Category Archives: Current Events

Who is First?

Election campaigns are so much fun that Israel is having two within the span of four months, providing daily entertainment if you sift through the vitriol. American elections are different because the dates are defined in law, unlike Israel’s parliamentary system, but they are also so much fun that American political campaigns are very, very long. Perhaps it is better said that they never end – the permanent campaign in which winning matters much more than governance. Israel’s election campaign, while unnecessary, is also mercifully short.

For all the volatility of American politics today – the endless feuding, screaming, dysfunction, real accusations, false accusations and and occasional hilarity – it is downright tame, even stable, compared to what is going on here in Israel. Having a polarized and divided society is the fate of many democracies today, which can be a strength (no group becomes excessively powerful) or a weakness (nothing really ever gets done). But to hold two elections within a few months is bizarre, especially since the electorate hasn’t changed. The configuration of Knesset seats is also likely not to change that much, although I do suspect that Binyamin Netanyahu – who just became Israel’s longest serving prime minister in history, exceeding David Ben-Gurion’s tenure – will not be the prime minister one year from now.

What is especially unusual, and somewhat irksome, is that the right-wing religious parties have fragmented into so many different groups that they are also undermining themselves, as they did in 1992 resulting in the Oslo catastrophe. I count one, two, three, four, five and maybe six parties or maybe more parties that on some level have support of the Religious Zionist community – all reflecting what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” There is the Bayit Hayehudi, the remnants of the old Mafdal; the New Right party of Naphtali Bennett, who gambled and lost when he abruptly left the party he founded to start his own. (Was it a wise move? Well, the modern philosopher, political theorist and ex-basketball player Charles Barkley once said that “the only difference between a good shot and a bad shot is whether or not it goes in.” If you shoot and miss, it’s a bad shot. Bennett shot and missed.) There’s the Zehut party, angling for a Torah state in which marijuana is legal. The Yachad party. Otzma Yehudit on the far right. The new Noam party inhabiting similar quarters. And even the Likud has a fair share of Religious Zionists in its list. And I have probably overlooked one or two equally redundant parties.

That’s a lot of parties, with nuanced differences but primarily espousing similar views, the “narcissism of small differences,” but that has and will result in cannibalizing their voting base. Bennett’s party and Feiglin’s party threw away about 5 seats, 250,000 wasted votes in April’s election. If those votes had counted, there wouldn’t have been a need to rely on Avigdor Lieberman’s party – which everyone assumed would join the right-wing coalition until he decided not to join and embarked on an anti-Torah campaign that he hopes will improve his electoral prospects. One would think that the dissipation of votes, power, and influence in the last election would engender some humility, a contraction of the parties and a willingness to work together for common goals. After all, agreement on 80-90% of the issues at hand should count for something.

What induces all these candidates and parties to run, to highlight their small differences, and then fail to work together to form a coalition? It’s old story that never ends, even if we assume that everyone is sincere.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102a) discusses the sad tale of Yerav’am ben Nevat who split ancient Israel into two kingdoms, reintroduced idolatry (building his own golden calves), a person who saw himself as royalty, but who also possessed tremendous spiritual potential. The Sages noted that notwithstanding that he “sinned and caused others to sin,” he was also a Torah scholar whose Torah had no defect but was completely perfect. All other scholars were before him “like shrubbery.”

And, typically of this type of talented individual, the Gemara says that, in a prophetic vision, “G-d grabbed hold of Yerav’am’s cloak (apparently in order to shake some sense into him). And G-d said, ‘repent, and I, you and King David will stroll together in Paradise.’” Together, we can perfect the world!

But then “Yerav’am asked, who goes first? And G-d said, David goes first. And Yerav’am responded, if so, I can’t. I don’t want it.” Either I go first or I don’t go at all.

Mi Barosh – who goes first? – is such a destructive syndrome. Who will lead? Who is in charge? That ailment destroys people, societies, and nations. It destroyed Korach in his time and Yerav’am in his. It makes politics so superficial and allows problems to fester and never get resolved. Yerav’am was so jealous of the Davidic dynasty hat he felt disrespected even to walk behind the true king; he had to be first.

This Mi Barosh malady is harmful to marriages, to families, to shuls and communities. It is so ancient and so commonplace that one would think we would be aware of it, recognize it, and carefully scrutinize our motivations, decisions and actions. Sadly, we don’t, and even sadder, Mi Barosh is the rule, not the exception. The multiplicity of parties in Israel, and the cavalcade of candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, all reflect this fundamental human weakness. People will give up their lives, their spiritual destiny, their families, their wealth and their friends, and all for just a little honor, or a little more honor than the next guy.

Mi Barosh underwrites – and undermines – much of the political scene today, and the results could be quite unpleasant, as they were when Yerav’am maneuvered his way into the kingship of Israel and an ensuing rift in the Jewish society. And each person understands this, and each thinks that the other should therefore give way. Mi Barosh.

