Thursday, May 31, 2012

Justice for Africa

It is possible that some of us passed just a bit too quickly by the news regarding the fifty-year sentence handed down in the Hague on Wednesday to Charles McArthur Taylor, the former president of Liberia who earlier this spring was convicted of an extensive laundry-list of horror-crimes committed between 1996 and 2002 during the civil war in Sierra Leone, the country on the Atlantic coast of Africa to the northeast of Liberia. In that Taylor was the first former head of state to be convicted of war crimes by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials that followed the Second World War, it behooves us to take a careful look.

The list of crimes of which Taylor was found guilty—including murder, rape, punitive mutilation, enslavement (and particularly forcing women into sexual slavery), and conscripting children to serve in the military—only tells part of the story, however, because the tribunal was only considering crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, where 50,000 citizens died in the fighting, not crimes committed by Taylor and by men under Taylor’s command in his own country during the so-called Second Liberian Civil War, a conflict that eventually cost at least a quarter of a million Liberian citizens their lives.

It’s easy to wave it all away. Who even knows where these places are? If you had the good fortune to see the 2006 movie Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connolly, and set against the background of the civil war in Sierra Leone, then you know something about the events under discussion. If you had the infinitely greater good fortune, however, to read Ishmael Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, published by Sarah Crichton Books in 2008 (and of which used hardbound copies are currently available from for the price of exactly one penny), you will know a lot more. (In this regard, I should also mention the remarkable 2008 book, The Bite of the Mango, by Mariatu Kamara, in which the author, who miraculously survived the massacre of her village, describes the experience of being raped as a twelve-year-old only then to have her hands cut off by her attackers for the sole purpose of terrorizing the survivors, and particularly the women, into submission.) But for most of us—including most of everybody who didn’t read Beah’s book or Kamara’s, or who missed Blood Diamond, this will all seem impossibly distant both from our normal frames of reference and the regular scope of our interests. That, however, is not at all how I believe ordinary Americans such as ourselves should relate to these events and particularly to Taylor’s conviction and sentencing.

Liberia, most of us will recall having learned somewhere along the way, is the state in West Africa founded in 1847 by freed black American slaves supported by such American political luminaries as Henry Clay and President James Monroe who believed that the ultimate solution regarding slavery in America was not to emancipate the slaves and make of them American citizens but to repatriate the slaves back to Africa and support their efforts at self-government on their ancestral continent. (The 1816 founding of the American Colonization Society, devoted to fostering support for the repatriation movement and also known as The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, was one of the truly pivotal moments in the history of antebellum slavery. It’s a fascinating story too, one with profound implications for the subsequent history of race relations in America told in detail and with great authority by Eric Burin in his book, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society, published by the University of Florida Press in 2008.) Sierra Leone, most readers will know even less about. It’s right there between Liberia and Guinea, about as far south on its side of the Atlantic as Puerto Rico on the other, but it hardly looms large in the political awareness of most Americans. Home to about six million citizens and one of the world’s major sources of diamonds and gold, the country is nevertheless not at all a prosperous place in which a full 70% of the population lives in poverty. Together, Sierra Leone and Liberia occupy a corner of the world most Americans rarely think about and almost never visit. For most of us, West Africa and its exotically named countries are just…there.

Was Taylor truly evil or just crazy? The dignified man in a blue suit and a yellow necktie in the defendant’s box at the Hague on Wednesday certainly didn’t seem like an insane war criminal. Rather like Eichmann in Jerusalem, Taylor seemed like a mid-level bureaucrat, not at all like the kind of person who—according to testimony during the trial—once forced an aide to demonstrate his loyalty to his leader by eating a human heart, or who would order or authorize the intentional mutilation of children. But that, of course, is just the point: when divested of the political and military platforms that grant them their power over others, all of these types seem harmless because, finally impotent, they truly are powerless. Indeed, just as was the case in Jerusalem in 1962, the testimony itself—in Eichmann’s case specifically regarding the annihilation of Hungarian Jewry—seems beyond belief, and almost impossible to connect with the actual man on trial for crimes that for the vast majority of normal men and women would be unimaginable even to dream up, let alone to carry out. But that, I believe, is part of the lesson to be learned from contemplating Charles Taylor’s fall: that there is no bottom line to the evil regular men and women can devise and carry out when, loosed from their ethical moorings, they abandon all pretense at virtue or at moral decency. That was certainly true of Eichmann and, on a scale only smaller in terms of the final numbers of victims but not in terms of the savagery and depravity involved, it is also true of Charles Taylor. That, I believe, is the lesson to be learned from this week’s events in the Hague.

Taylor himself will soon enough be yesterday’s news. By prior agreement, he will be detained in Holland for as long as the appeals process drags on. (This, it was reported earlier in the week, could easily take a full year.) And then, assuming his conviction and his sentence are upheld, he will spend the rest of his life—he would have to live to be 114 years old to be set free in fifty years—in a British prison. So his story is as over, practically speaking and assuming the appeals process does not result in his conviction being overturned, as Eichmann’s was after his execution. From neither will the world hear again. But it is crucial, I believe, not only to recall their stories, but to insist that their legacy of crime and punishment be remembered not only by ourselves, but by our children and grandchildren as well.

