Friday, November 30, 2018

Rooting out Anti-semitism

There has been a sudden increase in attention being paid to what’s being referred to as “a new anti-semitism” since the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. Yesterday’s New York Times carries an opinion piece by Bari Weiss, titled “Europe’s Jew Hatred, and Ours,” in which the depressingly familiar statistics and reports of vandalism and personal attacks on Jews are once again revisited. Particularly disheartening are the polls showing that a third of young Europeans have never heard of the Holocaust.

I have been reading Weimar history for the past several months, and have gradually moved into the Hitler years. I grew up in a German-speaking family with a ferociously proud German Lutheran grandmother, and joined the Lutheran Church myself while in college. I didn’t stay long, and wrote to have my name removed from the membership list after a few years, once I admitted to myself that I simply couldn’t buy into the folk lore any longer, Jonah living in the belly of the whale, Noah and his ark, Mary and her lifelong virginity, Christ and his ability to return to life after death and get his friends to poke their fingers in the holes in his side to prove he was the real thing.

But religion has its way of hanging on. The doctrine may fall away of its own weight, but the culture in which a religious belief system thrives is a separate phenomenon. To be Lutheran means you are likely to be familiar with Bach. You can get rid of Leviticus but still hang on to the Psalms just as the backsliding children of Baptists and Pentecostalists may keep a little space in their heads for “that ol’ time religion.” Well, Amazing Grace, anyway. Episcopalians may find the debate over the meaning of the Eucharist to be no longer relevant to their lives, but still feel a bit of nostalgia over the Elizabethan language of the Book of Common Prayer. What’s not to love, even by an ardent agnostic, about “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us…”

I’ll never forget the time I discovered what a vicious anti-Semite Martin Luther was. Nobody told me in my young years about his treatise “On the Jews and their Lies.” About his advocacy of burning down Jewish schools and synagogues, and not allowing Jews to live among Christians. Forbidding their rabbis to preach and taking away their religious writings entirely. And, just to twist the knife, Luther urged that Jews be given no protection while traveling.

Luther was never considered a prophet, like Jesus or Mohammed, so there’s no reason for Lutherans to reject his insistence that they should stop listening to the church hierarchy and read the Bible for themselves for instruction on how to be a Christian. He was mortal and he made some bad mistakes. One can reject his anti-Semitism as one rejects his own failure to follow the Gospel message he preached that one should recognize that all men and women are equals in the eyes of God, and still be a Lutheran.

Much more difficult to pull apart, however, is Luther’s practice of dividing up the world into a realm of religion and a realm of earthly authority. Luther had to deal with German princes and we’re all familiar with his way of settling real and potential conflict between German regions governed by princes who chose to follow his teaching and those governed by princes who remained loyal to the pope. Cuius regio, eius religio the policy is called – “whose reign, his religion,” a solution to religious conflict which came with the assumption that the princes’ authority was in each case divinely established.

Which caused a problem, some four centuries later, when Hitler came to power. Almost immediately, pastors began joining the Nazi party, believing that Hitler would bring back the German discipline and rid Germany of the decadence of the Weimar era. The “reawakening” of the nation would be matched by a reawakening in the church. Hitler would pick up where Luther had left off. One of Hitler’s first acts was to unite the twenty-eight regional Protestant churches into a single “reich church” and bring the newly united church back under control of the state. Just two months after taking power on January 30, 1933, Hitler instituted the Enabling Act, which allowed him to bypass the legislature and impose laws of his own making. Two weeks after that, on April 7, he created the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (Berufsbeamtengesetz), whose first Article banned Jews from state employment. Later that month he appointed Ludwig Müller, an enthusiastic Nazi as head of the new Reich Church. Müller was supported by about 2000 of the 18,000 evangelical pastors of the time who organized themselves as The German Christians (Die deutschen Christen). The church was initially exempted from this article, known as “the Aryan paragraph,” but pressure soon began to get with the drill, a move the gung-ho Nazi German Christians enthusiastically supported. What the Nazis were demanding was that church officials effectively excommunicate believing Christians simply on the grounds they were Jewish, thus prioritizing race over faith. The church protested, although not on moral grounds, but on jurisdictional grounds – what they didn’t like was the government dictating how the church should be run. Maintaining the distinction since Luther’s day of separating church authority from princely (now governmental) authority, even when Jewish shops and synagogues were burned and smashed on Kristallnacht, the German church took on the attitude that they should mind their own business.

