Thursday, January 26, 2017

Praying for the President

Regular worshipers at Shelter Rock know that we routinely recite a prayer for our nation as part of our Shabbat morning service, but I'm not sure that everybody realizes that I myself wrote that prayer as part of the effort to publish Siddur Tzur Yisrael back in 2006. It was a product of its time, too: written just a few years after 9/11, the sense of America as a nation under siege was audible throughout. (When a synagogue in Boston years later wrote to ask permission to use my prayer in their service and specifically asked me for permission to delete the line “May the wicked plots of whose would destroy us ever come to naught,” I acquiesced, suggesting—only mostly in jest—that we could compromise by shortening it to just “May the wicked plotz.” Either they didn’t think that was as funny as I did or else they didn’t feel the shortened line sufficiently undid what they clearly considered the line’s untoward bellicosity, but they didn’t go for it. I decided not to mind and so it entered their worship service as published in Tzur Yisrael, but without that single line.)

At the time, it felt uncontroversial to include such a prayer in our prayerbook. Later on, however, I began to get regular queries about it, some sincere and others merely serving as a means for the asker to express his or her negative feelings about the president on whom the prayer invokes God’s blessings. My stock response was (and is) to note wryly the illogic of not wishing to pray that God grant wisdom and insight to someone the asker clearly considers in dire need of both, and so the prayer remained (and remains) part of worship at Shelter Rock.

The idea itself of praying on behalf of the government and its officials is ancient. Shelter Rockers all know the words “Pray for the peace of your city for in its peace shall you too have peace,” but not all know how old they are. And they are very old indeed: the prophet Jeremiah spoke them in the first decade of the sixth century BCE after the Babylonians exiled large numbers of ruling-class Judahites in the day of King Jehoiachin to punish them for their unwillingness to acquiesce to foreign domination and for their rebelliousness. Nor was this just the prophet’s personal take on things, but an actual divine oracle. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who are carried away captives, to all whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon,” the prophet reports in God’s name, “‘build houses and dwell in them. Plant gardens and eat their fruit…Seek the peace of the city to which I have caused you to be carried away as captives and pray to the Lord for it, for in its peace shall you too have peace.’” It’s true, I suppose, that the prophet doesn’t specifically tell the people to pray for the government, but praying for the peace of the city to which their captors had brought them comes to the same thing: the idea behind both efforts is to feel justified in praying to God for the city, for the nation, for its leadership…and all who exercise just and rightful authority in its governance. This is not presented as mere altruism either, for the prophet could not be clearer: the people’s security rests in the security of the larger place in which they live and in the success of its leadership in establishing that security.

The earliest reference to praying for the government per se, however, is probably in Pirkei Avot, where we hear that Rabbi Ḥananiah the Deputy High Priest, liked to tell people to “pray for the peace of the government, since were it not for the fear of the government people would swallow each other up alive.” He was in interesting personality in his own right, Rabbi Ḥananiah, serving as one of the few Temple officials to seek and attain rabbinic ordination, and thus serving as an unofficial link between the vanished world of pre-destroyed Jerusalem and the ongoing work of the rabbinic effort to create a version of Judaism that could survive the absence of the Temple. And this interesting personality makes an interesting point: that it behooves law-abiding citizens to pray for their government officials because it is the latter who are responsible for maintaining an orderly, peaceful society in which citizens specifically are not free to cannibalize each other’s work or property.

There were many attempts to formulate prayers for the secular governments of the countries in which Jewish worshipers lived, but the best known, called Ha-notein Teshu∙ah after its first words, was in very wide use by the middle of the seventeenth century. (For an interesting survey by Nathan E. Weisberg of earlier efforts to compose such prayers, click here.) The great Portuguese/Dutch rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657), for example, cited it in English translation in a book he wrote to promote the idea that Jews should be allowed to re-enter and settle in England, declaring it to have be  the universal custom of Jews everywhere “on the Sabbath Day or other solemn feast,” to bless “the Prince of the country under whom they live, that all Jews may hear it and say, Amen.”

