NSA and JEW


If you ever needed a sign that Jews feel fully integrated and accepted by society, consider this: Not one major Jewish group made a peep over the revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance.

We, who throughout the modern era have been followed, spied on, singled out, labeled, rounded up, tortured and killed at the hands of the state, are officially just fine with our government tracking our every word.

It’s one thing for non-Jews to say, by way of accepting the NSA actions, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” We Jews remember, say, 1932 to 1945. Deserving has nothing to do with it.

Yet even those Jews who wield power through politics or the media Mavenocracy have sided not with the outraged civil libertarians who have called on the NSA to stop mass-harvesting the phone and Internet records of every American citizen. 

“Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened,” Tom Friedman wrote in his June 11 New York Times column. “But I worry even more about another 9/11.”

The Times’ David Brooks called Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton contract employee who leaked the fact of NSA tracking, a “traitor.” Richard Cohen of The Washington Post said he’s not worried because, as he put it, “Safeguards were built in.”

Even Jeffrey Goldberg, a columnist as clearly, comfortably Jewish as Dan Savage is out, counseled mere restrained concern.

“It isn’t incompatible to argue for a culture of rigorous civil liberties and acknowledge simultaneously that terrorism poses actual and unique challenges,” Goldberg wrote in his June 12 Bloomberg View post.

It is perhaps no surprise that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has accused Snowden of treason. But consider Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who liberal Dems once hailed as Ralph Nader with a laugh track. He dismissed the revelations as unsurprising. In other words, as his “Saturday Night Live” Stuart Smalley character once said, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

The anti-Snowdenites don’t necessarily reflect the sentiment of all the Jews-on-the-street. Many people I’ve spoken with consider Snowden a hero, and they wonder how we, as Jews, can be OK with a government that can track our movements, phone calls and keystrokes, then swoop in and grab us whenever some bureaucrat decides we’re a threat.

It has happened, you’ll recall.

“Liberal Jews are completely hypocritical on this,” a friend of mine mused. “They’re not saying anything because Obama’s in charge. But what if it were Bush, or the Koch brothers?”

So why is it that we Jews, who have a healthy, history-certified paranoia and an abiding concern for the civil liberties of all, have not been marching on Washington over this latest news?

Here’s why: Much of this NSA tracking began under George W. Bush, as Feinstein pointed out. Most of us were OK with it then. The issue, then as now, is what safeguards are in place. Or, as the now well-used phrase has it: Who’s watching the watchers? It is up to us citizens to make sure those legal controls are in place, and that the bureaucracy, always addicted to overreach, is transparent and accountable.

That’s crucial, because the fact is, the technology of surveillance is only going to get cheaper and more widespread. My come-to-Moses moment on this happened three years ago, when I entered my home address on Google Maps. In a split second I had a nice view of my backyard. A four-letter word leapt from my mouth and I realized: Game Over. How much longer before technology allows a satellite to stream that image live 24/7 — or see inside my home? 

For me, it’s not too burdensome to act as if my every e-mail, text and phone conversation could be heard and assessed by an all-seeing judge — I am the son of a Jewish mother, after all. And that’s the trade-off I’m prepared to make. Give me the benefits of a digital life and I’ll live with some of the costs.

Those benefits, by the way, include the ability to monitor and watch the government as well — it cuts both ways. We need to develop and fund more groups like OpenSecrets.org — as well as support great digital journalism — to open government up like never before.

Finally, yes, we Jews also have to admit we’re not reflexively opposed to the NSA tracking, because most of the people they’re tracking are on a jihad specifically against us. The ideologies of hatred have gone from print to pixel. It’s the ideology, not the technology, we have to hold in check. On the Internet, you can find pages for “Burn a Jew Day” and “Kill a Jew Day,” which, by the way, is July 9. When it’s your kids, your community center, your shul at risk, you tend to give the good guys a longer leash.

Just make sure they stay good.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Rudolph Kastner: Traitor or savior?


When a Hollywood synagogue wants to draw upon the strengths of its congregation, is it surprising that there’s a surfeit of attorneys and actors? Such is the case at Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH), which heralded the talents of both sets in last weekend’s performance of “The People vs. Kastner,” a dramatic imagining of a trial for Rudolph Kastner that never happened.

Kastner is the Hungarian Jew who convinced Adolf Eichmann to send some 1,685 Jews on a train to Switzerland, even as another 480,000 were shipped off and exterminated in concentration camps. Rather than being celebrated for saving Jews, Kastner became a lightning rod after the war, accused of treason for collaborating with the Nazis. In 1957, he was assassinated on the streets of Tel Aviv.

For the May 1 performance, produced as a Yom HaShoah remembrance event by the synagogue’s new arts council, a legal team played by real-life jurists and historic witnesses portrayed by thespians created an aura of authenticity — a courtroom scene in which the audience was the jury, determining at the end of the day whether Kastner was guilty.

