The Economic Dimensions of Democratic Politics

In an op-ed last week, The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt, advised voting for a Democratic Party candidate for president based on the enthusiasm he or she excites in you, but also on how well the candidate’s program appeals to economic populism.  “A substantial majority of Americans favor a populist agenda — higher taxes on the rich, better federal health insurance, more government action to create good-paying jobs and so on. The Democrats did so well in the midterms partly because of the populist campaign many of them ran…I think their best chance of winning in 2020 involves a campaign centered on fighting for working families.”

Over the next few blogs and reviews of several recent books on contemporary economics, I want to put forth an argument that, whatever the value of the first criterion for casting a vote to select a Democratic Party candidate, I suggest that, while fighting for working families is certainly legitimate, and both sides make a claim to do so, that should not be done on the back of populist economics. For what you sow, so shall you reap.

Republicans say their program of reduced taxes not only helps the rich but benefits the working individual by creating more jobs, creating a need for workers and a need to compete for workers which in turn will lead to higher wages for them. Democrats who follow Leonhardt’s lead think in terms of minimum wages, rules to strengthen collective bargaining, taxation policy that redistributes wealth rather than offering incentives for accumulating it and sometimes protectionism. Republicans supposedly support a balanced budget and then run up deficits their Democratic opponents are afraid of lest they be accused of ruining the economy. Republicans, therefore, set aside PAYGO, the congressional rule that increases in spending be matched by cuts elsewhere, when it suits them. The G.O.P. 2017 budget did precisely this.

Projecting an image of a Democratic Party in fear of budget deficits places restrictions on righting the wrongs of the past through increased benefits and laws to redistribute income. This was the position of Nancy Pelosi’s critics when she ran to be speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi, however, resisted their criticism and resolved to abide by PAYGO. However, economists like Paul Krugman argue that austerity and budget restrictions impede economic growth and lead to economic stagnation by ignoring or setting back the need to invest in infrastructure and in human resource development for example. I want to question whether either approach is better or worse, or even whether a choice has to be made in the face of the globalizing technological economic forces driving modern economies.

This Central debate within America has to be set within what is taking place on the global level. Richard Haas, and many others, look upon what is happening with an apocalyptic lens. The liberal world order, which began in the seventeenth century and was greatly expanded and refined after WWII with a set of institutions, is at the beginning stages of disintegration. That order was based on an idea of promoting the economic well-being of everyone on this planet by constructing an international system based on the rule of law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country within a world order.

One factor that has contributed to the disintegration has been the very instruments seen to be the culmination of integrating the whole planet, namely the internet and, more specifically, social media. For what set out to enhance worldwide communications has created a crisis for open societies and the freedom of the mind that was the pillar of the liberal world order. George Soros as Cassandra has written that, “The current moment in world history is a painful one. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are on the rise. In the United States, President Donald Trump would like to establish his own mafia-style state but cannot, because the Constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it. Not only is the survival of open society in question; the survival of our entire civilization is at stake. The rise of leaders such as Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Trump in the US have much to do with this. Both seem willing to risk a nuclear war in order to keep themselves in power. But the root cause goes even deeper. Mankind’s ability to harness the forces of nature, both for constructive and destructive purposes, continues to grow, while our ability to govern ourselves properly fluctuates, and is now at a low ebb.”

Soros is far from alone. Who would know better than John MacWilliams, who heads the Department of Energy where the internet was invented? He insisted that whenever we interact on a telecommunications device, someone not invited is listening. In fact, many are listening. Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk, which I will review, dubs this the first risk. When married to the fifth risk, the failure to manage this (and other risks) by denigrating management in favour of ideology, by denigrating knowledge in favour of ignorance, offers the anti-intellectual tools to destroy the modern liberal order.

Why the increase in quasi-fascist and fascist states? Because the policeman (America) of the world has given way and surrendered the responsibility of regulation. Democratic values were viewed initially as being protected by military interventions and crusades. That resulted in a propensity to concentrate power in hegemonic states, unfortunately.  International institutions were created to foster a world of interdependence that could counteract that propensity. The result, as Joseph Nye and others argue, was an unprecedented level “of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers. USsis leadership helped to create this system, and US leadership has long been critical for its success.”

However, in our digital age, giant, mostly American, platform companies have turned the greatest political power ever seen on this earth into an impotent giant as companies, that initially played an enormous role in innovation and liberalization, have fallen into the hands of interests which are primarily transactional, focused on promoting consumption rather than liberty in what Yanis Varoufakis dubs “the relentless commodification of privacy.” That, they argue, has made privacy and individual autonomy no longer possible. Innovators, like Mark Zuckerberg, have lost control of the Frankenstein they created.

Pseudo-knowledge – actual false claims – become the headlines people absorb and think of as knowledge. The weighing and evaluating of conclusions are set aside in favour of mass appeal. Sound bites are the clowns of this pseudo-cognitive world, sweeping minds and feelings into mass hysteria. Stop the merry-go-round. I want to, I need to, get off.

However, when it comes to the real world, our material world, our world as understood through economic science, the conclusion that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is offset by the cheery remarks of a leader that the country has the lowest unemployment levels and extraordinary rates of growth of that economy, blissfully ignoring the forces building up. Many if not most analysts see a collapse on the horizon. The volatile Wall Street stock market is just the foreplay for a 2020 depression that will make 2008 look like a blip on a screen and even the mode of management in 1929 seem like a cakewalk.

The fiscal policies of the U.S. are viewed as unsustainable. The period of sustained and synchronized growth has lost steam and is nearing a collapse, Unlike 2008 and 1939, governments no longer have the tools to reverse course according to Nouriel Roubini and Brunello Rosa.

2019 is supposed to be the tipping point with the U.S. running up unprecedented deficits, China has responded to the American-initiated trade war with even looser fiscal and credit policies as Europe limps badly as it still tries to recover from the centrifugal fragmenting forces threatening to throw a united but fragile unity into dozens of pieces. The protective devices of banking unification are proceeding too slowly and are too weak. Fiscal policy coordination is inadequate as political rifts and schisms grow exponentially. Political uncertainty across Europe, especially in the mainstays, France and Germany, grows as the domestic drivers of economic growth weaken and exports suffer because of the American-led trade war with China on a macro scale and the cancellation of the American decision to lift sanctions on Iran decrease trade on a more modest level.

Why? For many, the new communications system and the digital age are not the primary villains. Neoliberal ideology and “public choice” theory emphasizing the reversal of the regulations introduced following the 2008 crisis, are. The dominant economic model is becoming totally incongruent with the actual historical patterns on the ground which demand and need much greater intervention and management of the economy rather than greater anarchy. In spite of many efforts in place, the policy direction is working in reverse even though, in Europe, there is at least a plan in place to counter these trends and to maximize economy strengths in ingenuity and high-end manufacturing.

We have a communications crisis. We have a fiscal crisis. We have a governance crisis. In a globalized economic world with a pressing need for global management of a natural climate crisis of unprecedented proportions coming at us, we need more integration, not less, more governance not less, more regulation not less. But the signs of an emerging system of global governance are all pointing in the wrong direction. The tide of increased global trade that has contributed so much to rising worldwide prosperity is in retreat as the global trade game has shifted from free trade to increasing reliance on mercantilism, that is, regulation and intervention precisely in a way it is not only not needed, but is destructive to the international order. And central banks can no longer cope with the variety and size of the challenges that states face.

The startling part of it all is that we are just on the edge of vast improvements in productivity resulting from the digital age as machines not only replace the need for our muscle. Artificial intelligence is on the brink of displacing many levels of decision-making that can be better managed by electronic rather than by human intelligence. Look at how out of synch economic policies are. Tax policies in the U.S. and elsewhere increase inflation and impede investment just when more intelligent management of the economy is needed, not less. Most of all, there is public discord that grows as economic inequality grows and as the graduates of even our universities no longer see a route to owning their own homes unassisted by inherited family wealth.

In other words, the problem is not just economic disruption, but an earthquake taking place in our institutions of governance both domestically and internationally. On the macro scale, even as Democrats re-energize themselves in America, the institutions of liberalism and democracy appear to have weakened so much that salvation appears almost impossible. On the micro level, our youth face a housing crisis and young families face an eviction crisis as they face mortgage renewals at rising rates that they cannot support. At the same time, all my moves, all my plans – for travel, for work, for leisure – to eat, sleep and be merry – are being tracked as advertisers both monitor and target our desires. The surreptitious mapping of our habits and desires work to erode autonomy and individuality. Freedom then becomes reinvented as celebrity. Glitz and glamour displace gravitas and critical reflection. And opinion displaces fact as a foundation for decisions.

On a more mundane, but the most painful level, debt is punted down the line to future generations. Further, the problem is not only the exploding federal debt, but, as Carmen Reinhart has written, the high issuance of corporate collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), the new temptress on the financial runway that has pushed corporate bonds aside. High-yield corporate debt instruments are the emerging market within the U.S. economy, but the rapid rise is even greater in Europe where yields are even higher. Of course, these are of very different order of magnitude than in 2008, but they hit the productivity rather than consumer side of the market. Thus, these could be the equivalents of the high-interest poorly secured bundling of mortgage obligations in the first decade of this century that led to the 2008 financial crisis as the money is borrowed by weaker corporations and with more questionable valuation of the collaterals. And the debt is arranged through third tier lightly regulated banks. Do all capital surges end badly?

Unprecedented unemployment levels, owing almost entirely to the rapid increase in the service sector, in the atomized environment of outsourcing, does not produce increased income resulting from increased competition for workers. Expected increases in income have not been forthcoming. Thus the rise of Trump in America, of the Brexit fiasco in Britain, of Macron as a fleeting shooting star, not to count the quasi-dictatorships in Russia, China, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines and Brazil, to list some of the major ones which still exclude totalitarian oppressive regimes such as North Korea or Myanmar, and imploding governments such as that of Venezuela, are all part of this trajectory towards disaster.

The rise of populist political parties and leaders with increasing influence almost everywhere threatens economies that depend on facts, on analysis, on knowledge-based decisions instead of whims and ignorance. Trump and other leaders on the right avoid comprehensive and coherent policy platforms for they are impossible to come by in an era dominated by ignorance and impulse, lies and braggadocio. Agility declines. Rigidity sets in.

Other Cassandras, such as George Brown, appear as optimists, for they still believe that steps can be taken to save the world from the collapse of a liberal globalization and a planet destroyed by climate change. How appealing then are the corrective measures promoted by The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt? There are two: based on enthusiasm in a candidate for public office who excites you; and choosing on the basis of how well thought out a program the candidate offers that simply appeals to economic populism. I will argue that they feed the beast rather than stopping it in its tracks.

Reviews of economic books follow.


With the help of Alex Zisman

The Competition for Recognition Part V The Moral Compass: Division on the Political Right

Is Donald Trump a by-product of the failure of liberalism which sold out to identity politics and the politics of resentment in accordance with the views of Jordan Peterson? Is Donald Trump, as Dummitt declares, the most triumphant exponent of “Be true to oneself” and representative of those who feel unrecognized and who are willing to defy social convention from the right? Dummitt declared that the moral compass in the modern world on the left as well as on the right, was rooted in the authentic self – “to thine own self be true” – rather than, say, custom or religious edicts. Is this accurate?

Whether or not the above is true, will the winner in this competition be the side which invokes the morally superior identity? If conservatives favour market and individual freedoms versus excessive bureaucracy and taxes, while the left liberals attack social and religious conventions that impose restrictions on sexuality, gender and race, is the present polarization simply a fundamentalist evangelical conflict between two definitions of moral purity and the claim that each is the real outsider, the real excluded, while each should provide the moral compass for the modern world?

If this depiction of the core of current polarization is accurate, can that polarization be overcome by avoiding the dichotomy of left and right and giving priority to traditional liberal and/or conservative references, say citizenship or to an overarching social order, that is, making a strong shared identity more basic than the identity quests that divide us? Such a solution would once again prioritize our customs and shared values that emphasize the rule of law, free speech, the right of self-expression and public civility. Or do we have to reach back further in our history, into the biblical narrative, a narrative of constant tension between ethical imperatives and historical propensities?

As I see the American political battleground, a four-way fight is underway. On the right, for now, the populists have won. On the left, the Left Liberals remain in charge, but the democratic socialists are in the process of mounting stronger and stronger challenges.

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:


  Democratic socialist Left Liberal Conservative Populist
Substance Benefits Protections Markets Identity Wars
  Group rights Civil rights Human rights Foetal rights
Process Challenge incumbents Defend Incumbents Surrender


Challenge incumbents
  Voter registration Voter registration Voter Suppression Voter Suppression
Overview Class war Common membership Common membership Cultural War
  Resentment – Identity Politics Appreciation Appreciation Resentment – Identity Politics

Tomorrow, I will focus on the battle on the left. Today, attention is focused on the victory of right-wing populism over traditional conservatism in the internecine war on the right.

