Sunday, August 26, 2012


I don’t know about you, but I like to listen to right-wing talk radio. To be sure, my boycott of Rush continues, but I will listen to Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and any of their other fellow travelers not named Limbaugh. These days, none of the people I interact with much in my personal life is a Republican, so right-wing radio is the only chance I get to hear how the “other half” thinks. Well yes, I could watch Fox News, but that would be cruel and unusual. Somehow, hearing social-Darwinism attributed to Jesus Christ is more easily swallowed when you don’t actually have to visualize the mouthpiece. The radio is the perfect vehicle for when your right-wing friends have all moved away, like mine have.

Late in the week, when I turned to Levin’s program, I was hoping to hear the Sultan of Shrill wax eloquent on the subject of abortion. After all, it had been the topic du jour ever since Congressman Todd Akin uttered the following immortal words about rape-induced pregnancies: “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.” Surely, I thought, Levin would toe the right-wing party line: that Akin stupidly misspoke, that women really can get pregnant from rape, but that Levin remains solidly pro-life on the topic of abortion. Unfortunately, Levin was on vacation and his stand-in took a different tack altogether. He refused even to address the subject of abortion. He directed his producer to screen all calls and prevent anyone who wanted to address the subject from calling in. I learned later that Levin’s stand-in was following the lead of Rush and others on the right who had decided that the topic was too radioactive to touch at the moment. Akin had reminded people that the anti-choice movement has been hijacked by those who aren’t so much pro-life as anti-science.

Personally, I view myself as very pro-life. I am a peace activist. I’m also a vegan vegetarian. I try to save insects when they make the mistake of entering my abode. I’ve always made sure never to have unprotected sex. And I support universal health care and regulations needed to ensure a safe and clean environment. In short, I don’t ever want to be responsible for taking a life unnecessarily – whether it’s the life of an animal, a human fetus, or an out-of-the-womb person.

I do, however, recognize legitimate exceptions to a “pro-life” policy. For example, I would support the right of individuals to freely choose to take their own lives under certain dire circumstances. To me, that’s distinguishable from taking another’s life. That person is making a free choice about whether they prefer death or torture, and, to me, that choice belongs to the person at issue, not to the government.

Nor do I think the government has a right to decide whether a woman can abort a fetus inside her own womb. Perhaps you can persuade me that such a right exists if the pregnancy is late enough, but not when it’s at an early stage. The issue to me is one of choice – does the choice belong to the government or to the woman who would be asked to carry the child for months on end. Ultimately, I feel, that choice should belong to the woman, not to a bunch of politicians, lobbyists, and plutocrats – and given our system today, they would be the ones who would effectively have the choice if it were left up to the government.

If asked to identify how I view the nature of a fetus, I’d respond that it is a “human-life” form, but it is neither a “person” nor a “child.” Reasonable people could surely agree to disagree on that point, and I can understand well enough how some might oppose abortion rights based on pro-life principles. It is easy enough to appreciate why some might view a fetus as a person and to conclude that nobody has the right to get drunk, blow off their obligations to take birth control, and then take the life of the “person” who resulted from their reckless conduct. Akin, though, wasn’t just talking about ANY act of abortion. He was talking about aborting a fetus who/that resulted from a rape. He was talking about asking a woman to spend nine long months carrying the constant reminder of a monstrous act that has surely traumatized her in ways that a man could not possibly understand. Indeed, he doesn’t just advocate asking a woman to make that choice; he would have the government force it upon the woman regardless of how insane it makes her, so long as her life is not in jeopardy.

I used to think of beliefs like Akin’s as truly fringe. But now, apparently, they have entered into the Republican mainstream. No, not the crap about how women’s organs protect them against rape-induced pregnancy, but the other crap – you know, giving politicians, lobbyists and plutocrats the right to decide whether those rape victims who do get pregnant must carry their “children” for nine months. Paul Ryan joins Akin in denying the right to choose for a rape victim. And Mitt Romney, who unilaterally could have decided to add an exception for rape to the “pro-life” plank in his party’s platform, opted not to make that choice. Effectively, he has voted with his feet to remain a hard-liner: pro-life and anti-choice.

You’ll forgive me, my friends, if I question a little bit of the sincerity here. This is a party that has hardly clamored for universal health care, leaving millions of our nation’s poor vulnerable to sub-standard medical treatment. This is a party that has brushed off the threat of climate change despite the almost certain devastation it will wreak on human populations in places like central Africa. This is a party that has no trouble consuming mass quantities of meat taken from highly intelligent mammals, like pigs. This is a party that has fought to ensure that assault weapons are freely available in American stores. I am hardly the first to suggest that the “right to life” party loses its bearings as soon as each life leaves the womb. At that point, it is sink-or-swim time, and the devil take the hindmost.

