The Challenge of Gratitude

The following was first published as an op-ed at  https://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/22189)

The ambivalence of many American Jews to President Trump and his support for Israel is puzzling on one hand and downright churlish on the other.

Consider this: Jews have grown very comfortable with American presidents who promised to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the American embassy to Yerushalayim, never fulfilled those promises, and kept making them anyway. It is as if Jews do not expect promises from politicians to be kept (well, maybe that is not so unusual). But Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who criticize the building of settlements in the heartland of Israel, and some who have even threatened to sanction Israel over it. And they accepted the anomaly of Jews being permitted to build in Bethel, New York or Shiloh, Tennessee but not in the original Bethel or Shiloh. That’s just the way it is – but it is strange.

Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who either pay lip service to Israel’s right of self-defense or seek to emasculate it entirely. These presidents routinely decried Israel’s “use of disproportionate force” or urged Israel to accept with equanimity “sacrifices for peace.” The better ones embraced Israel’s right to self-defense in theory but not always in practice, urging “restraint,” caution, and a limited response so as not to offend the terrorists or jeopardize the possibilities for a lasting peace.

And Jews have grown very comfortable with American presidents who have endorsed and even obsessed over the partition of Israel into two states (another partition, it should be added). These presidents have seemed to feel that only the two-state illusion will bring a just and durable peace to the region. That is, only allowing a hostile and irredentist enemy sovereignty over Israel’s heartland and control of its high ground will ensure prosperity and tranquility for the Jews of the truncated State of Israel. Most American Jews were fine with that – because that is what the presidents professed (and some Israeli prime ministers led them to believe) even when the facts on the ground taught the exact opposite.

It bears mentioning that Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who either were troubled by Arab terror (but more troubled by an Israeli response so they drew a moral equivalence between the two) or “understood” Arab terror as emanating from the frustrations of their lives. A State Department spokeswoman once attributed Arab terror to the lack of gainful employment in their communities. So these presidents demanded that Israel should understand it as well, and certainly not “overreact” to the murder and maiming of their own citizens. And we grew very accustomed to the notion that only Israel had to make substantive concessions on the road to “peace,” never the enemy who sought Israel’s dismemberment and dissolution.

We got used to this type of treatment, so used to it that many Jews today are more troubled by an American president who has renounced each of the approaches outlined above than by the presidents who squeezed, cajoled, threatened, criticized, censured, pressured Israel or otherwise failed to keep their promises. It is as if we feel that we do not deserve fair, decent and supportive treatment coming from a friendly president. Too many Jews find it hard to appreciate our good fortune or otherwise express their gratitude to the incumbent president. Of course, not every American Jew is a supporter of Israel and many agree with each of the disquieting and tendentious policies delineated above that were conventional wisdom for decades. But of those who don’t? How do they rationalize their reticence?

However one feels about President Trump, a non-politician to be sure and an individual whose approach to life certainly has its share of idiosyncrasies, the inability of many Jews to show appreciation and gratitude for his current policies towards Israel is inexplicable, even boorish. In their desire to be “super-moral” they have eschewed basic etiquette, something that itself is immoral. And appreciation is also due to his close advisors who share the views of supporters of a strong and proud Israel dwelling in security from sea to river and have been unafraid to promote and implement them.

Finally, American Jews have a president who, holding firm against intense pressure from most other American allies, fulfilled his campaign promise, recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy there – abruptly ending Israel’s bizarre status as the only nation on earth not entitled to declare its own capital. The Trump administration has been unabashed in its support of Israel’s right of self-defense as real and substantive, and has steadfastly refused to second-guess or micro-manage Israel’s defense strategies. The Trump administration has muted any objection to Israel’s settlement policy, a marked change from generations of US opposition and occasionally antagonism to Jews living in Judea (of all imaginable paradoxes) and Samaria, and has even expressed occasional support for those endeavors as Israel’s natural right. The Trump administration has abandoned the two-state illusion in favor of the inspired characterization that the United States will support two states “if both parties agree.” Of course… The Trump Administration, and the outstanding Ambassador Nikki Haley, have afforded Israel complete protection from the hypocrisies and inverted reality of the United Nations.

This is in addition to the renunciation of the Obama agreement with Iran and the ramping up of pressure, sanctions and who-knows-what-else down the road – all to halt an Iranian nuclear program whose expressed aim is the destruction of Israel.

It is inconceivable that Hillary Clinton, had she been elected, would have done any of these things.

Have Jews become so partisan, or has support for Israel declined so much among American Jews, that simple recognition of these facts eludes us? Have we forsworn elementary derech eretz because the president is an imperfect man? Are his critics – and were his election opponents – perfect, all paragons of morality and virtue? How have we become so peevish as a people?

Perhaps there is another problem at play here, one that transcends politics and personalities.

The great Musarist Rav Shlomo Wolbe wrote that every person has an erech elyon, a supreme value that transcends all others. What does it mean to have a supreme value? It means a value that is the measure of everything, the barometer by which every consideration in life has to be assessed, and into which all other values have to fit. Think, for a moment, of those Jews more than a century ago who made Communism their highest value. They sacrificed their souls, their families, their interests and their purpose in life to see Communism spread and succeed. In the early years, there were some religious Jews who were Communists – but when the contradictions and the challenges to the integration of Torah and Communism arose, it was the Torah that was abandoned, not Communism. It was the Torah that had to bend or break so that Communism could succeed. Whatever part of Torah did not conform to Communist dogma had to be abandoned.

Communism is dead (except on a few American college campuses and in North Korea) but was replaced by several other  “–isms.” A century ago, secular Zionists made Zionism their primary value, and tossed out parts of the Torah that they felt impeded the realization of the Zionist dream. (That notion still exists but the number of adherents has dramatically fallen) In another iteration of this phenomenon, there are radical feminists today who evaluate and scrutinize every aspect of Torah to ascertain what conforms to feminism and what doesn’t – and the latter has to be discarded. That is their erech elyon, their supreme value. Rav Wolbe wrote that some people make money their erech elyon and for others it is the pursuit of honor or pleasure or children. As if to say, my pursuit of pleasure or my children’s happiness comes first – even above the Torah.

It is so difficult to break away from that mindset; but, Rav Wolbe noted, for the faithful Jew there is nothing in the world that we value as much as we value G-d and our relationship with Him and our fidelity to His will. That is always the erech elyon of the faithful Jew, who posits that G-d and His Torah are the primary values and every other value is subordinate. G-d is always at the top of our ladder of values, or is at least supposed to be, and whatever else a Jew values in life – justice, peace, wisdom, even feminism and Zionism, etc. – must fit into the hierarchy of values that places the Torah as supreme.

For too many Americans, hatred of Donald Trump has become their erech elyon – the one principle that dominates their lives, their every breath, waking moment and productive endeavor. They live to “resist,” whatever that means. As Chazal taught us, both love and hatred “disrupt the normal course of things.” We act differently, uncharacteristically, and sometimes even perversely, when we love or hate something too much, even irrationally.

