Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

And so…another Thanksgiving. And another Chanukah too. Like most of you, I get the part about Thanksgiving and Chanukah never having coincided before because the last time they could have was two years before President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, but don’t quite seize the part about the next time Chanukah and Thanksgiving coinciding being in the eight hundredth century. (More precisely, most of the e-mails I have received on the topic—and they are legion—indicate that the specific year in which the two holidays will next coincide will be 79,811 C.E.) What life will be like 77,798 years in the future, who knows? Will people be e-mailing back and forth to each other about how long it’s been since Chanukah coincided with Thanksgiving back in the twenty-first century? Will there still be e-mail? Will there still be Thanksgiving? Will the human race somehow have managed neither to annihilate itself nor to make the planet too cold or too hot or too inarable to support human life? It’s hard to know. A century seems like a long time. Ten centuries seems like a really long time. 778 centuries seems like a really, really, really long time. One thing I think we can all agree upon: whoever’s left to comment on the vagaries of the Jewish calendar in the eight hundredth century, it won’t be me or anyone reading this today! And yet…for some inexplicable reason it seems to matter. A little, at least. To me, at least. And, I’m guessing, to some of you all as well!

Thanksgiving and Chanukah actually go together quite well, and not merely because the Hebrew words for “turkey” and “give thanks” (as in the psalm: “Give thanks to God, for God’s mercy endureth forever”) are the same word. (More exactly, they’re both homophones and homographs—which is to say that they are pronounced and spelled the same way—without actually being the same word.)  Both are times that evoke a national sense of gratitude, that strengthen a people’s sense of itself as a nation under God. And both are family-oriented holidays that imagine the family as the nation writ small, and that encourage on the micro-level (that is, the level of the family, the most basic of all societal building blocks) the celebration of sentiments that mirror the large-scale feelings reflected in the national narrative that serves the festival as its ideational backdrop.  I wrote in the synagogue’s November bulletin about the specific way I understand the triple interplay between Chanukah, Thanksgiving, and Sukkot, so I won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the emotions that the strange intertwining of Thanksgiving and Chanukah—my favorite American holiday and my children’s favorite Jewish holiday—are stirring up in me as we make our forward through this wet, weather-weird November—it is thirty degrees warmer outside as I write this than it was at this time two days ago—and its festivities.

The odd concatenation of America’s most spiritual secular holiday and Judaism’s most secular spiritual holiday feels tailor-made to call us to contemplate the way our Jewish and American identities converge and diverge as we decide how we feel about the agreement between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group (the latter comprising China, Russia, France, Germany, the U.K. and our own country) signed last weekend in Geneva. The terms are complicated in terms of detail, but simple enough in terms of their overall thrust: Iran will freeze certain key parts of its nuclear development plan and the West will relax, but only to a certain degree, the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiation table in the first place. President Obama praised the agreement as “an important first step.” And surely it is just that: a first step. But is it a step in right direction? If by this time next year a final agreement is in place that permanently ends Iran’s potential to acquire nuclear weapons, then the interim detail signed last weekend will be a mere footnote to a much longer story. On the other hand, if it becomes clear that no real agreement will ever be signed and that the whiff of cooperation between Iran and the West that the most optimistic among us are already claiming to be able to sniff in the wind turns out to be nothing more than a bit of sweetly-scented smoke, then the interim agreement just signed will also be quickly forgotten as just one more hopeful moment that came to nothing when the time came for Iran actually to agree to give up its nuclear pretentions. That being the case, the real question to ask as we ponder the recent events in Geneva is whether this interim accord makes a final deal more likely.

