Thursday, January 27, 2011


As many of you know, I have always been fascinated by the concept of the hero. Like many of you, I read Joseph Campbell’s ancient book about ancient myths, The Hero with a Thousand Faces when I was still in college and found it beyond fascinating. (The book itself isn’t really ancient, it just felt that way when I was a college student in the 1970’s. It was actually written in 1949.) Even more compelling, though, was Otto Rank’s far older book, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, first written in 1909 and still available in Gregory Richter and E. James Lieberman’s lucid translation. Both books will be well worth any reader’s effort, but it was the concept itself that the younger me found attractive, even perhaps a bit seductive, and which I continue to find very interesting. I have written to you about the question of what constitutes “real” heroism several times in the last few years, in fact, most recently in connection with the death of Miep Gies, the woman who for no ulterior reason and at the greatest risk to her personal safety was personally responsible for hiding Anne Frank and her family in the Achterhuis for as long as the Franks and the others were able to stay beneath the Nazis’ radar. But even Miep Gies’ testimony was more confusing than helpful in terms of saying what precisely heroism is: she was famous for refusing to allow the word to be applied to her simply because she behaved morally and kindly in an extreme situation. Surely, she used to argue, decency and generosity should be hallmarks of normal human behavior, not qualities reserved for the moral supermen and superwomen we conveniently (and supremely self-servingly) label as heroes mostly so as to avoid feeling bad about our own general unwillingness to do the right thing when presented with the opportunity to make a moral choice that entails risk or even danger to ourselves.

In our own tradition, Ben Zoma’s famous definition of the hero as one who has the inner strength to quash his own darker inclination to behave basely is well known to us all. But that too rings just a bit hollow when filtered through Miep Gies’ rejection of the title for herself: surely having the capacity to distinguish right from wrong and then to refuse to behave poorly should be considered the natural and normal way for ordinary people to behave, not a hallmark of uncommon heroism. Or was Ben Zoma perhaps right after all because the kind of self-discipline necessary always to choose the path of goodness in life is so rare among people that it really is reasonable to give it its own name?

I was brought back to these thoughts just this week when I read the story of Cornelius Dupree, Jr.. Dupree is not famous. His name will not be known to anyone who didn’t see the same article in the paper last week that I did. But I find myself in awe of the courage he displayed in refusing to tell a lie that not only did the entire world appear to want him to tell but that it would have been almost unbelievably beneficial to himself to tell. Yet this man—not a famous ethicist, not a professor of morality, not a clergyman, not even a college graduate—had the inner strength to quash what must have been an incredibly strong urge to perjure himself in a way that could not only not possibly have entailed subsequent punishment, but which could very possibly have bought him his freedom.

The details of the story are simple enough to retell. On November 23, 1979, two men kidnapped a Houston couple at gunpoint, forced them into their own car, robbed them of their money, shoved the man out of the car, and then proceeded to a nearby park where they raped the woman. Two arrests followed shortly. The following April, a Houston jury returned a guilty verdict against Cornelius Dupree and another man, Anthony Massingill. Dupree was subsequently sentenced to seventy-five years in prison, but never stopped maintaining his innocence. And, as it now turns out, rightly so. He was released from prison on parole after serving thirty years of his sentence last July. Less than one week later, conclusive DNA testing undertaking by the Innocence Project (originally part of Cardozo Law School but since 2004 an independent nonprofit organization) proved categorically that Dupree was innocent of the crimes of which he had been convicted. On January 4, just a few weeks ago, Cornelius Dupree was declared innocent and a Texas judge vacated the his rape and robbery conviction. Massingill’s conviction is also expected to be overturned in the near future.

