נשיא ארה”ב, דונלד טראמפ ,וראש ממשלת קנדה, ג’סטין טרודועניין בחדשות (Shealah Craighead, 2018)
ראש ממשלת קנדה, ג’סטין טרודו, לא יתערב הליך המשפטי שמתנהל בבית המשפט העליון של מחוז בריטיש קולומביה בוונקובר, להסגרת סמנכ”ל הכספים של ענקית התקשורת הסינית וואווי וסגן יו”ר מועצת המנהלים, מנג וואנג’או, לארה”ב. הליך ההסגרה צפוי להימשך עוד חודשים ארוכים ואולי שנים. נקבעו כבר דיונים בביהמ”ש לראשית שנה הבאה שיכללו את טענות ההגנה שנשיא ארה”ב, דונלד טראמפ, התערב בהליך ההסגרה משיקולים פוליטיים. פרסום הספר החדש שמסעיר את ארה”ב “החדר שבו זה קרה” של היועץ לביטחון לאומי לשעבר של טראמפ, ג’ון בולטון, מחזק את טענות ההגנה בנושא.
טרודו הגיב למכתב של חברי פרלמנט ודיפלומטים קנדים לשעבר שנשלח אליו בשבוע שעבר, ובו הם מציעים ששר המשפטים הקנדי, דיוויד למטי, יתערב בתהליך ההסגרה וישחרר את וואנג’או. כך שמקביל סין תשחרר את שני הקנדים שהיא מחזיקה בהם כבר יותר משנה, היזם מייקל ספאוור והדיפולמט לשעבר מייקל קובריג, שמואשמים בריגול. מעצר הקנדים נועד להפעיל לחץ על קנדה לשחרר את וואנג’או. ממשלת סין לא חוסכת שום הזדמנות להתקיף את קנדה ובעיקר את טרודו לאור מעצרה של וואנג’או.
טרודו אמר בתגובה למכתב כי קנדה לא תיכנע ללחץ של הסינים באמצעות מעצרם של הקנדים אותו הוא מכנה “סיטואציה נוראית”, וכי אסור לקנדה: “לתת למדינות לחטוף קנדים כדי להשיג את מבוקשן מאוטווה”. טרודו הוסיף כי שיחרור וואנג’או כדי לתפתור בעייה קצרת טווח תסכן אלפי קנדים שנוסעים לסין וברחבי העולם, בעקבות כך שממשלת קנדה תודיע למדינות העולם, שאפשר להשפיע על מדיניותה על ידי מעצר של אזרחיה באופן אקראי.
טרודו ממשיך לתמוך בעצמאות מערכת המשפט והתביעה הקנדית, בזמן שמתנהל הליך הסגרת וואנג’או לארה”ב, לאחר שנעצרה בוונקובר בסוף אלפיים ושמונה עשרה לבקשת האמריקנים. לאור מעצרם של שני הקנדים טרודו ציין כי קנדה “פתוחה לכל פעולה נגד סין כל עוד שלא תסכן קנדים אחרים בעתיד”.
וואנג’או (בתו של מייסד וואווי הביליונר רן זנפיי) שוהה בוונקובר בביתה המפואר, בתנאים מגבילים שנקבעו ע”י ביהמ”ש, לאחר שהפקידה ערבות של עשרה מליון דולר. במהלך היום היא יכולה להסתובב בתחומי העיר בלבד כאשר צמיד אלקטרוני מוצמד לרגלה, ביחד עם אנשי ביטחון (במימונה).
לטענת משרד המשפטים האמריקני וואנג’או העקפה את הסקנציות האמריקניות על איראן, ועשתה עימה עסקים באמצעות חברת מדף מהונג קונג בשם סקאי.קום. זאת תוך שהיא מציגה מצג שווא לבנקים האמריקנים שסקאי.קום כביכול היא חברה נפרדת מוואווי. כתב תביעה האמריקני כנגד וואווי, וואנג’או ובכירים נוספים בחברה, כולל עשרים ושלוש עבירות פליליות. בהן: הונאת ארבעה בנקים להסוות קשרים עם מסחריים עם איראן, גניבת סודות מסחריים וטכנולוגיות מחברת טי. מובייל, זיופים, הלבנת הון, ניסיונות לשיבוש חקירה והשמדת ראיות. לדברי האמריקנים הפעילויות הבלתי חוקיות של וואווי ומנהליה נמשכו למעלה מעשור.
ביהמ”ש בוונקובר קבע לפני כחודש שהעברות שמיוחסות לוואנג’או בארה”ב תקפות גם בקנדה, ולכן הליכי הסגרתה לארה”ב גם כן תקפים. ביולי ואוגוסט תציג התביעה מסמכים נגד הנתבעת ובספטמבר ההגנה תגיב עליהם. בראשית פברואר שנה הבאה ידון ביהמ”ש בטענות ההגנה שיש לבטל את הליך הסגרת וואנג’או, כיוון שהופרו זכויותיה, עת עצרה בשדה התעופה של ונקובר. ההגנה טוענת עוד שהתביעה האמריקנית הטעתה את ביהמ”ש בנוגע לעובדות הקשורת למעצרה. עוד טוענת ההגנה כאמור שטראמפ, משתמש במעצרה של וואנג’או כקלף מיקוח במלחמת הסחר שלו עם סין, והוא ציין כי יתערב לשיחרורה אם זה יביא להסכם טוב יותר עם הסינים. ההגנה תיעזר בספרו החדש של בולטון שבאחד מפרקיו מצויין כי בארוחת חג המולד לאחר שוואנג’או נעצרה, ציין טראמפ לכאורה על הלחץ שזה יצר על הסינים, תוך שהוא מכנה את וואנג’או “איוונקה טראמפ של סין”. בסוף אפריל ביהמ”ש בוונקובר צפוי להכריע אם תוסגר וואנג’או לארה”ב.