I begin with modernity and the moral purity of the economic right as best expressed by Friedrich A. Hayek. (See Individualism and Economic Order.) One type of individualism [economic] leads to freedom and spontaneous order. The other type of individualism [cultural] leads to a controlled economy and imposed order rooted in collectivism according to Hayek. For many, this implies that the only collectivist challenge comes from the left. However, there is a collectivist, a nationalist, challenge that comes from the right.

The Trump presidency is a case of deliberate inauthenticity, a case of wearing the mantle of market freedom, but organizing a takeover by collectivists who are nationalists, that is, by a group identified by their common loyalties. Order is imposed by a singular leader claimed to embody the nationalist spirit even if the actual spirit consists of lies, degradation of customs, racism, degenerate language and de facto narcissism. The playbook and the philosophy of fascism has not fundamentally changed since Giovanni Gentile, the Italian philosopher, set down the tenets of fascism in the book, The Doctrine of Fascism that he ghostwrote for Benito Mussolini.

Gentile misinterpreted Hegel and put forth what he called a neo-Hegelian view that extolled collectivism and denigrated individualism. There was no objective reality or reference points external to the self. Hence, this variation of the proposition, “To thine own self be true.” The true subject was not an abstract “I,” an individual postulated as an abstraction in an ideal world where that “I” enjoyed a full panoply of protections. The true subject was embodied, was an actual individual, a concrete rather than abstract individual. There was no true manifold objective world and no true abstract individuality. Truth was to be located in the subject, the heroic subject that asserted agency on behalf and in the name of the national collectivity. The objective world was only a projection of that individuality. Experience is only a product of what is projected; objectivity does not provide boundaries for this narcissism in the name of the collective.

There are no lies since the only truth that exists is that projected by the mind of the “wise” leader as the divine is conceived of as immanent in such projections. The leader is the “truest” believer in himself. The objective world must conform to this form of subjective Being.

Let me make these abstractions concrete. Ryan Costello lost his seat (the 6th Congressional District in Pennsylvania) in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections (see The New Yorker, 12 November 2018). He is an example of a traditional or moderate Republican, a conservative centrist. He was willing, even eager, to have government catch up with technical advances in renewable energy. He was willing to work with the Democratic opposition across the aisle to improve health-care delivery and introduce reasonable immigration controls.

“And then Trump gets elected. And the norms of politics all just blow up and you’re trying to figure out how to orient yourself when the rules don’t apply anymore, and you’re allowed to say and do things which used to be disqualifying.” Trump lied. Repeatedly! Often! Daily! Without due process, Trump banned entry to persons from seven Muslim countries. Without due process, Trump took away the White House press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta. Costello wanted the Mueller investigation into election collusion with the Russians to go forward without any political interference. But the leader of his party, the president, denounced the FBI as corrupt, denounced the press for spreading fake news, insulted black female reporters while insisting on decorum at White House press briefings.

Costello faced a choice. Complicity with Trump or disloyalty to the Republican Party that had been taken over by Trump and his followers. He chose to walk a tightrope, generally ignoring the depths of degradation of his party’s leader, occasionally publishing on Facebook his own dissent towards Trump’s latest malfeasance when it became too extreme, but expressing no interest in condemning or censoring the president in the House. He chose not to accompany Jeff Flake of Arizona into the political wilderness. He allowed fear to determine his choices.

However, he faced chaos from the left as well as the right and barely escaped being shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter who critically wounded the Majority Whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, at a Republican charity baseball game. However, the bulk of artillery aimed his way came from the right even as he tried to sidestep Trump’s racism and Trump’s ignoring and ignorance of the Constitution and the rule of law. Costello faced either the ire of the voters in Pennsylvania or the ire of the President who would back an alternative Republican candidate in the primaries in Pennsylvania’s sixth district. He avoided the latter only to see his political career destroyed (at least for now) by the former. His principles of balanced budgets, free trade, upholding the Constitution, the rule of law and the separation of powers had all crashed and burned much earlier as prudential silence morphed into the “habitual muteness of the acquiescent.”

The politics of total war against party dissidents and politicians with backbone and character meant that reasonable compromise was no longer the language of politics. Extremism, zealotry and populism were. Conspiracy theories were floated in the air like hundreds of sky lanterns, even though everyone knew they were fire hazards. Republicans moved from being the upholders of institutions and their values to participating in the destruction of norms and institutions and engaging in voter suppression and gerrymandering. Shock value and publicity seekers usurped the role of thoughtful and reflective independent minded politicians.

But the roots lay in those same institutions. For the core issue of getting a foothold on the race to power depended most on the commitment of a core group of party members in a district and/or actually recruiting those members for the nomination. In a far less democratic Canada, constituency nominations depended, in most suburban ridings, on getting one ethnic group, or an alliance of two ethnic groups, who could deliver the signatures to party membership and their votes on nomination day. 1-2% of eligible voters could choose the candidate for their party, and, depending on the national race, could coast to victory.

In the USA, the nomination depended less on getting the support of a core of party members in a constituency party meeting (as in Canada) than on winning a popularity contest in a political primary, that is, in electioneering that never stopped and depended on the energizer batteries of politics – money and human time. The kind of publicity adopted depended on the intellectual, policy and publicity silos of your side. Decency, rationality, objectivity and a primary concern with truth had largely been shovelled into the ashbin of history, though to different degrees and with respect to different key issues. Core support came from two sometimes overlapping sources: evangelical Christians who had already subscribed to surrendering the individual self to a higher “divine” self, who appeared immanently in history; and resentful white Americans who felt they had lost their place in history.

Totally contrary to Christopher Dummitt, the core reference point has been neither authenticity nor moral purity, but expediency, opportunism and ambition. People’s rule had replaced party rule and the people were no longer an aggregate of individual voters, but an ideological tribe in which the members demonstrating the greatest zealotry won over the mob. Rallies, not debates, became the central focus of an election campaign by both the socialist left and the populist right.

However, on the right the collectivists, the nationalists, emerged victorious. Each day that passed witnessed the defeat of another compromiser, of another compromise, of another part of objective reality. Climate change impelled by human activity, according to Trump, was not a major contributing cause to the tremendously destructive fires that so recently laid waste to enormous tracts of land and even a whole city in California. The fact that these were not forest fires but largely shrub lands, the fact that, in any case, forests were not managed primarily by the State of California but by the federal government that owned the majority of forest tracts, the fact that “sweeping forests” was not an idea passed on by the Finnish Prime Minister as a forest management tool or that it was even a useful one, did not matter. Trump, as usual, mouthed off in ignorance and pronounced that there would be no more such fires. More than that, he pronounced his own personal view of nature as simply an extension of his own wishes rather than an independent reality.

“I have a strong opinion. I want great climate, and we’re going to have a forest that is very safe.”





Descent into Hell: Parshat VaYeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

The problem with old age is that we spend far too much time seeing doctors and trying to keep an old and decrepit chassis working. Ignoring times spent in labs for various blood and urine tests, for x-rays and Dopplers, echograms and neurological tests, this week alone I saw my general practitioner, my heart doctor and my sleep doctor. And today I head to the Toronto Western Hospital to have my eye measured to prepare for surgery and the removal of cataracts.

Not only do these visits take time, but when I meet old friends, we spend too much time reciting and comparing our ills. But it is not only with friends. Yesterday, I was on the phone talking with my youngest son for about two hours – he lives in Vancouver – and he was upset that I had not kept him up to date on my health and my treatments. And then there are the visits – to friends who have really serious health issues. I miss them. I want to see them. I want them to keep going even as I tire of the effort to keep going myself. Illness consumes time.

Why then bore you with such issues? Because I could use some help. I visited my sleep doctor yesterday – or perhaps it was the day before. I, to my surprise, had not seen her for quite awhile. I went to check whether my CPAP breathing mechanism that I use at night was set at the correct pressure. I made the appointment before I found out that taking a diuretic pill once a day got rid of the excess water in my legs and lungs that evidently accounted for why I had been feeling so tired. Hence, the breathlessness I had been experiencing. Perhaps that is why I was even more cheerful when seeing her than I perhaps usually am.

She told me that she likes to see me and missed me. How often does a doctor tell you that? Patients with sleeping problems are normally grumpy and melancholic. They feel sleep deprived and wish they could sleep more. In contrast, she said, I seem to be the rare – very rare evidently – a patient who comes to see her who is upbeat, tries to tell funny stories and cheers her up. I do not complain about lack of sleep for the fact that I need much less sleep pleases me enormously as it allows me normally to get my blog written before breakfast.

However, this time I had a real problem. I had a horrible nightmare early in the week. I had watched the news and the frightening fires in California where flames skipped over three football fields in minutes. I watched on television as families in cars escaped through walls of flames when they could barely make out whether they were fleeing the fire or getting into it. The children in the car were panicky as a father tried to reassure them that they should calm down. They would escape, he insisted. They evidently did so; that is why we could watch their car video that they had made.  Unfortunately, perhaps 200-300 did not escape.

I had gone to sleep about 10:30 p.m. and instead of waking up around 3:30 a.m., I woke at 11:45 p.m. I woke shaking. I could not get back to sleep. I also could not write. This is very unusual for me when I can be sitting at my desk writing within 60 seconds of waking up. I also do not usually remember my dreams. My sleep rhythm is unusual since I enter a deep sleep almost as soon as I put my head on my pillow – perhaps it can take as much as 30 seconds. And when I wake up, I am not drowsy but fully awake. But this past week, I could not write for two mornings in the aftermath of that nightmare. I missed writing two blogs.

However, this dream – or, rather, nightmare – was vivid in my memory. I was shaking when I awoke. In that dream, I had been in Africa working when I received a phone call that there was an enormous fire in the region where we lived back home – and home seemed to be California rather than Toronto. The caller told me that they had not been able to locate my wife and my two youngest children. In the dream, they were 6 and 9 years old at the time – so the dream was set almost 25 years ago.

I immediately flew home and began looking for them. The dream consisted almost entirely of that search – a futile search for I never found them. I passed houses with flames 30-40’ in the air. I passed cars engulfed in flames and tried to peer into them to see if my missing wife and two youngest children were in those cars. The dream went on and on, searching and searching but finding nothing. But the most peculiar part of the dream is that when I walked endlessly among these flames, I was freezing cold. I felt like an iceberg – assuming an iceberg can feel. I was frozen and never warmed up.

I told my sleep doctor that the dream had stayed with me all week, not only because it had been so horrific and because it had shaken me up so much, but because I could not figure out what it might mean. I usually find I can find an interpretation that seems to make sense. However, in this dream, the only thing that seems to have been clear was that the videos of the flames and the children in the escaping cars had probably set off the dream. Nothing else.

Of course, my sleep doctor was not a dream doctor. Her expertise was in the mechanics of sleep and not its imaginary content. I did not expect her to help me interpret the dream. I merely wanted to explain my physical tiredness succeeded by relief via a diuretic and then my mental tiredness brought on by a dream. I welcome any efforts at interpretation. In this there remains hope. For my readership offers me the opportunity and the audience to try to understand that dream.

But it is not my dream that I want to write about, but Jacob’s.


10 And Jacob left Beer sheba, and he went to Haran.   י

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

11 And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.   יא

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵֽאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:

12 And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.   יב

וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹֽרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ:

13 And behold, the Lord was standing over him, and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed.   יג

וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֘ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed.   יד

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּֽעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָֽרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

15 And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”   טו

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֨יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַֽהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ:

16 And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].”   טז

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַֽעֲקֹב֘ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי:

17 And he was frightened, and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”   יז

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:

18 And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.   יח

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ:

19 And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city.   יט

וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵֽׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִֽאשֹׁנָֽה:

20 And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear;   כ

וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֨נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶֽאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ:

21 And if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God;   כא

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:

22 Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.   כב

וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֨מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ:

Jacob had his dream while lying on the ground with his head on a rock. I was in bed with my head on a pillow. In Jacob’s dream, there is a ladder connecting heaven and earth. In my dream, earth has become a fiery hell. In Jacob’s dream, angels skip up and down the ladder; it is a sulam with the same numerical value as Sinai that adumbrates Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Jacob wakes from his dream in amazement. I woke from mine in anguish, despondent, dejected and wretched.

In my dream, I plod along horizontally. There is no skipping, just despair. If God stood over Jacob in his dream revealing himself to Jacob and promising that the land on which he rested his head will be given to him and his progeny, there was no God in my dream. No angels and not even Satan. I was alone in my dream, very much alone. And I walked in a landscape that no one would want to inherit.

Jacob flees his life of cheating his brother and wrestling away Esau’s birthright and blessing. Finally, between his home and that of his uncle, he is able to lie down and have a dream. But in my dream, I can only wander endlessly and aimlessly. I cannot even look forward to wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok River.

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he entered into a covenant with God, namely that, as long as God was with him and protected him and guided him, as long as he gave Jacob food to eat and a garment to wear, Jacob would remain His loyal servant. There was no one in my dream protecting my wife and children. There was no one guiding me as I trudged along amongst the flames and through the smoke without direction. And I felt only cold. Where Jacob had seen the house of God and the gate of heaven, I wandered the streets of hell.

