BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT //
During this period, as Jews had done for centuries, we turned to humor to keep our spirits up. Here’s a joke I heard before life became really difficult for me and the other Jews of Hungary.
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Two Jews met on a street in Budapest. One was in a state of great excitement, asking his friend if he had heard the latest news. “What news?” asked the other, to which the former replied, “The elephant in the zoo had a calf.” His friend then responded, “And is that good or bad for us?”
I thought of this joke when my wife announced that Kate, the Princess of Edinburgh, had a son. “Is that good or bad for us,” I commented. My response wasn’t a sign of disinterest, rather it reflected my opposition to a monarchial political system.
I’m a “democratic republican”. Let me add quickly that my political view doesn’t reflect the often misused definition of this term. Many countries that describe themselves as being a “democratic republic” are, in fact, totalitarian.
Not only do these countries misuse this honorable and noble political ideal, they downright make a shambles of it. Take Nazi Germany, for instance. Its officials described Nazism as a “Nationalist Socialist Workers Party”. Sadly, it was neither socialist, nor did it represent the workers of the country.
I inherited my political views honorably, from my father, who was committed to a modified version of French socialist thinkers like St. Simon, Comte, and, especially, Anatole France’s passion for social justice.
My father believed that democracy can exist only if it subscribes to the principles of “meritocracy”. He firmly believed, frankly, that there is no such thing as a “free ride”. Everyone in a society is obligated to work and people should be rewarded based on their individual accomplishments.
My father started life poor and at the age of 14 he became a printer’s apprentice. He ended up a capitalist, owning a successful book and stationary store. He was against any system that simply endowed people with wealth and status, much like Prince George, the new Prince of Edinburgh.
He’s only a few weeks old, has done nothing with his life, but is already hugely wealthy and must be addressed as “His Royal Highness”. I cannot, and will not ever bow to anyone and call him “my lord”. So, I think it obvious I must describe myself as a confirmed anti-monarchist.
Like my father, I too believe in the individual’s duty to work and contribute to the well-being of the collective. I too, like my father, believe that honor is something that must be earned and not offered up as an accident of birth.
I also think that these beliefs I hold are fundamental Jewish values. Traditional Jewish philosophy abhors a life of idleness and indulgence.
“Go and see the ant and observe its ways,” Solomon advises us in the Book of Proverbs. In the “Ethic of Our Fathers”, we learn of the connection between labor and learning. In fact, the learning of Torah is directly tied to work in an occupation.
Even women are judged by their work. The “Woman of Valor” does not eat the bread of idleness, Solomon informs us. Honor is the reward for work and not for the position one gains by parental status.
I’ve always loved the following Talmudic Midrash:
“Why did G-d create mankind unlike all other animals,” asked a rabbi? “While G-d created all animals together,” the rabbi says, “He created mankind by creating just one person – Adam. The reason is that no person should be able to claim I am better than you because my family is more important than yours”
This is a lesson in humility, a personality trait often used to describe Moses. We’re all of us derived of a single person: Adam. This commonality makes us all related and, hence, responsible for each other. Our accomplishments in life are what differentiate us from one another.
This, I believe, is the meaning of a democratic republic in a nutshell.
My opposition to the concept of monarchy, or the belief that status comes with birth, is beautifully argued by the prophet Samuel. When the elders of Judaism come to him and request he “make us a king to judge us like all the nations,” Samuel points out a number of problems.
First and foremost, he tells the elders that a king will take their sons and daughters into service; he will use their wealth to make instruments of war for his own sake; he will take their vineyards and their fields. In short, Samuel rejects the entire notion of kingship.
But the elders insisted on a king, so Samuel relented.
We love David and he did great things. But he also abused his power, killing another man so he could take the man’s wife as his own. Much good can also be said of Solomon. But in spite of all his wisdom, he, too, abused his role as king, living a lavish lifestyle and burdening his subjects with high taxes that, after his death, led to the demise of the Jewish kingdom.
So, who should I honor?
I’m taught by my heritage to honor the humble, the generous, the hard-working; everyone committed to klal Yisrael, the Jewish collective.
Each Shabbat we ask G-d to bless these people and those who bring peace to the world. It’s a Jewish concept, but also an American belief. These very same values were espoused by the founders of this country. It’s one of the things I love about America.
The founding fathers taught us not to endow people with honor because of their titles, but to honor people who have earned our respect. So it’s clear, at least to me, that we Americans, like Jews, believe in the principles of constitutional social republicanism.
About the writer
Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a survivor of the Holocaust