Avram Finkelstein will be participating in the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo by Alina Oswald)
A lot of it feels familiar, said New York-based artist and activist Avram Finkelstein about the current situation in the United States. The same American institutions that failed during the HIV-AIDS crisis are failing to effectively deal with the pandemic. And, when he was a teenager in the 1960s, cities were also being burned in America.
“It’s sad to think that we will be having the same struggles,” he told the Jewish Independent in a phone interview last week. “But, also, as you get older, you realize that progress is not a pendulum swing from left to right, it’s actually a spiral going forward and things do move to the right and they move to the left, but [there is] incremental change. So, part of me feels like we’re seeing the dying gasp of a world that I hope we’re leaving behind, and I see a world in the future that I want to live in. So that’s kind of helping me through this.”
Finkelstein was scheduled to come to Vancouver next month to participate in the Queer Arts Festival.
A founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives, as well as the political group ACT UP, he is the author of After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Images (University of California Press, 2017). His artwork is part of the permanent collections of MoMA, the Smithsonian, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to name but a few places, and his work has been shown around the world. He was set to unveil one of his new works in Vancouver. As it is, with the restrictions required to minimize the spread of COVID-19, he will be helping open the festival remotely, as part of a panel discussion chaired by curator Jonny Sopotiuk, which will also provide viewers with a tour of the festival’s art exhibition.
“I have a large mural that was going to be in the exhibition and now it’s going to be in a virtual space,” said Finkelstein. “I’m very excited about this piece and the fact that Jonny chose it – it’s the first time I’ve shown it…. I had a commission to do a work for the Shed, which is a new art space in New York, and, while I was waiting for the weaving tests of the final pieces – it’s a very large jacquard weaving – I decided to start drawing from the same source material as the cartoon for the weaving. I hadn’t drawn since recovering from a stroke; I had a stroke about two years ago…. I then realized that my hand isn’t my own, my body is no longer my own.”
The source material, he explained, “is a portrait of a gender-non-conforming friend who later transitioned. The work was all about corporeality as an abstraction and the ways in which we’re allowed to look at certain things, and what is public and what is private about gender and sexuality. And then, all of sudden, I realized, I’m actually talking about my own body in these drawings because my own body is not my own body anymore. I realized that I had made this sharp pivot from an abstract, theoretical idea of corporeality to this kind of war or dance, or I don’t know how to describe the physical process of having to use your entire body to hold a pencil.”
Despite the health, political and other challenges Finkelstein has faced, he remains hopeful.
“We’re trained to think that, if we don’t have hope, then the only thing that’s left is despair, but the truth is, hope isn’t so much the point – it’s the horizon that hope is sitting on and, so long as you can see a horizon, I think that, to me, is the same thing,” he said.
“I’m Jewish, as you know, and I think that Jews have a very different relationship to memory and to witnessing. If your people have been chased all over the globe for centuries, you take a long view. You sleep with one eye open, but you take a long view, and I think, therein, I’m eternally hopeful.”
In an interview in 2018, Finkelstein predicted that the situation in the United States would worsen before it improved.
“Which is another thing about being Jewish – you learn that there is no such thing as paranoia because it’s all real,” he said. “So, one could have seen, as plain as the nose on one’s face, where America was heading. And, in actual fact, what happened with Trump’s election was, we’ve joined the international march of global totalitarianism…. And, it’s not about to get really bad, it’s really, really bad. It’s really bad and I think that, here again, you can’t be Jewish and not think – not think your entire life, actually – in some way being prepared for, OK, what are the risks I’m willing to take if this happens? How far would I be willing to fight for other people if that happens. The shadow of Nazi Germany never escaped your consciousness.”
So how does Finkelstein conquer the fear?
“I guess I’ve replaced it with anxiety,” he said, laughing. But, he added, “I don’t know why I’m not fearful. I think that I was just raised – a day doesn’t go by that I’m not reminded of another lesson or another incident or another part of Jewish-American social history in the 20th century that my family was directly there for. I almost feel like I’m the Zelig of the left. All the stories you would tell my mother or my father, they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we were there. We were there at the Robeson riots. Oh, yeah, we were there when they closed The Cradle Will Rock and everyone walked down the street’ – exactly the way it was in the last scene in Tim Robbins’ movie. When I saw it, it seemed too preposterous, I called my mother, said, ‘Could that have happened?’ And she started singing the song that Emily Watson sings in the film.
“So, I think I have such a sense of self that one could interpret it as fearlessness, but I think that it would be more accurate to say I was not given an alternative role model. I was raised to feel the suffering of others and, if other people are suffering, there’s no night’s sleep for me. So, there’s really no option – you’re either closing your eyes to something terrible or you’re doing everything you can to try and make it less terrible. And I think that that’s the Jewish condition.”
