In this essay on philo-Semitism in America, Edmund Wilson finds the feelings of Americans of Puritan stock peculiarly engaged by…
The Gentile of American Puritan stock who puts himself in contact with the Hebrew culture finds something at once so alien that he has to make a special effort in order to adjust himself to it, and something that is perfectly familiar. The Puritanism of New England was a kind of new Judaism, a Judaism transposed into Anglo-Saxon terms. These Protestants, in returning to the text of the Bible, had concentrated on the Old Testament, and some had tried to take it as literally as any Orthodox Jew. The Judaic observances in New England were reduced to honoring the Sabbath on Sunday, but the attendance in the house of worship and the cessation from work on this day approached in their rigor the Jewish practice; and in England “certain extremists,” says Dr. Cecil Roth, in his History of the Jews in England, had “regarded the ‘old’ dispensation as binding, and even reverted to its practices of circumcision and the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath. In 1600, the Bishop of Exeter complained of the prevalence of ‘Jewism’ in his diocese, and such views were comparatively common in London and the Eastern counties. Numerous persons were prosecuted here for holding what were termed ‘Judaistic’ opinions, based on the literal interpretations of the Old Testament. As late as 1612, two so-called Arians died at the stake (the last persons to suffer capital punishment in England purely for their religion) for teaching views regarding the nature of God which approximated to those of Judaism. The followers of the Puritan extremist, John Traske, went so far on the path of literalism that they were imprisoned in 1618–20 on a charge of Judaizing. In this case, the accusation was so far from being exaggerated that a number of them settled in Amsterdam and formally joined the synagogue.”
When the Puritans came to America, they identified George III with Pharaoh and themselves with the Israelites in search of the Promised Land. They called their new country Canaan and talked continually of the covenant they had made with God. Winthrop and Bradford were Moses and Joshua; Anne Hutchinson was pilloried as Jezebel. “The Christian church so-called,” said a preacher in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, “is only a continuation and extension of the Jewish church.” “If we keep this covenant,” said Winthrop, “we shall finde then the God of Israel is among us.” Hebrew, later on in New England, was to become a major subject not merely in the colleges but even in the schools.
All this, of course, is well enough known. There is an interesting chapter on the subject—to which I am indebted for the facts above—in a volume by various hands called The Hebrew Impact on Western Civilization: Hebraic Foundations of American Democracy, edited by Abraham I. Katsh. Yet we tend to forget how close our original relationship was to the Old Testament Jewish tradition. Our conception itself of America as a country with a mission in the world comes down to us from our Mosaic ancestors. We are told by Harriet Beecher Stowe that she had always felt in her childhood, after reading Cotton Mather’s Magnolia, that “the very ground [New England] I stood on was consecrated by some special dealing of God’s providence”; and, even in our time, Santayana, in The Last Puritan, has made one of his New England characters say: “We were always a circumcised people, consecrated to great expectations.” The Gentile American, however, is no longer aware of this in his attitude toward Judaism, and the American Jew does not recognize in what is left of the Puritan tradition a Gentile imitation of Judaism. I have recently been collecting examples of the persistence through the 19th century of the New Englander’s deep-rooted conviction that the Jews are a special people selected for a unique role by God, and that New England somehow shares this destiny.