But hatred of the President should not trump derech eretz, and ingratitude has a way of eventually biting the ingrate. Who’s to say such pro-Israel policies will continue indefinitely – and who’s to say they should, given the ungratefulness of the putative beneficiaries? Many American Jews dreamt that one day a genuinely, no-holds-barred pro-Israel president would emerge and embrace policies that many of us have been advocating for years. And now that it has happened, and while it is happening, isn’t elementary appreciation in order?

Unless we have grown so accustomed to maltreatment and criticism that we believe we deserve nothing but perpetual obloquy, it is. And it behooves us to demonstrate it, especially since G-d’s will is executed in mysterious ways and often through the most unexpected agents.

Here’s one Jew who is immensely grateful to President Trump. May his love of America and Israel continue – to the benefit of both countries.

 

 

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Six Additional Knocks

Rav Soloveitchik’s 1956 address, Kol Dodi Dofek (The Voice of My Beloved Knocks), is legendary for its articulation of the shared destiny and shared fate of every Jew, and the distinctions between the two, but even more for the section on the six divine knocks on the door of history that was occasioned by the establishment of the State of Israel. The Rav began this part of his address as follows, in free translation:

Eight years ago, in the wake of the night of horrors punctuated by the terrors of Maidanek, Treblinka and Buchenwald, in the night of gas chambers and ovens, the night of concealment of God’s countenance, the night when the Satan of doubt and destruction reigned and sought to drag the Lover from her home to the Christian Church, the night of endless searching  for the Beloved, in that night the Beloved materialized and arose. The Lord who hides in the glorious unknown suddenly appeared and began to knock on the door of the tent of the oppressed and sorrowful Lover that turned in its bed due to the spasms and sufferings of Gehinnom. Out of these beatings, and as a consequence of the knocks of the Beloved, the State of Israel was born. How many times did the Beloved knock? It seems to me we can count at least six knocks.”

And then the Rav listed the six knocks, synopsized here, the modern revelation of      G-d’s hand in history. “First, the knock of opportunity was heard in the political arena… No one can deny that from the standpoint of international relations, the establishment of the State of Israel, in a political sense, was an almost supernatural occurrence. Russian and the Western countries together supported the idea of the establishment of the State of Israel, perhaps the only recommendation on which they united. I tend to believe that  the United Nations was created only for this purpose…”

Second, the knock of the Beloved could be heard on the battlefield. The small Israeli Defense Forces defeated the powerful armies of the Arab countries. The miracle of the “few defeating the many” happened before our eyes. Even more astonishing, God hardened the hearts of Yishmael and directed it to go to war against the State of Israel…”

         “Third, the Beloved began to knock as well on the door of the theological tent and this might be the strongest knock of all. I have emphasized several times when speaking of the land of Israel that all the claims of Christian  theologians that God deprived the Jewish people of its rights in the land of Israel, and that all the biblical promises regarding Zion and Jerusalem refer, in an allegorical sense, to Christianity and the Christian Church, have been publicly refuted by the establishment of the State of Israel as false assertions that have no substance or root.”

          “Fourth, the Beloved knocked on the hearts of the bewildered and assimilated youth. The divine concealment in the early 1940’s confused the minds of Jews in general and the young in particular. Assimilation grew and the push to escape Judaism and the Jewish people reached its peak. Fear, despair and ignorance caused many to abandon the Jewish people… Suddenly, the Beloved knocked on the hearts of these perplexed youth, and His knock…slowed, at least, the process of escape.”


“The fifth knock of the Beloved is perhaps the most important of all. For the first time in the history of our exile, divine providence has surprised our enemies with the shocking discovery that Jewish blood is not hefker. If the Jew- haters term this “an eye for an eye,” we will agree with them. If we want to preserve our national-historical existence, sometimes we have to interpret “an eye for an eye” 
literally.”

          “The sixth knock that should not be ignored was heard when the gates of the land were opened. A Jew who flees from an enemy country now knows that he can find a secure refuge in the land of his ancestors. This is a new phenomenon in our times. Until now, when Jewish populations were uprooted from their places, they wandered in the wilderness of the nations without finding a refuge in another land… Now, the situation has changed.”

From the perspective of more than six decades later, the fourth and fifth knocks have proved challenging. Assimilation is as bad or worse today than it was then, and the expression of Jewish identity as having only ethnic but not religious significance has allowed too many Jews to abandon Judaism and still support the State of Israel. Of course, some of Israel’s loudest critics are also Jews.

And recent events have underscored the difficulty the world has with the fifth knock: that Jewish blood is not hefker – ownerless, insignificant and unrequited. Responding to Israel’s forceful defense of its border with Gaza against encroachment by a hostile, bloodthirsty enemy intent on Israel’s destruction, the self-styled moralists who cannot hide their Jew hatred lamented that no Jews were killed, as if some macabre form of chivalry demands casualties on both sides of a conflict. Fortunately, Israeli leaders ignore those calls but such ethical deformations are commonly applied to Israel, and only Israel, by its foes.

*************************************************************************

It has been 62 years since the Rav’s address, time enough to humbly suggest another six divine knocks – six more indications of the hand of G-d in the history of Israel.

First: the capture, trial and execution of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust. The Mossad tracked him down in Argentina and in an operation whose success still defies comprehension, abducted him in May 1961 off a Buenos Aires street, and hid him for more than a week until they could spirit him out of the country to face trial in Israel. Naturally, the New York Times condemned the operation (as did the United Nations), oleaginously opining that “no immoral or illegal act justifies another.” (The Times failed to acknowledge that it had never saw fit to condemn the Holocaust while it was occurring.)

For sure, the operation was dangerous, heroic and nearly flawless in execution but the broader point was historic. It was a declaration by Israel that the state represents all Jews – and all of Jewish history. Even though Israel did not yet exist during the perpetration of the Holocaust, it saw itself now as the custodian of the history of the Jewish people. When President Yitzchak Ben-Zvi rejected Eichmann’s clemency request, he tellingly cited in the margin of the document the verse from I Samuel (15:33) that described the death of Agag, king of Amalek and tormentor of Jews: “Samuel said: ‘As your sword has bereaved women, so shall your mother be bereaved among women.’ And Samuel decapitated Agag before the Lord at Gilgal.” That Israel defied the world and deputized itself to execute justice against the enemies of the Jewish people was an crucial assertion of its national identity.

Second: the great and stunning victory in the Six Day War of 1967. The Arabs had endeavored to eradicate the State of Israel and drive its citizens into the sea, long before there were any settlements that could serve as the predicate of their current enmity and deceptions. There has been much revisionist history in recent times about Israel’s advantages, including the claims by some that prevailing over the Arabs was a foregone conclusion. Those who remember the mass graves dug in Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim at the time think otherwise. It was an incredible, odds-defying triumph, with Israel handily defeating seven powerful Arab armies while outgunned, outmanned and out armed, and tripling the size of its territory in less than a week.

