THE PRICE OF STUPID
It is cruel and politically incorrect to call anyone stupid, most especially in public. But when someone is using stupidity to try to deceive people and separate them from their money and common sense, it is almost an obligation to call them out.
An organization called “Guns and God” is advocating for a national day of appreciation for the link between religious faith and gun ownership, called, inaccurately, the unalienable right to bear arms. This direct quotation from their petition provides the rationale: “The Guns and God coalition believes that society’s noticeable lack of faith in God is to blame for the rise of violent crimes, not firearms. The coalition would like to point out that gun ownership has declined in the last 20 years, despite the influx of gun violence. Accompanying the drop in firearms ownership is a noticeable decline in religious participation.”
In his book Spurious Correlations, author Tyler Vigen presents graphic evidence (that is, he graphs the evidence) of the similar patterns of completely unrelated phenomena. For example, the number of people who drown after falling out of a fishing boat follows the same pattern as the marriage rate in Kentucky. Or, per capita cheese consumption is virtually identical to the number of people who die after becoming tangled in their bedsheets. Or, the total revenue generated by arcades correlates with the number of computer science doctorates awarded in the United States.
Correlation, I hope I don’t have to tell you, is not the same as causation. When two patterns correlate, they follow a similar trajectory, even if they do not influence each other. When one pattern is caused by the other, it is because the first pattern consistently influences the second. So, for example, if respiratory disease and lung cancer increase as tobacco consumption increases, there is reason to investigate a causal link. If parking on Capitol Hill is more available when the House and Senate are in recess, there is reason to believe that the cause is a reduction in the number of people looking to park on Capitol Hill.
On the other hand, regardless of the number of fans who wear their baseball caps inside-out and backwards in the ninth inning, any rally or lack thereof will always, always be the result of the athletic skills and strategy of the players. If, God forbid, your mother breaks her back or her spine, it has nothing to do with any crack or line on which you may have stepped, intentionally or accidentally.
To believe otherwise is nonsense.
So here we have the “Guns and God” PAC declaring that it believes – without evidence – that “society’s noticeable lack of faith in God is to blame for the rise of violent crimes.” By citing a general trend of a decline in gun ownership and a decline in religious participation (undocumented), this PAC identifies the result as the “influx” (sic) of gun violence by the remaining gun owners.
I can’t even evaluate the correlation, let alone the causation, but I can say unequivocally that they are not the same thing. To think otherwise is to make the same mistake as confusing “belief” and “fact,” which is something else this PAC does.
As of this writing, of the millions of people in the United States who own guns and/or believe in God, just over two thousand have been hoodwinked into signing the petition to link guns and God on the public record. Just over two thousand people have fallen for a stupid argument.
Their public records of the PAC indicate the money they have collected and how much of it they have spent. The price of stupid appears to be $125,255.34. Of that amount, $96,983.30 has been expended. I hope those two thousand-plus folks get a better return on the last thirty grand.
GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM
Everyone has an explanation for Donald Trump. There is a widespread consensus that he is driven by narcissism. Plenty of people believe his values are shaped by branding, not principles. Some say he has an insatiable greed combined with a sense of entitlement. I have a cousin who presents pretty convincing evidence that he suffers from dementia.
I really don’t care what the explanation is. If there is any doubt that the president is “straight-up racist,” as CNN’s Brian Stelter said, it is dispelled by his latest series of tweets aimed at Democratic Members of Congress of color. They are all duly elected federal officials, all citizens, as the law requires, and all but one eligible for the same office as Trump holds by virtue of being born in the USA. His call for them to “go back” because they hate the United States – one racist step beyond the “love it or leave it” hurled at anti-war demonstrators in the 1970s – is conduct unbecoming.
If you excuse it, defend it or dismiss it, then that, too, is racist behavior. Yes, I just called you that.
And if you find justification because Trump managed to include in that same racist screed an accusation of anti-Israel sentiments from the same legislators, then you are also a chauvinist. That is in addition to being racist, just to be clear.
Those readers I have just insulted have unsubscribed or sent me nasty comments. The rest of you, don’t be so smug. We have a problem, and it’s our fault.
You see, Donald Trump is not running the government. Various aspects of it are in the hands of people who actually know what they are doing, even if their boss does not. The cartoon character cabinet secretaries who are still in place lead departments in which ideologues are running roughshod over people with expertise in their fields. Rules and regulations legally enacted after deliberation and consultation are being eliminated at the behest of interest groups. Science is being denied. Civil rights are being overruled by deeply held personal beliefs. A rogues’ gallery of religious triumphalists has been entrusted with redefining what our country’s foreign policy stands for. Children are being caged.
While we continue our sense of outrage at the bad behavior of the classic playground bully – who refuses briefings, doesn’t read and plays more golf than any three presidents before him – the damage is taking place right before our eyes. Call him a brilliant strategist or a dotard (I’ve heard both), Donald Trump has found the formula to allow the sins of the fathers to be revisited on their children.
And if we remove him from office before his term is up, he will be replaced by someone who is complicit in all of these outrages. They will continue unabated while we rub our eyes and wonder how it all came to pass.
There is no question that Trump’s racist tweets are a strategy to gin up support for his 2020 run for reelection – he invited “the Squad” essentially to rumble. Americans will have the opportunity to turn him out of office then or to subject ourselves to his brand of outrageousness for four more years.
But the damage that is being done while we are entertained by his “oh-no-he-didn’t” performances has longer-term implications than the deterioration of civility and vocabulary over which he has presided.
There are not enough tax revenues to meet essential services because tax breaks have been given to the wealthiest among us and so much money has been spent on his pleasures and whims. The implications of a depleted treasury include unavoidable choices about national defense, infrastructure, retirement and healthcare, and security.
