The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion

The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion


Howard Adelman

Last week in Ottawa, I attended an interfaith conference called, “Our Whole Society: Religion and Citizenship at Canada’s 150th.” My talk, indeed the panel I was on, addressed the issue of immigration and refugees. A short report on my talk can be found in Peter Stockland’s article, “How Faith Fosters Civility,” in the magazine, Convivium, 19 May 2017: I will elaborate on the talk I gave in a subsequent blog.

There are five in this series:

  1. Underpinnings
  2. Undercutting and Reinforcing
  3. Democratic Deficit
  4. Political Communication
  5. Canada’s Civic Religion

In this blog, I want to deal with the presumptions underpinning my observations of Canada’s civic religion. If you are disinterested in philosophical grounding, skip this blog. In subsequent blogs in the series, I will point to the conclusions of various communication sciences to indicate why the values of Canada’s civic religion, as best articulated in interfaith dialogue, will not save Canada from the disaster afflicting America. Only then will I provide a more comprehensive articulation of the norms of that civic religion and offer a critique.

The term “civic religion” may seem inherently contradictory. After all, we live in the Western world where there is a strict separation of religion and the state. Civic, in the sense used here, refers to civic duties of citizens of a state. Thus, we have a moral duty to vote, not as an inherent belief of one’s religion, but as a member of a democratic polity. Civic duties are about this world. Religious duties are often conceived to be about the world to come or about the transcendental power of a divine being that manifests itself in different beliefs and practices and, indeed, worship. Reason is purportedly the language of politics; faith is the language of religion. That religion has values which are used to inform conduct in this world. However, it is precisely this separation of the religious and secular worlds that is in play.

Immanuel Kant wrote that his efforts were undertaken to define the boundaries of reason and of knowledge to make room for faith. But his perspective shifted over his period of intellectual development. After the peak of his intellectual output for which he is best known, his voluminous three Critiques, published between 1787 and 1790, propounded the view in the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason that, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Subsequently, his definition of limits to reason and knowledge to make room for faith began to make room for a more subversive position. He asserted that religion was and had to be rational and had to provide the foundations of our values. Religion permeated civil and political society to constitute the core values of a society. God emerged from this intellectual journey as immanent rather than transcendent. This series of blogs is an exploration of how this took place in Canada.

There are many reasons offered for this shift, including non-rational ones, such as his resentment against the Prussian Junkers under Frederick William II for attempting to censor his writings on religion – Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. There were also cultural influences – his initial pietism stressing biblical study and moral behaviour, but later rejection of the side of pietism that celebrated external religious displays. His inherited Enlightenment convictions concerning the rule of reason led first to his rejection of creationism, and later his rejection of the belief that religion, and even science as a pursuit rather than a method, could be founded on reason alone. He became convinced that a rationally-based religion was not possible; religion was a matter of non-rational faith and had to retreat to make room for the universal truths of Newtonian science as he pursued the goal of rooting science in reason alone independent of an omniscient and perfect divine being. Finally, there was also the influence of Hume’s scepticism that rooted both religious faith and even scientific pursuits on habits forged by history and culture.

How are the dimensions of reason and empiricism, as well as reason and faith, reconciled? As he articulated his doctrine in his triad of great books, the Critiques, the reconciliation lay in the necessary preconditions for both faith and reason, of both empirical (the premise of causation) and deductive methods. For all were rooted in the necessary conditions for any thinking as revealed in his unique transcendental method that allowed for faith outside but ethical behaviour within the bounds of reason. Scientific reason, moral behaviour and practical judgement, even as they relied on experiential input, were all based fundamentally on a priori premises that were universally valid and a precondition of any thought whatsoever.

What emerged was the development of an ethical religion. For an adherent, it did not matter whether one was a Jew or a Lutheran. Both could worship the same God in defence of the same set of values that were themselves as universal as any religious creed. Establishment Jews in large numbers in Germany – the Polanyi, the Stern, the Baum families, abut whom I have been writing – converted to Lutheranism to practice the common ethical moralism of German society, ignoring entirely the deep roots of antisemitism in the writings of Martin Luther, the founder of that church. Of course, conversion also was opportunistic since the formal rules often banned Jews from taking up professorships in universities at one time. Karl Polanyi would develop an ethical economics, Fritz Stern an ethical history of Germany, Gregory Baum an ethical sociology and theology. Kant had introduced a seismic revolution for both Christianity and Judaism to allow both to live on the surface in imperfect harmony.

The superficiality of that harmony was revealed by Hegel and was ripped asunder by Friedrich Nietzsche. Emil Fackenheim, in The Religious Dimensions of Hegel’s Thought, pointed out that Hegel’s central critique of Kant was that the latter had failed, and failed absolutely, to reconcile faith and reason. And not just in thought, but in political and religious institutions. Kant facilitated mindblindness. Revolutionary forces were underway and Kant provided a rationale that allowed a positive ethical external religion to provide a cover that left the dynamics of ecstasy and action as well as the enthusiastic creative energy of spirit behind. Life throbbed. Kant only offered lifeless thought.

Hegel showed that philosophy, rather than being divorced from history in abstract thought, was, and had to be, understood as thoroughly rooted in context. Time and space were not abstract dimensions of sensibility and thought, but the experiential realities from which even barren thought arose. History was about resolving incongruences, not just the abstract ones at the core of Kantianism. History was about desire and passion, about power and economic needs, and, in the end, about conflict between old, outmoded institutions and the demands (and shortcomings) of the new. Philosophy was historical, not ahistorical. Further, life and philosophy were inherently religious as will become clear by the end of this series of blogs. And the comprehending activity of religion had itself to be critiqued and comprehended. The absolute was with us in every age and time and we comprehend the divine and the shortcomings of our comprehension through the examination of the absolutes of our time.

