Time Magazine has for years selected the “Person of the Year.” Last year’s award winner was a slam dunk: Barack Obama. Who else was even close? Sara Palin? Mohammad Ahmadinejad? Ashley Dupre?
Now humor me for a moment. What if the issue wasn’t selecting a person, but a word? What single word best symbolizes 2009? In past years, winners might have included “amazing” (1969 – the year of the moon walk … and the Mets first World Series championship), “reunification” (1990 -- West and East Germany are no more), “terrorism” (2001 – a year so crazy even Kubrick couldn’t have imagined it), “tsunami” (2004 – the year of the greatest such disaster in history). And, of course, “blowjob” (1998 – the year the world vigorously debated what it really means to have “sex”).
This year, no single event has captivated the attention of the world. But from my vantage point, there does seem to be a word that captures the mood of my country, if not the entire planet. From the title of this post, you’ve probably guessed the word I have in mind.
Just look at what happened in this past week. According to an Associated Press article, “The Treasury Department ordered seven big companies that haven't repaid their government bailout money to cut their top executives' average total compensation — salary and bonuses — in half, starting in November. Under the plan, cash salaries for the top 25 highest-paid executives will be limited in most cases to $500,000 and, in most cases, perks will be capped at $25,000.”
It sounds un-American, right? Aren’t we supposed to be committed to free enterprise? Personally, as much as I hate capitalism, I hate the alternatives even more. And yet, this week, I was cheering the Treasury Department’s move and haven’t heard a peep of criticism from anyone else, which is really what’s fascinating. Most Americans have developed such an incredible distrust for corporate executives generally, and Wall Street executives in particular, that just about any amount of executive pay cuts would be popular.
Of course, I did say MOST Americans. There’s another large group – mostly in flyover states, but you’ll also find them in coastal exurbs and a smattering of right-wing suburbs, like McLean, Virginia – who sees in such a development clear signs of a creeping socialism. These defenders of the American Way might not appreciate the job that Wall Street has done as of late, but they sure wouldn’t tamper with the ability of hard-working Americans to seize whatever paychecks the market will bear.
But that’s not to say that the tea-baggers and ditto-heads are any less trustful than the rest of us. Whereas people like me won’t be satisfied until the top marginal tax rate goes back to at least 70% -- it was 90% under Eisenhower – the tea-baggers won’t rest until Barack Obama and his minions have been put out to pasture. How you ever seen a group of people so unwilling to treat a new President like a legitimate leader? Even when W was elected in the most questionable manner imaginable (in a “democracy” of 300 million, he lost the popular vote, but won the Politburo vote of 5-4), once Gore conceded the election, Americans of all stripes recognized that W was our President, for better or worse. But don’t for a second think that the Fox News crowd would extend the same courtesy to Barack Obama. He’s viewed, plain and simply, as an enemy combatant. When he stumbles, they rejoice. Even when he’s trying to bring the Olympics to American soil, they still wish him harm. They probably even mock his dog. And Lord knows, that whenever Barack Obama takes a position on anything, they reflexively oppose it.
That, my friends, is a climate of mistrust. And unfortunately, this climate is not merely a domestic problem. I’ve spoken at length lately about the Middle East Peace process and have offered several diagnoses for that seemingly intractable mess. But truly, it all comes down to one word: mistrust. Both sides are talking to the other, and yet neither is listening. There’s no point in listening to anyone if you don’t trust him. You’ll hear words, but they won’t reach your heart.
Speaking as a Zionist, I can confirm that when Arab leaders talk about making “concessions,” we have no reason to trust that these wouldn’t simply be temporary stop-gaps en route to the ultimate goal of one Palestinian nation controlled by Arabs and with a Jewish minority. Palestinian leadership from the time before Israel’s creation until the present has been resolute in demanding the right of Arabs to return to their homes in Israel, and in asserting the superiority of the Arab to the Jewish claims over the Holy Land. Invariably, Palestinians stop short of recognizing a “Jewish State.” In their ears, a word like Zionism sounds like nothing more than a synonym for racism. As a result, when a Palestinian speaks about a two-state solution, we fear that they are really pining for a two-STAGE solution, which will leave us as stateless and as vulnerable as ever.
Then again, when it comes to Middle East Peace, we Jews don’t have a monopoly on mistrust. And trust me: the Palestinian mistrust is every bit as understandable as our own. The Palestinians have come to see the Jews as a brutal, oppressive, occupying force. They each have stories to tell about specific Israeli atrocities, and about the generally dehumanizing conditions in which they’ve been forced to live. They see Israeli politicians, like the current Prime Minister, as the faces of evil. And when they hear these politicians talk about peace, they simply laugh it off as a sham. According to the Palestinian narrative, a man like Netanyahu tries to pretend that he wants peace so that he can stay on good terms with other world leaders, but in reality, he has no intention ever to provide the Palestinians with a viable state. As far as the Israeli Government is concerned, Palestinians will tell you, the Palestinians can have the prison-camp known as Gaza and the less desirable real estate in the West Bank, but that’s it. No more. And they better be gracious when they hear an offer or they won’t even get those scraps of Swiss Cheese.
So yes, this doctor has no problem diagnosing the problem. But how do we treat it? How do we rekindle trust?
The answer is that we work on various fronts. We participate in local Jewish-Islamic dialogue societies. We support NGOs that facilitate joint enterprises and other forms of cooperation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. And … we attend events like the one I’m about to promote.
It’s happening on December 6, 2009 from 2:00 – 6:00 p.m. at the 6th and I Street (N.W.) Synagogue in Washington D.C. You can read all about it at www.yesmep.org. It is sponsored by a fledgling organization in which I have been an active member: Yes We Can – Middle East Peace (or YES-MEP for short). If you go to that website, you’ll not only read about the event, but also see our mission statement. Immediately, you can tell the goal of the group: it’s attempting to be a big-tent coalition where people with different points of view, but who all desperately pine for Middle East Peace, can work cooperatively toward that goal. The December 6th event will bring in musicians, actors and speakers from the United States, Israel and Palestine for what figures to be an absolutely “amazing” afternoon (perhaps not worthy of 1969, but light years beyond our current standard).
So please, folks. Make the trip. Show your support. And get inspired to make a difference on this issue. This problem won’t be solved right away, but with your prayers and your hard work, it will be solved.