Senator Schumer clearly doesn’t think so. Neither does Senator Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said the other day that he thinks the correct way to exploit the Iranians’ sudden willingness to negotiate a deal is to increase the sanctions imposed on their country as a way of guaranteeing their compliance with the interim agreement. And neither do any number of other senators and representatives, both Republicans and Democrats alike. On the other hand, a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week yielded the result that 44% of Americans supported the deal reached in Geneva, while half that many, 22%, opposed it. What the other 34% of the citizenry thinks, the poll did not reveal.Given the Iranian leadership’s ongoing use of the language of annihilation and extermination to describe its hopes for the future of Israel and its shameless willingness to question aloud whether Israel’s leaders are fully human, it is impossible for people such as myself to consider these issues other than with reference to the Shoah. We never grow tired of mocking Neville Chamberlain for his willingness to hand over somebody else’s country to the Nazis in a vain attempt to reach some sort of understanding with the German leadership while there was, he thought, possibly still time to dissipate the clouds of war already gathering on the horizon. In retrospect, of course, it hardly takes a military genius to realize that the “correct” way to deal with the Nazis would have been years earlier when it might still have been possible militarily to bring the Nazi regime to its knees before it began to act on its grandiose fantasies of world domination. In the end, though, all the Munich Agreement did was buy the Nazis time. Is that how generations to come will think of the Geneva Interim Agreement? Or is the interim agreement nothing more than a tentative step forwards towards a future that specifically does not feature a nuclear Iran?

Let’s think more about Munich. The specific issue on the table was the question of whether the world could or could not live with a German annexation of the part of Czechoslovakia inhabited mostly by German-speakers. There was no question of whether this region was or was not part of Czechoslovakia. The boundaries were completely clear—this was specifically not a boundary dispute that able cartographers could have possibly resolved—but the Germans wished for things to be otherwise and threatened to go to war to achieve the annexation of property they wished to become part of Germany. That was what the Munich Conference was about formally. But what it was really about had nothing to do with the German-speaking population of the so-called Sudetenland at all and was far more about the intense desire of France and the United Kingdom not to go to war with Germany, not as each other’s ally and certainly not alone. Purchasing “peace in our time” with other people’s freedom seemed like a good deal…for the signatories to the agreement, which included France, Britain and Italy but not (of course) Czechoslovakia. (There is a reason the Munich Agreement is called by the Czechs, even today, the Munich Betrayal, the Mnichovská zrada.)  Is Israel’s absence from the table in Geneva simply the latter-day equivalent of the absence of any representatives of the Czechoslovak government at the table in Munich? Phrasing the question sharpens the issue nicely. But is it just or fair?

During the height of the Cold War, American policy towards the Soviet Union was rooted in the understanding that there simply was no way the Russians ever would, or even could, “unlearn” the way to construct a nuclear arsenal. That being the case, the only rational way to make the world safe was to pursue a policy of mutual containment that would simply make the price too high for either side ever to contemplate undertaking a nuclear attack against the other side. Obviously, the best of all solutions to Soviet belligerency would have been for the good guys to be the ones with the guns. That not being feasible, we went for Plan B—second best, to be sure, but workable and reasonable. And it worked. The Cold War remained cold. Both sides possessed the ability to annihilate the other, but neither did…and precisely because neither side could do so without risking its own future existence. Because winning a war that entailed the annihilation of one’s own country seemed like somewhat of a pyrrhic victory, no one selected that option. 

Iran, as far as anyone knows, does not possess nuclear weapons. There is, therefore, no need for Plan B. Yet. We do not need to fall back on a policy of mutual assured destruction because, at least so far, only one side has the ability fully to annihilate the other. It should, therefore, be possible to create a future that does not entail Iran acquiring nuclear weapons that could easily end up in the hands of the various terror organizations Iran sponsors. Although I see President Obama’s point that small steps in the right direction are better than no steps at all, I do not see how handing over seven billion dollars to Iran in exchange for their promise not to move forward with their nuclear program in a meaningful way is going to lead us anywhere good. Perhaps I would be more sanguine if the task of supervising Iranian compliance hadn’t been handed to, of all institutions, the United Nations, an organization whose implacable hostility to Israel has its own long history and about the trustworthiness of which I could not feel any less secure. In the end, the question on the table is simply whether Geneva is Munich.These are the questions that I am bringing with me this year to the Thanksgiving table. 

