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History's Deals

What follows is my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, exploring the Iran deal.  

In December of 1938 Nicholas Winton, then a 29-year-old London stockbroker, was planning a skiing vacation to Switzerland.  Before leaving he received a phone call from his good friend Martin who urged him to cancel the vacation and come to Prague instead.  “I need your help,” Martin said. “Don’t bother bringing your skis.”  In Prague Winton confronted thousands of Jewish refugees living in appalling conditions.

I am sure many are familiar with this story.  Still I want to retell it because this past July Nicholas (Nicky) Winton died after living to 106 years.  I recall his story as well because much of our discussion this past summer hinged around the very question Winton faced.  How do we confront evil?  The stories we tell influence how we evaluate contemporary events and in particular the now concluded Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that lifts the sanctions against Iran in exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear program.  Some have called President Obama’s negotiated deal appeasement.  Others have praised it.  Some believe the deal forestalls war.  Others believe that we are once again reliving those concluding days of 1938.

Winton believed that the Munich Agreement between Germany and the Western European powers would not offer “peace in our time,” but was instead a prelude to war.  The Germans would not stop with the annexation of western Czechoslovakia.  Kristallnacht in November of 1938 confirmed Winton’s feelings.  In Prague he saw first hand the Jewish refugees.  He saw that no one was looking out for them.  He decided to try to get permits for the children.  He wrote: “I began to realize what suffering there is when armies start to march.”  Winton set up an office in Prague and returned to London where he appealed to European nations to accept the children. Only Sweden and Britain said yes.  The United States by the way said no.  He worked tirelessly to raise funds and secure foster homes for the children. 

Three months later Winton had his first success: a planeload of children left Prague for Britain.  Winton organized seven more transports, the remainder by train.  Each transport was greeted by waiting British foster parents in London’s Liverpool Street station.  On September 1, 1939 the largest transport of children was set to leave.  On that day Hitler invaded Poland.  Germany then closed all the borders they controlled.  250 children destined for London perished instead in the fires of the Shoah.  Winton has said many times that he remained haunted by the faces of these children waiting eagerly at Prague’s Wilson Station for that aborted transport.  In the end Winton saved 669 children.  Their parents, as well as the majority of their families, were among the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.

I have been thinking about this story for many reasons.  It is remarkable that Winton, a Christian, was so moved by Jewish suffering that he almost single handedly saved so many lives.  It is a heroic story of what one person can do when confronted with unspeakable evil.  All agree.  Winton is a hero. 

This morning I wish to meditate on history and heroism.  How does our view of it color our judgment of contemporary events?  We are commanded: zachor—remember!  We tell the stories of our suffering.  Every year we read the megillah and tell our children about the wicked Haman.  We recall tales of heroism.  Every year we sing of the bravery of the Maccabees.  We teach our children about the Holocaust.  Why?  We must always remember.  We must forever learn how to discern evil when it once again blossoms.  That is why the US Holocaust Museum charts emerging genocides.  Antisemitism and demonic hate flourishes once again.  It can be found among ISIS.  It can be heard coming from the mouths of Iran’s leaders. 

So let me offer some words about the deal now concluded with the Iranian regime.  Despite the potential for controversy I hope this sermon serves as a starting point for our discussions and debates, that my words might make us think a little bit harder about our firmly held positions and our pre-conceived ideas.  So let me state this clearly at the outset.  The deal now concluded with Iran is a bad deal.  I am not going to get into the details.  I am not a security expert.  For that you can read any number of articles.  In a nutshell here is my judgment. I do not trust Iran’s intentions.  I worry about what will happen when Iran and its proxies get their hands on even a fraction of the $150 billion of sanction relief.  By the way I continue to worry about the billions that Saudi Arabia funnels to terrorist groups. 

President Obama appears naïve about the intentions of those bent on our destruction.  I have often said this and I will continue to say so.  History teaches us that we must take antisemites at their word.  When they rise up and agitate for our destruction we must not excuse their words.  They mean what they say.  President Obama on the other hand seems to believe that history is a great weight that must be overthrown, that can be overcome.  Leon Wieseltier writes: “The president said many times that he is willing to step out of the rut of history… It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present.” (The Atlantic, July 27, 2015)

By contrast I am a Jew.  I relish in the past.  I retell our stories year after year.  History defines me.  It animates me.  Past sufferings instruct me.  They continue to guide my responses to today’s challenges. 

I believe there could have been a better deal.  Now, however, that the deal is concluded, this is an argument for historians.  I am left to respond to present circumstances.

There are number of things we can offer about the present.  For all my worries about the deal and Iran’s intentions I worry as well about how we argue about the deal’s flaws and merits.  There are serious and committed Jews who do not share my views.  There are educated leaders, and security experts, who have offered different judgments.  Our tendency to listen only to those who reinforce our own opinions is one of the great failures of our present culture.  It is made exponentially worse by the desire to accumulate Facebook likes and the unwillingness to sit and debate with those who sit across the table from us.  We are also a people animated by debate.  We are made better by sitting at the same table with those with whom we disagree.  We are made worse by sitting by ourselves across from our computer screens.  We are strengthened by loving disagreement. Argument is not a sign of weakness.  In fact the opposite is true.  Unity of opinion, and the hewing to talking points, does not strengthen us but instead weakens us.  Neither side in this great debate can be called traitors.    

