The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, September_October 1991, Vol. XXVIII, Number 2

The Communist Party hardliners in the Soviet Union are a pathetic lot.  They cannot even do what they used to do best.  They cannot even conduct a successful coup. 

For three days freedom lovers in Russian (sic) and throughout the world were scared.  The sudden overthrow of Gorbachev-although predicted by some-shattered hope and expectations of a peaceful world.  The image of ruthless Communism re-emerged and was reinforced by memories of past repressions. 

But it was all over so quickly.  The Gang of Three-KGB leader Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Yazov and Interior Minister Pugo-proved to be nothing more than paper tigers.  For diehard Communists who remembered Stalin, it was embarrassing. 

Who were the coup leaders? 

There were all Gorbachev appointees whom he had chosen to appease the right wing of the Party and to provide balance to the “extremists” on the left he wanted to resist.  They were the remnants of the old establishment that had governed Russia for 70 years and were fearful of losing their power.  They struck one day before the signing of the new Union Treaty which would have decentralized Soviet government and deprived their jobs of any real significance. 

Why did they fail? 

They were sloppy.  The coup did not have the usual Communist efficiency and brutality.  They failed to seize all strategic buildings immediately.  They failed to arrest potential resistance leaders, including Yeltsin.  They failed to create an environment of military intimidation throughout the country.  Their coup had elements of comic opera, which future historians will exploit to their amusement.  They were an amazingly non-charismatic collection of leaders.  They all looked like faceless Communist bureaucrats from the Brezhnev era-black-suited, unsmiling, dour and filled with outdated cliches.  They were not the stuff out of which successful tyrannies are made.  Not one of the eight members of the State Emergency Committee could transcend the image of a Party apparachk (sic). 

They had not fully secured the loyalty of the commanders of the army.  Many junior officers were alienated from the archaic manner of the general staff.  Many soldiers had been converted to the ideals of democratic reform.  Many of them were reluctant to shoot their own people.  Only terror would have mobilized them.  And that terror did not exist. 

They were rejected by the outside world.  Bush and other Wetern leaders quite appropriately refused to recognize the legitimacy of the junta.  The external rejection gave heart to the internal resistance. 

They underestimated the extent of the democratic and liberal sentiment in the Soviet Union, both in the countryside and the major urban centers.  After four years of liberty, most of the Russian people were no longer prepared to return to the old obedience.  Gorbachev had wrought a revolution that could not be reversed.  What had once appeared to the masses as credible and frightening now seemed ludicrous and disgusting.  The coup occurred too late.  Three years earlier it would have been successful. 

They underestimated the courage of the masses and the boldness of Yeltsin.  They expected the old apathy, or at least ambivalence.  But they found mobs in the street willing to defend their new found freedom.  And the people of Russia had a defiant, charismatic leader who became the focal point of popular resistance. 

The coup leaders were not without some support.  Widespread anger over shortages, rising prices, speculation, increasing crime and ethnic conflict was a fertile ground for exploitation.  But, in the end, popular hostility was directed to them and to communism as the causes of the natural disaster. 

So what does the failure of the coup mean? 

It means the death of communism in the Soviet Union.  The coup was the last stand of the Party against the loss of power.  So discredited is Marxism that even the coup leaders were reluctant to use communist slogans to mobilize the masses.  They rather appealed to law and order.  The hardliners are in disgrace and so is their cause.  The attempt to overthrow Gorbachev was a kind of collective suicide. 

It means the embarrassment of Gorbachev.  Despite the fact that he was a victim of the coup and bravely resisted their demands for his cooperation, the reality is that the leaders of the junta were his appointees.  He had trusted them with power.  He had trusted them with power.  He had insisted on Yaneyev, the chairman of the junta, as his vice president, despite the protests of his own supporters.  He was undone by his own assistants, not a very pretty tribute to his sagacity or to his commitment to democracy.  Gorbachev may be bypassed by the rapid movement of events.  The revolution that he created may now need less compromised  leadership. 

It means a victory for Boris Yeltsin.  His courageous leadership during the coup attempt has made him a national hero.  Part buffoon and part genius, he is now the most popular man in the Soiet Union and a very eligible candidate to lead the Russians-and whoever joins them-to a market economy. 

It means victory for the nationalities of the Soviet Union who want more autonomy and even independence.  Already Estonia has joined Latvia and Lithuania in declarings its complete separation from the Russian Empire.  Whether the Soviet Union will hold together or disintegrate into its constituent republics is now an open question.  It means increasing power for America and the political agenda of Bush and Baker.  With the removal of the hardliners and the increasing dependence of the Russians on the help of the West, Soviet cooperation with the United States will be much easier.  That cooperation will enhance the effectiveness of the United Nations and increase pressure on Israel to make peace with the Arabs. 

