Perhaps you, like me, continue to have virtual discussions with deceased loved ones.
I have had many such talks with my father, Lt. Col. Maurice (Maish) Raffel, z”l, who passed away in April 2009. It has always been of great pride to me that he served as lead pilot on a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber in World War II, successfully completing 50 combat missions in 1944 over Nazi-occupied Europe. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and many other medals.
As my father had risked his life to defeat the deadliest manifestation of anti-Semitism the world has ever known, I wanted to get his reaction to the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, the emergence out of the shadows in this country of the white nationalist movement and neo-Nazis, and the inflammatory rhetoric of President Donald Trump, which is perceived by those extremist groups as indirectly offering sanction to their odious activity. I imagined my father would feel shocked, deeply saddened, and very angry.
With Veterans Day upon us, I realized that I could have an actual conversation with another veteran, someone who travelled in that B-17 bomber with my father, and the only other Jew in his crew of 10 — Marty Weinstein, the plane’s navigator. Now 94 and living in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., and the last surviving crew member, he confirmed that, indeed, my father’s virtual reaction would have been his actual one. It’s Weinstein’s reaction, as well.
“I am grief stricken over the 11 deaths in Pittsburgh,” he said over the phone, “but my ability to face the world’s challenges is limited. I’m not 19 years old anymore like I was in World War II.”
A retired lawyer, Weinstein did not hold back his feelings about Trump. “I was disgusted when Trump said there were good people on both sides in Charlottesville,” he said. “And the drama he has created around the caravan is ridiculous.” He was referring to the large group (likely in the thousands, but estimates vary greatly) of migrants traveling toward the southwest border of the United States to seek asylum.
I always love talking to Weinstein. He never fails to mention that my father was his “hero and salvation.” When the flak from German anti-aircraft batteries was especially heavy, my father would get on the intercom to Weinstein and say, in Yiddish, “Men ken do geharget vern,” “You can get killed up here.” Apparently, this quip helped reduce the tension — at least for the two Jewish crew members.
My father wasn’t an ideologue. He saw anti-Semitic threats not through the prism of a partisan political agenda, but as a proud member of our Jewish people, a characteristic that I like to believe rubbed off on his son. With that in mind, I noticed the remarks of another son of a deceased father delivered at a Manhattan synagogue the day after the shooting at Tree of Life. Elisha Wiesel said that if he were still alive, his famous father Elie — who bore compelling witness to the horrific nightmare my father fought to end — would have urged Jews not to fight among themselves over different forms of anti-Semitism. Rather — and this approach to anti-Semitism resonates with me — Jewish progressives should see themselves as responsible for challenging anti-Semitism in their own groups, which, he said, usually takes the form of anti-Zionism. Wiesel added that Jewish conservatives should strive to fix excesses in their movements “where assault rifles are seen as our national inheritance, where racists hear a call to action even as leaders insist none has gone out, and where the trait of compassion for the stranger is in danger of being extinguished.”
The midterms resulted in a divided Congress, with Republicans controlling the Senate and, happily for me, Democrats retaking control of the House. Many of my fellow liberals will see the House victory as a useful springboard to intensify anti-Trump “resistance,” believing an irredeemable president will persist or even double down on his demonizing rhetoric. Part of me instinctively agrees with that assessment.
Yet, despite this likely scenario, I believe we must at least try to address the toxic atmosphere that pervades our political and civic culture through engagement with the president and those in his inner circle.
With the midterms over, let us unite as a community of liberals and conservatives and insist that all public officials, including the president, eliminate xenophobic and bigoted expressions from their discourse. Hate-mongering and scapegoating of “the other” must cease.
We should urge our elected officials to set aside the partisanship that has crippled policymaking in Washington, D.C., and pursue pragmatic solutions to our nation’s many challenges, from health care to immigration, from threats to Social Security and Medicare to gun control and infrastructure. That is what the overwhelming number of rank and file Democrats and Republicans outside of the capital want to see happen.
Bipartisanship would serve as a fitting epitaph to the tragedy in Pittsburgh as well as a tribute to my father and all veterans who have defended our country with bravery and honor.
Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.