On respecting divided opinions

Gail and I recently had an interesting experience I want to share. After navigating hundred twists and turns on the road between Weaverville where we live and Lake Lure we arrived after an hours’ drive at the Lake Lure library where I was scheduled to speak earlier this month.

We did not know what to expect in terms of audience size. Our guess was a maximum of 40 people, perhaps less. Entering the program hall I was stunned to see every chair taken and a number of people standing on the periphery of the venue. Even the entrance hall was filled to capacity. It was time for me to start speaking.

The program’s title was “Witness to the Holocaust.” When I related how prior to our deportation to concentration camps our family was ripped apart I had to stop for a moment, as is usually the case notwithstanding the decades that have gone by since then, because it is that moment that emotionally is probably the hardest one for me to speak about. I was 15 years old. Men and women were separated from each other and each group was then further divided into old folk, middle aged people and youngsters. When this happened to our family, my mother ran after me, pleading, “Walti, do not leave us!” as if I had any choice in this matter. Before reaching me a SS man hit her over the shoulder and brutally pushed her back into a group of women. There was no time for either a hug or a last kiss.

“Now isn’t this is precisely what has been going on at our southern border, minus the lashes of the SS – of course! I.C.E., Mr. Trump’s lackeys, have also been tearing families apart, right? What a sham!”

The explosive applause by the audience stopped me in my tracks. It prevented me from continuing. “There are still decent people around,” I said to myself and then went on with my talk.

My lecture having come to an end, I asked for questions and comments.

The first person responding was a woman in the third row right in front of me wearing under her open jacket a T-shirt with the inscription “Yeshua” written in Hebrew script, meaning Jesus. She began trying to explain about how I.C.E. is doing only what they are ordered to do but did not get very far with her comment. A veritable explosions of shouts and boos cut her off. She did not have a chance. When the hubbub quieted down, the library person in charge of the program, ignoring her, asked for the next question and the program went on to its end without further incidents.

In retrospect, alas too late, it occurred to me that I should have calmed the group, reminding them that in a democracy all voices need to be heard unimpeded. I am so very sorry to have failed in this respect. I was stunned by the audience’s loud reaction but probably also carried away by satisfaction that there are still folks who stand up for compassion and decency and express it publicly. I’ll know better next time, I hope.

This incident also reminds me of the importance of having relations with others regardless of what their political orientation might be. “The Other” is not an object but a subject, just as I. It is “the other” for whom I must be grateful because it is only this vis a vis that makes it possible for me to be who I truly am.

The Jewish term mitzvah derives from the verb “to order” or “to command.” Interestingly, the word also means doing “a good deed.” During my several stays in Jerusalem I was struck with people approaching me and soliciting money. They do this in unabashed manner and I must admit that it turned me off. In Jewish tradition, doing a mitzvah is regarded very important. This raises a question. How would it be possible to perform a mitzvah were it not precisely for these men and their solicitations? Should one not be grateful for them for giving us an opportunity to be generous and to perform a good deed? On the other hand, does not doing the mitzvah also alleviate the poor person’s and his family’s suffering? All this suggests that, according to the Jewish tradition, both the giver and the recipient of mitzvah are blessed.

Needless to say, most of those beggars in Jerusalem probably have not considered the theological aspect of giving and receiving. Some undoubtedly are sincere with their requests for help. Others might not. But who are we to judge?

In any case, even at age 92 it is not too late to learn a lesson.

How fast, we Jews, forget!

The shameful treatment of would be immigrants to our country continues. While I have no high opinion of Trump, an understatement, it is beyond my understanding why he nurtures this venomous hatred against these people who flee to preserve their lives and the lives of their children. Is it all in the name of his white supremacist attitude, best expressed in the slogan of “Make America White Again?”

As a Holocaust survivor, I cannot help but compare Trump’s racism to that of Hitler’s who, in similar manner, sized up the threat of Judaism as a threat not only to Germany but to the world. One of his more famous antisemitic mentors, Richard Wagner, the great composer, expressed the threat of Judaism and the Jewish people by coining a new word: Verjudung, meaning something like “jewishing” the otherwise pure world…I hate to think what a totally white America would look, feel and act like!

Because of Jewish ethics and more particularly because of our past history in which we came to experience and hopefully to learn what rejection for ethnic reasons feels like and produces, Jews must not and cannot turn their back to migrants fleeing for life.

I am disappointed that on the local, national and international level few Jewish voices have been heard to condemn our governments’ treatment of these poor refugees at our southern gates. Have we forgotten what rejection feels like?

Here then are reminders:

Back in 1938 the plight of the Jews in Germany had become known. Rumors had it that Jews in Germany were sent to concentration camps. Auschwitz had not been built yet and so the worst had not yet happened. There was much talk about the necessity of creating safe havens for the Jews but talk did not suffice. There was need for action.

