Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
As I write this blog it is unclear today whether President Obama has refused to meet with Prime Minister Netayahu when he visits New York later this month. A report in Ha’aretz said that Netanyahu had requested the meeting and the White House had turned him down because of scheduling conflicts – Obama will not be in New York the days of Netanyahu’s visit. The White House has denied that a meeting was requested. It may also be the case that the Israelis were informed weeks ago that the President was not meeting one-on-one with any leader in New York and that his campaign schedule would not permit a Washington meeting. –An hour long conversation between the President and the Prime Minister on Tuesday evening was intended to tone down rampant rumors of a split.
As to the substance: I believe that it is wise that the President and the Prime Minister not meet before the election. My reasoning presumes that Iran will not have a nuclear bomb developed between September 26 and November 6th and hence that the options available to the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister will not change between the date of their presumed meeting and election day.
After the US election, it will be clear who will be the next President of the United States and the President, whether Obama or Romney, will not be burdened or encouraged by electoral politics as he makes a momentous series of decisions: whether to back an Israel attack on Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons; whether to commence an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities; whether to issue a clear and definitive red line in advance of such attacks; or whether to continue on the current course of strong sanctions and seemingly ineffective diplomacy without taking the option of an attack off the table.
Mr. Netanyahu clearly wanted to meet with the President during a time of electoral vulnerability as it strengthens his hand in getting the outcome he seeks. There are ample reasons for the Mr. Obama not to want to risk a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu who is clearly closer to the Republican opposition than he is to the President with whom he has differed publicly and privately over settlements, over negotiations with the Palestinians and over the pace and scope of actions against Iran.
Several times, Netanyahu has used his leverage with the Congress, most especially with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the House Republican, and his ardent followers in AIPAC to pressure the President. And there is no reason not to suspect that he might want to do that again with the election on the line in less than seven weeks if he does not prevail. Obama is currently enjoying two to one support in the American Jewish Community and the only place where the Jewish vote may be decisive is in Florida.
Furthermore, after the November elections the tables are turned. Netanyahu is the candidate for reelection and the President – again whether Obama or Romney – does not have to face the electorate for at least four years, if ever. So the hand of the American President in strengthened. And one of the major responsibilities of any Israeli Prime Minister is managing his relationship with Washington and with the American people.
So one cannot blame Netanyahu for seeking to use his current leverage and one should not blame the President for tarrying a bit so that he has a strengthened hand to make the best decision in both US and Israeli interests, a decision that cannot be dismissed by his current political opponent or, if the operation goes awry by its critics, as political opportunism. One can imagine the scenario of the critics who spoke of the Iraq war as the US doing Israel’s bidding of the post Iran criticism when the US is actually doing Israeli bidding if such an attack were undertaken in the height of political battle.
Clearly, Israel is deeply divided over the question of attacking Iran, seriously divided even as no one doubts that a nuclear armed Iran poses an existential threat of Israel and even as Israelis and other concerned people are horrified by the genocidal rhetoric of the Iranian leaders. We do not know, but presumably the President and the Prime Minister do know, if Israel has the capacity to stop the Iranian program and/or to set it back for a significant period of time. And we must surely hope that the President and the Prime Minister know that Israel has the capacity to face the attacks that would surely follow – though both US and Israeli intelligence agencies have failed before on this very question. The war games scenarios must consider the instability of Egypt and Syria along with the rockets aimed at Israel from Lebanon and Gaza as well as potential attacks in the Persian Gulf region and throughout the world. As
Prime Minister, Netanyahu must make a case to his people and as a candidate for Prime Minister; he must make an even stronger case. Clearly the United States is deeply reluctant, properly so, to enter into yet another conflict in the Muslim world. The American military is dovish precisely because it is exhausted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as its battles in Pakistan and potential actions in Syria. One does not take such actions precipitously and one should not make such monumental commitments as President of the United States under the potential appearance of political gamesmanship.
So if the report in Ha’artez is correct and - and Obama delayed meeting with the Prime Minister he was not unwise for this issue is too serious, too potentially explosive, for one not to proceed with caution and with wisdom.
9.12.12 at 3:04 pm | There was a report in the Israeli paper Ha'aretz. . .
2.28.12 at 12:16 pm | Stanley Lebovic, the artist son of a Holocaust. . .
2.28.12 at 11:53 am | As an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is a. . .
12.6.11 at 4:46 pm | We are hearing an awful lot of nonsense about the. . .
10.24.11 at 5:49 pm | The Libyan people deserved an accounting.. . .
9.4.11 at 2:14 pm | 911 was an atrocity and not a tragedy and that. . .
8.12.10 at 2:38 pm | Reports of the fire at Majdanek that damaged the. . . (7)
4.4.11 at 11:36 am | Upon hearing of William J. Lowenberg's, the. . . (5)
5.31.11 at 2:46 am | David Hartman has written an important new book. . . (4)
February 28, 2012 | 12:16 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
Stanley Aaron Lebovic, Black is a Color by a survivor’s son (Baltimore: 2011) pp. 119.