And they are the ones that I can already hear ringing in my ear as I sing everybody’s favorite Chanukah hymn, Maoz Tzur. It’s a very old hymn, Maoz Tzur, one written in thirteenth century Germany as the Jews of the Rhineland were trying to contextualize the horrific massacres perpetrated by the Crusaders on their way to “liberate” the Holy Land.  It has six stanzas, each one devoted to another effort to annihilate the Jewish people in a different epoch and to the miraculous way that, despite the foe’s best efforts, the Jewish people survived the onslaught as one by one their enemies vanished from the world stage. Pharaoh’s armies drowned in the sea. The Babylonians, in their day the world’s greatest superpower, disappeared. The Syrian Greeks whose persecution of the Jewish people led to the Maccabean revolt that Chanukah memorializes vanished so completely that today even the name of their empire is unknown to almost anyone. So too did vanish the Roman Empire, even after doing their worst and destroying the Temple and the Holy City.  The poet imagined that the same fate would await the Crusaders who wreaked such havoc in his own day, and who with almost unimaginable cruelty slaughtered so many innocents.  And, indeed, the Crusader kingdoms in the Middle East are so long gone that it comes as a surprise to most non-experts to learn that they even existed! I have to think the same fate will await the enemies of Israel today, including the rulers of Iran. They seem to have endless amounts of money to finance their efforts to make real their rhetoric. They are certainly dedicated to entering the nuclear age one way or the other. But, in the end, their threats will dissipate as their day comes and goes, just as history shows again and again to be the fate of all who go to war with the people Israel.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fifty Years On

It was a Friday in 1963 as well. I know where I was. Unless we are too young to have been anywhere in 1963, we all know where we were. Specifically, I was in Mrs. D’Antona’s fifth grade classroom in P.S. 196, located then as now on 113th Street in Forest Hills overlooking the Grand Central Parkway. We had finished with lunch and recess was over; it was early afternoon and we were back in class. Our principal, Mr. Abraham Tauschner, suddenly appeared at the door with his assistant principal, Mrs. Natke, in tow. This was highly unusual. Mrs. D’Antona, responding to the unusualness of the moment, left us unattended for a moment and stepped out in the hall. When she came back, her face was ashen. We were, she said almost inaudibly, to close our books, to pack up for the day, and quietly to assemble in the auditorium where Mr. Tauschner was going to talk to us. I remember this like it was yesterday, just as I remember coming home from Hebrew School the following Sunday to find my parents still in shock after having watched—after actually having watched on live television—Jack Ruby murder Lee Harvey Oswald in a Dallas police station. I was ten years old. Even at that age, I think I can remember feeling the earth shifting beneath my feet.

John Kennedy was not our only American president to be assassinated. (To that club belong as well Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. And another thirteen, including every president since Kennedy’s day, were only not killed in office because they escaped credible attempts on their lives.) Nor was JFK the only president with a beautiful wife or with a family fortune behind him. And although Kennedy is to this day the only American president ever to have been awarded a Purple Heart after being injured in battle, there were many American presidents who served in the military with great distinction. (George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower come to mind first, but twenty-six of our forty-three presidents served in the Armed Forces of the United States other than as Commander-in-Chief.) So why is it that Kennedy’s death became the watershed moment in the nation’s unfolding sense of itself and its destiny that it clearly did become? That is the question I find myself pondering as I ponder the fiftieth anniversary of the president’s death.

Partially, I suppose it has to do with Vietnam. And, indeed, although the roots of our nation’s involvement in Vietnam go right back to the days of the Kennedy administration (if not even earlier to President Eisenhower’s decision to send 900 American advisors to prop up the Diem regime), the escalation of the conflict—and the way that the war tore apart the fabric of American society in a way that would have seemed unimaginable even a few years earlier—those developments need realistically to be assigned first to the Johnson years and then to the Nixon presidency. As a result, at least in retrospect, the death of John Kennedy seemed to mark the end of an age of innocence, of American contentedness, of national unity, of a sense of widely agreed-upon national purpose. The images that became indelibly etched in the national consciousness were part of this as well: even today when I think of the Kennedys I picture them playing touch football in Hyannisport, while the first thing I think of when someone mentions Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon are the massive anti-war protests that characterized my teenaged years and which tore many families, including my own, apart. (I’ll write about that some other time.) Is that fair to Presidents Johnson and Nixon? Probably not. But in politics, as in most things, perception is everything. Or almost everything.

