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Why Do Jews Love a Free Lunch?
Anything, Anywhere and with Anyone

Recently, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel took out full-page advertisements in a number of United States newspapers. The ads criticised the Obama administration for pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop Jewish settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu had just been to Washington and was severely snubbed by the White House. Obama eventually agreed to meet him, but without the pomp normally surrounding a foreign prime minister's visit. Obama let him in and out of the White House via a side-door, and the press conference always held after such meetings, was dispensed with.

All this, justifiably, upset Elie; the full page spreads were his personal reaction to the situation. In the advertisements Mr Wiesel wrote, "Jerusalem is the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul".

The New York Times, on 5th March, reported that

"Mr Wiesel, who accompanied Mr. Obama last summer to the former Buchenwald Nazi camp in Germany, is widely viewed both within and outside the White House as perhaps more amenable than other pro-Israel activists to some of the concessions which many Middle East experts say Israel will have to make if there is ever to be a peace accord."

I am not sure of the relevance of the Times's reference here to the Buchenwald visit last June. I previously wrote my opinion on Wiesel's presence at this happening.

The media is telling us that Elie has been earmarked as useful to the administration, the same Elie who accompanied the president to the former concentration camp.

So these ads were a real rebuff to the president.

Alarmed by these full page spreads, Obama invited Wiesel for lunch, code word for discussion, or dressing down (on the 4th March, 2010). It seems Obama understands, better than his lunch guest, the importance and influence that certain individuals exert on public opinion.

The New York Times subsequently noted, "Mr. Wiesel emerged Tuesday from what he described as a 'good kosher lunch' at the White House, pronouncing recent tensions between Washington and Israel to be over.

"'There were moments of tension', Mr. Wiesel said to reporters after the lunch. 'The tension, I think, is gone.'" Wow! I'm impressed.

In response to the White House kosher meal, I posted the following to my Facebook wall:

Tell me Elie, why do we Jews always run to a free meal? -- we love to eat -- but with the goyyim, really?
[followed by a link to my old Buchenwald article].

I expected some response, and it came in the form a long post on this thread from my Facebook friend, David.

Menachem - so many points for you on this one - a great stimulus for discourse!

1. In Cairo, Obama didn't tie "our rights to Israel purely to our diaspora suffering". He said that part of the bond between America and Israel, beyond culture and history, is "the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history . . . See more that cannot be denied" and then spoke about Holocaust denial. The thrust of the sentence was a condemnation of Holocaust denial. And nowhere did he say that Israel's right to exist was based on suffering alone.

2. Who cares that he got the name of the concentration camp that his uncle liberated wrong? If I say that Elie Wiesel won his Nobel prize in literature for writing dozens of outstanding books when in fact he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless efforts to combat racism and hatred - it doesn't mitigate Elie Wiesel's achievements or my own bona fides - it just indicates my ignorance of a somewhat obscure fact.

3. And as for your thoughts about Elie Wiesel, he is probably the greatest ambassador the Jewish people have had in his lifetime. He has stood next to Presidents of the right and the left - he endorses none of them but making his wise counsel available to the resident of the White House is a great positive for the future of the diaspora and Israel.

Finally, whenever I hear someone criticize Obama for his actions toward Israel, l have to remind them - what did George W Bush do for Israel? Well, he removed the Iraqi counterbalance which had limited Iran's regional ambitions since 1979, he brought democracy to Gaza (Hamas say thanks) and the Hizbollah power grab in Lebanon. Oh, and when asked for permission from Olmert to overfly Iraq so Israel could bomb Iran, he instantly responded "Hell, no". So lets remember what Israel had been getting out of the White House until Obama and hope that this President's term will bring better results. It probably won't but you never know.

I felt I couldn't do justice to these comments directly on Facebook -- Facebook just isn't the forum for well thought out answers. So I posted,

David, you raise a lot of points here, and yes I do write with the intention of stimulating discourse. Sometimes I wonder how "in your face" I need to be to elicit response.

I am writing to you off-line for the moment because FB is not that amenable to messages too much longer than SMS and I want to say a lot more. So hopefully early in the week I will have addressed the issues adequately.

