People take part in the 51st annual Israel parade in Manhattan, New York May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Jews, if you want a better America (or Israel), don’t leave

The Wandering Jew is ever in search of a better place, a better future. According to a recent Atlantic report, the American Wandering Jew is currently considering a move to Europe – Donald Trump’s fault. “According to the German embassy in Washington, D.C.,” the report says, “the number of Jews applying for reclaimed citizenship from the U.S. has been increasing since the fall of 2016: 70 in September, 92 in October, 124 in November, and 144 in December. By January of this year, the number had climbed to 159.” It also says that in the month of the election there was “a spike in applications opened for Israeli citizenship – 320 in November, up from 136 the previous month – according to the Jewish Agency for Israel.”

Shortly after reading the Atlantic report, I stumbled over a Gallup report that shows that “Sharply Fewer Democrats Say They Are Proud to Be Americans.” According to Gallup, sixty seven percent of Democrats say they are “extremely” or “very” proud to be Americans – “down 11 percentage points from a year ago.” Clearly, “the decline in Democratic pride this year most likely stems from Democrats’ negative feelings about President Donald Trump.”

So we have two groups of disappointed, possibly horrified, Americans – a majority of Jews and many Democrats – reacting to the elevation of Trump by mulling immigration and by feeling less proud of their country. And, of course, this is hardly unique to the US. In Israel, stories about immigration of Jews to Germany periodically multiply like mushrooms after the rain. Disappointed by Israel’s politics, or economic situation, or both, young Israelis find a new home elsewhere, and other Israelis feel betrayed.

Of course, leaving a country is something that every person should be free to do. And sometimes, leaving a country would be the rational choice. If the country becomes intolerably hostile, if it becomes intolerably poor, if it does not provide a person with an opportunity for success, with a sense of community, with a sense of belonging (see what I wrote about the Jews of France).

Yet make no mistake: the public can smell an abandonment-instinct. The public identifies the groups that stick together and those that jump ship. Thus, a vicious circle is created. If a group seems like one that tends to flee rather than fight for the country, its influence declines. People would not put their trust in groups that have a smaller stake and lesser pride in their place of residence. And the more the influence of such a group declines, the more it tends to leave, or threaten to leave. And the more it talks about the tendency to leave, the more its influence declines. And so on and so forth.

To impact the politics of a country, a group must demonstrate a measure of doggedness. Israelis who following the assassination of the late Yizhak Rabin in 1995 declared that Israel is finished, were even less influential in consequent years. Similarly, Americans who following the rise of Trump declare that the US is no longer a place in which they can take pride will also see their influence further decline.

In other words: there is an inclination among people and groups to see their association with a country as a prize the country must earn, or a stick with which they can change the behavior of a country. They issue threats to their country like they would do with a child – do this, or we will leave, do that, or we will no longer see you as worthy of us.

But countries are generally indifferent to such threats. Those who threaten to leave just count for less. By making the threat they already prove that they are not as trustworthy as those who intend to stay together no matter what. Thus, Israelis leaving for Berlin made some waves but have hardly changed Israel’s course. The course is decided by those who stay. Similarly, Americans who don’t feel proud to be Americans will see their ability to convince other Americans that the country must change course diminish. Why would a country take advice from someone whose view of the country is dim?

I hardly think that many American Jews, or other Americans, will move to a different country because of Trump. Any damage to America because of good people leaving it is going to be negligible. I also don’t see much reason to be concerned by the Israelis who leave the country to find a better home. Seventy years ago, when Jews in Israel were a small group of six hundred thousand, there was a reason to be concerned. Today, we are six million and growing.

Leaving the country or showing intent to do so is not a punishment, nor a threat. It is a sign of fatigue and abandonment. As one does it one ought to understand the implications of one’s deed: the country will not grow weaker because of the threat to leave – the person or group that makes such threats is the one that will grow weaker.

* * *

By the way: the exact same argument is true for American Jews who threaten Israel with “distancing” or “disengagement.” Israel will not be swayed by such a threat – it will shrug and move to consider only the views of those who choose to stick around.