On American soil, the very first published Jewish prayer published in the New World, called a “form of prayer” and published by Congregation Shearith Israel in New York in 1760, contained the Ha-notein Teshu∙ah and specifically called upon congregants to invoke God’s blessings on “our most gracious Sovereign Lord, King GEORGE the Second, His Royal Highness, George Prince of Wales, the Princess Dowager of Wales, the Duke, the Princesses, and all the Royal Family,” and also “the Honourable President, and the Council of this Province, likewise the Magistrates of New York.”  That suited the moment well enough, I suppose, but by the time the prayer was published for public recitation at the founding of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia in 1782, the royals were gone and in their place was a reference to “His Excellency the President, and Honourable Delegates of the United States in Congress Assembled, His Excellency George Washington, Captain General and Commander of Chief of the Federal Army of these States.”  So we’ve been at this for a long time, praying for our national leaders sincerely and, I feel sure, without any sort of ironic overtone.

Over the years, I’ve noticed versions of the prayer that mention—to cite only nineteenth century personalities—Kaiser Wilhelm I, Czar Nicholas II, Napoleon, and Queen Victoria. I’m sure there must be dozens of other examples—I’ve hardly conducted serious research into the matter and am only mentioning those names I’ve personally come across here and there in my literary travels. Nor was this a feature solely of Orthodox worship—by the time the Reform and Conservative movements started publishing their own prayerbooks, alternate versions of the prayer were routinely composed and used in place of the older version.  Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, for example, more or less all Conservative prayerbooks used some version the prayer originally written by Professor Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953) that asked worshipers to pray that God “pour out His blessings on this land, on its President, judges, officers and officials, who work faithfully for the public good.”

We all know the joke from Fiddler: “Rabbi, may I ask you a question?” “Certainly.” “Is there are proper blessing for the czar?” “A blessing for the czar? Of course! May God bless and keep the czar…far away from us!” Hah! But behind the joke is a piece of reality: prayerbooks from nineteenth and early twentieth century prayerbooks published in Russia absolutely did include a passage in which God is asked “to bless, protect, guard, assist, elevate, exalt, and lift upwards our master Czar Nikolai Alexandrovich, his wife the honorable Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, their son the crown prince Alexi Nikolaiovich, and his mother, the honorable Czarina Maria Feodoravna. And the entire house of our king, may their glory be exalted.” 

To ask whether we should or shouldn’t pray for the welfare of our president based on whether we do or don’t approve of his policies, his politics, or his personal bearing is to miss the point almost entirely.

We live in an age of extreme uncertainty. Even those who voted for President Trump are uncertain what specific campaign promises he will fulfill, or at least attempt to fulfill, and which he will jettison as undoable or unworkable. (He surely would not be the first president to do that.) Nor is it clear, even to his most ardent supporters, what the priorities of this administration are going to be and how vigorously or rigorously those priorities are going to be pursued. Indeed, by electing a president with no prior experience in government, our nation has opted for a national leader who in many ways is himself a tabula rasa, and whose policies and political stances are clearly still works in progress. Like all Americans, I am hoping for the best. But when people ask me if I think we should continue to pray that God bless our President with “wisdom and with a profound and unyielding devotion to justice, equity, and righteousness,” I can only answer robustly in the affirmative. Why wouldn’t we pray for something we all—regardless of our politics and specifically regardless of how we cast our ballot in November—for something we all fervently want and which our country unquestionably needs?

Thursday, January 19, 2017


It was back in the summer of 1986 that NYPD Officer Steven McDonald, then only twenty-nine years old and with only two years of service behind him, was shot three times by Shavod Jones, a boy of fifteen. Jones had been hanging around the Harlem Lake Boathouse near the northern end of Central Park with two friends when Officer McDonald, thinking the boys looked suspicious, approached them and initiated a conversation. Jones responded by pulling out a .22-caliber revolver and opening fire, squeezing off four shots. One shot missed entirely. Of the other three, though, one hit McDonald in the head just over his eye, one hit his throat (and later made it impossible for him to speak normally), and one shattered his spine, paralyzing him from the neck down. The stricken officer was immediately rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where he underwent hours of complicated surgery. He survived, but was left to live out his days as a quadriplegic able to breathe solely with the assistance of a ventilator. All three boys were arrested on the spot by other policemen patrolling the park.

New York was a dangerous place back then. There were, for example, 1907 murders in the city that year, as opposed to a mere 609 in 2015. I was already gone—we were away for nineteen years beginning in 1983, living in Israel, Germany, Canada, and southern California—but I recall all too well just how inured we had all become to the level of mayhem that seemed almost natural to the urban environment by the mid-80s. But even given the level of violence to which New Yorkers had become used—you may recall the line from Rent: “I’m a New Yorker—fear’s my life!”—Officer McDonald’s story was still horrific.  But his story was not only not over as evening fell on that awful day. It was actually just beginning.