When I first began to wrestle with the question of God after the Holocaust, I remember reading one comment that intrigued me and another that infuriated me. One noted rabbi dismissed the struggle by saying “to the believer there are no questions and to the non-believer there are no answers.” Another Jew – a layman and writer—had something much wiser to say: “the revolt of the believer is not that of the renegade.”
Last year, I was in dialogue with Professor David Weiss Halivni, the Columbia University and Jewish Theolgoical Seminary Professor, the Israel prize winner and Talmud luminary who is a child of Sighet, the town that Elie Wiesel made famous, and a survivor of Auschwitz. He recounted the story of his conversation with Moshe Maisels, the renown former editor of the Hebrew language weekly Hadoar. “Tell me something,” Maisels asked, “were you religious before the war?” “Yes” Halvini answered. “And now?” “Yes” again, Halivini answered. “So nothing has changed?”
“Everything has changed,” responded the survivor and Talmudic scholar.
Primo Levi, the sage survivor of Auschwitz, wrote:
“If the Lagers had lasted longer, a new, harsh language would have been born, and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and the knowledge of the end drawing near.”
I kept thinking of all of these comments as I read Stanley Aaron Lebovic’s beautiful work Black is a Color by a survivor’s son, which combines his artistic drawings with two forms of commentary: words that are in dialogue with his art and its symbolism and an extended theological, philosophical essay that wrestles with God and Jewish history, with Jewish tradition and the existential situation that Jews confronted during the Holocaust.
The work is a brutally honest confrontation with the Shoah. Lebovic uses the tradition visually and textually to confront the abyss. As one who has studied that darkness and created in its aftermath, I recognize in Lebovic a kindred soul, one who is struggling with the evil and not finding and resisting simple or comfortable answers. You see it in his art, you witness it in his writing. Lebovic juxtaposes images of the Shoah with images taken from Jewish tradition and elsewhere for considerable impact. On the cover the arms of a young boy wearing Teffilin are held firmly by the arms of a survivor similarly wrapped in barbed wire reaching up. The result is imposing. Elsewhere we see the famed electrified barbed wire fences of Auschwitz as a Wagnerian musical score. Familiar images clash and merge; they force the viewer to see things a new, to consider what has not yet been considered. We see all the iconography of the Shoah, many of the resources visual and otherwise of Jewish tradition to illuminate the darkness. He is telling his own story and not merely doing homage to his father’s past. He emerges from the shadows, a brave and bold Jew.
Like Levi, Lebovic understands that after Auschwitz art must invent a new language to portray the events of the Holocaust; the conventional will no longer work, the acceptable is no longer adequate. He is using a far more traditional artistic vocabulary that Samuel Bak, a survivor of Vilna and the brilliant Boston-based artist for while both explore the language of tradition, Bak feels more free to go in a very different direction and Lebovic wants to retain and to reengage. Both use art as integral to their confrontation with the past and the present. Bak has Lawrence Langer to probe the meaning of his work. The brilliant and demanding literary critic has offered penetrating commentary on Bak’s work that breaks new ground in literature, art and theology. Lebovic does it all himself and the results are deeply troubling, which in the field of Holocaust Studies is another way of saying disquieting, probing and disturbing. The believer will find solace in Lebovic work. He want to remain faithful to the tradition. He uses its tools, images and traditions to deal with the Shoah. The renegade will understand that even if he cannot accept Lebovic’s answers, he must respect his questions.
And like Halivini, Leboic may same the same prayers, observe the same traditions, study the same text and wrestle with the same issues as the greats of the past, but he know that everything has changed – everything.
February 28, 2012 | 11:53 am
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
I have been reading a lot about whether Israel should attack Iran nuclear facilities and I am struck by the confidence that the protagonists on both sides of the issue have in the soundness of their arguments. Frankly speaking I do not know.
So let me weigh the arguments and the uncertainty. This will have to be an “on the one hand and on the other hand” type of column.
Let us begin with what we know.
Twice in history Israel has attacked regional nuclear installations; once in Iraq in 1981 and again in Syria in 2007. Both attacks were swift and successful. And despite the loud chorus of criticism at the time, both made significant contributions to peace.
The world, which was infuriated at Israel – at least publicly – should have been grateful.
Were Israel able to replicate those feats this time without plunging into another war, the world would also be grateful, perhaps even publicly so.
Imagine if Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons when he entered Kuwait; imagine a nuclear Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and imagine if Syria had nuclear arms today when its government is faltering and attacking its own people. One could even argue that Menachem Begin deserved the Nobel Prize for peace precisely for bombing Iraq than for his historic agreement with Anwar Sadat that brought Israel a third of a century of cold peace with Egypt and may unravel tomorrow.
Jews historically would be wise to trust threats more than promises.
