Thanksgiving – Light and Dark

There has been an exchange on the Curmudgeons list about whether Thanksgiving should be regarded as a day of mourning and fasting as atonement for the genocide of Native Americans.  My own response comes from the gut as much as from the mind.  One who needs to never forget the Shoah (the proper Hebrew term for the Holocaust) should acknowledge the other genocides that have been attempted or accomplished.
I will not share here the exchange, which I regard as private communications (as private as anything on the Internet is anyway).  Here is most of my response to complaints about my position that I wrote today (Thanksgiving morning).  I start with the link to one of the offending articles explaining the call for making Thanksgiving a day of mourning.
Here is the relevant passage from it giving a bit of the real story.

“One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

“Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it’s also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.”

Since 1970 Native Americans have observed our Thanksgiving as a day of mourning.  They consider this day as the start of a pattern of genocidal behavior that continued for centuries and was followed in the 20th century by a campaign to destroy Native American culture and languages.  Meanwhile our popular culture ignores this history.  It took the Pine Ridge Reservation revolt and AIM (whose violence I was against) to wake up at least some Americans to this dark aspect of our national history.  Saying it is past time to remember it and seek atonement is a moral statement, not a political one.  It is being used for political purposes however.

There is a big difference between actual history and nationalist indoctrination, which is largely what the teaching of US history in our school system consists of.

We should know what kind of religion and society the Puritans lived in.  They were too narrow-minded even to tolerate other kinds of Christians.  They believed that God is eternally angry with even the most virtuous of us (see Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God” which is considered the beginning of American religious literature.  here is a site with quotes  These are the people who carried out the Salem witch trials.  They certainly did not respect the native peoples who allowed the survival of their first group.

Again – Having said all of that, I regard Thanksgiving as important, just not for the story of “the first Thanksgiving.”

Here is an excerpt from Kirkpatrick’s book posted on her web site.

Many famous figures walk these pages—Washington, who proclaimed our first Thanksgiving as a nation amid controversy about his Constitutional power to do so; Lincoln, who wanted to heal a divided nation sick of war when he called for all Americans—North and South—to mark a Thanksgiving Day; FDR, who set off a debate on state’s rights when he changed the traditional date of Thanksgiving.

At a time when this nation is more divided than ever with a POTUS who feeds on that division, we need Thanksgiving as much as we did when Lincoln first made it a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War.

The ability to give thanks is the only real source of happiness, because otherwise no one will ever be satiated enough to be happy.  Giving thanks to God, if you believe in God, is one of the best things about faith.  Being able to acknowledge the support we have from other people and also from society is part of that too.

Those who cannot acknowledge how other people and society (including government when it functions as it should) are not going to be happy.  They will be afraid, sad, and angry.  This misreading of “Self-Reliance” (Emerson’s essay that we all probably read in high school).  I admire the local culture which is one of interdependence.  People mind their own business.  Most respect others.  Many stand ready to help when they are needed.  This is based on the idea that each of us is an independent being but we are all connected and we all rely on each other.  I think that is the best of America, where it exists (much less in places like NYC than here).

If some Americans see the dark side of our history as predominant, I think that is wrong.  I do not agree that Thanksgiving should be observed as a day of fasting (far from it).  On the other hand those who feel this way do not deserve to be condemned for taking a moral stance.  Either you believe that this is a free society which allows diversity of opinion, which is what Thanksgiving was made to celebrate, or you think we should all march in lock-step following our national mythos.  We condemn other societies for doing that (USSR, PRC, etc.)  We should guard against that temptation in our own.

Jewish history is a mix of dark and light.  Here’s how we regard our holidays in a well-known (among us anyway) quip.  “They tried to kill us.  They failed.  Lat’s eat.”  Denial is wrong but so is wallowing in victimhood.

Eat with good appetite and give thanks to the thousands of working people who made the bounty on your table possible.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving.



Anti-Semitism and Reconciliation



A year ago I delivered a four-part series on the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville NC.  This summer they invited me back and I gave a three-lecture series on Anti-Semitism and Reconciliation.