He described Jews as being like queer people. “We are everywhere,” he said. “We’re in every culture, we’re in every race, we’re in every gender, we’re in every country. We have every type of ethnic community that we surround ourselves with. An Ethiopian Jew is different from an Ashkenazi Jew, but we’re still all Jews.”
Though raised by atheists, he said, “I don’t think you’ll find anyone more Jewish than I am or than my family, but Jews are prismatic. We are many things. Consequently, I feel like I can’t speak on behalf of other Jews, I can only speak on behalf of myself.
“Likewise, I’ve always had people of colour in my family; I just always have. And, I learned very early on back in the ’60s, when the civil rights movement was fragmented between King and Stokely Carmichael and the Panthers, and everyone was choosing sides, I think that’s another example of what I’m talking about – there are many ways in which to be black. And so, I don’t feel like what I have to say about this current moment is anywhere near as important, essential, vital, critical … [as] a person of colour – what a person of colour has to say about this moment is much more important.”
Finkelstein was one of the minds behind the now-iconic Silence=Death poster, which has been adapted over the years by many people. A variation of it could be seen in at least one of the recent protests. The original iteration encourages viewers to use their power and, for example, vote. In general, working towards solutions is an important part of Finkelstein’s activism.
“I think critiques are easier,” he said. “I think also we mistake public spaces, we mistake the commons, as a declarative space. I tend to think of it as an interrogative space. I think that, even in late-stage capitalism, when someone is trying to get you to put your money in a bank or go buy a soft drink, there’s something Socratic about the gesture of trying to get you to do something … you’re responding to it, you’re engaged in it, and that’s the interrogative part that I think is easy to overlook. And I think that’s where the answers are.
“I think that the way that the Silence=Death poster is structured is it’s really like a bear trap. We worked on it for nine months – the colour has certain codes and signifiers, and the triangle has another set of codes and we changed the colour of the triangle from the [concentration] camps and inverted it to obfuscate some of the questions about victimhood. And the subtext has two lines of text, one that’s declarative and one that’s interrogative, and the point size forces you into a performative interaction.”
This poster and other work with which Finkelstein has been involved include aspects that “people are very afraid to experience,” he said, “which is fallibility, mess-making and tension. And I find all of those things as generative, as kindness, support, community. They’re differently generative and … hearing so many people who are trying to figure out how to find their way in, as white people, into the conversations that are happening in America right now, is the same struggle as a young queer person trying to find their way into the AIDS crisis. I mentor a lot of young queer artists and activists and the first thing they say, their immediate impulse is, I have no right to this story, I wasn’t here, I didn’t live through it. To which my response is, immediately, you have every right to the story – it’s your story, it’s the story of the world…. Race is a white person’s problem. People of colour are paying the price for it, but the problem, the genesis of the problem, is whiteness. And we have to figure out how to talk about it…. But I think now is the time for listening.”
He said, “We have to know what our responsibilities are and this goes back to Judaism – our responsibilities as witnesses. You can’t let your discomfort change the importance of this moment or overshadow the importance of this moment.”
One of the things Finkelstein does is teach social engagement via flash collectives. “I think we’re never put into a position where people mentor our personhood,” he said. “We have people mentor us as computer programmers or healthcare providers or tax accountants or artists or writers, but … there’s something primeval which is missing in the way we’re acculturated, and the flash collective is almost shamanistic in that regard; it taps into this primal thing that is quite astonishing when you let it out.”
Understanding that he will not live forever, he said “the Silence=Death poster casts a very mighty shadow and it makes it very difficult for people to figure out how to make new work, if that’s what they think it has to be…. It became obvious to me that I could be talking about Silence=Death until the day I drop, but, one day, I am going to drop and I want other people to start making those new works and I thought this would be a way to get people to make new work.”
He described the collectives, which teach political agency, as being “like a stew of the top 10 hits of grassroots organizing in a condensed workshop that’s tailored to the individuals in the room.”
He said, “I believe that I don’t necessarily have to change the world because I know that there could be a teenager in 2050 who sees something that someone I worked with did that made them think of something else that I never would have thought of. That is the point of the work, not the how do I fix it before I’m gone, which is the dilemma of Larry Kramer [who passed away last month]. He really thought, and I think it’s really male, but it’s very men of a certain generation also – he really thought that he could fix the AIDS crisis, and it didn’t happen.”
Unfortunately, space doesn’t allow for most of what Finkelstein shared with the Independent about Kramer, who he described as “a complicated person.”
Kramer was a rhetorician, said Finkelstein. “And I’m a propagandist. We’re both rhetoricians in a way, but what was the dividing line that made Larry incapable of understanding the work that I did?… I felt like I understood his process better than he understood mine. And I started to think, well, here’s the difference between a person who articulates their rage with words and a person who articulates their rage with every tool in the toolbox…. Not to make myself sound superior, but I realized that I think of rage as sculptural; he thought of rage as rhetorical. I think of rhetoric as sculptural, I think of it as casting a shadow and activating social spaces. And I think that he was a Jewish gay man of a different generation and a lot of his rage was tied into his personal struggles. And I did not have those. I had other personal struggles, but I did not have them.”
