Thursday, May 29, 2014

The True American

A few months ago, I wrote to you about a book I had read that I found particularly challenging: Tim Townsend’s Mission at Nuremberg, in which the author tells the story of the American army chaplains, and of one in particular, who were assigned to provide spiritual guidance to the Nazi leaders tried at Nuremberg in 1945 and 1946 both during their trials and, for those condemned to death, up until their executions. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to revisit what I wrote there.) The book itself is well-written and interesting in its own right, but what really engaged me was the challenge it constituted to my oft-trumpeted belief in the ultimate power of t’shuvah, of the ability of the human heart fully repentant and for once divested of its customary armor of arrogance, self-importance, and narcissistic overconfidence to turn back to God absolutely and really enough to make forgiveness for even for the worst sins plausible. I’ve said that aloud so many times, including from the bimah on the holiest days of the Jewish year, that it was unsettling to find myself asking not if I believe it enough, but whether I believe it at all. Here, after all, was the story of the world’s most depraved war criminals, men with the blood not of millions, but of tens of millions of innocents on their hands. If we take seriously the prayer book’s promise that even at the very last moments of our lives we retain the innate ability to return to God in repentance and reasonably to seek forgiveness for our sins through the sheer force of our desire to embrace goodness and to divest ourselves of sinfulness—and if we elect to take comfort in the dogmatic principle that some combination of repentance, prayer, and charity towards others always retains the ability to avert the severity of even the most dire decree pronounced against us in the heavenly tribunal—if we really mean any of that, then the real test is to set the idea not against the background of people who occasionally gossip about others or who eat the occasional questionably-kosher candy bar, but against the stories of these men to whom the Reverend Gerecke was sent by our own army to minister. Like chains, theology is really only as strong as its weakest link. And the way to test one’s beliefs, therefore, is to identify that specific link…and then to see how much weight it actually can bear.

And now I’ve read another book— Anand Giridharadas’ book, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, which was published just a few weeks ago by W.W. Norton & Co.—that challenged me to reconsider that same set of ideas by inviting me to train my gaze on them from an entirely different direction. The author was known to me slightly as the New York Times columnist who writes very interesting, engaging pieces about his adventures trying to seize the essence of modern Indian culture, but none of his previous work prepared me for reading The True American, which, although it is also an example of true-crime writing at its best, struck me as a book akin to Townsend’s precisely because of its ability to pose challenging spiritual questions without asking them formally at all. For people who claim to embrace the concept of t’shuvah as one of the foundation stones of their religious outlook, Giridharadas’ book will be both provocative and unexpectedly rewarding. I recommend it highly. But, as my readers all know, I for some reason seem to like that experience of being smacked ideationally across the face, thus concomitantly being dared to say what I actually do believe…as opposed to what I think I believe or wish I could believe.

Giridharadas’ book is the story of two men who could not possibly have less in common. One, the hero of the book, is Raisuddin Bhuiyan, once an officer in the Bangladesh Air Force but as our story begins “just” a Muslim immigrant to these shores working in a convenience store in Dallas and trying, not really successfully, to make ends meet.  The other is Mark Stroman, an uneducated Texas redneck with a swastika tattoo whose response to 9/11 is personally to take revenge on our nation’s enemies by murdering some Muslims chosen at random by himself.  Driving around to gas stations and minimarts in Dallas, he finds two Muslims—although by Muslims he appears to mean people who speak English with non-American accents and whose skin is darker than your average white Texan’s—and, indeed, he murders them in cold blood. And then, not yet done, he drives himself to Bhuiyan’s minimart and shoots him too, in this one instance not fatally. Bhuiyan’s head is permanently going to be filled with metallic pellets and he will be permanently and irreversibly blinded in one eye, but he survives the attack and Giridharadas’ book is about decade that follows in both men’s lives. I found it riveting, and I think my readers will as well.

Both men’s progress through the years that follow are highly unexpected.  Stroman is arrested, tried, convicted of the murder of one of his victims, and sentenced to death.  (He was charged with the other murder too, but not tried after being convicted of the first one.)  The book traces his path forward from that moment until his execution on July 20, 2011, and it is highly interesting to see him growing both emotionally and intellectually in prison. He comes across a copy of Viktor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which the author chronicles his experiences in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau from the vantage point of a physician.  And he becomes particularly enamored of one specific sentence in Frankl’s book: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”  And so, slowly, we see Stroman growing to the point at which, just before his execution, he renounces hate, accepts the reasonableness of someone guilty of what they call in Texas “capital” murder paying with his life, and embraces the brotherhood of all mankind. It sounds hokey. It sound unbelievable…and, yet, when you read the story, you are moved even despite yourself.

The real catalyst in Stroman’s conversion, however, is not Viktor Frankl’s book, but Raisuddin Bhuiyan’s own activities in the years that follow his near murder. His situation is grim in every way. He has no health insurance and so is discharged from the hospital to which he is taken after the attack after a cursory bit of attention. He acquires enormous, basically unpayable medical bills for treatments that don’t restore his vision. He has no family in the United States, and so must also combat loneliness and unwanted isolation. His fiancée back in Bangladesh, in the meantime, loses interest in pursuing their relationship and agrees to an arranged marriage her family has organized for her. He has no money, no permanent home, no reason not to think of our country as a hostile wasteland in which innocents are shot by crazy people because they “look” like terrorists.  And yet, in some ways, his transformation is even more surprising than Mark Stroman’s. He grows spiritually as he heals. He undertakes a pilgrimage to Mecca to reconnect with the wellsprings of his faith. He becomes more devout, and concomitantly more forgiving and kinder. Slowly, he comes to believe that the reason his life was spared was specifically so that he could guide his would-be assassin away from hatred and violence, and so that he could personally help Mark Stroman see him as a man and as a human being, not as a stick-figure terrorist tarred with the brush of criminality merely because of his Muslim faith. And this, improbable and unlikely as it sounds, he manages to accomplish. 

