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The Plot Against America and Viruses in America

Sermon Parshat Emor 5780

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

One of the strange aspects of this lockdown/quarantine/shelter-in-place situation in which we live is that we have the opportunity to see some great programming on TV. We’ve been binge-watching the Netflix TV adaptation of Phillip Roth’s great novel, “The Plot Against America,” and it’s terrific. I think the book is one of his finest books, if not his best. It’s set in Newark, New Jersey and Washington, DC, in 1940 through 1943 or so, and it’s a counterfactual, that is a history of how things would have been if they had turned out differently. It’s disturbing, relevant and gripping.

In Phillip Roth’s conception of a dark alternate history, Charles Lindbergh, perhaps the greatest celebrity in the world in the 1920s and 30s, famed for his flight over the Atlantic in his small airplane “The Spirit of St. Louis,” decides to run against Franklin Roosevelt for president in 1940. Lindbergh, a famous isolationist, anti-immigrant xenophobe and prominent supporter of the America First movement, conducts a whirlwind barnstorming campaign, flying from town to town, and he shocks the world by defeating Roosevelt on a platform of “Lindbergh or War.” Before long, America has declared strict neutrality in World War II, and Lindbergh signs a peace treaty with Hitler giving Nazi Germany free rein in Europe, and limited opposition in Africa and Asia. Soon, back home, an American version of fascism is being quietly implemented, and Jews are among the first to be targeted.

The story is told from the perspective of a working-class Jewish family in Newark who experience the changes in their world in increasingly dangerous ways. The old idea that “it can’t happen here”, meaning fascism taking over in America, is challenged and then proven wrong. Roth draws a very believable version of America in the early 1940s, a country so intent on staying out of another European war that it is unwilling to fight the horrible evils of fascism and dictatorship in the name of democracy. The TV series brilliantly shows an America more concerned with the potential dangers of communism than the criminal brutality and maniacal viciousness of authoritarian regimes and racism. As a lead character puts it, “There’s a lot of hate out there, and it just requires a match to set all that kindling into flame.”

It is a stunning show, with outstanding acting by everyone, especially all the principals, including Zoe Kazan as the mother, Winona Ryder, who is Jewish in real life, as her sister who marries a rabbi who is quickly co-opted into Lindbergh’s sphere. The child and adolescent actors are terrific, and all of the leads are terrific, as is the direction. The tension that builds so beautifully in the book does much the same in the film. The fact that a lot of the show was actually filmed near Jersey City, site of a vicious anti-Semitic killing just a few months ago, brings added poignancy to the dramatic, dark story.

I always wondered why no one had made a movie out of this book of Philip Roth’s, focusing instead on far less cinematic vehicles like American Pastoral, Indignation and The Dying Animal. The Plot Against America always seemed to me to be a much more visual and well-plotted story than any of those. But perhaps this outstanding series is why no one made the movie until now: because for the first time in a very long while, during a period of the resurgence of Anti-Semitism on many levels in America, we Jews have some reason to believe that actual fascism could be established here.

I recommend watching the show during your shelter in place time at home this spring. It will not make you sleep better at night; but it may help you wake up to the deep danger that fascist, authoritarian regimes pose to American democracy, which safeguards religious freedom here. If we can learn this lesson, we can protect our nation from authoritarian solutions that destroy so much without building anything good. And it also reminds us that there is more than one evil virus floating around America these days—and the virulent virus of Anti-Semitism remains very much alive and dangerous.

While stuck at home, I’ve also been thinking about how challenging it can be to achieve some reasonable perspective on the other virus, the obvious one now, the Coronavirus pandemic. The problem is that there is more than one way to look at it, and that the way we choose to look at it will dramatically change the way we approach both the problem and its solutions. This impresses me as a very Jewish problem, finding more than one way to consider a problem.

For example, if you look at the increased number of deaths in America from COVID19, you can begin by comparing them to the number of Americans who died in a variety of ways. So far, about 75,000 Americans appear to have died from COVID19; it may turn out that a number of others have also died from it but were misclassified because doctors and coroners and so on weren’t really sure why someone died in the early stages of the pandemic, but let’s take 75,000 as the current number. That number is likely to increase in the next few months to something like 100,000; it may be higher, and if there’s a second round of infections later this year it will go up even more, unless we have some miracle cure before then, which seems possible but unlikely. So let’s take 75,000 dead as a real number today.

One way to look at this is to compare it to the number of Americans who died in our country’s wars. The president declared this to be a war against an invisible enemy, so if we compare it to deaths in other American wars, about 60,000 Americans died in Vietnam; in fact, if you combine the deaths in Vietnam and both Gulf Wars with the deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, they total about the same number as the deaths in this Coronavirus pandemic. When you think about how incredibly disruptive Vietnam was to the fabric of American society, this puts it in quite a challenging perspective, especially when you consider that the Vietnam War lasted for well over 10 years, and these deaths have all taken place in about three months. In fact, if you look at the deaths in all American wars prior to the Civil War—including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War and a number of wars against Native American tribes, spread out over 80 years or so—they total fewer than the number of deaths in the last three months of COVID19. That’s disturbing indeed.