The next morning after the dream, I went to synagogue and recited the kaddish. It was my mother’s Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death eighteen years ago. It was morning and I recited the Shaharit prayer, the morning prayer that Abraham had supposedly established. Though I went through the motions and had amiable conversations with my friends, my heart was not in it. And it was a prayer for my mother. I felt more like Isaac, but in a paved over field with burning houses and cars on all sides. But in my dream, there was neither any prayer that poured out of me, nor conversation either. I saw no one. I asked no one. I searched, but the streets were deserted. It was certainly not Jacob’s evening prayer for there were no encounters at all.

In fact, the smoke was so thick, I could not tell whether it was morning, noon or night. It was true hell for the different times of the day had been obliterated. And I did not ask God to take me out of the darkness of that day into the light. Was this a world that God would inhabit, for it was truly a scorched earth unsuited to bring forth food, for sustaining animals and allowing beautiful yellow and purple flowers to grow. It was a world of gray on gray except for the brilliant red of the flames. It was a world that no one owned and no one would even want to own. The world was indeed illuminated, but not by the sun’s light, not by God’s light, but by the darkness and the flames that make up hell.

The celestial spheres, the sun and the moon, were blocked out by billowing black and grey smoke. And there was no one in charge of a world headed towards hell. God had abdicated. God had also fled the flames and abandoned His responsibilities. And I could not find my wife or my youngest children. Instead of the darkness providing an ambience for intimacy, there was nothing. There was nothingness. There was no God to embrace me in my fear, in my terror. There was no God with whom I could even make a deal, draw up a covenant, one in which we could exchange mutual promises and obligations. I did not feel, as I usually felt, when I awake in the very early hours of the morning and would write until I saw the light of day beginning to form outside of my picture windows in my study. I was not merely insecure, tired and wary as Isaac always seemed to be. I was petrified and identified with Jacob who loved bright colours and innocent jokes to cover up his profound terror. Deep down, he felt hopeless and was in despair, for a night of intimacy with his God had been lost. It was a night in which, except for the flames, all cows were both black and dead.

There was no progress in that dream, from hope to worry and trepidation. Instead of God turning on the lights, the flames were subsiding and left only burned out collapsed homes and frames of vehicles in a bleak landscape. Would the lights come on again? Would I see my wife and two youngest children again? I was so obsessed that I could not even thank an unknown God that my older children were safe and living elsewhere.

I pray every day that God renews His creation if there is a God and if God is still working at His job. I pray that each day will be a brand new day, a day full of creativity, a day of renewal when the world is always experienced anew. But the world had died. It had been torched.

I have never been concerned with whether God existed or not. The issue was never for me whether I believed or did not believe God existed. The issue had always been whether I believed that if God existed, that I was worthy of His faith in me. But in that bleak landscape, I feared that I had lost the faith in myself, the real faith that sustained me, that the world was and would be born anew every morning with a different pattern even though the elements were identical, that at night the angels ascended and descended the ladder in continuous motion, like elves, to renew the world for another day even though fascists and Nazis driven by the politics of resentment were in pursuit.

Will my family, will all families, be so blessed as I have been blessed? Will they even have a ladder to climb?

From Is to Ought

Ben Rhodes The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, New York: Random House, 2018.

In the Prologue of Ben Rhodes memoir, he describes how, in his last meeting with any head of state, Barack Obama passed the torch onto Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. “You’re going to have to speak out when values are threatened.” Trudeau promised that he would “with a smile on my face. That is the only way to win.” Obama was an American, a liberal American, who believed that morality framed coercion and military might. “American leadership depended on our military, but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness.” (25) And that goodness was built into institutions and laws but backed up, if need be, by force. (48)

A smile would not do the job. Yet Obama, flummoxed in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and emergence of autocrats around the world, conscious that his best ally, Angela Merkel, had been severely wounded, could only reach out to a Canadian leader who led with a smile and not even a soft voice. Further, and more importantly, Canada did not carry a big stick.

The real mantle of leadership had been stolen by Donald Trump, a would-be autocrat. He was willing to meet with other autocrats around the world – without any preconditions – North Korean, Russian, Turkish, even Iranian. Trump was blasted in the liberal press for doing so. Yet, when Ben Rhodes joined the Obama presidential campaign, his Democratic contender also had promised to meet US adversaries without conditions. As Rhodes wrote, “[T]he reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is somehow punishment to them, which has been a guiding diplomatic principle of this [the Bush] administration, is ridiculous.” (12) Hillary Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, disagreed. She called Barack Obama naïve. Republicans, the same ones who as sycophants and toadies, defended Donald Trump when he did it, called Obama much worse.

Diplomacy without preconditions was not the only tactic Trump stole from Obama. “Turn defense into offense.” (18) “Restore America’s standing around the world.” (22) When Trump ran on a version of the latter, Obama made fun of the slogan, “Make America great again.” “America had always been great,” insisted Obama.

There is, of course, a difference between Obama and Trump. For the latter, such diplomatic meetings are simply transactional and the Donald believed that he was and is master of the deal. Obama believed, and his legacy – the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate agreement for which leadership had been passed to China and Xi Jinping, the negotiations with the military junta in Myanmar – proved it, that diplomacy rather than inter-personal deals work. But a diplomacy capable of setting aside mindblinding and politically binding assumptions. In every single case, Donald Trump in his first two years in office proved that he was the master of and replacing professional diplomacy with personal transactional gestures.

The destruction of many of Obama’s overseas achievements had as much to do with personal animosity as Trump’s propensity for demolition, and both certainly more than the absence of any substance in his foreign policy. Donald Trump had been a leader in the blatantly racist “birther” movement, the false claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. Obama had folded before the media onslaught and finally acceded to releasing his longform birth certificate. That quieted but did not close down the flow of fake news. More importantly, a few days later after the birth certificate release, Barack Obama had his revenge at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In a series of spot-on jokes, he humiliated Donald Trump in the media and before the American public. “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter – like, did we fake the moon landing.” (132-133) Trump’s unwinding of Obama’s many successes was Trump’s revenge.

The Obama administration did have its own share of failures – dealing with Russia over Georgia (inherited from Bush), Crimea, the Ukraine and Syria, as well as Syria itself and, of course, the disastrous Libyan initiative, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the incoherence of the US policy towards Egypt, and the fiasco of Afghanistan that I wrote about in the Farrow book review. What is worse, Obama and Rhodes knew that, “the Taliban could not be defeated so long as it had political support in Afghanistan and a safe haven in Pakistan.” (73)

Obama had kept Robert M. Gates on as Secretary of Defence and initially backed the failed strategy of counter-insurgency in an arena in which it could not and did not work. Vice-President Joe Biden was the only individual in the administration who consistently and persistently opposed a troop surge and argued that the US military was jamming Obama. (65-6) So what was Obama’s rationale if America was not going to defeat the Taliban? “We need to knock them back to give us space to go after al Qaeda.” (75) The troop surge was approved.

But perhaps Egypt was even more telling than Afghanistan. Obama and Rhodes knew that in a repressive society like Egypt’s, a democratic election would probably lead to the victory of an Islamist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood. (54) Yet the Obama administration backed the removal of Mubarak and fell back on the position that America would “judge any political movement by whether they choose to act and govern in a way that is consistent with democratic principles.” (55) But what if that political movement, though noisy in its demonstrations, was marginal in its political depth and the real choice was between two other movements – one rooted in the military and the other in the religious establishment? How should America act when faced with a Hobson’s choice when, in the end, military coercion was the real and only power? That same effort to achieve a balance between two incompatible political perspectives would prove to be the root of the Obama administration’s enormous but fruitless efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It would also be at the root of Rhodes’s failure to comprehend the limitations of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Rhodes expends few words on the doctrine and I cannot elaborate n it here, but it is clear that he aligned with Samantha Power (82) and, to some extent, Susan Rice, who believed that the R2P had to be a bedrock of American foreign policy – that is, liberal state had the right to intervene with force when a state persecuted its own citizens or could not protect them from other s bent on destruction. Obama never bought into it. Rhodes in his book never explains why except to suggest that Obama was more a realist than the small idealist cohort he had working for and with him.

However, R2P was fundamentally flawed. This doctrine had originated as a Canadian initiative. It advocated the right of any foreign power to intervene when the government of a state targeted its own people. Within a very short time after its formulation, it was adopted by a unanimous vote of the United Nations. Except the vote was only unanimous because the heart of the doctrine had been cut out. Humanitarian intervention would only be permitted with the approval of the state being targeted. Once again, sovereignty trumped moral principles.

Further, it could and never would be applied in the Chinese mistreatment of the Uyguars or even the military junta mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Sanctions certainly. But not coercive intervention. In the easiest situation possible, with a UN peacekeeping force on location and the government perpetrators on the ropes in its fight with a Tutsi-led military force, the world had failed to intercede and stop the genocide in Rwanda. Diplomatic exhortation and lofty principles were no substitute for action on the ground.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest success in the domestic arena – not the Affordable Care Act, but the salvaging of the world economy – was also his greatest failure and paved the way for the rise of Trump. This was in the domestic arena and not foreign affairs to which Ben Rhodes had dedicated his talents. The 2008 economic crash was a direct product of President Bush and, to some degree, his predecessors. Obama inherited an economic mess.

Ben Rhodes wrote the following words for Barack Obama. “Jobs have disappeared, and people’s life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet…So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” (33) Ben made Obama sound like a Marxist. Talk about hyperbole! The 2008 economic crash, the greatest since the depression, was the final epitaph for capitalism, not just for a failure in banking regulation. Capitalism had completely failed. This is how the statement sounded.

However, the philosophy referred to was not capitalism but one version of it – trickle-down economics and deregulation. Further, even on that there was no final verdict. In fact, Barack Obama in part made possible the restoration of that capitalistic ideology to pre-eminence after two years of his presidency and totally cleared the road from any blockage to it by contributing to the election of Donald Trump. How? Precisely by overstating the failure and understating the consequences of the 2008 economic crash. Not just jobs, but hundreds of thoUSnds of them were wiped out. Millions of families not only faced foreclosure but were, in fact foreclosed upon when Obama bailed out the banks without helping those who bought homes that were now financially under water.

Ben Rhodes was a foreign policy speechwriter and adviser and was not up on domestic policy let alone economic policy. There is an enormous problem with trickle-down economics, but that was NOT the issue in the 2008 economic crash. Rhodes not only failed to hit the target, but grossly understated the effects on the average American just as he overstated the implications of the crash for capitalism. In his memoir, he never seemed to notice this oversight.

Unfortunately, the same disposition applied to foreign policy. When North Korea tested a ballistic missile in the very beginning of Obama’s presidency when he was in The Czech Republic, Ben Rhodes added a few sentences to Obama’s address to the Czech people. “I sat at my computer inserting a strongly worded warning to the North Koreans about the isolation they’d face for continued nuclear and missile tests.” (42)

When Trump was in the same position, he threatened fire and brimstone and then met with Kim and called him a wonderful guy who likes me. Greater isolation! North Korea had survived for years, though barely, against the greatest international deep freeze applied to any foreign state in the post-WWII period. And the country still persisted in its nuclear and missile development program. Rhodes’s and Obama’s threat rang totally hollow at the time. More significantly, eight years later, Ben Rhodes failed to notice let alone be self-critical of such a shortcoming. And this in spite of the deep faith of liberals, like Barack Obama, who held a progressive view of American history and “the capacity for self-correction” (43) to which Obama (and Rhodes) attributed America’s purported exceptionalism. But what if this purported exceptionalism rested as much on the failure of America to be deeply self-critical and to truly engage in self-correction at a fundamental level?

Louis Menard wrote a review of Rhodes’s book and claimed it traced the evolution of a political junky from an idealist to a realist. Unlike Farrow’s book, Rhode’s memoir is indeed a book in which observation and self-reflection are woven together by a fine writing style, but one which only records faces and clothes and settings when they are directly pertinent to the narrative. But Menard is wrong. The shock is that Rhodes never became disillusioned about his ideals. Tired, certainly. Sometimes depressed. At other times simply resigned. But he is indefatigable in holding onto his ideals. That is perhaps why Obama loved him. That is certainly why Rhodes worshipped Barack Obama.

As with his previous co-authored book with a former congressman, Lee Hamilton, (Without Precedent: Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission), Rhodes’s book is a very inside story, but of the day-to-day crises and pro-active stances of the Obama regime from the campaign through eight years in the White House. During that time, Ben Rhodes began working as a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor for Obama in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President and ended up serving for eight years as deputy national security advisor with oversight over speechwriting, public communications and relations as well as undertaking specific diplomatic missions himself.

During that time, according to Rhodes’s reflections on his service and the Obama administration, the arc of history did not move from idealism to realism but, rather, a realization that “the world (w)as (and is) a place that could – in some incremental way – change.” (421) As he ends his memoir, at “I was a man, no longer young, who – in the zigzag of history – still believed the end of his service to Obama, to the American nation and to his own ideals, in the truth within the stories of people around the world, a truth that compels me to see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be.” The book is not about the decline of his ideals, but increasingly focuses on the actual challenges to those ideals and the efforts made to overcome those challenges.

