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A Pesach Carol

Nobody ever called me Ebenezer, and no one ever accused me of failing to give Bob Cratchet a raise – I have never employed a Bob Cratchet. I do not think I have been particularly miserly for most of my life, but a few nights ago I was visited by 4 ghosts – 4 Pesach ghosts. No, they did not seem particularly scary. None of them gave off eerie moans. No, I did not see a specter like head appearing on my door knocker at home – probably because I don’t have a door knocker. Yet, four ghosts paid me a visit and so tonight I will tell you about them.

The first ghost was the ghost of Pesach past. He looked rather like Charlton Heston did at the end of the movie “The Ten Commandments;” with flowing grey streaked hair, long beard, billowing robes. I actually thought it might be Charlton Heston coming back from the dead to chastise me for my opposition to the NRA until he told me that his name was Moish. “I am here,” he said, “to review with you the years through the lens of Pesachs past.” “Look Moish,” I said, “You don’t have to put on that spooky voice. Just speak to me like a regular person.” “OK, no problem,” said Moish. “Ghost guild rules require that I at least start out with the requisite voice. Let’s take a look at where you’ve been.”

With a wave of his long staff (did I mention he carried a staff?), we were back in the Pesach of the year 1965. Immediately I recognized the room. It was the dining room of our friends, the Bermans. Diana was one of my parents first friends when we moved to Allentown in 1963. By 1965 having seder with them was a yearly tradition. Her younger daughter Helene, had become one of my close friends – the kind of female friend who, later, when we were teens, would clue you in on what the girls were thinking. I really liked the pool table they had in their basement. My dad would conduct the seder at their house. Diana was divorced. And 1965 was the last year I had to do the 4 questions, as my younger brother was just learning how to read Hebrew.

Spring 1965 was an interesting time. The Yankees had lost the World Series the previous October, for the second year in a row. Their manager, Yogi Berra, had been fired, and the manager of World Champion Cardinals, Johnny Keane, was hired in his place. Mickey Mantle was still “The Mick.” But you had to wonder how much longer he could play on legs that were falling apart more each year. That spring we could not know that the long time Yankee dynasty was at an end. The great Yankee players of the 1960’s pretty much all fell apart that year. The Minnesota Twins would go on to win the pennant – go figure!

But the news that dominated adult conversation was Vietnam. President Johnson had been elected by a landslide that past November, but the war in Vietnam had greatly escalated. He ran as the “peace” candidate, depicting Barry Goldwater as a wild eyed maniac who would lead us into nuclear war. That was a real concern in those days. I remember bomb drills in elementary school, where we would have to go into a hall in the middle, supposedly most protected part of the building, and crouch down. I always wondered what good that would do if the building was caving in because of a nuclear explosion, but I never had the guts to ask the teachers. I just did the drill along with everyone else.

The other big conversation going on was the situation with African Americans. The previous summer there had been terrible race riots in Philadelphia, just 50 miles away from us. Although the President was pushing through many bills to ease the problems of African Americans, it did not seem like enough to stem the rising anger. Little did anyone know that the Philadelphia riots of August 1964 were just a glimpse at what would happen throughout the 60’s in places like Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Asbury Park. At Pesach 1965, there were really no hippies – the word would be used in print for the first time in September of that year. The Beatles were still writing love songs and John had not yet met Yoko. We lived in a world in which “The Sound of Music” would win the Academy Award for best picture.

Moish, however, decided not to let me tarry too long in Pesach 1965. With a wave of his staff (did I mention he carried a staff?) we were transported to Pesach 1978. The scene was my in law’s dining room, where almost 30 family members gathered for seder. Audrey’s dad led the seder and some of her young cousins all took turns singing the 4 questions. One young 4 year old cousin, too young to know Hebrew or be able to read, was not happy that other cousins got to sing, so he announced he wanted to sing as well and serenaded us with “I’ve been working on the railroad.”

That spring the Yankees had just reestablished themselves as World Champions, beating the Dodgers the previous October. Led by Reggie Jackson, they were absolutely the team to beat that year. They would win it all again in 1978 and one more time in 1981. In this time just a few years removed from the angst of Vietnam, the Academy Award winner was “The Deer Hunter,” one of many, edgy films that was critical of the war.

The big crisis in those years centered around the price of gas, which drove inflation into double digits. The cost of borrowing money was so great that no one could fathom how the economy could ever move forward and break the cycle of high inflation and high unemployment.