It is encouraging that Taylor was tried by an international tribunal—the judges themselves came from Uganda, Ireland, and Samoa—because it only seems right that crimes committed on this scale, even though the victims in this specific case were citizens of one single country, should be considered crimes against humanity as a whole. The case currently being prepared at the International Criminal Court against Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Côte d’Ivoire now accused of a long list of inhuman acts including the rape and murder of civilians, is scheduled to move forward later this month. And the court has issued an arrest warrant for Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the sitting president of Sudan, for crimes committed against the civilian population in Darfur, where approximately 300,000 citizens have died and another two and a half million citizens have been dislocated in the fighting over these last years. All these are good things.

The International Criminal Court came into existence in 2002 as a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Although it is true that the United States voted against the Rome Statute of 1998 that established the court out of a sense that it would permit the prosecution of American citizens for alleged crimes committed on the territory of their own country and would thus constitute an infringement of those citizens’ civil right to be tried in an American court, then signed it anyway, then “unsigned” it, we should not dismiss the good the court has done to date. (Israel also “unsigned” the Rome Statute after signing it, as has Sudan.) Nor should we condemn the court’s work merely because it was created at an international conference proposed and sponsored by the United Nations, an organization with which it has, as far as I understand, only historical ties. In the case of Charles Taylor, a criminal with the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands was brought to justice, and that surely has to count for something! Perhaps, it strikes me, we have reached a reasonable compromise: the rights of American citizens to be free from the threat of prosecution by foreign bodies is safeguarded by our refusal to remain signatories to the Rome Accord and countries like Sierra Leone that acting on their own would never be able to bring a man like Taylor to justice have a court to which they can turn for justice. That doesn’t sound to me like such a bad outcome at all!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shavuot 2012

Shavuot begins Saturday evening. Our least famous “big” holiday, Shavuot lacks even a reasonable English name: Passover is pretty much exactly Pesach and Tabernacles is at least a bad translation of Sukkot (although, not knowing any nineteenth century preachers, I have never actually heard anyone call it that), but Shavuot doesn’t even have a bizarre English name for people not to call it by. The word shavuot means “weeks,” in biblical context a reference to the fact that the festival falls exactly seven weeks after Passover-Pesach, but who ever called the holiday Weeks? It was once customary in Christian circles to refer to Shavuot in English as Pentecost because that name, derived from the Greek word for “fifty,” seemed reasonably to refer to the fact that, there being forty-nine days in seven weeks, Shavuot indeed does fall on the fiftieth day after the first day of Passover. But the name Pentecost not only never caught on in this context but actually did catch on in an entirely different context to denote a Christian festival totally unrelated to Shavuot, one which falls on the day that a text in the New Testament Book of Acts marks as the day, exactly fifty days after the crucifixion, on which the spirit of prophecy descended on the disciples of Jesus. (To be more precise, “totally unrelated” is not entirely correct since, at least according to the simplest reading of the synoptic Gospels, the crucifixion took place on Passover. So the first Pentecost did indeed coincide with Shavuot. And the whole concept is clearly a reflex of an early impulse within the primitive church to make parallel the stories of the ancient Israelites and the new Christians, thus subtly to discover in Christendom the “true” Israel. Later, this denigratory impulse, existing on the boundary line between insulting and pernicious, became distinctly less subtle. But the festivals are otherwise totally unrelated. And since the church formally denounced and renounced the custom of fixing the date of Easter with reference to Passover at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 CE, Shavuot and Pentecost never coincide other than by rare coincidence.)

It’s a shame that we don’t focus more intently on Shavuot, because embedded in its story are worthy principles for Jewish people even today to embrace. The story, of course, is the Torah’s account of Israel at Sinai and the festival is traditionally understood to celebrate the day on which God spoke the words of the Ten Commandments aloud from atop the mountain. It’s a hard story to embrace unequivocally. Moderns tend to respond to it by asking if it is true. It’s a good question, but, regretfully, one that cannot be answered with anything like the kind of certainty modern historians attempt to bring to bear in their discussions of other legendary events and their evaluation of those events’ actual historicity. Of course, being unable scientifically to demonstrate that something happened does not necessarily imply that it didn’t happen, merely that it cannot be proven. And to suppose that events rooted in national memory are by definition exercises in wishful national thinking is not that defensible a line of thinking with respect to events so far back in time that their historicity is as really far more unprovable than merely unproven.