The reason for speaking at a church on anti-Semitism was not to send anyone on a guilt trip.  I think that knowing something on the dark side of life is part of a defense against it.  As it happens that dark side has been showing up lately, especially at Charlottesville.  I think it is urgent that Jews and Christians know this history in order to avoid being submerged in it.

As I did last summer I am posting the series here in the form of the audio recordings of the lectures and the Power Point presentations that went with them.

The first lecture was on the origins of Christian anti-Semitism in the New Testament.

The second Lecture in the series started with the Early Church Fathers and surveyed sources up to Martin Luther.  Most of the quotations were anti-Jewish, but a few were positive about Jews and expressed opposition to harming Jews or even disliking them.

The subject of the third lecture is Jewish-Christian reconciliation in the 20th century.  Most of it is about Vatican II and the roles of Pope John XXIII and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Chicago Dyke March & The Jews

The rainbow flag is supposed to symbolize inclusiveness.  The origin of the rainbow as a symbol is God’s blessing for all of humanity after the Flood.  It sometimes happens that a march or other event celebrating one group or another disincludes some categories of people.  If I remember correctly a gay Jewish organization had trouble in the past being included in the Salute to Israel parade.  Banning tgroups based on religion or race is less common now.  Banning LGBTQs is less common now, thought still sometimes an issue.
However when there is a LGBTQ event that bars such a group, that strikes me as just wrong.  This happened recently in Chicago when the organizers of a lesbian event banned a rainbow flag with a Magen David on it (That is the six-pointed star which is a common Jewish symbol which also appears on the Israeli flag).  The organizers banned such a flag because they asserted it is Israeli and therefore a symbol of the oppression of Palestinians.  I have encountered this kind of thing before and always find it unreasonable and containing a whiff at least of anti-Semitism.
I have been an advocate for Palestinian rights and for their statehood since the early 70s, if not before.  I have been very public about it, despite that causing me some grief and probably costing me at least one job.  I am committed to that today.  I am also a Zionist because I support the idea of a Jewish state.  That puts me often in uncomfortable situations, but it also enables me to address audiences that support Israel and audiences that support the Palestinian cause with some credibility.
I carried out a Google search for articles on the issue and found one on The Electronic Intifada where, as expected, I found support for the ban.
Their site allows comments from readers.  I posted the following.  I hope it helps my readers understand the issues involved.
“For me this is a very complicated issue and I find your response to be limited.  I am a Zionist (leftist variety); I have advocated for Palestinian rights and have publicly criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians for over forty years (at some cost to myself and my career); I am an advocate for LGBTQ rights; I am from an old Chicago family; and, having grown up among Holocaust survivors I have a lifetime commitment to communication and co-operation among faiths including Islam.
I think I understand the objections of Palestinians and their supporters, but the fact remains, what I am reading smacks of old-fashioned anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israel (based on deserved offense at Israeli policies and practices regaring Palestinians).  On the other hand this kind of protest only adds to the conflict and the problem.  It deepens the division.
The Lesbian community has important problems it faces and inserting this issue hurts them and their cause.  The same kind of thing happened at two of the UN conferences on women’s issues derailing the real purpose of those conferences.
What I believe will help is for a special group like “dykes” to use their common identity and situation as an opportunity for the people involved to talk and listen to each other.  Showing pride in being Jewish should not offend homosexuals.  In fact people of many identities – religious, ethnic, etc. – coming together and showing their diversity would be a source of strength for the movement.  This is what the rainbow is supposed to symbolize and I do not mean just the flag.
LGBTQ groups have been barred from showing their colors at marches celebrating identity.  For those under the rainbow banner to behave this way is kind of a betrayal of themselves.
My guess is that among Jewish dykes there is a range of political opinion and many will be in sympathy with the oppression of the Palestinian people.
The question is are you part of the problem or part of the solution?”


