Thursday, November 29, 2012

It's Hard to Be Pro Israel and Pro Palestine -- But We Must Try


So, mark down November 29, 2012 on your calendar.  Today is the day that Palestine officially became a state.   By an overwhelming majority, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority from "non-member observer entity" to "non-member observer state.”   It now has the same legal status as the Vatican.

I, for one, rejoice in the UN vote.  I still haven’t seen the final version of the resolution itself, but the precise wording wouldn’t affect my celebration of the vote.  I am willing to assume for the sake of argument that the resolution could have some offensive verbiage.   That’s of little concern to me when compared to the symbolic significance of knowing that the Palestinian people are no longer stateless.  No group of people should have to live like that.  As a Jew, I appreciate all too well what it means to be stateless.  Spinoza’s Jewish community in Amsterdam was considered part of the “Portuguese Nation,” indicating not only where they emigrated from, but also the fact that they were NOT truly part of Holland.   West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians are clearly not part of Israel.  How, then, can we Jews keep from allowing them to have their own state?   And why not recognize the existence of that state today?   

To me, my fellow Zionists have a fundamental decision to make: do we or don’t we want to recognize that the Palestinians also possess a legitimate claim to the disputed land.  If our answer is yes, we should support the existence of a Palestinian state side by side a Jewish one.  If our answer is no, we are truly in denial.  The Palestinians should not singlehandedly be asked to pay the price for the way Jews have been mistreated over time.  Even if we recognize that the United Nations was within its rights to give the Jews their ancestral homeland out of, in essence, eminent domain principles, we would have to note that the UN intended to create two states for two peoples.    

To me, being pro-Israel and pro-Zionism compels us to support the aspirations of Palestinian statehood.  We cannot rejoice in our own liberty until our neighbors and cousins are able to rejoice in theirs.  I don’t feel threatened by the symbolic statement that the Palestinian people have their own state.   Why feel threatened?  There is still a wall separating the two states.   Frankly, I think it is sad that countries like the U.S. and Germany – which, happily, tend to sympathize with Israeli interests – felt the need to oppose the resolution and thereby take a stand that isn’t so much pro-Israel as anti-Palestine.

Viva the Palestinian State!  May it live long and prosper.

But just as many people find it difficult to be pro-Israel without being anti-Palestine, the reverse is also true.  And today, while I would like to relax and celebrate this wonderful, historic development, I can’t help but reflect on the way that many Palestinian “peace activists” are taking the news.   You got it – they’re not just celebrating the creation of the Palestinian state, but taking the opportunity to lambast the state of Israel.   

If many in the Middle East Peace movement are to be believed, the sole reason why we don’t have peace in the Holy Land is because of Israel.  The Palestinians bear little if any responsibility for the continuation of the conflict.  According to this allegedly “pro-peace” meme, Israel is an imperialist and ruthless power that thinks nothing of oppressing their innocent neighbors, and is completely hypocritical when it comes to its alleged support of the two-state solution.  As for the Palestinians, they are to be analogized to the Native Americans prior to the Trail of Tears, or to the Southern blacks in anti-bellum America.   These peace activists paint a picture of good versus evil that is as black-and-white as a children’s book.  

My friends, I am not going to apologize for everything Israel does.  I certainly won’t apologize for those damned West Bank settlements, or even for Israel’s behavior in strongly opposing today’s resolution.  But let me remind you that Israel was not the one that recently initiated violence against the Palestinians, Israel is not the one who is refusing to get back to the bargaining table, and Israel has made it clear that it would be a tremendous pro-peace statement if the Palestinians were simply to recognize Israel as a Jewish State.   Yet the Palestinians refuse.

I am not going to apologize for that either.

Nor will I join in the chorus from the left of advocating boycotts against Israel, applying double standards invidiously against Israel, and assuming that Israel is responsible for making major concessions for peace but not the Palestinians.  That’s not being pro-Palestinian; that’s being anti-Israel.   