Rescuing God

This is the first holiday in 45 years that Rabbi Harold Schulweis will not be on the bima. In his memory we offer this sermon.

Elie Wiesel offered a parable about our times:

Once upon a time, Man complained to God: “You have no idea how hard it is to be human — to live a life darkened by suffering and despair in a world filled with violence and destruction, to fear death and worry that nothing we do or create or dream matters.  You have no idea how hard it is to be human!”

God responded, “You think it’s easy being God? I have a whole universe to run, a whole universe demanding constant vigilance. You think you could do that?”

            “I’ll tell you what,” suggested the Man, “let’s switch places, for just a moment. For just a moment, You be Man, and I’ll be God, and that way we’ll see who has it harder.”

            “For just a moment?” God considered, “Agreed.”

So Man and God switched places. Man sat upon God’s throne. And God descended to the earth. After a moment passed, God looked up and said, “OK, time to switch back.” But Man refused. Man refused to give up the throne of God. This is our world — where Man plays God, and God is exiled.

Once upon a time, our ancestors attributed everything in their lives to the will of God. Health and sickness, war and peace, poverty and affluence, were rewards and punishments cast down from heaven.  No matter how random, arbitrary and cruel their fate, they had faith that this too is God’s will, inscrutable and mysterious as it may be. But there came a time when we lost that faith.  We coveted the power to control our destiny. So we turned our efforts from deciphering God’s will, to discovering the patterns in nature and society that might help us predict and control our world.

Sickness, we discovered, is not a divine punishment, but the result of infection, faulty genetics, the deterioration of organs and cells. Drought and deluge are the products of shifts in atmospheric pressure and moisture. The movement of tectonic plates brings earthquakes, and the movement of capital markets produces economic booms and busts. We don’t look to God’s will to explain our fate. We look out upon a reality shaped by politics and economics, by forces of nature, by our own choices. God has been dethroned, and for better or worse, we control things now. We sit upon God’s throne.

Even when we achieved that dominion, we weren’t finished. We set about liberating ourselves of all vestiges of the old faith. We demythologized, desacralized, secularized. We admit no authority beyond ourselves. We tore down heroes, debunked myths, discarded taboos.

Once upon a time, we had heroes: moral heroes, great leaders, sports stars. On our walls hung pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Sandy Koufax. Who do we revere today? Political leaders today are just politicians representing entrenched special interests. Sports heroes are free-agents, playing for the money, or cheaters, or felons. Instead of artists, we exalt celebrities, and we cheer on the circus antics of their narcissism.

We subjected our myths to rigorous revisionist historiography and relished the opportunity to point out all that is unheroic and flawed. When I was young, I was taught to revere the American Founding Fathers – that extraordinary gathering of wise men, who cherished liberty, fought the Revolution for American freedom, and framed our Constitution. Now, we open a textbook and discover that the Revolution wasn’t fought to establish freedom but to defend the interests of a colonial merchant class. Just steps from Independence Hall in Philadelphia where our Founders declared “all men are created equal,” you’ll find the newly-excavated quarters where George Washington’s slaves stay while the Constitution was being drafted. In Monticello, you learn about all the children Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave, Sally Hennings. Lincoln was a depressive. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were notorious for their White House peccadillos. It is as if, one by one, we’re tearing the images off Mt Rushmore.

Who is left to revere today?

I grew up with Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, who told me each night: And that’s the way it is. And we believed him. Is there anyone we believe today? According to a Readers Digest poll, the most trusted Americans are Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington, Merle Streep, Four actor. We don’t know them, their values or their character. We only know the parts they play on screen.

We have lost our heroes, we have lost our myths, and ultimately, – we are losing the sacred. What is the sacred? The sacred is that which we serve with love and loyalty; the core of value upon which we build a life; the ideals which inform life with purpose. The sacred lifts us above the ego, above the endless desires and drives of the narrower self, to reach a bigger, truer, more generous self. Modernity is committed to liberate us from repression, superstition and authority. But in the process modernity, has subverted all that is sacred.

What is sacred today? What is inviolable?  