There is a wide, complicated cast of characters in the book including Bhuiyan’s parents, Stroman’s wives and children, an Israeli paratrooper-turned-film-maker, British and German anti-death-penalty activists, and the expected cohort of lawyers, judges, police officers, prison guards, psychiatrists, and journalists. Bhuiyan’s real mission, quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful, is to save Stroman from death so that his life might become a force for good in the world. His argument in court—that his own civil rights were going to be violated by Stroman’s execution since the death of his assailant without them ever having met in person would permanently and irrevocably deny him the possibility of closure, of coming to terms with the enormity of the violent crime perpetrated against him by seeing his would-be murderer renounce violence and accept him as a brother—was surely clever and is unexpectedly moving. He fails in that effort, of course—Texas is the state that has executed the most prisoners since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and is second only to Oklahoma in terms of executed individuals per million residents—but only in the sense that Stroman eventually does die. But Bhuiyan does manage to effect a truly remarkable transformation in a man who just years earlier thought it rational and patriotic to aim a shotgun at a stranger’s head and pull the trigger.

Just before he died, Stroman attributed his transformation to Bhuiyan’s work on his belief. Calling him Rais for short, he said, “In the free world, I was free but I was locked in a prison inside myself because of the hate I carried in my heart. It is due to Rais' message of forgiveness that I am more content now than I have ever been."  And, with those words hanging in the air, he went to his death as a free man…not free in the sense of being able to escape his own verdict of death, but free of the hatred and proclivity for brutality and violence that had earlier been the platform upon which he lived his life. Was he telling the truth about his transformation? We won’t ever know, but Giridharadas seems to take him at his word and I found myself convinced both by the power of his prose and by the essential unlikelihood of the whole story.

In a world in which so much happens in the thrall of stereotype and prejudice, it was refreshing—even a bit chastening—to read about a Muslim who finds in his faith not a pretext for violence but an obligation to work against hatred, against bigotry, and against senseless brutality. What I learned from The True American—and the title itself is a bit of a riddle, since the author leaves unsaid to which of his protagonists he is actually referring—what the book reminded me to remember is that goodness and decency are functions of character, not of ethnicity or school of spiritual endeavor. Every religion can serve as a pretext for cruelty.  But from the wellsprings of faith can also come remarkable goodness as well…and that is true regardless of the specific language that faith speaks or the rituals it recommends. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

In Memoriam, J.W.

My friend of more than thirty years, J.W., took his own life three weeks ago, at which point I felt I had stepped into a nightmare…and simultaneously into a Psych 101 textbook.

At first, I distanced myself from the misery I felt building in my heart by telling myself it was “just” a tragedy, just an example of someone standing at the epicenter of the kind of perfect storm of baneful vectors that no one could possibly have resisted successfully. According to this initial analysis, his death was no one’s fault at all: not J.’s and certainly not mine, but also not anybody’s. It was thus a tragedy that just happened, something like an unpredicted tsunami or a sudden earthquake. That approach was satisfying briefly, but it quickly lost its luster and I soon moved on—remarkably, just like the textbooks say is the case for so many—to anger. Since the whole world is about me, how could this also not be about me? And how could my friend do this to me, making me feel so terrible and leaving me with one less friend in the world when I already have so few pals left from those happy, carefree years when Joan and I were first married and still living on the Upper West Side? Sure, his problems may be over, I told myself, but mine…who was going to help me come to terms with this loss, so unnecessary and so theoretically preventable but also so devastating? I find it embarrassing now even to have written that last sentence out, but I did spend a few days in just that place. And then, fortunately, I moved on from wallowing in that kind of self-referential ridiculousness and moved directly into the third stage of grappling with this kind of loss, the stage of self-recrimination.

And now we get to the heart of the matter. My friend, ten years my junior exactly, suffered from alcoholism and, I believe, depression his whole adult life. We met when I was twenty-eight and a newly minted Ph.D. teaching in the Seminary’s undergraduate program and he was an eighteen-year-old college freshman. Friendship came later, but, in the end, I knew him for thirty-two years, more than half even of my life and well over half of his, and the tragic elements in his personality were visible, even if just barely, from the start.  But it was only years later that I gained the experience and insight fully to understand just how potentially destructive those dark features of his inmost nature could become, and did become, later on.

As the years passed, J. followed two paths at the same time.

He went on to rabbinical school and was ordained a rabbi, teacher, and preacher in Israel. He served congregations in New York State, then in Florida, then, after he lost his job in Florida because of a series of very poor decisions rooted in the fundamental problems that served as the soil in which all the rest of his disastrous choices grew, in Kentucky.  The thing that bears saying the most in this regard is that he wasn’t a man who couldn’t succeed because of his troubles, that he was a man who was enormously successful despite his difficulties. He was a fabulous rabbi, at his best one of the greats. He was funny and engaging, learned and smart. He spoke forcefully and inspiringly from the bimah, inviting his congregation to join him on the great spiritual journey through life that he himself had chosen to follow. He had a sharp wit, but (as is surely not the case for all) that sharpness lacked any edge of cruelty or nastiness. Instead, he allowed his charm and his well-honed sense of humor to serve as a vehicle for his message…and, because he was also handsome and had a lovely wife (also once one of my students) and three beautiful children, he presented himself for as long as he could not merely as a successful rabbi, but as the very model of the kind of learned clergyperson and likable family man that any congregation would naturally want at its helm.

