Saturday, February 22, 2014

Enough is Enough

Long time readers of this blog know that this is a law-free zone.   I have my day job, which involves practicing law, and then I have my avocations, which have nothing to do with practicing law.  So show me the courtesy of NOT assuming that I am judging the guilt or innocence of a particular individual in what I have to say below.  I am merely addressing an epidemic: the scourge of sickening and frequently criminal conduct on the part of NFL players.   The situation has reached the point where football fans and even non-fans need to start paying attention and weighing in.  

In recent weeks, we have been treated to two more reports of woman abuse on the part of NFL stars.  
One involved a recently retired player who was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department on two counts of rape.  Another involves a report of a current star player with the Baltimore Ravens who is alleged to have beaten his fiancĂ©e with his hand to the point where she was rendered unconscious.  According to public reports, the police have a video tape of the incident, which occurred in Atlantic City.  While that tape hasn’t been released to the public, we have been able to view a second tape of the player dragging a woman out of an elevator (the scene of the alleged assault) and dropping her face first on the ground.  It is almost as sickening as the experience of listening to “sports journalists” discuss the situation.   They talk about how this player is likely to get the same kind of punishment that others have received when the league is presented with evidence of an assault by a player.  You know exactly what that means: they might miss a small fraction of a season, but that’s it.   NFL players are too valuable on the field for the league to concern itself very much with what they do off of it.   

Assaults – sexual and otherwise – by NFL players have become commonplace, much like arrests for illegal possession of firearms or driving while intoxicated.   The media will report on these incidents, but it rarely makes them an object of focus.  It’s almost as if we expect football players to engage in criminal activity.   Just consider the following, which details the various arrests of NFL players during the last few years, and note also that these are simply current players who are being arrested, not the former players who are getting in trouble at an alarming rate, thanks to all the abuse their own bodies have taken during the years on the gridiron:

The NFL has been called the “No Fun League” because of its tendency to punish trivial conduct.  It has penalized teams for inappropriate touchdown celebrations, by which the league would include using props, lying on the ground and making snow angel motions, and dancing with other players.  It has fined players for wearing the wrong color chin straps or socks.  And its executives love to wax eloquent about how much they care about their players’ safety, notwithstanding the fact that for decades the league treated concussions like I treat hangnails.  I applaud the increased scrutiny that the league has given to concussions in the past few years.  But when you think about it, as much as the league has a duty to its players to minimize the health hazards they are facing, it has an even greater duty to the community at large to root out the epidemic of criminality on the part of these players.  

After all, when a guy goes into the NFL, he assumes a certain risk that he will destroy his body and perhaps even his mind.  But the same cannot be said for the women who are assaulted by NFL players or the motorists who happen to encounter one of these players after a night of heavy drinking.   From the standpoint of professional football, these innocent victims are mere collateral damage – the eggs one has to crack to make the omelet on which red-blooded Americans like me have come to depend.  From the standpoint of society, however, the prevalence of these victims is a reminder that professional football is like an industry with a pollution problem – it makes big bucks, while imposing on the public all sorts of hidden costs.   Which is worse, bathing in a river that has been spoiled by black soot?  Or being knocked unconscious in an elevator, or drugged and then raped at a party?   Pick your poison.

Last year, the Commissioner of the NFL earned literally dozens of millions of dollars presiding over a game in which large men routinely collide with each other at top speeds.  To be able to engage in that kind of activity, those men have got to turn themselves into maniacs, at least between the white lines.  The league knows that all too well.  And it also must know that it has the power to set limits to this craziness so that the damage is confined to the field.  If it chose to do so, the NFL could take a line in the sand and proclaim that whenever a player is alleged to have engaged in off-the-field activities that threaten the health or safety of “civilians,” it will robustly investigate the allegation and terminate – not suspend, but terminate -- the player’s privilege to play NFL football if he is found to have committed the violation.  In short, the league could take a firm no-tolerance stand toward certain types of criminal activity, including woman-abuse.

Personally, I have no confidence whatsoever that the league will take that stand.  It doesn’t want the hassle of litigating with players whose livelihoods are at risk if they are kicked out of the league.   But from my standpoint, enough is enough.  I’m sick of watching football games where guys who punch women are going up against other guys who rape women.  I’m sick of having to cheer for these animals.  

