Monday, May 30, 2011


Only last month, I had to listen to members of Red Sox Nation whine over the fact that their beloved team could only muster two wins in their first dozen games – good for last place in the division. Well, look now, sports fans: times have changed and the whining has stopped. Now, those same Red Sox find themselves in first place, a game ahead of the hated Yankees.

Strangely enough, members of Hamas Nation are going through the same kind of renaissance. Precisely four weeks ago, they were mourning the death of “holy warrior” Osama bin Laden. But now, that tragedy seems like a distant memory. Subsequent events have focused attention away from Osama, away from their own predictable reaction to his death, and squarely on their hated enemy: the “Jewish State.” Believe me, it’s precisely the kind of attention Hamas has to relish: all criticism of Israel, all the time.

That at least is what I have been hearing from American op-ed writers and TV talking heads. My Middle East Peace group has joined in the chorus. And the message is invariably the same: Netanyahu came to America and demonstrated once and for all that he really couldn’t give a damn about peace but only cares about consolidating his power in Israel. Indeed, the fact that Bibi’s poll numbers are way up back in the Holy Land after his trip to Washington further plays into the anti-Israel narrative. At this point, it’s not only Netanyahu who is bearing the brunt of the peace community’s criticism but, by implication, the Israeli people too. I’m hearing more and more calls for the Palestinians to assume the mantle of the African-American or East Indian civil rights movement and treat Israel the way Martin Luther King Jr. treated Bull Connor or Mahatma Gandhi treated the English imperialists.

Somewhere, deep in a dungeon in Gaza City, Hamas apparatchiks are lighting up their cigars.

Well, alright. Let me set the record straight. I realize that there is a huge difference between the Hamas and the peace community. The one advocates terrorism; the other, non-violent resistance. Nobody can sanely compare King or Gandhi, on the one hand, with Ismail Haniyah, on the other – that would be like comparing Dorothy with Mrs. Gulch. But note what is going on: with the focus of the international community exclusively on Netanyahu and the so-called “Arab Spring,” Israel has taken on the mantle of tyrant and the Palestinians as oppressed victims. Or at least, so goes the narrative that is gaining prominence in Europe and is surely quite dominant in the Arab world, including the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas has got to be thrilled. After all, de-legitimizing Israel was always one of their highest goals, and with each passing day, they are seeing it come to fruition.

How is Israel losing its legitimacy? It hasn’t been the result of Hamas’ efforts. The one-two punch is being delivered by Israel herself and her so-called “greatest ally.” I’m referring to the recent conduct of Netanyahu and Obama.

Barack went first. He repeated the same mistake that he made in Cairo during the first year of his presidency. In both cases, Barack gave speeches that took on but a single issue of controversy: whether Israel needs to stop settling the land that will have to be returned to the Palestinians as part of any viable two-state solution. In Cairo, Barack called for a settlement freeze. Recently, in Washington, he called for a return to the ’67 borders with land swaps. It’s precisely the same vision. And all of us in the peace community agree that Barack is correct on that issue – if there is to be peace between these peoples, the Israelis must make concessions on the very point that Barack has been emphasizing.

But here’s the rub: he seems absolutely unwilling to ask anything controversial from the Palestinians. They can go on referring to the foundation of Israel as the “catastrophe,” they can go on teaching their children that Israel has no claim to ANY state in the region, and they can go on referring to the concept of the “Jewish State” as a racist, offensive moniker … and Barack will offer them the thinnest of rebukes. In Barack’s world, the Palestinians need not make any effort to give Israel comfort that they will live with a Jewish State beside a Palestinian one. Indeed, Barack doesn’t seem to appreciate why such an effort is needed. All he is able to focus on is Israel’s failure to give back Palestinian land. So the result is that when he gives his speeches, one side is put on the defensive and the other side is emboldened.

Ideally, the American President would ask concessions from both sides and the two peoples would say something like “I won’t concede unless they do.” Then, they would enter into negotiations – and voila, the negotiations lead to the mutual concessions necessary to usher in peace. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. But since Barack demands nothing from the Palestinians, they don’t even have to enter into negotiations to improve their own standing internationally. And as for Bibi, the easy way out is precisely to roar back with defiance. He did that two years ago after Cairo, and he did it again this past fortnight -- first at the White House, then at Congress. His point was the most pedestrian one that a Middle East leader could make: that his own people will not be pushed around. Yes, he suggested, Israel supports two states for two peoples (at least in theory). But never did Bibi give an inch on settlements or on Israel’s willingness to negotiate with a Government that includes Hamas. And the result is yet another missed opportunity at a time when the conditions seem so ripe for peace.