None of the above makes the man a hero in my eyes, just the tragic victim of a horrific error of judgment on the part of a jury and a judge. But what makes him heroic in my eyes is a detail that the newspapers brushed by, I thought, far too quickly: that Dupree had not one but two different chances to dramatically increase his chances to be granted early parole by admitting his guilt. It would have been simple to lie. Everybody expected him to lie. Those closest to him probably even wanted him to tell the damn lie. And surely most wrongfully imprisoned people would leap at the chance to go free no matter what lie the system demanded that they tell to do so. Surely Dupree could have wanted nothing more than to go free. But the system demands its due and to be granted parole the potential parolee must show regret and remorse, both of which must obviously be predicated on an admission of personal guilt. But that is where Dupree’s turned out to be one of the hero’s thousand faces. He was not a professional ethicist, but he also would not and could not speak a lie, even one that could possibly have brought him the one thing he must have wanted more than anything in the world but which would have permanently besmirched his reputation and his sense of himself as an honest person. “Whatever your truth is,” the man said to a local reporter after being exonerated, “you have to stick with it.”

The basis of Otto Rank’s book is that the reason people need heroes, even going so far as to invent mythological ones to admire (and then upon whose “real” existence subsequent generations somehow feel obliged to insist) is because we want to see far finer versions of ourselves than we normally notice in the mirror displayed in the way our heroes reflect their venerators. In other words, we know that most of us come up short all the time. (Ben Zoma surely had that unappealing aspect of the human story in mind when he made his famous remark referenced above about the meaning of “real” heroism.) And, indeed, when we look into our hearts—and I assure you all that I include myself in this thought—when we truly look within deeply and thoughtfully, which of us can say with absolute certainty that if a judge offered us our freedom after, say, twenty years of unjust incarceration, we would rise to the moral level of a Cornelius Dupree and refuse to lie? This is not the same as finding it pleasant to think of ourselves as honest people. Nor is it the same as justifying the lie with reference to the unfairness of a flawed system that, for all it purports to be based on the assumption that it is better for a thousand guilty persons to go free than for a single innocent person to be unjustly incarcerated or executed, has in Dallas County required that twenty-one wrongly convicted individuals be freed after decades of imprisonment in the last four years alone.

There is truly something of the heroic in Cornelius Dupree’s story, I think. Some of you may recall the old story about the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, also called Diogenes the Cynic, who used to wander around the marketplace in Athens in the middle of the day with a burning torch in his hand and then, when asked why he needed a torch in broad daylight, would answer that he was searching for an honest man. I’ve always liked that story, but the older I get the more unpleasantly monitory Diogenes’ words feel to me. Is it really that hard to be so unwaveringly honest that one simply never tells a lie, self-serving or otherwise? Our Torah makes room for the occasional white lie told to spare another person’s feelings, but surely giving false testimony in court (or before a parole board) is among the Ten Commandments not because it is situationally or occasionally wrong, but because it categorically and absolutely is. And yet which of us, holding up Cornelius Dupree as a mirror, can see ourselves reflected in his simple refusal to confess to a crime he knew in his heart that he did not commit? So maybe there are heroes in the world after all…and maybe Rank was exactly right as to the real reason we need to invent them when none is actually at hand for us to admire and emulate.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blood Libels

I wouldn’t have thought anything anyone could say in the wake of the shooting in Tucson would have drawn attention away from Gabrielle Giffords and the others who were killed or wounded on January 8. But Sarah Palin somehow managed to do just that by using the phrase “blood libel” to refer to the vendetta she perceives the media to have launched against her in the wake of that massacre over the fact that the website maintained by SarahPac, the federally registered political action committee that exists to promote her as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, included until just recently a map of the United States with Gabrielle Giffords’ district (and the districts of nineteen other Democrats) depicted in what appeared to be the crosshairs of a rifle’s scope.

The map was controversial even before Tucson, but it was after the assassination attempt against Congresswoman Giffords that the rhetoric really heated up. In a sense, it was a lot of talk about nothing. Even if Jared Lee Loughner, the man arrested and accused of the shooting, turns out to be guilty of the crime with which he has been charged and if it can be proven that he saw the map on the SarahPac website and that he naively or insanely misinterpreted it to mean that Governor Palin was calling upon her admirers to murder twenty sitting members of the House of Representatives, that would still hardly make Governor Palin personally responsible for his actions. But the map nevertheless quickly became symbolic in the minds of many of the overheated rhetoric that seems to have become the common coin of political discourse in our country. And thus too did it become symbolic of the degree to which people who engage in vituperative, borderline-violent, over-the-top language with respect to their political foes must share the responsibility for what happens when people of limited intelligence or virtue, or mentally unbalanced people, act on what they perceive to constitute their wishes.