The great hope that spring was in the Middle East, where just the previous fall, Anwar Sadat made his famous, dramatic trip to Jerusalem. Sadat’s grand gesture, which he hoped would lead to a swift, comprehensive peace agreement between the Arab world and Israel, an agreement that would include self determination for the Palestinians, took the world by surprise and created a aura of hope for the intractable conflict. The Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, however, would end up derailing this grand gesture through a constant focus on legal details rather than grand principals. Begin was trying to consolidate the Israeli hold on the West Bank and used this time to accelerate the building of settlements there. While a peace was achieved with Egypt that holds until today, Sadat paid with his life and Begin’s West Bank policy helped to create the boondoggle that clogs any attempt at a peace process today.

I was about to ask Moish to what year we were going next, when I was back in my bedroom. “What a dream!” I thought to myself. Then I saw a tall, thin, African American man walking towards me. “President Obama!” I cried, “What are you doing here?” “I am not President Obama,” he said. “I am the ghost of Pesach present.” “Well why do you look like the President?” “First of all, because he hosted a seder in the White House. Second, what better way to get you to focus on what is happening in the world around you right now?” “Well,” I said. “The Phillies are rebuilding, and it looks like the Cubs might finally break their 118 year curse. “No, I want you to be aware of some other things beside baseball,” he said.

So he waved his staff (did I mention he carried a staff? It seems that all Pesach ghosts carry a staff), and we were looking into my dining room, in my house, with all of our invited guests. The food was plentiful, delicious, and all seemed to be having a great time celebrating our seder. The children of our guests were singing the 4 questions. “It all looks just like it should,” I said. “Yes, but now you need to see this.” And he waved his staff again and there I was staring into another Jewish family’s home. They were distraught. No seder was happening. They were a family in crisis. Their jobs did not pay enough – bills piling high. The family was in counseling. The children were struggling in a substandard school. They had no time or appetite for sitting at a seder. Their questions were not about how this night was different from all other nights, but how to survive. I turned to the ghost and asked, “Why are you showing me this?” But he was gone and suddenly I found myself back in my bedroom. “Wow, what a dream.” I thought.

Then, I saw a rather scary figure – just like out of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. A figure draped in a black shroud, hooded and carrying a staff. This one spoke not a word. “Are you the ghost of Pesach future?” I asked. The figure nodded. “Where are we going now?” The figure just waved his staff and pointed.

It is a seder in my dining room. My kids are there and my youngest granddaughter, Libby, must be about 10 years old. She has just finished singing the 4 questions. She looks up at me and says, “Saba, can I ask you another question?” “Of course,” I say. “I learned in school this past week about how angry people were when I was a baby. I heard there were police shooting black kids. I heard people hated Muslims and Mexicans. Lot’s of people were really upset. The teacher said too many people did nothing to stop people from hating. When you were working in your congregation, what did you do? I cannot tell you my answer because all of a sudden I was back in my bedroom.

“Wow, what a dream,” I thought. I was finally about to try to go back to sleep when I saw another black man, but different this time. He was dressed in a tee shirt and jeans, and had a head full of dreadlocks. “Who are you and how did you get in here?” I asked. “You know me mon,” he said. “I am Marley’s ghost.” “Jacob Marley’s ghost? Aren’t you in the wrong story?” “No mon, I am Bob Marley’s ghost, and I am in the right story.” “How do you fit into this story?” “Because of a song that I wrote, that you need to remember. It is called ‘Redemption Song.’” And then he began to recite the following:

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,

None but ourselves can free our minds.

How long shall they kill our prophets,

While we stand aside and look,

Some say its just a part of it

We’ve got to fulfill the book.

Won’t you help to sing, these songs of freedom?

‘Cause all I ever have:

Redemption songs, Redemption songs, Redemption songs.”

Pesach sameah (Happy Pesach) to everyone!

I begin with this. I, along with many if not most American Jews, understand the need for a just solution for the Palestinian people. I knew in the 1970’s, when the first settlements in the West Ban…

Source: BDS – The Wrong Approach

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I begin with this. I, along with many if not most American Jews, understand the need for a just solution for the Palestinian people. I knew in the 1970’s, when the first settlements in the West Bank were established, that this was a disastrous path for Israel. They were letting right wing religious extremists in a door that should have been closed to them. Let me put this in more a personal light. On my first trip to Israel in the summer of 1971, a teen group tour, we were guests at a Palestinian community center where the guys played a basketball game against their team (we lost); then all of us shared a wonderful meal together. I doubt that experience could be duplicated today. How sad.