It was on President Roosevelt ‘s initiative that an international meeting was convened in July 1938 in Evian-les-Bains, France, to request commitments from the assembled nations to accept Jewish refugees from Germany.

And so 32 nations came together joined by 24 voluntary organi-zations that participated as observers. Also 200 journalists attended. Hitler endorsed the conference and even allegedly promised to help the Jews leave his country. It was reported that he said, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [the Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

The conference ended in failure. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic which offered help, none of the other participating nations made a commitment about accepting Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. For Hitler this was a victory as it seemed to demonstrate that no one desired an influx of Jews to their country. Useful propaganda!

Two months after Evian – the Sudeten was given to Hitler by British prime minister Chamberlain. 120,000 formerly Czech Jews became stateless. In March 1939 Czechoslovakia was occupied and 180,000 more Jews came under Hitler’s rule. Then came Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On September 1, 1939 WW II broke out. Holocaust and 6 million Jewish dead followed. Have we, Jews, learned anything from Evian? Do we not remember?

Our treatment of the refugees at our southern border is a test of American humaneness and civilization and we are flunking it.

The story of the Saint Louis Ship should be an other reminder for us Jews of our history of a people fleeing from destruction and being refused to be given a haven of safety and a secure life.

During WW II the ship, the St. Louis, owned by the German Hapag (Hamburg-America Line) was a German luxury ocean liner that carried over 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939 trying to escape the Holocaust. The ship’s destination was Cuba in the hope that the refugees would debark and settle there. Having arrived there, the ship docked in Havana’s harbor but the refugees, with the exception of some Spaniards, Cubans and US citizens with Cuban visas, were not allowed to disembark. US government officials interceded with Cuba but to no avail. What now?

The ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, a seemingly very decent human being, now took the ship to the US and to Canada, trying to find a nation that would accept these Jewish refugees fleeing for their life. Both nations refused the ship’s landing in their respective harbors.

In view of these refusals, no alternative was left for the captain but to return to Europe. The UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and France accepted a few of the ships’ refugees. Unfortunately, the Nazis in their lightning fast war caught up with these Jewish refugees who thought they had escaped the clutches of Hitler. Statistics show that 254 of those who were forced to return to Europe were murdered during the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Sobibor. The rest died in various slave labor camps, in hiding or in attempts to evade the Nazis.

Let me end this blog by reminding ourselves that we Jews, too, were once on the run from death. Should not our empathy for these folks at our southern border motivate us to speak out loudly against their mistreatment?

I do not understand that Melania Trump, a mother herself, has not been willing or able to speak out for a more humane treatment of these suffering folk. Jared and Ivanka Kushner, both allegedly Jews, have remained silent. I do not understand that the fathers and mothers, employed by ICE, lend themselves to such inhuman treatment as separating children from their parents.

America, where are we headed?!

Lack of love or lack of solid education?

Congratulations, Mr. Trump! You did it again. Thanks to special council Mueller’s recently released report, a 400 page document that at the time of this writing still has not been released to the public who paid for it, and thanks also to our newly appointed attorney general Mr. Barr who insists that a sitting president cannot be indicted and who, rather than releasing the whole document to the American people, decided to release his four page version of a summary of those pages to the public, Donald Trump comes out of two years of investigations of “Russia Gate” smelling like a rose to his political base and to the ethic-deprived Republican Party. No wonder! A morally corroded Republican government finds nothing wrong with its leader who might just be a moral cretin, as David Brooks, the Opinion Columnist of the New York Times (Feb. 28, 2019), suggests.

Will the population clamoring for the release of the entire report be responded to affirmatively? If so, how long will it be before this happens? Who knows? But if so, how will we be certain that important parts of the text will not have been deleted by a process similar to the famous Nixon tape erasures?

It is difficult not to become cynical about the goings on in Washington with a US president “desperate for approval,” blind to criticism thanks to his narcissism and insistence on living in a self-created unreal world. One is inclined to pity this creature were it not for this creature’s malevolence that is ruining not only our country but planet earth.

Having gotten the above off my chest, I return now to David Brooks’ excellent article in the New York Times referred to above. In this piece Brooks expresses wonderment about “who didn’t love Donald Trump?” Brooks continues with, “I often wonder who left an affection void that he has tried to fill by winning attention…He has turned his life into a marketing strategy…His desperate attempts to be loved have made him unable to receive love.”

This kind of apology for our president and his deeply flawed behavior is tantamount to reading a tearjerker. David Brooks whom I admire as a fine Opinion Columnist, in entering the professional domain of psychology with the above mentioned article, has overstepped his competence, in my opinion. This said, I am not suggesting that the article does not contain material worth reading.

As an educator for the last fifty some years, I find Trump’s thuggish behavior which is totally unbecoming of a US president, rooted not in his having suffered from deprivation of love but rather from his lack of a sound holistic education and from his having been brought up in a surrounding of wealth from his earliest years, with a silver spoon in his mouth. The man does not understand a fellow human’s suffering. He is incapable of experiencing compassion. My purpose in what follows here is not an effort to discover in detail Trump’s failed educational development but rather to lament the decline of the quality of higher education in our country in recent years or even decades.

