Shoftim: Don’t Be Like Them

If you drive on Highway 395 through one of the valleys that carved the eastern edge of California, you’ll arrive at the City of Lone Pine. The road is flat and straight, with towering hills on either side of the valley. You’ll come across Diaz Lake on your left, a few miles past Lubken Canyon Road. Don’t drive too quickly or you’ll miss the turnoff for the road that skirts the southern edge of the lake, hugging its shoreline. Follow it for a mile or two, and your destination will be on your left. It’s just a field now, with a few forlorn cows wandering aimlessly. But seventy-five years ago, hundreds of American citizens wandered aimlessly as well, living in a concentration camp built by the United States government. They lived there because they were of Japanese descent.

Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, everyone of Japanese descent was told to gather at a civilian assembly center. The closest one to here, the one where our own neighbors would have had to go, was at the Santa Anita race track, about 50 miles from here. After a few days, they would probably have been sent to Manzanar War Relocation Center, 213 miles from where we are sitting now, off of Highway 395 in the city of Lone Pine, just south of Diaz Lake.

The prisoners were not there because of what they did; they were there because of who they were, or, in many cases, because of who their parents or grandparents were. They were held there because they were not like us; they were different. They were the “other,” the famous word for someone who is dissimilar than us, usually of a lower status, who cannot be trusted fully. It’s not totally surprising that members of the Japanese community were mistrusted, given that Japan had vowed to subjugate or destroy us—but, then again, so did Germany. Even though Germany was also our enemy, some 1,237,000 people living in the United States at that time had been born in Germany; 5 million people had both parents born in Germany; and 6 million people had at least one parent born in Germany. Of the 12 million people of German descent, 11,507, or about 1 percent, were detained during the war. The number of people of Japanese descent who were interred was closer to 120,000, virtually 100 percent; of those, 80,000 detainees were US citizens.

In February of 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order, authorizing the internment camps. The constitutionality of the order was challenged by Fred Korematsu, who felt unjustly imprisoned and who wanted to return to his non-Japanese girlfriend, who lived outside the walls. The Supreme Court ruled against him. The legal basis for interring United States citizens was upheld and remained upheld until this year, when the Supreme Court explicitly repudiated the Korematsu decision when the justices upheld the recent ban on Muslims emigrating from selected foreign countries in the case Trump v. Hawaii.

It’s not difficult to understand why the Japanese were imprisoned when so many Germans and Italians were not: the Japanese looked different. It was easy to distinguish them and worry about them. This assumes that their skin and eye-shape tell us about their hearts and their beliefs. Of course, skin or eye shape or possessing Japanese “blood” do not tell us about the intentions of a person, but when we feel threatened, the desires to erect walls grows. I feel it within myself. I wish I could say with certainty that I would have been on the right side of history, overcoming my fear of the other, the potential threat that is among us.

It’s that threat that this week’s Torah portion speaks about. As the Children of Israel stand on the shores of the Jordan River, ready to enter the Promised Land, Moses continues to give them final instructions. Moses warns the Children of Israel not to follow the detestable practices of the others living in the land. Specifically, they are warned not to pray like them. The text accuses the inhabitants of sacrificing their children as burnt offerings. Moses also warns the Children of Israel to refrain from using sorcery or witchcraft or acting as mediums or psychics. In other words, the Israelites were not to act like the inhabitants of the land, especially if doing so might suggest that they could depend on forces other than God alone. The authors of Deuteronomy were afraid of the other, of any foreign ideas. I’m not sure that the people living in the land of Canaan actually sacrificed their children as burnt offerings. In fact, I highly doubt it. It’s just the kind of ridiculous allegation that people say about one’s cultural competitors, just like people accused Jews of killing Christian children to use their blood in Passover matzah. I believe the Torah makes those allegations against the inhabitants of the land because the Israelites were afraid. Perhaps they were afraid losing their shared faith. Perhaps they were afraid of anyone who looked or believed differently than they, just as we were afraid of the Japanese during WWII, and just as many are afraid of Muslim immigrants or immigrants from Central and South America.