The following was written as a response to a comment on the Curmudgeons list about certain groups (minorities, women) portraying themselves as victims.
Thinking of oneself as a victim is unhealthy for both individuals and groups.  It is one thing to see the cause of a problem and another to think one is a victim.  That is true even when problems are caused by someone or something else.  Any psychologist could tell you that.
“We shall overcome” is not about being victims.  It is about finding a way to solve problems, which means having the power to do so.  Victim-thinking is “I have problems which are caused by something beyond my control.  Therefore it is on that something to fix my problem.”  This kind of attitude is unhealthy for individuals and for groups.
Psychotherapy is largely a process in which a person has to discover what the problem is; why the problem exists; and how to resolve that problem by one’s own efforts.  Your statement reminds me that this applies to groups of people.
Gandhi wrote of the difference between power over and power to.  Same thing.
When MLK came to Chicago in 1966, he was turning from dealing with civil rights to dealing with poverty.  He worked with our minority communities to open up job opportunities and even bring peace among the gangs.  This was called Operation Bootstrap, which should tell you how he was thinking.
Saul Alinsky’s work and works were along the same lines (and useful for anyone or any way of thinking ) and he was one of the most effective activists I know of.
I am sure you know the saying, “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Whether urban minority or rust-belt underemployed, thinking as a victim solves nothing.  Taking responsibility for oneself is the key to solving one’s problems.  Of course capital investment, legal reform and government programs can then serve to empower yourself in solving the problem.
I see Trump as a weak person because he always seems to blame others for his problems.  People who are of strong character do not think that way.
Disadvantaged groups, as another old saying has it, need a hand up, not a hand-out. On this I seem to agree more with conservatives than with liberals.  The problem is that those calling themselves conservative oppose hand-ups as well as hand-outs.
The coal industry is in sunset mode, for example.  The way to help those who worked in the mines is not keeping the mines open (which serves the mine owners and not the miners).  The way up and out is job training and capital investment in sunrise industries, such as computers.  There is a federal program that has been doing this, but the Trump budget has taken most of the funding away from it. (I could look up that program, if you are not aware of it.)
In any case, it is not just those on the left calling themselves vicims.  It is just as common on the right.  Victim-thinking is a vey real problem throughout our nation.  Putting it one one side and denying it on the other is simply unhelpful.

Why Organized Religion?