All our gods, all our absolutes, have failed and must be resurrected anew for each period. Judaism, unlike the Christianity of Kant’s Prussia or the Weimar Republic over a century later, understood that all these gods were different aspects of the one God that revealed himself in history while Christianity was a repeated effort to flee that insight, to flee its basic foundation, in favour of Greek abstract and ahistorical thought and theology. In reality, God descends, becomes immanent and sacrifices Himself in different modes in different times. Those who dub this as a progressive transformation are blind to the destructive forces let loose by the process of transformation as we experience at each stage the death of god and are required to go through a period of suffering and sacrifice.

In Hegel’s time, and in our own almost universally, man has once again repeated the ultimate sin, the sin of idolatry, the sin of narcissism, the sin of regarding and worshipping himself as divine. The alternative to the vision of an omniscient and omnipotent god need not be worship of the self and the ability of the individual to engage in self-realization and self-transformation. The latter sin and that idolatry, as well as the cover up for it, must be observed in the particulars of our time and the thought in which and through which history is understood and reflected. What we must search for and uncover is the partiality of all thought. Every attempt to comprehend it all will be doomed to be shattered as much as we may have faith in its overarching vision. Spirit itself as revealed in time is always partial and explains why we can never see and confront the face of God head on.

At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel defended twelve theses at a formal Disputation to earn his right to offer university lectures. The problem of philosophy was not the search for eternal and infinite wisdom, but the effort to reconcile the vision of the perfect with the reality of the imperfect, insisting that Kant had become frozen in carrying through the radicalism of Hume’s scepticism and had carried rational philosophy to a dead end by finding an absolute in itself, and becoming uncritical of itself.

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the last section follows the section on Spirit with a portion on Religion, that discusses how we manifest our abstract religious beliefs and values in everyday life. Consciousness is institutionalized. And consciousness is merely the reflection of and reflection into human experience. Morality that is certain of itself becomes the distillation of that religious consciousness.

If Marx became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion in worship of the material realm, Nietzsche became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion to save spirit. Nietzsche’s enemy was Christianity, that element of and phase of Judaism that failed to recover from its exile in Babylon and return. Instead, Judaism turned inwards and became frightened. Nietzsche challenged the retreat into oneself in favour of the transvaluation of values, in favour of radical inversion of morality managed solely by the heroic individual. Instead, he opted to return to a form of paganism as he expressed in Ecce Homo, the need to develop a new breed of men, an elite, not one that led the workers of the world in revolt, but ones dedicated to taking humanity to a higher level. The premise, which challenged both the Judeo-Christian precepts and Kantian morality, was a denial, not simply as Hegel contended that humans were unequal in different ways at different times in their spiritual epic journey, but that salvation, as Marx insisted, depended on an avant-garde, an elite that led humanity into transforming itself fundamentally.

In Nietzsche’s view, Judaism once embraced this spirit of conquest, this consciousness of the necessity of power, both over others and to transform oneself, and the joy and hope to be found therein. But that spirit of self-transformation had been lost with rabbinic Judaism and its turn inward to legalism and with Christianity in the absolute submission of man in service of a divine Other. It was then that Jews sold themselves short and sold out to legalism and were sold out in turn and subsequently became the victims of persecution of those who rejected the rule of law in favour of suffering and sacrifice and the need of a scapegoat to escape that outcome for themselves. Diaspora Jews, who could and were in a position to save humanity and resurrect the life spirit according to Friedrich Nietzsche, largely cowered in fear and accommodated themselves to the dominating force of authority instead of expressing their historical dynamism by returning to nature, by returning to their roots in the land to once again become the strongest and toughest people on earth. Nietzsche did not live to see the rise of Zionism.

How were humans to accomplish this? Not by receding from history in service to the eternal and not by accommodating the dominant ethos of the status quo. Nor by expressing resentment concerning a disillusioned secular world, a world that had lost its sense of enchantment and awe to find deliverance either in the ecstatic escape of unreason or an escape into reason, individualism, self-making and self-overcoming.

Hitler declared, and Donald Trump now concurs, that, “The national government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. Christianity is the foundation of our national morality and the family the basis of national life.” Hitler and Trump offered a mystical brew of pseudo-religion and purported self-interest that would soon reveal itself as the interest of the few and the deception and seduction of the many. What we need to examine is how, following Hegel, the dialectic of history has come to be interpreted pragmatically in the form of a set of overriding Kantian values for our time, and how that set of values, while inspiring high moral accomplishments, also blinds us the weaknesses of our own position as we are appalled at the values that we see articulated by Hitler copycats.

In Hegel’s time, it meant that Protestant clergy remained hostile to the truly liberal state as well as to Jews who refused to convert. Today, it means that this clergy embraces the values of the liberal state as well as their Jewish brethren. They have thrown overboard the doctrine of supersession in favour of shared beliefs, not only with Judaism, but with all other faiths. Some commentators believe that Democrats believe that all American Democrats need to do is copy Canadians and articulate the core values of the American civic religion in terms of historical connections and metaphors that touch their constituents.

An examination, first of our underlying nature and of various sciences, especially those involving communication, will try to show why that will not work (tomorrow), while, in the final blog in this series, a critique of Canadian interfaith values will try to delineate the shortcomings in terms of the population they do not reach and the declining power and efficaciousness of the civic religion of Canada.


With the help of Alex Zisman


Denial – A Movie Review Part I

Denial – A Movie Review Part I


Howard Adelman

Last evening, I did not attend the community memorial to Shimon Peres. I intended to do so. But I went to an afternoon movie to see the film, Denial. Directed by Mick Jackson, using a script by the British playwright David Hare, the film was based, in turn, on a 2005 book called History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah E. Lipstadt. That volume recounted Lipstadt’s legal defence against three charges of libel allegedly contained in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust. The Growing Assault on History and Memory.

