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A Moral Stain

Mark ThomasEPA-EFEREXShutterstock

“Foes or friends, this must be heard,” wrote Gunter Grass in his poem “This must be said: what a mess!” This brings me to another poem, written by another German, a pastor named Martin Niemoller, titled “First They Came…” While most of you are probably familiar with this poem, it must be heard again:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this short ‘confessional prose’ because of Israel’s—especially Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s—reaction to the devastating, atrocious, brutal invasion of Putin’s Russian forces into the proud, peace-loving country of Ukraine. We are all accustomed by now to the erroneous, overused term Nazis, Hitler this, Hitler that. But if ever there was a justification for it, then it is now. His name is Putin. Though he too uses the Nazi terminology wrongly for his propagandist usage. Of course, in his case, the name of another maniacal murderer, another megalomaniac despot comes first to mind. Stalin.

Whatever you call him, though, his intentions and actions are very clear, and are playing horrifically daily in front of our eyes. And so is the courageous, inspiring resistance of the Ukrainian people and their leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky—the only other Jewish leader of a country in the world—which has inspired the entire world with his resolute strength under such tremendous pressure. Not much less so for President Biden, for his straight, clear-eyed stand for freedom, democracy, and the Ukrainian people against the tyranny and unprovoked war of Putin and the Russians. He has taken a firm stand from the beginning, and was able to unify not only the American Congress and people of this country (to a large, impressive degree), but also Europe and the entire free world as well.

Who was left behind? Why, Israel of course, the very country one would expect to be at the forefront of those marching and speaking in defense of Ukraine. Another overused term/word, the Holocaust, and its crucial lessons, never had a better time to be used meaningfully. Yet the Israeli government fell silent suddenly. Not its people, no: they demonstrated and raised their voices in support of the Ukrainian people. And not all the government. Foreign Minister (who’s supposed to be the next prime minister after two years to this coalition government) Yair Lapid spoke quite forcefully against the Russian invasion. And Israel, after all, voted together with the other 141 countries in the UN Assembly to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Indeed, as I write this, Israel is planning to establish a field hospital in Lviv, Ukraine. Israel is also, though not problem-free, absorbing many refugees. Some Jews, some not. Among them was a group of Jewish orphaned children. Commendable. Yet PM Bennett, fancying himself Churchill, Kissinger—most likely Chamberlain, however, for his appeasement—had refrained so far from condemning Russia by name or deed. Worse still, the Ukrainian government, hearing the drums of war loud and clear coming from across the border with Russia, had asked America for a supply of the Iron Dome missile defense system, to fight the invading army’s rockets and missiles that were sure to come. Let‘s stop here and think for a moment what a difference to the brave Ukrainian fighters that would’ve made. But no. Though the US administration had agreed, Israel had refused to go ahead with it. Frightened of who and what exactly?

Well… Putin. Our century’s Hitler/Stalin. This goes deep, my friends, to the essence of the creation of Israel and its moral fortitude. I have no doubt that in the days to come Israel would help Ukraine even more. And it will do some good deeds. But in the crucial moment of need, it failed to stand up for the tyrant. Bennett fancied himself a peace negotiator, even broke the Shabbat in order to fly to the dictator’s long table. What for? What did he think? That he will convince him to stop the war? That he can bring peace where there was no wish for peace? He may have confused, when it came to Putin’s treatment of Israel, the snake’s apathy for empathy.

I’m very well aware that Israel has its own needs and calculations. Free air attacks in Syria’s skies on Iran’s forces there, and torpedoing the imminent renewal of The Nuclear Deal with Iran. Which I see, by and by, as Bennett’s real concern and urgent flight to Moscow. His attempt to receive confirmation from the despot that he would cancel his approval of it. Real politics has its demands. But not in that moment of defiance in which the whole world is holding its breath, united (almost) in its worry that a madman, with an immense arsenal of nuclear bombs, will push the trigger and blow this world up.