So we are left wondering…but perhaps that is the point: that the holiday is meant to engender wonder rather than frustration, engagement with the tale itself absent the natural skepticism moderns tend to bring to unverifiable stories. (Just to remain with this point for a moment, we grant events in our personal histories the weight of historicity without provability all the time almost without thinking about it at all. I have no way, nor is there any way nor could there be this far after the fact, to prove that my parents bought me a red Schwinn bicycle for my ninth birthday. No receipts were preserved. I have no idea where exactly my dad went to buy it. I have no parents to present as witnesses to the event. There is, I feel certain, no possibility of any of my friends who were present possibly remembering all these years later what my parents bought me for my birthday, nor could any of them prove it even if they did recall me getting that specific bicycle on that specific day. My parents, always for some reason averse to recording things for posterity, took no home movies. There are no still photographs either. But I feel absolutely certain the event occurred. I just can’t prove it. I remember the day clearly, possibly because it was also the day Adolf Eichmann was hanged. But for the nine-year-old me the bicycle was the thing, not the day’s news from Israel. I suppose historians could prove what happened in the Ramla prison that day. But my party exists, to the extent that it exists at all, within the confines of my own recollective consciousness and nowhere else.)

And so we are left not with home movies of the Israelites at Sinai, but with a single national memory preserved in Scripture and venerated for generations as something that truly happened. The details we all know. The Israelites, safe on the far side of the Sea of Reeds, travelled further into the desert until arrived at the mysterious mountain alternately referenced in Scripture as the Mountain of God, Mount Choreiv, and Mount Sinai. Here, they set up camp, then—after being instructed by Moses how exactly to prepare themselves—washed their clothes, kept apart from their spouses, and waited for God. And then, on the third day, God finally spoke. What he said we also all know. To believe in God. Not to worship idols. Not to take false oaths in God’s name. To keep shabbos. To be respectful towards our parents. Not to murder. Not to betray our spouses’ trust. Not to steal. Not to lie in court. Not to give ourselves over to obsessive acquisitiveness. Judging from the larger narrative, God intended to keep going through the rest of the commandments, but the people, overwhelmed and not sure how much more they could take, begged Moses to intercede, to receive the rest of the revelation personally and then to reveal it to them in a less emotionally super-charged moment. Moses agreed. God stopped talking. The Torah moves on to some other material, then opens its account of the Book of the Covenant that God then proceeded to reveal to Moses atop the mountain. And so we moderns are left with the story as told…and challenged to do with it what we will.

Forty years later, Moses was still talking about it. Speaking from the edge of his own life and looking back to Sinai, he is recorded as speaking directly to the Israelites of the new generation as though they themselves had been at the foot of the mountain on “the great day on which you…approached the foot of the mountain and stood there as the mountain was ablaze with fire that rose to the heart of heaven…but also with darkness, cloud, and fog. And then did the Eternal, your God, speak to you from the midst of the fire—permitting that you hear a voice speaking words but not that you see any image at all, only that you experience the Voice—telling you of [first] ten codicils of the divine covenant that God was present to bequeath directly to you, deigning even to write them down on two stone tablets. And it was at that time as well that the Eternal commanded me to teach you the statutes and laws and to inveigh upon you actually to obey them all in the land into which you are now crossing so as soon to acquire it as your own.”

There’s something hiding behind those words, something that can provide a gateway into our own observance of Shavuot. Moses was speaking to the new generation of Israelites gathered on the plains of Moab as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. Indeed, the whole point of the decades of wandering in the desert was precisely so that the original generation of Israelites, the ones who crossed the sea and actually stood at Sinai, would die out and be replaced by their own children. So the people to whom Moses was speaking as he prepared to die were specifically not the people who approached the foot of the mountain and stood there as the mountain was ablaze with fire rising to the heart of heaven. Yet Moses speaks to them as though they had been standing there all along. Later, even further along in his final remarks, Moses will make the idea explicit by noting that there stood at Sinai both those physically present and those physically absent. Who he meant to include in the latter group is a bit obscure in that passage, but the larger context makes the meaning clear: there were those who were physically present, but the subsequent generations of as-yet-unborn Israelites were present as well…not as actual men and women, but as the disembodied souls of a nation bundled up in the bond of life everlasting outside of time past, present, and future. And it was thus to those psychically present Israel as well that Moses addressed himself, including those who would only be born in the distant future. Perhaps that was just Moses’s ancient way of nodding to the reasonableness of events existing in the recollective consciousness of a nation long millennia after they retain any trace of historical verifiability: the events in his nation’s past, he seems to be saying, will also ever exist outside of the flow of moments, similar in that to the people whose history they will eventually constitute.

So the bottom line is to stop worrying and embrace the festival as it is. Our Torah exists. Our people exists. Our recollective consciousness certainly exists. (Along with arguing, the Jewish people has elevated the maintenance of ongoing national memory to an art form.) And Shavuot also exists, returning each year in the late spring to remind us to remember that if we were not among those physically standing at the foot of Sinai, then we were surely among those psychically present…at the mountain, in the moment, embedded in the events that more than slightly paradoxically would soon become the defining experience within history of an eternal people that exists outside of time.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Bravo Appelfeld!

The other day, Aharon Appelfeld, the 80-year-old Israeli author about whom I’ve written in this space several times now, became the oldest author ever to win the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. (The prize has that name because it was originally administered by The Independent, a British newspaper, and still called by that name even though it is now run by Booktrust, an independent British charity dedicated to promoting great books and encouraging reading in general.) He’s in very good company—a list of past nominees for the prize reads like a roster of some of my all-time favorite non-English-writing authors: Haruki Murakami, Alaa Al-Aswany, David Grossman, Amos Oz, Orhan Pamuk, even the late José Saramago (whose books I really did enjoy thoroughly until his extreme, one-sided anti-Israelism made it impossible for me to read his books neutrally or calmly).

