I have not been myself – not fully – since I returned from a lecture tour in Germany two weeks ago.
I had spoken there before, but this time I immersed myself in the early history of the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. I walked past the original German Worker’s Party headquarters in Munich – now an Apple computer reseller – where Hitler first joined the party in September, 1919, becoming its 55th member. I visited the Hofbrauhaus, the most famous of Munich’s beer halls, where the social misfit first began to attract a following. And I went to the very last remains of his home in Obersalzburg at Berchtesgaden, where I nearly vomited after seeing a red memorial candle lit for the monster’s soul.
Throughout this dark immersion, a question was before me at all times: How did someone so pathetic wreak such utter devastation on my people? How could a vagabond, desperate loser, who wore threadbare clothes and lived at the margins of society, who failed at everything he tried through his mid-twenties – how did this man end up a decade or so later as the most powerful person in Europe? The man who plunged the entire world into war?
There are no good answers. The finest biography of Hitler, by Ian Kershaw, only nibbles on the fringes of the question. The German people were angry and full of hate after their defeat in the first World War. Hitler the agitator stoked the fires of their rage and prejudices to turn them into a nation of murderers, who scapegoated the Jews. Above all else, Kershaw argues, it was Hitler’s oratorical skills that raised him to prominence.
But there is something else. Kershaw maintains that whereas others saw politics as “the art of the possible,” Hitler saw it as pure propaganda, designed to motivate the masses. Never before had someone mobilized the power of myth to achieve power so quickly and thoroughly.
In this sense, Hitler was the exact opposite of his arch nemesis, the Jewish people. We Jews are all substance and no PR. We pride ourselves on our profound religious ideals, depth of education, commitment to philanthropy, and lofty desire to make the world a better place.
Yet the world thinks that we’re greedy bankers.
Hitler, on the other hand, was an ignoramus with barely an education. On most days he woke up after noon, and did very little work. He had no real plan for Germany other than to blame its problems on undesirables. He pretended to be a humble man of the people, while all his inner circle knew him to be a power-mad megalomaniac. Everything about him – including his lie of living frugally and eschewing luxury – was a complete fabrication. But boy could he spin a yarn.
So what has bothered me so desperately the past few weeks? That a man who was cloaked in emptiness is the one who inflicted so much damage on my people. That someone who wasn’t even real could create Auschwitz and Treblinka. That a man who could so easily have been exposed never was – and that omission led to 1.5 million dead children.
If only someone had pricked the balloon, had exploded the myth, had confronted him early on, the destruction could have been averted.
We Jews don’t want to accept it. It goes against the grain of everything we believe, that life is about substance rather than form. But here is the truth: PR is everything. If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, then it did not fall. And if the State of Israel practices the highest humanity but the BBC says it humiliates Palestinians, the world will believe what it sees.
With the Presbyterian Church now joining the economic boycott of the State of Israel, we’ve reached a turning point. It’s now becoming acceptable and mainstream in America to condemn the Jewish state.
More than 1700 rabbis wrote to the church, begging it not to impose its boycott. It didn’t listen.
A different tactic is now called for, a bold PR effort to point out the truth. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is guilty of rank hypocrisy, silent as it is on the decimation of Christian communities throughout the Middle East, including the decline of the Iraqi Christian community by 60 percent in the last decade. The church says nothing of the murder of gays and honor killings of women under Hamas in Gaza, but it attacks the humanitarian Jewish state.
We have to stop fearing controversy and engage the PR war head on.
Israel is a righteous democracy. Christianity has been guilty of anti-Semitism for 2,000 years. Now, some denominations, such as the evangelicals, and brave popes like John XXIII and John Paul II have become great lovers of our people. Christians cannot afford to go backward by engaging in clear discrimination against the Jewish state.
If the Presbyterian church still does not get it, then we should consider a reverse boycott. We should punish the Church for their prejudices. There are 1.9 million Presbyterians in the United States. There are nearly six million Jews.
I, for one, am fed up.