So please don't feel I have ignored you. I was busy until late last night finishing [the beginning of] an essay which I believe describes my world view. I am sure you will want to comment on this too.

So for the moment, shabbat shalom and regards to the family [I have to mention here, to be fair, that David and I are related].

David responded

Menachem - thanks for that. I always enjoy your writings - ever since I read your description of your uncle's recount of the fall of Kosice. These are very uncertain times for Israel and indeed the world - I understand people's suspicions of Obama. My own feeling is that he is ambivalent with regards to Israel, which is good and bad. It's good because I can't imagine him doing a Clinton and arm twisting Israel for the sake of his legacy. It's bad because who knows how he will react to a negative development -- such as Iran's achievement of their nuclear ambitions. Alan Dershowitz says Obama runs the risk of being remembered as a Neville Chamberlain, whose numerous domestic successes were overshadowed by his failure to change the course set by his predecessors with regard to the Nazis. He didn't start the ball rolling but it may be up to him to stop it. Uncertain times indeed.

Shabbat Shalom and regards to all -- David

I am not surprised and I am surprised at the same time re your feelings towards Obama. I would be the last to claim that any American president is or can even be expected to be pro-Israel, certainly ahead of American interests. But I do expect parity for my prime minister visiting the White House, parity with every third world leader, parity with every Arab leader with whom Obama seems to love meeting.

It is childish to believe that an American voter makes his electoral decisions based on what is good for Israel, at the expense of his host country. What is stranger is that people, not just in the U.S., continue to vote "traditionally". Surely things change. Political personalities change, policies change, history moves forward. Jews a hundred years ago voted Democrat because they, by and large, worked in the infamous Manhattan sweatshops. Only the Democrats could give them hope, much more than could the backers of the big business that was abusing them. I hoped Jews have moved on. I think they have in England and Australia.

Has there ever been a pro-Israel president? It all depends on how you define that. At the Hebrew University they worship Harry S. Truman, but he was not all that in favour of the declaration of Jewish independence coinciding the end of the British mandate. When reality hit him, he was the "first" to recognise the nascent government of Israel, but he was worried that Israel would fall into the Soviet sphere. [The British government already worried about this eventuality in the early twenties.]

The Bushes were oil men. Prescott was pro-Nazi, fighting American participation in the second world war. Israel and the Jews were a thorn in their sides. The first Bush presidency was difficult for Israel, very difficult. He surrounded himself with anti-Israel advisors. George II seems to have been milder. We don't know what was said behind the scenes, but the public image was amicable. Even Ronald Reagan, one the of the friendliest-to-Israel presidents, slammed Israel for bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor. He should have thanked us!

But even in those years, there was always a commitment to giving Israel the strategic edge.

Judging by what I am seeing in the media over the last couple of weeks since we started this discussion, I'm not sure how much further effort I want to expend on showing that Obama is bad for the Jews. There is now, finally, a Jewish backlash against Obama. If Alan Dershowitz can openly criticise Obama's anti-Israel stance, what can I add. Recall, my initial Facebook post to which you responded, was triggered by Wiesel's full page advertisements in major U.S. newspapers denouncing Obama's policies towards Israel. So Wiesel, until being fed "a good kosher lunch, was also speaking out against POTUS.

Obama's performance at the signing ceremony for the "Daniel Pearl Press Freedom Act" was below all expectations. Speaking, with Pearl's family around him, off-the-cuff, without his ubiquitous teleprompters, all Obama could muster in memory of the American Jewish journalist who died with the words, "My name is Daniel Pearl. I am a Jewish American from Encino, California, U.S.A.", on his lips, was , "Obviously, the loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world’s imagination because it reminded us of how valuable a free press is."

" . . . was one of those moments that captured the world’s imagination" is all he can say? The man who actually murdered Pearl, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, confessed to his decapitation in March 2007, "I decapitated, with my blessed right hand, the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi."

Analysts noted that Obama does not like to use the words "Jew" or "Muslim Terror".

