Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Southern Border

As the crisis on our southern border becomes more serious and the problem of how exactly to deal with unaccompanied children crossing, or attempting to cross, into the U.S. becomes more intractable with each passing day, we have begun to hear the same “but this is not who we are” argument so familiar to us all from the days following mass shootings or violent attacks on public buildings or seats of power. In the wake of the January riot at the Capitol, I wrote to you all suggesting that there is something self-serving and untrue in that argument when applied to insurrectionist violence directed against the Congress, an opinion I embraced after reading Joanne B. Freeman’s remarkable book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. (To review my comments from last January, click here.) Now, I would like to apply that line of thinking to the crisis at the border.

If there was one theme running faithfully through my own public school education, it was that America was a nation of immigrants, that we all came from somewhere, that even the native Indians, incorrectly taken as aborigines by the European settlers who came here in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were themselves descended from people who crossed the then-extant Bering Land Bridge that linked Siberia and Alaska during the Ice Age and so were also reasonably to be considered some version of immigrants to North America. (For more on the Bering Land Bridge, click here.) For most of us, that settled the matter: we were all either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Even the Indians! And the fact that a significant number of children in my elementary school had parents who had somehow survived the war in Europe and come here after the Second War only made that thought even more satisfying. I believe the first poem I was obliged to memorize during my days at P.S. 196 was Emma Lazarus’s “The Great Colossus,” written in the year of my grandmother’s birth specifically to raise money to construct the pedestal atop which the Status of Liberty stands to this day and eventually cast onto a bronze plaque attached to that same pedestal.

Boy-me was beyond impressed. The poet’s description of the statue as “a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning and whose name the Mother of Exiles” was more than resonant with me. My people, after all, too came here fleeing persecution in Belarus and Poland—a fact my father mentioned regularly throughout my childhood—and that was without knowing the fate that would have awaited them had they failed to get out when they could and did. The rest of the poem spoke equally directly to the young me. When I read that “from her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome,” I imagined my grandparents passing through Ellis Island and wondering what fate awaited them here. And when the poet imagined Lady Liberty herself addressing the decaying lands of the Old World and imploring them to send to us “your tired, your poor,” your homeless and tempest-tost, and that they would be welcomed by Lady Liberty herself, on duty 24/7 holding aloft her “lamp beside the golden door” to welcome them, I knew what made America great—inclusivity, tolerance, hospitality, empathy, and kindness.

It was a very moving set of ideas to boy-me. It still is. But how true is it exactly? That I only found out later when I began to read on my own.

The United States was founded exclusively by immigrants from Europe or by the native-born descendants of earlier immigrants, but their sense of what they wanted future immigration to yield was not quite as expansive as Emma Lazarus’s poem suggests it ought to have been: the Naturalization Act of 1790, for example, dealt with the way individuals coming to the independent United States could become citizens and was quite specific: the ability to become an American citizen was formally to be limited to “free white persons…of good character.”  There was, therefore, no path to citizenship at all for slaves, free black people, Asians, or, most bizarrely of all, actual native Americans. And that was how things were for quite some time. (It is true that some few states before the Civil War allowed Black people to be considered citizens, but only of that specific state and not of the country. Today, of course, there is no such thing as being a citizen of one of the states but not of the nation.) Indeed, the first instance in which a serious number of residents without the priorly requisite European pedigree became entitled to American citizenship was the passing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1831, which created a path to citizenship specifically (and only) for Choctaw Indians who agreed to remain in Mississippi. (In exchange, the Choctaws agreed to abandon their claim to about 15 million acres of land in what is now Oklahoma.) I am quite certain that the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was not part of our curriculum in eleventh grade.

Things moved ahead, but only very slowly. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution offered citizenship to all people born within the boundaries of the United States, including Black people, but specifically excluding Indians residing on reservations. Two years later, Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1870 that created, and for the first time, a possibility for Black people to immigrate to the United States and become citizens…but that same law not only denied the possibility of immigrants coming here from China but actually revoked the citizenship of Americans of Chinese descent who were already here.

The Page Act of 1875 had as its specific point, to quote its sponsor Representative Horace Page (R-California), “to end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women” by making it illegal for Chinese women to immigrate to the United States. And then, seven years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made it illegal for any Chinese laborers, male or female, to enter the United States.

And then we get to the twentieth century. The Immigration Act of 1917 went a step further still, barring all immigration from Pacific Island nations and from the Far East, but also imposing for the first time literacy tests on would-be immigrants as well as creating for the first time categories of people to whom immigration was to be denied unrelated to national origin. The sanitized expressions “mentally defective individuals” and  “persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority” were used to deny openly gay people the possibility of entry, along with undesirable “illiterates, imbeciles, insane persons, and paupers.” But it was the Immigration Act of 1924, framed in its day as a mere extension of the earlier act, that for the first time established immigration quotas. Formally, the idea was to restrict immigration to a number equivalent to 2% of the number of Americans who claimed that nation as their ancestral home in the 1890 census. But the real purpose was to keep out Italians, Greeks, Poles, and (I can’t help thinking especially) Eastern European Jews. (I hardly have to pause to note what happened to those Jews who would have come here to start new lives but who were instead condemned to be present when the Nazis occupied their homelands.)

And that is how things stood for a very long time. Of course, no one in those days would have dreamt of using President Trump’s vulgar expression to describe the countries from which the President was keen to see no immigration at all. Or at least not in public. But the sentiment behind the Immigration Act of 1924 was exactly the same, only the identity of the specific nations so qualified was different.

The situation at the southern border is dire. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, himself a Cuban refugee, is doing his best to deal with an impossible situation. And, indeed, it turns out that expressing horror at the policies of the previous administration with respect to the separation of families and the caging of children is distinctly easier than figuring out what exactly to do with large number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border possessed solely of whatever they are carrying with them. There are a thousand good reasons to shove them back over the border and let them fend for themselves. They aren’t playing by the rules. We have no idea who their parents are. They mostly don’t speak English at all, let alone well. Like children everywhere, they have no way to sustain themselves by going to work and legally earning a living. All the above are excellent and fully cogent reasons for giving these kids a hot meal and shipping them back where they came from.