As part of the Queer Arts Festival, Finkelstein will lead a flash collective on the question, “What does queer public space mean in a 21st-century pandemic?” He hopes the resulting work will be shown in a public space.
For more information about the festival, visit queerartsfestival.com. The next issue of the JI will feature an interview with QAF artistic director and Jewish community member SD Holman.
On June 4, New Brunswick resident Chantel Moore, originally from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation near Tofino, B.C., was shot to death by a police officer sent to her home to check on her well-being. On May 27, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an indigenous-black woman, fell 24 floors from her apartment during a police incident in Toronto.
In the United States, George Floyd died on May 25, after being pinned to the ground with a knee pressed into his neck for more than eight minutes by a police officer in Minneapolis. Breonna Taylor was killed March 13 in her bed in Louisville, Ky., in what amounts to a home invasion by police. Ahmaud Arbery was chased by three armed white neighbours and murdered on Feb. 23, while he was jogging in Georgia.
The challenge in compiling a list of names of black Americans and indigenous and racialized Canadians killed by police or lynched by vigilantes is choosing which from a horrifically long list of victims’ names to include. And the structural conditions that have led to this particular moment of upheaval are not new. Similar demonstrations have occurred after particularly egregious incidents, like the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014; Trayvon Martin, who was murdered in 2012 by a cop-wannabe; and the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles in 1991. Again, the list of just the most familiar incidents could fill pages. And they are not limited to the United States.
Could this time be different? One thing that some Black Lives Matter proponents are noting is the apparently unprecedented engagement of non-black allies in this moment. Is this because we all have more time on our hands right now? Or have we reached a tipping point, when the lofty language of equality has finally penetrated deep into the mainstream of North American society?
There are parallel streams happening, from the issue of police violence to the broader matter of societal behaviour toward racialized people. These are exacerbated by the unpardonable conduct of the U.S. president. When Trayvon Martin was killed, then-president Barack Obama noted that, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. The current president tweets threats of violence and has police forcibly clear peaceful demonstrators so he can have a photo taken in front of a church he has never entered. In a country aflame, the president’s comportment is incendiary and perilous.
This is a time for our community, the Jewish community, to consider our complacency and complicity in upholding racist systems. It is, as American historian and author Ibram X. Kendi implores, not enough to be not racist. We must be actively anti-racist. We must stand in solidarity with those who are suffering and recognize that the pain of racism is also the pain of antisemitism.
The solidarity and support we crave when we are threatened is the solidarity and support we must give other communities when they are in need. Give your time to an anti-racism organization. Donate your money to support black-owned businesses and organizations working to support the black community. Pray for the healing that is so badly needed in our society. March for equality and justice (in a safe manner). Stand up when you see injustice or hear a “casually” racist remark. Sign your name to a petition asking decision-makers to step up and rein in the militarization of policing and the funding that gets diverted from community into the over-policing of racialized communities.
Interrogate Canada’s colonial history and the lived realities of indigenous communities. Ask our educators to explore with their students global histories and the untold stories of millions, including richer views of Jewish history and the experiences and contributions of Jews who are not of European descent. Read a work of fiction by a black or indigenous author. Learn about how black culture forms the bedrock of North American culture and from where those art forms come. Explore the history of the black community here in Vancouver and how the early Jewish community, along with other minorities, together have called Strathcona home.
Absorb the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who referenced the calls of the Hebrew prophets in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for justice. If you’re already doing all of these things, share your knowledge and example with your family, your synagogue and the organizations and schools you support.
Some Jewish observers have expressed reservations about the Black Lives Matter movement, at least partly because the umbrella organization endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. This is an unfortunate and misguided move on their part, especially since BDS harms Palestinians in addition to Israelis. But the issue of black people – and people of colour in Canada and elsewhere – being murdered by police or lynched by racists must take precedence now. We can argue over Israel and Palestine later.
If one feels the need to prioritize Jewish or Israeli concerns at this moment, then let’s prioritize the safety of black Jews and Jews of colour. The vast majority of Jews are morally affected by what is happening in our society and black Jews are immediately and personally impacted both by what is happening in the world and by what is happening in our community around this issue.
Let us not pretend that this is not a “Jewish issue.” Rather, let us live by what is referred to as one of the “eternal religious obligations” of Judaism: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
British Columbians, like others in much of the world, are stepping gingerly into what may be a post-pandemic period – or an “inter-pandemic” phase, if the predicted second wave bears out. Our daily briefings from Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, and Health Minister Adrian Dix are cautiously optimistic, tempered with the reality that some people, given an inch, will take a mile. Confusion around, or contempt for, changing social distancing guidelines has meant numerous instances of inappropriate gatherings.
All in all, though, British Columbians have so far experienced among the lowest proportions of COVID-related illnesses and deaths than almost any jurisdiction in the developed world. Each death is a tragedy, yet we should be grateful for those who have recovered and the fact that so many of us have remained healthy so far. Thanks should go to all those who have helped others make it through, including first responders, healthcare professionals and also those irreplaceable workers we used to take for granted: retail and service employees and others who have allowed most of us to live through this with comparatively minimal disruptions.