The world kept spinning. The story faded from the headlines. The McDonald family found a way to cope, to move forward. Patricia McDonald, today the mayor of Malverne but then a pregnant newlywed facing a future that even a few months earlier would have been unimaginable, gave birth to a boy whom they named Conor Patrick.  Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor, the then archbishop of New York, presided at the boy’s baptism in the Catholic Chapel at Bellevue. That the archbishop of New York would personally preside over the baptism of a child born to a police officer grievously wounded in the line of duty was not that surprising, nor was his willingness to conduct the ceremony in a hospital. But what was extraordinary was Officer McDonald’s statement, which he read aloud following the ceremony and in which he publicly forgave the boy who shot him. “I’m sometimes angry at the teenage boy who shot me,” he said, “but more often I feel sorry for him...I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.”

I remember reading those words back then. (To see the article about the baptism that appeared in the Daily News the following day, click here.) And I remember wondering what kind of man would have it in his heart to forgive someone who had brazenly and unhesitatingly attempted to murder him. It is certainly not without importance that Shavod Jones was just fifteen in 1986, but I didn’t have the sense that Officer McDonald forgave Shavod Jones specifically because of his age….

Steven McDonald died at North Shore University Hospital just last week after suffering a fatal heart attack. Strangely, his death came just a few days after Dylann Roof was sentenced to death after being found guilty of charges stemming from the cold-blooded murder of nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in federal court in Charleston. And there too the specter of forgiveness loomed over the proceedings, at least as I myself watched them unfold.

Not all, but some of the relatives of the Charleston victims followed Officer McDonald’s lead and publicly forgave their loved one’s murderer. Nadine Collier, a daughter of victim Ethel Lance, spoke in court early on in the proceedings and publicly forgave her mother’s murderer using the same unambiguous language Officer McDonald did. So did the Reverend Sharon Risher, another of Ethel Lance’s daughters. Felicia Sanders, whose son Tywanza also died that day in Charleston, went on record formally forgiving Roof and publicly praying that God judge him mercifully. The sister of another victim, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, said simply, referring to her family, that “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray to God for your soul.”

Shelter Rockers all know how important Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower has been for me personally, both as a remarkable work of post-Shoah philosophy and as a moral guide, and I’d like to bring that story to bear in my effort to understand Officer McDonald’s behavior and the behavior of the relatives of the Charleston Nine mentioned just above.

For readers new to Wiesenthal’s book, its backstory will be very unexpected and challenging. In 1943, Wiesenthal, then thirty-five, was a prisoner of the Nazis assigned to a work detail near Lviv, once called Lvov, today the largest city in Western Ukraine but then the third largest city in Poland. The plot is a bit complicated, but the essential detail is that Wiesenthal ended up working in a hospital, where he agreed to a nurse’s request that he visit with a twenty-one-year-old S.S. officer named Karl who was dying of his wounds. Karl’s story tells is beyond horrific, even by Shoah standards, and involved his participation in the brutal murder of Jews in a Russian village in a way that resists description in normal language: to use words like bestial or barbaric to describe the Germans’ actions would be to say almost nothing at all. And then Karl, having confessed to his role in the slaughter, gets to the point: “The pains in my body are terrible, but worse still is my conscience . . . I cannot die . . . without coming clean . . . In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough . . . In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn't know whether there were any Jews left . . . I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.” Wiesenthal listened, then stood up and left the room without saying a word. When he returned the next day, Karl had already died.

The Sunflower is a collection of essays long and short by all sorts of interesting people—including Primo Levi, the Dalai Lama, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Desmond Tutu, Albert Speer, and forty-eight others—answering Wiesenthal’s question, “Ought I have forgiven him?” The contributors are a varied lot, and their answers vary accordingly. No one, as I recall, dares castigate Wiesenthal for his silence, but some nonetheless write passionately in favor of forgiving. Others feel he did exactly the right thing, that only silence could possibly have constituted a rational response to Karl’s request. The Christian responses are mixed, as are the other non-Jewish ones. (One of the most interesting is the one by Dith Pran, author of The Killing Fields and himself a survivor of mass murder on the level of genocide in Cambodia, and he thinks that Wiesenthal should have provided the forgiveness Karl needed to die in peace.) The Jewish responses are also mixed, but not in the same way: some express a reluctance to decide at all, but the overwhelming majority write that it would have been morally wrong, even reprehensible, to forgive…and precisely because Wiesenthal himself wasn’t one of Karl’s victims and so lacked the standing—or the moral right—to forgive a murderer on his victims’ behalf.

