PRESENTING PRESIDENTS DAY

It’s none of my business how you celebrated Presidents Day earlier this week, if at all. However, as an American Jew, I would suggest that aside from Presidents Day, in addition to Presidents Day, or as an augmentation to Presidents Day, there be a Presidents Day with another “twist”. For those of us who are strong supporters of Israel, for those of us who realize that ever since May 1948, no two American presidents have viewed Israel from the same perspective, much less have been supportive of Israel in the same way, I believe that it is important for us to celebrate American Presidents who have either extended themselves to the Jewish people, the Jewish State, or both.

I would expect that the Hebrew word “ Todah” is known to a good many American Jews. Permit me to introduce a synonym, “Hakarot HaTov” ( Hakorress HaTov for those such as I who continue to insist on pronouncing certain Hebrew words with the inflection and intonation of the shtetl). Literally, it means recognition of the good. A much better translation would be “gratitude”.  For those who have much love for and a great deal of pride in this country, I strongly suggest that each year, come Presidents Day, we look back on two or three Presidents for whom we American Jews owe a HaKorress HaTov. From a non-partisan, purely subjective point of view,  I suggest the following three presidential candidates.

Despite urging and “sound” advice from Secretary of State George Marshall, President Harry S. Truman reluctantly agreed to a meeting with his old business partner Eddie Jacobson, provided that Jacobson not raise the topic of the soon to be proclaimed  Jewish State. Just one look at his fellow Kansan standing in the Oval Office with tears streaming down his cheeks, and Chaim Weizmann in tow, the President vociferated: “You win, you bald-headed s*n-of-a-b**ch.”  A mere 5 ½ years later, when introduced to the leadership of Conservative Judaism as the man who helped create the State of Israel,” Truman retorted, “What do you mean, ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus.”

Fifty-two years ago, last month, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol visited LBJ at the Johnson ranch, here in Texas. Armed with an extensive shopping list to replenish the depleted Israel Airforce and Army (France was no longer a patron of Israel) after the miraculous successes of the Six-Day War, the Israeli Prime Minister received pretty much what he asked for from the American President. When it came to Israel, the word “no” was simply not part of President Johnson’s vocabulary. Perhaps LBJ summed up his relationship best when speaking with Arthur Goldberg, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, less than 2 months  following Eshkol’s visit: “I sure as hell want to be careful and not run out on little Israel.” A great speaker, President Johnson wasn’t. But perhaps his most prescient and memorable words to the Jewish community, soon after he assumed the presidency in November 1963, were: “You have lost a very great friend (his predecessor, J.F.K.) But you have found a better one.”

I have no idea who coined the phrase “only in America”. I do know, however, that for decades it was frequently uttered by previous generations of Jews in this country who extolled the virtues of these United States. Arguably, that phrase never rang truer than during the second week of October 1973. Caught unprepared, the IDF was fighting for its life, as it was attacked by Egypt on Yom Kippur Day. Aside from mounting casualties, the Israeli Air Force and Army were dangerously low in equipment that had been destroyed by the enemy. While Henry Kissinger, the Jewish Secretary of State procrastinated when it came to rearmament (in his view a bruised and bloodied Israel would have far less of its trademark chutzpah in peace talks with its Arab neighbors, once a truce was put into place) a Quaker President known for occasional tirades against Jews, stepped in, took control and overruled Kissinger. As President Nixon recalled: “When I was informed that there was disagreement in the Pentagon about which kind of plane should be used for the airlift, I became totally exasperated. I said to Kissinger, “Goddam it, use every one we have. Tell them to send everything that can fly.” Within hours, American cargo-configured aircraft, packed to the gills, were airborne headed for Israel.

Come Presidents Day, may log cabins and cherry trees always be part of our collective past. Come Presidents Day, may American Jews reflect on Presidents who serve to remind us how truly blessed we are, living in this country. 

CLIMATE CHANGE

Say what you want about Climate Change. It is a topic I have yet to address, nor do I anticipate doing so, in the foreseeable future. There is one Climate Change however, that ought to greatly concern us as Jews. And that is the Climate Change toward Israel. It may very well have begun on college campuses, particularly in the Humanities, where the minds of impressionable naïve students have been filled with vitriol against Israel. Rather than stick to a curriculum of Philosophy, Sociology or Psychology, students receive an education in how to revile Israel. As a result, the country that was once referred to as the Jewish State is now being called the Apartheid State or the Fascist State. Recently, I was asked to respond to the following question, posed by a presumably well-meaning, but woefully misdirected individual:

Is the treatment of Israeli soldiers toward Palestinians any different than the treatment of Nazi soldiers towards Jews?

When it comes to absurd comments, never go on the defensive. Ever! Doing so implies that there is something to defend. Instead, bear in mind the following quote attributable to both George Washington and (lehavdil*) Mao Zedong, that a “good offense is the best defense”.  Should you therefore, ever find yourself being placed in the position of spokesperson for the entire Jewish State, rather than attempt to answer an inane question, such as “how come there are no names to the Concentration Camps that Palestinians are forced into by Israelis”, make sure that it is the quisling who starts sizzling. Answer that question by asking: “Could you please tell me where you get your information? What do you know about these Concentration Camps to ask such a question? Have you checked with Peace Now, a Jewish organization formed to monitor Israel’s abuse of Palestinians? Why don’t you do so and obtain a list of Concentration Camps, so that I can deal with your question, intelligently”?

