An American in Paris

To the Editor:

I would like to comment on Nidra Poller’s article, “Betrayed by Europe: An Expatriate’s Lament” [March], which I read with both sorrow and indignation. Nidra Poller, who has lived in France for a number of years, describes my country in a way that no doubt owes more to her imagination as a novelist than to reality itself.

At no point in the article did I recognize the France that I serve with pride, and where my family chose to live in circumstances similar to those of Nidra Poller’s own family. While it is true that anti-Semitic acts have been committed in France, I cannot accept her allegation that “Jews are being persecuted every day in France,” or that the French authorities can be accused of remaining silent. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly when one is familiar with the commitment of the French president and the government to fight against all forms of racism and anti-Semitism, and when one observes the notable decrease in anti-Semitic acts. This is something that is recognized by all persons of good faith, from the president of Israel to the head of the Anti-Defamation League, both of whom have recently paid visits to France.

But did Nidra Poller really wish to demonstrate good faith? One might doubt it after reading certain passages of her article that verge on extremism (“We are not free in France”; “the Republic is under siege [by Muslims]”; “France is in fact an adversary of the United States”) and an astounding xenophobia, as when, describing the French people’s “cowardice,” she writes “they disgust me” and even calls on America to “come over here and colonize this place.” In France, we have a saying that “what is excessive is insignificant,” and perhaps I should have ignored Nidra Poller’s article for that reason. But when an article smacks of racism, I feel I have no choice but to respond. I am astonished that such a piece was published in your magazine, which is dedicated to combating such a scourge.

Jean-David Levitte

Ambassador of France

Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Reading Nidra Poller’s article, I ask myself whether I am the victim of a hallucination. It must be so, since her essay bears no relation to reality.

Anti-Semitism does indeed exist in France; to be precise, it is an Arab anti-Semitism, which has also turned into a more generalized anti-goyism (the goy in this case being the ordinary Frenchman). The phenomenon is very serious, but its dimensions are nothing like what one would imagine from reading Nidra Poller’s apocalyptic scenario. Publication of her article in a distinguished journal like Commentary is unfortunate; nourishing such fantasies serves the interest neither of the United States nor of the Jewish people, not to speak of France and Europe.

Alain Besançon

Paris, France

 

To the Editor:

I sympathize with the sentiments of Nidra Poller, but her account seems to me too darkly colored, a result perhaps of her experience living in the Parisian hothouse of the French elite.

My own experience of France, traveling and staying, goes back over 50 years and includes all parts of the country. Though I too have encountered the knee-jerk hostility described by Nidra Poller, it is not unanimous, even among the French elite. Jean-François Revel recently published a book condemning anti-Americanism, and the scholar Philippe Roger has published a superb account of the phenomenon’s history in France, dating all the way back to the 18th century.

In those days anti-Americanism took the form of a firm belief that the New World was, among other things, a poisonous land in which all the inhabitants were stunted, hermaphroditism was commonplace, and syphilis was contracted from eating iguanas. These were the ideas not of eccentrics but of respectable figures like Voltaire and Diderot. Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador to France, used the occasion of a dinner party to expose this absurdity. After steering the conversation around to the subject of the supposedly “stunted” growth of Americans, he asked everyone to stand up. The Americans towered over the Frenchmen and especially over the Abbé Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, who had been industriously spreading these cockamamie ideas. Raynal was not at all embarrassed; he dismissed the incident as “vulgar empiricism,” which in no way refuted ideas held by all the great minds of Europe.

The present form of elite anti-Americanism took shape during the 19th century, and was fixed in its expressions by the time of World War I. The hostile rhetoric used against Bush, Reagan, and other American presidents is essentially a recycled version of remarks made about Andrew Jackson. Plus ça change.

As for my own experience, I have never much cared for Paris, where the sort of sneering described by Nidra Poller is thick in the air. But in my extensive travels in la France profonde, I have, with rare exceptions, consistently encountered a deep and abiding warmth toward America, its culture, and its people. This is expressed both in personal friendships and in the astonishing kindness and helpfulness of complete strangers.

Herb Greer

Salisbury, England

 

To the Editor:

If Nidra Poller is looking for a country that is not “so vast I haven’t the faintest idea where I would put myself,” a country where it does not snow much, where the housing is more affordable than in New York and people do not firebomb synagogues or trash America, she is overlooking an obvious option. Sorry, but I cannot do anything about the shopping malls; we have them here, too.