It wasn’t long ago when Bibi would whine that Israel couldn’t reasonably be asked to make peace with the Palestinians because they were so divided, and a treaty with one Palestinian faction couldn’t guarantee peace with the others. Now, Bibi says he can’t make peace with the Palestinians because they are unified and have included in their coalition the hated Hamas, a terrorist organization. It’s a message that says to those Palestinians who truly want peace that “you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” And it makes Bibi look like a guy who really doesn’t want a two-state solution after all. By contrast, the Palestinians need only sit back and watch Israel make fools of itself. Even those Palestinians who don’t support a two state solution aren’t required to show their cards – Israel is more than happy to fold its own hand first.

The greatest shame of all this is that we are living in what should be an unusually opportune time to rekindle peace talks. The sands of change have engulfed the Middle East, and the Arab Street is poised to bring to Palestine what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Israel, which has had the upper hand militarily, is losing some of its key allies in the region, and it can already see the potential for less security if it maintains the status quo. Moreover, the Israeli leadership cannot help but notice the lessons from their friend Mubarak: he who waits to make a bold progressive move might soon find that he has lost his chance. In addition, Israel can hardly expect a better Palestinian leader than Abbas, who at the moment is still in power. So why not give it a try?
It’s a real head shaker. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that someone cast a spell on this region. Both sides say they want to end this interminable war, and both sides would appear better off if they did so. Yet somehow, it endures. And as it endures, observers have to wonder whether the critical mass of those who lead these two peoples truly want peace after all.

We’ve all grown accustomed to seeing the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships blow their opportunities for peace. What’s especially frustrating, however, is that we in America had once thought that we had elected a President who could bring these two peoples to the table, whereas he obviously has no clue how to make that happen. It’s the area in which I thought Barack was poised to be most successful, and ironically, it may be the area in which he has failed the most.

Maybe black magic is the only explanation for the failure of this peace process. It seemed apt in the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s … why shouldn’t it apply today?

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Back in the mid-60s, when I was starting grade school, I loved two spectator sports: football and baseball. Football appealed to me most viscerally, but baseball was what best allowed me to connect with my dad. He was a Brooklyn boy, born in 1912, who would talk with glee about how he regularly snuck into Ebbet’s Field through a hole in the fence and watched the “Bums” for free. And when his Dodgers were eliminated from contention, my dad would root for that other team from his city that played in that other league. You might know them as the Yankees. He met many great athletes in his life, including Muhammad Ali and Wilt Chamberlain, but none awed him as much as Babe Ruth. Even though his favorite team was the Dodgers, my dad would never speak of a Dodger with half of the veneration that he showed for the Babe. The only athlete who was even close to the Babe in my father’s pantheon was the boxer, Jack Dempsey. And look at what Dempsey had to do to demonstrate his machismo: get punched in the face. Ruth’s sport was more genteel. He didn’t have to hit anyone, and he didn’t have to take their punishment either. All he needed to do was take out his aggression on some baseballs, and voila – his name would become synonymous with superhuman strength and power (e.g., “Ruthian”).

When I think of the home run, I think of monikers like “Bomb,” “Missile,” “Moon Shot,” and my favorite, the “Homeric Hoist.” Make no mistake, to boys of my father’s generation, Babe Ruth was a Homeric character. He was larger than life. Yet what was especially cool about him wasn’t that he excelled at being a man in a man’s world, but that he excelled at being a boy in a man’s world. He played a kid’s game, wore a silly little uniform in doing so, and when it was time for him to stop playing, it was time to start partying. Still, millions of people looked up to him more than to any doctor, lawyer or politician. In fact, part of the Babe’s legend includes his response when challenged, in 1930, about having a higher salary than President Hoover. “Why not?” he responded. “I had a better year than he did.” No doubt, he did.

Anyway, I’ve started this blog post by talking about my father and his own hero for two reasons. First, because for me, when the subject comes up of heroes in my lifetime, there are two categories of people: my dad, and then … way down the list … everyone else. And second, because when I came home one night this week and turned on the TV to hear people talk about the old baseball legend who died, my daughter Rebecca immediately started asking me questions about my dad. She saw the old, old photos of this player, and remembered something about his name, and just assumed that he was one of my dad’s favorite players. No, I said to her, he wasn’t my dad’s favorite player. He was mine.

Harmon Killebrew died this past Tuesday. He had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December, and that is not a foe that is easily felled, even by a man commonly known as “Killer.” Those who have been reading about Killebrew this week have heard plenty about the irony of that name. Outside the lines of the playing field, Killebrew had none of the aggression that characterizes so many other great athletes, let alone home run specialists. From everything I can tell, his defining characteristics were the same as my dad’s: humility, modesty and kindness. It was one thing to pull off that trifecta as a Labor Department economist, but unlike Julius Spiro, Killebrew pulled them off despite being the most intimidating player in the history of my beloved Minnesota Twins.

