Zachor Al Tishkach: Remember, Don’t Forget

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Z’L) has pointed out that there is no word for “history” in the Hebrew language. The word that comes closest to the notion of history in Hebrew is the word “Zachor” – the injunction “to remember.”

The Torah has two commandments around the word “Zachor”. One is Zachor et Yom haShabbat, – remember the Sabbath Day and to keep it holy: The second one – Zachor et Amalek – Remember Amalek! Below is the translation of the Torah verses that recalls Amalek.

“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear G-d. So it will be, when the Lord your G-d grants you respite from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord, your G-d, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the Heavens. You shall not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19).

These verses are chanted annually in the synagogue on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim. Below is what it sounds like.

 

Jewish memory of the last five thousand years is embedded in our texts and our holidays. The following documentaries and talks by current scholars about our recent world history brings the recent past vividly to mind. As you read this blog, I think you will come to realize why it is so important “not to forget what went before.”

 

STALIN’S RISE TO POWER

Stephen Kotkin has published two volumes on the life and times of Josef Stalin (1878-1953) based on his own research into recently released Soviet archives. I have enjoyed watching him interviewed by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute’s Uncommon Knowledge.

 

In the first volume, we learn that Stalin was not the product of an abusive home. He was educated in Catholic elementary and high schols because these were the best schools his parents could afford in his neighbourhood. His path was open to becoming a Catholic priest. But as a young man, he became enamoured with revolutionary Marxist ideology and made a career of being an anti-czarist activist. Before 1917, he was exiled and imprisoned by the Czarist police five times.

In 1917, the czarist regime was overthrown, and a provisional democratic government was installed. Stalin was close to the group around Lenin that overthrew the provisional government. In spring of 1922, after Lenin engineered a coup replacing all independent parties in the provisional government with the Communist Party, he appointed Stalin as his manager and right-hand man. Officially, Stalin became the Secretary-General of the Communist Party.

Six weeks later, Lenin had a stroke from which he never recovered. This left Stalin’s opening to maneuver himself into the role of a dictator by ruthlessly destroying anyone apposed to him or his ideas. Stalin was able to do this because he was a workaholic with great people skills and managerial prowess. With no one looking over his shoulder, he was ruthless and used “every underhanded method and then some” to justify his ends. He used manipulation, torture, and outright murder of any potential rivals to maintain his autocratic power.

In the name of his communist Marxist ideology, Stalin and his collaborators engineered collectivization of farmlands, the elimination of private property and personal freedom, which lead to poverty and death from starvation for tens of millions of people before World War ll. The name given to these events is the Holodomor.

It seems that although Stalin was idealistic, one of his ideas was that the end goal justifies any means, and secondly, he recognized absolutely no restraint in his quest for personal power.

 

THE RISE OF THE NAZIS

RISE OF THE NAZIS

This month, I also had the opportunity to study Hitler’s ascent and reign via the excellent documentary series Rise of the Nazis on PBS. So far, I have watched two episodes bringing us up to 1938.

In 1930, Germany was a liberal democracy. Just four years later, democracy is dead, and a single party, the Nazi party, rules the country. Hitler is the autocratic ruler and his collaborators, Ernst RöhmHermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler, control all German national institutions:

  • The police, the army and the courts – Heinrich Himmler controls the police.
  • Herman Goring creates his own espionage cadre called the Gestapo.
  • Ernst Rohm is in charge of the SA, the Storm Troopers.

In the first episode, we meet the chief actors vying for parliamentary power in 1930. General Kurt von Schleicher, an ally of the right and himself a politician, fearing socialist and left-wing parties enlists Hitler thinking to take advantage of his popularity and his private militia power base, the SA (the Storm Troopers).

Hitler and his cronies first became known to the German public during what is now referred to as the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, which was an attempt at seizing the reigns of power via the armed violence of the Storm Troopers (SA). Goring and Himmler escape, and Hitler is tried and imprisoned.

