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.”

Where have all the (genuine) Evangelicals gone…

One of my favorite songs during the Sixties was Pete Seeger’s “where have all the flowers gone, long time passing….?” I first heard it sung by Joan Baez and fell in love with it instantly. As an alumnus of Oberlin College’s Graduate School of Theology, it made me proud that Pete Seeger sang it first at Oberlin College, one of my alma maters. As we all know this was a protest song against our involvement in the Vietnam War.

Once again we live in a situation when our government engages in activities that are clearly immoral. The quite recent separation of children from their refugee parents at various points at our southern border is, to say it mildly, scandalous. What holier relationship is there than the relationship between parents and their children? This has been violated to the extent that several thousand children have by now been taken away from their parents and placed into fenced-in areas, detention camps, where they live like incarcerated criminals.

Yesterday, Trump, contradicting his most recent declarations about the importance of separating children of refugee parents, cynically echoed by Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General whose behavior has now FINALLY been censured by the United Methodist Church to which he belongs, reversed himself and by executive order revoked the separation policy. When will the separated children be reunited with their parents? The government ‘s answers are vague.

The separation of children from their refugee parents at the borders is just one of many Trump government activities that are despicable and disgusting that needs to be protested against.

My question is: where are the so-called Christian evangelicals whose mandate is to speak up against immorality in the name of Jesus wherever it occurs? Where are the Jewish leaders in our country who should be speaking up against the violations of biblical values such as lying and bearing false witness?

As it happens now, most of the religious leaders in this country have been remaining silent. What comes to my ears most often is, “Well, we will just have to wait and see what happens.” If we dare to remember what happened in Europe before and during the Nazi years it is that the Jewish voices were silenced by the fences of concentration camps and the murders that took place within those fenced-in areas. And the Christian voices? Sadly enough, most of those jumped on Hitler’s bandwagon and joined in the murderous chorus of so-called German Christianity.

But not all Christian voices remained silent! And it is here that the “Barmen Declaration” needs to be read and its founders and members remembered and praised.

Representatives of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions in Germany met at Barmen in May 1934 and proclaimed a common confession of faith. The occasion for this courageous proclamation was the rise of the Third Reich and German Christianity. The declaration was born in a tense time in the midst of a struggle to maintain morality and decency in Germany. Some have called Barmen a battle cry. While the Barmen Declaration is not a detailed statement of faith, it expresses the one thing that needs to be said at a crucial time to those who claim to be evangelical Christians, “The genuine Christian must listen to Jesus Christ and to Him alone.”

Because I, as a Jew, respect both the Jew Yeshua (the Hebrew name of Jesus) and much of his teaching simply because it is to a great extent genuinely Jewish teaching once it is filtered through the net separating his genuine words from those the nascent Christian faith in a polemical spirit put into his mouth after his death, I feel very strongly that now is the time for the churches and synagogues to speak up and set the record straight. It is high time to state unequivocally that lying is wrong, racism and antisemitism to be condemned, misogyny to be made away with, name calling and insulting of others who disagree with one, to be ended. The list is too long and this is not the place to enumerate in detail the president’s shameful behavior and our present government’s despicable attitudes.

While this is a pluralistic country and many of us are not affiliated with any religion we should be able to agree that the ugly attitudes enumerated above, while to be condemned by both Christianity and Judaism, are also among the unacceptable and deplorable attitudes in the moral sphere of secular humanists and in the minds of ordinary decent people.

For lack of space, let me indicate here just one excerpt from Article 4 which makes it clear how far the genuine evangelical church of Germany went at Barmen: “We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and may, apart from its ministry, set up special leaders [Fuehrer] equipped with powers to rule.“ When one realizes that the German Christians not only remained silent during Hitler’s murderous rule but even expressed their adoration for him, the above cited text represents a slap to Hitler’s face whose title was the Fuehrer.

For the Barmen Declaration and other anti-Nazi literature circulated, for courageous sermons and truly evangelical leadership many members of the so-called Bekennende Kirche or German “Witnessing Church” paid with their lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of these heroes.

In recognition of such bravery, I can only say kol hakavod! “All due honor!”

So then, “Where have all our evangelicals gone, long time passing?” in this country and at this time?

Forcing family breakup: the new American way?

The 18th century great Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine once wrote, Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, da bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht. This translates into English as, “Whenever I think of Germany by night, I can no longer sleep.” A prophetic utterance of one who lived some 200 +years before the Holocaust took place.

I feel the same way when, during the last one and a half years, I have been considering what has been happening to my country, the United States of America. By “making America great again,” Donald Trump’s slogan prior and after his election to the presidency, the president has actually “made America great-ly” impoverished and reduced in morality, generosity and spirit, a deep concern which often deprives me of my sleep.

Just about after every lecture dealing with my experiences during the Holocaust, someone in the audience asks me which of these experiences I consider to have been the most horrific. Hard to say when the entire three years were a veritable hell. “Were you afraid of death?” – another person inquires. Every daily roll call may have sent me into the gas of Auschwitz or the shooting wall at Gross Rosen where prisoners no longer able to work were machine gunned and cremated. With our increasing dehumanization and deterioration in body and spirit, fear of death was replaced by hunger. This was an ongoing process, eventually leading to destruction of us who had become non-thinking zombies..

So was there a most terrifying moment in my life? The answer is Yes.