Michael Gerver

Raanana, Israel

 

To the Editor:

Please let Nidra Poller know that she is welcome in Atlanta. My wife and I would be happy to put her up until she’s back on her feet. My wife is originally English, I am originally Irish. Though we both are now thoroughly American, we come with a squadron of Russian, Bulgarian, French, Spanish, Italian, and French friends, so she will even have a European ambience.

Patrick Carroll

Atlanta, Georgia

 

To the Editor:

The trajectory of Nidra Poller’s life is exactly the reverse of my own. She left the U.S. in 1972, at the time of the Vietnam war, because she was sick of American “imperialism” and attracted by the “intellectualism” of the French Left. I left France in 1981, at the beginning of the Mitterrand years, because I had been disillusioned by the very same spirit of the French Left and saw in the “American dream” the cultural matrix for greater personal achievement.

Yet these two opposite trajectories have left us in the same place. Thirty years later, shocked by the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and particularly in France, Nidra Poller is considering a return to the U.S. As for me, having spent a quarter-century here as a resident alien, I finally took the oath and became an American citizen. The reasons for our respective decisions seem quite different, but when we look at them more carefully, they are related.

As I explained in a recent article in the French journal Commentaire, there were many reasons for my voluntary change of nationality, but they can be summarized under a single heading: the apathy and complete lack of solidarity in French society. The French care for only one thing—their individual welfare and comfort.

Consider what has become one of the main expressions of the exception française: the national penchant for going on strike. One may think that all these people marching and chanting in the streets of French cities are passionate and generous progressives, struggling for the improvement of collective life. But the reality is quite different: they are struggling only to keep everything in place, to preserve their own so-called avantages acquis (“acquired benefits”). The strikers’ only passion is for the status quo.

Regarding the anti-Semitism described by Nidra Poller, the French behave in the same way. I do not consider French nationals to be more anti-Semitic than their European neighbors. With a Muslim community in France of five million, anti-Semitism there inevitably feeds on international events. According to official statistics, one act of anti-Semitic violence occurred in 1998, nine in 1999. At the end of September 2000, after Arafat launched the second intifada, the number jumped suddenly to 116, and then it increased again after 9/11.

How did French public opinion react to these hate crimes? With indifference, by looking the other way. The hatred and persecution of the Jewish community go unnoticed by the French as long as it does not disturb their daily routine and comfort. This attitude of laisser-faire is not new; it is the same as the one that permitted the Vichy government to collaborate with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Another component in this special brand of anti-Semitism is directly connected with anti-Americanism and concerns France’s continuous mourning for its past “grandeur.” In the French psyche, Israel and America are seen as states with messianic visions, as contrasted with France’s inability to project an ambitious future for itself, laying bare the secondary role France now plays on the international stage. In France, apathy and nostalgia are two sides of the same pusillanimity.

I regret that I cannot fix Nidra Poller’s shattered French dream. But her account reminds us that even when history does not accommodate our romantic mirages, it is never too late to take the future back into our own hands, and to build it again.

Jean-Michel Heimonet

Catholic University

Washington, D.C.

Nidra Poller writes:

Let me begin in reverse order by thanking Jean-Michel Heimonet most warmly for his endorsement and his very instructive amplification of my argument, and Patrick Carroll and Michael Gerver for their kind offers of hospitality. After reading my confession—a serial expatriate, an unregenerate gadfly—it takes courage as well as generosity to think of letting me come and live in your town.

I agree with Herb Greer that Paris is sometimes the capital of sneer, but I did not have the luxury of pursuing my career elsewhere in France. Besides, although I have roots in the Midi, and although I am the last to deny the joys of Mediterranean light, the sad fact is that things have changed there, too. José Bové has done his work, and the phenomena I describe in my article are to be found not just in the capital but in the provinces. As I hope I made clear, however, the hostility is directed not so much at individual Americans or Jews as at “the enemy,” those world dominators, the plotting Elders of Zion and the looming, God-fearing U.S.

Mr. Greer’s delicious anecdote about Benjamin Franklin leads me from one witty ambassador to the humorless letter by another and rather different ambassador, Jean-David Levitte. Not that Ambassador Levitte is necessarily humorless himself; I can easily imagine the job description that he has been assigned to fill. Still, I am a little embarrassed for la France, hitting me with the full, awesome power of the Foreign Ministry. But so be it.