The system of checks and balances designed to prevent the accumulation of power by the branches of government is in disarray. It is true not only of the Executive Branch, where Trump has bypassed the confirmation process by appointing “acting” personnel rather than allowing scrutiny of his nominees, but also of the Legislative Branch where the absence of meaningful engagement by a policy-devoid president has allowed a small-minded Senate majority leader to frustrate the necessary deliberations of lawmaking.
The civil rights divisions of departments like Justice, Education, HUD and others have received instructions reversing the mandates to protect those who have been denied a voice in the name of shielding those clinging to privilege and to a belief that their reading of the Bible overrides the Constitution.
Our natural environment, which has been assaulted by the habits we don’t seem to be able to reverse voluntarily, is accelerating in its deterioration because the absolutely foolish debate over whether climate change is real (it is; read a book) obscures the deregulation by an eviscerated Environmental Protection Agency of industries eager to make money now rather than ensure a future for us all.
Waiting quietly and obsequiously in the number-two spot is Mike Pence. He was a terrible congressman and a worse governor. But he understands how government works and he has opinions on policies that do not show up on Donald Trump’s radar. Mike Pence could make government work again – by the rules that are being put into place by Stephen Miller and John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney.
So do not satisfy yourself with the knowledge that Donald Trump behaves like a racist and you don’t. Pay attention to the rest of your government: your civil rights, your national security, your social welfare, your place in the community of nations, your natural world. It is not enough to call out the abuser-in-chief. We have to start fixing this mess and send the whole crew back where they came from – private life.
RESPECT FOR LIFE
Through an unusual series of circumstances, I have become a friend of Rob Schenck, about whom you can learn more in the op-ed from the New York Times linked here. Unbeknownst to each other, we worked on these two brief essays simultaneously. His is better, but mine is mine. I include the link for the sake of hope; two people beginning from widely divergent points can find common ground on one of the more intractable issues of our time.
In the difficult discussions surrounding women’s reproductive health, many of the factions are talking past each other because of their adherents understand the essential word in the debate differently. That word is “life.”
It is fair to say that when the Declaration of Independence noted life as an inalienable right, the authors and endorsers were speaking in general terms, not considering the way the term would have been applied in these debates. The same is almost certainly true of terms like “men,” and in the Constitution, “militia,” “arms,” “cruel and unusual,” and the presumed worth of “twenty dollars.” It has been the function of legislatures and courts to address the evolution of these terms as well as their applications in law and society.
The word “life” is so general that it requires nuance and modifiers. At the very least, it must be modified by the word “human.” Our debates about the sanctity or quality of life in gestation do not revolve around the pervasive presence of living things in our world, nor did the founders consider life inalienable to any but “men” (that is, human beings in our now-authoritative understanding). Some people insist that human life be considered only in a scientific sense, others in a religious sense, and still others in some hybrid of the two.
Religiously, human life is defined by inherited or interpreted faith traditions. Some of them identify a moment in development – as early as coitus and as late as labor – as the marker of human life. For some faith traditions, ensoulment (the presumed moment that a soul enters a living entity) marks that moment. If the presence of a soul creates a religious obligation, then the physical development of the life is superseded by that requirement. Of course, there is already an established and ensouled human life in any pregnancy: the mother. Different faith traditions prioritize the obligations to each of these human lives in distinct ways.
Scientifically, gestational life may be said to fit into three different categories, not easily delineated. The first, associated with the earliest period after fertilization, is called embryogenesis. Technically, it is life; the rapid division, replication and differentiation of cells in this stage unquestionably meets the definition of life that could be applied in human or non-human circumstances. The second category, when embryo becomes fetus, involves sentience, and it becomes more definitive as the life becomes more able to respond to sense impressions. It is important to note that “thinking” is not a part of this sentience, and likely not consciousness either. Rather, stimuli of various kinds are able to provoke a discernible reaction as the brain and nervous system develop. Lastly, there is the category of viability. At this point, life that has been entirely dependent on the mother has developed a capacity to sustain itself out of the womb. Here, too, viability does not guarantee consciousness, that is, awareness of self that is distinct from the surrounding world.
I note two important truths at this point. First, medical science has blurred the distinctions among these categories even as it has defined them, including extending backward into gestation the viability of life. The second truth, which must not be overlooked, is that the mother is herself a viable human life.
If you have read this far, you have chosen your set of definitions. But I suspect that choice was made before you began to read. The purpose of my hubris is to urge upon those who have entered into these debates an effort to understand the various terms of engagement as held by those in disagreement.
Those who insist on prohibiting or severely limiting abortion have, at best, a superficial understanding of the scientific arguments and values regarding agency held by others who want to protect access to abortion services. By starting with the presumption of God’s will expressed through fertilization, they retrofit certain scientific truths (e.g., the DNA in the zygote contains all of the information necessary for the fully-formed human being) and insist that, therefore, there is no difference between abortion and murder. They also conflate the human potential for agency and consciousness that is far from realized until well after birth to speak “on behalf” of the unborn – as if a microphone or sensor that could record inside the womb would enable us to hear a plaintive plea for life.
Those who insist that the decision to abort is as it ought to be, that is, entirely in the realm of the mother, informed by the best medical (and perhaps spiritual) advice she can find have a similarly superficial understanding of the faith values that inform their opponents. Extending the rhetoric of those who oppose abortion on the grounds of sanctity of life, they create straw men about social dilemmas that also demand such a philosophy of life: alleviation of poverty, warfare, gun violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault, affordable health care and capital punishment, among others. Ignoring the truth that one person’s hypocrisy is another’s paradox, they demand a consistency from their opponents that, even if it were attainable, would not persuade those who support legal and available abortion to change their position.
And, of course, both sides are persuaded of the power of anecdote. The stories fall into two categories: “My mother was going to abort me and deprive my loved ones and me” and “My life would have been compromised by an unwanted birth.” For the record, both stories ought to provoke sympathy and support for the tellers. Neither story is proof of a position on the value of life.