(The following is a response I wrote for the Curmudgeons group.  We were looking at an article about the notable decline in church and synagogue attendence and affiliation even among nominal Evangelicals.  Some of the comments noted that we do not or should not need religious institutions to tell us to follow the Golden Rule.  This is my response to them.)
I have spent my working life in the organized religion field, so I have quite a bit to say on this.
My religious tradition, Judaism, differs from the other two Abrahamic faiths in that we do not proselytize, as both Islam and Christianity do.  One way to express this is what we call the Noahide Covenant.  This involves seven laws which apply to the Children of Noah, i.e., all of humanity.  Here are those seven commandments.
  1. Do not deny God.
  2. Do not curse God.
  3. Do not murder.
  4. Do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
  5. Do not steal.
  6. Do not eat from a live animal.
  7. Establish courts/legal system.
There is almost no theology here except for the existence of one God and the prohibition against cursing God.  Three other laws prohibit harmful behavior among human beings.  One prohibits cruelty to animals.  One, the only positive one, is that there must be a system to ensure social justice.  These are the only rules incumbent on human beings in order to get a reward in the Next World.  There is nothing about religion, let alone organized religion.  God does not care what you believe, where or how you worship or what you eat.  Therefore there is no reason to try to convert nonbelievers or even have a religion.
There is a story in the Talmud about this.  Over 2000 years ago the Jewish people were led by two men who were opposite each other – Hillel and Shammai.  Hillel was generally lenient and Shammai was strict.  Hillel was known for his calm temperament and Shammai was known for his short temper.  There are several stories about them of which this is the most famous.  A non-Jew wanted to test Shammai and Hillel.  He went to Shammai and said, “I will become a Jew if you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.”  Shammai struck the man with his walking cane and drove him off.  Then this man approached Hillel with the same request.  Hillel told him to stand on one foot, which the non-Jew did.  Hillel said, “Do not do to another what you would not want them to do to you.  The rest is commentary.  Now go and learn.”
People do not need religion or theology to tell us we should not hurt other people.  Those who say all they need is the Golden Rule are basically right.  There are long explanations and arguments about how this is so, both in religion and philosophy.  How for example do “secular humanists” argue for ethical behavior?  (BTW I knew the man who coined that term – Leo Pfeffer – and it was in a note to an amicus curii argument before SCOTUS and was meant to describe people who uphold ethics but not religion – it is not actually a movement).
The truth is that I share just about every criticism about organized institutional religion you could possibly come up with.  When I first decided I wanted to be a rabbi I was sixteen and the people in my life I most admired were rabbis.  When I was in college I spoke with my congregational rabbi about becoming a rabbi.  His response was to lay out for me many of the difficulties of being in the pulpit.  The summer before my last undergraduate year I worked at a summer camp where many rabbis served as faculty and staff.  I interviewed just about all of them.  When I started that last year I first applied and then withdrew my application to rabbinic school.  However, also in that year I reconnected with a very remarkable rabbi and went to study under him in Canada out of a desire for spiritual experience.  He told me he understood my doubts about the pulpit but I should get through rabbinic school and then I could do the pulpit my way (not at all how it turned out, but that’s another part of this story).  I applied to two schools and was rejected at both (those stories are amusing but too long for here).  I went back to Chicago and became a social worker, but I took a battery of college-level vocational tests and the counsellor there told me I should be a rabbi.  I reapplied to one of those schools and was accepted.  I entered rabbinic school in the fall of 1968 and (surprise!  surprise!) was part of a class dertermined to revolutionize the pulpit.  Now, almost half a century later, add to that an entire career in which I saw and experienced everything wrong with organized religion.  I have done my best to make the pulpit a position to help people grow, deal with life’s pains, and free minds.
So what is organized religion good for?  Why is there such a thing?  What good does it do, despite all the negatives?
WE WANT ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS.  We are the only species (most likely) that knows we are going to die.  This leads to some very big questions.  Why are we here (or Why did God create us?)?  When I first began as a teacher’s aid in religious school I heard a second grader ask that question and understood how universal it is.  Why do we die?  is death the end of our existence?  Why should we be good?  Why is there suffering in the world?  How did the world begin and why does it exist?  How will the world end or will it end?  These questions all have philosophical terms – ontology, teleology, theodicy, etiology, eschatology, etc.  However one does not need to be a philosopher to ask these questions.  For many people specific answers to the questions are wanted in order to face our mortality.  There is actually a theory that religion is the result of a survival mechanism that allows us to know we will die but life is worth living.
THE NEED TO MARK THE PASSAGE OF TIME – Part of what gives meaning to our lives is that we sense the passage of time, both cyclical and linear.  There is a monthly cycle shown by the moon and an annual cycle which is solar but observed in the changes of seasons.  We note the changes in seasons (except the Muslim calendar but that would take a longer explanation). Linear time is from beginning to end of a life or of the universe.  We mark passages in life – birth, puberty, marriage, childbirth, death. About these things we are ambivalent.  We have rituals that mark the passage of time and we have customs to deal with our anxieties about the passage of time.
THE NEED FOR COMMUNITY – Religious institutions, including houses of worship, are places where communities are formed.  There are three names for synagogue in Hebrew – House of Meeting, House of Prayer, House of Study.  The one most used means House of Meeting (which is what the Greek-derived word “synagogue” means).  For many Americans today the congregation serves as an alternate extended family.
THE NEED TO DO GOOD IN THE WORLD – We all have selfish instincts that we could not live without, but anyone guided by such instincts alone will not be a very good person.  We also have in our basic makeup the need to connect with other people and do good.  Both of these instincts are hardwired in our brains.  Competition and co-operation are both basic human survival instincts.
All of these functions can be served without organized religion or any religion at all.  Congregations, at their best, provide for these basic human needs.  That fewer people are joining congregations may have several explanations.  Other institutions may be serving the purpose (social media?).  The organizational model for congregations may no longer be meeting the above-listed needs.  There may be a breakdown in our social need to share and co-operate created by a culture that promotes selfishness or self-interest.  That is a very big subject.  There are many ongoing projects working on redefining the congregation and how it functions.
I tried over these past decades to make use of my work to help people deal with life’s reverses; to urge them to be better people; to free their minds (Jewish tradition, encourages questioning), to inspire them to take a role in making life better for other people.  I was very good at all the pulpit skills but still had to deal with the many needs of the people in my communities.  It was often difficult and stressful (as my rabbi warned), but I feel I have led a worthwhile life doing worthwhile work.  For all my skepticism about organized religion, which is still very much a part of my thinking, I hope I have used this institution for good.
I agree both with those who see no purpose for organized religion and those who see it as a necessity in their lives.