NO. This was a time for moral strength. For moral clarity—not moral relativity. For everything Israel, the Jewish state is supposed to be about. History was calling. But the call was not returned. Not initially, anyhow. Which the free world—“Foes or friends, this must be heard… This must be said: what a mess!”— will surely remind us of in the next, our own hour of need.

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It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Mind-blowing, isn’t it, this opening paragraph (one sentence, really) from Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities’? Reading it always gives me chills.  How prophetic of him, writing it in 1859 about the years leading up to the French revolution? But that’s the mark of a great writer, a visionary, and great literature too, to transcend times and many generations, and still be so truthful. About our age, too, it is true. About the last year in particular.

So let’s see where we’ve been, and what we’ve experienced in 2021 as it ends with a blast of cold air and a new tsunami wave of a coronavirus variant. It has started, indeed, with a shocking wave of a different kind, manmade: The January 6th insurrection, when a mob of Trump supporters, urged on and inspired by him and his cronies, stormed Capitol Hill and almost succeeded in overturning the results of our democratic, fair election and the certification of a new president. This assault on our democracy, this coup d’état was long in the making and almost successful. Don’t delude yourself that it’s over, because—should we not be on our guard—we won’t be so lucky next time.

This event, in the national political arena, overshadowed everything else this year, and still vibrates in the streets and in the halls of power. If not for the coronavirus pandemic—I cannot get rid of this thought, disturbing as it is to even contemplate—if not for the “China Virus” as he’d used to call it, we never would have gotten rid of Trump and his autocratic regime. Sad but true: if not for the many deaths and sick, we now would have a dictator in the White House, and autocracy in the vein of China and Russia here in America. The war is not over to be sure, but one battle we have somehow won. We better learn the lesson.

Meanwhile in Israel, a similar—if better and not so dramatic—outcome has occurred. Another potential dictator, Bibi Netanyahu, was kicked out of office. It was indeed a miracle of sorts that the preceding two-week flareup, the semi-war with Hamas in Gaza in May has brought some political opponents to their senses, and pushed them in a new direction. Foes and friends united—including, a first, an Arab party—to form the narrowest of coalitions, culminating in the successful formation of a new government, pushing Netanyahu to the sideline. To boot, he is also being prosecuted now in a court of law. But as in America so in Israel, it is not over yet, and all polls indicate he is still, by far, the most popular leader in Israel. That he might stage a comeback, like Trump, is entirely within the realm of possibility.

But above all—as in 2020—everything was eclipsed by the pandemic. In June of this year I went on a first date after a long time, and sat in an ice cream parlor with my young date maskless, enjoying the sun, the cold treat, and talking freely to each other. A month later I was up on the hills above Reno with my son on a fabulous vacation after two years of not seeing each other. At the end of October we were celebrating my birthday in Monterey Bay, and had a great time watching whales in the Pacific Ocean. Shortly thereafter I celebrated with some dear friends the Thanksgiving holiday with good food, wine, and fine comradeship. Likewise in Chanukah. We thought we are finally emerging out of the dark into the light.

“It was the season of Light,” as Dickens wrote, but now it is again the “season of Darkness.” It does look very bleak as I write this, as if we are back at square one. In the news on Monday morning it was said that Israel has added America to its no-fly list, both incoming and outgoing flights, as it already did with some European and African countries. Last evening I rescued out of my cupboard a new N95 mask I kept there for an emergency—using other, lighter and easier-to-wear masks in the meantime—for going grocery shopping. Last Saturday evening I was all geared up for a new episode of SNL. Guess what: my favorite TV program was back improvising, without an audience and hardly any cast members. British soccer Primer League matches are being canceled left and right, and so are NBA, NFL, and NHL games, as the various leagues are struggling to continue as scheduled.

So many other things/events, good and bad have occurred this year, but I’m going to stop right here and now. You know the rest. Let’s remember the good times. Stay healthy, my friends, and don’t let your guard down. May the next year be happy and joyous, mostly, for you and yours!

* The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

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