Another way to look at it is to consider the number of Americans killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the most shocking event most of us have ever experienced. If you lived through Pearl Harbor that would likely be more shocking, but Pearl Harbor was 79 years ago, so a lot of us weren’t even alive then. So let’s take the horror of 9/11, a truly awful day in American history.

On 9/11 about 3,000 people died, 1/25th of the number of Americans who have died from Coronavirus. 9/11 changed our lives in many ways from the very serious to the more trivial; it led to two long-term wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, contributed to many Americans dying and being maimed in those wars. It changed the way we think about our own safety in the US, made airplane security vastly more intrusive and unpleasant, upset the entire structure of societies throughout the Middle East, and profoundly affected how we look at the world. And that was slightly fewer than 3,000 deaths in one day. COVID19 has now killed over 75,000 people in three months.

You can also compare the pandemic to deaths in World War I—more Americans have died from Coronavirus than in World War I—or World War II—about 5 times as many Americans died in Word War II—or the Civil War, when about 10 times as many Americans died. But the mere fact that you can compare the number of Americans who died in the three months of COVID-19 to deaths in World Wars or the Civil War makes it seem particularly horrific. When you read the accounts of emergency rooms in New York in the past couple of months this seems appropriate.

Another way you can look at this is to compare it to other ways Americans die suddenly. Over the past few years, between 32,000 and 38,000 Americans died annually from car crashes; that is about half the total of COVID-19 deaths so far. The car crash numbers include pedestrians, motorcyclists and bicycle riders killed by cars, by the way. That means that in three months Coronavirus has wiped out double the total killed by autos in an average year.

Lots of people are comparing COVID19 with the Spanish flu epidemic of a century ago, 1918-1919 that killed 50 million people worldwide. By contrast, this version of the novel Coronavirus has killed about 300,000 people worldwide—remember, 75,000 of them in America—a small fraction of the total decimated by the Spanish flu 101 years ago. That makes this far less devastating—and it’s interesting that our means of preventing it are basically the same as they were then, or in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible—quarantine, isolation, shelter-in-place, lockdown, etc. It is also clear that the flu a century ago was particularly severe because of poor sanitation, inability to isolate people, and the close living conditions of so much more of the world back then. We have been protected in many places, like America, by having larger living spaces, and much more proactive governmental responses in many nations during COVID-19 have prevented infection from spreading unchecked. Our ability to test people, isolate them, and trace their contacts if infected has helped tremendously in those nations that have aggressively taken the initiative to utilize these methods. That has saved many lives.

Without examining the relative effectiveness of our own national governmental response to COVID19, it’s fair to note that the US has more reported cases than any nation on earth, with about a middling fatality rate. All the statistics in a worldwide pandemic are going to be a little messy, because different countries count things differently, and because testing is still very limited in many places, especially right here in America. But we are not yet out of the woods, unlike countries such as Israel, which took a vastly more aggressive approach to preventing the spread of the novel Coronavirus. As Israel now carefully and intentionally eases restrictions, it is doing so with a systematic approach guided by scientific knowledge. Most nations could learn a lot from the Israeli approach, including our own.

However you choose to look at all these numbers, it is clear that COVID19 has had a devastating impact on our country, both by killing many people directly, and by forcing the US to shut down our economy to prevent many more deaths. It is also clear that had we not shut things down the number of deaths would have been much higher.

The Jewish view of this is quite simple, really: the highest value is pikuach nefesh, protecting life. Of course, everyone needs to eat, and to have a means of support. But that is not to be guaranteed at the cost of many lives.

So what perspective can we gain from all this? Perhaps simply this: preserving life is the Jewish principle that must guide our conduct always. When choosing how best to respond to this unprecedented situation, and how thoughtfully to re-open our economy, we should to be guided by this principle, even more than the economic needs of our financial system, corporate structures, or even the financial needs of our citizenry. It doesn't help to open a restaurant if it’s going to become the epicenter of another spread of infection and deaths, or to allow hair salons to become the focal points for more COVID-19 dispersion and contagion.

One of the interesting aspects of the Coronavirus pandemic and being locked down and sheltering in our homes for so much of the time this spring, has been the way it effects our Jewish experience. It may actually be leading to more religious practice, since we have so many fewer distractions. And this is actually a really healthy and intelligent way to shape our attitudes and our reactions.

You see, Judaism encourages moderate, reasoned, intelligent responses even to crazy situations, such as the one we find ourselves in now. By turning to such grounding impulses as prayer, study and reflection, we build our community and refocus our energy in positive directions. We can use this peculiar time as an opportunity to strengthen our congregation, to reach out to other Jews, to unite and grow and utilize these strengths to find a way forward in this time of trouble, to refresh and even deepen our Judaism.

And that will allow us to do what we, as Jews, are supposed to do always: to bring blessing to the world, to help our country and this confused and troubled and often frightened world, to find health and peace.

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