And partially it has to do with the general Zeitgeist and the way things changed different so quickly and so irrevocably after President Kennedy’s death. The 1960s—the decade itself—was a kind of watershed in American culture in a way that the nation hadn’t experienced since the Roaring Twenties. American tastes in music shifted more from 1957 to 1967 than in the previous half century. The same could be said with respect to art or fashion, even to architecture. And, yes, accompanying all that cultural stuff was a shift in sexual mores that felt at the time, and which even in retrospect still feels, unprecedented…and which, particularly for people just a bit older than myself, really did change everything. None of these developments can reasonably be attributed to anything President Kennedy did or said…and yet it seemed to many, and still seems to many, that nothing that mattered was the same after the assassination as it had been before. (And the Kennedy years, at least in retrospect, feel far more like the end of the 1950s than like the opening years of the decade to which they actually did belong.) I read Profiles in Courage when I was in tenth grade and remember thinking that it felt as though the book had been written in a different era, not a mere decade before I got around to reading it in 1967. I couldn’t imagine Jimi or Jim or Janis reading that book…and yet I, who at fourteen related to those three as demi-gods, was impressed by what I read. It just seemed odd to imagine the four of them—Jimi, Jim, Janis and John—in the same room or on the same stage. I could imagine JFK listening to Frank Sinatra. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine President Nixon listening to Janis Joplin, much less Iron Butterfly.

But most of all, I think the reason that President Kennedy’s assassination became a watershed moment in our nation’s history has to do with the concept of heroes.

Just the other day, I read an interesting essay by one of my colleagues in which he mentioned that, when he asked a class of middle-school-aged children in his synagogue’s Religious School who their heroes were, they all answered with the names of athletes or pop singers. In and of itself, that isn’t so surprising.  Such people, after all, are endlessly hyped in the media, endlessly promoted as celebrities whose lives are well worth following. And the so-called “social media” have made it possible not merely to follow such people in the vague way people once did by reading about them in fan magazines, but actually to follow them around as they make their way through the days of their lives and report on details that would once have seemed too private (and too banal) to mention to anyone at all, let alone to strangers. But my colleague’s point was not to lament the advent of the age of Twitter, but to observe that not one single child who responded mentioned the name of someone who exemplified the values we all insist that we wish our children to embrace. There were no war heroes, for example, who risked their lives to make our nation safe or to do good in the world. No child mentioned anyone who had selflessly devoted his or her life to public service. There were no saints, no martyrs, no one who had sacrificed his or her privacy to serve the public weal or, for that matter, who had sacrificed anything at all for a greater and nobler goal.  In other words, somewhere along the line the concepts of heroism and celebrity appear to have coalesced so totally that young people, when asked about the former, responded with answers that presumed they had been asked about the latter concept.

For people my age—I was seven years old when President Kennedy became president—JFK was an old-school hero. He came from one of America’s most powerful families, but he put his life on the line in the service of our country and almost died in the summer of 1943 when his PT boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. He possessed unimaginable wealth, yet he chose to devote his life to public service. He could have fostered a cult of celebrity built around himself, but instead he published Profiles in Courage specifically—or so it seemed to the young me—to promote public service as the ultimate civic virtue and to vaunt the heroism of people who risked their reputation and in some cases their careers to act honorably and in consonance with their own sense of justice and moral rectitude. Was I wrong? Maybe I was. I am well aware of the widely-held theory that Profiles in Courage was ghost-written by Theodore Sorensen, but that was unknown to me—and to everybody—back then. Nor is it a relevant point: what I want to stress is how things felt back then, why President Kennedy’s death seemed so totally to change everything.

If I had been asked as a young teenager who my hero was, I would have answered instantly that it was John F. Kennedy. I was as besotted as every other young American with the Beatles—Please, Please Me, their debut album, was released in March of 1963—and with a thousand other pop acts. I knew my movie stars too and knew who my favorite baseball players were. (Mrs. D’Antona, for the record, was not just my fifth grade teacher, but at the very beginning of her teacher career also Whitey Ford’s, a detail I for some reason seem never to tire of mentioning.)  But I also understood the difference between a celebrity and a hero. I would have loved to have had really good seats to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965. I would have loved to have been present when the Yankees won the World Series in 1961 or 1962, or even when they lost in 1963 or 1964.But I didn’t really want to be a Beatle or a Yankee. I wanted to be like John Kennedy, whom I admired as the paragon of every virtue I hoped someday to emulate.  Clearly, I didn’t know the whole story. I was, after all, a child. I certainly hadn’t heard any talk of the president’s marital infidelity. I had a child’s understanding of the world, of politics, of what it really meant to win a presidential election. (I doubt I even knew that Kennedy won the popular vote in 1960 by a mere two-tenths of one percent.) But even as a child I knew  a hero when I saw one, someone who didn’t earn his fame by singing well or playing a game well but by exemplifying what then seemed to be as the finest virtues to which anyone could aspire.