Killebrew, unlike some other famous sluggers, is not known for hard drinking, smoking or womanizing. Nor could he relate to that other pastime of power hitters: injecting oneself with performance enhancing drugs. When he was once asked what he did for fun, “Killer” answered, “doing the dishes, I guess.” Supposedly, he also liked to vacuum.

Killebrew was a neat freak. But that is not to say he was a Beau Brummell. The Killer didn’t have the necessary narcissism to take on that persona. He was just a country boy, from the small town of Payette, Idaho, who never cared to direct attention to himself. Among the legends of the game, he was notable for his lack of the quotable. He did all his talking with his bat.

So how good a ballplayer was Harmon Killebrew? Apparently, not good enough to make the Hall of Fame in any of his first three years of eligibility. Decades later, I still remember those snubs quite vividly. They absolutely enraged me. But the fact that it took Killebrew four tries to make the Hall says less about his talent as a player than it does about the fact that he played for a small market team and did so with a minimum of self-aggrandizement. Reggie Jackson, his polar opposite when it comes to hogging the microphone in support of his own excellence, was at least able to recognize such excellence in another. When asked about Killebrew, Jackson said, "If Harmon Killebrew isn't the league's best player, I've never seen one. He's one of the greatest of all time.”

Killebrew entered the Hall with some serious numbers. He was then fifth all time in home runs. But of the players who hit more, only one had a higher ratio of home runs/at bats: you guessed it, Babe Ruth. Killebrew retired in third place in baseball history in that statistic, next to Ruth and Ralph Kiner (and Killebrew was ahead of Kiner for most of his career). That means that there were only two players in the history of the game that were more likely to hit a home run when they came to the plate than Harmon Killebrew. And given that fact, it’s no wonder that if he wasn’t hitting a home run, there was a really good chance that he was taking a walk to first base. You see, people didn’t want to pitch to him. They would just as soon walk him and take their chances with someone else.

So how good a ballplayer was Harmon Killebrew? I think the better question is, so how good a role model was Harmon Killebrew – and I don’t just mean for kids like me who watched him belt line drives out of the ball park in record time or crush towering fly balls that seemed to never land. I’m talking about his service as a role model for the current crop of Twins, the ones he helped mentor. Given that Killebrew has been a fixture in the Twins clubhouse and a true friend to their players, it is no wonder that this team has become known for playing fundamental, error-free baseball without the flash or the steroids that have come to characterize modern baseball. Yes, the Twins stink this year, but this “small market franchise” has won its division six of the last nine years – and the players will say that Killebrew has had a hand in that accomplishment.

Killebrew was not only loved by his fellow ballplayers but also by the guys who called balls and strikes. Check out this quotation from a book written by Major League Baseball umpire Ron Luciano, “The Killer was one of the most feared sluggers in baseball history, but he was also one of the nicest people ever to play the game. He was one of the few players who would go out of his way to compliment umpires on a good job, even if their calls went against him. I'd call a tough strike on him and he would turn around and say approvingly, "Good call." And he was the same way in the field. And he never did this to get help on close plays, as some players do. The man hit 573 major league home runs and no umpire ever swung a bat for him.”

I have my own little Harmon Killebrew story to tell. It happened back in the spring of 1987. I went to Spring Training to watch my Twins back when they played in Orlando, Florida. Little did I know that later that year, the team would go on to win its first World Series title. At the airport, as I was about to leave to fly back home to Washington, I saw a man who looked just like Harmon Killebrew. As luck would have it, I happened to have a baseball with me. So I walked up to him, baseball in hand, and said “Are you Harmon Killebrew?” He responded, “What’s left of him.” Perhaps instinctively, I realized that when you’re around a guy like my dad or my favorite ball player, the last thing such a man wants you to do is make a big deal about them. So I decided to ask a question about another childhood hero: “Can I ask whether you think Tony Oliva will ever make the Hall of Fame.” “No,” he replied. “He didn’t play enough years before he got injured.” (Note the lack of a guileful response. Like you’d expect from an Idaho country boy, Killebrew was straight-forward when he spoke.)

That was pretty much our entire conversation – that, and my asking him to autograph my baseball. Of course, he smiled and signed it. And I couldn’t help but think back to a few years earlier when I was at another airport and was watching a football game a few feet away from another Minnesota sports legend, the Hall of Famer who coached the Vikings, Bud Grant. At one point, a little kid walked up to Grant and asked for his autograph. And wouldn’t you know it, Grant declined. I can’t imagine Killebrew ever declining any request for any favor that he could easily grant.

