Saturday, April 19, 2014

Anti-Normalization and the New Normal

I’ve got Middle East peace on the brain today.  Tonight, I’m headed to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, the largest mosque in the Washington, D.C. area, for an interfaith Seder.   It’s a wonderful event, spearheaded by my friend Andrea Barron.   Andrea and I don’t agree on much when it comes to Middle East politics, but we agree on this: “normalization” is a good thing. 

Are you unfamiliar with the term “normalization” in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?  If so, I envy you, because whenever I contemplate that term, I simply get furious.   In case you haven’t heard about it, check out this link    As you’ll read there, “normalization” has become a derogatory word among many Palestinians, and refers to “the process of building open and reciprocal relations with Israel in all fields, including the political, economic, social, cultural, educational, legal, and security fields.”  In other words, when Jews and Palestinians get together to sing, dance, talk about issues, celebrate the Exodus, you name it … it’s a bad, bad thing.  And that is because, allegedly, it encourages everyone to believe that the status quo, which is seen as the outgrowth of the seizure of Palestinian land by a foreign invader, is an acceptable, “normal” situation.  

Recently, when Palestinian university students planned a trip to Auschwitz, they were criticized because – you guessed it – this was an expression of “normalization” behavior.   This travesty was recently chronicled in the Washington Post:   Not long ago, I attended a wonderful concert sponsored by a group called Heartbeat Jerusalem, which brings together young Israeli Jewish and Palestinian musicians who can really rock.  Their music inspired me to imagine a Middle East in which Jews and Arabs see themselves as cousins instead of enemies.  And yet, what did I learn after the concert?  That Heartbeat has now come under fire for promoting “normalization.”   

                The anti-normalization movement is just one form of the growing trend among the Hard Left to de-legitimize Israel and turn it into a pariah state – kind of like North Korea but without any ties to Dennis Rodman.  My guess is that this movement is soon going to split anti-Israel forces into a schism between the BDS gang who simply support boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel, and the anti-normalization gang who want to put Israel under a Spinoza-like ex-communication. (My hero was such a persona non-grata that members of his community were forbidden from standing within six feet from him or being under the same roof as the guy.)  Pretty soon, the BDSers will be calling themselves “moderates” because they are willing to get together with Zionists like me and tell us why Zionism is misguided … but at least they are willing to speak to us.  

                Fortunately, the anti-normalization craze has yet to become the new normal in the Middle East Peace movement.  But believe me, this attitude and its little brother, BDS, have left quite a mark.   Taken together, they have convinced most of my fellow peaceniks that if Israel wants peace with the Palestinians, they can ask precious little from the Palestinians in return.   Perhaps the best example of this trend is the reaction of the peace movement toward Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state.  That demand sounds like no big deal to me.   It’s vague enough that a Palestinian who truly wants peace should be able to affirm it without letting go of the Palestinian narrative.  Hell, even Yasser Arafat was willing to say that he would accept Israel as a Jewish State.   See for yourself:  

                But Arafat is dead and buried.  And now the “new normal” is that the idea of accepting Israel as a Jewish State is a non-starter for Palestinians.  What’s more, peacenik organizations like J-Street balk at asking the Palestinians to make a concession on that point – at least not now.   Take a look at J-Street’s statement on the subject; you’ll find it to be the epitome of milquetoast:  

                Folks, I have heard a zillion and one justifications for why Israel shouldn’t be a Jewish State.  And while I buy none of them, I can certainly appreciate why a portion of the Palestinian community would continue to oppose that notion.  What’s more, I’ve heard a zillion and one justifications for why the Palestinian negotiators cannot accept Israel as a Jewish State at this point in the negotiations.   And while I buy none of them, I can certainly appreciate why the Palestinian negotiators might disagree with me.  But here’s what I cannot for the life of me stomach: why I am unaware of one single prominent Palestinian who is willing to support the idea of Israel as a Jewish State -- other than the dead Mr. Arafat.   Are the radical Israel-haters so dominant that they are scaring the Palestinian moderates into silence?   Or am I just that far out-of-touch with the moderate-Palestinian position these days?

                Either way, for a guy who spends as much time in the interfaith movement and the peace movement as I do, these are very troubling questions to ask.   Perhaps someone can shed some light for me tonight at the Seder.   In any event, whether I get some answers or don’t, this much I can continue to say:  Long live Israel as a Jewish State.  It has an honored place in my vision of a peaceful and just world.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Empathic Rationalism Begins At Home

Let me begin by wishing all of the Jews and Christians out there in cyberspace a Happy Passover and Easter.   My hope has been to be able to celebrate Passover with my family, but unfortunately, this may be difficult due to a lower-back problem that has seriously flared up in the past few days.   Accordingly, I have decided not to write a lengthy blog post this weekend and instead to spend my time lying in bed rather than typing on the computer.  But hopefully, I will be back to normal next week, or at least healthy enough to offer you all some provocative thoughts about an interesting topic.

