first 220 of an alleged quarter of a million diplomatic cables sent from 274 United States embassies located in almost every country of the world. These cables, most rated confidential but not top secret, cover an almost unbelievably wide array of subjects including nuclear disarmament, American efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, and the war against terror. Nor has WikiLeaks acted alone. Also complicit in the effort to bring these cables to the attention of the public are the five newspapers and magazines—El Pais in Spain, Le Monde in France, The Guardian in the U.K., Der Spiegel in Germany, and The New York Times—that have undertaken to publish them. For its part, WikiLeaks has announced its intention to release the rest of these diplomatic cables, presumably eventually all 251,287 of them, in small batches over the next few months. What the unpublished cables contain, who knows? But I think we can be certain that they are all being published specifically because they are deemed embarrassing to our government or our nation in some specific way.
The question I would like to discuss today has to do with the specific way we should relate to the release of these documents. Are the five news media organizations that have undertaken to publish the material acting illegally or immorally? Surely the essence of investigative journalism is the concept of finding out things and bringing them to the attention of the public! And in many other cases in which newspapers have uncovered information that has led to the arrest of criminals or to the public humiliation of people behaving immorally or deceitfully, it is surely true that the public has responded enthusiastically and positively. (Think, for example, of the decision by the New York Times in 1971 to publish the so-called Pentagon Papers, which effort revealed the degree to which the federal government had willfully misled the American public regarding the war in Vietnam and American activities in Cambodia and Laos.)
On the other hand, there is something that feels beyond wrong about taking what is in essence private correspondence between individuals and making it public. There was once a time when you could be pretty sure that no one had read a letter addressed to you merely because it arrived in your mailbox still sealed. Those days are, of course, long gone. I have no deep understanding of how e-mail works, but I know that the letters that appear in my in-box have travelled through the machinery of a variety of internet service providers on their way from my correspondent’s computer to my own. Surely it would be possible for any number of unscrupulous persons surreptitiously to read my e-mail as it makes its convoluted and complex way into my in-box. Is it reasonable to expect privacy this far down the pike from the concept of a sealed envelope being brought by a team of actual human beings from the mailbox in which it was deposited by its writer to the home of its intended recipient? That, I think, is the right way to frame the question regarding the morality of WikiLeaks’ behavior.
We have our own tradition to take into consideration. It’s amazing how little well-known the figure of Rabbenu Gershom, called by his admirers the Light of the Exile, is in our own day given the degree of renown he once enjoyed. Rashi who was born around when Rabbenu Gershom died, said that all Ashkenazic Jews were almost by definition his disciples. (Rashi actually was a kind of grand-disciple of his in that his own teacher, Rabbi Jacob ben Yakar, was Rabbenu Gershom’s student.) And Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327), popularly known as Rabbenu Asher and who himself was one of the greatest of all medieval rabbis, wrote that the teachings of Rabbenu Gershom were so widely accepted that they may as well have been handed down to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Rabbenu Gershom was a leading figure in his day for many different reasons, but the most important event in his professional life was the rabbinical synod he convened in the year 1000 to ratify a number of radical innovations he wished to promulgate. It was at this synod, for example, that the formal ban against polygamy for all Ashkenazic Jews was announced and accepted. And it was also at this synod that the decision was made to prohibit any divorce from being finalized unless both parties to the marriage in question are in agreement that their union be ended, an enormous step forward for women and for women’s rights. The third matter the synod considered was how to relate to Jews who were forced to abandon Judaism. (This was a highly personal matter for Rabbenu Gershom because his own son abandoned Judaism in the wake of the 1012 forced expulsion of the Jews from Mainz, the city in which Rabbenu Gershom worked and lived.) And, finally, it was at this synod that Rabbenu Gershom promulgated his formal ban against reading other people’s mail. The concept was simply that written letters, clearly a form of speech, were henceforth to be considered subject to the laws of gossip and talebearing that govern oral communication. And so just as one has the right to presume that the words one utters will not be heard by anyone other than the individual to whom one is speaking, so does one have the right to suppose that one’s letters will not be read by anyone other than the party or parties to whom they are addressed.