Returning to the present, I have spent part of this weekend reading reports from Killebrew’s funeral. And the more I think about his passing, the sadder I feel. The tragedy here isn’t just how his family, friends and fans are being deprived of such a great guy, or that he personally cannot enjoy another couple of decades on this earth. No, the tragedy is that celebrities like Harmon Killebrew have gone the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird. Today, if you’re a “superstar” with a naturally humble and modest demeanor, you might not want to get on TV and talk about your own excellence, but you’re still not going to shy away from a shot at advertising shampoo or underwear. Somehow, though, I can’t see Killebrew doing an underwear commercial. I doubt it would be consistent with his “antiquated” principles. (And yes, if there are any bigots who are reading this blog post, Killebrew is a convert to Mormonism. If you have any issue with that, that’s your problem, not his.)

So, before I sign off, allow me to leave you with Harmon Killebrew’s own words. They were repeated at his funeral by his son-in-law, Craig Bair:

''Harmon's philosophy was so simple and very clear and he wanted to make it clear to us,'' Bair said. ''It goes like this. 'Always give more than you take. Always maintain an even calmness that you might calm others. Truly know that you are loved beyond measure and go out and share that love. Find a place of peace with your partner. Experience daily the love of your family. Enjoy your friends. Know your neighbors and especially go out of your way to do the same to the people new in your life.'''

Harmon Killebrew was 74.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


It has been nearly four years since I devoted a blog post primarily to the concept of loyalty. The last time, I wrote about what happens when loyalty is taken too far and begins to swallow up our ability to think and act rationally. We’ve all known people, particularly in high school, who give up their individuality and sometimes a bit of their futures because they are loyal to a misguided group of friends. We also know of people, particularly politicians, who seem to give up the quality of their judgment because they are loyal to an ideology. It is one thing to be principled; that’s all good. But to be deeply ideological without some measure of pragmatism is to become an enemy of common sense, and that is virtually never a good thing.

This time around, I’m in no mood to take on the concept of loyalty. In fact, I’m beginning to think it could tragically become a dying virtue, at least in the most secular subcultures of America and Europe. The more of us who give up our old religious ties, move away from our families, and take root in new cities simply because they offer better career opportunities, the more our values will be centered purely on our own idiosyncratic joys and comforts. Is there a place in that mentality for loyalty? I wonder. It sounds so five minutes ago – or so five centuries ago, to be more specific.

I have loyalty in mind this week for three reasons. First, because I’ve had conversations with young adult friends who are bemoaning the loss of this virtue among their peers and who themselves reflect some of the same manifestations of a post-loyal mentality. If you don’t feel “commanded” by God or at least some transcendent source of morality to stand by your spouse, your faith, or your country, and if your peers similarly reflect a morally relativist ethic, where is the source of loyalty supposed to come from? You can’t count on others, so why should you put yourself out for them? Why not just go from project to project, job to job, friend to friend – and stay loyal only to those old buddies who ask little of you other than the willingness to have a hell of a good time whenever you get together? Personally, I find this approach to life to be mired in meaninglessness. But it also seems to be the wave of the future, at least in cities like my own.

The second and third reason why loyalty is on my mind this week comes from the world of celebrities. One of these celebrities is the basketball player formerly known as “King James.” You don’t hear that moniker used anymore for LeBron James. It went out the window last summer after he announced that he was leaving northeast Ohio for South Beach to win himself some championships with the help of two other superstars. LeBron is all over the sports pages this week because his team recently defeated the Boston Celtics and is now probably the slight favorite to win the Championship. If that happens, his Miami Heat will be the least popular champion in recent memory.

LeBron grew up in Akron, only a bike ride away from Cleveland, the city that drafted him into the NBA several years back. He took the Cavaliers to the NBA finals and to the best regular season record in the NBA, but he couldn’t take them to the NBA Title, and he clearly was reflecting on whether he had the supporting cast up there to reach the Promised Land. Last summer, LeBron became a free agent, and in an effort to bring him to their own cities, a number of teams paid tribute to him like he truly was the King. Loyalty would suggest that he listen to their offers, tell the owner of his hometown Cavs to bring in some other superstar athletes “or else …” and then presumably re-sign with a Cavaliers team that has been stuffed to the brim with talent. It is certainly hard to believe that the Cavs owner wouldn’t have done whatever was in his power to make that happen. In any event, being a modern fellow, LeBron eschewed the path of loyalty and left Ohio for a more temperate climate. He became, in short order, the most hated athlete in America today.