So I, like many American rabbis, am critical of the Israeli government, often to the chagrin of some American Jews. I criticize the settlement policy, as well as many aspects of what happens in Israel, such as issues over religious pluralism, the dominance of the orthodox rabbinate, and the treatment of Israeli Arab citizens. We do not shy from looking into ourselves and voicing criticism of Israel. I see it as a religious duty to do this as a people and be honest about how Israel conducts itself.  However, underlying any criticism I might have of the Israeli government is my commitment to the principle of the legitimacy of the State of Israel. I have studied its history. I have been there numerous times including living there for a year. None of my criticism is ever meant to undermine the legitimacy of Israel, but to apply pressure for it to follow the better, more idealistic course I have always believed it should and could.

Now we confront the BDS movement. This calls for the boycott of Israeli products, be they commercial, academic or artistic. It calls for divestment of economic commitments to Israel by entities doing business or investing there, and it calls for sanctions to be levied against Israel, much like the sanctions that were levied in the 1980’s against apartheid South Africa. BDS proponents claim they are just looking for a peaceful way to push Israel onto the same path that people like me desire. It all sounds very good and righteous – until one looks at the details.

First, the BDS movement aligns itself with campus organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine. Having appeared in a program with a representative of that organization, it is clear that this organization is not about justice, but revenge. Most important, this organization does not see Israel as having a legitimate right to exist. It excuses the most violent actions by Hamas by saying an oppressed people have a right to use any means at their disposal, including the targeting of innocents. Even more, SJP (at least the representative I was with) is completely unfamiliar with the history of the region. Her opening statement was “before 1948 Christians, Jews and Muslims all got along fine.” The implication here is that all of the problems began with Israel’s independence declared in 1948. There is no acknowledgment of a continued Jewish presence in Palestine from Roman times until the Zionist movement began in the late 19th century. While Jews were a minority in Palestine, they were there and at the end of the 19th century were even a majority in Jerusalem.

Because of the historical inaccuracies embraced by BDS, they miscast the current situation of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and treatment of the Palestinians as equivalent to apartheid South Africa. The current situation is the result of over 100 years of complex history. It begins with the purchasing of land by the early Zionist movement, often from absentee Arab landowners. The development of these lands had many scenarios ranging from local Arabs and immigrant Jews getting along just fine, to Arab xenophobia not accepting any Jewish presence in land that was once Muslim, to some European Jews acting like colonialists, determined to “civilize” the poor Arabs they found in Palestine. BDS proponents do not acknowledge the Arab massacres of Jews in the 1920’s nor do they acknowledge the virulent anti-Judaism of a significant part of the local population. For example, the Grand Mufti in Jerusalem in the 1930’s aligned himself with and even met with Adolf Hitler, declaring his full support of the annihilation of Jews. BDS proponents see no validity in the UN resolution of November 1947 that recognized there should be two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian. BDS proponents, when talking about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967 never mention this was a war instigated by the actions of Arab nations led by Egypt’s Abdul Gamel Nasser. BDS proponents do not mention that from 1948 to 1967 the West Bank was occupied by another nation, Jordan, as there was no acceptance in those years by Arab states for a two state solution. BDS proponents do not acknowledge that in the aftermath of the 1967 war, Israel offered numerous times to return all territories for a peace agreement.

No, BDS does not acknowledge any of this history. For the truth, as sad and unjust as it might be today for Palestinians, is that the current situation arises from Israel’s success as a nation, overcoming vast economic and sociological difficulties to create a vibrant, dynamic economy, a high standard of living as well as the only state that resembles a democracy in the Middle East. The Israelis succeeded, and tragically, the Palestinians were never given the chance to succeed. Instead, their Arab brethren, in the years after the 1948 war, kept the refugees in displacement camps – an atmosphere calculated to incubate hatred not just of Israel, but of Jews.

