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.

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