Paper cranes made by people from around the world decorate the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Shrine. Photo by Rob Eshman

In Hiroshima, thinking of North Korea


I spent my birthday in Hiroshima.

We didn’t plan it that way, it’s just where we happened to end up in the midst of a summer trip to Japan. It didn’t occur to me what it would mean, or how I would feel, to be celebrating my birthday in a restaurant at the foot of the Aioi Bridge.

The Enola Gay was aiming to drop Little Boy above the bridge, but missed by 800 feet. Instead, the world’s first atomic bomb used in combat exploded 1,900 feet over Shima Surgical Clinic on Aug. 6, 1945.

From Caffe Ponte, where we chased our pizza Margherita with sake shots, we could see the shattered remains of what had been the city’s Product Exhibition Hall, its skeleton now preserved as a memorial.

It wasn’t hard for me to imagine what the rest of Hiroshima looked like that day, because that afternoon we had visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

In a flash, the city was obliterated. About 150,000 people died, many in that instant, more from injuries and radiation poisoning. For miles around, the Exhibition Hall was one of only a few buildings left standing.


Left: Hiroshima, Japan, after the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the city, August 5, 1945. The standing building is now preserved as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

Right: Genbaku Dome was the only building left standing near the hypocenter of the A-bomb’s blast. Every year, thousands gather at the iconic dome, now the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Photo by Rob Eshman


If you’ve been to Holocaust museums and memorials, you’ll feel a sense of déjà vu visiting the one in Hiroshima. Yes, of course, the circumstances of destruction couldn’t be more different. But even so, we have a limited vocabulary for recalling carnage.

There are the relics of dead children — a charred tricycle, which a grief-stricken father buried alongside his 2-year-old son killed in the attack. There are the photos — of the fireball, of blackened bodies, of huddled survivors. There are the video testimonies of survivors — the woman who woke from a blinding flash to find her house had disappeared around her, leaving only her son and daughter behind, both dead. There is an Anne Frank whom kids can relate to — Sadako Sasaki, a girl whose diary became the basis for the book “One Thousand Paper Cranes.”

And there is the abiding theme of “Never Again,” in this case framed as an emphasis on nuclear disarmament.

But for humans, “Never Again” turns out to be a difficult ask.

Since the Holocaust, there have been many genocides. And 72 years after Hiroshima, the world is again on the brink of a potential nuclear conflict. Japan, hard as it is to believe, is again a potential ground zero.

Just as we were leaving Japan, on July 4, North Korea launched a KN-17 liquid-fueled missile that landed in the Sea of Japan, in the country’s exclusive economic zone where fishing and commercial vessels are active.

It was that nation’s first successful flight of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead as far as North America. Experts say North Korea, which already has eight to 10 nuclear bombs, is a couple of years away from developing the technology to fit them on a warhead that could reach us. No one wants North Korea President Kim Jong Un to be able to do that.

“What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it’s been memory,” John Hersey wrote. “The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”

Hersey traveled the desolate city shortly after we dropped the bomb; his reporting became the basis for his masterful book, “Hiroshima.”

But he’s wrong, unfortunately. Of all the tools President Donald Trump has at his disposal to control North Korea’s weapons, sending Kim Jong Un to the Peace Museum may be the least effective.


A lone floutist plays on the banks of the Ota River, just at the foot of the Aioi Bridge, the initial target of the first atomic bomb.  Across from him is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.  Video by Rob Eshman


As the Journal reported in a 2014 cover story, the concentration camps President Kim maintains around North Korea — where tens of thousands of dissidents are tortured, abused and executed — are not the work of a man who cares about anything but his own individual survival. His murder of Otto Warmbier last month is yet another demonstration of Kim’s insolent evil.

But what to do? If you haven’t read or heard any of the hundreds of pundits and experts weighing in on North Korea, let me cut to the chase: There’s no good option. That’s what they all conclude.