My article began with these modest, rather self-effacing words: “It is not so easy to know when you’re deluding yourself and when you are finally seeing the light.” They apply to me, and to everything that followed in my article. And they are pertinent to Ambassador Levitte’s reaction, too. I am surprised thata sophisticated European could so radically misread the tone of my essay, written from the heart—albeit a broken heart—and steeped in love for a country where I have lived not “for a number of years” but for over three decades. But I permit myself to wonder where Ambassador Levitte has been living during those years. If he honestly feels threatened by the “extremism” in my wistful, half-jocular invitation to the Yanks to come over and colonize France, I suggest that he ponder the French media, where, in dead seriousness, the Yanks are vilified for already doing just that, from morning to night, seven days a week, ad nauseam.

Is it false to say that “Jews are being persecuted every day in France”? If so, it is no less false for Ambassador Levitte to contend categorically that the French government is fighting racism and anti-Semitism. It is false to claim that everyone of good faith acknowledges the “notable decrease” in anti-Semitic acts. All such affirmations are too general to be confirmed. But I, at least, cited examples of types of persecution, while testifying as well to a widespread absence of persecution. I also pinpointed the stunning silence of French officialdom in the face of the single worst anti-Semitic crime so far—the atrocious murder and mutilation of Sébastien Selam last November. So which is the truer description of the condition of Jews in France at the dawn of the 21st century? A notable decrease in the number of incidents—or a notable increase in violence?

And where exactly is the bad faith of which Ambassador Levitte accuses me? I did not say the Republic was under siege from Muslims but that it was under siege from “Muslim rage,” from “political Islam on the march.” I was talking about undeniable and specific acts of violence in schools, hospitals, streets, and stadiums. I was speaking of the unconscionable demands by Islamist leaders for what can be fairly described as a creeping imposition of shari’a law, complete with the oppression of women. If this is “racism,” if we are not free to identify the source of danger, then I have all the more reason to fear for the future of my French grandchildren.

The recent conference of the UOIF (Union of Islamic Organizations in France) is a perfect illustration of what I mean. Why has this offshoot of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood been allowed to develop and prosper? If laïcité is indeed the core value of the French Republic, and if the UOIF is clearly, openly, and aggressively challenging that laïcité, is the Republic not besieged? As I noted in my article, the government has promulgated a law against “ostensible signs of religious affiliation” in schools; it is to go into effect in September. But we are already seeing indications that the government may bend under pressure from radical Islamic forces and allow Muslim girls to wear a bandana in place of the hijab, or Islamic veil—the main such “sign” that the law was drafted to proscribe. This will fool no one, least of all those Christians and Jews whose discreet crosses and yarmulkes will still be forbidden under the same law.

As for French-American relations, France is an adversary of the United States, however sincerely my French compatriots may be convinced otherwise. I can understand why the government would prefer to cloak this issue in a fog of discourse, but please do not expect me to play along. What do allies do in wartime? They join together and fight the common enemy. (In peacetime they compete—peaceably.) But what do you call an ally who in wartime does not fight by your side, who opposes you on every crucial point of policy connected with that war, who bends over backward to convey his friendly intentions to the enemy, and who, when convenient, denies the very reality of the conflict?

During the recent outburst of violence in Iraq, French anchormen stood unprotected and unmolested in the midst of ranting jihadis brandishing RPG’s and promising to slit American throats, burn Americans alive, spill American blood, mutilate American bodies. Nor were these vain promises, but merely a rundown of what had been carried out in Falluja the day before. Was French TV simply reporting the news, or was it dutifully relaying the insurgents’ propaganda? In the meantime, French citizens who seem to have worked happily enough in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein were being advised by their prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, to pack up and leave; the prime minister concluded his speech with a bombastic, “We have always been for a free Iraq and we are always for a free Iraq!” Yes—just so long, evidently, as someone else pays the price of the freeing.

Where is the fiction, where is the reality? Fiction is a way of capturing reality without denying the subjectivity of the observing eye; scholarship, journalism, and official pronouncements, despite heroic attempts at objectivity, are constantly in danger of fictionalizing. I may well have a novelist’s approach to the reporting of current events, but every single detail of my portrayal of France has been developed elsewhere by reputable journalists, political scientists, philosophers, sociologists, community leaders, and even government officials.

Both Jean-David Levitte and Alain Besançon accuse me of imagining things. In correcting me, Mr. Besançon calls attention to the “Arabness” of French anti-Semitism. But the “Arabs” of France are French citizens or residents, and to place all the blame on them seems to me to “smack of racism” (to borrow from Ambassador Levitte). Without the implicit collaboration of a good portion of the intellectual elite, and the apparent failure of the police and judicial system to punish the actors and squelch their ever growing ardor, they would be seething but impotent grumblers instead of the mortal danger they are to themselves and others.