Never Again

I grew up among Shoah survivors.  I consider that experience my inspiration for a life of fighting for justice and against all forms of bigotry.
The motto of survivors was and is, “never again.”  This has nothing whatever to do with political affiliation, religion, or the pursuit of some advantage or profit.  It is about standing up against injustice and bigotry against any group.  As MLK put it, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  No foot in the door should be tolerated when it comes to this.  Even the most civilized of countries can turn to the dark side as we saw throughout Europe in the last century.
This is not a matter of forgiveness or reparations or anything like that.  It is speaking up and acting in the face of bigotry and injustice in every case.  Considering that our nation has its dark side, this is an essential part of making America its best self.  It is essential in other countries too.  I have met with people who do this under the worst tyrannical governments – the USSR, China, Uganda (of Idid Amin),  P R Congo, the Philippines, and many more.  That Pakistan produced a Malala Yousafzi should show us how strong this is.
Back in the days of the civil rights movement we heard these same accusations.  The protesters are communists trying to bring America down.  The protesters are doing this for money or advantage.  The protesters are just trying to make the rest of us feel bad.
Well, I suppose that last part has some truth.  However the agonbite of inwit (as James Joyce called conscience) should lead to inspiration towards the ideals of a universal family of humanity, which is a basis of our Biblical tradition.  In fact that Bible is all but meaningless in ethical terms without that principle.  The Torah repeats 36 times, in various forms, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (where we were enslaved based on a national security argument by Pharaoh).  It was Amos who wrote, “To me, O Israel, you are just like the Ethiopians.”  It was Jesus who taught the parable of the Good Samaritan (the Samaritans being a despised people in his day).  There is no cover in the Bible for bigotry.  The same is true of the Koran.  Both sdcriptures have their dark passages, but the principle of a universal humanity is the basis of ethical behavior in our Abrahamic traditions.
When I see the fight against bigotry and injustice demeaned as for profit or political advantage I am seeing attempted justification for bigotry and injustice.  This is not about the past, but about the present and the future.
I say these things as someone who has refused to be silent and who to this day stands up against what is wrong and for what is right.  That is why the survivors’ motto is…

Trump’s Inaugural Rant

Many years ago I was in the cast of a production of “Evita.”  A woman in the audience from Argentina said it reminded her of exactly how things were under Peron.  In that show (an opera really) is a song called “The New Argentina.”  Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his inaugural speech yesterday reminded me of that.  Here are two verses.

Now I am a worker, I’ve suffered the way that you do
I’ve been unemployed, and I’ve starved and I’ve hated it too
But I found my salvation in Peron, may the nation
Let him save them as he saved me

Peron has resigned from the army and this we avow
The descamisados are those he is marching with now
He supports you, for he loves you
Understands you, is one of you
If not, how could he love me?

And the chorus…

A new Argentina, a new age about to begin
A new Argentina, we face the world together
And no dissent within

What I heard and saw yesterday reminded me of every populist demagogue in the world and in history.  Some compare Trump to Hitler, but that misses the point.  Hitler is the worst of a class of national leaders.  Trump sounds like Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Lenin, Mao, Chiang Kai Chek, and many, many more.

The inaugural address was very short and consisted of hostility to those he replaces and promises he can fix everything.  He gives a dark view of America and promises to make everything right again.  This is not optimism.  Ronald Reagan was optimistic and he followed a President who was notably pessimistic.  Here are two quotes from his 1981 inaugural.

Well, this administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs. All must share in the productive work of this “new beginning,” and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America, at peace with itself and the world.

The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.