The three bad options are: 1) a preemptive strike obliterating the country’s weapons of mass destruction and taking out the regime; 2) a smaller “warning” strike; 3) more diplomacy and sanctions, to induce the Supreme Leader to compromise.

After running through the scenarios, all but a handful of experts end up on No. 3. Military options would provoke North Korea into launching devastating attacks on Japan and South Korea. Casualties could reach a million. I’m no expert, but I’ve now seen Tokyo at rush hour. It’s what they call a target-rich environment.

Little Boy was highly ineffective, using only 1.7 percent of its fissionable material. The power and number of bombs we have today would make the Korean Peninsula and Japan look like one endless Hiroshima.

If the people of Hiroshima were concerned about North Korea’s newest provocation — or the fact that their fate is in the hands of Donald Trump — they didn’t show it. The city thrums with energy. The malls are packed. Buzzed salarymen stroll from bar to bar, lovers embrace by the riverbanks, cars stream toward Mazda Stadium to see the Carp play another baseball game, and tourists line up for the famous okonomiyaki noodle cakes. It’s a river-crossed Phoenix of a city.

We crossed the Aioi Bridge on the way back from dinner, stopping at a memorial for the thousands of children killed in the blast. Never again? We’ll see.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

 

 

 

Stop pretending nothing happens in August


The headlines these days all seem to demand exclamation marks. Iraq is teetering on the brink! Russian troops are massing on the Ukranian border! Gaza lies in ruins! World’s worst Ebola epidemic afflicts Africa!  

Oh, and it is also National Goat Cheese Month.  Welcome to another quiet and peaceful August.

Yeah, right. One of the puzzles of summer is why so many of us persist in pretending that August is a month when nothing happens, when we can step back, tune out, take a break, and recharge. Europeans even think they are entitled to take the entire month off.

Perhaps there’s something about late summer, a couple months gone since school let out in June, that makes us forget our history. This year, August is full of reminders. We’re commemorating the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation and the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.

Bellicose August also brought the Gulf of Tonkin incident that triggered our involvement in Vietnam, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the failed coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in 1939 that enabled Hitler to invade Poland on September 1, and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 and ensuing Japanese surrender. Hurricane Katrina also occurred in August, but let’s leave Mother Nature out of it.

There’s a melancholic quality to August, a month nearly synonymous with “waning days of summer.”  Less acknowledged in our cultural vernacular is the extent to which the “waning” feeling is as much about the end of another year as it is about the end of summer.  

Sure, we sing “Auld Lang Syne,” kiss under the mistletoe, and wish each other a “Happy New Year” when December turns to January. But who among us doesn’t feel that the real reset moment each year, the new beginning, comes in September, the day after Labor Day? The fall is when we start school and football season and the U.S. government fiscal year, and when we get serious, if we ever do, about our work.

August, then, is about the waning not only of summer, but also of each passing year, and lost possibilities. It is about the waning of life, even.  There is a grasping, desperate quality to many of the historical events that took place in August—hence the resonance of the title of Barbara Tuchman’s historical bestseller about the outset of World War I, The Guns of August.  It’s quite fashionable to study the sequence of events that led to the so-called “Great War,” which in retrospect appear like dominoes falling as if on a predetermined course.  The rest of the war is far less fashionable to read about, as it proves too muddled a narrative.  Best to focus on the August beginning, and how it ended all that came before.

Mischief conspires with melancholia in August, the notion that mice can play while the cat’s vacationing.  It’s not clear whether Saddam Hussein thought he would get away with taking over Kuwait if he did so while the American president was summering in Maine, or whether that president’s son, when he was in office a decade later, would have taken warnings of an airborne Al Qaeda plot more seriously had he been briefed about them at some time and place other than August at his Texas ranch. 

August and the waning days of summer (and of the year, I insist) is when we let our guards down, creating an opening for those with an agenda, be it the invasion of Poland or Kuwait, or the shorting of the pound (George Soros famously bet against the British currency in August 1992, and won big).  So keep your eye on colleagues who seem especially busy and eager to stick around the office this month. Who knows what they’re up to?