The German Christians were not satisfied with merely removing Jews from church membership; they wanted to remove all traces of Judaism from the faith, as well. That included downplaying, even removing the Old Testament, and substituting for the image of Christ as a gentle soul one in which he is more “manly” – a heroic Aryan warrior on the order of the stormtroopers. The swastika was imposed on the cross symbol and services took on a military flavor. In a biography of Martin Niemöller, the pastor credited, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, with taking the lead in holding on to the authentic Lutheran Church, which came to be called “The Confessing Church,” Matthew D. Hockenos writes

At no point during the twelve years of Nazi rule, much less in 1933, would German Protestants publicly condemn anti-Semitism in stark terms. It is telling that, while American liberal Protestants were planning demonstrations against Nazism, German Protestants were fighting over how much influence to give Hitler in church affairs. The schism that took place in German Protestantism was primarily over church autonomy – not Nazi politics and racial policy. (Hockenos, p. 83)

Since the war, there has been a thorough repudiation of wartime official Lutheran policies during the Hitler period (See, for example, the Lutheran World Federation publication, available online here ) and Lutheran-bashing is unwarranted, considering especially the efforts of the Confessing Church to separate themselves from anti-Semitism during the war years. But what are we to do with those seeking to defend Luther’s chilling anti-Semitism and the many Lutherans who followed his anti-Jewish sentiments down through the years, people who insist that Luther’s view of Jews was not based on their physical identity but on the simple fact that they resisted conversion. Even such notables as Niemöller and Bonhoeffer were known to have espoused this “theological anti-Semitism” in their early years. We can argue today that to the average outsider to the faith this looks like hair-splitting. And it’s probably true that theological anti-Semitism works as an enabler of the more bigoted and dangerous racial kind.  It’s just that upon closer inspection, it is no different from any claim by orthodox religionists that they have the right views on God and religion while the rest of the world lives in error. Clerical Roman Catholicism and traditional Islam rise and fall on such claims, as do all other authoritarian religious organizations.

Making such distinctions is not an idle pastime. How are we to distinguish between Israel as a dream come true for millions of persecuted Jews and the policies of the current Israeli government which has led to pushing Palestinians off their land and creating, in Gaza, what has been called the largest outdoor prison in the world, and in the many camps where Palestinians have lived as refugees for some 70 years now?  A lack of nuanced thinking is at the heart of all bigoted ideology, and will not go away overnight.

Germany, once the headquarters of the most vicious form of anti-Semitism on the planet is today a refuge for Jews, Over 33,000 Israelis have taken German citizenship since 2000, while in France Jews are leaving in great numbers. The fact that this may be due in large part to the presence of Muslims, who outnumber Protestants in France and often carry the prejudices of their countries of origin, where anti-Zionism is official policy, doesn’t lessen the insecurity Jews now feel in France.

Anti-semitism shares with racism, sexism and homophobia the human tendency to act tribally, to separate “us” from “them” and create a hierarchical structure, putting “them” at a level beneath “us.”  And tribal cultural values depend on the habit of creating labels for these arbitrary categories and assuming a complex individual can be placed in them. We fail to distinguish Jews from Israelis, religious Jews from cultural Jews, American Jews with their own particular history (see Stephen Weisman’s The Chosen Wars) from Jews in Europe and elsewhere. It doesn’t help that we have a president at the moment who keeps trying to exclude “Muslims,” rather than distinguish between militant Salafists and peaceful Muslims – or secular Muslims, for that matter. And who once insisted a judge be barred from judging a case on the grounds of his parents’ Mexican origin. Standing up to over-generalizations and inappropriate labelling is a full-time job.

Look on the bright side. At least we never tried to put Jesus of Nazareth into a stormtrooper’s uniform or replace the Torah with Mein Kampf. We may have the likes of Michelle Malkin, whom I once heard address an audience at the University of California on the importance of bringing back the concentration camps of World War II where we locked up Japanese-Americans, only using them this time for locking up Muslim-Americans. But we also have - speaking of complexity - the 2013 survey conducted in the United States by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, which found the intermarriage rate to be 58% among all Jews and 71% among non-Orthodox Jews.

Of course, that fact sets off an alarm. Many Jews (Alan Dershowitz is one – see his The Vanishing American Jew) argue that intermarriage means the end of Judaism, ultimately, since it’s difficult to maintain Jewish identity in a mixed-marriage home. The irony is that the pogroms of Russia and the Holocaust led ultimately to the foundation of Israel and an increasingly vibrant Jewish identity, while loving Jews enough to want to marry them may lead to their destruction as a self-identified racial/ethnic group. Anti-Semitism, following that line of thinking, would become irrelevant. 

