Thursday, March 14, 2024

In This Moment: Schumer, Wiesel and the Zone of Indifference


In This Moment

On Friday evening I'll discuss the landmark essay by Franklin Foer,

"The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending."

Click to read the article from The Atlantic

(and click here to read an interview in Ha'aretz)

Schumer, Wiesel and the "Zone Of Indifference"

Shabbat Shalom!

Three items for your to-do list for this weekend:

1) Watch Chuck Schumer's speech on the Senate floor, where he went where no one of his stature has ever gone before in calling for a change in Israeli leadership. See the full text and summary of main points here. Read it all. It's a well-considered, realistic (really) roadmap to get us from an intolerable present to a potentially promising future.

2) Watch the Oscar winning Holocaust film, "Zone of Interest," not with an eye toward what director Jonathan Glazer said (no, he did not refute his Jewishness) about the dehumanizing corrosiveness of Israel's occupation, but rather toward what Steven Spielberg said in calling it "the best Holocaust movie I've witnessed since my own... especially about the banality of evil."

3) Elie Wiesel's White House speech from 1999, "The Perils of Indifference."

It was instructive for me to watch all three, back to back to back.

What Schumer did was so unprecedented - in some ways courageous and in some ways way past due - that it can be best understood as a response to the very form of indifference to suffering that "Zone of Interest" exposes: A family living an idyllic existence in the shadows of hell, yet showing no interest, despite being completely aware of what was going on. This film made me squirm, in its own way more shocking than raw footage of the crimes themselves. To see the crematoria and gas chambers being sanitized by cleaning crews was the perfect way to demonstrate how the disinfectant numbing the conscience was just as potent as the "disinfectant" used to kill the victims.

While analogies linking the Holocaust to Israel's attacks on Gaza are unfounded and abhorrent, for reasons I discussed in my prior email, when the focus is placed not on that specific analogy but on the film's message of indifference to suffering, we can hear a compelling summons - a cry as distinct as those muffled cries heard in the background of nearly every scene of the film.

Schumer understood that no degree of suffering gives anyone license to stand idly by while others suffer. He acknowledged the "pure and premeditated evil" that occurred on October 7. Playing on the Hebrew meaning of his last name, he called himself a "Shomer Yisrael," a guardian of Israel and claimed to speak for the majority of American Jews, and I think he does. American Jews cannot stand idly by when innocent people suffer. Especially when it is on our (American and Jewish) watch.

In the film, the only one who is moved by the cries and barks on the other side of the wall is the family dog. Other non human principals also seem to engage: birds, flowers, the commandant's trusty (and beloved) horse, the sky, with blue skies mingling with constant plumes of smoke, the water, polluted with human remains. The earth cries out with the blood of Abel. But the people are indifferent to the suffering. They go about living their lives as if nothing is happening next door. In fact, they love their lives so much they don't want to leave. Free slave labor, confiscated clothing and jewelry from former neighbors sent to the ovens. The Nazi leader doesn't feel a pang of conscience as he designs more efficient crematoria as the camp prepares to systematically destroy their next victims, Hungarian Jewry.

This generation of American Jews has been brought up on the ethic of Elie Wiesel, who, more than anyone else, defined and formulated our post-Holocaust worldview (with people like Heschel, Buber and Mordecai Kaplan duking it out for second). And for Wiesel, the first commandment was always "Thou shalt not be indifferent!"

He repeated that dictum at the White House before multiple presidents - including Reagan before his trip to Bitburg and President Clinton in the video above. See transcript here.

Here is an excerpt from this classic speech, "The Perils of Indifference."

Rooted in our tradition, some of us felt that to be abandoned by humanity then was not the ultimate. We felt that to be abandoned by God was worse than to be punished by Him. Better an unjust God than an indifferent one. For us to be ignored by God was a harsher punishment than to be a victim of His anger. Man can live far from God -- not outside God. God is wherever we are. Even in suffering? Even in suffering.

In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it.

Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor -- never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.

Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment.

Wiesel's gospel of engagement is what propels American Jewry more than any other ideology. More than "World Repair," more than wokeness, more than social justice, more than Zionism itself. All of these can be seen as derivatives of the Wiesel Doctrine, "Thou shalt give a damn - about all suffering people" - about Jews first, to be sure, but never just Jews. And it is that mindset that has become our calling from the moment the gates of Auschwitz closed for good.

Indifference is the greatest sin. It, more than evil, is the opposite of good.

And it is the Wiesel Doctrine that does not allow us to ignore the plight of innocent Gazans, much as we might prefer to, much as we might be entitled to, much as Wiesel himself might have done with regard to Palestinians, especially later in life. Some have accused him of having had a moral blindspot there, and it's easy to imagine how outraged and heartbroken he would have been after October 7.

But Wiesel's creed of non-apathy would still demand that we open our eyes to suffering of innocents on the other side, even when some on the other side are lethal enemies. And the fact that Israel's far right is not open to that compassion, with Netanyahu among them, is why American Jews are so torn right now, with Schumer among us. And that is why so many American Jews, in order to express our deepest Jewish convictions, are at odds with this Israeli Prime Minister - though we not at all at odds with the Israeli people.

Some Israelis feel that Wieselian pang of conscience too. And most no longer trust their their leader. As Dahlia Scheindlin writes in Ha'aretz today, the same polls that show Israelis still supporting a more aggressive war footing, in large part because the Prime Minister keeps telling them (erroneously, according to the Americans) that they are close to a resounding triumph, also overwhelmingly show that Israelis want someone other than Netanyahu to lead them. They sense that something is not right, and many are uncomfortable with it. Most Israelis don't want to lose their only friends in the world. Despite the anger. Despite their justifiable rage. Despite the evil of their enemy. They don't want to become what they hate.