Am I imagining things? Would that it were so. Would that my worst fears were the figments of a wild and overwrought imagination, and the denials of Messrs. Levitte and Besançon a magical force that would make their version of French reality come true.

FDR

To the Editor:

I wish to thank Arthur Waldron for his generous review of my book about Franklin D. Roosevelt [Books in Review, March] and to take issue with a couple of the points he made. Roosevelt was well aware that the Communist Chinese were making little effort to combat the Japanese in World War II, and he had serious misgivings about them, as he did about Chiang Kai-shek. He simply deferred consideration of how to work with the Chinese until after the war.

Mr. Waldron writes that “the best way forward would have been to attack Japan through China with reorganized Chinese and American troops systematically advancing northward,” but this would have been a recipe for disaster. It would have doubled American casualties in the Pacific theater, miring a vast army in continental China; retarded the ability of the U.S. to bomb the Japanese home islands; siphoned off resources from the European theater, delaying the Normandy landings by up to a year; and assured a much greater Soviet penetration of Western Europe, with no likely alteration of the ultimate outcome of the Chinese civil war.

Conrad Black

New York City

 

To the Editor:

Arthur Waldron criticizes Conrad Black for claiming that Roosevelt effectively pushed the Japanese to attack. Were this so, according to Mr. Waldron, FDR “would not have put his beloved fleet at Pearl Harbor, from which it could not have been effectively supported in case of a real war.”

But contrary to Mr. Waldron’s claim, the Roosevelt administration did indeed go to great lengths to goad Japan, by embargoing scrap iron and then petroleum, without which the Japanese economy and war machine would have ground to a halt. In The Cruise of the Lanikai (1973), the late rear admiral Kemp Tolley recounts how as a young lieutenant he was ordered to assume command of a small sailing craft in the Philippines in November 1941 for the purpose of spying on Japanese operations in the waters adjacent to Indochina. Although he was not given explicit orders to do so, Tolley had little doubt that he was to cause an “incident” that could lead to war. As it turned out, his cruise was overtaken by the events of December 7.

In a more recent book, Pearl Harbor Betrayed (2001), Michael Gann uses newly released materials in the national archives to report on the disorganization that plagued official Washington in the autumn of 1941. All of the information necessary to predict a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was available to the government. That it was not assembled, properly analyzed, and distributed is due to a great extent to the failure of senior Navy leadership.

Finally, Mr. Waldron’s assertion that the U.S. fleet could not be effectively supported at Pearl Harbor is plain wrong. Support of surviving units at Pearl Harbor and repair of the damaged ships began immediately after the attack and continued until the end of the war.

Robert C. Whitten

Cupertino, California

 

To the Editor:

In his review of Conrad Black’s new biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Arthur Waldron chides the author for “celebrat[ing] every act of FDR’s as a triumph.” Mr. Waldron fails to mention, however, that Black’s treatment of FDR’s record on the Holocaust exemplifies this problem. Consider, for example, Black’s description of the events leading to the one meaningful step Roosevelt took against the Holocaust. According to Black, when Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his aides presented FDR (in January 1944) with a report on the Nazi genocide and the State Department’s secret effort to obstruct rescue opportunities, Roosevelt “agreed with most of what his visitors told him . . . [and] the War Refugee Board was set up.” Roosevelt “was determined to act, initially by setting up refugee centers in the United States. He accepted 1,000 Jewish refugees from Italy and placed them in a camp in Oswego, New York, and announced his plan after the fact to the Congress.”

Black gives the impression that as soon as Roosevelt learned the facts, he acted swiftly and courageously to save Jews. In fact, the Roosevelt administration had confirmed that the Nazis were carrying out genocide against the Jews of Europe in the autumn of 1942, yet FDR claimed there was nothing the Allies could do to help them except to win the war. He refused to press England to open Palestine to refugees or to permit immigration to the U.S. to the full extent of existing quotas. Quotas from Axis-controlled countries went 90 percent unfilled from late 1941 through early 1945; 190,000 quota places that could have saved lives went unused.

FDR finally acted only in response to strong outside pressures. Throughout 1943, newspaper ads and rallies by maverick Jewish activists known as the Bergson group roused public interest in the rescue issue. A Congressional resolution urging creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jews was the subject of well-publicized hearings in the House, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and was headed for adoption by the full Senate. At the same time, aides to Morgenthau discovered that the State Department had been sabotaging rescue opportunities and blocking the transmission of information about the Holocaust to the United States.