The specific book for which Appelfeld won the prize was Blooms of Darkness, a novel I wrote to you at length about in October, 2010, comparing it there to Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. (If you are reading this electronically, you can find my comments here.) But today I’d like to write about the man’s larger body of work, and recommend his books to all of you more generally. Any who have yet to read one of his books are in for a rare treat. But those of you who have only read a few of his books should consider undertaking a read-through of the whole corpus (or rather, please God, the whole corpus to date). Appelfeld’s books are all short. His prose is spare, even in places austere. He has the uncanny ability, so rare in novelists (and yes, yes, even rarer in rabbis), to say more by saying less, always to remember that the deepest emotions can be stirred far more effectively with a feather than with a literary sledgehammer.

Appelfeld’s entire body of work is about the Shoah in one way or the other. He himself was a child survivor, having been born in Czernowitz, today part of Ukraine. When the Romanian army invaded in 1941, his mother was murdered. He and his father were deported to a concentration camp, but he somehow managed to escape almost immediately after arriving and, despite the fact that he was all of eight years old in 1941, managed somehow to survive in hiding for three years. Then, at age eleven, he somehow ended up working for the Red Army as a child cook. When the war finally ended, he was still not bar-mitzvah age. But he was old enough to be interned in a displaced persons camp in Italy, where he had a series of formative experiences about which he has written repeatedly and rivetingly. In 1946, he immigrated to Palestine, only then to learn that his father too had somehow survived. One of the holes in the story as related through his thirty-seven novels—as justifiable as it is lamentable—has to do with their eventual reunion in British Palestine: even after all these years, Appelfeld—whose 2003 autobiography, The Story of a Life, detailed his experiences during and after the war—has never written about their reunion. Nor, I suspect, will he ever. Some things, apparently, are beyond the written word. Perhaps it takes a writer of Aharon Appelfeld’s enormous talent to know where the edge of literary expressibility truly lies.

One of the features of Appelfeld’s writing that has spoken the most deeply to me personally over the years has been his repeated efforts to describe the Shoah through the eyes of children. As noted above, he himself was a child when he lived through his own wartime experiences. In a sense, his body of literary work could be characterized as an extended midrash on that detail, on what it could possibly mean for a child to witness what adults themselves found and find unfathomable. It is that specific aspect of his writing that I’d like to write about today.

Blooms of Darkness is about a child, probably not unlike the author, whose middle class existence within the Jewish community of a large European city abruptly ends with the onset of the war. His father disappears, but just as any eleven-year-old would, Hugo lacks the insight into the larger picture to understand the true scope of the disaster that has befallen his people and his city and his family. His mother, frantic with worry, embarks on a complicated crusade to find a Gentile—any Gentile at all—who will risk his or her life to hide her little boy from his would-be murderers. One plan after another falls through, but then she somehow comes into contact with a childhood friend, a Ukrainian woman named Mariana, who agrees to harbor the boy. What Hugo’s mother appears not fully to understand—although we never find out if that really is the case or if she just wills herself not to know, or perhaps not to care—is that Mariana is not only a prostitute, but one who lives (and not merely works) in a brothel, the exclusive clients of which are now German soldiers. Hugo can pass, however. He speaks Ukrainian. He looks enough like he could possibly be Mariana’s nephew for the subterfuge plausibly to work. In any event, he never leaves her bedroom, never steps outside, remains as still as possible for most of the day. He doesn’t move around. He barely breathes. As the months pass, and then the years, Mariana becomes all of Hugo’s world. But his presence becomes an important factor in her life as well, and she too grows dramatically because of their relationship. As Hugo approaches puberty, his feelings undergo just the kind of complicated metamorphosis that you would expect would characterize a boy growing to maturity with no friends around with whom to compare notes (and, indeed, with no male companions of any sort), no parents, and only a single woman as his friend and mentor. And then the war ends, the Germans flee, the Red Army occupies the town…and begins its concerted effort to root out collaborators, specifically including all women who granted comfort to the enemy during the occupation.

At the end of the book, Hugo is all alone in the world. His friends are all gone. His parents are gone. Marina herself too is gone, never to return. Somehow, Hugo comes to realize that the prison by the front gate of which he has been waiting for Marina to emerge is not actually that far from his parents’ old apartment. And so he embarks on a walk to his old home, the description of which has to be one of the finest, most moving pieces of writing about the Shoah I’ve ever read, one as overwhelming as it is understated.

Appelfeld could not have deserved his prize more. But there are others of his books to recommend to you as well. All Whom I Have Loved, published in 1999 in Hebrew and then in 2007 in English translation, is the story of a nine-year-old boy, Paul Rosenfeld. The book is set in 1938. Little Paul’s parents are divorced and, soon enough, they are both dead: his mother of typhus (after being abandoned by her second husband, a Gentile who seems to represent the false promise of security vaguely offered to the Jews of Europe by modernity itself) and his father shot down while trying to prevent the robbery of a Jewish shop. And then, like Hugo, little Paul is alone in the world, facing unimaginable events without anything even remotely like the perspective necessary to interpret them.