The threats of leaders to destroy Israel deserve to be taken seriously. Words are weapons and words used by political leaders have a way of enunciating policies and national goals. So the threat is real and must be taken seriously. No government of Israel—however hawkish or dovish—could do otherwise and no President of the United States can dismiss the nature of this threat.
Aside from Ron Paul no one running for President, neither the incumbent nor his would be opponents, is behaving otherwise. And promises made to Israel should be treated lightly as nations act in their national interest and one wonders what the American people’s response would be if oil were scarce and gas was $15 a gallon or the US found itself bogged down in yet another war in a Muslim country. Might that impose some distance between the US and Israel under any President?
What do we not know?
Questions and more questions:
Let us examine the last question for a moment: Having fought two wars in the last decade that seemingly caught Israel unprepared and with only limited success and unclear political goals one wonders whether Israel’s vaunted intelligence services are to be trusted in their assessment of such possibilities. Having replaced the reticent heads of the Mosad and the IDF in part because of their cautious warnings, one wonders if their successors are willing to give the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister the independent cautious assessment that is required.
American intelligence demonstrated that it was inept at assessing both the status of Iraq WMD program and the consequences of the war in Iraq and in the region. Do we know more today that we did then? Are we any better in gathering and assessing intelligence than we were a decade ago? Caution is advised, caution and considerable judgment
I have no idea if Israel is behind these attacks or the United States—nor should I—but someone should know what the collective impact of computer viruses, targeted assassinations and disruptions in the supply chain have had on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Have they bought time? How much time? Will they work over a longer period of time?
I think that the President should be given some credit for working successfully multi-laterally to get the sanctions in place.
Who are the friends of Israel? Those who urge Israel to attack or those who urge caution and time? Reasonable arguments can be made for either side.
I know that the politicalization of the issue in the heat of a presidential campaign in the United States does not augur well for sound policy decisions. This is one of those moments where the vote in Florida should not be the issue, but the security of the United States and of Israel should be.
I am somewhat dismayed that the very same forces that argued for a war with Iraq and downplayed its costs and its protracted nature are also giving us a clear assessment of the positive impact of an Israeli attack. Many of the same men and women on both sides of the Atlantic failed to see that one of the most significant results of the War in Iraq was the strengthening of Iran and the enlargement of its political ambitions and its nuclear ambitions.
I am perplexed that Israel is talking so much about the attack. Recall that the 1981 and 2007 attacks came as a surprise; so too, the attack at Entebbe. Not a word was spoken. In fact, Israel did not confirm the Ehud Omert led attack on Syria until after Benjamin Netanyahu, then the opposition leader, accidently confirmed it.
As a rule, if Israel is talking about a military action, it is not going to act. “Say little and do much” was the sage advice of our Talmudic sages and our most successful military leaders. Could it be that Israel is talking so much precisely because it is so hesitant to act since its leadership is as perplexed by the questions it can’t answer even with all the information it has?
I don’t envy others their clarity. It would be wise to accept the perplexity of the situation, what we know and what we do not know. I also don’t envy the American President or the Israeli Prime Minister the decisions they must make.
December 6, 2011 | 4:46 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
We are hearing an awful lot of nonsense about the remarks of Howard Gutman, the United States ambassador to Belgium, regarding whether Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is to “blame” for the increase in anti-Semitism.
A summary of Gutman’s remarks, not a direct quote, appeared in an Israeli newspaper. American bloggers took it as gospel, and Republican political candidates called for Gutman’s ouster. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, himself condemned the remarks as an excuse for inaction on anti-Semitism, and the headlines blared “American Ambassador Blamed Israel for Anti-Semitism.”
For the record, we should follow the trail of remarks:
The Israeli newspaper quoted Gutman, who is Jewish and whose father survived the Holocaust in Poland, as saying: “A distinction should be made between traditional anti-Semitism, which should be condemned, and Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
What he actually said is quite different and a bit more nuanced:
“There is and has long been some amount of anti-Semitism, of hatred and violence against Jews, from a small sector of the population who hate others who may be different or perceived to be different, largely for the sake of hating. … What I do see as growing, as gaining much more attention in the newspapers and among politicians and communities, is a different phenomenon.
“It is a tension, and perhaps hatred, largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem. … An Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty will significantly diminish Muslim anti-Semitism.”
Foxman wrote in response: “This assessment of Muslim anti-Semitism, and your attempt to distinguish it from traditional or classical anti-Semitism, is not only wrongheaded but could undermine the important effort to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.
“When one tries to attribute this anti-Semitism to outside forces — in this case, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict — one not only misunderstands the role of anti-Semitism in that conflict, but provides an unacceptable rationale for inaction.”
I respect and admire Foxman and regard him as a cherished friend, but every scholar I know distinguishes between classical anti-Semitism and its politicalization.