I disagreed with much about Reagan’s political views but his appeal to the entire country cannot be gainsaid.  What did Donald Trump say yesterday?  Reagan did not make accusations about the difficulties our nation faced when he became President.  He did not lay blame, but indicated that government was not serving the people.

Now here is what Trump said yesterday.

But that is the past. And now we are looking only to the future. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power.
From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land.
From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.


This is his motto: America First.  The first use of that term was The America First Committee in 1940.  It’s spokesperson was Charles Lindbergh and they were explicitly anti-Semitic.   Their claim was that the Jews (who ran everything, of course) wanted to get our country into the war against Germany for their own purposes.  I still see this accusation today (and so will you, if you read on)

That expression was then the name of a political party in the 1940s while we were at war with Germany.  They ran Gerald K. Smith, a racist and anti-Semite for President in 1944 and again, under the name Christian Nationalist Crusade, in 1948 (he got 42 votes nationally).  The name America First has been used for far-right (and I mean really far right) organizations and parties since then.  Most recently, in 2002, it was reborn when a group of Pat Buchanan supporters split from the Reform Party (Ross Perot’s).

The ADL appealed to Trump to stop using that phrase which is associated with anti-Semitism and racism.  That was during the campaign.  Trump ignored that.

Trump’s speech was co-written by Steve Bannon (did you think Trump wrote it?) who represents the right-most edge of American politics.  We can see that this political adviser is the voice of the Trump administration.

Meanwhile David Duke responded to the speech with a declaration of war on Jews.  Here is a quote from his web-site.

Trump evoked my campaign slogan I used in my successful race for the House of Representatives, and I used in my quest for the Republican nomination in 1992, America First.

This is the historic slogan of the original Alt-Right  and all patriotic Americans in days of Charles Lindbergh and the America First Party later that has stood up against both the Jewish globalist Commies and the Jewish globalist Capitalists.

Although there are a number of Jews around Trump, there is no doubt the Jewish-elite tribalist establishment hates Trump….

White people have the most basic human right of all: to live, and we have a right to govern our own nation rather than have these unelected Jewish tribalists run our politics, our foreign policy, our media, our banking institutions. An no one, no where will prevent us our right of self-preservation.

This is classic anti-Semitism and White Supremicism.  This is the political voice of the new administration as voiced by our new President.

In such times, those of us who stand for humane values must be watchful and responsive.  Silence is death.




Never Again? How About Now?

This morning I thought about writing a letter to our local daily newspaper calling for patience.  “Street demonstrations, ” I was going to say, “will only deepen the national divide.  Our President-elect said he wants to be the President for all Americans.”

Now, this evening, I have seen the news on who will likely be in the new cabinet.  Deplorables would be too gentle a term for this bunch of extremists, self-seekers, and incompetents.  How about despicables?

Let’s see.  Reince Priebus is the only reasonable choice on the list.  The leader of the GOP is conservative, of course, but he has shown himself to be level-headed and, so far as I can see, competent.  He is a reasonable choice for White House Chief-of-Staff.  Alongside of Priebus Trump has named Steve Bannon, the bigot-in-chief of the Alt-right, the home of every kind of hatred and fear-mongering movement in this country.  He is anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist – all of this is explicit from his own statements.  Bannon will be reporting to Trump, so his power will be equal to that of Priebus.  In doing this he follows his managerial policy of setting up rival forces just beneath him.  I think this is to keep any potential rivals off-balance.  Trumps own children are reportedly opposed to naming extremists to the administration.  Ivanka, who is Jewish, should be especially upset about Bannon.

Among others being named as possible cabinet members are Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and (no joke) Sarah Palin.  Palin is likely to be the only woman in a high position in this administration.  Giuliani and Gingrich have both shown themselves to be men of poor character both in their personal and political lives.  For Secretary of the Interior the name being mentioned is that of an oil industry executive – the fox guarding the chicken coop.  Actually foxes in charge of chickens is pretty much everyone on the list of possibilities.

There is no hint of any attempt to unify our bifurcated people unless he means, “Everyone must do it my way.”  This is historically the danger of electing populist demagogues of any political stripe.  Minorities and women (who, of course, are not a minority) always suffer under populist regimes.