But there was another path too that J. followed, a darker one that led away from professional success, away from successful family life, and away from the very spiritual goals that he was attempting to travel towards on the other path he was traveling.  He was, therefore, not merely undertaking two journeys at the same time, but two that led in diametrically different directions. It was thus not a journey that only a select few of the very best and most brave could manage, but one that no one could ever successfully undertake: if you want or need to travel north and east at the same time, you can try setting off in a northeasterly direction and see where that takes you…but none can travel east and west at the same time, not even the most clever or talented travelers among us. But that was exactly what J. was trying to do. Eventually, that riddle came to rest at the center of J.’s life—the insoluble riddle of how to be two people at the same time, how to travel at once down two roads that lead in opposite directions, how to lead a congregation upwards towards lofty goals while simultaneously being personally dragged along, slowly but perhaps inexorably, on the road to perdition. Eventually, his marriage ended. Lonely and unhappy, he made a new life for himself in a different state and eventually remarried. (He ended up losing that job as well and was trying to re-invent himself in Colorado when he died.) He leaves behind, in addition to his wife and his three older children, a one-year-old daughter.  And he leaves behind his first wife as well, who stuck with him for as long as anyone rationally could have and only played her last card when it truly was the only one left in her hand to play.

And so I turn to the next-to-last stage in the series I began by mentioning, the stage of self-recrimination. Like everybody who knew J. as a friend, I moved on—once I abandoned the stage of righteous self-absorption in which I ridiculously attempted to find comfort by casting myself as the victim in the story—to asking the questions that rest at the center of anyone’s effort to come to terms with suicide, with loss on this scale and of this specific variety. Did I do enough? Did I do anything that mattered? When I finally told him I didn’t wish him to call me when he was drunk, was I being helpful by creating a reward that he could conceivably have wanted badly enough to turn away from liquor to get? Or was I myself surrendering to an embarrassingly over-inflated view of my own role in his life to imagine that the possibility of talking on the telephone to me could outweigh a lifetime of addictive reliance on a drug as potent as any of the others that enslave the soul? Was I being kind and thoughtful by creating a context in which a reward—even as inconsequential a one as talking to me on the phone—might possibly have inspired better behavior? Or was I behaving like the idiot who notes someone floundering helplessly in the water and responds by suggesting swimming lessons?

Perhaps nothing could have helped. I realize that it would be helpful, even therapeutic, for me to come to that conclusion. There are a million details to this story I haven’t revealed. There are, no doubt, another million even I don’t know. I know that there are many people in the world who have learned to live with various forms of addiction and to master their problems rather than granting those problems ultimate control over their lives. Can everybody do it? We don’t blame people who, after giving their all to the struggle, finally succumb to cancer or heart disease.  We certainly don’t blame people who are in terrible airplane accidents because they could just as easily have bought a ticket for a different flight! You play with the cards you are dealt. You fly the airline that Expedia or Travelocity offered you the best price to buy a ticket on. You wrestle with the genetic heritage you are bequeathed even if it is unfair that others receive a different basket of heritable goodies from their ancestors.  Some people struggle their whole lives with depression and alcoholism (and different forms of substance abuse) and find themselves able to wrestle their problems to the ground. Others simply lack—not the courage or the principled willingness, but the simple ability—to do that. And, in my heart, that is what I think happened to my friend.

Jewish tradition has a deeply ambivalent approach to suicide. On the one hand, we teach that life is a gift from God and that suicide, the overt rejection of that gift, is thus primarily a statement of ingratitude and should be condemned as such. Ancient books discuss whether normal mourning rites should follow the burial of a suicide, even whether the death of such a person should be announced in public.  And, yet, accompanying those remarks come a cavalcade of individuals and groups who chose to take their own lives and whom Jewish tradition lauds, even valorizes. Samson. King Saul. The last freedom fighters atop Masada.  The martyrs of York in 1190. Even the man I personally consider the greatest hero, Janusz Korczak…did he not consciously choose death over life by getting aboard that train to Treblinka with the children in his charge when the alternative could have been safety for himself even if not for them?  But all of those people were of sound mind and made a principled choice to die as martyrs al kiddush ha-Shem.  The same could not be said for J.W., my friend of thirty-plus years. He died neither as a martyr nor as a hero, but as a man weighed down by sadness so intense that, in the end, it smothered him to the extent that he could no longer breathe. And so, in the manner of people who cannot breathe, he died…not arrogant, not ungrateful, not choosing Treblinka over freedom as a gesture of ultimate contempt for the banality of evil and its inability to prevent good people from acting righteously and kindly. He died, I think, simply because he could breathe no more.  And what happened to him is what happens to all people who cannot breathe.