At a dinner party that I attended last weekend, a bunch of Jews were trying to figure out just the right phrase to describe a Jew who is always blaming Israel and never the Palestinians.  It was decided that “traitor” was too strong, and “self-hating Jew” was also inapposite (after all, the blame-Israel-first Jews aren’t necessarily anti-Jewish either culturally or religiously).   Then, someone thought to refer to these blame-Israel-firsters as “Useful Idiots.”   It’s a term that was used by the Russian Marxists to mock the communist sympathizers in the western world – in other words, to mock their own clueless supporters.  And nobody could argue with that term in this context.  When the shoe fits ….

Folks, if you want to see peace in the region, don’t think perfect justice.  Think perfect balance.   Think about bringing both sides to the table, giving each one what they reasonably need, and denying each one what their own extremists want.  Ensure that nothing happens that threatens security interests.  But encourage both sides to make concessions now, even unilateral concessions, in the hope that they will serve as a springboard for concessions from the other side. And above all else, rejoice in ANYTHING that benefits one of these peoples without threatening the other.

Palestinian Statehood doesn’t threaten Israel.  Let’s support it.  And the Jewish State.

Saturday, November 24, 2012



On November 4th, I was asked to give a talk at the International Cultural Center in Montgomery Village, MD on the topic of "The Importance of Gratitude in Judaism."  In preparing for the talk, I quickly realized just how important gratitude is to all systems of faith -- and, for that matter, to any worthwhile secular world view.  
Because it is now Thanksgiving Weekend, I felt that this would be the appropriate time to share the talk.  Happy Thanksgiving from the Empathic Rationalist.  

