Give TSA A Chance

I fly some 200,000 miles a year on airlines throughout the world. My work takes me to many cities, large and small, and many different countries so I have a great personal interest in two conflicting needs at the airport: security and speed.

As one who often flies several times a week the difference between checking in one hour in advance or two hours in advance can add up. It can cost me an entire workday a week. I hate waiting in lines and like George Clooney in Up in the Air appreciate and take advantage of the many courtesies that airlines make available to their frequent fliers from special lines, to use of airport lounges, to upgrades and even to companion flights. On vacation I prefer those places I can drive to for flying in anything but fun,

I was subject to a body scan at Chicago’s O’Hare airport last week and found nothing objectionable to the process. Contrary to the reports of other people’s experience I was asked to empty my pockets and stand with my two arms raised while the machine took my picture, twenty seconds later I was told that I could go. There was nothing invasive about it, nothing inappropriate. And if wherever the observer was he/she had a clear look at my body, I had no knowledge of it, no awareness of it and it was as unobtrusive as possible. The reviewer did not know my name, did not know what flight I was taking and had no idea of how to contact me afterwards even if he or she to want to take advantage of the private bodily information they viewed. I was one of several hundred people going through the lines , so there is anonymity in numbers as well.

I suspect that almost all travelers will agree with me and all should agree that airplane security is an essential national and international interest. So let us give TSA a chance and not get hysterical. I thank TSA for protecting my personal security each time I go through the security lines. The job is pressured, the tasks are repetitive and frankly boring and the people in line are tense about whether they will make their flight or even about flying in general.

There are enough problems in the modern world about intrusions into our privacy, This is not one of them, Say thank you and smile and enjoy safe flying,

Allegiance to a Jewish Democratic State

Sunday’s decision by Israel’s Cabinet to require that “those seeking to become naturalized citizens will take an oath that their allegiance is to the State of Israel, “as a Jewish and democratic state,” and that they “promise to honor the laws of the state” will raise far more questions than it will answer.

Those of us who were raised in the Zionist movement have always viewed Israel as a Jewish State. For my parents of blessed memory who would have turned 100 this year the achievement of the Jewish State of Israel was one of the most magnificent moments in their lives as Jews. They transmitted that enthusiasm to me. This past summer my children, wife and I visited Independence Hall, the former Tel Aviv Museum, in which David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel. We sat in the audience in the very room and heard Ben Gurion’s recording. We were in tears. One could sense the passion of the Declaration, the historicity of the moment.

It is because I support Israel as a Jewish democratic state that I have long opposed settlements not as illegal but unwise, counterproductive and antithetical to Israel’s interest in remaining a Jewish and democratic state. Demographers agree that soon, all too soon, Arabs will constitute a majority of those living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea so for Israel to remain democratic and Jewish it must find a way to withdraw from many of the territories captured in 1967, or find a way to expel Arabs or deny them citizenship. I oppose the last two options as anti-democratic and as antithetical to the values of Jewish history of the last 2,000 years. The withdrawal from Gaza was a simple trade, even with its considerable security risks – 1.5 million Palestinians for 8,000. The situation on the West Bank will be more complicated and much more difficult and dangerous.

But the irony is that there are many Jews who do not support Israel and could not swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic State. Some, but by no means all, religious Jews believe that a Jewish state must be a Halakhic state, governed by the laws of the Torah and the Rabbis and democracy as we know it was unknown to the Rabbinic and the great religious decisors of past generations. Jewish Law with its grudging acceptance as necessary for orderly and peaceful existence and for its suspicions of the state because of Jewish history’s long experience of the state as oppressive, has not kept pace and not fully absorbed the consequences of democracy, which respects human rights and accepts full participation of its citizens.  Other religious Jews presume that a Jewish State should be initiated by God and not by David Ben Gurion and his successors. Some Jews on the left believe that Israel must become a state of all of its citizens, encompassing Palestinians and other non-Jews. They would find it difficult to swear allegiance to a Jewish state.