The suit was brought against her by David Irving, the so-called English military historian and Nazi sympathizer whom Lipstadt had described in her 1993 book as one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. In his statement of claim against Lipstadt (as well as the publisher, Penguin Books), Irving cited Lipstadt’s descriptions of Holocaust deniers as those who, “misstate, misquote, falsify statistics, and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources. They rely on books that directly contradict their arguments, quoting in a manner that completely distorts the authors’ objectives. Deniers count on the fact that the vast majority of readers will not have access to the documentation or make the effort to determine how they have falsified or misconstrued information” (p. 111)

On p. 161, Lipstadt cited other scholarly descriptions of David Irving, specifically. “Scholars have described Irving as a ‘Hitler partisan wearing blinkers’ and have accused him of distorting evidence and manipulating documents to serve his own purposes. He is best known for his thesis that Hitler did not know about the Final Solution, an idea that scholars have dismissed. The prominent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper depicted Irving as a man who ‘seizes on a small and dubious part particle of’ evidence using it to dismiss far-more-substantial evidence that may not support his thesis. His work has n described as ‘closer to theology or mythology than to history,’ and he has been accused of skewing documents and misrepresenting data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions, particularly those that exonerate Hitler. (Sunday Times, 12 July 1977)”

“An ardent admirer of the Nazi leader, Irving placed a self-portrait of Hitler over his desk, described his visit to Hitler’s mountaintop retreat as a spiritual experience, (Harris, 1986) and declared that Hitler repeatedly reached out to help the Jews. (Canadian Jewish News, 16 March 1989) In 1981 Irving, a self-described “moderate fascist,” established his own right-wing political party, founded on his belief that he was meant to be a future leader of Britain. (London Jewish Chronicle, 27 May 1983) He is an ultra-nationalist who believes that Britain has been on a steady path of decline accelerated by its misguided decision to launch a war against Nazi Germany. He has advocated that Rudolf Hess should have received the Nobel Prize for his efforts to try to stop war between Britain and Germany.10 On some level Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy.”

Canada played a role in the trial. I am not referring to the fact that Lipstadt, like Donald Trump, was born in Queens, but her father was Canadian, a possibly important element in the conflict between truth and lies. Lipstadt in her 1993 volume locates David Irving’s conversion into an outright Holocaust denier to his attendance at the trial of Ernst Zundel for hate speech where he testified for Zundel and, most importantly, was introduced to the Boston engineer of execution machines, Fred A. Leuchter, who had claimed that the chemicals used in the so-called gas chambers were intended to kill the lice on the corpses of Jews who had died from typhoid.

“In his foreward to his publication of the Leuchter Report, Irving wrote that there was no doubt as to Leuchter’s ‘integrity’ and ‘scrupulous methods.’ He made no mention of Leuchter’s lack of technical expertise or of the many holes that had been poked in his findings. Most important, Irving wrote, ‘Nobody likes to be swindled, still less where considerable sums of money are involved.’ Irving identified Israel as the swindler, claiming that West Germany had given it more than ninety billion deutsche marks in voluntary reparations, ‘essentially in atonement for the ‘gas chambers of Auschwitz.’ According to Irving the problem was that the latter was a myth that would ‘not die easily.’”

None of these quotes are cited in the movie that I can recall. However, the Leuchter argument introduced at the trial of Ernest Zundel in Toronto plays a crucial role in the movie, it is simplified and summarized when Lipstadt argues that the amount of cyanide needed to kill humans would be 20X the amount needed to kill lice. Further, as Tom Wilkinson in the role of Richard Rampton pointed out in court, why would one want to sanitize bodies that were to be burnt in a crematorium? And why would you build a shelter for Nazis 2.5 miles from their barracks?

After watching the movie, I lost my motivation to attend the homage to the late Shimon Peres, a man I admired greatly. I was in attendance at the Jerusalem auditorium when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on 20 November 1977 paid his historic visit to Israel and turned politics in the Middle East upside down forever. The visit, his talk and the subsequent negotiations led to the Camp David Accords and the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. In 1978, Sadat would justly win a Nobel peace prize for what he had set in motion. As he had said in his speech the previous day in the Knesset, “Let us put an end to wars, let us reshape life on the solid basis of equity and truth. And it is this call, which reflected the will of the Egyptian people, of the great majority of the Arab and Israeli peoples, and indeed of millions of men, women, and children around the world that you are today honoring. And these hundreds of millions will judge to what extent every responsible leader in the Middle East has responded to the hopes of mankind.”

On the stage of the Jerusalem Theatre the next day in addition to Anwar Sadat were Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Labour Party Chair, Shimon Peres. I was in Jerusalem that year as a Lady Davis Visiting Scholar at Hebrew University. The Jerusalem Theatre occasion was an opportunity to address the world press and I managed to get accredited as a journalist to get into the theatre. If you listened to the three speeches, they echoed much of what had been said the day before in the Knesset. I have not been able to locate their speeches given at the Jerusalem Theatre that day. But my recollection is very vivid – the day was so extraordinary for me.

Sadat’s speech was dramatic and very moving. The words I remember best came near the end: “Love justice and do right.” [I hope I remembered correctly and I cannot recall whether he went on to the echo the psalm and ask that right and justice be allowed to kiss.] In order for that to happen, you had to be straightforward and honest. Truth was not an end in itself, but a prerequisite to a just and peaceful world. I recall how Sadat’s speech exemplified those values.

Sadat did not try to hide the truth about the bitter enmity between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. It was not a manipulative speech, but one addressed to all Arabs and Jews as well as the rest of the people in the world to come together and win together, to win a peace instead of a war. It was also poetic as he addressed the sorrowing mothers, widows, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters for whom the ghosts of their loved ones fill the air like the raindrops in a London downpour. Use that memory, he urged, to fill your hearts with the aspiration for peace where hope transforms the world to create a new reality in which lives can blossom. For Sadat, an international agreement was not the prelude to peace, but the culmination of a radical change in attitude which requires a struggle against both the whim of indifference and egocentric personal ambition.

