Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Tale of Two Speeches

There were two important speeches given Wednesday night. One, by GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, in St. Paul, Minnesota. The other, by Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth, daughter of the late rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Palin gave her speech before thousands of enthusiastic Republicans at the Xcel Center; millions more watched on TV. Heschel spoke before about 150 people -- albeit, an overflow crowd -- in a lecture hall at the American Jewish Archives, on the campus of Hebrew Union College (HUC), the Reform Jewish seminary in Cincinnati, OH.

The Heschel talk was organized by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, to honor A.J. Heschel, on the occasion of his centennial birthday year. Heschel, who died in 1972, taught Bible at HUC from 1940 to 1946.

For my money, the nation would have benefited more from Heschel's speech in prime time.

First, a word about Heschel's father. A.J. Heschel authored more than a dozen books, including "God in Search of Man," one of the most compelling books on spirituality I've read. "On the certainty of ultimate meaning we stake our very lives," Heschel writes, one of his many powerful insights. "In every judgment we make, in every act we perform, we assume that the world is meaningful."

Heschel was, as his biographer, Edward K. Kaplan writes, "a poet, theologian, biblical scholar, interpreter of Jewish tradition, and voice for social conscience." He argued, in his writings, for a "spiritual audacity," rooted not in rote ritualistic observance, but in "an awareness of the transcendent worth of the universe." He marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, asked the Pope to change the Vatican's stance on converting all Jews, and was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War.

He spoke truth to power.

"America has been enticed be her own might," he told Fellowship magazine in 1966. "There is nothing so vile as the arrogance of the military mind. Of all the plagues with which the world is cursed, of every ill, militarism is the worst: the assumption that war is an answer to human problems."

Susannah Heschel began her speech, almost from the first words, steeped in emotion."Hebrew Union College saved my father's life," she said. (The Nazis had deported Heschel from Berlin to Poland; he would likely have perished in the Holocaust had not HUC president Julius Morgenstern successfully lobbied the U.S. State Department for a visa on Heschel's behalf.)

Her father was lonely when he first arrived in Cincinnati, an outsider. But he had grown up in a world of Hasidic Jews where "it was forbidden to despair." She spoke of him going to buy stamps at the local Post Office, and politely saying "thank you" to the clerk, who replied: "You are welcome." Her father, still learning English, took it literally -- it meant so much to him -- he never forgot the kindness.

"The opposite of good is not evil," she said, channelling her father. "The opposite of good is indifference."

"My father could never separate religion and politics," she said. "You can't be a religious person and be disengaged politically."

Her father met MLK in 1963, in Chicago, and they had an "instant closeness." A black preacher from the south, and a pious Jew from Poland. "It should tell us something about the ridiculous identity politics that we have today," Heschel said.

In Chicago, Heschel said: "Few of us realize that racism is man's greatest threat to man. It's a maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason. A maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking."

When her father marched with King in Selma, shortly after Bloody Sunday (See blog: "The Bridge That Led to the Stadium"), she wasn't sure if she'd ever see him alive again. When he returned, he told her that while marching with King for civil rights, it felt as if his "legs were praying." "That's what it meant to be political," Susannah Heschel said.

She spoke of the famous photograph of her father marching with King (See below; Heschel is second from right.) It's an image that is now very common in the Jewish world. Many people tell her how much it means to them. But, Heschel said: "we can't take this iconoclast and make him into an icon. That photograph should be a challenge."

So what is that challenge? There are many, she said -- and racism, which her father called "eye disease," remains chief among them. Imagine, she said, there are people in this country, still, who would "not vote for a brilliant person due to the color of his skin."

"I think we have today in this country a yearning for redemption ... We have a yearning to be freed from corruption, free of bias, free of mean-spiritedness ... We were inspired by my father, by Martin Luther King, because we want to live like them. We are held back sometimes, by fear."

"We ask ourselves," she said, "Do we really want health care for all people, or just ourselves?"

She spoke of other issues: voters disenfranchised in some states by voter registration laws designed to keep minorities and the elderly away; war and destruction in Iraq; torture here at home. She said "the central teaching of Judaism is compassion," adding "justice is the means of our redemption."

Afterwards, I approached Heschel, and asked her to expand on her political views, specifically, the Jewish community's response to Barack Obama. She immediately mentioned a New York Times article, from May ("As Obama Heads to Florida, Many of its Jews Have Doubts"). Here's a sample quote:

“The people here, liberal people, will not vote for Obama because of his attitude towards Israel,” [Shirley Weitz], 83, said, lingering over brunch.