Financial markets are notoriously slow in August, the month of lowest trading volumes, when bankers follow their clients to the beach. But “slow” can be a deceptive term in business as in life, given that lower volume and less liquidity in a market can make it more volatile, and more susceptible to speculation.  If you buy or sell 1,000 shares of a company, you are far more likely to influence that stock price on a day when only 5,000 shares trade hands than on a day when 100,000 shares trade hands. 

That same dynamic applies to anyone seeking to influence the outcome of any event: your influence increases the fewer people are engaged.  Which is what makes this such a dodgy month, and the current news headlines so ominous.

And now, I’m off to the beach for a week.  It’s August, after all.

Andres Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column.

For Rosh Hashanah: Make your own joy


The best part about Y2K, in my judgment, was that it signaled the end of the 20th century.

Â
Who among us would want to relive the last 100 years? Tens of millions of
people died during the previous century in the most violent and brutal ways.

Â
World War I, at the start of the century, was supposed to be the war to end all wars; it turned out to be merely the beginning. Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism and many other iterations of -isms, resulted in the bloodiest century in human history. Auschwitz and Hiroshima were two cataclysmic events that demonstrated the unbridled power and willingness of human beings to destroy life.

Â
I, for one, was delighted to see the century end. Because how could the next one be worse?

Â
Now that we are halfway through the first decade of the 21st century we are beginning to see how it could be worse. The penchant for genocide and murder on a massive scale as a result of secular orthodoxies apparently has not abated. But now, as we begin this new century, it has been supplemented by a penchant for genocide and murder on a massive scale by religious orthodoxies.

Â
The definition of a fanatic used to be someone who believed in something so strongly he was willing to give up your life for it. Today’s religious fanatic is not only willing to give up your life to reach their goals, but also their own lives and the lives of their children, as well. Martyrdom, what you and I call suicide with maximum collateral damage, is a religious ideal. This brand of religious fanaticism seeks to re-establish the glory of the Islamic caliphate.

Â
In effect, these fanatics want to return us to the seventh century, when Islam first conquered the world and spread its message by word and by sword. It is not paranoid to express fear over what could possibly happen if these groups trade the sword for something nuclear. They will then have the power to return much of the world to the seventh century — if, indeed, there would still be a world.

Â
Kind of hard to wish each other Happy New Year after that.

Â
Fear turns to anxiety and then to despair if we allow ourselves to feel helpless in the face of the threat of cataclysmic destruction. But despair is just not the Jewish way. We are simply not allowed, the sages of the Talmud tell us (Shabbat 30b), to allow sadness to dominate our mood: “The Shechina, the Divine Presence, cannot dwell in the midst of sadness.”

Â
To live in sadness is to block the presence of God from entering the world. To despair of a peaceful future is to give a victory to the forces of darkness. That is why Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who himself struggled with depression, is famous among Chasidim for his great teaching: “Mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid” — it is a great mitzvah to be in joy perpetually.

Â
How do we turn despair to joy? By exercising control over our environment. By utilizing the personal and collective power we have yet to tap. By responding to this homicidal religious fanaticism with a religious determination of our own. By endowing certain economic, political and technological policies with the holiness of a religious imperative.

Â
The transition from an economy based on oil to something that doesn’t enrich Muslim theocracies is a mitzvah. We condemn Iran for having funded Hezbollah, but the reality is they did so with our petrodollars. Reducing their income from the exportation of oil removes a powerful tool for Iranian mischief.

Â
Conservation — buying a hybrid, flipping off unused lights and unwatched TVs, recycling and more — is a mitzvah of the highest order. Establishing the greening of Jewish institutions — including synagogues, schools and communal buildings — is not just good for the environment, which should be motivation enough, but it will help save lives. And it goes without saying that actively opposing nuclear proliferation is also a mitzvah.

Â
These are mitzvot that have taken on great urgency and will change the world. If each of us finds the determination and the strength to begin this now, this will indeed be a happy New Year. And a much safer one as well.

Â

Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at pnetter@tbala.org.