For sure, most Israeli governments in the ensuing decades celebrated the awesome miracle by attempting to divest itself of the fruits of victory, and most of the land captured has sadly been surrendered already. But that doesn’t detract from the divine gift (that we have failed to fully appreciate). As recorded by Rav Yaakov Filber, a leading disciple of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, in his work “Ayelet Hashachar” (1974):  “If the redemption of Israel was just the fruit of our deeds, we would still

be dwelling in the tiny Israel of 1967, just like if it was up to the government alone we would have long ago abandoned our heartland to foreigners.  Anyone who penetrates to the depth of these events will sense, and each day  it becomes clearer, that even as we build the State of Israel, develop its economy… forge its army and play diplomatic games, none of these establish the course of events. Behind them stands the divine might that forces us to advance in accordance with His sublime plans for redemption, as the Midrash states, ‘I am asleep from redemption but God is awake to redeem me.’ As Rav Kook wrote, God is the Master of war.   “The illusion that our fate is only up to us was burst in a number of days…  Divine Providence did not concede that the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, Hevron and  Jericho… should not be within the borders of Israel. And if the government of Israel aborted the redemptive process at the “Green Line,” and no one would give the order to the IDF to advance in all directions, … then Providence emerges to compel those who dwell in Zion to redeem the homeland. No force in the world can arrest the wheel of redemption of Israel, and there is no complete redemption without the complete land of Israel.”

Third: the raid on Entebbe on July 4, 1976, a moment that will never leave those who lived through it. It was another spectacular rescue. The IDF flew several thousand miles through mostly hostile territory to liberate 104 Jewish hostages seized by Arab terrorists on an Air France flight from Paris to Israel. The Jewish hostages were not all Israeli citizens; yet, Israel proclaimed to the world that it saw itself as responsible not only for Jewish history but also for Jews of the present and future – and wherever they might be. I was in Israel then; the sense of unity and love for all Jews was overwhelming. Israel would risk the lives of its own citizens to save Jews anywhere. (Naturally, the UN condemned the feat, with the former Nazi Kurt Waldheim criticizing this “serious violation of the national sovereignty of a UN member state.” He was untroubled by that same UN member state harboring terrorists and their hostages.) The rescue was another divine knock – G-d’s presence was tangible in the unbelievable achievement.

Fourth: the ingathering of the exiles. One of the most breathtaking, and seemingly farfetched, visions of the ancient prophets of Israel has come to pass in our day. The Torah itself referenced it :“Then the Lord your God will restore your captivity and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it. And He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers” (Devarim 30:3-5).

Many other prophets, such as Yechezkel (Ezekiel) prophesied similarly: “I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the countries and I will bring you back to your own land” (Yechezkel 36:24). Seventy years after statehood, Israel boasts the ingathering of Jews from more than 110 countries, from every part of the globe. And since “even the beneficiary of the miracle doesn’t always recognize the miracle” (Masechet Nidda 31a), we don’t often attribute the appropriate significance to this momentous, and divine, act, staggering in its implications. G-d kept His word, and is still engaged in the task of “dragging each Jew by the hand to the land of Israel” (Rashi, Devarim, ibid).

Fifth:  The Torah revolution. If the Rav saw the slowing down of the processes of assimilation, we have seen the renaissance of Torah in the modern era. For all the criticism of Israel from many Haredi circles, the State of Israel remains the largest beneficiary of Torah study on earth, and more Jews today are studying Torah in the land of Israel than at any point in Jewish history since we left the wilderness 3300 years ago. This accords with yet another prophecy of Yechezkel: “I will sprinkle pure water on you and you will be purified, and I will purify you from all your impurities and idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will place within you a new spirit. I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Yechezkel 36:25-26). What is his “new heart?” Radak comments: “it is a listening heart, a ready spirit to receive God’s words with love.”

This process was even abetted by the “Foundations of Law” adopted by Israel in 1980 during the Menachem Begin years that called upon the courts to decide difficult legal matters without precedent “in the light of the principles of freedom, justice, equity, and peace of Israel’s heritage.” True, the secular objection to “Jewish law” was duly watered down to “Israel’s heritage;” but what is “Israel’s heritage” but Torah? It certainly trumps Ottoman law. The Torah has been reborn, and all modern questions can be perceived through its prism.

The sixth knock: Israel as the Start-Up Nation. To the consternation of the world (and its neighbors), Israel has become an economic and technological powerhouse, and even an exporter of energy. Again, Yechezkel envisioned this day: “But you, O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near. For I will care for you: I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown. I will settle a large population on you, the whole House of Israel; the towns shall be resettled, and the ruined sites rebuilt. I will multiply men and beasts upon you, and they shall increase and be fertile, and I will resettle you as you were formerly, and will make you more prosperous than you were at first. And you shall know that I am the Lord” (ibid 36:8-11). As the Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 98a) notes, “there is no more explicit manifestation of the end of days than this, as it is stated: “But you,  O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near.” Maharsha adds: “As long as the Jews are not on their land, the land does not yield its produce accordingly, but when it begins again to yield its produce in abundance, it is a sign that redemption is near and that Israel has returned to its land…In the future trees will yield its fruit daily… And this is something miraculous…”

Certainly this means more than oranges. Rav Kook wrote that we have to expand and innovate appropriately in all worldly matters, both in natural things and in labor, because “God made everything for a purpose.’ Our national life is only complete when we are able to harmonize technology and Torah. It could be no other way. The return of the Jewish people to our natural habitat enables us to bring the Torah to its full expression, which benefits the world immeasurably. Soon, the world will realize that as well.

If the hand of G-d re-entered history in a dramatic way in 1948, its visibility has only increased in the ensuing 70 years. There have been setbacks, to be sure, and almost all self-inflicted, but the settlement and flourishing of the land of Israel, the proliferation of Torah and the ingathering of the exiles, and the recognition by the world of Israel’s role as the repository of Jewish history and the place of Jewish destiny, has sanctified G-d’s name and blessed our generation.

May we appreciate our blessings and our Benefactor and always do our share in furthering His will and our national destiny until the era of complete redemption dawns.

The New World

Sometime ago we hosted a young couple for Friday night, Leil Shabbat, dinner. At a certain point, there was a knock on the door and the young couple was startled by the sound. I answered the door, took care of business, returned to the table and asked the couple why they jumped when they heard a knock.

They replied that no one knocks on a door anymore; it is considered impolite. The proper etiquette is to text when you have arrived and the host will come and open the door.

In a world where a knock is considered impolite, ringing a doorbell will be construed as an act of war.

There are many variations on this theme, all reflecting the reality that communication between people has been transformed in the last decade or so. Obviously, no sentient person writes letters anymore, even though hand-written letters from family or friends once served as a delightful gift in the mail and in some cases a treasure to retain.  But who uses the postal service anymore for anything that is important?

Even the preferred form of modern communication shifts perceptibly from time to time. Email has been supplanted by texts which have now been replaced by WhatsApp. I’m sure WhatsApp has been switched for something else about which I have yet to be informed. And just as well. I maintain, and people try to reach me, at three email accounts, a WhatsApp, a home and study phone number with an answering machine (how dated!), an office number, and a cell phone number with voice mail and text capability. If anything, the multiplicity of contact points has rendered me less available rather than more; who can monitor, much less follow, so many instruments, and even sporadically, much less constantly?