“They’re going to vote for McCain,” she said.

Ruth Grossman, 80, agreed with her friend’s conclusion, but not her reasoning.

“They’ll pick on the minister thing, they’ll pick on the wife, but the major issue is color,” she said, quietly fingering a coffee cup. Ms. Grossman said she was thinking of voting for Mr. Obama, who is leading in the delegate count for the nomination, as was Ms. Weitz.

But Ms. Grossman does not tell the neighbors. “I keep my mouth shut,” she said.

"I think my father would have been appalled and horrified by these remarks," Susannah Heschel told me, "and by the idea that people will not vote for someone brilliant, thoughtful, with the right policies, who is trustworthy -- and they wouldn't vote for him due to the color of his skin."

I asked her whether she thought Sarah Palin should be held accountable by Jews for wearing a Pat Buchanan pin in1999. Palin is downplaying the event; Buchanan, who is anathema to so many Jews, says she was a supporter:

Palin wrote to the AP that her presence at the rally and her wearing a Buchanan button were merely ways to welcome Buchanan to Wasilla, not endorsements of his candidacy.

But that's not quite how Buchanan remembers it.

Buchanan told Chris Matthews yesterday that Palin "was a brigader in 1996 as was her husband, Chris, they were at a fundraiser for me, she's a terrific gal, she's a rebel reformer."

Even if we were to assume she was not endorsing his candidacy, Heschel said: "She wore the pin!"

"If you put it on, and you want to be a politician -- you better be careful about what pin you are going to wear. It's not a joke. It means something."

When the event was over, I drove from Cincinnati to Dayton, to spend the night at my uncle Jon's. We watched Sarah Palin's speech together.

"Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reason and not just to mingle with the right people," Palin said, adding: "The right reason is to challenge the status quo, to serve the common good, and to leave this nation better than we found it."

Which part, I wondered, of the Bush-Cheney status quo did she intend to challenge? What would she have done differently these last eight years? If elected, which policies would she work to change? What, exactly, did she mean by "common good"?

Again and again, Palin appealed to fear. She kicked up fear on energy and gas prices, speaking of "the threat that Iran might seek to cut off nearly a fifth of the world's oil supply," adding that "terrorists might strike again" at a facility in Saudi Arabia, and "Venezuela might shut off its oil discoveries." Obama, she said, wants "to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world."

"Terrorist states are seeking nuclear weapons without delay," she said. "He wants to meet them without preconditions."

"Al Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America," she said. "And he's worried someone won't read them their rights."

(Each time she made a new alarming claim about Obama, my uncle, sitting on a reclining chair in Dayton, said: "That's a lie!")

"My fellow citizens," she said, "the American presidency is not supposed to be a journey of personal discovery. This world of threats and dangers -- it's not just a community and it doesn't need an organizer."

I couldn't help but think, as I listened, to Susannah Heschel's clarion call -- her warnings about leaders who sow fear -- just a few hours before.

"Some politicians are mendacious and lie to us," she said. "And sometimes we play along. We want to be deceived by them; we want to believe the lie ... We say, I don't want to take responsibility for what's new."

In our conversation she'd told me: "We have to realize, this election can't be transformed into an election about images and emotions. It's about issues, very important ones. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be manipulated ... They're trying to get us not to think about policy -- about the environment, Iraq -- and instead, to respond to images."

As she was finishing her talk, Heschel said: "I ask ... How can we keep (my father) alive as a contemporary challenge?"

There's one more big speech to go tonight in the Republican National Convention. We can start by not giving in to our fears.


Barbara W said...

Another good one! I'm sorry I didn't hear her talk. (Heschel, I mean. I heard Palin!)

Loyal said...

I think Palin amounted to a toned down version of hate speech and teh key constituencies see that. Wish I could have heard Heschel's talk.

I still put the odds at only 2:1 that she makes it to November.


unc2u said...

Dear Neurocrat

Unfortunately mankind walks in "contrastep" to AJH ("In every judgment we make, in every act we perform, we assume that the world is meaningful."). Undoing injustice ,opppression, etc. when none existed without willfull malice in the first place.

Jacob Rosen said...

That is really interesting that you came over to Dayton to hear Palin speak. I go to school at the University of Dayton now, and the announcement of Palin as VP took place just down the street or so at Wright State. Good post, I really enjoy your site.