By the time I became a bar-mitzvah, the universe had changed dramatically. I grew up. America itself grew up. As we made our way forward, the Kennedy years became recalled as Camelot. We learned all sorts of unsavory details about the past, some of which seriously altered the way we now understood things we had once recalled entirely differently. But the part, at least for me, that remained and remains unchanged is the concept of the hero, of it being worthy to look up to someone like John Kennedy who is someone to emulate not because of his good looks or his wealth but because he himself is a profile in courage…that concept of having a hero and wanting to become better and finer so as more closely to resemble that specific person—that is what I believe our country has lost in the half-century that now separates us from those awful days in November all those many years ago. I would like to think we could conceivably re-discover and re-embrace that specific concept of heroism. It would be a good thing for our country, and it would be a particularly good thing for our children. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Circumcision in Europe

I have written to you in the past about the question of whether circumcision could conceivably be banned as an illegal infringement of a baby’s natural right not to have its body altered for non-medical reasons at an age when it cannot possibly consent to the procedure. (You can read that letter by clicking here or by going to and searching for the word “circumcision.”) That previous letter was written in the wake of initiatives both on the federal level and in California to ban circumcision, and also the publication of a comic-book-style diatribe against circumcision that resurrected the worst of anti-Semitic stereotypes to depict Jewish parents as bloodthirsty ghouls interested solely in spilling their sons’ blood for the sake of appeasing their no-less-bloodthirsty God. I expressed myself there about the issue, but only because the concept itself seemed fascinating to me and not really because I thought such a ban could ever actually become law.

Apparently, I was wrong. Or maybe I was right with respect to our own country—or I hope that I was—but I was clearly not at all right with respect to Europe, where a major, continent-wide drive is apparently underway to ban the circumcision of baby boys unless the procedure is medically indicated or requisite.  Let me present you with some details.
  • In Germany, fifty members of Parliament, all from the Social Democratic, Green, and Left Parties, have submitted a bill that would ban the non-medical circumcision of boys under fourteen regardless of their parents’ religious convictions. This, after the Germans finally approved a bill specifically permitting circumcision for religious reasons after a 2012 court ruling in Cologne that found the circumcision of babies to constitute a crime.
  • The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly voted last month for member countries to encourage its member states to “take legislative and policy measures that help reinforce child protection” in cases where boys are routinely circumcised to suit their parents’ religious convictions. I’ll return to this below.
  • Britain’s Jewish Chronicle reported last week that children’s ombudsmen from five Nordic countries are currently working with their national governments to achieve a ban on non-therapeutic circumcision of under-age boys. A motion to ban the circumcision of boys and young men under eighteen has been presented to the Swedish parliament.  Just a day or two ago, Norway’s health minister announced his intention to introduce new legislation “to regulate ritual circumcision” before next Easter. (Pegging the introduction of legislation that could effectively conclude the possibility of living a normal Jewish life in Norway to a Christian holiday was a nice touch.)  What the new law will entail he did not say, but his announcement followed renewed, ever more shrill, calls by Norway’s Children’s Ombudswoman to make the non-medical circumcision of underage boys illegal. 
  • A poll commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle yielded the result that a full 65% of Britons either support the prohibition of ritual circumcision or are undecided about the reasonableness of such a ban. The other 35% of the respondents opposed such a ban.
I’ve seen some articles lately on-line suggesting that these anti-circumcision initiatives have been fuelled more by anti-Muslim sentiment than by anti-Semitism. (To set that thought in perspective, consider that there are six or seven Jewish boys circumcised annually in all of Norway as opposed to about two thousand Muslim boys.) This, presumably, is supposed to be comforting…at least to non-Muslims. But it doesn’t feel that way at all. Let me add two statistics that will round out the picture from a Jewish point of view.  That same poll yielded the result that almost three out of four Britons either support or at least don’t oppose a parallel bill that would outlaw kosher slaughter in the U.K.  And, in a survey of 5,847 Jews from nine European Union member states (Sweden, France, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania, and Latvia) conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and released last week, twenty-nine percent said they have considered emigrating in recent years because they did “not feel safe” living in their countries as Jews, according to Morten Kjaerum, the director of agency. Also worth nothing is that the figure for Jews contemplating emigration was particularly high in Hungary, France and Belgium with forty-eight, forty-six, and forty percent respectively saying they had considered leaving in recent years.
Still, the news isn’t all bad. François Hollande, the president of France, wrote just last month to the French Jewish community affirming his personal support for the right of citizens of France to circumcise their boys as they see fit. And Thorbjorn Jaglan, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, said in Berlin at a meeting of the Conference of European Rabbis, an Orthodox group, just this last Monday that the council has no plans to ban the circumcision of boys despite the anti-circumcision resolution that the council’s Parliamentary Assembly passed last month. And it is also bears noting that no member state of the Council of Europe, which includes all European countries other than Vatican City, Belarus, and Kosovo, has actually banned the non-medical circumcision of minor children. Yet.