Governor Palin did not respond well to the intimation that she bore any responsibility for the shooting at all, noting that “acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own” and that such acts “begin and end with the criminals who commit them." Later, though, possibly realizing that crimes rarely begin and end with their perpetrators with no one else at all ever being even indirectly responsible, she took a different tack, explaining that the SarahPac website designers never intended for the graphic to look like gun sights at all, but merely and innocently to resemble “crosshairs like you'd see on maps.” And it was in the context of her effort to respond directly to those whom she felt had impugned her reputation that she used the term “blood libel” to refer to what she perceived as their malicious efforts at calumny.

The Jewish world did not respond well to Sarah Palin’s specific mode of not responding well. Although there were those prominent Jewish figures who defended Governor Palin’s comments, most notably Alan Dershowitz and the well-known Chabad rabbi Shmuley Boteach (who published his thoughts on the matter on the Wall Street Journal website), most Jewish responses were negative, interpreting Sarah Palin’s comment as yet another attempt to devalue a monstrous horror that led to unimaginable Jewish suffering over the centuries and recast it as a mere turn of phrase. And it is that specific aspect of the issue that I would like to write about today.

I was first exposed to the concept of the blood libel as a teenager when I read André Schwarz-Bart’s great novel, The Last of the Just, which was one of the very first and remains in my opinion one of the greatest works of Holocaust-based fiction. (Published in French in 1959, it won the Prix de Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, and almost all by itself established the genre of the Shoah novel. To this day when people occasionally ask me where to get started in reading about the Shoah, I almost invariably suggest they begin by reading Schwarz-Bart’s book.) Other books followed, notably R. Po-chia Hsia’s harrowing The Myth of Ritual Murder, published by Yale University Press in 1988, which I can also recommend very highly. The concept itself, though, does not require any complicated research to understand: the name “blood libel” is generally applied specifically to the malicious fantasy that Jews regularly, or at least occasionally, murder non-Jewish children to use their blood in the baking of matza or to perform some other religious ritual. Over the years, there have been thousands of such accusations, of which about 150 (so Walter Laqueur in his 2006 Oxford University Press book, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism) have resulted in the arrest, torture, and murder of innocent Jewish people, sometimes by an enraged mob and sometimes following a phony trial. Alan Dundes’ 1991 book, The Blood Libel Legend, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, details and provides eye-witness testimony regarding an array of such incidents that is as amazing as it is deeply distressing. Nor is this exclusively a medieval phenomenon. The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 took place against a blood libel accusation, as did the pogrom in Kielce, Poland, in 1946 in the course of which forty Jews were killed in the worst instance of anti-Jewish violence on Polish soil in the years following the Shoah. Nor even can Americans consider themselves exempt from all of this: there was a blood libel leveled against the Jews of Massena, New York, a remote town on the Canadian border, in 1928. (No one was tried or killed in Massena, but the very thought that such an event even could occur here on our shores should give us all pause for thought. Interested readers can consult Saul Friedman’s The Incident at Massena, published in 1978 by Stein & Day.) And so was it with all of these details in mind that the American Jewish community tried to unpack Governor Palin’s remark that she too was the victim of a blood libel.

