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AN AMERICA OF HOPE AND FEAR - Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

09/13/2018 09:58:26 AM


AN AMERICA OF HOPE AND FEAR - Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

As you drive north along the Eastern slopes of the Sierras, on the way up to Mammoth, just past the town of Lone Pine, you pass a desolate, lonely place called Manzanar. You should stop and visit. Today, Manzanar is a National Historical Site. In 1942, it was an internment site, one of ten along the West Coast, for more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans who were uprooted from their homes and imprisoned by the United States government following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese Americans were said to be spies, providing information to the Japanese command. With no evidence, they were accused of sabotaging the defenses of the West Coast, and inviting a Japanese invasion. In February, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt succumbed to racist fears and signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing their incarceration. 62% of Manzanar's internees were citizens of the United States; that didn't matter. Anyone of 1/16 Japanese origin, one great-grandparent, was forced into the camps. The ACLU challenged the policy, but the Supreme Court upheld the president's order in the infamous Koramatsu decision.

The US military did allow the creation of an all-Japanese American unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team which fought with distinction in Europe, while their families were held in camps like Manzanar.

In December 1945, General Joseph W. Stilwell, the American commander in the Far East known as “Vinegar Joe,” flew to the farmlands of Orange County, California. On the porch of a frame shack, Stilwell presented Mary Masuda with the Distinguished Service Cross. While Mary and her parents were interred under Executive Order 9066; her brother Sgt Kazuo Masuda served heroically in Italy with the 442nd.  Masuda single-handedly held back a German advance, waging a lone mortar barrage for twelve hours on German positions. He was killed in action on August 27, 1944. Several show business figures accompanied Stilwell on his trip to the Masuda home. One of the party had this to say:

“[The] blood that has soaked into the sands of a beach is all of one color. America stands unique in the world: the only country not founded on race but on a way, an ideal. Not in spite of but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.” Eloquent words from Ronald Reagan, then a thirty-four-year-old movie star.

Quite the juxtaposition: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Democrat, the epitome of American liberalism, interred American citizens on the basis of racist fears. And Ronald Reagan, Republican, the liberal anathema, recognized how profoundly this violated America's principles. Four decades later, Reagan, in his final year as president remembered that day on the porch of the Masuda home, as he prepared to sign the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 authorizing compensation for the detained families and apologizing to victims of Roosevelt's policy. “For here,” declared President Reagan, “we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

American political life has always been a tug-a-war between hope and fear. Hope and fear.

Hope opens us, opens our minds and hearts to an ever-expanding interpretation of our founding principle " We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. Generation after generation, the power of hope in the American character prompted us to reach across our divisions, our boundaries and our differences, to set aside ingrained patterns of prejudice, to welcome the Other. Hope enabled us to turn segregation and exclusion into tolerance, and tolerance into solidarity and community.

The glory of American democracy is the story of hope's triumph. It was hope that inspired us to offer the promise of equality "

Not just to men, but to women,

Not just to white people, but to people of color;

Not just to the native born, but to the immigrant and the refugee;

Not just to Europeans, but to Asians, Africans, to people of all origins;

Not just to Christians, but Jews and Moslems and so many other faiths;

Not just to straight people, but gay people, to all who count themselves LGBTQ;

Not just to the typically abled, but those with differences,

Not just to the propertied, but to the poor, the needy, the dispossessed.

In 1963, the greatest prophet of American hope, Martin Luther King, led a march on Washington, and delivered the most eloquent political sermon in our history.  King declared. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a Promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise to all men, yes, black men as well as white men, guaranteeing unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness….We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation…. Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” King's dream prophesied the triumph of hope.

Four decades earlier, there was another march on Washington. On August 8, 1925, fifty thousand hooded Klu Klux Klansmen marched down the very same National Mall. The Klan demanded the restoration of what they called “true Americanism.” They advanced a platform that demonized blacks, Catholics, Jews, Mexicans, Asians, all non-white immigrant groups, together with the unchristian practices of alcohol consumption, birth control and the teaching of evolution in schools. Klansmen walked unmasked that afternoon, demonstrating their sense of total impunity.

Founded in 1866 by six former Confederate soldiers, the Klan set about terrorizing the newly freed black slaves, deterring them from voting, from holding office, from claiming property and the rights of citizenship. The Klan aimed at reversing the effects of the Civil War and protecting white privilege. By the end of the 1870's, the Klan disappeared. Largely because it succeeded. The South lost the war, but won the battle to preserve its way of life.