Applying that line of reasoning to the relatives of the Charleston Nine who spoke publicly of forgiving their loved ones’ murderer works if what they meant was that they personally felt aggressed against and were thus prepared to forgive the perpetrator for what he had done to them, not what he had done to his victims. I can accept that. But Officer McDonald’s gesture was of a different nature entirely. Here was a man who himself was the victim of the pent-up rage and unbridled violence of his assailant. Unlike Wiesenthal and also unlike the relatives of the dead in Charleston, then, he truly was entitled to forgive. And his act, therefore, was all the more remarkable.

Was it real? If the judge at Shavod Jones’ trial had turned to Officer McDonald and said, “Well, if you forgive him, then so do I. The defendant is guilty as charged, but free to go,” would McDonald have been dismayed or pleased? (This is a fantasy question—judges cannot “just” let people convicted of attempted murder go free because their would-be victims agree to it.) Asking it that way is perhaps unfair…but, even more so, it’s to miss the point. Officer McDonald understood that greater than the burden of quadriplegia would be the burden of spending a lifetime weighed down by anger and the thirst for revenge, and so he looked at his boy-assailant and, instead of wishing him dead, wished him peace. It’s that willingness to forgive that I found and still find so remarkable and, to speak personally, so mysterious.

Shavod Jones was released from jail in 1995 at age twenty-five after eight years of incarceration. Four days later, he was dead from head injuries sustained when he and a friend lost control of the motorcycle they were riding recklessly down a street in East Harlem. So that was the end of Jones’ story, but Steven McDonald, who was promoted after being shot to the rank of first-grade detective, spent the rest of his life promoting the cause of reconciliation. He spoke often about the way his Catholic faith sustained him, and how he felt proud to be symbol to others of the ability to forgive. He even traveled to Northern Ireland at the height of the unrest there to promote the cause of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants, making that trip in the company the Reverend Mychal Judge, the chaplain of the New York City Fire Department who was killed while ministering to others on 9/11.

The Torah forbids the faithful from holding grudges or refusing to reconcile when someone who has wronged us comes to ask for forgiveness. Rambam uses the very harsh term akhzari (“cruel”) to describe someone who refuses to forgive the sincere penitent who comes to seek forgiveness, and that surely is the model we should seek to emulate. But Officer Steven McDonald went far beyond the requirement of the law and offered his assailant forgiveness not as a response to the latter’s wish to atone, but as a spur to encourage him to seek atonement for a terrible crime. In my mind, that was the act of a truly noble man possessed of the ability not merely to allow reconciliation but actively to seek it out. That is beyond the letter of the law, to be sure. But embracing the moral basis for a law even if doing so requires going far beyond what the law actually requires is the mark, I think, of a truly noble spirit. And so I take note of Officer McDonald’s passing with great sadness and invite you all to join in the prayer that he rest in peace, and that his memory, and the fine example he set, be a source of blessing to his family and to his friends, and also to us all.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Two-State Solution

For as long as I can remember, the phrase “two-state solution” has been the foundation upon which all who would avoid the opprobrium of unreasonableness with respect to Middle Eastern politics wished to stand. In my letter today, I would like to revisit that phrase by reconsidering the fundamental political assumptions upon which it rests.

