For over fifty years Abraham Cahan (1860–1951) was the chief editor of the New York Jewish Daily Forward, a Socialist…
Two women directed me to a hostel owned by a man called Machover on the other side of the large courtyard. I crossed over and entered the inn. There I was received by the innkeeper himself, a middle-aged man with a distracted expression and a thick beard.
“Can I put up here until after Passover?” I asked him.
Instead of replying, he asked me in a low and mysterious voice, “Running away from the priziv [military service]?”
His tone struck a sympathetic chord. To tell the truth, I had not prepared any story beforehand. But his implication spared me the trouble.
“Yes, from the priziv,” I replied.
He smiled, and gestured with his hand, as though to say: “It’ll be all right.” . . .
The next day the mistress of the house said to me: “My son Elie will soon be coming home for Passover, and then things will be gayer.” At the same time she informed me that her Elie was the manager of the diligence office in Nevel. . . . The name Nevel burst upon me like a thunderclap. For I immediately remembered who the junior Machover was.
At Succoth time—that is, a half year before—Zilstein and I had visited Trotsky and Yonovitz in Nevel, in the province of Vitebsk, and the whole town had buzzed with our visit. After all, we teachers were a kind of government official, and we paraded around looking every bit the part in our blue cockaded caps. The most important householders in Nevel had invited us to visit them at home at various times during our stay. Things had been lively. When we walked down the street people used to stop and stare at us. So there was no question in my mind now but that the junior Machover had seen me more than once. Besides, when we left Nevel he had sold me the ticket to travel by diligence (as far as Vitebsk). Nor was there any doubt in my mind but that he had heard of my having run away from Velisz, for Nevel is in the same province, and the exciting news had probably reached thither.
It was logical to assume that when the junior Machover found me in his father’s home he would become frightened and tell his parents who I was. Most likely the family would ask me to leave. Whether or not they did so, it was not desirable for me to be recognized. . . .[Nevertheless] I decided to stay on. If Elie should recognize me I would deny that I was myself. At that time I looked much different from the way I had in Nevel, not at all the government official. En route I had had a hair-cut that left my sidelocks unshorn. I now looked like a respectable young man of the old-fashioned school. So, at least, I thought. Whenever I looked in the mirror I was delighted with my reflection. Yet, at the same time, I experienced a pang at my yeshiva bocher appearance.
So I decided to appear before Elie in my false identity of Lipschitz, and act as though I had never heard of anyone called Cahan.
One afternoon (it was almost Passover time), Mirel [the Machovers’ eldest daughter] came into my room with a shining face. She had happy news for me: Elie had arrived! I hope that what I wished her never came true. . . .
Putting on an expression of the greatest delight, I went to present myself, Mirel going ahead of me. As I strode through the hallway, I saw to it that my trousers were correctly thrust into my boots; I wound my scarf around my neck, and pushed my hat back so that the curly earlocks would show. I was almost positive that I would pass, for, after all, Elie was not personally acquainted with me. What if he had seen me a couple of times on the street, and again when I had taken the diligence for Velisz at his ticket office? My appearance had then been quite different.
I remembered him quite well, for I have a good memory for faces. Besides, he had an unusual appearance; it was easy to recognize him, for he was exceptionally short, and had a roly-poly face, pug nose, and blond beard. His diminutive stature was enough to provoke attention. . . .
“Here is the young man,” the senior Machover said to his son. . . .
Elie actually blanched with amazement.
“What did you say your name was?” he asked.
“Lipschitz,” I replied, looking him straight in the eye.
His glance flew to my boots, my hat, my sidelocks. “Weren’t you in Nevel a few months ago?” he asked, in confusion.
“Where’s that—Level?” I asked, in mock ignorance.
Then he turned to his father. “If I hadn’t been told otherwise, I could have sworn that this man was Cahan, the teacher from Velisz.”