Perhaps the most curious of these is the rabbinical metamorphosis of the Hebrew scholar Calvin Ellis Stowe, the husband of Harriet Beecher. That Harriet was herself very close to the Pilgrim’s self-identification with Israel is indicated not merely by the passage above but again and again elsewhere in her writings. She will, for example, open a chapter of Poganuc People with the statement that “Zeph Higgins was a good Jew.” This does not mean that the pious Connecticut farmer was literally of Jewish blood, but simply that he tried to conform to the New England version of the Jewish code. “Zephaniah Pennel,” she writes in The Pearl of Orr’s Island, “was what might be called a Hebrew of the Hebrews. New England, in her earlier days, founding her institutions on the Hebrew Scriptures, bred better Jews than Moses could, because she read Moses with the amendments of Christ. The state of society in some of the districts of Maine, in these days, much resembled in its spirit that which Moses labored to produce in ruder ages. It was entirely democratic, simple, grave, hearty, and sincere—solemn and religious in its daily tone, and yet, as to all material good, full of wholesome thrift and prosperity.” And again, in Old Town Folks: “I think that no New Englander, brought up under the regime established by the Puritans, could really estimate how much of himself had actually been formed by this constant face-to-face intimacy with Hebrew literature. . . . My grandfather (at family prayers) always prayed standing, and the image of his mild, silvery head, leaning over the top of the high-backed chair, always rises before me as I think of early days. There was no great warmth or fervor in those daily exercises, but rather a serious and decorous propriety. They were Hebraistic in their form; they spoke of Zion and Jerusalem, of the God of Israel, the God of Jacob, as much as if my grandfather had been a veritable Jew; and except for the closing phrase, ‘for the sake of Thy Son, our Savior,’ might well have been uttered in Palestine by a well-trained Jew in the time of David.” Now, Calvin Stowe, in his Hebraic studies, went on from the Bible to the Talmud, and he prepared a pioneering study of this later holy book, in which Harriet attempted in vain to interest the Atlantic Monthly. He allowed his beard and his hair to grow and wore habitually a rabbinical skullcap, and, with his spectacles, he presents in his photographs an appearance that would have adorned any synagogue. He liked to pose with a New Testament—in some curious unbooklike form, perhaps masquerading as a Torah scroll—held up before him like Moses’ Tablets. His wife was in the habit of referring to him as “my old rabbi” or simply “Old Rab.” It may be that, in the case of Calvin Stowe, his Judaizing was a parallel development to that which eventually led Harriet to become an Episcopalian. Harriet had arrived by that time at a full and outspoken revolt against the Calvinist doctrines of Original Sin and salvation through Election; and it may be that Calvin, in a quieter way—he had to teach in Calvinist seminaries—was exemplifying a similar tendency. In Judaism, the Protestant of the Puritan tradition finds the spiritual austerity he already knows, but not bedeviled—the word is exact—by the fear of a despotic Deity who seems to favor or condemn by whim. The Jewish God may be retributory and terrible but he is not preoccupied with torment, not a perpetrator of nasty surprises as the Calvinist God was.
The most extreme case, however, of an atavistic obsession with the Jews on the part of a well-educated New Englander is that of James Russell Lowell. His mania on this subject is mentioned, in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, by his England friend Leslie Stephen. “He was so delighted,” says Stephen, “with his ingenuity in discovering that everybody was in some way descended from the Jews because he had some Jewish feature, or a Jewish name, or a Gentile name such as the Jews were in the habit of assuming, or because he was connected with one of the departments of business or the geographical regions in which Jews are generally to be found, that it was scarcely possible to mention any distinguished man who could not be conclusively proved to be connected with the chosen race. The logic sometimes seemed to his hearers to have trifling defects; but that was all the greater proof of a sagacity which could dispense with strict methods of proof. To say the truth, this was the only subject upon which I could conceive Lowell approaching within measurable distance of boring.” And an anonymous reporter, in the Atlantic Monthly, of “Conversations with Mr. Lowell”—quoted in the biography of Lowell by Horace Elisha Scudder—describes in detail such a disquisition. “At the mention of some medieval Jew,” he says, “Lowell at once began to talk of the Jews, a subject which turned out to be almost a monomania with him. He detected a Jew in every hiding place and under every disguise, even when the fugitive had no suspicion of himself. To begin with nomenclature: all persons named for countries or towns are Jews; all with fantastic, compound names, such as Lilienthal, Morgenroth; all with names derived from colors, trades, animals, vegetables, minerals; all with Biblical names, except Puritan first names; all patronymics ending in son, sohn, sen, or any other versions; all Russels, originally so called from red-haired Israelites; all Walters, by long descended derivation from wolves and foxes in some ancient tongue; the Caecilii, therefore Cecilia Metella, no doubt St. Cecilia, too, consequently the Cecils, including Lord Burleigh and Lord Salisbury; he cited some old chronicle in which he had cornered one Robert de Caecilia and exposed him as an English Jew. He gave examples and instances of these various classes with amazing readiness and precision, but I will not pretend that I have set down even these few correctly. Of course there was Jewish blood in many royal houses and in most noble ones, notably in Spain. In short, it appeared that this insidious race had penetrated and permeated the human family more universally than any other influence except original sin. He spoke of their talent and versatility, and of the numbers who had been illustrious in literature, the learned professions, art, science, and even war, until by degrees, from being shut out of society and every honorable and desirable pursuit, they had gained the prominent positions everywhere.