The “two-state solution” is an old idea with roots in the original Partition Plan of 1947, the U.N.-sponsored proposal to resolve the tension between the divergent national aspirations of the Jewish and Arab citizens of Mandatory Palestine by creating two states on the land that the League of Nations had awarded the British in 1923 when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and its bits and pieces parceled out to the various victorious parties in the First World War. There was a long backstory leading up to that plan, one filled with long-forgotten personalities and undertakings of various kinds, but the bottom line was simply that the land of Mandatory Palestine was to be divided into three parts: a Jewish state in which Jews would constitute about 55% of the population, a larger Arab state in which Arabs would constitute 99% of the population, and a kind of international entity consisting of Jerusalem and some surrounding towns (including Bethlehem) in which Jews and Arab would be more or less evenly represented. The detail that the original British Mandate had included the 35,000 square miles of what then was called Transjordan (and which today is the Kingdom of Jordan), but that this land was specifically excluded from the plans for partition by the now long-forgotten Transjordan Memorandum of 1922, proposed by the British and ratified by the League of Nations and made irrelevant in any case once the British allowed the Hashemite family, originally from Saudi Arabia, to establish a kingdom east of the Jordan with themselves as its royal family in 1946—that detail remains to this day profound in the eyes of some and fully negligible to others. (Perhaps I should say that more clearly. To those who consider it an important detail, there already are two states, one Jewish and one Arab, on the ground of the original British Mandate: Israel and Jordan.  To those who consider Jordan so long off the table as to be a mere red herring in the discussion, the other state in any two-state solution would have to be a third state called Palestine.)

In the end, none of this matters because nothing came of the plan. The Jews of Mandatory Palestine declared independence on May 14, 1948. That settled their future, at least politically, but created one of the most vexingly perplexing what-if’s of modern history: what the world would be like today if the Palestinian Arabs had kept faith with the Partition Plan and had declared their own independence in the spring of 1948. That would have resulted in the desired two states west of the Jordan River, precisely as the United Nations had proposed. But, of course, that is precisely what didn’t happen. In the course of the few days following the declaration of Israeli independence, thousands of Jordanian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian troops swarmed across the border to prevent the Jewish state from really coming into existence. And the rest is history—the War of Independence ended rather inconclusively in the first half of 1949 with a series of armistice agreements Israel signed with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, but without a clear resolution of the Palestinian Arab question.  In a sense, the much-spoken-of “two-state solution” today is an attempt to recapture that missed opportunity of May 1948, that moment in history when the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine could have simply had their state by declaring their independence and then getting on with the work of self-governance.

Thinking about that alternate version of history is an intoxicating exercise in political fantasy. In my personal version, the two states would by now have long since settled the claims of each other’s citizens with respect to abandoned or lost property of real estate in the “other” state. Consequently, the world would have long ago come to accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state in the same way that no one today seriously asks whether Brazil or New Zealand should exist as nation-states even though their national cultures actually were imported from elsewhere by colonialist settlers who had no prior relationship of any sort to their new land or its native culture, let alone the intense cultural and historical one that has linked the Jewish people to the Land of Israel for millennia. Would the Six Day War have happened? Would any of the wars that Israel has had to fight with its hostile neighbors over the last sixty-odd years occurred? By now, Israel and Palestine would have been each other’s chief trading partners for more than half a century and a lively cross-cultural artistic milieu would have created a sense in the world that Isaac and Ishmael can and do co-exist in the world, if not as full brothers, then at least as the two sons of a common father and as friends.

Oh well. That didn’t happen. But could it still? That’s the real question to ask as we consider the worthiness of the two-state solution regarding the elusive nature of which so many in so many different quarters endlessly wring their hands. In other words, the only reason to push for a two-state solution would be if such a plan could yield results something along the lines of the fantasy outlined in the preceding paragraph.

There’s no question that Israel would benefit mightily from a free, independent, liberal democracy to its east, one with which Israel would share a clearly-defined set of common goals and regional aspirations and in which Jews who wished to live, say, in Hebron would be welcome to settle. I can’t see why anyone would argue against that thought…but addressing the corollary question of whether it is a mere pipedream or a reasonable goal towards which rational people might choose to work—that is the real question to consider.

The prospects are not encouraging. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 led directly to the establishment of a terror-state in that place under the malign governance of Hamas. On the West Bank, the Palestinian leadership has fostered a culture that rewards terrorism, valorizes the murderers of Israeli civilians, and promotes a particularly virulent version of vicious and violent anti-Semitism among the children who attend its schools. The chances that an independent Palestine sandwiched in between Israel and Jordan would be nothing at all like Gaza feel, to say the very least, slim. And for Israel to create the possibility for a second Gaza to emerge on the West Bank would be sheer folly.

And that brings me to a different question, one broader and more challenging. Are nations capable of change? Are people? We say all the time that change on the micro-level of the individual is possible, that people absolutely do have the ability to abandon negative behavior patterns, to jettison unwanted and unsavory attitudes, to self-alter in accordance with a specific image one wishes to attain and feels called up to try to attain. We say that and, for the most part, we mean it. But is change possible on the national level? An entire generation of Palestinian youth has been raised to loathe Israel and hate Jews. (That’s a strong statement, but one I believe to be fully justified. Click here for more.) Can national cultures be led forward to finer versions of themselves, versions that repudiate negative traits and stances that have been consciously and purposefully bred into the consciousness of a people over scores of years? That seems to be the relevant question to ask as the Obama administration ends and the Trump years dawn.

