Sunday, September 25, 2011


This is the weekend of my 23rd wedding anniversary, and I’m appalled. I didn’t get a single anniversary present from a Presidential candidate. Not even from Obama, and he’s got a whole mansion full of people who could have sent me a gift.

This may not seem odd to you, if you’re a gentile, but I’m a Jew. This is supposed to be our year. A year where our votes are finally up for grabs between the two parties. A year where the Republicans can come into the Brooklyn/Queens Congressional district with the heaviest concentration of Jews in America and kick some Democratic butt. A year where Jews all over the world are worried about the Mother Ship – the Arab Street seems to be getting more militant, and the strongmen who have kept them down are becoming impotent. A year where politicians from both parties are feeling pressured to announce themselves as the truest friend of Israel – more stalwart than Thou in their support.

So. Where’s my friggen anniversary present? Or at least a card? Can’t a Son of David get some soivice in this establishment?

Undeniably, both parties have been pandering even more than usual to the Jewish vote, but from where I’m sitting, they’re doing it so poorly that it makes you wonder whether they’re being advised by a bunch of gentiles and Jewish impersonators. Take Rick Perry, for example. He called Obama an appeaser for the way Obama lectures Israel and gives the Palestinians free rein. So far, so good. But then Perry suggests that the U.S. might want to consider cutting funding for the Palestinians as punishment for their decision to seek statehood recognition from the U.N. rather than through peace talks with Israel. Is he serious? Cutting funding?

I realize that Mr. Perry has about as much foreign policy experience as the mountain men from Deliverance, but why in the name of Zion would we want to destroy the Palestinian economy? Do we think that if the people of Gaza and the West Bank were appreciably poorer, they would be less militant and more friendly to their so-called “occupiers”? Do we think that poverty would help them decry violence and embrace the Jewish historical claim to a portion of Palestine?

According to a recent poll, one third of Palestinians still support violent resistance toward Israel. Does Perry truly think that if America ushered in an era of greater poverty in Palestine, that portion would go down?

As for Obama, I understand that his speech at the U.N. was supposed to be his boffo attempt to make things right with the Jewish people. Clearly, he recognized that as President, he hadn’t attained the perfect pandering pitch that he had as a candidate in ’08 – when he went into an AIPAC meeting and toasted the idea of an undivided Jerusalem. I get his motivation to remind us that he appreciates why there is a country called Israel. But does that justify why he didn’t mention the Settlements once in his speech? Not once?

After all, for the past three years, it seems that Obama’s entire Israel/Palestine policy was centered around rolling back the Settlements. And now, radio silence. That just seems schizophrenic. President Obama (as opposed to “Candidate” Obama) was right that Israel does need to roll back the Settlements, and he needs to continue drumming in that point. The problem was not in enunciating that policy. It was in refusing to ask ANYTHING from the Palestinians other than the cessation of violence, thereby putting Israel on the defensive that the Palestinians were doing their part for peace so why wasn’t Israel?

And why can’t Obama ask anything of the Palestinians? Even in his United Nations address, he still wouldn’t bring himself to utter the words: “Palestinians need to recognize Israel as a Jewish State.” Why can’t he say that? And, more importantly, why don’t we hear that message from ANY prominent Palestinians?

Seriously, I do appreciate that Israel is becoming a hot topic again on the American political stage. I just wish that our pandering politicians would figure out what Israel needs and what Israel doesn’t need.

First and foremost, we don’t need an impoverished Palestine. We do need a Palestine with an increasingly affluent and well-educated population that is gradually developing the infrastructure of a state that could co-exist with Israel in peace and prosperity. If American funds are needed for that kind of progress, that’s money well spent.

We also don’t need a White House that is afraid to stand up to the right wing of Israel – the ones who pay lip service to supporting a “two-state” solution but are truly hell bent on expanding the size of the Settlements to the point where no Palestinian state could possibly be viable. But we do need a White House that starts making concrete demands to the Palestinian leadership, rather than treating them like a bunch of spoiled children.

This should be our message to the Palestinians: “Burn your anti-Semitic textbooks. And recognize Israel not merely as a ‘state, that has a right to exist,’ but as the ‘Jewish State.’ Then you’ll have the standing to whine about those God-forsaken settlements.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011


I feel like I’m on Sesame Street, because today, there only seems to be one word worth talking about. So let’s just say that this blog post is brought to you by the word “polarization.”