Inspired by D.W. Griffith's epic silent film, Birth of a Nation, the Klan was reborn in 1915. As industrialization and urbanization rapidly transformed the old agrarian world, and as massive waves of immigration came to American shores, particularly from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Klan proffered a ringing affirmation of the supremacy of white, Protestant America.

On that summer day in 1925, the Klan boasted a national membership of some five million, amounting to 15% of the national population, with a presence in all 48 states. Klansmen held eleven governorships and sixteen U.S. Senate seats and 75 seats in the House of Representatives. In Alabama, Hugo Black, a future justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was a member of the Klan. Any southern Democrat seeking office needed to join. In 1922 in Independence, Missouri, a young Harry Truman, then seeking office as eastern judge of Jackson County, nearly joined the Klan but declined when he was told to keep Roman Catholics out of county jobs.

Opposite the power of hope in the American character, is the power of fear. Fear closes minds, builds walls, slams doors. We fear someone or something coming to take away what is ours, what we've fought for and worked for... We fear our way of life is being twisted and warped… When we fear the world we know is disappearing, replaced with the strange, the alien... we close our minds, and clench our fists.

We fear the Other, the stranger, the foreigner. Immigration has always been the lightning rod of American fear. Because we Americans are not all of a single ethnicity, not all of the same faith or language or culture, it has always been a question -- who should we let in?  In 1783, George Washington articulated the American anthem of openness: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.” But fears about immigrants arrived from the beginning. In 1802, Alexander Hamilton"himself an immigrant, declared: “The influx of foreigners must… tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities.” Every generation of American life has reiterated this debate.

Just a year before the great march, in 1924, the governor of Georgia, Clifford Walker, addressed the second national convocation of the Klan, in Kansas City and declared: “I would build a wall of steel, a wall as high as Heaven, against the admission of a single one of those Southern Europeans who never thought the thoughts or spoke the language of a democracy in their lives.” He's talking about us, about Jews.

We know the stirring words of poet Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” But a decade after Lazerus, in 1892, the writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, published a more popular poem, “The Unguarded Gates,”

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,

And through them presses a wild motley throng"

Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,

Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho, Malayan,

Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav,

Flying the Old World's poverty and scorn;

These bringing with them unknown gods and rites….

O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well

To leave the gates unguarded?

… with hand of steel

Stay those who to thy sacred portals come

To waste the gifts of freedom…

Fear and hope are the twin tropes of American political life. Whenever fear has gripped us, we turn to our leaders, particularly the President, to remind us of who we are, to call forth our better angels. The greatness of America is that, somehow, those angels always arrived.

President Calvin Coolidge was no one's idea of a moral hero. Coolidge was a man of such taciturn character and passive demeanor, that when told that he died, the pundit H.L. Mencken replied, “how can you tell?”

On October 6, 1925, President Coolidge took on the Klan. In an address to the convention of the American Legion in Omaha, Nebraska, responded to the Klan's proclamation of a new Americanism --

“I recognize the full and complete necessity of 100 percent Americanism, but 100 percent Americanism may be made up of many various elements. If we are to have… that union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, …We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.” One African American leader who heard the talk called it the bravest American oration since Lincoln.

In his farewell address in January, 1989, President Ronald Reagan echoed Coolidge:  “I've spoken of the shining city [on a hill] all my political life... in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; ...if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here… She's still a beacon, ...a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Hope and fear. Fear is biological. Hope is spiritual. Fear is a natural response of the species, encoded into the physical body. Fear rises easily, it is autonomic. Hope must be learned and relearned. It must be practiced, rehearsed, renewed.

Fear sees a world of finite resources and shrinking possibilities. Fear posits an economics of scarcity, in which life is a race to grab what you can. Fear turns everyone into a rival, into an object to be expropriated, used, exploited.  

Hope comes from someplace else. The hope that animates the American political tradition is rooted in the deep religiosity of American culture. It is derived from the Bible, our Bible. It is our Jewish gift to American culture. Benjamin Franklin's design for the great seal of the United States was an image of the splitting of the Red Sea.

The American master story, the story that defines our American identity, is a narrative of redemption, told over and again in many voices. We were slaves in our own Egypt, and through God's grace, we were redeemed. We wandered a wilderness of adversity, and through God's goodness, we overcame. We arrived in a Promised Land, and here, we found a blessed life. And now we bear the sacred obligation to save others, to proclaim liberty throughout the world to all its inhabitants.