In our Jewish community, so many individuals and institutions have done so much, from delivering challah to providing emergency financial and other supports for those affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Canadians, in general, seem to be making it through this time as well as can be expected. Polls indicate that Canadians are overwhelmingly supportive of the actions our governments have taken during the coronavirus pandemic. How the federal and provincial governments manage the continuing economic repercussions and the potential resurgence of infections in coming months will determine long-term consequences both for us and for their popularity.
In signs that things are returning to something akin to pre-pandemic normal, Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s once-and-still-prime minister, is complaining about a “left-wing coup” and asserting that “the entire right” is on trial. In fact, it is not an entire wing of the Israeli political spectrum that is on trial, but Netanyahu himself, for bribery, breach of trust and fraud. He is accused of exchanging favours to friends and allies in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in trinkets like cigars and champagne, and favourable coverage in media. Whatever strategy his team has for inside the courtroom, his PR strategy is pure deflection: blame the media, the court system, political opponents. He’s fighting two trials: the one in the justice system and the one in the court of public opinion. Netanyahu has managed to save his political hide thus far, through three successive elections and a year of coalition-building and horse trading. Predicting what might happen next is a popular but fruitless pastime.
More signs that things are not so different came from U.S. President Donald Trump on the weekend. As the death toll in the United States approached 100,000, Trump took time off from golfing to deliver Twitter rants, including retweets calling Hillary Clinton a “skank” and smearing other female Democrats for their appearance. Trump also insinuated that MSNBC TV host Joe Scarborough is a murderer.
Sitting (mostly) comfortably in our homes watching such things from afar, it’s no wonder Canadians are feeling good about the way our various governments – federal and provincial, of all political stripes – are behaving these days.
A week is a lifetime in politics, goes an adage. And so it would seem. Just one week ago, we posited that Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition of the right was likely to form the next government in Israel. Since then, Benny Gantz, head of Israel’s Blue and White party, has been reinvigorated by Netanyahu’s challenges in pulling together a coalition, after original exit polls had the Likud-led coalition at 60 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. This number has dropped through the actual vote count to 58, and it has changed the outlook.
As it has in the previous two elections, the result will hinge on the decision of Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party, a right-wing but defiantly secular movement. Liberman has publicly released his demands for support. Among them: he will not support a government led by Netanyahu (or any other individual under indictment) and he wants to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox serving in the military, introduce civil marriage, thereby taking control of this lifecycle event from the exclusive purview of the rabbinate, and hand decision-making about commerce and transportation on Shabbat to local governments. Meanwhile, Gantz is having a rebellion in his own ranks about seeking support from the largely Arab Joint List in parliament. So, the process is largely back to where it’s been for more than a year, with no more certainty of who will form the next government.
Whatever happens, Liberman’s sweeping secularist proposals are nothing to ignore. The ally-turned-nemesis of Netanyahu, Liberman seems to have learned from the masters how to leverage minimal electoral success to enormous political advantage. In the past, it has been the religious parties that conditioned their support for desperate-to-make-a-deal leaders on getting key benefits and concessions for their respective communities. If Liberman succeeds in helping create a Blue and White government that implements some of his plans, it will represent the same tail-wagging-dog effect that religious parties used to assert Orthodox standards across much of Israeli society. Except Liberman will leverage his seven seats to repeal some or much of what those religious parties have achieved.
This Israeli moment brings to mind other rapidly changing political fortunes. Joe Biden, whose campaign was struggling to survive a few weeks ago, is suddenly (again) the undisputed front- runner for the Democratic nomination in the United States. There is another parallel between Israel and the United States that is currently evolving, this one less publicly known. While Liberman strives to diminish the connection between religion and state in his country, U.S. President Donald Trump is moving his country more in the direction of Israel’s religiously influenced society.
As in Canada, many religious organizations in the United States do an enormous amount of good, in many cases filling in gaps where government services can’t or won’t. Republican administrations have tended to expand – contract out, if you will – some social services previously delivered by governments, while the Obama administration, for example, introduced safeguards to prevent those agencies from discriminating against individuals or groups who they might deem outside their theological teachings.
Writing in the New York Times Sunday, Katherine Stewart, author of a book on religious nationalism, warned that Trump is eliminating those Obama-era safeguards and making it easier for publicly funded agencies to discriminate. For example, clients receiving services from a taxpayer-supported Christian organization could be forced to profess allegiance to Jesus in order to access services or an employee could be fired for not living a “biblical lifestyle,” the definition of which the religious organization, presumably, could define at their own whim.
A test case in Missouri seems innocent enough: a church maintains it should get federal funding to build a kids’ playground; that being refused such money represents discrimination against religion. The corollary is clear: if preventing tax money from funding religious organizations (even for something as innocuous as a playground) is discrimination, Stewart warns, “then the taxpayer has no choice but to fund religion.” This would represent an abrogation of one of the most fundamental cornerstones of the U.S. Constitution: the First Amendment, which declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The framers of the Constitution were concerned not only that eliminating the barrier between government and religion would corrupt a government intended to serve all citizens but, perhaps equally, that it would corrupt religious institutions themselves. A number of the people on the test case’s side are also leaders among Trump’s evangelical constituency.