If we understand this on a personal level, we will have made great progress. To understand this on a national level will take a bit longer. Maybe it is happening now with a re-configuration of leaders on the right – but perhaps it will not be fully appreciated until the exalted son of David redeems Israel and the world. The sooner the better.

 

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The Intermarriage Ruckus

The Midrash Tanchuma (beginning of Parshat Balak) notes that the nations of the world were also given a prophet – Bilaam – and underscores the difference between that heathen prophet and our Moshe. “Moshe warned the people against sin, while Bilaam encouraged a breach (in moral norms) so as to destroy people’s [spiritual potential].” Moshe’s world, and his Torah, contains moral strictures and eternal guidance; Bilaam’s world is a hedonistic free-for-all that causes chaos to man and havoc for the soul.

Rav Rafi Peretz, the soft-spoken Rosh Yeshiva and current head of the Bayit Hayehudi party here in Israel, raised the ire of the easily ired by terming the intermarriage rampant among American Jews a “second Holocaust.” He was apparently unaware that using the Holocaust as an analogy to anything is the exclusive province of one secular American Jewish organization. Of course, the error in using the term, if it indeed was an error, was that it enabled his intended targets and their defenders to avoid dealing with the substance of his remarks – uttered with love and genuine concern – and obsess over the Holocaust itself. But if he had not used the analogy, then his heartfelt critique would certainly have been disregarded, so let’s get real.

The reference was otherwise unremarkable, as provocative as some deemed it. Analogies of the Holocaust to assimilation and intermarriage have been made for decades, by personalities as diverse as Golda Meir, Emil Fackenheim and scores of kiruv professionals. As I remember hearing it in the 1970’s, someone opined that it matters little “whether a soldier is killed in battle or shirks his uniform and flees the battlefield; both are lost to his nation’s war effort.” We can certainly parse the distinction – the soldier who falls in battle does so advancing the interests of his nation and dies a hero. The deserter is a cowardly traitor. There is a difference in assessment and cause – but the effect is the same. Both can no longer contribute to the country, and in that regard the analogy holds. Assimilation does give Hitler a posthumous victory and the intermarried Jews and their offspring are generally lost to the Jewish people.

So why the indignant attacks on Rav Peretz for pointing out the obvious? Well, these days, pointing out the obvious is a risky proposition, as sundry groups allied with leftist, anti-religious or progressive causes tolerate only one viewpoint: theirs. And one cannot rule out the political dimension, as Israel is undergoing another election campaign and there is an inordinate desire to besmirch the religious parties in any way possible. Just today, a veteran Israeli journalist, known for his anti-Torah views, rhetorically asked an interviewee if Rav Peretz is “chashuch” (unenlightened, in the most charitable definition), because in another fabricated “controversy” he failed to toe the PC line and oppose the only form of psychotherapy banned today for political, not practical, reasons, and despite his claim to have experienced some measure of success with it. Alcoholism and other addictions, anger, depression and the like can be treated (and not always successfully because there are always bad therapies, bad therapists, and individual free will) but only one condition under the sun can never be treated, even if a person wants to seek treatment freely, of his or her own volition. Certainly no one should be coerced into any therapy but prohibiting people from seeking help of their own accord is neither enlightened nor scientific.

And isn’t hearkening back to the culture and morality of Hellenism and ancient Rome the very definition of “chashuch?” After all, it was the darkness of Greece that the lights of Chanuka came to illuminate, to enlighten the world forever with Jewish moral ethics. That is a Jewish approach born of Jewish sources rather than modern sociological and political trends.

So who would be offended by referring to the intermarriage and assimilation as a “second Holocaust,” a “silent Holocaust,” and the like? Could it be the intermarried themselves who have already made their choices and are tenuously connected to Jewish life as it is? As noted, intermarriage lacks the coercive aspects of the Holocaust genocide even if the result is the same. But don’t they know that intermarriage is (was?) a taboo, and the death knell of Jewish continuity? Of course they do.

Politics aside, it would seem that the offended include those who defend, support and have even acquiesced to intermarriage, and number in their ranks a couple of pseudo-Orthodox rabbis, better defined as neo-Conservatives or even Modern Hellenists. There is not a Torah value that they seem to respect when it defies the zeitgeist. The defense of the intermarried as good Jews with holy souls is not just wrong but also counterproductive, catastrophic for the Jewish future. They are overly inclined to assuage the consciences of the intermarried in their modern church of good feelings and love conquers all. But what then happens to Torah and the Jewish people?

