Times for Rhetoric, Times for Action


By Leonard Fein

Published September 22, 2010.
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Now and then, one gets carried away by rhetorical devices. The words are seductive, even if they distort their author’s intent. That, I fear, is what happened to me just last week in the course of writing a column about the artists’ boycott of the new cultural center in Ariel.

My arguments in favor of the boycott were, and in my view still are, valid. But having made my argument, I then chose to cite precedent, and I turned to the world of music — specifically, to Pablo Casals’ boycott of Franco’s Spain, and Arturo Toscanini’s boycott of Mussolini’s Italy. In an earlier paragraph, I’d mentioned American Jewish efforts to boycott Nazi Germany during the 1930s. So, as it turned out, I’d in all three cases used boycotts of fascist regimes to buttress my argument.

The implicit suggestion that some readers perceived, that there’s an equation between a cultural center in Ariel and fascism, is noxious to me. As vigorously as I oppose Israel’s retention of Ariel and endorse the right of artists (and their supporters) to refuse to perform there — or, for that matter, anywhere else across the Green Line — the linkage to fascist regimes was as unfortunate as it was unintended.

In a brilliant and deeply moving talk towards the end of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein of New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun spoke of how the traditional confessional — ashamnu, bagadnu, and so on, all in first person plural, through the entire alphabet — can and often does function as a mask. These are the familiar transgressions, and acknowledging them too easily becomes rote. He proposed that each of us add something personal, something in the first person singular. I’m afraid I had a bunch to add, generally rather more intimate than the one at hand — but the one at hand did make my list. I hope I will take better care of my imagery in the new year now begun.

As I said last week, I do not believe there is a single standard that covers all kinds of boycotts. Would I visit Ariel if the purpose of the visit were better to understand the people there, or to debate with them the wisdom and the morality of their choice of home? By all means. Would I go as a tourist, a sightseer? Not a chance.

Once, when Grand Apartheid was still the law of the South African land, I accepted an invitation to keynote the biennial conference of the Board of Jewish Deputies. I was hospitably wined and dined, but there was no escaping the grotesque system. On the third day of my week-long visit, I sought out the doyen of the community, told him that I wanted to flee, that my very presence would be taken as validation, as implying that South Africa was a “normal” place, when most assuredly it was not. He, however, urged me to stay, and to speak out, to remind people who might otherwise have made some sort of internal peace with apartheid that it was shocking, unacceptable. I stayed on, made my speech and took pains to observe that the particular dilemma of South African Jewry was the need to choose between two central principles of our tradition: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” — which in practical terms could land you in jail — and “Therefore, choose life.”

On Yom Kippur, we can stand with the congregation, be comforted by the familiar melodies, take pride in at least some of the liturgical formulations and, if things work right, hear the words of Isaiah as if for the first time. We may actually feel some degree of contrition, some impulse to do better, to do what we can.

But then there is the kind of service that pulls us inside, that asks of us not to be satisfied with doing what we can, but that urges us to do what we must. Now, doing “what we must” is dangerous business. I have no doubt that the “pro-life” demonstrators who congregate in front of abortion clinics and hurl epithets at the women who enter those clinics are doing what they believe they must. Yet with both Isaiah and Jonah pointing us, the one explicitly, the other by allegory, we can readily discern what Jews are meant to understand by “must.”

Here, for more than passing example, is one such “must,” as put forward by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the need to petition our representatives to reauthorize critical programs for child nutrition.

On August 5, just hours before adjourning for summer recess, the Senate passed its version of the child nutrition reauthorization bill, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (S.3307), by unanimous consent. This piece of legislation provides $4.5 billion in nutrition and access improvements to the 10-year reauthorization bill. But in a last-minute change, in order to pay for the bill, the Senate decided to cut future benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). The $2.2 billion in SNAP money would reduce SNAP benefits by $14 billion in future years, taking away some of the increase enacted in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). So the Senate decided to pay for one important nutrition program by making cuts to another — as if our nation’s traditional first line of defense against the ravages of hunger is dispensable. There are 40 million Americans who depend on SNAP. They want for sustenance, and they are often voiceless.

All of us know that there are times in life when we are asked to be the 10th person in a minyan, to join and thereby enable a worthy cause. If Yom Kippur pulls you in, comes more as annual challenge than as annual burden, it begets a recognition that there are times when one is invited to be the third, the second, or even the first in a minyan, to be the one who puts the thing together and mobilizes the others.

Promoting a vigorous campaign to reduce the America’s poverty rate, which we now know is growing, is a worthy endeavor. Doing battle with the consequences of hunger in America is an urgent undertaking. It is now on the table — SNAP will be voted on again before this congressional session ends — and the post-Yom Kippur question, the “after having read the words of Isaiah” question, is whether we are at that table, and bring others to stand with us. For here, in this land, choosing life and pursuing justice are one and the same.

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