“Then he began his classifications again: all bankers were Jews, likewise brokers, most of the great financiers—and that was to be expected; the majority of barons, also baronets; they had got possession of the press, they were getting into politics; they had forced their entrance into the army and navy; they had made their way into the cabinets of Europe and become prime ministers; they had slipped into diplomacy and become ambassadors. But a short time ago they were packed into the Ghetto: and now they inhabited palaces, the most aristocratic quarters, and were members of the most exclusive clubs. A few years ago they could not own land; they were acquiring it by purchase and mortgage in every part of Europe, and buying so many old estates in England that they owned the larger part of several counties.
”. . . . Finally he came to a stop, but not to a conclusion, and as no one else spoke, I said, ‘And when the Jews have got absolute control of finance, the army and navy, the press, diplomacy, society, tides, the government, and the earth’s surface, what do you suppose they will do with them and with us?’ ‘That,’ he answered, turning towards me, and in a whisper audible to the whole table, ‘that is the question which will eventually drive me mad.’”
Though Lowell admired the Jews, he conceived them as a power so formidable that they seemed on the verge of becoming a menace. In this vision of a world run entirely by Jews there is something of morbid suspicion, something of the state of mind that leads people to believe in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” in a Jewish international conspiracy to dominate the civilized world.
But, before trying to get to the sources from which this delusion springs, let me give another example of New England Pan-Judaic doctrine. It might be thought that Barrett Wendell of Harvard was the perfect type of old-fashioned snob in regard to every kind of American not of strictly Anglo-Saxon origins, yet we find him—on October 18, 1891—writing to his father as follows: “I heard a queer theory the other day about the Yankee Puritans, whose religious views were so strongly Hebraic. They came chiefly, it seems, from Norfolk and Lincolnshire. These counties, some two or three centuries before the Reformation, had been the chief strongholds of the English Jews, who were finally expelled from the kingdom by one of the Plantagenet kings. At the time of the expulsion, many changed their faith and remained to be absorbed in the native population. It is wholly possible, then, that the Yankee Puritan, with all his Old Testament feeling, was really, without knowing it, largely Jewish in blood. There is in the Yankee nature much that would give color to the theory; but of course it is very far from being a proved fact. . . .” Is there any actual evidence for this or have we here simply a recrudescence of the Judaizing tendency of the Puritan?