As they subtly encourage more and more intermarriage, they are blithely indifferent to one simple rule of economics: Whatever you subsidize (i.e., endorse, tacitly encourage, or reward), you get more of. Whatever you tax (i.e., penalize, oppose, disapprove and reject), you get less of. Do they want more intermarriage? Then they should keep attacking Rav Peretz and all others who refuse to reconcile themselves to this horror-by-choice. But then they will have distinguished themselves as modern Bilaam’s, the sinner’s favorite prophet because he rejects the very concept of sin. Bilaam too believed in all forms of love, free expression, and faithfulness to one’s inner compass, and completely rejected the notion of a divine morality that binds the faithful – and affords them a better, holier, more productive and happier life.

And perhaps that should be our approach, in an age in which authority of all sorts is routinely assailed and dismissed. The life of Torah provides us with the best life possible. (Those who seek it elsewhere are attempting to connect to themselves, which might provide some temporary, but not enduring, joy.) A recent study showed that people who attend religious services even once a week have a substantially lower incidence of suicide. That makes sense, because they are part of something greater than themselves and can find meaning in life regardless of whatever personal pain they experience. There are similar studies extant, worth publicizing, as it can help restore people to observance. It is unsurprising that the Torah “restores the soul” and “gladdens the heart” (Tehillim 19:8-9).

It is eerie that a Jewish think tank recently released an exhaustive study of the state of Jewry today – and the word Torah was not even mentioned. The overwhelming focus was on Jew hatred and how to combat it, as if the only reason for the existence of the Jewish people is to confound our enemies who want to destroy us. Thwarting anti-Jewish persecution is a worthy goal – but isn’t enunciating the purposes, objectives, values and uniqueness of the Jewish people, and how to advance those, an even worthier goal? We don’t live just in order not to die. We live in order to glorify G-d and His Torah.

There are many modern maladies traceable to a rejection of Torah. All the various lifestyles that people today have been forced to (wink, wink) celebrate, endorse and legitimize do not alter that basic reality. It is the Torah life and the conquest of our yetzer hara (instinctual drives) that provide us with balance and true happiness, and not our indulgence of every fantasy or passion. We should have compassion for every sinner because we are all sinners, but woe to us if we accept Bilaam’s Torah and his moral guidance. If people only realized what a Torah life truly meant, they would run to it, embrace it, and protect it with their lives – as holy and faithful Jews have done for millennia. And rabbis should never be intimidated into abandoning or concealing any part of the Torah.

It strikes me that persuading anyone to change any position today is beyond the scope of any writer or thinker. Positions have so hardened, and there is no form of human corruption that doesn’t have its ardent defenders. Sinners of all stripes take refuge in that. But sometimes it is important just to articulate basic truths, so the great majority of faithful Jews realize that the real world has not gone completely mad. It is just sort of underground – perhaps waiting for the speedy appearance of the great redeemer.

 

 

Virtue-Signaling

Character is the composite of repeated actions, employed values and refined qualities, so it is somewhat absurd to judge people – usually to condemn them – based on one deed or misdeed. Should Moshe’s reputation be tarnished irrevocably because he failed to bring his generation or himself into the land of Israel? Should even the spies that he dispatched or Korach his cousin and nemesis be cast into eternal ignominy because of their sins? Should one wrong action outweigh a lifetime of accomplishment?

Part of the moral malaise of modern man reflects this very question. It is not only the absence of heroes that can inspire anyone to do good but also the penchant of many individuals, and even the delight some take, in destroying great people’s reputations, knocking them off their pedestals, exposing and publicizing even a single flaw, and even uncovering the misdeeds or sometimes just words that allow people to conclude, “You see? They were no good. We are all no good. There is no such thing as greatness, moral attainment, or holiness.” It is as if to say because there are no perfect people, there are no people worthy of emulation.

But is that true? Are there no heroes left anymore? Does the slightest blot on one’s escutcheon destroy whatever good anyone did? Well, it depends, but on what?

If I thought for a moment that any of these modern critics were sincere and trying to make the world a better place, I would hesitate, but I don’t believe that at all. It’s mostly virtue-signaling – the public display of one’s moral superiority on the cheap, without any sacrifice, consequences, or real accomplishment. It is as if one gains moral standing merely by pointing out the failings of others, lifting up themselves by lowering others. It is as pathetic as it is commonplace.

We are living in an age in which virtue-signaling matters much more than actual virtue, and thus one can proclaim that there is no such thing as virtue because there really are no virtuous people. It is very cynical – and wrong.

For example, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson are today routinely derided as slave-owners and racists, whose names and pictures in public places cause offense, especially to the easily offended. References to them are being systematically excised in places in America where virtue-signaling is rampant and tolerance is in short supply. Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves and preserved the Union, sometimes expressed racist views and is similarly excoriated as unenlightened. Add to this list the flaws of FDR, for whom thinking Jews bear ill will because of his studied indifference to the Holocaust, or JFK and his moral indiscretions, and a host of others.

