Israel

I am just back from touring Israel with a nice group, mostly from my Warrenton shul, and am stimulated enough to post this despite my recent announcement that I am taking time off from blogging this summer.

Israel never ceases to provide stimulation and inspiration, and frustration, and worry. Each of our days had each of those. In 70 short years, Israel has built a thriving and exciting nation despite enormous challenges. Most of my group were first timers to Israel, which meant they couldn’t appreciate how far it has come over the decades. My first visit was in 1964, when you brought your own toilet paper and the drive up to Jerusalem went at a snail’s pace. Now there are first world amenities, great highways that seem to sprout up every few days, commuter trains, skyscrapers. But then you look south to Gaza or north to the Golan or east to Iran, and wonder if there could possibly be a more dangerous neighborhood in the world.

Israelis have a far greater tolerance for chaos and danger than we do. I think if we were there we would stay in the house all the time. Tel Aviv is hopping even at midnight, hours after Bethesda has reached its usual sleep state. Tourism is thriving, bli ayin hara. There is not a hotel room to be had. The airport is packed, even at 4AM when our return flight took off. On the other hand, the Prime Minister is the subject of four criminal investigations, his wife is already indicted, but there are not so many great alternatives. Like here, some worry that democracy is being taken apart. What is going on in Syria, and Lebanon, and Gaza, can keep you up at night, and BDS seems never to take a break. Yet every day we experienced the kind of exhilarating moments that only our ancient homeland can provide. So you can see, there is never a dull moment for Israelis, and for people like me.

I have two mantra’s that help me put the many serious challenges in perspective. One, from one of our peace negotiators: “Israel will survive but its neighbors will never let it enjoy that survival very much.” Two, from a speaker during my last shul trip: “I see Israel as like an ark, necessarily a well-armed ark, floating above the waters of war and chaos in the region; some day the waters will recede and the ark will be able to safely land and Israel will enjoy a new day.” These are not the most optimistic forecasts, but they may be realistic. I pray that part b of the first will prove false, and that the ark will find nice dry land in the not too distant future.

I am expecting to be back in Israel two more times in the next eight months, for some learning but first some biking. Israel is a serious part of my Jewish identity. Its successes and failures and challenges resonate with me deeply, maybe too deeply. That’s been true since my first visit, that summer on a kibbutz in 1964. I never forget how lucky it is to have been born at this time. As my old boss Richard Joel said to a group of young Jews, our great grandparents and those before them came from different places, had different ways of making a living, and probably wouldn’t have agreed on much, except that they each hoped to one day touch the stones of the Kotel – and they knew they never would. We who can should do so as often as possible, and in between the touches, do all we can to support Israel in its struggle to be a nation like other nations but with a heart.

Best, Bill Rudolph

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Why?

This is part two on anti-semitism, not my favorite topic but not to be ignored. Last time it was about whether FDR was or wasn’t an anti-semite as represented by his failure to do much for European Jewry facing the Holocaust. This time it’s more general, and longer. We look around and can’t figure out why Israel can do nothing right in the eyes of most of the world and is about the only country which needs to justify its existence everyday. We read about anti-semitic attacks on Jews in Europe and the return of demagogues in the Philippines, Italy, Hungary, Poland, France, Germany (and the U.S.) We are left worrying when the co-leader of the Alternative for Germany, it’s third largest political party, says that “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in over 1,000 years of successful German history.” And England’s Labour Party is no Hadassah chapter.

Israelis are accustomed to this I guess. Barbara Sofer, who works for Hadassah in Israel, just wrote about recent time spent in Venice. A wandering trio of musicians ask her and her husband where they are from. Sofer answers after her “usual two second delay.” “Do people from other countries think before they answer this question?” she asks. “We Israelis always make a quick judgment about safety. It’s like my husband deciding between showing his kippah or covering it with a baseball cap when we go out.” We American Jews have been blessed with little or no need to cover our kippot. But the rhetoric of the alt-right and the viciousness of our President and what that has unleashed by them/him, and events like Charlottesville and the Women’s March, and seeing what is happening around the globe, make many of us more and more concerned.

