|Dr. Stephen M. Berk addresses Gerrard Berman Day School parents, alumni, and supporters.|
What was that about the end of history?
In 1992, political scientist Francis Fukuyama opined that because human culture had pretty much perfected itself, nothing much beyond tiny refinement was possible.
A lot has happened since then.
Dr. Stephen M. Berk, the Henry and Sally Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., is an effortless speaker who can draw on his wide knowledge of world history to tie together seemingly unconnected events.
That is a storyteller’s art, and last week it was on display at Amy Silna Shafron’s house in Wyckoff in tribute to the first 28 years of the Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland, a Solomon Schechter-affiliated Conservative institution that draws children from Bergen, Passaic, Rockland, and Orange counties.
To celebrate that history, Dr. Berk talked about some of what had happened in the world – with a special emphasis on history likely to be relevant to Jews – to an audience of the school’s supporters, parents, and alumni. He is the proud grandfather of GBDS students, and Ms. Shafron is not only the school’s development director but a parent there as well, so the themes of family and history were woven together, to create a fabric of community.
Dr. Berk talked “about the demise of the Soviet Union, which no one had predicted but really was a consequence both of internal problems and the spiritual bankruptcy of Marxism/Leninism,” he reported. “The consequences of this for the Jewish people was that the gates were now open, and hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union would come to Israel. This would have a tremendously invigorating effect on the Israeli economy, particularly in science and technology.”
Another fallout was that “millions of people who had been enslaved by communism would now really be free, so we would have democratic countries all over eastern and central Europe. And even though [President Vladimir] Putin rules Russia with an iron hand, it’s not the same as it was under the communists.
“With the destruction of the Soviet Union, too, the threat of a nuclear conflagration is no longer there. There are tensions, but they are not of the same magnitude. Russia is much weaker now.”
Another change in the last 28 years has been “the emergence of a powerful China,” Dr. Berk continued. “It has come on very strong economically. That’s the results of Deng Xiaoping, who led systematic reform at the end of the ’70s.
“A third factor was the emergence of a strong sense of Islamic extremism, which I attribute to the coming to power [in 1979] of Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini, and to the success of the mujahideen in throwing the Red Army out of Afghanistan. That emboldened extremists who thought they could fight the United States and overthrow Israel.
“There also were positive developments,” Dr. Berk said. “In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and soon he became the democratically elected president of South Africa. Apartheid was thrown into the garbage can of history.”
Israel continued to develop scientifically and economically, he continued. “It became Silicon Valley East. A country of no more than 8 million people, devoid of natural resources, has so much brainpower. It has engineers, physicists, and mathematicians, many from the former Soviet Union – although of course native Israeli talent played an important part as well.
“Unfortunately, though, Israel is a good country in a bad neighborhood – and that neighborhood has gotten worse. Israel faces a number of threats, including the existential one from Iran.
“Internally, Israel faces two very dramatic problems. One is income inequality” – many Israelis are not benefiting from the booming high-tech economy. “The other is the continuing struggle between more secular and more religious elements about what kind of country Israel is going to be.”
Then Dr. Berk shifted gears, returning to this country. “The most positive development since 1985 was the extension of toleration on the part of large numbers of Americans toward gays and lesbians, and minorities in general,” he said. “No matter what you think of Barack Obama, it was a great thing to elect an African-American president.
“The negative aspect, though, is the stagnation of the American middle class. Real income for the middle class has not increased in a very long time. It’s a consequence of globalization, the decline of the manufacturing sector, and our country’s failure to provide meaningful education in science and technology, which would allow the middle class to grow, and people to enter it.”
He criticized President Obama “not as much in terms of domestic policy, but foreign policy. Israelis, Saudis, Iranians, Turks, Syrians, Egyptians – they just don’t take him seriously any more,” he said. “He made a mistake in not intervening in Syria early on, in 2011, when the rebels were more secular. But to draw red lines and not to follow up on them, to turn the issue over to Congress – it makes him look very weak, and in the Middle East weakness doesn’t go over very well.
“Governments there don’t take an Obama threat seriously any more, and that can have dangerous consequences.”
He is worried about Europe, Dr. Berk said. “If this were 1945, and I were to say that Jews wearing kippot would be attacked in the street, Jewish schools would be attacked, Jewish boys and girls weren’t safe, people would say, ‘Oh those Poles! Those Ukrainians!’ But the fact is that these things are happening in Paris, Brussels, Marseilles, even in London. Anti-Semitism has become mainstream in some of these countries, and now they are taking off the mask of anti-Zionism,” behind which true anti-Semitism lurked. “Anti-Semitism is coming back out of the woodwork.”
Dr. Berk returned to the GBDS anniversary. “A 28-year slice of history is just a blink of an eye for a historian,” he said. “I am not a navi – I am not a prophet – but I will say that the next 28 years are sure to bring very interesting developments.
“And I hope that this very fine school to which my grandchildren go will continue to provide interesting and inspiring education, so the Jewish community can continue to be invigorated.”
Cardiologist Dr. Ed Julie’s children graduated from GBDS long ago – his wife, Beth Julie, was one of its first presidents – but he still sits on the board. He was enthusiastic both about the school and about Dr. Berk.
“The conclusion of his lecture had to do with the importance of Jewish education in maintaining our legacy,” Dr. Julie said. “He underscored the importance of developing future community leaders who will have an impact on Jewish events, and on the relationships between different communities.”