There are unfortunate byproducts to these new rules. I have learned that it is currently gauche to pick up a phone and call someone.  The unexpected telephone call is considered a gross intrusion on one’s privacy. Rather, it is more sophisticated and deemed proper today to text (or email) someone that you would like to talk to them on the phone. This has engendered three consequences. Most of the time the phone rings, the calls are from unwanted telemarketers; it can take hours to retrieve the message asking for a phone conversation, usually about something that could have been resolved in seconds had a call been placed in a timely fashion as in days of yore; and even more time is wasted clarifying the time of the call and the phone number at which the call is to be made. It is all so unnecessary – and impersonal.

What’s more unusual (by my way of thinking) is that there is tremendous reluctance for people to leave a message on the aforesaid answering machines or voice mail. Leaving a message – i.e., burdening my digital life with vocal expressions of the identity, time, and reason for the call – is apparently tacky, if not repugnant. This attempted but failed communication often produces this awkward dialogue at some later date: “I tried to call you.”

“Did you leave a message?”

“No.”

“How am I supposed to know you called?”

“You are supposed to check your ‘missed calls.’”

“How am I to know that you wanted me to call you back?”

“Well, why else would I have tried to call you?!”

Where I come from – a world that no longer exists – that is not considered a genuine “I tried to call you.” Strange as it sounds, still the best way to reach me is to pick up the phone and call. Leave a message if I don’t answer. I will get back to you as quickly as possible. It’s direct, personal and effective, and has been since Alexander Graham Bell’s time, or shortly thereafter. (And let’s not even get started with people who call only to speak to the answering machine or voice mail, and sound annoyed when the phone is answered. Perhaps they should have first texted permission to call.)

Now I am learning that even emails are considered passé, to be used only to exchange jokes, stories and invitations, and replaced by informal and ultra-modern forms of communication that I don’t think I have and know that I don’t want.

What is gained by the newfangled conventions is the capability of reaching people across the globe with whom you would be unlikely to have any connection, but what is lost is real contact with real people in real time. The sound of a voice conveys depth of emotion more than any emoji can and holding a letter is genuine and enduring, and has the inherent value that an email will never have, no matter how long it is saved in a cloud. Clouds do dissipate, eventually. “The reward is proportionate to the effort,” our sages taught us (Avot 5:23). Writing and calling demand more personal engagement that emailing or texting; the latter is so ephemeral that it barely registers. The 150 or so daily emails I receive are less meaningful than the one letter I used to get. It is no wonder that with all the advantages of modern communication, and the ubiquity of our electronic personae, people are lonelier than ever and cry out more for human connection. Trying to have a meaningful discussion on a serious topic – spouses or parents and children – via text or email is an exercise in futility and frustration.
Jews are still required (for the time being and likely for the foreseeable future) to gather together every day for prayer. Virtual associations do not suffice. It is the group that forms the prayer quorum – but it is in that group that the individual truly shines and is more valued that in any other context.

We should celebrate those moments of true contact, with family, friends, and our co-religionists, as they will define our lives and be remembered more than the entire range of email addresses, internet links, social media profiles and texting numbers that we can muster, and that we often hide behind.

I am sure there are other new rules of which I am unaware that I routinely violate. No matter. It is not as if these rules are decrees of the Men of the Great Assembly. If you want to reach me, just call; don’t ask permission and don’t write. And, of course, even a better way to find me is to knock on my door. If I am home I will (probably) answer – but I do promise not to be startled or offended.

The Generation That Transformed Jewish History

(First Published in the Jewish Press, April 20, 2018)

The establishment of the state of Israel seventy years ago, on 5 Iyar 5708 (May 14, 1948), was by no means inevitable.

From the moment the United Nations passed the partition resolution the previous November 29, the Arabs, desperate to thwart its implementation, ruthlessly intensified their attacks on the Jewish population of Israel.

Nearly 1,200 Jews, half of them civilians, were murdered by Arab marauders in the six months before statehood, and that instability – and fears for the survival of this remnant of Jewry that had survived the Holocaust – engendered a desire in many quarters to postpone statehood indefinitely.

General George Marshall, President Truman’s secretary of state, warned of an impending massacre of Jews that American soldiers would not – and could not – prevent.

The Brisker Rav, Rav Velvel Soloveitchik, strenuously opposed a declaration of statehood on the grounds that it would precipitate a war, and lead to the “destruction, God forbid, of the entire yishuv.”

These sentiments were fomented by voices in the Arab world predicting just that, most prominently the infamous boast of Azzam Pasha (secretary-general of the Arab League) on the radio that “this will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”

The political pressures on the Jewish leadership were enormous – augmented by the painful loss of life, the ongoing siege of Jerusalem, and the sense that the approximately 25,000 ill-equipped Jewish soldiers – almost completely devoid of any heavy artillery or aircraft – could not adequately defend the nascent Jewish state against the Muslim hordes, vastly superior in numbers and weaponry.

At least seven Arab nations – some only independent states for less than a decade – were poised to strangle the Jewish state in its infancy. Conversely, for the first time in 19 centuries, the opportunity existed for Jews to be sovereign in their own land.

But at what price?

The Jewish Agency, under the direction of David Ben-Gurion, was itself bitterly divided. Should a state be declared, even with the knowledge that it would provoke immediate hostilities? If yes, then pursuant to what boundaries?

The partition boundaries – a truncated Israel consisting of three barely linked triangles in parts of the Galilee, the coastal plain, and the Negev – were not only unworkable on paper but had already been bypassed by facts on the ground. And what would this new state be called?

The United States government was fragmented in a remarkable and public way. President Truman wavered, though he was reasonably inclined to push for statehood and immediate recognition. Secretary Marshall was vehemently opposed, even telling Truman that if the Jewish state were recognized, he (Marshall) would publicly declare his intention to vote against Truman in that fall’s presidential election.

In one stunning episode in March, Truman had guaranteed Chaim Weizmann that the United States would support statehood, only to learn on the very next day that the American delegation to the United Nations had voted – upon instructions from the State Department and in defiance of Truman – for a UN resolution supporting a continued trusteeship in the land of Israel and suspending the implementation of partition.

Truman recorded in his diary that he was made to feel for the first time in his life “like a liar and a double crosser….There are people…in the State Department who always wanted to cut my throat. They are succeeding in doing it.”

*     *     *

Rank Jew-hatred was another obvious factor in mobilizing opposition to a Jewish state. Conspiracy theorists who feared Jewish “world domination” (venomously ironic in light of the just concluded Nazi Holocaust that murdered six million Jews and that underscored the reality of Jewish powerlessness) campaigned vigorously against the formation of a Jewish state.

Some Christian theologians correctly perceived a Jewish state as a repudiation of the doctrine of the “eternal wandering Jew,” punishment for our “heretical” beliefs. Some liberal Jewish leaders dreaded that statehood would inevitably spawn accusations of “dual loyalty” against Jews in foreign lands, and that Jewish nationalism would erode the universalistic dimensions of Judaism they so prized and preached – to the exclusion of Torah, mitzvot, and the prophetic vision of the return to Zion.