Sadat had chosen not to dwell on the past, not to rehearse the struggle for Arab independence from colonial rule and the perception that the Balfour Declaration and subsequent events were understood by Arabs as a continuation of colonialism that led to a history of warfare between the Arabs and Jews, between Israel and Egypt, But, while recognizing the need for Israel to be guaranteed the right to live in safety and security, he did challenge Israel to recognize the injustice to the Palestinians, to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to withdraw from East Jerusalem and to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination. He called on Israelis and Arabs together to make Jerusalem a free and open city for people of all faiths.

How did Begin and Peres respond to this prophet of peace? Like Sadat, Begin stressed a belief in right rather than might. However, in contrast, to Sadat’s speech, Begin focused on the past. He began with the Arab rejection of Israel’s offers to live in peace with her Arab neighbours from the very beginning of the founding of the state, only to receive the response of a military attack from three sides of the many against the few. He did not carry the history forward but went back to the history of Jews expelled from their land and sent into exile. Jews never forgot their land, even for a single day, but instead longed for and prayed for return. And they never forgot Jerusalem. But also never forgot the obligation of all religions to maintain and visit their holy sites, something that had not been allowed during the nineteen years of Arab control of the city. Then he dwelled on the Holocaust. For before Sadat addressed the Knesset the previous day, Begin had accompanied him to Yad Vashem. Never again! Israel had been built on the pledge, “Never again.”

Peres took a different course than either Sadat or Begin. Though he too believed in hope rather than cynicism, though he too knew that the past had to be recalled lest it be repeated, though he, like Begin, reiterated the commitment of all Israelis to peace, he stressed that a common past bound Arabs and Jews together and so would the aspirations for a great future, but Peres, ever the pragmatist, focused on the present. He began by recognizing Sadat’s courage in an Arab world hostile to Israel to travel to Israel and, specifically, to Jerusalem. He insisted that, in seeking peace and entering into negotiations, Israelis would accept this as a new beginning, a new start, where it would be necessary for Israelis to free themselves from pre-conceived notions.

On the other hand, Peres was brutally frank. He said that he disagreed, not with the aspirations for peace, but with much of the substance of Sadat’s opening position. But negotiations start with differences and only proceed if each party listens to the other and tries to forge a compromise. Sadat’s courage in coming to Jerusalem was proof that negotiations could now proceed on a new foundation so that with patience, a peace agreement might be forged. He then went on as a total realist, without circumlocution or deceit, to outline Israel’s opening position and then to list the actual steps that would have to be taken to achieve peace.

In the movie, Denial, the theme is not about how enemies can come together to forge peace, but how allies have to come together and make compromises in a peaceful way in order to expand the realm of peace and justice. That is where the dramatic tension is, not between the liar and falsifier versus those concerned with truth. In that case, there is no room for compromise, but one side must win.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Trump and Hitler: Part I

Donald Trump and Hitler: Part I


Howard Adelman

I was on the bus yesterday and sat down beside an older woman.  There was a much younger woman standing, holding onto the bar and talking with her. I wondered why the younger woman had not taken the empty seat beside the older woman. As I listened to their conversation, I guessed that the younger woman was the older woman’s social worker and they were talking about the older woman having to move from her apartment and find a new one.  The older woman said she was anxious about moving. The younger woman assured her that there were economical one-bedroom apartments that she could find, such as in the low rise building we were passing near Tichester Road in Toronto. “Don’t be afraid,” assured the younger woman. “I’m not really afraid of moving. Just a bit worried,” the older woman answered. Then, out of the blue, she said, “What really frightens me is that man, Donald Trump. He sounds like Hitler.”

The “social worker” went on to assure the older woman that Donald Trump was not likely to get elected. The older woman did not seem to have any expertise on American politics, yet, as a Canadian, she was frightened of Donald Trump and thought he was like Hitler. I sat there dumbfounded until I got to my stop a few blocks after. Was this serendipity? That is what I planned to write about this morning, confirmed after watching Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton last night in a town hall discussion in Columbus, Ohio, hearing Donald Trump threaten to send his supporters to break up Bernie Sander’s rallies in retaliation for Sanders allegedly sending his supporters to disrupt his own rallies. Bernie Sanders, when asked about it, simply said that he did not send his supporters for any such thing, would not encourage anyone to disrupt a campaign meeting, but strongly defended the right of peaceful protest. He then curtly stated that Donald Trump was a pathological liar.

I then turned stations to a CBC special (it might have been a replay) hosted by Bob McKeown on Donald Trump on “The Fifth Estate” called, “The Fire Breather: The Rise and Rage of Donald Trump,” which pictured Donald Trump launching “vitriolic attacks on minorities, Muslims, women and pretty much anyone else” while his popularity kept climbing and Trump now seemed likely to win the Republican nomination. McKeown said that this American election was perhaps the most divisive in American history and the cause was Donald Trump. Last evening, Trump was portrayed as a proto-Nazi on Canadian Sunday evening national television. Only three weeks earlier, CBC’s Passionate Eye aired a special called, “The Mad World of Donald Trump” that introduced Canadian audiences to the leading contender for the Republican Party presidential nominee as a serial divorcee and multiple bankrupt, a vulgar and insulting man who targeted women and minorities as well as Scots who stood in the way of his plans for a golf course. No wonder Donald Trump hated the media.