I have noted that Lowell’s prophecy of a universal Jewish dominance seems to skirt the state of mind of those who believe in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It is possible to cite examples of a glorification of the Jews that has passed suddenly into a neurotic anti-Semitism. Such an example was the late John Jay Chapman. He was a mixture of New York and New England, but the New England strain in him was very strong. His grandmother had been a lieutenant of William Lloyd Garrison’s, whom (Garrison) Chapman very much admired and about whom he wrote a book. Especially in this connection his relations with the Jews are significant. “There is a depth of human feeling in the Jew,” he wrote in a memorandum of 1897, “that no other race ever possessed. We do no more than imitate it—and follow it. David, for instance, and his conduct about Uriah’s wife and the child that died—and Absalom—and Jonathan. Compare the Greek—the Chinese, the Roman. These Jews are more human than any other men. It is the cause of the spread of their religion—for we are all adopted into Judah. The heart of the world is Jewish. There is the same spirit in the Old Testament as in the New. What monstrous perversion—that we should worship their God and despise themselves! We admire the Pyramids and the Egyptians, but the history of the Jews is the most remarkable, the most notable thing, on the globe. Their sacred books and chronicles and traditions and history make the annals of every other nation mere rubbish—and I feel this same power in the Jews I know. They are the most humane and the strongest people morally, mentally and physically. They persist. I’m glad I’m a Jew. I believe that’s the reason why this paper-faced civilization impresses me so little. Take Habbakuk,” etc., etc. (It was true that Chapman looked rather Jewish, and he wore an impressive beard in a period when beards had ceased to be fashionable; but neither Chapman himself in his memoirs nor his biographer, Mr. M. A. DeWolfe Howe, records that he had Jewish blood.)
This pro-Semitism was unquestionably to some extent due to Chapman’s political dependence on a devoted Jewish friend, Mr. Isaac H. Klein of New York, who worked with him in his efforts at reform. “The Jews have in my experience,” he writes in a letter dated from Wall Street, a little later in 1897, “more faith than the Christians. They have clever heads, better hearts and more belief in the power of good every way. They gave to the world all the religion it has got and are themselves the most religious people in it. I work with them day and night and most of the time is spent in prying up some Christian to do a half day’s work.”
But between the 1890’s and the 1920’s, Chapman’s attitude toward the Jews underwent an astonishing change. One gets the impression from a letter, written from Atlantic City, of December, 1919, that his disillusion may have begun with the spectacle of crowds of vacationing Jews who did not strike him as being the equals of Habbakuk and Isaac Klein: “They are uncritical,” he now writes. “Life is a simple matter to them: a bank account and the larder. No, they will never rule the world. They are too easily deflected—absorbed and satisfied. It is foolish to rule the world and the Jew knows it. They are crumbling material for the hands of their leaders, and ropes of sand. They have too much sense—and will go for the glittering garments and not murder Progress. They strike me as an inferior race, in spite of their great advantages. . . . But to return to the Jews, my long acquaintance with Klein and his club makes me at home with them—but I’m glad I haven’t more Jewish blood in me than I have. I don’t want any more. These people don’t know anything. They have no religion, no customs except eating and drinking.”
Note here again the specter of Jewish power. As Chapman watches a crowd of Jews behaving in a perfectly natural way, he concludes that they will not “rule the world.” Why should he have expected them to?—and why should he be surprised that these citizens from New York and Philadelphia show an interest in their larders and their bank accounts? Do Americans of other stocks not give evidence of similar interests? Later on, he went even further and began to link the Jews with the Catholics in his attacks on the Catholic church. He actually got to the point of publishing in an organ of the Ku Klux Klan—the National Kourier of May 29, 1925—the following queer anti-Semitic sonnet:
How restful is it to survey the sea
From some low, windswept, silvery, sandy
And watch the eternal climbing of the moon
Full-orbed, above the shore’s complacency;
Wondering the while if Asian plains there
Or rock-walled valleys, never shined upon,—
Save by the perpendicular sun at noon,—
So safe, so guarded, so remote as we.
But see, a saill—nay more,—from every land
They cloud the ocean, convoyed by a crew
Of Master Pirates who have work in hand:
Old Europe’s nation-wreckers heave in view!
And lo, to aid them, on our margin stand
Our citizens,—the Jesuit and the Jew.