Some people think the abortion debate of the past week is a big distraction and matters only to wacky feminists, religious fundamentalists and pandering politicians. They are wrong. The GOP has made it clear that it has placed Planned Parenthood in its crosshairs, and that organization’s funding is already being cut off in the state of Texas. If you believe in a woman’s right to choose, this is no trivial matter. If you believe in a woman’s right to have healthy and safe abortions, this is actually a pivotal time in our history. And frankly, if you believe in the importance of educating poor women to avoid unwanted pregnancies and thereby minimize the number of abortions, then yes, this war against Planned Parenthood is a serious threat. You see, I suspect that the right-to-life movement isn’t ultimately about limiting the number of abortions; it’s about demagoguing the issue. If it were truly pro-life, it would be working with organizations like Planned Parenthood to ensure that women who choose to have sex never engage in that conduct unless they are prepared to carry their fetus to term.

On one point, I will admit that I might very well be wrong. Perhaps I am being a little harsh in suggesting that politicians who would eliminate abortion rights even in the case of rape are really pandering to an uneducated constituency. Maybe they are being sincere. Maybe they see the issue as so black-and-white that they just can’t bring themselves to permit an act that, for them, is akin to murder.

Fair enough. So let’s make a deal. I will stop accusing right-wing politicians of being demagogues simply because they are extreme in the anti-choice direction. But they have to honor their end of the deal too – they have to stop calling themselves “small government conservatives.” They are clearly not conservatives – they are radicals. And as for being “small government,” don’t make me laugh. They would have the government enter the womb. I would simply restrict it to the pocketbook.

Friday, August 17, 2012


Ok. I’ll be out of town this weekend, so I’m posting this a little early. Here are a few initial impressions of the Paul Ryan pick:

On the positive side of the ledger (from the standpoint of the GOP):

1. The GOP needed an infusion of life into a moribund campaign that was increasingly being defined by the Dems. Perhaps Rubio or Christie could have provided it, but honestly, I think Ryan has more GOP rock star potential because he truly can appeal to the entire Republican base. Ryan hits all their high notes. Going for a safer pick like Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman would have merely added to the impression that Mitt was staging a slumber party. In short, I thought it was the smart pick for the GOP.

2. Why the Hell are Obama and his minions talking about what a great guy Ryan is? Do they really want to praise him as a mensch? America doesn’t really know this guy. Now, thanks to his opponents, EVERYONE is saying that whether you agree with his views or not, Ryan is a decent and likeable guy. You don’t win elections very often by creating positive first impressions of your opponents.

3. Ryan and Romney look good together. Superficially, the Veep choice is a younger version of the Presidential nominee. They look like they come from the same tribe. Interestingly, Ryan is only 42, and yet nobody is complaining about his young age. It’s almost like he seems like a natural apprentice to Romney, who is a full generation older.

4. The bad news for Ryan and Romney is that neither has any foreign policy experience. The good news for them is that sadly, few voters care.

5. We can now see the Republicans’ potential path to victory: The economy continues to stagnate, and Romney continues to lead in the polls with respect to who can best fix it. The public gradually warms to Mitt as a person thanks in part to the fact that he is constantly praised by his highly likeable VP pick. Voter suppression efforts in states like Pennsylvania combined with a boost in the upper-Midwest from Ryan’s nomination give Mitt just the electoral boost that he needs to turn this into a toss-up. Obama loses his lead, and the public suddenly begins to ask the two key questions that the Romney folks want them to ask: (a) Are we better off now than we were four years ago? and (b) Did Obama perform well enough to merit re-election? It’s not surprising that on Intrade, Romney’s chances of victory have increased from 42 to 44 percent since the Ryan pick.

On the negative side of the ledger:

1. The ticket isn’t Ryan/Romney. It’s Romney/Ryan. We all know that Veep picks don’t fundamentally determine the outcome of Presidential elections (though they can help, like Gore helped Clinton in ‘92). In this case, Ryan’s willingness to take a specific stand on policy issues only reminds us that Romney either has two conflicting opinions or none at all on every issue. While Ryan comes across as a straight-shooting ideas guy, Romney remains a stealth candidate. If he wants to win, he is going to have to get more specific on what he intends to do.