The debate will be interesting because it grapples with a core issue of Israel’s life: how can a state be both Jewish and democratic and what does that mean in the contemporary world when more than one in five Israeli citizens are currently non-Jews including an unknown number of former Soviet Jews who have some distant kinship with the Jewish people but are not Jews by any sense of the term, even as they increasingly regard themselves as Israelis.

I suspect that the Cabinet may not quite understand the questions such an oath of allegiance raises, not just for non-Jews but for Jews as well.

A Nobel Prize So Well Deserved: Dr. Edwards and the Right to Life

I know that several politically conservative Jews have suggested that there is a natural moral and religious alliance between Jews and Catholics, between Jews and the Religious Right on “the right to life” issues such as abortions, yet the recent statement of the Vatican on the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Dr. Robert Edwards should cause them to rethink their position.

Edwards did the pioneering work in in-vitro fertilization. Judaism, even in its most Orthodox forms, has no problem with in-vitro fertilization per se. There are religious concerns about how the sperm is obtained from the father and that the father and mother be married to one another. In fact, a Baltimore hospital specializing in this procedure offers a masgiach to oversee the process, to ensure that everything is done according to law.

Roman Catholicism considers the embryo a human being, not so Judaism. In fact, in Roman Catholicism the embryo even outside of the womb is “innocent life,” not yet tainted by original sin.

It should be noted that Jewish medical ethics even among the most pious has welcomed in-vitro fertilization as assisting the couple to fulfill the first of all human commandments: “be fruitful and multiply.” And Judaism regards the physician as God’s helper in the process of healing; in this case in the process of conceiving.

The second area of divergence because of these theological differences is stem cell research, which Judaism would most vigorously advocate because of its potential to save lives; Pikuach Nefesh, the saving of human life, takes precedence even over the Sabbath. For Jews stem cell research is essential and moral precisely because it saves life and the status of the embryo outside of the womb does not present any moral or religious problems for believing and practicing Jews.

Thus, Jews can rejoice in the work of Dr. Edwards who has enabled many, many families the blessing, the privilege and the responsibility of bearing and raising children. For us, his work has been a celebration of life and of the heroic role of the physician in enhancing life.

Mazal tov!

Dennis Prager’s False Debate

I am not sure whether I qualify as a progressive, but I may know something about Auschwitz and its controversies and also about museums and their task of memorialization. So permit me to respond to Dennis Prager.

Why is the Auschwitz Convent controversy different than the debate surrounding the Muslim Cultural Center at Ground Zero, which is in reality two blocks away from Ground Zero?

Let us be specific because the question is falsely polemical.

Dr. Prager assuredly knows - but his readers may not know - that Auschwitz was actually three camps in one:

Auschwitz I was a concentration camp;

Auschwitz II was the death camp known as Birkenau; and

Auschwitz III, also known as Buna Monowitz, was a work camp.

For precision’s sake, let us recall that Auschwitz III was actually 50 subcamps that housed two types of prisoner workers: forced laborers, primarily non-Jews from many different European countries, and slave laborers, overwhelmingly Jews who were selected to work when they arrived at Birkenau and consequently were sent to work until they were no longer capable of work. After these Jews could no longer work they were sent over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the death camp, where they were gassed along with arriving Jews who were not deemed capable or working or whose work was not required. Their living conditions were different and they fate was death – immediate or deferred.

Auschwitz I was the site of Polish - Polish Christian - victimization. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is the death camp, the site at which some 1.1 million Jews, men, women and children, were systematically slaughtered alongside some 20,000 Roma and Sinti, perjoratively known as Gypsies.

For fifty years under Communism there was a deliberate and systematic attempt to obscure, if not to erase, the memory of the victims of Birkenau as Jews.
The remnant of that effort remains in place even twenty years after the dramatic change of regimes and the significant efforts of the Polish government and the directors of the Auschwitz Memorial to change the character of the place and be far more historically accurate.