Holbrooke, with his idiosyncratic personal characteristics for a diplomat and his pursuit of realism in the conduct of foreign relations, was Farrow’s flawed hero. Barack Obama is Rhodes’s idol, an idol he did not worship from afar, nor even merely up close to reveal the crevices that began to appear on Obama’s boyish good looks, but one whose mind and heart and guts Rhodes entered into wholly and without reservation, even in the odd moments when he disagreed with his leadership on a particular issue.  Rhodes learned to focus on a small portion of the grains of sand on the earth than on the even greater number of stars in the sky.


With the help of Alex Zisman

I Remember – Tisha B’Av and Devarim 1-3

This will be a short blog. Or else I will have to finish it and send it out after we return. ForI slept in. And we are on the journey to return home. What does sleeping in have to do with returning home? The latter makes me anxious – anxious to get there and anxious about returning to the familiar. Since we left Vancouver Island, we have been on the road only 10 days, but it feels like months. I have seen a part of America that I have never seen before, its absolute beauty AND its promise. But I also saw examples of its failures and even more importantly, listened to the news as we traveled and heard even more about its failures. What am I to make of it all?

Why make anything of it? It was just a trip. Interesting. Fun. Why try to make anything more of a road excursion? But I am condemned to remember. For yesterday, as we quietly rode in the car and I slept off and on, my brothers haunted me: my younger brother Stan, a driven traveler and explorer who, because of difficulty in orientation in the latter years of his life, no longer traveled. He died this spring. I remembered my older brother, Al, with whom I spent a month in Arizona, much of it in the company of my younger brother, Stan, a nurse who left his job to take care of my older brother. Together, we watched the faculties of thinking and especially remembering fade as Al desperately tried to fight off death from a blastoma and was willing to put himself in the hands of very experimental medical colleagues in Arizona to try and pull off a miracle.

Like the Biblical Joseph, I mourned the loss of my brothers, each for seven days. We lit a candle for each that burned for seven days, presumably each time to recognize the life of a brother, but, as well, to reintroduce to the world God’s light, the Shechinah, back into the world that had partially become emotionally black.

Yesterday, in late afternoon as were driving east of Denver in Colorado, the sky in front of us grew black. Lightning bolts flashed down in the distance in front of us. It began to rain, lightly at first. Then there was a shrill repeated alarm that jolted me. It turned out to have come from my wife’s cell phone. She turned it on even though we were driving and handed it to me to read the message aloud. It was a weather warning. It was a warning about very heavy rains. It was a warning about possible tornadoes.

We drove off the expressway at the next exit, drove one block and turned left at the first road and then turned left again as the rain was beginning to fall so heavily it was hard to see. We ended up in the gravel parking lot of a church, the Brakeside Church if I recall. The rain was pelting down. There was lightning everywhere. A few young people in the church saw us through the glass door. Through hand signals, a young man opened the door to invite us in. He clearly even wanted to come out to the car to get us. We were very tempted. But we could not have crossed the twenty yards to the door without getting fully soaked. And we waved him back for he would have been drenched as well. Further, we thought that the danger of lightning was too great.

As we sat huddled in the car, as the rain literally washed over the car, as we peered through the window, we saw that the cars on the road had pulled over and mostly disappeared. And this was rush hour in the suburbs of Denver. Then ping! Then ping and ping and ping. The car was being pelted with hail. What did we worry about then? The car would become dinted from the hail.

Finally, we could see light at the beauty of that sky, the rays of light penetrating the darkness to reach earth in the same ways movies portray a vision and the same way in which The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints portrayed their founder experiencing the revelation that Jesus had appointed him to be a prophet.  And this was a sign, a sign that the threat of the tornado would soon be over.

The winds began to die down. The light in the sky in front of us began to expand. We no longer felt we were in a car wash and joked that we had gotten one for free. To the east and the south of us, the sky was still black. We still heard thunder behind us, but it had become more muffled. We debated whether to run into the church to thank the teenagers for their offer of hospitality. But we could no longer see them through the door. Further, it was still raining sufficiently that, though we would no longer be threatened with being washed away, we would still be soaked if we tried to reach the door.

My wife started up the car. Suddenly, the loud and screaming alarm sounded once again. My wife grabbed her phone (she had not yet started to drive) and read, “Flood warning! Drive carefully. Watch for flooded areas. In less than half an hour, the deluge had caused flooding.

We took off determined to ride a bit further and find a motel – which we did. As we got out of the car, the sky was absolutely spectacular as the sun’s rays penetrated through a sky of broken dark and white frazzled clouds and the light reflected off those clouds in the early evening. My wife took pictures of a truly brilliant scene, but again, I have still not learned how to attach photos.

Did my memories of brothers and the opening deluge and threat of a tornado have anything to do with one another? I certainly do not think so. Did they have anything to do with Tisha B’Ava? Only in the sense that the fury of nature as I was wallowing in memories of my brothers made me think of the Day of Mourning for the Jewish people. Starting on Saturday night, tomorrow in the evening, and on the last day of our drive home on Sunday, I will fast. I will think of many of the tragedies, especially the latest ones, that have befallen the Jewish people. I will think of Dayton and El Paso.

I will not use the occasion to argue with God since I tend to do this all year round. Instead, I will continue to express my outrage against a president who is supposed to be a leader of the free world but who can only recite cant on a teleprompter and then rage through tweets at all his perceived enemies precisely at a time when the focus of his attention should be on expressing empathy for the victims and their families. He promises to consider background checks, but he has decided to focus on mental illness rather than hatred and ideology and the availability of assault weapons.

Should I not also properly focus, on the plight of Jews, on our religion, and eschew politics at this time? But my religion is about politics, is about the tragedies that afflict all of humanity. It is about the victims of Dayton and El Paso. It is about the fact that for almost three years we have been living in the eye of a tornado. It is about mourning for any diminution in the loss of light, in the loss of empathy. And for almost the last three years we have been trapped in a world in which the leader of the free world focuses on “Lock her up,” on walling off America from the “invasion” of aliens. We have been living through a deluge of anger and hatred. We have been living in a period in which a young man full of hatred and echoing the words of invasion deliberately targets and guns down Mexican-Americans.  

But there is light breaking through in front of us. Tisha B’Ava is as much about that light as it is about the mourning for loss. It is not only about fear from a darkening sky and the threat of being blown away by a powerful force that has been let loose on the world, but it is also about the break in the dark cloud that is coming. It is also about trust that I shared with my deceased brothers and the joys that life brings. Perhaps we are once again on the borders of the Promised Land. Perhaps we can recover from another.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Arizona to Colorado

I am going to jump out of order. I want to write about our trip from Salt Lake City, Utah to Bryce Canyon as well as our trip through the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, but the trip yesterday from the Grand Canyon, as spectacular as the above two sections of our trip were, is so vivid in my mind that I want to get it down on my screen.  

We woke up early and were on the road by 8:30 a.m. That was a record. But we knew it would be a long day to reach our target for that day. (To jump ahead, we never reached that goal.) We had two basic choices. We could go the longer route by traveling south away from Grand Canyon National Park along Highway 64 to a thruway, Highway 40 traveling east before turning north on another express highway. This was the longer route in terms of driving distance but the shorter route in terms of time because the driving, except for the initial piece, would all be on expressways.

On the other hand, we could drive north and east on Highway 64 through the Grand Canyon Park again to highway 89 and turn north. We could then switch to highway 160 running north-east to the four corners monument where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado abut one another and then, continuing on highway 160 through south-west Colorado. Since that highway was like the hypotenuse of a triangle, and because we were continually traveling east and north, it was considerably shorter, but longer in time, not even taking into account that we would make many more stops – as well as navigation errors. We are accident prone. We chose the latter route.

These were all good paved two-lane highways, but we could not travel at the same speed, and this was not simply because they were two lane roads. For example, when we drove back through the south-east rim of Grand Canyon National Park, we would inevitably get behind cars which had stopped to watch deer. Or we could not stop ourselves, but would stop at certain points that we did not stop at on the way into the park to observe one last time, and then one more last time, the exquisite grandeur of the Grand Canyon which I will save describing for a separate blog. Later we would be slowed down as mountain roads clinging to the sides snaked through the terrain that rose higher and higher. Sometimes, the fastest we could travel then was 25 mph.

Back in Grand Canyon, it took a long time to get through Kaibab National Forest in the park – it took us 90 minutes. The distance is longer than one might think and the speed limit is 25 mph. But we had taken account of this in our calculations. Since I will be describing the Grand Canyon in a separate blog, I will begin when we first turned north-east on Highway 160 about 2.5 hours after we left our hotel and turned north at Cameron onto Highway 89 and driving between Navajo territory on the north and Hopi territory on the south.

The temperature was above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but the air was very dry. On both sides of the road, we could see only arid rock-strewn flat land covered with sage brush with mountains or outcroppings in the background. Though we stopped at one stall and one gasoline station advertising native crafts, we were very disappointed. The products available were just chachkas, very economical to buy as memories of a tourist trip but otherwise uninteresting.

However, as we moved further east and the rock formations in the background came closer, it was hard not stopping at the side of the road and snapping pictures. (I tried to include my wife’s photos in a previous blog, but readers were unable to upload them.) And, as with much of what we saw in Bryce Canyon, in the Grand Canyon and on yesterday’s trip, pictures say more than even a thousand words.

For example, even before we got to the cliffs, rocks seemed to arise out of the earth like huge prehistoric monsters. For example, sitting on a pile of stone rubble about 20-30 feet high were twin red rocks – really assemblages of rocks perhaps 40 feet high and 100 feet wide. The taller of the twin rock upthrust was joined at the hip to the shorter one and it might even have been 60 feet high. But, as Jimmy Durante used to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Perhaps the most impressive sight until we reached the mountains was a large red outcropping that looked like a giant version of Emperor Qin’s Terra Cotta Army that I had seen in a British museum one time. There were no chariots or horses in this red rock army, but these were not part of a man-made elaborate mausoleum to accompany a dead emperor in the supposed after life. These were giants. They stood shoulder to shoulder. With each outcropping from a central core, each group or platoon lined up in a single row. Natural erosion had revealed these monstrous forms rather than an archeological excavation.

We passed some totally decrepit housing on the north side of the road on the Navajo Reservation and we hoped that the Navajo were no longer living in those battered, broken-down and dilapidated homes. We were reassured when, in the midst of this arid desert, we passed a large modern health centre literally “in the middle of nowhere,” surrounded by modern bungalows.

As Highway 160 crossed the corner where Arizona on the south abutted Utah on the north and each in turn abutted New Mexico and Colorado respectively, we suddenly realized – or at least my wife did – that the real Four Monuments that signs informed us that we were approaching, was, in reality, simply the conjoining of the four states.  Evidently, it is the only place in the USA where four states meet and abut one another.

We were soon in Ute country. The Ute Tribal Park’s Visitor Center is located at the corner of Highway 160 and Highway 491. As we traveled through Ute country, at the top of tall red cliffs could be seen a necklace of stones. At one point, a sentinel, like a very tall and fairly wide chimney, stood in the midst of a cliff, like a giant champion guarding a homeland. As it turned out, the cliffs once actually housed cliff dwellings. Wall paintings had been discovered within them. In the distance, we saw rock formations that looked like huge castles and others that looked like flat-topped red “apartment” buildings.

And, if you like the game of clouds, they revealed themselves as dinosaurs and foxes, amorphous snakes and big bears. At one point – oh I do wish I could show you a picture – there was an abstract version of “The Thinker,” but sitting on his haunches and arms at his side rather than one on his lap and the other against his chin. It seemed to symbolize a very different way of thinking, far less cerebral yet more contemplative and ethereal.

Then huge and very tall mountains loomed before us. We could clearly see that many of them were snow-capped even in the heat of this summer. We stopped at the Cortez Cultural Centre and we re-learned a lesson we have absorbed before. If you want to see the best of local art, do not go into commercial stores selling wares to passing tourists or to stalls on the side of the road. For one thing, in a cultural centre, you get to see the artifacts in a context that explains the meanings of the different patterns and learn a small bit about the culture. We also wanted to get to the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, but we never got there.

The exquisite artifacts were extremely economical. Many were donated to sell to help support the cultural centre. There were absolutely beautiful examples of fine basket weaving, of Kachina dolls – the tall and very detailed and meticulous wood forms of gods or shaman dancers of the Hopi and the shorter, far more elaborate and feathered figures of the Navajo. There were cards – like the ones you send as a thank you when you have been a guest at a dinner – but these were limited edition lithographs with wonderful drawings. They cost all of $4 each. An old amber stone necklace and matching earrings sold for $15.

If you ever pass through Cortez, visit the Cultural Center there. The two women volunteers said they had quite a few visitors – though only one came in with her son in the hour we were there. The mother bought three pieces of rock candy for her son for $1. As the ladies explained, they have visitors, but few spend much money. There was a wonderful painting of horses in black and white. When I and my wife compared notes later, we both loved the same painting. But we both knew we had no more room to hang another painting. All of these items were beside the costumes and tools and carvings there for display only.