I’m sure there are people out there who oppose circumcision because they can’t imagine baby boys wouldn’t all be happier with their foreskins, and not because they hate Jews or Muslims. Similarly, I’m sure there are people who don’t see why animals shouldn’t all be slaughtered according to the same rules everywhere without taking anyone’s religious sensitivities into regard. Such people, presuming that they are not being motivated by feelings of racism and prejudice, do not need to be denigrated for their opinions. But neither can such people—even those who are genuinely well meaning—be allowed to prevail. This isn’t just about circumcision or kosher slaughter either. It isn’t even really about the ill ease many “regular” Europeans apparently feel with respect to their own burgeoning Muslim populations. (In a poll I noticed on-line the other day, I read that forty-six per cent of Britons who were presented with British immigration statistics thought there were “too many” foreign-born residents in Great Britain, as opposed to 23% in the U.S. and 13% in Canada who responded similarly with respect to their own countries.) In my opinion, it is about something else entirely.
For the most part and with respect to most pressing social issues relating to children, the Jewish citizens of most countries share their co-citizens’ opinions. We believe that children should be safe and that they should be vaccinated against terrible diseases. We believe that every child has the right to clean drinking water, to eat nourishing food, to breathe clean, unpolluted air. We believe that every child has a basic human right to be educated to the point of eventual self-sufficiency. And we believe that children have an inalienable right to be protected from abuse, from bullying, and from sexual and other kinds of predators. With all that we are in full agreement with our countrymen and women.
But it is when the camera pulls back and the larger picture comes into focus that we part company. The sense, basic to secular culture, that children are tiny pre-adults leads to the assumption that, for all they may well need to be protected because of their naiveté and their basic powerlessness, children nevertheless have the same rights, or some version of the same rights, that adults have. And foremost among those rights is the right to be considered an individual, to be treated as a citizen distinct and separate even from the nuclear family in which that specific child is being raised, and to be completely free to chart his or her destiny forward in life without being obliged to play a role in someone else’s play, in someone else’s drama.  How different is the Jewish perspective! For us, for Jewish people imbued with a sense of the Jewish present as a gateway in time between history and destiny…the concept of the child as independent agent could not be less resonant. The unity of the Jewish people—and the related notion of the specific role each individual Jewish soul is called upon to play in the pursuit of Jewish destiny by virtue of his or her membership in the House of Israel—is the core concept that underlies the eternal nature of the Jewish people and serves as the frame into which is set our own sense of our redemptive mission to the world. For us, circumcision is the sign of the covenant, the mark carved into the flesh of every Jewish man that marks him and the children he fathers as willing participants in the pageant of Jewish history. (Why women bear no such parallel mark is an interesting question. I have my own answer, but I can also recommend wholeheartedly the book of one of my own doctoral advisors, Shaye J.D. Cohen,Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised: Gender and Covenant in Judaism, which was published by the University of California Press in 2005.) But leaving that question aside—perhaps I’ll write about it on another occasion—the basic concept is that the covenant between God and Israel is the foundation stone upon which all the rest rests, the indispensable basis for the ongoing existence of the Jewish people. Opposing circumcision, therefore, is tantamount to opposing the existence of the Jewish people itself…and not a policy shift to which we could ever acquiesce politely or apathetically.  There is no question in my mind that Jewish people will continue to circumcise their sons and that this will be the case no matter what the Norwegian or Swedish parliaments do or do not decide. Whether there will be a future for the Jewish communities of Europe should these bans on the most basic of Jewish rituals become law is another question entirely, one unrelated to the future of the Jewish people itself.
Our children are ourselves. They are we no less profoundly or meaningfully than we are they; the barrier between generations is one set in time as parents cede their place in the front lines of Jewishness to their children, who in turn will eventually cede their places to their own children. But that barrier is not one that exists other than as a coordinating metaphor for the progression of the generations. You could just as reasonably argue that it barely exists at all, that the generations follow each other when set into the context of time past, present, and future but that the concept itself dissolves in the image of all Israel—including the unborn of all generations—gathered at Sinai to receive the terms of the covenant that would forever bind Israel to its God….and the parallel image of the Jews of all generations moving as one across the face of the earth in ghostly concert as the exile finally ends and the world experiences the knowledge of God washing over it as the waters cover the sea.
For us, the question on the table is an issue of cosmic consequence, not a medical detail or a question of baby’s civil rights. To argue that a Jewish baby has the right not to be formally set in place at the confluence of history and destiny at which every Jewish boy finds himself as he enters the covenant…is an idea that will only sound reasonable to people for whom the right of any individual not to be part of his or her people’s destiny overrides every other conceivable concern relating to that individual’s welfare. I suppose there are people out there who think just that. But those are not people who share our understanding of the mission of Israel!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Kristallnacht - After Seventy-Five Years