A number of my colleagues spoke beautifully and movingly at his funeral, but if it had fallen to me to speak over his casket to the people assembled I would have said that here lies a man who struggled against demons named and unnamed for half a century but who, in the end, did good in the world and leaves behind a legacy of righteous deeds. He also leaves behind a list of missteps and errors of judgment that led him ultimately to where he ended up. Coffee has to be either hot or cold. So does tea. But the legacy of a man does not have to be good or bad. It can accommodate all sorts of details that feel like they shouldn’t all be part of the same story, yet are.  The J. I personally knew was like that. He was in many ways his own worst enemy, but above all he was kind and generous…and good to the core of his soul. I will miss my friend for the rest of my life.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Hating Us and Me

I’m thinking of moving to Laos. I don’t know anyone there. I don’t speak Lao. I have no idea what the job market for rabbis is like there, although the fact that the entire nation only has four permanent Jewish residents, one of whom actually is a rabbi, does not make me especially sanguine about finding work in my chosen field. (And even in the unlikely event that the Chabad guy actually is looking for an assistant, my chances frankly still aren’t that great.) Still, the Anti-Defamation League poll released this week indicated that Laos is the world’s least anti-Semitic country, with less than one-fifth of one percent of the population harboring negative views about Jewish people. That’s reassuring…for people like myself who are considering relocating to Vientiane. I’m sure the weather is fabulous! So my problem is solved (unless I change my mind), but the results of the poll will be distinctly less encouraging for Jewish people in the world’s other hundred-odd countries.  (To be fair, Vietnam, Sweden, the Philippines, and Holland also ranked very low in terms of the anti-Semitic views of its populace. So Laos isn’t our only option! If you are reading this electronically, you can click here to see the results of the poll in far more detail.)

The poll was a huge project designed to determine to what extent prejudicial, biased views about Jews have taken root in 102 of the world’s countries. Sponsored by the ADL, it was funded by philanthropist Leonard Stern and undertaken by a polling company called First International Resources which conducted over 53,000 interviews in 96 languages before collating the results. The results were, as noted, extremely depressing.  I have to disagree with Abe Foxman, the national director of the ADL, who declared himself sobered but not especially shocked by the results. I was shocked. I suppose I was sobered too. Clearly, you can be both. And I was.

Because of my own emotional involvement with the legacy of the Shoah, I looked to those results first. And there I found the almost unbelievable conclusion that a full 46% of the respondents hadn’t ever heard of the Holocaust and therefore had no specific point of view with respect to its historicity or any of the figures generally associated with it. To those must be added the 4% who have heard of the Shoah but who insist on insisting that the whole thing never actually happened, that no one died, that the whole thing is a nightmarish fairytale made up by Jewish people to garner the sympathy of the world. Those people, possibly (but probably unwisely) can be written off as hate-filled extremists who affect no one but each other. But what of the 28% of respondents who agree that something happened to the Jews of Europe during the Second World War, but that the number of victims has probably been greatly exaggerated? To parse the numbers differently, almost half the respondents hadn’t heard of the Shoah but well less than half of the 54% of respondents who had heard of it reported views that correspond, even more or less, to historical reality. Has the world forgotten to remember? Or, to ask the question more upsettingly, have we really done such a poor job in memorializing the victims that it is possible even this many decades after the fact never to have heard of them at all? Apparently, we have. The people who never go to Israel without visiting Yad Vashem are people who go to Israel and who visit Yad Vashem. But what about the rest of the world? While focusing so totally on enmity, have we forgotten to remember to combat apathy and ignorance no less forcefully? It’s hard to read the results of this survey and not conclude that that is precisely what we have done.

When the numbers are divided down into countries, the results are what one might expect. The countries in which the highest numbers of people are aware that the Shoah took place are the countries in which the Shoah actually did take place or those adjacent to them, and those are also the countries that generally have the lowest level of Holocaust denial. Interestingly, the highest rates of Holocaust denial are in the Arab world with the West Bank and Gaza leading the way with 82% of the citizenry believing the Shoah never occurred. That can possibly be written off as the result of direct propaganda campaigns intended to erase any vestige of sympathy for Israel’s founders. But even a nation of relatively educated, westernized citizens like Jordan has a Holocaust denial rate of 70%. And that somehow seems even more ominous to me.

Other statistics are no less grim. About 41% of respondents believe that, no matter where Jews may live, their true allegiance is “probably” to Israel and not to the countries in which they were born and of which they are citizens. (As insulting and silly as that may sound to us, the poll suggests that a majority of citizens in 51 of the 102 countries included in the statistics believe that to be true.) That would be distressing enough, but other prejudices are just as well entrenched.  About 35% of the respondents indicated that they believe that Jews hold “too much power in the business world.”  Nearly 29% of all respondents said that, in their opinion, Jews have too much control over global media. A full quarter of respondents indicated that, in their opinion, Jews have too much control specifically over the government of the United States. In some ways most shocking of all is the fact that 23% of the respondents blame the Jews for “most” wars in the world. It would be easy to wave away the idea of blaming the Civil War or the French Revolution on the Jews of nineteenth-century America or eighteenth-century France as mere silliness. But we are talking immense numbers here, numbers far too large glibly to be dismissed as nonsense: in the end, the final big figure put forward in the ADL poll is 1.09 billion people in the world (out of a global population of 7.2 billion) who harbor views that are irrational, bigoted, prejudicial, and untrue about Jewish people. Welcome to the twenty-first century!