Frankly, I’m not sure that basketball fans would have denied him the right to bolt for Miami if he played his cards properly. It has become an accepted reality in sports that free agent athletes move on -- and do so for all sorts of reason. If LeBron had held a press conference, humbly apologized to his home town fans, and said simply that he has spent all his life in Northeast Ohio and wanted an opportunity in his mid-20s to live in a different place and play for a team that presents a whole new set of challenges, I don’t think anyone would have begrudged him that. Sure, he might get some boos from the Cleveland faithful when he went back home to play, but to everyone outside of Cleveland, he’d be treated like any other ballplayer in a free agent era. Only a slave doesn’t have a right to move to a different city and get a new start there.

LeBron’s problem was not his decision to go to Miami. It was the unbelievably insensitive and narcissistic way that he announced the decision … and then subsequently celebrated the announcement. It began with an hour long ESPN show, in which he essentially held himself out as more valuable than the Hope Diamond. In the solipsistic world of LeBron, it was as if all the universe was waiting to hear which planet the good Lord would endow with intelligent life … only in this case, LeBron played the role of the good Lord, and Miami played the role of our beloved Earth. He manifested no apparent concern for the city and fans of northeast Ohio. It’s as if a man left a fiancĂ©e without even leaving a goodbye letter. In fact, it came across more as a goodbye middle finger when LeBron showed up in Miami, stood on the stage with the two other superstars he would be joining, and strutted about like Gulliver in Lilliputia. Strike that – it wasn’t Miami that LeBron was treating like Lilliputia, but Cleveland. Truly, that was LeBron’s message to the folks back home: he enjoyed his time in Lilliputia, but he and his superstar buddies needed to get on with their lives. If ever you needed to see what disloyalty tasted like, this was it.

Fast forward to this past week, and you will have heard LeBron, for the first time, utter the words “I apologize” in reference to “the decision.” Clearly, he wasn’t apologizing for choosing the Heat but for the way he did it. To be sure, his apology lasted perhaps ten seconds, if not less, but you could feel that LeBron may now actually recognize what he had done. It’s one thing to be disloyal. It’s another to pee all over the concept of loyalty. Even in the modern world, that concept still means something.

Which brings me to yet another celebrity, the one and only Newt Gingrich.

Readers of this blog realize that I devote very little time to lambasting prominent Republicans. I leave that to the more moderate Republicans to clean up their own Party. My concern is primarily with fellow Democrats who don’t seem to live up to my own Party’s standards, at least as I would define them.

When it comes to Newt, however, I find it irresistible to point out the extent of his chutzpah. Here’s a serial philanderer who was attempting to remove a President from office for … philandering. He famously came to his first wife’s hospital room after she was recovering from surgery in an attempt to procure her consent to a divorce. Then, he reportedly left his second wife … for his third. And yet, he never stopped talking about his commitment to “Judeo-Christian” ethics. Newt is a man who has treated women like tomatoes in a grocery store and treated the Bible like a joke book. And now, despite all that, he is seeking the opportunity to serve as the world’s most powerful person. Is anyone crazy enough to take this guy seriously?

A day or two after Newt announced his candidacy for President, Peggy Noonan, the old Reagan speech writer, appeared on Morning Joe. Unlike Newt, Noonan apparently knows her Biblical commandments. And like a good disciple of the Gipper, Noonan honors what Reagan termed the 11th Commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Criticize Thy Fellow Republican.” So when Noonan was asked to comment on Newt’s candidacy, she waxed eloquent about how America just might be able to get past its obsession with politicians’ private lives and elect people who have the most to offer in their public capacities.

Excuse me? Does anyone think that Newt’s character is being attacked because of his private life? All I know is that if you look up “hypocrisy” in the dictionary, you’ll see Newt’s picture, and if you look up “salamander” in the dictionary, you see a newt’s picture … and gradually, these two pictures and these two words begin to blend together. At least they do for me. The insane thing is that Newt apparently doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand that he has been disloyal in two very different ways – first, to his multiple ex-wives, and more importantly, to his moral obligation to practice what he preaches … if he wants to represent the United States of America as its President.

Noonan is correct that we as a nation indeed may be able to handle a philandering President – particularly given how many of us are growing tolerant with philandering. What we can’t handle is an anti-philandering crusader who is also a philanderer. We expect those among us who are disloyal like us to be humble and quiet about their disloyalties. That’s why we dislike LeBron – he forgot that loyalty was even an issue any more.

