Tree of Life and Place of Death

One of the most inspirational moments for me in the Sabbath morning worship service occurs when we return the Torah scroll that has been read from to the ark, a special cupboard where the scrolls are kept. What I am referring to more specifically is the beautiful liturgical song, sung before the Torah ark is closed which reads in Hebrew:

etz chayyim hi la-machizikim bah v’tomkhekha m’ushar.

D’rakheha darkhei no’am v’kol n’tivoteha shalom.

Hashivenu Adonai elekha v’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k’kedem.

Translation below:

“It is a tree of life for those who grasp it and all who uphold it are blessed. Its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. Help us turn to you, and we shall return. Renew our lives as in days of old.”

The “it” in the song refers to the contents of the Torah which contains the Pentateuch, i.e., the first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy, wisdom to live by.

It is likely that on October 27, 2018 the bullets that murdered the group of eleven innocent Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh did their deadly work either before or after the above song was joyously sung by the victims. In an instant joy was turned into tragedy. Happy family and societal relationships turned into irreversible loss and mourning. Obscenity!

In the reporting of this horrible crime by the media it was mentioned that police investigators found in Robert Bowers’ on-line postings rabidly antisemitic statements. He purportedly voiced the wish that all Jews be killed.

That antisemitism has been around for 20 centuries is nothing new, of course. But from being an antisemite to murdering innocent human beings is a major step and I cannot help but wonder what the trigger to take that step may have been.

Discussions followed this terrible act as to what extent Trump’s rude and aggressive rhetoric contributed to Bowers’ decision to kill Jews. Some of these voices insisted that Trump’s behavior had absolutely nothing to do with it while others pointed to the seemingly increased number of antisemitic incidents in America and overseas since Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 and his bullyish rhetoric ever since then.

No one in the media discussions, as far as I know, found any connection between several of Bowers’ Internet-posted hateful references to HIAS, the American Jewish organization whose name is the acronym for “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society” and Trump’s hateful anti-immigrant abusive language.

 


 

For me the word “Immigrant” in the name HIAS immediately rang a bell. Had not Trump, especially during several weeks preceding the midterm elections, daily vituperated against the terrible dangers of the so-called caravan of south American refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who were marching toward our southern border with Mexico with the intention of “invading” us? This is not all. Again and again Trump emphasized the dangerous make up of this caravan containing murderers, thieves and rapists, i.e., the very lowest societal elements of these Latin-American countries. By sending thousands of soldiers in battle gear to our southern border in order to “defend” the country, he has tried to instill fear in us from these unwanted would be immigrants – clearly a Trump-stunt to turn the mid-term election in favor of the Republican Party and himself, the great white savior. I feel relieved that he did not succeed.

A parenthesis: Undoubtedly, many of our fellow Americans are misled about the immigration fear. A very quick calculation shows how ridiculous this incitement of fear really is. The US population stands at this time somewhere around 340 million people. The alleged caravan consisting of people who are fleeing for their lives – some 7,000 people, mostly women and children – amount to 0.002 % of our population. And so an inundation of the US by these refugees is laughably unlikely.

According to the FBI, an estimated 17,250 murders took place in the US in 2016, committed by our own people – Americans. Statistics show that the US saw a 118% increase in its immigrant population (documented and undocumented) from 1980 through 2016 according to the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice. Yet during this same period, the rate of violent crime – homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults – fell by 36% to about 386 incidents per 100,000 residents. This shows that the violent crime during this period actually declined while the immigration rate rose.

I have strayed from the heartbreaking murder in Pittsburgh and I apologize.

What I suggest is that it is indeed very probable that Trump’s politically oriented abusive anti-immigrant hate is racism which surfaces every time he leaves the teleprompter and speaks from his heart, and that these repeated explosions of loathing did have a significant influence on Bowers’ decision to massacre the Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bowers’ mentions of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, points in that direction.

Words have consequences!