So long as the two sides of this debate insist on defining the conversation in their own terms, it will be perpetual and unresolved. And so long as each side defines for the other what its understanding is, the clear lack of respect will frustrate any real conversation and drive the debate about necessary legislation – whatever that may be – into ever more distant and irreconcilable positions.
So here is the truth: abortions will continue to occur, whether they are legal and safe or not. People inalterably opposed to abortion will find their absolutism challenged when faced with an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy themselves or in someone they love, and people who insist on accessible abortion on demand will find themselves facing unanticipated questions of the heart when they face an unwanted pregnancy themselves or in someone they love.
Therefore, I urge everyone to take some time to listen to an opponent on this subject and engage in serious and respectful discussion to understand motivations and consequences. Please do so without appointing yourself the defender of the pregnant mother or of the life within her. The result will not be a self-evident conclusion, but it will inspire compassion and understanding as we navigate this painful topic.
I am astonished at the certainty with which accusations of anti-Jewishness are leveled.
We have been blessed with a wealth of public figures who identify or are identified as Jews. They are celebrities, sports figures, journalists, business magnates, philanthropists and, notably, politicians. Some of them proudly and openly identify as Jews. Some of them barely acknowledge their Jewishness. And yet, whenever there is public criticism of something one of them has done, voices in the Jewish community report it breathlessly as yet another example of anti-Jewishness.
(I am trying to avoid the use of anti-semitism in this discussion. Anti-semitism is a particularly invidious form of hatred that should be repulsed wherever it is encountered. It is generalized and without honest justification. It is not situational, but an almost religious belief in the inherent corrupt nature of all things Jewish.)
I am willing to acknowledge publicly that some Jews do objectionable things. When that happens, it is reasonable to expect that people of conscience will do what they do when they encounter objectionable things: they will object.
Of course, there are two caveats to acknowledge. The first is that “objectionable” can be in the eye of the beholder. Jews (objectionable and otherwise) are not strangers to that concept. Some of us object to what others of us eat, or do on Saturday, or support politically. There really is no independent standard of objection to which we can appeal. Even in discussing the State of Israel, one person’s treason is another’s patriotism.
What is true for Jews is true for non-Jews as well. When an extremely wealthy Jew contributes large amounts of money to a partisan cause, that donor is a hero to those who agree and a villain to those who do not. If John Republican and Mary Democrat are asked if they admire a person of any background who contributes to the campaign against their favorite candidate, each will give the same answer, and it may not be very polite. That’s the price of free speech, but it has little or nothing to do with identity of the donor.
The second is that while we never can know what is in a person’s heart, it says more about the critic than the speaker when motive is imputed without evidence. It may very well be correct that a person who is disparaging only of Jews is anti-Jewish (or even anti-semitic), but it is far from necessarily true that a person who criticizes one Jew, or even many Jews among others, has a thing about the People of the Book.
Is there some kind of litmus test we can apply to a comment or a series of comments? Probably not. But I tend to think that when a broadside against a Jewish philanthropist is accompanied by a derogatory caricature, that’s an indication. When the speaker refers to a Jew or a group of Jews with some analog to the word “typical,” the prima facie evidence is pretty solid. The closer a speaker comes to that line that separates generalized hatred from individual exasperation, the more justified an accusation of anti-Jewish sentiment may be.
On the other hand, my fellow Jews and I would do well to reflect on the uncomfortable fact that not everyone is as fluent in anti-Jewishness as we believe they are.
I recall a conversation many years ago in which a brother clergy shared with me his embarrassment that a public character recently brought to shame was a member of his Protestant denomination. I replied that I knew how he felt and mentioned the name of another such character whose name was as Jewish as “Aaron Goldstein” (though it was not Aaron Goldstein). My friend replied, “Aaron Goldstein is Jewish?”
As I have noted before, it is hard to find a derogatory image that has not been linked by anti-semites to Jews. We have been associated with various animals, noxious hygienic habits, perverted sexual appetites, insatiable greed, criminal inclinations and, let’s not forget, an appetite for murdering innocent children of other faiths. I left out some of the more polite negative characteristics, like clannishness and pushiness and, well, all of them.
A person who finds aggressiveness objectionable may very well call the generic human being who cuts in line at the supermarket “pushy.” On what basis – other than presumption – is that person anti-Jewish if the offending behavior is committed by a Jew?
The answer is: none. And I will go further by suggesting that even if it turns out that the speaker is anti-Jewish, presuming it on the basis of our own inclinations to stereotypes of non-Jews is just as prejudiced.
In my opinion, the rush to judgment about statements to which we impute anti-Jewishness devalues the legitimate accusations of that offense and even of anti-semitism. And it belies a perspective on the world which, if directed at us, would be cause for genuine umbrage. Without denying the persistence of anti-semitism in the world, to consider anti-Jewish as not situational, rather an almost religious belief in the inherent corrupt nature of the non-Jews we encounter is a particularly invidious form of hatred that should be repulsed wherever it is encountered.
NEVER. O. K.
I have never told this story publicly until now. It has a very offensive word in it, which I have not concealed because it is the point of the story.
In the congregation I formerly served was a woman I will call Ethel. Ethel was married to a guy I will call Fred. They had no children. Fred died after a long decline, and Ethel, who was already a little wacko, developed obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Fortunately, she had the wealth to deal with her peculiarities.
She could be exceptionally generous. She gave the synagogue her house when she moved into assisted living. She offered to buy us a Torah scroll; when the scribe gave her a choice of two, she decided to donate them both. Once, she gave me personally an armload of small appliances in their original boxes that she had ordered from a shopping channel on TV.
But there were other aspects of her personality that were not so endearing. Ethel would scoop refreshments into her purse after worship services even though she could easily afford the food she needed. She despised her sister and did everything she could to express it. The way she spoke cattily to you about other people was a pretty good indication that she spoke cattily to those other people about you. She had a distrust of banks and carried stock certificates in her purse (the one with the refreshments) because she considered it more secure than a safe deposit box.