What was especially jarring when perusing the Sunday Times was a far more prominent story – on page A4, to be specific – about how Quebec’s secularism law is having a detrimental effect on civil servants, mostly women, from cultural minorities. The law, which precludes people who work in most roles in the public service from showing any external indications of religiosity – a kippa, a headscarf, a crucifix, a turban – is preventing individuals from beginning or advancing in their careers and, in some cases, effectively chasing them out of the province.
These disparate examples from three very different societies indicate the folly both of excessive religious interference in governmental affairs and heavy-handed efforts to have the opposite effect. Somewhere in the middle must be a commonsensical approach to these extremities. Of the three countries in the examples, Israel is perhaps the one where the challenges are most concrete and affect the most people. What, if anything, happens as result of Liberman’s gambit will be a fascinating experiment to watch.
After two inconclusive elections in Israel, incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appears certain to form a government after elections Monday, ending an unprecedented period of political instability.
Whether Netanyahu himself, under indictment and slated for a trial this month on corruption charges, will remain prime minister for long, the right-wing is certainly poised to govern for the near future. Israel’s Supreme Court explicitly refused to offer an opinion on whether a convicted prime minister could continue in office, a question that may now go from theoretical to very real.
Jews in the Diaspora, including a great many here in British Columbia, follow politics in Israel casually or closely, as many of us do the machinations of American politics that are also roiling this week. Canadian politics and those in British Columbia, around issues of environmental policy, disruptive protests and a host of other topics, have people here at home fired up about politics even without elections on the near horizon.
While there are countless issues and contests vying for our attention, there is also an undercurrent of less immediate yet possibly more ominous peril facing our democracies. Threats of external influence from bad actors, like a repetition of the Russian interference in U.S. elections in 2016, are cause for serious concern. The rise of domestic extremism – in mainstream politics as well as in the form of underground and sometimes violent movements – also deserves close attention. So does apathy.
All of these influences and attitudes present dangers to our democracies – in Canada, in the United States, in Europe and Israel. Newer democracies in Central and Eastern Europe have demonstrated how fragile the tissue of open, accountable and responsive government can be. It is alarming to witness the path that Hungary, Russia, Turkey and Poland have been on recently. Our democracies – in the United States and Canada, even Israel – may be somewhat older, but these countries are still warnings of how things that we take for granted can be snatched away. Democracy is less an enormous oak with deep and broad roots than it is a delicate flower that requires nurturing and constant attention.
For this reason, when there are government policies or election outcomes with which we disagree, we should remind ourselves that democracy may be the ultimate win-some-lose-some proposition and recommit ourselves to respect for the institutions of our democracy, not just when they serve our interests but even – especially – when they deliver outcomes that we find disagreeable. At the same time, we should be identifying and calling out every instance when a political leader or movement threatens the institutions or norms of our democracy.
Amid all of these political dramas, very daunting situations that recognize no geographic or ideological boundaries are challenging each and every one of us. This week, again, coronavirus is spreading and causing panic. Meanwhile, the dangers posed by climate change escalate every day. The economic impacts of these global concerns are blaring across the business pages: pandemic fears are causing wild stock market fluctuations, while the measures necessary to alter the course of climate change demand fundamental economic shifts. All of these threaten to exacerbate existing inequalities locally, nationally and internationally, threatening our morality and the stability of our world.
In the face of existential issues like these, the differences in our ideologies in countries like Canada, Israel or the United States fade into shades of grey. This is perhaps optimistic: that the differences between us are minimal in comparison to the difficulties we face together. That should motivate us to look beyond or to bridge our differences and recognize both the humanity in those with whom we disagree and the challenges to humankind that we must overcome together or succumb to apart.
The parallels between the Trump impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate and the release of the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan are striking. Donald Trump, a master of diversion, unveiled his incendiary proposal for the Mideast at the height of the Senate’s process. Just as the impeachment trial was, in some senses, a process whose outcome was predetermined by the Republican majority, so too is the Mideast proposal outcome predetermined in that it barrels over the Palestinian opposition and rubber-stamps almost everything the more extreme elements of the Israeli body politic have long demanded.
The approach is counterintuitive – like almost everything this U.S. president has done. Supporters might contend that, since all the rational thinking of the best diplomatic minds has not resolved this problem, a 180-degree turn that electroshocks the status quo might be better than nothing. The proposal is so one-sided that, out of sheer outrage, it has at least forced the Palestinian leadership to articulate what they will (or, rather, won’t) accept to a degree greater than they have expressed in recent years.
In the end, though, this emphasis on winning and losing – the Trump plan would be a clear win for Israel and a commensurate loss for Palestinians – is precisely the wrong approach. We may believe that the Palestinian leadership has betrayed their people by rejecting previous offers of coexistence, and conclude that what their people get is what their leaders deserve. But the Palestinian people deserve better than this.
Israel and the Zionist project have always had to contend with the realities and vagaries of coexistence – what other choice do Jews really have? Despite early warnings, coexistence with their neighbours was a widespread expectation among the early Zionists, some of whom thought (naïvely, in retrospect) that they would be welcomed with open arms by the other peoples in the region. But, even with the history of conflict and the absence of anything to give us a great deal of hope, some slow evolution that leads toward coexistence is the only realistic alternative to the status quo of suspended violence and intermittent war.