This weekend, on the night between November 9th and 10th, falls the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom in Nazi Germany and Austria that, at least in a sense, formally initiated the reign of terror we have come to refer to broadly as the Shoah, the Catastrophe.

Contemplating the numbers is unsettling enough.  Ninety-one Jewish people were killed. (Later on, of course, a mere ninety-one deaths in the context of the Nazi war against the Jews would sound almost paltry. But at the time it was an unimaginable number. There were, for example, fewer than seventy deaths in the infamous Kishinev pogroms of 1903, at the time widely considered to have constituted the worst example of anti-Semitic violence in Europe since medieval times.) More than thirty thousand Jewish men and women were arrested and sent to concentration camps. (This kind of mass incarceration of Jews had no precedent at all in earlier instances of anti-Semitic violence.) Over one thousand synagogues were destroyed. By most counts, more than seventy thousand Jewish businesses were ransacked, most ruined beyond repair. But these numbers, as horrific as they are, do not really explain in what sense Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass—changed everything. In retrospect, the potential for anti-Semitic violence in Germany and Austria seems obvious from events far earlier than 1938.  And yet…there is something about Kristallnacht that feels like a turning point, like a kind of almost seismic shift in the social landscape of central Europe both in terms of what it suggested about the future of European Jewry and what it said all too clearly about the degree to which the general German populace was prepared to look away while the vandals did their worst.

But, all that notwithstanding, the concept of Kristallnacht as turning point has even more to do with the rest of the world than with Germany itself. The events of 9-10 November were widely and accurately reported in the world press.  The opportunity for the leaders of the free world to rise up as one and to insist that the Nazis back down, to say unequivocally that the world simply would not tolerate violence on that level prompted solely by anti-Semitism of the most virulent, malicious sort, to insist that the Jews of Germany and Austria be treated with basic human respect—this was the time for those leaders to do something if ever they were going to do anything. But they did nothing at all.

Or almost nothing. FDR recalled the American ambassador from Berlin for consultations in Washington and extended the visitors’ visas of about 12,000 German Jewish visitors who were already in the United States. But our president, one of the two or three individuals in the world whose forceful action could conceivably have made a real difference in 1938, also announced that he had no intention whatsoever of relaxing the quotas for Jewish immigrants who wished to escape Europe and settle here. And Roosevelt himself was responsible for seeing to it that the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children to the United States outside the quota system, never became law. (The Nazis eventually murdered seventy-five times that many Jewish children. It would have been at least something. But, to borrow the famous phrase and for once to mean it almost literally, none was too many.)