Yesterday in The Tablet I read a piece that presented the daily low-lights of Donald Trump’s attempts to use the dark forces of bigotry to become President of the United States. Over and over again I saw on one news program after another a video clip of an older Donald Trump supporter, 78-year old John McGraw of Linden, North Carolina, sucker punching a protester (Rakeem Jones) as he was being escorted out of the stadium and then the security guards wrestling, not the guy who delivered the sucker punch, but the protester to the ground, cuffing him and carrying him off under arrest. Then Donald Trump rationalized that violence and offered to pay his supporter’s legal bills while claiming he, Donald Trump, was a man of peace who deplored violence, but who also portrayed peaceful protesters as disrupters and in frequent excerpts from his speeches threatened protesters with violence. As the writer in The Tablet opined, “We are a country that actually does have pseudo-Fascists and violent racists, black shirts and brown shirts, on the very far fringes of right-wing American politics. We do have persistent skinheads and neo-Nazis and Klansmen. That persistent fringe variety of American monster, though, has never before been attached to and attracted to a front-running major party presidential campaign the way they are to Donald Trump.”

Look at the following portrait of Donald Trump.

I watch the head of this Las Vegas croupier, this kitschy carnival performer, coiffed and botoxed, drifting from one television camera to another with his fleshy mouth perpetually half-open: you never know whether those exposed teeth are signs of having drunk or eaten too much, or whether they might indicate that he means to eat you next. I listen to his swearing, his vulgar rhetoric, his pathetic hatred of women, whom he describes, depending on his mood, as bitches, pigs, or disgusting animals. I hear his smutty jokes in which the careful language of politics has been pushed aside in favor of supposedly authentic popular speech at its most elemental – the language, apparently, of the genitals. ISIS? We’re not going to make war against it, we’re going to “kick its ass.” Marco Rubio’s remark about Trump’s small hands? The rest is not so small, “I guarantee you.” Then there is the worship of money and the contempt for others that accompanies it. In the mouth of this serially bankrupt billionaire and con artist with possible mafia ties, they have become the bottom line of the American creed – so much mental junk food full of fatty thoughts, overwhelming the lighter cosmopolitan flavors of the myriad traditions that have formed the great American pastoral. In the sequence about small hands, even an ear untuned to the subtleties of that pastoral might have caught (though in a version perverted by the abjectly low level of the exchange) the famous line from e.e. cummings, the American Apollinaire: “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”

Last week Sarah Silverman, that marvellous American comedienne, joined the chorus with a Trump-Hitler comparison on TBS “Conan.” Dressed as the German Fűhrer and criticizing those who compared the vulgar Trump to himself, Silverman-as-Hitler said, “Don’t get me wrong, Conan, I agree with a lot he says. A lot, like 90% of what he says, I’m like, ‘This guy gets it,’ but I just don’t like the way he says it. It’s crass, you know?”

Is America inheriting a type of leadership that scarred the Italian political landscape with the presidency of Silvio Berlusconi, that supports the very popular Vladimir Putin in Russia, a leader so admired for his strength by Trump? That shift in the international political landscape has seen one anti-immigration party after another increase in the polls and recently get elected in two Länder in Germany. I could not forget this as I watched a video clip that had gone viral of Trump supporters telling journalists to “go to Auschwitz,” of the Trump campaign manager physically shoving a journalist to the ground presumably for asking Trump a question he did not like.

But I also listened to two voters from Florida who seemed to be Jewish expressing disbelief at all the calumnies aimed at Donald Trump. This past weekend, I read Rabbi Dov Fischer’s refutation of the portrayal of Trump as a Hitler as he accused Israel of having a totally corrupt Supreme Court run put in place by an unelected elite as he reminded Israeli readers that David Ben Gurion had called Ze’ev Japotinsky “Vladimir Hitler.” In his op-ed for Arutz Sheva, he wrote, and I quote at length:

Trump is hard to decipher, and he likes it that way.  His book, “The Art of the Deal,” is his guide to life. His successes in building gambling casinos and hotels have been offset by an occasional business bankruptcy.  His opponents point to those corporate bankruptcies as a bad sign, but I like it.  Seriously, a guy who can walk away from his debts, again and again, can walk away from Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and from Obama’s other delirious “executive actions” that have damaged America in a variety of ways ranging from health care to border control to energy independence to America’s role in the world.  Trump is impossible to gauge because, as the consummate dealer, he never shows his hand, and neither friend nor foe can guess his bottom line on anything — what is bluff and what is real.

The leftist media portray Trump as a perilous tyrant. They portray him as Hitler and Mussolini.  It all is nonsense and ridiculous.  It is like the way they portrayed Jabo as Mussolini and as Vladimir Hitler, and Begin as Hitler attempting a putsch.  It is even more ridiculous than that.  As one example among many, Trump was concerned that, although his political rallies sometimes attract 20,000 people, not all of his supporters translate their enthusiasm by actually going to vote.  So, as a joke at one rally, with his crowd in a laughing mood, he kiddingly asked everyone to raise their right hand and to “solemnly promise” to go and actually vote on election day.  In America, when someone “solemnly promises,” he does so while raising his right hand.  That is how they do it in court, in the movies, on TV, even on an old television commercial for “Promise Margarine” (a butter substitute).  So everyone, giggling, raised their right hands and made a “solemn promise” to actually vote on election day.  The very next morning, the leftist media showed the 20,000 people with raised hands and compared them to Hitler salutes at mass Nazi rallies.  Just the most dishonest, idiotic media lie imaginable.

In another situation, Trump was asked whether he would disavow the support of David Duke, a racist hater who is associated with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a now-small but once-powerful viciously racist group that used to lynch and hang Black people and that wanted to expel Jews from America.  Trump disavowed him on a Friday.  Trump then was asked again two days later, and he misunderstood what he was being asked, so he hesitated at the interview to disavow. Later that day, he disavowed the hater again.  But meantime, the leftist media was packed with reports that Trump had hesitated, in between, to disavow Duke. So the suggestion was that Trump is a racist who hates Blacks and Jews like the KKK. Again — utter leftist-media nonsense.