Poor Joe Biden keeps falling into the clutches of the virtue-signalers almost on a weekly basis. I don’t carry his water, but he got a raw deal when he declared it an asset rather than an iniquity to work together with segregationist Senators with whom he disagreed vehemently. Of course, he erred only in implying that they were Republicans; they weren’t – the two Senators he named, Jim Eastland and Herman Talmadge, were Democrats. So he didn’t exactly reach across the aisle but rather to the people sitting right next to him. Perhaps some courageous reporter will ask Biden why he joined the party of segregationists in the 1970’s and what measures he took to weed them out of his party.

And now it’s Martin Luther King’s turn. His Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer, David Garrow, an unabashed admirer of King, could not get an essay published in America (it was  published in a British periodical; there is some protection left for secular saints, sometimes) that detailed repeated salacious, scandalous and criminal behavior on King’s part, all recorded by the FBI on audiotape to be released within a decade So is there no one beyond reproach? What do we really gain from all these takedowns?

Nothing at all. But here is where we got off track and how we can get back on track. The critics are not approaching these individuals from a religious or objectively moral perspective, and do not generally take Christianity seriously, but they have embraced Christian doctrine that has skewed their outlook: that of the “perfect person.” There can be perfect people, and only the perfect person should be admired or worshipped. Everyone else is fallen, disgraced, abominable and nothing special. But the Torah never proposed such an idea and definitively opposed it. There are no perfect people. The greatest among us – Avraham, Moshe, David, etc. – all stumbled, all sinned, and all repented. That is what defines human character at its best – especially the capacity to do wrong, admit it, repent, and regain one’s moral standing.

To be sure, certain crimes are so heinous that they tarnish the person forever (homicide leaps to mind, among a number of other sociopathic acts), but aside from that, the criterion we should utilize in measuring the heroes of the past and even present is this: were their moral weaknesses or flaws part of their life’s purpose or major accomplishment or distinct from it? The lives of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Kennedy, King – and most of the other targets of today’s virtue-signaling hypocrites – were not defined by their flaws but by the good that they did, and the good they did was completely unrelated to their sins and moral failings. Obviously the same pertains to Moshe – but not to Moshe’s spies whose mission in life (“all noblemen, leaders of Israel”) was undermined and vitiated by their sins, and not to Korach whose rebellion overwhelmed and destroyed any accomplishments  he had.

We should realize that even worse than living in a world where people search for flaws in others as if they are looking for chametz on the night before Pesach – with a microscope, a magnifying glass and then a megaphone – is living in a world where we think there are neither heroes nor people of accomplishment, and we conclude that there is no goodness worthy of emulation in this world because no one is perfect. That is a world of despair and emptiness, a sad world that needs real uplifting.

Rather than indulge the virtue-signaling dwarfs who are nibbling at the ankles of giants, all to further a political agenda, we should recognize human complexity and admire the struggles and achievements of great people not despite their imperfections but precisely because they were imperfect, and still achieved so much. Erasing their names and pictures is insensitive – to truth, reality and to a true understanding the nuances of human nature.

Judaism always advocates dealing with people with “chesed ve-emet,” kindness and truth. Kindness alone and truth alone can very often distort reality and impair our perception of what is good, moral and just. Kindness and truth must work in tandem, as we need both to survive and appreciate the good in each other.

The Dangers of Equality

All things being equal, equality is a wonderful thing.  The Torah mandates that “there shall be one law for you, for the stranger and resident among you” (Vayikra 24:22); nonetheless, there are numerous differences in Jewish law in the rights and privileges of a Jew, a non-resident alien, a man or a woman, a child, a Kohen, Levi or Yisrael. Thus, equal treatment under the law is a goal for which we strive, recognizing that differences will arise in which each of the aforementioned parties is advantaged or disadvantaged depending on the circumstances – and that pure equality exists in mathematics but not in life.

Still, the word and concept “equality” so resonate in the American mind that to question its application is a secular heresy. That “all men are created equal” was true but not entirely true was little noted at the time but troubled the American conscience for a century and to some degree until today as well. But we must be mindful of the pernicious effects of the modern “equality” that has come to us in the form of the “Equality Act,” congressional legislation recently passed in the House of Representatives on an entirely partisan vote. It is denominated HR 5 – i.e., the fifth piece of legislation introduced in the House this year.

What could be wrong with the “equality” that is entertained by the “Equality Act?”

The Equality Act aims to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and for other purposes.” It includes all the trendy categories, and focuses on preventing discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and the like, and certainly some of those goals are admirable. But it goes further, “barring discrimination in foster care and adoption,” meaning that an Jewish or Catholic agency, for example, would be precluded from placing children in homes that professed the core values of those faiths. It prohibits any discrimination in any “public gathering,” the ramifications of which will be clear in a moment.

Significantly, and most troubling, Section 1107 of the Act explicitly states: “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.) shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”  In plain English, the religious liberties secured pursuant to RFRA are now in clear jeopardy.