In its own way, this is a parallel thought to the way people have the right to assume that their assets will be distributed according to their instructions after they die. They themselves will not be present to control the situation, but the right inherent in the concept of owning something is deemed to include the right to bequeath it posthumously to whomever one wishes. Similarly, one can obviously not control what happens to a letter once it leaves one’s hand. (How much the more so is that true for e-mail!) But one nevertheless has the right to expect that it will neither be diverted nor stolen, and that no decent person will read what has sent in writing by one party to another merely because the possibility exists to do so.
I think the same principle applies to WikiLeaks. It is one thing, after all, to publish public documents and thus to bring them forcefully to the attention of the public, and another thing entirely to steal letters sent from one individual to another—and diplomatic dispatches are in essence letters being sent from one person to another through the private mail system operated by the diplomatic service—and then to share their contents with anyone who can afford to purchase a copy of Le Monde or El Pais. Whether some greater good was served by making public these dispatches is hardly the point because the deed itself is forbidden, just as one is forbidden to gossip even if one can discern some salutary benefit that might somehow result from doing so. The fact that we live in an age that so little respects the privacy of the individual that such a thought sounds novel almost to the point of being radical, however, says a lot more about modern society and culture than about Rabbenu Gershom or the reasonableness and morality of his edict.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Perhaps it has to do with the concept of invisibility. When Ralph Ellison published his masterwork, Invisible Man, in 1952, he was writing formally about the lot of black people in America. But in a less formal way he was also writing about the way society first belittles, then marginalizes, then eventually condemns to invisibility those to whom the members of its dominant classes have no real idea how to relate. Like all great books, Ellison’s is both plot-specific and plot-general, both about the people it depicts and also about the world, about society, about people whom the author does not pause to mention at all but whose stories are nevertheless embedded (invisibly!) in the warp and woof of the narrative. I suppose most of my readers will have read Ellison’s book somewhere along the way, even if only as an assignment in a high school English class. If you've never read it, it’s still worth reading even all these years later, still insightful and still very interesting. But I mention it today not specifically to recommend a good book, but because that concept of invisibility-in-full-sight seems relevant both to understanding why the Torah returns over and over to the concept of being considerate and sympathetic to the strangers in our midst—because to be kind to such people one must first learn to see them—and also to an issue facing our country as the year draws to a close.
All my readers know, I think, that I find the lot of illegal aliens in our midst as intolerable as the issue of how to resolve the problem appears to be intractable. On the one hand, we are not a nation given to coddling lawbreakers, which is by definition what illegal immigrants are: people who have declined to play by the rules and who have simply shoved their way to the front of the line, thus ignoring both our laws and those patiently waiting their turn to apply for legal residency. On the other hand, however, is the problem not as it exists in some sort of public-policy vacuum but in the real world of flesh-and-blood men and women. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit research organization, there are currently about eleven million foreigners living illegally in the United States, about three-quarters of them from Mexico, Central America, and South America.
That staggering, almost unfathomable number, cannot be passed by lightly: we are talking about an incredibly large number of people who collectively have created a concomitantly huge number of social problems both for the citizenry and for foreigners residing legally in our midst. Some of these are so well known that they hardly bear repeating. Illegals work, but they do not pay taxes and thus do not shoulder their fair share of the costs connected with government services from which they profit. They are the regular and repeated victims of crime, but they cannot phone the police for help when they are robbed or assaulted. They drive, but they are mostly afraid to apply for driver’s licenses and thus, generally speaking, fail to carry even the minimal insurance that the government requires drivers all to carry. They become ill like the rest of us too, of course, but they rarely carry health insurance because the forms they would have to fill out to apply for coverage solicit information that would risk identifying them as illegals. And, if their parents dare send them, the children of illegals attend schools in which they are obliged constantly to dissemble lest their lack of status be uncovered and the government duly notified. One thing I believe all Americans can easily agree on is that the situation as it has evolved to this point is intolerable from a dozen different standpoints and must somehow be resolved.