Patriotism? Patriotism is sullied by the divisiveness of our politics – the radically different views we hold about what America is, who it belongs to, and what it ought to be. Patriotism has become just another advertising slogan. 

Religion? The most popular Broadway show of the last decade is “Book of Mormon.” I’ll confess, it’s hysterical. But halfway through the show, you realize what it’s about. It’s a complete denigration of a community’s faith. What if they’d written “Book of Moses” instead? Would we be laughing? 


Once upon a time, we saw family as sacred. But research at the University of Michigan found that American children today spend about 20 hours a week interacting with their parents, but more than 30 hours a week, outside of school, in front of a TV screen or a computer monitor. Think of what those kids are seeing on TV. Is family really sacred?

The images of ISIS destroying ancient artifacts and places of worship shock us. But the truth is that we’ve been destroying the sacred for a long time now.

The problem is that human beings can’t live without a sense of the sacred. We need a core of value to motivate and inspire and provide purpose for life. We need myth – we need organizing narratives that answers our deepest questions – Who am I? What am I living for? What matters? Where do I belong? What’s my purpose?

People are so hungry today for myth and meaning, for the sacred, they run to embrace all sorts of belief systems. It was once imagined that as science progressed, all closed systems of belief would disappear in the face of scientific skepticism. The opposite has occurred. As modernity has progressed, fundamentalism has thrived.  No matter how irrational, intolerant, authoritarian, people run to embrace fundamentalism because it fills the deep hunger for the sacred. In fact, it seems the more authoritarian, the more attractive it is.

Of the five armed forces in the US – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard – which one do you think has the most success recruiting young people? The Marine Corp. By far. In fact, there is a wait list to get in. Why the Marine Corp? Why would the most demanding and authoritarian, of the armed service be so popular? Listen to their slogans — The Army promises that you can “be all you can be.” The Navy offers you the chance to see the world. The Marines offer myth. In the Marines, it’s not about you. It’s Semper Fi. It’s about belonging, serving, sacrifice. In the Marines you give up the self to become one of the few, the chosen.

Modernity asks questions, modernity casts doubt. The fundamentalist has no doubts. He has certainty, and there is a charisma that comes with that kind of certainty. He has absolute truth. That’s compelling.  Standing in the presence of absolute conviction, we can imagine that the sacred is at least possible. Even if the God he worships is sexist, chauvinistic, domineering, abusive, even if his ideology is primitive and prejudiced — at least he believes with all his heart, soul and might, without qualification or condition. That provides a kind of security. Even if it means relinquishing our critical sensibility, and democratic values, standing in the presence unqualified faith, we are granted a momentary reprieve from the spiritual emptiness of modern life.

Fundamentalism today is growing. So is addiction.

The human soul craves the sacred. And if we can find nothing sacred, nothing to serve, we live with a hole in the soul. And that hurts. So we run to fill that hole with something to numb the pain. Drink and drugs, shopping and acquisition, sex, pornography, exercise, fantasy, obsessive work, and the relentless pursuit of entertainment. Karl Marx once condemned religion as the opiate of the people. Rabbi Schulweis pointed out that today, it’s the other way around. Today, opiates are the religion of the people. Addiction fills in the hole where the sacred once lived.

In another gripping tale, Elie Wiesel tells of the day his boyhood synagogue was filled with worshippers, when the crazed shamas ran it, and screamed, “Sha. Quiet Jews. Don’t you know that God is hunting the Jews of Europe?  Sha. Don’t let Him know where we are!”

The Holocaust was the capstone of the project of Modernity. As Dostoevsky predicted, when anything goes, everything goes. Absent a sense of the sacred, the unthinkable is suddenly possible. It is as if Western Civilization brought absolute evil into the world just to prove once and for all there is no Father in Heaven who will save us. 

In the chilling words of Wiesel’s memoir, Night:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

In a moment of painful candor, my teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, once asked, how is it that we say the same prayers, pray to the same God, observe the same holidays after the Shoah, as before? How has this cataclysm not changed us indelibly? The question raised by Job in the Bible and revisited throughout the generations of Jewish existence – How can a just and loving God tolerate a world of such suffering? That question comes to a climax in the Holocaust. In the presence of a million and half murdered Jewish children, Greenberg argued, we simply can’t talk about God in the same way anymore.  An April, 1966, cover of Time Magazine asked, in huge bold letters, Is God Dead? After all we’ve witnessed, is there any way today to speak about God, about faith, about God’s role in the world?