The legal team included L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich as defense attorney, former federal prosecutor and attorney Bert H. Deixler as prosecutor and L.A. Superior Court Judge Leslie A. Swain, who happens to be Deixler’s wife, as judge. All but Trutanich are TIOH members.

The company of actors included Alan Rosenberg (“L.A. Law”) as Kastner, Paul McCrane (“ER”) as Eichmann, and a host of “witnesses,” including Curtis Armstrong (“Revenge of the Nerds”), Libby Clearfield (“Oregon Trail Live!” and a teacher in the TIOH religious school), Enid Kent (“M*A*S*H”), Phil LaMarr (“MADtv”), Danny Maseng (TIOH cantor and music director, who has appeared on “Law & Order,” among other shows) and Monica Horan Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”). Only Rosenberg is not a part of the TIOH community.

(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this reporter is also a TIOH member, and that the author of “The People vs. Kastner” is Jonathan Maseng, a frequent contributor to The Journal, who is also an aspiring screenwriter and the son of Hazzan Danny Maseng.)

From the standpoint of some of the congregation’s other professional attorneys chatting in the lobby during intermission, there was no contest that authenticity had been upheld. One attorney remarked that seeing Trutanich cross-examine the witnesses proved why you should hope he’s on your side in a courtroom.

“The Talmud says, ‘Save one Jew, and it’s as if you’ve saved the world,’ ” Trutanich repeatedly told the courtroom audience — many of whom knew little of the story of Kastner beforehand.

The show revealed a man who was recognized by the Nazis as a prominent player in the Jewish community and manipulated by the Nazis for his power. Each side hoped to outsmart the other — Kastner desperately promising money he wasn’t sure he could procure to buy freedom for Jews; Eichmann trying to maintain Kastner’s silence about the deportations and make sure Kastner would “stay in the game.” Although Kastner did not go on the train himself, Eichmann put many of Kastner’s relatives on board, according to the script, to ensure his complicity. Kastner also was able to travel to Switzerland, though he reportedly returned to Hungary and was later shipped to the camps.

The professional authenticity of the legal team was well-matched by the actors, who ad libbed answers to questions they had seen in advance. It was a testament to each actor’s skill that while the event ran long — close to four hours — the audience stayed until the end to vote overwhelmingly (266 to 27) to acquit Kastner, convinced that he had done all he could to save as many Jews as he could in a desperate situation. What in life was seen as his “collaboration” seemed, according to the production’s evidence, acts of expedience — Kastner’s attempt to do the best he could. His own family was saved, we were told, not by his own request.

Equally extraordinary, however, was what occurred after the show ended, when two survivors of the actual Kastner train spoke to the audience.

George Z. Bishop stood from the audience and testified to Kastner’s goodness, bearing real-life witness, in the form of his grandson at his side, that one life saved is truly more than a single gift.

And, as a finale, Arthur Stern, another Kastner survivor, rose to tell the group of how his own father, Leo Stern, an Orthodox rabbi, had an unlikely but important collaboration with Kastner. In Hungary at the time, the Orthodox were not inclined toward Zionism, but in light of what was happening, Rabbi Stern and Zionist Kastner collaborated to get Jews across the border.

Too many Hungarian Jews, Stern remembered, had a fundamental “trust in their government.” Before 1944, Hungary had sheltered its Jews and escaped the horrors going on in Germany and other countries around it, and the Jews wrongly believed that they would survive by following the laws of the land.

Stern told of how, as a young man, he went to see Kastner to ask him to put his girlfriend on the train. Kastner complied, Stern said, describing this act as a testament to Kastner’s generosity. But as viewed by one in the audience, this belated information also appeared as new evidence that might affirm what Kastner’s accusers believed — that he put favored friends onto the train, knowingly choosing “who will live and who will die” — exactly what Trutanich so convincingly said Kastner did not do.

And that is the difference between art and history — a series of events tied up with a ribbon in a theatrical performance, even one showing many sides like this one, may still be even more subtly complicated in life.

So, was Kastner a hero or a villain? We know he saved 1,685 Jewish lives — Jews who went on to procreate and to create new worlds. And to shake the hand of one of those survivors who came to witness this extraordinary retelling is to know that Kastner’s achievement is something to be thankful for, even if it wasn’t perfectly done.

Barack Obama Is a Traitor


Barack Obama is a traitor.

That’s what Dick Cheney said. Too bad Tiger Woods stepped on the story.

The decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in New York, ” title=”was warned”>was warned: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” ” title=”tough”>tough ” title=”hearing him”>hearing him slander Obama for endangering our troops, weakening our security and making America less safe that Cheney’s act has come to seem more Chicken Little than Doctor Evil.

