One of the true blessings of retirement has been having the time to attend a wide variety of public lectures.
A few weeks ago, on three consecutive nights, I had the opportunity to hear three scholars from different backgrounds, representing different disciplines, speaking on different topics, who together gave me a trifocal lens through which to view the contemporary political scene in America.
On Monday, March 28, Professor Fred Lawrence, a renowned constitutional lawyer and past president of Brandeis University, spoke at the Jewish Theological Seminary about the challenge of differentiating free speech from hate speech. In his remarks, Professor Lawrence included some real life examples of how we as American Jews have thrived in this country, in great measure because of the protections of free expression guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. He gave the audience some chilling examples of instances when distasteful, even hateful speech must be tolerated in order to maintain our own rights to free expression. Dr. Lawrence’s position is that hateful speech crosses over the line to “hate speech” when it provokes people to take violent or harmful actions.
On Tuesday, I heard a talk by Walter Isaacson, the noted biographer and journalist, on his series of biographies of American geniuses from Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs. To me, the most challenging point of Mr. Isaacson’s talk was that he said that for him, the feature that allows him to differentiate between geniuses and extremely smart people is the imagination that leads geniuses to out-of-the-box solutions.
On Wednesday, March 30, I attended a talk by Benedetta Berti a young Israeli academic, whose specialty is national security and conflict resolution. Her subject was the current wave of violence by Palestinians and how it differs from earlier waves of terror attacks. Dr. Berti’s analysis is that this latest Palestinian uprising, unlike the Al Aksa Intifada of 2000-2004, is not directed by Palestinian leadership, but rather is directed at both Israeli and Palestinian authorities. It comes out of a sense of hopelessness on the part of individual Palestinians. Dr. Berti thinks, she said, that this is not a time to convene another conference whose goal is to find a final settlement of the conflict. Dr. Berti, an Italian-born Jew who has made aliyah, feels that there is an urgency to take steps to combat the hopelessness that Palestinians feel, and that is leading them to hateful acts of violence.
In my opinion, our 2016 presidential primaries have been characterized by hate-filled accusations and expressions that are, at the very least, hugging the line, if not crossing the line, of the distinction between protected free speech and hate speech. While negative campaign attack ads have been a part of American electoral rhetoric since our nation’s inception, what shocks and confuses me is that in 2016, the American electorate seems to be finding a candidate’s ability to put down his opponents as a sign of strength.
Most political analysts talk about Americans’ anger and frustration with the status quo in both political parties as the cause of this year’s chaos. I wonder if the sense of hopelessness that Dr. Berti described as the precipitant cause of the current wave of Palestinian violence against Israelis also is present in the 2016 American electorate. Both the Sanders and the Trump campaigns are attracting large percentages of the electorate with platform positions that are unrealistically unachievable, despite their populist appeal. Moreover, I have heard from news commentators and read in polls, and also know from personal discussions with both Trump and Sanders supporters, that they know this.
Walter Isaacson’s list of people he classified as geniuses included only two political figures, Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin. The common thread he sees in these two men was not their exceptional intellects, it was their ability to think out the box and to imagine new pathways to the future. Isaacson points out that like his other subjects, including both Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, Franklin and Kissinger were both egocentric and highly intelligent men who realized that they lived at a time when their respective societies, colonial America and the post World War II Cold War America, no longer could operate successfully under their then-current rules of engagement. Neither man ever held elective office. Both served as key advisers to American presidents who understood that bringing the best minds to the task of solving communal problems was essential for achieving their own goals.
Jeff Page, a longtime writer for the Bergen Record, interviewed me in 2002 for an article on the first anniversary of September 11. He asked me a question: What was I doing on the day before the world changed forever? I remember that my initial response was that I did not want to accept the premise that the world had changed forever, but with the hindsight of 14 years, I must admit that the premise of Jeff’s question was accurate. In the 21st century, economic insecurity and the fear of terrorism are two of the most powerful forces affecting us all as individuals and as a global society. While finding solutions to our political and economic challenges may require geniuses with out-of-the-box thinking, the primary task before us as Americans, in the election of 2016, is to choose the best available leader.
We should elect a leader who can help us all to keep our eyes on the line between free speech and hate speech, who can give realistic hope to the hopeless, and who can be America’s teacher-in-chief, instilling in all Americans of every race and faith the words, from Leviticus 19:18, that are the centerpiece of Torah: Love your neighbor as yourself.