Appelfeld’s description, then, of an orphaned child facing a cataclysm the dimensions of which he cannot even begin to fathom becomes the author’s model for conceptualizing the situation of European Jewry in 1938. These books are painful to read, obviously. But they are also endlessly illuminating, thus also deeply satisfying. In an interview in the Israeli newspaper Globus in 2007, Appelfeld said “I have written forty books and every single one is part of the story of my own life. All my books are linked to each other and differ only in that they explore different corners of my own history.” The little boys in all these books, then, are the author. And, of course, they are also all of us….grown-up children, trying to fathom the unfathomable and nevertheless to find a place in the world in which to flourish.

Not all of Appelfeld’s “children” are boys. A third book worth mentioning is Tzili, the story of a young girl in war-torn Europe. When the front approaches her home, her parents run off and leave her to guard the house. When she herself flees, there begins a serious of adventures that form the core of the narrative: her stay with an aging prostitute named Katerina who is capable of kindness but also of great cruelty to her basically unwanted visitor, her subsequent stay with a family of peasants who see nothing wrong with beating her for the slightly infraction of their family’s rule, her encounter with a Jewish man named Mark who has escaped from one of the camps and with whom Tzili finally finds love (and pregnancy, which ends in miscarriage) but who eventually leaves her, and finally her aliyah to British Palestine on a ship packed full of rootless, identiless people like herself who can only hope that they will find in each other’s company the companionship, understanding, and security the world has never really offered any of them. It’s the rare male author who can write of a woman’s journey to adulthood like this. Men and women are similar, obviously, in many ways. But it is precisely the ways in which they differ that constitute the greatest challenge for any author attempting to write someone else’s story when that someone is of the opposite gender. Appelfeld, I think, gets Tzili Kraus down perfectly, though, writing about her coming of age—and specifically the onset of menstruation and her first attempts to understand physical love—in a way that stays with me still, even though I read the book fifteen years ago. The sign of a truly great author, after all, lies precisely in the ability to make of every character in every book some sort of literary midrash of his or her own psyche and nevertheless for the description of them as men and women in their own right to ring perfectly true. And it is that specific talent that, in my opinion, constitutes Appelfeld’s greatest gift.

One final book I’d like to write about, also about a young person, is Laish. Set outside of time, this peculiar—but ultimately very satisfying—novel reads like an extended fable. Laish is a boy of fifteen, an orphan who has somehow ended up as part of a caravan of Jews shlepping through Eastern Europe on their way to Jerusalem, where they are convinced they will find the solutions to all of their problems and the cures of all of their physical and psychological illnesses. On the way, they are beset by endless woes. Some are pious students of Torah whose lives, even under the worst circumstances, are bounded by prayer and ritual. Some of them are scurrilous criminals whose daily lives are given over to violence, extortion, and theft. Some are their resigned victims. And still others are idiots who cannot really fathom the point of the journey, yet who seem unable simply to give up and settle where they are. No towns are given names; we never really know where these people are or what year this is. All we learn is that they are following a river, the Prut, because they believe it will take them to Palestine, to Jerusalem. (The Prut is a real river that, beginning in the Carpathian Mountains, traveling along the border between Romania and Moldova, and eventually emptying into the Danube, most certainly does not lead to the Middle East.) Laish speaks for himself, but he also narrates for the others; this is a first-person narrative about a young man telling his own story by telling other people’s stories. Alternately violent and soothing, the point of the book is to describe the journey of the Jewish people itself towards salvation, towards Israel. At first feeling at sea, readers—or at least Jewish readers—will eventually find themselves in the book as they realize that one of the traveler’s portraits mirrors his or her own life story more than slightly. But, like all great novels, this is as much a book about the human condition as it is specifically about the people whose story it reveals. I recommend it highly: for a novel that overtly has nothing to do at all with the Holocaust, Laish is nevertheless an exceptionally powerful contribution to Shoah literature because within its pages lies a portrait of European Jewry on the eve of destruction that both could not be less flattering and yet somehow which also draws readers in and invites them to travel along with this motley crew of thieves, rabbis, and children on their way to the future of the Jewish people on the other side of an abyss none of them can see and which surely none of them could ever begin even remotely to imagine.

