Saturday, September 26, 2009


Last week, we began a dialogue on the Middle East to which we will return on multiple occasions this fall. All of this is leading up to a very special event, one that I am helping to plan. It will be held on the afternoon of the first Sunday of December in Washington, D.C. and will be open to the public. Please, please attend if it at all possible! The event will include musical and theatric performances, in addition to speeches, designed to motivate Americans to get off their tushes and fight for peace in the Middle East. “Yes We Can” make it happen, and I do mean “we.” Without a strong American commitment, it definitely won’t happen. With our help, it just might.

With that as prologue, let’s recall the first rule of peacemaking: understanding the perspectives of the combatants. It was this failure on the part of the Allied Powers at the end of World War I that helped usher Hitler into power in Germany. More recently, it was this failure in 2003 that enabled Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to waltz into Iraq, expecting to be treated like “liberators,” when in fact they came across like blind drunks entering the Pottery Barn.

Personally, I have tried over the past several months to learn more about the perspectives of the Palestinian people, including inviting into my home an advocate of the one-state solution who hails from Hebron. (“One-state” is a euphemism for “destroy Israel as a Jewish state,” but it doesn’t necessarily entail doing so violently. Plenty of peace-loving Arabs would truly like to live with Jewish Israelis as equals and as brothers; they simply have given up on the idea that they, as non-Jews, can get a fair shake living under or beside a regime that is self-consciously Jewish.) Now, let me try to explain the perspective of the Israeli people, whose rightward turn, as evidenced by their election of Binyamin Netanyahu, is causing them to be increasingly maligned throughout the world … and even among a growing subset of the American Jewish community. If you’re one of those who say “oi vay” whenever you think about Israelis today, please take a step back and consider this: how would you feel if you walked in their moccasins? How would your country react if it faced the same threats that the Israelis have faced for the past six decades (not to mention the thousands of years prior to that when they were still in exile)?

That second question is an easy one to answer, at least if you’re an American. Eight years ago this month, we were attacked by 19 hoodlums who committed four discrete and devastating acts of terror. In response, we set out to flatten half of Asia.

How did we justify our overreaction? How else? By distorting the facts. We pretended to have knowledge about an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Then, rather than locating and implementing precision strikes against their so-called nuclear enrichment sites, we chose instead to take over their government. The result is that rather than looking to the world like courageous policemen, we came across as imperialist war-mongers. Our bad.

As for the Israelis, at the time they elected Netanyahu earlier this year, they had recently finished a war intended to protect their civilians to the south from absorbing repeated rocket fire from Gaza. It was an unpopular war internationally, but it did succeed in diminishing the rocket fire, just as Israeli’s previous war, in the summer of 2006, had succeeded in protecting northern Israeli soldiers from Lebanese attacks. For years, Israel had been absorbing even more devastation and loss of life in its central cities before walling off its territory and implementing a series of checkpoints designed to make access into the nation extremely difficult. That security apparatus has, not surprisingly, been a public relations disaster internationally for the way that it has impacted peaceful Arabs who simply want to work in Israel or visit relatives; domestically, however, Israelis reflect on how the wall and the checkpoints have resulted in a severe drop in suicide bombings and thank the Lord that they have leaders willing to take the heat overseas to do what is needed to protect their citizens.

If you talk to Israelis, you recognize that they are concerned about such organizations as Hezbollah and Hamas – the perpetrators of some of the recent strikes on Israel by its adjacent nations. But what really scares the crap out of Israelis is Iran. And this week, finally, the rest of the world was treated to a just a whiff of that danger.

To see what a mess we have on our hands, look no further than today’s New York Times. In one news article, a “senior administration official” is quoted as saying “They have cheated three times. And they have now been caught three times.” According to the article, that “official was referring to information unearthed by an Iranian dissident group that led to the discovery of the underground plant at Natanz in 2002, and evidence developed two years ago – after Iran’s computer networks were infiltrated by American intelligence agencies – that the country had sought to design a nuclear warhead.” The third strike, of course, is this week’s revelation of a secret nuclear-enrichment plant in Iran, one that Iran had been strongly denying.