Or maybe there’s a double standard. A man who manipulated intelligence to justify a misbegotten war; who authorized torture; who ordered illegal wiretapping of Americans; who outed and endangered a covert CIA agent in order to punish a whistleblower; who directed billions in no-bid contracts to the company he ran and retains a substantial financial interest in: maybe the media were tougher on a Democratic president who was impeached for lying about fellatio than they ever were on a de facto Republican president who should arguably have been impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Or maybe we’re just so busy ” title=”Guido”>Guido boys and philandering boys that we’ve lost our faculty for distinguishing what’s interesting from what’s important, what’s catnip for our attention from what’s corrosive to our democracy.

Liz Cheney ” title=”Rudy Giuliani said”>Rudy Giuliani said: The conviction in a New York federal court of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, demonstrated “that we can give people a fair trial, that we are exactly what we say we are…. I think he’s going to be a symbol of American justice.”

There are no television cameras in federal courtrooms. Federal judges can instantly quash incendiary speeches by defendants. Do the Cheneys want to pre-emptively accuse the judge in the Khalid Shaikh Mohammed trial of treason, too? 

As respected terrorism expert

The Spin on Spinoza — Rebel or Traitor?


“Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity” by Rebecca Goldstein (Schoken, $19.95).

In high school, I read and reread two fluent, erudite surveys of philosophy until the pages of the books fell to pieces. By the time the glue bindings cracked on Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” and Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy,” I knew one thing for sure — they both loved Baruch Spinoza.

For Durant, Spinoza was as close as philosophy could come to sainthood — a life of austerity, rationality, independence, principle, rarefied thought. For Russell, the draw was not only Spinoza’s devotion to reason, but his willingness to devote himself fully to the world of thought. For a philosopher to be excommunicated gave him intellectual street cred, a kind of cognitive cache. Spinoza was the real deal.

But I also grew up knowing what Rebecca Goldstein tells us again and again in her about-to-be-released speculative, digressive, charming and lucid book, “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity”: Traditional Judaism feared and distrusted this child of the enlightenment. Although prominent Jewish thinkers, from Moses Mendelssohn to Solomon Maimon to modern Zionists, have claimed him as their own, every deliberation on Spinoza wonders — is he a Jewish thinker? Surely he does not believe in the chosenness of the Jews or the Divine authorship of Torah or the mandates of halachah — does he even believe in God?

The prosecution has a formidable team. Although Goldstein does not speak very much about the reaction of Jewish scholars to their illustrious precursor, we recall that the great historian Heinrich Graetz, while insisting that Spinoza was one of the greatest thinkers of his time, also described Spinoza’s relation to Judaism as that of a “murderer to his mother.” Hermann Cohen accused Spinoza of “incomprehensible treason” and, needless to say, in more traditional circles Benedict Spinoza in Jewish history is seen with the same sympathy as Benedict Arnold in American history.

Who was this lovable genius and hideous traitor? Spinoza was born in 1632, one of five children. His mother died in his seventh year. He saw around him the multiple traumas that afflicted the Jewish community. Despite the relative tolerance of Amsterdam in that age (their libraries were famous throughout Europe for their extensive, uncensored holdings), there were persecutions of dissidents, excommunications in the Jewish community, vigilance and fear. The historical tidal wave of the Inquisition continued to ripple through Europe. Many Jews were at some stage of hiding: Jews who converted to Christianity and practiced Judaism in secret; Jews who remained sincere Christians but had close Jewish family; Jews converted and then returned to Judaism, weighed down by guilt. These and a thousand other permutations made identity, fidelity and individual contingency very fraught questions. One of the joys of Goldstein’s book is to watch her briefly trace the historical patterns of the Inquisition — work done so extensively in Yirmiyahu Yovel’s admirable two volumes (“Spinoza and Other Heretics”) — and relate it to Spinoza’s character and story.

Here is the “betrayal” of the title. For Spinoza was the most thoroughgoing depersonalizer in the history of philosophy. In the 20th century, existentialism sought to return philosophy to the “I.” It was about my individual, free, personal orientation to existence and my acceptance of the reality of death. Spinoza is the anti-existentialist. The only universal quality that can explain the world is reason. You don’t know my experience, but we can share a syllogism. It is emphatically not about me; a wise man, he wrote, thinks of nothing less often than death.

Spinoza was a monist, believing all things are composed of the same substance and all must have come to be the way they are. There is no room for individual variation, except as a manifestation of the same substance, the whole of which Spinoza called “god.” The way to grasp the substance, and to transcend the false individuality that traps us is through reason. Logic, reason, thought are the tools of salvation and of goodness. To relate Spinoza’s philosophy to the death of his mother or the status of the Jews was precisely to contradict his reigning insight — it is all impersonal and about the austere, diamond-hard, cold and eternal realm of logic. The logical web fastens the universe, and it is our task to understand it better to expand our minds. The intellectual love of God, to know all through logic, is the highest human goal.