Gratitude.   What a holy word that is.  In Judaism, we have one set of words that rein above all others, and of course I’m referring to the names for God.  But when it comes to mere words, gratitude would be on the very top tier.  It has to be – for the moral value of gratitude forms much of the basis of both Jewish culture and the Jewish religion.
Simply by referring to someone as a Jew in no way clarifies whether we are talking about him as a member of the Jewish people or, alternatively, as a practitioner of the Jewish faith.  And that is because the word “Jewish” refers to both a folk and a faith.  On the one hand, we are talking about a nation, a people, a culture, a heritage; and on the other, a body of theological teachings, practices and principles.  Some Jews identify themselves deeply with the Jewish people, yet have no use for the religion.  Others are just the opposite – they may believe deeply in the Jewish God and practice the religious rituals, yet not care a whit for Jewish peoplehood.  And of course, there still others of us who associate ourselves with both Jewish peoplehood and the religion.  Notably, though, all three sets of Jews are tied together by certain values, and it is these values that form the glue for the folk and the faith.  Gratitude is among the very top values on that list.  Lose that value, and you can truly call yourself a lapsed Jew.
Historically, there are few communities more closely knit than Jewish ones, and the same can be said for the Jewish family.  Just look at me – I still live 600 feet from my parents’ house.  They call that old school.  I call it gratitude.   The famous Jewish passion for education is largely fueled by the gratitude to all who have taught us – schoolteachers as well as parents – and the desire to ensure that their work has not been in vain.   The Jewish emphasis on taking care of our own kind, which hastened our rise to economic success in the United States, is surely a function, in part, of the desire for self-preservation.  But it is also an expression of gratitude for a group of families who cared for one another during centuries on end, while they were being booted from country after country -- ghettoized here, forcibly converted there.  And it is the same value that has helped to caused Jews to assimilate themselves in melting-pot nations like the United States.  Wherever we find a benefactor, Jew or gentile, we seek to express our gratitude, which entails love, respect, and to some degree, emulation.
Jews are universalistic largely because we are grateful to those from every nation who have made this world as rich and varied as it is.  We realize we have enjoyed the fruits of all of the world’s great cultures, and that makes us wish to support them.  But gratitude is a double edged sword when it comes to Jewish universality.  For we are also grateful to the soldiers, farmers and other pioneers who during one of our people’s darkest eras, risked their lives to build a Jewish State against seemingly insurmountable odds.   Candidly, such gratitude is one of the reasons why Jews will continue to fight so hard to maintain a Jewish State in the land of Israel, even as the idea of “Zionism” has come to be attacked in much of Europe as well as Asia.
So yes, the value of gratitude is at the heart of what makes Jews tick as a people.  But if anything, this value is even more integral to the Jewish religion.  If I were to summarize my greatest impulse as a religious Jew, I would say that it is our job to honor God.   And why is it so important to honor God?  Because our sense of gratitude requires nothing less.
When life is spent grateful for who and what we have, and when the world is experienced as a wonderland of meaning, it is then that gratitude boils over like a pot of water.   As I’ve said, we feel the need to repay all of our benefactors, but this is especially applicable to the one we name God.  And this is why the religious Jew sees God as not only the Ultimate Benefactor, but also as the Ultimate Beloved.    
When gratitude is taken most seriously, God can become an almost insatiable need – a need for the One to whom we are able to express our thanks for life itself.  Religious Jews can wrestle with how best to envision that beloved, relate to that beloved, or honor that beloved.  We can ruminate about the meaning of ultimacy, and what makes one conception of God more “ultimate” than another.  We can even contemplate whether some ways of talking about the Ultimate Beloved are helpful or harmful to our ability to honor God.  But as for the existence of that God or the central value of expressing thankfulness to God … that we have trouble questioning.  We feel such a profound sense of appreciation for this world, for life as a whole, and for the unity that we find in life, that we viscerally must express thanks.  That, above all else, is what makes the Jewish impulse to pray so powerful.
Our Torah directs us to love our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul and with all of our might.  (The V’havta – Deut. 6:5)  And indeed, if you attend one of our services, you would be treated to prayer after prayer after prayer expressing our thankfulness to God.   The Torah tells us to express our gratitude to God for the “good land” that the Divine has given us, a land of varied foods, plentiful minerals, and ever-flowing water.  (Deut. 8:10)  And the Jew is indeed admonished to be content with his or her lot, even as we work hard to rid the world of injustice or war.   As was taught in our Talmud, “Who is rich?  One who is satisfied with his lot.”   (P.A. 4-1)  And that is because, to a religious Jew, what we receive comes from God, and when we honor what the world has given us, we honor God. 
Of course, that directive goes both ways.  If we wish to honor God, we must treat one another with honor, care for the poor, and fight injustice and ignorance.  Just as Islam has its Prophets, we have our own.  And of all the points the Jewish Prophets make, none is more important than that a religious Jew should be known primarily through her acts to transform the world, and not her ceremonial rituals.  I would like to think this is a point on which cultural and religious Jews agree.
As is said in our Talmud, “One who learns from his companion a single chapter, a single law, a single verse, a single expression, or even a single letter, should accord him respect.”   (P.A. 6:3)  Now imagine how we should treat a lifelong friend, a sibling, or a parent.  And now, imagine how we should treat the One to whom we owe not merely our own lives, but the very existence of our world – indeed, the very existence of every world, known and unknown.
In a civilization overrun with consumerism, we come to see ourselves primarily in terms of our own individual rights and interests.  But in a civilization that takes Judaism seriously, either as a folk or a faith, we come to see ourselves primarily in terms of our duties.   And when it comes to those duties, there is none more fundamental than the duties of gratitude – except perhaps those of humility.  Together, these two values enable us to honor God and God’s world, including our fellow human beings.
Maybe, there will another opportunity for this group to honor humility as a value.  It is, in fact, the value of humility that has caused the rabbis to designate Moses the greatest Jew of all – for he is considered to have been the most humble.   I am not aware of whether the rabbis identify a single figure as the most “grateful.”  Candidly, all of the great figures of the Jewish faith are assumed to be people of gratitude – otherwise how can they be viewed as worshippers of God? 
Perhaps, then, when it comes to considering the most transformative leaders of our religion, gratitude is taken for granted.  But we all know that when it comes to our own secular society – as best illustrated by the young athletes and other entertainers who frequently grace our television sets – this is a quality in terribly short supply.  
So, how important is gratitude?  This much I can say: if you envision a hypothetical person as a blank slate and then pile up one positive characteristic after another, only to then strip him of his sense of gratitude, from a Jewish standpoint, what you would be left with is a scary prospect.  So many virtues flow from this characteristic.  Remove it, and you might find someone who is productive, or even useful, but you would not find a person who is pious, and you would not find a person who is a practicing Jew, even the narrowest, purely-cultural sense of that term.    