There are a lot of other books by Aharon Appelfeld I could recommend. The Healer, The Iron Tracks, Badenheim 1939, and Age of Wonders come to mind. (Age of Wonders I would like especially to recommend as one of Appelfeld’s true tours de force, a comment on Jewish reality that no one who reads will ever forget). Appelfeld has won all his awards—the Israel Prize, the Bialik Prize, the Prix Médicis in France, the National Jewish Book Award here in the U.S., the Nelly Sachs Prize in Germany—so, at least in a sense, this last one is just a bit more icing on the man’s cake. But it is also satisfying to see one of our greatest authors, now a full half-century into his career, still being recognized for his work both inside and outside Israel. We should all be proud! If any of you has yet to start reading through the oeuvre, this is surely the right moment to begin.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Evolving Politicians and Rabbis

Just as were many of you, I’m sure, I was caught off-guard by the president’s almost off-hand announcement the other day that he has come to believe that same-sex couples should have the right to get married. And that, for a few different reasons. First of all (and also, I’m sure, like many of you), I suppose I supposed that the president’s comments not two years ago to the effect that his views on same-sex marriage were “evolving,” was polito-speak for “Don’t ask me that question again, because I won’t answer it anyway”. So I was intrigued by the revelation that the president actually meant it, that his ideas apparently were evolving, that he apparently did continue to feel himself engaged by the concept as his personal thinking on the matter developed in new directions. Second, who could have foreseen that the president would announce the final evolution of that line of his thinking before, rather than after, the coming election? Aren’t politicians supposed to be vague and non-committal about contentious, potentially divisive issues when the alternative—speaking out clearly and unambiguously—could easily involve paying a serious political price? What’s happening to American politics? Thirdly, it feels amazing that the vice president, who addressed the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Atlanta earlier this week (I was present and in attendance) without mentioning his remarkable comment of one day earlier regarding his own support for the concept of same-sex marriage, got to go first. Isn’t that specifically not how it works? Don’t vice presidents always follow their leaders when it comes to the announcement of major policy shifts? (Or was the idea just to make sure that the earth didn’t actually open up and swallow Vice President Biden when he made public his support for the concept, or when US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, an even less likely candidate for the role of presidential trial balloon, did? I suppose that could have been the plan, but that too feels out of character for the president who seems generally more than able to speak for himself.)

It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as an election ploy. According to a Gallup poll released before the president’s announcement, more Americans favor same-sex marriage than oppose it. (The numbers were 50% for and 48% against. By comparison, the numbers when President Clinton was running for his second term in 1996 were 27% in favor and 68% opposed. So it is clearly not only the president whose thinking has been evolving, but the citizenry’s as well. And the numbers along party lines are also very interesting: 65% of registered Democrats and 57% of independents in favor, but, in some ways even more noteworthy, 22% of Republicans, almost one in four, also in favor.) So you could just wave the whole thing off as an election-year ploy to lure some uncommitted independent voters and the odd registered Republican into the president’s camp. Nor is it entirely beside the point that the federal government is not itself in the marriage business, which, practically speaking, means that the president’s announcement will not mean much practically to same-sex couples living in states in which same-sex marriage is not permitted. And there are a lot of them. Same-sex marriage only is permitted in six states, including New York, and in the District of Columbia. And thirty-two states have either passed laws or altered their constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage within their borders. (Six of those states, however, have only banned same-sex marriage per se, not the registration of same-sex unions under some other name.)

It doesn’t feel to me like an election ploy, however. For one thing, voters in North Carolina, a key swing state, voted just last Tuesday overwhelmingly to add to their state constitution an amendment banning both same-sex marriage and civil unions between gay citizens and I have to assume that the president’s announcement is not going to play well with the 61% of the voters in that state who voted that proposition into law. That there will be a serious political price that the president will now have to pay for his forthrightness, therefore, goes without saying. But there will also be political gains, so the real question is how to balance the potential losses and gains out to determine if the president has acted in his own favor or to his political detriment. Surely, though, it can never be a bad plan, including (especially) for politicians, to speak out openly and frankly about how they feel on contentious matters facing the people they wish to represent, to say where they stand, and openly to have the courage of their own convictions.

Like the president’s until recently, my own thinking on the matter of same-sex marriages has also been evolving over the years. I have written twice before in this space about the reasonableness of treating gay citizens fairly and equitably in the civil arena. Some readers took issue with some of what I said, but I believed then and continue to believe now that it is never in the best interests of society—and to speak from the more narrow perspective, it is never ever in the best interests of the Jewish community—to condone the discriminatory treatment of minority groups within society when that discrimination cannot be justified rationally and logically. To use the example I gave when I wrote on the topic last, no one thinks it is unjust that we discriminate against blind persons by denying them driver’s licenses! But to compare the right of gay citizens to marry, to form monogamous unions recognized under the law as indissoluble other than by legal decree, to live in dignified family units recognized as such by the various levels of government that control crucial aspects of all of our lives—to describe that kind of prejudicial treatment of gay citizens as no less justifiable than not allowing blind people to drive cars seems to me beyond irrational. I wrote that then and I think it now: it seems impossible to say that we, speaking as a nation, wish for all citizens to live in dignified, stable, faithful, loving relationships sanctioned by law and then to deny by law that exact right to a significant portion of the populace based on the deeply personal question of whether the gender of their chosen partners matches or does not match their own. So with respect to the issue from a civil point of view, my thinking has not really changed much since I first wrote about the matter to you.

From a religious point of view, however, my thinking has indeed evolved. As mentioned above, I was in Atlanta earlier this week attending the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. The convention itself was the usual mix of things—nice hotel, great davening, horrible food (and such small portions!), terrific sense of professional comradeship and warm fellowship—but the highpoint for me, other than attending the reception honoring me personally for my work in the rabbinate over these last three decades and particularly for my work on The Observant Life, was attending a session offered by Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, my alma mater.