Not too many people (pace Dershowitz), as far as I can tell, take these speculations seriously. Jews, I hope, will be around for a very long time. We need to find more ways to raise the consciousness of the general public to the point where we can stop madmen from translating the current Trump administration xenophobia into such things as American anti-Semitism.  To stop the non-nuanced thinking that Jews are necessarily anti-Muslim (and anti-Semitism is therefore justified) at the same time we stop the non-nuanced thinking that Muslims are anti-Jewish, anti-Western or anti-modern.

We might start with a more discerning look at America’s role in invading the Muslim world and at how the mujahideen and the Taliban came to be. And what it means to the Arab world to have us join with Saudi Arabia to starve Yemen and overlook the Khashoggi murder instead of recognizing Saudi Arabia as the generator of jihadist Wahhabis around the world. As well as recognize how deep-seated anti-Semitism is in Western Culture, and how tied it is to our primal tribal identities.

Theological anti-Semitism may explain the origin of anti-Semitism, but it doesn’t justify it and it doesn’t explain what keeps it going. It’s tribalism that does that.

The rise of nationalist movements around the world, Trumps “Make America Great” movement by all means included, is just an expanded form of tribalism. Working on that may be a good place to start.

Hockenos, Matthew D., Then They Came For Me, Basic Books, NY: 2018

Sunday, November 25, 2018

We survived Richard Nixon

I am not a crook.
It's common in my lefty part of the country to see the Republicans as cowards, charlatans, and racist, insensitive, greedy bastards. And those are euphemisms. Someday I'll tell you what's really being said.

Over Thanksgiving I had a conversation with an old friend from my home town. As we were reminiscing, one of the topics that came up was the fact that both of us Winsted, Connecticut kids now living in Iowa and California remember how we started our adult lives as Republicans, following in the footsteps of our New England Republican parents. Republicans were people who stood tall, acted responsibly, damn the torpedoes, kept their promises, worked hard, and viewed failure as an opportunity to learn something new. We knew we were special because we were proud children of a Puritan heritage. (I know, I know. The witches of Salem. Nobody's perfect.)

We asked the same question most erstwhile Republicans are asking these days: how could the Republican Party have fallen down so far? What is it about this wretched Trump phenomenon that has led to this state of affairs where air and water regulations are tossed aside as the coal industry is encouraged to believe their jobs are secure? Where the public schools are in the hands of a charter school advocate and alligators now run the swamps generally?  The answer, I suspect, is an all-around drop in public morality. A political party doesn't lead; it follows. There is a critical mass of folk that enabled us to put a man in office that seems to have taken us as low as we can go - he has made it plain for all the world to see that our highest ethical value is a love of money. He has argued that the fact of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi's killing cannot override the fact that the U.S. makes millions off the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Never mind that that statement is itself false; it reveals the moral code Trump lives by.  

Those of the "realist" school of thought have always argued governments must never confuse morality with national self-interest. It's just that in the past they accepted the need for hypocrisy in defending national policy based on financial gain. The only thing that has changed, from a "realistic" perspective is that we now have a president who speaks the truth. He doesn't pretend to be a nice guy, and that's a good part of the reason he has as many supporters as he does.

The opposing school of thought is the "idealist" school of thought, comprised of those who insist we should live by standards of good behavior we can all sign on to - have signed on to in writing our Constitution, for example. To the realists, idealism is just another form of naïveté. You can't live as a lamb in a world of wolves, they argue.

Hearing Trump dismiss the killing of Khashoggi really got me down. Maybe I need to have a little talk with myself about my desire to live with hypocrisy, but this bare-ass revelation of America as an unabashed greed-filled nation is depressing. I'll take the naïve - if that's what it is - displays of patriotism as America as a land of opportunity, a place where you can dream of a better life for your children, a shining example for the rest of the world. It actually was this at times, despite its masking of its dark side, and I mourn its passing.

But while I'm tempted to see Trump as an example of how low we can go, I'm reminded regularly that there are moments when Republicans have brought us to moral lows before. One of those times was when Reagan convinced the Iranians to hold off releasing the hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran to assure he got elected instead of Jimmy Carter. (I know this case is contested, but I see enough evidence to find it plausible.) And, as Rachel Maddow has just revealed, LBJ also lost to Nixon rather than reveal that Nixon had thwarted LBJ's peace plan in Vietnam in order to assure a Republican win - his own - thus keeping the war going and costing thousands of American lives.

Trump's bad, but he wasn't the first to put his own personal gain over the interests of the nation. It is possible, of course, that his need to malign the media puts him in a category of his own.  Straight out of the tyrant's handbook is his "enemy of the people" epithet.