Oh, it’s an issue. And the more that we as a society forget about it, the more we surely will realize that we are giving up something quite profound in our ongoing pursuit of absolute autonomy. Personally, I think of loyalty much like the other classical virtues that Aristotle discussed so powerfully in his Ethics. Like courage and temperance, we think of loyalty as a virtue because generally, we would like to see more of it than we do. But like the other virtues, it is possible to have too much of it. With too much courage, you get foolhardiness. With too much temperance, you get asceticism. With too much loyalty, you get stubbornness, closed-mindedness, and antiquated thought. But at least you don’t get moral relativism. Or absolute narcissism. Trust me – they are no bargain either.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


I will always associate the death of Bin Laden with the very special day on which it occurred: Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Earlier that afternoon, I gave a talk at an interfaith gathering in which dozens of Jews, Christians and Muslims were assembled to remember the lessons that the Holocaust can teach all of humanity. I was honored to serve as the event’s keynote speaker and to share with the group (and with a Voice of America reporter) a story about my prized possession: a book I inherited from my grandmother and which I would gaze at in horror when visiting her apartment as a child. The book’s title is “The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror,” and what is most amazing about it is that it was published in New York in 1933, the same year the Nazis came to power.

The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror tells us much of what we need to know about why the Jewish people require a state of their own. It was fool’s gold for Jews to feel at home in a place like Weimar Germany, where by all accounts they were very successful and assimilated … until the election of 1932. Nor ought they feel permanently secure in the good old US of A, where they comprise all of 2% of the population. It was here in America where our relatively progressive President, Franklin Roosevelt, was asked to accept a boat of Jews that were fleeing the Nazis six years after my Brown Book was published in New York. So what did Roosevelt do? Sent the asylum seekers back to Europe, where most would ultimate die at the hands of the Nazis.

Clearly, if history tells us one thing it is that Jews cannot count on being protected when they comprise but a small minority of the population. Of course, that is not to say they’re secure when they’re in the majority either. But modern history offers only a few decades to prove that point, whereas it offers many centuries to prove the other.

In speaking to an interfaith audience, I discussed how one of the Holocaust’s chief lessons was that we all need to be Zionists, even those of us who are Arab. But I spoke too about the flip side of that lesson: that we all need to be Palestinian Nationalists as well. We must care about our cousins, the innocent residents of the West Bank who are inconvenienced for hours every day as they move in and out of check points simply to earn a living, or the innocent residents of Gaza, who have had to resort to black markets simply to get some of the foodstuffs that the rest of us take for granted. They understandably seek the same autonomy we Jews praise every year during Passover. Why is it that autonomy our birthright, and not theirs?

Just as we Jews praise the “Righteous Gentiles” among the Germans who helped our ancestors survive the Holocaust, I argued, so must we become “Righteous Jews” and take on the cause of Palestinian autonomy. “Two states for two peoples.” That is the key goal – that and fostering an understanding that these are not merely two peoples but two sets of first cousins. Until we realize that the Israelis and the Palestinians are close relatives, I contended, true peace will always elude us.

After a few of us spoke, the gathering broke into small groups. In my group, people started wondering aloud about whether the God-awful persecution we saw in Nazi Germany could ever happen here in the United States. We easily could have focused on the past and dwelled on the experiences of the Native Americans, African Americans and Japanese Americans. But instead, the group turned towards the immediate future, and started talking about our nation’s issues with Islamophobia. And that’s when it hit me: the Islamophobia in this country could have been a Hell of a lot more institutionalized, widespread, and devastating had it not been for the fact that a few days after 9/11, President George W. Bush came out in support of the Islamic faith. So I pointed that out -- and to my pleasant surprise, the other folks in the group agreed – that all of us who are friends of Islam have Bush to thank for his post 9/11 statements.

Some may take for granted that Bush would say the kind words he had to say about the religion of Islam shortly after 9/11. Truly, though, he didn’t have to say them. He could easily have played the demagogue and spoken about how the root cause of what blew up the Towers wasn’t Al Qaeda per se but the inherently violent and pre-modern nature of Islam itself. Immediately, Bush could have found an amen chorus on Fox News and on Talk Radio. Who knows? He might have found majority support for that position throughout most of the country. Yet he didn’t go there. Instead, he made such statements as the following, which comes from his address to Congress on 9/20/01: “The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics, a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.” He took the high road, and we all have to thank him for it.

I was thinking about that a bit when I woke up the morning after Holocaust Remembrance Day, turned on my computer, and read for the first time about the death of Bin Laden. My first reaction was joy -- not exuberance, but a more restrained sense of contentment. My next reaction, especially after listening to some of the details of how the raid was planned and went down, was to feel appreciation for our President and the heroic Navy Seals who carried out the mission. I wondered whether the Republicans who have been relentlessly criticizing Obama, just like most of us Democrats would skewer Bush over the years, would see it in their hearts to express appreciation for a job well done. Surely, I thought, no one could deny that Obama handled this situation extremely deftly; he could easily have shared our intelligence with our “Pakistani allies,” and, as a result, allowed someone in that Government to tip off Bin Laden in advance of the raid. Isn’t that the way a progressive President who decries unilateral military action would stereotypically be expected to function? Thank God President Obama didn’t take that path. Hopefully, over the next several weeks, more and more of our President’s critics will grudgingly express their appreciation not only for the fact that he was able successfully to oversee this raid, but also for the classy way in which he has carried out its aftermath. This has truly been the high point of his Presidency to date, and I don’t offer that as faint praise.