Take a look at the list of arrests that I included above.  Do you find that acceptable?  If not, isn’t it incumbent on us fans to let the league know our thoughts?  I’d personally feel better about having less talented players on the field if it meant that we would be getting more gentlemanly players off of it.  And if terminating their right to play in the league means that the NFL would get embroiled in litigation and have to raise ticket prices, so be it.  The league must do what needs to be done.   I don’t want it on my conscious that by supporting a violent game, I’m contributing to a violent society.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Ho-Hum Olympics

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise?  If a Winter Olympics takes place in a backward country’s warmest spot, with little introductory hype, does it make a noise?  The first question has confounded philosophers.  The second one must be equally confounding to advertisers, athletes, and even sports fanatics like me, who are stunned that an Olympic Games is going on and we couldn’t care less.

Oh believe me, there are plenty of explanations.   Here are just a few:  (1) During the months leading up to these Olympics, we heard nothing but criticisms of the venue.  The host city has the same climate as the Southern Oregon coast.  Its infrastructure is woefully inadequate for such a grand event.  And it resides inside a country that is unabashedly homophobic at a time when the “civilized world” is finally waking up to the fact that homosexuality is not a sin.  (2) During the weeks leading up to these Olympics, the hype machine simply wasn’t working, at least not in America.  The only Winter Olympian who had been in the news during recent years was Tiger Woods’ girlfriend Lindsay Vonn, and she announced some time ago that she wouldn’t compete because of injury.  (3)  Once the Olympics began and we were reminded that there were a few titans competing after all, we’ve seen those titans go down one at a time.   Sean White, the flamboyant redheaded American?  He took a seat on the snow.  Evgeni Plushenko, the legendary Russian skater?   He took a seat on the ice.  In fact, Plushenko’s fall, which took place in a practice round, was so devastating that he quit the competition for medical reasons.   Then, what started out as a sad story became a maddening one, as the media reported that Russians are now criticizing the skater for not manning up and fighting through the pain.  Talk about folks who are neither empathic nor rational! (4) At least here in America, the outcomes of the events are widely reported long before they are aired on TV.   I don’t know about you, but once I know who won a sporting event, I have virtually no interest in watching it.   

There you have four good reasons why I have been more looking forward to the second season of “House of Cards” than anything taking place this fortnight at Sochi.  Truly, I want to support these world class athletes who have been training for years just for their big moment, but something seems off kilter this year.  Where are the larger than life characters?   Where is the celebration of a city and a nation that has given its all to celebrate humanity in its universality?  And where is the sense of anticipation about an epic showdown between two can’t-lose athletes?   

We have none of that in these games.  And I guess, with respect to the last of those issues, it’s just as well.  Imagine such an Ali-Frazier, Borg-McEnroe kind of matchup in Sochi – the competitors would probably collide with each other approaching the end of the course, leaving the gold medal in the hand of some unknown competitor from Norway.  But that wouldn’t be so bad.   For I have to say, the one thing I have learned from these Olympics is that more people live in Maryland than in Norway.  Amazing, right?  What’s also amazing is that by the end of these Olympics, practically all of Norway’s young adults will have won a medal.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Why I Oppose BDS

These are the salad days for the BDS crowd.  Their cause has gotten some traction with American academics.  It is all the rage in Europe.  And now, even Secretary of State Kerry has said that BDS is a force to be reckoned with.  Cue the balloons, BDS has officially arrived and in a huge way.  It’s bigger than, oh I don’t know, it is bigger than Hollywood.  Don’t just take my word for it; ask Scarlett Johansson.  

For those of you who live in a bubble and are wondering exactly what BDS is, it stands for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” and its target is none other than Israel.   There are two points that are packed into that one statement.  First, that peaceniks all over the globe are now increasingly advocating the strategy of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israeli goods, services and/or institutions.  And second, that Israel is being singled out as the one and only one jurisdiction that warrants such treatment.   

BDS makes me sick.  But I do recognize that the strength of this movement stems in large part from the failures of the Israeli government and the tunnel-vision of the Jewish people.  That realization  sickens me even more. 