But what of the lady in the harbor and her torch, still burning in the night, still calling out to the tempest-tost, to the homeless, to the destitute, to the exhausted? The question isn’t really what President Trump would have done or what President Biden can or will do. The question is what the Mother of Exiles would say if she could turn to the south and consider the border with Mexico. Would she set down her lamp, shut the golden door, and tell these freeloaders to go to hell? Or would she come down from her pedestal, tie up her skirts, and make her way south to use her “imprisoned lightning” to illuminate the nighttime sky while she gathers the children in unto her and offers them shelter in this, the greatest and most powerful of all nations? It strikes me that it is to Lady Liberty that we should be looking for counsel in the matter of the current crisis, not to even the most well-meaning of politicians.

Thursday, April 1, 2021


 Everybody knows the old French saw about how the more things appear to change, the more they actually stay the same. And mostly it’s true—we can surely all think of a dozen innovations touted in their day as societal game-changers that turned out merely to be variations on the theme they were supposed not merely to revise slightly but totally to uproot and replace. You can make scrambled eggs in your microwave slightly more quicky than in a frying pan, but you still end up with a plate of scrambled eggs. And your wireless printer does exactly the same thing as your non-wireless printer did, just without the wire. It’s nice to have fewer wires under your desk, of course. But was the world—or even just your world—really changed by the advent of wireless printers?

But then, every so often, something comes along that actually does change everything. It generally takes a while for people to understand the implications of that innovation, however. Gutenberg’s printing press is a good example: it’s hard to think of a day that more totally changed the world—and for the better—than that fateful day in 1452 on which Gutenberg produced his first printed Bible, thus opening the path for printed books to supplant hand-written manuscripts by making it possible to create hundreds, or even thousands, of  copies of a book in the time a scribe would have earlier on needed to create a single volume. And, yes, things got off to a strong start: by 1500, there were a cool 30,000 books in print across Europe. But even so it took almost a century and a half before it dawned on someone that Gutenberg’s invention could be used to publish a daily printed newspaper. (That first effort was the rather infelicitously named Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, a German-language newspaper that Johann Carolus began publishing in Strasbourg in 1605.)

Some of these game-changing moments seem less momentous as time passes: I can remember the teenaged me thinking that nothing would ever be the same again after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, only later on to realize that it was a come-and-go moment that, practically speaking, changed nothing at all in terms of the way we live our lives down here on earth. Others seem only in retrospect to have been crucial turning points, but went totally unnoticed at the time: surely the invention of email counts as an innovation that permanently altered the way society functions, but I myself can’t say with certainly who invented it or when exactly. (I can now—I just looked it up and so can you: click here. But why V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai is basically unknown, while Neil Armstrong’s name is known even to young children—that would be an interesting issue to think through. Perhaps I’ll return to that one of these days and see what I can come up with.)

But I write about all this today because I noted in the paper something a few weeks ago that feels to me as though it might well be—at least in retrospect—a true game-changer moment. It surely went unnoticed by most. In the end, it may end up to have been a fancy parlor-trick that only felt momentous at the moment. Or it may be an innovation that possesses the potential to address the scourge of homelessness.

As recently as ten years ago, it was estimated that there were as many as 100 million people in the world living without roofs over their heads. Nor is this a Third World problem per se: in 2018 it was estimated by the government that there were about 553,000 homeless individuals in the United States, 65% of whom were temporarily being housed in shelters and 35% of whom were fending for themselves on our nations’ streets. Just this spring, the New York Times reported that there were about 114,000 school-age children who were or will be either permanently or temporarily homeless during the current school year. (To read more about that almost unbelievable statistic, click here.)

The roots of homelessness are complicated and vary from context to context, but the cost of owning a home is surely part of the problem. Maybe it’s the advent of Pesach that has made me especially sensitive to the whole issue: the holiday is formally about freedom from slavery, but the famous image of the Israelites yearning for home while spending forty years living in flimsy, roofless sukkot that provided no real protection from the elements, no meaningful security, and hardly any privacy at all—all those themes came together to draw my attention to an article in the New York Post last week that announced something that struck me as the kind of innovation that could conceivably take its place next to Gutenberg’s press one of these days. And it too had something to do with printing.

Or at least with a printer.

The article, by Mary K. Jacob, reported that 70-year-old Tim Shea, formerly a homeless soul living on the streets in Austin, Texas, now resides in a 400-square-foot home that was created with a 3-D printer and which is part of a community of such structures created especially to house 180 people like himself in homes they rent for $300 a month. (The community also provides work opportunities for the residents, so all who live there can earn their rent and remain permanently in place. To read the New York Post article, click here.) The cost of creating such a home, using machines called “large concrete 3-D printers” is about $10,000. But the price is expected to drop as the technology becomes more advanced and one essay I found projected the eventual cost of using such a machine to create an inhabitable home to be about $3500. Also relevant is that such a building can be constructed by four workers in less than twenty-four hours. (For a more detailed account by Adele Peters of how this unbelievable technology works, click here.) Each printer—obviously something akin to the printer on your desk but also quite different from it—costs about $100,000 and is expected to be able to produce about 1,000 homes. So that would add about $100 to the cost of each home, a more than bearable addition. The homes are made of concrete and mortar, both substances readily available in most Third World countries. The roofs are not 3-D printed.

As noted above, lots of innovations present themselves to the world as game-changers but only very few actually do alter the course of human society. The invention of the printing press certainly deserves its place on the list. So do the introduction of the personal computer and the invention of the Internet. But the thought that society could address the problems of homelessness and the extreme poverty and lack of resources that brings people to live on the street by constructing homes so inexpensively that even people with the most modest incomes could afford the rent…and then by constructing communities for such people that
also provide the employment opportunities necessary to earn that rent and to survive with dignity in a secure and safe environment—that seems to me a development truly with the potential to change the world.