Take care, and I’ll talk to you soon.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Scandals We Ignore (Part Two)

Sports scandals are a dime a dozen.   But they can generally be put into two categories.   First, you have the scandals that are primarily about the sports world.  These include stories about athletes who take performing enhancing drugs, referees or judges who take bribes, or sports leagues that cover up the mind-boggling health problems caused by their product.   In each case, I don’t doubt that there are broader societal tie-ins, but these problems center around the games themselves and not the society at large.  

I don’t wish to poo-poo the importance of those classic sports scandals.  But candidly, I am even more interested when a scandal appears in the world of sports that focuses your attention less on the actual competitions than on the outside world.  Recently, two such scandals come to mind.

Have you seen the latest edition of Golf Digest?  Here’s the cover: It kind of leaves an impression, doesn’t it?   The scantily-clad hottie is Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of Wayne Gretzky, the hockey legend.   Paulina is not an accomplished golfer.   In fact, as far as I can tell, that’s not even a sports bra she’s wearing; it’s just a plain old bra.
When my wife saw the cover, she said “I assume she’s not a golfer.  She’s the prize at the end of the  course.”   More precisely, she’s the prize won by professional golfer Dustin Johnson, who is now Wayne Gretzky’s son-in-law.   My wife, a former high school valedictorian and Harvard Law School graduate, is surely used to living in a society where men see models as more prize worthy than scholars.  But I would have expected that a prominent magazine like Golf Digest would have ducked that whole brains-versus-beauty debate and focused instead on athletic prowess.  Couldn’t they have found a really bright or really pretty woman who actually played on the LPGA tour?   Did they really have to bypass women’s golf entirely and just adorn their latest issue with an unbridled tribute to T&A?   Apparently so.

I was listening to ESPN yesterday morning when they were talking about this scandal.  Mike Golic, one of the two men to whom that network entrusts its coveted morning drive-time slot despite being an admitted steroid abuser, was explaining the reason for Golf Digest’s decision.   According to Golic, true golf fans will buy the magazine regardless of who they put on the cover.  But if they show Paulina Gretzsky’s skin and curves, perhaps they will also attract another element of “reader.”   I see the logic in that position.  Then again, I also see the logic in taking performance-enhancing drugs.   Do I see the logic in unabashed sexism?  Or, for that matter, racism?  I suppose so, as long as there is an election to be won or a dollar to be made by trading in filth.

Truth be told, Golf Digest is no different than many other well-established institutions in American life.  These institutions focus more on what’s on the outside of a woman’s head than what’s on the inside.   If this magazine had simply applied its attitude toward women with a bit of subtlety and ambiguity, it would have stayed under the radar screen, but it just couldn’t help itself.  It had to announce itself and its motivations – greed and disrespect come immediately to mind.

If you want to read about the magazine’s rationalization for its cover-girl decision, be my guest.  I haven’t bothered.  I know racism when I see it and I know sexism when I see it.  Golf Digest has just announced itself as a sexist rag.  It’s really that simple.  

Before I change topics, I have a simple message for Mr. Golic: this is one golf fan who has no intention of reading Golf Digest in the future.  I encourage the rest of you to follow suit.

At the risk of sounding indifferent to sexism, the second scandal that I’d like to discuss is even more disturbing to me than the first.   It has also been around a few weeks longer, and yet for some reason, I never seem to hear about it on TV.   Perhaps that’s because the behavior at issue is so old hat and accepted that it’s no longer scandalous to the society at large.  But if that’s not an indictment of our culture, nothing is.

The story to which I am referring is known as the University of North Carolina Fake Classes scandal.   You can read about it at the following link:   According to a non-anonymous whistleblower, that venerable institution has created all sorts of ways in which “scholar-athletes” can get university credit for doing middle school work, if in fact they choose to do any work at all.  Allegedly, the problem begins with admitting athletes who have not demonstrated the skills to handle the academic rigors of college coursework.  Then, with the approval of university administrators, an entire network is created whereby athletes are allowed to negotiate their way around the curriculum without having to exercise their minds.  Rich or poor, and regardless of whether they pick up a book or attend a class, they get full rides to attend the university and keep their scholarships, while sometimes even getting As for their non-efforts.  The “scholars” at issue must feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.   You get to play the game you love, you don’t have to go to classes, you don’t have to accumulate debt, and you can make all sorts of business contacts with the university’s well-heeled boosters.   What’s more, increasingly you can listen to talking heads wax eloquent about how you should actually be PAID to play college sports.   Oh, those poor exploited scholar-athletes.