Ethel got older, sicker and stranger. In an attempt to put her estate in order, a group from the synagogue mobilized to dispose of the junk she had hoarded in her small assisted living room. An attorney went about collecting her assets to create a will. A lovely African man became a sort of personal assistant to her. She had bought a new car when she moved, but after driving it less than a thousand miles, she gave up driving, so she gave him the car. (She did not sign it over to him – she just handed him the keys and told him to take it.) I was named executor of her will, overseeing an estate worth over three million dollars.
Here, then, is the summary: Ethel was old, sick, crazy, and rich. She was generous, often impulsively. And she entrusted me with distributing her hoarded wealth.
One day I got a call from the facility where she lived that her car had been stolen. Someone had noticed that it was not in the spot where it was always parked. I came over with the president of the congregation to ask her about it, having heard that she had given it to the young man who assisted her.
Please be ready for the offensive word.
“Ethel,“ I said. “Do you remember what happened to your car?”
“Oh yeah,” she replied. “The nigger took it.”
Old, sick crazy, rich, generous. Trusting enough of me to put me in charge of her money. I was virtually alone with her. The easiest thing in the world at that point would have been to chalk up her indiscretion to old, sick and crazy, lest the trust that left me with a checking account holding three million dollars be withdrawn.
Here's what I said.
“Ethel, you did not just call him a nigger! You may never, ever use that word again. It is a terrible word, and there is no excuse ever to use it.”
She said nothing.
Why did I do that? Because that kind of talk is never okay. Never. No matter the circumstances, no matter the consequences of calling it out, it is never okay. Never. O. K.
Ethel is long gone (and her money, donated to a non-profit of her choice, wound up lost in a Ponzi scheme). I have shared this story privately a very few times, but I share it publicly now.
Whether referring to race, faith, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or any other human attribute, that kind of talk is never okay. Never. No matter the circumstances, no matter the consequences of calling it out, it is never okay.
Never. O. K.
ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM
These three brief essays are my current take on this increasingly painful dilemma. Part 1 looks at the place of Jews in America. Part 2 discusses the Holocaust and its impact on the the conversation. Part 3 addresses whether one can be anti-Zionist without being anti-semitic.
ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM -- Part 1
When Jews came to North America before the founding of the United States, they discovered themselves in an unfamiliar circumstance. They were treated by their fellow residents essentially as being equal. Perhaps the better word here is “equivalent.” Though they faced disadvantages at the hands of religiously-driven figures, they were nonetheless increasingly embraced as part of the hybrid notion of national identity that was summarized by the word “American.”
The Jewish part of their identity was mostly considered to be a function of their faith, much as a Christian or a Catholic or a “Mohammedan” was identified by belief. In the hodge-podge of stereotypes and prejudices that rose and fell in mainstream America over the centuries, Jews found that they had opportunities to be nearly-full participants in American life, especially compared to the African slaves and their offspring. Building on George Washington’s remarkable affirmation of the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, most Jews and most Americans came to view the Jewish community as one defined by their mode of worship, their particular holidays and their adherence to a religion that did not affirm Jesus as the Christ. Not every American (and I include some of notorious prominence) accept this perspective, but as matters of both law and culture, the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment were understood to make the definition of American specifically include Jews, of course among others.
The later popularizing of the term “Judeo-Christian,” accurate or not, and the integration of Jews into the military, especially during the Second World War, was further proof that Jews were in every respect but one just like every other American. Even deep into the twentieth century, when restrictive covenants, whites-only country clubs and “gentlemen’s agreements” were yet a part of everyday life, Jews learned from civic circumstances and most of their rabbis that Judaism was to occupy a compartment in their identity. It defined their faith, but not their patriotism.
To be sure, aspects of Jewish culture influenced Jews as well, much as the children of Italian, Irish, Greek, Slavic and Baltic immigrants maintained music, cuisine and supplemental schooling in their neighborhoods to preserve old-country values. But like those neighbors, Jews came to accept that they were Americans by nationality and Jews by faith, heritage or culture. And we still do.
That attitude makes us unique in our history of displacement since Jacob and his sons settled in ancient Egypt. Throughout the Bible, from Pharaoh to Haman, our identity was as a people, not as a religion. (In fact, the two words may have been a difference without distinction back then, but more ahead.) The prophets assailed us about faithfulness, but the history unfolding around and beyond them was one of alliances and conquests during which our ultimate allegiance was to our unseen Commander rather than the kings and conquerors who coveted our homeland. The notion of holiness, intimately connected with the Holy Land, was forcibly disconnected by Jews and affixed to Torah and ritual. Likewise, for others, religious life was wrenched from geography and affixed instead to authority figures who laid claim to acting as God’s representative and to the religious law that grew up around them.
The Jews, however, had no king. (Well, at least according to us.) We were a stateless people, condemned to wander because we would not accept the sovereignty of (name of potentate here) as a divinely ordained representative of (particular name for God here).
Centuries later, cultures throughout Europe, where most Jews lived, had diminished the authority of religious hierarchy in most circumstances. Vibrant cultures had emerged, influenced by faith, but not beholden to it. It is impossible to say with certainty whether the artists who relied on the patronage of the churches were devout or mercenary – no doubt some combination of the two – but by the time concert halls and museums and even cabarets were filled with an abundance of artistic expressions, civic life was similarly mostly independent of the churches. As national identity became a stronger determinant of belonging than specific belief, the stateless Jew remained an outsider. To be sure, some Jews succeeded to integrate and gain acceptance, but they were exceptions, and they often had to abandon their allegiance to Judaism and Jewish identity to do so.
Nation-states began to emerge in Europe to replace monarchs. And, still, the Jews were without a place. We were therefore considered by others and (this is extremely important) by ourselves a people apart, just as Pharaoh and Haman had declared. We were not French, not German, not Italian, not Russian, not Polish. The religiously practicing among us declared a daily hope too be restored to our land, evidence enough to others that they were correct in their estimation that we could not pledge allegiance to the land in which we settled. Never mind that the capacity to hold multiple ideas and fidelities in mind is a hallmark of human existence; Jews were others – not to all, but to most.