One of the Torah’s most chilling lines is in the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy. The text enjoins the Israelite to be generous and kind when it comes to charitable giving, and never to begrudge the poor their alms, “for it was precisely to grant you the ability to show such solicitude to the poor that God blessed you with whatever wealth you possess in the first place.” And then Scripture goes on to note wistfully that this shall be a permanent obligation, “for surely the poor will never vanish entirely from the land.” Ramban says to take this more as a dour observation than as an actual prophetic oracle—and thus specifically not to conclude that the eradication of poverty is something that could never actually be achieved—and I’d like to think that that is exactly correct. (Ramban, also called Nachmanides, died in 1270 and is still considered one of the greatest Torah commentators.) And that is why I responded so emotionally to that story in the paper the other day: the thought that it could be possible to address the world-wide problem of homelessness by building habitable homes for less than the cost of a car and then by constructing communities that present future residents with the kind of work-opportunities that will make residence in such homes affordable for all—that really does seem to me like a game-changer. If I had to bequeath to my lovely granddaughters a world in which no human being had ever walked on the moon, I could live with that. But to think that the possibility exists to offer them a world in which all human beings can live in dignified, secure housing—that seems to me like the kind of innovative change that really would be a game-changer in terms of the way we live in the world.



Thursday, March 25, 2021

Feeling Hopeful

Several different people have asked in the last few days what I’m hoping Pesach will bring us all this year. It’s an interesting question, more so than I thought at first blush. Passover, of course, is a highlight of the year for us all. Families come together. The weather is usually dramatically improved over what it had been just weeks earlier. As a result, the whole effort to clean out our kitchens takes on a barely-hidden second level of meaning: yes, we are acting in accordance with tradition and law to rid our homes of even the last consequential crumbs of bread or any other leavened product, but we are also—and at the very same time—cleaning out the past year and its musty, fusty residue and preparing ourselves for a new year. Like I suppose it must also be for other Jewish Americans, the lead-up to Pesach is also a time of reflection for me personally: as I slowly pack away my snow boots and start trying to remember where I stored my walking shorts last fall when it was finally too cold to wear them, I feel a year falling away and something new dawning on the horizon. What will it bring us? That, pace Hamlet, is the question!

It’s always the question. But how much the more so this year with its pandemical accouterments, with its facemasks and endless CDC guidelines, with the scramble for vaccination in full swing as the age-limit drops and more and more of us get in line for our shots. Although we are obviously not through the viral woods just quite yet, things are feeling hopeful in a way they weren’t just a couple of months back. And so, as Pesach dawns, I find myself—and here I answer the question I led off with—I feel myself suffused with a sense of hopefulness and unanticipated optimism. I suppose readers all know the joke about the difference between a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist—the pessimist says, “Things couldn’t get any worse,” while the optimist responds, “Of course, they can!”—but even so, even despite our ethnic proclivity to expect disaster around every corner (which trait some would say we have elevated to an actual art form), I find myself hoping for the best, feeling buoyed by my hopeful sense that the worst really is behind us and normalcy will soon return to our beleaguered land.

The first Pesach had something of the same feel to it.

There’s more to that thought than you might at first think. Scripture—and this is particularly true of the Torah—is a literary work intended to present the story of Israel’s origins to an audience eager to learn the backstory to the great covenant that Jews in later centuries understood to bind them to God. As such, the laws that are the stuff of the covenant are interspersed with the narrative to create a kind of patchwork feel to the whole. To shul-Jews who hear the Torah read aloud weekly, this aspect of the text is so familiar as to be both unremarkable and almost unnoticeable. And yet it is also the case, at least here and there, that the juxtaposition of law and narrative creates a slightly misleading impression for those reading or listening only casually.  And a good example of that has to do precisely with the first Pesach, the experience in Egypt of which all subsequent Passovers have been the echo in history.

Set into the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt are all the rules that govern the paschal offering, the zevach pesach. The rules are somehow both complicated and simple: the Israelites are to procure a lamb or a kid on the tenth of the month, keep it safe it four days and then, on the fourteenth of the month they are to slaughter it, paint their doorposts and lintels with its blood, and eat it roasted with matzah and some bitter foodstuff. Scripture then quickly, almost imperceptibly, shifts into the future: this is not a one-time thing, it turns out, but the harbinger of a future holiday, one the observance of which will constitute a memorial, a festival, and a chukkat olam (i.e., a permanent statute). Furthermore, Passover—the holiday being heralded by this, its earlier iteration—is to be not simply “a” festival, but “the” festival of the Jewish year, the one that will, among other things, frame permanently the relationship of Israelites to their non-Israelite neighbors, to the citizenry of other nations, to the world itself: liberation from bondage will henceforth be the platform upon which the Israelite nation will stand for all time as the citizenry looks out at the world, the foundational story of which the rest of the nation’s history will be at least in some way derivative.

It’s a stirring passage, one known to most. But it obscures, at least slightly, the predicament of the actual Israelites to whom Moses is speaking. These are slaves who are being told to put their hiking boots on and get ready their walking sticks: departure, Moses tells them unambiguously, is imminent. Left undiscussed is how this must have played itself out among the Israelites themselves. Again and again, God has—speaking from their perspective—failed to get Pharaoh to grant them their freedom even for just a few days, let alone actually to free them from bondage. And this failure has repeated itself not once or twice, but on nine separate occasions. (The ancient Israelites had no reason to expect specifically ten plagues: they experienced them one by one—and each one was a failure: the wonders and signs may have been impressive, but they were still slaves, still not free to go, still being told to trust in the future without actually having been made free.)

What Moses tells them is, at best, unlikely: that God will bring yet another plague against the Egyptians and this one actually will work. And yet they do what Moses tells them to do: unsure as they must have been that this is going to work, having every reason to be suspicious, knowing they’ve been told before that Pharaoh will collapse under the weight of God’s imposing presence, they still do what they are told, painting their doorposts with blood, readying their walking sticks and their hiking boots, eating the meat according to their instructions…and waiting.

And then, finally, the midnight hour came. The tenth plague was the most awful imaginable and the nation and its hard-hearted leader could finally bear no more. The Israelites went free…but they must have been more surprised than impressed. For us, Pesach is the festival of freedom. But for the actual Israelites whose story rests just behind the narrative, Pesach—the first Pesach, the one undertaken in the shadow of all those many failed attempts to get Pharaoh to let the people go—for those people, it must have been a festival of hope, of faith, and of courage. They had every reason not to go along with the plan—they had, after all, been down that path nine times in the past—but they felt themselves able to hope, to dream, to look into the future and see freedom from the oppressive circumstances of the only life they had ever known.