The purpose of religion is to identify the sacred, and cultivate and nurture our sensitivity and connection to the sacred. The sacred is rooted in our narratives, our myths. Sacred values grow out of the stories we tell. In Jewish tradition, our core values are rooted in the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of God at Mt Sinai – the story of a God who hands down mitzvoth, commandments, to a covenanted people. The problem is, so many of us don’t believe those narratives any more. Science questions their facticity. Modernity makes it impossible to admit any transcendent source of values. But most of all, we find the tradition’s images of God, impossible to accept. What we’ve witnessed in the 20th century has changed us. We have known too much horror to embrace the old narratives of a God who interrupts history to save His people. We just can’t tell those stories any more. No amount of theological sophistry can bring us back the faith of our ancestors.

This is the task that Rabbi Harold Schulweis faced when he first stepped onto this pulpit, 45 years ago: Addressing a generation deeply yearning for the sacred, but a generation for whom the old narratives, the old beliefs, simply don’t work. That’s what every one of his books, his articles, his sermons are about.

Rabbi Schulweis did not deny or ignore or censure the disillusionment experienced by this generation. He didn’t blame us for doubting and question what our grandparents believed. On the contrary, he honored our doubt. He recognized that our questions of God didn’t grow from cynicism or indifference or despair. Our questions grew from love – love of the Jewish people, love of humanity, love of justice. He recognized in this generation’s doubt what the Talmud called “chutzpah klpei shamaya” – holy protest, sacred dissent. He perceived that our difficulties with the tradition’s image of God are rooted in a set of expectations that reflect traditional, Jewish sacred values. He heard in our questions the voice of Abraham: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do Justice? Ironically, it is our very fidelity to traditional Jewish sacred values that makes it impossible to believe in the traditional narratives about God.

This is precisely where Rabbi Schulweis begins to rebuild faith. If we can no longer find the tradition’s sacred values in a narrative about God, he taught, let’s turn the process around, and root a new narrative of God in our sacred values. The goal of Judaism, he argued, is not to make us believers in a God above. It never was. The goal of Judaism is to make us vessels of divine holiness here on earth. It’s not about God, but Godliness, about the sacred values we express in our conduct of life. God is a verb, he taught, not a noun. Not a Someone. But a way of encountering the world.

This sounds strange to many of us, but it wasn’t to him, and most importantly, it wasn’t to the Jewish tradition. This idea has been in our tradition from the beginning. Open Maimonides. The greatest book of Jewish philosophy ever written, the majestic Guide for the Perplexed begins with the same dilemma, the God we inherit from tradition, we can no longer believe in. In the 12th century, Maimonides set about developing a radically new idea of God and religion. The ultimate goal of human life, he taught, is to perfect oneself so that one can know God. Moses is the Maimonides’ model of the most realized human life, and Moses’ ascent up Mt Sinai, is his metaphor for the journey of human perfection. But one important fact of Moses’ story vexed Maimonides: Having achieved perfection, and standing face to face with God, Moses turns around and descends the mountain. He returns to his people, and all their trouble. Why Moses doesn’t stay on the mountaintop with God? Only on the very last page, the very last paragraph  of the Guide to the Perplexed does Maimonides gives the answer: the perfection in which man can truly glory is attained by him when he has acquired knowledge of God, and God’s Providence, … Having acquired this knowledge, one will then be determined always to seek kindness, justice, and righteousness, and to imitate the ways of God.  Do you hear that? Achieving intellectual perfection and knowing God is but a penultimate objective. The real goal of human life is to embody God’s justice and lovingkindness in the world – to live God, to do God. The last line of Maimonides is the first line of Schulweis. Godliness is the goal of human life.