We asked the volunteers advice on the most interesting route to Alamosa on Highway 160 which was our target. They told us that if we continued on Highway 160, we would get there in about 2.5-3 hours. Since it was only 2 o’clock in the afternoon, we asked about a possibly more scenic route up through the mountains. That evidently would take about 4 or perhaps 5 hours. We opted for the detour.

The ride up through the mountains was spectacular. Skiers familiar with Vail or Telluride in south-west Colorado will know what I mean. This was ski country. When we drove north from Durango (at about 6,000 ft.) to Silverton, a distance of 48 miles – it took us 1.25 hours – we rose along s-curves along the edge of the mountains. We could not believe it. At one point, we were at a height of over 11,000 feet.

I was not sure about the name of the road since at some places, signs designated it as the Million Dollar Highway. At another point it was called the San Juan Highway, but perhaps that was just a sign pointing to the San Juan Highway. We also passed a narrow gage railway, currently in operation for tourists. We wanted to get to Red Mountain Pass. We passed cattle ranches and mountain chalets. This was rugged country. It also historically had a horrid history of settlers pushing Ute Indians onto narrower and narrower strips of land as the white men broke treaty after treaty. With all its greatness, lying and cheating have been integral elements of the American DNA.

The views were spectacular. The clouds even more so as they piled one on top of the other as they hit the high mountains. When we got to Silverton, we stepped into a café at 6:15 – it was 7:15 local time. We were dressed in light t-shirts, but the customers were wrapped up for the distinctly much cooler weather. We wanted to double-check the direction to cut through the mountain pass across to Hinsdale – what is called the Alpine Loop. It looked like a distance of 20 miles or so before we rejoined Highway 149 back down to Highway 160. We spoke to the proprietor since the waitress was new to the area.

The proprietor had been born and raised in Silverton. She informed us that this summer they had considerable snow. Unless our car was a four-wheel drive and had chains, even if the road were open, we would not be allowed to try to cut through the pass. We could go up further around the mountains. That would take about six hours to reach Alamosa. Or we could go back to Durango.

We decided that we had enough driving and would stay in Silverton overnight. It seemed like a quaint very old mining town. The owner of the café recommended the Triangle Motel as the best. The sign, however, said, “No vacancy.” From the looks of the hotel, we decided that was a blessing and changed our mind again to return to Durango.

Always allow more time, not only to cover a chosen route, but to travel other routes like the one through the Dolores River Canyon. As you will read in future blogs, we could never get enough of seeing canyons. In Durango, we checked into the usual type of motel, a Hampton Inn and we also had one of the best hamburgers, the best steak fries and a local organic cola that was superb. The dining place, Chainless Brewing, had been highly recommended by the receptionist at the hotel. It was better than we would have imagined.

In any case, our imaginations had gotten us into enough trouble that day.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Salt Lake City and the Mormons

[This blog was first drafted on Sunday.]
Yesterday was quite a day – magnificent and very long. We went from the cavernous 21,000 seat – this is not a typo for the auditorium does hold 21,000 and there is not a pillar in the whole building – The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints Conference Center (the Mormon Conference Center) in Temple Square in Salt Lake City built in 2000, to the natural amphitheater in Bryce Canyon and in the evening gazed at the dense covering of stars from the rim of Bryce Canyon.

The Conference Center is part of the much larger complex known as Temple Square that is the physical centre of Salt Lake City and the central site of the worldwide congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints – the Mormons. The day before we walked the perhaps six block size of the area. We did not visit the magnificent six-spired Salt Lake Temple which was restricted to Mormons and, evidently, select ones at that.

The Mormons arrived first on what was then Mexican territory in what became Salt Lake City on 23 July 1847. Brigham Young, the ruling prophet at the time, reportedly declared, “This is the place.” The first settlers were followed by many others, including the 30,000 who walked over a thousand miles on the parallel route to the Oregon Trail.

Though they wanted to have their own state – they called it Deseret meaning industry or honeybee in the Book of Mormon – it lasted only two years, from 1849 to 1851. The U.S. government refused to recognize Deseret as a separate state. However, the name is preserved by the Deseret Publishing Company in the high rise just opposite Temple Square. Deseret Press publishes the Deseret News and many other publications for the Mormon Church, including the Book of Mormon.

We visited a number of the facilities the day before. We had wanted to see art galleries, but were very discouraged after we went to the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. The building was large but the collection was relatively small and, frankly, uninteresting as far as we were concerned.  There were three visiting installation pieces – a video documentary of a man jumping from roof to roof on a row of houses, presumably to counteract the premise of private and separate properties on which these houses were built. Another illustrated the collapse of mall culture, but the intersecting geometric forms and the message had a very fragile connection. Given our disappointment, we concentrated on the Mormon facilities.

The Tabernacle built between 1863 and 1875 held only 2,100, not 21,000 like the Conference Center. The Tabernacle used to be the home of the Tabernacle Choir until that latter structure was erected. The Tabernacle’s organ evidently has 11,000 pipes. The Tabernacle is itself a work of marvel. From the back row you can hear a paper being torn. When we sat in on an organist performance the day before, he also demonstrated the amazing acoustic properties of the building by dropping three straight pins and a common nail. The sounds were clear and distinct and we heard them from the back of the auditorium. The Tabernacle is still used for concerts, meetings and even weddings.

Remember that this structure was erected in the twelve years between 1863 and 1875 when the Mormons were still a poor and struggling sect. At first the acoustics evidently did not work so they added “bridges” – I believe we were told 12 – across the ceiling and roof and installed balconies with rounded ceilings underneath as the balconies met the walls of the hall. They served to channel the sound so that it did not bounce but flowed throughout the auditorium. When the organist used a microphone, however, we could hardly make out what he was saying.

We also visited Assembly Hall with its large Stars of David decorating the outside. When I asked about them, I was told that this was in recognition of Jesus’ heritage as a descendent in the House of David. Inside there was a large plaster flower in the centre of the ceiling that reminded Mormons of the flower that the natives had taught them how to use as a food source. Further, its organ had only 3,200 pipes. It was also interesting to learn that the pews were made of pine and not oak but painted to look like oak. And the columns were painted to look like marble. Somehow, in their very early history, the Mormons had already demonstrated a mastery of the art of communication while also being quite content, even proud, to display false fronts.

The complex had a large visitor’s centre, which we did visit, and a Family History Library with the largest repository of genealogical records in the world – after all, if you get to heaven, you do not want to leave your forefathers behind – which we did not visit.  Though we went and heard the Tabernacle Choir, we did not take the time to visit the evidently wondrous roof gardens nor most of the beautiful gardens throughout the property. It was simply a matter of time and we were disappointed to have missed these.

The tourist lessons: take the guided tour offered in over forty languages. Leave yourself with at least 5 hours to see as much as possible. When we were in the auditorium of the Conference Centre, there were about 4,000 people, over 80% tourists as indicated when they were asked to raise their hands. They came from all over the world.

This was also evident as well in the most wonderful sushi restaurant in which we have ever eaten, Takashi, which was not even listed in the Salt Lake City Visitor’s Guide. My wife, a brilliant sleuth, found it. It advertises itself as a Peruvian-Japanese restaurant. Almost half the diners were Asian and, from listening in, we were sure most were not Americans. Do not miss this restaurant if you visit Salt Lake City. They do not take reservations. Expect to line up.

The next morning, we skipped breakfast to get to the auditorium of the Conference Center by 9:00 a.m. to listen to the Tabernacle Choir. They perform every Sunday morning beginning at 9:30 a.m. The performance is broadcast all over the world on over 2,000 stations. As well, anyone can listen on their computer. The Mormons have been broadcasting the choir for 90 years, evidently the longest continuing broadcasting program in the history of radio and television. The first broadcast was on 15 July 1919. The Mormons clearly excel in numbers of all kinds – size of auditoriums, size of organs, size of their religious centre and lengths of time for sustaining their efforts.

They also probably have the largest number of missionaries of any Christian denomination. For men and women as they enter adulthood are required to serve as missionaries. They are posted all over the world, the young men serve 2 years and the young ladies serve 18 months. All the guides at the complex – and there a plethora of them – were young female volunteer missionaries who clearly spoke a number of languages. One of my two guides was from Alaska and the other from Monterrey, Mexico.

The concert – “Music & the Spoken World” – itself was a delight. The announcer, Lloyd Newell, in perfect mellifluous tones, repeated word for word the paragraphs in the program notes on the history of the choir, including the fact that in the original broadcast an audio technician stood on a ladder and held out a single microphone on an extended arm over the choir and the orchestra. What’s not to like when over 200 voices sing in precise harmony to a full orchestra of 110 musicians!  

There are caveats. The music is specifically selected to lift spirits, comfort souls and supposedly bring millions closer to the divine. These are not my words. I enjoyed the concert but I would not say the music lifted my spirits for it was decidedly undramatic as it favoured perfect harmony over rhythm and beat and nuance. The music was indeed comfortable rather than disturbing or arousing, but I leave it to others to decide whether it affected my soul let alone brought me closer to the divine. The latter is unlikely, since the divine for me is a challenge of paradoxes and puzzles rather than staying on message in an apparent effort at perfection.

The first tune the chorus sang was “Morning has broken.” It was sweet. However, I had once heard the Welsh Miners sing in a concert and, if I recall, this tune had been included. Their deep voices moved me in a way that the perfect melodious quality of the Tabernacle Choir did not. The “Festive Trumpet Tune” was what I imagined festivity would be like in the society of The Handmaid’s Tale, clearly delightful and never disturbing. They also sang Lionel Bart’s “Who Will Buy?” from the musical, Oliver

If you do not recall the lyrics, I reprint them below, appropriately copied from the Grand Canyon rendition by Aaron Neville where I happen to be while writing this blog.

                                                 “Who Will Buy?”

Who will buy this wonderful morning?
Such a sky you never did see
Who will tie it up with a ribbon?
And put it in a box for me

So I could see it at my leisure
Whenever things go wrong
And keep it as a treasure
To last my whole life long

Who will buy this wonderful feeling?
I’m so high I swear I could fly
Me oh my, I don’t want to lose it
So what am I to do to keep this sky so blue?
There must be someone who will buy

Who will buy this wonderful morning…?
There’ll never be a day so sunny
It could not happen twice
Where is the man with all the money?
It’s cheap at half the price

Who will buy this wonderful feeling?
I’m so high I swear I could fly
Me oh my, I don’t want to lose it
So what am I to do to keep the sky so blue?
There must be someone who will buy
The sweetness was there. The joy was there. But the wistful longing? The irony of the words? But who am I to complain? I am not the target audience. And I enjoyed the music even in the absence of bounce and subtlety. And what is wrong with sweetness and light in a time of repeated mass murders by domestic terrorists with ideologically warped views, perhaps even from opposite ends of the political spectrum? As much as I enjoyed the concert, it left me hungry for the physical emotionalism of a black Baptist choir. In brief, the music, while delightful, was bland.

As I listened, it struck me hard – I was in whitebread company. I looked at the choir again. There was one black female face in the second row two seats in the woman’s section of the choir and one black male face in the second to last row of the men’s section. They were the only two singers of colour among the over 200 choir members. And almost all the other men and women looked remarkably similar.

Perhaps that is because the members have to live within 100 miles of the headquarters so it may be a practical matter. This region of Utah is not exactly overflowing with blacks. Second, the black members of the Mormon Church live primarily in Africa and the Caribbean. Only 3% of its American members are black, perhaps because the church once placed restrictions on proselytizing to blacks. No one at the top of the power chain is black. I do not know why those restrictions – which have been removed for decades – were first there since there have always been black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.  Perhaps those restrictions may have been similar ones to those in Israel where Mormons have agreed with the government of Israel not to proselytize among Jews. Or perhaps I am just giving the Mormons the benefit of doubt.

I recall interviewing Mormons in Israel – young men assigned there as missionaries. They were sincere, dedicated and remarkably upbeat, as were my guides in Salt Lake City. Is that why I was wary? The smiles seemed pasted on, as if, like waiters and waitresses these days, they must beam at you and seek reassurance that you lack nothing. But many of those servers pull it off and easily make you believe that serving you is their delight. This seemed true of the Mormons that I met, especially the guides. Wholesomeness is their marker, their brand. As they write in their proclamation, “the family is central to the Creator’s plan for eternal destiny.” And eternal destiny for Mormons is the kissing cousin to the family. We are evidently only on earth to gain experience in a progress towards perfection and, thereby, earn the right to a divine life.

Since I personally believe perfectionism is great for technology and science as goals, but very deformative when it comes to psychology, sociology and politics, and has a propensity to produce conformity rather than creativity, homogeneity rather than heterogeneity, the brand has little appeal for me in spite of how much I agree with and admire the Church’s support and emphasis on the family. I am especially put off by the idea – for that is why they are leaders in genealogy – that the “divine plan of happiness enables family relations to be perpetuated beyond the grave,” and, therefore, “for families to be united eternally.” For some, that would be a curse. But they would not likely be candidates for eternal life anyway.