I would like to suggest we adopt that line of thinking for this year’s celebration. I too am looking into the future this year, thinking carefully about what may yet come in the course of the next months. The numbers are going in the right direction. Although we are still reeling from the loss of well over half a million of our co-citizens to this horrific virus, including more than 3000 in Nassau County alone, the latest numbers seem encouraging. The vaccination program, despite its chaotic start, is working: as of this week more than a quarter of all American adults have been vaccinated at least one time and 14% of our co-citizens have been fully vaccinated. It’s tempting to see some light at the end of the tunnel, even though the flip side of those statistics—that 75% of Americans have yet to get their first shot and a full 86% have yet to receive both—is beyond sobering.

Still, Pesach is our festival of hope in the future, of national willingness to ignore the failures of the past and feel sanguine and optimistic about the future, of readiness to trust the leadership of our leaders and feel secure that, at least eventually, we will leave this state of viral bondage and become the fully free citizens of a fully immunized nation. Hopefulness is what’s called for…and Pesach is just the right context for the cultivation of hope. Therefore, I’m allowing myself to feel positive and hopeful…and I invite you all to join me in embracing both those emotions.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

What I Saw on Mulberry Street

At first, I was slightly amused by the whole brouhaha that followed the announcement last week by the estate of Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, that it would stop republishing and selling six of the famous author’s books, including such classics as And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, On Beyond Zebra, and McElligot’s Pool.  I know all these books; they were classics of children’s literature so long ago that I remember reading them when I actually was a child and enjoying them immensely. We all did. Dr. Seuss was part of the children’s canon back then: read by all, touted endlessly by librarians and teachers, and considered controversial—as far as I recall—by none. Just the opposite, actually: if there was one children’s author from back then whose whimsy was deemed charming and fully acceptable, it would certainly have been Dr. Seuss.

But times have changed. And there is no question that illustrations in all the books in question feature caricatures of various minority groups, particularly Asians (depicted with slanty lines for eyes, pigtails, and conical coolie-style hats) and Black people (shown shirtless, shoeless, and wearing grass skirts). On the other hand, Dr. Seuss himself was a powerful enemy of fascism who published more than 400 wartime cartoons savaging Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese leadership. And some of his books were thinly veiled anti-fascist parables: it is widely understood, for example, that Yertle the Turtle (1958) was meant as a direct attack on fascism (apparently dictatorial Yertle originally sported a Hitler-style moustache) and that Horton Hears a Who (1954) was meant as a kind of encouraging parable about the American occupation of Japan. More to the point for Jewish readers is that The Sneetches (1961), a book that the estate will continue to publish, is a focused, double-barreled attack on racism and anti-Semitism and was understood that way from the time it was published. Nor was this imputed meaning—the author himself was widely quoted at the time as saying formally, that The Sneetches “was inspired by my opposition to anti-Semitism.”

So we are left with an interesting dilemma. Geisel, a life-long Lutheran who actually suffered a bit of anti-Semitic discrimination in college when he was mistaken by some bigoted classmates for a Jew, was a proud anti-fascist, a virulent opponent of racism and anti-Semitism, and a true American patriot. And he published some books that featured images which feel—at least by today’s standards—racist or at the very least inappropriate for books pitched at impressionable children. The managers of his estate solved their problem the easy way by deciding simply not to republish six of the man’s books, thus ending the controversy by eliminating the problem. An alternate approach, of course, would have been to re-edit the books, eliminate the offensive imagery, and bring out versions that feature the original text with illustrations tailored more precisely to suit modern sensitivity. And speaking specifically as a Jewish American, the fact that there aren’t any Stürmer-style caricatures of hook-nosed Jews holding huge bags of money in these books shouldn’t be a factor in our evaluation of the evidence: if anything, the thought of Black parents cringing when they come across racist caricatures of Africans should be more than resonant with Jewish parents able to imagine being in exactly the same position and feeling exactly the same level of hurt and outrage. And that brings me to the question that feels to me to be at the heart of the matter: should works deemed utterly non-offensive in their day be altered, either slightly or dramatically, to suit evolving standards with respect to race, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc.? It’s an interesting question, one that goes to the heart of the question of what literature actually is and what role it could or should play in society.

There are, of course, lots of examples of books that have been successfully revised to suit modern tastes. Agatha Christie’s book And Then There Were None was originally published in the U.K. as Ten Little Negroes (and the third word on the cover was specifically not “Negroes”). That was deemed offensive here, so the publisher just made up a different title. (The English publishers eventually did the same and brought the book out under the marginally less offensive title Ten Little Indians.) In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a favorite of my own children years ago, Roald Dahl originally depicted the Oompa-Loompas who worked in the factory as African pygmies and the depiction was basically of them as slaves and certainly not as dignified, salaried employees. A century earlier, Dickens himself was prevailed upon to tone down Fagan’s Jewishness in Oliver Twist, which he did by halfheartedly removing some of the references to Fagan’s ethnicity. Of course, when the author himself makes the revisions we are having an entirely different discussion: surely the actual authors of books should feel free make whatever changes they wish to their own work. The question is whether the world should “fix” published works to make them suit issues that were on no one’s radar, or hardly anyone’s radar, when the book was written and published.

Some readers will recall that one of my pandemic coping exercises last spring was embarking on a re-read of Mark Twain, a favorite author of my younger years. I was surprised how well many of his books stood the test of time, but I found myself most engaged of all by my re-read of Huckleberry Finn. Widely and entirely reasonably acclaimed as an American classic, the book is basically about the relationship of Huck and Jim, who is almost invariably referred to as Negro Jim. (Again, that’s not the word that appears in the book.) Of course, Mark Twain was writing about Missouri life in the 1830s and he himself was from Missouri and a child of that era. So he certainly knew how people spoke and I’m entirely sure that that word was in common use to reference Black people. Today, that word is anathema to all and is considered unusable in normal discourse, written or oral. But what about the book itself? Should it be “fixed” by having the dialogue altered specifically to reflect a dialect of English spoken in those days by no one at all? Or should the book itself be dropped from high school or even college reading lists as something too offensive to allow, let alone to require, young people to read? Huckleberry Finn is an interesting book for many different reasons, not least of all because Jim, a slave, is depicted sympathetically as a man of character, virtue, and strong moral values—a fact made all the more poignant by the fact that he is depicted as almost wholly uneducated. Indeed, Jim is a grown man with a wife and family, while Huck is a boy of thirteen or fourteen and the clear implication is that while the white world has failed utterly to make Huck into a decent adolescent, Black Jim, an uneducated slave, is quite able to bring him to the threshold of decency by showing him how to behave in an upright manner. So the book is hardly anti-Black. Just the opposite is far more true: in many ways, Jim, not Huck, is the hero of the book. And yet the constant use of that word is beyond jarring. Editions have been published for use in school that simply omit the word or change it. Is that a rational compromise? Or does that kind of bowdlerization deprive the book of its essential honesty, of its ability to depict a society as it truly was and not as moderns vaguely wish it had been? It’s not that easy to say.