I am sometimes asked how the most civilized nation in Europe, Germany, could descend to such depths of national depravity.  I suggest that we are seeing how that happens right now.  Watch one of Hitler’s campaign speeches from 1932.   The parallels with the Trump campaign are striking.  Watch Leni Riefenstal’s “Triumph of The Will” to see how familiar a 1935 film of a 1934 Nazi rally looks and sounds.

Anti-Trump demonstrations are promised for every day leading up to the inauguration.  I now hope we see that happen.  It was the silence of too many Germans that gave Hitler’s Nazi Party so much power.  It was the self-delusion of German industrialists and her military that they could control Hitler that made them collaborators with evil.  It was the collection of human misfits Hitler surrounded himself with that led Germany astray.

So what are those of us who are appalled by all of this to do.  Violence is never the answer but neither is silence.  If Trump’s followers will not extend their hands to heal the national divide then we must.  Every action and policy that violates human dignity and decency must be met with public protest and with intelligent legal and political response.  Basic to all of that is the power of love.  Every human being is made in the Divine Image and that must be respected.  Respecting that means appealing to that divine spark in everyone, even those who are against us.

I hope my fears are unjustified.






This tour is not like most. We will be visiting many famous sites, but we will also be meeting people who can tell us about living in Israel and Palestine as people of faith. Having two tour guides – one Israeli and one Arab – will make this tour one that will provide a depth of understanding and experience that is not part of the usual Israel tour. I know it is expensive, but my research says this is what a tour costs these days. I am confident that this tour will be worth every penny. Please watch the video for an explanation of the philosophy behind this project.

Syrian Refugees

In today’s local newspaper this was published on the editorial page.  The author is Ronald Stephens, a member of Hendersonville’s city council.  My response to the author follows.


In a Times-News editorial (Sunday, July 3), the headline admonished “Get the facts before reacting,” referring to my comments on hearing that St. James Episcopal Church is exploring the possibility of hosting Middle Eastern refugees in Hendersonville.

I had said in a television interview that I was concerned that St. James’ activities could open the door for Syrian refugees to be housed here.

The editorial did not tell the whole story, and it failed to support the conclusion it insinuated — that those speaking against what St. James is considering have a “witch-hunt mentality.” That’s untrue, and I applaud those in our community who are speaking out on this matter. Opinions I’ve received through social media, phone calls and in person are thoughtful and heartfelt.

Perhaps an article about “getting the facts before making a decision on bringing Middle Eastern refugees here” might be in order.

• Fact 1: Mayor Barbara Volk indicated our concerns were “overblown” because it would take a long time for St. James’ plan to come to fruition. But that doesn’t mean a plan isn’t going forward.

Overcoming the one hindrance cited — Hendersonville’s distance from an approved resettlement office — is exactly what is being considered. In a June 23 email, Mayor Volk said: “… They (St. James) are applying, through the Episcopal Church, to be a refugee resettlement agency.”

• Fact 2: There is good reason to believe that the refugees St. James would host would be Syrian.

Among print materials Mayor Volk received from St. James were two articles specifically referring to Syrian refugees: “Syrian Refugees Don’t Pose a Serious Security Threat,” published by the Cato Institute, and “Myths and Facts: Resettling Syrian Refugees,” from the U.S. Department of State.

 Fact 3: Notwithstanding those two articles, there is serious concern that Syrian refugees cannot be properly vetted.

On Nov. 17, 2015, the Washington Post reported in part:

“FBI Director James Comey (said) in congressional testimony last month that ‘a number of people who were of serious concern’ slipped through the screening of Iraq War refugees … . ‘There’s no doubt that was the product of a less than excellent vetting,’ ” he said.

“Although Comey said the process has since ‘improved dramatically,’ Syrian refugees will be even harder to check because, unlike in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have not been on the ground collecting information on the local population. ‘If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,’ he said. ‘I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.’ ”

• Fact 4: Not being able to properly vet refugees increases the risk of bringing in potential terrorists.