“What’s that you say?” I asked again, wearing an expression of curiosity. “Cahan?”
He told me . . . about Cahan and Zilstein and their friends, the teachers of Nevel, and how they had passed Succoth week together; how the householders of the city had entertained them, and what a lively young fellow that Cahan was. . . .
There was a young man from Nevel called Tropanov who used to frequent the Machovers’; he was studying at a school for healers in Mohilev. Elie had brought him regards from his parents, and Tropanov now visited him daily. When he heard that 1 resembled a school teacher called Cahan who had spent a week in his native city, and that this Cahan had been invited to all the important homes, he began to ask the Machovers whether Cahan had not been invited to his father’s house as well, and that turned out to be the case.
Tropanov was very homesick, and the fact that I resembled a man who had visited his father’s house was enough to interest him in me. He began to tell me all about Nevel. In turn I asked him about the school for healers where he was studying. Thus we became closer acquaintances. . . . Tropanov was avid for my friendship, and made me his most intimate confidant. So it came about that Tropanov once told me in confidence that there was a man called Belkin who had come to Mohilev to register young men who wished to go to Palestine.
“I am telling you this because I know you’re no ordinary man,” he explained to me. “You don’t think I really believe that you are running away from the priziv? Tell me, who are you?”
He assured me that he could keep a secret. But I denied that I had any secrets, and aloofly poked fun at his suspicions. But I did want to see Belkin. So I asked him to bring Belkin to see me.
1 The columns of the Russian Jewish weeklies Rusky Ievrei, Rozsviet, and Vozchod were at that time full of debates between proponents of two parties, the “Americans” and the “Palestinians.” This was after the series of pogroms which broke out in southern Russia in 1881, on the heels of the assassination of Alexander the Second by terrorists belonging to the revolutionary Narodnaya Volya (“Back to the People”) movement. As a result of these pogroms a section of the young Jewish intellectuals concluded that Russia could never be a home for Jews, and that it was necessary to find a true home for the Jewish people elsewhere. But where? Some were for America, others advocated Palestine.
Here is an incident typifying the mood of many young Jewish intellectuals at that time. A group of Jewish university students entered a synagogue in Kiev that was crowded with melancholy, tearful worshipers. One of the students, a slim young man called Alenikov, took the dais and addressed the audience in Russian:
“We are your brothers. We are Jews like you. We regret that until now we have always considered ourselves Russians, and not Jews. The events of the past few weeks—the pogroms in Yelizavetgrad, in Balta, here in Kiev, and in other cities—have convinced us that we were terribly wrong. Yes, we are Jews.”
It is unnecessary to describe the effect of these words on the Jewish community.
These students belonged to the “American” party. The nationalist movement began to make inroads among young Russian Jewish intellectuals at that time. Some of them became so ardent in their convictions that they practically stopped speaking Russian altogether and began speaking Yiddish exclusively, although their Yiddish had deteriorated through disuse. Other enthusiasts discarded their Russian-style names and began to use their Jewish equivalents. Yakov, for example, took to calling himself Yankel; Natasta would answer only to the name of Etel.
However, there were very few such extreme Jewish nationalists, and the proportion of even moderate nationalists to the total Jewish intellectual movement was inconsiderable. It sounds incredible nowadays, but there were some Jewish intellectuals who went so far as to regard the anti-Semitic riots as “a good thing.” Their theory was that the pogroms were the “instinctive” outbreak of the revolutionary Russian masses. The benighted peasants knew that the Czar, his officialdom, and the zhids were blood-sucking parasites. So the peasants of Malorussia [the Ukraine] had attacked the Jewish usurers first of all. The revolutionary flame had first consumed the Jews, but would inevitably fan out to include the chinovnikes [government officials] and eventually the Czar himself.