Nor is there any point in putting the blame on the government for having failed to prevent illegal immigration in the first place. It is undoubtedly true that increased funding for better border patrolling could have stemmed the flow of illegals over these many years that the problem has taken to develop to its current gargantuan dimensions. There are probably a lot of things we could have done to prevent this situation from evolving as it has, actually, but wasting time now on recriminative speculation about what we could possibly once have done will not move us any closer to resolving the issue. And resolve it we must! It is simply intolerable for us to accept as a permanent feature of life in these United States that millions upon millions of people can be assaulted with impunity, swindled without the fear of subsequent punishment, and allowed to cost the taxpayers uncountable millions while being unable to contribute legally to the coffers they themselves help annually to drain.
Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives voted by the underwhelming margin of 216 to 198 to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors act. Usually referred to by its acronym as the DREAM act, this legislation was sponsored by two Democrats and a Republican and addresses specifically young people who (a) arrived illegally in the United States when they were still younger than sixteen years of age, (b) have lived here for at least five years, (c) have received a high school diploma or its equivalent, (d) are at the present time younger than thirty-five, and (e) are known to be of good moral character. In other words, the DREAM act is an attempt to deal with the specific class of young people who came here illegally as children, but who have lived here for a serious portion of their lives, have been educated here, and who have not gotten into any sort of trouble during their years in America. The bill does not, however, give these people a free pass to citizenship. What it would do, however, is to grant such young people six years during which to attend college or to serve in the United States military. And then, at the end of those six years, supposing an eligible young person completes a significant portion of his or her post-secondary education or military service and is not convicted of a major crime (or any crime connected with drug use), then such a person would be eligible not for citizenship but for the kind of legal permanent residency that could eventually lead to citizenship. This is hardly a free pass. But it is a thoughtful way to deal with one small part of the larger issue, the part involving young people with limited or no ties at all to any other homeland and whose foreign citizenship is more a factor of where their parents grew up than of their own lives or cultural attachments or emotional allegiances. It is a small step forward towards resolving a problem that all goodhearted citizens must insist be resolved one way or the other. And I personally think it is worthy legislation that deserves to become law.
On September 21, the Senate failed to muster the sixty votes it would have taken to end the filibuster of the bill. (The vote was 56-43 to continue the progress of the bill.) The following day, on September 22, Richard Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois, introduced the bill again, this time acting together with Republican Richard Lugar, the senior senator from Indiana, and Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senior senator from Vermont. The bill was then defeated in the Senate for a second time. On November 16, President Obama announced his intention to introduce the bill into the House of Representative where, as noted above, it passed. The wrangling in the Senate now continues with the bill being tabled, then re-introduced, then threatened with an ongoing filibuster, then withdrawn for consideration some other time (but presumably within the life span of the 111th Congress), the re-proposed. The bottom line is that either the bill will pass within the next week or so or it won’t. I understand the unwillingness of some people to grant free rides to people who snuck on the bus without first bothering to buy a ticket. But I also see the wisdom of trying to begin to solve this major issue for our country by addressing the case of children caught up in the web of illegality and subterfuge because of other people’s bad decisions. It isn’t much. It barely even qualifies as a partial solution to the bigger question. (It is estimated this legislation could clear the way to citizenship for no more than 13,000 of the eleven million illegals in our midst.) But I believe this is a step in the right direction. It is kind. It is generous. And it is fully in harmony with the Torah’s endlessly repeated injunction to behave charitably, humanely, and benevolently with the strangers in our midst.
