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.  

The Resurrection of Racism and the Erection of a Wall Part VI: Trump’s Racism, the Squad and Israel

There are at least five areas in which Israel has moved to the centre of American politics: Donald Trump’s racism; the BDS movement; diaspora-Jewish Israeli relations; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran. I begin with the first, as much for continuity as anything else, and will include a discussion of the second in this blog.

Recently, Donald Trump, in his racist attack on four Democratic congresswomen of colour – Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – told them they could go back to where they came from, though all four were American citizens and three were born in the United States. Soon after the massive tsunami of criticism hit him, he began to use Israel as a cover for his racism. Israel has now been inserted front and centre into the debate over his combined misogyny and white entitlement as Trump has tripled down on his attacks, but tried to shift the centre of gravity of his diatribe from his racially-charged comments to a defence of Israel.

According to Trump, the four members of “The Squad” are not only incapable “of loving our country,” but carry with them a visceral hatred of Israel. “They should apologize to America (and Israel) for the horrible (hateful) things they have said.” This pairing of the cover-up of his racism with a defence of Israel is not a one-off remark, but has quickly emerged as a central theme of his campaign for re-election.

Trump defended his 14 July remarks by claiming that the four congresswomen hate the United States, support terrorists, are communists, are destroying the Democratic Party, and, last but far from least, carry a deep loathing for Israel and characterized their views as both anti-Israel and antisemitic 11 different times in twitter attacks as well as at rallies. In reality, the four congresswomen have very different views of Israel, both from each other and certainly from Donald Trump’s characterization.

Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, is the most critical of Israel. She supports a one-state solution, a bi-national state in line with the views of a small minority of Jewish Zionists, such as Martin Buber, at the time the state was founded. More recently, the one-state solution has been generally deemed to be an impossibility as a bi-national solution and is adamantly rejected by Palestinians if the drift to a Jewish-dominated greater Israel emerges. However, a slight majority of Palestinians now agree with Tlaib and support a one-state solution based on an equality of both the Palestinian and Jewish nations.

In May, when Tlaib was interviewed about the creation of the state of Israel, she talked about her relatives who lost their jobs and their land at the time and added, “All of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post the Holocaust, post the tragedy and horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time.” She then made a second surprising point. “And I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that, right?” and that thought gave her a “calming feeling.”

Republicans juxtaposed the phrase “calming feeling” with Tlaib’s reference to the Holocaust, when there was no such connection in what she said. That inspired House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to ask GOP leaders to apologize for distorting what Tlaib said. However, Tlaib engaged in her own distortion. Only a small minority of Palestinians welcomed creating a “safe haven” for Jews during the Holocaust. The Palestinian political leadership openly, especially the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, cooperated with the Nazis.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, in contrast, in an op-ed in The Washington Post in March, urged both sides “to move toward a peaceful two-state solution. (my italics) Omar recognized that Israel has been the historical homeland of the Jewish people. “The founding of Israel 70 years ago was built on the Jewish people’s connection to their historical homeland, as well as the urgency of establishing a nation in the wake of the horror of the Holocaust and the centuries of anti-Semitic oppression leading up to it.” She added, however, that, “We must acknowledge that this is also the historical homeland of Palestinians. And without a state, the Palestinian people live in a state of permanent refugeehood and displacement. This, too, is a refugee crisis, and they, too, deserve freedom and dignity.” She has urged the U.S. to take, “A balanced, inclusive approach to the conflict,” one that “recognizes the shared desire for security and freedom of both peoples.”

President Donald Trump said almost the same thing last September when he expressed his support for a two-state solution. Ironically, he later said that he would endorse a one-state solution if it was agreed upon by both peoples. The difference is that Omar has vociferously supported the rights of Palestinians, opposed Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank and criticized the lobbying efforts of AIPAC. Trump in one of his tweets wrote that, “they (only Omar made this slip for which she later apologized) accuse people who support Israel as doing it for the Benjamin’s.” Omar had used this slang term for $100 bills to infer that US policy on Israel was in good part determined by Jewish political donations, a characterization that relied on a standard antisemitic trope of Jewish money deforming the democratic political process.

Trump repeatedly treats the four congresswomen as having a singular mind set on Israel and has accused them of talking “about Israel like they’re a bunch of thugs.” They “are anti-Israel” and “hate Israel.” However, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts is an open supporter of Israel.  Yet he included her with those who “hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion.” This was well after The Times of Israel ran a story in November 2018 called, “How we got Ayanna Pressley Wrong on Israel.”