The evidence of history would suggest that Jews fared far better under Moslem domination and dhimmi than they did under Christian domination. All would also agree that Jews fared and fare best when they were treated as equal citizens and not under any religious domination.
But instead of engaging in charges and countercharges, perhaps it is wisest for us to consider what we know for certain about anti-Semitism, what all responsible scholars would agree with even if the news is unpleasant.
1. Israel can quench the thirst of anti-Semitism; it can also fuel the flames.
Theodore Herzl’s “The Jewish State” had two premises: Jews were a non-European element within Europe, and anti-Semitism would only diminish by a process of normalization of the Jewish condition. The Jewish state — it was not yet termed Israel — would be a state like any other, with an army and a flag, and the Jewish situation would be normalized. It stood to reason, the founder of political Zionism believed, that anti-Semitism would then disappear.
Throughout the past 63 years, despite its considerable accomplishments and the marvels of its achievement, we have seen that Israel has not achieved normalization, the Jewish state is not a state like any other state, and the Jewish people not a people like any other people. Only a people desperate for normalization would have given up the oil fields and the depth of the Sinai for the promise of normalization some 30 years ago.
Almost two decades ago, in what seems a distant memory, after the Oslo Accords, it seemed as if anti-Semitism would be a minor phenomenon, confined to the fringes of society. Americans of my postwar generation know no barriers to advancement because we are Jews — none in higher education, none in the professions or in industry. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism, a major pillar of worldwide anti-Semitism fell. When some Arab countries sought normalization with Israel, a muting of anti-Semitic rhetoric, if not of anti-Semitic feeling, was required; it seemed as if more might follow. In Eastern Europe, the Jewish communities were small, and in some places there were advantages to being Jewish. Roman Catholicism and a significant segment of Protestant Christianity were changing their views on the Jews and knocking down another pillar of anti-Semitism. One could be optimistic that a generation after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was quarantined.
The last decade has now shattered those hopes. While one can argue how severe a problem anti-Semitism is in the second decade of the 21st century, no one can dispute that there has been a resurgence in Europe, both on the left and the right and within the immigrant populations of major European countries. This is most particularly true in the Muslim world, where major themes of anti-Semitism that were endemic to Christianity, and rejected by it in the post-Holocaust world — such as the blood libel and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — have re-emerged with great ferocity.
Holocaust denial, originally a European phenomenon — after all, Germany and its allies killed the Jews — has migrated to the Arab and Iranian world, where, in some sort of distorted logic, Holocaust denial is used as a means of eliminating Israel. Deniers reason that if Israel is an outgrowth of the Holocaust, then if there was no Holocaust, Israel would cease to exist.
2. Let us say it loudly and clearly: Israel is not to blame for anti-Semitism; anti-Semites are to blame for anti-Semitism.
Now that we have gotten that rhetoric out of our system, let us consider the other reality.
3. There is a direct correlation between actions in the Middle East and an increase in manifestations of anti-Semitism.
I could cite many examples, but let me confine myself to France over the past decade. Increased anti-Semitism came in waves, which occurred with greatest intensity in five periods: October 2000, just after the start of the Second Intifada; post-Sept. 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center; in April 2002, following the bombings of Passover and the massive Israeli response to the intolerable bombings of its civilians; the war in Lebanon; and the war in Gaza. There can be no doubt about the correlation.
4. When Israel is negotiating with the Palestinians or with other Arab countries, there is a decrease in the expressions of Muslim anti-Semitism.
I am not naïve enough to believe that it is because Muslims suddenly come to like Israel or love Jews, but because such expressions are counterproductive to the process and only stiffen the terms of the negotiations. Can anyone dispute the last part of the ambassador’s statement: “An Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty will significantly diminish Muslim anti-Semitism”?
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reiterated the point, restating the obvious when he said that Israel-Palestinian negotiations would deprive Muslim extremists of one of the sources of oxygen to fuel the fires of their militant agenda.
Let me leave it to others to determine who is to blame for the absence of negotiations, but there can be no denying that the absence of negotiations fuels the extremists’ fires. I spoke to several people who attended the meeting at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, a high-level conference of Americans and Israelis — the room was full of people who support Israel, Panetta has long been regarded as a friend, and no one disagreed with what Panetta had said.
Panetta also said that Israel’s security would be enhanced if it would “reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability — countries like Turkey and Egypt, as well as Jordan. This is an important time to be able to develop and restore those key relationships in this crucial area.”
No one can dispute this statement. Some do argue that it is difficult to reach out to Egypt under current circumstances with the Muslim Brotherhood on the political ascent and the military in retreat. President Shimon Peres’ publicized visit to Jordan was indeed the reaching out that Panetta called for, and though a newly empowered Turkey is not easy to deal with, no one can dispute that Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s public humiliation of the Turkish ambassador was not a way to win friends and influence people.