Le Chambon: A Potential Teaching from the Past

Surfing the Net the other day Tim, my son, ran into the Travel website of the BBC which to his surprise contained an article on the little town of Le Chambon in the Cevennes mountains of south central France where my family spent five years. The article whose address I’ll share with you at the end of this blog is worth your reading because it is enlightening with regard to the immigrant crisis that we have been living with in this country for months under Mr. Trump’s regime.

While I must have shared with our congregation Beth Israel, here in Asheville, some of the highlights from our five year long adventure there, let me share some of this with you here in trying to whet your appetite for purchasing the new book about Le Chambon or reading the older classic one that tells the story best. Here are the authors and titles I am referring to, respectively: Peter Grose, A Good Place to Hide and Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.

The BBC Travel article by Anita Isalska (August 7, 2018) reports about a small museum recently built in Le Chambon, commemorating the town population’s heroic anti-Nazi non-violent resistance during WW II. Naturally, I was thrilled to see this article, having known the Chambon Christian heroes personally, most of whom are no longer among the living.

The Chambon story deserves to be read because of the unprecedented migrations nowadays of people fleeing their own countries in huge waves in search of safe havens from deadly dangers and horrible living conditions. While a good many relatively small countries in Europe initially opened their doors to refugees, the huge influx of these people on the run and their human needs turned out to be overwhelming and necessitated reconsideration. The enormity of the modern migration problems impacting the globe will only be solved by joint international action. Whether such action will be agreed and acted upon remains, of course, a big question.

The US shameful response to refugees from Latin America is familiar to us Americans. Trump’s border cruelty of separating children from their parents in order to discourage illegal immigration and force our financing of “his southern border wall” construction, is a moral outrage. While the disgraceful children-parent separation was eventually canceled under pressure from the population after having caused terrible suffering to thousands of parents and children, the act itself and the following incompetent and to this day only partial reunification of families remains a test of our national character. The damage was done and probably became irreversible to all these innocent folks. Shame on us who did not stand up united as a nation early enough to prevent this president’s ordered sham action!

And this is precisely where the lesson from Le Chambon confronts us. When during WW II refugees in large numbers from Germany and Nazi occupied countries arrived in Le Chambon, the small town of approximately 3,000 people offered these Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and death, food, clothing and shelter in terms of a hiding place. By so doing, the Chambonais jeopardized their own lives. How so? Because they themselves lived under Nazi occupation both under the Vichy German puppet government, as well as under later direct German rule. There were German soldiers and para-military units in and around Le Chambon when under their very noses Jews lived in hiding.

The heroic behavior by the Chambonais, primarily members of their local church affiliated with the Eglise Reformee de France (Reformed Church of France), as well as a few Roman Catholic households and a group called Darbistes (named after a British missionary by name of Darby), saved approximately 3,500 Jewish lives on the run from Hitler.

The story of these heroic very humble women and men deserves to be remembered, retold, celebrated and learned from. This is the story of persecuted people under pressure, helping and saving the lives of women, men and children even more vulnerable than they.

It is shameful that we, a country of immigrants who live in a safe country of vast unpopulated expanses behave so shamefully.

I often wonder whether Mr. Trump, a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian, ever read the Bible and its mandate to welcome the stranger. I often wonder whether Mr. Trump ever read the US Constitution and its Amendments. I wonder whether Mr. Trump understands the meaning of the torch in the hands of the Statue of Liberty in the New York harbor.

And I wonder whether he will get away with it all. A test of our national character!

Finally, please go to http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20180806-a-french-village-committed-to-deception.

The Danger of Selective Amnesia

THE FACTS

Shootings of children and teachers in our schools, an institution that for us should be holier and safer than any religious sanctuary. The irresponsibility of inadequate firearm legislation and execution on the part of our government, our people, as also that of the NRA (National Rifle Association).

The recent and ongoing scandal of our government’s separation of children from their parents at the US southern border, as a warning to refugees from Latin America and a means to stem illegal immigration from the south. The immorality of the US president, his government and the Attorney General in legislating such breaking up of families.