As a city councillor in Boston for 11 years, Pressley received strong support from the Jewish community there. She is an open supporter of Israel, backs a two-state solution and opposes BDS, though she opposes making BDS illegal on the basis of the First Amendment. “I steadfastly support a two-state solution that will safeguard Israel’s future as a Jewish and Democratic state, and establish a sovereign and independent Palestinian [state]. … We must avoid efforts to unilaterally blame and deny legitimacy to either side, and should instead work towards building a just solution that recognizes the trauma suffered by both populations.” Yet Pressley voted for the House of Representatives recent motion this July, that was passed by an overwhelming majority – 398 – 17.  16 Democrats voted against the resolution including Tlaib and Omar.

The motion opposed “efforts to target American companies that are engaged in commercial activities that are legal under United States law, and all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel,” and accused the BDS movement of undermining “the possibility for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding concessions of one party alone and encouraging the Palestinians to reject negotiations in favor of international pressure.” The resolution also urged “Israelis and Palestinians to return to direct negotiations as the only way to achieve an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and offered Israel increase.

This was in dramatic contrast to an amendment to an anti-BDS resolution two months earlier that was defeated 222-200. The amendment would have preventing firms that support the anti-Israel BDS movement from receiving tax subsidies as part of Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act intended to boost retirement savings. d security aid. Even before the vote, the resolution had been sponsored by 350 members from both parties to send a powerful message that the House of Representatives “explicitly rejects discrimination directed against the Jewish state through economic, cultural and political boycotts.”

Most disquieting, however, Trump has accused all four congresswomen of being “antisemitic”; they talk about “evil Jews,” he said. Omar once in 2012 tweeted about the “evil doings of Israel,” but that is very different than calling Jews evil. Moreover, Omar also apologized for that remark.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has tweeted her support for Omar, not for her position on Israel, but for her right to criticize both Israel and American foreign policy in the Middle East. In response to criticisms of Omar by Rep. Vargas, AOC asked if he would explain whether “it’s unacceptable to even ‘question’ US foreign policy.”

AOC, though also critical of Israel, particularly its policies in dealing with Gaza, on a PBS Firing Line show in 2018, clearly and unequivocally stated that she supports a two-state solution. “I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution.” However, she also called the deaths of Gazans “a massacre” and added, “I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved from the mass shooting of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.”

She defended her position by sometimes arguing that she was not intimately familiar with the details of the conflict – it was not exactly at her kitchen table as she grew up – and that she approached the issue as a humanitarian activist rather than as a Middle East policy wonk. That, however, was not a sufficient justification for Israel supporters who criticized Hamas for continuing to lob mortars and send incendiary devices into Israel.

It would appear that AOC bought into the Al-Jazeera line that the July 2018 activities on the border of Gaza and Israel were simply protests about “the right of return” rather than deliberately organized challenges to current Israeli policies, especially with regard to Gaza. In another controversy, in June AOC called U.S. detention facilities on the Mexico-U.S. border “concentration camps.” She refused to withdraw the phrase in the face of an understandable backlash that rejected the equation of the border facilities, however horrific, with concentration camps.

The bottom line, the four congresswomen have varied views of Israel and are critical to different degrees. None of them is antisemitic nor even anti-Israel per se, even Tlaib, who supports a one-state solution. Leaders around the world have been correctly revolted by Trump’s racism and even for his demand that the four women “apologize to the people of Israel for saying the US internment facilities for illegal immigrants were like ‘concentration camps’.”

With the help of Alex Zisman

Pinchas: On Vigilante Justice

Pinchas’ vigilantism takes place at the end of the last parashah.

Numbers Chapter 25 

א  וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּשִּׁטִּים; וַיָּחֶל הָעָם, לִזְנוֹת אֶל-בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב. 1 And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab.
ב  וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם, לְזִבְחֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן; וַיֹּאכַל הָעָם, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶן. 2 And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.
ג  וַיִּצָּמֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר; וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. 3 And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.
ד  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, קַח אֶת-כָּל-רָאשֵׁי הָעָם, וְהוֹקַע אוֹתָם לַיהוָה, נֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ; וְיָשֹׁב חֲרוֹן אַף-יְהוָה, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. 4 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them up unto the LORD in face of the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.’
ה  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-שֹׁפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  הִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֲנָשָׁיו, הַנִּצְמָדִים לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר. 5 And Moses said unto the judges of Israel: ‘Slay ye every one his men that have joined themselves unto the Baal of Peor.’
ו  וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא, וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל-אֶחָיו אֶת-הַמִּדְיָנִית, לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה, וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. 6 And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.
ז  וַיַּרְא, פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר, בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן, הַכֹּהֵן; וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה, וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ. 7 And when Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand.
ח  וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-הַקֻּבָּה, וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה, מֵעַל, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 8 And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.
ט  וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה–אַרְבָּעָה וְעֶשְׂרִים, אָלֶף.  {פ} 9 And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand. {P}  

In this case, God seems to reward Pinchas for his vigilante action.

