Monday, February 12, 2007

Recipe for Survival: An American Brain and A Russian Heart

In 1976 the American Nazi Party requested the right to hold a parade in Skokie Illinois. Skokie was not just any town; several thousand concentration camp survivors had settled there after WWII. The Nazi march seemed to them to be a direct threat and a painful reminder of the slaughter of their loved ones and their own suffering and brush with death. When the Nazis went to court to challenge the denial, the ACLU went with them. I recall my grandfather making a remark at a family gathering that the Nazis should not be allowed to show their faces in public and that the ACLU lawyers should be disbarred for helping them.

I recall with a great deal of unease and shame how I, full of liberal sophistication, undertook to educate my grandfather on the fine points of the first amendment. My grandfather was not a holocaust survivor in the exact definition. He left Ukraine and came here to America thirty years before Hitler invaded Poland, but the memory of the Cossacks, the Tsar’s army, the Bolshevik police and the friends and relatives that stayed behind and were probably killed in his hometown of Zhitomer were always with him. He had, at sixteen years old, struck out alone, on foot, across the rolling hills of what is now Ukraine to become a citizen of a country he could only imagine. His dreams, his determination and his faith in the God of Abraham carried him. In one city on the way, he thought he remembered that it happened in Lublin, He remembered having witnessed a Cossack raid. He remembered hiding in a basement. At one point he looked out the high street level window just as a man’s head, severed by a saber blow rolled up and stopped right before his eyes. He was not a holocaust survivor but he was no stranger to the beast either.

I reflect on my hubris from my present vantage point and I see what a self-important ass I was; and I see that the scene I had played out with my Papa Joe was a perfect replica of the Skokie fracas in exquisite miniature. There I was, two generations and a secular, liberal college education removed from the man who saved the gene pool that had given me life and I was presuming to lecture him about what makes this country great.

I was, that night, very secure and smug in my knowledge that I was, as was the ACLU, standing up for the essential freedoms of speech, assembly and belief that are at the very core of our great country. I was, I felt, standing for the rule of law against (God forgive me for my hubris) a passionate but misguided and unsophisticated man who simply did not understand how sacred the principals we were discussing and how slippery the slope on which he was treading.

I remember my grandfather’s frustration as I persisted in explaining the rights of free speech and assembly. He was angry in a way that I had never imagined he could be. He called me an idiot and told me that I knew nothing. I remember too the regret I felt for getting the whole ugly thing started in the first place. Most of all, I remember knowing that, even though I could prove that I was right logically, that I was deeply and ignorantly wrong.

So too was the ACLU, very sure of its ground in presuming to compel the residents of Skokie to allow the American Nazi party come to their city and parade in front of them. It has taken me almost thirty years to comprehend how wrong we were and why.
Much of the transformation in my thinking has come about through my association with what, for lack of a more precise term, I will call the Russian Jews. This is not a very accurate term but it is what they call themselves and since the fact that a large number of them are not precisely Russian (just Russian speaking- from the former Soviet Union) and many of them have lived here in the U.S. for more than twenty years makes no difference to them, I don’t feel it ought to matter much to me either.

I am a Boston area Jew who grew up (I’m now 57 years old) in a prosperous suburb; but I also consider myself a Russian Jew. I find that politically and emotionally I have more in common with the Russian Jewish community than with most of the rest of the community I live in. I still live in the same city I grew up in and most of the Jews here in my safe little suburb have intentionally distanced themselves from the knowledge that most of our grandparents and great grandparents were also Eastern European Jews. Many of us are assimilated, liberal and vaguely embarrassed by those more recently arrived neighbors who speak in the patois of our grandparents and see the world and other people in a more Manichean way. Those homogenized liberal Jews irritate me- partly because they are trying so hard to be unassailably lovable and “truly” American and partly because they remind me of what an ass I was to my Russian grandfather that night so long ago.

Last week Jewish Odysseus left a comment on my blog . On his site I found a reference to a story entitled Tatiana Menaker: Russian Jews, American Jews, and Traifn Bleet. Here is a snippet of Tatiana’s piece:

I was raised and lived until the age of 20 in the dirty communal apartment in Leningrad where eight families fought for a place in the kitchen, waited in line for the only toilet, and where people were forced to live, deprived of any privacy, with disgusting strangers as with close relatives, and watched those strangers’ lives. It was the best life lesson I ever had.
A few of my girlfriends, who had the luxury of living in apartments of their own, never learned how low human beings could fall. They never saw husbands beating their wives’ heads against the tiled stoves and hot radiators, they never saw men having sex with their neighbors’ wives while husbands slept dead drunk, they never saw families where people were stealing from each other, informing on each other to the police and sending each other to prison, and 20 year olds drowning in bathtubs from too much vodka.
My delusional girlfriends expected people to be good to them and to each other as their own loving mothers and grandmas. They were as delusional about people as Mr. Ruby and majority of American Jews are delusional about Palestinians and Muslims. They never lived among barbarians and never dealt with their cruelty. Russian Jews did. And we know that barbarians respect nothing besides force and cruelty much worse than their own.
Read the rest here.