American society has been polarized to a large degree for some time. But there’s polarization, and then there’s POLARIZATION. Lately, we seem to have taken our respective forms of extremism to the next level.

I realize this is hardly a scoop, but it wasn’t until these past few weeks that I’ve seen just how bleak the situation has become. First, I left my community of primarily (though not exclusively) liberal Democrats in the Washington DC area to head out to the Midwest and took the opportunity on the drive home to listen to right-wing talk radio for hour after hour after hour. You’d think that the callers into these radio stations, not to mention the hosts, were from a different planet than the coastal liberals with whom I tend to associate. And if that wasn’t enough, I spoke to a group of pro-Israel women one day and then the next day participated in a meeting of a Middle East peace group. Again, if there is common ground between those two groups of people, I’m sure not finding any.

This type of polarization entails many things, none of them healthy: (1) we are tending to open our minds only to a single narrative and ignore the others, (2) dialogue across the ideological divide has become a rarity, because it is perceived as a waste of time, (3) rather than being intrigued by or interested in “the other,” we are antagonized and alienated from them, and (4) if someone does come along with a moderate viewpoint that tries to synthesize the best ideas on both sides of the spectrum, they are commonly viewed with disdain as a “phony” or an “enabler” by those who reside at the poles.

How’s this for a concrete manifestation of our polarized state -- we’re now more than a year before our next election, and the consensus is that we’re so deeply into election mode that we can’t hope to enact any meaningful legislation. (After all, such legislation would be something the Administration can tout, and the opposition party wouldn’t want that to happen.) I suppose that would be no big deal if the country was clearly heading in the right direction. But this is not exactly a time when we need Coolidge-like leadership from Washington. We have profound problems, and these problems can’t be solved by the private sector alone … yet they’ll have to be, because for all intents and purposes, our government is about to be engaged in a 14-month stalemate.

To the Republican/Democrat stalemate, I add the mess that is the Middle East peace process. Could that be any more moribund? The Palestinians’ UN ploy is an act of desperation. They know that recognition by the General Assembly of a state that they don’t fully control is merely symbolic and will serve largely to piss off Israel. But they weren’t getting anything by working with Israel – other than more and more of those God-forsaken settlements, which Israelis imperiously refer to as “facts on the ground.” So what’s their choice, right?

That, at least, is the perspective of my non-Zionistic friends in the peace movement. What they don’t realize is that from the perspective of my fellow Zionists, it completely misses the point: all the Palestinians have to do is recognize Israel as a Jewish State and stop teaching their children to hate that state, and they might indeed find a partner for peace. So why not agree to that? Israeli partisans keep asking that question and never seem to get an answer they can understand.

So yes, it might feel that things are so bad that they can’t get any worse. But keep in mind that the election season hasn’t truly heated up, and that’s when things are really going to get sad. Imagine the way Republicans are about to be portrayed by the Democrats: virulently anti-science, virulently anti-poor, unconcerned about the middle class … and let’s just add, for good measure, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, Enlightenment-phobic …. and pro-death. (You heard those Tea Partiers cheer for the death of people who are ill and lack health insurance.)

As for the Democrats, they’re about to be portrayed on those cute little talk radio stations I’ve been listening to as: virulently anti-economic theory, virulently anti-freedom, unconcerned about the abuses of bureaucracy … and let’s just add, for good measure, socialist, Godless, dishonest, un-American … and pro-death (or at least anti-fetus, which seems to some to be the most important form of human life).

The whole thing has become ridiculous, which is probably why the best choice for President is not Rick Perry or Barack Obama but rather Jon Stewart. He looks to be the most talented of the only group of people who can be invigorated by the status quo – the political comedians. He is positioned to give White House speeches that don’t sound either like warmed-over Jimmy Carter or red meat for John Birchers. Rather than beginning his term with soaring rhetoric, only to see that rhetoric devolve into dismissing as sanctimonious the very people who helped him get elected, Stewart can spend his entire Presidency telling, as he likes to put it, “fart jokes.” (Of course, as any fan of South Park can tell you, true fart jokes aren’t “told,” they are demonstrated.)

I would love it if after a long drive listening to Rush, Sean and Laura, and then after a few hours watching Ed, Keith or Rachel on TV, I could ready myself for a Presidential press conference late in the evening when the kids are asleep. Then, our Commander-in-Chief can regale us with bits about gender, sex, race, and yes, everyone’s favorite room in the house (the WC). Seriously, folks, does the political discourse today warrant anything else? If we’re not going to listen to or respect one other, if we’re not going to work together, shouldn’t we at least get as many laughs as possible at each other’s expense?