Rabbi Nevins, who cannot possibly have known his remarks would precede the president’s by one single day, spoke about a proposal he, Rabbi Avram Reisner, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff are bringing to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the highest legal body within the Conservative Movement, later this month regarding the possibility of Conservative clergy officiating at same-sex marriages. I have the proposal in front of me as I write and, although there are many questions I have about specific details in what they have written, the overall sense I came away with after reading it carefully now several times through—that the time truly has come to act in a principled, halakhically reasonable way to treat gay people not as pariahs, but as fully invested members of the Jewish community whose presence is not begrudgingly tolerated but actively encouraged—was as encouraging as it was palpable.

Working within the limits of tradition and attempting only to be just and kind, these three rabbis—all of them friends of mine for many, many years—have attempted to create a version of marriage that would suit same-sex couples. They have not tampered with the Torah’s arayot laws delimiting human sexual conduct. Nor have they redefined marriage itself in any fundamental way. Instead, they have gently sought to find a way to sanctify the relationship between same-sex couples who are prepared—in exactly the same way as are heterosexual couples who choose to marry—to commit formally and absolutely to live out their lives by each other’s sides and fully devoted to each other’s welfare.

I was impressed. I am impressed. Elliot Dorff is one of the great intellectual lights of American Judaism, a man I feel beyond honored to call my friend, my mentor, and my teacher. Avi Reisner is one of our brightest lights, a creative, innovative thinker whose work in medical ethics has informed our decision making process about some of life’s most important issues not for years now but for decades. Danny Nevins, as noted, works at the helm of the JTS Rabbinical School and thus personally bears the burden of training the men and women who will serve our Jewish community as its spiritual leaders for decades into the future. Together, they represent a troika of dedicated, intelligent leaders whose work cannot be waved away as frivolous or negligible merely because it would have been unimaginable when I began my career in the rabbinate thirty-four years ago. Whether the CJLS will adopt their proposal, I have no way of knowing. How my colleagues in the rabbinate will respond to its acceptance or rejection I also obviously cannot say. But, like I suspect the president also must have felt in the days leading up to his announcement, there are moments when invoking tradition to work at cross-purposes with what we ourselves say we wish for our country or for our people simply stops making sense. If we truly believe that the Torah calls all Jewish people forward to sanctify life through the establishment of monogamous unions, through the raising and educating of Jewish children, and through the principled intertwining of lovers’ souls, then it seems beyond peculiar to turn away from the possibility, finally before us, of broadening the circle to include those traditionally left on the outside merely because doing so involves innovative, creative thinking.

I felt more proud than ever to self-identify as a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi after listening to Rabbi Nevins speak. I will write again about this topic after the CJLS issues its decision later this spring.

Friday, May 4, 2012

West Bank Story

I’m sure many of you saw the article in the paper the other day noting that the United Methodist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, debated and debated and finally voted against divesting itself from (which is to say, refusing to do business with or invest in) any American companies that it perceives as being somehow related to, and thus at least nominally supportive of, Israel’s presence on the West Bank, a group that includes such giants Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola. In a sense, the Methodists were only following a recent trend. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, this country’s largest Lutheran denomination, voted just last year for a second time to reject this kind of politically-motivated divestment policy. In 2006, the Presbyterian Church USA rescinded its vote of two years earlier calling for divestment. (The issue is scheduled to be revisited yet again at this year’s convention at the end of June, however.) Just recently, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Reverend Katharine Schori, came out personally against divestment and boycott calls aimed specifically and solely at companies deemed supportive of Israel.

On the other hand, the largest Protestant church in Canada, the United Church of Canada, released a report earlier this week calling for an economic boycott of Israel focused on products produced in what the report referenced as “illegal” settlements, in which category the report includes not only the handful of settlements that Israel actually deems illegally to have been built on West Bank of the Jordan but also sections of Jerusalem comprising neighborhoods that are home today to almost 200,000 Jewish Israelis. (What Jesus of Nazareth would have said to the notion that he and his family, were they alive today, could reside legally in certain Jerusalem neighborhoods but only illegally in others was left unexplored in the report.) The language used to announce the publication of the report was beyond vituperative. The chairman of the group that composed the report, the Very Reverend David Giuliano, himself a former head of the United Church, referred openly to Israel’s presence on the West Bank as a crime, then moved on from there to draw the natural conclusion that buying goods produced by Israelis living on the West Bank would be no different than buying stolen goods from any thief. So far, the report represents only the opinion of its authors, not official church policy. But the report will be considered and then either adopted or rejected by the church’s General Council in August.

I’ve shied away from discussing the whole issue of settlements on the West Bank in the past, partially because the issue itself is so contentious and partially because
I myself am of mixed feelings in its regard. For some reason, however, hearing a former moderator of the United Church of Canada openly label Jewish people living in the heartland of the Jewish homeland as criminals merely because of their existence in that place has moved me to express myself nevertheless.