Armed with a potentially embarrassing report on the administration’s record regarding the Nazi genocide, Morgenthau warned the President in January 1944 that “you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.” Just days before the Senate was scheduled to vote on the rescue resolution, Roosevelt preempted it by creating the War Refugee Board. (During the final fifteen months of the war, the Board would play a key role in rescue initiatives that saved some 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews, including facilitating and financing the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.)

Black likewise distorts the record on the issue of America’s failure to bomb the death camps. He claims that “if Roosevelt . . . had realized the centralized manner of the German liquidations of the innocent, [he] would surely have ordered a systematic campaign of bombing the gas chambers.” But historians long ago demonstrated that the President received detailed information on the extent and nature of the Nazi genocide well before the spring of 1944, when the bombing idea was first considered—yet this did not move him to act. Black also fails to mention that U.S. bombers repeatedly struck German targets within five miles of Auschwitz’s gas chambers—a fact first revealed in the pages of Commentary by David S. Wyman in 1978.

Conrad Black is so busy celebrating FDR’s few-and-far-between gestures that he fails fully to come to grips with the fact that Roosevelt could have done much more to help Europe’s Jews.

Rafael Medoff

David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

Melrose Park, Pennsylvania

 

To the Editor:

To write a review of a 1,200-page, densely researched biography of a great and almost unknowable statesman like Franklin Roosevelt is a formidable task. Arthur Waldron’s review meets this challenge fairly, but his emphasis on the questions raised by FDR’s perceptions of Stalin’s malleability and China’s future prevents a full appreciation of the magnitude of Conrad Black’s achievement.

Mr. Waldron makes the cogent observation that Black does not have enough “problems” with Roosevelt and remains too often uncritical of him. Any examination of Roosevelt’s life, personal or political, gives ample room for criticism. But how do you treat flaws in a man who so self-evidently saved his country from 33 percent unemployment and who later skillfully led it through a war against barbarism? The tone of such an appraisal is very likely to sound either idolatrous or pettifogging.

Americans have not cared to look too closely at FDR’s attempts to provoke an attack in the Atlantic and the Pacific to bring us into a war because most of us knew we should have been in that war. But we should note that even if he did provoke an attack, FDR did not necessarily know it would take place at Pearl Harbor, as Black convincingly demonstrates.

But Black is far too easy on Roosevelt’s attitude toward efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust until he was almost forced to do so in early 1944. Cold pragmatic reasons against weakening wartime unity by making it seem like a war to save Jews have been invoked by some with great cogency, although this argument may not seem as reasonable in 2004 as it was in 1944, when many of us heard it flash out in angry moments from GI’s in Europe otherwise bonded together to face Nazis.

Somehow, however, Roosevelt’s coldness on the issue of rescuing Jews cannot be explained away. Something in his heart was wrong, and that diminishes his place in our hearts, although not that part of our hearts that can be swayed by gratitude to forgive even a grievous flaw. Mr. Waldron seemingly cannot forgive Roosevelt for not leaving us a better world than we have known these past 60 years. Some of us are grateful that he left us a world in which we are able to live.

M. Donald Coleman

Mamaroneck, New York

 

To the Editor:

It was good to read Arthur Waldron’s review of Conrad Black’s biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For over 50 years the man has been praised as a great leader who led us out of the Depression and guided the Allies to victory. But more and more historians are, like Mr. Waldron, having “more and more problems” with FDR.

Some of these historians have challenged the claim that Roosevelt’s New Deal programs brought us out of the Depression; these policies, they argue, only made things worse. Revisionist historians have also accused Roosevelt of getting America into World War II by provoking Japan to attack us.

FDR’s defenders once denied this latter accusation, but now many of them agree with it. With his disastrous demand for unconditional surrender by Germany and Japan, Roosevelt just may have prolonged the war.

Robert M. Thornton

Fort Mitchell, Kentucky

 

Arthur Waldron writes:

In one way or another, all of these fine letters confirm the basic thrust of my review. While Franklin Roosevelt’s greatness is not in question, what is most emphatically in question is how to understand that greatness. This is particularly true when it comes to the numerous gray areas in his career—the “problems,” as I called them.

I thank Conrad Black for understanding that my review was basically favorable even though I raised issues to which he has now responded. Unfortunately, in his response as in his book, he repeatedly tells us what Roosevelt was thinking or planning while providing little or no evidence. Perhaps the clearest example is his assertion here that FDR was aware the Chinese Communists were not fighting the Japanese very hard—something he actually does not say in his book, where he mentions only FDR’s displeasure with the supposed laxity of the Nationalists.

