I have always enjoyed reading. I lovingly received the gift from my mother. Over the years I have read much, and have narrowed my personal perspective down to three favorite authors, who have managed often to give me great comfort and incite, in moments of memory and solitude. Ben Hecht I met on my journey back to being a Jew. He has been a great friend, and he has confided much to me over the years. My second favorite is also someone I met on my journey back – Nikos Kazantzakis. He might have been born a Christian but in his heart and in his writing he is a proud Hovat Zion. And third, although politically very different, Elie Wiesel writes as I have often felt, …A Beggar in Jerusalem.
For Hecht there is truly nothing new under the sun, and certainly his Guide for the Bedeviled [Jew] is as relevant today as it was when he first put type to paper. He writes of a person of history. “I met him in a history book. He is tall, a handsome man with an imperious eye…He is a Portuguese Jew of distinction, and lives in elegance in the city of Bordeaux, France; time 1763. The Senor owns a few sailing vessels, trades with the people of the Indies, has a carriage with four horses, pomades his hair, takes snuff, carries an ivory-handled cane, and reads Voltaire… but Voltaire, nonetheless, has disturbed Senor Pinto…The merchant of Bordeaux calls in some friends. They arrive in velvet carriages drawn by happy horses. They discuss the matter of this Jewish calumny of Monsieur Voltaire over tall bottles of rich red wine. The Jews must strike back…and who is better fitted than Senor Pinto. Thus, by acclamation, Senor Pinto is declared champion of the Jews. He seizes his quill, produces in five weeks a fine volume of rebuttal, and takes this volume to Paris to hurl at Voltaire. The rebuttal says that Voltaire is a fool in assailing Jews as if they were all alike. Senor Pinto points our indignantly that the Portuguese Jews, who “are all practically aristocrats,” despise German and Russian Jews as deeply as do any of their other despisers. All Voltaire has to say against the Israelites, cries the Senor from Bordeaux, might well be true of these same uncouth German and Russian varieties, but it is in no way applicable to the fine, high- class Semites only recently driven out of Portugal.
“I shake hands with Pinto. He soothes me. He reveals that neither Voltaire nor any anti-Semites have a corner on intolerance…I applaud Senor Pinto… He looks around with imperious eye, takes a pinch of snuff, and smiles with the arrogance of a Cardinal. But Senor Pinto’s distaste for all Jews but his own brocaded variety has an unhappy [end]… Attracted by this dandy’s boasts, Christendom looks on the towns of Bordeaux and Avignon, and is shocked to see Jews living in such high estate. Jews with ivory-handled canes and velvet capes, and large sailing vessels full of spices and gold plate. Unlike the Epicurean Pinto, the Gentiles are unable to savor the distinction between Portuguese and German Semites…The Portuguese Jews of Bordeaux are stripped again of their dignity and treasures, and sent packing into ghettos.
Another reason I admire Pinto is that he permits me to say, here is one Jew who was victim only of his own stupidity. I imagine there are many such, but Pinto stands in a spotlight…There is also a historic lesson in Pinto, for he reveals that when the Jew plays villain, there are always better villains around to steal the part from him. Senor Pinto also helps me to understand many Jews of today who have come to high estate in various lands. These elegant ones are ever ready to repudiate all Jews without ivory-handled canes, collections of fine paintings, or the ear of an archbishop. No more than poor Pinto will these Jewish Fortunates know that, in the eyes of anti-Semites, Jews are as inseparable and identical as Siamese twins. No more than poor Pinto will they learn that even espousing so un-Jewish a cause as anti-Semitism, never makes a Jew less a Jew.
But Senor Pinto is not entirely a villain, nor yet a fool. He is more the victim of a certain logic that the world refuses to share with him… there comes a morning when Jews always wake up. History stands outside their windows and, in a voice that seems truly that of an idiot, bids them attend a massacre being held for Jews only. At such a time the Pintos and the near Pintos…catch a look at the true meaning of the Jew. He is part of a game the world plays…This Jewishness is not essential to the Jew… it is to his enemy, who refuses to out grow a panacea so soothing, so enriching, so ego inflating as anti-Semitism.”
And so it was on September 17, 2002, that a more up to date Senor Pinto again takes the stage, his place in the spotlight is what might be called, an historical curtain call. Although this Pinto has changed his name, we know it is him by his personality, and ultimately by his sensitivities and realizations. History steps out from behind the curtain to applaud Senor Lawrence Summers, (nee Samuelson) as he takes his place in a Jewish history he only recently became aware of. Senor Summers is no longer part of his comfortable academic or political in-crowd. He says as much, although a bit shocked. Having leaped up the status ladder leaving his roots, and his bubbie and zayde far behind, he finds that having reached a height he thought he could never achieve, and would leave his own history behind – he has found to his sudden dismay that perhaps the ladder wasn’t quite tall enough, and that some of his quaint colleagues had cut a few of the rungs just to put him back in his place. For Senor Summer’s it has been a humbling realization. In his pain he feels an urge for public confession and so with head bowed, he begins his most solemn defense of his realization in Memorial Church, on the esteemed campus of the sometimes highly regarded Harvard University, no less. No longer in cape, and without the benefit of his ivory cane, in a Dreyfus-esque moment he begins.
