Thursday, June 16, 2022

From the Swamp, A Truth

For years now, it has been fashionable among thoughtful observers of the American political scene to pair every statement opposing anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish prejudice with the proviso that being hostile to some specific policy or policies of the State of Israel does not ipso facto qualify the holder of such an opinion as an anti-Semite. This has become so normal that most of us who listen carefully whenever non-Jews speak about anti-Semitism hardly even register the comment. And, of course, there really are people out there who merely oppose this or that policy adopted or pursued by one or another Israeli government without being motivated by some deeply rooted hatred of Jews but. I myself am in that category: don’t I personally oppose certain specific Israeli policies, and specifically when they are inimical with the kind of freedom of religion we Americans enjoy and but of which Israelis can only dream?

But then there are those who are specifically not opposed to some single policy of some specific Israeli government, but who are opposed to the State of Israel existing at all. In some circles, it is considered possible—at least in some extended theoretical way—to argue that such people too are not really motivated by anti-Semitism, that they are merely proposing an alternate political agenda for the Middle East: one that does not include a Jewish state at all. But within the Jewish world we know better, or at least most of us do. In that regard, I was very impressed by an essay published in the new journal Sapir just this last spring by Ammiel Hirsch, the rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. Rabbi Hirsch is an interesting personality: an ordainee of the Hebrew Union College in New York, but also a member of the New York State Bar with a law degree from the London School of Economics and a former tank commander in the IDF. His prose is both articulate and intelligent. And his essay of last spring, “Judaism and Zionism are Inseparable,” made a strong impression on me. He didn’t really make any arguments that were unfamiliar to me. Nor did he adduce any sources I hadn’t previous read. But what he did do was say clearly and forcefully something I have been saying a bit less clearly and forcefully from the bimah for years: that rejecting the right of Jewish people to exist politically as well as spiritually is tantamount to denying Jews the right to exist at all and that there is no more precise definition of anti-Semitism that that. (To read Rabbi Hirsch’s essay, click here.)

And now I see that the most rabid anti-Israelists have come around to agreeing with Rabbi Hirsch. I am referring to the Mapping Project, undertaken by radical anti-Israel activists in Massachusetts and endorsed by BDS Boston, which last week published a map of 482 organizations that, in the opinion of its members, deserve to be “disrupted” and eventually “dismantled” because of their pro-Israel policies and politics. But only some of these organizations have anything specifically to do with Israel. And, so, on the list are local police departments, the offices of both of Massachusetts’ senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, the offices of the Boston Globe…and, in the words of the Boston Jewish Community Council, “virtually every Jewish organization in the Commonwealth, along with its leadership.” In other words, the far-left organizers of this undertaking—who were not quite so brave as to publish own names alongside their work—have come around to agreeing with Ammiel Hirsch that even if thinking Jews and Judaism have a right to exist and thinking that the State of Israel has a right to exist are not precisely the same thing, theirs is a distinction without a difference. And that being viscerally opposed to the existence of Israel should lead naturally to embracing anti-Semitism, and precisely because, in the end, there is no such thing as Judaism that doesn’t have Zionism—the belief in the right of the Jewish people to exist in its own homeland as an independent political entity—as one of its constituent elements. The lunatic fringe on the right—visible to most New York Jews only as a vile side-show at the Israel Parade each spring—joins the less-radical left in rejecting Rabbi Hirsch’s argument. But those of us who occupy the large middle ground between the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum understand that the Mapping Project—for all its horrifically vituperative rhetoric—has correctly seized a basic truth: that there simply is no possibility of being a faithful Jewish person without feeling a deep and ineradicable connection to the Land of Israel and, in modern times, to the State of Israel.

Nor is this “just” about attitudes and opinions. An essay by Gilead Ini published on the CAMERA website a few days ago noted that “the BDS activists behind the map appear to encourage violence against those on the list—including Jewish students, artists, worshipers, and philanthropists, and the organizations they support. (The organizations the appear on the map include such innocuous ones the Jewish Teen Foundation of Greater Boston, the Jewish Arts Collaborative, and the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts.) ‘These entities [i.e., those organizations, including synagogues] exist in the physical world and can be disrupted in the physical world,’ the Mapping Project asserts and specifies that its members “hope people will use our map to help figure out how to push back effectively.’” Nor is the specific way the Mapping people hope to push back effectively left unspecified: the project’s website says specifically that its “goal in pursuing this collective mapping was to reveal the local entities and networks that enact devastation, so we can dismantle them….Every entity has an address, every network can be disrupted.” Also listed, by the way, are the names of the individuals in leadership positions in those institutions and organizations.

And so we see the extreme anti-Israelists among us crossing the line from merely opposing this or that Israeli policy to declaring war on Jews in general. And yet, for all I find their threats unnerving and beyond distressing, I think that their basic assumption—that to be a Jew other than in name only means to stand with Israel—is correct.

The question that remains is how the Jewish community will respond. To wave these people away as crazy haters who will eventually drown in the swill of their own poison rhetoric will not sound like a rational response to anyone familiar with the history of Germany Jewry in the 1930s. But what should our response be? All sorts of politicians have issued condemnatory statements—including Representatives Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Ayanna Presley (D-Mass.), Richie Torre (D-New York), Jerry Nadler (D-New York), and Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), as well as Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy. So that’s comforting. A little. But the real question is not how many politicians are willing to condemn this kind of Nazi-style targeting of any and all Jewish institutions first for “disruption” and then for “dismantling,” but what exactly can be done to eliminate this kind of violent extremism from developing from threat to reality. To begin, we should ask each of the politicians who issued strongly condemnatory statements what they actually plan to do to make Jewish institutions and Jewish people safe. Words, after all, are cheap. And what American politician wasn’t on record opposing Nazi anti-Semitism in the 1930s with words?

