Sunday, December 20, 2015

Israel -- the Forgotten Hot Spot


This week, my older daughter heads to Israel, where she will be a leader of a Birthright group.   I will be heading to California, where I will be reading a recently-published book that a friend wrote about Israel.   You all remember Israel, right?   It’s in the Middle East.  It’s not controlled by Isis.  Nor is anyone counting on it to wage war against Isis.  That means that it’s off of the American radar screen these days.

In fact, with all the attention that’s given to Islamic extremism these days, Israel is off of a lot of people’s radar screens internationally.  My guess is that the same Europeans who were leading the calls to boycott, divest from, and sanction the Jewish State a year or two ago have turned their attention to other topics.  You might say that when it comes to the outside world, things are “All Quiet on the Israeli Front.”   The violence within its borders continues, but it’s barely getting reported outside of Israel or Palestine.  Somehow, Israel is becoming just another tiny place on the globe. 

This has got to be welcome news on the streets of Haifa and Tel Aviv.  Whenever I speak to Israelis, I am moved by the extent to which they’d just like to be left alone to live normal lives.   They don’t seem to be especially hopeful about making peace with the Palestinians.   In fact, they take it as a given that the status quo – mutual alienation with frequent, albeit limited, acts of violence – is as good as Israel’s ever going to get.  Israelis want to be able to go to beaches, nightclubs, or museums without worrying about ethnic tensions.   They choose to get on with their lives with as little fear as possible and, for the most part, with clear consciences.   Their goal isn’t to be freedom fighters or justice seekers.  They just want to be left alone.

I doubt, however, that the same perspective is shared in Hebron or Ramallah.   From the Palestinian perspective, the “Occupation” (as the Israeli status quo is known) is a monstrosity that has to stop, and their job is actively to resist it.   My Palestinian friends seem to take it on faith that they will win their struggle, for the international community will not tolerate Israeli injustices much longer.  Palestinians can agree to disagree about whether the result will be two states, one state, or some creative binational arrangement – or whether acts of violence against Israelis are acceptable means of furthering a just outcome.  But to a person, they refuse to believe that the Occupation will continue and refuse to allow the Israelis to live their hoped-for “normal” lives until justice is served.   In short, they contend that the world must treat Israel as a pariah state, and Israelis must be scared or shamed into doing the right thing. 

So there you have it -- two peoples with altogether different aspirations and perspectives living on the same tiny piece of land.  Internationally, we used to call it the Holy Land.  Then it became known as a war zone.  And now it’s just a place that most people would just as soon not think about – it’s neither threatening nor depressing enough to compel our interest.  

In 2015, everyone in my nuclear family will have travelled in Israel – some for extended periods of time.  I can’t tell you how proud I am that one of my daughters is leading a group of American Jews on their first trip ever to their ancestral homeland.  Is Israel a perfect place?  Do its leaders treat their Palestinian population with respect and dignity they deserve?  Or pursue all appropriate paths to reconciliation?   Sadly, I am forced to answer “no” to each of those questions. 

But damned if I am going to stop supporting the Jewish State.   And damned if I am going to hold the Israelis to higher moral standards than other peoples are expected to attain.  If the Palestinians want peace, they too must do their part.  They’re going to have to treat Israeli aspirations with respect.   They’re going to have to recognize that the Israelis have their own historical claim to “the Land,” and that this claim didn’t start in the 1940s … or for that matter, the 1890s.  Finally, they’re going to have to live with the fact that as long as Palestinians support only a strategy of “resistance” rather than compromise and reconciliation, the Israelis will just go about their lives paying the bare minimum of attention to the prospects for peace. 

The Israelis have the power, so they’re the ones with the clearest opportunity to make peace.  But it’s precisely because they have the power that they can’t be expected to seize that opportunity unless and until the Palestinians make it worth their while.  So far, because neither side wants to go out of its way to reconcile with the other, we have a seemingly intractable status quo marked by a self-delusion on both sides.  The Palestinians narcotize themselves with their senses of victimization and hope in a “just” future, and the Israelis pretend that everything is peaceful and secure (meaning that the only alternatives they can imagine are even less so). 

As for the American Jews, we can continue to visit the State of Israel, all the while basking in her historical landmarks, her natural beauty, and her incredible economic and military accomplishments.   But as a pilgrimage, it’s not quite what it used to be when I first traveled to Israel in 1981.  That was just a few years after the Camp David Accords were signed.  There was reason for optimism.  If Israel could make peace with Egypt, why not the Palestinians?

I still can’t answer that question.  Maybe my friend’s book will explain to me that peace with the Palestinians is not possible (that perspective is all the rage these days), but I’m hoping he’s going to take a different approach.   I’m going to continue to pray for peace, whether it’s possible or not.  In other words, I’m going to continue to pray for reconciliation and compromise.  You see, I don’t see Israel as “just another country” where people fearlessly swim in the sea and hike in the hills.   I see Israel – and Palestine -- as the home of several of the world’s great religions.  It’s not enough to aspire for such a place to be “normal.”  We must aspire for it to be a land of righteousness.   And that begins with at least some measure of justice for all its inhabitants.  Then, and only then, can we live secure lives at peace with ourselves and our neighbors.