One caveat, however: I do not believe it would be appropriate or right to allow young people who become citizens under the DREAM act to be allowed later on to sponsor their parents’ immigration if those parents came here illegally. For adult illegals, a process has to be evolved on a separate plane of discourse that leads either to their return to their native lands or to the acquisition of American citizenship in a way that conforms to the laws of our country and does not insult the dignity of all those who have immigrated here legally and by the book.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
As always, the details are only part of the story. The Nazi is Bernhard Frank, now a doddering man of ninety-seven but once the right-hand man of Heinrich Himmler. Characterized by Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles as an “avid, zealous, passionate, and committed Nazi,” Frank’s signature appears on orders that led directly the massacre of the Jews of Korets, a town in the Ukraine, on July 28, 1941. The man who falsely befriended him is Mark Gould, a forty-one year old resident of Los Angeles. Interestingly enough, Gould is not Jewish. Or not exactly Jewish—he has a non-Jewish mother and was adopted by her Jewish husband and apparently feels connected enough to his adopted father’s family to have undertaken to find out who murdered the Korets wing of the family. Nor is Gould your average Nazi hunter. Burdened by a complicated background that involved a rough-and-tumble adolescence in Texas, he became interested enough to find the documents that authorized the annihilation of Korets Jewry, then somehow found his way to Germany, had the idea to impersonate a Neo-Nazi sympathizer, and managed to worm his way into the inner circle of the man who signed his stepfather’s family’s death warrant. There is basically no way that Frank will be brought to justice. He’s almost a hundred years old. He’s been living openly ever since the war. He actually published a book about his wartime activities. (German-language readers can order a used copy of Als Hitlers Kommandant from amazon.de for a mere nineteen euros.) He has never been charged with war crimes and there are no outstanding warrants for his arrest. He was just a cog in a killing machine. But without those cogs the machine could not have functioned. Stephen Smith of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California wrote about him using these words: “Of all the Nazis that have surfaced over the years, Bernhard Frank sends the biggest shiver down my spine not because he was an outright killer, but because he was active right in the heart of darkness, at the epicenter of the Holocaust, at the scene of the crime. For some reason we let him get away with it.” Yet despite the quixotic nature of the whole undertaking, Gould and a cousin of his filed a federal civil law suit in Washington D.C. the other day against Bernhard Frank. The specific damages being sought were not disclosed. Since there will never be a trial or the outcome of a trial, it hardly matters. So why, the world seems hell-bent on wondering, would anyone launch such a hopeless suit against such a very old man? Can’t we just let bygones be gone by?
The New York Times began its story in Wednesday’s paper cynically by wondering aloud if Gould’s real interest could not possibly be in landing a fat book contract followed by a presumably even fatter movie contract. An article that appeared in the British newspaper, The Telegraph, the other day derided Gould’s claim that Frank was complicit in the murder of his ancestors as “pure junk,” his signature on the order that led to their annihilation a mere detail akin to a secretary’s initials at the bottom of a letter the boss is sending out. (Not only that, but the author supposes that no elderly Nazis should really be allowed to confess to anything since, as a friend of the article’s author put it, “Old Nazis watch a lot of telly too. Sometimes they can’t even remember if they were at Auschwitz or Austerlitz.”) So, if I understand the argument correctly, because some Nazis are senile, they all must be. And because it took an elaborate killing machine to murder that many Jews it hardly makes sense to prosecute single ones of them merely because they haven’t had the good sense already to have died. And, besides, it wasn’t like Frank was in charge of the Holocaust. He was just following Himmler’s orders!
I don’t know why the way this story was reported has irritated me so much. I guess I like the idea that even now, even this many decades later, no Nazi murderer can fall asleep at night fully secure that he won’t end up on the front page of the New York Times or Yediot Acharonot (where the story first appeared) exposed for his role in the mass murder of innocents. And the fact that a man would go to great extremes to find the man who signed the order that led to his family’s extermination not because he really expects to win any damages but simply to show that only the death of the perpetrator means that justice can no longer be served here on earth does not seem farfetched or peculiar to me. Just the opposite, in fact: it strikes me as rational, sane, and supremely moral. I don’t know this Gould fellow, but I think I’d probably like him. His lawsuit certainly seem rational to me, even despite the impossibility of actually winning any meaningful damages! Why can’t the point simply be for the truth to be known?
