Friday, December 17, 2010

Saying What You Mean, and Meaning What You Say

I don't know if you caught this item in the news this week...but it seems that the Nixon Presidential Library and the National Archives declassified another batch of transcripts from Nixon's infamous Oval Office taping system.  The New York Times reported it in this story.

Initially, the media's focus on this week's release was on Nixon and his already well-documented use of ethnic stereotypes and slurs (including evidence of anti-Semitism).

But many leaders in the Jewish community have been focused, instead, on a quote that is almost buried in the aforementioned New York Times story about the tape release.  That article notes that:
An indication of Nixon’s complex relationship with Jews came the afternoon Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, came to visit on March 1, 1973. The tapes capture Meir offering warm and effusive thanks to Nixon for the way he had treated her and Israel.

But moments after she left, Nixon and Mr. Kissinger were brutally dismissive in response to requests that the United States press the Soviet Union to permit Jews to emigrate and escape persecution there.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
Wait a second....did Kissinger - the Jewish Secretary of State and Holocaust escapee - just go on the record as indicating that he wouldn't care if the USSR sought to kill Soviet Jews in an act of genocide?

What in the world are we supposed to make of that statement?

It certainly doesn't add up.  Kissinger has long been honored by American Jewish organizations for formulating the Nixon Administration's pro-Israel stance (connected, for example, with the 1973 Yom Kippur War) to insure Israel's survival.

How do we reconcile Kissinger's well-respected and well-earned reputation with these disgusting comments?

Abraham Foxman, who leads the Anti-Defamation League, has gone on the record by defending Kissinger.  Foxman's piece is well worth reading.  He basically makes two important points about the Nixon Administration: (1) for sure many, including Nixon, were anti-Semitic and bigoted.  But they were also fixated on a realpolitik approach to foreign affairs - and, through that lens - they believed that the US had a significant responsibility to defend Israel (because it was in America's national security interests).  Foxman goes on to argue that (2) given the rampant anti-Semitism that we know to have existed in the Nixon White House, it is not realistic for us to expect that Kissinger would be free to entirely express his own views on Jewish-related issues.  Foxman believes that Kissinger - like some of us (?) - found his workplace to be hostile to Jews, and did whatever he had to do to not bring further attention upon himself and his Jewishness.  That could explain the almost anti-Jewish attitude that is reflected in the quote above.

This story isn't just important because of the historical and political questions that it raises.  The story is also relevant because it raises a basic ethical question: IS IT WRONG TO SAY/THINK ONE THING, BUT ULTIMATELY DO ANOTHER?

Consider the question for a moment.

Pure and simple hypocrisy is always easy to identify.  That would be if someone comes along and says that they love Jews.  And then a few days later: that individual enacts a policy at his business which prevents Jews from being hired.

We would all agree that that kind of (oversimplified!) two facedness is clearly wrong - a violation of our Jewish and secular ethical standards.

But the Kissinger story is an inversion of that example: where the speaker says terrible things about someone/something else, but his actions are actually a fine example of 'doing the right thing'!  Is that also hypocrisy, or is it justified?

What about in our own lives?

Can you think of situations where you were with other people and you felt pressure to 'talk the talk' with them, by using the kinds of language that others were using, or offensive terms (or jokes) that others were using/making?  And what does it mean to do that when you know - deep down - that those things are wrong and violate your own personal system of ethics?  Do you justify it by saying to yourself that they're just words....but that your actions represent the real you - the person who would never actually objectify a woman, or harass someone who was gay (to draw on two male stereotypes here)?

I think that there are competing Jewish values at play here, which makes this situation so difficult to navigate.

On the one hand, Judaism absolutely believes that our words are powerful: that they have the ability to hurt people, deeply - just as they have the ability to heal and help.  What we say matters, no matter what the circumstance.

And on the other hand, Judaism is certainly realistic.  There are times when it is okay to lie/be hypocritical a little, when it comes to preserving either our own lives, or the feelings of others. question to you: WHAT DO YOU THINK?  Is Kissinger two-faced, or is he just a complicated person like so many of us?  Is it wrong when we do the same kind of thing that he did - by saying one thing, but doing another?

As always, I'd love to hear what you think.  Join the conversation by posting a comment in the box below.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

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