Monday, October 5, 2015

The Evian Conference (1938): A Failure Of Nerve

Displaced Persons

“At stake at Evian were both human lives – and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world. If each nation at Evian had agreed on that day to take in 17,000 Jews at once, every Jew in the Reich could have been saved. As one American observer wrote, “It is heartbreaking to think of the ...desperate human beings ... waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian ... it is a test of civilization.’ ”
Walter Mondale, The New York Times, July 28, 1979

Evian Conference: United States delegate Myron Taylor delivers a speech at the Evian Conference on Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Evian-les-Bains, France, July 15, 1938. 
Rozett writes: “In spring 1938, President Roosevelt and his Administration decided to convene a conference to deal, ostensibly, with the problem of Germany’s fleeing Jews. Between the 6th and 15th of July, representatives from 32 countries met in the French spa town of Évian-sur-les-Bains. It became rapidly clear at the time, and even clearer subsequently, that the Evian conference yielded no substantial solutions to the ongoing stream of refugees.”
Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.
Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

An article, by Robert Rozett, in The Times Of Israel brings to mind the failure of the Evian Conference in 1938 to solve the Jewish refugee crisis, which ought to act as a reminder to the world  that it does not have to fail today with a crisis of similar, or greater, numbers. Ignoring it or studying it to death, as was the case more than 75 years ago, will not resolve anything or bring about anything good.

The lessons of the past can be instructive, and become more than history lessons. Yet, this is the case only if these lessons translate to the world’s political leaders acting with moral clarity. In “That refugee crisis and this refugee crisis“ (September 10, 2015), Rozett, director of Yad Vashem Libraries, in Israel, writes:
In spring 1938, President Roosevelt and his Administration decided to convene a conference to deal, ostensibly, with the problem of Germany’s fleeing Jews. Between the 6th and 15th of July, representatives from 32 countries met in the French spa town of Évian-sur-les-Bains. It became rapidly clear at the time, and even clearer subsequently, that the Evian conference yielded no substantial solutions to the ongoing stream of refugees. The various countries’ emissaries set forth reasons why their nations could do little or nothing more than had already been done to help. Each emissary voiced hopes that other countries would provide a solution. In short the Evian conference was a dismal failure, ultimately fortifying the foundations of the Nazis’ Final Solution.
Today Europe and the world face another refugee crisis of great proportions. Today’s crisis appears in some ways much greater than that of the 1930s, with more complex and diverse characteristics and causes. It extends beyond several hundreds of thousands of persecuted persons belonging to one ethnic group, in one nation. Now, millions of people in extremis around the world are on the move and seek relief, refuge and a safe future. It is truly a global problem.
Since 2011, more than 4 million have fled the brutal and bloody multi-sided war in Syria alone, a war that has left an estimated quarter of a million dead. In Iraq, ISIS has targeted its enemies killing, enslaving, terrorizing and raping large segments of minority groups like the Yazidis, various Christians and those Muslims who do not follow the ISIS line, engendering massive flight. As of the end of 2014, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 19.5 million people around the world have been driven from their homes because of armed conflict.
There are a number of good books recounting the details of The Evian Conference, including one that I read a number of years ago and found riveting: Hans Habe’s novel, The Mission (1966), a fictionalized account that is nonetheless supported by sufficient facts to provide a thoughtful account of what likely took place behind closed doors. Most of all, it is a failure of nerve; the official communiqué of the conference can be found here.

For more, go to [TOI]

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Moral Mind

“The most important endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity for life.”
Albert Einstein, Letter to Reverend C. Greenway, 
November 20,1950. AEA 28–894

In this science program “How Smart Can We Get?” on PBS-TV, the question of smartness is discussed by host David Pogue. This documentary, which aired on the show NOVA (October 24, 2012), has the following program description:
How do you get a genius brain? Is it all in your genes? Or is it hard work? Is it possible that everyone’s brain has untapped genius–just waiting for the right circumstances so it can be unleashed? From a man who can immediately name the day of the week of any date in history to a “memory athlete” who can remember strings of hundreds of random numbers, David Pogue meets people stretching the boundaries of what the human mind can do. Then, Pogue puts himself to the test: after high-resolution scanning, he finds out how the anatomy of his brain measures up against the greatest mind of the century: Albert Einstein.
While feats of memory are interesting and can provide amusement to large crowds of people, they hardly define the highest mark or achievement of human intelligence. This takes hard work and a high degree of concentration. Curiosity and creativity along with a desire to understand describe the minds of all great thinkers. Understanding our place in the universe and how to go about our business in the best possible way are always worth considering and pursuing. When the human mind is dedicated to doing good—a moral good, I might add—then our actions will have a basis in such morality, engaged in the pursuit of something noble and worth remembering.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Humans Are Not Defined By Memories, But By Morals