  • Hitler was sentenced to prison for five years but served only nine months in the relative comfort of Landsberg castle. He used the time to dictate the first volume of Mein Kampf, his political autobiography, and a compendium of his multitudinous ideas.
  • Hitler’s ideas included inequality among races, nations, and individuals as part of an unchangeable natural order that exalted the “Aryan race” as humanity’s creative element. According to Hitler, the natural unit of humanity was the Volk (“the people”), of which the German people were the greatest. Moreover, he believed that the state existed to serve the Volk, i.e. Weimar Germany. In Hitler’s Germany, all morality and truth were judged by these criteria. (Source: Britannica)

Hans Litten is also highlighted in the series. Litten was a German lawyer from an established German family. His father, Fritz, was a distinguished jurist, dean of Königsberg’s law school who later became rector of that institution. His mother, Irmgard, was from an established Lutheran family in Swabia, the daughter of Albert Wüst, a professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

The 1924 court case against Adolf Hitler and other events convinced Litten that Germany was approaching a hazardous period. His perception that right-wing radicals were literally getting away with murder – unfettered criminal violence in the pursuit of power – convinced him to become a lawyer.

In May 1931, Litten summoned Adolf Hitler to testify in the Tanzpalast Eden Trial, a court case involving two workers stabbed by four SA (Storm Troopers). He cross-examined Hitler for three hours, finding many points of contradiction and proving that Hitler had exhorted the SA to embark on a systematic campaign of violence against the Nazis’ enemies. This was crucial because Hitler was meanwhile trying to pose as a conventional politician to middle-class voters and to maintain that the Nazi Party was “strictly legal.”

Although Litten manages to expose Hitler in this trial, with some success, once Himmler and Goring were appointed to manage the Nazi forces, all German national institutions were corrupted. Litten himself is imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps and continuously and mercilessly tortured. He is also declared a Jew and imprisoned in the Jewish prisoner wing. His father was a Jew who had  converted to Lutheranism.

The second episode exposes the competition between Goring and Himmler for Hitler’s approval after Hitler aquires his positon of Chancellor and sole governing ruler of Germany. Himmler expands his power by acquiring methodical control of all provincial police departments and announcing the creation of Dachay as a place to house/imprison enemies of the state, the thousands arrested by the SS immediately upon Hitler accessing autocratic powers. Goring advances his own power base by creating the Gestapo, a private espionage unit. Their own personal pursuit of power then lead them to collaborate with each other in order to denouncing Ernst Rohm and his Storm Troopers to Hitler. Ernst Rohm and his storm troopers are also imprisoned in concentration camps and systematically murdered in the Night of the Long Knives.

This episode ends with the little known story of Joseph Hartinger, Deputy State Prosecutor, who when called to examine the death of four prisoners at Dachau reported to have been shot while trying to escape, notices that all four are Jews and that they have all been shot in the same way at close range. He collects his evidence and writes his detailed report expecting those responsible to be condemned and brought to trial, but his superior refuses to sign off on it. Shocked, he decides to take it further up the chain of command on his wn intitiative, but Himmler is warned, and the report arrives at the highest court and gets locked away in a safe. We know this because the report was discovered by the American armies and was used as evidence at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, which began November 20, 1945.

These Nazi leaders were personally ambitious, cruel and murderous. They managed to seduce and to intimidate much of the German populace with their racial theories, blaming all of Germany’s ills on Jews, communists, socialists, capitalists, and anyone else who was not a “pure German and Nazi sympathizer.”

 

History-Zachor Al Tishkach

CHINA UNDERCOVER

In another PBS documentary, China Undercover, FRONTLINE investigates China’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. The documentary exposes China’s alarming use and testing of surveillance technology.

The regime’s growing capacity to survey an entire population, using surveillance technology and concentration type camps visible via satellite to punish and imprison should cause global alarm. Cameras are placed everywhere and allow the regime to keep a close eye on all its citizens, even identifying them by analyzing facial structure. The country’s faithful soldiers systematically download peoples’ phones and label their houses with barcodes. They enlist Chinese families to invade the homes of Uyghur families and “becoming a part of uyghur families” on holidays, eliminating any possibiliity of privacy or resistance.

This reality seems to be even worse than the dystopia depicted in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984.

Why Is the Injunction to Remember – Zachor – So Important? 

Why is it so important to understand the history of Hitler, Stalin, and the current landscape? It shows us what can happen when individuals or institutions, unmoored from any moral compunctions, and often in the name of “social justice,” have the hubris to declare themselves keepers of the flame, and to claim supreme governing authority.

The Torah reminds us to work to eliminate these kinds of rulers, even after we ourselves are prospering, not to wreak vengeance but to create a safer world for all of us, one that is committed to the kind of justice that protects the weakest among us everywhere. Whenever we have the opportunity to review these events, we all become witnesses.