(Note -- due to my trip to California, I expect to return to blogging on the weekend of January 9th/10th.   In the meantime, have a Happy Holiday Season!)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Ten Thoughts on Trump



 1.   According to Webster’s, a “demagogue” is “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.”  In recent memory, I can’t think of any American politician who fits this description better than Donald Trump.

2.   Still, Trump isn’t the central villain here.  While he may be the most prominent figure walking down his path of choice, plenty of others are responsible for paving that path.  For the past quarter century, Rush Limbaugh and his progeny have been trading in vituperation and polarization.  CNN and the other cable news networks have played their part as well, always going for the most sensationalist story and never worrying about beating a story to death if it gets ratings.  And let’s not forget the politicians on both sides of the aisle; when is the last time we’ve seen profiles in courage from Capitol Hill?

3.   Let me make the point a bit differently.  Why is Trump so popular?   We can all reel off many good reasons that paint a sorry portrait of the American public – they’re prejudiced, they’re uneducated, they’re short-sighted, they’re parochial … blah, blah, blah.  But there’s one reason underlying his popularity that speaks well of the electorate:  they’re responding to the fact that he’s giving a middle finger to the political establishment.  The establishment deserves that middle finger.  They, not Trump, are the ones most responsible for the decline of the American political sphere, a decline that has been going on relentlessly for decades.

4.   Trump is a born entertainer with an excellent sense of comedic timing.   In a different era, he could have played the Borscht Circuit.  There was a point during this campaign when I just sat back and enjoyed the comedy – like when he called Anthony Weiner a “perv.”  Trump seems stuck in grade school, which is probably when our senses of humor are at their height.  I’ll tell you this much, he’s a whole lot more talented as a comedian than the guy they picked to replace Jon Stewart.

5.   Sadly, though, I haven’t laughed at anything Trump has said in a long time.  He has become too dangerous a figure to evoke humor at this point.  What I have laughed at is the criticism that is being heaped upon him by men like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.   Do they honestly think that their criticism will derail the Trump Express?  Trump may be dangerous, but they have already proven to be extremely destructive themselves.

6.   Trump is from Queens. Archie Bunker was from Queens.  Discuss.

7.   I find it difficult to believe that Trump will be elected President, even if he gets the nomination.  Hillary Clinton is not the most popular or even talented politician, but she is known to be extremely experienced and intelligent, and her views are essentially moderate.   How can she lose to a fringe candidate like Trump?   Well, consider the polls.  When you look at the numbers on Real Clear Politics, Clinton is beating Trump by only three percent in head-to-head polling, whereas in the spring and summer, she held double digit leads.   It doesn’t pay to underestimate that guy – or perhaps it is better to say that it doesn’t pay to overestimate the American voter.  After all, they gave W a second term.

8.   Trump is doing a lot to catalyze the forces of bigotry generally and xenophobia in particular.  Now it is incumbent on his opponents to catalyze the forces of universalism.  Talk is cheap.  If you oppose Trump, demonstrate that opposition with action.  Join interfaith organizations.  Get to know the people who Trump lambasts and ask them what you can do to help.   Don’t just sit on your butts and criticize – that is not what it means to be part of the solution.

9.   Jewish and Japanese people in particular need to join the fight against Trumpism.  We’ve been the target of his brand of politics before.  In the case of my fellow Jews, it has cost us many millions of lives and an entire civilization (Eastern European Jewry).  To be sure, the situation back in the 30s and 40s was very different than the situation today, but can we really not see the profound parallels? 

10.   How do we take Trump down as a political candidate?  Honestly, that’s not an easy question. As indicated above, the guy is not without political skills.  And he seems to be clothed in Teflon – the more outrageous his statements, the more popular he becomes.  Honestly, the best way to defeat Trump would be for the political establishment to start behaving as statesmen, and not as hypocrites, but you and I both know that won’t happen soon.   So, realistically, how best do we take Trump down as a political candidate?   For now, I’ll just have to leave that question to you to ponder.  In the meantime, get busy working AGAINST his causes: not with words, but with action.  Pretty much every city in America has at least one interfaith organization.  This coming week, find out the name of such an organization in your city, and join up.  You owe that to Donald Trump.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Separated at Birth

On Thursday, December 3rd, page D5 of the Washington Post dealt exclusively with two men, neither of whom is from the DC area. They happen to be two of the greatest sports icons of their generation, and two of the greatest competitors in the history of sport. Neither one has retired, but both have long since passed their primes. And now, finally, they are publicly coming to grips with that fact.

Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant turned professional in the same year, 1996. They became champions of their sport, over and over again, spanning a lengthy period, and continued to amass accolades through 2013, when Woods was named for the 11th time as the PGA Player of the Year and Bryant was named for the 11th time as a member of the First Team All-NBA team. On the playing field, both set lofty goals that they came close to reaching, but never will. In Woods’ case, it was to defeat Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Major Championships (Woods won 14, the second most in history), and in Bryant’s case it was to equal or exceed Michael Jordan’s collection of six NBA Titles (Bryant will be forced to stop at five).