History will tell us which of these three Republican presidents - Reagan, Nixon and Trump - have done more actual damage and cost more human lives. I'm going with Nixon at the moment, because of his sabotage of LBJ's peace plan. I really hope you'll have a look at that. Here's the link again.

Enver Hoxha is said to have killed 10% of his own population. Pol Pot allegedly killed 20% of his. Japanese militarism under General Tojo killed an estimated 5 million. And that was small potatoes compared to Hitler's 17 million and Stalin's 23 million.*  There are far worse tyrants than the self-serving pishers in the American political scene who persuade their party to let them have a go at making them richer.

So far we're in good shape. The New York Times, which Trump says is failing, has doubled its stock value since the whiny baby-man was handed the reins.  And ditto for most of America's mainstream press, now growing by leaps and bounds thanks to digital technology.  So much for "enemies of the people."

Maybe you're not ready to drop your pessimism. Maybe the stunning gains in the House will turn out to be meaningless if we end up with more years of a Mexican standoff in Washington.

As for me, I'm going to spend more time watching people sing and dance. 

And remember, we survived Richard Nixon.

Photo credit

*added Monday 1:38 p.m. - a comment from my friend Daniel Bisgaard:

Surprised you left off the clear champion in the 20th century's bloodiest leader.  Just search: "how many deaths did Mao cause?" I see estimates ranging from 42 to 78 million.
By all means, yes. My only hesitation here is that I don't want the point to be missed that we don't gain anything by assuming evil should be understood quantitatively. I remember a wonderful moment when I heard Gore Vidal address a crowd of gay people in San Francisco about the persecution of gays under Hitler. Vidal cited the numbers of pink triangle victims who died in concentration camps, and a member of the audience got up to protest that, all things considered, the numbers pale in comparison to the number of Jews who lost their lives in the camps. Vidal's response was, "Are you in real estate?"

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Schnüffelgang - Happy Happy Joy Joy

Whatsa matta yo face?
The Air Quality Index (AQI) in the Berkeley Area shot up to "hazardous" yesterday, so that even with an N95 mask I didn't take the girls out for their Schnüffelgang, their "sniff walk." And boy did I hear about it. They clawed at me and whined. They are girls who live by a strict schedule, and woe betide you when you miss a dinner deadline, or time for a walk. But with my already watering eyes and my sore throat, I didn't want to chance it. So we took several pipipupu breaks throughout the day in the back yard, but no actual walks. And when I put the harnesses on today, they launched into their happy happy joy joy dance, normally reserved for our coming home after an extended stay away.

The San Francisco Bay Area beat a world record for "worst polluted city in the world," I read yesterday. Which was nonsense, actually, since Sacramento was worse, and so was Chico, right next to the fire. I guess some local journalist just decided to take their cue from Trump with his "biggest, best, most the world has ever seen" use of modifiers. But let's not quibble. If you go to  you'll see that the air quality index runs from a "not worth mentioning" category called "good" to "moderate" to "unhealthy for sensitive groups" (asthmatics, babies and geezers) to "unhealthy" (for everybody) to "very unhealthy" to "hazardous." And after yesterday's "hazardous," today's merely "unhealthy for everybody" felt like it was time to go out and dance in the streets. Well, walk the dogs, in any case. And without a mask. What they don't tell you about those damn N95 masks, is they are damned hard to breathe in. And they don't work. You can tell they don't work because your glasses keep getting fogged up, and if air can get out, obviously air can get in.  My spouse suggested maybe I should tape it to my face, but there are limits.

As I was gasping down the street the other day the thought occurred to me that everybody here is oohing and aahing over the fact that "the air here is as bad as in Delhi, India!" Nobody seems to be concerned about just what that means, that the poor folks in Delhi live with this kind of air on an everyday basis!" Can't get my mind around that. It's seriously wretched, and we're all huddled inside with the doors and windows closed. And in Delhi they have this kind of air every day of the year???

We're not praying folk, and I'm far too self-conscious to engage in a dance to bring on the rain, but we're holding out hope that the rain predicted for Wednesday is for real. Man, I'd like to be able to see up and down the block again.

More importantly, I hope it rains in Butte County where the town of Paradise, now reduced to a wasteland, once was. An entire town wiped out. And that was only one fire of who knows how many. I heard 17 at one point. Firefighters, the everyday heroes we live with, flew in from New Zealand and Australia. Hundreds of people still missing.

Tough times. I guess losing the freedom to take a walk outside is pretty piddling compared to what some people have had to endure.

Now to persuade the girls that that's the case.

Photo credit: Photo of man-on-roof is from the Czech website Forum 24. Tried to find it to give credit to the photographer of this dramatic photo but all I get is a "stránka nenalezena" (page not found). Sorry.