 

 

RBG: How Jewish Was She

RBG: How Jewish Was She?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RGB), the phenomenal Justice of the US Supreme Court, passed away Friday evening, September 18, 2020, on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Hilary Helstein of The LA Jewish Film Festival organized an hour-long interview with Julie Cohen, producer of the documentary film RBG. I participated in her reminiscences of meetings with RGB and then rewatched the movie.

The following morning, I read Melanie Phillips’ recent post, RBG: An American Jewish justice warrior highlighting Ginsburg’s Jewish identity and how intertwined that was with her life. Melanie points out that while few commented on her Jewish background, the Guardian newspaper did mention her Jewish identity.  However, Melanie writes, the paper got it all wrong.

In the Guardian, Godfrey Hodgson wrote: “Ruth was brought up in a Conservative Jewish tradition and learned Hebrew as a child, but abandoned her religion because she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17., [In 1993, President Bill] Clinton was anxious to make the Supreme Court more diverse, so Ginsburg’s Jewish religion, which she had given up 46 years earlier, may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment.” 

These comments astonished people who knew that Ginsburg’s Jewish identity was never abandoned; rather, it was threaded throughout her life and work.

After complaints, the Guardian changed the text to read, “Ginsburg moved away from strict religious observance after she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17. Indignant at that exclusion, she, nevertheless, remained deeply committed to her Jewish identity.”

What was that quintessential Jewish characteristic that any learned Jewish person would have recognized in RBG?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied that unique Jewish characteristic that began with Abraham, who sparred, even with G-d, when justice was involved.

“Shall the G-d of all the world not practice justice!” (Genesis 18:25)

This central awareness of seeking justice for all characterized Justice Ginsburg’s life from the beginning of her career to the very end: Even if she lost her cases, her dissenting opinions were seen to reverberate throughout the broader community.

According to the US constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States is the final arbiter for justice. However, the very idea of a human court structure with judges who refuse bribes derives from the Torah, the Jewish Bible.

In the Hebrew Bible, “Moses and the Israelites were commanded by God to establish courts of judges who received full authority over the people of Israel, who were commanded by God through Moses to obey the judgments made by the courts.” (Exodus 18:21–22, Numbers 11:16–17, 11:24–25; Deuteronomy 1:15–18, 17:9–12)

The Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin identifies two classes of rabbinical courts called Sanhedrin, a Great Sanhedrin (בית דין הגדול) and a Lesser Sanhedrin (בית דין הקטן). Each city could have its lesser Sanhedrin consisting of 23 judges. However, there was only one Great Sanhedrin comprised of 71 judges.  Among its other roles, it acted as the Supreme Court, taking appeals from cases decided by lesser courts. The uneven numbers of judges eliminated the possibility of a tie. The last to cast his vote was the head of the court.

The Torah also mandated the courts’ impartiality and severely prohibited the taking of bribes.

“You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (Deuteronomy 16:19)

Modern workplaces and societies are no less susceptible to bribery, corruption, and bias than ancient Israel was. According to the United Nations, the most significant impediment to economic growth in less developed countries are lapses in the rule of law: In places where corruption is endemic, the consequences are severe: It may be impossible to make a living, travel across town, or live peacefully. (1) The UN statute recognizes that those who have the power to demand bribery are more at fault than those who pay them, for the prohibition is against accepting bribes, not against paying them. (2)

In this sense, Ruth Bader Ginsburg followed in the footsteps of Abraham and Moses – biblical heroes who took no bribes and followed their vision, even arguing with G-d on justice-related issues.

Ginsburg’s Jewish values were equally evident in her private life. RGB was devoted to her parents, especially her mother, who had been ill and passed away a day before Ruth graduated from High School. She was also committed to her husband, who fell ill shortly after they were married. She took care of his medical needs and kept up with his classes and her own throughout his illness while also caring for their infant daughter. RGB was devoted to keeping her word, pursuing truth, and following through on her personal and professional commitments.

Jeffrey Rosen (3) and Dahlia Lithwick (4), who knew her professionally and personally over many years, recorded an interview for the Jewish Book Council shortly after her passing; throughout the interview, they reminisced about her life, teasing out these extraordinary aspects of her character, her intense capacity to care about others, to remain focused on her goal, to not give in to useless anger and to treat everyone, even her opponents, with respect and courtesy.

Rosen and Lithwick speculate to what extent RBD’s Jewishness and outsider immigrant status may have contributed to her remarkable vision. They also note her efforts in sharing her ideas with the next generation and how generous she was in this regard with her time and energy.