While it is true that Obama, in his Cairo University speech the day before Buchenwald, did criticise Holocaust denial, he did not mention this within the framework of the P.A. (even though Abbas's Ph.D. is on Holocaust denial and Abbas has never renounced nor apologised for this position). Nor did he speak of "incitement", something which is part of the school curricula everywhere in the Arab world, including under the P.A. When Hillary subsequently mentioned the word "incitement", the P.A. were in no way to blame. According to Morton Klein and Daniel Mandel, "When Obama referred to the problem of Palestinian incitement in his speech at Buchenwald on June 5, 2009, he even praised Abbas for having made some 'progress' in dealing with it -- implying that Abbas and the PA were part of the solution rather than the problem." Obama and Clinton ignore P.A. and Abbas's incitement on a regular basis.

You write Obama said, "the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history". "Tragic history" is nothing other than a code for "diaspora suffering". "Jewish homeland" too is a code, for "homeland" in "our terms", as the U.S. State Department defines it -- 1967 borders, 1948, 1947 . . . .

Elie provided Obama's anti-Israel stance a stamp of Jewish approval because Elie, the professor and the Nobel laureate, whether he esteems the role or not, is seen by the outside world as the ambassador for the Jewish people, as you see him.

Elie Wiesel does not represent me nor does he represent the people of Israel. He is abusing his popularity. He has again backtracked [over lunch] and is providing Obama with another figleaf.

As I noted above, I have not, nor probably will, read any of Elie's works. Elie's personal story is far from unique. I know his story well. I have heard it many times from many people. Six million Jews were murdered by the Germans and their supporters. Fortunately survivors lived to tell, to those who may listen, the sanguinary tale.

Most of my immediate, as well as my peripheral family acted in parallel chapters to Elie's. Almost every person with whom I had any interaction in my early and teen years, other than my public school teachers, either took part in this production or, like me, were the children of holocaust survivors.

In the aftermath of genocide, most of my acquaintances struggled to return to the standard of living they enjoyed before descending into the man-made Hell. Many worked menial jobs, saving, building, until they reached a level of normality. In the interim, they put their personal purgatory into the backs of their consciousness -- they had to in order to continue living -- but they never forgot it, deep into dark lonely nights they remembered.

Elie had the opportunity to spend time enshrining his feelings onto paper. But even Elie took years before he was able to write.

My cousin, the same age as Elie, originated from another of the Hungarian satellites graciously ceded by Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy. Ernest too was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, completing the "war" [that's such a sick term, calling the Holocaust "the war" -- as if Ernest and Elie and the others were uniformed combatants] with a death march to Buchenwald. In addition, my cousin spent some "time" amongst the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto, searching amongst the rubble of the former Jewish houses, for a daily quota of whole bricks, shipped "home" to Germany, to rebuild the Fatherland destroyed by allied bombing.

And another friend, Eli: Pressburg/Bratislava ==> Aushwitz ==> Death March ==> Buchenwald -- and a few other "stops" along the way.

Speilberg's tapes are full of narratives, each every bit as frightening as the next.

Both Eli and Ernest speak to many groups about their experiences. They are both in their early eighties today. They continue to stand as living witnesses to history. Eli's favourite audience is Germans on pilgrimage to the holy land. He speaks fluent German, learnt as a child. He holds back no punches. Ernest speaks to non-Jewish, French Canadians, visiting school after school

Elie Wiesel, in common with most survivors, was reluctant in the first decade or two to discuss what he had seen, what he had experienced. Many references point that he, and I know many others too, just could not find the words to describe their experiences on their journey into hell. But it was much more than an inability to find the words. The fear of not being believed, not wanting to be heard. Their daily horrors were so horrendous, man's cruelty to man was so extensive, executed on such a large scale, that it was simply not plausible. So they remained hushed, non-communicative.

Unlike most, Elie eventually did have the opportunity to write of his forced participation in these terrible events. But initially his message was far from generally accepted. As time proceeded, as the survivors established themselves, raised families, became accepted as esteemed members of their new societies, they too started to speak, to open up, to report what they had seen, and some of the braver ones, what they felt.

By the seventies the world was more open to listening. Enough time had passed to sanitise some of the horror. And there was still international guilt for what had happened. Obama's (and other world leaders too) attitude demonstrates that this guilt has now all but dissipated.

