Joseph Michelson: July 4th, history and the Jews

Source: JWeekly, 6-29-10

July 4th is almost upon us. Israel is celebrating its 62nd year of existence.

All American Jews and Americans, should recognize this shining moment of historical success of our mutually beneficial survival. The world is convulsing with terrorist warfare, lives are shattered, blood and tears fill so many streets … and yet in the quiet corners of our minds, we should be so thankful that our brave fathers and mothers struggled to land on these blessed shores for as long as this nation has existed.

Jewish history and world history (our Western civilization) have enjoyed such an interesting dancing partnership together! There were times we refused to accept the dance with our partner, and there were more times when we were rejected for the dance. But this is the strange path of Jewish growing-up in the Western world.

When our culture was in its infancy – as ancient Israel – we had a profound identity crisis. We escaped Egypt and were given the overwhelming responsibility to accept the 10 commandments, protect them and give them to the world. Who were we then? An ethnic group who had lived separately in Egypt (Goshen), suddenly freed with such an immense responsibility thrust upon us? Were we just a bunch of tribes? Moses had to keep the “union” together. And accept the law for them, and lead them to the border of the land of milk and honey.

Just like Abraham Lincoln, who had to hold the Union together, and more than that, teach the warring Union to be peaceful again, understanding with each other, and moreover, to perceive the truth that all men should be seen with dignity and equality by each other, and that the blasphemous concept of slavery should be proclaimed unjust. Shades of Passover? Interestingly, Judah Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy, two years prior to Lincoln, tried to propose an Emancipation Proclamation for the South, in exchange for conscription of “freed” slaves into an overwhelmingly outnumbered army! Sadly, his Southern compatriots felt him foolish. Echoes of Passover ringing into the music of the dance?

Perhaps the pinnacle of combined Jewish and American cooperation comes with the “Manhattan Project,” when America gathered the most learned, wise collection of scientists into one congregation in New Mexico to develop the atomic bomb, ahead of the competing Germans. We collected this assembly of refugees – all escaping Hitler, from Germany, Hungary, Italy, Denmark, almost all Jewish – to establish the “de-facto” end to World War II. Many of these scientists – all famous – would have been annihilated by Hitler in concentration camps: Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, John Von Neumann, Enrico Fermi, etc. Many later won Nobel prizes.

They all found home in America.

Einstein’s theory of relativity, which led to the Manhattan project, was based upon Albert Abraham Michelson’s calculations of the speed of light (the first American to win a Nobel Prize, in physics, in 1907). Einstein was not allowed to participate in the Manhattan Project because J. Edgar Hoover did not trust him as a “Pacifist Jew.”

But his letter to the president, composed with Leo Szilard, who first envisioned a “chain reaction” trigger to such a bomb, with Eugene Wigner (both Jewish, émigré Hungarian physicists who worked in Los Alamos on the bomb) signaled Franklin Delano Roosevelt into action to establish this project.

Coincidentally, Roosevelt read their letter in the presence of his economic advisor, Alexander Sachs – who reminded FDR that this sounded like the offer Napoleon had by an American scientist to build sail-less steam boats, to cross the English channel and invade England! “Rubbish,” Napoleon had responded. Sachs emphasized the profound fear expressed by these scientists in their letter to him. If FDR didn’t listen to these scientists, he would be like Napoleon not listening to his advisors. FDR nodded and assented. The Manhattan Project was on its way. But J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American, was selected as the head scientist of this strange international but now American group of researchers.

In our history, we seem to have reached young adulthood, and we have matured with our marriage to America. Judaism’s adolescence may be seen in the Middle Ages – where viewed as “nerds,” the Jews were isolated, ignored, persecuted, but used where they could be of service to a largely illiterate, ignorant mass of people.

The education of the Jews could be used by the nobility to maintain their money, and, hence power, over the masses, and communicate between societies of different languages.

Today, we have emerged, perhaps into the young adulthood of Judaism, and married (to America), where as in most marriages, the spouses are more full and more powerful together, than each separately. America has been so kind to us, allowing us, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the achievement of our goals. And as George Washington wrote to the Touro Synagogue, our new nation would” give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” (letter to “The Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” 1790)

As stated, history dances in the circles of themes. As God promised Abraham, an elderly man, whose wife was ninety years old, and they both still fervently hoped for children… God blessed them with only one son: Isaac. But God ironically said to Abraham: “Your progeny shall number like the stars in the heavens (Genesis 22:17); and they shall be as a light among the nations…”(Isaiah 42:6).

We are living, as we have always, as a light among the nations. We gave society the 10 commandments and numerous artistic and scientific contributions.

So, what is so unusual about our sojourn with America? It is, in terms of historical significance, perhaps the most beneficent, generous, and happy marriage we, as a people, have ever had! How do we know? Look at what America says about us:

• John Adams, second president of the United States, in an 1808 letter criticizing the depiction of Jews by the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire: “How is it possible [that he] should represent the Hebrews in such a contemptible light? They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a Bauble in comparison of the Jews. They have given religion to three quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily, than any other Nation, ancient or modern.”

• Better still … Mark Twain: “The Jews are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy.” (Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1879)

“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.

“He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” (Mark Twain; “Concerning the Jews” Harper’s Magazine, March, 1898)

We must not take our “Light-hood” lightheartedly, but seriously. Why have we survived? What is the secret of our immortality …so far?

Jews have proven that we can withstand almost any amount of persecution. Throughout our history, Judaism has survived countless incidents of unspeakable prejudice and harassment.

Frederich Neitzche (not Jewish) said: “A human being can survive any how , as long as he has the proper why.”

A person can tolerate any circumstance life sends his way, if only he understands that there is some meaning to that experience. For the last 2,000 years the Jewish people have gone through enormous amounts of persecution, hatred – ultimately leading to genocide. And through it all most Jewish people remained steadfastly Jewish. And the reason must be that they understood that it was worth it. They understood the meaning of Jewish culture, and they were willing to pay the price. America has allowed its Jews to be openly Jewish and American.

American culture and Jewish culture share so many common threads…

The founding of “Hollywood,” replete with all of its Jewish founders, entrepreneurs, writers, directors, actors, producers, lyricists, etc. has allowed America to trumpet its successes to the world, And the rest of the world copies our Hollywood.

What of numerical examples? Nobel Prizes are awarded by the Nobel Foundation of Sweden to men and women who have rendered the greatest services to humankind. Between 1901 and 2005, more than 750 Nobel prizes were awarded. Of these, at least 158 are Jews (21 percent). Yet, we only account for just less than 3 percent of the U.S. population, and 0.5 percent of the world population.

Where did this amazing story of success and achievement begin?

For American Jews, with the first shipload of Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam, escaping the Spanish Inquisition, which swept up to us from Brazil to clean the carpet of heretics.

Where does our Jewish American history take us?

Hopefully it should give us encouragement to further our goals of improving our fragile world as both Americans and Jews, stimulated by the courage, compassion and intelligence of those who have come before us – who made our moment in time freer, healthier, happier and more fulfilled than we could have been otherwise. It is the obligation we must accept for our children, and for their children.

God to Abraham: your descendants will be a light unto the nations… (Isaiah 6)

Albert Abraham Michelson measured the speed of light (Nobel 1907)

Albert Einstein: “I always wanted to ride on a light beam…” (Nobel 1921)

Let’s all jump on an American light beam now and see where it takes us.

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