I still remember when Arnold the Terminator was first on the ballot for Governor of California and one of his opp0nents was Gary Coleman. A friend of mine – a highly intelligent, politically-savvy, but also fed-up professional woman – voted for Coleman, and it made me feel jealous, at least for a second. I so wanted to be able to vote for someone that funny for such an important position.

Well folks, if things keep deteriorating, we may all be dusting off our pens and writing in comedians in 2012. Tired of the two-party system? Too polarizing? Maybe we do need a third party. Let’s call it the Buffoon Party. It might not win too many elections, but at least its partisans can have a good time when they enter the ballot box instead of having to hold their noses like the rest of us.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


“A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death.”

“Peace is not the absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition of benevolence, confidence, justice.”

The above quotations both come from Spinoza. Because they each ring so true, they don’t seem at all contradictory. Yet on days like today, as I will explain shortly, a close read cannot help to reveal just how inconsistent they are.

9/11 has meant a lot of things to a lot of people. For many, it has provided the beginning of a lifelong hate-affair -- and not just with an organization (Al Qaeda) but with a religion of more than a billion people (Islam). For most of us, at least here in America, it has served as the second coming of Pearl Harbor – a call to arms. But perhaps the greatest role of 9/11 has been to supply what has become for those of us born after World War II the single most tragic event of our lifetimes. Sure, there were other events that consumed more lives, but they didn’t pack the same emotional punch as 9/11. Earthquakes and tsunamis make you weep about the present, but 9/11 makes you wonder if there is to be a future.

“We the people” used to be a phrase associated with a nation, a body politic. But now, thanks to 9/11, it refers to a species. And it hardly sounds irrational to ask whether that species will soon go the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo birds. If a few troglodytes could destroy two of our most majestic buildings, imagine what those same men could have done if they controlled the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan today or Iran tomorrow.

Osama Bin Laden didn’t quite survive a full ten years after the creation of his evil “masterpiece.” But the dream that inspired him is thriving. He wanted to destroy the United States as an empire, much as he helped destroy the Soviet Union. He wanted America to come rushing into central Asia and spend its blood and treasure on a fool’s errand – conquest and colonization of a land impregnable to modernization. And just look at the results. Unending wars abroad and unending greed domestically have left us with a stagnating economy that even huge deficit spending can’t seem to fix. What’s worse, Bin Laden’s successors may not watch the “United” States dissolve like the Soviet “Union,” yet there is no denying that America is splitting apart at the seams. The inequalities of wealth are getting increasingly stark. Political discourse is getting increasingly polarized and uncivil. And perhaps the only thing that unifies us is disdain for our leaders – Republicans or Democrats, they’re almost all viewed with cynicism and contempt. Yeah, I’d say that Bin Laden’s success as a catalyst of empire-destruction is hard to deny.

To the depressive, then, 9/11 is indeed a rich territory to mine. I could go on and on to describe how our species has been lessened as a result of that event in both obvious and subtle respects … but why bother? We all know a tragedy when we see one. And even though Hollywood will do its best to dramatize the heroism of 9/11, much like it has strived to soak all of the heroism possible out of the Holocaust (see, e.g., Schindler’s List), the devastating consequences of these events are exponentially more profound than their uplifting qualities.

But just because 9/11 is tragic, doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Quite the contrary -- it is precisely the tragedies of life that supply the greatest learning opportunities. Speaking for myself, 9/11 has spurred me to (a) become a peace activist, (b) write a book (Moses the Heretic) that is largely about peace, (c) become a student of Islam, and (d) co-found and coordinate the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington. There is absolutely no reason to believe that I would have done any of those things had Bin Laden’s butchers not hijacked those airplanes. And now, peace work has become among my life’s greatest passions.

So yes, 9/11 should move us to think and more importantly, to act. And like any far-reaching and momentous event, it can legitimately move people to act in widely different ways. I applaud those who, as a result of 9/11, are working to better detect and root out terrorism here and abroad. We should all be especially grateful to those who have joined the military as a result of 9/11 and who are risking their lives so that the rest of us may enjoy ours. But for me, as paradoxical as it may seem to some, 9/11 has served primarily as a spur to working for peace and dialogue, not as a call to arms. Instinctively, I must have recognized so much of the “hate-affair” that I mentioned earlier is really a result of ignorance – ignorance in the Muslim world about the West, and ignorance in the West about Islam. I assumed that the best way to minimize the number and impact of future 9/11s is to combat that ignorance with … if I may say it … empathic, rationalistic dialogue.