The Gang of Three has unwittingly performed a wonderful service for the free world.  They have arranged to disappear.  A new world order may owe their stupidity a debt of thanks. 

The Rabbi Writes: Rosh Hashanah

The Jewish Humanist, September 1977, Vol. 15, Number 1

Rosh Hashanah 

A time for annual Jewish reflection. 

A time to look back on the year that was and ask the question: 

So what is the condition of the Jews? 

The condition of the Jews is not always easy to assess. But pleases the orthodox may not please the atheist. But the conservative calls progress that liberal may label reaction! 

But there are some current problems which all would agree were (sic) troublesome. 

The problem of Israel. The strong posture of the Begin government may be initially appealing. But it remains pure bravado unless Begin can find the Jews to occupy the territories he wishes to annex. In an ironic sense Begin and the old Arafat agree that Israel (or Palestine, if you wish) should remain undivided. For the Arabs the Begin state will in the long run be an Arab State. A bigger Jewish state, without Jewish immigration is the first step to an Arab Palestine. 

The problem of Russia. Russian anti-Semitism continues. In a recent issue of the magazine Moskva, Anatoly Scharansky asserted that Jewish bankers are not yet in power everywhere… it remains the most important task of the Zionist brain center to capture the key positions in the economic, administrative and idelogical machine of the countries of the diaspora… It is natural that such monstrous teachings could not fail to arouse vigilance, dislike and even hostility on the part of people with even a minimum of sense. The so-called Jewish world conspiracy becomes a convenient diversion on the part of the authorities to explain the inadequacies of the Soviet system and to justify anti-semitism. If three million Jews were not trapped within the boundaries of the Soviet Union, the statement would be ludicrous. 

The problem of Argentina. One of the largest Jewish communities in the world (numbering 500,000) is suffering the evils of an incompetent military dictatorship. Terrorism, inflation and unofficial antisemitism are on undermining the security of our Argentine Jewry. A competent dictatorship would at least (sic), have arranged for economic stability! Since the situation is not bad enough for emigration, ambivalence reigns. 

The problem of South Africa. It is only a matter of time before black (sic) nationalism sweeps away the Rhodesian regime and creates civil turmoil in South Africa. Given the power of the Africaner (sic) army it is unlikely that the whites will be driven into the sea in the near future. But South African whites, including 120,000 Jews will be living in the midst of riots and terrorist provocation. No matter how liberal Jews may choose to be, they are condemned to being white. The present emigration of Jewish professionals is the trickle before the flood.  

The problem of Quebec. Montreal had, until recently, the largest and most vital Jewish community in Canada. It’s English-speaking establishment including the Jews is unfrightened (sic) of the future. French Canadian nationalism, like most nationalism (sic) is economically irrational. But it is politically relentless. Toronto is also beginning to experience the exodus of Jews from Quebec. As recent history has demonstrated neither nationalism nor socialism have served Jewish interests well.  

But enough problems.  

What positive things exist? 

Two assets come to mind . 

1.The Arabs are incapable of uniting against Israel. Their hostility for each other in some cases seems to be greater than the hostility to Israel. During the past year Arabs fought Arabs in both Lebanon and Libya. A new public ally has emerged for Israel. The Maronite Christian Arabs of Lebanon prefer Jews to their fellow Arabs. 

2. The largest Jewish community In the world (some six million) have managed, for some reason or other, to end up in the most powerful nation in the world. America is today the industrial, intellectual and artistic center of our planet. Either the Soviet Union or Western Europe have the cultural vitality of the United States. Jewish power is a function of the Jewish presence in America. Leadership in the arts and sciences is disproportionately Jewish. While many Jews are embarrassed by our conspicuous presence (and think that we should never mention it in a public magazine), others like me are justifiably pleased and believe that our enemies should be reminded repeatedly of what they already know.  

This is reason enough for Jews to say Happy New Year.  

The Challenge of Soviety Jewry

Humanistic Judaism, Fall, November 1991

The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union is one of the most important events of the 20th century, equal in importance to the Bolshevik Revolution, which brought communism to power. For more than 70 years, all major political developments in both the West and the East evolved around the Bolshevik presence. Fascism, war, and the political tensions between Left and Right all were responses to communism, whether perceived as savior or devil.

In the early years of the revolution, thousands of Jews, both in and outside of the Soviet Union, shared the Bolshevik fervor. Caught up in its messianic enthusiasm, they believe that communism is the answer to anti-Semitism and the Jewish problem. But these devotees were crushed by the real realities of the communist system, which used anti-Semitism as a tool of social control. Enthusiasm was followed by disillusionment and the bitterness of betrayal.

Today, after 70 years of repression and isolation, the Jews of the former Soviet empire are free. They are confronted with both opportunity and danger. They have difficult decisions to make. Should they or should they not remain in the Soviet Union? What place should they give to Jerusalem and Judaism in their life? What kind of Judaism should they seek to embrace?