Three strikes and you’re out, right? Well, apparently not. Today’s New York Times had an editorial entitled “The Big Cheat” which began with a reference to Iran’s “long history of lying and cheating about its nuclear program” but then went on to say that “military strikes … would be a disaster, and unlikely to set Iran’s efforts back for long.” The alternative that the Times’ editorial recommends, “tough new sanctions,” is undermined by the fact that even now, even after Iran has sinned again, and again, and again, the Chinese remain “skeptical” about the need for sanctions. The truth is that even if the Chinese were to join with Americans and Europeans in pressuring Iran economically to stop its nuclear program, one wonders whether such economic pressure would be effective in stopping Iran from attaining its obvious goal. But the real question is why China would be willing to pass up an opportunity to trade with the Iranians given that Iran poses no apparent threat to China. We all know who the Iranian Government has vilified and threatened over the years, and it isn’t the Chinese any more than the Russians or the British. This is the same government that is led by perhaps the world’s most notorious Holocaust denier. In the mind of Israelis, Iran’s leadership has come to signify evil incarnate. My question for you is, can you blame them?

It’s only when you consider the existential threat that Iran poses to Israel that you can place in context the lesser, but still profound, dangers posed by the Palestinians. Just as Ahmadinejad holds Holocaust-denial conferences, leaders of Hamas have been objecting to teaching about the Holocaust in school lesson plans. These good men, you see, despise thinking about the Holocaust because it tends to explain why Israelis care so much about the existence of a Jewish state. You’ll forgive the Israelis if they come to understand Ahmadinejad’s Government and Hamas as two peas in a pod, both sworn enemies of Israel who would love nothing more than to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth. Surely, there are millions of Iranians and Palestinians who would love to live peacefully with the Jews – and who are not afraid of confronting the truths about Jewish history – but the recent election in Iran has confirmed the Israeli’s suspicions that power in this part of the world is held by those are armed and ruthless, and not by those who hold olive branches.

Put it all together, and you’ll see why Israelis aren’t yet motivated to beat their swords into plowshares. It’s the job of peaceniks to convince them to change their ways, but it is hardly our job to blame them for their paranoia.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


This weekend, for the first time, I experienced a thrill that few Jewish men ever get to experience – I saw a member of my family co-lead High Holiday services. Traditionally, the job of co-leader would be assigned to a rabbi or a cantor. And that would be filled by a man. Today, though, it wasn’t filled by a man … or for that matter a woman (if you’re not old enough to buy alcohol, can you really be called a woman?). The family member I’m referring to is my 19 year-old daughter, Hannah, and the venue was the University of Maryland Hillel’s Reform Jewish services. If you want to know what it means to “kvell,” think about what it would feel like to watch your daughter conduct a Rosh Hashanah service in front of dozens of adults and college students. Do you really need to look that word up? I was kvelling so much, in fact, that it was hard to pray. Under the circumstances, I’ll take the tradeoff.

Anyway, after Rosh Hashanah services were over today, I walked up to Hannah, and like a typical meddlesome father, offered some advice before she and her friend return to lead Yom Kippur services next weekend. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. Known as the Day of Atonement, it is a time when Jews spend the day in shul taking stock of their sins from the previous year and praying for forgiveness. Notably, while Yom Kippur prayer books include a litany of sins for which we must atone, the prayers are written in the first person plural. We come to God not so much as individuals, but as a community. For example, we pray “for the wrong WE did before You under coercion or of our own free will … for the wrong WE did before You by hardening our hearts … for the wrong WE did before You unintentionally … for the wrong WE did before You through idle talk and meaningless resolutions, ” etc.

A synagogue isn’t supposed to be a place where self-centered individuals have a moment with their “best friend” (themselves) and their God. Rather, it is designed to provide a communal setting where we remind each other that, metaphorically, we were all present at Sinai, not merely our ancestors. And we all take with us the full set of responsibilities and privileges that arise from witnessing such a transcendent event.