BDS has an official website:     At its top, you will find the words that must be the rallying cry for the movement -- “freedom justice equality.”  Below that, at least at times, you might find the lovely face of Ms. Johansson, together with a snide message mocking her for her support of an Israeli company.  Maintained by the so-called “Palestinian BDS National Committee,” the website goes on to set forth in detail precisely what is meant by the B, the D and the S.   The boycott “targets products and companies (Israeli and international) that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights, as well as Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions [which] directly contribute to maintaining, defending or whitewashing the oppression of Palestinians as Israel deliberately tries to boost its image internationally through academic and cultural collaborations". Divestment, the website adds, "means targeting corporations complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights and ensuring that the likes of the university investment portfolios and pension funds are not used to finance such companies". Finally, sanctions are said to be "an essential part of demonstrating disapproval for a countries [sic] actions. Israel's membership of various diplomatic and economic forums provides both an unmerited veneer of respectability and material support for its crimes."
Sorry, I couldn’t resist sticking in that “sic.”  Call it the whimper of a petty Jew.  But I have bigger issues here than the BDS leadership’s command of the English language.  In fact, I have multiple concerns about this movement.  

To begin, consider what it means to single out Israel as the one place in the world that is worthy of targeting.  Or, perhaps I should say, consider Israel’s abuses in relation to all of the other countries that are NOT being singled out as part of this movement.   One need not go any further than Israel’s own neighborhood to find the absurdity of such disparate treatment.  Israeli’s neighbors include countries that sanction religious discrimination, grotesque abuse against women, and even international terrorism.  But are they the object of BDS wrath?  Not as far as I can tell.  

Back in the day, organizations that would target Jewish institutions for unique sanctions would at least have the courtesy to use the word “Jewish” in describing the focus of their enmity.   Now, however, they have learned to hide that word and to replace it with “Zionist” or “Israeli.” But given that Israel is hardly at the top of the international list of abusers and yet is increasingly rising to the top of the world’s pariahs, one cannot help but wonder how much of the success of BDS stems from good old-fashioned anti-Semitism.  

If nothing else, the enthusiasm of the European Left in embracing this movement, while remaining uninterested in similarly sanctioning other nations, is ironic. Seventy years ago (and many times before that), their right-wing ancestors were inappropriately singling out the Jewish people for their targeting, whereas now it is the left-wingers’ turn.  Perhaps instead of punishing the economy of a familiar foe, however, the Europeans might ask themselves what they can do to support the economy of the Palestinians.  For that would surely advance the interests of peace and prosperity without fostering the type of divisiveness and mistrust that has cemented the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the decades.  

Another problem with the BDS movement is the effect that it is having on the Palestinians.  For that region to know peace, both sides need to accept responsibility for making compromises.  That requires some degree of willingness to accept a share of the blame.  What BDS does, however, is to shift the Palestinians’ focus away from what they can do to compromise and instead single out the Israelis as the one and only wrongdoers in this conflict.  According to the conventional narrative of the left, the Palestinians are doing all we can reasonably ask them to do simply by forbearing from violence; it is the Israelis who must make the other compromises.  Talk about a toxic message to deliver to the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Thanks in part to the advocates of BDS, Palestinians can feel free to see themselves simply as resistance fighters whose goals are nothing more than “freedom justice equality.” Consider that the proponents of BDS don’t stop at singling out the abuses of the Israeli government but also wax eloquent about the inherent imperialist and discriminatory nature of Zionism.   The result is to encourage Palestinians to see their conflict with the Israeli Jews as a simple good-versus-evil struggle.  The Palestinians’ job is to see themselves as Gandhis – avoiding violence, but remaining resolute in a struggle against western imperialism.  Just as the English had no legitimate claim to India, the Jews are being portrayed as having no legitimate claim to Palestine (or Israel).   And the Palestinians are told that it is just a matter of time before the colonialist Jews will either leave the area, as the English left India, or at least recognize like the whites in South Africa that they are not entitled to control a state in a continent that does not belong to them.  (Conveniently, BDS advocates, in their rush to compare the Zionist movement with South Africa, Colonialist England, or Nazi Germany, love to ignore centuries of Jewish history, in which the Jews found themselves tossed around like a football, ghettoized, or simply slaughtered, all the while pining for nothing more than to live in peace in their traditional holy land.)