We knew what she meant. The essence of the blood libel is the false accusation of murder and she too felt that she was being blamed, circuitously but meaningfully, for the murder of six people and the attempted murder of a member of Congress. Obviously, no one really considered her legally responsible. No grand jury would ever return an indictment of murder against someone merely for publishing a map on a website that no sane person would actually understand to constitute a suggestion that members of our government be shot to death. But her sense that she was nonetheless being tarred with the same brush, albeit one with considerably less tar on it, than the actual shooter is at the heart of her decision to use blood libel terminology to respond to the suggestion that she bears some responsibility for Tucson. On the other hand, there are some profound distinctions to make. The belief that Jews murder non-Jewish children because their blood is an essential ingredient of matza is totally false.But the graphic on Governor Palin’s SarahPac website could certainly be taken to mean that the ideal way to see members of Congress who supported President Obama’s health care bill would be through the crosshairs of a rifle’s telescopic sight. Clearly, that does not make her a party to murder. But it also seems beyond exaggerated to equate the feeling that former Governor Palin erred grievously by permitting her SarahPac website to introduce into the rhetoric of American politics the image of an enraged populace aiming guns at members of Congress with crimes committed against innocent Jewish people that include torture, exile, and murder.

In a sense, Governor Palin touched a raw nerve because her comment was only one of so many over these last years that appear to devalue the suffering of Jewish people by making too casual use of the vocabulary of anti-Semitism to make wholly unrelated points. I am not referring to using Holocaust-based terminology to refer to actual instances of genocide either, but rather to extended uses that appear to cheapen the memory of the dead, for example when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) refer to the meat that comes from American abattoirs as a “holocaust on your plate” or when Representative Alan Grayson of Florida referred to the absence of national health care in America as a holocaust in its own right or when people refer to questioning the reality of global warming as the ecological version of denying that the Holocaust occurred. But even here our feelings are naturally mixed: on the one hand, we are the ones who want the Shoah never to be forgotten and for the memory of the martyrs to be an indelible part of the heritage of all humanity. Yet when people take that thought and run with it by applying it to unrelated events we find the effect jarring and unsettling.

In its own way, the issue is foreshadowed in the Torah itself at the very end of Parshat Ki Tetzei, where the Torah almost in the very same breath commands us eternally to remember the dastardly way the nation of Amalek attacked the Israelites in the desert and also to erase any recollection of that nation “from beneath the heavens.” The obvious incompatibility of the two commands—to preserve but also to eradicate the memory of Amalek—suggests the conflict we are experiencing in the wake of Sarah Palin’s remarks. We want the world to forget about blood libels, to consign the concept to the waste-bin of outrageously defamatory ideas leveled by a hostile world against innocent Jewish people. But we also want the opposite—for the world to know what it has traditionally meant to be a Jew in a hostile world, for the world never to forget the misery our co-religionists have had to endure in the lands of their dispersion, for the libelous lies leveled against us specifically never to be forgotten or treated as mere footnotes in the history of bigotry. We want it both ways! And Sarah Palin’s remark stung not so much because of what she actually said, I think, but because it exacerbated our frustration at not being able to have it both ways, at not being able to talk endlessly about the Shoah and to devote ourselves to keeping the memory of the kedoshim alive…and also to guarantee that no one will ever appropriate the vocabulary we ourselves taught them to say something unrelated to us and to our history.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


The bare details of the shooting last weekend in Tucson we surely all know by now. Nineteen people were shot, of whom six, including the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Arizona, a congressional aide, and a nine-year-old girl born on 9/11, died. Representative Gabrielle Gifford, seriously wounded but not killed, is said to be in relatively stable but still very precarious condition at a local hospital. The alleged shooter, a twenty-two year old man named Jared Lee Loughner, was arrested at the scene. Federal prosecutors have already charge him with five crimes including the attempted assassination of a member of Congress. Arizona prosecutors have announced their intention to charge him with the murder and the attempted murder of those of his alleged victims who were not federal employees. And yet the precise motive behind the massacre remains unknown. (The accused, probably acting in his own best interests, has invoked his right to remain silent.) Perhaps the President was right Wednesday evening when he suggested that we may never know what twisted thoughts prompted the Tucson rampage.