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Return to Munich?

 I spent the week leading up to Shavuot reading Robert Harris’s excellent novel, Munich, which I enjoyed very much and somehow hadn’t gotten to until now. (I usually read books made into movies before seeing the film, but made the mistake this time of reversing the order. The movie, starring Jeremy Irons, George McKay, and Jannis Niewöhner, was good enough—but I found the book to be far more compelling.) Nor was this an unusual choice for me: I’ve been a huge fan of Harris since his 1992 breakout bestseller, Fatherland, and have read all of his books published since then. I especially liked his “Cicero” trilogy (the books were published in the U.S. as Imperium, Conspirata, and Dictator), which books were and are the best and most exciting lawyer-novels I’ve read. But Harris’ several books that are set against the background of events leading up to or taking place during the Second World War (Fatherland, Enigma, Munich, and V-2) are in a class by themselves. I recommend them all.

I was drawn to read Munich specifically because of the parallel I am seeing increasingly clearly between the situation facing the world in 1938, when the Germans were about to go to war for the sole purpose of seizing the territory of a country—in this case Czechoslovakia—that it felt had no “real” right to exist, and the one facing us now in 2022, as Russia pursues a war of ruthless brutality against a neighboring country regarding which its leader feels similarly. Nor are those the only parallels: the fact that a serious portion of the Czechoslovak population in the region called the Sudetenland was made up of ethnic Germans who spoken German as their native tongue and who regarded Germany as their homeland gave Hitler the fig leaf he at that point still felt he needed to justify invasion as liberation, not at all unlike the way that Vladimir Putin has attempted to justify his invasion of Ukraine with reference to the 17.5% of the Ukrainian population that self-defines as ethnically Russian.

The world remembers Neville Chamberlain, British P.M. from 1937 to 1940, as the quintessential appeaser, as the man who famously signed over the territory of someone else’s country to the Germans for the sake of preserving “peace in our time,” words that have come to have—to say the very least—a hollow ring when spoken against the background of what was yet to come. (The Munich Conference of 1938 took place precisely so that France and the U.K. could feel good—or, at least, less bad—about stepping back from their unambiguous commitment to defend the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia so that the Germans wouldn’t need to start an actual war to seize the territory they wished to acquire.) The point of Harris’s novel is to provide some shading for that portrait of Chamberlain as a gun-shy coward who was prepared to do anything at all to keep Hitler from going to war, much less as a fool who lacked the insight to see through Hitler’s phony assurances that the transfer of the Sudetenland to German control constituted the sole territorial adjustment that Germany wished to make to the map of Europe.

The ”real” issue, Harris suggests, was the fact that there was no way imaginable that Britain could have won if war had broken out in 1938—at which time the Royal Air Force  had exactly twenty fighter planes “with working guns” to protect the entire nation—and that behind Chamberlain’s endlessly mocked decision to hand over a serous chunk of someone else’s to Germany was his need to stall for time so that Britain could be far more ready to fight before war actually did break out. And, indeed, it seems quite correct that the outcome of the Battle of Britain was as it was precisely because it began in the summer of 1940 instead of in 1938. When a nation is motivated by the almost certain knowledge that it is about to face a ruthless foe in all-out war, two years can be a long time!

I have been drawn to reading about Munich lately because I see a certain level of Ukraine-fatigue setting into our national approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. No longer a front-page issue unless a significant number of civilians are killed, the war has settled into our national consciousness as a bad thing happening to someone else’s country by an aggressor nation we hold no sympathy for…but who we also have zero interest in actually going to war against.

Nor am I intuiting this based on my own survey of the news: President Biden published an essay in the Times just last week in which he made that precise point unambiguously and plainly. The President started off by explaining that our goal in Ukraine is straightforward and clear: our nation wants, he wrote, “to see a democratic, independent, sovereign, and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression.” And then he went on to opine that, in his opinion, only a diplomatic solution will serve truly to end the conflict. Nor did the President look away from the fact that the Russians do not seem eager or even slightly inclined to resolve the conflict peacefully. Indeed, our commitment to continue to provide the Ukrainians with the kind of arms and rocket systems they will need to keep the Russians from winning the war is rooted, he wrote clearly, in the assumption that those negotiations will come about precisely when the Russians finally realize they have embarked on a war they simply cannot win.

And then the President got to his real point. “So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked,” he wrote unambiguously, “we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces. We are not enabling or encouraging Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.” So that was clear enough and the President’s principles were no less transparent. We want the Ukrainians to win. We will provide them with billions of dollars’ worth of arms. We will stand by them diplomatically and emotionally. But we will not enter this war. In other words, we’ll do what we can—but if the Ukrainians lose, they will have to live with the consequences of their own defeat. (To read the President’s essay in full, click here.)

Is Joe Biden our Neville Chamberlain? Or, to ask the same question in different words: is our decision to support Ukraine with money and guns but ultimately to leave the Ukrainians to their fate the moral equivalent of the decision of the French and British more than eighty years ago to denounce the German threat to invade Czechoslovakia but ultimately to leave the Czechs and Slovaks to theirs? The parallel is not exact. The Brits and the French specifically did not send massive amounts of money and arms to Czechoslovakia. The Germans specifically hadn’t invaded and were only threatening to—and the Munich Agreement actually did result in a peaceful transfer of territory without simultaneously plunging the world into war. But it also gave the Germans another year to prepare their offense and to stockpile their weapons so that when, a year later, Germany unilaterally invaded Poland (and without first asking the permission of the U.K. or France), their success in crushing the Poles was more or less guaranteed. Where things went from there, we all know—so the real question, the one that matters, is what would have happened if the Munich Conference had never taken place, if Germany launched a military invasion of Czechoslovakia, and if the U.K. and France had gone to war forcefully and aggressively in 1938. Would Germany have been defeated? Would the rest, including the Shoah, never have happened? If the French and the Brits had honored their commitment to Czechoslovakia’s territorial integrity, would events have quickly led to regime change in Berlin? Would the U.S. have joined such a principled, just war against a ruthless aggressor state…or would FDR still have dithered until the Japanese finally forced our hand?