And that – hatred of Jews – is what BDS proponents seldom acknowledge as part of the ongoing problem. Yes Israel is far from a perfect actor in this. The building of settlements and the resulting oppression of Palestinians is just plain wrong. But it is not the result of the colonialism or racism that created apartheid in South Africa. Rather, it is the result of a struggle between two peoples, each pushing their own national liberation movement. Israel won, the Palestinians lost. As awful as the consequences might be for many Palestinians, this is NOT the same as what created apartheid. Rather, it is closer to the history of our country, the United States, and its treatment of Native Americans – with one huge difference, however. There has been a continuous presence (albeit a minority) of Jews in Palestine, while there were no Europeans living in the Americas before Columbus.

The point really is that no one questions the legitimacy of the United States existence. We are critical of its history, and of the consequences of that history even today. It is equally legitimate to question the history and actions of Israel. No nation is perfect in its actions. But it is NOT right to question the legitimacy of Israel’s very existence.

The next problem with the BDS movement is its connection to anti-Semitism. True, most of those drawn into the movement are not or do not consider themselves to be anti-Semitic. However, it quickly slides into anti-Semitism through its attempt to align other, very legitimate social justice movements to its cause. For example, BDS proponents have aligned with Black Lives Matter and declared that no Jew who supports the existence of Israel should be allowed to ally with Black Lives Matter. They then draw the comparison to South African apartheid, or even more of an outrage, to the struggle of African Americans in the United States. Conflating the problems of the Palestinians with the struggles of African Americans is a disservice to both. The histories of each struggle are very different and have very different origins. One is the result of conflicting national movements. The other derives from the history of American slavery and the resulting racism. Conflating these two struggles creates anti-Semitism among those supporting Black Lives Matter.

One needs to look at the recent experiences of Rabbi Susan Talve in St. Louis. Rabbi Talve founded and built her congregation based on principles of social justice. She has spent her career supporting Israel, BUT being very critical of its polices and actions vis a vis the Palestinians. As the events in Ferguson unfolded, she protested with African Americans, supporting Black Lives Matter. Some folks in that movement, influenced by organizations aligned with BDS, took a stand that someone who supported the mere existence of Israel could not support Black Lives Matter. They judged it to be hypocritical, and looked to drive Rabbi Talve out. For the full story click here: http://forward.com/news/327466/can-jews-back-black-lives-matter-and-be-pro-israel/

According to this reasoning, any Jew who believes Israel has a right to exist cannot truly support movements in this country like Black Lives Matter. That becomes anti-Semitic. This point is reinforced by what is happening to Jewish students on campuses around the country. One example is that of a Jewish student at UCLA who was at first disqualified from being on student government because her being Jewish was seen as a “conflict of interest.” Is there any other religion someone can have that is considered a “conflict of interest?” For the full account read this http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/us/ucla-student-government-openly-says-student-shouldnt-serve-because-shes-jewish   There are, unfortunately, a growing number of similar examples, in which Jewish students are singled out on the assumption they are pro-Israel – which frankly should not be an excuse anyway. Pro-Israel has a wide range of definitions, which do not necessarily include blanked support of all Israeli government policies.

BDS takes its aim at exactly the wrong elements. They oppose Israeli artists, musicians and academics as propaganda tools of the Israeli government. They oppose Israeli businesses as well as those American and international corporations that wish to invest in Israel, declaring them as exploitative of Palestinians. When artists, musicians, academics, and businesses are targeted, the very folks who are the natural allies in creating a different reality between Israel and Palestine become alienated. Rather, they need to be enlisted. The cooperation of business is necessary in order to create economic opportunities for Palestinians to lift themselves out of an awful situation. The only way to create justice in Israel and Palestine is by creating a non-violent alliance between Israelis and Palestinians who are dedicated to a just solution. Rather than trying to create positive connections between groups, those supporting BDS, willingly or unwillingly, are just driving more wedges between the people of the region, thus creating more bitterness and divisions.

The creation of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a long, hard process. It has started and stalled numerous times over the century since the beginning of the Zionist movement. The only way to start a process that has any hope of success is for those who care about Israel and Palestine to shut up and just listen to each other’s narratives – not always to agree but to learn to understand the background and concerns of each other. By focusing on Israel as the villain, and by ignoring Arab anti-Semitism, those pushing BDS simply add to the poison already in the atmosphere.

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All of us have moments of fear. It is natural. It is human. I believe that one of the measures of our humanity is how we manage our fear. How far do we let it drive us? How much do we allow it to determine our life decisions? How does it affect our attitudes towards others? Fear can be a good thing. It can push us to actions that result in safety. Fear for loved ones can push us to acts of loving sacrifice. But the darkest side of fear pushes us to hatred, to denigration, even to acts of oppression. Excess fear creates darkness.

