Chutzpah vs. Assertiveness

Kenneth Lasson, Esq. - Baltimore Jewish Times - November 5, 1993

On Tuesday, a broad cross-section of American Jews will rally in Washington on behalf of Jonathan Pollard, the former naval intelligence agent sentenced to life in prison for supplying Israel with classified information.

Times have certainly changed in the way we perceive and assert ourselves. Fifty years ago, at the height of the Holocaust, American Jews were caught in a bitter moral dilemma: While their brethren abroad were being slaughtered with horrifying efficiency by the Nazis, the U.S. was doing little, if anything, to intervene. This was Bosnia magnified a thousand-fold, but the answers then appeared no easier than now.

Led by Rabbi Stephen Wise, Jewish leaders warned that there would be a severe anti-Semitic backlash if the Roosevelt administration were pressured to aid European Jewry. Thanks to them, the Jewish rank-and-file, many of whom would have been more than willing to speak out with their voices and votes, was effectively silenced. Yet, there was no paucity of credible news about Nazi atrocities. The New York Times carried numerous reports about the genocide. Urgent messages from resistance fighters were delivered with regular frequency. The United States government had detailed intelligence data on the concentration camps.

While it was true that the leaders of the free world had shirked their moral obligation to rescue Jews from Hitler, the blame was not theirs alone. In 1943, the Labor Zionist monthly, Jewish Frontier, wrote:

"Shame and contrition, because we have not done enough, weigh...heavily upon the Jews of the free countries...Our own weakness may be one of the causes why so little has been done. A history of our times will...record that some Jews were so morally uncertain that they denied they were obligated to risk their own safety to save other Jews...[being slaughtered] abroad."

If similar persecution occurred today, the reaction would be strikingly different. Modern communications would easily loosen the lid on information that Rabbi Wise had attempted to secure. Irate callers demanding action would inundate radio talk shows. Politicians all the way up to the president would be vociferously taken to task.

One hopes that more than the communication explosion alone would make the difference. The post-Holocaust generation, besides being beneficiaries of 50 years' worth of assertiveness training, has a different perception of itself. We're as American as anybody else, and we have the right and the duty to speak our minds openly. If there's an anti-Semitic backlash to any of our actions to which we are entitled as citizens, we'll deal with it the same way any other ethnic group would: Head-on - and not behind closed doors.

This attitude need not be called "chutzpah." Professorial pundit Alan Dershowitz notwithstanding, our newfound courage of conviction would probably be delivered with an intelligent sensitivity to the situation at hand. That is to say, there would be no shortage of the delicacy, discretion, and diplomacy needed for pragmatic statesmanship.

Most importantly, we'd speak out not because we're American Jews, but because we're Americans.

At least that's how many of us in the post-Holocaust era like to look at things, even while recognizing that there's still a hard core of Jewish leaders whose fear of being branded with the charge of dual loyalty (to Israel as much as to the United States) corrupts their judgment.

Otherwise, how to explain the position on Mr. Pollard of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the National Jewish Community Relations Council (NJCRC). Unlike almost every other major Jewish organization, these two have consistently refrained from backing resolutions calling for the president to commute Mr. Pollard's sentence to time served. Meanwhile, may regional federations and community groups - today's rank-and-file - have broken with ADL and NJCRAC because they recognize the gross injustice of Mr. Pollard's sentence. (The average term served by someone convicted of the same offense is four years. To date, Mr. Pollard has been imprisoned almost nine years.)

Theirs is not a call for justice on behalf of another Jew, which is a righteous enough stance in itself. It is a plea for fairness on behalf of another American.

Shimon Peres recently praised America as unique for its charity and fairness of spirit. He was talking not about American Jews, but about Americans. Nor was George Washington thinking only about Jews when, in 1790, he wrote to the elders of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island:

"May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Kenneth Lasson is a law professor at the University of Baltimore.