Such, in brief, was the explanation for the pogroms that many Jewish and non-Jewish revolutionaries offered. Some of the members of the underground Narodnaya Volya movement issued a proclamation to the pogromists in the Ukraine based on the reasoning I have given above. (It was published in the sixth number of Narodnaya Volya, their official organ.) The proclamation concluded by encouraging the pogromists to finish their revolutionary work—the extermination of the Jews was not the final goal. One of the authors of this manifesto was a Jew.
The provinces of Vilna and Vitebsk were some distance from the areas where the pogroms took place. We only heard of them at second hand. But I remember quite distinctly a conversation I had in Vilna with another member of our revolutionary circle. We had read an article about the whole subject of the relation of the pogroms to revolution and I recall that we both agreed with the author of the article that the pogrom had been aimed at Jewish “exploiters,” and was destined to be the first flaring up of that revolutionary flame which would eventually consume the throne, the capitalists, and every form of oppression.
I was then still a raw youth, and had very little knowledge of the world. I read a great deal and felt strongly; but my reading and feelings did not lead me to any clarity of conviction. My opinions were definite, but insubstantial. And, truth to tell, almost the whole revolutionary movement of Russia at that time consisted of raw youths like me; even if our leaders were comparatively mature men, their actions were nevertheless juvenile.
However, not all the revolutionaries interpreted the pogroms as a sign of imminent revolution. Many held a contrary opinion, namely, that the government had itself instigated the pogroms to save the throne from the threat of revolution. That is to say, the spirit of uprising had really expressed itself—but the government had diverted it from its natural channel by making the Jews the scapegoat. The government agents had persuaded the peasants that the Jews, and not the Czar and his despotic, corrupt government, were responsible for the country’s unhappiness.
It was common then and for many years afterward to describe the Russian government’s policy as that of using the Jews as a “lightning rod.” As proof, advocates of this theory cited the fact that in almost all the pogroms the government, instead of dispersing the pogromists or arresting and punishing them, actually encouraged and incited them to new acts of terrorism. There were exceptions; but generally speaking the police and other government officials acted outrageously. It was rumored that the new Czar had ordered the peasants to make pogroms against the Jews. The government did not deny these rumors—in many cases it turned out that the leaders of the pogromists were government agents disguised as peasants. Though it would be foolish to say that the government officially organized the pogroms, there can be no doubt that unofficially the police and many government agents directly or indirectly encouraged them after they had once broken out. Thus the first pogrom, which took place in Yelizavetgrad, was certainly unpremeditated. It began with a conflict -between a Jewish innkeeper and a drunken peasant. But the attacks on Jews immediately spread to other localities; many people argued that the government had seen the Yelizavetgrad pogrom as offering it a good opportunity, and had, directly or indirectly, sanctioned the pogroms in other cities and towns. And indeed there was very convincing evidence that all the anti-Semitic incidents, which fell into a characteristic pattern, bore the imprint of the same hand. . . .
Two factions had sprung up. One, the “Americans,” believed that Russian Jews should seek a new home in America, the country that was the most prosperous in the world and offered the best prospects for immigrants. The “Palestinians,” on the other hand, agitated for emigration to Palestine, the ancient home of the Jewish people. Israel Belkin was one of the first “Palestinians,” and he had come to Mohilev to register anyone who was willing to accompany him to the land of Israel to establish a colony. He was one of the pioneers of the Zionist movement.
I was a regular reader of the Russian Jewish press, and I had read many articles pro and con on both sides. But I had never really been interested in the subject. Now, however, when Tropanov told me all about Belkin and what he was doing, I was intrigued. Belkin struck me as a mysterious individual, and his registry aroused my curiosity. Besides, I longed for an intimate conversation with an intelligent man. I was isolated from my friends, and this Belkin, an active public figure of the new mold, and an idealist to boot, caught my fancy—he was one of us. Perhaps he could give me some good advice, or the address of a Swiss contact.