During the past week, I have watched closely the reaction to the raid both on the right and the left. I have seen the scenes of Americans celebrating in the streets as if their team had just won the Super Bowl. And I have heard friends and celebrities whose politics are well to the left not only criticize the “crass” public celebrations of a man’s death, but also chastize the Administration for failing to take Bin Laden alive and try him in an American federal district court.

Personally, though, I don’t see the point of all that criticism.

There’s another benefit, you see, in having Bin Laden die on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It should serve as a reminder that some people aren’t fully human. They’re also monsters. And by virtue of their occupation (killing lots and lots and lots and lots of innocent people for the sake of some twisted ego boost), they give up the right to life. Had someone taken Hitler out in the 20s or early 30s, s/he would have done the world an immense service. And if I could go back in time and do that deed, I wouldn’t second guess a single one of you for taking to the streets and celebrating. (Feel free to find a ton of relatives who miraculously were brought back to life and celebrate with them.)

To be sure, because Hitler was part human, and because he who takes a human life is like one who kills an entire world (a statement that can be found both in the Talmud and the Qu’ran), I don’t think I personally would be out in the streets partying even for the premature death of Hitler. For me, killing is killing – it is never a legitimate cause for out-and-out exuberance. But if you’re talking about the death of an honest-to-God monster, a murderer of thousands or millions of innocent lives, my stand against celebrating death is purely a matter of style. After all, we do not owe a monster like that any sympathy.

Let me put it another way. No, I wouldn’t want my daughters publicly celebrating the death of a Hitler or a Bin Laden. But then again, I wouldn’t want them eating animal flesh either (like a hamburger at McDonalds). And if you were to ask me which is the greater wrong, eating animal flesh or celebrating the death of a monster, I’d take eating the hamburger every time. You see, I have inordinately more sympathy for the death of any cow I see off the interstate than I have for Adolph Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. And if in taking that position, I part ways with the venerable rabbis of the past who teach that all people are somewhat sacred because we come from God, my response is that such a statement applies as well to the cows, chicken and fish that are slaughtered in kosher butcheries all over the world. And I have yet to hear about a cow, chicken or fish who not only was responsible for the killing of several thousand people but was also plotting for new and different ways to kill many thousands more.

Moreover, for all of you who are deeply sorry that we have been deprived of watching “Bin Laden in New York” as America’s sequel to “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” get over it. There is no way that monster could have received a fair trial in the United States. There is no way that any trial of that monster could have occurred without a cost to the public of millions of dollars (money that is surely better spent elsewhere). And there are numerous ways in which such a trial and the publicity it engendered could have resulted in an enormous amount of additional killing. Martyrdom can be quite a motivator, and the longer that trial, the more of a martyr he would have become to his followers.

To be sure, like most Americans, I believe deeply in a criminal’s right to a trial by jury. But Bin Laden is not just another criminal. To me, he is no different than an enemy soldier who is perpetually firing bullets at us. His entire existence is a singular act of war. No, he wasn’t strictly speaking firing bullets when he was captured, but he apparently was perpetually generating ideas as to how to kill as many innocent Americans as possible. He would have done that as long as he lived – in captivity or outside of it. And the idea that it is our sacred obligation to extend that wretched, dangerous life is truly political correctness run amuck.

(I continue to decry capital punishment. But like Emerson pointed out, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.)

So yes, I had to roll the ol’ eyes a bit at the reaction on the left to the way that Bin Laden was executed without a trial and to the way his death was greeted with public euphoria here in America. But what more than just annoyed me was the despicable statements that were released this week among certain representatives of the Palestinian people. First, Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister of the Hamas Government that controls Gaza, was reported by Reuters to have said the following to reporters: “We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior. … We regard this as a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood."

Then, a statement was released that was widely attributed to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the so-called “military wing” of the Fatah, which represents the more moderate of the Palestinian parties. That statement was reported by the Atlantic magazine to have included the following: “The Islamic nation awoke to a catastrophe the reports of the Shahid - (Martyr-) death of the Sheikh, Jihad-fighter Osama bin Laden, in a treacherous manner, by the gangs of the heretics and those who stray. The path irrigated with the blood of its leaders is the path of victory, Allah willing. If Abu Abdallah [Bin Laden] was killed, then he merited the Shahada (Death for Allah) which he had sought, and inscribed with his blood the landmarks of Jihad, leaving behind an entire generation that follows the path of Sheikh Osama.”