For Woods and Bryant, their celebrity extends way beyond their accomplishments as athletes. To begin, they are known for their similar personalities: driven beyond compare, ferociously intense, reserved with fellow competitors and the media, impatient with anyone who doesn’t live up to their standards. Sadly, they are also known for their sexual infidelities. Bryant was once charged by the authorities with sexual assault stemming from an incident that allegedly occurred when his wife was pregnant. In connection with the same matter, Bryant resolved a civil suit with a written admission that “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” As for Woods, he became a punch line after the extent of his extramarital sex life was publicly revealed over a period of weeks at the end of 2009. Reportedly, he paid $100 million to divorce his wife, later took up with another celebrity (skier Lindsey Vonn), but watched that relationship end as well due to his own further infidelities.

Until recently, Bryant and Woods were additionally linked by their willingness to deny the inevitability of their declines as athletes. While their bodies clearly gave out a couple of years ago, they spoke publicly as if a return to greatness is just around the corner. Bryant is healthier now than he’s been in the last couple of years, and indeed he has been hoisting up an incredible number of shots as if he still thinks he plays on a Hall of Fame level. In reality, though, his shots rarely go in the basket. Woods has spent the last couple of years enduring the same pathetic cycle: having surgery, rehabbing his body, insisting that he is getting his game back to form, performing poorly when he finally gets the chance to play tournaments, and then getting reinjured. In Woods’ case, the only victim of his spectacle has been his own personal reputation as a player. In Bryant’s case, his decision to monopolize the ball long after his skills have left him has caused his team to become one of the league’s worst; the once-proud Lakers now have a record of 3-16, and have the dubious distinction of being the one team that has lost to the 1-19 Philadelphia 76ers.

When I chronicle all these facts, I shouldn’t be surprised that Bryant and Woods have so many detractors, even haters. Woods, in particular, has been the subject of scorn, perhaps because his sport is associated with gentility, and Tiger has never been Mr. Congeniality, even when he was in his prime. Considering the general level of schadenfreude in our society, I suspect that Tiger’s recent comebacks have given rise to no shortage of glee, as he stumbled his way to one missed cut after another despite having proclaimed during pre-tournament interviews that his golf game was on the right track. Given all the Laker haters in this country, it would be reasonable to assume that that Kobe’s nightly egg-laying tour has similarly given rise to laughter in arenas all around the country. People enjoy it when arrogant superstars ultimately get their comeuppance.

Supposedly, it’s all about karma. And indeed, as long as Kobe and Tiger were in denial, you got the impression that their careers would continue to go deeper and deeper into the tank. But just in the past week, the script changed. Kobe announced his retirement, effective at the end of this season, and he did so with style. In a poem that was submitted to a public website, Kobe provided an ode to his fans: “You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream. And I’ll always love you for it. But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer. This season is all I have left to give. My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.” Tiger, for his part, was more prosaic, but the point was the same. On Tuesday, he spoke to the media about how his body has reached the point where all he can do is walk, and he has no timetable for a return to competitive golf. “There’s really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards,” he admitted, after undergoing three procedures on the same part of his back in the past 18 months. But then he added, that with 79 PGA Tour victories and 14 Major Championships, “if that’s all it entails, then I’ve had a pretty good run.”

A pretty good run indeed. During the 12 years that elapsed between his first Major victory and the time that his marital infidelities were revealed to the world, Tiger played golf at a higher level than it’s ever been played. He made Jack Nicklaus look like a plodder by comparison, and that’s no small task. Tiger was a gladiator – a guy who would will himself to a dramatic victory when he wasn’t playing particularly well, and lap the field when he was. He was must see TV, and may I add – his was a refreshing face in a sport that was as white as a hotel sheet. Personally, I view myself as a golf fan today who enjoys watching minor tournaments when I have a few spare minutes and greatly enjoy the Majors. But I owe my fandom to one man and one man only, and his name is Tiger Woods.

His Doppelganger, Mr. Bryant, has never been quite as successful. Nobody has ever claimed, for example, that Kobe is the best of all time. Top five? That’s a stretch. Top ten? Probably. Top twelve? Definitely. But he was not in Tiger’s league as a winner. And yet that’s no indictment, for if you are a basketball player and your name isn’t Bill Russell or Michael Jordan, you can’t be in that league – but you can still be viewed as an all-time great who in the words of Charles Barkley has been a “privilege and an honor” to watch.

This past Wednesday in my home town, Kobe showed up with a resignation that the sun was setting on his career. Most likely, he expected to play the clown once again in what would be surely be another Laker defeat. But strangely enough, he walked into a lovefest, and he was the beloved. I could tell something was up as I passed by the arena on the way to the subway during my evening commute. I saw so many jerseys bearing the name “Bryant” that it felt like I was living in LA. When I turned on the game after coming home, the DC sports fans were loudly and repeatedly chanting “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe.” As if each fan was personally responsible for lifting up his aging legs, Bryant responded with 31 points, while leading his team to a four point victory over a squad that had beaten LeBron James in its previous game. Asked later if he was surprised about the crowd’s reception, Bryant responded “Yes, I thought everybody hated me. It’s really cool, man.”

