The Art of Menschlichkeit

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A New York tabloid recently mocked the Bush White House.  No news there; ‘tis the season, so to speak.  The fodder for this ridicule, though, wasn’t political.  It consisted, rather, of the artwork on the Bushes’ invitations to this year’s White House Chanukah party.  A beautiful snowy White House scene dominates the card; all the way off to the side, a horse is drawing a wagon bearing a holiday tree.

As in the past, some Agudath Israel representatives, myself included, received invitations to the Chanukah event.  I smiled at the card when it arrived, but didn’t find it offensive in any way.  According to the New York Post, though, someone – although unwilling to share his or her name – did.

If we needed more evidence, beyond the countless blogs out there, that some people have all too much time on their hands and all too little sense in their heads, it’s here.

Those who received the invitations are presumably Jewish.  Does the person who thought it clever to call a reporter realize how remarkable it is that there even is a Chanukah party hosted by the President and First Lady of the United States of America?  Is he aware of the fact that, in 1943, 400 rabbis marched to the White House to implore President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to allow more European Jewish refugees from the Holocaust to immigrate to our shores – and that Mr. Roosevelt left the building through a back door to avoid having to meet them?  (No Chanukah party that year, or for several decades thereafter, until Mr. Bush took office.)

Has the insulted invitee forgotten how President Bush, in an act of principle, ended our country’s participation in the 2001 Durban “Racism” conference, when it degraded into an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic saturnalia?

Does he not recall the President’s 2002 Rose Garden address, in which Mr. Bush boldly stated what his predecessors had always declined to say – that Yasser Arafat, despite his claims, never renounced terror?   Or how, last year, the President challenged Palestinians to “match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror,” that “nothing less is acceptable”?

Despite all that, the anonymous Post informant chose to take offense at an innocuous illustration on an invitation from the Bushes.  To visit the White House.  In honor of Chanukah.  It defies all understanding.

And then, as if to widen further the gulf between the good will of the Bushes and the grumbling of the boor, yesterday I received a second hand-addressed White House invitation.  This one’s cover art was a silhouette of a menorah against a blue background; and enclosed was a note reading: “Please accept our apologies, as the invitation you previously received had the incorrect cover artwork.”

There is much about what Yiddish-speaking Jews call “menschlichkeit” (literally, “acting like a human being”; the word conveys graciousness and good manners) that the Post’s informant could learn from the Bushes.

Back when I received the first invitation, I asked Agudath Israel’s executive vice president for government and public affairs Rabbi David Zwiebel if he thought it was important for me to attend the Chanukah party.  I had mixed feelings.

I have no personal desire to make the trip.  Having attended other such gatherings, whatever thrill might once have lain in milling about in a large crowd or shaking the President’s hand no longer persists.  And as for organizational concerns, well, the Bush White House’s days are numbered – and the number is a small one.

On the other hand, though, some shapeless feeling was pushing me to want to make the schlep.

Rabbi Zwiebel thought a moment and said, “I think you should go.”   Then, after I asked “Why?” he verbalized in four simple words what had still been congealing in my own mind.

“To say ‘thank you’.”

© 2008 Rabbi Avi Shafran