There is, of course, lots to say about Israel’s presence on the West Bank. There are even lots of cogent reasons to feel strongly that Israel would only be serving its own best interests by withdrawing from most of the West Bank and permitting a Palestinian state to grow to maturity in that place and thus to take its peaceful place in the family of nations. But the point that most of the columnists and politicians, including any number of American political figures, seem never quite to seize is that the real issue is not whether the West Bank should or should not be part of some future Palestinian state, but whether it exists at all in any truly meaningful way.

The notion that the West Bank is a single parcel of real estate that can be discussed in terms of its history and its future is itself not part of our biblical heritage, nor was it ever part of the political reality of the Middle East. If anything, the Bible presents the ancient Israelites puzzled over the future of the lands on the east bank of the Jordan, not its western bank. (In the end, Moses permits the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and part of the tribe of Manasseh, to settle on the East Bank on the condition that they nonetheless participate fully in the conquest of the lands across the Jordan, which they are depicted as not only willing but eager to do.) But the notion that there was or is some sort of meaningful distinction between the lands currently collectively designated as “the West Bank” and the rest of the Land of Israel is not only geographically meaningless, but also historically without any sort of precedent or foundation. For better or worse (and I mean that literally), the lands in question are the heartland of Israel. Its major cities—Hebron, Jerusalem, Shechem (called Nablus by the Arabs), Bethlehem, and Jericho—are the settings for the most famous incidents in Israelite history to such an extent that it seems forced and artificial not to take God’s promise of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people as their eternal patrimony to refer almost specifically to the lands today collectively called the West Bank. And that, I believe, is the crux of the problem. I would like to think of people—and particularly people who earn their living by preaching the Bible as the word of God—who blithely use the language of criminality to describe the presence of Jewish people living in the heartland of the Jewish homeland as more naïve than truly malign. But in my heart that is not at all what I think. Nor do I think it is what most people who study the matter dispassionately would conclude.

In the end, the Jewish claim to the West Bank is no different—no stronger and no weaker, and no more or less historically real—than the Jewish claim to the land under Tel Aviv or Beersheva. It may well turn out to be politically expedient, therefore reasonable, for Israel to relocate its citizens from their legal homes on the West Bank—legal in the sense that the territory was and is on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line that ended the 1967 war and no peace treaty, not with Jordan and not with the Palestinians, has ever replaced the original cease fire agreement brokered by the United Nations and accepted by the parties to the conflict—but that does not make the land in question any less a part of the Jewish homeland than any other part. More to the point is the ominous sense I get that the argument to the effect that the settlements on the West Bank are criminally illegal is merely the thin side of a deeply anti-Jewish wedge, the mere precursor to the far greater and more momentous “discovery” to follow that there is something illegitimate and unlawful about Jews living anywhere at all in the Land of Israel. In the end, it might well end up making sense for Israel to cede those lands to the Palestinians. In a certain real sense, the Palestinians are already in control. (Just to muddy the waters a bit, I might pause here to ask the Rev. Giuliani why, even if we were to accept the ahistorical notion that the West Bank somehow isn’t part of the Jewish homeland, it should be a crime for Jews to live there when it is considered entirely legal and normal for Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, to live in Israel proper. Or is that merely the childish argument of someone who hasn’t yet fully internalize the principle that the same rules that apply to other peoples never apply to Jewish Israelis?) It is true that the area also remains under Israeli military control. But that is just how things are when a war ends and no peace treaty is subsequently signed: things stay as they are. That, in and of itself, is merely unfortunate. But the deeper and more upsetting question to ponder is what truly is motivating these people so full of the need for their churches (or food co-ops or universities) to divest from companies doing business with Israelis living legally in the Land of Israel.

I am neither a fundamentalist nor a fanatic defender of the inerrancy of the biblical text. If anything, I think of myself as a political realist and I really do believe fully that things change with the passing for centuries, that the rules that applied millennia ago in King David’s day, or in Moses’s, cannot simply be applied to today’s world without any accommodation to political reality. I’m all for political realism! But I can’t keep myself from wondering how churches founded on the word of God, on the Bible and its foundational promise of the Jewish homeland to the Jewish people, can find it in themselves to divest themselves of their own heritage, to turn their back on God’s own sworn pledge of the Land of Israel to the people Israel, and to preach to the world that Jews who live in the “wrong” parts of Jerusalem are not merely behaving politically inexpediently, but criminally so. The solution to there being no peace in the Middle East is for there to be peace in the Middle East. The solution to the thorny dilemma of Jews living in a future Palestinian state is for the Palestinians to adjust to the concept. The solution to the lack of Palestinian resolve to move forward, to sign a treaty with Israel, and to accept the Israelis as neighbors and as partners is for the Palestinians to move forward, to sign a treaty, and to accept the Israelis as neighbors and partners…and then to accept that the point of a two-state solution is neither to dump the Arab citizens of Israel across the border in future Palestine nor to shove the Jews of the West Bank over the line into Israel proper, but for both sides to the conflict to live in peace…which means learning to live with the presence of each other’s people on lands both people claim as their own.