2. How will Ryan’s pick play to the Independents whose support Romney needs? It remains unlikely that they will warm to Ryan’s policies, which aren’t exactly middle of the road. He is a total supply sider when it comes to economics. While he styles himself a deficit hawk, he hasn’t always voted like one. His ideas on Social Security and Medicare reform threaten the middle class and the middle aged, but as discussed below, he isn’t willing to take on the wallets of the very rich. That kind of unfairness cuts at the heart of his claim to be a “Reformer.” Finally, he’s likely to piss off a lot of women with his interest in legislating the idea that life begins at conception. The Democrats have a lot of weapons now that they didn’t have before.

3. Under Paul Ryan’s plan, Mitt Romney would have paid less than one percent in taxes. Think about that. You and I would be paying a tax rate that is many, many times higher than what zillionaire Mitt Romney would pay. Is that the kind of tax fairness that America wants? I suspect the Democrats are holding this one back for their convention – of all the points they could make about Ryan, this one might have the most bite (other than fear-mongering about Social Security and Medicare).

4. Mitt is still too unnatural a politician to take advantage of his Ryan pick. Just look at the dumb things he has done in the week after the selection. Rather than campaigning together with Ryan for the entire week, he has them part ways after only a day or two of joint appearances. And then he has his wife give an interview in which she gives an almost legalistic explanation as to why they aren’t releasing their taxes. As talented a politician as Ryan is, it is still Mitt’s job to make the sale, and the odds still indicate that he won’t do it – especially once the nation watches Obama flash that big smile at the convention.

In sum:

Democrats are kidding themselves that the Ryan pick was a net positive for them. Romney was on the ropes, and Ryan lifted him off of them and back into the middle of the ring. But there’s only so much that Ryan can do for a guy who remains afraid to level with the country, whether it involves the taxes he has paid or the policies he intends to implement.

Ryan may indeed be the future of the Republican Party (a young Ronald Reagan, as some have suggested), and Romney would be well advised to spend as much time as possible standing next to the guy and hoping that the natural likeability of his newly adopted “son” transfers to himself. At the end of the day, though, Romney will probably need bleak economic news – or some other significant negative event in the world – if he hopes to prevail in November. Americans vote for Presidential candidates, not Vice Presidential candidates, and they tend to vote for the guy that they can best relate to. This year, that man is Barack Obama.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


“Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Exodus 19:6

This blog has had a lot to say over the years about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has certainly been a major focus of my activism and will continue to be so. But today, allow me to take a break from that conflict and concentrate instead on Israel’s internal division, which is increasingly taking center stage throughout the country. It is difficult for the Israeli Jews to envision making peace with their Arab neighbors if these Jews can’t even make peace within their own ranks. And lately, the battle between Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox population, or “Haredim,” and the rest of its Jewish citizens has been reaching a fever pitch.

Consider the demographics. Today, Israel has roughly six million Jews, one million of whom are Haredim. Nearly every demographic subset of Israeli Jews is having fewer children today than they did a generation ago. The Haredim are the exception. In that community, a family with five children is considered small, and one with eight kids is anything but uncommon. As a result, the Haredim constitute over 20 percent of the nation’s elementary school population, with that number expected to increase markedly over the upcoming decades.

Israel’s Haredim do not generally serve in the army, even though such service is compulsory for the remainder of the nation’s Jews. Men in the Haredic community also typically do not work for a living. Their unemployment rate is fully 60 percent. Consequently, the Haredic community is economically poor, though it does benefit from subsidies received from the remainder of the Israeli population.

Given the fact that they receive an exemption from compulsory military service as well as substantial economic subsidies, you would think that the Haredim would at least act like appreciative neighbors to their fellow Israelis. Think again. Haredim protest the decision of the Jerusalem city government to allow buses with mixed-sex seating to travel through Haredic neighborhoods and oppose the rights of women to speak at professional conferences involving Jewish issues. They are also known to spit on their fellow Jews when they dress immodestly or engage in mixed-sex prayer services. And, most recently, they have begun to walk around city streets with glasses that intentionally blur their vision so that they won’t have to clearly envision the women who approach them.

Commonly, Haredim do not differentiate between amoral Jews, secular Jews, or religious Jews who simply are not Ultra-Orthodox. All are seen as having ignored their responsibility to honor Jewish law. Adding to the disrespect that non-Haredic Israeli Jews may feel on a personal level, many Haredim also choose to oppose or remain neutral about the existence of the Jewish State. Given that the Messiah has not arrived, they view the creation of such a State as premature.

