Thursday, June 25, 2009

We Have to Be Taught Not to Hate

The killing at the Holocaust Museum and the latest foul emanation from Rev. Jeremiah Wright demonstrate that whatever may separate haters on the far right from haters on the far left, their common denominator is hatred of Jews. This is a lesson that has been taught time and time again and even the most optimistic among us know that the prospect is for additional lessons.

It isn’t sufficient to bemoan the reality that anti-Semitism is inherent in our existence, that this is the way we are fated to live and too often in our history the way Jews have been fated to die. It’s necessary to identify the roots that nourish the hatred of Jews. Far greater attention is given to the repulsive language of Wright than to the expanding ranks of armed and dangerous neo-Nazis and their allies who constitute a far greater danger, if only because they have shown a willingness to engage in violent acts. One explanation for this less than benign neglect is that they are essentially underground and away from the mainstream. Another is that the far right is protected, perhaps inadvertently but we cannot be sure, by the powerful right wing of the Republican Party. It’s time for Jews to be more alert to this danger. More parochially, it’s time for the too many Orthodox Jews who have embraced right-wingism to contemplate who their bedfellows are.

Our religion is Judaism, not conservatism or liberalism. A good case can be made on Jewish grounds for certain conservative positions, notably on a range of social issues, and a good case can be made for certain liberal positions, also on a range of social issues. Those of us who have supported President Obama might pause to consider whether Washington’s unprecedented, massive involvement in economic and other territory that historically and even under the New Deal was regarded as off limits is a good thing. As an aside, the conservative nature of the New Deal has been detailed by Arthur Schlessinger, Jr. and Richard Hofstadter.

Why should the White House decide who heads an automobile company or serves as a bank chairman? Isn’t there truth in Lord Acton’s famous dictum about how power corrupts?

A good conservative case can be made for limited government, for skepticism about the role of government. David Brooks makes this case often in his Times’ column and William Buckley did much the same for decades. This is a conservatism with malice toward none and except for the conservative label, it bears little resemblance to the conservatism of talk radio which is totally negative and bereft of nuance, reflection or the willingness to recognize that at least on some issues, the other side may have a point. The message is one of hate, of seeking to destroy those who espouse a different point of view.

There is danger in the drumbeat of hate offered by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk and while his speech is protected and his intentions may be otherwise, he is nurturing a mentality that feeds into neo-Nazism. That is the inevitable outcome of a message that day in and day out for weeks, months and years is laced with hatred. I know that there are those who will be offended about my writing about their idol in this fashion. They should also know that idol worship is strongly proscribed in our religion.

Most of us have been conditioned to be optimistic, to believe that there is a marketplace of ideas in which good ideas triumph over those that aren’t good. As expressed in the last lines of the published version of Anne Frank’s diary, people are good. At about the same time that the book first appeared, Rodgers and Hammerstein had a similar formulation in South Pacific, preaching that people have to be taught to hate because their natural instinct is not to hate.

Sadly, that’s not true. People must be taught not to hate. They must be taught that hatred is wrong because in too much of human experience and much that we know as Jews, there are tragic consequences. What we know about the human psyche points toward a gloomy assessment of our species. Few of us are paranoid, yet few of us can escape entirely looking at certain events through dark glasses. People have fears and there are reservoirs of bitterness and anger or disappointment and these may serve as nesting places for messages of hate and bigotry.

Over the ages, those who identify as conservative understood the dark side of human nature and that has been a powerful factor in their distrust of government. In their Thoreauean view, that government is best that governs least. The roots of this pessimistic view precede by many generations any political ideology. As we read early in Genesis, “G-D saw the weakness of man…and that every product of his heart was but evil constantly” and therefore G-D regretted that He created man.

A conservative outlook that arises from our religious teachings must be aware of the potential for evil when the heart and mind are receptive to messages of hate. There is today much peril in the hate messages emanating without stop from the right wing. Religious Jews in particular must not turn a blind eye or be deaf to this reality simply because on some political or social issues we are in the same camp with those who are peddling these messages.

All Jews should be frightened by the growing neo-Nazi movement and by how it is egged on by right-wing talk radio. Religious Jews are frequently enjoined to be careful about the company they keep. This surely must encompass the company of extreme right-wingers. This is a plea to my fellow Orthodox who are on a treadmill of hate to get off. There are plenty of ways to embrace conservatism without falling prey to the odious message marketed by the extreme right wing.