When I consider the changes in our own national culture that have taken place over the years since I was in high school, it feels astounding—and all the more so because these changes appear to have occurred naturally rather than as a response to outside stimuli attempting to force us to grow in a certain direction. Same-sex marriage was unimaginable when I was in high school, for one important example. But an African-American president would have seemed equally impossible to me back then, as would any of a dozen other things that now seem commonplace, or at least unremarkable, but which once would have seemed revolutionary to the point of being truly unimaginable. But how exactly to foster that change is a different question. Yet, for all it is difficult to answer easily or simply, it is the issue at the heart of the matter: a two-state solution in the Middle East will require the Palestinians to embrace a level of tolerance, liberality, and progressive broad-mindedness of which the Gaza example is the precise antithesis.

Still, being naïve and being hopeful are not the same thing…and so I choose the latter while attempting to avoid the former and will close by offering a bit of visual encouragement with respect to the future of the two-state solution.

At the end of the eighteenth century, just when our own nation was starting up, King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia commissioned Carl Gotthard Langhans, his Court Superintendent of Buildings, to create a massive monument to peace in the form of a decorative gateway leading into Berlin. The result was named the Peace Gate, but later became known as the Brandenburg Gate because it was built on the site of an earlier gate that marked the beginning of the road from Berlin to the town of Brandenburg an der Havel. It was and is one of the most well-known architectural monuments of Germany, possibly even the best known.

Here it is shortly after its construction, when Napoleon celebrated his defeat of the Prussians at the Battle of Jena in 1806, in an artistic rendering of that moment in history by the noted French painter of historical scenes, Charles Meynier:

So the Gate of Peace got off to a bit of a rocky start, but no one—and certainly neither Friedrich Wilhelm nor Napoleon—could have imagined the horrors of Nazism and the way the Gate of Peace would one day appear festooned with the ultimate symbol of human depravity and moral corruption:

But just as surely as neither Napoleon nor Friedrich Wilhelm could have imagined Hitler, so could surely Hitler and his Nazi savages have never imagined this photograph, taken just last week in the wake of the horrific murder of four young Israeli soldiers out for a sightseeing tour of Jerusalem:

To say that Germany, the nation that brought the world the ultimate in moral depravity, could respond to the murder of four young Jewish soldiers by turning the Brandenburg Gate into an immense Israeli flag…but that the Palestinians cannot turn their back on terrorism, on Islamicist fundamentalism, on anti-Semitism, and on a self-wrought culture of implacable hostility to Israel—to me that seems, to say the least, an unlikely proposition. It seems impossible to imagine Palestinian growth in that direction and on that level, I admit. But to say that the picture reproduced just above would have seemed “unlikely” to Jews in the Lodz ghetto—that seems ridiculous almost the point of obscenity.

If someone had asked my father when America was going to be ready for a black president, he would have said—regretfully but with certainty—never…and he only died in 1999, a mere nine years before he could have seen with his own eyes just how wrong he was. If someone had asked a “regular” German citizen in 1944 when Germany would be ready to turn its most famous architectural monument into a symbol of national grief over the deaths of four young Jews killed by extremists, he would surely have given the same answer. But he too would have been wrong.  Will they one day say that of those among us who feel that there simply is no solution to the Palestinian question, that the Palestinian Arabs will simply never be able to renounce the parts of their national culture that make peaceful co-existence with Israel an impossibility or, at best, a pipe dream? Perhaps it’s the advent of a new year or maybe it’s just the way impending grandparenthood is already instilling a sense of uncharacteristic hopefulness in me, but I want to hope that that is exactly what they will say of those who feel that there is no solution in the Middle East, that no amount of negotiation or national growth could lead to reconciliation and peace. I can’t say that with certainty—I’m a rabbi, not a prophet—but it is my (secular) New Year’s prayer for us all.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Abe at Pearl Harbor

I was very moved—and unexpectedly so—by the remarks that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered at Pearl Harbor last month on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the day FDR said would “live in infamy,” the day that Japan bombed our naval base in Hawaii in a surprise attack that took the lives of 2,403 Americans and left another 1,178 seriously wounded.