You know this. You know that the fundamental building block of Jewish prayer is the brachaBaruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam. If the purpose of faith is to express belief in a God above, then the bracha should have stopped there. That says it all: Praised is God, Ruler of the Universe. Period. Why say anything else? But we continue — Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz; borei pri ha-gafen, Shehechianu V’keemanu because the real purpose of the bracha is to build a vocabulary of sacred values, to identify what in life is sacred. Tradition commands that we recite a hundred brachot a day. This is our Jewish spiritual discipline. Its aim is to train our sensitivity for the sacred in life everyday.

Ralph Waldo Emmerson wrote that we become what we worship. The bracha invites us to move beyond the boundaries of the self, beyond our endless needs and desires and moods, to become Godly. To recite a bracha, is to recognize our capacity of self-transcendence, to care, to heal, to help, to give, to touch the lives of others. When we recite a bracha, we bind ourselves to a vision of what we can yet become – to the Godliness latent within.

Rabbi Schulweis believed that this curriculum of self-transcendence had to be more than a solitary spiritual experience. So he introduced a program of initiatives, beginning here at VBS and spreading throughout the country, which re-made the American synagogue.  All of the initiatives he introduced to the synagogue share this quality of breaking boundaries. He perceived the loneliness of suburban life, and so he gathered us into havurot. He felt our need to care for one another, so he trained us to serve as para-rabbinics, and para-professional counselors. He decried the divisions within the Jewish community, and called for cross-denominational youth programs. He felt the narrowness of the Jewish community, and so he reached out to welcome Jews by choice through a program of Keruv, he built a relationship with the Armenian community to commemorate our shared experience of Holocaust together, and in his ninth decade, he demanded we respond to genocide in Darfur and the Congo, and established the Jewish World Watch. Every initiative, an exercise in self-transcendence – becoming more.  

But he still faced one problem. How do we believe in anything after the horrors of the Holocaust? In the face of that evil, that absolute evil, how can we maintain any sense of meaning? 

A few years before Rabbi Schulweis came to VBS, he was attending a Jewish community affair at a hotel in San Francisco, when the owner of the hotel, Ben Swig, introduced him to hotel’s maintenance supervision, a German immigrant named Fritz Graebe. Graebe shared his story with the Rabbi. During the war, Fritz Graebe ran a construction company under contract with the Nazi, on the German-Ukranian border. Graebe had once been a member of the Nazi party. But he grew to hate the Nazis. He witnessed the massacre of Jews in the Ukranian town of Dubno, and it sickened him. So he told the Nazis he needed large numbers of workers, and he took Jews off of trains, and out of concentration camps, and put them to work on his projects. He invented projects, and inflated projects, so the Nazis would give him more work permits. When the Gestapo announced new deportations, he put Jews on trains to nowhere, holding bogus work permits. He used all the privileges afforded him as a civilian contractor, and he used up all his wealth, to save Jews. The Nazis had suspicions, but when they came to arrest him, he escaped to the Allies’ lines. Eventually he would testify at the Nuremberg trials. And when he received death threats, he moved his family to San Francisco. How many Jewish lives did Fritz Graebe save? There were 5000 Jews on his payroll on the day the war ended. 5000 rescued Jewish lives.

Fritz Graebe was only the first of the rescuers that Rabbi Schulweis discovered. He soon found Jacob Gilat, a young mathematics instructor Berkley who, with his brothers, was hidden and rescued by a German Christian family. Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved 3500 Jews in Kovno, Lithuania. The Bulgarian royal family who defied the Gestapo’s order and allowed them to take not one Jew from their country. And so many more.  Collectively, they testified that God did not die in the concentration camps. They rescued Jews. Through their testimony, Rabbi Schulweis rescued God. Even in the deepest darkness, there were sparks of Godliness. 