Taking all these clauses in composite, and articulating the true intent of the drafters, this statute has several grievous implications for proponents of religious liberty, all people of faith, and the traditions that accompanied the founding of the USA.

For example, under this statute, feminists could sue to abolish the mechitza in shul, as that partition distinguishes between men and women in a place of “public gathering,” and one that receives some government benefits at that. Others might sue to void separate education in our yeshivot, and if you think that can’t happen, think again. The King David High School in Manchester, England, was just downgraded to “inadequate” as an educational institution – even though its student scores are superlative – simply because the authorities have determined that separate boys and girls classes violates England’s Equality law.

Or, what if a same-sex couple demanded the right to conduct their wedding in a synagogue social hall? The statute as written vitiates any notion of religious freedom, making the First Amendment protection of freedom of worship almost a non-entity. A yeshiva would not be able to prevent the hiring of a transgender male as rebbe, and if it denied him (or her) the job, then go fight City Hall. Or the courts. And while you’re at it, try to deny a drag queen the privilege of serving as Chazan for the yamim noraim.

      We were once assured that enshrining equality before the law would not prejudice the rights of religious people. That turned out to be a canard, and the only lingering doubt is whether or not proponents of these laws knew from the beginning that they would focus their legal firepower on recalcitrant religions after the passage of those laws.  Anyone who thinks this cannot happen with the Equality Act should read about the ongoing, endless saga of Jack Phillips, who is still being sued (now for the third time) for his refusal to create personalized cakes for a variety of couples to whose union he has moral and religious objections. And one should be aware that even the Supreme Court did not narrowly rule in his favor on grounds of his freedom of religion but on his right to free expression. That these consumer-activist demands encroached on his religious liberties was of interest to the majority decision but was not the holding of the court.

Some might say “let them sue,” which is reasonable and even the American way. But even if those plaintiffs sue and lose, the annoyance, expense and consumption of time and energy defending a lawsuit can easily hamstring, derail and in some cases even bankrupt a merchant and certainly a religious institution. We should assume that such lawsuits will be filed in far left states that will automatically rule in favor of the “aggrieved” parties, forcing the defendants into the even greater and debilitating expense of multiple appeals, or the dilution or compromise of their religious values.

None of this is accidental or unknown to proponents of these measures. Their hatred for the religious traditions that proscribe their behaviors is palpable and their desire to impose their values and lifestyles on everyone else – once known as the “majority” – is limitless. Their quest for legitimization demands that the law not only “protect” them but that it also trample on and erode the rights of religious people. Advocates of traditional morality – laws that defined civilization for millennia – are their sworn foes. Any thought, word or deed that disrupts their objectives, enunciates moral verities, or challenges their assertions must be suppressed, and those who utter them must be denounced, ostracized, and then tarred and feathered.

Jews take care never to count people but rather words of a verse, hands or (in Biblical times) shekel coins because to count individuals one, two, three, four implies that we are all the same. But we are not all the same. Each person is unique, and as individuals and not merely as part of a group.

The “Equality Act” transforms religious people into citizens who are less-than-equal, whose moral aspirations must be denounced and whose Bible needs to be amended. The good news is that there is no chance that this bill will pass the Senate or be signed into law by President Trump. But we will rue the day if and when Democrats regain control of Congress and the Presidency, awash as they are in the identity politics that vest all rights in groups but not in individuals.

And not even all groups; people of faith have no standing under this bill. And if it ever passes, America will no longer be the same and we will realize too late the gross inequalities created by this Equality Act.

How To Destroy a Nation

To understand how societies decline and disintegrate, look at this tale of two cities. I spent a few days last month in Minsk, Belarus, a city today of two million people that was completely destroyed during World War II and then built anew. Its streets are clean, with ultra-modern buildings and housing, spacious boulevards, interspersed with parks and lakes, no crime, no homeless and no attacks on Jews in several decades. Oh yes, the people cannot vote in any meaningful election as the country is ruled by an authoritarian, but the city is completely devoid of the drabness that typifies the old Communist capitals.

New York City, by contrast, is filthy, rat-infested, crime-ridden, with a crumbling infrastructure, garbage littering the streets, tens of thousands of homeless in the streets and almost daily assaults on Jews. And, yes, people get to vote (and do) for the same politicians every few years. This is the dark side of democracy, and its failed mayor now wishes to be president.

On the surface, why would anyone choose to live in NYC instead of, say, Minsk? The esthetics of Minsk easily surpasses those of New York. This is meant neither to romanticize dictatorships nor simply to extol the virtues of the trains running on time, not that the latter is unimportant. And clearly, democracy entails more than the limited ability to vote for one’s leaders. Belarus’ economy is state-controlled as per the Chinese model. Although there are economic opportunities and entrepreneurship, and massive building projects throughout the city, greater opportunities still abound in America. And it would be hard for an American raised with constitutional rights to freedom of expression and others to tolerate the limitations on speech that all totalitarian countries demand. (Freedom of religion is guaranteed. The shul in Minsk has no guard or security, which, as the Rabbi said, has never been needed.) It is fascinating that we encountered several Israelis who had been young olim from the former Soviet Union and who have now returned to live and work in Minsk – notwithstanding their inability to vote for their leaders.