When I was deeply involved in the research that led me to publish my translation of the Psalms, I became aware—slightly to my naïve amazement—of the existence of Christian editions of the Psalms from which all references to internecine strife, violent clashes between opposing groups in old Jerusalem, the corruption that led at least some poets to condemn the Temple priesthood, and the deep alienation from God with which at least some psalmists struggled—that the psalms depicting all of that challenging stuff had been nicely excised from the book so as to create a book of “nice” poems. (This parallels a Christian edition of the Old Testament I once saw from which the entire book of Leviticus had been omitted, presumably lest readers be offended by the notion that animal sacrifice and the safeguarding of ritual purity were essential elements of the covenant between God and Israel.) Those editions of the Psalms struck me as ridiculous and precisely because the resultant book was specifically nothing like the original work and gave a totally incorrect impression of the original work. But would one of the Dr. Seuss books under discussion really  have been substantially altered by some of the drawings of black or Asian people replaced with more respectful images?

My feeling is that the Dr. Seuss affair is indicative of a larger issue in society. Obviously, changing a few drawings in a book is not such a big deal and is something that I’m sure happens without fanfare in the world of publishing all the time. But this specific issue seems to have struck such a chord with so many precisely because Dr. Seuss is deemed, not entirely incorrectly, as representative of a simpler world—by which term people generally mean one in which it wasn’t deemed necessary to care what smaller groups in society felt or thought. We’ve come a long way since then, and rightly so. The Seuss estate could certainly have felt justified in commissioning some new drawing to avoid going against modern feelings about ethnic or racial stereotyping. The books themselves would have been substantially the same. Once that line is crossed, however, and the book no longer is the same as it was—“fixing” the language in Huckleberry Finn, for example, or eliminating Shylock’s Jewishness from the play or Othello’s blackness—that is missing almost entirely the reason literature exists in the first place: to stir up emotion, to challenge readers’ preconceptions, and to educate—in the literal sense of the world: to draw the reader forward to a new level of understanding of the world of the author…and of the reader as well. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

To Boldly Go

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched the video released by NASA last month of Perseverance         descending towards the surface of Mars and then gently landing on it. (Click here to watch. You won’t be sorry!) I don’t know much—or rather, anything—about the aerodynamics of space parachutes, but watching this spacecraft slow down from its initial descent speed of 1000 miles per hour and then gently plop down in the center of the thirty-mile-wide Jazero Crater is just riveting. The event itself was not unprecedented—an earlier visitor named Curiosity landed on the Martian surface in 2012, but it didn’t have any cameras aboard to record the landing. (It’s still there, by the way, completing today as I write its 3137th day on Mars.) Nor was Curiosity the first vehicle to set itself down on Mars—that would be the old Soviet Union’s Mars 3 probe that landed on Mars in 1971 but only managed to convey data to earth for 14.5 seconds before conking out. And there have been other attempts as well, most notably probably the Mars Exploration Rovers of 2003 and 2004.

What intrigues me the most, I suppose, is that the point of sending Perseverance to Mars is not to collect soil samples or to chart the geography of the planet, but specifically to attempt to answer the question of whether there was ever life on Mars. It’s widely understood that Mars once flowed with water. So the question—way simpler to ask, apparently, than to answer—is whether we can find the chemical signatures of fossilized microbial life that could have flourished when Mars was wet. Perseverance, a rover the size of your average car, also has along for the ride a little helicopter named Ingenuity to fly overhead and attempt to see what would not be visible from the ground. I’m completely into it! But I have to stop thinking of Perseverance and Ingenuity as the Martian versions of Star Wars’ C-3PO and R2-D2. (That would be silly. Or would it be?)

Like many people my age, I suppose, I grew up dreaming about the planets and about the possibility of human beings actually visiting them. Nor was I alone among my classmates at P.S. 196 to dream in that direction: space adventurism was just part of who we were back then. (I was eight years old when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, nine when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet.) I remember both those events clearly, but more than that I remember the specific way that neither felt like an end unto itself, but far more meaningfully as one more step forward on the great journey that would eventually bring us to Mars and beyond.

It may have been a generational thing. My parents, for example, did not dream of Mars. For them, in fact, the whole space thing was more of a contest than a science project and the specific point was not to do any specific thing at all, only to do it before the Russians got there and did it first.

But for me and my pals in fifth grade the whole space thing had nothing to do with beating the Soviets and everything to do with conquering new frontiers. Nor was this something we intuited on our own: when that disembodied voice opened every new episode of Star Trek (our favorite TV show, and by far) by referencing space as “the final frontier,” we all understood it to be saying almost clearly that our brave astronauts were merely the latter-day descendants of the brave settlers who risked everything to move west in their Conestoga wagons and establish an American presence in the western part of North America back in the nineteenth century. (That the parallel was not at all that exact—in that the crew of the Enterprise was not seeking out that “new life” and those “new civilizations” so that they could push them off their own soil and settle there themselves—did not dawn on me back then. Or at least as far as I can remember, it didn’t.)

I was on my way into twelfth grade when Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon and the sixteen-year-old me was still possessed of the same enthusiasm for our nation’s space program that the younger me felt so keenly. But I had evolved in other ways by then: I still dreamt of travel other planets, maybe eventually even to other solar systems, but an element of social justice had crept into my field of vision and part of the point of pursuing the exploration of space, my hip teenaged self thought, should be precisely to use each successive discovery as a way to combat the kind of parochialism and provincialism that allowed so many of our fellow earthlings—centuries after Copernicus—still to think of our home planet as the center of the universe.