The human population explosion is not a problem for Mormons. Multiply and replenish the earth. Chastity. Fidelity. A couple must love and care for one another and for their children even as men and women are assigned complementary roles by God, men as providers and women as homemakers primarily responsible for the care and nurture of the children. It is certainly a culturally conservative belief system. This was certainly true of my research assistant in Australia who is a Mormon. It did not prevent him, however, from being intellectually curious and creative. But he did try to compete with me in having many children, many of them born while I was in Australia. And he beamed both wholesomeness and tolerance.

However, I am sure that he did not vote for Trump. Yet a majority of Mormons in America did, in spite of the fact that in polls prior to the 2016 election, only 36% planned to vote for Trump as opposed to 27% for Hilary Clinton. Clinton won 25% of their votes but Trump got 61% and not the 36% originally expected. And this was in spite of the following facts:

  • Mitt Romney, perhaps the most prominent Mormon in the U.S., strongly denounced Trump
  • The Deseret News condemned Trump
  • LDS members had an alternate independent candidate who was a Mormon – Evan McMullen

Yet 3 out of 5 Mormons supported Trump in spite of his sexism, racism, temperament, dishonesty and political inexperience. Perhaps they were just Republicans coming home because they did not want a Democrat elected. Does that say something about the ability of Mormons to tolerate hypocrisy?

Look who they got? Teleprompter Trump who could, as expected, in a verbal gesture, uphold, “the inherent worth and dignity of every human life” and denounce the scourge of destructive partisanship. Piously, Trump could announce, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. Now is the time to set destructive partisanship aside — so destructive — and find the courage to answer hatred with unity, devotion and love.”

This from tweeter Trump who is a racist, demonizes and insults others, is stridently partisan and divisive. Trump’s current words give piety and well-meaning a bad name. Hence my wariness of surface smiles and the artifice of smooth and perfect communication. At least hating and lying Trump is true to himself. Mormons may paint their pews to look like oak and paint their pillars to look like marble. It is part of the American dream – sell a vision no matter how contradictory it is to the facts and the actual behaviour of their esteemed founder. Sell a happy face and hope. That will build grand buildings to compete with the Grand Canyon. This will build an empire of followers. Grandiosity, after all, is at the core of the American religion.

The religion of America emerges in many expressions. But what about practical matters to protect families? What about banning assault weapons owned by civilians? What about background checks? What about branding white supremacists as terrorists? What about asking for forgiveness for calling the flight of refugees an “invasion”? What about apologizing for calling Mexicans rapists? What about recognizing a link between harsh rhetoric of this kind and the manifesto and actions of the gunman in El Paso Texas? What about denouncing the hypocrisy and false face of a leader who suddenly talks harmony and unity and will not leave his golf game but then waits days to offer condolences in person in El Paso and Dayton to grieving families? Perhaps he is rightly afraid to go? What about voting against Trump for a second term? After all, Barack Obama has finally given up his vow to keep his silence and come out with rhetorical guns blazing labeling Trump’s language as “the root of most human tragedy.” The Mormons know it. The Mormons practice it. So will they continue to support Trump?

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Oregon Trail

Though Baker City was a key half-way point on the Oregon Trail, its origins pre-date the 1862 Homestead Act that propelled an army of 300,000 settlers with their covered wagons in the two decades afterwards to traverse the arduous 2,000-mile journey from the starting point in Independence, Missouri, to trek to the Far West. Massive westward settlement was a direct product of the Civil War, for when the legislators from the slave states walked out of Congress and initiated the Civil War, the legislators from the northern free states were finally able to pass the Homestead Act that promised settlers who went west 160 acres of free, lush and arable land simply for homesteading for five years. The Northerners wanted to create new free states founded by independent farmers rather than plantation owners.

Congress was determined to increase the number of free states. The settlers headed onwards – “Oregon or bust” – as they passed Flagstaff Hill about five miles north-east of where Baker City would be founded and grow through the boom and bust of gold prospecting, logging, mining and the extension of the railway westward two decades later. The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is located atop Flagstaff Hill above the long-ago defunct Flagstaff Hill Gold Mine.

When we climbed, actually drove in our car, the long and windy road twisting through the barren hills of eastern Oregon to the top of Flagstaff Hill and paid, I believe, $10 to enter the government-controlled “park,” when we first got to the top, on an overhang outside, we visited the wagons that were replicas of the one used on the trail on a site overlooking the vast wide plain below. The wagons themselves were so simple – plank floors and sides with the covered wagon we have all seen in the movies. But the bottom carriage had to be a work of marvel to cross that rough terrain with the larger wheels in front to get over the trenches on the trail as the smaller wheels on the front provided the maneuverability.

The introductory film documentary of about 50 minutes that we saw just after we entered The Interpretive Center was invaluable in providing an overview, not only of this important historic event, but of the message the Center conveys of American individualism, high risk, ingenuity, industriousness, determination, egalitarianism and, interesting enough, cooperation, that served as the core values in populating the West by non-natives. The Interpretive Centre is quite clear that a major risk did not come from encounters with the “savages.” In fact, according to the tale told, the Plains Indians originally greeted the pioneers traversing the land with gifts to the settlers on the Oregon Trail. They gave them food and, more importantly, lessons on how to survive from the land, lessons without which the death toll from the journey would have been very much higher. Very few “overlanders” on the Oregon Trail were killed by the native population.

The native Indians attacking wagon trains is largely a myth and emerged in the later years of the story of the Oregon Trail as it became apparent how dangerous the white settlers were, bringing with them both diseases and a condescending treatment of the cultures of the plains Indians. However, their mode of attack was almost always misrepresented in cowboy films. I remember watching all those Westerns when I was a kid and the inevitable scenes of the overlanders circling their wagons as the Indians rode around them firing their arrows as the settlers picked them off with their rifles. This never happened.

The pioneers circled their wagons for protection from the elements and to secure their livestock that accompanied them. Years ago, I read that this fake story was a product of a Jewish filmmaker in the 1920s who transplanted his experiences of the White Russians, the Cossacks, attacking the shtetls in the Ukraine, surrounding the small towns and setting fire to the houses and belongings of the Jews. There were a long series of such attacks, the Kiev pogroms, starting in 1919, but little effort, other than to make a few rhetorical condemnations of the attacks the Bolsheviks on one side or the White Russian generals on the other side, by either slaughter to stop the slaughter.

There were over 1,300 attacks and an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 Jews were killed. It is no surprise that such an event was seared into the filmmaker’s imagination; substituting native Indians for Cossacks was easy. Jewish women in Eastern Europe were kidnapped and raped. This had not generally been the behaviour of the Plains Indians. An estimated half a million Jews were made homeless by the pogroms over two years. 60% of that number found homes in the West. It is very unlikely the trek across the West of the settlers would have been successful without the help of the Plains Indians.

The Interpretive Center is very conscientious about correcting these historical myths of looting, rape and murder. The Plains Indians seemed to lack the beliefs of superiority and viewing the Other as both inferior and a danger – at least until the later years when the Americans proved to be both. But by then it was too late. The denigration of the Native Americans could not have taken place without the backing of the American government, just as in Eastern Europe the persecution of the Jews could not have taken place without a historical record of cultural persecution, backed by some policies of the states in spite of the state’s insistence that it was the protector of the Jews.

In 1776, the War of Independence was significantly propelled by the desire of the colonists to expand westward while the British Crown insisted on respecting the treaties it had made with the self-governing Native population. U.S. government policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century carried forth that same tension. The mistreatment was a direct product of the desire to expand westward into territories occupied by the Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet, who dominated the Northern Plains. The emigration of European immigrants from northeastern American cities in quest of land and freedom and independence was at the expense of these diverse groups of Indians who then occupied the West.

The Gadsden Purchase resulting in U.S. authority over Oregon country, provided the territory for those European immigrants who wanted to escape the slums of the east and have their own land – or businesses serving those who settled the land. The discovery of gold in 1849 was just one stimulus. The Interpretive Center describes the series of forts largely built and manned by the U.S. military to provide provisions and protection for the migrants. They facilitated the homesteading of the West. Depending on the government of the time, U.S. policy inherited the split between those who recognized the Indians as self-governing nations with various cultural traditions versus those determined to force the native population not only to surrender their lands but their cultural identities as well. In the end, the desire to expand westward trumped all other considerations.

The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center tries to present a living history through its exhibits, multi-media presentations and interpretive programs as well as concrete evidence of the movement west in part by means of the ruts on the miles of trails preserved by the American Parks Authority. The preoccupation with preserving ruts intrigued me. Why ruts?

I believe that the legendary trail is not just about remembering an important event in American history, but about carving that event into the landscape itself. There are four miles of interpretive trails on the site, but we did not take the opportunity to walk on any of them. The thousands of wagons that traversed the territory wore ruts in the ground to provide a dirt road to follow, in fact a number of roads as wagon wheels traced shortcuts made by pioneers, some easier but many even more difficult than the paths previously trodden.

A number of empirical facts become clear through the tale told by the Center:

  • The settlers, women and children, mostly walked the over 2,000 miles of the trail as the men endured the hard seats and bouncing of wagons that lacked any shock absorbers; in films, families were often pictured sitting in the wagons.
  • Many of the pioneers lost their lives on the route – an estimated 10%  – from disease, injury and other causes; there is a moving display and talking exhibit of a pioneer whose account is read of the loss of his ten year-old son and eight-year old nephew as the families crossed the Snake River at the Three Steps Crossing.
  • In addition to the ruts, grave markers, as well as skeletons of dead oxen and mules and, in addition, discarded belongings, dotted the trail; pioneers were often forced to abandon goods to ease the load; many burned those goods rather than allow them to be taken by others while others put up signs, “Help yourselves” – another sign of the deep division in America between the self-interested and the other-directed.
  • Only about an estimated 80,000 reached western Oregon, many of the others returning or turning south.
  • The members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons – more on them in the next blog) traveled a separate route, either because they were persecuted by the other settlers – according to a guide at the Mormon Temple Square – or because they feared contamination from the worldly ways of the other pioneers; further, they were often much poorer and pulled their own wagons.
  • The emphasis of the Interpretive Center is on the danger of the journey through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and   Idaho.

The Oregon Trail is characterized as the largest and longest voluntary migration, and perhaps the largest in history of westward expansion; it is a tale of a trail of sacrifice and search for a new beginning.

It then should be no surprise that Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 formulated what has been called “The Frontier Thesis,” (“The History of the Frontier in American History”). He argued that American democracy was not primarily the product of intellectuals and thinkers, of John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau and their American successors such as Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Hamilton, as much as it was of concrete experience of ordinary Americans and their pioneering sensibility with its stress on egalitarianism, folk rather than high culture – the pioneers played instruments and sang at the end of the day as they gathered together in the midst of their circled covered wagons. America was a product of endurance and determination, of private personal will and interpersonal cooperation. And violence!

The Oregon Trail was just the most mythological characterization of the American experience that began at Plymouth Rock and the spirit that was carried forward to Independence Rock, the large 130 ft. high and 1,900 feet long granite rock in Wyoming. It is a story built upon the tales of the people who travel on the ground by foot and wagon who established the real sense of liberty and independence in opposition to European hidebound ideas, established churches and class structures. The physical and economic conditions were responsible for the American “spirit.” As every generation moved further west, America became more democratic and more intolerant of elites and vested interests as well as of the authority of institutions and even products of scientists and intellectuals. The distrust of eggheads in America goes very deep.

This was a very different but sometimes complementary thesis to that of Theodore Roosevelt (The Winning of the West), who had a military version of the clash between the trans-Appalachian pioneers and the Indians as the West was “won.” Teddy Roosevelt celebrated the military courage and valour that forged the daring-do of American expansion.

What seems increasingly clear under Donald Trump and the inward turn, in trade wars and protectionism, in the desire to build walls and keep immigrants out, to forego war and overseas conquests, is that the frontier thesis is being murdered not just set aside as democracy is discarded in favour of mass populist rallies. Instead of a future of conquest, now of scientific frontiers, the appeal is to the past and preservation of “what has been lost.” 

Ironically, it was leftist thinkers like William Appleman Williams at the University of Wisconsin who first argued for the abandonment of the frontier thesis, for in his analysis it led to overseas adventurism, though this had more to do with Teddy Roosevelt’s version. The frontier thesis was transformed after WWII into foreign aid and trade, a transnationalist rather than nationalist mission, a spreading of the democratic rather than the Christian message. And in domestic terms, recall John F. Kennedy in his acceptance speech when he became the Democratic candidate for President. “I am asking each of you to be new pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age—to the stout in spirit, regardless of party.” The new frontier would be space exploration.

In the next blog, I will take up the tale of the foremost “frontier” religious invention, The Church of the Latter Day Saints, which has been the most successful of the frontier religions in comparison to the Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ and the Cumberland Presbyterians with their revivalist mass meetings and itinerant rather than educated preaching.

But what about the tension between communalism and rugged individualism. The Mormon Church will provide one example of how this polarization could be overcome. But that is for the next blog and the discussion of how the values of pragmatism, empiricism, egalitarianism, simplicity, naturalism, independence, sacrifice and courage could be preserved.