Still, seeing the exterior of what was once a backwards country and is now ultra-modern makes one wonder about the survivability of democracies that fail to address the concerns and needs of its citizens. The USA today is a troubled country, and casting blame at President Trump or the Resistance to President Trump actually obscures rather than illuminates its troubles, and makes rectification much more difficult. We tend to believe that the status quo never changes, and that powerful empires cannot collapse – until they do. Indeed, the truism of history is that something that is always is – until it is not. And that last stage shocks the onlookers, even if it was predictable.

So how do great nations fail?

President Xi of China said a few years ago, before he began his crackdown on the limited freedoms Chinese enjoyed, that “to destroy a nation, you must first destroy its history.” The United States is doing a magnificent job in that respect. Several generations of American students have grown up learning in American public schools how the US has always been a force for evil in the world, marred by its original sins of stealing land from the Indians and enslaving blacks, and guilty of attempted colonization of various parts of the world and of creating a rapacious capitalist economy that rewards the few and hobbles the many.

Ironically, each point can be argued, but to look at America this way is to embrace a grotesque picture and a bizarre distortion of its founding principles, purpose and politics. The Indians had limited claims to sovereignty; most of the land was vacant. Slavery, accepted then across the world as normative, was indeed the dark cloud that hovered over the American experiment. The founders argued over it and dealt with it – and eventually fought a war over it that claimed the lives of over 600,000 Americans – more than 300,000 dead who were enlisted in the cause of abolishing slavery. Never in the history of mankind had so many free people fought and died to gain freedom for the enslaved.

Yet, those founders who wrestled with slavery and those Union soldiers who fought to end it are never credited for their morality or sacrifice. It is as if the sin of slavery can never be expiated.

What is studiously ignored is the fact that these same founders created – for the first time in human history – a republic in which people voted for or against their leaders in regular elections (beginning only with male, white landowners, and then gradually expanding over two centuries to include all citizens), which guaranteed the natural freedoms of speech, worship, assembly and the press and curbed the power of the state to prosecute and imprison the ordinary citizen. These same founders created a system of government with three branches, with checks and balances to ensure that what had bedeviled other attempts at self-government would not impair this one. And this American republic has endured quite well through wars and other hardships, and through massive immigration at various times in its history that completely changed the fabric of nation, while asking only that the new immigrants see themselves as Americans and not as foreign nationals residing in the United States.

Decades of teaching and underscoring the negatives of US history, and downplaying its historic successes, have led many young Americans to disparage the American experiment, recoil at the notion of American exceptionalism, and in the case of one recent American president (who also rejected American exceptionalism), traveling the world apologizing for America’s sins while being disdainful of America’s generosity and benevolence towards countries in need.

That is one way to begin the process of destroying a country. The widespread ignorance by most Americans of their history, system of government, accomplishments and successes is breathtaking – those who place the Civil War in the 1940’s and World War II in the 1840’s; those who cannot name their congressman, Senator, or even one Supreme Court justice, etc. – and sobering.

Another way to destroy a nation is for the elites to use the political system to gain power and wealth, and not at all to accomplish anything for the people. This sadly typifies American politics today. The obsession with President Trump – an obsession that has blinded the political class to the need to secure the borders, regulate immigration, rebuild the infrastructure, reward individual merit and not group identity, reform the health coverage system in which so many pay so much to get so little – will require an exorcism to uproot. It is beyond the irrational and has reached the level of the inexplicable and pathological.

The stability of any society is endangered when the political system is no longer responsive to the needs of the public, and especially when the society is composed not of individuals all claiming the same rights and privileges but different groups, basing themselves on accidental or ancillary characteristics, claiming for themselves special rights and privileges and willing to use force if their demands are not met. That has engendered the fear of controlling legal immigration and banning illegal immigration, of having college admissions or job opportunities based primarily on merit, of allowing the people the self-expression to live their lives even though they spread disease (measles in some of our communities and now the typhus in LA) and soil the streets of major cities (as in San Francisco, among other places).

A country that no longer has common bonds, a shared history, or a collective identity will disintegrate. Right now there are two Americas that barely interact or understand each other. Wait until there are four or five such Americas.

Another way to destroy a civilization is to saturate the masses with mindless, stultifying entertainment to distract them from the failure of the ruling class to solve any outstanding problem or even to deal with them constructively. And then legalize a range of narcotics that will lead to further stupefaction. Add to that a culture that is awash in moral relativism, that has abandoned even the lip service once paid to biblical morality, that has no clear conception of moral rights and wrongs or any cogent way to ascertain them and whose national birth rate has fallen below replacement level, and we have a society that is adrift and yet celebrating the disappearance of traditional values.