There is, I think, involved in Chapman’s case, as perhaps in Lowell’s also, a special relation to the Judaic element in the New England Puritan tradition. This tradition came to life again—after a partial eclipse during the early 1800’s—in the Abolitionist crusade against slavery that inspired so much of the ardor of the Federal forces in the Civil War. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” comes straight out of the Biblical Prophets, and the Old Testament Jehovah takes the field again at the head of the Federal armies. In the period before the war, Lowell had been stirred by this fervor—under the influence, it is said, of his first wife—and had worked for the Abolitionist cause; John Jay Chapman, who was proud of his grandmother, and had relived the Abolitionist movement in writing his book about Garrison, had once traveled to a Pennsylvania town where a Negro had been burned alive, to hold an expiatory meeting—a meeting at which he was the only speaker and to which only two people came. Both Lowell and Chapman, in their later years, more or less dropped crusading, somewhat lapsed in their faith. The former, Ambassador to the Court of St. James, became an official figure; the latter, having married a well-to-do wife, became the proprietor of a country estate and a somewhat petulant critic of everyone in literature and politics who was playing a more active part than he. Both, perhaps, had a bad conscience. In Lowell’s case, he seems half to hope, half to fear, that the Puritan-Jewish Jehovah is going to take over the world; in Chapman’s case, he seems—not admitting it—to be gnawed by a sense of guilt toward the moral inspiration of the Jews in which he has felt he shared: he accuses lest he stand condemned.
But there is something else, too, in this curious shift from a faith m the Jews to a fear of them. The basic thing here, I believe, is that the Jews have been all too succssful in convincing the rest of the world of their privileged relations with God. They have made it all too easy for visionary people—that is, people like themselves—to assume that there is something supernatural about them. What Chapman, who had idealized the Jews on the evidence of the Bible and of his friend Mr. Klein, was so startled one day to realize, on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, was that German or Russian or Polish or Lithuanian Jewish Americans were human beings like everyone else. And yet for a certain type of mind—the apocalyptical kind—it is difficult to accept this conclusion. For such a mind, an awe of the Jews persists but it takes on a different aspect. It may turn to the extreme anti-Semitism of Hitler and Henry Ford—both idealistic cranks—which, as Waldo Frank has said in his study The Jew in Our Day, is a department of demonology. Or it may merely—as in Lowell’s case—survive as a superstition, an uneasiness in the presence of something unknown, an uncomfortable apprehension. These people, unique in their cohesiveness, their inbreeding, their self-isolation, so impressive in their sureness of their contact with God, is there not something queer about them? Do they not possess special powers? May they not be masters of a magic that enables them to intrigue against us, to demoralize, subvert, destroy us? Nor is it, I think, out of the question that we ourselves, deep in our “psyches,” may consider it correct that we should thus be destroyed in punishment for our own apostasy, our apostasy toward, precisely, the Jewish God—that apostasy of which both the Testaments have combined, at the basis of our moral training, to implant in us the sense of danger?
An odd non-American example of this tendency to credit the Jews with supernatural powers is to be found in the novels of Gerald du Maurier. I have not been able to discover in any of the biographical material about him that du Maurier himself had a Jewish strain but in each of his three novels a rather unexpected Jewish theme plays a more or less important role. In the first of these, Peter Ibbetson, we are told of the mother of Colonel Ibbetson that she “had been the only child and heiress of an immensely rich pawnbroker, by name Mendoza; a Portuguese Jew, with a dash of colored blood in his veins besides, it was said.” But Peter himself is a nephew of the Colonel’s on the latter’s paternal side, and the Jewish character here is the villain. In The Martian, on the other hand, the third of the series, a woman with Jewish blood is the heroine. We are told of Leah Gibson that “her mother . . . was a Spanish Jewess—a most magnificent and beautiful old person in splendid attire, tall and straight, with white hair and thick black eyebrows, and large eyes as black as night. In Leah the high Sephardic Jewish type was more marked than in Mrs. Gibson. . . . It is a type that sometimes, just now and again, can be so pathetically noble and beautiful