Misinformed finger-pointers typically get their information – giving them the benefit of the doubt that they actually are informed – from the media. The media tends to be neither factual nor accurate, in that being factual and accurate, rarely, if ever, holds one’s interest. The misinformed ought, therefore, to be asked if they are able to comment on the silent majority of Palestinians, gainfully employed by Israelis and enjoying a far better lifestyle than their counterparts living under Jordanian rule. Of even greater importance, it is our duty to chastise the misinformed, to get them to explain why they have failed to take up the cudgel of human rights for the plight of the suffering of others. Currently, I am mentoring a chaplaincy student from Nigeria. I have in my office a copy of his “Full Life Account”. He writes: “When I was a few months old, 18 armed men came to our house. It was a brutal scene. They stole our money and abused us. One of them walked up to my mom and demanded she give him the baby. Other gang members managed to divert his attention. A close friend of my mom’s was not so lucky. She had given birth to a baby girl around the same time I was born. The thugs murdered her infant daughter instead”. One would do well to ask the Israel accuser, why he/she has yet to champion the causes of people in this world who are truly oppressed?  Where were you when Tutsi were being raped tortured and murdered by the Hutus? Were you as concerned about Sudanese when they had to flee for their lives to Syria? Have you expressed outrage at the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar? Now that Palestinians are stabbing Israelis, now that Palestinians are throwing fire-bombs into Israel, now you suddenly become concerned about human rights?

When it comes to absurd comments or questions, one is best to ignore them. Two weeks ago, when Dallas plunged into a deep freeze, well-meaning, but unthinking congregants turned to me with the following ludicrous remark: “You should be used to this, you are from Canada”! For the record, being from Canada means nothing: Vancouverites experience far more temperate winters than Dallasites. Waking up to 26-degree weather is unimaginable to Vancouver residents. For the record, it’s been close to half a century, since I lived in Canada. “Being used to it” after a 50-year absence is quite a stretch. For the record, there are things that some people never get used to. I am sure that there are Dallas residents who detest and deplore the climate from mid-June until mid-September. It is, therefore, best to ignore thoughtless remarks.

If Climate Change is of concern to us, we would do well to be alert to the fact, that the climate toward Israel seems to be undergoing change as well. As such, when well-meaning, misinformed and dangerously selective individuals turn up the heat on Israel, we would be well advised to keep our cool.

  • Lehavdil is a Hebrew term that means “perish the comparison”


EIGHTY

For so many in this country, this past Sunday went by largely unnoticed. Other than being part of Labor Day weekend, precious few were aware that this past Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. As Jews, we have a sacred task. Aside from continuing to serve as the moral conscience for a world that would all too willingly relegate remembering World War II to historians, we Jews must look for a deeper meaning to this 80th anniversary. The carnage that occurred between September 1, 1939 and May 8, 1945 must not be viewed solely in terms of a world war; the carnage that occurred between September 1, 1939  and May 8, 1945 must be viewed as a war that was thrust upon the Jewish world!

It was the great Talmudic sage Yehudah ben Teima who taught us that 80 is commensurate with strength. Little could he have realized just how prescient his words would prove to be. These last 80 years have been years of amassing unimaginable strength, both for Jews in Israel as well as for Jews here in these United States. During this time period (actually only 71 years, since Israel did not become a sovereign state until May 1948) Israel has succeeded in building an army that is feared by its enemies, begrudgingly respected by those who are ambivalent towards the Jewish State, and admired by her friends. From a non-military aspect, I never cease to be amazed by the non-stop construction of factories, office buildings and private homes; I continue to remain in awe at the founding of new towns and the paving of new roads. As for Jews in this country,  who could ever have dared to imagine back in 1939 that there would come a time where there would be annual Chanukah parties at 1600 Pennsylvania  Avenue? Our strength is not that there are Jews who are members of the first family, but that for the most part, American Jews are nonchalant about it. Currently, there are at least two presidential hopefuls who are either Jewish or who have Jewish spouses. Again, American Jews remain un-phased.

Centuries after Rabbi Yehudah ben Teima, lived Rabbi Chanina who was known for his wit when it came to word plays. An example his ingenuity can be found  toward the end of Shabbat services, between Ein Keloheinu and Aleinu, where he asks us to read a word as “Bonei’ich” (builders) rather than “Banei’ich” (sons). In the spirit of Rabbi Chanina, I suggest that “shmonim” the Hebrew word for “eighty” be read as “shmanim” (oils), a word that appears in the all-time Chanukah favorite “Ma’oz Tzur.” I do so, because for the better part of eighty years, we have been amassing Holocaust stories and vignettes that defied the odds and were therefore very much Chanukah in nature. With our marking the 80th anniversary or “shmonim shanah,” perhaps the time has come for us to focus on “shmanim”  or oils that are post Holocaust defying of odds, where survivors built and produced and contributed in ways that far surpass  the building, producing and contributing of those who never knew from such horrors. Not unlike Chanukah, it borders on the incredulous when one accomplishes the unimaginable during periods of darkness; not unlike Chanukah, survivor stories border on the incredulous, given what they were able to accomplish during periods of light.

On any typical weekday during Shacharit and Mincha, we implore the Guardian of Israel, “Al yovad goy echad” that the “unique nation” not be destroyed. If there were ever a time for this imploration to take on special meaning, it would be at this very moment. Numerically, “al yovad goy echad” equals 80. This nation, the Jewish nation, I believe is here to stay. Whether or not this nation remains unique is dependent upon us.

For the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II to have meaning in our lives, let us look back on these eight decades and regard them as 80 years of distinction, 80 years of defying the odds, and 80 years of strength.