5. Political problems can be solved by compromise. Religious fundamentalism is antithetical to compromise.
Contrary to Foxman, I and most scholars of anti-Semitism believe there is a difference between classical anti-Semitism and the current politicalization of anti-Semitism in the Middle East, and it does the Jewish community no good to deny it. For centuries Jews held limited power, had no state and no army. Israel is a political entity, and opposition to Israel may be anti-Semitic, but it is also political, perhaps primarily political. Acknowledging the differences between the two forms of anti-Semitism does not undermine efforts to combat anti-Semitism but may actually enhance them.
But we must also be equally mindful that while the current conflict exacerbates Muslim anti-Semitism, the problem would be solved for some — but not for all — were peace to be. For many Muslims, the very existence of a Jewish state in historically Muslim territory is a religious insult to Islam, a point that would not sound so strange to those religious Jews who see territorial conquest as a manifestation of the triumph of the God of Israel.
If the divide is religious, there may well be no compromise. If the divide can be seen in political terms, it will be far easier to reach some sort of agreement.
But the conversation in the Jewish community is not helped when serious issues cannot be confronted by serious people publicly and directly among friends, among lovers of Israel and Zion.
Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.
October 24, 2011 | 5:49 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
Last May when the US government captured and executed Osama Bin Laden, President Barack Obama took significant criticism for its decision not to show the body of the slain Al Quaeda leaders. Seeing what we have seen over the past several days with the pictures of slain Libyan leader Col..Muammar Gadhafi, I wonder if any of the critics would like to reexamine their views. Sometimes the unseen is more potent than the seen.
For those who us who have labored in the post Nuremberg trials world for international accountability of leaders who trample on human rights and destroy their own population, the appearance of a decision, however spontaneous and however local, to execute the Libyan leader rather than hold him for trial is disappointing. It does not bode well for the new Libyan ruling coalition. I would much prefer to see Gadhafi face justice in the Hague or in Tripoli and even if his defenders had employed the insanity defense, which might well have succeeded, at least we would have had a full accounting for the magnitude of his crimes.
Recall that what was far more important at Nuremberg was the detailing of the scope and scale of Nazi crimes, the very notion of accountability and not the verdicts for the individual Nazi War Criminals. Justice Robert Jackson, who took an unprecedented leave from the Supreme Court to prosecute the Nuremberg defendants said in his opening statement:
“In the prisoners’ dock sit twenty-odd broken men. Reproached by the humiliation of those they have attacked, their personal capacity for evil is forever. It is hard to perceive in these miserable men as captives the power by which as Nazi leaders they once dominated much of the world and terrified most of it. Merely as individuals, their fate is of little consequence…
“What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners…are the living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power….Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.
The Libyan people deserved an accounting. Gadhafi’s victims also deserved an accounting. The world is better off with the Libyan dictator dead, but justice would have better been served had he been killed by a Court of law than by his captors.
And once dead, no matter how heinous his crimes – and they were heinous – his body should have been treated with dignity, not because he deserved it but because we did.
September 4, 2011 | 2:14 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
As we reach the 10th anniversary of the attacks on September 11th, there is a fundamental problem in the task of its Memorialization and Remembrance.
On September 11, 2011, a decade after the attacks, there is no closure. The legacy of 9/11 remains unclear.
Permit me to explain why: there is a difference between tragedy and atrocity. In tragedy what is learned roughly or even remotely balances the price that is paid for such knowledge. Atrocity offers no such, no such possibility and thus no inner space to bury the event. At most, it leaves those of us left behind searching amidst the rubble to find some meaning to an event of such magnitude that it violates our very sense of meaning.
The bombing of the World Trade Center was not a tragedy; it was an atrocity. The reason that Americans could find only incomplete closure to their suffering after the execution Osama Bin Laden is because of the imbalance between the magnitude of the crime and the limited justice that could be achieved.
Why is the legacy unclear? We are still at war in two countries as a result of the attacks—if not technically in Iraq as least psychologically—the war in Iraq was completely unrelated to 9/11 and it was started for reasons now proven as invalid. There were no weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein was many things awful, but he was not involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The struggle against terrorism is ongoing; not yet won; at best some progress has been made. So the legacy can not be described in terms of attack and response, defeat and victory. Al Qaida has now morphed and in the post-Bin Laden era will continue to take diverse shapes and forms in different countries.
New York, and the Nation with it, will have to deal with the paradoxical Legacy of Absence: The Absence of Presence and the Presence of Absence.
New York is in the process of rebuilding from the ashes. A moving memorial has been erected on the actual footprint the Twin Towers, flowing pools of water with the names of all who were killed whether in the bombing of the building or the rescue efforts. The one surviving tree, now rehabilitated and renewed will bear witness, truly a remnant plucked from the fire.
The pool demarcates the void where once there had been massive buildings. New York’s Skyline is marked by the absence of presence and when one visits the site one is haunted by the presence of absence; the buildings that were once there are absent, but their absence is ever present, at least for those of us who know the site, who remember the skyline, who are haunted by the flames, the ashes and the collapse.