When I followed the link back to the source blog, I was surprised that it was written by a Russian Jew no more than five miles from where I sit typing this.

Among the comments posted under Tatiana’s story there runs common thread, an implied consensus, if you will, that Russian Jews see the world more clearly than the Assimilated American Jews that I grew up with. This is completely true. Assimilated American Jews have no true feeling for what savagery and hardship exist in the world outside America. This is not their fault- they have never felt the Breath of the Beast on their backs.

They are also incapable of facing the one true fact about being Jewish out side of Israel. They are emotionally unable to face the knowledge that as Jews it is always possible (however remotely) that even though today they are privileged Americans, one day there might come a time when the privilege will be swept away and they will find that their finely honed knowledge of America’s Civil Laws and culture is no protection against the cold hard reality that exists in most of the rest of the world. The most frightening and ominous phrase in the Torah comes near the beginning of Exodus “V’yakham melech hadash al Mitzrahim asher loh yodah et yosef” which means, “And there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph” Things can change as quickly as that. The current threat is the Islamofascist wish to institute a world-wide caliphate and Shari'a law in the thirties it was the German American Bund. It is always there.

Russians feel that knowledge in the core of their beings. No one who has not in some way suffered the way they did in their own lifetime can possibly understand this well enough to have the strength to face this awful truth. Most of us Assimilated American Jews subconsciously choose not see through the veneer of civil society to the chaos, cruelty and fear that can lie behind it. We may know its there but have a great emotional need to ignore it.

Among Assimilated American Jews it is only those of us who have had some combination of harsh life experiences, closeness with the Russian community, and, most of all, the rare first hand encounter with the The Beast who can see that it is more dangerous to remain ignorant and passive in the face of the threats than to face them and deal with them.

Back in 1976 when the ACLU and I had assumed the mantle of “protector of the constitution” and, each in our own way, committed ourselves to the single-minded dedication to the minute letter of the first amendment we were guilty of a “foolish consistency”. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines”. I would add over-educated prigs a group to which I hope I have tendered my resignation for good.
. Don’t misunderstand me, its not that I’ve in any way changed my mind about the essential sanctity of free speech. The distinction I have learned to draw may be subtle but it is also very important.

Here is the problem: I agree that the Nazis are entitled by our constitution to assemble and speak, but to require our government to countenance such activity with no way of protecting the welfare of other citizens is unconscionable. When we enforce the right of free speech without regard to the effect of that speech on others we are in danger of allowing the active harassment, sedition and defamation. The holocaust survivors are one example of a group of people that deserve to be protected.

The families of fallen soldiers whose funerals have been disrupted by anti-war demonstrations are another, more current one example. This wholly nasty and heartless tactic has been adopted by the anti-way movement, in which they seek out the funerals of soldiers who were killed in action and picket them with the express purpose of causing the maximum anguish to the grieving family. They apparently feel that this will amplify the media coverage they receive.

As laws have been passed specifically to prevent this kind of activity, the ACLU has risen on its haunches and filed lawsuits to limit the effectiveness of the laws. Here is part of a press release issued by the Eastern Missouri ACLU division about one of these suits.
“Free speech and the right to protest peacefully extend to all Americans, even if their messages are unpopular and distasteful,” said Brenda Jones, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “The government cannot pick and choose whose rights it is going to honor. Laws that restrict first amendment rights never harm only one group; they pave the way for restrictions on the right to dissent for all groups.”

These are the same noble sounding justifications I might have used in contradicting my grandfather so many years ago; but I am afraid I am not so willing to hold my nose in support of the rights of the criminally cruel and deranged. Let them have their rights to speech by why allow them seek out and persecute grieving families of young heroes? They can protest any where they want to- why not just keep them out of ear-shot and sight line of the bereaved.

But no, Brenda Jones feels she must lecture “the government” about picking and choosing.

Of course, when you are used to lecturing people, sometimes you’re just so busy waggling your finger and pontificating that you forget to apply the same standard to yourself. This past May an article By Steohanie Strom in the New York Times exposed a clear example of hypocrisy on this point by the ACLU. Here is a snip,

The American Civil Liberties Union is weighing new standards that would discourage its board members from publicly criticizing the organization's policies and internal administration.
"Where an individual director disagrees with a board position on matters of civil liberties policy, the director should refrain from publicly highlighting the fact of such disagreement," the committee that compiled the standards wrote in its proposals.
"Directors should remember that there is always a material prospect that public airing of the disagreement will affect the A.C.L.U. adversely in terms of public support and fund-raising," the proposals state.
Given the organization's longtime commitment to defending free speech, some former board members were shocked by the proposals.