Of course I worry about Israel’s security.  Of course I worry about threats to the United States.  But I also worry about the growing divide among Jews.  We are fractured.  Love of Israel once united us.  It was once understood that love could come with critique.  Now love appears to mean unquestioning loyalty to Israel’s current political leadership.  There is far more disagreement within Israel’s Knesset than appears permitted among American Jews.  My friends it is not 1938 and President Obama is not Neville Chamberlain.  It is not 1938 for one simple reason.  There is a modern State of Israel, a sovereign Jewish state, with a powerful and formidable army.  The world is different today than it was then.  Today the Jewish people can defend themselves.

The modern State of Israel represents the attempt to transcend the narrative of Jewish victimhood.  This does not mitigate my worries about the deal.  Israel in particular faces many threats but it is not forever nearing a precipice.  I have come to know a different Israel. I have fallen in love with the thriving and tumultuous, and often boisterous, Jewish and democratic state, clamoring for our involvement and engagement. I have faith in our survival.  The Jewish people will defend themselves.  Am Yisrael chai! 

I worry about the growing divide between the United States and Israel.  I blame both Obama and Netanyahu for this failure.  We are united by shared values.  We must redouble our efforts to mend this divide.  We have many enemies and fewer friends.  We should draw near to our friends.  And I remain deeply concerned about the growing rift between American Jews and Israel.  With each conflict we appear more and more distant.  If you think that Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank does not distance many of our young people from Israel then you are mistaken.  Take note of the over 3000 young Jews who attended JStreet’s recent conference.  Their voices must be embraced as part of how one can love Israel.  Our children’s love of Israel might look different than our own.  I hope my children share my passions.  I pray my children share my loves.  I don’t expect, or even want, my children to think like me.  Tomorrow must be different than yesterday.  I expect my children, I expect our children, to participate in that transformation.

I seek to be informed by history but not so scarred and bruised by it that I remain forever wedded to it.  I seek to learn from history but not live within its confines.  What then is the heroic response to present evils?

I turned to some of my teachers for answers.  In this regard some of you are my teachers.  I turned to Annie, a Holocaust survivor, a woman who stands taller than just about any person I know, a woman who survived a year in Auschwitz.  As I spoke to her on the phone you could almost hear her waving her finger at me when she said, “Rabbi, I have seen evil with my own eyes.  You cannot make a deal with people who say ‘Death to the Jews.  Death to Israel.  Death to America.’  They really mean to kill us.”    

Then I called a newfound teacher and also a member of our holy congregation. Arthur is a combat veteran who served in the US Army during World War II and fought in Germany.  He said, “Rabbi, I have seen horror.  I don’t want anyone to see that again.  I don’t want any young kid to have to fight in a war again.  Anything that delays war is a good thing.  This deal makes war less likely. I am in favor of it.”

Is one Jew’s experience of history more authentic than another’s?  Is one person’s pain and suffering more telling than another’s?  History is far more confusing than our narratives suggest.  History, as my professor once taught, is messy.  We tell the stories that justify our opinions.  It is not nearly as black and white as our tales imply.    

There are those who accuse President Obama of appeasement and the Jews who support his decision as collaborators.  History does not speak with an unwavering, certain voice. There are lessons to be learned from history.  Certainties elude us. 

And so I offer another story.  It comes from the same time period that informs our current debate.  This story is less familiar than the tale of Winton.  It is the story of Reszo Israel Kastner.  Kastner was a Zionist leader in Hungary and in particular a member of the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee.  Hungary was then, as it has become now, an escape route for refugees fleeing from the East.  Then it was Jews who were running from the Nazi onslaught in Poland.  Today it is Syrians fleeing from ISIS.  In March 1944 the Nazis invaded Hungary. Jews were then deported to Auschwitz’s gas chambers at a rate of 12,000 per day.  Kastner took it upon himself to save those he could. 

What did he do?  He went directly to Adolf Eichmann and negotiated for the safe passage of 1,685 Jews to travel to Switzerland.  He paid in money, gold and diamonds.  After a number of meetings he negotiated the price of $1000 per life.  Imagine this.  Kastner, a Jew and a Zionist, sat across from Eichmann to negotiate for these Jewish lives. He even traveled to Germany to conduct some of these meetings.  In an effort to raise the extraordinary sum he auctioned off seats to wealthy Jews for $25,000 per person.  Among those on Kastner’s train as it later became known, were his own family members and the rabidly anti-Zionist Satmar rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum.  Kastner also developed a working relationship with other SS officers, in particular Kurt Becher.  Some claim that Kastner leveraged these relationships to help save over 10,000 more Jews.  And what did Kastner offer in addition to gold?  He promised that if there were a trial he would testify in behalf of these SS officers.  Being a man of his word, Kastner traveled to the Nuremberg war crimes trial following the war and offered testimony in behalf of Kurt Becher and two other SS officers.  He was first and foremost a man of his word.