It’s easy to look down on our biblical ancestors and on those in power during WWII or those in power now, who, in their own minds, are protecting us from Muslims and Mexicans. It’s easy, but I don’t think it is helpful. Rather, I think it’s important to recognize our natural tendency to fear people and ideas that are different than our own. I think it’s understandable that at a time of perceived or real threat, we are going to surround ourselves with people whom we can more easily identify as being “like us,” and, therefore, view as less of a threat. I don’t condemn the feeling. Not only that, I think cautious prudence is a good thing.

But the reason I’m bringing this up now is that we have entered the month of Elul, the month directly preceding the High Holy Days. It’s during Elul that we are supposed to reflect on our actions so we can correct our behavior for the future. I think one of the principles of Elul, and I would extend this beyond Elul as well, is for us to judge a little less and understand a little more. I think we should be understanding and even kind when we confront aspects of ourselves that are less than ideal. I understand the fear of the other even though I’m another to someone else. I can understand those who feared people of Japanese descent during WWII. I can understand the fear of Muslims moving across borders in droves, or the concern about Central and South Americans who look and speak differently than us. More than that, I appreciate people who keep a watchful and proactive eye on our collective safety. The rabbis had a term for all these very deep, human feelings: the fear of change, the fear of people different than ourselves, the desire for power and safety and status. They called these natural human desires our Yetzer Hara, our evil inclination, but that is an unfortunate phrase. These feelings are not evil, they are just automatic; they are feelings that promote self-preservation. We are not evil if we have these feelings; moreover, these desires are necessary for us to thrive as human beings.

But these natural emotions and inclinations cannot be our ending point; they must be our starting point. Our job in life, and certainly during this month of Elul, is to examine when our Yetzer Hara, our natural inclinations, are leading us into actions that are harmful to ourselves, our families, our communities, or the world. Fear drove Executive Order 9066. But if our forbearers would have engaged in more thoughtful, sober reflection, they would have acknowledged that they were not keeping the country safer. Those of Japanese descent were no more likely to join our enemies than were people of German or Italian descent. In fact, there was a large group of people of Japanese descent, most of whom were not detained, living on Hawaii, and there were no security concerns reported. If those in the government would have plumbed the depth of their own fears, they would have realized that their fears were based on racism rather than actual threats, and they would have refrained from committing some dreadful acts. My goal is not to condemn the past; it’s to learn from it and to apply those hard-earned lessons to our present and our future.

So, during this time of Elul and especially during this week, when we read about the dangers of foreigners, I am reflecting on these lessons that apply to my own life as much as to national policy.

The first lesson: Don’t fear the Yetzer Hara. Do not fear the feelings of greed or desire or jealousy or whatever negative feelings arise in our souls. Not only do I refrain from fearing those feelings, I also refrain from condemning my own self-centered thoughts and feelings. They are gifts from God as well.

The second lesson: Just because I feel something doesn’t make it right. Feelings aren’t proof of goodness. Feelings may not be bad, but they can easily lead to bad behavior. We can’t always trust our gut to tell us the truth.

The third and final lesson: We can change the way we think about a situation and, if we do, we can direct our negative feelings toward positive action. I believe that we can act better when we reflect on our feelings and the consequences of our past actions, and consider the possible consequences of our future actions.

My great uncle Richard Diamond was serving on the battleship Arizona in December of 1941. Family lore says that he was on shore leave when the Japanese attacked. If I picture myself living at that time, I can imagine initially supporting the detainment of the Japanese during WWII. I’m not proud of that self-realization, but I can imagine feeling the fear of not knowing who was our friend and who was our enemy. I also believe that I could have put that fear into its proper context and hopefully made better, smarter, and more ethical decisions. Perhaps our government could have arrested people they knew were loyal to the Japanese government and worked with the local Japanese community to develop intelligence and sources from within. I hope that’s how they handled the German and Italian community. First, we experience the ignoble emotion; then we acknowledge it; and, finally, we challenge it so we can rise above it and refrain from overreacting.

I don’t revel in having Japanese internment camps as part of the recent history of our country. What I do revel in and celebrate are the lessons that we all can learn as we thoughtfully address the challenges that lie ahead of us. As a country, I hope that we are reflecting on this dark period of history as we are facing another time of fear of the other. And I hope we can all take these days leading up to the holidays to reflect on our own Yetzer Hara, our own desires and emotions, so we can make sure that they are leading us away from harm and toward the good.