Pearl Harbor was a watchword for perfidy in my parents’ home. My father would never have considered buying a Japanese car because, as he repeated to me a thousand times, to do so—in his mind, at least—would have been to betray the memory of the thousand-odd American servicemen whose remains rest, even today, inside the wreckage of the U.S.S. Arizona on the floor of the sea. And to do business with their murderers—my father was not one to mince his words—merely because we are technically speaking no longer at war with Japan was simply not something my Dad was prepared to do or would ever have considered doing.

My father once commented to me that 12-07-41 was the 11-22-63 of his generation, the day that everybody always recalled, that no one forgot, that even decades later could prompt any American adult alive at the time to say exactly where he or she was when news of the attack came over the radio. I can see that and, indeed, it’s hard to think of a period of just a few days that changed the history of the world as conclusively as the ones following the attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 7, Japan declared war on the United States and the U.K., and also invaded British Malaya and Thailand. The next day, the United States and the U.K. declared war on Japan. The day after that, China declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy. A few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, which was followed later that same day by the United States declaring war on Germany and Italy.  Within four or five days, the fate of the world was materially altered from what might have been to what eventually was. But although there is surely some truth to the theory that Germany might well have won the war in Europe if our nation hadn’t ever joined the fray—and thus that, at least in some convoluted way, the Jews in Europe who survived wouldn’t have escaped the Nazis had the Japanese not forcefully and violently brought the U.S. into the war—that was not how Pearl Harbor was remembered in my parents’ home. It was, in both my parents’ estimation, an act first and foremost of unprovoked barbarian butchery, a day of infamy and perfidy that should live on forever as an example to future generations of why the American military simply cannot be too strong…or too prepared. To find a silver lining in the horror by drawing some sort of direct line between Pearl Harbor and V-E Day would have struck my father as beyond grotesque.

So that was the background I brought to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor, which was, of course, intended to complement—and also to compliment—President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima last May. (To review my thoughts about that visit, click here.)  Technically speaking, each man was walking in at least some of his predecessors’ footprints. President Obama was preceded at Hiroshima by Richard Nixon in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1984, the former before he became President in 1968 and the latter after he left office, but no sitting president had ever gone. Prime Minister Abe was following in the footsteps of the three of his predecessors (including his own grandfather) who had previously visited the memorial at Pearl Harbor, but those three visits all took place in the 1950s, and none was made in the company of an American president. Both men’s visits were, therefore, not something unprecedented but nevertheless something new.

No one apologized for anything. President Obama spoke eloquently and movingly at Hiroshima, but his speech was crafted specifically to make it impossible for anyone to construe his remarks as an admission of guilt. Indeed, a neutral listener who didn’t know who actually dropped those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have found out by listening, even carefully, to the President’s comments. (You can decide for yourself by clicking here.) Nor did Prime Minister Abe apologize, not even obliquely.

And so was the stage set by the President and the Prime Minister for a new way to think both about Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor—as each other’s moral equivalents, as bookend events not because one initiated the war between Japan and the United States and the other ended it, but because, presumably, both were ghastly acts that seemed justified at the time but now, after all these years, we can see for the acts of barbarism they truly were. 

Does that sound right to you? The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because they wanted to guarantee that the United States would not interfere in the establishment of an empire that already included most of China and all of Korea, but which they clearly intended eventually to include all of southeastern Asia, presumably including Australia and New Zealand, regardless of whether the lands on the “to be conquered” list were independent nations or overseas territories of the U.S. or any of its allies.  Indeed, on the same day that those 353 Japanese fighter planes and bombers attacked Hawaii, the Japanese also launched air attacks against the American-held territories of Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines, and against the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. So there really wasn’t any ambiguity about the point of the attack. At least, Prime Minister Abe didn’t fall back on the traditional argument that the attack was justified by the oil embargo placed on Japan by the U.S., the U.K., and Holland in the wake of the “protective” Japanese occupation of French Indochina and by FDR’s decision to freeze all Japanese assets in the United States, particularly given the fact that the attack occurred while negotiations between the U.S. and Japan were ongoing. On the other hand, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was intended not to initiate a war, but to end one.  And, for better or worse, it worked: Japan offered to surrender conditionally the day following Nagasaki, and then finally surrendered unconditionally on August 15, 1945, a mere six days after the bombs fell on August 6 and 9.