A couple of days ago I posted a piece in which I declared a blackout on writing or discussing a certain politician. Here is that link: https://thejewishobserver.com/2015/12/08/lets-shut-this-down-now/ This blog is not about him. It is about some of the reaction to the posting, in particular by those who support his policies regarding Muslims, immigration, and the Syrian refugees. This is about the fear they express and how it is driving a conversation that has turned very ugly. And yes, it is also about those who are against the policy suggestions aimed at Muslims, those who wish to welcome refugees, but use insulting, denigrating language to dismiss the fears of the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee crowd. We need to speak to each other reasonably, without name calling, without accusations of being unpatriotic, or stupid, or racist. We might believe any of those things in our hearts. Maybe we are right. Maybe we are wrong. But injecting pejoratives into the conversation is counter productive. So what I will speak about is fear and what it can force us to do.

Fear forces us to make generalizations; to make value judgments on people because of ethnicity, race or religion. As a result of African American attempts to get civil and political equality, white fear led to laws of segregation, attempts to keep blacks from voting, and perpetrated mythologies of black intellectual inferiority. On an even more obscene level, it spread myths about black desires – such as wanting to rape white women. So African Americans were categorized as non intellectual, but great athletes (and entertainers) who needed to be kept at a distance from white mainstream society. The suffering of blacks to just be able to order a soda at the same counter as whites is a sad commentary of American society.

Fear of Jews (most obviously in Germany/Europe but also to a certain extant in the US as well) cast Jews as money grubbers who wished to control society/government through their wealth. Aspersions such as the blood libel (Jews kill gentile children and use their blood to bake Passover matzah) have had legs for centuries. Father Coughlan was quite public in the 1930’s with his outright hatred for Jews in this country. Many shared his feelings. As a result, there was little support for admitting Jewish refugees from German or Europe leading up to World War II. A sad example is the story of the SS St. Louis, a boat filled with Jewish refugees who were refused safe harbor in 1939 in either Cuba or the United States. The boat returned to Europe and most of the Jews on board died in the Holocaust.

Fear in each of these historical examples also shapes the responses of the victims. Many, led by brave and insightful leaders, fight for equal rights. That is how history and attitudes can change. We need visionary leaders who point a way past fear and the resulting bigotry. But, and this is important, another reaction within the oppressed groups, is submission – the sad acceptance of their fate and position. In Germany during the 1930’s, Jews were so in shock that the country in which they had assimilated and succeeded was rejecting them. Fear often kept them from protesting. In our country, African American communities have been filled with tensions regarding how much to protest versus how much to just go along in the name of safety. Talk to African Americans today, and many fear the police. Fear can drive us in multiple directions.

Now we are dealing with a new, different fear: Muslims. It is different because there is a tangible reason for our fear. Muslims have perpetrated devastating terrorist attacks in this country and Europe. ISIS is an expression of a twisted variety of Islam that perpetrates a range of horrors. In a world in which images are transmitted instantaneously, the fear generated by these events goes viral within minutes of an event. Let me be blunt with my liberal friends. By refusing to acknowledge these realities, by pretending there is no connection to Islam, you are creating a fear in conservatives that you are too dense to appreciate the threat. Let me be equally blunt with my conservative friends. By refusing to see there are radical elements that have and still do come into play in ALL religions, not just Islam, you are allowing your fear to descend into bigotry. Everyone needs to see, for example, that the shootings at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, and the shootings in San Bernadino are both terrorist acts. Both have connections to religion. Conservatives will say the Colorado Springs shooter was mentally ill. I would argue that an American born Muslim with a good job who embraces ISIS and kills 14 people is also mentally ill.

Fear of Muslims drives us to consider stopping all Muslims from entering our country. Fear of Muslims drives us to see certain politicians as “truth tellers” instead of ignorant egotists. Fear of Muslims drives us to applaud suggestions like shutting down mosques, or creating a database of Muslims in America. Fear of Muslims pushes us to consider steps that compromise our basic liberties in the name of security. Fear of Muslims prevents us from being the America most of us would like to be.