We need to recognize, above all, that a lasting resolution is not going to look like a win for one side and a loss for the other. Likewise, it is not going to resemble a win-win, as negotiators in various arenas, as well as salespeople, like to say. It will be a lose-lose proposition. An enduring peace and coexistence will almost certainly occur only when both sides are willing to accept a loss on many or most of their key demands – and accept that loss as a price for their children’s lives and well-being.
More immediately, we should be very wary of any master plan for peace that is scribbled out in the middle of an election campaign or another drama like an impeachment. The contents of such a plan are almost certainly more geared to the outcome it is trying to influence (votes for Likud or the Republican Party) or distract from (the U.S. president’s impeachment and trial or the Israeli prime minister’s loss of immunity from prosecution) than the problem it is ostensibly meant to address. Israelis and Palestinians, both, deserve self-determination and lasting peace.
Monday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Scrolling through social media, it was jarring to see the juxtaposition of images and ideas reflecting on that terrible history intermingled with the mundane and fantastical miscellany of everyday 21st-century life. This is the reality of our world: the grave realities of yesterday and today poking through the onslaught of witty memes, outrage over a vast range of real and imagined evils, cute kittens and the panorama of detritus and riches available to, and bombarding us, at every moment.
This is how it is. Even as we recommit ourselves to the promise of “never again,” still we carry on with our daily lives. Yet these realities are not, and should not be, disconnected from one another. The memory of the Holocaust and its victims, and the importance of listening to and learning from its survivors and its messages, are sacred obligations. But their lessons and meanings can and should be applied to the more commonplace events we experience. History is a prism through which we should view the present and the future.
Like the jarring extremes that can be found scrolling social media on Holocaust Remembrance Day, this collision of gravity and triviality is problematic. We recoil from inappropriate comparisons. Yet, in a world where legitimate causes struggle to be heard above the competing din, we often fall back on the most incendiary formulations, so every injustice becomes “fascism,” every leader we dislike a “Nazi.” This dilutes the seriousness of the history it invokes – and it also makes it more difficult to identify and draw attention to genuinely grave dangers, including literal fascism or fascist-adjacent ideas and actions emerging in Europe and closer to home.
The number of lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust are as innumerable as there are human behaviours. A relevant one for our time is the fragility of democracy and civil order. The actions of Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara (click here to read story) are examples of a dystopic situation where good people are driven to break laws and norms promulgated by evil forces. In situations where democracy and social order are upended, goodness is criminalized and malevolence is institutionalized.
Democracy is under threat in much of the world right now. Human nature is such that we take for granted once-unimaginable wonders – gadgets in our pockets containing the breadth of human knowledge, the perceived right of every individual to live free from fear of tyranny – almost as soon as we access them. We forget that democracy is barely two centuries old and that it is not only imperfect but tenuous. With extraordinary ease, individuals of various stripes have managed to smother or at least severely disfigure nascent democracies in Russia, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. A more established democracy in Turkey has been twisted away from its secularist, pluralist roots. The world’s largest democracy, India, is engaged in serious religious-based oppression.
In Israel, there are social forces and political parties pushing the extremes, as well. The Kahanist party, Otzma Yehudit, is aiming to again contest the March elections and has been rooting around the emerging electoral alliances for a slot. To his credit, Naftali Bennett, head of the New Right bloc and no raging moderate himself, rejects being in a tent with Otzma Yehudit and rightly warns other parties to steer clear.
And, in ways whose significance we may not yet be able to judge, the fabric of American democracy – checks and balances between branches of government – is being threatened. The president, indicted for attempting to extort our ally Ukraine to participate in political dirty tricks in exchange for desperately needed military funding to defend itself against the encroaching Russian military, seems destined to be exonerated by a Senate more concerned with party discipline than the rule of law, the constitution or human decency. If the probable outcome is realized, it will represent a blow to the grand ideals of the world’s oldest contemporary democracy.
Is raising this example itself a symptom of the problem we are discussing? Is it relevant and proper to discuss the American or Israeli situation in the same context as Russia, Poland or Hungary? Do we diminish the memory of the Holocaust by raising this topic in this perspective? Is it equally specious to assert that we won’t know, perhaps until it is too late, whether we should have been more or less vigilant when a man with little or no respect for norms of nicety or constitutionality ascended to the highest office in the democratic world?
This is the line we walk when we say “never again.” The magnitude of the history underpinning this promise is so enormous that we risk lessening it through invocation. Yet, if we isolate that history and its lessons, like good china saved only for the most special occasions, are we not conversely risking the very promise we undertake?
Craig Darch’s L’Chaim and Lamentations (NewSouth Books, 2019) is a bittersweet collection of seven short stories. Most of the characters in his first foray into fiction are older Ashkenazi Jews whose pasts are almost characters themselves. Yet, as strong as are their memories, these Jews are doing their most to live in the present, and to even assure the future.
Darch is the Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University, in Alabama, where he has taught for 37 years. He has lived several places in the United States, but New York City and Poland are the locations of import in these stories. At least one – “Who’s the Old Crone?” – was inspired by his birthplace, Chicago.
Having moved to South Bend, Indiana, with his family when he was 6 years old, Darch shares in an article on the Auburn website, “We attended synagogue in South Bend and continued to travel to Chicago to see my grandparents, where we frequented the famous Jewish deli called Ashkenazi. I remember always seeing the same three old men in there. I wondered about them, about their lives. Now, through fiction, I can give them names and their own story.”