This story wouldn’t bother me so much if I thought the problem was confined to the “Tar Heels” of North Carolina.   Unfortunately, I fear the nicotine stain that surrounds that school’s athletic program can be found, to different degrees, in most universities with big-time athletic departments.  The joke that is the modern American student-athlete will be most blatantly on display this weekend at this year’s Final Four.  There, you can see the University of Kentucky trot out its latest group of freshmen basketball players who entered the university with the understanding that they will literally be “one and done.”   That’s right – no sophomore slump for them.   After their freshman year, they will be off to the NBA, and another group of scholars/roundball players will take their place on the hardwood and NOT in the classrooms.

It was the immortal Captain Renault who proclaimed to be “Shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here.”  Well, I’m no Renault.  I wasn’t shocked to read about the University of North Carolina and its separate track for athletes.  But I am dismayed at how little the media seems to give a damn.  Don’t you get it?   Thanks to an articulate, courageous whistleblower, the voices of truth and justice now have the University of North Carolina right where they want it.    Those voices can make an example of the university, shut down its football and basketball programs for years, and fire any venal administrator who can be demonstrably tied to the scandal.  And then, when other whistleblowers arise at other universities, these schools’ athletic programs can be shut down as well and their deans can be sent packing.  Sounds good, right?

Sounds like utopia to me – which literally means, “no place.”  Here in the USA, college football and basketball programs are the geese that lay the golden eggs, and I don’t foresee any developments that will threaten to shut down that egg-laying.  The same universities that think nothing of taking gobs of money from students who already are deeply in debt will continue to roll out the red carpet for their jocks.  And the media moguls who control the way stories like this one are covered will continue to look the other way, while at the same time expecting their underlings to refer to the ballplayers as student-athletes or scholar-athletes.  In so many cases, they are neither.  They are simply frauds, just like the coaches, deans, and “sports-journalists” who enable them.

Sorry for the depressing post.  But hey, nobody ever promised a rose garden when it comes to talking about scandals.  In my next post, there will be no scandal-mongering.  I promise.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Scandals We Ignore

This week, I saw an op-ed in the New York Times that reminded me of what the mass media should be reporting.   It’s a huge scandal, only it doesn’t involve an act of terrorism, inappropriate sexual conduct, or a celebrity homicide.  As a result, we have no face to associate with this scandal.  We cannot even point to an evil corporation.   It’s no wonder, then, that the scandal is receiving little publicity.   And yet it is truly disgusting.

The op-ed, which was written by Nicholas Kristof and is entitled “A Nation of Takers,” should be discussed in every high school social studies classroom in America.   Here’s the column:  As you see, it is exposing a broken democracy – the scandal of living in a welfare state where the beneficiaries are millionaires and billionaires.  Yes, we have come a long way in the USA since the time when our laws identified African Americans as 3/5th of a person.   But we still have a long way to go before we can boast with integrity about having a “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.”   

None of us should have to wonder about why it is that we have, in the words of Kristof, “welfare subsidies for private planes … yachts … [and] hedge funds.”  The reason is simple:  wealth buys political power.  What puzzles me, however, is how the public is allowed to remain ignorant about these subsidies and how the politicians who permit them are not required to explain why.   I had always thought that the central purpose of a free press is to expose the inappropriate use of power.  Unfortunately, whenever the wrongdoer isn’t a single face but an entire infrastructure of lobbyists and politicians, the only thing that gets exposed is an out-to-lunch media.  

Kristof’s column is but a voice in the wilderness.  In this society, such columns tend to vanish shortly after they appear – like stones skipping on a lake.   By contrast, when a celebrity is caught misbehaving, the story can last for days or even weeks, and every reporter gets a few swings at bat.  Perhaps the public is partially at fault because it seems to have an insatiable appetite for stories about celebrities behaving badly, whereas structural problems with our tax system or our political process may be seen as too abstract to be interesting.  But I’m not buying that excuse.   You see, before I can absolve the media of responsibility for doing its job, I want to see them launch en masse into a scandal like welfare-for-the-rich as vigorously as they would talk about Anthony Weiner’s underwear or Eliot Spitzer’s socks.   I want to see them haul in one politician after another to the offices of a TV network and ask them to defend their decision to permit Mitt Romney to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary.  And most importantly, I want to see them conduct interviews of “regular Joes” who actually do pay high tax rates and have them explain just how these welfare programs affect their own feelings about their government and their country.  Then, after a few weeks of attention to this scandal, the media may move on – for surely there will be plenty of other examples where the rights of the many are being abused by the interests of the few.  

That's the kind of American our founding fathers expected.  That's the kind of America Thomas Jefferson was talking about when he wrote that "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Nicholas Kristof is a  dinosaur.  For one thing, he still writes for a newspaper, and most people no longer read newspapers.  For another, he still focuses on exposing abstract scandals at a time when it seems that every scandal must have a public face.  But his column is a reminder that our Mount Rushmore is composed of men who cared deeply about the welfare of sharecroppers and shopkeepers, not to mention the environment.  If we share in their concerns, we had better open our eyes to the true scandals that plague our nation and assume personal responsibility for confronting them.  Kristof can accomplish nothing by himself.