By the 1970s, of course, no one would admit to actually thinking that. Everybody understood perfectly well that the planets were in orbit around the sun, that the solar system itself was part of a much larger galaxy that contained not some other stars, but about 400 billion of them. But although no normal person would have insisted that the sun and the stars travel around the earth, the world continued to behave as though that were the case, as though the earth were the center of all existence. The adolescent me saw in space exploration the ultimate way to combat that kind of self-serving provincialism…and, perhaps, in so doing to ween humanity away from the supposition that the universe exists to serve their needs.

By college, I had moved on in my space-fantasy-life to wonder more seriously about the search for extraterrestrial life and to wonder, given our endless interest in meeting the neighbors, if it could just possibly be the case that the neighbors were just as interested in meeting us as we were them. And if that were the case, then was it not just a matter of time before we actually would hear from them? And by “hear from them, “ I meant really hear from them, not via a momentary glimpse of a mysterious silver orb in the nighttime sky or an otherwise inexplicable blast of radio noise from somewhere out there in space—but in the specific way the residents of Hispaniola heard from Columbus on December 6, 1492, when he landed on their island—where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are today—and simultaneously changed the history of that island, this hemisphere, and the world utterly and forever in as long as it took him to step off his ship onto dry land. And yet those neighbors have never come a-calling. Or have they?

A few years ago, I wrote to you all about Oumuamua, a cigar-shaped reddish rock about 2600 feet long that scientists noticed one day hurtling through the cosmos. (To read what I had to say then, click here.) I left the matter unresolved, but had it drawn back to my attention just recently with the publication of Avi Loeb’s Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January of this year. Loeb, a professor of science at Harvard and the chairman of its Department of Astronomy, has studied all the data and concluded that the most likely explanation for the existence of Oumuamua in the first place is that it is a kind of light sail, a spaceship that gets its energy from sunlight or starlight and that was either launched by some alien civilization in our direction or else set out in the cosmos as kind of in-place space buoy (in which case it would be more correct to say that it was we who ran into it). The book was reviewed both worshipfully and harshly—some of the reviews were respectful, while others were filled with the same kind of sarcasm born of ill ease and disbelief that once greeted the theories of Copernicus or Galileo. I read the book and enjoyed it, finding the argumentation plausible and the conclusions, if not fully convincing, then at least intriguing and challenging.

The chances are excellent that we will never find out if Professor Loeb was right or wrong about Oumuamua. It—Oumuamua itself—is long gone into interstellar space; we’ll debate it for a while, then let it fade into the background among other unproven theories relating to the distant neighbors we feel certain must exist but have, at least as yet, been unable to find any clear trace of. But I continue to feel certain that the neighbors are out there…and that they day will come when they come to call and we on earth finally have no choice but to seize just how tiny a piece of God’s great universe our little planet actually does constitute. Will that happen anytime soon? There’s no way to know…but if Professor Loeb is right about Oumuamua, the doorbell could ring now any time. It’s clear that Perseverance is not going to find Mars filled with little green Martians eager and able to establish diplomatic (and every other kind of) relations with their counterparts on Earth. But each step we take towards exploring the cosmos makes it that much more likely that we will attract the attention of extraterrestrial space watchers gazing at the heavens and waiting for signs of life on a planet other than their own.




Thursday, March 4, 2021

This Week in Israel

There are two ways to approach this week’s decision by the Supreme Court of Israel regarding conversions to Judaism undertaken by non-Orthodox Jewish groups: as a big deal and as not such a big deal.

The not-such-a-big-deal approach would have to be rooted in a narrow appraisal of what actually happened: the court voted that, with regard to their right to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, the Ministry of the Interior does not have the right to distinguish between individuals who convert to Judaism based on the specific rabbinic group that oversaw their conversion…and that this obligation not to discriminate between converts applies even if the conversion in question took place in Israel itself. That last sentence will require some unpacking for at least some, but the underlying idea is simple enough: the Ministry had been obliged by law for decades to respect the conversions of converts from all denominational streams within Judaism if those conversions took place outside Israel. Weirdly, though, this entirely reasonable policy was denied people who convert to Judaism in Israel itself, where the right of the ultra-Orthodox to control those instruments of government that determine matters of personal status—marriage, divorce, Jewishness, etc.—has practically gone without saying since the state was founded seventy-three years ago. On top of that (in the weirdness scale, at least) is the fact that we are, at the end of the day, speaking about only very few people: there aren’t that many non-Jews in Israel who are interested in conversion and the Masorti movement, as the Conservative movement is called in Israel, and the Reform movement together only convert between thirty and forty individuals in a given calendar year. So it’s not like the decision is going to affect a lot of people or alter the fabric of Israeli society in any meaningful way. Why then, the naïve outside observer might wonder, is everybody reacting so strongly to this week’s decision?

It’s a good question. For one thing, the matter has been simmering on the back-burner for a long time. (Click here, e.g., to read a New York Times article from 2005 about the original court case relating to conversions outside of Israel.) But it’s also true that civil rights issues—both as played out in the court of public opinion and as tried in real court—are often so narrow in scope as to sound petty or even unimportant…other than to those who realize the potential implications and ramifications of the decision the public or the court is being challenged to reach. (To cite an American example, it would be missing the point almost entirely to think that all that legal wrangling in the 1960s about desegregating lunch counters or public buses was about luncheonettes and buses, as opposed to being about the larger issues they represented with respect to the civil rights of Black Americans.) And that is, I think, what we have here: a Supreme Court decision that will affect fewer than four dozen people in the course of an average year, but which has ramifications for Israeli society that will extend far beyond the narrow scope of decision itself.

As though they were actors stepping out from the wings to recite the speeches an unseen playwright put in their mouths, the various spokespeople for the various segments of the Israeli population duly appeared in one media-context or another to deliver their pre-assigned soliloquies. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a group wholly under the sway of the ultra-Orthodox, was almost sputteringly speechless in its dismay, predicting the imminent collapse of Israeli society if even one single convert to Judaism who hadn’t committed fully to a hareidi lifestyle were ever to be permitted to slip past the gatekeepers. For their part, of course, the spokespeople for Masorti and Reform Judaism were on-line instantly to express their delight. And the largest secular civil rights organizations also spoke uniformly approvingly of the decision. I even noted some actual converts to Judaism putting their two p’rutot in and expressing their gratitude to the court for its decision enabling them to live as they choose in a free country that, at least in theory, has always guaranteed the equality of its citizens before the law.