Apparently, the ACLU, which is always demanding total transparency from all governmental branches, and major corporations, is not so convinced that transparency looks so good on them. Freedom of speech, you see, is still the most important thing in the world to them when it comes to encouraging the sadistic tormenting of families that just want to be left in peace to bury their dead. But if it interferes with “public support and fund-raising” for the ones who enable the heartless bastards- oh, well, that’s got to stopped.

The ACLU is terribly politically correct. They allow no exceptions to their rules, and their rules say that no one may be spared the responsibility of total free speech. They’ll sacrifice anyone’s dignity and peace of mind for their idea of the way things should be- anyone else’s that is. Just don’t ask them to pay that price themselves. As politically incorrect as they are, I don’t know a single Russian Jew who would support act that way. They have seen the face of the beast and to them it looks a lot like the ACLU.


M. Simon said...

With speech restrictions the problem always is: who decides?

Being a minority Jews must stand for unrestricted freedom of speech lest some new king arises who did not know Joseph.

If speech can be restricted how will Jews be able to complain?

I agreed with you in '76 about Freedom of Speech. I do not agree with you now.

BTW I am unreservedly an enemy of Islam. Not just the fascists. However, our best tool against them is to let them speak for themselves. The words of the Koran and the Hadiths condemn the lot.

Free speech for all.

Why? Here is where I agree again. Speech has consequences.

Yaacov Ben Moshe said...

Solomonia has honored this post with this post:

An American Brain and A Russian Heart
Breath of the Beast has a new one up. This one's a little more controversial. While I agree with the author in spirit, and don't generally think much of the ACLU these days, I'm not sure I agree with him completely in the example he cites, although I understand the spirit of what he's trying to convey. The piece is well worth a shufty, though.

This is a wonderful point and something I thought about very seriously in putting together this post. Sol's thought-provoking response made me think again and I posted this comment on Solomonia:

Thanks once again-
I know what you mean about not agreeing completely. I have that same reaction when I read what I wrote. I am reaching for something subtle here and I know I have not quite hit it. Maybe I am wrong but I think we have to have more faith in the system and each other in some ways. Just reiterate, t I am still 100% in favor of freedom of speech. I advanced the example that I did exactly because it strikes such a balance. The ACLU, in insisting that the government can't pick and choose, ignores the ancient exception of "advocating the violent overthrow of the government" and the newer "hate Speech" exception. If the Skokie march, intentionally targeting holocaust survivors, is not hate speech then I must have missed something important.
My point here is that any government could use either of those exceptions to outlaw almost anything. After all, neo-Nazis, anarchists and Communists, by definition are all advocating the overthrow of our system. What keeps that kind of thing in balance is not so much the activities of the ACLU (although they do serve a purpose in some cases) but the inherent checks and balances built into our system of government. The mutual contract shared by citizens of a free republic is more of a binding force than the law that underlies it. I think that the ACLU is tone deaf and so gets in the way of that process more than it helps.
Best Regards,

Jewish Odysseus said...

--"I am a Boston area Jew who grew up (I’m now 57 years old) in a prosperous suburb; but I also consider myself a Russian Jew. I find that politically and emotionally I have more in common with the Russian Jewish community than with most of the rest of the community I live in."

Are you my long-lost big brother?

YBM, I left Newton 19 years ago, first to Watertown, then to Florida. Funny thing, our next-door neighbors in W-town were a lovely Iranian couple (Heidi and David), very secular, never any problems, sweet kids, too. I thought of them, of course, when I read your groundbreaking essay on The Beast.

Do you ever read "Midstream" mag? I remember an essay there years ago by some guy from Russian background who made the point, if I may paraphrase: "We Russians respect strength more than anything. Ask anyone in my family which is more admired, my Uncle Yevgeny, the math profesor, or Uncle Yuri, the boxer--no contest! We admire Uncle Yuri, who singlehandedly knocked cold three thugs in a barfight!"

I recalled that article as I read your essay, and there is a lot of truth in it. As you pointed out, when we/they come to such a blessed place as America, we lose touch with that, shall I say, "DARWINIAN" sense or instinct that is elsewhere so necessary to the survival of a species.

Of course, this can't explain the bizarre goings-on in Israel since 1993, which just baffles me. Except that maybe that "species" is destined NOT to survive, as Darwin could have told us. It certainly isn't because they have no obvious and apparent and painful threats to their survival.

Menachem Begin must be spinning in his grave these days. :- (

Anonymous said...

Total freedom of speech requires something of the speaker, something that may be more and more absent to day, civility and an awareness of possible harm. The example often cited of yelling fire in a crowded theater comes to mind. This is true of all freedoms, the come with tremendous responsibility. If we foresake that responsibility, well will soon lose our freedoms as well.