Say what you want about the problems with our nation’s capital, but this past Wednesday night, there was no better place to be than inside DC’s Verizon Center. Whether you are a fan of the Lakers or the Wizards, or just a basketball aficionado, if you showed up at that arena, the odds are that you were expressing love for Kobe Bryant. You were practicing what is the essence of religion: thanking your benefactor. For surely, all true basketball fans would have to recognize that a competitor like Kobe Bryant is truly one of our benefactors.

I’ll sign off now and let everyone get back to the obsession with violence that seems to be engulfing our society. But I wanted to take some time this morning to recognize that there is more to life than fighting wars – be they against infidels, guns, terror, or whatever. There is also time for play – and for playing games with the eye of the Tiger and the joy of a warrior. Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods came into our lives at around the same time and will likely leave the public stage at the same time as well. But during the interim, they demonstrated what it means to “leave it all” on the playing field. Let the haters laugh at the demise of their careers and mock them for their personal shortcomings. I, for one, intend to think positive thoughts about them – not as role models, but as gladiators. They have made me a bigger fan of their sports and of sport generally. And I encourage each of you, if you get the chance, to watch them play live, and applaud them for their efforts. While there may be karma for athletes with fidelity problems, there is surely also karma for fans who know how and when to express gratitude.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Thanksgiving Weekend Plea


“All happiness or unhappiness depends solely on the quality of the object to which we are bound by love.”

Spinoza wrote those words in one of his earliest works, the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect.  But this morning, I’d like to tweak them a bit.   Here’s my version:  “So much happiness or unhappiness depends solely on the quality of the object to which we are bound by hatred.”

You have to pardon me, but I spent part of the last couple of days putting the finishing touches on my newest essay, entitled “Spinoza on Love and Hate.”  In my research, it became clear that of these two emotions, love took the lead role for Spinoza.  But it was also clear that Spinoza believed that hatred is both more ubiquitous and more important than most of us would like to believe.  I didn’t have to be convinced.  I’ve always thought that people are in denial when it comes to the prevalence and profundity of hatred.  

Here are some snippets from the sage of Amsterdam:  “It is rarely the case that men live by the guidance of reason; their condition is such that they are generally disposed to envy and mutual dislike.” “Men are prone to hatred and envy, and this is accentuated by their upbringing.  For parents are wont to incite their children to excellence solely by the spur of honor and envy.” “Men are far more inclined to revenge than to repay a benefit.” “Men are by nature enemies, and even when they are joined and bound together by laws they still retain their nature.” 

All of those words were written more than 300 years ago.  Do they remain true?  Or has the arc of the moral universe bent so far toward justice in the past few centuries that these statements seem antiquated?  Personally, I take some of those quotations to be a tad exaggerated, but only a tad.  It is certainly the case that envy, revenge, mistrust, bigotry, and violence are alive and well.  It is also the case that when Spinoza painted a portrait of the human condition characterized primarily by insecurity and competitiveness, he demonstrated how slowly indeed the arc of the moral universe bends.   Just turn on the television – news, drama, whatever you prefer:  are you likely to see a profile in love or in hatred?  Security or fear?   Anger or compassion?

Even the voices of “progressivism” right now are obsessed with their enemies.  For a while, it was the NRA.  Then, it was Netanyahu.  Now, it’s the xenophobes and the other bigots.  So there you have it – it is not enough for the progressives to be engulfed by hatred.  Now, they have to be hatefully obsessed with hatred itself.

While I have no idea exactly what the progressive’s obsession du jour will be tomorrow, I think it is safe to say that it will not be an object to which they will be bound by love, but rather an object to which they will be bound by hatred.  And needless to say, the same can be said about their political opponents, who may claim to be followers of Ronald Reagan, but don’t come close to having the Gipper’s positive vision of progress.  He traded on hope, whereas his contemporary “disciples” trade on fear.  And anger.  Such is life in 2015.

It is difficult to write the above words this weekend, which should be a time of gratitude.  We all have so much to be thankful for, and it is precisely those things – the objects that bind us by love, not hatred – that we need to take stock in more often.  As Spinoza argued, hatred is impossible to avoid altogether, for any time we feel pain, we are prone to feeling hatred.  But at least we can avoid the more grandiose manifestations of hatred, such as envy and anger, and we certainly should be able to avoid feeling the kind of inner-rage that seems to be on the ascendancy today, and not just in the Middle East. 

How do we defeat hatred?  Only by love.   That was Spinoza’s teaching back in the 17th century, and it remains true today.

This Thanksgiving weekend, please remind yourselves of the people you love the most, the institutions you love the most, the artists and writers you love the most, the qualities in yourself you love the most, the aspects of your planet that you love the most, and the vision of the future that you love the most.  Just for this one weekend, let yourself be defined by what you cherish, not by who you fight.   