With the help of Alex Zisman


The Jews of Baker City

[Note: I could not find the notes that I made in the Baker City Museum, so a few items in this blog may be somewhat inaccurate, for I could not find most of the names on the internet that I recalled. Therefore, I am relying on my memory. In the case of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center that I will discuss in the next blog, I had the brochures and literature that I collected to check my memory.]

Baker City in Idaho at 3,400 feet high sits between two mountain ranges – the Elkhorns on the west and the Wallowas on the east. It is an historian’s and preservationist’s dream. 

Explorers and fur traders were not the only ones who went west before the settlers or the overlanders as they were dubbed. Gold was discovered immediately south of Baker City in 1861. 4,000 prospectors headed to the region. But by 1865, there was no more gold to be found and the non-Chinese prospectors generally abandoned the town. The town was saved from obliteration when the Oregon legislature made it the new county seat of Baker County. The Civil War gave both the city and the county its name to commemorate Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, the only sitting member of Congress who was killed in the Civil War.

I learned all this and much more when we got up on Friday morning, dressed, packed up and stopped first at the Baker City Museum on the way out of town and then reversed ourselves to drive a mile north of town to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center from which you could see the entire plain between the two mountain ranges and view that part of the trail that passed Falstaff peak. Over one hour in the Baker City Museum, I learned more about the 22 years between 1862 and 1884 and subsequently when the railway joined Omaha, Nebraska to Portland, Oregon through Baker City, than I could have learned in a month of reading.

The concrete and brick Victorian buildings that were built after the railway was constructed are currently being restored to try to resurrect Baker City’s prosperity as a tourist destination. They were first erected after fires destroyed many of the wooden buildings in the town. By the turn of the century in 1900, Baker City was the third largest city in Oregon. By 1916, it had a population of almost 17,000. As I wrote in my previous blog, the hotel had one of only three elevators in the west – and electricity. Theatre and opera companies passed through the town in 1900. And Jews played a very prominent role in that prosperity.

However, I am going to focus. I will be writing about the Jews of Baker City, not because they were especially featured in the Baker City Museum. Other than the references to Golda Meir and Israel in the section devoted to Leo Adler, there was no discussion that I could find of the Jewish origins, beliefs and practices of the Jews that settled in Baker City. The vast majority of the exhibits had nothing to do with Jews. The dioramas of the lives of the pioneers were very well done and the collection of various old wagons was also interesting. If you are interested in rocks, stones of all kinds, a visit to the Baker City Museum would be a must because the collection there is magnificent.

However, the most surprising and unexpected lesson for me was how Jewish Baker City was. It was not Jewish in the sense of religion, for the personnel at the Museum could not recall Baker City ever having a synagogue. The Jews presumably went to Portland for marriages, bar mitzvahs and high holidays, probably Congregation Beth Israel. However, the Grand Geyser Hotel in Baker City where we stayed, and which I wrote about in my last blog, was evidently first named the Warshauer Grand Hotel after Louis Warshauer, the man who first built the hotel in 1889.

John Geiser made his fortune by loaning a miner $2,000 with the security of the Bonanza Mine. When the debt could not be repaid, he foreclosed and the mine eventually made him a millionaire. Geiser bought the Warshauer Hotel a year after it was built and renamed it. My only clue that he too might have been Jewish is that he married Eliza and they had a daughter, Emma who married William Pollman, a butcher who established the Baker Loan & Trust Co.

As I wrote, the hotel closed in 1968 after the stage hands, camera men and others who worked on the ten-million-dollar film, Paint Your Wagon, left town. (The eventual cost of the movie was purportedly twenty million dollars.) Joshua Logan directed. The film starred Lee Marvin (Ben), Clint Eastwood (Pardner) and Jean Seberg (Elizabeth) with a script by Paddy Chayefsky based on the 1951 Broadway musical. The lyrics and music are by Allan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe; the songs I best remember are, “I’m on My Way,” and “They Call the Wind Maria.” A mining town set in the gold rush was specifically constructed for the movie at a cost of $2.4 million, and then torn down. The model is in the museum as is much of the memorabilia from making the film and hosting such important Hollywood stars. A small part of the museum is dedicated to memorabilia about the making of the film and even the 300 “hippies” who came north from California to gain employment on the film. 

When we first drove into the town, we saw a sign on a one-story building – “Chinese and American food.” A large number of Chinese had come to Baker City during the gold rush and, unlike most other prospectors, stayed to establish laundries, restaurants and even houses of “ill repute.” There is a Chinese cemetery in town and, as in Canada, Chinese helped build the railroad.

But the most celebrated figure in the town’s history is Leo Adler. His father was Carl Adler, a Jewish immigrant who settled in Baker City in 1874. His mother was Laura Hirsch whose sister married another Jewish businessman in town. Carl ran the Crystal Palace, a book and stationary store that moved to Baker City in 1888 when the railway signalled great prospects.

Leo was a newspaper boy who, when he finished high school, was convinced by his father to develop his magazine distribution business – Ladies Home Journal and other magazines. By 1925, he had become the largest distributor of magazines and newspapers from The Dalles to Grand Island, Nebraska with 2,000 outlets in seven states. In the museum, there is correspondence between Leo and the Curtis Publishing Company recording when he reduced his payment from $2.50 to $1.50 because the magazines sent to him were arriving two days after his competitors received their copies. The point the museum makes is what an astute businessman he was.

But he is mostly remembered as a philanthropist. He never married and bequeathed his fortune of $22 million to the town as a trust for town improvements (such as the museum itself) and a source of scholarships for students from the town. Hundreds of students from the town and the surrounding region have been able to go to college with average scholarships of about $2,500. The trust is now worth $38 million and it helps support not only the museum, but the Leo Adler mansion which we did not visit.

Leo Adler was evidently also a great supporter of Israel and the museum includes correspondence between him and Golda Meir as well as an award he received from the State of Israel.

There were other prominent Jewish businessmen in the town that are memorialized in the museum such as Herman Bamberger who married Julia Tichner and, with his brother-in-law, Sol Tichner, established Bamberger, Tichner & Co.  I am not sure whether Moses Tichner, Sol’s brother, became a partner, worked for the firm or established his own business. The Heilner- Neuberger Department store in town that sold clothing and home furnishings was established by Sigmund Aron Heilner and his wife, Clara Neuberger. Heilner also installed the first telephone system in the town and established the first bank. He also owned a hide and wool business, an insurance company and a mining company.

Isaac Bloch ran a general store. Moses Disheimer was a developer of the first high-rise hotel in Baker City, the Baker Hotel, but the Great Depression helped ruin the investment and the hotel was never a success. Moses Fuchs and his brother, Isadore, were involved in mining. Moses established the golf course in Baker City. Les Schwab was a storekeeper. I cannot recall what businesses Maximilian Weil or Hirsch or Wolfe had, but I believe Wolfe was the town’s pharmacist.

I was not able to learn anything about antisemitism in the town or whether Jews could join the Elks or the other lodges other than the Masonic lodge. Several of the Jews mentioned above were listed as members. However, a non-Masonic lodge and the Elks shared adjacent facilities with the Ku Klux Klan. However, given the laudatory accounts of the town’s Jewish citizens, Baker City appears to have been a great place to settle for Jewish immigrants and their families.

A significant Jewish presence in Baker City began before, during and especially after the great trek westward known as the Oregon Trail, which I will discuss in the next blog. Who would have guessed? Or perhaps it is just my ignorance of American history and, in particular, the history of Jews in America.


I found my notes. I was surprised by how accurate my memory was. But there were omissions. Leo Adler’s most important periodical that he distributed was The Saturday Evening Post. Harry and Jake Warshauer also lived in Baker City but my notes do not tell me what relationship they had to Louis. I left out Steve Bud who was the town dentist – and a blacksmith. It was Carl Adler who married Laura Hirsch. Jess Heilner had a grocery store. Walz ran a creamery. The other lodge that was adjacent to the Ku Kux Klan was The International Order of Odd Fellows.

Nevertheless, not too bad a memory for an old man.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide: Numbers 30:2−36:13

I wanted to avoid writing on this week’s portion, I had decided to write about my travels instead. And I may still do that. But I cannot avoid confronting the moral conundrum of the text and the classical means of getting around the issue. Simply put, the text does not merely appear to endorse ethnic cleansing and genocide. It explicitly does.

After the Israelite army had conquered the Midianites and killed all the males – not even just the soldiers, a crime in itself – read the horrors of the text.  

ט  וַיִּשְׁבּוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-נְשֵׁי מִדְיָן, וְאֶת-טַפָּם; וְאֵת כָּל-בְּהֶמְתָּם וְאֶת-כָּל-מִקְנֵהֶם וְאֶת-כָּל-חֵילָם, בָּזָזוּ. 9 And the children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods, they took for a prey.
י  וְאֵת כָּל-עָרֵיהֶם בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם, וְאֵת כָּל-טִירֹתָם–שָׂרְפוּ, בָּאֵשׁ. 10 And all their cities in the places wherein they dwelt, and all their encampments, they burnt with fire.
יא  וַיִּקְחוּ, אֶת-כָּל-הַשָּׁלָל, וְאֵת, כָּל-הַמַּלְקוֹחַ–בָּאָדָם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה. 11 And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of man and of beast.
יב  וַיָּבִאוּ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן וְאֶל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשְּׁבִי וְאֶת-הַמַּלְקוֹחַ וְאֶת-הַשָּׁלָל–אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה:  אֶל-עַרְבֹת מוֹאָב, אֲשֶׁר עַל-יַרְדֵּן יְרֵחוֹ.  {ס} 12 And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and unto Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp, unto the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan at Jericho. {S}
יג  וַיֵּצְאוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, וְכָל-נְשִׂיאֵי הָעֵדָה–לִקְרָאתָם:  אֶל-מִחוּץ, לַמַּחֲנֶה. 13 And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp.
יד  וַיִּקְצֹף מֹשֶׁה, עַל פְּקוּדֵי הֶחָיִל, שָׂרֵי הָאֲלָפִים וְשָׂרֵי הַמֵּאוֹת, הַבָּאִים מִצְּבָא הַמִּלְחָמָה. 14 And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who came from the service of the war.
טו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם, מֹשֶׁה:  הַחִיִּיתֶם, כָּל-נְקֵבָה. 15 And Moses said unto them: ‘Have ye saved all the women alive?
טז  הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם, לִמְסָר-מַעַל בַּיהוָה, עַל-דְּבַר-פְּעוֹר; וַתְּהִי הַמַּגֵּפָה, בַּעֲדַת יְהוָה. 16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to revolt so as to break faith with the LORD in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.
יז  וְעַתָּה, הִרְגוּ כָל-זָכָר בַּטָּף; וְכָל-אִשָּׁה, יֹדַעַת אִישׁ לְמִשְׁכַּב זָכָר–הֲרֹגוּ. 17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. [my italics]

Moses himself ordered the ethnic cleansing of the Midianites. Because King Balak had requested that their prophet, Balaam, curse the Israelites? But look at the last verse. Moses ordered all male children and infants to be killed and only women children who were virgins were to be saved and taken as spoils of war, presumably as slaves and/or concubines. Not just the women who had seduced Israelites and were then blamed for making the Israelite men worship Baal of Peor.

יח  וְכֹל הַטַּף בַּנָּשִׁים, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ מִשְׁכַּב זָכָר–הַחֲיוּ, לָכֶם. 18 But all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Moses is unequivocally a genocidaire. Further, God Himself is guilty of ethnic cleansing. Chapter 33, verses 51- 53 read as follows:

“Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their high places. And ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein; for unto you have I given the land to possess it.”

How can you focus on vows and issues of feminism, including their rights of inheritance? How can you focus on the conditions in terms of which the tribes of Reuben and Gad and parts of Manasseh were allowed to settle on the land on the east side of the Jordan? Why review the itinerary of the Israelite travels through the wilderness after leaving Egypt? And why talk about cities of refuge or attend to God’s differentiation between murder and manslaughter compared to these atrocities?

Well, sure, comment on all these topics. But you cannot ignore these major moral conundrums. And the commentators over the ages have not ignored them. One method of dealing with the problem, used by Maimonides for example, is to read into the text that which is not there, namely, in his case, that the Israelites were committed first to offer the Canaanites, for example, an escape clause – live beside us in peace and accept the universal Noahide code governing all of humanity, then they would be allowed to live. Presumably they did not agree and were wiped out, including infants who could not assent or dissent. However, the text is pretty clear – neither escape nor acceptance of subjugation were sufficient. Mass slaughter was ordered. In fact, Moses was furious that the Israelites had spared women and children after the Israelite soldiers returned from battle.

Indeed, how can the Israelites who were supposed to be a compassionate people – Rachmanim b’nai rachamanim – kill captured soldiers, non-combatants and even women and male children? The question has bothered commentators over the ages. So instead of interpreting the story, they effectively rewrote it, but, frankly, still leaving these most heinous crimes unexplained except to insist that even a very moral people must be tough some time, otherwise their moral code will crumble. And this is supposed to explain killing captured soldiers, non-combatants and even women and male children!