Spinoza was, of course, 100% correct, when he said that peace, at its roots, is not the absence of war but rather a certain pro-active disposition characterized by such faculties as benevolence, confidence and justice. As long as the majority of people believe that they are working for peace simply by refraining from making war, they will allow inter-group relationships to be dominated by the minorities among us who sow the seeds of discord. Only a pro-active effort to wage peace can combat and defeat the inevitable efforts to wage war.

Those words sound obvious, and yet it is shocking how few peacemakers exist among us – even the so-called “peace movement” is largely populated by passionate partisans whose view of peace would involve concessions by one side to a conflict and not the other. Why are true peacemakers so rare? It is a sad question to ask, but at least we have a pretty good idea of the answers. Consider, to begin, that it seems like such a Herculean task to bring an end to a widespread conflict. Just about any other cause imaginable offers more tangible and likely successes. Secondly, it is precisely because making peace is so difficult that it is so unbearable, when you consider that the word “peace” conjures up images of harmony, relaxation, and quiet enjoyment. The juxtaposition between peace as a euphoric ideal and working-for-peace as among the most frustrating activities imaginable is devastating when it comes to recruitment.

And yet, I still cannot bring myself to abandon this movement. For what is as holy as working for peace? And what is as rewarding as making genuine strides in the movement for peace? Today of all days, I cannot begin to offer an alternative.

As for the other Spinoza quotation at the beginning of this blog post – the admonition to think about death least of all things – I’m normally a huge fan of that statement. Surely, Spinoza correctly perceived how religions people who are enamored with speculation about the after-life so commonly seem to forget the importance of making a difference in the here and now. And just as surely, he was also reflecting on those individuals who are so fearful about their status after death that they lose their ability to embrace and enjoy their time on earth. Generally, I support anything and everything that can be said to get people to focus on the tasks before us and to view what comes next as simply part of the mystery that transcends human comprehension.

But today, I feel differently.

Today, those of us who are truly devoted to peace are compelled to think about death. We simply cannot avoid thinking about it even if we wanted to. How can we ignore the deaths of the thousands who went to work at the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, or who decided to take a flight across the country, only to expire at the hands of devout, yet depraved God-worshipers? And how can we ignore thinking about the hundreds of thousands who died in the wars that resulted from 9/11 – wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and any other conflicts in the Arab world that can legitimately be traced to the events of ten years ago? It is the job of the peacemaker to think about what a great obligation we have to honor the names and the lives of these individuals – not simply by weeping at their demise, but by striving to ensure that they did not die in vain.

I have already told you how my life and my conduct has changed as a result of 9/11. What about you? How has 9/11 affected you? What can you do to honor the dead? The same question can be asked of us when we think about other similar tragedies – American slavery, the Civil War, the Holocaust … or for that matter, the Black Plague. The memory of all of these events can serve as an inspiration. But there is no muse quite like a momentous world tragedy that occurs in one’s own lifetime. If that won’t get your blood flowing, perhaps you need a transfusion.

In short, we know of two kinds of motivating experiences in life – happy ones and learning ones. Let’s all take steps to ensure that 9/11 remains within the pantheon when it comes to the latter.

Friday, September 02, 2011


The Empathic Rationalist will fortunately not have a substantive post this weekend. I say “fortunately” because of the reason – it will be my privilege to drive my younger daughter to college in Minnesota. It’s the first time one of my girls has moved outside of the DC area, and I will miss her terribly, but I’m thrilled for her to get the chance to study at one of America’s great liberal arts colleges (Carleton) and watch her favorite sports teams (Vikings and Twins).

If on Wednesday morning, you happen to be on the roadways of the Upper Midwest and see a car with Maryland license plates that say “SPINOZA,” you might get the pleasure of watching a grown man cry. It’s hard to let that little bird fly away from the nest – particularly when you know that your nest will now be “empty.” But in a few weeks, my wife and I will be celebrating 23 wonderful years together, and while it will be the first year that we won’t have a daughter living at home, at least we can be thankful that we have each other. May you all be as fortunate as I have been in finding a partner for life.