Interesting too is that almost three-quarters of respondents reported that they personally haven’t ever met an actual Jewish person. Yet of those 74% of respondents, a full quarter somehow know enough even without any personal experience of Jewish people to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes or beliefs.  And interesting as well is the incredible degree to which the number of Jews in the world is dramatically inflated in the minds of so many: although the actual percentage of the world’s population that is Jewish is about 0.19% (which is less than one-fifth of one percent), 18% of respondents guessed that Jews make up more than 10% of the world’s population. Another 30% guessed that the correct number is somewhere between 1% and 10%. But even 1% is more than four times the correct number! Is it flattering or upsetting for our numbers to be so dramatically inflated in the minds of so many? It’s a little of both, I suppose. But it is precisely that kind of bizarre error that risks to serve as the seedbed for ideas about Jews and Judaism that at least potentially can lead to serious trouble.

I’ve already begun to read responses to the poll attacking its methodology and its conclusions. Some are irritated that only the ADL’s interpretative conclusions were released to the public, not the data itself. Others question the relatively few respondents for a poll designed to chart the opinions of all the citizens of every one of the world’s countries. And still others that I’ve read on-line are wondering how exactly the respondents were chosen, and if the kind of person eager to participate in such a poll might not more likely be someone harboring strong—and possibly strongly negative—feelings about Jews, while the individual less personally engaged or emotionally involved in the question might be concomitantly less willing to take the time to respond to all those questions.  I don’t know enough about the science of polling to be able to respond securely to any of those charges. But I have to assume that behind these very depressing statistics, even if they are not as fully accurate as the pollsters would have us believe, lies—to say the very least—a world of misinformation about Jewish people. And history has taught us more than adequately what folly it would be to laugh the whole thing off as an amusing example of statistical overkill.  How many Jews in how many places found out what malign fantasies their neighbors were harboring in their regard after it was far too late to escape? I ask that question not to answer it here, but merely to leave it for my readers to ponder thoughtfully and, I hope, productively.

In terms of our own country, it is marginally comforting to know that the number of American citizens who personally subscribed to at least six of the eleven most popular canards about Jews has dropped from 29% to just 9% in the fifty years since the ADL started conducting surveys regarding Americans’ attitudes toward their Jewish co-citizens in 1964.  That does sound comforting…but 9% of the American population is still well over 28 million people and saying it that way sounds distinctly less soothing to my ears. And it seems somewhere between irrelevant and perverse to find solace in the fact that even more people harbor negative stereotypes about Muslims than about Jews. I suppose that may be true. (The ADL says it is.) But taking comfort in that fact would merely be to avert our eyes from the actual problem we ourselves are facing.

Among the books I read last year was David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, published in 2013 by W.W. Norton. I was very impressed! Nirenberg, a professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago, argues forcefully that anti-Semitism is a function of what he calls anti-Judaism, the belief that Judaism itself is inimical to western civilization…and not solely in its right-wing Christian, supersessionist guise. It was a shocking experience, reading that book…and, at least in terms of books about Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism, I don’t shock especially easily. To respond constructively and thoughtfully to the ADL poll means acquiring the ability, both intellectually and emotionally, to set the statistics in their larger context and Professor Nirenberg’s book would be an excellent place to start. For readers not quite ready to begin with non-fiction, I would like to suggest one of the first books on the topic I ever read and still consider one of the foundation stones on which my life as a reader rests: André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, a novel that even sixty-five years after it was first published—the book was written in French and published in 1959, then followed in 1960 by an English-language edition in Stephen Becker’s translation—retains its ability to affect the way I think about things in general, but specifically about the history and nature of anti-Semitism. Given that you can purchase the book on-line for one single penny, it should be something my readers rush to acquire and then to digest. But my best suggestion is that people read Schwarz-Bart and Nirenberg, then open the ADL website and read the statistics in light of those twin experiences.  The results will be both comforting and upsetting. But isn’t the hallmark of all true intellectual growth precisely that it unsettles and challenges at the same time it grants context to data that would otherwise be mere information?

The work facing us, clearly, is immense. Some of what you’ll read on the ADL site will make your hair stand on end. But facing the reality of things is precisely what countless generations of Jews forgot forcefully and intelligently to do, only subsequently to pay the price for having imagined that it hardly mattered what others thought. Trust me, it matters. And our job is not to wallow in self-pity or in regret, but to consider thoughtfully as a community how best to respond to numbers that, taken as a whole, suggest the degree to which we have utterly failed the prophet’s injunction to serve as a light unto the nations. For me personally, that is where I want to start…with responsibility born of humility, with candor, with sound information, and with resolve to respond usefully and meaningfully to what would otherwise only be bad news and not a goad to productive action.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Doing and Undoing

There are lines that you can cross back over once you’ve stepped across, but there are others that by definition can only be crossed once. In and of itself, this might sound like a rather ordinary observation: who doesn’t know that you can buy a shirt and then “unbuy” it by returning it to the store (ideally without having worn it in the interim), but that you can’t unring a bell or unlearn a secret someone has whispered into your ear (particularly when it is a big juicy one that you were probably better off not knowing)? Still, it never struck me to apply this principle to law and to use it to analyze blocks of text. Let’s start with the second five of the Ten Commandments. You cannot unkill. But you can unsteal. You cannot uncommit adultery. But you can unperjure yourself after lying in court. With enough therapy and self-control, you can probably learn to uncovet your neighbor’s riches too. Or maybe not.