Fear affects the American Muslim community as well. Imam Nidal Alsayyed of Beaumont, Texas did an interview with his local TV station in which he said he understood why some politicians want the limits on immigration. He did not criticize proposals aimed specifically at Muslims and he said Muslims need to demonstrate they are with their fellow Americans. I would say that American Muslims demonstrate their commitment to the United States all of the time. Muslims serve in our armed forces, contribute to all aspects of American life. The previous U. S. attorney for our region told me of the cooperation and the tips she received from the Muslim community while investigating potential terrorist threats. Surely Imam Alsayyed knows these things. Why would he feel the need passively endorse anti-Muslim policies put forth by politicians like Donald Trump? Well, Beaumont is a small town near the Louisiana border. It is in one of the least tolerant states, in the least tolerant areas of our country. I would speculate that he is experiencing the same fear that all minorities under suspicion experience. I am saddened if he feels intimidated to endorse actions that would be detrimental and insulting to his community. As I said, we are too motivated by fear and not enough by principle, or by morality.

It is significant we are in the middle of Chanukah, the festival that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the religious oppression of the Greek-Assyrians. It is not significant because of the military victory, which is certainly an expression of bravery and belief in the principle of religious freedom. Rather, the choice of the rabbis of the Talmud to emphasize the miracle of the oil over the military victory is significant. They chose to highlight the creation and furtherance of light over violence. What is that light? Psalm 97 states, Or zarua latzaddik ul’yishrei lev simchah. “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright of heart.” Perhaps the light is the light produced by righteousness, a light that triumphs over the darkness of fear, and that lifts the feeling of gladness in our hearts. May we be inspired to spread that light, giving us the strength to turn away from the darkest side of fear.

 

 

 

 

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I am not given to rants, especially about political candidates. But, as Popeye once said, “That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more!” So I hereby declare a “Trumpout,” – a Donald Trump blackout. After this blog post I will no longer write about Trump, follow Trump, or speak about Trump. He is, to quote Mr. Wonderful from “Shark Tank,” dead to me. I urge all of you to share this post and to do the same.

Folks, the man is playing us for suckers as we mindlessly participate in his cruel reality show. If he is serious about what he says (you can look up the litany of ridiculous statements/positions), then he is the most dangerous politician in America since George Wallace ran for President. If he is not, if he is just playing a huge mind game with the American people – then shame on us for stupidly playing along.

I have yet to meet a Republican who embraces this man in any way. The only positive comment I heard, and this was at the end of the summer before the latest foul statements, was an admiration for his honesty. This person did not endorse him or take him seriously, just liked his bluntness. I have no idea how that person feels now. All of my Republican friends are pretty much horrified by everything this man says.

Therefore, I call upon everyone to stop sharing posts about Trump, writing about Trump, and talking about Trump. We need to collectively reduce this man’s exposure on all media, but perhaps we can start with social media. If you have to refer to him in a conversation, then just drop the “T” from his last name – for that describes what he is best.

 

I say it directly, without hesitation, with a slight bit of fear, which I am determined to overcome. Let the Syrian refugees come to America. Let them find the safety, the succor, that they cannot possibly receive in any other country. No, we cannot take them all, but we should at least follow the lead of Germany – which is ironic given the comparisons floating around between the plight of the Syrian refugees and the Jewish refugees of the late 1930’s.

I say this without condemnation of most of those who argue we should not let them in. I think I understand those feelings. They are expressed (by most I think) not out of hatred, but out of concern for the impact on our country. Rather than condemn the motives of those who think differently than I do, I would rather address their concerns directly, out of simple respect for my fellow Americans. And then I would hope that at least some might see a path to changing their minds.

I think those we classify as “conservative” object to admitting the Syrian refugees because of two main concerns: cost to our society and safety. The typical response to conservatives is to start with our moral obligation. We are a land of promise, of opportunity to those facing oppression around the world. But our history of welcoming those in need of a safe haven is rather checkered. Typical is the refusal of the United States to open its doors to Jewish refugees from the Nazi oppression of the late 1930’s. Polls from that time being circulated on FaceBook show how 2 thirds of Americans opposed the admittance of Jews. One can ask why? The answers are multiple. For some there was concern about competition for jobs, which were scarce during the Depression, by these new immigrants. For some there was the fear of admitting Communists in an era that feared Communism. For others it was anti-Semitism pure and simple. I suspect that the current opposition to admitting Syrian refugees contains similar elements of concern, although we would substitute “Islamic terrorist” for “Communist” and Muslim for Jew.