י  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 10 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
יא  פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי. 11 ‘Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy.
יב  לָכֵן, אֱמֹר:  הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם. 12 Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace;
יג  וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם–תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 13 and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’

Why would God reward a vigilante? And why give two rewards: God’s covenant of peace and the right of his descendants in perpetuity to be priests? A vigilante acts without legal authority. A vigilante justifies his actions because the law is non-existent, or exists but is not and/or cannot be enforced, or because whatever punishment is handed out is deemed to be insufficient, or because immediate justice is wanting and delayed. A vigilante often claims a higher authority – God or the will of the people – for authorizing his actions. The just authority is often self-perceived but, in this case, the text seems explicit that God viewed Pinchas’ action as carried on in defence of God’s jealousy because the Israelite princes were engaged in harlotry with Moabite women. God’s justification: Pinchas was jealous on behalf of his God and by his action, Pinchas atoned for the children of Israel and caused God to veer from his desire to wreak vengeance on the Israelites.

However, there are a number of puzzles that seem inexplicable, quite aside from Judaism somehow justifying vigilantism. The man killed was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of the Simeonites. The woman killed was Cozbi, a Midianite princess, the daughter of Zur, the “head of the people of a father’s house in Midian.” She was not a harlot. She was not referred to as a Moabite. Were the Midianites the same people as the Moabites? No.

If you recall from last week’s discussion of the previous portion, Balak, the King of the Moabites, addressed the Midianite princes to enlist them to support his recruitment to curse the Israelites. “So Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now this company will lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field’.” (22.4) Were both Moabites and Midianites punished because they conspired together to curse the Israelites?

There is a further puzzle. The Midianites were much closer kin to the Israelites than the Moabites. Moses had married a Midianite woman. Even more significantly, Pinchas’ mother was a Midianite. The Midianites were direct descendants of Abraham through Keturah. In contrast, the Moabites were descendants of one of the sons of Lot as a result of the incest with his daughter. One explanation and justification for the vigilante action: the Israelites were consorting with Moabite harlots and were being seduced to worship Baal of Peor. Or was it because Zimri, a Simeonite prince, was consorting with a Midianite princess, Cozbi, or because Pinchas was until then considered an outsider because his mother was a Midianite and he was suspect and/or he was ashamed of his ancestry. But Moses married a Midianite and his father-in-law was esteemed by both Moses and the Israelites.

It is very difficult to figure out what is going on. Just when the Israelite men are to be killed for both consorting with harlots and worshipping Baal of Peor, Pinchas murders both Zimri and his Midianite consort, by putting a lance through both their bodies, presumably while they were both engaged in loving one another. Why does this stop a plague that we never heard was underway? Why after a series of great victories were the Israelites even suffering from a plague? Was it because they were intimately involved with harlots as they celebrated their victories? This is certainly the line we are led to take when Moses blames the Midianite, not the Moabite women, for worshipping Baal of Peor (Numbers 31:1-18), leading to the destruction of all of the Midianites except the virgin women who were taken as spoils of war. Weird!

The problem of justifying vigilantism has become even more complicated by all the apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in the tale.  One answer is that of the new criticism which simply sees two different stories from two different sources mashed together by a compiler in an incoherent way. Those familiar with my practice of hermeneutics recognize that, though this may have been the case, I am more concerned with finding coherence in the synthesis. The rationale that the priestly sources had a political motive in turning on the Midianites and becoming xenophobes is insufficient to justify the monolithic control of the Aaronites over the priesthood. Pinchas was a grandson of Aaron.

Review a few elements of the two strands:

The Israelites had become apostates The Israelites were loyal to their God and had been rewarded with victories
The jarring introduction of the apostasy The subsequent return to the tale of the occupation of the Promised Land.
Moabite + Midianite responsibility The shift from Moabite to solely Midianite responsibility

There are a number of ways to explain the apparent inconsistencies and textual as well as moral issue of justifying vigilantism. I list some.