An almost endless series of essays and articles seemed to appear almost instantly in the press and on the internet, essays speculating about the shooter’s “real” motive or about who his “real” victim was intended to be, op-ed pieces wondering to what extent the vituperative rhetoric of American politics could be supposed to provide the “real” background to the crime, articles attempting to figure out what to make of the reading list the accused posted on his youtube page (a list that included Plato’s The Republic, Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, and Ayn Rand’s We the Living), speculative musing about the relationship of the various conspiracy theories to which the accused appears to have subscribed and his decision to commit murder on this scale, and editorials attempting to address the shooting in the context of Arizona’s gun culture. For Jewish readers, the story will have special resonance, of course, because Gabriel Zimmerman, the congressional aide who was killed, was Jewish and because Representative Gifford herself is a member of Congregation Chaverim, a Reform temple in Tucson. But although no specific evidence has surfaced to suggest that the shooter targeted Gabrielle Gifford or Gabriel Zimmerman specifically because he hated Jews, most Jewish observers will suppose almost naturally that anti-Semitism must surely have been lurking among whatever other motives the shooter had. That will turn out to be either true or not true. But for the moment, the accused is speaking only to Judy Clarke, the lawyer who is going to represent him in federal court.

But the specific take on the story I would like to write about today is related only tangentially to the shooter himself or to his victims. Clearly, it is not a good plan for mentally ill people or for people with past convictions for drug abuse to be permitted to purchase guns and ammunition, and for it not to be illegal for them to carry their weapons concealed on their persons in public. Whether Jared Lee Loughton turns out to be mentally ill, of course, remains to be seen. His drug convictions, on the other hand, are a matter of public record. Therefore, even if it turns out that he is not mentally unbalanced, the nation will still want to ask Arizona lawmakers exactly how it could possibly be sound public policy for people with documented histories of drug abuse to be permitted to carry concealed weapons, loaded or not. (Arizona, Alaska, and Vermont are the only states that permit individuals to carry concealed weapons without needing a permit to do so.) But the real question I’d like to write about has to do with the Second Amendment itself, the amendment that has been interpreted to mean that Americans have a basic right to possess firearms and that the government therefore needs a compelling reason to curtain that right or to infringe upon it.

The actual text of the Second Amendment appears at first blush to be talking about the right to bear arms in the context of the federal government being barred from banning the states from forming their own, fully-armed militias, but has traditionally been interpreted broadly rather than narrowly. (The actual text is brief and sounds relatively to the point: “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”) But whatever the framers of the Constitution had in their hearts when they made those words into the law of our land, the result of their work was to guarantee that American citizens would permanently be granted to possess firearms. And, indeed, the endless debate in our country about the reasonableness of gun control legislation has traditionally been framed precisely in terms of whether that right should be subject to limits based on the fear of crime or, as the ultimate guarantor of the freedom of the individual, whether it should be impervious to limitations based solely on fear.

The debate itself has its own interesting, and very long, history, pitting those who claim that the right to bear arms has led not to a more secure democracy but to the United States being the country with the highest number of people killed by people wielding guns in any developed country (almost 12,000 in 2004, the last year for which there appear to be reliable statistics, as opposed to 184 in Canada, 73 in England and Wales, 56 in Australia, and 37 in Sweden) against those who argue that the fundamental right of citizens to bear arms is precisely what makes our democracy secure against tyranny and thus a more, not less, safe place for its citizens. (Just for the record, the obvious problem in interpreting those statistics about gun deaths is that the populations of those countries are so different, there being, for example, about ten times as many American citizens as there are citizens of Canada. The homicide-by-gun rate per 100,000 people, however, is just as depressing: 4.07 for the U.S., 0.57 for Canada, 0.41 for Sweden, 0.28 for Australia, and a truly minuscule 0.12 for England and Wales.) The question of why forty times as many Americans per capita are killed with guns as English or Welsh people is its own interesting question, of course. But the deeper question brought to the fore by the Tucson shooting has far less to do with the differences between countries and more to do with the fundamental question of whether a death-by-gunshot rate like the one we have in our country is the price we must pay to be free citizens of a democracy that guarantees the civil rights of its citizenry absolutely, or whether it is merely indicative of a nation that has dressed up its own inability to safeguard its citizens to look more noble and less pathetic than it actually is.