Reuven Brenner wrote a piece in the WSJ in early May about anti-semitism, which he has been studying for almost a half century. Why so much and why doesn’t it ever disappear? His thesis: for accidental reasons, Jews have constantly found themselves opposing dominant ideologies of the times, and that both helps us survive and gets us in trouble. Examples abound. We bet at the beginning on a religion drawing on a sacred book while the rest of the world was mostly illiterate; with no strong traditions and easily modified memories, others could follow the Greeks and the Romans and early Christianity while we refused. Later, when we were dispersed around the world, we didn’t disappear or assimilate like other small tribes. As with literacy, lack of geographic concentration had advantages and disadvantages. The greater their number, the greater the chances of political, rebellious and military clout. But smaller groups have to rely on stronger solidarity and individual effort, the education for both of which becomes part of their deeply ingrained culture.

Which brings us to the Jews’ disproportionate scientific, commercial and financial successes. The culture of self-reliance has been a necessity. There is no alternative for a people too small to achieve much through politics or military might. Laws drawing on the misinterpreted biblical text—condemnation of “usury” among them—initially harmed Jews but later contributed to their success. They found themselves in banking and finance when the rest of the population was excluded from those professions—which turned out to be the currents of the future. Jump to the present, says Brenner, with academics and politicians of the left, singling out Jews and Israel for ancient accusations and new ones. The attitude has a certain logic: Jews’ success through ages and countries despite severe discrimination is an eyesore to the ideology of blaming others for one’s lack of achievement.

Which brings us to Europe’s stand toward Israel. If Jews stood against the currents of the times through centuries, Israel does the same today. Europe is trying to unite its tribes under a secular, supranational union—and having considerable difficulty. Standing as a counterexample to the European delusion is Israel—a nation state, in which religion plays a significant part, which is successful despite war, terror and the stress of absorbing millions of immigrants. Once again, the Jews stand against faddish currents and are resented for it.

So, traditions and values and going against the grain have kept us alive as a people, but have also produced a lot of bad reaction. I am not sure what we are supposed to do differently, besides disappear, which to my horror is a track that some Jews are pursuing, wittingly or unwittingly, as we speak.

Let us hope for some miracle that will turn all this around. In the meantime, I am beginning a fair amount of R&R and won’t be doing much blogging. I hope you have some good summer plans as well. Best, Bill Rudolph

FDR – Friend of the Jews?

Shalom. Doing a two parter on the worrisome rise of anti-semitism abroad and the more subtle ways we are feeling it here in America. Part one is very specific and follows my completion of Robert Dallek’s lengthy “Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life.” Dallek is no Ron Chernow – I could put this one down for days without missing it – but still a worthy historian with a most worthy subject.

FDR was definitely one of the great American presidents, a shoo-in for Mt. Rushmore had construction not ended in 1941. One of the three greatest most would say. He brought us out of the Great Depression, his New Deal reforms were a giant step in humanizing the American industrial system and ensuring a minimal standard of living for all Americans, and he saved the free world by dragging us into WWII which would likely have been lost to Hitler without U.S. involvement. Reread that last statement. Remember that isolationism ruled our land after WWI, and it took all of Roosevelt’s political skills (and Pearl Harbor) to convince the American people that we couldn’t sit idly by as fascism and Nazism threatened the world. He also had to deal with Stalin, and with his own declining health.

What about FDR and the Jews? He wasn’t an anti-semite by my standards, but if he didn’t do anywhere near enough to try to save the six million who were being gassed and incinerated on his watch, just what was he?

Dallek writes this part of the story in a mostly forgiving way. Roosevelt wanted to help, Eleanor even more, but there were too many obstacles: Breckinridge Long who determined who got visas, the Congress with which he had too many other battles to fight, the German American population that was fully 30% of the U.S. population and didn’t love Jews, the uncertainty about bombing the tracks to Auschwitz (which the Germans might have circumvented so great seemed their desire to kill Jews.) The book has much detail on this. FDR insisted that military victory would be the only way rescue could take place. Unfortunately, millions died before the victory was achieved.

Telling is Dallek’s Epilogue. “Seventy-two years after Franklin Roosevelt passed away in the thirteenth year of his presidency, his reputation as a great president is secure… The amazing story of a man so severely handicapped by polio who overcame his disability to take on the arduous tasks of running for president four times and mobilizing the country to struggle through the Depression and war is a saga that has become the stuff of legend.” But, adds Dallek, “it was inevitable that a president who won four elections would become the subject of retrospective criticism.” Three areas of criticism persist: his failure to support antilynching laws for fear of losing southern support for the New Deal, his interment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, and his timid response to the Holocaust. Says Dallek, “No issue in Roosevelt’s legacy remains as contested as his response to the Holocaust…” That is true to this day. Those who argue that FDR did “everything possible” are contradicted by Eleanor’s assertion that nobody did all they could have. Did Arthur Schlesinger have it right: “Silence. Denial. Complicity?”