Indeed, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, plays an enormous and even central role in his life, running many of his businesses, speaking for him — and she is a Giyoret Tzedek, a shomeret Shabbat convert to Judaism.  He adores Ivanka. She and her husband are “Modern Orthodox” of the kind associated with our kind of Religious Zionism. So, again — a bald media lie.

Trump nevertheless does pose a concern for avid supporters of Israel.  Despite his lifelong record of supporting Israel with enormous charitable gifts and investments, real friendship with Bibi, and great connections in the pro-Israel community, Trump repeatedly declares that he is intensely pro-Israel but will be “neutral” in any Mideast deal-making.  We just do not know what he means, what he is up to.  Again, Trump is a deal-maker.  His philosophy is that, if he comes out publicly as too pro-Israel, in the way that Cruz and Rubio do, then the Arabs never will sit with him as an honest broker (just as sensible Israelis never would trust Obama to be a negotiating intermediary with Abbas).  So Trump wants to keep his door open to the Arabs.  But how “neutral” would he be? No one can know because he is impossible to gauge.

It would seem surprising if Trump ever would contemplate imposing a deal on Israel the way that a Bush or Carter or Bill Clinton did.  More probably, a Bibi would explain what’s-what, and Trump would understand what’s-what, and he would propose some kind of reasonable idea that the Arabs never would accept.  And then Trump would walk away from it.  The main concern and danger with Trump is that, if Israel eventually elects an idiot from the Labor Left as Prime Minister, then Trump understandably would feel he should not be more pro-Israel than an Israeli Prime Minister offering to concede the farm.

Trump’s “gut” is that he does not trust radical Islam and recoils from the inexplicable hatred that many Islamists feel towards America.  He associates with and is endorsed by the kinds of evangelical Christians who are Israel’s best friends in America, and he is overwhelmed by Islamist hostility against Christianity and America.  By contrast, he has had wonderful relations with Jews all his life.  He trusts Jews in his highest places — and not the kinds of self-haters who leech onto Democrats — and, again, there is his daughter.

In summary:  Cruz would be an amazing President for America at home and abroad, and Israel would finally get a breather with such a profound friend in the White House.  But if Cruz falls to Trump in the GOP primaries, as seems more likely than not, odds are that Trump nevertheless would be the best American President for Israel since Nixon re-supplied the IDF in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War.  For those of us who remember Ronald Reagan warmly, we also remember that he was a mixed bag for Israel, condemning Israel’s conduct of Milchemet Shalom HaGalil in 1982, condemning Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, and even proposing a peace agreement that Menachem Begin publicly tore up in the Knesset. All the others have been worse.

American Presidents are elected to serve and protect America’s interests, not Israel’s.  It is not our way to put our faith in princes but in G-d, the True Guardian of Israel.  If Rubio gets knocked out by failing to win his home state in the March 15 GOP Florida primary on Tuesday, and if Cruz cannot overcome Trump’s current commanding lead as more than half of the fifty American states already have selected their GOP party-convention delegates, then Trump will leave much to be desired.  Nevertheless, sad to say, he still probably would be the best American President for Israel in nearly half a century.  Not saying much, but it is what it is.

And the alternative would be Clinton, whether she would be serving from the White House or serving time in the Big House.  That alternate choice makes Trump even more desirable.

I had also read Rabbi Elli Fischer. (He lives in Modiin, Israel, while Dov Fischer lives in Orange County, but they could be related.) In Elli his apologetics for Trump, Elli Fischer also recalled the epithet “Hitler’ being thrust by David Ben Gurion at his opponent, Ze’ev Japotinsky, back in 1932. For The Times of Israel, he wrote the following:

On October 3, 1932, Jabotinsky published an article in his Russian-language Revisionist organ Rassvet, in which he called the Histadrut a “malignant growth” and accused it of using totalitarian tactics to maintain its monopoly over the Jewish labor market and impoverish political opponents of socialist Zionism. Leaving little to the imagination, Jabotinsky titled his article “The Red Swastika.” A month later (“Yes, Break It!,” Haynt, November 4), Jabotinsky continued his polemic by calling on workers to cross picket lines and thereby break up the Histadrut. Against the claim that class solidarity is fundamental to democracy, he argued that Jewish national solidarity must trump class solidarity in Mandatory Palestine. To illustrate the limits of democracy, he invoked Hitler: “Must we Jews, democratic, liberal, progressive Jews, support the principle of university autonomy? Or, in accordance with the principles of democratic law, if Hitler wins a plurality in the upcoming German elections, must he be invited to assemble a government? If yes, must we Jews then demand that he be made ruler? Not to be outdone, Ben-Gurion… called Jabotinsky “Il Duce” repeatedly. Ben-Gurion also compared Revisionism to Hitler’s movement in no uncertain terms… The ideological and political debates did not slow down, and the following year Ben-Gurion famously called Jabotinsky “Vladimir Hitler.” This may be one of the first instances of a public debate that devolved into each side comparing the other to Hitler and/or Nazis. These two great Zionist leaders were comparing each other to Hitler even before his rise to power in 1933. Presciently, he had become a byword among the Jews long before the rest of the world understood what he was.


Tomorrow: Part II – Is Donald Trump Akin to Hitler?



With the help of Alex Zisman – to be continued

Haunted by Humans: The Book Thief

Haunted by Humans: The Book Thief


Howard Adelman

Last night, we saw Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, the delightful elegant comic book movie with more extravagant action scenes than a Batman, Superman or 007 movie. It is chock full of deadpan sight gags and visual delights. Nothing more needs to be said. Enjoy yourself.

Some movies provide a different sort of delight and pleasure even when set against the background of the Nazis and the Holocaust. I did not see The Book Thief when it first came out in theatres. We had been intrigued by the preview, but we were deterred by the reviews so the movie somehow dropped to the bottom of our priority list. Basically, the movie is an adaptation of a coming-of-age very popular and excellent novel by Marcus Zusak about a girl in Nazi Germany from 1938, three month after I was born, until the end of the war, with a postscript about her death of old age in her Upper West Manhattan apartment after having lived a wonderful and fulfilling life.