The next morning Tropanov appeared with Belkin, who was a medium-sized young man with blond hair and a frank, honest look about him. I asked Tropanov if he would mind leaving us alone for a few minutes, and he left. After a few minutes of conversation Belkin impressed me favorably as a serious man. He explained his idea to me and the plan to emigrate to Palestine. He tried to propagandize briefly, but soon perceived that his words were falling on deaf ears.
By the time we had been together for an hour I had come to feel that this was a man I could trust. So I told him the true reason for my desire to leave Russia. However, I did not go so far as to tell him my plan to get to Poland eventually, and join Yatzkowitz. I merely informed Belkin that I was going to Switzerland, and that I was a Socialist first and foremost and did not believe in the Palestinian solution.
As I remember it, we did not spend much time debating principle. Belkin soon began to appeal to me on the ground of my personal future. I would eventually be coming back to Russia as an illegal with a false passport, and would take part in the revolutionary movement once again. Sooner or later, they would arrest me. I would be committing suicide—and for whose sake? For the Russian peasants, the pogromists! But in Palestine I could help realize an ideal that would bring happiness to my people—at the same time I would not be risking my freedom and life. And if I really wanted to serve my socialist ideal, why was I intent on going to Switzerland, of all places? Why not America?
Belkin then told me that there were many Jewish Socialists who were emigrating from Russia to the United States, with the idea of setting up communes there. He told me some of the details of this plan. I replied that if the Russian people were free and could be told the truth, everything would be different. The Russian people had first to be liberated. Then there would be no more pogroms, and Jews would enjoy the same rights as non-Jews: all men would be free and equal.
Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the notion of Socialists emigrating as a group to America. I conjured up a fantastic picture of what Socialist life would be like in far-off America, of a society where there was no such thing as mine and thine, where all people would be brothers, and happy. I had used to imagine that such an ideal could be realized only in the dim future. Now I visualized the prospect of Utopia’s being realized immediately—and I would participate!
True, I had read about the “Socialist” communes that Robert Owen had tried to establish and which had failed. But they had all been founded along fallacious lines. On the basis of Belkin’s few words I concluded that the new Jewish colonies in America would realize Socialism as it should be realized. Thus Belkin, the “Palestinian,” made me an “American.” More specifically, he made me enthusiastic over the possibility of establishing Socialist communes in the United States.
What Belkin had told me was that there were thousands of prospective Jewish immigrants to the United States who were gathered in Brod, in Galicia, waiting transportation. These included many Socialists eager to go to America and, in founding Socialist Jewish communes, to begin a new chapter in the life of the Jewish people.
The reasoning behind this project ran something like this: Jews were generally condemned for being merchants, middlemen, and usurers. Well, they would show the world that they could do useful and productive work, preferably on the land. Traditionally, work on the land was considered the most noble kind. Perhaps this idea stemmed from the fact that at that time the largest Jewish populations were concentrated in countries like Russia that were primarily agricultural. The early Russian revolutionaries idealized the peasant as the true provider of Russia. Jews, however, could not and did not work on the land. They were in business, as middlemen for the peasants. Hence in Russia both the “Palestinians” and the “Americans” agreed that the chief hope for the Jewish people lay in their transformation into a people of farmers. They differed only in that the former regarded the land of Israel, and the latter the United States, as the fit place for this transformation to take place.
It would have been dangerous for the Russian Jewish periodicals to have written openly about Socialist communes. That is why I was not aware until I spoke to Belkin that the “Americans” included Socialists who were intent on emigrating to the United States to establish communes there.
Belkin bade me a cordial farewell, wishing me a happy journey to wherever I was going. He left me in a fever of enthusiasm. I walked up and down my room in great emotion. America! To journey to that far, far land! To build a paradise on earth! Men to be transformed into angels! All my earlier plans suddenly fell apart. I felt myself an “American.” I was walking on air.
Right there, in that room in Machover’s inn, my decision was born: I would go to America.
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Cedars of Lebanon: How I Chose to Come Here
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RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
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Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.