A visitor to Auschwitz I today will encounter National Exhibitions of several countries, Belgium and France, Italy and Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia among them, yet even after the very helpful changes of the post-communist era, these barracks convey the false impression that the nationals of these countries were murdered because of the were French or Czech, Dutch or Norwegian and not because they were Jews. The Jewish experience at Auschwitz I was segregated – ghettoized - to the Jewish Pavilion, Block 27, which during the Communist era was more often closed than open to the public and will soon be replaced by another exhibition because the current exhibition is deemed even by its admirers as poor and hopelessly outdated.

For a generation, there was barely a mention of Jews at the Memorial in Birkenau, even though Auschwitz II remains the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. This situation was rectified over the past two decades. But still today, the most powerful artifacts that are housed at Auschwitz I, including hair, the soup bowls, the taleisim, false teeth, eyeglasses, prosthesis, suitcases and even the extraordinary model of Crematoria B II of Birkenau, were all taken from Birkenau and displayed in Auschwitz I as if they were found there, as if the killing occurred there, and as if they applied to all prisoners rather than overwhelmingly to Jews. The Stobierski modelof Crematoria B II is shown in the upper floor of a barrack rather than adjacent to the actual destroyed crematoria where the visitor must rely upon a sign to understand what happened at that site.

Even the pavilion recently dedicated to to the Roma and Sinti was constructed in Auschwitz I, though the Gypsy camp was located in Birkenau just adjacent to the Ramp.

Because what visitors see is so powerful and what they see conveys a false impression, ordinary visitors do not grasp the differences between Auschwitz I and Birkenau despite the efforts of well trained guides to tell them otherwise. While 1.3 million people visited Auschwitz I last year, the number of visitors to Birkenau is at best 20% that number.

So let me answer Dr. Prager:

There is a German Peace Center near the Auschwitz camp at roughly the same distance that the Cultural Center will be built from Ground Zero. It has been in place for decades without a murmur from the Jewish community. In fact Jewish groups use the center, sleep there, study there, convene there and eat there. Kosher food will be served on request.

There is a Catholic Cultural Center, built under the leadership of the late much revered Pope John Paul II, situated roughly the same distance that the Cultural Center will be built from Ground Zero.  Jewish groups sleep there, study there, meet there, and eat there. Kosher food is also served there on request.

There is a Roman Catholic convent relocated from just 10 yards away from Birkenau’s fence, not two city blocks, at roughly the same distance as the Cultural Center will be built from the Cultural Center.

Why did Jews oppose the convent?

Because they feared with good reason that some Poles, together with some support from elements within the Roman Catholic Church, especially within the powerful Polish Church, were determined to dejudaize the murders at Birkenau. Communist historians and Polish nationalists falsely claimed that four million people were killed at Auschwitz, two million Jews and two million Poles.

Because they did not differentiate between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II . They did not know that the Poles are fully justified to regard Auschwitz I as a site of Polish – Polish Christian -martyrdom. So when the convent was described as a convent at Auschwitz, they reacted with outrage. As a talk show host, Dr. Prager knows that calling something the Mosque at Ground Zero is absolutely different that speaking accurately of an Islamic Cultural Center a couple of blocks away.

The Memorial at Ground Zero is being built by a wonderful team of Museum builders led by my distinguished former colleague Alice Greenwald and with the participation of a design team that includes colleagues and former students such as Clifford Chanin and David Layman. They will determine the content of the Memorial and help to shape the experience of the visitor at Ground Zero. I trust them completely. They are skilled, sensitive and wise.

Visitors to Ground Zero will learn who was lost, who perpetrated the crime and why, who came to the rescue of the survivors, and who came together in its aftermath.  Unfortunately, they will not know the legacy of 9/11 because we continue to shape that legacy and all too often to misshape it.