In our history, there is a rare and special tradition of Jewish spiritual revolutionaries who were called upon to rescue Judaism at moments of profound disruption: Yohanan ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Temple, Maimonides when philosophy shook the foundations of Jewish faith, the Baal Shem Tov addressing a generation deeply disillusioned and despairing of faith. At these extraordinary moments, Jewish existence reached a crisis – when the sacred narratives of the past expired, and new narratives were yet to be born. These were the singular personalities who perceived that the survival of the community depended on its ability to transcend, to transform, to reinvent its ideas and institutions. They provided resilience, the courage and the inspiration to let go of the old, and to imagine the new. Rabbi Schulweis stands within that extraordinary tradition. As we sing at Hannuka: Hen b’chal dor, yakum hagibor, goel ha-am. In every generation, a hero arose to save our people.

He didn’t grow up in synagogue. Far from it. His father rebelled against religion, and raised him in a rich tradition of secular Yiddish culture. He didn’t set foot in a synagogue until he was 12 years old. It was Rosh Hashanah, and school was out in his Bronx neighborhood, so he was wandering the boulevard, when he heard the most remarkable music coming from one of the storefronts. He entered, and because he was small, they assumed he was a kid looking for his mothers, so they sent him upstairs to the women’s section, where he sat transfixed by the majesty and melody of the service. And so for the past 45 years he has sat here, again, transfixed by the majesty and the melody, the prayers and yearnings of the Jewish people.

Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory be our blessing. 

Let bygones (not) be bygones

That’s it?

Twelve-hundred-and-eight words, and we’re supposed to forget the months of ugly that came before?

Not so fast.

“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together.”

A gracious gesture, and — poof! — the “Country First” ticket is off the hook, just like that, for the lying, red-baiting, character assassination, rabble-rousing, and calculated polarization that preceded it?

I don’t think so.

A dog that behaved that badly would be sent to obedience school. A child who was that reckless would face consequences up the wazoo. But just because Americans are good people, a campaign’s end requires us to willingly come down with a national case of amnesia?

Gimme a break.

What an insult it is to the idea of accountability, this notion that responsibility for the ugly emotions unleashed by demagoguery is wiped away by a concession speech. What an affront to the dignity of democracy, this remorseless draining of meaning from language, this quadrennial rush to retroactively trivialize our public discourse.

The most pernicious aspect of the media-political complex we are saddled with is its addiction to postmodern irony. Educated people are supposed to understand that politics is just theater, a pageant designed to entertain us, a Punch and Judy show whose audience realizes it’s not real. Politics is only a game, you see, a sport — a blood sport, to be sure, but the teams aren’t actually warriors, they’re performers, and their combat is ritual, not real.

You think these candidates mean what they say? Grow up, says the professional commentariat. Don’t you get it? These politicians are winking at you. They know it’s just kabuki. Don’t take this stuff seriously.

So John McCain — while claiming that not he’s not impugning Barack Obama’s patriotism — impugns Barack Obama’s patriotism, but we’re supposed to understand that it doesn’t really matter, because that’s just what people do in campaigns.

So Sarah Palin says that Obama pals around with terrorists, and she incites her crowds to look for pitchforks, but we’re supposed to believe that Pandora can just shoo the evil back into the box come Election Day.

So Rudy Giuliani bares his teeth on national television, but because he laughs with startled delight at the rancor he unleashes in his listeners, we’re supposed to construe his snarling as a harmless charade.

So the ads on America’s airwaves relentlessly pound into our national psyche the message that “liberal” is akin to traitor, that Obama is dishonorable, that he is opportunistically lying when he claims to dissent from “God damn America” – and the press covers the slurs as merely tactical maneuvers, as though the country could just take a shower once the campaign is over and wash the silly slime off its body, as though no damage had been done to the nation because no one serious takes any of this stuff seriously.

Yes, I know that some of Obama’s ads earned the ire of independent fact checkers. I realize that political rhetoric isn’t the same thing as sworn testimony. And I recognize that campaigns in America’s past have crawled with calumny even worse than this one.

But I also think that our yearning for post-election healing, our hunger for common ground, is risky. There is something wonderfully redemptive in our belief in national reconciliation. But there is also in it something naïve and self-destructive and dangerous.

Have we so quickly forgotten the rank hypocrisy of George W. Bush running as “a uniter, not a divider”? Have we no recollection of the fatuous hollowness of his inaugural promises to reach across the aisle? Is it too dispiriting to recall that his search for common ground turned out to mean “my way or the highway”? Is it just too difficult to remember the eight years during which principled dissent was demonized as being “with the terrorists”?