It is reported that in the past fiscal year, 1,682 Syrian refugees were admitted to the U.S., and roughly 23 percent were adult males (U.S. Department of State: “Myths and Facts: Resettling Syrian Refugees”). That may seem like a low percentage, but applying it to President Barack Obama’s goal of admitting 10,000 this fiscal year, we’d be admitting 2,300 men.

• Fact 5: It is unlikely that bringing refugees here is the best means of helping them.

In “The High Cost of Resettling Middle Eastern Refugees” (November 2015), the Center for Immigration Studies stated that resettlement in the United States for one Middle Eastern refugee costs American taxpayers an estimated $64,370 over the first five years, 12 times the U.N. estimate for caring for one refugee in a neighboring Middle Eastern country.

Dr. Steven Camarota, the center’s director of research and lead author of the report, commented, “Given limited funds, the high cost of resettling refugees in the United States means that providing for them in neighboring countries in the Middle East is more cost-effective, allowing us to help more people.”

• Fact 6: In today’s environment, with people understandably concerned with matters of security, the question should be asked: Is helping refugees more important than helping with the needs of our community, i.e., homeless children, fallout from domestic violence, adequate/affordable housing, meaningful employment, to name just a few?

The refugees’ plight is terrible, but there are real hardships here just as worthy of concern. No doubt the people at St. James are honestly seeking to help with a serious problem, but I don’t believe it is witch-hunting to suggest that there may be safer and more cost-effective ways to apply our time and treasure.


Mr. Stephens

Your column in today’s T-N reminded me immediately of Richard Nixon’s maiden speech to Congress in 1947.  It was nominally about one individual but the context was the common suspicion that European refugees MIGHT be communists and therefore visas should not be issued for them to come here as refugees.  This was two years after Ike had films made at the newly liberated concentration camps for newsreels shown in almost every movie theater in America.  Everyone knew the truth about who these refugees were.

It reminds me of Breckenridge Long, a member of FDR’s administration before and during World War II and was in charge of immigration.  He did everything he could to obstruct Jewish refugees from coming here because, he said, some of them might be German agents.   He justified this in his diary by referencing the contemporary strict laws in the United States imposing quotas on the number of immigrants from particular countries, and his great concern about the possibility that Germany and the Soviet Union would introduce spies or subversive agents into the United States amidst the large numbers of refugees.


I wonder how many Jewish lives would have been saved if it were not for this hostility based on appeals to reason and security.


It reminds me of a dark side in American history going back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.  It reminds me of a history of legislation, political demagoguery, and mob violence against immigrants ever since then.


You are no different from them.


The Syrian civil war, ISIS, and the rise of Iran are all direct results of our invasion of Iraq in 2003, a predictable result, by the way.  This is a mess we made and which will trouble the region for some time to come.  The Muslim countries in the region have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees.  Those countries, including Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, are overwhelmed.  There are 7.6 million refugees still within Syria and 4.1 million in neighboring countries.  Europe has taken in 348,000.  According to your essay we have taken in 1682 in the last fiscal year.


After the Viet Nam War we took in about 800,000 Vietnamese refugees and have taken in millions since.  There might have been security concerns, but those were set aside because of the human crisis which was largely our creation and our responsibility.


Your “facts” are taken from The Center for Immigration Studies, which has been cited as a nativist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  This organization is biased and not reliable, yet you cite them as authoritative.


This again places you on that dark side of American history.


This is not about political parties or ideologies.  It is about morality.  St. James congregation is answering the call of our faith traditions, which is very much founded on people taking care of each other including strangers and including even enemies.


Frankly, Mr. Stephens, I would rather have a family of refugees living next door than someone like you.  The immigrant families I have had as neighbors appreciated and loved this country for accepting them.  I think you take it for granted not recognizing what makes America something special in human history.




Rabbi Philip J Bentley


PS When I sign as “Rabbi” I am writing as a member of the clergy, not just as a citizen.


PPS I hope you will respond to this letter and in a civil manner.  I have tried to be civil about something that is deeply disturbing to me.


PPPS  Without doubt you are familiar with the following poem.  You may not realize it was written by a young aristocratic Jewish-American woman on seeing the conditions of immigrants arriving in New York.


The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door