This brings us to a paradox. From 1937 to 1945, the mighty Japanese army had at least as many divisions in China as in all other theaters combined. Scarcely any outside aid was available to the Chinese, and, if you combine what Mr. Black maintains in his book with what he says in his letter, none of them appears really to have been fighting. So how was it that, in eight years, the Japanese failed to win? Something is missing. I would propose that the Japanese were held back by the desperate Chinese resistance, mostly but not entirely led by the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek—until 1944, when the Chinese position began to deteriorate dramatically.

Roosevelt’s attitude to all of this remains puzzling. Rhetorically, he was very pro-Chinese, and, contrary to Mr. Black, he was thinking about China’s postwar role. Thus, at Cairo in 1943—the only occasion on which Chiang Kai-shek met his ostensible allies, minus Stalin—FDR paid far more attention to Chiang than suited Churchill, who regarded China as completely unimportant and tried to persuade Chiang and his wife to spend the day sightseeing while the grownups talked about the war.

Roosevelt did not “simply [defer] consideration of how to work with the Chinese until after the war,” as Mr. Black would have it. He had a plan. He believed Chiang was and would remain the leader of China, and he relied on future negotiations, rather than on the notion of partition as in Europe, to reconcile Chiang to his deadly enemies, the Communists. Alas, the plan was unrealistic, and FDR did nothing to support it. Indeed, he undercut it by his decision to by-pass China in the fighting on the ground, thus creating, on V-J day, an immense power vacuum extending from Manchuria to the Dutch East Indies.

No such power vacuum existed in Europe on V-E day, for Soviet, British, and American troops were already in firm possession of former Nazi territories, and thus in a position to dominate politics, most importantly by preventing local clients of one or another of the great powers from starting an unwanted war. Thus, Stalin saw to it that Thorez, Togliatti, and other Communist leaders did not lead rebellions in the Western zones, while the Americans, British, and French did nothing as Stalin and his successors installed pro-Soviet governments in the East, liquidated democrats, and crushed popular uprisings. Not a pretty picture, but at least one free of major war.

The East was quite different. There, in the absence of any clear delineation of zones between the U.S. and the USSR, minor figures like Kim Il-Sung were repeatedly able to start wars that did embroil the powers, creating dangerous threats to security that, as in Korea, continue to exist today. I am convinced that better planning for the post-war period could have averted these tragedies.

Mr. Black’s other responses are, I am afraid, equally oracular. To my argument that Roosevelt should have put American troops on the ground in China, he replies that this would have “doubled American casualties.” How can he know? Arguably, having strong and numerous Chinese allies might well have reduced losses. Nor is it clear that such a policy would have led to “miring a vast army in continental China” (is Chinese soil somehow different from the soil of France or Germany?) or “retarded the ability of the U.S. to bomb the Japanese home islands” (could not those islands be reached from airbases in China?).

As for whether greater attention to the Asian theater would have “delayed the Normandy landings”—perhaps, but perhaps not. Besides, a responsible termination of the war in Asia might well have saved the lives of approximately 100,000 Americans and millions of local people who subsequently perished in Korea and Vietnam, not to mention the millions who died in the Chinese civil war. Finally, to hold that the Communists might well have won the Chinese civil war even if the United States had been fighting on the ground in China in World War II is to miss the pivotal importance to the Communists of the destruction of the Nationalist armies by the Japanese.

Robert C. Whitten takes me to task for asserting that Roosevelt would never have placed the fleet in Pearl Harbor had he been expecting real war, and that the attack took the President by surprise. It is true that we had some information suggesting an attack, but it was not properly recognized—sound familiar? Although Roosevelt did “goad” the Japanese, as Mr. Whitten puts it, he did so with the sense that they would either have to accept sanctions or cease their aggression. This is very different from expecting them to attack.

Mr. Whitten also chides me for saying that fleet operations could not have been supported from Pearl Harbor. I stand by the point. Maintaining the Pacific fleet required direct access to all the resources of the continental United States, from heavy industry and shipyards, to petroleum, to food, to manpower. It is a nightmare to imagine how these could have been convoyed from the West Coast to Hawaii in wartime conditions, with Japanese submarines and surface combatants free to roam.

I will not venture to add to Rafael Medoff’s assessment of Roosevelt’s evident inaction with respect to the Nazi death camps, or wade into the deep waters of speculation about how attitudes toward Jews then widespread in America might have been a contributing factor to his inaction (though I would note that Eleanor Roosevelt clearly changed her feelings about Jews as she grew older). Instead, I tentatively second M. Donald Coleman’s eloquent observation that “Something in [FDR’s] heart was wrong, and that diminishes his place in our hearts.”