Lost for so long to the Jewish world, Soviet Jews have become a gold mine for Jewish recruitment. What do they choose to remain in the Soviet Union or to emigrate to Israel or North America, they are the largest body of unaffiliated you to suddenly appear as a major factor in the modern seen. Today, the “missionaries” of traditional and reform Judaism are busy looking for “converts”. And with books and videotapes, Lubavitchers have penetrated the remote cities and villages of the Soviet Union in search of followers.

Secular humanist a cutie as I’m cannot be indifferent to this new development and this new opportunity. After 70 years of secularization, most of your dues are not religious. If they never learn about the possibility of being both meaningfully secular and meaningfully Jewish, they would use traditional expressions that are inappropriate to their convictions and lifestyle, or-more likely-they will choose to do nothing about the Jewishness at all.

We, a secular humanist excuse, have a moral obligation to reach out to our Soviet Jewish brothers and sisters, wherever they may be. We need to share with them our experience that Judaism and humanistic convictions can go hand in hand. The task is overwhelming. But it also will be exciting and energizing for a movement.

China After Tiananmen Square

The Jewish Humanist, August 1989

The massacre in Beijing will long remain in our memory. The shooting of thousands of unarmed and innocent civilians by a brutal army shattered our hopes for democracy in China. What initially seemed impossible happened.

The context of the killings only added to the despair. In other parts of the Communist world democracy was advancing. The new Supreme Soviet was meeting with free and open debate. The Communist Party had been defeated in Poland in a free election. The Hungarians were talking about a multi-party system. Until this repression it seemed as though the entire Communist world was moving inevitably to more and more freedom and democracy.

Visions of a world of universal detent and disarmament, induced by the Chinese reforms and the Gorbachev initiative, were clouded by the massacre. The fear arose that Communist conservatives would be emboldened by this success and would offer stronger resistance to reformers in other parts of the Marxist world. Holdout tyrannies, like East Germany and Czechoslovakia, might look at China and find support for their stand. Reluctant reformers in the Soviet Union would see the possibility of changing sides and winning. Rabid anti-Communists in the West would use the repression to revive their paranoia. The mood of optimism might be turned off by new, doubts and apprehensions.

How justified is this new pessimism?

There is no doubt about it. The conservatives, the octogenarians and their henchmen who have been opposed to the speed and sweep of the economic reformers, who have spent their lives in the midst of an authoritarian and Stalinist party structure, who are determined to maintain the supremacy of the Party at any cost – these men have won a victory. They have persuaded the commanders of the Army to serve their vested interests and to impose their minority will upon the people.

The forces of democracy are in danger and on the run. Deng Hsiao Ping, the senior leader who had sought to remove the octogenarians and the conservative bureaucrats from positions of power, has reaffirmed his Stalinist past by joining them. A new sinister Triumvirate of President Yang Shangkun, Prime Minister Li Peng and Securities Chief Qiao Shi have assumed power. And they may be perfectly willing to endure international rejection in order to maintain it.

The picture looks grim. Is there any hope to be extracted from the present situation?

I think there is.

This conservative regime no longer enjoys the support of the people. The deep hatred and anger that the shootings engendered will not quickly pass away. The sense of outrage has deprived the regime of the legitimacy that came so easily in the days of Mao. The “mandate of heaven” is gone. The people appear to be deeply alienated from the army and the “star” personalities of the regime. Sullen obedience is no key to the long-run future of any government. Without some form of active public cooperation no army and no police can ultimately prevail.

The massive demonstrations of students and workers for democratic reform indicate that the Chinese people are quite different from what they were ten years ago. The new freedom in the economic sphere has inevitably stimulated the demand for more freedom in the political sphere. The expectation level of both the educated elite and the urban masses has dramatically risen. What was once regarded as liberation from tyranny has now turned into tyranny. Lowering those expectations will not be easy.

The old Stalinist and behavioral assumption that people can be conditioned to endure any oppression has been -proven false by recent events in the Communist world. In both Eastern Europe and in China public resistance has revealed that human nature is not quite so malleable as social engineers would wish. As Erich Fromm has maintained, there is a limit to how much control people will endure. In the end the weakness of totalitarian regimes is that they bump up against the resentment of the unfulfilled masses. Democracy may indeed be an unstable form of government. But so is dictatorship.

It is quite clear that economic and political reform go together. Deng Hsiao Ping gave the Chinese some economic freedom without conceding any significant political liberties. He mocked Gorbachev, because Gorbachev attempted to use democracy and an open society to stimulate economic restructuring. But Deng’s contention that one can happen without the other is false. Market freedom spawns its own restless energy. The free exchange of goods leads eventually to the demand for the free exchange of ideas. And economic self-reliance strengthens the need for political self-reliance. Russia’s problem is that its economic gains will have no future without democratic reforms.

