Non-lyin’ Eyes

Senses of humor are funny things. I still crack up over almost any Mel Brooks movie, while my kids sigh and roll their eyes indulgently. I feel that way about the Marx Brothers, and still think one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie was in “A Night in Casablanca.” Harpo, leaning against a building, is accosted by a Moroccan police officer shouting “Say; what do you think you’re doing, holding up the building?” When Harpo shakes his head vigorously yes, the officer angrily says “C’mon” and pulls him away. Whereupon the building collapses in a heap. As I did too, literally falling off my bed in laughter the first time I saw it. (Grammatical note: I am, like my editor Joanne, a bear about using literally literally and not figuratively. So yes, off the bed I went, luckily breaking nothing.)

But one of my favorite Marx Brothers quips is more philosophical than funny. In “Duck Soup,” Chico, playing the character Chicolini, was imitating the appearance of Groucho’s character, causing Margaret Dumont to confuse them. In that clip, Dumont, after having seen Groucho leave, notices Chico, and confusing him with Groucho, tells him she thought he left. Chico (in his inimitable accent): Oh no. I no leave. Margaret: But I saw you with my own eyes. Chico: Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?

Chico’s line, frequently misattributed to Groucho, is actually much older than “Duck Soup,” with the word lyin’ sometimes added before eyes. It’s often put into the mouth of a spouse who, caught in flagrante delicto by the cheated-on spouse, is trying to talk their way out of a seemingly impossible situation. But whatever its origin, exact verbiage, or context, it holds an essential truth and speaks to me with fervor today as I watch, listen to, and read the news. No matter what the pundits, politicians, or protesters say, there are some things that I’ve seen with my own eyes. And that’s what I choose to believe.

Of course, many matters of national and international import are complex, with aspects that reasonable people can disagree about. But within those broader issues, there often lie some basic, critical facts about which reasonable and honest people should not disagree.

Take, for example, Israel’s history and the current war in Gaza. There are many gray issues, where thoughtful observers can, and do, come to different conclusions; e.g., analyses of some of Israel’s actions, both in its early years and today on the West Bank. Or whether Israel should agree to a ceasefire, make a hostage deal, invade Rafah, or hold a new election. We’re past using Leon Uris’s “Exodus” as a history book or thinking that Israel doesn’t sometimes make serious errors.

But calling Israel a colonial settler state? An apartheid one? Accusing it of that most heinous crime of genocide? Really? Those words have legal definitions and real meaning, and Israel is not guilty of any of those crimes notwithstanding the repeated chants by know-nothing protesters on college campuses and around the world. I’ve seen the definitions and read the history of Israel; I’ve seen how Israel treats its Arab citizens, positively and negatively, and what Israel is doing in Gaza. Sometimes these facts and visuals are difficult and raise uncomfortable questions as to whether some of Israel’s actions were wise, thoughtful, or, indeed, justified. But what is also clear from even the most disturbing ones is that Israel is not guilty of colonialism, apartheid, or genocide. I choose to believe my own eyes.

Or, moving to this side of the Atlantic, there are several legal issues that will have to be decided by an appellate court concerning Donald Trump’s recent criminal trial and conviction. Serious legal scholars come to different conclusions about them. But there’s no question that Trump’s rants about the trial — including that it was a sham and rigged, that he didn’t know the charges against him, that Justice Juan Merchan (Trump called him a “devil”) was corrupt and conflicted, that the jury instructions did not require a unanimous verdict to convict, and that every legal scholar said the case should not have been brought — are false. Every last one. I know these claims are empty words without any basis whatsoever because I’ve seen and read many of the trial transcripts, orders, and other trial-related materials. Whatever happens on appeal, Trump, represented by experienced and learned counsel, was fairly tried and justly convicted by an impartial jury in front of a thoughtful, careful, experienced, and smart judge. I choose to believe my own eyes.

I also know that many reasonable people are concerned about the presumptive presidential nominees of our two major parties. Many think — I among them — that in addition to everything else, both are too old to run for a position that imposes the immense amounts of responsibility, stress, strain, and physical exhaustion as does the presidency of the United States. And I know that good old-fashioned liberals like me and some of my good old-fashioned conservative friends disagree, often thoughtfully, about a myriad of important national policies, ranging from taxation to immigration to voting to foreign policy. And that’s how it should be. We wouldn’t want a monolithic country where everyone agrees — or is forced to agree. Thankfully, we have a time-tested system for resolving those disagreements every few years called elections. Of course, elections don’t always work the way I’d like them to in the micro, but I like the meta story very much.

Age and policies aside, however, President Biden is a good, moral, empathetic, caring, honest, decent human being; former president Trump is not. Biden is a man of character and principle; Trump is not. Biden is strongly committed to democracy; Trump is not. Trump supported an insurrection; Biden did not. Trump is a convicted felon; Biden is not. Biden exemplifies true American values; Trump does not. And Biden, with all his faults — and who among us is without fault? — can serve as a role model we can proudly hold up to our children and grandchildren; Trump cannot. I know this because I have seen, and heard, the actual words both speak and write and the actions they take. I choose to believe my own eyes.

And finally, to build a bridge between my discussions of Israel and America, I know many thoughtful American Jews have issues with some of President Biden’s decisions concerning Israel and its war against Hamas. I understand their concerns even if I disagree on many specifics. But while we can discuss and debate those disagreements at a Shabbat dinner, it is neither fair nor true to call our president an antisemite who supports Hamas, or to describe his actions as a shameless betrayal of Israel. I have seen and heard him speak strongly in support of Israel many times over the last eight months, and back up his words with billions of dollars of arms and aid, accompanied by robust practical and diplomatic actions. I choose to believe my own eyes.

I assume some will read this and say their eyes tell a different story. Perhaps. But as the title to this column says, this is what I’ve been thinking. Taking Jeremiah’s words seriously (5:21), I try to see with my eyes (and listen with my ears) — and this is what I’ve seen. And since I know that my eyes aren’t lyin’, I choose to believe them.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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