And when you’re making your list, allow me to remind you not to forget about God.  Spinoza, for all his heresies, would require me to make that point.  After all, it was Spinoza – who many take to be an atheist – who wrote that the love toward God “cannot be stained by the emotion of envy, nor again by the emotion of jealousy,” and “there is no emotion directly contrary to this love by which this love can be destroyed.”  Accordingly, Spinoza added, our love toward God “is the most constant of all emotions … and cannot be destroyed except together with the body.”  


I would never say that the belief in God is for everyone, but I am heartened to say that for those who do believe, the Holy Name provides an incredibly powerful object of affection.  These days, I feel like we’re fortunate whenever such an object presents itself.  I’ve had enough with all the hatred.  

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Turning Washington, D.C. into a Hotbed of Reconciliation


Tomorrow, in a suburb of Washington, D.C., several dozen Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from the Greater Washington Area will assemble for the purpose of engaging in two activities.  First, we will see if we can identify a social action cause that both communities can embrace and tackle together.  Second, we will try to match up individual congregations of Jews and Muslims to form “twinning” relationships that can hopefully continue for months, or even years.

I have spent a lot of time during the past several weeks coordinating this event and am incredibly excited about the prospects.  I can see the event being a great boon to Muslim-Jewish reconciliation in this area, and yet I can also see the possibility that it will accomplish little, due to a lack of follow-up.   Ultimately, the responsibility for the event’s success lays with its participants – the rabbis, imams and lay leaders who will assemble.   It is clear to me that they all care about Muslim-Jewish reconciliation and engagement, but they are also beset with a myriad of other demands on their time.  It is not like the organizers are poised to lock them into a room for months until they’ve somehow bonded into lean, mean, interfaith machines.   We organizers are going to lead these horses to water, but we can’t make them drink.  In other words, we can’t force them to prioritize Muslim-Jewish activities above all their other duties.  Believe me, though, we’re going to try to inspire them.  And as far as I’m concerned, the world needs us to succeed.

I would love to go on and discuss the event in more detail, but because of my role and the fact that we’re only a day away, I don’t have the time to extensively blog this morning.  What I can say, however, is that I’ll accept your prayers.   Please pray that the stars align.  Pray that the speakers find their voices.  Pray that the social action cause that the group votes on is an inspired choice.  And above all else, pray that those rabbis and imams who exchange names and phone numbers tomorrow afternoon actually follow-up and pursue these relationships going forward.


Jews and Muslims are the closest of cousins.   It is time for us to recognize all that we have in common rather than to obsess exclusively about our differences.   May tomorrow afternoon provide a significant step in that direction.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Coping with Madness in the 21st Century




What a crazy morning this has been.  One minute, I’m looking at last night’s photographs from the streets of Paris – the filled body bags, the wounded survivors, the ubiquitous policemen.  The next minute, I’m looking at the photographs that have just now been released from my daughter’s wedding – the beaming bride and groom, the adoring friends, and yes, even the proud, balding father-of-the-bride.  

There is so much in life to be thankful for, and nothing quite like wedding pictures to bring that point home.  But today, it is difficult to devote ourselves to thanksgiving.  It is a day that should be devoted to contemplation – and sorrow.

I call this blog the Empathic Rationalist, based on the philosophy espoused in my first novel, The Creed Room. The centerpiece of that philosophy was a simple rallying cry: Let passion be your sail, reason your keel, and empathy your rudder.   You will note that in the name of that philosophy, the “reason” element is the noun and the “empathy” element only the adjective, but when it came time to formulate a credo, it was empathy that was featured the most.  We are advised to steer our way through life primarily using our empathy.   After all, passion can be violent, and reason can be cold.  But empathy?  It is almost always a thing of beauty.

This morning, however, I find that my empathy is being challenged.  To be sure, it’s easy enough to empathize with the victims of the Paris attacks and their families.  But for every moment I spend feeling compassion for them, I spend another moment feeling hatred for the terrorists who turned Paris into a bloodbath.  (It is OK to use the term “terrorist” for those creatures, is it not?   When civilians are killed in Israel, I note that in many circles, the terrorists/murderers are often thought of compassionately, more as soldiers than as terrorists.  But hopefully, I can use the T word for the perpetrators of last night’s massacre and not worry that there is a soul reading this blog who would use a more gentle word on their behalf.)

I keep thinking to myself, how can so many members of our species support the killing of innocent people?  Do I have to think of these killers as human, rather than simply as evil creatures?  Have they not given up their right to claim personhood status?  Or is it appropriate for us to show them at least some measure of compassion, if not because of who they are today, then at least because of who they have the potential to become in the future, if only they can somehow wake up to basic human values?
Maybe my feelings are too raw for me to answer these questions today.   Maybe I’m still too much in shock to reason intelligently about this topic.   So let’s try this.  Let me remind you of what I said in the Creed Room when I addressed this topic under more sober conditions:

“Even the greatest empaths can’t encounter everything, or every one, empathetically.   In fact, no matter how empathic the soul, at times he will encounter a person whom he finds distasteful.  We’re talking eating-a-bad-tomato distasteful.  Perhaps the person is a malicious gossip or a pathological liar.  Perhaps he’s just plain violent.