How can we, the United States, morally refuse haven to Syrian refugees given the shame of our past failures? This is a powerful argument. In a perfect world it would be sufficient. But it is not. Many Americans, of varying backgrounds, worry about the costs we might have to bear and fear the admittance of potential terrorists.

I recently attended a meeting of area clergy with a representative of the Florida Department of Refugee services. I learned a lot. First, government programs already exist to assist with the costs of getting refugees settled and integrated safely into our society. These outline the basic needs that must be provided. Some funds are available, but often it is the religious community – churches and synagogues – that provide many of the resources. These range from furniture and accessories for the home, to entry level jobs for the refugees, to tutoring in English for the families. Refugee services, at least in Florida and I suspect around the country, is a true partnership between government and the faith community.

Some argue that we cannot afford any more “official” resources to admit more refugees. I would argue that the waste in our government, especially in the department of defense, contains enough wasted dollars to more than cover the costs of admitting significant numbers of refugees. I think about the situation in Israel during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Despite being overburdened with defense needs, despite being economically almost a third world country, Israel had the will to accept hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants, despite the costs to their society. They took in Jews from everywhere – Europe, Arab countries, Africa – and of all colors. The process was often not pretty, but somehow it worked. I am NOT drawing a political equivalence between the United States accepting Syrians and Israel accepting Jewish immigrants, just pointing out that political will can overcome economic limitations to achieve a good end.

I also learned who these refugees are. Mostly, they are middle class people: small business owners, professionals, skilled workers, and lower end white collar workers, whose lives are in danger because of either social, religious or political oppression. They are trying to get their families to a safer place. Very likely they will, after learning English and getting settled, start businesses, fill needed positions and become contributors to our country – like so many immigrants before them. Their current profile does remind me very much of the makeup of German Jewish immigrants of the ‘30’s and 40’s.

Perhaps most important, I learned how difficult it is for a person to even be granted “refugee” status.  It takes months, as they cannot just state a story that is automatically accepted. Their situation is verified by government authorities. The refugees’ backgrounds are checked. They are allowed entrance only after this vetting process. It is hard to imagine how this process could be more rigorous no matter the source of the refugees.

So what to make of the current call by many so called conservatives for no admittance without more vetting? I say “so called conservatives” because the conservatism of today is not the one I knew growing up. I had always understood conservatism (thanks to folks like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater) as being primarily concerned with individual liberty. Government programs came under scrutiny because of the fear of them infringing upon individual liberty. This kind of conservatism is a necessary counter balance to the liberal tendency to try and solve all problems through federal programs.

The new conservatism seems to be an ideology that operates out of fear, especially fear of change and fear of those who are in some way different. Today’s conservatives fear gays (compare that to Goldwater), fear Muslims, fear immigrants, and cast these fears as some kind of personal threat. Worse are so called conservative politicians who traffic in fear in order to motivate a political base. I understand fear. We all have fears – I certainly do. However, not to admit Syrian refugees because of fear of terrorism is to give into fear in the very worst way.

Why?

First, it compromises the ideological aspirations of our country. Second, it allows the terrorists to win, as we have been scared into becoming the worst version of ourselves instead of the best by being xenophobic instead of embracing. Terrorists will never be able to defeat our country through violence or military action. They will defeat us by forcing us to adopt values that are antithetical to the American dream.

Finally, even if there is the risk of a terrorist somehow sneaking into the country through the process of admitting refugees, and even if it results in a terrorist act, we cannot let that frighten us out of our way of life. I firmly believe that the best way to thumb our noses at terrorists is to cling to the values we hold dear – that make America different, exceptional. So despite the fear terrorism causes – let the refugees in. We are Americans! Be proud and do what is right!

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC        (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

 

“The mindset that Jews surrendered with their guns is far more important than the hardware turned over: They surrendered the demonstrated intention at all costs, to desist being deprived of liberty” Dr. Keith Ablow, Fox News commentator

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On April 1, 1933, the Nazi party called for a boycott of all Jewish owned businesses in Germany. Richard Stern, a Jew, as well as a decorated German veteran from World War I, stood in the doorway of his bedding store, wearing his Iron Cross, and passing out leaflets he had printed condemning the actions of the ruling Nazi party. He was arrested. Fortunately he had friends at the police headquarters who had him released. Richard Stern was my father’s uncle, but in reality his father – his mother’s brother and the man who raised him as his parents were divorced. For all intents and purposes, Richard Stern was my grandfather, a genuine hero who although passing in 1967, inspires me to this very day.

