From the Editor | Reflections on Language—and Thought
The astonishing human capacity for thoughtlessness manifests itself in many ways. One is the ease with which we toss out ugly dismissive words such as “moron,” “witch” and “idiot” to describe people we disagree with, even though this language undermines our arguments. Another is our use, misuse and abuse of terms that carry weighty historical baggage.
Lately, like a lot of people, I’ve been having trouble with “concentration camp.” I wince when I hear it thrown about over dinner and on social media to describe the disgraceful detention centers in the United States for asylum seekers. I understand the need for powerful, discomfiting analogies to jar us into taking action. But after decades of interviewing Holocaust survivors—including the cofounder of this magazine—I have become sensitized to the particular horror of Nazi camps. To my ears, the term “concentration camp” reverberates with the screams of men, women and children who suffered and died in ghastly conditions or were murdered outright. There may be nothing technically wrong with the analogy—and I don’t question anyone’s right to make it—but I ask that we all pause for a moment before we use it, to recall the victims of the Holocaust and to consider the differences as well as any similarities. For it is from nuance that strong civil discourse and inspired leadership are constructed, word by word.
Our choice of language is only a symptom of a human shortcoming we see every day, not just in some of our leaders and in print and online, but in ourselves: our lack of self-reflection, be it from numbness, narcissism, self-righteousness or inattention. Blind spots and ignorance enable us to mix a few nuggets of unexamined thought with emotion, wrap them in a thin layer of thinking and pronounce them baked. Stir in fear and season with opinion taken as fact, and we become prisoners of our own minds.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time to ask questions such as: Why do I think the way I do? What are my influences and why? Am I willing to evolve? It’s no easy task to identify the forces that shape our thinking—especially inner ones—and then prod ourselves to consider different ideas, facts and experiences required to spark a fresh appraisal. Thought is a process of continual refinement. That’s why I live in a state of constant self-edit, correcting sloppy and inappropriate language, taking back things I’ve uttered in haste, and trying to challenge my assumptions and resist my innate know-it-all tendencies. I love that Moment forces me to go deeper, and that its stories push me to expand my understanding or discover new questions.
Which brings me to this issue’s Big Question: Which five books would you recommend reading to become an educated Jew? This is our second edition of answers (there will be more, and other Big Questions to come), and it’s just as fabulously thoughtful and varied as the first. Also in this issue, we print Moment special literary contributor Robert Siegel’s conversation with philosopher Susan Neiman about what Americans can learn from Germany. Their conversation touches on many things, including reparations to African Americans, using a nuanced analogy that has pushed me to better understand the issue. (Listen to an audio version at momentmag.com/siegel-neiman-audio.) Additionally, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about Elie Wiesel, who would have been 91 this September and devoted his life to preserving and transmitting memories of the Holocaust. “Elie,” he writes, “carried with him six million fragments of our people,” and “those fragments of memory help make us who we are.”
This issue’s Moment Debate, over whether, how and when we should criticize Israel, gets at the core of much of the conversation around Israel in America. In Opinions, we hear from Naomi Ragen, who is critical of the racism she sees in the treatment of Israel’s Ethiopian citizens. We interview Steven Waldman about the conflicting historical narratives feeding the American debate over religious freedom. And as part of our ongoing Millennial Project, we include a column from the perspective of someone 38 or under, in this case a Brooklyn writer who has pinned her hopes on Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
There is much more packed into these pages: the rising international popularity of Israeli dance, the surprising origins of the term “Wandering Jew,” and Ask the Rabbis, which ponders whether there are things that can’t be forgiven. Plus, did you know that the Crock-Pot was invented to keep cholent warm on Shabbat?
And don’t forget to give Moment—one of the last independent Jewish magazines still in print—as a gift for the holidays. It’s easy—just mail in the card in this issue or go to momentmag.com/subscribe. Every new reader counts, and each donation, no matter how small, makes a difference.
Happy New Year!