Normally, the Empathic Rationalist attempts to expose its readers to more than one side of an issue. I try to remember that even the thinnest of pancakes has two sides, and wisdom involves learning each side as well as possible before taking a position. So given that perspective, why was the above account so obviously critical of the Haredim? The answer is simple – because their own approach to relating to non-Haredic Jews is so overwhelmingly intolerant that it is difficult to treat them with the tolerance that they themselves would want from others.

To illustrate my point, I am reminded of a few lines from Jewish history. This includes the quotation at the top of this blog post: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” That was directed to all the Jews, not merely a certain subset. And the State of Israel’s survival amidst the most difficult of circumstances is largely a testament to how much effort has been made to respect that Biblical proclamation.

Just consider the diverse accomplishments of the Israeli Jewish population over the past several decades. Some have been ushering in advances in science and technology, which has led to a number of Nobel Prizes and valuable inventions. Others have excelled in developing music or poetry that reflects the national aspiration of a 3000+ year old people who has spent much of that time wandering in exile until finally they have found a homeland, albeit in a very inhospitable neighborhood. And still others have been attempting to develop an approach to religious Jewish thought that marries both an appreciation for modern philosophy and a heartfelt devotion to the Name. I am, of course, in each case, generally referring to the achievements of Israel’s non-Haredic population.

Non-Haredic Israeli Jews represent a diverse array of individuals with a diverse array of interests, who are nevertheless largely unified in the goal of making their country a “light unto the nations,” to use the words of the Prophet Isaiah. Non-Haredic Israeli Jews do not insulate themselves from the rest of the world, they embrace the world at large, so as to discharge their responsibility for “lighting” it up. These Jews serve in the army and work for a living largely out of a sense of national duty, not because they don’t have other things they would rather do. Many of the non-Haredim would love to devote hours a day to contemplation and study about the Holy Name. But they put that activity aside because economic and military realities require them to honor other responsibilities, just as their pious ancestors may have felt obliged to till the soil or trade in the marketplace.

Back in Israel’s early days, more than 60 years ago, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, in an act of mercy to the Haredic community, exempted them from military service. The Haredim had been largely wiped out a few years before by the Nazis, and their number was tiny by all accounts. To his credit, Ben-Gurion wanted to show those few Haredim who survived the Holocaust that they, too, deserved an honorable place in the Jewish State. Now, things have changed. Far from going extinct, the Israeli Haredim is flourishing in number – a million strong! It is time for them to extend the same hand to their Israeli neighbors that the relatively secular Ben-Gurion extended to them. It is time for them to recognize that when a non-Haredic Jew serves in the army or gets a job, s/he does so with motives that are every bit as selfless and holy as their own motives for studying the sacred texts. And it is time for them to behave as if the Haredic path is not the only Jewish path worthy of respect.

Finally, I am also reminded of a famous line from Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the decades before the Common Era. When asked to summarize all of Judaism while standing on one foot, he replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. All the rest is commentary. Now go study.”

There is no question that the Haredim are taking the last part of that statement to heart – they have, to be sure, gone and studied. But what about the first part of that statement: the negative formulation of the Golden Rule? Can anyone truly say that by spitting on Jews who are engaging in mixed-sex prayer or seeking to ban women from lecturing in professional conferences, they are behaving consistently with Hillel’s teaching? Is that the way they would like to be treated by others? Isn’t their attitude towards non-Haredim the same kind of intolerance that paved the trail for Hitler when he sought to become chancellor of Germany, back in 1932?

Religion gets a good name when it works for tolerance and social cohesion. It gets a bad name when it displays intolerance and serves as a vehicle for division. I have no trouble respecting the Haredim for their piety about God, veneration for tradition, principled approach to ethical choices, or sense of community. I, like Ben-Gurion, wish to see them remain as a part of the Jewish tapestry. In fact, I can attest to the fact that there is much that they can teach us, for I will forever be in their debt for the time that I spent, free of charge, as a student at an Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem back in 1981.

But their unwillingness to pull their weight as an increasingly large segment of Israeli society is quite unacceptable to me, and I can only imagine how much it is ripping apart the social fabric of that nation. I might be more tolerant of their desire to exempt themselves from the obligation to serve in the army and work in the economy if I actually thought that their attitude was grounded in the teachings of the Jewish faith. Unfortunately, when I reflect on the greatest of Jewish teachings, including what I learned at their own yeshiva, I find little to support their claim to special privileges.

We are supposed to be a kingdom of righteous people, not a kingdom composed of a priestly caste and a toiling caste. It’s time for the Haredim to wake up and drink the coffee. They’ll need it. There’s plenty of work to do in the Holy Land.