These are tantalizing questions that have no answers. Czechoslovakia’s so-called allies declined to honor their commitments and allowed themselves to feel good about betraying an ally by telling themselves that Hitler probably meant it when he insisted that his troops would only cross the border into another country this one single time. Putin too has indicated that he has no plan to occupy the countries of the former Soviet Union one by one, much less that he hopes to paste back together the old USSR and recast it as a new Russian Empire. Nor, of course, does the fact that Hitler betrayed his own pledge necessarily imply that Putin will. In the best-case scenario, Ukraine wins. In the second-best-case scenario, Ukraine loses and Putin honors his commitment to attack no other nations. Well worth noting is that no nation of the former Soviet Union is a member of NATO, so all Putin really has to do to avoid a World War with the West is to keep his hands off of Finland and Sweden, supposing they manage to join NATO. If the West wouldn’t intervene to save Ukraine, why would anyone expect it to intervene to save Latvia or Moldova? I suppose we all know the answer to that question. And so, of course, does Vladimir Putin.

Looking back, there are lessons to be learned. Of them, the simplest are that buying bullies off rarely works in the long run, that peace and appeasement are similar concepts only etymologically and not at all politically, and that fantasizing that giving in to a bully’s demands will somehow discourage that bully from making even more demands is folly. For the moment, the Ukrainians appear to be holding their own. But time is on the Russians’ side—and in a very big way. So the real question is what we will do if the tide turns dramatically and a Ukrainian defeat seems imminent. That is the question to which we, the people, should be demanding an answer and which the President specifically failed to address in his op-ed piece. We should be demanding the answer to that question now, long before we have actually come to that crossroads and have to make a game-time decision which path to take forward.


Thursday, June 2, 2022

Memorial Day 2022

Memorial Day has undergone several serious changes since I was a boy. For one thing, it had a different name: when I was growing up, the holiday was mostly called Decoration Day. (The idea was that people went to the graves of soldiers who died in the course of our nation’s wars and decorated them with flowers and other kinds of suitable symbols.) And it had a fixed date, too: Decoration Day was May 30 from Civil War times up until 1970 when Congress voted both formally to change the name to Memorial Day and to fix its annual occurrence on the last Monday of May regardless of that day’s actual date.

But the single biggest shift has been the slow move away from seeing the day as a somber day on which to acknowledge the more than 1.3 million Americans who have died in in the service of our country by visiting their graves or by otherwise acknowledging their supreme sacrifice to one mostly celebrated, to extent it is celebrated at all, as a day for giant blow-out sales and as the unofficial first day of summer. Is that fair to say? It feels like that to me: each year the President participates in a somber wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington and the rest of everybody goes to the beach.

Where that strange ambivalence comes from, who can say? To some extent it has to do with the pride earlier generations took in the bravery displayed by the men and women of our Armed Forces in the Spanish-American War, in World Wars I and II, and in Korea, and the confused set of emotions that inheres even today in the legacy of Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor has the legacy of the Civil War been a simple one to negotiate: to expect the citizens of our Southern states to mourn the loss of those soldiers who died defending the integrity of the Union but not the scores of thousands of Confederate soldiers from their own states who died in their leaders’ vain effort to dismember the Union and to tear it asunder by force—that seems like a battle best not fought at all. Nor is this in any sense not a competition: for years, April 26 was observed across the South as Confederate Memorial Day for years and the practice has never fully died out—Confederate Memorial Day is still a holiday in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama—nor is it rooted in sentiments that have fully and completely died out (to which fact the ongoing kerfuffle over statues memorializing Confederate leaders and soldiers unambiguously testifies).

So we Americans bring a mixed bag of emotions to the table as we arrive at Memorial Day each year. Still, you would think there could be a way to move past the politics and to grieve nationally for the well more than a million young men and women who died in our nation’s service without becoming inextricably tangled up in extraneous details. Yes, you are allowed to think our incursion into Iraq was foolish and ill-conceived. And you are certainly allowed think—as I certainly do—that the soldiers who fought to dismantle the Union during the 1860s were, to say the very least, misguided in their zeal. I have my own complex set of emotions about Vietnam. (I would have more or less definitely been drafted in February of 1972 if Congress hadn’t voted to end the draft at the end of January of that year.) But the challenge of Memorial Day should not be decisively to resolve all these complicated issues, but rather to encourage the citizenry to set them aside and to think instead of the endless thousands of young people whose lives were cut short because of their willingness to take the ultimate risk in the service of their—our—nation. Focusing on the circumstances of their deaths would be, in this specific context, both pointless and counterproductive. Our nation has grown to its position of stature and power in the world because of those who served and serve. And if honoring those whose lives were cut short requires looking past politics to honor virtues like courage, patriotism, selflessness, and virtue, then so be it.

In 1882, the most celebrated and beloved of our national poets was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He led a remarkable life too, one I enjoyed reading in detail about in Charles C. Calhoun’s book, Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life, which I came across a few years ago and recommend to all. He spent his life teaching first at Bowdoin College in Maine (where he had himself earlier on gone to school and been classmates with Nathaniel Hawthorne and future president Franklin Pierce) and at Harvard. And he was incredibly productive, producing in the course of his lifetime some sixteen volumes of poetry, countless translations (including the first American translation of Dante), as well as many novels and plays.