The Cultural Center is being built not at Ground Zero but two blocks away and in New York two blocks away is a very long distance. It is not located at the sacred site of Ground Zero, which will soon house office buildings, shops and restaurants and not just a memorial, but in a rather seedy neighborhood replete with bars and “Gentlemen’s Clubs.” It will neither determine nor impact on the quality of the Memorial or the nature of the visitors’ experience when coming to pay homage at Ground Zero.

In fact, the Cultural Center, like the German Peace Center and the Catholic Center and the Convent, should be regarded as a welcome act of counter-testimony – or dare one say penance – because the killers killed in the name of Islam and therefore, the most important counter-testimony must come from within Islam just as the most important counter-testimony to the Holocaust, the most important acts of penance, came from within Christianity and from the subsequent actions of German and other European leaders.

If Dr. Prager really wanted to put the founders of the Islamic Cultural Center in a bind, he would celebrate its construction as a welcome act of atonement for the murder and violence that were committed in the name of Islam.

As a Conservative – I take him at his word on this matter - Dr. Praeger should understand that basic freedoms are precious, precious but also precarious. Hatred aroused to frenzy can lead to the trampling of Constitutional Rights: in the United States freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed and religious institutions have the right to build wherever zoning requirements permit them to build.

Lest we hear a reiteration by Jews of the false claim that Islam is not a religion, permit me to remind Jews that no less a religious authority than Maimonides regarded Islam as a religion – he lived in a Muslim world, read Muslim philosophers and knew the Koran well - and had significantly less theological problems with Islam that he did with Christianity, witness his thirteen principles.

The Anti-Americanism of Opposition to the Islamic Center

Each year or so, I teach a seminar in American Jewish History. Early in the semester I read with the students George Washington’s exchange of letter in 1791, two years after the Constitution as written. with the Hebrew Congregation in Newport. The first President of the United States wrote the following:

“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Let us face it that those who criticize the construction of the Mosque in the neighborhood of Ground Zero are violating an essential American value. The right to religious freedom from regarded from the inception of this country as a natural right, requiring no tolerance for the other. The one requirement that Washington explained was that “they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

We do have the right to demand of all who live in the United States that they demean themselves as good citizens and offer the country their effectual support.

It was unwise and frankly un-American for my friend Abraham Foxman to place ADL in opposition to the creation of the Islamic Cultural Center.

First of all Jews should remember that there was a time when we could not build a synagogue in the very area in question. Secondly, the history of American religion is that religious leaders come to understand that in order to participate in American society, the ultimately have to adopt the American norm of interreligious civility. We all have a stake in the development of “moderate” Moslem leadership, leadership that wants to be effective in American culture and in order to do so speak an American language and not the language of the Islamacists who are pushing for radicalization in the Middle East and elsewhere. And finally, Christianity and Islam have been rivals for more than a millennia. Judaism and Islam are not rivals. Theologically Islam with its belief in one God is far more acceptable to Jews than Christianity and its Trinitarian concepts and for centuries Jews lived far more comfortable in Islamic countries than in Christian ones. We should have stayed out of this fight or merely reaffirmed George Washington’s pledge to the Jews of Newport, his pledge and his insistence people who live under the protection of this government should demean themselves as good citizens.


No Moslem institution in this country will be under greater scrutiny than the cultural center that is about to be constructed and it could become a model of how an American Muslim culture can develop, an institution of healing and education.

Furthermore, Jews have an absolute interest in the development of a more moderate Islam. Israel cannot be at war with all of Islam. Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel. Many Moslem countries have economic ties. India has a long Muslim minority and is an important economic partner for Israel. And the list goes on and on.

We are now seeing the slippery slope from opposition to a Muslim Cultural Center to the burning of a Mosque in Tennessee and opposition to their construction elsewhere, to the burning of the Koran and inflaming tensions elsewhere.

Self professed conservatives should be especially horrified to see that there is little enthusiasm among their ideological soul mates to conserve this most basic and more vaunted to American values.

Simply put much of the rhetoric I am hearing is anti-American plain and simple, anti the values that have made America a revered symbol of freedom.