The scandal of our people’s quick forgetfulness that has followed all these outrageous acts perpetrated by the incompetent and immoral elected and appointed members of our government.

THE MANTRA

Our government: “a government of the People, by the People and for the People.”

So, where is the People?



I REMEMBER!

Also you, the reader, may remember that the Nazi legislation, often designated as the Nürnberg Laws or Nürnberger Gesetze, was passed in September 1935 after Hitler’s ascendancy to the German chancellorship. This “Law for the protection of German Blood and German Honor” prohibited marriages and extra-marital intercourse between Jews and Germans. This law institutionalized many of the racial theories present in Nazi ideology. The laws excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship and rendered the Jews outlaws, people without protection or appeal to an official higher power.

The Nürnberg Laws resulted in arrests and the forced separation of Jewish spouses from their German Aryan counterparts. As far as I could ascertain, it was primarily Jewish husbands that were arrested and threatened with deportation to concentration camps.

The Aryan wives of these Jewish husbands did not take this lying down. They protested by means of letters sent to the German Ministry of the Interior and the various police organisms taking part in the arrests. As could be expected, this led nowhere. Were these protests received by the responsible persons, let alone read? In all probability not.

And so the women went on the offensive and staged an extended protest demonstration on the Rosenstrasse (Street of Roses) # 2-4 in Berlin. Why at this particular location? Because there, in a Jewish community building, 2,000 Jewish men, married to non-Jewish partners and the male children of these so-called mixed marriages, designated as Mischlinge (“mixed [race] persons”), were held.

The fear among the wives was that the Nazis would deport their loved ones to Auschwitz and similar killing centers. Only shortly before the womens’ protests, the German police had in fact rounded up 10,000 Jews in Berlin and sent them to Auschwitz! The women’s demonstrations taking place in bitter cold weather between February 27 and March 6, 1943, tell us something about the courage, the determination and the perseverance of these women.

The women involved were not aware that at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 – the conference that had decided on the Final Solution of the so-called Jewish Problem by extermination of the Jewish population – action with regard to the Jewish partners of mixed marriages was postponed until German victory in WW II.

German plans for the Jewish spouses and their “mixed birth” children were to send them into detention and work camps in Germany but not to extermination camps for fear of causing significant unrest among the German population during the war. These temporarily “exempted Jews,” roughly 2,000 in number, were now incarcerated in the Rosenstrasse building, waiting, uncertain of their fate. So also their non-Jewish spouses waited outside, freezing and with fear and trembling, but determined to stay on.

As the women continued their protest vigil outside the building, GESTAPO officials reviewed the identity documents of the internees inside. The first “mixed marriage” Jews were released on March 1. In the end the police deported only 25 of these 2,000 prisoners to concentration camps.

The released Jewish prisoners from the Rosenstrasse were watched, sent to work camps within Germany but otherwise, with a few exceptions, spared official murder.

Never before had a demonstration in favor of Jews taken place in Germany under the Hitler regime! The courage of these women who for the first time stood face-to-face with Nazi police in the hope that by doing so their action would bring about their Jewish husbands’ release is truly admirable. And while according to some reports the number of protesting women amounted to thousands – a well meant exaggeration – the courage of these 200 or so women is remarkable and teaches us a lesson.

The lesson taught is this: protesting for a day or two, even in large numbers, will not succeed bringing about change. Protests have to be prolonged in time and scope until they bring about serious societal disturbance. Protests limited to single localities such as local school walkouts for a day or two will not succeed. Organization is needed to show action in mass solidarity.

The multiple shootings in our schools brought about local protest marches and prayer meetings. With a few months of relief from these criminal acts, the tragedies seemed to have receded into the past. Not, of course, for the families affected but for us bystanders. The separation of children caused nationwide outcries of protest, even from the Republican side. Did it bring about result? The answer is YES. President Trump who initiated this shameful procedure backpedaled and called a halt to it.

As of this writing, alas, some 2,000 children still have not been reunited with their parents. Some of them probably never will, because of incompetence and lack of caring of the authorities involved. Imagine the resulting tragedies!

