By Eugen Schoenfeld
Starting in my early teens, when my hometown was occupied by the Hungarians with their anti-Semitic and restrictive laws, I dreamed of living in a free country. I hoped to settle in a country based on a rational political view — a view that led, at least in theory, to the ideals espoused by the French Revolution — as well as being freed from the restrictive shtetl, where Jewish life was governed by Chassidim, such as the followers of the Munkacser and Szatmarer rebbes, whose perspectives on Judaism resided in the principle of fear.
Since childhood I was influenced by American movies, especially the Andy Hardy series, in which the jubilation of life and American freedoms were projected by Mickey Rooney, Ann Rutherford and Judy Garland. The life motto was, at least to this young boy, ad astra per asperata (reach for the stars).
From these movies, I, an impressionable young teenager, assumed that the United States was the country of my dreams, the country where individual freedom was elevated above all other ideals.
Right after liberation from the Holocaust, because of linguistic skills, I was employed by the Army medical corps as a translator and a public relations person conveying the survivors’ messages to the hospital staff.
Two years later, when I fled from Czech communism and returned to Germany, I became an officer in the service of the United Nations, working for and with the American Joint Distribution Committee. In my association with the U.S. Army as a social worker, my view of America was reinforced, albeit because in my work I never encountered black soldiers, the problem of race never entered my consciousness.
In 1948 I was given a temporary student visa. I entered the United States and immediately encountered a different America, one in which the freedoms of thought and belief, which I assumed were the foundation of this country, seemed to be absent. That was the period of Richard Nixon’s House Un-American Activities Committee.
Even more devastating to me as a college student was my encounter with the dominance of a Nazi-like spirit reflected by the hideous ideals espoused by “Tail Gunner” Joe McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin.
Now, as nonagenarian, I am again confronted with fearmongering politicians. Once again I am forced to see the ugly espousal of fear and lies advocated by some who seek the presidency of the United States. Once again in their attempt to gain power, their poisonous, vile views are spread by their vampirelike fangs, similar to the Nazi ideologies of the 1930s.
One candidate for the presidency is a man whose posturing stance, dictatorial manner and speeches devoid of truth make him a proponent of the big lie and the big promise technique, similar in content and body language to the great villain, Hitler.
Not far behind him in popularity is a skilled surgeon, a person who doesn’t bring and foster enlightenment but instead seeks to take us back to the darks days of theocracy that forced people to escape Europe and come here — and I am scared.
I am enveloped by a deep, depressing fear, what in Hebrew is called pachad (trepidation), and I fear that what I experience is also affecting the American psyche. It seems to me that the United States has become infected by the fear virus, a condition that is central in the biblical description of the “Tocheychah,” the warning of human-created evil conditions. And, in spite of President Roosevelt’s caution in his 1933 inauguration speech that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, many people in this country are still willing, as were the Germans in the 1930s, to give up the constitution and its teaching of freedom and the Bill of Rights for the promises espoused by an egomaniacal person with not only foolish, but dangerous and insincere promises, and to exchange the constitution for his bombastic and unachievable solutions to complex problems.
I am distressed that we, the people of the United States, or at least a great many of us, are willing to give up reason and escape from our constitutional freedoms and exchange our democracy for a form of totalitarianism and for the promise of security and for the idea that we must be the dominant force in the world — ideas that are as phony as the proverbial $3 bill.
Look at the Founding Fathers. Look at their ideals. Look how they helped to develop a new world founded in the spirit of freedom and justice. Then ask: Where are our Washingtons, Jeffersons, Adamses and Lincolns? Where are the statesmen with visions and with humanistic ideals who were seeking to establish and bring out in us a commitment to universal human moral ideals?
Are we digressing from Torah-like idealism into utter mediocrity and at worst into utter stupidity? Sure, we are being attacked by evil forces, but are we not strong enough to withstand such threats without giving up our ideals? Have we lost our ability to raise ourselves above the crass, primitive paganism that exemplifies the idealism of our foes and continue to advocate that this country is a place of refuge governed by a humanistic-oriented ideology that will make this country another prophetic Zion?
Or have we indeed merely lowered our visions of the future and accepted the lowest level of belief of Sodom, that of distrust of strangers? Are we to follow the totalitarian desires evident in Europe that at the same time have become hostile to Israel? Or can we become, once again, a great nation advocating a scared belief of universal morals?
Let us not be tempted by the dark side and become obsessed with fear to the point that we become frightened by the rustle of leaves. The future is in your hands, American voters; therefore, be careful and choose wisely.