From the 17th century Puritans to the Founders in the 18th century, from the 19th century African American slave narratives to the 20th century literature of personal development and self-help, we tell this same story of redemption. It is inscribed in the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglas, Helen Keller, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, down to the story of Oprah Winfrey's rise from poverty and abuse to fame and fortune.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch, like me!

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but not I see.

The Lord hath promised good to me

His word my hope secures;

He will my shield and portion be

As long as life endures.

Hope grows out of the soil of this narrative of redemption. To believe in a providential God who is infinitely loving and good is to see before us a world filled with infinite possibilities, to embrace an economics of plentitude. To have faith in a God of grace is to believe that we can meet any adversity and confront any catastrophe with courage and the confidence that something good will yet emerge. To worship a God who is creator of all is to affirm the solidarity and interdependence of all the human family, to stretch our identity beyond the circumference of my individual self, my tribe, my class, my place, to share the pursuit of a common good. Wrote Martin Luther King, “all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…”

This past week we paid tribute to life and heroism of a great American, to John McCain. Typically, a senator, a failed presidential candidate, would not have garnered such attention. There is something in John McCain's life that we desperately hunger for today.

John McCain, the son and grandson of Admirals -- his father, the American commander of Pacific operations -- volunteered to fly dangerous bombing missions in the Vietnam War. When captured by the North Vietnamese, beaten, imprisoned, tortured, his captors discovered who his father was and offered him an early release. McCain refused. He choose to remain in prison years longer and subject himself to even greater abuse. In his 1999 memoir he explained: “I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral's son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of America's class-conscious society. I knew that my release would add to the suffering of men who were already straining to keep faith with their country.”

John McCain's life is just the latest telling of the great American narrative of redemption. It is a story of the triumph of hope, of service, solidarity and sacrifice. It reminds us that we yet possess the potential for greatness. It teaches that happiness comes from devotion to causes bigger than ourselves.

The contrast this past week between the character of John McCain and that of President Trump was so telling and so painful.

What separates McCain and the President are not policies. McCain voted with the President on much of his legislation. What separates them is something much deeper. The Administration's policy should be carefully considered, studied, and thoroughly debated -- all of them -- immigration, the economy, the environmental, health care, trade, and our stance toward Iran, China, NATO, Israel. To be very clear, I support many of the policies of this Administration. I believe many of these policies are necessary, ever courageous. Many of the Administration's policies have advanced our prosperity and our security.

McCain understood that the problem isn't policy. A President's influence goes well beyond policy. It is the unique power of the Presidency to set the tone, establish the idiom, and shape the texture of the nation's collective life. What President Trump has poured into the body politic, is toxic. Tweet by tweet he is killing our democracy.

For President Trump, life is a peculiar game -- a ruthless game of winners and losers. In the game of Trump, there are no rules, no limits, no bounds, except to win. Life is a brawl, and the object is to be the last one standing. In his businesses, no promise was sacred, no obligation binding. Investors and banks were left with loans and bonds in default, contractors and employees were left unpaid, clients and tenants oversold.

Success in the Trump game depends upon the confidence that other players are playing by the old rules. They assume contracts are binding, loans will be repaid, integrity matters. In the Trump world, those people are called “losers.” Because the goal isn't to be virtuous, the only goal is to win. The moral question is, what would happen if everyone started playing by Trump rules? The answer is, the marketplace would fall apart. The bonds of truth-telling and trust that hold a marketplace, a political community, a social world together would very soon dissolve. That's what makes this so dangerous. The game of Trump may allow you to make a killing in the brutal world of New York real estate development. But as a public philosophy it is toxic. It destroys every civic value of a democratic society.

John McCain invited the two men who defeated him for President -- George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- to deliver his eulogy at the funeral. But he specifically asked that President Trump not attend because nothing in John McCain's life makes any sense in the game of Trump. Service, solidarity, sacrifice have no resonance. In this game, only a fool “asks not what your country can do for you;” only a sucker would “ask what you can do for your country.”