At the very end of his life, shortly before his death in March of 1882, Longfellow wrote one of his last poems, “Decoration Day.” Was he was prompted by some preternatural sense that he wouldn’t live until the end of May and so needed to write his poem while he still could? No one can say, but he did write his poem and he finished it too, then sent it into The Atlantic, a magazine he had earlier on helped to found, where it was published in the June issue of that year. More than any other work I know, Longfellow expresses exactly the twin sentiments I was describing above: that sense that people who die in their nation’s service deserve to be honored for their readiness and willingness to serve, and that the political climate that led to the war or to the conflict that led to the battle that led to that person’s death need not be part of the story at all. He ignores all that, not even deigning to nod in that direction. Instead, he addresses the young dead lying in their earthen graves and tells them that their service is complete and their task done, and that they have earned the right to rest in peace.

And so, in honor of Memorial Day this year I would like to offer to you Longfellow’s great poem, “Decoration Day.”

Decoration Day


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest

On this Field of the Grounded Arms,

Where foes no more molest,

Nor sentry’s shot alarms.

Ye have slept on the ground before,

And started to your feet

At the cannon’s sudden roar,

Or the drum’s redoubling beat.

But in this camp of Death

No sound your slumber breaks;

Here is no fevered breath,

No wound that bleeds and aches.

All is repose and peace,

Untrampled lies the sod;

The shouts of battle cease,

It is the truce of God.

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!

The thoughts of men shall be

As sentinels to keep

Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green

We deck with fragrant flowers

Yours has the suffering been,

The memory shall be ours.


Thursday, May 26, 2022


The simple, and so-very-satisfying, way to deal with the Uvalde shooting is to wave it away as the irrational act of a crazy person. And there is, as there always is, something deeply appealing to that approach. Who but a truly insane individual, after all, could bring a loaded weapon to an elementary school and start shooting, apparently randomly, at the children and teachers present? (That the shooter started off his day by shooting his own grandmother only makes it easier and simpler to explain the school shooting as the act of a deranged person.) But is that really all there is to say?

In crime novels, the perpetrator is generally located through some thoughtful application of the cui bono rule. Those Latin words, originally spoken in this context by Cicero more than two thousand years ago, mean “to whom does it benefit” and supposes that, because people generally commit crimes because they expect to reap some sort of benefit from their actions, perpetrators can often be identified by figuring out who stood to profit from the crime. According to this line of thinking, jewel thieves generally steal jewels because they want them but can’t afford to purchase them honestly. The murder of people about to appear as witnesses in court can be supposed to have something to do with the person they were going to testify about wishing to keep them from doing that thing. Arsonists set fire to buildings because they believe they will somehow benefit from that specific edifice burning to the ground—and out-of-control pyromaniacs are merely the exceptions that prove the rule. And now we get to the point: since the police have yet to uncover any specific way that the shooter can possibly have imagined that his terrible act would benefit himself or, for that matter, anyone at all, it feels reasonable to wave this horror away as the insane act of a crazy person. Doesn’t that feel logical?

Maybe not so much. Would you have the courage to tell one of the bereaved parents that this was just a bad thing that happened, that crazy people do crazy things all the time, that there is no one to blame because the shooter is dead and there is no one else to blame? And what of the shooter’s own family? To know that your son’s name will live on in infamy as the murderer of innocent children has to be unbearable, as no less so must also be the knowledge that, not only is your son dead, but the overwhelming majority of citizens think that’s a good thing, that he deserved to die, that even had he survived he should have been sentenced to death and then executed by the state—would you comfort them by explaining that their son was crazy and that no other explanation is called for or needed?

Statistics provide no comfort at all. About thirty-five Americans die every single day of the year from gun violence. Americans own about six times as many guns per capita as, say, Germans, but have thirty times as many gun murders on an annual basis. Comparisons with other countries are even more unsettling: Americans own about six times as many guns per person as Spaniards, but there are in these United States three hundred times as many gun murders per year as there are in Spain. Are Americans simply more violent and prone to gun-based crime than other nations? Is there such thing as a national predilection for violence that can be brought to bear to explain events like Uvalde or Buffalo? Or is such a thing just a made-up fantasy promulgated by people eager to explain away this never-ending carnage as something indelibly stamped on our national character, thus as something we have to live with despite its obvious undesirability, something like the way blind people  have no choice but to learn how to cope in the world without being able to see?

I have never been able to understand how the specific words the Second Amendment uses to permit citizens to formed “well-regulated” armed militias to defend their cities and states can magically be made to mean that teenagers with no training in gun safety have the right to buy assault rifles even though they specifically do not belong to any sort of state-run militia, well-regulated or otherwise. So I won’t even begin to go there. I understand I am fully out of step with the way the text has come to be read. But, unburdened as I am with any actual training in constitutional law, I simply do not see anywhere in the language of that amendment anything even remotely related to the issue at hand.

And so that leads me to my next question: is it possible that there simply is nothing to do to stem these kinds of mass shootings, events so numerous in our nation that no one can keep them straight any longer or remember precisely which shooter goes with which event? In an article I read a few years ago by Nicholas Kristoff, the author argued that what’s needed is a national approach to gun safety based on our very successful efforts to make driving cars safer. And, at the face of things, there is something to recommend that approach: by introducing more and more safety features in automobiles (seat belts, air bags, etc.), we have managed to lower the rate of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles by six-sevenths since 1946. That number would be amazing under any circumstances. But to note that we reduced automobile fatalities by 85% without outlawing cars or making them impossible to acquire or use is beyond amazing. Kristoff’s essay very interesting and I recommend it to you all. (Click here to see the updated version published on the Times’ website earlier this week.) But it’s also a cosmetic solution—something worth exploring and putting into action, but still an approach that wants to alleviate the symptoms because it seems impossible to cure the disease. Doctors do this all the time, of course, and who, if we are dealing with a terminally ill patient, would object to a doctor focusing on the effort to make the symptoms of that patient’s disease easier to bear? But—in medicine as in life—the first choice will always be to cure the disease and not merely to alleviate the symptoms.