Human Beings

Human Dimensions: Bobby Azerian writes: “Although Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases may powerfully impact the mental functioning of individuals, sufferers can find some solace in the fact that substantial memory deficits—when unaccompanied by changes in moral characteristics—seem to have no effect on how others perceive ‘who you are.’ ”
Photo Credit:©
Source: ScientAmer

An article, by Bobby Azerian, in Scientific American says that individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease might find comfort in the view that humans are chiefly defined by the morals they hold and not by their memories. So, even if such persons have little recall of their past lives, this does not diminish their personhood, essentially because their patterns of behaviour remain the same as before the disease took hold.

In “Morals, Not Memories, Define Who We Are” (September 29, 2015), Azerian writes:
Fortunately, science appears to suggest that being robbed of one’s memory does not equate with being robbed of one’s identity. A new study has found that “who one is” is largely defined by one’s moral behavior, and not by one’s memory capacity or other cognitive abilities. Thus, although Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases may powerfully impact the mental functioning of individuals, sufferers can find some solace in the fact that substantial memory deficits—when unaccompanied by changes in moral characteristics—seem to have no effect on how others perceive “who you are.”
Determining the factors that define one’s identity is an old philosophical problem that first received serious consideration in the 17th century by the early British empiricist, John Locke. According to Locke’s “memory theory”, a person’s identity only reaches as far as their memory extends into the past. In other words, who one is critically depends upon what one remembers. Thus, as a person’s memory begins to disappear, so does his identity.
This notion of identity as memory has received experimental support from psychology research. A 2004 study followed Alzheimer’s patients and found that those exhibiting impairments in autobiographical memory—one’s knowledge of their own past experiences and events—on standard psychological tests showed changes in the strength and quality of identity. The strength of identity was measured by the number of unique statements given by the patient in response to the question, “Who am I?” while the quality of identity was measured by the abstractness of their answers, i.e., their lack of specific details. These findings seem to imply that autobiographical memories create a continuous first-person narrative that helps form a sense of self.
However, other scientists remain unconvinced of Locke’s premise, as some theorize that more central to identity is moral capacity—a variable that these previous studies did not adequately control for. Evidence for this idea comes from social cognition research that has found that impression formation is largely dependent on the moral dimension. In other words, how we see people—whether they are positive or negative, to be approached or avoided—is mostly determined by our assessment of their moral character, and not their intellect, knowledge, or other personality traits. The concept that morals are essential to identity is aptly known as the essential-moral-self hypothesis.
This is a noteworthy finding, because it says that what is important, after all is said and done, is that a person's moral dimensions and history are a greater definition of his being than collective memories. Carrying this argument further, one can say that morals tell others not only about what an individual stands for, but also much about his past life, including his decisions.

If a person you know suffers from a cognitive impairment—the steady decline is no doubt heart-breaking—there might be some comfort in knowing that this person has the same moral identity before and after. There is a caveat, however, to the research study. It applies to persons affected only by Alzheimer’s the article says, “where those with frontotemporal dementia tend to undergo changes in moral traits—i.e., things like honesty, compassion, decency, and integrity.”

For more, go to [ScientAmer]

Friday, October 2, 2015

Principled Disputes For An Enduring Intellectual Life

Jewish Life

“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.”
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 5:17

JTS Luminaries: Chancellor Louis Finkelstein, Professor Mordecai M. Kaplan, and librarian Alexander Marx at The Jewish Theological Seminary, early 1950s. Daniel Gordis writes what the luminaries at JTS, the intellectual headquarters of the Conservative movement, shared: “What they all had in common, despite their great differences, was a sense of urgency. Each of them sought to forge an intellectual and religious path that could bridge the chasm between the worlds in which they had been raised and the American community to which they were devoted. Jewish thought had to be couched in language that would appeal to a generation of university-educated Jews. Jewish practice had to be reshaped so it did not remind them of their grandparents (or at least not too much). Jewish particularism had to make space for a post-war American world that was proving hospitable to Jews in an unprecedented and distinctly non-European way. The challenge of Conservative Judaism was to refashion Jewish thought, study, and practice so that what was most important and vital in Judaism could survive and even thrive in a bright new America.”
Photo Credit: Gjon Mili; The LIFE Picture Collection and Getty Images.
Source: JRB