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Twinning Weekend


            I bet that most of you didn’t know that this is the Fifth International Weekend of Twinning.  What, you ask, is the Fifth International Weekend of Twinning?  Go to the website of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and you will read the following:        

“Organized annually by The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) in cooperation with the World Jewish Congress and the Islamic Society of North America, the Weekend of Twinning is an annual initiative based on synagogues, mosques and Muslim and Jewish student and young leadership groups forming partnerships and holding joint programs together with the goal of building ties of communication, reconciliation and cooperation between Muslims and Jews. …  We are excited that synagogues and mosques and Muslim and Jewish student, young leadership, and women's organizations in as many as 25 countries around the world are expected to take part in twinning events.”   

Last night, Haytham Younis, a Syrian-American, and I went to the University of Maryland and addressed a large contingent of Jewish and Muslim students about our experiences as co-founders of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS).  Tomorrow, JIDS will be bringing in scores of teenagers from synagogues and mosques all over the Washington DC area to help clean up a public park and engage in dialogue.   Similar events are happening all over the nation, and in much of the world.  But I can almost guarantee that the national media will avoid these stories like the plague.  Nobody will be throwing Molotov Cocktails, firing rockets, schtupping mistresses, ranting against people of color, or standing in the middle of a hurricane for no apparent reason.   So who cares, right? 

  Clearly, Fox News and MSNBC don’t care.  They are the real twins – both fighting from a similar playbook.  Call it a vitriol-only zone.   And don’t forget their motto:  “If you can’t mock it, you can’t report it.” 

            I’ll tell you who else doesn’t care: the wild children running Hamas.  And let’s also not forget the Israeli Government.   No, I’m not talking about the generals who are defending Israel against Hamas rockets.  They’re actually doing their jobs.  I’m talking about Netanyahu and his minions who have the chutzpah to proclaim that they support the “Two State Solution,” and yet continue to build more and more settlements in the West Bank.   What does that say about their concern for their Palestinian “Twins”?

            With all due respect to Alanis Morissette, “rain on your wedding day” is not ironic.  What is ironic is that the Holy Land is raining bombs during Twinning Weekend. 

I don’t doubt that reporting on the escalation of warfare in Israel and Palestine is important.  I want my fellow citizens to remember that region.  I want their spokespeople in Congress and the media to call on President Obama to engage himself once again on the topic of Middle East Peace.  I want them to remind the President that visiting Israel zero times during his first four years in office is unacceptable.  I want them to say that even if Israel and Palestine aren’t ready to sign a peace treaty tomorrow, there is a TON that can be done in the present to help make peace possible in the future.   

So yes, please, report on the war!  Talk about the savage Palestinians and the stiff-necked, macho Israelis.  Condescend to them all, the way we always do.   Pretend that we Americans would act in a “measured” fashion if we were constantly absorbing rocket fire from Canada or Mexico.  Please – say whatever the hell you want about Israelis and Palestinians.  Just make sure that you focus our attention on that region so that we can stop ignoring it.

But surely, Mr. and Ms. Newsperson, you can’t report exclusively on Israel and Palestine.  Surely, you’ll have some time left for other news.  I encourage you to devote some of that time to reporting about the so-called “fiscal cliff” and whether we’re on the verge of a deal to avoid jumping off the cliff.  And I encourage you to report on the efforts of the Republican establishment to figure out the lessons of the 2012 elections; that’s important stuff, because we do need two healthy, sane political parties.

Report on all of that.  But don’t forget to report as well about stories like the Weekend of Twinning.  Come to our events and interview the rabbis and the imams who are as fanatical about peace as the Hamas is about war.  Teach your audience on TV and the radio that America has legions of enlightened Muslims, and that the Muslim religion can be a source of tremendous inspiration for Jews and Christians alike.