Part of the problem has to do with the gradual way Americans have turned away from the horrors of genocide. On the wildly popular television show Glee the other night, there was a toss-away jokey line about the My Lai massacre. (Do you all remember My Lai? It was there in Vietnam that 347 civilians, including elderly people, women, and babies, were murdered by a non-rogue unit of the American Army on March 16, 1968. Many of the women were raped before being killed. A considerable number of the corpses were mutilated posthumously. Now there’s a topic worth making jokes about on a national, prime time television show specifically aimed at teenaged viewers!) A few weeks ago, in another attempt at family-based humor, the same show featured Carol Burnett as the mother of one of the regular characters and we were all supposed to think it was hysterical that this shrill harridan was—get this!—a Nazi hunter by profession, by which they presumably meant (given the context) that she was wealthy enough to be able to spend her time gallivanting around the world looking for former Nazis and bringing them to justice. (That there are people in the world devoted to bringing surviving Nazi war criminals to justice was not the point. The point was how funny it was supposed to be to think that a woman depicted so ridiculously would have such a suitably ridiculous profession. You were supposed to laugh.)
In the end, by responding to gags like that on incredibly popular television shows not with outrage but with indifference, we create a world in which the effort of some troubled soul to make known the man who promulgated his family’s death sentence seems almost ipso facto peculiar. (I wonder if Mark Gould thought Carol Burnett was being funny by mocking the efforts of those who really do wish to see justice served. My guess is not.) Of course, in a world in which Broadway not merely tolerates but awards a full dozen Tony Awards to a show featuring funny Hitler and his funny storm troopers singing gaily about their plans to overrun France, what’s a throwaway line on television worth? We need to rein ourselves in a bit, I think, and do what it takes to remind ourselves that there is nothing even remotely funny about genocide. Nor, I believe, is there anything pathetic or bizarre about the desire to see justice served, even if only symbolically and even at almost the last conceivable minute.
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Before I wish you all a very happy Chanukah in homes filled with light and with the pleasures of family life at its richest, I’d like to tell you about the most horrific article I read in the newspaper last week. At first, I almost thought it was funny. But then, upon reflection, I realized that it was not at all funny and that, if anything, it was almost unutterably depressing. But what I’ve gleaned from my thinking about that article has something to do with the wishes I have for all of you this Chanukah, so let me start with gloomy and move on to cheerful.
The article, which I’m sure many of you also saw, appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago and featured its author’s breathless appraisal of a fabulous new phenomenon that has arrived in the Jewish world: rabbis who train children for their bar- and bat-mitzvahs on the internet. The author, I’m guessing not a member of the House of Israel, couldn’t get over how great this was. The children don’t have to waste all that time in Hebrew School. Their parents don’t have to bother being members of a synagogue at all. These rabbis will train their children (without every actually meeting them), then appear (this time apparently in person) to conduct “a bar-mitzvah” or “a bat-mitzvah” (whatever that means) in some non-synagogue setting of the child’s or his or her parents’ choosing. So the whole experience is a win-win. The kids are spared all that unnecessary learning. (One boy interviewed for the article noted that in the synagogue with which his parents were formerly affiliated they tried to make him learn his prayers by heart, presumably including at least some that he wouldn’t even have needed at his bar-mitzvah. Can you imagine!) And the parents are spared all that unnecessary expense. So everybody ends up happier and better off. And it’s not like they don’t have a rabbi at their disposal too!