One of the beauties of Jewish thought is that disputes or sincere disagreements are not only acceptable, but also expected and in some cases even applauded. In other words, a healthy mind is a product of the thoughtful and respectable disagreement and debating of ideas. New ideas that are versed in doing and promoting good are always worth debating and pursuing. But not all new ideas are worth pursuing.

We are not here talking about petty and personal disputes, but disagreements based on principled and productive arguments. Is this not a path that the world’s Jews ought to always pursue? We are also not here referring to changing the pursuit of fundamental and universal moral principles, but only the application and understanding of these in the light of modern life. For example, what is our place in the universe?

In “Tradition, Creativity, and Cognitive Dissonance,” in The Jewish Review of Books (Fall 2015). Daniel Gordis, makes this very point in an excellent opinion piece that compares and contrasts the Zionist enterprise with Conservative Judaism. One seems to be doing well, while the other is floundering:
On one level, the following reflections are personal. I grew up in a family that produced several leaders of the Conservative movement (including my grandfather, Rabbi Robert Gordis, my father’s brother, Rabbi David Gordis, and my mother’s brother, Rabbi Gerson Cohen). And for almost two decades, I have lived in the state first envisaged, and argued over, by the turn-of-the-century Zionists.
Yet I have also had occasion to think about Conservative Judaism and Zionism in ways that are not merely personal. Why, I have found myself wondering, did one project largely succeed and the other mostly fail? For all its many shortcomings and rather uncertain future, the State of Israel is in large measure what its founders had hoped it would be—Jewish, democratic, able to defend itself, and a center of Jewish cultural life. Conservative Judaism, however, for all its many accomplishments, did not achieve the fundamental goal the movement set out for itself—the creation of a modern, yet halakhically committed laity in which Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayer, and serious learning would be the lynchpins of a renewed American Jewish life. So what might the history of those two movements tell us about our own intellectual initiatives and prospects today?
Obviously, there were factors—historical, sociological, geopolitical—beyond the control of any intellectual tradition or movement that were involved in the (relative) success of the Zionist project and the (relative) failure of Conservative Judaism. Their respective fates may even have turned, to some extent, on matters of sheer historical contingency (or, if you prefer, divine providence). Nonetheless, both movements were moved by thinkers and ideas, and it is worth thinking about them as such.
Gordis goes on in the next few thousand words to give an excellent summary of the tradition defined in America by Conservative Judaism with its easy ideological agreement, and in Israel with its passionate and often heated disagreements that defy easy answers; it is to live with cognitive dissonance. Perhaps, as some say, Conservative Judaism gave away too much and kept too little of what has longed defined Judaism. In other words, it was an agreement made in good faith, but with insufficient knowledge of future outcomes. It might be that the old traditions and observances are necessary after all; too much water can dilute the wine until it is no longer officially wine.

This all leads to what I consider the essential point of the argument, one that bears repeating:
Thus far, however, on all these fronts, shrill argument has replaced productive intellectual engagement. Too few Jews on either side of the ocean have inherited the Jewish cultural capital necessary to understand how Jews in the past wrestled with and responded to the challenges of their day. Too few Jews have the access to Jewish texts that would enable them to engage in authentic Jewish discourse. And too few Jews live their lives in the dissonant space at the intersection of traditions where creativity happens. The number of Jews worried to their core about the condition of the Jews—and willing to acknowledge that they have no ready solution—is very small indeed.
When this happens it becomes a wonderful and fruitful period for Judaism and the Jewish People. If only others would agree with this view, or, even better, wrestle and grapple with what it says, suggests or intimates. Authentic Jewish discourse is filled with contradictions and uncertainties. New ideas reside alongside old ones, often uncomfortably, for a long time. Disagreement, if it done for the right reasons, can lead to the implementation of new and productive ideas, but only when the time is right, the examination is complete and the over-all plan for humanity is fulfilled.

For more, go to [JRB]