The date was June 29, 1942 when our family was torn apart. Driven from the ghetto into a junkyard by the SS, we were forced to hand over any valuables still in our possession. Gold necklaces, coins, wedding rings, watches, – all these were confiscated. There was intimidation by shouted threats and beatings. For a boy of fifteen that I was this was terribly scary.

But then came something even worse: separation. Women and men were separated into groups. My Mom was ripped from my Dad’s side. And I was ripped away from both my parents and my older sister. Never had I been – had I lived apart from my beloved parents who, from the day of my birth, had taken care of me, nurtured me with unending expressions of love. Words cannot express the feeling of abandonment and lostness and – yes, of fear, I experienced in that moment.

If I feel so terribly hurt to this day, even in retrospect, I cannot even imagine what my parents felt and went through on that acursed day. As my thoughts return to that utterly obscene event, I can still see my Mom weeping. with a face distorted with anguish, running behind me and calling to me, “Walti, Walti, do not leave us!” An SS soldier barring her way toward me, hit her on the head with his leather whip shouting, “Enough of that! Back to your group!” A rough shove did the rest. No longer were we together as a family. All four of us must have realized that a big question mark would from now on hang over our existence. Would we ever see each other again?

Daily, the question of illegal immigration is played out before our eyes these days. It seems that president Trump and his acolyte Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, are consumed with hatred for undocumented immigrants. For months we have been hearing unending litanies concerning the threat undocumented refugee immigration represents for our country and population.

Doctors Without Borders, the fabulous worldwide medical organization whom I admire and support, announced yesterday that new Asylum Restrictions issued by Mr. Sessions, the Attorney General and head of the Justice Department, are a death sentence for Central Americans fleeing deadly violence in their countries. Citizens of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador will from now on no longer be able to use domestic or gang violence as acceptable justification for seeking asylum in the US.

We, a country consisting entirely of immigrants, with the exception of America’s Native Nations, are closing the gates to refugees fleeing for their lives hoping to find a safe haven in our country . Having come to our southern border and seeking asylum, they will be turned away.

Since last October,700 children of parents who came here many years ago as undocumented immigrants have been forcibly separated from their parents who were deported to their country of origin and we are told that 1,500 children, thus separated under duress from their parents and sent “somewhere,” cannot be found.

I hope you see the connection between my story above and what has been happening here. Have our legislators become non-thinking and non-feeling men and women? Do they not have children? Do they not love their children? If threatened by conditions of death, would they not seek asylum in a neighboring country?

What is happening to us Americans? Can we still claim to be “the Land of the free and the home of the brave?” after this kind of sham perpetrated by our government? Have we become great under Trump or have we, thanks to him, become great-ly diminished as compassionate human beings?

Concern for our country and where we are headed under this government, keeps me awake during many a night.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: an analogy for today

I REMEMBER!

I cannot say too often how very fortunate and blessed I am to have had wonderful parents. My father, the excellent educator that he was, often read to my sister and me appropriate works he considered important for a child to hear and to discuss. One of these was Der Zauberlehrling by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, in all probability the greatest German writer and poet of all times. The poem’s English translation is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” A film version of the poem was made by Walt Disney and may have appeared in the Hollywood film Fantasia many years ago. The text of the poem both in German and English is available through Google and I recommend you read it.

Short summary of the poem: The sorcerer leaves his house. His apprentice (notice the same word as in the recent TV show The Apprentice, created by Donald Trump), is now in charge. This being a fine opportunity to test his learned mastery of the trade, he wastes no time to do so. Wishing to take a bath in absence of his master, he uses a magic formula to transform an old broom into a servant with head, arms and legs, and bids the broom to fetch water from a nearby stream and pour it into the tub. No faster said than done. The broom does its work but, alas, only too well. Without stopping, more and more water arrives, fills not only the tub but all containers and when these are filled the water overflows into the house. With no end in sight to the ever increasing inundation, and various attempts to stop the broom, the helpless and desperate apprentice takes an ax and cuts the broom in half to make an end to the disaster. Alas, to his horror, there are now two broom-servants and the action is multiplied. Unsuccessfully, he tries to recall the magical formula that is needed to undo his sorcery run amok. Screaming for the return of his master, the latter arrives. With the simple words, “Into the corner, broom, broom; be what you were before!” the disaster stops.

As is the case with ancient poems and ballads or even children’s rhymes such as for instance with “Humpty, Dumpty” by Mother Goose, the innocent sounding lines carry a political message.

Because I am fascinated by analogies, this poem speaks to me with regard to our political situation today. The poem warns against overestimation of self which we encounter in the daily tweets of our president. The transparency of these tweets points to the man’s egomania and megalomania which might very well stem from his insecurity and his constant need to be reassured that he truly is “the stable genius” he has called himself. The poem suggests a situation where a person summons helpers to be his allies whom often he is unable to control which is especially true in the field of politics.

Goethe, the poem’s creator, also points to the danger of humanity’s illusion that power is stronger than wisdom and that one’s intoxication with power leads to out of control situations and chaos. The poem further suggests that return to the original order can save the chaotic situation that leads to disaster.

Can we learn anything from this poem? I think we can, perhaps with another analogy. I just learned that a sinkhole developed on the grounds next to the White House. Might this not suggest that now would be a good time for the “swamp” next doors to be “drained,” an expression coined by Mr. Trump. A self-fulfilling prophecy by our president?