So, do we Jews think less of FDR? Was he a great president regardless? Things to ponder. Best, Bill Rudolph

Philip Roth

 

A lot has been said about Philip Roth since his death at age 85 last week. Let me share a few thoughts about the man and his relationship to the Jewish community.

Early in his career, Roth drew outrage with his sometimes stinging depictions of Jewish life, as well as his graphic portrayal in his breakout 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” of the protagonist’s sexual desires. Although his early “Goodbye, Columbus” won the National Book Award, older Jewish leaders objected to its portrayal of a conflict between a stuck-up, well-to-do Jewish family in New Jersey and a young working-class Jewish man from Newark. A short story in the collection — “Defender of the Faith” — was about a Jewish army officer’s conflict with Jewish soldiers trying to avoid combat duty. Jewish leaders’ outrage at Roth peaked a decade later with “Portnoy’s Complaint” and its exploration of lustful Jewish paranoia. Some worried that his work would endanger American Jews, providing fodder for anti-Semites. “What is being done to silence this man?” an American rabbi asked in a 1963 letter to the ADL. In one notorious incident, Roth was shaken by a hostile reception he received at a 1962 literary symposium at New York’s Yeshiva University. Recalling being shouted at by hostile students after the event, Roth vowed to “never write about Jews again” — a promise, of course, that he did not keep.

“There is a certain amount of poetic justice, an aesthetically satisfying irony, in Philip Roth’s beginning his career with a brouhaha at Yeshiva University and ending it with an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary — an honor perhaps more significant than the Nobel Prize that eludes him,” Michael Kramer, associate professor of literature at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, wrote in 2014. “Would Roth himself have imagined such a plot? His endings tend to the tragic.”

Indeed, in addition to winning nearly every literary award for writers in English, over time Roth was also embraced by the Jewish community. Three of his books were honored with the American Jewish Book Award, and in 1998 he won the Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Literary Achievement Award. And, in 2014, JTS awarded Roth an honorary doctorate at its commencement ceremony. “From enfant terrible to elder statesman. Time heals all wounds,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles remarked. At the time, the seminary’s chancellor, Arnold Eisen, himself a sociologist, called Roth the “greatest sociologist on American Jewish life, without doubt.”

Two thoughts, maybe even contradictory, from my perspective. Roth’s relationship to his Jewishness is not simple and might give one pause. He often demurred when it was suggested that he be defined as an American Jewish writer. In one essay he wrote, “I did not want to, did not intend to, and was not able to speak for American Jews; I surely did not deny, and no one questioned the fact, that I spoke to them, and I hope to others as well.” And now we see that Roth is not being buried in a Jewish cemetery, rather in the cemetery at Bard College. So, was he “all in” with his people? Maybe not, and maybe his critique of American Jewish life would have been different if it came from a place of love and connection.

One the other hand, anti semitism didn’t grow because of Roth’s writings. And, as Eisen put it, “We are a community that treasures someone who holds up such a penetrating and insightful mirror to who we are and reveals the dilemmas and contradictions and aspirations of the community. We are grateful for the mirror even if not everything you see in it is easy.” On this count, we need to have thicker skins.

Ponder all this and have a good rest of the week. Bill Rudolph

Gaza

Boker Tov. Events on the Gaza border are upsetting me as much as anyone, but not for the same reasons as everyone. I hate to see the loss of innocent lives, but most of the lives lost on the Palestinian side were not “innocent.” Even Hamas, who rules the Gaza strip and insists on Israel’s destruction, admitted midweek that almost all of Monday’s dead were their operatives. But the Post was quick to assume – the major front page story the next day – that Israel was killing innocents who just wanted to see what life is like on the other side of the border. Trust me, Hamas isn’t trying to breach the wall or enter through tunnels to deliver meals on wheels. So I wrote the following letter to the editor, which has not been published surprisingly enough. Only kidding – they rarely publish letters supporting Israel unless the writer also says that Israel is mostly wrong. One condition for submission is that the letter hasn’t been published anywhere else, but I now feel free to share it with you.