My advice today to Hannah was inspired in part by the room at the U of MD Hillel where her services were held. On the wall at the front of the room were a series of sayings from various Jewish luminaries on a range of topics, including freedom of thought, love, friendship, and human frailty. On the wall at the back of the room were another series of additional sayings from various Jewish luminaries …. but these sayings all involved a single topic. It may well be the topic that, during recent decades, has best united both “religious” and “cultural” Jews, as well as Jews from all branches of the faith. I am referring to the State of Israel.

While I don’t remember my exact words, they went something like this. “So Hannah, obviously this would have to be very delicately handled. But it might be nice if you could say something on Yom Kippur about the situation in Gaza. We’re supposed to be atoning in the first person plural, and I don’t remember anything the Jewish community has done in my lifetime that is more atonement-worthy than the way we’ve treated the Palestinians in Gaza.”

Hannah said that she’d think about the advice, and I left it at that. Frankly, though, no sooner did I finish my thought than I started wondering if the advice was even sound. The words rang true to me; that wasn’t the problem. Some might point out that we in America are not responsible for what the Jews of Israel have done to Palestinians, but I beg to differ – the politically-powerful American Jewish lobby has played a vital role in solidifying and emboldening Israel since its inception. We can’t claim part of the credit for Israel’s power without taking some of the blame for its transgressions.

Still, it wasn’t the truth of what I told Hannah that bothered me. It was the lack of judgment underlying my words. Stated simply, there has been so much Israel-bashing within the American Jewish community lately – or at least among my fellow progressive Jews -- that I’m not sure anyone needs to hear more during the High Holidays. In other words, rather than feeling even more guilty about what Israel has done and continues to do to its neighbors, it might be best to table all the Israel-talk for another day … a day not of atonement but of celebration. Rather than atoning for Israel’s past (and present) “sins,” I choose to celebrate its reason for existing and its prospects for forging a lasting Middle East peace as long as we work with our Palestinian cousins to make that happen. Am I being idealistic? Perhaps. But then again, idealism has always been very Jewish.

To a degree, of course, Israel-bashing is nothing new among American Jewish progressives. Ever since Israel started building settlements beyond its pre-67 borders, progressive Jews have castigated the Israeli leadership, referring to their settlements as “obstructions to peace.” This past several months, however, the criticism has taken an even more fundamental turn. Now, American Jews have begun to question not only the conduct of the Zionist state, but Zionism itself. Increasingly, Zionism has come to be associated with the way it has been implemented in practice, rather than with the hard-to-argue-with theory that the Jews deserve autonomy and self-determination like everyone else. It has become more and more common for Jews to suggest that it might be inherent in the principle of Zionism that the Jewish people seek to consolidate and even expand their power, and if any other tribe should get in their way, they will just have to suffer the same consequences that, for example, the American Indians suffered when the European colonists consolidated their own power in North America.

You could almost compare what is happening with the situation several decades back when Stalin’s tyranny was finally internationally exposed. Before that point, socialism was commonly viewed among progressive Jews as a theoretical ideal – an attempt to realize the beautiful, egalitarian principle, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Once Stalin’s abuses became accepted as fact, however, progressive Jews could no longer view socialism as a mere theory. It became de rigueur to view socialism as it has existed IN PRACTICE – and that became associated with totalitarianism, which is every Jew’s worst nightmare.

If, however, totalitarianism is our worst nightmare, imperialism is a close second. In the past, with a few exceptions (such as the empire of Napoleon), the Hebrew people haven’t fared too well at the hands of imperialists. Now, perhaps for the first time, progressive American Jews are beginning to wonder if Zionism isn’t merely another name for Jewish imperialism, in practice if not in theory. We see so many of our more conservative tribesmen speak as if they accept that Israel’s fate is to be perpetually at war, and what’s worse, we hear in their voices that they are not totally devastated by such a prospect, since our people have the upper hand.

Militarily, we might indeed have the upper hand. But morally, whether or not we can claim a superior position now, we won’t be able to for long. At some point soon, unless the Israeli Government reaches out to support a viable Palestinian state, we’ll be forced to recognize that the primary function of the Israeli Defense Forces is not to defend a nation but to oppress its neighbors. Some enjoy debating whether we’ve reached that point already. For me, I’d rather ignore that question and focus instead on what can be done going forward to bring about peace.

