There is no better place to understand the powerful forces and fault lines of American identity than Washington. I arrived in the evening at Dulles Airport, and my cab driver, I soon discovered, was Iranian. As we drove, he told me his life story: He had been an ambassador to Moscow under Khomeini, the man who "ruined my country."
How did he feel about being in America?
As we drove past the Washington Monument, illumined in the night, he said, "I would rather drive a cab in America than be an ambassador in Iran."
That patriotic postcard was a fitting beginning to the trip. I was in Washington to attend a dinner at the White House in honor of the opening of "Anne Frank the Writer -- An Unfinished Story" at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Two members of Sinai Temple, Dr. Joel Geiderman and Donald Etra, were appointed by President Bush to the Holocaust Commission, so there was the additional joy of sharing the evening with them and their wives, as well as with Rabbi Robert Wexler from the University of Judaism.
The day began with a visit to the Vietnam Memorial. My oldest brother, who lives in Maryland, joined me as we walked its length.
The memorial is a powerful, stark statement. Beginning with a small rise of black stone, just peeking above the earth, names gradually appear. As the stone grows higher and higher, the names grow more numerous and the grief more palpable.
People continually search along the wall for the names of their loved ones. One man in his 50s, having found a name, began suddenly and silently to weep.
To go from the memorial to the White House is to feel anew all the complexities and risks of power. All the invitees gathered at the east gate. We greeted each other, feeling ourselves momentary members of a special club. We boarded the bus for the Holocaust Museum. Once there, we were ushered into the Anne Frank exhibit.
The diaries of Anne Frank have never before been out of Amsterdam. They were brought to Washington for this exhibit, which traces her development as a writer. The exhibit features her early short stories, passages she copied from writers she admired and the clear aspiration, voiced to family and friends, to be a writer.
Most moving was a screen that proclaimed: "This is the only known footage of Anne Frank." Then suddenly, one sees her at a window, a little girl whose fate we know; whose writings have stirred millions of souls.
Several poignant speeches from the exhibit followed, including the wrenching reminder that had she lived, Anne Frank would have been 74 years old on July 12.
The first lady spoke of her trip to Auschwitz, and Anne Frank's cousin recalled her as a little girl. "We used to say," he recalled, "that God knows everything, but Anne knows more."
From the peak of powerlessness -- the secret annex of the Frank family -- we stood on the marble-floored center of power.
Inside, I felt a mix of joy, unworthiness, sadness and wonder. It was as if, for a moment, we were given a hyperdrive tour through the apex and underside of Jewish history.
We received our seating cards. I was astounded to see that I would be seated one person away from the president. For the next two and a half hours, a few of us were able to ask him about a range of issues and questions.
The president began with a short statement reflecting the occasion. He spoke of the Holocaust and said in a statement many understood to be about the Nazis but with contemporary applications: "Those who hate people and who hate God will naturally hate the people of God."
As the meal -- which was entirely kosher -- began, I told the president I wished to offer the blessing in our tradition that one says upon seeing a head of state or person of great power. I recited the blessing in Hebrew and then translated: "Blessed are you O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given of His glory to flesh and blood."
It is a beautiful blessing, because it affirms both the person's stature and reflects our belief that all human power is ephemeral, reflected from the infinite power of the Creator of all.
The president remarked that the meal would be good, because whenever there is a state dinner, he tastes it a few days before -- right after the taster. I had ordered a vegan meal and said, "It looks good." He looked at my vegetable plate, made a wry face and said, "Well, I didn't taste that."
My experience with President Bush was that he was both charismatic and informed. We asked questions ranging across the globe: China, Korea, the history of the Bosnian conflict and a great deal about the Middle East.
He expressed the view that in the end, the fate of the Middle East will depend upon the ability of the Arab nations to root out terrorism from among their midst. He spoke about individuals, praising the courage of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, but lamenting his weakness. He told us he believed that the United States and the European Union had to work together to give Abbas the means to destroy terror from within.
The president commented that he had explicitly asked Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz if he believed that the Palestinians wanted peace. If not, the president continued, then we are through here; there is nothing left to do. In response, said the president, Mofaz replied, "Yes, Mr. President, I believe they do want peace."
The essential message he conveyed was that America's commitment to the security of Israel was unalterable. He recalled viewing the settlements when he was a governor and his guide was Ariel Sharon.
"Each settlement we saw," the president remarked, "Sharon said, 'I built that settlement.'" He intimated that he was under no illusions when he asked Sharon to dismantle settlements that it would easy or could be done absent a real end to terror.
Ultimately, the most impressive part of the visit was that we gathered in the capital of United States to honor a young girl, whose words have been translated into 70 languages and cherished by millions of people. Long after everyone in that room is gone, Anne Frank's message will endure.
Three weeks before she was betrayed and captured, she wrote: "That's the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered. It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."
She continued, writing, "I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too. I can feel the sufferings of millions -- and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will come out all right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out."
Anne Frank could not have imagined how her famous words would resonate in the halls of privilege and power. She did not live to carry out her ideals. We who remain owe her our mightiest efforts in that sacred task.
David Wolpe is the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.
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