To growing numbers of European Jews who had joined their neighbors in stepping away from religious life and faith, the situation was perplexing and frustrating. Enough of them came to the conclusion that in their modern world Jews would never find a place of security and self-determination unless they had a land of their own, just like Germans and Austrians, Czechs and Slovaks, Russians and Ukrainians. Out of that mentality grew Zionism – a political movement for Jewish self-determination in a dedicated homeland.
By now it is clear that the long history of Jewish longing for a return to the Holy Land made that territory the only destination for a homecoming. But other territories were considered, in Africa and North America in addition to the ancestral lands.
As Jewish nationalism affirmed a Jewish identity that was other than European, America’s Constitutional culture affirmed a national identity that, for Jews, was differentiated only by faith – a faith that began waning along with the faith of many Americans in the second half of the twentieth century.
ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM – Part 2
It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the Holocaust on the Jews who survived the Auschwitz years. While the rest of the world may look at those events with sadness, embarrassment or impatience, in most cases the Holocaust is an external event to those who are not Jewish.
I want to be specific with my words: I am not referring to World War II or to the suffering and deprivation experienced by other Europeans and their offspring or to the losses endured by those who lost disabled family, homosexuals or dissidents to the Nazi death machine. I refer specifically to the Holocaust, the systematic attempt to murder all the Jews in the world.
Even today, as Americans use DNA mapping and on-line search tools to discover their personal history, there is barely a Jewish family of European heritage that does not have a gaping hole in the family tree, as if someone tore pages out of the records in the family Bible and tossed them in the fireplace.
The Holocaust occurred in large measure because the perpetrators guessed correctly that nobody would believe they would do what they did. And until it was too late, no one did believe. Since then, and probably forever more, Jews will never doubt the depths of depravity to which the human imagination can sink nor the capacity of human beings to perpetrate evil.
Every word I wrote above is true, and it pertains to me at least as much as to anyone else.
Allow me, at some risk, to suggest some lessons that are uncomfortable in this context.
Too many of my fellow Jews have conflated what is possible with what is likely. I agree with those who repeat the warning that we cannot afford to dismiss those who pledge to do us harm. But having seen the worst that can befall us, too many of us (including, sometimes, me) hope for an opportunity to prove that we will never let it happen again. The pump is primed, and the evidence is pre-packaged. We are trigger-happy with accusations of anti-semitism, and not just Jew-hating anti-semitism, but genocidal anti-semitism.
At the same time, we presume more than ill intent from those we fear. We presume a conspiratorial network motivated by the unfinished work of the Third Reich. The hatred of Jews in Nazi Germany was so comprehensive, building on the creative denigration of everything Jewish throughout the preceding centuries, that there is barely a new way to be critical of Jews. And since we have schooled ourselves in the litany of stereotypes, we presume that others have done the same. The fact is that most non-Jews – except the professional anti-semites – are unaware of what is second nature to us.
(During the scandals of the Clinton presidency, a Methodist minister worried that the conduct of the Special Prosecutor would have an impact on the denomination. I told him I worried in the same way about the young intern. He told me he had no idea that she was Jewish. And I had no idea he prosecutor was Methodist.)
The Holocaust produced two results that pervade Jewish life collectively and, mostly, individually. Theologically, as one brilliant orthodox thinker observed, belief in God is difficult, but belief in man is impossible. Almost all Jews who do not espouse a fundamental ultra-orthodox belief have contracted the notion of a God willing to exercise protection of the faithful in this world (some of them down to zero). Practically, as I have suggested throughout my career, Jews should never be without power. Power is expressed differently in different circumstances, but most certainly the power of self-determination is primary on the global stage – best expressed by the State of Israel as the national expression of Jewish peoplehood. In the United States, I would argue that power is expressed politically, officially in government and sociologically in the influential segments of society.
But how is such power deployed? The influence of Jewish religion – values drawn from 2000 years of the experience of relative powerlessness – emphasizes accommodation, compromise and the moral high ground. The influence of Jewish experience – lessons learned from hundreds of years of suffering discrimination and, ultimately, attempted obliteration – emphasizes cautious ally-ship, suspicion and exquisite preparedness.
Is it fair to ask Jews to step out of their Holocaust consciousness when considering their concerns about their own security or that of the State of Israel? I think the answer is no, any more than it is fair to ask African Americans to set aside the awareness of their enslaved past, or native tribes to leave their displacement and slaughter to history books, or any American who lived through the Great Depression to refrain from sharing their memories with affluent offspring.
What is fair – and, in my opinion, advisable – is to ask Jews to consider the role that their personal or collective historical memory plays in contemporary circumstances. Cultivating fear and suspicion of others is a guarantee that fear and suspicion will be returned in kind.
ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM -- Part 3
Is it possible to be anti-Zionist and not anti-semitic? A lot of people have been weighing in on that question. It is a very different question than if it is possible to criticize the policies and actions of the State of Israel without being anti-semitic. The answer to that question is necessarily yes, or the entire citizenry of Israel has a paradoxical identity.
But Zionism – the belief that the Jewish people have a right to self-determinism in their own homeland – is not about policies and actions, but about place in the world.
I will risk alienating those American Jews who conflate criticizing Israel with calling for Israel’s destruction. The inability to distinguish between the two is a mark of paranoia, but (if you read my previous two columns) an understandable affliction.
It is not the case that Israel exists because of the Holocaust. Political Zionism was founded a century before World War II, and the ideas behind it before that. But anyone who denies that the destruction of European Jewry had an influence on when Israel came into existence is simply incorrect. Not always for admirable reasons, the nations that had fought in the war eventually sought a place for the remnant of the Jewish population with nowhere to call home.