As a Jew, I am a natural questioner, or if you prefer, a “person of doubt.” I’ll admit that maybe, just maybe, the cynics are right. Maybe there is something inherently untenable about one tribe grabbing a foothold in a highly-populated and diverse area and claiming hegemony for themselves. Maybe, in the case of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, my people had its chance to make this work before we started building the controversial settlements, but the last four decades have ruined that chance, as Zionism has increasingly come to be associated among Israel’s neighbors with racism, imperialism and oppression. Maybe those of my progressive Jewish friends who have given up their support of Zionism are correct, and the “two-state” solution we should be supporting is one in which, in a few decades, we might have no primarily-Jewish state in the Middle East, and what is known as “Israel” would become the kind of melting pot that we have here in the good old US of A.

Maybe, but I’m not buying it. I still stand squarely behind the idea of Zionism. I stand for the notion that the Jews are a nation as deserving of their homeland as any other. I stand for recognizing that one of the overarching lessons of history is that whenever Jews have been in the minority, we have ultimately been denied equal rights (including, if less dramatically than in other places, here in America). I stand for the position that, but for imperialism and tyranny, the Jewish people would still be in control of the Land of Israel; we never voluntarily gave up that land or our claim to at least a share of it. And I stand for the proposition that whenever Jews have been granted some measure of autonomy, many have been able to accomplish great humanitarian feats. All of these principles suggest that we must continue passionately to support the existence of a Jewish state in the one and only one region where that state is feasible; namely, in the land of Zion. Besides, whether we do so or not, enough Jews will demand it that the anti-Zionists might as well deal with the “realities on the ground.”

I am happy to entertain arguments about the appropriate size of the Jewish state. I am happy to discuss the notion of sharing Jerusalem, even the holiest areas of Jerusalem. But when it comes to questioning the principle of Zionism itself … that, to me, is when I become like Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevya when he was asked to bless the marriage of his third daughter. Previously, we would see Tevya act like Hamlet. “On the one hand …” he used to say, “but on the other hand …” Yet when it came to the request of Chava to marry a gentile, Tevya thought about it and then shook his head, defiantly, before yelling “There is no other hand!”

If Hannah wants to marry a gentile, I will give her my blessing. But if she (or any other community leader) wants to stand up in front of scores of Jews and decry the principle of Zionism or the need for a Jewish state … I would credit her for courage, just not for judgment or wisdom.

So, this Jewish New Year, as you reflect on the Gaza War and its aftermath, please remember the cyclical nature of political changes within every democracy. This past year has been one where Israel has moved sharply to the right. But there will be a time when Israel is ripe for peace and compromise. And maybe that time could even come when a diplomatic genius like Obama is in the White House. I certainly haven’t given up on a Middle East Peace plan that would allow a viable Jewish state to exist alongside a viable Palestinian state. Don’t you give up either. In upcoming blog-posts, I’ll let you in on ways that we all can work together to make this holiest of dreams a reality.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


“The middle of the road
Is no private cul-de-sac
I can’t get from the cab to the curb
Without some little jerk on my back.

Chrissie Hynde

With all due respect to Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, Barack Obama would beg to differ … apparently. From what I can tell, he’s sitting right in the middle of the road, and he’s enjoying himself.

His speech on Wednesday night on health care reform was a clear attempt to triangulate – to play the role of the reasonable moderate, sandwiched between the ideological progressives on the left and the obstructionist wackos on the right. One of the wackos in Congress heckled the President during his speech. “You lie,” he said. The accusation was both false and ironic, given that some of his GOP colleagues have been making up stories about the Democratic proposals for months.

As for the progressives, the President and his backers would have us believe that those who are pining for the “public option or bust” are willing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory … and risk losing health care insurance for millions. Why would the progressives close their minds to compromise? Must be that they’re immature, right? Must be that they’re ideologues. Undisciplined. Non-serious. Unwilling to recognize what every “adult” knows – that politics is sausage making, and there’s no chance in this climate to make the brand of sausage known as a true public option.