As is always the case, however, there are several elephants in the room.

The first is that the Supreme Court decision affects the Ministry of the Interior only and requires that it, as a branch of the government, not distinguish arbitrarily between individuals based on data deemed by the court to be extraneous to the adjudication of their situations. What that means practically is that the Supreme Court decision does not oblige the Rabbinate itself to consider converts outside of Orthodoxy as valid Jewish people—and in a country where there is no such thing as civil marriage and Jews can only marry with the approval of the Rabbinate, that matters a lot. (There isn’t even civil burial in Israel: the cemeteries and the Burial Societies that serve them are too in the hands of the Rabbinate.) So these handful of converts, whose status with respect to matters handled by the Ministry of the Interior has now been settled, still have a Sisyphean task before them if they wish to do any of the various things most Israelis take for granted, among them getting married and having the government recognize the union, getting divorced and being enabled to re-marry, dying and being buried in a Jewish cemetery. So it wouldn’t be that wrong to say that this week’s decision creates, rather than heals, an important schism in Israeli society by creating a class of civil Jews who have the formal status, but only very few of the basic rights, Jews born to the faith take for granted. So that’s one of the elephants in the room, known to all but mentioned, as far as I could see, by almost none in the wake of this week’s decision.

And then there are the Russians. This is huge. Over a million Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Israel since 1989 and today those immigrants and their descendants constitute more than 15% of Israel’s population. The detail that distinguishes the Russians and other FSU types from other large immigrant groups in Israeli society like Jews from Iraq or Yemen is that something like a full quarter are not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate. There are a lot of reasons for that, mostly related to the fact that Jewish life was suppressed for so long under the Communism that there were relatively few Jewish families that remained fully intact and intermarriage with non-Jews was rife for decades. Layered over that fact is the reality that many of these people—most of them, in fact—have been living in Israel for decades now, speak fluent Hebrew, have served in the IDF, and think of themselves as “real” Israelis. Except that the Chief Rabbinate refuses them the right to marry, to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, etc. No one seems sure how to fix the problem either—nor does this week’s Supreme Court decision go very far towards finding a solution since it only affects the policies of the Interior Ministry and the immigrants from the FSU are all citizens anyway.

The closest parallel for Americans to consider is the one between these immigrants from the FSU and the undocumented immigrants in our own country. Everybody agrees that having 11 million undocumented souls living in our midst but not paying taxes, not paying into the Social Security system, not feeling free to phone 911 if they are in danger, not participating in national or local elections—the one thing upon which everybody seems to agree is that the status quo is intolerable and has to be addressed. But how exactly to address it is a different question entirely. The notion of rounding up all 11 million people living illegally in this country and deporting them to wherever it is they came from in the first place is an idea that appeals to many in theory, but lacks any real practical possibility of ever happening. The ideas put forward by the current administration, and particularly by Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, seem to presuppose that the only real solution is to find a path for these people to seek citizenship that would involve some level of catch-up (for example, paying taxes on money earned in the U.S. during their time here but on which they never paid income tax) and would exclude criminals. Eventually, we have to deal—one way or the other—with these millions and millions of people!

And the parallel is almost exact: Israel cannot simply look away and ignore the fact that 15% of its Jewish population simply isn’t Jewish enough for the Chief Rabbinate. (That they are considered more than Jewish enough to serve in the IDF only adds fuel to the fire.) And the only practical solution has to do with conversion: since these people were already not born Jewish, at least not technically, a procedure has to be evolved for them formally to embrace Judaism and solve the problem that way. Since such a solution would almost definitely have to involve the more liberal denominations whose understanding of religion in general and Judaism in particular are more sophisticated, more scholarly, and more intellectually and historically justifiable than the extremist Orthodoxy of the Chief Rabbinate, the Supreme Court decision this week speaks indirectly to that whole set of issues by bestowing the mantle of legitimacy—if not in the eyes of the Rabbinate, then at least in the eyes of the State—on people who convert through movements more given over to the principles of tolerance, non-judgmentalism, pluralism, and intellectual integrity.

So those are the two elephants hiding in full sight for most Israelis. And that is why this week’s Supreme Court decision not only matters, but has the potential to be truly transformative in the effort to create a kind of Israeli Judaism that rejects the kind of know-nothing fundamentalism that is the hallmark of the kind of Judaism represented by the Chief Rabbinate and in its place embraces a version of Judaism rooted in acceptance, fairness, tolerance, and spiritual integrity. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Purim 2021

 There are lots of different ways to “read” the Megillah.

The simplest, I suppose, would be to take it at face value as an historical account of the series of events that led to Purim becoming a universally observed Jewish holiday. Reading it this way would suppose that the personalities mentioned—and not just the major ones but even the minor characters who appear just once or twice in the story—were all real people and that they all played the specific roles the story assigns to them in the drama. This approach founders a bit on the fact that there are no traces of any of them other than King Achashveirosh (assuming he is correctly to be identified with Xerxes I) in any extra-biblical document, including any of the fairly voluminous works that chronicle Persian history during the period the story appears to be set. (For an excellent essay by Mitchell First on the question of whether Achashveirosh can reasonably be identified as Xerxes I, click here.) Still, that’s hardly proof-positive that none of them existed: lots of real people don’t make it into the history books! (But how many queens are in that category? Maybe that’s the more pertinent question to ask!)

Fortunately, there is no lack of alternate approaches.

Focusing on Queen Vashti’s principled refusal to degrade herself in public merely because her husband ordered her to and also on Queen Esther’s willingness to risk her own life for the sake of saving her people, it would be easy to read the Megillah as a feminist story intended to remind its audience that women—for all they are so often overlooked in ancient works of history—could and did play important roles at crucial junctures. But the Megillah could also be read as a work of proto-Zionism, one intended to drive home the point that, even in the very best of times, Jews living outside Israel are subject to the arbitrary anti-Semitism both of petulant foes like Haman and of naïve enablers like King Achashveirosh. And the book could also easily be read as a critique of the whole monarchic system of governance, one in which a drunken dunce like Achashverosh can be manipulated easily by wily advisers like Haman who are pursuing deeply personal agendas.

All of the above would be interesting to explore in more depth, but I would like to use this space this week to write about yet another approach to the Megillah, one inspired partially by last month’s assault on the Capitol and partially by the sense, dramatically heightened by those events, that there are elements out here whom we don’t know and haven’t ever met…but who nonetheless wish us harm.