It is the case that in the minds of most American Jews, there is an inextricable link between the catastrophic events of the Holocaust and the necessity of the State of Israel. As such, when critics challenge Israel using terms that resonate with historical attempts to eradicate our people, it is near impossible for those Jews to imagine any motive that does not include Israel’s destruction.
But please read what follows carefully, because both sides of this debate have a responsibility to lower the heat.
Jewish peoplehood – or, if you prefer, community, ethnic identity, common cause or any related term – is different than Jewish faith. Each is part of the other, but they are not identical. When it comes to our place in the world – that is, Zionism – Jews engage on the basis of peoplehood, not faith. If you challenge the endeavor of Zionism, you challenge the place of Jews in the world even if that is not your intention.
Just as it is not harmless for white people to wear blackface, or for sports teams to use caricatures of Indians as mascots, or for fraternal organizations to appropriate Muslim imagery for entertainment, it is not harmless to for activists to appropriate Zionism as a stand-in for the current Israeli administration or its policies. If you deploy Zionism as the villain, then you will be correctly understood to be calling for the destruction of the Jewish people. Jew or non-Jew – it is your responsibility to understand that truth.
At the same time, the Jewish community has been unclear with others and with itself about the nature of our civic engagement. Most faith-based organizations in the majority Christian community are represented by clergy, or at least leaders who answer to religious authorities. Most Jewish organizations that are not specifically focused on religious life are led by people trained in organizational management, business or a related profession. Their personal Jewish commitments may be profound, but they are not faith leaders. Yet, because we have accepted the notion that in America our Jewishness is a matter of faith, we have let stand the presumption that we are defined by the houses of worship we attend, especially when we interact with others.
But we should be honest that our engagement in support of Israel comes from our sense of place in the world, part of which is spiritual in nature, but much of which is not. We revel in no longer being “a people apart,” and resent when we are reminded that sometimes we are. We can be terrific allies, but sometimes we are not when the fascination we maintain with the resilience of anti-semitism provokes a fight-or-flight reaction from people who do not understand the complicated nuances of being American Jews.
We attribute a base of knowledge and an innate antagonism based on our perceptions, too often rushing to a judgment of malice that can be confusing at least and offensive at worst. And it is incumbent on us to work on our own reactiveness, both as individuals and in a willingness to call out the extreme reactions of other members of the Jewish community.
Lastly, I offer a plea for respect of our allies. We have genuine friends in the world, and especially in the United States. They are people who stand with us when we need them and stand up to us when we need them. They are committed to our partnerships because we have stood with them, and because we have persuasive and moral arguments for our positions. There are people who disagree with our priorities and with our agenda items, but if we do not find their challenges persuasive, mostly our friends will neither. We do not need to crush dissent nor, just as important, dissenters.
Jews are “blessed” with a special name for the bigotry directed at them; they have chosen a special name for the right of self-determination that all others assert. People of good will refuse to accommodate bigotry by any name. People of good will acknowledge the right of self-determination for all peoples.
Can one be anti-Zionist and not anti-semitic? Only if such a person elects to define the Jewish community by his or her own self-serving definition: a faith community, not a people, with no claim on a place in the world.
VOTE LIKE HELL
The title is a quotation from the estimable Rev. Amos Brown, my friend and teacher. It is the advice he gave the African American community a couple of weeks ago on the occasion of the release of a wise and indignant manifesto from the Progressive National Baptist Convention, home denomination and keeper of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
That is what you need to do in this 2018 election -- vote like hell.
This weekend a violent anti-semite opened fire on a Pittsburgh synagogue where three different congregations were engaged in Shabbat services. At this writing, eleven have died and six or more, including three police officers, were wounded. There has been an avalanche of comfort flowing from rabbis and other clergy who recognize that the tragedy itself has ripped off scars that we hoped had healed -- or at least concealed -- the historical uneasiness of Jews about, well, someone with a gun wanting to kill us.
This is not one of those columns. There are magnificent examples of soothing words in abundance for you to access.
This is a call to action. You need to vote like hell.
And you need to vote against anyone who supports Donald Trump. This terrible man must not be further empowered. I will state my reasons -- which represent my opinion alone -- and, sorry, but I do not want to hear your disagreement. If you vote for those who contribute to Trump's presumed mandate, you are dismantling the democracy and its presumptions that made America great before he sullied that notion with his campaign slogan.
The man who pulled the trigger, like the man who sent the pipe bombs and every other bigot in our society, was not created by Trump's rhetoric. He hated immigrants, hated Jews, hated Democrats before Trump. But before Trump he lived on the very margins of society. The aggressive rhetoric and dehumanizing characterizations of Donald Trump moved the mainstream to the margin and made the real mainstream look like a betrayal. No amount of formalized handwringing from Trump can undo the consequences of his taunting and signaling freewheeling riffs on those he has proclaimed enemies and opponents.
I am watching Trump supporters scramble to distance him from his bad actions. Give it up. He is either responsible for his name-calling and lies, in which case he purposely demeans the office of President, or he is not, in which case he is not competent to occupy the office of President. Either way, those who enable him share entirely in the results of his conduct.
Nobody, of course, is bad all the time. There may very well be things that he has done that turn out to be wise, constructive or admirable in retrospect. But we need to get to "retrospect" as soon as possible, because his damage far outweighs any good he has accomplished, at home or abroad, including in the State of Israel.
Do you think he understands the heart of the angry American? Nonsense. Asked about the synagogue shooting, he complained that the victims weren't protected by a security guard with a sidearm. Aside from the complete lack of understanding about firearm safety -- relying on a gunfight in a venue populated by older adults and children is a recipe for disaster -- he failed to give the response that arose in the heart of every parent. His own children and grandchildren were in synagogue that morning (I presume). "That could have been my child, my babies." In all his scripted responses and lowering of flags, we have yet to hear that he viscerally understands our concern.
His personal pique at the Clintons and Obamas and Bidens (and others) overwhelmed the suggestion that he might seek to allay their concern with a sympathetic call. He has expressed more support for neo-Nazis and Saudi murderers than for Americans who might have voted for his opponent.