So what would that mean on a national level for our stricken country as the blood of murdered innocents yet again seeps into our American soil? That is the question I think American should be asking themselves today.

The ultimate answer, who knows? But I don’t think there is no point in trying to think this through—and specifically not with reference to making guns safer and harder to steal. (Those would be too good things. But neither speaks to the real issue at hand.) Instead, we need to repair our cavalier American approach to the value of human life…and then seriously discuss the price we are prepared to pay to live lives in sync with that approach. In our cultural milieu, being “pro-life” means being opposed to abortion either entirely or mostly. (I’ll write about that some other time.) But what if we were somehow to nudge society along to the point at which the inviolate sanctity of human life was paramount in the minds of all as the bedrock foundation upon which the national ethos rests, and not just as a handy slogan to push one specific approach to one specific issue? What if it were to become natural and normal to do everything conceivable—with no exceptions at all—to safeguard the lives of the children in our schools? Or if it started to go without saying that the willful taking of another person’s life was never, and not under any circumstances, to be explained away with reference to the circumstances of the murder or the mindset of the murderer, but instead was considered, as an offense against the living and against God? What if we taught our children truly to believe that human life is of inestimable value—by which I mean that its value cannot be calculated in terms of money—and then enacted legislation based on that assumption? What if the notion that you can effectively express political or personal rage by buying an automatic weapon and then discharging it in a public place were to be so totally anathemized that only the truly deranged—and not the merely angry or disgruntled—would even consider expressing themselves in such a way? If we as a society were to find the courage to answer all or even just some of these questions, we’d be on our way to restoring the secure decency of our lives in this place.

There is no way to make the world totally and absolutely safe. But there are nations where the chances of being killed by a violent maniac holding a loaded gun are basically infinitesimal when compared to our own nation. It can, therefore, be done. And, that being the case, the only real question is whether we have the national will to do it.


Thursday, May 19, 2022


Like most American Jews (and, I imagine, most American non-Jews as well), I was confused back in 2017 when white supremacists marched through the streets of Charlotteville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” At first, I supposed that the slogan referenced some crazy belief that Jews were slowly taking over the nation and pushing non-Jews out of their jobs, their communities, and even their place in American society. That there are hundreds of millions more non-Jews in the United State than there are Jews seemed not to matter; all that I thought I heard those people saying was that they were afraid that, one by one, the non-Jews of the nation would somehow be replaced by Jews. But then I learned that that was not at all what they meant and that the idea was that Jews, by controlling the federal government and its immigration policies, were behind the effort to bring gigantic numbers of non-white foreigners into the country and that it was those people—dark-skinned types from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa—it was those people whom the Charlottesville marchers were afraid were slowly going to take over their jobs, their churches, and eventually their state legislatures and their delegations to the Congress. So the verb was transitive, not intransitive: the marchers were insisting that the Jewish plan was to replace them not with themselves but with various kinds of people of color and foreign ethnicity, but that that was not going to work because they were not going to permit it to happen.

At the time, this theory—that white “legacy Americans” (to use the more recent term of choice) need seriously to fear being replaced by non-white newcomers who will slowly become the majority in their towns and states, and eventually in the nation itself—was new to me. But that was then. And, in the meantime, it has taken off in the blogosphere and on the kinds of internet websites that appeal to white supremacists. Brenton Tarrant, the man who murdered more than fifty worshipers in two different mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, 2019, left behind a seventy-five page long manifesto that he called “The Great Replacement,” in which he detailed his theory that people of color—and particularly Muslims—were on their way to becoming the majority in New Zealand and that it was only a matter of time before they replaced the white population and were in a position to elect their own officials who would complete the task of transforming New Zealand from a republic of primarily white people with European ancestors into some version of a caliphate. That Muslims currently constitute a mere 1.3% of the population of New Zealand did not apparently strike the shooter as a relevant statistic.

Closer to home, Robert Gregory Bowers, the man accused of murdering eleven and wounding six worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018, is also a proponent of this “Great Replacement” theory. (He apparently chose his target in Pittsburgh because one of the congregations housed there was part of the HIAS-sponsored “National Refugee Shabbat” intended to build support for treating refugees seeking asylum in our nation kindly, generously, and fairly.) And Patrick Crusius, the man charged with murdering twenty-three people in a Wal-Mart’s in El Paso on the third of August in 2019, appears also to have written a manifesto similar to the one composed by the Christchurch killer, one in which he writes openly that his belief in that same theory prompted him to take action against the Latino population in his home state.

And now we have Buffalo, a tragedy allegedly perpetrated by a teenager earlier this week in which ten people were killed and another three injured. Of the thirteen, eleven were Black Americans, which was apparently the point: the young man accused of the crime, Payton S. Gendron, allegedly drove hours from his home in Conklin, New York (south of Binghamton on the border with Pennsylvania), to a supermarket he had already scouted out and which he correctly imagined would be filled with Black shoppers on a weekday afternoon. And he too was a fan of the “Great Replacement” theory, as evidenced by the fact that the manifesto he posted on Google Docs was to a large extent cribbed from the manifesto composed and posted by Brenton Tarrant before he shot all those people in New Zealand. For good measure, he wrote approvingly as well both about Anders Breivik, who murdered seventy-seven people, mostly teenagers in an Oslo summer camp, in July of 2011, and Dylann Roof, who murdered nine Black worshipers at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in 2015, and who has since been sentenced to death.