Typically, today, the elites argue over who is a boy and who is a girl, or none of the above, or all of the above, while every few weeks there is a mass shooting that takes multiple lives. The right to murder full-term fetuses and even newborns is revered by too many people, even as tens of thousands of people annually drug themselves to death. That is a society that is incapable of dealing with any substantive issue with anything more than clichés, or with proposed solutions that have no chance of succeeding but will attract the most votes to put those who proffer them into power.

Here is another tried and tested method of destroying democracies: investigate and hamstring the leaders to the point of paralysis, while simultaneously intimating to all the nation’s adversaries to just wait the guy out. It is increasingly clear that such messages have been sent to countries as diverse as Iran, China, Mexico, North Korea and others – there is no need to negotiate or concede anything because there will be a better deal to be obtained in a year or two (or five). As democratic leaders change fairly frequently (in the US it is every four or eight years; in Italy, every four or eight months), autocracies have the upper hand in negotiations and their negotiating positions have staying power. No wonder China steals American intellectual property with impunity.

A society that doesn’t understand or derides its history, that revels in its decadence, that harasses its leaders and that sees every problem through the prism of the zero-sum game of politics gives democracy a bad name. When most people despair of solving any of the nation’s ills and just want their team to win, the idea of a benevolent, G-d-fearing dictator becomes much more attractive.

Of course the practical problem is the dearth of dictators who are actually benevolent and G-d-fearing. And that is how nations wither, wane and disappear.

Everything is as it is, until it isn’t. And the seeds have already been sown.

 

The War on Truth

“The world only endures in the merit of those who restrain themselves (and do not respond) during times of strife” (Masechet Chulin 89a).

How quaint that must sound in modern times, especially in an era notably marked by acrimony, recriminations, libel, slander, gossip, name-calling and outright lies. Not responding to an insult, slur or accusation is considered foolhardy and unmanly, and tantamount to an admission of guilt. Similarly, the Torah’s injunction against lashon hara, speech – even if true – that tends to disparage the reputation of the subject in the eyes of the listener, is particularly eccentric these days, honored only in the breach thereof. We can and should try but even if we succeed, the culture is so awash in personal vilification that it is impossible to remain above the fray.

From “deplorables” to “losers” and everything in between, modern discourse has become so coarsened that there is no obvious way to reverse this onslaught, partly because it is also entertaining. Wikipedia specializes in underscoring and exaggerating peccadilloes, errors, misstatements, and the like that often results in a caricature of its subjects. Worse, it relies primarily on media accounts, which are often half-baked and half-witted attempts at furthering someone’s agenda, and occasionally will publish information without source or citation – in other words, totally made up or heard by A from B who read it somewhere.

Truth is the first casualty of war but truth itself has become just another version of a narrative. We tend to believe and propagate anything good about someone we like and anything bad about someone we don’t like; objective truth is not really relevant. This is perhaps the greatest failing of today’s advocacy journalism.

Take one recent example – a well known declaration by a prominent individual, debunked but still extant – and we will understand the dangers that abound.

The whole world knows that two years ago President Trump called “some” Nazis and white supremacists “very fine people.” Even Joe Biden referred to this in his campaign announcement. For this, the President was lambasted as a Jew-hater, a dog-whistler, and a closet neo-Nazi himself – all risible, tendentious and false accusations. But of course, he said no such thing, as those who listened to that press conference and read the transcript with an open mind and a clear eye can easily ascertain.

In the wake of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia back in August 2016, Trump said this in response to a “journalist’s” question: “Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group.  But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.  You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures you did.  You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”

     Moments later, he added, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.” 

How did that become “Trump supports Nazis, deems some of them very fine people?”

There were actually four groups in Charlottesville that fateful day: the two major groups represented people advocating for the removal of Confederate statues from the city parks and people protesting against the removal of Confederate statues from the city parks. Those were the two groups who had come to demonstrate and, indeed, there were “very fine people” on both sides. That debate is an especially vexing one, with cogent arguments on both sides that has been addressed here. The removal of General Lee’s and other Confederate statues has, as predicted, engendered the demand for the removal of statues of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and even George Washington and other legendary American heroes. But we can whitewash all of history by erasing the memories of imperfect people because, after all, we are all imperfect. Christopher Columbus, Peter Stuyvesant and even Martin Luther King all had their sins and prejudices that could lead to their public expunction by the self-anointed League of Perfect People which sits in judgment of everyone.

I can see both sides without calling pro-statue people racists and anti-statue people troglodytes.