I am sure that if you object to Trump, you have your own reasons. There is no shortage of them. If you are a woman, a Spanish-speaker, an African American, an immigrant, a journalist, a liberal, a manufacturer, transgender, non-right-wing-evangelical-Christian or any of another list of the pluribus in our unum, he has betrayed the promise of America to you specifically and smugly lied about it in the process: when he put his hand on the Bible he never studies and promised to protect and defend the Constitution he never consults.
The results have been impolite, impolitic, violent, terrorizing and now fatal. He never should have been elected, and now he must be thwarted in diminishing the greatness of America. Our last chance to minimize his damage is to turn out of office the people who support and explain away the worst occupant of the Oval Office in the history of our country.
This is my personal opinion, and I sum up like this:
Vote like hell.
Politics: YOU ARE WHAT YOU TWEET
No, this is not about President Trump. At least not directly.
It is instead about you and Rachel Maddow.
I have had the pleasure to meet Rachel and speak with her in relatively unguarded circumstances. We are not friends in any sense of the word, but she has deep trust for a mutual friend, and I am the beneficiary of being in that orbit.
Rachel is an intensely private person outside of her work on MSNBC. I will reveal nothing about her private life other than to say she is animated by the life of the mind (she is very smart) and football (but the wrong team). That is to say that, as much as is possible on national television, what you see on MSNBC is genuine. You may agree with her or disagree with her, but within the limits of human fallibility, she is without pretense. She says what she thinks, based on informed opinions, and she expresses what she feels.
One evening this week, she was handed a breaking news story at the end of her program. Reading it, she appeared overwhelmed by the words. The Trump administration had acknowledged the existence of “tender age” holding facilities for infants and toddlers who had been separated from their families at the southern border of the United States. According to the report, rooms filled with crying children were being administered by contract staff in at least three locations. Rachel Maddow could not complete reading the alert aloud; she was in tears.
Now comes the part about you.
What would you choose to tweet if you saw those fifty-three seconds of television? Would you have been overwhelmed by the same emotions and therefore expressed some measure of empathy or appreciation? Or would you have tweeted a disparaging comment, either about her bleeding heart or her lack of understanding of the necessity for this policy?
Friends, this challenge is not about Republicans and Democrats, about Resisters and Trumpsters, about rule-of-law or give-me-your tired-your-poor. This is about those with empathy and those without. If you found reason for a broken heart in this vignette, whatever you feel about our current policy enforcement, there is hope for you. Children separated from their parents forcibly by people in uniform are in a tragic and regrettable situation. Even if it is necessary (remember, we are not debating that) it is always regrettable.
If your heart cannot break for a child, no matter the context, then hope for you may be a distant dream. I know that’s a harsh statement, but it is no less true for its iciness. Use whatever cliché you choose – the milk of human kindness, parental instinct, an ounce of compassion. If it is not stirred within you but you instead see “child actors” or make sad trumpet sounds, then you are on the wrong side of human worth. You should not be entrusted with a public forum or the authority to make public policy. You are willing to sacrifice genuine innocence for personal gratification. And it seems to me that is the very definition of child abuse.
No matter the outcome of this sorry episode in American history, it is a defining moment. Whether you support walls and arrests and deportations, or you support open borders and welfare provision, if you view the children separated involuntarily from parents or custodians as cruel and condemnable, then you stand on one side of the real divide in this country. If you view the separation as part of the kabuki of politics or the necessary price we pay to shield our native children from these criminals-in-waiting, then you stand on the other side – the wrong side, the side with a significant empathy deficiency.
Watch this video from Rachel Maddow’s show (again) and decide what would go up on your Twitter account.
You are what you tweet.
WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
My kids gave me a book as a Chanukkah gift and warned me not to look through it because it would just make me sad. It is the collection of photographs taken by Pete Souza, the official White House photographer for President Obama. Souza missed only one day of the Obama years and curated a comprehensive look at the President in his most unguarded moments as well as some more official occasions. Unlike the pool of remarkable photographers charged with capturing the events which the President attended, Pete Souza was tasked with capturing visually the ethos of the Presidency.
My kids were right; I should not have looked at the book. I knew it when I looked at the back cover. Mr. Obama stood in front of his desk in the Oval Office, bent at a ninety-degree angle. A young African American boy, visiting with his dad on the day of his departure from a White House job, had used his one question to ask the President if his hair felt the same as his own. The leader of the free world bent over to give the kid a chance to find out.
I remember the outrage the first time President Obama bent forward in public. Follow protocol – though not American custom – he bowed in greeting to the king of Saudi Arabia. Other presidents, including the current one, have bowed to receive commendations draped around their necks from the king of the Saudis (and others), but this gesture of respect or submission (depending on your perspective) provoked outrage in the echo chambers of the right and set loose altered photographs and cartoons that mocked the President for doing so.
I wasn’t so bothered by it, to be honest, though I wish the gesture had been more subdued, like the custom of greeting in Japan. And other presidents had shown deference to and even intimacy with the Saudi king (and others) with hugs and kisses and more slightly stooped postures. But I do remember thinking then that here was a man who did not need external validation for his confidence as a leader. It was a quality we saw again and again in “no-drama-Obama.”
And there was the full bow a second time and I remembered it, too. The first African American to hold the office of President understood the question beneath the question of a little boy who never knew anything other than an African American president: am I like you? And without the platitudes we all mock these days about how anybody can grow up to be president, Mr. Obama answered in an undignified way that nonetheless offered not just dignity but encouragement to this child of the next generation.
The inside of the book (yeah, I am a slow learner) has very little to do with policy. Instead, it illustrates what presidents ought to do well and what, in my opinion, Barack Obama did best. They should inspire us to be our best selves, to follow their example to be the best kinds of Americans. They should insist that we ask what we can do for our country, imagine a great society, see the shining city on the hill, find what is right with America, live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character.