In the humorous tale Darch has imagined, Rabbi Fiddleman, “held court each day in Schwartzman’s with his two followers – Pincus Eisenberg and Mendel Nachman.” As described by another customer at the deli, the “group of three old men, the only other customers in the place, huddled together with covered heads at a booth in the far corner, all remnants from the Romanian synagogue, bankrupt and boarded up years ago. Now, with no place for them to go, the octogenarians arrived early each morning and stayed for several hours – sipping tea, noshing on the cheapest fare, and kibbitzing about spiritualism and life after death, debates that frequently drifted into polemical arguments concerning the metaphysics of Spinoza and Kant. Though generous with their opinions, when it came to money each one was more frugal than the next, and each had a knack for consuming great quantities of Schwartzman’s tea while nibbling a single bagel over the course of several hours.”
Darch’s characters are recognizable people with whom readers will feel loneliness and friendship (“Sadie’s Prayer”), fear (“Wasserman’s Ride Home”), heartache and bewilderment (“Kaddish for Two”), justice tinged with bitterness (“Leonard Saperstein & Company”), mystery and hope (“The Last Jew in Krotoszyn”), joy and possibility (“Who’s the Old Crone?”), acceptance and perseverance (“Miss Bargman”).
The young people in these stories represent both forces of change and the need for new traditions, as in the emotional story “Kaddish for Two,” in which a son finally gets the courage to tell his Orthodox parents that he is gay, and as preservers of the past, as in the somehow cheering “The Last Jew in Krotoszyn,” in which Magda, a 13-year-old non-Jewish girl, befriends Ruta, the story title’s last Jew.
“Ruta watched Magda run out the cemetery gate, heading toward home,” writes Darch. “Then Ruta shuffled slowly away, each step more difficult than the last. She stopped for just a moment to catch her breath. Bone tired, she rested her hands on her hips. She understood such fatigue was just one more signal, a tweak from the Almighty himself; her time in this world was coming to an end. But strangely, she had no fear of dying. She had faith that Magda would tend the cemetery and pass on the stories, the truth of Krotoszyn.”
Human connections – positive, negative and in between – are at the foundation of every story in L’Chaim and Lamentations. Enjoy.
A world leader decries investigations into his possible criminal corruption as an “attempted coup” based on “fabrications and a tainted and biased investigative process.”
No, not that world leader. This time it is Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime-minister-by-a-thread. Finally indicted on graft charges after months of anticipation, he became the first Israeli prime minister ever to face charges while in office. He insists the indictment will not impact his leadership, just as the country seems on an irreversible path to a third election in a year.
In a region with a scarcity of free and fair elections, Israel can’t seem to stop having them. From that perspective, things could be worse. Whether Netanyahu’s Likud party stands with him in his time of trouble remains to be seen. The possibility of his departure from the political scene, which he has dominated for nearly a generation, would provide the most significant shakeup of the field and possibly prevent a third inconclusive outcome.
On this side of the ocean, the U.S. House of Representatives continues investigating President Donald Trump. Few people, including Republicans, are making much of an effort to refute the basic facts. Evidence piles upon itself that the U.S. president indeed asked the president of Ukraine for a dirty political favour – a bribe – in exchange for military financial aid that had already been approved by the U.S. Congress. GOP responses to this evidence range from “So?” to the only slightly more nuanced argument that the president of the United States didn’t get what he wanted and the president of Ukraine did, so no harm done.
With Trump seemingly in thrall or somehow beholden to Vladimir Putin, and his party steadfast behind him, we are treated to the spectacle of a party that 60 years ago was trampling over individual liberties based on a largely false suspicion that “the Russians” were infiltrating the country’s government and threatening its entire way of life now responding to a disturbingly similar situation, this one far more provably real, with a shrug.
While Canada, thankfully, has no such level of political intrigue or corruption at the moment, a shocking diplomatic move last week has set the official voices of the Jewish community on edge.
The day before swearing in a new cabinet, the government of just-reelected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted to vote at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, jumping on a dogpile led by North Korea, Egypt, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe, none of whom should be arbiters of justice or human rights. To be clear, the vote means almost nothing in practical terms. But symbolism does count. And the vote was a slap in the face by Canada to Israel and those in this country who recognize it as our closest ally in the region for historical, moral and pragmatic reasons.
Some speculate that the shift in tone reflects the new minority government currying favour with the New Democratic Party, which has included some notorious Israel-bashers. That is probably a less likely reason than the campaign by Trudeau to win Canada one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council. Where former prime minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to “go along to get along” in the anti-Israel hatefest that occurs annually at the UN was seen as a key reason we lost out on a seat, Trudeau seems determined to hedge his bets.
A prestigious seat on the Security Council would presumably elevate Trudeau in the eyes of the world after he frittered away the “Canada is back” optimism of four years ago by failing to meet climate targets while bhangra dancing across the world stage.
Regardless of the motive, it is a reprehensible act that could have serious implications for the political orientation of Jewish Canadians in the next few years. Coming as it does while the ink is barely dry on the results of an election in which Liberals mostly made the right noises to Jewish and pro-Israel Canadians, it seems a particularly brutish little dagger to unsheathe now.