Mr. Coleman writes, pointedly, that whereas I “cannot forgive Roosevelt for not leaving us a better world,” nevertheless, “Some of us are grateful that he left us a world in which we are able to live.” This brings us to perhaps the most difficult puzzle of all concerning Roosevelt’s wartime role—namely, the fact that he did not, directly, leave us that world.

Even before war broke out in 1939, FDR knew that vital American interests were at stake. He also knew that he could not lead a divided country into massive conflict. So he did all he could to assist those resisting aggression—but without actually joining the battle. Our entry in December 1941 was not early—the world had long been in flames—and it happened only because the Japanese attacked us.

Suppose Tokyo had limited its war-making to Indochina, British Southeast Asia, and the Dutch East Indies. I doubt we would have gone to war with Japan. As far as Germany was concerned, it was only Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war on us that permitted Roosevelt to enter the European theater. In short, had it not been for the miscalculations of Tokyo and Berlin, he might never have found a convincing occasion to join the conflict.

Of course, he was assuming that the occasion he needed would indeed turn up. In doing so, he was playing a politically astute but strategically hair-raising game—and one that he might have lost. That being the case, logic compels us to accept a repugnant conclusion: we have the Japanese and the Germans to thank for making the indispensable errors of judgment that alone brought the U.S. into the war and, in so doing, “left us a world in which we are able to live.”

My thanks once again for these extremely interesting and thoughtful letters.

 

 

Becoming Jewish

To the Editor:

In her moving and earnest depiction of her conversion from Christianity [“On Joining the Jews,” March], Nancy Yos identifies some of the key issues plaguing the Reform movement. She especially realizes that “social action is thin gruel to live on” and that a religious life requires something more substantive than “perfecting the world.”

At the same time, she puts her finger on the essence of Jewish faith with her observation that “it should be obvious . . . that when a people possessed of a simple and sensible worldview are promised by God that they will exist forever, and they do, then Something is happening.”

But it is a pity that such an honest and insightful person, through no fault of her own, was guided through a conversion process that is less than authentic according to halakha (Jewish law). She herself notes that the “Reform-style ‘court’” that examined her was almost meaningless. And while her conversion ceremony on the temple’s pulpit—in which she “promised to remain faithful and to raise the children as Jews”—was surely touching, the vagueness of her commitment is typical of Reform. What, if anything, was required of her went unmentioned. She was apparently unaware that halakha says nothing about conversion ceremonies on pulpits or about pledges of “remaining faithful.” It requires from converts something more: unconditional acceptance and fulfillment of the Torah’s commandments, among other things.

To her credit, Nancy Yos is clearly serious about her Jewishness and about raising her children as Jews. But how she can succeed in this, with a non-Jewish husband, is a serious question—though one that does not much concern Reform Judaism. Its temples are increasingly populated and even led by mixed-marriage couples—a sad fact that could in time transform “Something is happening” into “nothing is happening.”

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

Jerusalem, Israel

 

To the Editor:

How bittersweet it is to read the lyrical essay, “On Joining the Jews.” Bitter because it is the essay I wanted to write to celebrate my conversion to Judaism; sweet because Nancy Yos does it so well that I wish now only to compare it with my own experience.

I have been Jewish for only some months now, but like Nancy Yos I know my journey began in childhood. I grew up in a Protestant family that belonged to the “liberal” church, which meant we were neither Catholics, Mormons, nor Baptists. My few Jewish friends seemed to me to be no more than members of some other denomination, and we talked about our differences as if we were supporting rival baseball teams.

I stayed in a mainline Protestant denomination, taught Sunday school, gave guest sermons, and became an elder. Yet three aspects of my intellectual life were unsatisfying. As a professor in the natural sciences, I study and teach evolution, which even in the most liberal Christian communities produces tension; some of the leaders of my church voiced anti-Israel positions with increasing venom; and I did not believe that God would become incarnate and then, in a Trinitarian mystery, allow himself to be brutally killed for our salvation. In fact, I knew I was Jewish, but I was comfortable in the back pews, hiding my doubts.

September 11, 2001 tore that comfort away. I looked to my church and my denomination to provide some way to approach the events of that day with ethics and courage, but I was gravely disappointed. Increasingly, criticism of Israel became indistinguishable from sophisticated anti-Semitism. Instead of boldness in the face of evil, I heard only platitudes about addressing the root causes of terrorism. One morning, I left a service just as it began, resolving to find a rabbi.

