Friday, February 25, 2011

The Power of the Assembly

Vayak’hel Moshe et Kol Adat B’nei Yisrael…Moses assembled the entire people of Israel.

There is an incredible energy when an entire people is gathered in one place. On the occasion chronicled in this week’s Torah portion, Moses starts his oration by exhorting the people, in the name of Adonai, the G-d of Israel, to keep the Sabbath. He then launches into a long and complex charge for the people to bring forward, as their hearts may move them, materials for fashioning the Tent of Meeting, its furnishings, and the priests’ vestments.

I don’t want to focus so much on Moese' message here, rather on the power of the mass assembly. Moses is talking to the entire assembled nation. And we can only imagine the power of such a gathering. In our lifetimes, we have seen repeatedly the power of mass gatherings to change less-than-desirable situations.

Who can forget the gathering of about 200,000 souls in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, where a certain civil rights leader eloquently told the assembled throngs about his dream for America? The power of the assembly, and the eloquence of the speaker, cannot be denied; the results speak for themselves. Who, after all, can rationally argue with Barack Obama sitting in the White House, that Reverend King’s dream has not largely been realized?

Twenty-six years later and half a world away, an equally large crowd gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to rally peacefully for democracy. With the fall of the Soviet Union and most of her client states, the Peoples’ Republic of China was then the only globally-significant hold-out in the totalitarian world. Her people smelled and savored the fragrant breeze of freedom and wanted it for themselves. But the results were not comparable to those of the 1963 gathering in Washington DC. The Peoples’ Army moved in and brutally quashed the demonstration, killing many in the square. Others were dispatched by bullets to the head later, after interrogation and torture. Others still suffered – and even continue to suffer – hard labor in ‘re-education’ camps that rival the worst of the Soviet Gulag for their brutality. The People of China are still waiting for the Peoples’ Republic to offer them significant advances in liberty. But the Peoples’ Army still maintains a robust presence in the square, ready to quash any first stirrings of a reprise of the demonstration a of generation ago.

Today, we sit and watch with much consternation at waves of protest against authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. We wish to be optimistic as we watch throngs in Egypt and Libya stand tall against government forces, demanding freedom and democracy. Seeing ourselves as enlightened, rational people, we wish our Arab cousins the best. We hope that a radiant new awakening will engulf the Arab world, washing away the tyrants that we see as a holdover of earlier times. We want desperately to believe that, with the exit of those tyrants who have fomented hatred of Israel as a way to deflect criticism of their thievery and duplicity, the Arab street will be caught up in a new spirit of brotherhood. That they will join hands with their Jewish neighbors and the resulting cooperation will harness an incredible energy to address and solve the problems that beset the greater Middle East.

Before we rhapsodize of the New World dawning, we need to ask ourselves: why have some popular revolutions resulted in positive change for humanity while others did not? Why did the civil rights protests of the 1960’s lead to a sea-change in American Society while the Tiananmen Square protests did not accomplish the same for the people of China? I would like to offer what I see as the primary reason for the difference in outcomes.

Peaceful assembly and demonstration ‘works’ when the target of the demonstration is an entity characterized by Rule of Law, and Goodness. There is no doubt that the stain of slavery and the legacy of racial separateness sickened American society. This sickness prevented us from clearly seeing the truth of how deleterious black suffering was to the society as a whole. That is, until a series of peaceful demonstrations against the order of things, opened the eyes of America. When white America saw the gathering of Black America on the Capital Mall, and heard the eloquence of Reverend King’s plea, it opened our hearts to the truth. The creation of an equal and just society didn’t then happen overnight, or even in a year. But today, our children are growing up in a far different America, in many ways a far better America, than the one we Baby Boomers grew up in.

There can be no comparison between the America of 1963 and the China of 1989. The former was good but flawed, while the latter was – and still is – a regime of evil oppression. This is surely the primary reason for the difference in outcomes. It wasn’t that the protests did not propound equally righteous purposes. It wasn’t that the two groups of protestors were not equally ready to stand up to violence and maintain their peaceful stands.

Watching recent and continuing events unfold in the Arab world, our experience of the Civil Rights Movement of America of the 1960’s counsels us toward optimism. On the other hand, our witness of the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre leads us toward pessimism. Obviously, the protests in the Arab world are fully analogous to neither historical event. Each mass movement is as different as the respective countries that provide their backdrop. We therefore look on, from the assumed safety of our own secure and free homeland, with a certain ambiguity, with a mixture of hope and fear.

And while we look on with a layman’s befuddlement, we hope and pray that our government has a much higher degree of discernment than we private citizens. Some of us are confident in that regard, while the rest of us are deeply skeptical. Recent national polling suggests that the latter group outnumber the former. We watch the Administration’s confused response to unfolding events and wonder if the President or anyone close to him has a clue.

But there is one thing, upon which we can all agree. What is now happening in Egypt, Libya, and other Arab countries matters to us. Despite our assumption of safety, if we’re honest we acknowledge that these earth-shaking events in far away places can and will affect our own interests deeply. What sort of regime will follow the deposed Mubarak in Egypt? And what will replace the soon-to-be deposed al Qaddafi in Libya, may it happen speedily? These outcomes matter profoundly to us: as Americans, and in particular as Jews. May the Holy One grant the Arab Street – and our own President – the wisdom to work diligently for the creation of just regimes of law and Goodness, amidst the ashes of bygone autocracies.