Two days ago we watched it on Netflix. We were delighted. So I wanted to see what in the reviews had turned us off. Most reviews repeated the story line and served as spoilers. Almost all the reviews applauded the acting, especially the French-Canadian actress, Sophie Nélisse, in the starring role of Liesel Meminger. The excellent cast included the kind Geoffrey Rush and the outwardly hard-hearted Emily Watson as Liesel’s foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann — named as a true understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche’s űbermann, one who does not give into the sentimental demands of mob morality but overcomes oneself and one’s inner fears to evince a higher level of values. Reviewers also heaped enormous praise on the score written by John Williams that was deservedly nominated for an Oscar, but one critic used its quality to further undercut the movie – John Williams’ score, “a quieter, more somber echo of his music for ‘Schindler’s List’ — lends the film an unearned patina of solemnity, for ‘The Book Thief’ is a shameless piece of Oscar-seeking Holocaust kitsch.”

That theme ran through almost of all of the reviews. While acknowledging that the movie was faithful to the novel, the movie was considered soppy, contrived and sentimental and the Director, Brian Percival (of Downton Abbey fame), was generally judged as having reinforced and even over-emphasized that propensity of the original work of fiction on which the film was based. Review aggregations were generally bad, ranking the movie below 50% approval – Rotten Tomatoes 46%. Metacritic gave it a 53 rating, that is a so-so movie.

“The years-spanning film, which observes traumatic historical events through Liesel’s eyes, looks and tastes like a giant sugar cake whose saccharinity largely camouflages the horrors of the war…Except for the Nazi flags hanging from every building, the town, under a glistening blanket of snow, could be the cozy setting for a holiday greeting card. The pieces of the story, which begins in 1938, are so neatly arranged that the movie has the narrative flow and comforting familiarity of a beloved fairy tale.”

“Brian Percival’s adaptation retains much of Zusak’s hefty source material (including that narrator), but the chill is replaced by a chocolate box prettiness, making it cousin to those respectable lit adaptations Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Reader. And Percival’s own episodes of Downton Abbey.”

“Bringing this qualified idealism to crooked-grinned, bittersweet life is Rush’s Hans, a man quietly outcast by acquaintances for not joining the Party and whose remorse at an act of quick, but dangerous heroism captures ever-present fear in a fascist state. But, while an accessible entry point to WW2 for younger viewers and never less than watchable for adult audiences, this is ultimately too Oscar showreel polished for its own good.”

“The use of Death as the narrator, and the artfully dream-like set – which looks almost as if it has fluttered out of the pages of an illustration – lend an artistic gloss to the horrors of Nazi repression…I felt manipulated. One can understand why storytellers and filmmakers are drawn to Nazi Germany: its choices were so stark, and the price of courage so great, that it arrives already freighted with emotion. Still, I came away from The Book Thief with the uneasy sense that history had been subjected to a wealth of sentimental fictional tweaking, a kind of self-indulgent wallowing in the human drama of the era without a profound understanding of its reality. And that, combined with the detailed croonings of an imaginary Death about how he garnered the souls of the dying, began to make me feel a little queasy.”

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote that the movie looked like “a creepy new version of the Anne Frank story”. Brian Viner headlined his review: “It’s Downton with Nazis: Lightweight and glossy, you can tell this war film is made by an ex-director of ITV’s hit costume drama.”

“The Book Thief will undoubtedly have its admirers and, indeed, has one in my 15-year-old god-daughter Lydia, who pronounces it one of the best films she’s ever seen. That might be significant, for the book has been categorised as young-adult fiction, and that’s probably how the film should be marketed, too.”

Even a favourite reviewer, David Denby, wrote, “Markus Zusak’s enormously successful young-adult novel seems to have been adapted as a movie for middle-aged children. The brute facts of the Second World War in Germany—Nazi oppression, hunger, people hiding in basements—have been turned into a pleasantly meaningless tale of good-heartedness, complete with soft lyrical touches and a whimsical appearance, as a narrator, by Death, who should have laid this movie to rest.”

If you happened to read one or two of these reviews, would you have seen the movie? The exceptional critic who praised the movie was not much help either.

“And now for my first fight with my fiancée Debbie Ross. She did not like the film The Book Thief. She thought it too photogenic. I thought it the best film of the year by far… The trouble with critics nowadays is that they know about life under German occupation from Hollywood. I know about it first-hand, over the course of three long years. Most German officers acted impeccably, as did simple soldiers…the great majority were civilised and acted within the rules…The Red Army raped close to three million German women, the German army in occupied Europe raped nearly zero. Go see The Book Thief.”

Such reviews, even though they praise the film, are terrible because they too think that the movie is about a realistic depiction of Nazi Germany when it is clearly and unequivocally a modern fairy tale told within a realistic format. After all, the narrator, Roger Allam in a deliberate British accent, is DEATH. We are told that many times throughout the movie that we are not dealing with realism. The Grimm Reaper would not begin the film addressing us if it were. The fairy tale setting and characterization are intrinsic to the poles necessary to depict the contrast between the horrors of Hitler’s regime and the delightful empathy of the main characters.

Reviewers of the book got it. John Green, when he reviewed Zusak’s novel back in 2006 in The New York Times called it brilliant, beginning with Death and fear of death and loss of the other that is central to the invocation of empathy and sentiment. Why did the vast majority of film critics fail to understand at least what was being tried even if they still might disagree on whether it succeeded?