in a woman, so suggestive of chastity and the most passionate love combined—love conjugal and filial and maternal—love that implies all the big practical obligations and responsibilities of human life, that the mere term ‘Jewess’ (and especially its French equivalent) brings to my mind some vague, mysterious, exotically poetic image of all I love best in woman.” But in the intermediate Trilby, du Maurier’s conception of the Jew is developed in a major and a very strange way. We are told, in the first place, of Little Billee, one of the three English art students in Paris about whom the story centers, that “in his winning and handsome face there was just a faint suggestion of some possible very remote Jewish ancestor—just a tinge of that strong, sturdy, irrepressible, indomitable, indelible blood which is of such priceless value in diluted homeopathic doses, like the dry white Spanish wine called Montijo, which is not meant to be taken pure; but without a judicious admixture of which no sherry can go round the world and keep its flavor intact; or like the famous bull-dog strain, which is not beautiful in itself; and yet just for lacking a little of the same no greyhound can ever be a champion.” Little Billee is thus the only one of the three companions who is shown to possess any genuine talent. But the great Jewish character in Trilby is, of course, the German Jewish Svengali: the fabulous musician who cannot sing but who, by hypnotizing the tone-deaf Trilby and exploiting her wonderful voice, makes of her a great artist. Svengali, in other connections, is always represented as everything that these gentlemanly Britishers most abhor: he is dirty, insulting, boastful, mendacious, malicious, quarrelsome; they have constantly to put him in his place. Yet Trilby, in spite of her voice, has not only no ear whatever for music, but no range of emotion or expression which would be adequate, even if she had one, to achieve the astounding effects which Svengali is able to teach her by turning her into a simple automaton. The concert—described at great length—at which Trilby so triumphantly sings, is “the apotheosis of voice and virtuosity”; it sounds like a combination of Yvette Guilbert and Adelina Patti. Yet—except for the voice itself—the whole thing is an emanation of Svengali’s musical soul; and if this is true, the horrid Svengali must have, after all, as Bernard Shaw says, “better grounds for [his] egotism than anybody else in the book except Little Billee and Trilby.” But from whence does all this subtlety and innocence, this tenderness and joy and sorrow, arise in the Svengali we know? There is no explanation of this: the character, in human terms, is not in any deep sense created. What is really behind Svengali is the notion, again, that the Jew, even in his squalidest form, is a mouthpiece of our Judaico-Christian God, whose voice he has, in this case, transferred, ventriloquially, to the throat of Trilby. There is always in these novels of du Maurier’s—binational, bilingual as he was—a certain light playing-off of French civilization against English; but the picture is further complicated—it is one of the things that make them interesting—by this dual role of the Jew, who appears—Colonel Ibbetson, Svengali in his contacts of everyday—now as a malignant devil, whose malignancy is hardly accounted for; now—as in Leah, Little Billee, and the Svengali who animates Trilby—as a spirit from an alien world who carries with it an uncanny prestige, who may speak in a divine tongue.
In the meantime, for the Jew—or for many Jews—it must become almost as embarrassing to be taken for a Hebrew prophet with a private line to God as for a diabolical demiurge who is out to “murder progress”—whatever Chapman meant by that. I remember a clear illustration of this in a story told of himself by Dr. Paul Tillich of Union Theological Seminary in a discussion after one of his seminars. Dr. Tillich explained that he had never at first approved of the Zionist movement. He had thought it a good thing that a group—the Jews—should survive in the modern world to represent a religious faith independent of patriotism, whose Kingdom—since they had no country—could not be of this world. But it was then pointed out to him by a Jewish friend that he was being quite unfair to “the petty bourgeois Cohens and Levis” in expecting them to be Moseses and Isaiahs, and in restricting them to the status of aliens in countries in which they were still not accepted on quite the same basis as other natives and which were liable to anti-Semitic panics. Dr. Tillich was so struck by the justice of this that he at once joined a Zionist organization.
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Notes on Gentile Pro-Semitism:New England’s “Good Jews”
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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.