The next day, another statement was issued by Al-Aqsa indicating that the group does not endorse that statement and, in fact, takes no public position about the death of Osama Bin Laden since it bears no relationship to Palestine. Tell me, though, what does it say about the lack of readiness for peace among the Palestinians that one of its most prominent groups is publicly praising Bin Laden as a holy warrior and another is afraid to take any public position as at all? I am a tireless advocate for peace between these two peoples, but even I have to take note of what this says about the Palestinians’ readiness for peace. Put another way, if they CAN make peace with Bin Laden perhaps they CANNOT make peace with Israel … at least not yet.

Someone needs to give the Hamas and Al-Aqsa Martryrs’ Brigades a few copies of the Brown Book of the Hitler Terror. There surely aren’t many copies of that book around, and I count myself fortunate to have one. It will always remind me to work for peace. And it will always remind me to mourn the victims of war and injustice. Osama Bin Laden is neither.

Sunday, May 01, 2011


From a time commitment standpoint, my day job has been brutal this week – so brutal, in fact, that when it was announced that Hamas and Fatah were reconciling, I didn’t read about it in the newspapers or on the Internet, but instead learned about it the following day while eating dinner with some friends. The question was asked of me this way: “Are you upset about that Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal?” After I looked back in disbelief, my friend clarified his assumption that, as a Zionist, I would presumably be very disturbed by the prospect of Hamas being incorporated into the Palestinian political process. Au contraire – as a Zionist, I actually see this development as a positive one.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Hamas. Only a self-hating Jew would go that far. But I do have a long memory. And one of the things I recall is how many times I’ve asked a fellow Zionist to join the peace movement only to be told that it is pointless to try to make peace with the Palestinians if they cannot even make peace with each other. Frankly, there was some logic behind such a position, however flimsy. After all, what good would it do to watch Israel and the Fatah enter into a peace agreement, only to watch the jilted Hamas destabilize the area by perpetrating one terrorist attack after another?

I have for years pined for peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors but have never for a moment thought that entering into such agreements is a sufficient condition for peace. True peace requires the adversaries to recognize not only the value of a short-term truce or a formal exchange of property, but the acceptance of the other’s legitimate long-term autonomy over disputed land. How, may I ask, can Israel ever achieve such peace as long as it completely pushes aside from the discussions a group like Hamas, which was elected to represent the interests of the Gazan people and no doubt enjoys more than a modicum of support in the West Bank (and perhaps even among Israeli-Arabs)?

So far, the policy of the Israeli Government is to de-legitimize Hamas in every way possible. From the Israeli standpoint, Hamas and its supporters are little different than dehumanized cancer cells – and surely, what is the point of attempting to talk, let alone to negotiate, with cancer cells? In support of this attitude, Israel can point to Hamas’ embrace of terrorism against Jews, unabashed desire to drive the Jews from control over even a fraction of the disputed region, and ruthless treatment of any Arab who is seen as being pro-Israel. And I will fully grant that if you’re a Zionist like me and you’re looking to find fault with Hamas, you don’t have to look very far. These people have behaved, purely and simply, as the enemies of the Jewish people.

But here’s the point: when my Jewish ancestors settled in Palestine and aimed to build ourselves a large enough state to accommodate many millions of Jewish residents, they had to know they would encounter opposition. And within that opposition, it was inevitable that some sub-groups would be more militant than others. Isn’t it a good thing that those two sets of sub-groups are now reconciling? And isn’t it a possible outcome of such reconciliation that the moderate sub-groups will grow in strength and bring the more militant elements closer to the fold? Why must we always assume the worst – in this case, that Hamas will somehow bully Fatah into embracing terrorism, rather than that Fatah will persuade Hamas that a two-state solution is in the best interests of the Palestinian people?

If my previous blog post sounded a bit Pollyannaish, let me reassure you that I am not Pollyannaish when it comes to Hamas. Still, as I’ve indicated, that organization speaks for a significant portion of the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza, and if there is to be peace, that portion must somehow be placated. Israel certainly isn’t capable of doing it. My hope is that, over time, the Fatah and its supporters can accomplish that task. I don’t see it happening overnight, but if we are to have peace in the Holy Land, it needs to happen. Lord knows that Israel can’t justify simply pretending that Gaza doesn’t exist, and hoping that if they make peace with the Fatah and the West Bank, all their problems with the Palestinians will go away.

This war between the Jews and Palestinians has dragged on for many decades. If it is to end, it will be because a unified government of the Jews enters into an agreement with a unified government of the Palestinians – not because one warring side thought it could divide and conquer the other. So please, raise a glass that the Palestinians are reconciling. It may be fraught with problems in the short run, but in the long run, it is a critical part of the evolutionary process … the end of which will be two peaceful states for two peaceful peoples.