  1. The effort at synthesis was driven by the priestly heirs of Aaron to justify their exclusive control of the priesthood which was supposed to be for eternity, but the synthesis was a clumsy effort.
  2. Pinchas’ zealotry was used to mollify God’s zealotry since it was better to sacrifice the loves of two people, especially one like Zimri who is a “wild goat,’ than have God’s wrath visited on the Israelites as a whole.
  3. The text is an effort to justify zealotry in general, whether applied by 1 Maccabees to justify the Hasmonean actions and the rebellion (1 Maccabees 2:24-28) or by the current West Bank extreme right-wing settlers in Israel.
  4. In Josephus, the rationale is not about Jewish religious politics, or about preventive action in providing boundaries, nor a catharsis for God’s passion for religious vengeance, and certainly not to justify zealotry but to explain the events in terms of political-military necessity. In the Antiquities, Josephus blames the zealots as culpable for the destruction of Jerusalem by Flavius, his patron. For Pinchas was countering sedition and effective desertion by the warriors of the Israelite army, both because of their behaviour with the women and because of religious practices that would undercut their morale and discipline. Hence, in his account, the judicial framework is indeed set aside, but for the higher purpose of “reasons of state,” in this case, preserving the military ability of the Israeli army necessary for completing the conquest.
  5. To fit in with rabbinical belief in juridical processes versus vigilante action, the action was considered not to be a vigilante one exactly since the story is given a legal framework: a) God enjoins Moses to impale the ringleaders, a punishment meted out to criminals, thus defining the action of consorting with non-Israelites as a criminal act, and b) Moses summoned the judges to offer a verdict, so that Pinchas is not viewed as a vigilante but as an agent of the court.
  6. But there is no mention that the verdict of judges impelled the action of Pinchas. The murders seem clearly portrayed as impulsive, unilateral and precipitous, and extra judicial killing contravenes: a) the rules of evidence; b) the rule of judicial procedure; c) the norm that punitive legal actions be the result of deliberation; d) that the authority to mete out punishment be clearly indicated, especially in cases of capital crime which require witnesses to testify and not simply be present. However, in the version of rabbinic justification, in extreme cases, unilateral citizenship action is justified and this instance falls within that type of case. The exception proves the rule.
  7. This was a case of tit-for-tat vigilante action for it had been Simeon, along with Levi, who had wrecked vengeance on the adult males of Shechem for the rape of their sister, Dinah.

I want to offer a somewhat different explanation as well as condemnation for the vigilante action. Once, when I had only two children, I was walking with my eldest when he was about two years old. I was holding his hand. We came to the north-west corner of Spadina Avenue and Bloor Street and waited for the light to change. When it did, I stepped off the curb with my son on my left. Suddenly a car traveling south on Spadina did not stop, but turned the corner driving very fast. I stepped back and snatched my son out of the path of the car.

My two-year-old son was unhurt, but in my wrath, I lifted my leg and smashed in the back fender of the car in with my foot as it went by. The driver stopped, got out of his car and confronted me for causing serious damage to his car. However, when he saw me and detected my rage, he quickly got back into his car and drove off. I clearly was ready to kill him, but I did not have a spear in my hand.

If I had killed him, I would have been found guilty of manslaughter. I was, however, guilty of the material damage I caused, but I would have defended myself based on a natural impulse that was understandable even if unjustified and I might have gotten away with a token fine. I was saved from that result because of the fear I instilled in the driver with my fury.

I believe I can understand vigilante action motivated by passion rather than Josephus’ rationale of a deliberative action for military purposes or other efforts to justify what Pinchas did. But understanding does not excuse. And vigilante action is easily used for vicious purposes, as when the white racists in 1964 killed three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) trying to register Blacks to enable them to vote to counter. They were zealots for racism and white supremacy and the event is seared into my memory.

I can understand the actions of the racist murderers, but those murders were horrific and not even just deplorable. It does not matter what justification one offers. Due legal process demands the condemnation of vigilante action, no matter what the motive or whomever is the agent carrying out the task or whatever the rationale, whether because one is dissatisfied with current morality, defending a regressive creed, countering an injustice or because of the failure of legitimate authority to adequately deliver justice and good governance.

I am not sure what motivated Pinchas. Some explanations appear more powerful than others. However, not one of them can justify vigilantism. Attempts to do so merely undermine any motive to use the Torah as a moral guide. In any case, God revoked his promise of a priesthood in perpetuity for Pinchas and transferred the right of descent to the youngest son of Aaron.