I admired the Obama presidency, but it did not stop me from my disagreements. Even in disagreement, I admired what he represented, and especially that he held office for eight full years without a legitimate accusation of personal misconduct. I admired that the weight of the office was borne with dignity and gravitas, but never at the price of humanity. I admired that his instincts about when to override the trappings of the office were unerring.
By contrast (you knew this was coming) is President Trump. My cousin Adam, a Republican with Libertarian leanings, describes Mr. Trump as a poor person’s idea of what a rich person is like. I continue to look for anything approximating inspiration. The nearest we have come is his campaign slogan, imploring us, for the first time in American history, to look to the past instead of the future. Maybe it is what we need to do, but it is a more consequential break with our legacy than bowing to a king.
Yet my disappointment in his conduct of the office might be mitigated if I recognized his humanity. Instead, he tosses paper towels to hurricane victims, tweets insults with his morning coffee and has such a private relationship with his grandchildren that there is no picture of him being a grandpa to them. Famous for condemning his predecessor for playing too much golf (333 rounds in 8 years), as of this writing he has played 87 times with almost a month to go in his first year. I won’t revisit the accusations made about his interpersonal conduct, but I will bemoan the lack of any evidence that he has evolved beyond those accusations with the status bestowed upon him.
Perhaps he has made the decree that personal matters are irrelevant to the conduct of the office and that he will not stage sympathetic photos that distract from his presidential duties. It is not likely, but it is plausible. No president is required to have a personal documentation of his presidency, though in Mr. Trump’s adult lifetime every President of the United States has understood the power of the image in advancing his agenda. JFK in somber consultation with his brother, LBJ holding up his basset hound’s ears, Nixon waving his “double Vs,” Reagan on his horse, Bush 43 clearing brush, Obama bending over for a little boy to feel his hair. None of these moments was crafted; all of them served to make an icon less plastic and more accessible.
Americans need role models. The examples-in-chief who have occupied the Oval Office have been a mixed lot, but most of them seem to have aspired to be well-rounded men who reveled in their common cause with everyday Americans. Even if in their hearts they hoped to be America’s sugar daddy with no expectation beyond total loyalty and a place on Mount Rushmore, they had the good sense to look for their own approachability rather than to suppress it.
During every presidency, the same joke surfaces about the book that will be written about it – it will be the shortest book in the world. This time it will be no joke, and not because the Trump book will focus on his relationship with the truth or the range of his adjectives. The shortest book in the world will be the photographic record of Donald Trump, the man.
Our next president, whoever that may be, will need to restore a sense of humanity to the White House. I can recommend a wonderful book about the example that was once set. But my advice is not to look at it just now. It will just make you sad.
It takes a lot for me to block people from contacting me online. Mostly, I do so only with people who produce a constant stream of unwanted and unoriginal material – ads, cat videos, platitudes decorated with festive borders and the like. I do not object to that material; I just don’t have the personal bandwidth for it.
Objectionable material is something else. And let me please state for the record what I define as objectionable. If the content is designed to denigrate others as a substitute for debate, however contentious, or if it suggests something that even an opponent of my remarks might consider morally reprehensible, that is enough for me to decide that (absent a change in behavior) there is nothing to learn from such a correspondent.
Here’s a past example: I put up for a long time with postings that skirted on racism and bigotry from a now-former friend. He was belligerent in his “right” to express himself as he chose, even when other friends (including those with sympathy for his positions) pushed back. I still have a copy of his suggestion that, when it came to certain kinds of protests, “sometimes a well-placed bullet is more effective than sending in all the social workers.” (No, we were not discussing Hitler.)
But he continued to cross the line and insult the dignity, intelligence and basic humanity of those who disagreed with him. When I describe him that way, I do not mean he talked down to them. I mean he continued to write insults to the qualities of his opponents that denigrated and humiliated them. Blocked.
Just this week I entered into a contentious exchange with a long-time acquaintance who holds to values I do not share. In question was a video in which a White House official attempted to draw an analogy to tax reform based on journalists going out for drinks together. I found the analogy specious, and the exchange was getting deeper into the issues. I doubt either of us was convincing the other.
And then, one of my acquaintance’s Facebook friends entered the fray. I was called a whiner, which is the mildest name in the personal attack and the only one I will reprint. I can allude to another – in more innocent circumstances, it might be used to call to a cat. And I was instructed to – and I quote – “stfu.”
I am not a novice online, and I have encountered such individuals before. I can’t prove it, but his screen name was so unlikely that I suspect it was an alias designed to allow him to behave badly while protecting himself from being identified. I exited the conversation. And in the time it took me to block him, he made another personal attack on me.
To this point, I have done nothing more than exercise a certain amount of common sense in protecting myself from wasting time on someone more interested in bullying than engaging. But I expected more from my acquaintance than I received. He dismissed the offender as “just some guy.” He suggested that by exiting the exchange I was proving him right. And he concluded by saying that I did what every left-wing person does when losing an argument – I ran away.
It occurred to me that bad behavior is going to continue as long as it is tolerated, not so much by the people it offends or injures, but by the “friends” of the bullies and abusers. If there is a more obvious lesson from a different quarter of bad behavior in the news these days – sexual abusers – I don’t know what it is. Abusive men who are tolerated by their buddies will continue to abuse, no matter how many women protest. Facebook friends who get “likes” for derision, obscenity and dehumanization will take only encouragement from the toleration of those who are in their camp.
My acquaintance, therefore, is also now blocked. I have lost nothing by not reading his posts. I still have more than a critical mass of correspondents willing to mix it up, publicly and privately, in a respectful manner. I expect people who believe in the free exchange of ideas to self-regulate and to insist from their supporters the kind of conduct that allows understanding to grow and respect to be maintained. I expect it of myself.
Will it eliminate the bad conduct of anonymous name-callers? Of course not. But it is one small step for civil discourse that could lead to a giant leap for social media.