Where did any of this come from? Even if we are prepared to ignore the illogic of someone killing innocents in a supermarket, none of whom was an immigrant to these shores or a refugee, to address the nefarious plot to replace white Americans with darker-skinned replacement citizens, it is still hard to imagine what could motivate someone to adopt a worldview so little in sync with reality. Is this then just a kind of mental illness in which an outlandish theory takes root in the psyche of a group of fellow travelers and leads them to act in a way that would be explicable if the theory were grounded in fact? Or is this something else, perhaps the poison fruit of some sort of malign nostalgia for a fantasy version of bygone days—when the Congress was completely white, gas was thirty-five cents a gallon, and women had no ambitions other than marriage and motherhood? (Just for the record, women have been part of the work force since Colonial days and Congress hasn’t been completely white since the middle of the nineteenth century when the first Black members of Congress were elected in the 1860s. Gas, however, really was once thirty-five cents a gallon, and in my very own lifetime too.) Or is this merely traditional racism dressed up to sound slightly less disreputable than it otherwise would—in other words, an effort to justify the hatred specifically directed at Black people or Hispanic people by asserting that such people are provoking the hatred directed against them and therefore deserve to be hated. (In other words, is “Great Replacement” theorizing just a refurbished version of the favorite theory of old-school anti-Semites—that we Jews are responsible for the hatred directed against us—revised to suit prejudice based on race or ethnicity rather than religion?)

The irony in all this is that, of all peoples, Jews really do know what it means to be replaced. In my opinion, Aharon Appelfeld’s book, Blooms of Darkness, is one of the best Shoah-based novels ever. (I’ve written about it in this space too: click here and here to revisit two of those letters.) It’s an understated work about a little boy, Hugo, whose father has already been deported and whose mother, facing her own imminent disappearance, has the notion of begging an old friend , a Ukrainian woman named Mariana, to hide her son. Mariana agrees, but fails to make clear that she lives in a brothel where she works as a prostitute and that most of her clients are German soldiers. The story is dramatic and extremely moving, but the most powerful part of the book is at the end. The war is over. Mariana is arrested as a collaborator who gave comfort to the enemy and is summarily executed. Hugo is alone in the world, then somehow realizes that the city he is in is actually his home town, that his parents’ neighborhood is nearby, that he finally actually can return home. And so he set forth, this little boy of eleven, and eventually does find the right neighborhood. But everyone—every single Jewish soul—has vanished and been replaced by Gentiles who have taken over their homes and their businesses. He actually finds his parents’ home and, peering through the window, sees some other family seated at his parents’ dining room table enjoying their evening meal. The sense of unimaginable loneliness a child in that situation would feel is effectively conveyed in the author’s sparse, unadorned prose; what made Appelfeld a truly great author was his ability to tell complicated, emotionally overwhelming stories plainly and simply. If Hugo, the little boy, were somehow to step out of his book to visit in jail with the Buffalo shooter, he could explain what it means actually to be replaced, to be dragged away from the stage on which your life is unfolding so that your own murderers and their relations can settle into your space and eat their meals on your mother’s good china. He could explain that this really did happen, but who is going to explain to people caught up in the concept of replacement theorizing that nothing even remotely like that is happening to white Americans?

Questions relating to immigration and the bestowal of refugee status are legitimate topics for debate among principled citizens eager to promote the best interests of the nation and its citizens. But when that debate crosses the line to invoke a phantom phenomenon by its nature so unnerving and upsetting that it encourages its adherents to conclude that only violent action can resolve the matter fairly—then the discussion no longer serves the nation and instead becomes part of the problem it was undertaken in the first place to address.

It's hard to feel sympathy for a mass murderer and I don’t. Not really. Not at all, actually. But another part of me wonders where the real responsibility here lies if not with those who intentionally and maliciously got a young person—a boy not yet old enough to buy cigarettes legally in New York or to order a glass of beer in a bar—to imagine that he would be acting nobly and patriotically by murdering innocent men and women shopping in a supermarket on a sunny afternoon. The fate of the accused will be decided in court. But the matter of what role others played in prompting him to act—that too is part of the issue our nation needs to face in the wake of the massacre in Buffalo.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Evolving Ethics of Law

The question of how sound the reasoning was that the Supreme Court brought to bear in 1973 when deciding in Roe v. Wade  that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution protects a woman’s reproductive autonomy is for people far more trained in American law than myself to answer. Nor do I feel particularly qualified to evaluate the constitutional legitimacy of way that right was redefined by the court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1993. But I do feel qualified to offer an opinion about the question of whether or how the nation’s ever-evolving morality could or should be enshrined in law…and  particularly when the innovation under consideration is something that the Founders would have found unfamiliar or even inconceivable.

Same-sex marriage is a good example. Certainly, no one in eighteenth-century America imagined marriage as other than a sanctified (or at least governmentally sanctioned) union between a man and a woman. But as of June 2021, a full 70% of Americans had come to support the idea of marriage equality for same-sex couples. I imagine that number must be even higher now. For most, I think, the question was a simple one of fairness and the 70% figure simply reflected the fact that society had evolved to the point at which a large majority of citizens felt it was morally wrong to deny gay people the right to form monogamous unions and live together as married spouses. And so, for all the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 based its decision on the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the more important detail is that what brought the court to imagine the Equal Protection clauses to apply to gay couples was the reality of an ever-evolving sense of reasonableness and equity. People changed. Society changed. Opinions changed too, as did also social mores—and this, combined with the natural tendency of Americans to be inclusive and fair, created an entirely new playing field on which to consider the issue. And so the time had come for the law to change…even if it was necessary to find a peg to hang that change on in the Fourteenth Amendment.