There were, at any rate, interesting examples in the news last week of both kinds of lines.
Christie’s, the world’s largest auction house, is sending its Pandava home. The real Pandavas—the real unreal mythological characters, I mean—are the five sons of Pandu in the Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic that, as the world’s longest epic poem, is about ten times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey put together. (Why the great classics of Indian literature—and particularly the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—are not taught, or at least not taught regularly, in our high schools and colleges is a mystery to me. I’ve loved these stories even since I first started reading them in college, and I still hope actually to learn Sanskrit one day and revisit them all in the original. Interested readers can start best of all with the late R.K. Narayan’s abridged prose version of the Mahabharata published by Viking in 1978 and now reprinted by the University of Chicago Press.)

Gorgeous statues of these mythic characters once adorned the great temples of Cambodia, but they, and many other pieces of priceless art, were stolen when the temples were pillaged during that nation’s eight-year-long civil war in the 1960s and early 1970s. Then, as happens, the pieces were separated and sold in different countries across the globe, generally (I’d like to think) to buyers unaware that they were purchasing stolen merchandise. But, amazingly, the tide has turned as these statues have become successively unstolen and successfully returned to Cambodia. It began last year when the Metropolitan Museum agreed to return two statues called the “Kneeling Attendants” that many New Yorkers knew well because they came to flank the entrance into the museum’s gallery of South Asian art, but which had originally been stolen from the Koh Ker Temple about two hundred miles north of Phnom Penh. Then Sotheby’s agreed to return a huge sandstone sculpture of Bhima (one of the five Pandavas mentioned above) that too had once been stolen from the Koh Ker Temple.  This week, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena announced it would return a different statue of Bhima that had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple. And now, just yesterday, Christie’s announce that it will send back its Pandava statue as well, also stolen from Prasat Chen, and at its own expense.

For those of us who have been following the stories connected with Jewish art work looted by the Nazis all across Europe, seeing justice done for others is very satisfying for two reasons: first, because it is a pleasure to see people acting justly, and, second, because gestures like the restitution of the Cambodian statues make it that much more likely that the world will behave as nobly and fairly with respect to Jewish property stolen during the war. In that regard, the death last week of Cornelius Gurlitt, seems relevant. Gurlitt was the reclusive German art dealer who at his death was in possession of over 1,200 works of art by the likes of Picasso, Chagall, and Matisse, many (if not all) of which had been stolen by the Nazis—primarily, but not solely, from German museums and from Jewish private owners—only to end up at war’s end in the hands of Gurlitt’s father, an art dealer whom the Nazis used to sell the art they stole for profit.

The situation is far more complicated than simply shipping paintings back to their original owners, however, almost none of whom are still alive. The Nazis stole artwork from every country Germany occupied. Fifteen years ago, it was estimated that over 100,000 items had yet to be returned to their owners and that among them are hundreds of paintings in American museums for which the “chain of ownership” during the years 1939-1945 remains unclear.  Much has been returned since then, although the legal battles undertaken by the heirs of the original owners seem likely to drag on for years and years. Many may never be resolved at all, let alone to the satisfaction of the heirs, yet the will to restore purloined art to its rightful owners does seem to be gaining momentum. German law, for example, now specifically mandates the return of “cultural assets lost as a result of Nazi persecution,” which includes paintings sold by Jews who emigrated from Germany to support themselves after they had no other means to earn their livelihood. So that is encouraging, at least in a preliminary sort of way.

But the fact that some lines can be crossed back over after the fact does not mean that there aren’t lines that, once crossed, can never be renegotiated. In that regard, I am thinking this week of the almost unbelievable announcement the other day that scientists have succeeded in creating, for the first time, artificial DNA code that contains genetic variations not found in nature.  Explaining what this means is very complicated, and it would probably be even more so if I truly understood the whole thing. (Andrew Pollack’s article in the NY Times on Wednesday did a good job of explaining the basics.) But gleaning what I can from what I’ve read, the basic concept has to do with the fact that DNA is made up of different combinations of four basic units called nucleotides, each usually represented in scientific literature by a single letter: A, C, G, and T. The specific way these nucleotides are arranged dictates the kind of protein the cell that contains this specific version of DNA manufactures. In turn, these manufactured proteins are responsible (if that’s the right word in this context) for regulating what the cell does within the body’s tissues and organs.

Now, for the very first time in history, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, have created two entirely new nucleotides, which they have labeled X and Y and which they managed successfully to insert into the E. coli bacterium. (Are you with me? As noted, I hardly understand this myself, not in the way I wish I could, but it still seems fathomable at least according to the basics.) The bacteria then self-reproduced along the normal lines, however that works, but because they were artificially endowed with a genetic code of six nucleotides instead of just four, they proceeded to manufacture proteins that hadn’t ever existed before.  Work on the creation of artificial DNA is not new and has been going on for at least thirty years. Man-made nucleotides have been used in experiments for years, in fact. But this week marked the very first time scientists managed successfully to get artificially manufactured nucleotides to function in a living cell that retained the ability to self-replicate.

What remains to be seen is whether cells endowed with six nucleotides instead of four will actually produce proteins that themselves also have never before existed. If they do, the scientists will have to address themselves to the complicated question of how these new proteins could be used. Clearly, the ideal would be to use then to manufacture new antibiotics, vaccines, medicines, or industrial products of various sorts. But whether that will actually happen or not is not as clear just yet. And, of course, there is some reason to speculate that the presence of four nucleotides is not arbitrary but specific, and that the living cell functions—or at least functions best—with precisely four for a reason…even if that reason remains unknown.