More to the point is that the real weapons in the hands of the world’s major powers were left in their holsters. There were no economic sanctions levied against Germany. No nation—not even a single one—severed its diplomatic ties to Germany in the wake of the pogrom. The British refused even to consider relaxing the restrictions that kept Jews from freely emigrating to British Palestine. In the end, no countries renounced their immigration quotas and simply invited those whose lives were in danger to escape to safety by settling on their territory. In a sense, this was to be expected. The Evian Conference of July 1938, which attracted delegates from no fewer than thirty-eight countries to discuss the issue of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi terror and which was actually convened by President Roosevelt, was an abject failure. (The single country that indicated its willingness to accept a significant number of Jewish refugees was, of all places, the Dominican Republic.) There were some harsh words of condemnation of Nazi racism and anti-Semitism, to be sure. But harsh words are, in the end, just so much hot air and the German leadership got the real message of Evian all too clearly, understanding that there actually was no bottom line, no level of violence directed against the Jews of Germany and Austria that the world would not, at least in the end, learn to tolerate. Readers interested in learning more will find the picture of how things were the most clearly and authoritatively drawn in Martin Gilbert’s book, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, published in 2007 by HarperCollins and still widely available. The background to the Evian Conference is covered extensively in Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman’s FDR and the Jews, published earlier this year by Harvard University Press.

In my opinion, that is the sense in which Kristallnacht is correctly understood as the threshold across which the world stepped in 1938 which led almost inexorably to Treblinka and Auschwitz, to Sobibor and to Buchenwald: not because of the specifics of what happened that awful Wednesday night, as horrible as they were, but far more direly because of the specifics of what failed to happen. As Germany fell deeper and deeper into the realm of the demonic, the sole factor that might have acted as a meaningful brake would have been world opinion, united and unequivocal, accompanied by the universal resolve to respond to Germany anti-Semitism forcefully and meaningfully by striking at the Germany economy and at the very right of Germany to its place in the world as a respected member of the family of nations. Was Germany by 1938 so deeply in the thrall of evil itself that that kind of concerted world reaction would have mattered? Who can say? The leadership had already descended into madness. So had large cross-sections of the populace. Perhaps nothing would have mattered in the long run. No one can know…but the inverse is surely something I surely do know: that by collectively shrugging its shoulders, even while muttering the requisite words of condemnation, the world signaled to the German leadership that, in the end, the degradation of the Jews in Germany and Austria was something the world could learn to accept as essentially an internal German matter, something to be regretted but ultimately endured.  And when the Germans began to extend out the boundaries of the Reich by swallowing up countries all across Europe, including countries with immense Jewish populations, the die of non-interventionalist apathy had already been cast.

For moderns looking back over the years and contemplating these events from the vantage point of all these intervening years, there is no more troubling aspect to the story of the Shoah than the one symbolized specifically by the events of 9-10 November 1938 and their aftermath.  That there are bad people in the world will come as no surprise to any of my readers at all. But we feel safe in our beds at night not because we imagine that the world is populated solely by the righteous and the decent, but because we rely on ever widening circles of officials to make us safe: our local police forces, our local fire departments, the various national agencies that look after the safety of the citizenry on a national level, the Armed Forces itself that defends us against foreign aggressors and terrorists. We feel safe because, for the most part, we are safe. And that, I believe, is the correct context in which to understand Kristallnacht correctly: not so much in terms of the destruction it entailed, but in terms of the permanent way it altered the way any sane Jew living under the Nazis could imagine ever again feeling safe or secure.

To the extent that the horrors of that November evening long ago managed finally to convince some of those who still had the wherewithal to flee that the time had finally come to go, I suppose we could say that some good came of Kristallnacht.  That surely is true, but, at least for those of us who know what came next, it seems odd in the extreme to describe this particular event as anything but tangible evidence that Germany had embraced the demonic and transcended its own politics to put itself fully in the thrall of evil. Uncountable books have been written about the ultimate reasons for Nazi anti-Semitism, about the specific reasons that a nation so renowned for its contributions to world culture could abandon even the outer trappings of civility and embrace a code of behavior so outside the norms of its own cultural standards that even today the German embrace of violence and political extremism seems impossible fully to fathom. I hope one day to make my own contribution to this discussion, and to do so by focusing on the nature of evil in the world rather than on politics or history. The medievals wrote extensively about the kingdom of King Samael and Queen Lilith, the monarchs of the demonic realm. It is on that specific terrain that I hope to set up camp…and perhaps in so doing to make some sort of modest contribution to the twin questions that churn and roil at the center of the matter. How can this even have happened? And what can we do to prevent it ever from happening again?