As a lifelong student of Jewish law, I am more than familiar with the search for such pegs. The Talmud is full of rabbis grappling with the fact that Judaism as it had evolved to their day included countless practices that are unreferenced anywhere in Scripture. And much of what the Bible lays down as normative practice had also evolved: the Passover seder of rabbinic times mirrored only vaguely the way the holiday is outlined in the columns of the Torah. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even less so. Nor did the norms of worship that pertained in the synagogues of Roman Judea or elsewhere in the Roman Empire or in Persia—in none of those settings did the realities of synagogue life mirror even slightly the scant rules set out in Scripture to govern daily or weekly worship.

The rabbis, fully embracing a core allegiance to the notion of the Torah as authoritative, sacred, and divine in origin, nonetheless understood that a new world required new provisions grounded not in slavish imitation of the past but in innovative thinking about the future. And so they set themselves to developing methods of drawing meaning out of the text…including in ways that they must have understood would have seemed foreign and unfamiliar to the nation camped at Sinai to whom they imagined God bestowing the Torah in what even for them constituted ancient times. This process of drawing out meaning—called exegesis in English from the Greek words meaning just that, “to draw out”—became the meat and potatoes of rabbinic Scriptural analysis: the goal was to exploit the tension between fidelity to the written Torah and the need to teach lessons in sync with the ever-evolving moral bearing of the people listening to those lessons, and in that way to create a kind of religion that was both formally faithful to the past and wholly consonant with the values of the people to whom it was being pitched as a way of serving God through submission to divine law.

And this is part of what Jewish antiquity has bequeathed to the modern world, this willingness to exploit the tension between wanting to remain faithful to the past and needing to move forward into a future characterized by what people actually have come to think of as just and proper…and to exploit it in a way that matches both what the people think of as fidelity to the nation’s founders (or Founder) and what they perceive as fidelity to their own moral code.

The leaked draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health has pushed abortion, and particularly the original Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws banning it, to the front of the stage. To consider how we should move into the future, let’s start by looking back into the past.

In 1857, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. The backstory is long and complicated, but the short version is that Scott was a slave whose owner had brought him from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois, where slavery was illegal. When his owner wished to bring him back to Missouri, Scott sued his owner on the grounds that when he entered Illinois, he became a free man and was therefore no longer a slave. He lost his case in a Missouri state court, then again in a federal court. And then he appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Looking back at the Constitution, the justices determined that the word “citizen” in the Constitution was not intended by its framers to reference people of “African descent,” which meant by implication that such people, not being citizens of the United States, were also not entitled to any of the civil rights or privileges awarded by the Constitution to American citizens. And since Scott was deemed not to be an American citizen, he was ipso facto also deemed not to be the citizen of any state in the union. As a result, the “diversity of citizenship” required by the Constitution to enable a federal court to adjudicate a case that does not involve federal law (i.e., that the litigants be citizens of two different states) did not apply and so Scott was deemed permanently subject to the laws of the State of Missouri and the decisions of its courts. And then, for good measure, the Court went on to strike down the entire Missouri Compromise of 1820 that brought Maine into the Union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, but which prohibited slavery on most of the territory of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri.

It did not play well. Widely derided as the Supreme Court’s worst decision ever, Chief Justice Charles Hughes (who served from 1930 to 1941), referred to the decision as “the Court’s greatest self-inflicted wound.” Another historian, David Konig, referred to the decision as “unquestionably, our court’s worst decision ever.” And yet it certainly was true that the Founders did not consider Black slaves to be their co-citizens. And while it is true that not every Founder owned slaves, the roster of slave owners is remarkable and includes George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, Patrick Henry, and James Madison. There is certainly something to be said for the argument that at least many, possibly even most, of the nation’s Founders would have been astounded by the thought that Black people should have the vote or be counted in the national census as more than three-fifths of a “real” person. All that is true. But which of us would imagine that those details can be rationally martialed in defense of taking a freed slave like Dred Scott and forcing him back into servitude merely because his former owner wished to drag him back to a slave state?

That is what I mean about an ever-evolving ethic forming the basis for new laws hung on a Constitutional peg just as the rabbis hung their innovative laws on Scriptural ones. Endorsing reproductive rights for women is certainly a break with our past. (Abortion was forbidden by law in all thirteen colonies.) But expecting the Supreme Court, in effect, to effect that change is not a reasonable expectation: it is the job of the Congress, not the Court, to legislate. The matter of abortion—and reproductive rights in general—is an example of an issue rooted in our ever-evolving American ethic that constitutes a serious break with the norms and mores of the past. But evolution is possible! The most recent survey—the Pew Research Center Study of “America’s Abortion Quandary” released just last week (click here)—says that a full 71% of Americans believe abortion should be legal at least some of the time. The solution to the larger issue, therefore, is for Americans to elect officials to the Congress whose views are consonant with their own, and for those legislators to enact laws the mirror the will of the people to be governed according to their evolved moral compass. If the people speak loudly and clearly enough, the jurists will find an appropriate peg upon which to hang the new law.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

On the Cusp

This week brought us both Yom Hazikkaron (the Israeli version of Memorial Day on which the almost 25,000 soldiers, sailors, and peace officers of various kinds who have fallen in the defense of their nation are remembered and mourned) on Wednesday and Yom Ha-atzama·ut (the 74th anniversary of the declaration of Israeli independence in 1948) on Thursday.

Originally, these two were actually the same day: in 1949 and 1950, memorial services for those who fell in the War of Independence were held on Independence Day itself. I suppose that must have seemed only fitting at the time. The strange mix of emotions stirred up by the challenge both to mourn and to celebrate on the same day ended up stirring a confusing set of contradictory emotions, however, and so in 1951 the government of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion decreed that these observances would henceforth take place on two adjacent days in the Hebrew month of Iyar. And that is where things stand even today.