That mantra didn’t sound so persuasive a week ago, at least not to this ideological progressive. But I will credit the President for changing the climate with his speech, and forcing everyone to believe that meaningful health care reform is a near certainty as long as we DON’T get greedy with our demands. This is one politician with a serious gift of gab. He even has some progressives on TV fawning all over him now, even though they seem destined to lose not only the single-payer option, but their public option compromise position.

So let’s say that we progressives give the President the benefit of the doubt on health care. Let’s say we assume he will be adamant about somehow finding a way to insure the uninsured, even if it takes longer than we’d like. Let’s say we ignore some of his pie-in-the-sky rhetoric about cost, and ignore our suspicions that reform could be cheaper if we disciplined the private sector with some serious public competition. Let’s even say that we forget the fact that the so-called Democratic legislators who’ve been causing all the commotion about the public option are the ones who – “coincidentally” – are taking the most money from the health care industry. Let’s say that the phrase “conflict of interest” doesn’t enter our vocabulary … and that we’re comfortable with half a loaf (or maybe even a quarter of a loaf) when it comes to healthcare.

That doesn’t mean that on every public policy issue, we need to find out where the left is and where the right is and then split the baby. At least I hope it doesn’t. But sometimes, with this Administration, I wonder if they agree.

Take, for example, our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The right would like to blow those places back to the dark ages. And the left would like to say buh, bye, and use the money (and the lives) we’re spending there back at home.

What is the Administration’s position? It appears to be to take the middle of the road option – and I mean that literally. It’s as if our troops are standing in no man’s land – or should I say, in the middle of a road.
I truly have no idea what they’re accomplishing or what they’re trying to accomplish.

So please, Mr. President. Tell us progressives what the hell we’re doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe we need another prime-time speech. At the risk of sounding like an ideologue, we place the burden of persuasion on any Administration that places our troops in harm’s way, particularly when they’re working for regimes that can’t even meet our own standards for a fair election. Believe me, that’s a low bar.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


By my count, the Republicans have tons of national holidays. Christmas, Easter, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day come immediately to mind. Whether it’s marketing their devotion to the Prince of Peace or the Art of War, the GOP spin machine can rally the troops like no other. What about Thanksgiving? It’s a Puritan holiday, and Puritans would surely be Republican. Then again, even Democrats like me love to eat, it’s just that we might choose tofurky over dead bird.

What about Independence Day? Can the Republicans claim to be more patriotic? I guess some would make that claim. And when you see the flags come out in the neighborhoods round about July 1st, you can make a pretty good guess that you’re driving past a GOP household. But screw that, Democrats like me certainly enjoy fireworks every bit as much as Republicans, except perhaps for the fireworks that sometimes erupt between a Congressman and a young page. (OK, OK. That was a cheap shot. Neither side of the aisle has cornered the market on perversion.)

Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day can’t possibly be associated more with one of the two Parties than the other. Frankly, they don’t seem to captivate the attention of EITHER liberals or conservatives any more. Hmmm. We might want to work on that a bit – figure out a way for those holidays to regain their relevance, or scrap them in favor of different celebrations (like Michael Jackson Day or, if we need a woman, how about Madonna Day once she passes).

So that leaves two -- two days for the Democrats. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is definitely one of the Democrats’ holidays. Just recall how that holiday was opposed by such “moderate” Republicans as John McCain. Still, we have reached the point in our society when MLK Jr. is a hero to Republicans as well as Democrats – only an out-and-out racist would refuse to admit his appreciation for the man. So let’s say that MLK Jr. day LEANS Democratic, but we’ll call it a holiday that all Americans can enjoy.

And then there was one.

To be sure, every decent American supports the concept of laboring. We all respect the idea of working hard for a fair wage. But historically, it was crystal clear that without a labor movement, the average American worker was grist for the exploitation mill. And in response to that ugly fact, the labor movement developed. So, with that in mind, what do you think the rank and file of the GOP thinks of the labor movement? Positive thoughts? Even neutral thoughts? I wonder. Over the decades, that movement has come to be associated in Red America with (a) mob-like violence and intimidation, (b) horrible corruption, and (c) un-affordably high prices on consumer goods resulting from ridiculously high wages and benefits for union workers. Even such laws as the “minimum wage” legislation are common objects of ridicule, particularly among small business owners who feel like they can’t turn a profit as long as they must “overpay” their support staff.