The families of those who were lost during the attack of 9/11, the workers and visitors to the Twin Towers and their would-be rescuers who became it victims are also haunted by the presence of absence. At first it was the father whose place at the table is suddenly empty or the wife who no longer ruffles one side of the bed. Over time, one must get used to that absence and must move on, but on important occasions, a orphans’s graduation or the wedding of a child, the birth of a first grandchild, a second or a third, one senses that absence. Its presence is haunting, making even the most wonderful moment bittersweet, every joy incomplete.
New York has decided to build not only a Memorial, which stands mute, and to which the visitors can impart meaning, but a Museum to tell the story of what happened. It too will have to deal with the unformed nature of the legacy of 9/11. It will tell the story of the perpetrators and their victims. It will memorialize the dead by giving them a name, a face and a voice and a story. It will speak of the courage of the rescuers who struggled to save them and paid for their gallant efforts with their lives. It will exhibit the remnants that also remained from the flames. I had the chance to see these haunting and shattering artifacts when they were still in an old Tower Airline Terminal at JFK. It will offer solace by telling the story of a city that was united, a country that was joined together as one, by speaking of rescue, courage and dignity in the face of atrocity. But it will also have to tell the story of the unity that fractured, the opportunities that were lost, of the sacrifices that were unrequited.
When I first contemplated the loss a decade ago, I wrote:
The survivors of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Bombings will not be defined by the lives they have led until now, but the life that will lead from now on. For the experience of near death to have ultimate meaning, it must take shape in how one rebuilds from the ashes. Such for the individual; so too, for the nation.
The question remains how have we rebuilt from the ashes?
July 24, 2011 | 12:03 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
Hyman Bookbinder (1916-2011), the legendary long-time Washington Representative of the American Jewish Committee died yesterday at the age of 95. Known to everyone as Bookie he was the most passionate moderate I have ever known. Fair and intense, he was fierce in his convictions, but equally committed to civility and decency.
I first met Bookie when I came to work on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter. Elie Wiesel had been appointed chairman, Irving “Yitz” Greenberg was the Commission’s Director and I served in Washington as Deputy Director. At that time, none of us had had any Washington experience and Bookie served as a masterful tutor, schooling us in the ways of the nation’s capital and in the protocols of both public life and Jewish life in Washington. He rolled his eyes as we made rookie mistakes, but never embarrassed us and never lost faith that we could learn.
During his era under the leadership of Bert Gold, AJC had assembled the most impressive staff of Jewish professionals. They were pioneers in their fields and each excelled and extended the reach of the organization and its effectiveness. Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum headed its Interreligious Affairs Department, Irving Levine worked on ethnic relations and Milton Himmelfarb was in charge of research. Each worked in their own fiefdom – only Bert Gold could see how they worked together—and made the most of their independence and their talent.
Bookie was the AJ Committee’s face in Washington. His contacts were legendary. Senators and Congressmen were his personal friends; he appeared routinely on television and talk radio, writing for the Washington Post and the New York Times. The walls of his office were filled with pictures of National and International leaders warmly inscribed to “My friend Bookie.” His autobiography was entitled Off the Wall as these photographs had to be taken down when he retired to make way for his successor.
He was the “go to” guy on Jewish affairs, more influential behind the scenes and in solving problems that in his significant public contributions. He solved so many problems that the nature of his considerable success was not always manifest. He did not like to brag and he took pride in other’s achievements. He also pressed his organization to make sure that Jews were using their influence creatively and compassionately tilting toward the liberal side of the debate.
He worked with all sorts of coalitions on the issues that were of primary concerns. The issue of Civil Rights was central in those days and he was instrumental in sustaining the Black-Jewish Alliance in Washington, which remained strong, even as it was fracturing on the Streets of New York or Detroit and Los Angeles. He juggled another coalition for the cause of Soviet Jewry and yet another in support of Israel. He used his government experience wisely. Drawn to Jewish communal service in the aftermath of the 1967 War, he had previously been in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and played an important role in the War of Poverty and the creation of the Great Society. Earlier he had worked for the AFL-CIO and for Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, once the most Jewish of all unions. His ties to Labor were deep and personal. He had an important back channel to the Carter Administration as Vice President Mondale was both an admirer and a personal friend.
Bookie played a central role in the President’s Commission on the Holocaust seeking to bridge a divide between Survivors of the Holocaust who wanted the Museum to be exclusively Jewish and those who wanted to maintain the singularity of the Jewish experience while including other ethnic groups that perceived themselves as victims of Nazism even if their record with regard to the Jews was quite questionable. He pressed that their respectful and truthful inclusion in the Museum as essential if the Museum was to be located in Washington and not New York. He intuitively understood how to mediate and negotiate and how to compromise without sacrificing principle, words that sound quite strange in today’s polarized Washington. He could disagree without being disagreeable and his disagreements were issue oriented and never personal.