In the game of Trump, presenting the image of momentum and the appearance of success is essential. The brand is everything. So the flow of information must be carefully controlled. In the political version of the game, political opponents are not defeated, they're criminalized and destroyed. A free and critical press is discredited as fake news, an enemy of the people. An investigation into corruption and collusion is a witch hunt, a product of the biased, vindictive “Deep State.” In the President's game, there are no objective facts. As his lawyer declare, “truth isn't truth.” There is no truth. Truth is what he needs you to believe. So there is no civil debate. If you question, if you are a skeptic, you're an enemy, a traitor, an obstacle to be eliminated.

Bob Woodward's new book is titled, “Fear” because in an interview early in the Presidency, the President told Woodward, “real power is fear.” Donald Trump is a creature of fear. He lives in constant state of fear. And he is an artist at the politics of fear. It's always -- Us against Them. At his rallies, he explodes into a frenzy at all those who are coming to take away our prosperity, our safety, our guns, our homes, our faith, our future. The catalog of demons grows with each iteration " Mexican immigrants, Central American gang members, Muslims, the Chinese, the Democrats in Congress, the FBI, the NFL, the New York Times, CNN, Canada, Jeff Sessions, NATO, …the crowd screams and cheers and the adrenaline rises as the rage burns and fears are brought to a boil.

And we wonder, what's happening to us? Who are we? Where will this lead to? Unfortunately, we know. We Jews, we know a thing or two, because we've seen a thing or two. We know what happens when fear comes to dominate a political culture. We know what happens when it is no longer aberrant and bizarre and unprecedented, but becomes the new normal. We know what happens when a narrative of fear finally and completely overcomes the narrative of hope.

Our task is, quite literally, to keep hope alive. Our task is to rehearse our American narratives of hope and solidarity, of service and sacrifice. To tell and retell and tell again the truths taught us by John McCain, Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King, even Calvin Coolidge, George Washington... and my bubbie, my European born grandmother.

As bubbie got older and her eyes failed, she spent more and more time listening to talk radio. I'd come from graduate school to share lunch, and she'd tell me all she heard that morning. She's sigh and say with resignation, “So much foolishness. Achhhh, goyim, feh.”

I'd say, “Bubbie! ‘Goyim, feh'?! You don't believe that.” A portrait of Martin Luther King hung on her living room wall. I'd point and say, “Look, there's Martin Luther King, you believe in him!”

She'd declare, “Martin Luther King is not from the goyim.”

“What do you mean?” I'd respond, “he's a minister of the gospel!”

“Nope,” she'd shake her head, “Martin Luther King is from the Schvatzes, (blacks), and the Schvatzes zonen Yiddin.” Black people, African Americans are all Jews!

“Ok,” I answer, “how about Caesar Chavez?” Chavez was head of the United Farmworkers Union. In solidarity with Chavez and the union, we never ate grapes or lettuce. A union poster with a picture of Chavez, hung on Bubbie's refrigerator door. “You believe in Caesar Chavez!”

“No!” she'd insist, “Chavez is not from the goyim. Chavez is from the Mexiciynishers, (Latinos) and the Mexiciynishers zonen Yiddin, they're are Jews!”

I'm getting the picture now, but I tried once more. Adopting her syntax, I proposed,“How about Mrs. Takahashi? Isn't she from the goyim?”

The Takahashi family lived next to my grandparents in Boyle Heights during the war. They were taken away to Manzanar. While they were away, my grandmother cleaned their apartment every week, and when they returned, Bubbie went shopping and filled their ice box with fresh food, so they would know that the neighborhood welcomed them home. When Bubbie and Zeyde moved to “Bubbieland” in Fairfax, the Takahashis moved with them, and they lived next door.

“No,” Bubbie was quick to correct me, “the Takahashis are Japanese. They're Jews too. They're all Jews!”

Of course they are. All of them. They're our family. They're our responsibility. We are one. Because we know racism, hatred, exclusion, discrimination. We know what is like to be the target of someone's narrative of fear. We carry those wounds very close to the heart. We know this: We're family. We're all family. This the truth taught by hope: We are one. One nation, under God, indivisible. And it is our sacred duty to advance liberty and justice and hope for all.


Material for this sermon was drawn from:

Dan McAdams, The Redemptive Self, Stories Americans Live By. Oxford, 2013

Martin Luther King, Letters from the Birmingham Jail.  “I Have a Dream.”

Jon Meachum, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. Random House, 2018

John McCain, Faith of My Fathers, A Family Memoir. Random House, 2000.

Farewell Statement. Remarks at the 2017 Munich Security Conference.



Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784