The hinge between the two days is particularly fraught. The only time I’ve been in Israel for either was in 1984, when I was getting towards the end of a year-long post-doctoral fellowship at the Hebrew University. It was a fabulous year and not only for my studies: our oldest child was born in Jerusalem that year. And his b’rit milah was held precisely on the cusp between Yom Hazikkaron and Yom Ha-atzma·ut.

After we got married but before we had children, Joan and I discussed the possibility of celebrating our children’s Hebrew birthdays each year rather than their secular ones. We didn’t (and don’t) do that with respect to our own birthdays, but it somehow appealed to us both to imagine bucking the system in that specific way. We left the idea in abeyance—we didn’t yet have any children to try it out on anyway—and then Max was born on Yom Hashoah and that was the end of that.

At the time, we were—like all first-time parents—a little overwhelmed by the complex, multifaceted impact becoming parents was going to have on our lives. My lovely mother-in-law arrived the next day—I went to the airport myself to retrieve her and bring her directly to Joan’s side—which calmed things down a bit. Also, we had a lot of friends in Jerusalem, most of whom were already parents, and their presence and their counsel calmed us down as well. Within a few days, things seemed dramatically less overwhelming. We had somehow turned into a family of three. The future beckoned. Israel itself was in the throes of hyper-inflation, but we ourselves were secure (my stipend was pegged to the U.S. dollar and so, unlike the salaries of so many others, was specifically not in freefall) and so we turned our attention to our major short-term obligation and set ourselves to figuring out how to make a b’rit milah in Israel.

Finding a mohel was the easy part. The date, however, was an issue: Jewish boys are circumcised on the eighth days of their lives, which meant that Max’s bris was going to fall on Yom Hazikkaron, the saddest of all days in Israeli culture.

It’s a small country. There weren’t then and aren’t now many families that haven’t been touched by war—and the loss war inevitably entails—one way or the other. Perhaps, speaking in the broadest terms, there aren’t any. If you add the more than four thousand Israelis who have died at the hands of terrorists since 1948 to the number of fallen servicemen and women, the total is close to 30,000. For a nation of under ten million citizens, that is a staggering number. And so, unlike in our strange land where Memorial Day mostly features picnics, beach outings, and big sales in stores, Yom Hazikkaron is taken dead seriously by Israelis. It is a day devoted solely to remembering, to honoring the sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price for the privilege of defending their country. The mood is somber and serious. When the siren rings out at 11 AM, everything stops—including traffic. All stand at attention for two full minutes. No one  has anyplace else to be: it is as though the national resolve to endure despite loss and to persevere in a hostile world is somehow simmered down to those few minutes of national silence. It’s easy to describe, but it’s also the kind of thing you have actually to experience personally to understand fully.

So that was going to be Max’s eighth day, the day of his b’rit milah. We ourselves were living in a small apartment on Haportzim Street, but I had a colleague, an older friend, who had a very beautiful and much larger home just a few blocks away, and he and his wife graciously offered it to us for our simchah. We were very pleased and gratefully accepted. And it really was a beautiful home with a large balcony overlooking the whole neighborhood. (We couldn’t have known it at the time, but in the distance was the hill on which we would acquire our own apartment in Jerusalem two decades later.)

To try to play down the somber feel of the day, we scheduled the b’rit for later afternoon. Usually, it’s customary to schedule b’ritot for early morning—but this seemed like a good day to deviate from that custom. It turned out to be an inspired idea. (It was Joan’s, obviously.) The mohel was friendly and talented. Joan’s father’s family showed up from all over Israel to be with us, including two of Max’s great-great-uncles, featured below, men old enough to have emigrated from Poland not to Israel or to British Palestine, but to Turkish Palestine. Lots of our friends from Canada and the States showed up. (Rabbi David Golinkin, who will be our scholar-in-residence next February at Shelter Rock was there too.) Our Lamaze class came too, as did our teacher.

At the time, I thought we were being clever by scheduling our simchah on the cusp of Yom Ha-atzama·ut so as to make the atmosphere less dour than it would have been earlier in the day. But later on it seemed like an inspired choice for a different reason. The circumcision took place, as it had to, before sundown, i.e., on the eighth day of Max’s life. But shortly after that the sunset and fireworks, easily visible from our friends’ balcony, lit up the eastern sky. As the nation turned from grief to celebration, I felt myself—and I say this not poetically or metaphorically, but simply and really—I felt myself stepping into the ever-flowing river of time that connects the past with the future, and history with destiny. I was intimately familiar with the history of Jewish suffering. I had read countless—truly, countless—books about the Shoah. I had read chronicles detailing the savagery of the Crusaders and the even more bestial behavior of the Cossacks in Khmelnitsky’s day. I’ve written about that side of my education many times in this space, but, as I stood on our friends’ balcony and watched the fireworks, I was suddenly possessed of the sense that I had responded to it all with a single series of gestures. I had gotten married. We had produced a child…and not just any child, but a tzabar, a Yerushalmi, a child who was ushered into the covenant as the nation all around acknowledged unimaginable loss and then went on to see a bright future for itself and for subsequent generations of Israelis.

It was, to say the very least, a fabulous moment. It was the first moment, I think, that I was able to think of myself as a player and not just as a student of other players, as someone who was on the stage and not in the audience, as someone who had finally contributed something meaningful to the history of the House of Israel. Joan and I were on exactly the same page, too: both of us slightly overwhelmed by the whole experience of hosting a b’rit milah on the cusp between regret and resolve…and between inexpressible sadness and irrepressible hope.

The psalmist famously declared that those who sow in tears will yet reap in joy. That evening between Yom Hazikkaron and Yom Ha-atzma·ut all those years ago was the embodiment for me personally, and for Joan too (of course), of that mysterious sentiment. And that is what the juxtaposition of those two days means to me.