His singular contribution to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was the insistence that the Museum create a Committee on Conscience, comprised of moral leaders of the nation “who would warn of impending genocide.” Having lost 80 relatives in Poland during the Shoah, he felt that remembrance of the past entailed responsibility for the future.
His proposal might seem quaint today. But remember back 32 years before the Internet and faxes, before Facebook and Twitter, before email and You Tube, when Cable Television was but in its infancy. It was assumed that if only the world knew what was happening then men and women of conscience would have insisted that something be done. Little could he imagine then that information was be instantaneous and that what was lacking even among people of conscience was the political will to do something about genocide. Little could he fathom that the President of the United States or the Secretary of State would deliberately call a series of attacks genocide and then say: “but this will not change American policy.”
Bookie was persistent. When the Museum was reticent to engage in such social action or when there were fears that it would become a “second State Department” and put itself in a situation at odds with the Administration, Bookie kept pushing and when leadership changed, he engaged the new chairman and get off pushing for the Committee on Conscience, now a vital part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and indeed its voice of conscience.
Bookie was not without his critics. One nasty comment heard from a rival leader of the young and uncompromising, more militant generation was that he had “perpetual knee pads,” which roughly translates as he sought compromise rather than confrontation. He was someone who could find a middle ground so that both sides could come away with something. In our era, such voices of moderation are few and far between and more often than not because of that both sides come away with nothing.
Bookie married twice, both times happily. After his first wife died after a long marriage, their longtime friend Ida Levick, who herself had been widowed became his companion and later his loving and ever so caring wife. They shared political passions and a love of Yiddish. Bookie read many papers each day and watched all the Sunday morning shows. He was a political junkie did what he loved and loved what he did. He had a special passion for Yiddish, the language of his parents, the immigrant generation. It was a tie that linked him to survivors
He was not a religious man in the conventional sense of the term; only in old age did he join a synagogue out of concern for his funeral and burial – he will be buried out of Washington Hebrew Congregation, the Capital’s largest. His Jewishness was all encompassing and the content of his Judaism was Tikkun Olam, to repair the world, fragment-by-fragment.
He was an original. I grew to respect and revere the man, to cherish him as a mentor and a friend, a source of wisdom and sanguine advice. I am not alone. Throughout the corridors of government and in the inner reaches of many Jewish organizations, there are men and women of my generation who are proud to claim Bookie as a mentor, a friend, a model and a conscience.
May 31, 2011 | 2:46 am
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
David Hartman with Charlie Buckholtz, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2011)
Two adolescent encounters with two important teachers shaped the person I have become and formed the core of my scholarly and personal values. One was with David Hartman, then a young rabbi. I had just given what I thought was an imaginative d’var Torah at a Yeshiva University Young Leadership Seminar. Self-impressed with my seeming erudition, I quoted original sources, Biblical and Rabbinic—even Maimonides commentary on the prohibitions of an Israelite King acquiring too many horses or marrying too many wives. Hartman approached me and asked: “Do you believe what you said and did you say what you believed? Or did you merely want to appear impressive and not rile up your audience?” I internalized his question and have asked it again and again whenever I speak and whenever I write.
I kept thinking of this encounter as I read his newest book, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition.
A bit of biography: Hartman is best known for founding the Shalom Hartman Institute, a meeting ground for secular and religious Israelis of many stripes and a place where rabbis of all denominations from the Diaspora (many from the United States) study classic texts together—where the sacred text becomes the bond that bridges great denominational divides. The Hartman Institute is the Red Heifer of the modern Jewish world, a mediating institution where the sacred and secular enrich each other intellectually and Jewishly. Its offerings are wide and its institutional writings significant.
The pure, those who prefer the shelters of their intellectual ghettos, are contaminated, albeit but for a while, while the impure encounter the sacred and are touched by it, sometimes for a lifetime.
Hartman was a product of the Haredi community. He studied in Lakewood and came to Yeshiva University where he met his mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who combined unquestioned Talmudic brilliance with Western philosophical mastery. He created a system that insulated his religious life and observance from his encounter with Western civilization and its values. He wrote:
“When Halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand. He orientates himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles… His approach begins with an ideal world and concludes with a real one.”
Hartman became the Rav’s protégée and, until now, his fierce defender.
Ordained by Yeshiva University, he was advised by the Rav to go to the Jesuits, to New York’s Fordham University for his doctoral training in Philosophy. For 18 years he was a successful, charismatic and influential rabbi in Montreal. He went to Israel in the post-1967 exuberance, hoping to bring the insights of his Judaism to bear on the great questions facing Israeli society, which could no longer operate within the four cubits of Halakha but had to confront all the issues facing a modern state. Today, his Shalom Hartman Institute may be one of the last and most creative bastions of a religious Zionism that is not Messianic.