To be more specific, I attribute Trump’s a-morality or immorality to his having been deprived of an educational experience that could have provided him with a well rounded personality by means of helping him acquire at least a minimum knowledge of philosophy, best found in the classics and in subsequent similarly oriented literature. Needless to say, it is in philosophy we encounter minds and voices engaged in critical thinking, a discipline tragically absent in much of our population, as also regrettably absent in our president.

Trump has boasted about his lack of necessity to read. His alleged innate natural intelligence and knowledge suffices for him to make judgments and decisions that impact not only the US but our planet. It is quite possible that this narcissistic attitude and behavior may have already caused irreparable damage to our living sphere. The point of no return may have been reached and crossed and the future of the planet may have already been determined. All this because of one man’s ignorance and self-love. It makes me shudder!

Back to our educational system. The engine that promotes and drives the demise of the study of philosophy which, of course, includes the study of ethics is career-ism. Our nation and all other nations need an educated citizenry. While making a decent living by means of specialized skills is absolutely necessary and while schools providing such skills to our citizenry are provided in our educational system, it is critical also to provide for these folks an education in the humanities so that our population be an intelligent and humane population and not a nation primarily preoccupied with how best to make money even at the expense of hurting others or, in the president’s words “how to make a deal” in the art of which he considers himself to be the unsurpassed master.

It is depressing to learn that a small percentage of students in liberal arts colleges and universities take courses in philosophy. Permit me at this point to become personal. I studied mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, after immigrating to the US. The engineering curriculum is heavy and demanding. I flunked the course in thermodynamics and had to repeat it, coming out of the second attempt with a measly grade of “C.” Subsequent to graduation I worked for General Motors Corp. for six years and earned several US patents in automotive-related design.

The greatest impact on my educational life, however, were not courses in metallurgy or differential equations. What changed my life by setting it on a course of pursuing truth was an elective course in philosophy, two semesters, taught by professor Samuel Stumpf, a Jewish philosopher who opened to me new vistas on life. What he did for me was to help me ask the important questions, answers to which I may or may not have received until now when I just passed year 92. It is most important to ask the right questions, the Jewish tradition teaches. It is questioning that leads to a life of satisfaction. Needless to say, some frustration is part of such a questioning life as well, but I vote in its favor and have taught my students accordingly. No regrets!

I venture to say that it was not lack of love that formed Trump into the miscreant he is. Trump represents the person who has no education but for his alleged ability “to make deals.” So far his deals have been tragically counterproductive, in my opinion. Only the future will tell whether I am right.

It is, of course, true that there is no direct connection between say ancient Greek language and culture, on the one hand and steady employment and good income, on the other hand. But higher learning has the potential of leading a person into knowledge, understanding and wisdom, the Jewish education triad, a universally acknowledged path to being a humane human being and thus a critically necessary component of a democratic society. There is such a thing as the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake! I do not deny the importance of utilitarianism and the learning of skills that enable one to make a decent living. I appreciate very much the availability of plumbers and electricians, policemen and trash collectors, not to mention dentists and physicians! To be a creative society, abstract learning is critically important and the path toward such learning is contingent on how our educational system inculcates in our young generations the love of knowledge.

My wife and I recently witnessed on TV the abysmal ignorance of some American college students about their own historical tradition, let alone philosophy. It was embarrassing to watch how on two occasions reporters randomly interviewed students on the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and at Texas Tech. This is not the place to quote the many questions asked and answers given. One of the answers, representative as it was of many other similar responses, was so ridiculous that it deserves mentioning here. The question asked was “Who won the Civil War?” After a lengthy pause the student hesitatingly ventured his response: “Americans?” This kind of a fiasco cries out for an explanation: how did this and similar students succeed in enrolling into prestigious schools of higher learning, to begin with? Surely these randomly chosen students did not get there by means of parents having bought their admission, as has been discovered in some recently discovered cases! Enough said!

It would be unjust to blame our president for this and other examples of our deeply flawed educational system,. On the other hand, it must be said that having a president of such an abysmally low intellect and no ethical acumen who in absence of a teleprompter seems to communicate by means of no more than 300 to 500 words, often repeated three or more times, certainly is not an inspiration or role model for aspiring college students.

That an education that is driven primarily by careerism without emphasis on philosophical content incorporating ethics can lead to an a-moral or worse, an immoral society, should be clear. In my opinion, we are finding ourselves these days sliding down a slimy and steep slope toward a conscienceless society, a threat to us and our planet.

It is high time to listen to one of our great Jewish teachers from the faraway past, rabbi Tarfon: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world] but you are not free to desist from it either,” (Pirkey Avot 2:16).

Good luck!

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.