As all regular reader of Megillat Esther know, the ninth chapter is the big one, the chapter in which all plot lines converge to produce a satisfying dénouement fully worthy of annual celebration. Indeed, it is the only chapter that actually takes place during the month of Adar, the month of Purim. (Almost all the action up to that point—including Haman’s casting of lots, King Achashveirosh’s order that Haman parade Mordecai through the streets to honor him for his good deed, both of the banquets that Esther prepares for Haman and Mordechai, and the fabulous scene in which Haman flings himself as Esther’s feet and knocks her over just as King Achashveirosh comes back into the room, only to end up sentenced to death and finally impaled on the execution post he had had prepared for Mordechai—all of that takes place almost a full year earlier during the previous Pesach. Then came the wrangling over how to stop the pogrom that led to an official edict promulgated on 23 Sivan, exactly two months later, that granted the Jews permission to defend themselves against their enemies.) And now, as chapter nine begins, almost a full year has passed and the big day is finally here.   

That ninth chapter is one we all read far too quickly through, and particularly if we want to read it the way I would like to propose today. But let’s start with that edict of 23 Sivan, the one executed in the first places because King Achashveirosh, the supreme ruler of an entire empire, lacked the legal authority to rescind one of his own edicts merely because the original copy was stamped with the mark of his signet ring. The whole idea that an absolute monarch can’t countermand one of his own edicts is idiotic and, indeed, the notion that an edict promulgated in the king’s name and sealed with his seal cannot be withdrawn is not known from any other Persian documents from the era. (It also directly contradicts the passage at the end of  chapter one that says that the specific way to make an edict not rescindable is for it formally to be “written up among the laws of the Persians and the Medes.”) So we’re being challenged to read with our eyes wide open. And what the new edict says is, to say the least, startling. First, there is to be defense:

Jewish men in every city of the kingdom are formally granted permission to organize local militias with the express purpose of defending the Jewish population by endeavoring to destroy, exterminate, and annihilate the thugs of every people and ethnicity who were planning such ill for them, their children and their wives, and then by plundering all their foes’ possessions.

And then there is to be offense as well:

Over and above the right to defend themselves, the Jews in every province over which King Achashveirosh rules are also to be permitted, albeit only on one single day, to wit the thirteenth day of the twelfth month called Adar, to advance forcefully against their enemies and to seek revenge for the degree to which these foes had embraced the awful plot hatched against the Jews by wicked Haman.

So that’s pretty clear. And what happens the next spring is precisely what the text says will happen. On the thirteenth of Adar, the day Haman had planned to annihilate the Jews of Persia, the Jews rise up against their enemies. In Shushan alone, five hundred foes are killed. Then, after receiving royal dispensation to keep at it for one extra day, another three hundred are killed. In the rest of the empire, things go just as swimmingly: on the thirteenth day of Adar alone, a full 75,000 are killed, bringing the two-day total to 75,800 dead sonim. We are clearly meant to understand that there are no Jewish losses at all. Nor was this at all unexpected: at the end of the previous chapter, the Megillah notes that there was such anxiety afoot among those who had planned to attack the Jews that some pathetically attempted to disguise themselves as Jews so as not to be subject to their would-be victims’ wrath.

And now we get to the question that will challenge thoughtful readers. The enemy is completely demoralized, the fight clearly completely out of them. They don’t put up any resistance; the major plot detail that the permission granted them to go on the attack and to attempt to annihilate the Jewish population has not been withdrawn seems totally to be forgotten. Like most bullies, I suppose, they fold easily when facing real opposition. And this appears to have been the case despite the fact that the Jews were surely a tiny minority group in an enormous sea of Gentiles. Surely, they could have taken the Jews on even despite the permission granted the latter to fight back…or at least they could have tried. But they seem to have totally forgotten about their might, about the potential in their numbers, and about the full legality of their pending Aktion against the Jewish population. It feels, at least plausibly, that there is no real danger to the Jews of the realm on that fateful day: they go on the offensive and annihilate foes fully cowed into submission by the mere possibility of their would-be victims fighting back. How else could there have been no Jewish casualties at all?

And so we come to pathetic truth behind the narrative. The Jews could have defended themselves anyway. (Why couldn’t they have? Was fighting off your would-be murderer illegal in Old Persia?) The mob of anti-Semites retains its right to go on the offensive. So, really, nothing has changed at all. Except—this is the pathetic part—that a Gentile king (and, at that, a drunken oaf like Achashveirosh) told the Jews they could stand up for themselves. Which they could have anyway…but didn’t. Or wouldn’t have. Until someone formally gave them permission.

We feel safe, we American Jews. We trust the police, have faith in our government, feel secure enough (most of the time) to look past the occasional anti-Semitic remark by a member of Congress. We buy homes with twenty- or thirty-year mortgages because we expect to be living in them decades in the future. And we haven’t fled to Israel for the same reason. I know all the above because I feel that way myself! And then suddenly there are organized anti-Semites marching through the streets of downtown Charlottesville. A comedian we all thought of as super-hip and wholly benign tells an overtly anti-Semitic joke on television and only we seem to notice. The Capitol is overrun by insurrectionists, some of whom are openly displaying anti-Semitic slogans and symbols…and no one seems quite sure what to do about it. Are racist slogans on t-shirts protected by the First Amendment? Suddenly, the answer to that question seems to determine whom you ask for an answer.

The Megillah could not be clearer in its message that it is neither cogent nor effective solely to respond to anti-Semitism by reacting to it ex post facto. The Bible’s solution—that we go on the attack and annihilate our would-be annihilators before they have a chance to do the same to us—is obviously not something any normal citizen, Jewish or not, would countenance. But the lessons the Megillah teaches in this regards remains pertinent and timely. No one needs permission to stand up for his or her rights. The pathetic image of Persian Jewry finding the strength to oppose its own annihilation only when the government formally permits them to do so is meant to be both embarrassing and chastening. Helping bigots to divest themselves of their bigotry before anyone gets hurt is an excellent plan. But the Megillah teaches that that can only be undertaken successfully by people possessed of confidence, self-reliance, and unwavering certainty in their own right to exist and to flourish.