Ironically, Hartman preferred to be seen as a religious thinker, not as an institution builder. Yet like Martin Buber before him, he was best appreciated abroad, not in Israel. His scholarship was too relevant, too engaged with the here and now (and perhaps too popular for the academics) and his concerns too religious for the bulk of secular Israelis. Yiddish is his favorite, his warmest and most expressive tongue. His English is tinged with Yiddish and his Hebrew is infused with English.
Now fourscore years of age, Hartman has written a powerful and painful book. It marks an important break with his great teacher and mentor on a point central to both student and disciple—the history and Halakha. Soloveitchik could encounter history because his philosophy of Halakha insulated him from history and Hartman wants Halakha, especially in Israel, to engage every aspect of history from welfare to warfare, from economics to ecology.
This work may also be an even deeper severing of ties with the Orthodoxy that has emerged in this generation. A generation ago, Hartman’s attempt at synthesis and dialogue, his confrontation with the modern world and Orthodox sensibilities would have made him a hero of modern Orthodoxy. A generation ago, he also could have shifted to Conservative Judaism, whose central motif then was the struggle between tradition and change, creating a Halakha responsive to history, but the distance is too great today. After this latest work, he will find himself in no man’s land, confined to a community of fellow seekers who dwell in two worlds, the world of Torah and Halakha and the modern world with all its challenges. His institutional role should allow him to create Jews who are fervent, but not fanatical, proud and pious, and also pluralistic. For both “types,” the study of sacred text is absolutely central.
For Hartman, three issues force the confrontation with the Orthodoxy of his youth and, painfully, with the person who had been his model of coexistence between the Halakhic and the modern.
The first issue is the treatment of women within Halakha, including the inability (inability is too soft a word, more accurately we should describe it as ‘the adamant refusal’) of the Orthodox Rabbinate, especially in Israel, to solve the problem of Agunah, the woman whose recalcitrant husband’s refusal to give her a divorce leaves her unable to initiate a divorce and chains her to a future without marriage. This is but one manifestation of his discomfort with the entire treatment of women in Halakha.
Another is that Jewish women can be Supreme Court Justices in the United States, other countries and in Israel; they can serve as Prime Ministers, but their signatures cannot validate a religious document. Their status is often reduced to that of a minor; women are even compared to possessions.
One more manifestation of this treatment is that women do not participate as equals in the religious life of the community. To change that, Hartman’s daughter, Tova, founded Shirah Hadashah [A New Song], the Jerusalem congregation that provides women with as many opportunities to participate in the service as a creative understanding of Halakha permits. This might seem whimsical to those who come from equalitarian communities and observe the Mechitzah being drawn closed or opened at various points in the service and those non-binding segments of the service that women can lead. The “moving” Mechitzah makes the congregation unacceptable to many Orthodox Jews. Conversely, not removing the Mechitzah makes it unacceptable and/or strange to egalitarian Jews for whom this debate was settled a long time ago.
In one sense, the Mechitzah compromise seems artificial rather than organic, timid rather than bold. And yet, it may provide Hartman and the Jews who feel as he does with a place to daven with the people they speak with, and a place to speak with the people with whom they can daven.
The second issue is the question of the non-Jew. As a rabbi, Hartman once faced the question of whether a Cohen could marry a woman who converted for love of Judaism and was an active and religious Jew. Did her previous status as a non-Jew make her a zona and Biblically prohibited to a descendant of the priestly line? Hartman studied with the Jesuits and recognized non-Jews who are intellectually sophisticated and devoutly religious. You cannot simply categorize them as “goyim.”
This is the merely tip of the iceberg that Halakhic Judaism must confront when dealing with issues of democracy and a society that aspires to justice. Up until now, accommodation to the state was based on utilitarian purposes—avoiding what Thomas Hobbes called “the war of all against all.” There is no theology or Halakha to guide Halakhic Judaism in the acceptance of democracy. They understand the rule of law. They do not understand the state is a mediator of justice.
The third issue is the self-inflicted incapacity of the Orthodox Rabbinate to come to terms with the modern state of Israel—in the prayers recited and in the treatment of new generations. On Tisha B’av, we still speak of Jerusalem as abandoned and uninhabited, lying in ruins. The lack of sensitivity in the all-important category of membership in the nation is illustrated most profoundly by a soldier who dies for his country and is not eligible to be buried with his comrades because his maternal Jewish origins were doubtful.
The agony of this book is how Hartman wrestles with the tension between the God he believes in, the tradition that nourished him and to which he has profound loyalty and love, and the encounters with reality that force him to challenge that tradition—and even break from his mentor and master.
The details are important, but his struggle is all the more significant. He is looking for a way of living with integrity and confronting the reality of the world he encounters.
At his age, he has fulfilled the challenge he posed to me. He now may be liberated by age, stature and status to say what he believes and believe what he says. The results are most impressive. The seal of the Holy One is truth and those who worship must worship the Holy One in truth. Perhaps that is why the deepest of all lies are those we tell ourselves.