On Inauguration Day, no doubt Barack Obama will come up with something gracious to say about the worst president in history, just as he was generous in his victory speech to John McCain and Sarah Palin, and open-armed to their supporters.

But it does no good to pretend that the politics of personal destruction is harmless to democracy, to ignore how corrosive campaigns can be, to comfort oneself — as the punditocracy does — with the sophisticated nostrum that it’s only politics, so get over it.

Call me churlish, but I think that along with the privilege of living in a democracy comes the obligation to be accountable for your actions. And if you think that words — the currency of campaigns — aren’t actions, if you believe that rhetoric doesn’t matter, if you treat politics as just another branch of show biz, well then, you’re pretty much a sitting duck for the next demagogue to come along.

Forgive and forget? Not just yet.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. Reach him at

Vets for Freedom shed light on war

As Shabbat ended on March 15, 150 teenagers, parents and senior citizens came to hear members of Vets for Freedom speak at YULA High School. As a 15-year-old freshman in high school, I wanted to attend to hear these soldiers’ stories because I care about our country. I also wanted to hear their side of the war, and after the soldiers spoke, I saw the war in a new light.

Vets for Freedom is a nonpartisan organization informing the American public about the importance of succeeding in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first vet who spoke was one of the leaders of the organization, Pete Hegseth, an infantry platoon leader who served in Guantanamo Bay. He spoke about how the Iraq War should be won and his recent visit to Baghdad. According to Hegseth, the neighborhoods are completely reformed compared to those of 2005, because Al Qaeda was expelled by the American troops who lived among the population.

Hegseth also got a standing ovation for what he said regarding Guantanamo Bay: “[The prisoners] would come here tomorrow and kill Americans or our allies, and it is important we would keep them out of that fight. We have to have a place to hold them.”

Next was Jeremiah Workman, a Marine squad leader in Fallujah, who talked about the two to three weeks of “house-to-house” combat to kill insurgents. Workman compared the battles there with the city’s recent situation. He commented how the gunfire has subsided and how soldiers are invited to some Iraqi weddings.

Workman passed on the microphone to Steve Russell, a colonel who was involved in the capture of Saddam Hussein. Russell took the event to more of a meditative and philosophical mood. He used historical examples to show the negativity of people, just as today many people are negative about this war. For example, he explained how people put down the Wright Brothers, the Spirit of St. Louis and Apollo 13.

“Our nation will prevail as long as even a few Americans take a stand and still believe in this country and honor her welfare above self-promotion, political advancement, and promoting unhappiness,” Russell said.

After hearing his speech, I felt that I should do more for my country and listen to what George Washington said about placing one’s nation over one’s individual self. His reflective speech instilled a feeling of patriotism in me and really made me start thinking about, as John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

After this I realized that the whole event wasn’t just about success in Iraq, but was also about reviving our pride in American heritage and culture.

The final speaker was David Bellavia, a staff sergeant in an infantry unit in Iraq. Bellavia wrote “House to House,” a book about the hand-to-hand infantry combat in Fallujah. He founded Vets for Freedom.

“We took five guys, all Afghanistan and Iraqi veterans,” he explained. “We got together and said that we are going to stand accounted for.”

Bellavia lightened the mood when he took the stage, with jokes about math and what it’s like to be a target. However, he also presented a more serious note, stating how he could not understand why the radical Muslims are attacking Israel.

“Why is it that there’s so much hatred toward Israel? What are the foreign policy issues in Israel that cause militant Islam to murder? The domestic policy is self-preservation. It’s to hold on to what they’ve had for thousands and thousands of years, and still they acquire the wrath of militant Islam,” Bellavia said.

He also pointed out, “There might be a time down the road when you’re called. When you hear the calling of your nation with a rifle or a flag. It might be with your community or the people you worship with, but understand there are people right now that want to destroy you strictly based on the fact that you worship the God you worship and because you were born to the parents you were born to. You will eventually have to confront it, and hoping and wishing they go away empowers them. No more.”