All that being the case, I was completely primed to be offended by Prime Minister Abe’s remarks…and, even more so, by the expectation that they would somehow end up equating Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima as gigantic errors perpetrated by similarly benighted parties unable to understand the depths of their own moral depravity. But that wasn’t how I responded, and no one was more surprised by that than I!

Abe spoke from the heart, and these were his opening remarks:

Even 75 years later, the USS Arizona, now at rest atop the seabed, is the final resting place for a tremendous number of sailors and marines. Listening again as I focus my senses, alongside the song of the breeze and the rumble of the rolling waves, I can almost discern the voices of those crewmen. Voices of lively conversations, upbeat and at ease, on that day, on a Sunday morning. Voices of young servicemen talking to each other about their futures and dreams. Voices calling out the names of loved ones in their very final moments. Voices praying for the happiness of children still unborn.  Each and every one of those servicemen had a mother and a father anxious about his safety. Many had wives and girlfriends they loved. And many must have had children they would have loved to watch grow up. All of that was brought to an end. When I contemplate that solemn reality, I am rendered entirely speechless. “Rest in peace, precious souls of the fallen.” With that overwhelming sentiment, I cast flowers on behalf of Japanese people, upon the waters where those sailors and marines sleep.

By framing his remarks as a kind of eulogy for the dead, he struck a note that I found deeply resonant. Like President Obama, Shinzo Abe was born years after the war. He hardly had to note that he had personally played no role in the deaths of the thousands of Americans who died at Pearl Harbor, but that he chose to begin his remarks by focusing solely on the dead themselves—and that he signaled his personal understanding of the depth of tragedy that their loss entailed not solely for their nation but for their own families, for their own people—that seemed to me precisely the right note to strike.

And then he went on to talk neither about blame nor guilt, but about reconciliation as a sacred undertaking, as the almost holy framework—he didn’t use religious language in his remarks but that’s somehow how I heard them—in which enemies can turn from enmity to live in peace. He observed, entirely correctly, that his nation and ours cannot be compared in terms of the challenge this prospect of reconciliation posed in 1945. Japan lay in ruins, its economy in tatters and its right to a place among its former enemies in the forum of nations uncertain even to its own citizenry. It did not take much, therefore, for the Japanese to yearn for reconciliation. But it did for our nation. We were the victors, they the vanquished. We dictated the terms of surrender and we had it in our power to make Japan a vassal state, to deny it a place in the world community of post-war nations, to find in the national humiliation of the Japanese a way to see a brighter future for our nation and for the world.  But we did not take any of those paths forward.

Abe said this as well:

The Japanese people managed to survive and make their way toward the future thanks to the sweaters and milk sent by the American people. And it was the United States that opened up the path for Japan to return to the international community once more after the war. Under the leadership of the United States, Japan, as a member of the free world, was able to enjoy peace and prosperity. The goodwill and assistance you extended to us Japanese, the enemy you had fought so fiercely, together with the tremendous spirit of tolerance were etched deeply into the hearts and minds of our grandfathers and mothers. We also remember them. Our children and grandchildren will also continue to pass these memories down and never forget what you did for us.

I found those words moving and satisfying, partially just because they are so true…but also because they reminded me just how remarkable—and how remarkably noble—our nation has the capacity to be, using the fantastic might of our military not to dominate but to make peace, not to bend other nations to our will but to create a world in which even the most dastardly of former enemies can move forward to a better future. And that was the Prime Minister’s wish as well. “It is my wish,” he concluded by saying, “that our Japanese children, and President Obama, your American children, and indeed their children and grandchildren, and people all around the world, will continue to remember Pearl Harbor as the symbol of reconciliation.”

One of the things I admired the most about my father was the fact that he continued to grow morally and intellectually throughout all the years of his life. Very late in life, he became a vegetarian. His political views also morphed forward throughout the years, partially because of his supple intellect but also because he considered ongoing ethical growth a badge of honor not a sign of mental instability. I mentioned above that he never bought a Japanese car, but I’m not sure he ever bought a Japanese radio either. He felt that Pearl Harbor was a symbol of barbarism and inhumanity, and of militaristic depravity. But I think he would have responded warmly to Shinzo Abe’s remarks and found some sort of closure in them. To no one’s surprise more than my own, I felt the same way.