The howling from the bleachers has already begun. Scientists shouldn’t play God! We are opening a Pandora’s box! No one should alter what our Intelligent Designer in heaven has intelligently designed! Only bad things can come from, in effect, tampering with the basic building blocks of life, with how God made the world. But do we really think that?  Isn’t all of modern medicine, in a sense, “tampering” with the normal course of events? Isn’t it “meddling” with nature when doctors labor to prevent cancerous cells, all of which have occurred naturally, from replicating? Certainly you could describe vaccination against disease as fiddling with the Designer’s design (we are, after all, “designed” to get measles when exposed to the measles virus), as tinkering with what appears to have been the original plan for humanity!  Yet somehow we all seem to be entirely fine with doing what it takes to keep nature from taking its natural course when we ourselves are ill, or our children or our parents are.

I wrote about a year ago to you about stem cell research in a similar vein.  (If you are reading this electronically, click here.) We serve God best, I truly believe, when we allow the gifts God has given us—insight, intelligence, curiosity, industry, creativity, patience, inquisitiveness, daring, and the ability to reason deductively, astutely, and cleverly—to guide us forward towards the creation of a finer, better world, one in which disease, decline, and frailty are not seen as inevitable consequences of living, but as challenges to be met both philosophically and scientifically. To conquer death entirely may be an unattainable fantasy. But to create the best world we can with the tools we have—that hardly seems like folly at all. In fact, it seems like a genuine celebration of the single greatest of all God’s gifts to humankind: the ability to do good in the world.

Yes, we will never cross back over this line. It will permanently now be possible to create versions of DNA that haven’t ever existed. Those “new” kinds of cells may well produce “new” kinds of protein, which will be put to uses that even just recently would have seemed like just so much science fiction. The world, in a profound way, was altered last week. Unlike the Matisses in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich flat, there is no reset button to push to set things back how they were. The paintings can be returned. So can most stolen things. But knowledge, once out there, can never be unlearned. Only a fool would imagine otherwise. The challenge, however, is not merely stoically to nod to that fact, but thoughtfully and ethically to devote ourselves to using what the world knows and cannot unlearn for good only, thereby making its un-unknowability an ongoing blessing for us all.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Freedom of Speech

If there was one thing that my father managed successfully to drum into me (through repeated harangues on the topic throughout my adolescence, particularly during the Nixon years), it was the notion that our American way of life rests on the sacred task of maintaining the four freedoms articulated by FDR in his 1941 State of the Union Address. Roosevelt actually called them “the four essential human freedoms,” but the shorter name seems to have stuck and they are, even to this day, known by that name. And known they are, even though the two “of”s and the two “from”s derive from totally different spheres of reality, freedom of speech and freedom of religion being constitutional rights guaranteed in law and freedom from want and freedom from fear being existential ideals towards which a society of decent, moral people should obviously strive.

There are, obviously, other freedoms that characterize our American way of life too, freedoms that together with FDR’s four create the foundation of free choice with respect to any individual’s course forward through life that truly is the basis upon which the republic rests philosophically as well as legally.  Today, I would like to write about the interesting question of whether those freedoms constitute moral obligations as well as legal ones.
Freedom of speech has always struck me as something basic and non-complex. And, indeed, the basic idea—that the free citizens of a free society should be free to speak their minds openly and without fear of reprisal on the part of the government—does seem simple enough. It seems even less difficult to decide whether freedom of speech should entail the right to express extremely unpopular views, as opposed to mildly idiosyncratic ones shared by few. When put that way, in fact, the automatic response of most would be that the essence of the concept pertains specifically to unpopular views, to opinions that one may personally wish to espouse but which a large majority of one’s co-citizens will hold in contempt. And when the speech in question has to do with religious beliefs, and particularly with unpopular religious beliefs, most would feel more, not less, sure of themselves: the right to preach the articles of one’s faith openly and without needing to care whether one’s view do or do not match the dogmatic principles of other people’s religions is at the very core of what it means to be free to practice one’s faith according to one’s own values and principles. Nor does it seem that difficult to find consonant with free speech the concomitant responsibility society bears to place limits on speech that risks to harm or defame others, or to betray secrets the public revelation of which would damage our national security.

What I would like to write about today, however, is how this should play outside the legal system and to ask whether the citizens of a free society personally have an obligation to tolerate in their midst people with whom they disagree vociferously and passionately.

We have just recently seen any number of cases in which people have paid extremely high prices for speaking out in public and expressing unpopular or offensive opinions.  First, let’s consider the case of Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, an NBA franchise, who unleashed a firestorm of criticism when he was taped expressing overtly racist sentiments to a female friend. Four days later, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that Sterling was banned from the league for life and had been fined $2.5 million.  Silver also indicated that he would initiate action that could eventually force Sterling to sell the franchise, currently valued at $575 million. (Sterling paid $12.5 million for the Clippers in 1981 and will thus realize a profit of well over half a billion dollars, but that is apparently not the point.)

Legally speaking, this isn’t a freedom of speech issue. Sterling hasn’t been arrested, much less indicted. No one, including Adam Silver, has suggested that he committed any sort of crime by expressing sentiments privately to a friend merely because they are widely considered reprehensible. The police appear not to be involved. And yet, in a society that considers free speech to be one of its basic “four freedoms,” the man is paying an enormous price for having expressed an extremely unpopular sentiment in a private conversation. Surely, the NBA has the right to admit to the ranks of its franchise owners people whom they consider worthy and to expel those they consider unworthy. But I write today not to ask if they can, but if they should. Should the citizens of a free society feel as obligated morally as they actually are obligated legally to endure the company of people whose views they find repulsive? On the level of the individual household, the answer feels obvious: why in the world should Joan and I feel morally obligated to invite into our home people whose views on issues that are important to us we find repugnant? But when we move the discussion up to groups of citizens within society…and when the issue is further complicated by side-issues involving huge amounts of money, great dollops of celebrity, and the cachet of one of America’s most prominent sports leagues, things seem less clear to me.