Letter to Editor
Your front page story about Monday’s Gaza violent protests must have been welcome reading among Hamas leaders in Gaza City. They got your reporters, and then your readers, believing that the recent weeks of violent demonstrations were a reaction to the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. What about all the years we saw thousands of rockets launched from Gaza on civilian targets or terror tunnels built under Israeli border communities?
The goals of the current protests are three: break down the fence to get Hamas operatives into Israel so they can kill or abduct soldiers or civilians, lacking that suffer lots of casualties so the world would be more sympathetic to their plight, and at the least divert popular discontent with Hamas. Goals two and three achieved. Hamas thinks a dead Jew is the best Jew, so it’s fortunate that goal one was not achieved.
Hamas diverts much of the international aid for Gaza to its own payrolls or to build more tunnels. The people of Gaza were finally wising up to this, and discontent growing. Your reporters say, “The demonstrations have proved to be a welcome distraction for Hamas.” That is surely true, but Hamas orchestrated them, and they are not dummies and they don’t much care how many die on either side. Israel is not perfect, but let us not be naive about what it faces. 
  [End of letter]

The only consolation for us in D.C. is that the Times is worse. That doesn’t mean we have to sit on our hands. The IDF tries harder than any army in history to do the right thing. We should support it, and Israel. Not blindly, but not with blinders when it comes to reading the paper.

I hope that Shabbat and Shavuot are a chance for some peace and quiet for all of us, as we celebrate the gift of Torah.     Bill Rudolph

Mark Twain

I have been reading and sharing my reading a lot with you. See below for an interesting theory on why I am doing so much reading. Last time the book was how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia. Now I am reading the recent FDR book by Robert Dalleck. A rather different presidency than the current one.

At the shivah for George Perlman, z’l, his daughter talked about how special he was (and he was) and quoted Mark Twain, who said: “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” That resonated, and also inspired me to do a little Mark Twain research in my google machine library.  Let me share a little from the writings of Twain, the pen name of Samuel Clemens.  Remember, he died over one hundred years ago.

Twain to explain why I am reading so much. “Books are for people who wish they were somewhere else.” The way the news is, it would be on another planet ideally.

Two from Twain on our government: “Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.” And, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” You see, as Kohelet said, there is really nothing new under the sun. And of course everyone there is not an idiot.

About the press, with the Post and Times’s coverage of Israel in mind: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”

About sadness: “The best way to cheer yourself is to try to cheer someone else up.” It’s sometimes the best strategy.

About parenting, this one is quite famous: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” So, if your adolescent children or grandchildren are embarrassed by your very existence, be patient.

About worrying, helpful at this time in history: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

Finally, for now, about life: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Much to ponder from this great humorist and moralist. Best, Bill Rudolph

The Future is History

I feel a little better about America today after reading Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. After all, even in the Trump era, elections mean something, political protestors don’t get murdered or poisoned or beaten or 2-5 years in the Gulag, gays are not routinely ostracized and scholarship about them banned, there aren’t vigilante groups hunting down pedophiles, our oligarchs don’t flee to Russia and buy basketball teams, and ordinary people don’t see it as their civic duty to turn in anyone who questions the authorities.

Gessen makes a cogent case that under Putin, but really with only a few blips (think Yeltsin) since Stalin, Russia seems to always be leaning towards totalitarianism. “Abortive modernization” and “illiberal democracy” are terms coined to explain systems where even leaders like Yeltsin care little for constitutional procedures and limits. Its people are seemingly most comfortable when they don’t have to think too much about what a different kind of world might look like. Scarcity unites them almost as much as hatred/fear of the United States. War is a great diversion and unifier. Stalin is their greatest modern hero, holding off the Nazis in WWII their greatest glory, stability is achieved through permanent instability, and Orwellian double think (to know and not to know – as in “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”) continues to be a major way of managing. Gessen sees little chance of that changing, hence the title of her book.

Here we are a long way away from all that. Yet, maybe we are on the path? For example, Richard Spencer, the “alt-right” leader who has gained prominence since Trump was elected, is married to Nina Kouprianova, a Russian who served as English translator and American promoter of Alexander Dugin, Putin’s whisperer (chief ideologue and possibly the mastermind behind the annexation of Crimea and trouble-making in the Ukraine). And of course there is the apparent comfort Trump’s people had with Russian meddling in our election, and how likely that is to continue because after all we are the enemy. So, we cannot ignore what goes on in Russia (and see Syria.) That is true even if from our western liberal perspective we see no way totalitarianism can last, mostly because of its disregard for human life. Maybe in fact Russia wants to kill itself, as Gessen speculates, but it’s not dead yet.

Much more to be read and absorbed here, but surely some cautions for back home. Best regards, Bill Rudolph