“I speak with you today not as a president of the University but as a concerned member of our community about something that I never though I would become seriously worried about – the issue of anti-Semitism. I am Jewish, identified but hardly devout. In my lifetime, anti-Semitism has been remote from my experience. My family all left Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The Holocaust is for me a matter of history, not personal memory. (Here come those Polish and Russian Jews again.) To be sure, there were country clubs where I grew up that had few if any Jewish members, but not ones that included people I knew. My experience in college and graduate school, as a faculty member, as a government official, all involved little notice of my religion. Indeed, I was struck during my years in the Clinton administration that the existence of an economic leadership team with people like Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Charlene Barshefsky and many others that was very heavily Jewish, passed without comment or notice. It was something that would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago, as indeed it would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago that Harvard could have a Jewish President. Without thinking about it much, I attributed it to progress – to an ascendancy of enlightenment and tolerance. (So too the German Jews of 1938.). A view, that while the politics of the Middle East was enormously complex (for a part time Jew), and contentious, the question of the right of a Jewish state to exist had been settled in the affirmative by the world community (and if a vote were taken today at the U.N).
“But, today, I am less complacent. Less complacent and comfortable because there is a disturbing evidence of an upturn in anti-Semitism globally, and because of some developments closer to home. Consider some of the global events of the last year. There have been synagogue burnings, physical assaults on Jews, or the painting of swastikas on Jewish memorials in every country in Europe. Observers in many countries have pointed to the worst outbreak of attacks against Jews since the Second World War. Candidates who denied the significance of the Holocaust reached the runoff stage of elections for the nations highest office in France and Denmark. State-sponsored television stations in many nations of the world spew anti-Zionist (and anti-Semitic) propaganda.
“The United Nations sponsored World Conference on Racism – while failing to mention human rights abuses in China, Rwanda, or anyplace in the Arab world – spoke of Israel’s policies prior to recent struggles under the Barak government as constituting ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. The NGO declaration at the same conference was even more virulent. I could go on. But I want to bring this closer to home. Of course academic communities should be and always will be places that allow any viewpoint to be expressed. And certainly there is much to be debated about the Middle East, and much in Israel’s foreign and defense policy that can be, and should be vigorously challenged (really?). But where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in “progressive intellectual communities.” Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent. For example: Hundreds of European academics have called for an end to support for Israeli researchers… Israeli scholars this past spring were forced off the board of an international literature journal. At the same rallies where protesters, many of them university students, condemn the IMF and global capitalism and raise questions about globalization, it is becoming increasingly common to also lash out at Israel.
“Events to raise funds for organization of questionable political provenance that in some cases were later found to support terrorism, have been held by student organization on this, and other campuses with at least modest success and very little criticism. And some here at Harvard, and some at universities across the country have called for the University to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the University’s endowment to be invested. I hasten to say the University has categorically rejected this suggestion. We should always “respect the academic freedom of everyone to take any position.”… The only antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated. (And today in 2019?)
“I have always throughout my life been put off by those who heard the sounds of breaking glass in every insult or slight, and conjured up images of Kristallnacht at any disagreement with Israel. Such views have always seemed to me alarmist if not slightly hysterical (Senor Pinto returns). But, I have to say that while they still seem to me unwarranted, they seem rather less alarmist in the world of today than they did a year ago. I would like nothing more than to be wrong. (As he tugs at his velvet cape of Harvard.) It is my greatest hope and prayer that the idea of a rise of anti-Semitism proves to be a self-denying prophecy – a prediction that carries the seeds of its own falsification.
Poor Senor Summers. A more recent victim of History. The reality sadly and painfully seems to befuddle our most devout President of the “velvet caped and ivory caned” Harvard…where “respect for academic freedom of everyone to take any position” is so highly ensconced. Moral values have become relative. A set of indisputable moral values, the enemy. Everyone has a narrative. Everything, no matter how despicable must be tolerated, rationalized or excused.
And so our two Jews, the Portuguese Senor Pinto, and the Americanized Senor Summers are connected ironically, by a common History. We can fly to the moon, but for the Children of Israel, history seems to be stuck, once again, in 2019, on repeat. Although some had hoped that once our people returned to our Promised Land, things would be different, “our enemies refuse to outgrow a panacea so soothing… and so ego inflating as anti-Semitism.” Perhaps this was part of the plan to help us remember our covenant from long ago.
Shabbat Shalom 04/12/19 Jack “Yehoshua” Berger