What defines a hero?  Do we elevate Winton to the status of hero because he was not a Jew?  Because he was an ordinary man who we would have expected to feel distant from Jewish suffering and pain but whose vacation was derailed by a heartfelt moral imperative?  Do we denigrate Kastner because he was a Jew who failed to even warn his fellow Jews of the murderous deaths that he absolutely knew awaited them?  There are those who believe as well that it was Kastner who turned Hannah Senesh and her fellow paratroopers into the Germans.  The timing of their ill-fated rescue attempt could have derailed Kastner’s plan to rescue the 1,685 Jews he had negotiated so hard for so long to save.  Do we wish to forget his acts because he exchanged money for lives?  And yet the history is clear.  He saved 1,685 Jewish lives.  Then again history also offers muddy conclusions.  Still his story does not end there.

Following the war Kastner made his way to Palestine.  He became active in Mapai, David ben Gurion’s party.  He never gained a Knesset seat but by 1952 became spokesman for the Ministry of Trade and Industry.  And that is when the story gets really interesting.  Malchiel Gruenweld remembered Kastner from the war and believed he had betrayed the Jewish people in wartime Budapest.  He published a pamphlet accusing Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis, enabling the mass murder of Hungarian Jewry, partnering with Nazi officer Kurt Becher in the theft of Jewish assets, and saving Becher from punishment after the war.  And so what did Kastner do in response to these accusations?  He, and the nascent State of Israel, sued Gruenweld for libel.  The lower court found in favor of Gruenwald and accused Kastner of selling his soul to the devil. 

The State decided to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.  And this decision led to the collapse of the ruling coalition and the call for new elections.  Have we ever retold this story?  We don’t learn this history.  We tell tales of the Wintons.  They are ennobling.  They are clarifying.  They are neat and tidy.  Here is good.  There was evil.  We push away the stories of the Kastners.  They are complicated.  They tend not to fit with our squared narratives of good and evil.  During the Shoah people were forced to make terrible, and unimaginable, choices.  Saving lives did not always emerge from altruistic motives.  Schindler, we learned, was a flawed man.  In 1958 Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Kastner.  Kastner however never lived to see his name cleared.  He was assassinated a year earlier by a right wing Jewish hit squad.

And then three years ago his granddaughter, Meirav Michaeli, rose before the Knesset as a member of the Zionist-Labor party, and said in her first speech before her fellow Knesset members the following: “On Wednesday morning, July 3rd 1944, a Zionist Jew stood in a suit in Adolf Eichmann’s Budapest office.  Your nerves seem tattered said Eichmann to the man.  Maybe I will send you on a vacation to Auschwitz.  The Zionist Jew who stood before him remained unfazed.  That man was Dr. Israel Kastner.  The reason why he was in the room was to negotiate with Eichmann and other Nazi officers in order to save tens of thousands of Jews from extermination.  Reszo Kastner hu haya hasabba sheli.  Reszo Kastner was my grandfather,” she exclaimed.

For the granddaughter the grandfather is a hero.

Back to Winton.  It was not until years later, in 1988 that the world learned of his heroism.  His wife discovered a trove of documents in a suitcase in his attic.  These documents detailed the names of all the children that Winton was able to save.  He only wished he could save more.  Documentaries were produced.  He was knighted by the British government.  He became Sir Winton.  A statue of Winton carrying a child in his arms was erected in Prague’s train station. 

Back to Kastner.  He is buried in an ordinary cemetery.  A documentary about him was produced as well. It is entitled, “Killing Kastner.”  And to this day you could search near and far but you will never find a street in any Israeli city named for Israel Kastner.  In Jerusalem, you can find a street named for Yohanan ben Zakkai, the rabbi who betrayed those zealots made famous by the stories we tell on Masada but you will not find Rehov Kastner.  Every attempt to name a street for him still meets with fierce resistance.  We name the streets we want to walk.  We write the stories we want to hear.

And so here is my judgment about the history we retell.  It does not offer the certainties that politicians, and rabbis, too often suggest.  It grants lessons.  But its road is not straight.  History’s deals are imperfect.

Back to Winton and Kastner.  We can deduce this math.  The hero saved 669 souls.  The traitor, as some would still call him, saved 1,650 and probably far, far more.

For all my misgivings about the Iran deal and my judgments about its failures and my fears about where it might lead, I have to admit that historical certainties belong to the prophets alone.  I have to admit that when future generations look back the math might tip against my view and in favor of those now accused of collaboration and treason.  The truth might be the following.  The messy history that real people live could end up saving more lives than the stories I prefer to tell.

That, I now realize, leads me to my prayer.  May my fears prove unfounded and the hopes of others prove true.  And may 5776 offer the world an increased measure of peace.

I am thankful to my teacher, Dr. Rachel Korazim, with whom I learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and who first taught me about Israel Kastner's life.