There were two other groups in Charlottesville that day – the white supremacists and their Antifa counterparts. Both sides came with hatred and violence and both were only tangentially related to the statue demonstrations. Thus, there were many people who supported removing the statues who were not associated with Antifa and many who opposed their removal who were not neo-Nazis.

It is clear that Trump referred to the first two groups as those containing “very fine people on both sides,” and not at all to the Antifa-White Nationalist rioters. So how were his remarks distorted to make it appear as if he was praising Nazis? How, indeed. It is because that suited the narrative of his enemies who assume the worst about him and find confirmation everywhere they wish.

Of course, the President often says colorful, off-color and regrettable things – but honesty dictates criticizing him for what he does say and not mangling what he did not say in order to further an agenda.

Nonetheless, all this reinforces another societal norm: if you have to explain, you have already lost. Leaders are admonished: “Sages, be careful with your words… (Avot 1:11). But that doesn’t give anyone a license to distort, disfigure, or twist someone’s words, propound them in the most negative light possible, or just lie about them.  And there are dozens of such examples among public figures and even in our private lives, where the tendency to believe the worst about people is too accepted and further inquiries about the disparaging information are deemed unwarranted or unnecessary.

That this has become almost a sport further degrades our lives and compels us to adhere ever more closely to the norms of communication mandated by the Torah. But it also confirms the observation of the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho: “Don’t waste your time with explanations: people only hear what they want to hear.”

Dayenu

This is the Dayenu for President Trump, based on the simple realization that there has never been a president as pro-Israel as Trump, and it is almost unthinkable that there will ever be another. Let us count the ways, individual acts for which alone we would sing Dayenu, “it would have been enough:”

  • If Trump had only ceased calling the Palestinians “refugees,” it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only rejected the notion that the fate of the Palestinians is the crux of every conflict in the Middle East, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only halted financial aid to the Palestinian Authority to protest their diabolical “pay to slay” program, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only questioned the wisdom and viability of the two-state illusion, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only devastated ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only canceled the Iran nuclear deal and committed to thwarting an Iranian nuclear bomb, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only acknowledged Israel’s right to settle throughout its ancestral homeland, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only vetoed every anti-Israel resolution tabled at the United Nations, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only withdrawn the United States from the UN Human Rights Commission and from UNESCO for their vicious anti-Israel bias, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only unequivocally supported Israel’s right of self-defense, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only moved the American embassy to Yerushalayim, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s eternal and undivided capital, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only formally recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only routinely denounced the scourge of Jew hatred, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only said – as he did after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre – that “those who are trying to destroy the Jewish people, we will destroy them,” it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only ostracized anti-Israel voices in America, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only warmly befriended Israel’s Prime Minister and its people, it would have been enough.

That is some list, even without reciting the al achat kama v’chama that would marvel at the achievement of each of the above. It is unprecedented in the history of the relationship of the United States and Israel and the president is only two years into his administration. Of course, there have been other presidents who were “pro-Israel,” and others who were less than friendly – but there has never been a President whose support was unambiguous and influenced so many other nations around the world as this President. We should be thankful, and express our gratitude without hesitation.

Gratitude is an especially cherished virtue among Jews and particularly on Pesach when we celebrate our nation’s founding. And even if we limit the real Dayenu to the King of Kings, we do acknowledge that, as King Shlomo put it, “Like streams of water the heart of a king is in G-d’s hands…” (Mishlei 21:1).

Sure, he may tweet a bit too much and much too vividly at times, and one can quibble with a questionable policy here and there, and others can criticize a character weakness or two, but we betray ourselves and our deepest values if we do not express gratitude. Only a Trump, not beholden to the tired thinking of all the old Middle East experts and their evenhandedness, their failures, and their anti-Israel animus scarcely concealed, could have pulled this off –a re-alignment of American foreign policy.

And even if Jews are not one-issue voters, it behooves us to at least acknowledge the contrast with prior presidents – some of whom made promises they did not keep, berated Israel and Jews when new rooms were added on to apartments in Ofra and Kiryat Arba, never acknowledged (or acknowledged grudgingly) Israel’s natural, historic, religious and moral right to its homeland, embraced wholeheartedly the chimeras of “land for peace” and the “two state illusion,” urged restraint and proportionality whenever Jews were attacked and wished to retaliate and pre-empt future attacks, and were obsessed with again partitioning the land of Israel and excising its heartland from Jewish sovereignty.

Whether President Trump is guilty of the crime of obstruction of justice or the virtue and natural right of obstruction of injustice (it seems more like the latter) will be settled according to the new American custom: by the media. As for us, even Jewish Democrats should at least acknowledge these blessings and how the current administration has strengthened Israel – and regardless of the fanciful “deal of the century” coming down the road. We should not only see maror but open our eyes to the wonders of a friendship and alliance that has achieved heretofore unimaginable heights.

Sometimes we are tested with an abundance of good and not the incidence of evil. That too is a gift of Providence for which we should be ever grateful.