The nightmares are coming back

I have been in two wars in my life. The first was the Yom Kippur War in Israel in 1973, and the second, Argentina’s “Dirty War,” was in 1976. The first one lasted a few weeks. The second one lasted for years.

War is one of the most traumatic experiences that we can go through. The war in Argentina was a civil war, a coup d’état, a military regime that the majority of the people welcomed. They hoped it would restore order to a chaotic situation.

I know that many people among us have experienced war. They know how traumatic it is and how much fear it creates.

The Dirty War in Argentina produced thirty thousand “disappeared” people and thousands of exiles. My dear cousin Ana-Silvia had to be a political exile for many years in Spain. Torture, disappearance, impunity, lack of law, lack of protection became the new reality.

I remember the fear of going to the clandestine meetings of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights with Rabbi Marshall Meyer, my mentor, who in 1985 came to New York to begin the revival of BJ together with Roly. I remember driving Marshall to jail to visit political prisoners. I had two phone numbers in my pocket—one for Raul Castro, the U.S. ambassador; and the other for Ram Nirgad, Israel’s ambassador. I also had to be sure I had enough coins to make those phone calls. If it took Marshall too long to get back to the car after seeing a prisoner, I would have to call both of them.

Fear is like a virus that takes over the soul. Fear becomes part of reality. It is very painful to live with constant fear, so people begin to accommodate to the new reality for the sake of survival. They begin to make rationalizations that justify the actions of the totalitarian regime, because their sense of decency cannot tolerate the dissonance with reality.

How does fascism begin?

A leader is transformed into a Supreme Leader, and criticism is not tolerated. The change begins with a relentless attack on two institutions: the press and the judicial system. There is no such thing as objective truth anymore; facts are invented and manipulated to soothe the personality of the Supreme Leader. A personality cult develops. The leader is surrounded by people who will never question him. His inner circle feeds him the sense that he is being persecuted. Even more important than that, he and his circle attack the judges who dare question the legality of his actions.

The whole judicial system is seen as a threat. The Constitution is deemed a nuisance. The public conversation is reduced to the lowest common denominator, and basic civil liberties are questioned for the sake of the “common good” or rendered disposable in the face of a more serious threat.

I remember sharing this story when I arrived in the United States and that people were amazed. They would explain to me why something like that would never happen here. I always responded — “Yes, but doesn't history prove that, given the right circumstances, anything can happen anywhere?”

We are entering a period when “we, the people” has to be redefined, and “a more perfect union” has been put in question.

I know why the nightmares are coming back. Some of this discourse is horribly familiar to me. I have seen this movie, and it is not a pretty one.

We have to be very vigilant. On one hand, when we are confronted by fear, we have to acknowledge it, go deep into it, and stay calm. We must find equanimity and peace of mind. On the other hand, we have to allow ourselves to be agitated by the values that we feel are insulting our deepest a sense of decency, ethics, and morality.

There is a new megaphone that is shouting misogyny, homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. It is lowering the expectations of what leadership should be. Virtue from our leader is not expected anymore.

Here is where our values will be put into action. We must respond to all this with Torah, with respect, by honoring our mothers and sisters and daughters and wives as equal partners. We must respond by seeing the divine in every human being of any creed and religion and sexual orientation. We take the case of the oppressed, “ki gerim hayitem be eretz mitzrayim,” because we were, strangers, refugees, the Other, in the Land of Egypt.

We must not allow the sense of pollution to invade our souls, and we must keep aiming high.

At this moment community is of much importance. We should be here for each other, to hold hands, to share our fears, and to find courage to act.

The other day Karina, my wife and I were watching a few episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Do you remember him? A man who believed in kindness, love, and trust; what hutzpah. Maybe we all, as a country, need to watch him again, to reclaim a sense of decency and love. Maybe Mr. Rogers’ most important teaching is that we each have something to say about the shape of the neighborhood we want to live in.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein
B'nai Jeshurun NYC