I found both a rabbi who is an extraordinary woman of the Reform movement and a congregation that has been welcoming and friendly from the first day I arrived as a sheepish middle-aged man seeking a spiritual home. Through them, I discovered Reconstructionist Judaism—a movement I have now joined.

So from a different direction and at a different age, I reached the same destination as Nancy Yos: I joined the Jewish people, and now I live the eternally-challenging Jewish life. I thank Nancy Yos for describing so well the richness of coming to that life.

Mark A. Wilson

College of Wooster

Wooster, Ohio

 

Nancy Yos writes:

In their kind letters, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman and Mark A. Wilson touch upon the prime points of the convert’s dilemma as well as Judaism’s dilemma in coping with converts. In particular, Rabbi Feldman notes the discrepancies between what halakha would have required of Mr. Wilson and me and the more “welcoming and friendly” process (as Mr. Wilson puts it) of pledging faith to Reform Judaism.

Judaism struggles under this half-blessing and half-curse of being extremely attractive to the outsider, at least during certain eras, while tending to be, by default, almost impossible to enter into properly. In this Christian country, there are thousands of converts to Judaism who have perforce rejected the Trinity—the core of Christianity. There may be thousands more, here and elsewhere, who would like to do something similar, perhaps passing beyond their own faiths’ theologies to Judaism’s simplicity and sense. They—we—may be attracted not only out of impatience with our own religions or clergy but because we can grasp in Judaism a kind of lightning bolt that forks out from our hands to touch all kinds of things that matter in a completely-lived life: a past in which God really interacted in a plausible way with human beings, a God Who quite rationally still tells us how to be good, a people who have a history of telling the unflattering truth about their experiences to the world and to God Himself and so are forever learning how to be more human. We want to be like that.

Rabbi Feldman’s comments remind me forcefully of how the people and the law and the Master, all together in this system buzzing with electricity, whirl and buffet about in such a way as to make a stranger’s entry tricky. He is right: one should not beg entry to the system and then ask to submit to laws lawlessly, and it is startling to find in the Reform movement that this is just what is encouraged; a modern Reform conversion, warm and moving as it is, can indeed feel “less than authentic.”

But the individual insists on reaching God in the way of his choice. We are free, after all, to do so, just as we are free to suspect that the system of God, Torah, and Israel may never have been quite so closed and finished as Rabbi Feldman suggests. Two thousand years ago, Pharisee argued with Sadducee and Essene. A thousand years before that, King David’s wife Michal kept an idol in her house. Not commendable things—but indicative of a spiritual messiness that the convert can find weirdly encouraging.

Besides, the alternative to a less-than-authentic conversion—especially in adulthood, when a non-Jewish family may already be established—would be to pass, as Mr. Wilson says, “sheepishly” through life pretending you have not heard what you have heard, and are not thinking what you are thinking. I wonder if Rabbi Feldman might be swayed by the idea that, God having made us as we are, it is wrong to fail to grasp the possibilities of pursuing Him, flawed though they may be, which He allows to flourish in the world. Is it not better to regard truth as a lightning bolt that must be taken hold of, however roughly and incompletely, than as a room with its doors closed?

Among us all—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, newcomers—we have created an impasse. There is no arguing with the fact that since Torah means law, then you should follow it. At the same time, there is no asking converts to relinquish the identity that they think they have made an exhausting and praiseworthy journey to get, even if they do not do half of what the law commands. Frankly, I wish that halakha could come up with some way to deal with proselytes who know they are insufficient Jews but who would have felt cut off from God if they had not tried to enter in some way.

The one thing that binds us together is a jealous passion for Jewish identity. We all want our identity intact and acknowledged. We want to be remembered as being in the fold. Perhaps the answer to our confusions and quarrels is to defer judgment for a while—say, 200 years or so—hoping for the day when the various streams of the faith unite and run clear again. In the meantime, we can congratulate ourselves on living in prophetic times, when “ten men shall take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, ‘We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zechariah 8:23).

New Fiction

To the Editor:

Yael Goldstein’s story, “When Skeptics Die” [March], is wonderful—intellectually rich and emotionally gripping, with a lovely voice and a sharp eye for human detail. It is a great start to what I hope will be a brilliant career.

Steven Pinker

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

To the Editor:

Yael Goldstein’s story is, in its construction, subtlety, and power, the closest thing I have seen to Henry James’s masterpiece, “A Beast in the Jungle.” He would have applauded her.

Frederic Wile

New York City

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