One friend of Spinoza’s, quoted by biographer Stephen Nadler, said he never saw the philosopher sad or merry. We might call that a “flattened affect,” but Spinoza would call it philosophical detachment and calm.

In Spinoza’s world, there is no reward and punishment, immortality or freedom; there is the striving to use the mind to achieve union with nature, which is identical with God. We cannot change things, because everything is as it must be: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, condemn or scorn human actions, but to understand.”

Goldstein, who grew up in an Orthodox girls school and went on to write novels and become a professor of philosophy, traces many threads of influence on Spinoza: his excommunication, his shattered family life, the way Spinoza used kabbalistic questions in his philosophy, his mathematical aspirations (the “ethics” is laid out like a Euclidean geometry.) She also powerfully investigates the Jewish upbringing that not only led him to a book on the composition of the Bible, but, at the end of his life, to compose a Hebrew grammar.

Spinoza was convinced the Torah was the product of human hands. Although he did not invent biblical criticism, he was an early exponent of it. He was also an early supporter of the “this-worldly return” of the Jewish people to Israel.

Spinoza spent most of his adult life grinding lenses in his apartment. He had friends and acquaintances who testified to the gentleness of his character; he turned down academic offers and offers of stipends. Some have seen him as the first truly secular man — he was excommunicated from the Jewish tradition and never became a Christian. But he could not reliably be called secular when he believed so deeply in a god — albeit a God very different from the one he had known in youth. “God-intoxicated” the poet Novalis called him, and he was — drunk with the Divine.

Spinoza died when he was 44 years old, with the herem — excommunication — still in effect. So can this gentle, heretical philosopher be legitimately included in Jewish history? In modern times, when our sense of Jewishness is broadened, it may be interesting to note which major Jewish figure called for repeal of Spinoza’s herem — David Ben Gurion.

David Wolpe is rabbi at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

 

In


Melvin Salberg, national president of the AZM and chairman ofthe Conference of Presidents of Major American JewishOrganizations.
More than a century ago, Theodor Herzl was a prominent Europeanjournalist who lived in Vienna and was essentially a Jewishassimilationist. He wasn’t much concerned about Jewish life oridentity. As an intellectual, he considered himself a citizen ofEurope.

Then came the assignment that would change his life, and worldJewry, forever.

Herzl traveled to Paris to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, theJewish French army captain who had been framed as a traitor. “It wasa great shock for Herzl,” says Dr. Michael Ben-Levi, theadministrative vice president of the American Zionist Movement andthe chair of the Zionism Centennial Committee. “He witnessed activeanti-Semitism on the part of the French, who were supposed to be socultured, and suddenly realized assimilation was not the answer tothe Jewish question.”

The impassioned Herzl returned to Vienna and began to outline whatwould become the basis of his philosophy. He pondered the variousnationalist movements that were arising in Eastern Europe and came torealize that the fundamental “Jewish problem” was homelessness. Theonly solution, he concluded, was the creation of a Jewish state inPalestine.

Herzl put pen to paper and wrote a book, “The Jewish State,” inwhich he described a country that would be a light unto the nations,based on the prophetic concept of social justice.

The volume was an immediate sensation, and even Herzl wassurprised by how fervently it was embraced, particularly amongEastern European Jewry. The author, not only a visionary but apragmatist, soon called for the convening of the First ZionistCongress.

The gathering took place in August 1897 in Basel, Switzerland,where several hundred representatives of world Jewry founded theWorld Zionist Organization, which would become an umbrella group ofZionist organizations dedicated to the establishment of a Jewishstate. It was, in short, the founding of political Zionism and thebeginning of the modern period of Jewish history.

Today, 100 years after that crucial conference, the Los AngelesJewish community will commemorate and celebrate the landmark event.More than 50 organizations — left- and right-wing, secular andreligious — will co-sponsor the Zionism Centennial Sunday, slatedfor Sept. 21, at 2 p.m., at Temple Beth Am. It is a pluralisticgathering, with groups ranging from the Religious Zionists of Americato the Workmen’s Circle.

The fete will begin with greetings by representatives of theevent’s main sponsors: Rhoda Braverman, president of the AmericanZionist Movement of Greater Los Angeles; Yoram Ben Ze’ev, generalconsul of Israel in Los Angeles; and Herbert Gelfand, president ofthe Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.

Then Melvin Salberg, national president of the AZM and chairman ofthe Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations,will take the podium. He will talk about his recent trip to Basel,where he joined the centennial celebration in the very auditoriumthat housed Herzl’s congress, and he will address the unfinishedtasks to be completed in the second century of Zionism.

A performance of Zionist folk songs by Lisa Wanamaker and areception with Salberg and Ben Ze’ev as guests of honor will follow.