I believe it did succeed and did so exceptionally well. First of all, the Grimm Reaper is not grim at all. He does not come from the riches of a Grimm fairy tale. However, he exudes the same indifference to the living as the Grimm Reaper in the Grimm story, “Godfather Death”. But when the Grimm Reaper lets his feelings undermine him when he has a godson who grows up to be a physician whom he rewards with the ability to both prophecy and prevent death by using herbs, and that son betrays him, he eventually, overcomes his feelings for his own godson and extinguishes his life. Death, however, in this movie is British rather than German. He is dressed in a long frock coat and a bowler hat when we glimpse him from the rear near the end of the movie. The foster daughter does not die but leads a long and successful life even though everyone she loved, but Max, the Jew hidden in the basement by her foster parents, does die.

It is no surprise that the first book which she found on top of her young brother’s grave, and from which she first learned to read with the help of Hans, is called, The Gravedigger’s Handbook. It is no surprise that the book she returns to read over and over again, and one which she reads to Max in the basement, is H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man, written from a third-person perspective rather than the first-person point of view of The Time Machine or The Island of Doctor Moreau. For The Invisible Man as a science fiction novel anticipated how stealth aircraft could be unseen by radar by playing with refractive qualities of radar instead of light to make an object invisible. Somehow, the film worked too well and made the film as seen and felt invisible and deaf to most reviewers.

There are two invisible men in The Book Thief, Hitler, who is omnipresent seen only through flags with Nazi swastikas, and Max who is hidden in the cellar under a swastika flag when the Gestapo search the cellar. He can be seen only by Liesel, Hans and Rosa. Like Well’s science fiction novel and virtually all of Grimm’s fairy tales, this story takes place in a small town, though in The Invisible Man, it is a British town and, in that story, the man responsible for the invisibility, Griffin, is captured, beaten and killed by a British mob, whereas in this German town, the citizenry sing Deutschland Über Alles, burn books after Kristallnacht and watch as Nazi thugs bash in the windows of Jewish shops and assault the Jewish owners.

However, I do not think the film reviewers miss the genre of the film simply because they are caught up in the performances, the visuals and the sound track and ignore the literary references and symbolism, even when the film (and the novel) has an ironic title like The Book Thief, though not one reviewer I read who felt quite comfortable with retelling the whole story and serving up spoilers, ever made mention of any of the literary references. I think they just do not understand the difference between sentimentality and sentiment. Contrary to their erroneous judgments, the movie is totally unsentimental while its main theme is a celebration of sentiment which even the Grimm Reaper cannot prevent himself from being touched by. For it is that quality of humanity that haunts him. The inversion of Death haunted by life seems also to have escaped every reviewer that I read.

The philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment – including Francis Hutcheson, Lord Shaftesbury, David Hume and Adam Smith, yes the same Adam Smith whom the cold-hearted neo-liberals cite as their guru – saw sentiment as the key to understanding morality. Sentiment is NOT sentimentality. Whatever the original connection of the two terms, sentimentality now means an appeal to shallow emotions at the expense of reason and disproportionate to the occasion. Sentimentality means playing on one’s heart strings to turn one’s heart into mush instead of a centre for acute discrimination. The pat pathos awakened and feeding on itself rather than the Other is naive and usually excessive, a contrived product of artificial stimulation rather than a natural impulse.

In contrast, sentiment is the foundation of morality rooted in a universal human empathy and concern for others indifferent to self interest. It is benevolence or kindness. Unlike reason, sentiment motivates action, but, to avoid naiveté, requires reason as a complement to assent to, explicate and order those moral decisions within a matrix of understanding built on justice that enables different circumstances and relationships to be comprehended within a system. Sentimentality dispenses with reason. Sentiment requires reason to validate its intuitive sense.

After Death introduces the fairy tale, when Liesel arrives in the little town and Heaven Street where Hans and Rosa Hubermann live, Hans first greets his new foster daughter as a princess rather than a foundling as in a standard Dickens novel, and addresses her as, “Your majesty”. His wife turns out to be a real momma and not the pretend mean stepmother of a Grimm tale as she at first displays. For this is a British fairy tale told by Death with a British accent and not the Grimm fairy tales that Hitler praised as portraying children with sound racial instincts seeking racially pure marriage partners in the spirit of a sentimentalized romantic nationalism even though the Grimm brothers satirized such sentiments as in the story of Hans and his fiancée Gretel who gives a gift to her each day by mindlessly following the instructions of his mother from the day before and each time destroying that gift. “That’s how Hans lost his bride” tells the story with the moral that he failed because he was dis-engaged – like Godfather Death.

Liesel, like Zusak’s previous protagonists, is a fighter who at the very beginning beats up the town’s young bully who mocks her for illiteracy, but she soon learns to fight back with more than her fists through the magic of words and learning to read. And she reads and re-reads The Invisible Man to the Jewish fighter (unless I missed it, the film for some reason leaves out the important reference that Max was a boxer) and insists that he, like everyone else in her life, must not disappear. And true to his word and the magic of the word and her diary that she wrote on the painted-over pages of Mein Kampf that Max made for her, Max returns and he too defeats death, the same death that visits her best friend, the lemon-haired archetypal Aryan, Rudy Steiner, acted with impeccable youthful intelligence by Nico Liersch. Rudy loves Liesel but he too is a worshipper, but unlike the Nazis who select him for an elite corps, he worships the black fastest man in the world, the runner, Jesse Owens. Liesel and Rudy both hate bullies, especially Hitler.

Do movie reviewers ignore the script and therefore miss the allusions? Max Petroni’s screenplay was not flawless, but clearly some key scenes that would have helped viewers understand the message were either elided or left on the cutting room floor. One is Max’s dream sequence in which he boxes endlessly with the Führer for whom he is just a punching bag until he lands one punch and knocks Hitler down. Hitler, in defeat, heartlessly whips the crowd into a furious mob with his evocative words so that the “fists of an entire nation” can be used to attack Max and beat him to a pulp. However, through Liesel, Death learned what it meant to have a heart and Death has been haunted by humanity ever since.