I can only imagine what it’s like for someone like my mom, who was born at the beginning of the 1920s, to reflect on how the power and prestige of Labor has devolved during the course of her life. We all still toast the concept of labor, but the toast is half-hearted. It extends to individual laborers insofar as they are viewed as hard working and not overpaid. But when the topic turns to labor unions, or even labor laws, much of the nation has become largely disdainful, and the remainder of the nation has become quite apathetic. Who is standing up for the working class today? Got me.

Of course, that will all change on Monday. On that glorious day – the Democrats’ favorite holiday – we will be treated to one op-ed after another praising the cause of the working man. Perhaps there will be a jeremiad or two about how our economic “recovery” has been confined to Wall Street, but hasn’t yet been felt on Main Street. And surely, we will have the token essay from Robert Reich or Paul Krugman urging us to do more for the little guy. (At 4’ 10”, Reich’s passion on the subject can’t be denied.)

By Tuesday, though, all the concern about the working class will be long gone. Tuesday is Barack Obama’s “back to school” day. He’ll be giving his pep talk to the American school kids, taking on such a controversial subject as how the kids need to “stay in school.” Innocuous, right? Apparently not. Thanks to the GOP spin machine, this has morphed into one more opportunity to mock our new President. So around the country – and even in “progressive” Montgomery County, Maryland – schools will be setting aside areas for children whose parents do not want them to have to listen to the President give an address. A Washington Times editorial has even compared Barack’s address to a “move suggestive of the Pyongyang public school system.” In short, by COB Tuesday, whatever “bump” labor may have enjoyed from Monday will have been eviscerated by the horrific image of Barack Obama as Big Brother, polluting the minds of our nation’s youth with socialistic propaganda … like how the kids need to stay in school.

And that’s just Tuesday. The very next day – or as we laborers call it, “hump day” -- Barack will go to Capitol Hill and address that august collection of free-thinkers on the subject of health care reform. Surely, he will announce his support for legislation that is needed to insure the working class – legislation that will include the so-called “public option.” But that’s just a “wink wink, nod nod” kind of support, our TV talking heads assure us. We all “know” that the U.S. Senate will not support the public option, or any other kind of reform that the health care industry can’t abide. So, the talking heads continue, Barack’s REAL job is to “appease the base” by talking tough on the public option, and then begin the face-saving process of trying to broker a workable “compromise.” If successful, Barack can declare victory that he has passed a bill that makes material, positive changes to our nation’s health care system. How material? Probably not much. How positive? Probably not much. But that’s not what’s important, the talking heads assure us. What’s important is that SOMETHING gets passed … so Barack can quickly get past this entire debacle.

Will the working class get their health insurance? Well no. But that’s OK, we’re assured. We have to be practical about such things. It’s just not practical to expect the wealthiest country in the history of the world to provide health insurance to its low-paid workers. I mean, it’s responsible to advocate such an idealistic position on Labor Day. But that’s a one-day holiday. We won’t be voting on health care reform until Columbus Day, or Thanksgiving, or Christmas. By then, all good Democrats should have learned their lesson, appropriately taught by the talking heads: even when their Party controls the Presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate, when it comes to the cause that has been of central concern to their core constituency for the past two decades, their job is to sell that cause out without even a fight.

Remember On the Waterfront? Remember Marlon Brando’s character? That’s a great, inspiring Labor Day flick. That’s true labor-movement heroism. Screw pragmatism; sometimes you have to fight for what’s right even if it means getting the tar beaten out of you.

Come Tuesday, though, it will be time for all good Democrats to know their place. This is a Republican country – even when the Republican Party is run by numbskulls. And until the Democratic “base” intends to fight for something important to them and throw uber-pragmatism to the wolves, a Republican country it shall remain.