After this, I realized I needed to defend both my religion and my American heritage and to question issues presented to investigate all aspects.

Afterward, there was a book signing and all 55 “House to House” books were sold. When I got home I started reading “House to House.” I reflected about how the soldiers and marines are heroes for risking their lives to defend us.

This summer I’m visiting Washington D.C., and I will now look at our achievements with a sense of pride. I’m glad that our soldiers see Israel as an ally, and I believe militant Islam has to be defeated. It was riveting to hear actual soldiers talk about their experiences first-hand, and these four veterans are truly heroes.

Phil Cooper is a freshman at Beverly Hills High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to

Patriot Jew

Two distinct kinds of Diaspora Jews have emerged over the millennia: the two “P” Jews. One is Persecuted Jew, the Jew who has lived through governments and regimes that have been most unkind to their endemic Jewish populations. Sadly, this has been the majority of our Diaspora history.

The other is Patriot Jew. This is the Jew who has lived during a time of relative tolerance and benevolence, and who has reacted in kind to his government with gratitude and civic service. In fact, Patriot Jew has typically been more fervent in his fealty to the ruler of the land than his non-Jewish counterpart.

Small pockets of time for Patriot Jew have existed over the past 2,000 years. The 10th and 11th centuries were known as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. So welcomed were Jews into the general Moorish society that great Jewish civic servants also emerged, such as Chasdai ibn Shaprut (d. 990), vizier to the caliphs Abd al-Rahman and Hakem. Half a millennium later and in a different part of Iberia, Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel (d. 1508) was treasurer to King Afonso V of Portugal.

So great was the patriotic spirit of Jews that it became common practice for the Shabbat liturgy to include a prayer for the welfare of the government. One may still detect German Jews’ patriotism before the Third Reich from the few still extant old German siddurim containing a prayer for the welfare of Kaiser Wilhelm.

Considering Jews’ tendency to obediently serve their governmental leaders, what was Mordechai’s problem? Why did he so boldly refuse to bow down to Haman, as recorded in the Book of Esther (3:2)? This was, after all, the king’s edict, that all should be obeisant to Haman. It was the law of the land.

Furthermore, when Haman realized that Mordechai was breaking the law, why didn’t he just have him arrested and/or executed for this act of sedition? We also never find that Haman ever reported Mordecai’s offense directly to King Ahasuerus.

Perhaps we’re looking at the story the wrong way. It wasn’t Mordechai’s disregard for the king’s law that prompted him to break it. It was his high regard for Ahasuerus and the monarchy that prevented him from bowing to anyone other than the king.

Mordechai was conscientiously objecting to any subordinate of the king being accorded that kind of honor. He viewed it as compromising the king’s power and command. Mordechai genuinely felt it was his patriotic and civic duty to peacefully disobey this one law in order to strengthen all the other laws of the king.

We could then understand why Mordecai was not arrested on the spot by the king’s officers. How can you arrest someone who is upholding the honor of your king? We also understand why the officers present reported Mordecai’s refusal to bow directly to Haman instead of to the royal police or courts, who might have let the case get buried out of respect to their king.

Looking at the story in this light, we find that ultimate salvation came to the Jews of Persia because of Mordechai’s insistence on supporting the honor of his government.

As the Talmud states: “A person should strive to greet non-Jewish kings.” Out of one’s respect and loyalty to his non-Jewish rulers, he will eventually merit his own powerful Jewish government.

Not only did the Jews gain salvation from Haman’s death squads in the Purim story, but they later received permission to rebuild the Temple and return to Israel.

Some recent negative press in our community indicates, lamentably, that some Jews in America still view themselves as Persecuted Jew instead of Patriot Jew. Of course, we all can learn from Mordechai how to maintain a pristine patriotism for the country that has been so good to us.

Perhaps one way to strengthen our people and our Jewish leaders — both in Israel and in the Diaspora — is to show proper respect for the laws of our land and commit even more to civic duty. When it comes to preserving this sweet land of liberty, we, too, must refuse to bow.

Happy Purim!

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region.