“To be empathic in these situations doesn’t require turning the other cheek.  Sometimes people have to be confronted and stopped in their tracks.  Yet, even in the darkest of encounters, an empath must act respectfully toward the ‘other.’   He must recognize that this distasteful or violent person is a human being cut from the same basic cloth as the empath himself.  

“When encountering a walking, talking bad tomato, the situation is no different from when the empath recognizes something about himself he doesn’t like.  He doesn’t wallow in self-loathing.  Where’s the respect in that?  For the same reason, he shouldn’t wallow in hatred for others.
“That said, if it turns out that an empath finds himself in the same situation that a certain writer did in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and is forced to witness the ‘other’ raping his wife before his very eyes, we suppose a heaping handful of hatred is in order.  But even then, the pilot light must at least be flickering.”

Those were my words from a decade back, as I contemplated distasteful and even violent individuals.  But what happened last night in Paris wasn’t merely a showcase of one or two distasteful or violent individuals.  The perpetrators of last night’s mayhem didn’t behave like human beings, even sick human beings – they behaved like the Borg from Star Trek.  Wikipedia defines the Borg as “a collection of species that have turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones in a hive mind called the Collective, or the hive.”  In the case of ISIS, we are dealing with creatures that are weaponizing themselves into instruments of terror and homicide, fueled by a belief-system based on sheer contempt for contemporary human beings.  How am I supposed to think of them as people?   Insofar as I think of them at all, how am I supposed to keep that pilot light (of love) flickering?

Nights like last night are indeed eye openers. Perhaps, for the first time, some of my fellow gun control advocates are appreciating the arguments for allowing law abiding citizens to bear arms.  And perhaps President Obama may appreciate the value of confronting extremist Islam as such – rather than using euphemisms to characterize this deadly movement that we are now facing.  I have spoken a fair bit in this post about my first book, The Creed Room. But above all else, when I’m not feeling sorrow for last night’s victims, I’m thinking about one of the themes of my second book, Moses the Heretic.  That’s the one where I spoke about the dangers of rapid and constant advancements in weapons technology.  Last night in Paris, fancy guns killed well over 100 people.  But what will happen in 50 years, when the successors of ISIS gather the most up-to-date biological or chemical weapons available and try to kill 100,000 people?  Do we really believe that can’t happen?  And if it did, are we really expected to empathize with the killers?

So there you have it -- something to think about on a grim Saturday morning.  A little oy to go with your joy.  Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Still the King


Having graduated from college in 1980, I took the following year off to travel, study, and screw around.  My longest trip, which lasted the better part of two months, was to Israel.  It was there that I checked into a yeshiva, thought long and hard about what the rabbis were saying, and decided to be a baal teshuvah, which is another way of saying a born-again Jew.  The rabbis at this yeshiva would surely be proud that they “converted” me from a secular to a religious mindset.  But they wanted more.  They wanted me to move to Israel. 

Honestly, I thought about it.  Life seemed to be more meaningful in that country.   I was overwhelmed with the history of the place and the sense of spirituality that was built in to the architecture.  I felt a greater sense of community there.   And I could relate more to the people; they made me feel at home.  But when push came to shove, I didn’t make the move.  And I recall there being two primary reasons why.  First and foremost, my parents were in America.  As an only child, I needed them and they needed me.  Secondly, and I’m not kidding, there was football.   The season had been over for a couple of months, but that didn’t matter.  I just couldn’t imagine living in a country where I wouldn’t get my constant dose of the gridiron.  Watching that sport had been a passion of mine ever since the mid-60s.   I started out as an NFL fan – a devotee of the Raiders and Vikings, to be specific.  But by the time I graduated college, I was an equally rabid college football fan.  It was my comfort food.   It was my guilty pleasure. 

Decades have elapsed since my flirtation with “making Aliyah” (as they call the decision to emigrate to Israel), but my love for football has never died.  To be sure, on more than one occasion I’ve felt compelled to boycott the sport in order to take a stand against the barons of the professional game.  Even then, however, I’ve continued to watch my beloved Stanford Cardinal.  Watching football is the closest thing I have to a drug addiction.   I’ve lost a bit of my appreciation for the violent side of the game – sadly, it was probably my favorite aspect of the sport when I was younger – but there is plenty of finesse and strategy in football, and believe me, I love every bit of it. 

I’m reflecting on the sport right now because it seems to be so much in control of the American cultural scene this fall.   During the opening weekend of this year’s NFL season, the average prime time telecast drew an audience of 20 million.   This was more than the average World Series telecast.  So basically, early-season football is more popular than baseball at its best.  

And that’s just the NFL.  In many parts of this country, college football is the biggest game in town.  I sure can’t get enough of it.   Just this afternoon, I spent my time at a crowded bar watching the Stanford-Colorado game, and there were probably six or seven other matchups on the tube that I actually cared about.  Tonight, when LSU plays Alabama, the entire Deep South will be watching.  I’ve met many people over the years from states like Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and I can’t think of one who doesn’t love college football. 