For Jews the question has its own unsettling overtones, of course, overtones probably unintentionally stoked by Sarah Palin’s peculiar use of the phrase “blood libel” to describe the campaign of vilification she feels the media has been waging against her in the course of the past week. But even without former Governor Palin’s comments to goad us forward along this specific line of thinking, the history of anti-Semitic violence—a history that reached the level of attempted genocide during the lifetimes of many of you reading this—will be the background to any serious Jewish thinking about the issue of the right to bear arms. How different, for example, would or could things have been if the Jews of Vilna had been fully armed in 1941, or the Jews of Paris in 1942, or the Jews of Warsaw in 1943, or the Jews of Budapest in 1944? Would the Nazis have been able to overrun Holland in only five days had its citizens been armed? Would the collaborationists in France have had as free a hand to participate in the Nazi war against French Jewry if those Jews had been unwilling to go to the trains peacefully and had had the means to resist forcefully? You see where I’m going with this…but the real question, of course, does not have to do with what might have once been but with how things are in our country today. Surely, no one who interprets the Second Amendment broadly to mean that the ownership of guns should be restricted for only the most grave and most compelling reasons would justify that position by arguing that the alternative would eventually lead to the mass murder of American citizens by their own government!

In a sense, the debate has to do with the degree to which we really do think America is different. I think that. I think most of my readers think it as well. I know as much as any lay reader, so to speak, could about the Shoah, but I find it impossible to imagine anti-Semitism on that scale in this place leading to the kind of horrors the Jews of Europe faced seven decades ago. That our country has a long history of shameful discrimination to grapple with, including government-led initiatives that led to the deaths of countless thousands of Native Americans during the 1830s when whole tribes were forcibly deported from their own lands and their own homes and sent on thousand-mile-long death marches to unknown destinations in the west, is well known. But we have, as a nation, moved past that kind of rank discrimination as, one by one, laws in place for centuries have been replaced with legislation that guarantees the civil rights of all citizens without reference to race, religion, or ethnic origin. I suppose that by saying that I could be condemning myself to end up quoted in some twenty-third century textbook of Jewish history alongside all those German rabbis who preached to their congregants that Germany too was different, that the degree to which Jews were accepted and integrated into Germany culture and society both insulated and protected them from the prejudice of extremists, but I really do believe that our place in American society is made secure by our Constitution and also by our inclusionist national ethos, by our American disinclination to prejudge people unfairly, and by our American predilection for fairness in all things. Is American different? I think it is.

What we can all agree about, I believe, is that the level of gun violence we have come to accept as normal in our country should be considered intolerable. That citizens have a Constitutionally-based right to possess firearms cannot be undone and possibly even should not be undone. But surely we can all agree that there can be no sense of the personal liberty of peaceful citizens being infringed upon by a nation-wide effort to keep guns out of the hands of people who habitually use drugs or who have been convicted of violent crimes or who are mentally unbalanced or who have displayed depraved indifference in the past to the value of human life.

Carrying concealed weapons in public is not a guarantor of civil liberty but a recipe for disaster. Allowing people to purchase handguns without having to identify themselves or register their weapons is not an infringement against personal freedom but a way to enable criminals to acquire the tools of their trade without leaving a paper trail behind. The National Firearms Act, passed by Congress in 1934, seeks to regular private ownership of what were then called “gangster weapons,” such as hand grenades and machine guns. The Gun Control Act of 1968 sought to codify in federal law the precise categories of people who may not freely acquire firearms. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 put into place a national background check intended to prevent the sale of firearms to people forbidden to own them under the Gun Control Act. Taken all together, these three acts of Congress have at their heart the notion that there must be some rational, legal way to keep guns out of the hands of people who mean to use them to do harm or to commit crimes without infringing on the civil rights that the Constitution guarantees to all Americans. The job now is to take that concept and move forward with it as a nation to make ourselves safe by doing what it takes to keep guns away from people who wish to commit crimes or to participate in the political process by assassinating members of Congress.

Four of our presidents were murdered while in office, all of them shot to death by guns. That fact in and of itself should give us the impetus to find a way to safeguard our freedoms without putting guns in the hands of criminals.