To ask the same question in different words, should the right not to be arrested for expression a bigoted opinion be paired with the right not to be penalized by people who wish to punish those who hold opinions they find base and wrong? The right to associate with whom one wishes is, after all, also a human right enshrined in law in our country. And so, at least in a sense, the challenge is to find a way for those two values—the right to speak unpopularly without suffering recrimination and the right to disassociate from those who express obnoxious opinions with which one does not wish to be associated—to co-exist. Surely, the right to disassociate is part of the right to associate…but what about the right to impose crushing penalties on people who, having not committed any crimes, simply offend one’s sense of decency? Is may be legal…but is it the right path for the citizens of a free society to pursue?

Just a few weeks ago, Brendan Eich was promoted to CEO of Mozilla Corporation, the manufacturers of a very popular web browser called Firefox and any number of other computer and internet-based programs. Shortly after that, it became known that Eich was personally opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage and had given $1000 to the 2008 campaign in California to promote Proposition 8, which proposition made same-sex marriage unconstitutional in that state until it was declared unconstitutional by a federal court two years later. By all accounts, Eich was hounded into resigning his position once his support for Proposition 8 became known. Making the soup even thicker is the fact that Eich was not accused by anyone of speaking ill of gay people or of discriminating against gay employees at Mozilla, simply of feeling, as do 47% of Americans, that same-sex marriage should not be legal. It amazes me—in a good way—that 53% of Americans support the concept of same-sex marriage. (For the results of the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that yielded that number, click here. What amazes me is how quickly public opinion has changed, not that it has shifted in what seems to me personally to be the direction of fairness and reasonableness.) But 47% of the American population is still more than 149 million people…so one can hardly argue that being opposed to the concept is “like” espousing a racist worldview that has been roundly and totally rejected by society itself, even if not by every single member of it. The details obviously are quite different, but my question in this context is not that different from the one put forward above with respect to Donald Sterling. Clearly, a majority of board members at Mozilla found Eich’s views on same-sex marriage unacceptable and wrongheaded. And it is surely relevant that Mozilla is a private company run by a board that obviously has the right to fire any employee deemed more of a liability than an asset. But my question is not whether the board of Mozilla was acting legally, but whether they were acting morally.

In the first psalm, the Bible counsels strongly against sitting in a moshav leitzim. The term literally denotes “an assembly of buffoons” and the implication is clearly that one has a moral obligation to avoid the company of bad people and not to allow oneself to feel comfortable in their presence. Should that be the value that prevails here? Or should the citizens of a free society force themselves to tolerate people whose views about the world they find intolerable in their midst? Does it make sense to suggest that people should tolerate what they find intolerable? (Is that even possible without redefining either “tolerate” or “intolerable”?)  Where exactly is the line correctly drawn between making freedom of speech a social as well as a legal value, and enabling people to feel free to express hurtful, prejudicial attitudes without fear of reprisal?

And that brings me to J Street. As you are probably all aware, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted on Wednesday to reject the application of J Street for membership. The vote was seventeen in favor and twenty-two opposed, with three abstentions. Nine members were absent for the vote. But even if all those absent and who abstained voted to admit, J Street still would have fallen short of the thirty-four votes it needs to join the organization.  

There is no possible explanation of the rejection other than as punishment for its views, deemed by many to be inimical to the best interests of Israel. Yet J Street self-defines as a pro-Israel organization whose stated aim is to encourage American efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully, diplomatically, and justly. I myself disagree with a lot of what J Street promotes. I think that many of their positions are naïve in the extreme, as do I also find their willingness to accept funds from people who are overtly hostile to Israel and their refusal publicly to disassociate from such people. But this too is one of those non-legal freedom-of-speech issues. No one is suggesting that J Street doesn’t have the right to exist or to put forth its views strongly or passionately. Nor does the Conference of Presidents have any sort of moral obligation to admit anyone at all who applies for membership. But for the Conference of Presidents to turn away an organization that has acquired a reputation as a major lobby group with 100 chapters (sixty of which are on college campuses) and whose constituency is made up almost exclusively of Jewish Americans merely because more than a third of its members do not approve of this or that policy J Street espouses or affirms—that puts it in the same basket as the others I’ve been writing about. We are not talking about legal obligations here—as noted just above, the Conference of Presidents has the right to admit to its ranks whom it wishes. But the right, even when self-arrogated, to speak for the American Jewish community has to entail a certain basic willingness to admit members from all across the spectrum, including those with whom sitting members disagree passionately. Nor is passionate debate with opponents fiercely loyal to their own opinions necessarily something to avoid. To obey the injunction not to sit in a moshav leitzim obviously points to the right to exclude leitzim from one’s personal ambit. But to define as leitzim any who hold differing opinions, including differing opinions with which one disagrees forcefully and strongly—that seems more than a bit of a stretch. The Conference of Presidents decided incorrectly in denying J Street membership.  Indeed, by inviting J Street into the tent, the scene would have only been set for J Street’s leaders too to learn from those who disagree with them, including those who disagree strongly and loudly, through dialogue, debate, and impassioned discourse.