Let our united voices in protest be clearly heard until remedial action is taken.

Crossing a Red Line?

I am surprised that our media have either not caught (impossible!) this recent news or have been reluctant for one reason or another to report the rather terrifying words spoken by Mr. Trump at the VFW Annual Convention in Kansas City, July 25, 2018.

Here is what he said:

“Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news…What you are seeing is not what’s happening.”

It seems to me unbelievable that a president of the US with cameras pointed at him, broadcasting his words to and beyond our own country would be making a statement such as this impugning our free press, one of the very pillars upon the freedom of our country rests.

It might just be worthwhile to take a second look at Trump’s statement and to interpret what the man really meant. As I understand his words, he advises his audience in front of him not to believe what they see or hear unless the news originates from and is being transmitted by him and/or his followers, i.e., the Fox News organization. News that does not have his imprimatur is fake news, not to be believed.

One of my intents for this blog is to compare situations and events from pre-Nazi and Nazi times in Europe as I remember them, to what we are living now in the US. In past blogs I brought to you a few such scary comparisons and here is yet another one that keeps me up at night.

One of the very first Nazi edicts that hit us Jews almost immediately after German occupation: all radios were to be handed over to the administration of the occupation forces, i.e., the GESTAPO. Adolf Hitler prevented us from knowing what was being broadcast in Germany and in the rest of the European countries, usurping to himself and himself alone the judgment of what is true and false and what should be and should not be known to us and, for that matter, the German people. Hitler alone knew the truth. Everyone else who doubted him and his pronouncements was a liar! It follows, of course, that everything being written and broadcast by the country’s non-Nazi media was fake news not to be believed. Before long the non-Nazi media in Germany were totally eliminated and their owners/sponsors sent to concentration camps where many of them perished.

So also Trump’s words are words of a would-be dictator who reserves for himself the ultimate right of knowing what is true or falsehood, what should be made known and what should not. The logical consequence of such a megalomaniac attitude, unless rigorously fought and successfully prevented by the country’s people, becomes rule by dictatorship – a police state.

This said, it seems to me that president Trump’s plan is to undo the legitimacy of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, the Freedom of Speech and of the Press, a key element that ensures that our system of checks and balances functions properly.

Much historical material could be quoted here to remind us of the crucially important role a free press plays in maintaining a democratic society. In discussing the shocking words of Trump with my wife Gail, she reminded me of the salient words of president Thomas Jefferson on the subject. He writes:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first objects should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” – Thomas Jefferson to Carrington. 1787. ME 6:57

Elsewhere, Jefferson wrote:

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.” – Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette. 1823. ME 15:491

Seen against the background of this and other writings by the founders of our country, president Trump’s insulting words characterizing the press as producing “crap” and “fake news” should be censured in the most serious of words and actions.

This is a slanderous statement and attack by the president of a democratic country on the people who, often risking their very lives, report the truth honestly and to the best of their ability. That this truth reporting often contradicts words streaming from the White House these days is, of course, inevitable and that the president would wish to have it otherwise, is not to be doubted.

A free press, being the sine qua non for the existence of a free democratic society, must be defended, supported and praised. President Trump, by insulting our still free press has, in my opinion, crossed a red line and should be held responsible for his totally uncalled for, disloyal and downright treacherous words.

The death of Icarus

How foolish can the president’s wife be? Very foolish indeed, it seems, unless what recently was reported and I witnessed on TV is totally misunderstood by me. On her trip to “inspect” a recently government created detention camp for children separated from their undocumented refugee parents and would be immigrants, Melania Trump wore a jacket with the inscription on the back, “I really don’t care. Do U?” Is this a statement suggesting that she does not care what reporters write about her fashion choices, or her disregard for the plight of the detained children and their desperate parents? While I think this is probably meant for the photographers and reporters, I find the choice of the inscription unbelievably stupid.