To be fair, some BDS proponents acknowledge concerns with boycotting Israel in its entirety and prefer instead to confine their BDS advocacy to those companies, institutions and individuals that support Jewish activity in the West Bank.   As someone who despises Israel’s decision to build settlements in that area, I do appreciate the distinction between such limited BDS and the whole-hog variety.  But that doesn’t require me to support limited-BDS.  The fact is that I find neither justice nor expediency in singling out the Israelis for economic sanctions, as if they have a monopoly on human rights abuses.  Just look at the Palestinian regime in Gaza – the lovable group known as Hamas.   Are they not corrupt?  Do they not practice discrimination against women?  Do they not engage in violence against innocent people, including international acts of violence?  And yet does it make any sense to punish the economy of Gaza?   Of course not.

I recognize that BDS, as a general principle, has its place in the international arena.   In the 1980s, while a student at Harvard, I actively worked for my university to divest its holdings from South Africa, and I have never regretted those efforts.    Similarly, I do not underestimate the right-wing turn in Israeli politics during the years after the Oslo framework broke down, and especially after Israel gave up its settlements in the Gaza Strip.  Clearly, there is a fragment of the Israeli population that has been turning blind eyes to the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people, and BDS represents a way to confront that complacency that is strongly preferable to the alternative of physical violence.   Still, BDS is the lazy man’s way of dealing with the problem.  There are better, more affirmative ways of supporting these two besieged peoples, ways that foster peace without widening the chasms and building mistrust, which is the greatest enemy in all the Middle East.  

What we need to do first and foremost is to celebrate the legitimate aspirations of both peoples.  This entails recognizing the Jewish claim to autonomy known as “Zionism” and the Palestinian claim to autonomy known as “Palestinian Nationalism.”  What we fight must be limited to that which stands in the way of either of those aspirations (rather than that which ignores one set of aspirations and demonizes extreme forms of the other).  Supporting Palestinian Statehood in the United Nations, something the United States did not do, would have been appropriate in my view.  We must also support the efforts of NGOs to bring increased prosperity to places like the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – and there is where the Europeans might want to get off their judgmental butts and lend a hand.   
I have no qualms about being critical with respect to the conduct of either people.  And indeed, I have often said publicly that the Settlements can be categorically criticized in the strongest possible terms, though I am no more enamored of the radio silence among the Palestinian community when it comes to recognizing the legitimate right of the Jewish people to self-determination and a peace of oith in their native Israel.  Neither side came into this conflict in 2014 with totally clean hands, and both sides had better grapple with that reality.   BDS places all the blame on one side, at least implicitly.  In that regard, it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Make no mistake; were it not for the selfishness and/or religious extremism of a small fraction of the Jewish people, Israel would not be settling the West Bank.  And were it not for those God-forsaken Settlements, there would be no BDS.  But that does not excuse the Left from advocating BDS and attempting to turn the Jewish State into an international pariah.   Personally, I don’t think you have to be an anti-Semite to be an anti-Zionist or a BDS advocate.  But those anti-Zionists who hate anti-Semitism might want to think long and hard about the logic of their position.  What they are trying today – singling out the Jewish people for punishment -- has been tried many times in our world’s history.  Each time, “freedom, justice and equality” has been a casualty.  Why should this time be any different?

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Taking a Look at the American Jewish Community – “Just the Facts, Ma’am”

Fans of Treasure Island think of “Pew” as blind.  But fans of religion think of Pew, or at least they should think of Pew, as helping us all to see.  I am referring to the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan, non-ideological group that invariably disseminates some of the most extensive, illuminating survey data available regarding a range of religious topics.  Today, I would like to honor that organization and enlighten you by summarizing some of the more interesting data from Pew’s 2013 survey entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  It was based on data from thousands of participants taken between February and June of 2013.   

If you want to read the entire survey, you can find it here:

If you want a quick summary of “the facts, just the facts,” I am happy to oblige.