Dr. Ruhama Weiss, a member of the Reform movement and Director of “The Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling Taube Family Campus,” the Blaustein Centre, at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, when commenting on this parashah, asks a tough question: “Are we capable of evil?” This may not be as tough as asking whether our most illustrious prophet and even God Himself were not only capable of evil but actually ordered such dirty deeds, but she at least directly confronts the issue on a more general level.

The answer is always to opt for the moral higher ground by altering inherited precepts.

  1. Jews are not morally superior to other peoples;
  2. God did not distinguish between the Jews and other peoples;
  3. God did distinguish between good and evil for all peoples;
  4. God did not “choose” the Jewish people from all other peoples, but simply gave them the opportunity of coming closer to God through the gift of Torah.

To avoid ignoring the horror of Moses’ command, utter the words as a melancholy chant and rededicate ourselves to the tasks of learning from history and altering our behaviour accordingly, Weiss suggests. Accept that we too as Jews are capable of genocide. “Ethical living begins to be a challenge when we realize that all of us are capable of evil and all of us are commanded to do good.” Further, transform God from a paternal authoritarian figure, from a tough judge, into a hope and a choice. Therefore, I am commanded to do good.

But is not this the same God who commanded the evil of ethnic cleansing? Is this not the same Moses, God’s chosen prophet, who ordered his military to commit atrocities? In other words, Ruhama Weiss tries to get around the problem by leaving behind that part of historical Judaism – the characterization of its supreme prophet and God – that does not fit in with her current moral precepts. Unfortunately, then the historical precepts are made relative and lose the status of a commanding universal voice.

My answer, at least as inadequate as the others, is to accept that this was indeed what God and Moses were like. They did command evil. However, God is He who reveals Himself over time. God is becoming. God changes and learns from His mistakes. He learned that it was stupid to drown everyone and start all over again. Rather, you have to work with what you have. Over and over again, the Torah is a tale of God’s self-discovery through His relationship with humans and His alterations in the process, a process that began with the story of Adam and Eve.

We can thank God for the long road of change and development that He has covered. God indeed is a God of hope.

Moderates versus Radicals in the U.S. Democratic Party

We are on the road again travelling through the U.S. to return to Toronto. I have had an intense two days with one of my sons and his family. After a discussion last evening on climate change and the need for urgent and radical moves on the subject, as well as a discussion of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the word “concentration” to depict the internment camps on the American-Mexican border, my son emailed me the article published on 25 July by Ben Judah in The Atlantic: “Saikat Chakrabarti Is Building a Millennial Movement.” I do not know the extent to which he shared the views of the author.

I wrote back the following:

An open letter to my son:

A very interesting and provocative take, but with many holes. For example, let me point to four questionable claims of note on first reading, and for reasons of expertise, I will give greater attention to the first claim.

Claim 1:

  1. Nancy Pelosi caved to Republicans and moderate Democrats and agreed to pass an emergency-aid package, skewed heavily right, for the southern border.
  2. Pelosi attacked AOC when she dubbed the internment camps “concentration” camps.
  3. Pelosi’s attacks backfired, harming both moderates and leftists. What began as an intra-party fight over a bill has morphed into anti–Ilhan Omar chants of “Send her back” at a Trump rally, a development as alarming as it was predictable—forcing the party moderates to stand by Omar’s side.  

Let me begin with part c), namely that Trump used that event: i) to initiate the anti-Ilhan Omar chants of “Send her back” in order to further divide the Democratic Party; ii) the development was both alarming and predictable; iii) that forced the Democratic moderates to defend Omar.

Where does the author identify any connection between AOC’s use of “concentration” camps and Trump’s attacks of the Squad as a collective or even between the evolution of Pelosi’s criticism into the chants?  At the rally, Trump called for the four to go back to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Of course, this raised a hue and cry around the world, including in my own writing, concerning Trump’s racism and his ignorance since 3 of the 4 were born in the USA. The crowd breaking into the chant, “Send her back” and Trump’s 13 second nodding acquiescence only exacerbated the negative reaction around the world.

The origins of this behaviour have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with what Pelosi, and the author offers no connection, just asserts that there is one. The origins lie in the deep-seated racism in the USA, in Trump’s Republican Party which is joined at the hip with its anti-immigration stance and is based on the presumption that America is essentially a country for whites. Thomas Jefferson proposed sending blacks back to Africa and a black movement to do just that emerged, which led to the creation of the state of Liberia.  Even Lincoln proposed sending blacks to the Caribbean. In other words, in the view of many Americans, America is at its best a place that tolerates blacks but is not inherently black. If blacks are unappreciative, they should just leave. The “patriots” had the same view of dissidents, especially those who flirted with communism.

Were Trump’s remarks and the chant that followed intended to deepen the divisions within the Democratic Party? If that was the intention, the reverse happened – the party rallied around the four congresswomen who were attacked. More importantly, where is the evidence that this was Trump’s intention? A more likely hypothesis is that his intention was to brand the Democrats as radicals. Hypotheses and speculations should not be cited as facts, especially when they are far-fetched and are not connected with evidence.

The development of the alleged effect on the Democratic Party was neither alarming and certainly not predicable since it did not take place. The moderates in the Democratic Party were not “forced” to defend the four; they did what any human with a decent set of values would have done. I defended the four and I was certainly not forced to do so.

Therefore, it was anything but “obvious” that Trump would hijack any division or that he did. To claim that, “it was obvious to anyone who fully recognizes how far American politics has changed since Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel first came to Washington,” is to accrue to oneself prophetic vision and to engage in ageism, the supposition that because of your age and long history in Washington, you are out of touch. This was a mantra of The Donald when he sought the Republican nomination. As is evident from both Trump and the writer, you do not have to be young to be guilty of ageism.

Did Nancy Pelosi attack AOC when she dubbed the internment camps “concentration camps” or did she attack AOC’s use of “concentration” camps to characterize the migration internment camps on the Mexican border? There is a great difference between the two. The first is an accusation that it was a personal attack stimulated by AOC’s use of a term, and the second, that it was an attack simply on the use of the term.

Go back to Pelosi’s comments and I believe that you will see that it was not even an attack, just a well-deserved criticism. And, ironically, it was a criticism of the Republicans doing the attacking while differing – a very different action that attacking or criticizing AOC – with AOC. One could fault Pelosi for taking 2 days to launch her attack on the Republicans, but the depiction is a misrepresentation at best and more akin to a total distortion. The reality: Pelosi refused to condemn or condone AOC’s misrepresentation of the internment camps on the Mexican border and their comparison to the places where Jews were killed by Nazis in WWII. Pelosi said, Republicans “will misrepresent anything.” So will bad writers with a thesis to prove about a Millennial revolution against the previous generation of Boomer compromisers by attacking old politicians who belong to neither generation.  

What about the claim that Nancy Pelosi caved (my italics) to Republicans and moderate Democrats and agreed to pass an emergency-aid package, skewed heavily right, for the southern border”? Can the action she took be described as “caving”? How can a moderate (Pelosi) cave to moderates? Is this not a contradiction? Was the package skewed heavily right?

What are the problems on the southern border? They are multiple.

  1. Migrants cross illegally without going through an immigration process.
  2. As a partial result of 1 above, the numbers of undocumented persons in the U.S. remains very large.
  3. The government (including the Trump government) is revealed as incapable of managing migration, and this incapacity in all countries is the largest cause of the backlash against immigrants.
  4. Those who wish to claim refugee status in the U.S. because they fear for their lives are being denied an opportunity to do so because of inadequate staffing and because some are being sent back to Mexico to wait for a hearing when there is no Safe Country Agreement between the U.S. and Mexico.
  5. The internment of claimants is reprehensible unless they pose a security risk or because there is evidence that they will not show up for a hearing.
  6. The facilities for detention are deplorable.
  7. There is also the charge that the Border Agency is an enforcement and removal agency rather than a migration and refugee agency. In my experience, it is both, as in most countries, and the emphasis on one rather than the other depends on the government in charge.
  8. For those who are compassionate about immigrants and refugees, the task is to work on policies focused on the sending countries, on the countries on route and on the places of reception to ensure both border security and effective as well as humane treatment of migrants and refugee claimants at the border.

What was Nancy Pelosi’s compromise? It should be placed against the background of the Trump partial 2017 shutdown of the American government for the longest period in American history when Schumer and Pelosi refused to compromise with Trump and fund his wall.  Further, the compromise should be understood against a background of certain facts, namely: 1) that the number of unauthorized migrants in the U.S, has fallen against the peak in 2007; 2) that the majority of unauthorized individuals are those who gained entry to America and overstayed their visas; 3) the numbers of those arrested at the border who have crossed illegally at non-legal crossing points are far less than the numbers apprehended in the 80’s and 90’s; 4) they are no longer mostly Mexicans; in fact, more Mexicans now return to Mexico than try to migrate to the U.S. 

However, in 2018, the numbers were the largest since 2002.

There are also perceptual problems. 75% of Republicans believe illegal immigration is a very serious problem (and, falsely believe that most immigrants are in the U.S. illegally) versus 19% of Democrats. But a majority oppose building a wall. And a very high percentage of those opposing the wall do not want politicians to capitulate on this issue.

In the so-called compromise at the time of the shutdown in 2017, the Republican offer to the Democrats included provision for $5.7 billion for expansion of the border wall in return for temporary protection for “Dreamers,” illegal immigrant children raised and educated in the U.S. The Democrats refused the compromise and Trump and the Republicans folded.

In the June 2019 compromise, only 95 Democrats voted against the proposed administration bill and it passed. The bill did NOT include the protections sought for Dreamers and did include providing Trump with $4.6 billion for improvements in the system, some of that money for repairs to existing parts of the wall but no money to build new walls. Simply put, the compromise was a result of excluding both the Dreamers and the funding of the wall from the immigration bill, but it was widely viewed as the Democrats folding this time. Pelosi’s rationale for supporting the compromise: “At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available. In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill.” The compromise was rationalized on humanitarian grounds where Republicans were holding children hostage to pressure passage. The nay-sayers did not believe that this short-term gain was worth the compromise.

I think the bill was skewed right, but not heavily. It was a genuine compromise motivated by political and humanitarian considerations in opposition to those democrats who thought that the democrats were giving away too much and that better no bill, and no relief at the border, than a compromise for the next 18 months. I think that is a much fairer way to describe what happened.

Claim 2:

“Chakrabarti’s (AOC’s senior aid) cohort is trying to spur its generation to produce not just congressional wins, but broad cultural change backed up by a movement, outriders, and cultural icons. This, they think, is even more important than winning the next election. Because without a movement, moderate presidents will be in office, but not in power. For them it is better to plan to eventually win completely than fall silent, hoping only for a shaky president, with little vision, to scrape together a victory in 2020.”

Though I am not positive, I think this is a relatively accurate portrayal of the position of the radicals in the Democratic Party, that they are willing to sacrifice a victory over Trump in favour of a hoped-for longer term and more fundamental change. The radicals do not want a Democrat as president if the Democrat lacks a vision and an urgent plan of action on such vital issues as climate change.  

The characterization of a moderate as one who will be “shaky” as a president and possess “little vision” is belied by the vast majority of candidates running to be the Democratic candidate for the presidency. Further, four more years of Trump would be a humanitarian disaster on a number of fronts, most of all, climate change.  

Claim 3:

“These guys are here for the long haul. The Millennial left in Congress is not a faction that needs to be slapped down, but a generation that should be engaged with, brought into the fold, and better understood. This is what a more deft House speaker would be doing. But instead, the Millennial left is being turned into a straw man for Trump to bash.”

The first sentence is accurate. The second is partially accurate, except for the statement implying that the writer understands the radicals and the moderates do not. Yes – engaged with. Yes – brought into the fold.  But better understanding? The third sentence is an insult to one of the most deft speakers in American history. The last sentence is balderdash. Neither Pelosi (nor I in my writings depicting the Squad) have turned the radicals into a straw man for Trump to bash. This is just bad writing.

Claim 4:

“Because too often, the fight between the Democratic establishment and the insurgents on Capitol Hill is really a battle between a plan—admittedly full of holes and errors—and no plan, just a sense of entitlement.”

Again, a calumny – the radicals have a plan and the moderates do not. One might prefer one plan over the other – though, in fact, depending on the topic, there are different plans – there is no coherence on the left or even among the members of the Squad as I have already written. The moderates and the radicals both offer many plans, and those differ within each cluster. One might prefer one combination over another and select a candidate that comes closest to one’s own collection of ideas and priorities. But to say that one has a plan and the other does not, misrepresents both the radicals and the moderates.

Is the identification of Millennials with radicalism helpful? Ayanna Pressley, a charter member of the Squad, is not a Millennial. She is 45.  Pete Buttigieg at 37 could be considered a Millennial and he is not a radical. Excluding Mike Gravel, a very marginal candidate who is 89, I think the average age of the candidates is in the fifties. They cannot be slotted so easily into the generational fight between Millennials and boomers that the author suggests. And the classification moderate versus radical is a gross oversimplification since, depending on the position, there are a spectrum of issues. The use of “radical” and “moderate” does have its use, but not if the use deforms what is going on.