Secretary of Defense James Forrestal played the Arab oil card and attempted to convince Truman – and the rest of the cabinet – that a Jewish state would endanger American security by angering the Arabs. That card, worn and tattered after seventy years, is still on the table, even if the United States today produces more oil than Saudi Arabia. Forrestal also averred that a Jewish state – under Socialist-minded rulers – would invariably fall into the Soviet-Communist orbit, further jeopardizing American interests in that region.

Further muddying the waters, the Soviet Union in early May 1948 (perhaps anticipating that the Jewish state would become a Soviet client) called for Jewish statehood and announced that it would recognize the Jewish state.

By Thursday, May 13, nothing had yet been decided, either in Israel or in the United States.

In Washington, Truman defied most of his cabinet and the political establishment and sent word to Marshall that if a state were declared, the United States would recognize it.

In Israel, Ben-Gurion, acting with vision, courage, and foresight, argued that if statehood were not declared immediately, history would not be forgiving, and the opportunity lost might not be regained for generations.

He submitted his motion to declare a Jewish state without defined borders to the Provisional Council. The motion not to specify borders carried 5-4; the motion to declare a state, on the following day, passed 6-4. One or two votes spelled all the difference.

After briefly considering the name “Zion,” the Council approved the name of the first Jewish state since the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash in 70 C.E. – Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel.

*     *     *

At 4 p.m. that Friday, the 5th day of Iyar, with the British Mandate due to end at midnight, Ben-Gurion, out of respect for the sanctity of the approaching Shabbat, read the Proclamation of Independence. He declared to the world the establishment of a Jewish state, “by virtue of our national and intrinsic right.” Rabbi Maimon of Mizrachi recited the Shehechiyanu prayer.

Statehood went into effect at midnight in Israel – 6 p.m. Washington time. At 6:11 p.m. the United States extended de facto­ recognition to the Jewish state. The Soviet Union, several hours later, became the first nation to recognize Israel de jure.

In what Rav Yosef Soloveitchik termed one of the “six divine knocks” on the door of the people of Israel to herald His renewed, overt involvement in world affairs, both the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on the establishment of the Jewish state. They would agree on little else for the next 50 years.

Truman, at 36% in the polls in May, won reelection in November with barely 50% of the vote, defeating his main opponent, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.

That same Friday, the last defenders of Kfar Etzion were taken captive. The provisional Government of Israel, in its first official act, abolished the British White Paper of 1939 that had cruelly barred the gates of Israel to European Jews during the Holocaust, and plans to evacuate Jewish displaced persons from European camps were immediately put into effect.

The British authorities and most soldiers sailed that night from Haifa harbor. Early on Shabbat morning, the Egyptian Air Force bombed Tel Aviv, the armies of seven Arab nations invaded Israel in an effort to carry out Azzam Pasha’s “war of extermination,” and the deadliest of Israel’s wars ensued.

When hostilities ended, approximately 6,000 Jews – 1% of the population – had fallen in battle, but Israel had successfully expanded its territorial holdings far beyond the boundaries of the 1947 Partition Plan that had been summarily rejected by the Arabs.

Israel’s sovereignty extended over the Galilee and the Negev all the way to Eilat, the coastal plain was expanded, and Jerusalem itself – the “New City” – came under Israeli jurisdiction.

As the notion of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” had not yet entered the world’s legal or moral lexicon (that clever bit of hypocrisy would be concocted to torment Israel only after the Six-Dar War), no retreat to the 1947 borders was contemplated, and the battles ended in the signing of armistice agreements – but no peace treaty – between Israel and most of its adversaries.

The concerns of some of the opponents of statehood – Jews and non-Jews, religious and otherwise – were not illegitimate. War did come and exacted a heavy toll in Jewish lives lost but the yishuv was not destroyed and was able to repulse the invaders. Israel did not fall into the Soviet orbit – something that in a very short time would cause the Soviet Union to turn against Israel with a vengeance.

In the meantime, the process of state-building – the first for the Jewish people in almost two millennia – unfolded. Rav Reuven Grozovsky, speaking for the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel, pledged to participate in the governance of Israel, saying that abstention from Israeli politics would mean “relinquishing our basic rights.”  And in retrospect, Ben-Gurion, forced to make an agonizing decision, was right, and Truman’s judgment was vindicated. When Israel’s chief rabbi, Yitzchak Herzog, visiting the White House in 1949, told Harry Truman, “God put you in your mother’s womb so you would be the instrument to bring the rebirth of Israel after two thousand years,” the president burst into tears. Ben-Gurion, who knew that war was inevitable, chose to fight it on his own terms from a position of moral strength – a nation fighting for its independence and not relying on the kindness of strangers or the cult of victimization.

Israel’s founders had a profound knowledge of the Bible, of the modern state’s place in Jewish history, and of the wars that needed to be waged to found and preserve the Jewish state.

In one sense, those wars have never ceased, although their nature has changed in the recent past. The era of “peace” signaled by those agreements has not yet materialized, and the hatred and intolerance that lingers in part of the Muslim world show no signs of relenting in the near future. In Israel, the wishful thinking and indulgence of fantasies of the Oslo era have receded for the most part, its extravagant oratory and ceremonies drowned out by the din of too many suicide bombs, bullets, rockets and missiles. A greater realism has engendered sounder policy judgments, reasoning, and execution. That, too, can change in an instant, motivated politically by a potential new array of leaders, Arab and Israeli, who will try to sell again the same used rug of territorial surrender and Israeli concessions as the panacea that has not yet been tried. But it is also engendered by this spiritual reality: every mitzvah has a yetzer hara that counters it and tries to undermine or weaken its observance. The mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael is no different, and its yetzer hara is couched in conferences, treaties, international popularity and acclaim, and intense pressure to relinquish the land itself. It can be difficult to resist once it is proffered – and it will be proffered again. The Oslo mentality has been shattered but not completely purged from the Israeli mindset. Israel’s leaders are still largely hesitant to move the nation’s destiny forward and therefore refrain from asserting fully its rights that are grounded in God’s gifts, the Torah, and the dictates of morality and justice.

Yet, Israel, with G-d’s blessings, is in a remarkably good place as its seventieth anniversary is celebrated. A temporary rapprochement has been achieved with many of the countries surrounding Israel – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others – born not necessarily of love of Israel but of fear of their common enemy, Iran. That Israel would form an alliance with an arc of Sunni Muslim states to ward off the common threats from Shiite Iran could not have been predicted even ten years ago. Would that Israel’s leadership were better able to exploit this moment in history – a friendly American president and alliances with its Arab neighbors – to change the entire dynamic of the conflict and move beyond preserving the status quo.

In another extraordinary development, the attitudes of much of the Arab world toward Israel have shifted from hatred to jealousy, even a grudging admiration of what Israel has been able to achieve – a prosperous, stable, just, free and diverse society – all of which stands in stark contrast to the economic hardships, political instability, and notable lack of freedom that plague their own countries. For sure, many Arabs still harbor the fantasies of Israel’s disappearance but many more, especially the modern ones, would love to emulate the openness and success of Israeli society. Israeli ingenuity, technological genius, and economic success are conspicuous in the Middle East especially and in the world generally, and Israel’s willingness to expend its resources saving lives and rescuing innocents across the globe is in the best tradition of the aspirations of our ancient, holy people. Many would never admit it publicly but Israel is perceived as a beacon of morality and human rights.

