Friday, November 26, 2010

The Wages of Fear

History isn’t bunk, as a great industrialist who was also a first-class anti-Semite once said, but it is often taught as if it is, especially at the elementary and secondary levels. There is the piling on of facts to be memorized and then to serve as answers on tests that put the students’ brains in mothballs. There is too little focus on understanding and nuance. When I was a lad more than fifty years ago and working on my doctorate, I taught social studies for two years at a new yeshiva high school, an experience that brought an incomparable blessing. About the American Revolution, the assignment was for students to get the British point of view on what transpired in 1776 and thereabouts.

A perspective about history is sorely needed in this time of cholera, of an anger that begets hatred which, in turn, begets repression. This is a recurring motif in American history, cropping up at intervals of about fifty years and occasionally much briefer. Likely, the phenomenon is true of other societies as there is a tide in the affairs of men and nations. The consequences are never pretty, as an air of suspicion warps judgment and distorts reality, within innocent persons being harmed and cherished values jettisoned. For all of the deplorable pain, it is necessary to remember that this too shall pass, that there will be better days.

If we look across the span of American history, there is a pattern, starting with the Salem Witch trials and culminating with post-Second World War McCarthyism with much else that was impelled by fear in between. It is as if history has a biological aspect that from time to time generates emotions that overcome reason and fairness, emotions that propel this nation in the direction away from what America should stand for.

That is what is happening now. We are in an early stage of the fever and worse awaits us. This is not about a conservative mindset, whether in its Tea Party incarnation or any other. There is a legitimate, albeit limited, case to be made for the notion that the government that governs least is the government that governs best and, more powerfully, against the folly that mountains of public debt should grow larger in support of the false god of entitlements. Those of a liberal orientation need to reflect on why after trillions of dollars for programs allegedly aimed at assisting the needy, we are constantly told that the ranks of the needy are greater than ever. The answer isn’t blowing in the wind; it’s in the povertycratic “non-profit” scam involving thousands of well-fed organizations benefitting handsomely off public funding designed to help the needy.

In the reaction against this excess, the baby is being thrown out with the bath water, so that good programs will be hurt. Being conservative about fiscal issues brings with it ideological baggage, including opposition to the main immigration policies and a growing disrespect for basic rights. The fever is such that overwhelmingly public opinion is against giving those accused of terrorism a fair trial and there is hysteria about conducting such a trial in Manhattan. America is not made more secure as a result of these positions. When we depart from values and practices that are our glory, our country is diminished.

Fear is contagious, leaping across boundaries. What is aimed at the enemy affects many more innocent persons. In Justice Brandeis’ epic formulation, referring to Salem and contemporaneous events, “Men feared witches and burnt women.” We are now witness to the harmful wages of fear as Homeland Security and Transportation Safety officials apparently believe that sexual abuse is an appropriate response to terrorism. These experts should ponder Israel’s policy, as that country’s existential threat does not require full x-ray exposure of one’s privates or the patting down of genitals.

The mutations in behavior essentially aimed at protecting our security are a victory of sorts of terrorists and their allies. Much more awaits us.

It remains to be seen whether the atmosphere and its progeny are bad news for Jews. If history is a guide, there is reason for concern. Whether of an economic or another nature, crisis invariably has served as an invitation to those who wish us ill to come out of the woodwork. In the years prior to the Second World War through the McCarthy experience, there was an abundance of anti-Jewish sentiment in this country. Then there was a remarkable shift in opinion and for a half a century we have been admired. It is perhaps of note that during this half century, for all of the political and ideological conflict that we have been witness to, America was not in the throes of fear. The haters -and there have been many, some openly anti-Semitic – have been pushed away from the mainstream, relegated as it were to the fringes of American life and outside of the pale of respectability.

Hopefully, this will not change, yet there are reasons to be worried. We Jews, simply put, do not fare well when the societies that we are in are gripped by fear.

This is a reality that should be pondered by my fellow Orthodox , particularly those who are charedi or fervently Orthodox, too many of whom are also fervently right wing. It’s understandable why on certain social issues they may strongly veer toward conservatism. What is troublesome is their embrace of the right wing, their swallowing whole hog an extremist ideology that poses a danger, I believe, to American Jews.

It is painfully necessary to say that Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the right-wing hate parade are not our Roshei Yeshiva or Rebbes. Their ideology and rhetoric are not a branch of Judiasm. We have our Torah and our laws and they are our guides. It is time for those Orthodox who are intoxicated by the right wing to reflect on our painful history, much of it still recent, that demonstrates the peril.