And if you want to figure out how to make time for this story?   Here’s a hint.  Remember that wave of stories you were reporting about adulteress biographers, shirtless FBI agents, and Generals who care more about their johnsons than their wives?   Good.  You can continue to think about that stuff all you want – you can even fantasize about it, if that’s what turns you on.  Just please, stop reporting about it.  We have plenty of TV channels that are already focused on sex and petty crimes and other sorts of garbage.  We can’t afford to devote our national news coverage to that crap – not as long as they’re still fighting in the Middle East.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Queens of Denial; Kings of Polarization


The election is over.  And the Democratic Party has won.   

I realize that the GOP talking points would explain things differently.  I realize that they are characterizing the election as a draw – the “people’s house” went to the GOP and the Presidency/Senate went to the Dems.  A tie, right?

Not exactly.  In the aggregate, more Americans voted to elect a Democrat to the House than a Republican.   The GOP kept their majority in the House only because they were willing and able to gerrymander so many districts in 2010. That will allow them to bottle up a lot of legislation during these next two (or more) years, but it does not allow them legitimately to claim that this week’s election was a draw.  They lost, and they lost big.

They now control only 45% of the Senate.  They lost the majority vote for President for the fifth time in six tries – and by a total of nearly three million votes.  And they lost in the all-important Electoral College by nearly 130 votes.  Given how polarized this country has become, those results can be called a thumping.  The GOP hasn’t thumped the Democrats that badly since the Berlin Wall fell.

It pains me to have to start this first blog post after the election with that sort of partisan message.  I would much rather show some compassion for the side that lost – this is, after all, the Empathic Rationalist.   But folks, this isn’t a normal situation we’re dealing with.  A good bit of our nation is living in denial when it comes to what it means to be an American.  They look at the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and they see traitors who are destroying the fabric of this nation and trying to turn it into just another piece of Euro-trash.    They see the Democratic Party as the vehicle for this evil development, and no Democrat is said to personify this more than Barack Obama.  He may not look European, the argument continues, but he is a European socialist if ever there were one.    Accordingly, they believe, they must fight Obama, the Democrats, and all the “liberals” as long and as hard as it takes in order to return this country to the “traditional Americans” who listen to conservative talk radio and watch Fox News.  

Don’t believe me?   Just think about what happened yesterday, when the Speaker of the House suggested that an election took place, Obama won, and so Obamacare will survive.  Not so fast – by the end of the day, he already had to walk that back, and add that “our goal has been, and will remain, full repeal.”   This is the guy who is considered to be one of the compromisers.  I can only imagine what the hard-liners are saying behind closed doors – you know, in the rooms where they are still talking about all the un-American people who are now voting as Americans  (see, e.g., the “47 percent” ).

Clearly, the GOP deserves some time to digest the bitter pill that they swallowed this week.  They might publicly call it a draw, but they know they lost.  And despite what the polls were saying before the election, their leaders seem to be legitimately shocked by the results.  In their Fox News- created delusion, it wasn’t supposed to go down this way.  Romney was supposed to ride in on the white horse and rid the White House of all the socialists.  And this would unleash an economy that would be the envy of the entire world – or at least those parts of the world not pathologically obsessed with economic redistribution.  

It’s going to take some time for the GOP to acknowledge that their dream didn’t come true.  And that they are stuck with the Democrats largely in charge of Washington.  And that this is a Democratic Party that is finally willing to play brinksmanship and, if necessary, to ride off of that “fiscal cliff.”   

If the GOP remains in denial, then yes, we’ll see some pretty extreme budget-cutting measures.  And if the GOP wants to treat Barack Obama as the President of the United States and meet him more than halfway – since, after all, he did just win the election by an electoral-college landslide – then yes, we’ll see some Democratic concessions to Republican interests.   Either way, though, America will survive.  And hopefully, the only thing that won’t survive is the extent to which the GOP has demonized its rivals these past few years.

We need two viable Parties, folks.  We need a progressive Party, and we need a conservative Party.  We need them to work together a lot, and we need them to respect each other.  I support anything and everything that can make that happen as soon as possible, even if it means exposing in the short run the extremists who are the real evil-doers here.  Believe it or not, I'm actually looking forward to seeing some Republican ideas get implemented.  But the GOP must be the ones to extend their hands first.  Such is the price of living in a Democracy and recognizing that you are truly in the minority.