Those who listen closely can already hear echoes of Yeshayahu’s prophecy of old in the voice of the nations of the world: “It will happen at the end of days. The mountain of G-d’s House will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, it will be lofty above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘come, let us go up the Mountain of G-d, to the Temple of the G-d of Yaakov, and he will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.’ For from Zion will go forth the Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem” (Yeshayahu 2:3). Is it not uncanny how so many nations today crave Yerushalayim, want a share in Yerushalayim, and cannot – for reasons they cannot articulate – embrace President Trump’s recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital? Indeed, but that day of acceptance is fast approaching as well. There is still a road ahead to be traveled but that road has guideposts pointing in only one direction.

Seventy years ago, in Iyar 5708, for one moment in time, true and gifted leaders made decisions – without consulting pollsters or reading tea leaves and in defiance of some of their closest advisors. They led, knowing that their choices would have adverse consequences, but with the confidence that the positives far outweighed the negatives. They made decisions recognizing that war would follow, casualties would ensue, criticism was sure to follow, and political defeat might be their personal fate.  They understood that the good is not the enemy of the perfect, and that inertia is often fatal to both personal and national aspirations.

In our generation, we look back longingly on Ben-Gurion’s determination and steely resolve and Truman’s courage and political will, and marvel at how great leaders with a sense of history can, in fact, shape history and even transform it.

They were neither infallible nor beyond reproach; they were both flawed and biased people who made mistakes before, during and after these events transpired. Yet we recognize that “the Omnipresent has many agents” and that “the heart of a king is like streams of water in the hands of God; wherever He wishes, He directs it” (Proverbs 21:1). Such gifts of leadership, we pray, lurk within our Jewish leaders of tomorrow. Israel’s 70th anniversary is most meaningful if we internalize the spirit of 1948 – acknowledging the benevolence of our Creator, the justice of our cause, the magnitude of our choices, and the awesome responsibility thrust upon those who are G-d’s partners in building the Torah state and advancing the era of redemption.

May the majestic moment of the Jewish people’s reentry into the world of nations – as overseers and landlords of our own independent, sovereign country – continue to inspire us to build the Israel of tomorrow, the homeland of all Jews and the foundation of God’s kingdom on earth. Seventy years later, Jews and friends of Israel across the world can only bless the Creator of all who kept us alive, sustained us and brought our generation to this moment in history.

 

 

Dayenu !

(First published in Yeshiva Heichal Hatorah’s Hagadas Haheichal, 5778)

There is something about Dayenu that doesn’t ring true. When your birthday comes along, and your spouse gives you a gift, you accept graciously. But if parents or children give you other gifts, you also accept graciously. Who would think of saying – Dayenu – it would have been enough?

So granted, we ask “how many stages of kindness were there?” How many kindnesses did God bestow upon us? We are so accustomed to the conclusion Dayenu, it would have been enough, but it is not always logical. This doesn’t even refer to those clauses that cannot stand alone, for example, “if G-d had given us their money but not split the sea for us,” in which the next stage is indispensable. After all, if God had given us their money but not split the sea, we would have died wealthy, a small comfort. The question is a different one: which stage would we really have not wanted? Which one would we have done without?  To which of G-d’s kindnesses would we have actually said, in real time, Dayenu? Only that would have been enough, and no      more! I cannot think of one. So what is Dayenu?

Furthermore, Gemara Shabbat 32a makes this point, quoting a verse from the haftara on Shabbat Hagadol: “I will shower them with blessings beyond their capacity to absorb,” and the Gemara explains “until their lips wither from saying ‘enough.’” We will have to plead with God to tell Him to stop bombarding us with blessings! But who are we kidding? Who do we know who thinks like that, who would spurn blessings from Above?

Rav Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav Me’Eliyahu, II, 222) explains that there are two types of people who rebuff the gifts of others. One person rejects favors because he does not want to be beholden to another, doesn’t want to have to thank them, and doesn’t ever want to have to repay the kindness. That is a lamentable trait, but that is not our Dayenu. The other person who is uncomfortable with the benevolence of others is one who feels that he can never properly repay the debt, he can never fully show his gratitude, and that he is undeserving of the kindness – so he would rather not have it.

We are in the second category. In regard to God’s blessings, we should feel Dayenu – how can we take more? How can we be given even more opportunities? Who are we that we should merit even more of His goodness?

Rav Dessler answered that there is a higher level than even saying Dayenu and meaning it. That is when a person completely nullifies his will before God’s, and says: if God gives this to me – health, prosperity, opportunity, family, and tranquility – then He wants me to have it, and I have no alternative but to carry out His will. Who am I that I would disdain His beneficence? Who am I that I would even think of refusing what He has given me? This is the meaning of the prophet’s statement, as the Gemara explained it, “until our lips wither from saying ‘enough’” – that we will reach a stage in which we no longer have the strength, desire, or motivation to say ‘enough.’ We just accept what God gives us and pledge to fulfill His will.

The Yom Tov of Pesach was the first opportunity we had to behold God’s goodness, and to respond with faith and commitment to each stage and with each individual act of kindness. Every year we account for how we have used His blessings and the unique opportunities of our generation to perfect ourselves and purify our nation. And in so doing, we vindicate our Exodus from Egypt and God’s plan for His people, and await the era when He will again redeem us from our troubles, when He will soon rebuild His Great House and redeem us, speedily and in our days.

Chag Kasher v’sameach to all!

Poles Apart

 

The history of the Jewish people in Poland is tortured, complicated and, as recent events have demonstrated, the relationship is still unsettled. One can cherry pick the data that supports one’s prejudices but not be able to produce a full and complete picture. The issue is being revisited as the Polish Parliament passed a law last month (since suspended) that criminalized the mere utterance of the phrase “Polish death camps” or attributing any responsibility for the Holocaust to the Polish people.

It is not widely known but Poland produced more “righteous Gentiles,” (i.e., non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews) than any other country. Yad Vashem tallies 6,706 individual Poles who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust; the next closest in number is the Netherlands, where 5,595 Gentiles saved Jews and were honored for it after the war. Five Americans were recognized – along with the entire nation of Denmark who eschewed individual honors because saving Danish Jews became their national priority.

The number of righteous Polish Gentiles speaks well of them from one perspective. Per capita, roughly one out of every 4650 Poles was deemed a “righteous Gentile,” a relatively high figure compared to other countries. (In the Netherlands, one of every 14,000 citizens was so designated.) And, to be sure, Poles suffered brutally under the Nazi regime, with approximately 3,000,000 Polish Gentiles killed by the Nazis in addition to 3,000,000 Polish Jews, so talk of Polish complicity with the Nazis always strikes a raw nerve with them. Added to that is the current reality in which Poland has emerged as a close ally and trading partner of Israel, and that Poland today welcomes many Jewish visitors, mostly without incident. Some Polish cities have even seen a Jewish revival.