Then there’s the high school game.   As bad as my high school team was, football was still the biggest sport there.  In some small towns around here, high school football is a huge deal.  My wife teaches at one of those towns – Damascus, Maryland.  They’ve got the number two team in the Washington area, and I assure you – when that team plays, that town comes alive. 

Those of us who live in Washington DC joke that the Capitals could be in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Wizards in the NBA finals, and the Nationals in the World Series … but the people of DC would still care more about the Redskins even if they stink.  Such is life here in Washington.   Such is life here in most American cities.  There are exceptions, but those are anomalies.  We live in a football crazed country, and that doesn’t seem likely to change no matter how many players get injured or engage in off-the-field misconduct.

I’ve often joked that if you want to know who is going to win the next Presidential election, just ask yourself one question:  which of the two Parties’ nominees would you rather hear as the analyst of a National Football Conference Championship Game?   That’s another way of asking who would America rather have a beer with?   If you go back in time a few decades, you’ll find that this test works virtually every time. 

In our next election, I actually expect this method to fail.  I just don’t see how, “barring injury” (as we football fans would say) Hillary doesn’t win the election.  And Lord knows that nobody wants to hear her get in the booth and analyze the NFC Championship game.  Pot luck would be WAY better at that.


Still, on days like today, when my college team won big and is very much in the thick of things to make the Playoffs, I find myself wondering.  No matter how many reasons I can identify for why Hillary can’t lose, maybe I’m not taking the football test seriously enough.   If there is one thing that unifies Americans, it’s the love of freedom.  But the love of football and all it represents might come in a close second.  While Hillary has indeed enjoyed a charmed fall, she’s still not someone you’d want to have a beer with, let alone announce a football game.  In other words, she’s no Condoleezza Rice.  Both women served as Secretary of State, yet only one shares America’s addiction to the gridiron.  And as long as Hillary isn’t that woman, she’ll remain vulnerable in an American popularity contest.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Perfect Holiday for the District of Columbia


October 31st.  Halloween.   Literally, it means “Holy Eve,” though there are some who consider it to be the opposite of holy.  I just don’t happen to be one of them.

Growing up, Halloween was one of my favorite nights of the year.   It was the one and only date on the calendar when I enjoyed dressing up.  It was the one time where I could collect all sorts of delicious teeth-rotting candy.  And it was the only day when I would knock on a door, only to see it opened by a normally staid adult who was delightfully decked out as a witch or a hippy.   

Halloween was especially gorgeous where I grew up and still live, in a suburb of Washington, D.C.   Kids would line the narrow streets as if they, and not the motorists, owned the place.  The air was brisk, but anything but frigid.  As bad as our summers or even winters can be, that’s how beautiful this city can get in the fall.    

When I think about Halloween in DC, I think first and foremost about my own childhood.  But I also think about the short little scene in the Exorcist, when Ellen Burstyn, dressed impeccably for a DC autumn evening, strolled down the streets of Georgetown, blithely passing by trick or treaters, before she became fixated on the face of Father Damien, one of my all-time favorite movie characters.  Playing in the background to that scene was the haunting sounds of Tubular Bells.  It all lasted less than a minute, but it was poifect – because it left us wanting more.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E919ZV1J1c

Halloween is a creepy festival.  But be honest, we kind of like creepy, don’t we?  Just look at the TV shows that people find addicting.  Breaking Bad?  Creepy.  Homeland?  Creepy.  House of Cards?  Creepy.  Mad Men?  Yup, that can be kind of creepy too.  I don’t know why it is that, as voyeurs, we seem to enjoy the “tricks” perhaps even more than the “treats,” but the evidence is fairly clear.  Maybe we just get tired of playing the role of mature adults every workday from 8 in the morning until 7 at night, so when it comes time to unwind and let our minds wander, we’re ready for a little touch of the twisted.

Let it be so.  Tonight, my wife and I will be home.  That means we’ll be on front-door detail, welcoming the neighborhood children with mouth-rotting candy and smiles.  So we’ll be the ones providing the treats.  As for the “tricks,” they will indeed be supplied by the television set.  You see, we were unable to watch the Republican Presidential debate when it was aired on Wednesday night and we still haven’t had the pleasure of hearing these luminaries deny climate change, scoff at immigration, ignore poverty, or waffle on whether raped women are entitled to abortions.  That’s what we have in store for us tonight. 

Trump will be dressed up as a Vaudeville comedian.   Fiorina as the character in Network who is “mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore.”   Bush as a middle aged man who always wanted to be old and tired, but still entitled.   And that’s not even a third of the boys and girls who’ll be in costume.


I have to admit, I’m kind of looking forward to it.  Sure it’s twisted entertainment, but I kind of like twisted entertainment.  Maybe we should have a little Tubular Bells loop in the background, and we’ll be all set.  Let the pandering begin.  I’m ready for whatever these wild and crazy pols will throw at me.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

First Cousins Enjoy a Night Together as Family


Haytham Younis and I co-founded the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS) at around the time of Barack Obama’s first inauguration.  JIDS is devoted above all else to the principle that Jews and Muslims are first cousins in the family of Abraham.   In the last seven years, we have held several social action events and several dozen dialogues.   Yet I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed any of our sessions more than last Sunday’s meeting at the ADAMS Center, the Washington D.C. area’s largest mosque.