Neither do we, as American Jews face our greatest fear: Indifference to the pain of others.

Recommended Reading

  • From Marc SchulmanTonight, it was reported that Hamas has finally responded to the ceasefire/hostage proposal. The reports were unclear about whether or not the response was positive. Netanyahu’s office stated that Hamas’s demands were unrealistic. An emergency War Cabinet meeting is scheduled for tomorrow to discuss the response....Schumer’s unprecedented remarks are likely to bolster Netanyahu, who can now assert that he alone is capable of standing up to the Americans. Furthermore, no one likes to be told how to manage their own political system by a foreign entity.

  • Israel’s TikTok Problem (Jewish Review of Books) - It’s possible that, had TikTok not existed or had been run more benignly, Israel’s position in America would be just marginally better. But margins can damage alliances that would otherwise be merely tense. According to Pew, the share of TikTok viewers who used the platform for news doubled between 2020 and 2023. TikTok’s antagonism toward the Jewish state may be only an instrument of Chinese antagonism toward the United States, but that instrument is getting more dangerous, to Israel and America alike.

  • The target: Hamas' strategic brain (Israel Hayom) - He does not enjoy the public aura surrounding Yahya Sinwar or the military reputation of Mohammed Deif, but his importance to the organization is no less critical than that of his two partners in the leadership structure.

  • The Purim Grogger's Name Comes from Spain (Mosaic) - It would not be surprising, therefore, if the grogger, too, originated as a Jewish borrowing of a Lenten custom. Although drowning out every mention of Haman in the Megillah was a pre-medieval practice based on the biblical verse “And thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek,” it originally consisted of the stamping of feet, the knocking together of stones, or other simple means of noise production. The use of the grogger is first mentioned in the 13th-century writings of the Tosafists of northern France and the Rhineland, which once again suggests a Christian provenance. And here’s what may be the clincher. The matraca is also known in Spain as the carraca or carraco! Why the explanation point? Well, think for a moment of what has been said about “g’s” and hard “c’s,” They are identically articulated velar plosives, “g” being voiced and “k” unvoiced—which means that carraca could change into garraga, at the drop of a linguistic hat, while from there to grager isn’t even a hat drop. Our Purim grogger, it seems, comes from Spain, from which it was brought by Spanish Jews to elsewhere in Europe sometime in the Middle Ages.

  • The ‘Guernica’ Uprising: No Room For Empathy (Gary Rosenblatt) - A magazine dedicated to the exploration of ideas shuts down a writer committed to Mideast coexistenceSee the original coexistence essay, which was taken down by the journal but preserved on the Internet Archive, here). The fact that Chen’s essay was removed and repulsed by a high-brow magazine whose mission statement describes Guernica as “a home for incisive ideas and necessary questions” raises the very real question of whether there is any hope for dialogue or understanding when it comes to Israel. The senior editor who resigned explained that it was in part because the essay did not call out Israel as “a violent, imperialist, colonial power” that dehumanizes Palestinians. Is that the starting point for a serious discussion? In an email this week, Chen told the New York Times that her essay was intended to be “about the willingness to listen, and the idea that remaining deaf to voices other than your own won’t bring the solution.” The sad truth, based on cases like the Guernica staff reaction and a growing number of voices among professors and students at American universities, is that the intended “solution” is not a peaceful, diplomatic one between Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, it is to expunge the Jewish state from the Mideast map.

  • Here is an excerpt from the discredited essay, describing the author's efforts to drive Palestinians to Israeli hospitals:

Two weeks after the present war began, I took the plunge and again began driving children to hospitals. My own grown-up children were against this, but I was determined to go. The night before my first drive since the war started, my husband and I decided he would accompany me, just in case. My son scoffed at this: Go on your own if you must, he said wryly. If anything happens, we don’t want to lose both our parents. 

We woke up at 5:00 a.m., made coffee, and waited for the coordinator to give me the go-ahead. The rules had changed: instead of waiting for them in the parking lot of Tarkumia, I was instructed to leave the house only when my passengers had gotten through security. At 6:30, I got the call, and we drove in silence to Tarkumia. The road leading to the checkpoint was deserted; since October 7, Palestinians had been forbidden to leave the West Bank for work in Israel. We arrived at the parking lot, and I got out of the car. A small boy with a shock of black hair and his father were waiting at the other side of the parking lot. I hesitated as a soldier came up to me, and I fumbled for my driver’s license and the details of my passengers, sent to me earlier: Jad, age three, accompanied by his father. Suddenly, the little boy waved to me from across the way, and I waved back as they walked over to my car. The father spoke a little Hebrew. We introduced ourselves, quickly strapped Jad into the booster, and drove away. Ten minutes later, I dropped my husband off at the junction below my house. I felt safe. I was doing the right thing. This boy deserves medical treatment; he is not a part of the war, I thought. On this first journey, I focused on only the job at hand: to get Jad to the hospital. An hour later, I said goodbye to them outside the pediatric unit of Sheba Medical Center. While the father busied himself removing an overnight case from the trunk of my car, I unbuckled Jad from the booster, and he held out his arms and smiled up at me. Shukran, shukran, thank you, the father said as I cradled Jad in my arms for a moment. And I wanted to say, No, thank you for trusting me with your child. Thank you for reminding me that we can still find empathy and love in this broken world. I followed them with my eyes as they disappeared behind the glass doors of the hospital, and then I switched the radio on.

Two Differing Views....

Jews on campus are fearful...

from today's Boston Globe

Tomorrow's Front Pages

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The Jerusalem Post

Yediot Achronot

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