Progress is never a continuing set of forward steps. There are always many relapses. Quite often the onset of liberation is preceded by a last desperate attempt by diehard reactionaries to hold on to their power. The step-back ward is necessary to mobilize the people for the leap forward. The new repression in China will only serve to undermine what remaining credibility still adheres to the Communist Party. It may ultimately persuade even the reluctant to rebel. There is a hope yet that, sometime soon, the tanks in Tiananmen Square will be replaced by a new statue       of the Goddess of Democracy.

Visiting East Asia

The Jewish Humanist, September 1996

I have just returned from five weeks in East Asia. I had been there three times before, the first time as a Jewish Chaplain in the American army in Korea. My memories of Korea were poverty and devastation. I was anxious to see what the economic revolution of Asian capitalism had done to the settings of my memories. China, Vietnam and Indonesia were added to my voyage. I had seen China and Indonesia a decade before. Vietnam was new to me and, because of the terrible war, the most intriguing of my destinations.

I was aware, from my reading, that great transformations had taken place. I knew that the most dynamic economies of the world had their home in the Far East. I knew that the old Communism had given up its ghost and had embraced the consumer culture. Only authoritarian regimes and empty Marxist slogans remained. But I was unprepared for the dramatic difference to the past. The new urban centers of skyscrapers, expressways, automobiles, high tech factories, shopping malls, banks and motorbikes startled me. American culture had crossed the Pacific and had made a comfortable marriage with the fresh ambition and talents of eager Asians. The “goodies” of the Western world are more fascinating to these once hungry people than they are to us, somewhat jaded from overexposure.

As a Jew, visiting East Asia is different from visiting Europe or the Middle East. In the Western and Middle Eastern worlds there is an old and significant Jewish presence. The stories of both Christianity and Islam cannot be told without the Jews. The cities of Germany, Russia, Turkey and a dozen other neighboring countries have profound Jewish memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. In fact, our Jewish ancestors helped to make them great.

But China, Korea and Vietnam have no long-run significant connection to Jewish history. We all know about the native Chinese Jews who had their origin in the arrival of adventurous Persian Jewish merchants in the days of the Sung emperors. We also know about the Russian and German Jews who found their way to Harbin and Shanghai in this century, the agents of an expanding Russia or refugees from Hitler. But they are gone, a brief but exotic chapter in the saga of the Jewish people. They left no imprint on Chinese culture or Chinese memory. Tourists can find a few relics of their past in old Kaifeng or in the fast-changing streets of the former international settlements in Shanghai.

Yet in some strange way, East Asia is very Jewish to me. The young people remind me of all those Asian students in the United States and Canada who are replacing Jewish students as the winners of the top honors in science and mathematics. They are ambitious for education and success, in the same way that the Jewish immigrant children I grew up with in the ghetto of Detroit were eager for academic and worldly achievement. Their faces and food were not familiar, but their values were.

Communism had not been able to destroy the Confucian values of family loyalty, family ambition and self-discipline. As a Jew, these values were familiar to me. They were at the foundation of Jewish success. Add to this the Confucian reverence for the written word and scholarly study, embellish it with lingering bourgeois skills in commerce and trade – and you have the perfect setting for winning in an education oriented capitalistic world. In many respects the Chinese in Southeast Asia are resented in the same way as the achieving Jews in the Western world.

My experience in East Asia stood in dramatic contrast to my experience in the countries of the Muslim world. In the Muslim places where there is no oil, deep poverty prevails. While there is reverence for the written word, the text of the Koran, most study and learning are directed to religious study. The secular sciences of Western society are viewed as dangerous and subversive of the faith. A powerful religious establishment hates Western culture and offers resistance to its ideological advances. Iran, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and many other nations live with this hostility and the civil war it creates.

What unites the Jews and the people of East Asia is an overwhelming embrace of secular education. It is the key to their mutual success. No powerful Buddhist or native clergy remains in the Far East to oppose the appeal of scientific thought. Old values have been wedded to new thinking, without the reactionary intervention of fundamentalist religion. The consequence is social discipline and worldly success.

Of course, modern urban industrial capitalist civilization has brought the problems of overcrowding, crime and rudeness. They are the unavoidable accompaniments of a dynamic economy. But the growing victory over poverty outweighs their annoying intrusion. East Asia is way ahead of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. In a few decades its emerging affluent nations may become the economic and political center of our planet.

It is quite possible that, in the twenty first century, Jewish ambition and the energies of the Pacific Rim will come together in a new chapter of Jewish history. Shanghai will not be Minsk, but then neither was London, New York or Los Angeles. Maybe the Jewish love of Chinese food is a prophecy!