Like most German Jews Richard Stern could not believe that the country in which Jews had lived, prospered and assimilated, would actually become crazy enough to carry out the radical ideas expressed by Hitler and the Nazi party. He had faith in the democratic system of Germany. The Jewish success story in Germany was exceeded only by the Jewish success story in America. He was active in the Social Democratic party, a mainstream party. He had faith that his friends and neighbors, with whom he fought alongside in World War I, would reject the crazy ideology that would eventually lead to the slaughter of 6 million Jews and another 6 million people who the Nazis deemed unfit to live.

The rise of the Nazis began through the German electoral system. They reached the peak of their electoral success in July 1932 when they won 37% of the vote. But Hitler refused to form a governing coalition with any other German political party. So the President of Germany, Paul von Hindenberg, appointed Franz von Papen as chancellor. As Papen could not govern without sufficient support in the Reichstag, a new election was called for November 1932. Support for the Nazi party actually decreased to 33%. Nevertheless, Hitler convinced Hindenberg to appoint him as chancellor. The result was devastating.

Hitler engineered new elections called for March 5, 1933. With Hitler as the head of the government, the Nazi storm troopers had free reign to attack and oppress their political opposition. Just 6 days before the election, the German parliamentary building, the Reichstag, was burned down. Hitler used that to gain special dictatorial powers and further suppressed the voting support of opposition parties. Yet the Nazis still did not win a majority, polling 44 % in the March 5, 1933 elections.

In addition, the initial action against the Jews; the boycott of Jewish businesses, was not very successful. Germans still bought from their Jewish friends and neighbors. No, the real oppression came after a steady campaign by the Nazis to demonize anyone who disagreed with the Fuhrer, who opposed the Nazi party in any way. Indeed, another relative of mine, Emil Romberg of Essen, Germany, was a leader of the Social Democratic party and was beaten to death by the Nazis. So by November 1933 it was no surprise that the Nazis won every seat in those Reichstag elections.

The reign of terror had truly begun.

In September 1935 the Nuremberg laws were passed, institutionalizing a vast array of anti Jewish practices. The Jewish community was stunned. Some realized the need to leave Germany. My mother’s family was able to immigrate to America in 1936. My father, his mother, and Uncle Richard wanted to go to Palestine, but could not gain permission to enter. Most German Jews, however, still clung to the belief that the craziness of the Nazis was a passing phase. Most could not understand how their homeland, the country they loved and to which they dedicated their loyalty, could see them as criminals, as undesirables.

We can, however, learn how this happened. Just visit the museum, “A Topography of Terror” in Berlin. It gives in full detail, with unvarnished honesty, how the Nazis succeeded at convincing a populace to follow the Nazis. Hitler promised to restore the “real Germany,” the one of power and status. He promised to rid Germany of unwanted alien elements. He spoke of true German values and staged massive, extremely effective demonstrations to demonstrate his popularity. He condemned all opposition as disloyal, not truly “German.” By the time of Krystalnacht in 1938, it was a country gone insane. By the way, in this analysis of the success of the Nazi rise to power, guns are not mentioned at all.

The ownership of guns, you see, is pretty much an afterthought in understanding the success of the Nazis in 1930’s Germany. There can be little effective resistance to the brainwashing effects of propaganda when the value of “patriotism” is used to silence political opposition and the shut down the free press. The Nazis did not prevent opposition because they had more guns, but because they controlled the dissemination of information. They controlled the media of the day.

Does any of this sound a bit familiar? I would argue that the ideas being perpetrated by the hard right, the xenophobia about Mexicans and Muslims, the chest thumping patriotism, are far more likely to lead us down the road to Nazism than any proposed or even yet to be proposed gun law. And I say that as someone who is not against responsible citizens owning guns.

Talking about the Holocaust in terms of gun issues is a gross distortion of history. Even worse, it dishonors the memories of those who suffered that tragedy, through the implication that somehow the victims were to blame, that somehow they could have done more than try to survive the confusing times in which they found themselves; that they could and should have been examples of 21st century radical right wing ideology instead of just innocent German Jewish citizens. And, it dishonors the memory of those Jews, who, like my Uncle Richard Stern, did stand up and protest. Enough of the idiotic comparisons that tramples on the dignity of the victims. Enough of rewriting history to suit your political agenda.

So to you, Ben Carson, Keith Ablow and Fox News – just shut up.

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