It is perhaps a divine irony that Justice Ginsburg passed away on the eve of Rosh Hashanah when according to Jewish thought, all the world – every individual and every community – is judged by the Supreme Judge – the Divine One. Dying on a Jewish Holiday is regarded as dying by the Kiss of the Almighty, a death reserved for the righteous – the “tzadik”  that she certainly was.

(1) United Nations Development Programme, Issue Brief: Rule of Law and Development (New York: United Nations, 2013), 3.

(2) Bribery and Corruption (Deuteronomy 16:18-20) Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

(3) Jeffrey Rosen recently published his book Conversations with RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law, providing a unique glimpse of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career.

(4) Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

 

Golda’s Balcony: The Film, 2019

“I begin with the redemption of the human race, and I end up in the munitions business… We intend to live. Our neighbours intend us to die.” Quotes from Golda’s Balcony

Yesterday, LAJ film festival screened, on line, Golda’s Balcony, the one-woman play, which has now become a film. There was also a 90-minute interview by Hilary Helstein with Tovah Feldshuh, the actress who plays Golda.

The play is a tour-de-force exposing Golda Meir’s character as a mother, a wife, and a passionate Zionist, who also happened to be the Prime Minister of Israel during the devastating Yom Kippur war (1973). The crux of the play is the Yom Kippur War and the choices that Golda herself, had to make.

The play exposes the travails of leadership and brings history to life. Will she or won’t she use the secret weapon? What goes through her mind as she faces these agonizing moments? In the interview, Tovah shares her personal history, research, and active participation in the creation of this work of art – the tweaking of the play and the development of the character. Tovah brings it off brilliantly.

This film deserves all of the many awards it has recently garnered. It shares history, not from a linear and intellectual standpoint but as if from the visceral connection of personal memory – the first person singular – memory itself.

Although the film referred to events up to Golda’ Meir’s death in 1973, it is sadly relevant today as it reveals both the birth of the state of Israel and the constant agonizing struggle for its survival, which continues to the present day.

Check out Tovah’s website for purchases, such as a study guide to Golda’s balcony or a DVD The Journey to Golda’s Balcony.

Two must-see documentaries featured at this year Israel Film Festival in Montreal

Two must-see documentaries featured at this year Israel Film Festival in Montreal

I watched two documentaries recently; both screened at the Israel Film Festival in Montreal. Mrs. G., directed by Dalit Kimor, is a documentary about the life and work of Lea Gottlieb, a Hungarian survivor. The latter emigrated to Israel after the war and created a family-run business that became the internationally revered Gottex swimsuit empire.

I identified with this story since it echoed that of my parents. Hungarian Jews, who immigrated to Montreal with two young children, and no money to speak of, but managed to create a successful leather coat factory that sold high-quality products across Canada and the US for many years. It is the story of many immigrant Jewish families who brought their craft and business skills and rebuilt their lives after the devastation of the Shoah/Holocaust. However, although these immigrant families may have achieved financial success, the shoah’s scars could not be so readily overcome. Mrs. G’s children complained that although she was an excellent designer, she had no motherly instinct.

The other documentary I watched is Aulcie by director Dani Menkin. The documentary tells the life of Aulcie Perry, a black man from New Jersey, who was drafted to play for Maccabi, the Israeli national basketball league, and became a much-beloved hero in Israel, taking the team to international championship status more than once.

Mrs. G. and Aulcie each had incredible challenges to overcome, which I will not share not to spoil the film.

What I loved about both of these films is the opportunity to peek into the lives of real people, living in Israel, addressing real challenges over many years.

Two must-see films featured at this year’s Israel Film Festival in Montreal

Apples From the Desert by Directors Matti Harari and Arik Lubetzki is an older Israeli version of the current Netflix series Unorthodox, a story about a young girl who grows up in the Satmar Hassidic sect in Brooklyn and runs away from her marriage. Apples From the Desert tells a similar story, an Israeli daughter, raised in an orthodox community in Jerusalem, who runs away to a boyfriend in a secular kibbutz in the desert, the Negev of Israel.

In both films, an adolescent chafes at the restrictions imposed by the Orthodox community norms. In Apples From the Desert, the father takes on the controlling role – worried about his daughter’s budding sexuality.

Chained by director Yaron Shani, tackles the same theme of the male ego dealing with adolescent sexuality but this time in a secular context. A policeman deals with his teenage stepdaughter’s budding sexuality while being investigated for “sexual harassment”.

What I liked about these two movies was the opportunity to explore the male characters and their conflicts in attempting to live “a good life,” each within his sphere of influence.