Nevertheless, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir’s statement thirty years ago – that “Poles imbibe Jew hatred with their mother’s milk” – might sound harsh, which is not to say unearned. Recent statements emanating from Polish authorities, about Jews’ propensity for lying (among other anti-Jewish canards), the denial of the Holocaust as a unique attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, the reference to “Jewish perpetrators” of the Holocaust and the caustic rejection of Jewish and Israeli objections to the proposed law, can be seen as Polish attempts to unwittingly prove Shamir (whose entire family was murdered in the Holocaust) correct.

If we even crunch the “righteous Gentile” numbers, Poland does not fare that well. There were 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands when the war broke out. Thus, there was one Dutch savior for every 25 Jews in the population. Poland had a pre-war population of 3,300,000 Jews, and thus there was one Polish savior for every 492 Jews in the population. The disparity is glaring. If non-Jewish Poles had saved Jews at the same rate as did non-Jewish Dutchmen there would have been more than 160,000 righteous Polish Gentiles. There weren’t. The Holocaust could not have unfolded as it did had Poles saved Jews at the same rate the Dutch did. And Polish Gentiles were not systematically exterminated, as were Jews, although, in truth, Hitler bore a special animus towards Poles also. The numbers reflect that the average Dutch civilian was more favorably disposed to his Jewish neighbors than was the average Pole.

Furthermore, Jewish views about Poland are shaped not only by the Holocaust but also by Jewish life in Poland for the millennium before the Holocaust and the years immediately following that saw violent pogroms perpetrated by Polish civilians (sometimes with the tacit approval of the authorities) against Jewish survivors. Some of these attacks were carried out by Poles who willfully, perhaps even gleefully, seized the property of their former Jewish neighbors when the Nazis forced the Jews into ghettos and then deported millions to their deaths. But we need not only look at the Holocaust and post-Holocaust era. Jews are a people with a long historical memory.

My grandparents and children (including my father) fled Poland in early 1939 not only because Hitler was looming but primarily because life in Poland had become unbearable for Jews.  Shechita (ritual slaughter of kosher animals for consumption) was banned by the Polish Parliament in the mid-1930’s, and my grandfather a”h, a shochet by profession, continued slaughtering in secret until he was briefly imprisoned and threatened with execution. Not coincidentally, the Polish Parliament banned shechita again (!) in 2014, only to have the ban – with its obvious anti-Jewish overtones – reversed by the Supreme Court. But such a bill is now pending again (!) before the Polish Parliament in the wake of the recent controversy.

Life in Poland had its charms, I suppose – but also its persistent persecution, pogroms, restrictive measures and constant harassment. There is no escaping that; it is not only recorded in history books but it is also inscribed on the Jewish heart and in our collective memory. Of course, the definition of “Poland” is drawn somewhat broadly; my father’s birthplace in Poland had been part of Lithuania until two decades earlier and became part of Belarus after World War II. But the point remains the same.

Without generalizing too much, official Poland has always had a blind spot when it comes to the Holocaust and to its treatment of Jews. In two visits our groups took to Auschwitz, our assigned Polish guide insisted on taking us to parts of the concentration camp where Polish political prisoners were held (and many executed) and held up as symbols of the Holocaust the Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe and, after we asked about the Jews who were murdered there, Edith Stein, the Jew who became a nun and was murdered by the Nazis – as a Jew. To these guides, it was clear to us, the 3,000,000 Polish Jews were not murdered because they were Jews but because they were Poles. Such is an offensive and false account of history – and we let the guides know it (which quickly concluded that part of the tour). It is a bitter and unspeakable irony that for centuries Poles derided the Jews as “Jews” (and worse), and once the Nazis murdered them, claimed them as “Poles” just like any other Polish citizen. No wonder Jews are offended, as should be Poles for that intellectual dishonesty and distortion of history. Jews in pre-war Poland had Polish friends and acquaintances and sought co-existence – but I have yet to meet a Jew who grew up in that era who had only fond memories of the experience. Poland was always a graveyard that eventually overwhelmed the Jewish population – as Ze’ev Jabotinsky warned them in 1938 when he told them they are “living on the edge of a volcano.” Every Jew knew it, even if few Jews heeded his warning.

What the Polish elite today fails to consider or deliberately ignores is that the Nazi death camps were placed in Poland for a reason. The six extermination camps – Treblinka, Belzec, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maidanek, Sobibor, and Chelmno – were situated in Poland purposely. Poles maintain that Poland had been conquered and its central location with a functioning rail system facilitated transport of Jews from across Europe. There is some truth to that.

The greater truth is that Germany was even more centrally located and possessed an even more sophisticated rail system – but the Nazis sensed that Poland would be a more hospitable venue for the death camps. What they perceived as the refined, cultured German nature would recoil at the notion of mass extermination of Jews while Poles, given their history, would be more amenable to looking the other way. That is hard to deny. Does this make these genocidal settings “Polish death camps”? Not really, and certainly not in the sense that Poles staffed the camps in large measure or were responsible for the genocide. Obviously, they are “Polish death camps” in that they were located – to be emphasized, they were all located – in Poland, and that was not an accident.

Poles should own up to that. The fact that so many Poles were killed by the Nazis and that Poles were also victims does not obscure the fact that they have sordid aspects of their history that they should acknowledge not just in the interest of historical accuracy but also to recognize the deep roots of Polish Jew hatred that existed for centuries and is part of Jewish history. That Polish civilians murdered Jews before, during and after the Holocaust is undeniable. That Polish partisan groups generally refused to cooperate with Jewish partisan groups is undeniable.

I don’t think re-litigating the Holocaust serves any productive role in 2018 except to the extent that truth always remains truth. I don’t hold today’s Poles responsible for the Holocaust any more than I hold today’s Germans. Guilt is transmitted from generation to generation only when, the Talmud (Masechet Berachot 7a) states, “the children cling to the ways of their fathers” but not if the children renounce the deeds of their fathers.

About a decade ago, I attend a conference in Nuremberg, in which young Germans articulated a standard that would serve modern Poles well. They said that they felt no guilt over the Holocaust (after all, they didn’t perpetrate it) but they did feel shame that such atrocities could have been committed by their countrymen. Such an approach makes a lot of sense and provides a way forward. Poles should not have guilt over what happened during the Holocaust – as long as they renounce Jew hatred in all its manifestations – but they should feel shame that the death camps were all located in their country intentionally and that most Jews murdered in the Holocaust were murdered on Polish soil.

If they live in denial, they will see that as an historical accident and the price they pay will be deserved ignominy. If they recognize that reality, they will be able to build on the warm relations they have cultivated in recent years with Israel and the Jewish people and move beyond this most recent tempest.

Gun Wars

The American gun debate has been a dialogue of the deaf for decades and no end is in sight. That is for the simple reason that the two sides each reflect incompatible and irreconcilable views on the matter. To simplify a bit, when one side feels that society would be safer with more guns and the other side feels society would be safer with fewer or no guns, there is not much middle ground that can bridge the differences. One side blames the gun for the crime (as if guns fire themselves) and the other side blames the perpetrator for the crime (as if he could kill people if he didn’t have a gun). And so horrendous tragedies such as last week’s  school massacre in Florida will continue to occur, rachmana litzlan.

