“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
For our tenth grade project in our American History honors class in DeWitt Clinton H.S., our teacher, Mrs. Wilson, would require from each student a term paper on a presidential election. She had the election years written on separate cards, which she would distribute at random to everyone in the class. Some poor shnook drew 1880: James Garfield (R) vs. Winfield Hancock (D). (Imagine finding information about Winfield Hancock!) But I was fortunate: I was given 1860, which meant I had a lot to write about and zillions of reference books. Now my question to you is: whom did Abraham Lincoln run against in 1860? (I’m assuming that most of you who were born in the U.S. know that Lincoln won the presidency in 1860. Please don’t prove me wrong.) If your answer is Stephen Douglas, you are partially correct. In fact, Lincoln and Douglas contested the North, and two other candidates now consigned to the dustbins of history, John Bell and John Breckenridge campaigned in the South, with the result that Lincoln won handily. Breckinridge had the second most electoral votes, Bell the third, and Douglas – who is still remembered for his debates with Lincoln – was almost shut out.
I can reasonably trace my life-long fascination with America’s 16th president to my efforts in the tenth grade, when my only purpose was to get a respectable grade from Mrs. Wilson. But I now understand that Abraham Lincoln was one of the great political leaders in world history and perhaps one of the dozen or so greatest writers of English prose. Have you ever visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC? OK, it’s not the Kotel or Kever Rachel, but it is an inspiring experience, especially if you choose to read the words of the Getttysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address (the ending of which is quoted above), and reflect on how much his words speak to us to today.
Imagine if, after his election in 1860 when the South seceded from the Union, Lincoln had let them go: “take your cotton and your slaves and be gone!” Consider the consequences of having two hostile nations: a vastly diminished United States of America and The Confederate States of America, instead of one great nation. (And because there were only three states west of the Mississippi in 1860, there might even have been three or more nations in the area between The Atlantic and The Pacific.)
Lest you think that all this is interesting but irrelevant to your life, consider the following: if instead of one United States, there were two essentially hostile nations side by side, would either have had the interest in allowing mass immigration on a scale previously unimaginable? When my grandparents arrived in New York sometime around 1885, they would be among some 2 million Jews (and 25 million gentiles) who would emigrate from Europe between 1880 and 1924, when the gates to The New World were shut tight by immigration restriction. Most of those Jewish families would have had to remain in Europe: two million more potential sacrificial lambs to the Cossacks, the Communists, or the Nazis.
And consider this: only a truly United States would have had the strength to intervene – not once, but twice – in the 20th century European maelstroms that would have destroyed the world. We know that the Roosevelt administration did almost nothing to save Jewish lives when we were dying by the thousands every day (if you think that recent secretaries of state have been unfriendly, consider for a moment one Jew-hater named Breckenridge Long, who served under Roosevelt, and who more than anyone else at the time was responsible for blocking the entry of Jewish refugees.) But The United States, with the help of “The Allies,” did ultimately stop The Nazis, shutting their gas chambers once and for all, leaving enough Jews alive to form a fledgling state in our ancestral homeland.
I have been thinking recently about these events in American history, but in a very different context. Last Monday night, Barbara, Natania, and I got on a bus in front of the shopping mall in Maale Adumim to participate in our very first political demonstration as citizens of our new country. “One Jerusalem” organized what turned out to be relatively small indoor rally at The Haas Promenade (a site on the southern part of the city which overlooks most of Jerusalem including The Old City.) against even the thought of dividing Jerusalem -- as part of a “two-state solution.” But we got to hear Natan Sharansky speak, (another man for whom I have the most profound respect) and Shuli Natan (the original singer of Naomi Shemer’s “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”) perform. (May I respectfully suggest that hearing that song performed in Jerusalem, overlooking the Old City at night, at a time when “friends” and enemies are considering the fate of our ancient capital, creates a perspective which is simply unobtainable in Flatbush, Teaneck, or Baltimore?)
After the music and the speeches, the 500 people in attendance went outside to witness a laser show, which was the major point of the evening. We watched a demonstration of how close to kassam rockets (less than ten kilometers) all of Jerusalem would be: The Kotel, The King David Hotel, Hebrew University, The Knesset, Ben Yehuda St. – if Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem were turned over to a hostile entity.
As I watched this simulation, I began to consider how we came to this point whereby unless we stop them – and we will – the Israeli government would join the nations of the world in giving away our land and our safety. Was it not about a dozen or years ago that a retired and out of work Ariel Sharon took the then governor of Texas, George W. Bush, on a helicopter tour of Israel to point out – as Sharon had done on many previous occasions to other American officials – how tiny Israel actually is? When Sharon showed Bush how undefendable Israel would be in its pre-1967 borders (something like nine miles wide at its narrowest point), Bush is reputed to have remarked that there were driveways in Texas bigger than that. (That might be an overstatement as a point of fact, but I am told that there is at least one ranch in Texas as big as pre-1967 Israel.)
(And while I am on the subject, consider this: we are most recently from New Jersey, a state which has certain similarities to Israel. They are about the same size; they are both long and thin; they both have certain areas in which few people live [The Negev and The Pine Barrens]; in both places, most of the population is concentrated in one area [the coastal area around Tel Aviv and the northeastern area near New York City.] Now, if somebody had the bright idea of taking four or five counties in New Jersey [maybe west of Morristown or south of exit 7 on The Turnpike] and making them, not just another state, but another country, how far would that idea get? I remember a few years ago when there was talk of Staten Islanders wanting to become a separate city, where that notion went. America is still the country of Abraham Lincoln, and secession is still a dirty word.)
While it is easy to blame the American president and his secretary of state for the farce called Annapolis, remember that it was Ariel Sharon who blinked first with his “security fence,” which would be seen as the de facto borders between Israel and a “Palestinian” state. Of course, Condi Rice has since decided to run with this insanity as if it were her own private football. Why someone who has a Ph.D. would not understand that creating a politically unstable nation state on Israel’s borders, one which has no economy to speak of, too many people for a tiny area, and where two rival factions are intent on killing each other – let alone its Jewish neighbors – is not a good idea eludes me. I guess some people are too smart for their own good.
As place after place in Jerusalem was lit up by laser as the focal point of a simulated attack by even the most primitive rockets, thoughts about Abe Lincoln began to percolate slowly in my brain. You can say that he was the first leader – in very trying times – to reject the “two-state solution.” Perhaps we should consider the validity and urgency of his words, “…with firmness in the right, as G-d gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in….” For us this must be the building and defending of the Jewish state which was founded in even more trying times sixty years ago. And may we then “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all other nations.”
And let us say “Amen.”