It was an interesting coincidence that Gail and I, the other evening, watched a TV reportage about the famous Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) whose painting entitled “Landschap met de val van Icarus” or “Landscape with the fall of Icarus” addresses Melania jacket’s scribbled inscription. In a way it also addresses our president and his dedicated collaborators and followers who, in all probability, prefer to think about children’s forced separation from parents in the more Trumpian literary form of “I don’t give a damn. Do U?”

Just in case you do not know the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, here is a brief summary.

In Greek mythology Icarus is the son of an Athenian creative genius and craftsman by name of Daedalus. The latter created the labyrinth near king Minos’ palace at Knossos to imprison the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster born of his wife and the Cretan bull. King Minos imprisoned Daedalus in the labyrinth because he gave his daughter Ariadne a ball of string in order to help Theseus, the enemy of Minos, to survive the labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. Daedalus and his son Icarus try to escape from Crete by using artificial wings made from feathers, held together by wax. The father cautions his son of the danger of flying too low or too high. If too low, the sea’s humidity might clog the feathers; if too high, the sun might melt the wax. The two take off and Icarus the son, emboldened and giddy by their success, ignores his father’s advice. Soaring into the sky, he gets too close to the sun, loses the wings as the wax melts, falls into the sea and drowns. The area where the tragedy supposedly occurred is called the Icarian Sea near Icaria, an island southwest of Samos.

As we watched the TV program, it occurred to me that during my five year stay in Brussels, Belgium, long ago, I bought a few reproductions of Bruegel’s paintings one of which was Icarus’ fall, now hanging in our dining area. Quickly I got it from its place on the wall and reacquainted myself with its content.

While there have been many attempts to make intelligent guesses of what Bruegel meant by giving us his painted interpretation of Icarus’ fall and death, I came to the conclusion that master Bruegel, predating by roughly six centuries our own recent catastrophic events of children being ripped from their parents at our southern border by US law, carries a lesson for us all.

If this is of interest to you, use our phenomenal electronic wizardry and make Bruegel’s picture appear on your computer screen. I will try to guide you.

The scene is taken from a hilltop. In the left lower corner in the foreground a man behind a plow pulled by a horse prepares furrows for planting. This takes all his attention. In the far distance we see outlines of a city on the shore of the sea which stretches toward the horizon. Below the plowman graze a bunch of sheep. The shepherd stands with his back toward the sea as he looks into the sky as if in deep meditation. The sea holds several sail boats and two ships, one of them, the larger one, is seen in the right lower corner of the picture, as it is sailing into the harbor. Between that ship and the peremptory where the plowman works and the shepherd below gazes upwards, there is a narrow sea passage. Looking carefully into that area in the lower right of the picture, beyond a fishing fellow sitting on the shore, one can see two legs of a partially submerged drowning individual – obviously those belonging to Icarus, fallen from the sky and drowning in the sea.

No one knows what master Bruegel had in mind when he painted the picture. As I read its meaning, it suggests the sad reality that relatively few people pay attention or desire to pay attention to tragedies happening in their close purview. We close our eyes and ears so as not to hear; so as not to get involved; so as not to be drawn into the tragedy ourselves. The plowman sees nothing nor does the shepherd. The fisherman watches his line and disregards the man plummeting from the sky and drowning.

The word compassion literally means “suffering with.” Thus, having compassion means to participate and to share in the suffering person’s lot. This, in turn, means that to be compassionate means taking risks. We all know that words are cheap compared to actions which can be dangerous and costly.

The recent and ongoing crisis of children being separated from their refugee parents at our southern border and the public outcry against this practice heard throughout the land – yes, even among some of our Republican fellow citizens – and the subsequent forced backpedaling by the president who rescinded this inhuman practice demonstrates clearly that when there is the will to resist injustice perpetrated by even the highest authority in our land, things happen and the will of the people prevails.

My congratulations go the United Methodist Church for censuring their member, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for his directing I.C.E. to carry out these inhuman activities.

Let us not turn a blind eye to other human being’s suffering, and remember Hillel’s teaching, (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a):

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”