What is missing, however, is the foundation upon which the whole thing rests in the first place, the experience of ushering a child into a real community formed of real people who have undertaken to create a Jewish presence in the place in which they live. One of the things we try our best to manage at Shelter Rock is to usher our bar- and bat-mitzvah children across that particular threshold into feeling that they personally are members of our congregation and not merely the sons and daughters of members. And along with that goes the sense, which we also try to foster, that the klei kodesh of our congregation are not only their parents’ rabbi and cantor, but their own as well. But, of course, none of this can happen if there is no community to come forward to the Torah for the first time in, if the experience of becoming bar- or bat-mitzvah is an end unto itself that leads nowhere at all beyond the pleasure of the moment. The experience should not be about learning any specific thing or about acquiring some useful synagogue skill, but about accepting that with adolescence comes the obligation to see oneself as a real person, as a member of the community, as someone who exists as a Jewish person in his or her own right (and not merely as the child or grandchild of such people). That, in my mind, is what it means to become a bar-mitzvah or a bat-mitzvah. And it is, or should be, the seminal experience in any adolescent’s Jewish coming-of-age.
Even more perverse, at least to my way of thinking, is an even more peculiar phenomenon also reported on in that same piece in the Times. I refer now to the concept of the on-line synagogue, one in which a bar-mitzvah or a bat-mitzvah can be celebrated with no one being physically present at all as worshipers, or rather their spectral e-presences, gather on Skype or in some other internet chat room to daven electronically (if that’s what you’d call it) somewhat in the manner of ghosts gathering for Yizkor but without the gravitas or the grandeur. That there is no halachic basis for anything like this goes without saying, not to mention the impossibility of squaring traditional Shabbat observance with any sort of Shabbos minyan that requires participants to be seated at their computers in order to participate. But leaving all of those issues aside, what strikes me as the most peculiar is that anyone would want to be part of such an undertaking in the first place. We really are our own worst enemies!
Community life is maddening. It brings together all sorts of people who under other circumstances might not necessarily wish to have much to do with each other. It requires learning to compromise, to listen to others, to accept that one pays one’s dues and gives one’s gifts and still can’t always have one’s way in every decision the synagogue undertakes. It requires dealing with other people’s parents and with other people’s children…and with a wide range of other people’s tzuris including many specific problems that most of us could be just as happy not knowing about at all, let alone feeling called upon somehow to deal with. But for those of us to whom life without affiliation in a traditional, warm Jewish community is unimaginable, it is all somehow worth it nevertheless. There is a certain sense of community, of mutual support and succor, and of acceptance that only comes from being part of a great community. In that sense, we at Shelter Rock are fortunate and blessed to have this place to call our own. I feel that way myself, considering myself much more a member than an employee of our congregation. And I’m pleased that my children feel that too…even though we only moved here when they were already in high school.
I suppose it is against these feelings of the supreme worthiness of synagogue affiliation that I read that irritating article in the paper the other week. I try to respect the work of all my colleagues in the rabbinate, but what do these people think they’re doing by leading the parents of Jewish adolescents away from synagogue affiliation, away from the warmth of community, and away from the richness of Jewish life as it can only be experienced within the warp and woof of a congregation of real people? We are not, after all, talking about providing internet-based bar- or bat-mitzvah instruction to children in Antarctica or in the Amazon rain forest who simply cannot attend “normal” Hebrew Schools, but about people who live all around us on Long Island (or nearby) every single one of whom could be a member of a synagogue. Really, could anything be more clear than that the way to produce committed, engaged, involved Jewish young people is to usher them into vibrant traditional communities? Apparently it’s not that clear to everybody. But it is perfectly clear to me…and, I hope, to all of you as well.
And that brings me to Chanukah. We, all of whom are privileged to belong to our wonderful community, should feel doubly blessed at Chanukah this year as we gather with our families and in our community to feel the light of God’s presence in our midst reflected in the clear light of the Chanukah candles. We, who have found our way to this place, need to feel not just fortunate but truly blessed to have each other in our lives…and to feel that the young people we usher into Jewish adulthood on our bimah are similarly blessed to have a community like our own in which to grow up. The thought of davening like an incorporeal phantasm in some chat room in the cloud gives me the willies. But even more than just finding the idea weird and unappealing, contemplating such a thing reminds me how grateful we must all be for what we have!