Each side retreats to its arguments whenever a horrendous school shooting occurs. One side blames the easy access to guns as so obvious that it brooks no discussion. The other side blames the failure to diagnose and treat mental illness or at least intervene and curb the anger and delusions of the disaffected. There are so many layers to the problem that it becomes difficult even to discuss them or analyze them dispassionately. No one is in favor of providing weapons to the mentally ill; by the same token, we pride ourselves in not stigmatizing mental illness, so how can their rights be restricted? And by whom shall they be restricted? Add to this the collapse of the American family since the moral breakdown of the 1960’s – the plethora of fatherless children, the aimlessness of many youth, the broken homes and the lack of any moral guidance from authority figures (schools, churches, etc.) and one big problem looms. Add to this a culture that glorifes violence spawned by movies , television and video games that make killing look like fun and conscience-free. And add to that the modern drug of “fame” – the yearning to be noticed, to matter, to be significant in the eyes of society – as if that has any enduring value. There are too many losers who act in anti-social ways to get attention; a small percentage of them will turn violent.

It has reached a point where the arguments no longer address the issue at hand and the proposals made by the politicians satisfy a core constituency but would not solve the problem at all. Trying to prevent a school shooting by tightening the terrorist watch list is a non sequitur. Blaming the NRA and their campaign contributions for the presence of gun violence ignores the reality of the Second Amendment and presupposes that politicians would be amenable to restricting gun ownership if only they had the will. But such is false; most politicians – and most Americans – support gun ownership because they believe in the right of self-defense, itself a cardinal Torah principle: “He who comes to slay you, rise up and slay him first” (Masechet Yoma 85b). There is no virtue to allowing yourself to be killed by a criminal.

Defending the Constitution is seemingly as American as apple pie but its sundry clauses – especially in the Bill of Rights – always vex one group or another and is often under assault by government. Just in the last few years, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” of religion clause was assaulted by a variety of Obama administration measures, particularly regarding the provision of health care; many perceive the Trump’s administration’s hostility and verbal assaults on the media as infringing on freedom of the press; and all of us are subjected, and not always legally, to intrusive surveillance, searches and occasionally seizures with little redress, despite the Fourth Amendment.  The Seventh Amendment’s right to a trial by jury sounds great but has not always served the cause of truth and justice.

For better or worse, guns are ingrained in American culture and it is foolhardy to think that the confiscation of 300,000,000 firearms (count ‘em) is feasible even if it were sensible. Some people, naturally horrified by school shootings and the deaths of innocent children, can rail against the prevalence of guns in society but usually will be unaware of the positive roles guns play in the society. The NRA magazine features a monthly column entitled “The Armed Citizen,” in which there are at least a dozen accounts drawn from local media of citizens who saved their own lives (and those of others) by employing a firearm against a hostile entity – intruder, burglar, assailant, rapist, etc. I sense that these accounts weigh more heavily on people’s minds that even the random shootings that, gun control advocates think, should shock people out of their lethargy. Obviously there is a hunting culture in America that uses weapons with much firepower, but since hunting doesn’t speak to me at all (Jews are not hunters) I downplay its role in this debate. Safety first.

If almost everyone is in agreement that someone like the Florida school shooter should not have been able to purchase a weapon, then why can’t laws be crafted that make it more difficult for such malefactors to be denied access and easier for the good citizens to acquire and carry firearms?

It also needs to be noted that, I suspect, most homicides in America are committed with illegal weapons, not ones that are legally purchased. Illegal weapons are easily attainable, even though the average citizen would never seek to acquire an illegal weapon. As such, gun control that is too restrictive leaves weapons primarily in the hands of the criminals and outside the reach of the innocent. That doesn’t seem fair. Nor does it make any sense to argue – as politicians do all the time – that this or that law would have made a difference. Last I checked, there are laws against homicide and yet, somehow, those laws don’t deter homicidal maniacs from killing people. It is not the law as much as it is the person and the person’s capacity and willingness to obey the law.

The most recent miscreant fell through the cracks and had all the indicia of trouble. Given up for adoption, adopted parents dead, expelled from school for violence, drifting, aimless, no future and no hope – a ticking time bomb ready to explode. In his own demented way, he was crying out for help. Someone who posts on the internet using his real name that “I want to grow up to be a professional school shooter” is begging to be noticed and stopped. That no follow up was done – that he was not found – is outrageous incompetence for which someone should be called to account. A cynic might speculate that had he said “I want to grow up to be a professional school shooter and I have evidence that Trump colluded with Russia before the election” the FBI would have found him within an hour. And the ongoing problem is that had he been found, there are no laws and there is no protocol that could have confined, stopped or deterred him.

There is no one law that will be a panacea, especially in the face of the great dysfunction of the American family. And it is not as simple as saying “we should not allow weapons in the hands of the mentally ill;” is a battered woman suffering from depression under the care of a psychiatrist and threatened by a violent ex-husband “mentally ill” and therefore not permitted to buy a gun to use to defend herself? And there are gradations of mental illness as well, from mild to severe.

What is needed in the long term is a cultural change – a moral renaissance reflected in the “bourgeois values” touted by Professor Amy Wax in an article whose thesis is so self-evident that in today’s climate was considered controversial and offensive – but even in the short term measures are necessary and mostly at hand. Schools are currently soft targets, accessible to one and all, student and psychopath alike. That has to change, and providing armed guards during school hours and searches, screening and profiling for all who enter the school building should be obvious. Such is done in Israel, as is the discreet arming of some teachers who rotate carrying concealed weapons on their persons. That secures the target, reasonably if not perfectly, and greatly enhances the chances of failure of the attacker to achieve his nefarious aims as to deter even the attempt.

As the school shooters have almost all been young males – from their teens to their 20’s – it is clear that males who have been expelled from school for violence, are under the care of a mental health professional, or have exhibited cruel and unusual behavior should be placed on a watch list that denies them access to legal weapons unless they are permitted to do so by a judge upon the testimony of doctors, parents, guardians and the like. Again, this is reasonable but not perfect. So is this: adults who store weapons in their homes and do not secure them sufficiently to prevent their use by murderers should be held criminally liable with a mandatory minimum prison sentence. Ah, isn’t this blaming the victim? Well, sometimes the victim deserves some of the blame. It is not sufficient to say “I trusted him,” “I didn’t know he had a duplicate key,” “I tried to turn him into a responsible adult,” etc. If it happens on your watch, you are liable. That should get the attention of law-abiding gun owners.

It is not fair to punish hundreds of millions of law-abiding citizens because of the despicable acts of a handful of people. Nor should we renounce constitutional rights that have safeguarded American liberties and provided an effective means of self-defense. Nor should we wash our hands and say that nothing can be done because there is no perfect solution. There is no perfect solution – the psychopaths can also acquire illegal weapons, psychologists will claim that putting their patients on a watch list would violate confidentiality and encourage reticence, the fantasy of a gun-free society will always animate some – but a sane society takes elementary measures to keep weapons out of the hands of the disaffected, a sane government focuses its efforts on defending its citizens, especially its children, and rational politicians – interested in more than retaining their seats and its access to the lucre of modern politics – know how to address complex issues with substance, sensitivity and efficacy.