American Jews are less fertile, on average, than non-Jewish Americans.  The number of children per adults who are 40-59 is 1.9 for Jews, 2.2 for the U.S. population at large, and 2.4 for U.S. Catholics.
Adult American Jews also tend to be way better compensated.   Twenty five percent earn over $150,000 annually, 56% earn over $75,000, and only 31% earn under $50,000.  By contrast, for the nation at large, those numbers would be 8%, 29%, and 56% respectively.    Similarly, the percentage of Jewish adults who are college graduates is 58%, which is twice the national average.

Adult American Jews tend to believe in God, though less overwhelmingly than the nation as a whole.  Specifically, “believers” represent 72% of the adult Jewish population, compared to 92% of the U.S. adult population.  Of Jews who are 18-29, 68% say that they believe in God.

Adult American Jews who regularly attend religious services are the exceptions, not the norm.  Only 23% attend services once a month or more. 

What are American Jews doing when they are not at religious services?  Perhaps they are looking at Christmas trees.  Thirty-two percent of adult American Jews live in homes with Christmas trees, and that number grows to 37% if only Jews who are 18-49 are included. 

Why do so many Jews, and especially younger Jews, have Christmas trees?  Consider that among Jews who got married after 2000, 58% married non-Jews.  By contrast, among Jews who got married before 1970, that number was only 17%.  

You can also see pretty dramatic changes among Jews’ affiliations with specific religious movements.  In America today, 35% of Jews are Reform, 18% Conservative, 10% Orthodox and 30% have no affiliation.  (The others identify with additional movements, such as Reconstructionism.)  However, among Jews who are 18-29, only 11 percent are Conservative and 41 percent are affiliated with no religious movement.

Politically, Jews are disproportionately more liberal and less conservative than the U.S. population at large.  Specifically, 49% of Jews call themselves liberal, 29% moderate, and 19% conservative.  For the U.S. generally, the analogous numbers are 21, 36 and 38.   Accordingly, it should not be surprising that when it comes to whether people accept or discourage homosexuality, 82% of Jews are accepting, as compared to 57% of the U.S. population generally and 46% of American Protestants.    Similarly, 54% of Jews support relatively big government and only 38% percent support relatively small government; for the general U.S. population, those numbers shift to 40 and 51, respectively.

On the subject of Israel, the majority of both young adult American Jews and older adult Jews continue to report that they feel “very” or “somewhat” attached to Israel.    Indeed, 87% of adult American Jews and 81% of Jews who are 18-29 say that caring about Israel is an important or essential part of being Jewish.  

American adult Jews tend not to believe that Israel was given to Jews by God – only 40% are of that opinion.  Notably, the percentage of U.S. Protestants who believe that statement is 64.

When asked if there is a way for an Israeli and Palestinian state to co-exist peacefully, 61% of American adult Jews replied in the affirmative – compared to only 49% of American Protestants.  American Jews who are 18-29 are especially optimistic: 70% believe that a peaceful two-state solution is possible.  

Still, adult Jewish Americans are skeptical about the efforts that the Israeli government and Palestinian leadership have made to date in order to bring about peace.  Only 38% of adult American Jews believe that the Israeli government has made a sincere effort to bring about peace, and only 12% believe that the Palestinian leadership has made such an effort.   Notably, those numbers change to 26 and 18, respectively, when Jews who are 18-29 are polled and to 45 and 8, respectively, when Jews over 65 are polled. 

When it comes to the West Bank settlements, adult American Jews of all ages report that these settlements are much more likely to hurt Israeli security than help its security.  Overall, only 17% of adult American Jews believe that the settlements are helpful to Israeli security, whereas 44% believe that they are hurtful.    

Finally, on the issue of whether the American government is too supportive of Israel, appropriately supportive of Israel, or not supportive enough, a majority of adult American Jews believe that the support level is appropriate.  Notably, however, fully 25% of American Jews who are 18-29 believe that America is too supportive, whereas for American Jews over 65, that number falls all the way to 5%.

There you have it folks – facts, figures and no philosophy.   Jack Webb would be proud.  But I’m going to look into the mirror to see if I’m still there.

Enjoy the Super Bowl tomorrow.