The English word "holocaust" became the vogue word to describe the Nazi "Final Solution". Were the words "murder", "genocide", "mass killings", "extermination", "annihilation", "liquidation", "eugenics" too strong? politically incorrect? even in view of the guilt?

Some historians credit Wiesel with giving the term "Holocaust" this modern meaning. The etymology of holocaust is from a Middle English word (via old French) meaning "burnt sacrifice". "Burnt sacrifice"? Who did the the sacrificing? To which deity?

As a result of this usage, the word "holocaust" has secured a place in our language referring to any mass destruction of humans, and not necessarily at the hands of other humans: Pol Pot, Darfur, drought in East Africa to mention just of a few recent applications of the term. Thank you -- but they tell me, if you use a capital 'H' it refers to Jews! The definite article is insufficient.

It is reported that Elie too does not feel that the word adequately describes the event and he also wishes it were used less frequently to describe other significant occurrences. But sometimes you just lose control of your creations . . . .

Is Elie the best spokesman for the cause he has come to represent? Perhaps. He certainly has been cloaked in the mantle. I would respectfully argue, though, whether he is "probably the greatest ambassador the Jewish people have had". Were I to select a "public" Holocaust survivor, in terms of representing the core concepts, as an ambassador, as an example to the world, as a person who stands up for his beliefs, as a proud "Jew", living in his homeland, as a Jew who can shamelessly stand in front of any audience, I would select Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. Perhaps my bias is in his kippa, but his eloquence, both written and before a live audience, is nothing short of enchanting. And his story is every bit as terrifying, and as horrible, if one is able to make such comparisons.

The role cast on Elie requires certain behaviour. Much like when we wore kippot around the streets of Sydney as kids. "People know you are Jewish", the survivor generation would tell us, "You must be on your best behaviour, always, or they will start to hate us again". Well, they do hate us again. If they ever stopped. They just suppressed the public manifestation.

So when Elie joins Obama in Buchenwald, whether Elie likes it or not, he is endorsing Obama's stance, he is giving it substance, and he is giving it a seal of approval on behalf of six million massacred Jews, and a similar number of living Jews as well. I hope he has broad shoulders, and he'd better "know" what he is doing.

Obama goes to Cairo -- the setting is not coincidental, everything is stage-managed -- to tell the Arab world that he is one of them, that he supports their cause, that he understands their pain, that he understands their mentality, but the West, including America itself, has not understood his intended message. And to ensure they, we, do not catch on, Buchenwald the next day provides Obama a stage on which to deflect yesterday's publicity (the Arab world of course understands the ruse -- this is how they play the games -- only we pretend the deception doesn't exist). We are supposed to see Obama is even-handed, an equal opportunity patron. And by standing beside him, with almost any message he may have, Elie is giving him the endorsement he needs, he craves. And why not Angela thrown in for good measure?

Obama's uncle Charlie was a slip-up, but not by Obama. The slip-up probably demonstrates that Obama didn't grow up with the story as he claims. Obama's staff erred, badly. Remember this is the Mr Teleprompter president. He never delivers unprepared texts, to avoid the possibility of a slip-up. He always reads his speeches, not from paper, but from teleprompter screens, screens strategically placed -- in front of him, different heights and angles -- so he can move his face towards different parts of his audience, appearing natural, each member of his audience perceiving that he talking directly to them, from the bottom of his heart. He has a charm, but he has a large team of writers. David, you are correct; it does not make any difference where Uncle Charlie served. But if he did serve in Buchenwald, he saved Elie's life!

I don't know if Elie knew the content of Obama's Cairo speech ahead of time, nor the content of the Buchenwald one -- I doubt he did. But by the time Buchenwald arrived, he certainly knew what had been said in Cairo the day before.

I don't know what Obama said to Elie over lunch -- but whatever it was, it changed Elie's mind. He backtracked after spending thousands of dollars a few days earlier on the advertisements.

Why did Elie change his mind?

If you play with the big boys, you have to play by their rules. But when you are Elie Wiesel, you are not playing for yourself, whether you like it not. If you slip up, the damage you cause may be tremendous. We can handle the anti-semites of the world. Our problem is when the action is by one of our own, even inadvertently.

27th May, 2010    

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