The topic of the meeting was “Pilgrimages in Judaism and Islam.”  The Jews on the panel discussed their first trips to the land of Israel.  On the Muslim side, we heard different descriptions of what it was like to go on the Hajj, as well as one testimonial about a spiritual voyage that led a woman to convert to Islam.  The session lasted for nearly three hours, which included a break for the Muslim prayers.  What was especially notable about this three-hour session was what we did NOT focus on: namely, the political situation in Israel and the tragedy of those who have recently lost their lives during the Hajj stampede.  Personally, I gave an address that lasted about 10-12 minutes, and I think I devoted no more than 20 or 30 seconds to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.  The Shayke who spoke the longest about the Haj devoted even less time to the stampede, despite the fact that literally thousands died in that tragedy.  We fully understand the importance of the topics we were sidestepping.   But we weren’t going to let anything get in the way of our goal, which was to pay a wholehearted tribute to the idea of a pilgrimage.    

I am reminded of a statement by a local rabbi who taught me that while Judaism used to be 10% about joy and 90% about oy, we’re trying to change that.   Last Sunday evening, we were looking for a joy/oy ratio of more like 99/1.  Lord knows that it’s not a ratio we could find on television.  If you want to obsess about injustice and war, death and destruction, hatred and fear, you need only turn on your television set or open a newspaper.  Your local newscast is a particularly good source.  Surely, it will begin with a story about a shooting, political scandal, or devastating weather event.   If it isn’t about pain, it’s not considered newsworthy.

Last Sunday’s event surely wouldn’t be considered newsworthy.   After all, we weren’t talking about pain; we were talking about reverence, which, as Spinoza would say, is never painful.  We were talking about the euphoria of standing in front of a simple stone wall that happens to be the most holy spot in the world for religious Jews, while surrounded by people engaged in the most passionate prayer imaginable.   And we were talking about the euphoria of walking in a massive group of people, all of whom were wearing the simplest white clothing, while approaching a relatively small black stone building that happens to be the most holy spot in the world for religious Muslims.  We spoke of how these experiences deepened our love for the Holy Name – how they made us feel peaceful, inspired, awestruck, blessed.   We spoke of the pure joy of losing our sense of isolation as we began to feel oneness with our fellow human beings.   Prime ministers, doctors, shopkeepers, sharecroppers – no matter who they are, as they approach the Western Wall or the Kaaba, their social status fades away.   The first person singular becomes the first person plural, and the “I” gives way to the “We.”  Finally, our attention turns to the One who is not plural – the Eternal Thou.   The Infinite One.   The God of Abraham.     

One of the things I learned last Sunday was that the reason why Muslims pray towards Mecca is not because Muhammad originally came from there.  Rather, an imam explained, Muslims first prayed towards Jerusalem, but then decided to pray towards Mecca in homage to the fact it was Mecca where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael in accord with Allah’s directive.  We Jews, by contrast, are taught that it was Isaac, not his brother, who was almost sacrificed, and that this event took place in Jerusalem, not Mecca.  But what I found most striking about this story is not the differences between the two faiths, but their similarity: in both faiths, the single most influential prophet is celebrated above all else for his humility.  By recognizing Mecca as the place of greatest holiness, Muhammad wasn’t celebrating himself so much as his father Abraham, whose devotion to God represents the greatest of role models for Muhammad himself. 


Last Sunday’s JIDS session was a celebration of what Jews and Muslims have in common.  It was a reminder of how both peoples have shared the same beloved, and that this shared love is so powerful that it is capable of blinding us with euphoria despite all the suffering and injustice that is taking place throughout the world.  As a lawyer who fights fraud for a living and devotes much of his spare time to confronting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I am constantly reminded of so much that is wrong with human society.  I am also frequently reminded of the extent to which Jews and Muslims battle with each other with knives, guns, words, and visions.  But no spirit, and certainly not a successful human being, can live on “oy” alone.   We need to take time to recognize what is beautiful in this world, how lucky we are to be alive, and to whom we owe this life and all others.   Last Sunday, a group of Jews and Muslims did just that.  And what we found is that when you get right down to it, the love that binds us together is a whole lot more profound than the fear and resentment that split us apart.   

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Tuesday Night's Debate


It’s very important to me that politicians are authentic and not merely addicted to expediency.  I respect and even like some politicians who don’t agree with me on the issues.  I like them because they seem to be people of vision who argue for what they believe in, even if it means taking exception with most of the voters or with the power-brokers who bankroll elections.  

It’s also important to me that politicians can look at the status quo and identify important topics in which they want to do more than just a little reformist tinkering.  In other words, the politicians I respect aspire to be true change agents, which means not merely to talk about “hope and change” as abstract concepts but to advocate concrete measures for dramatically transforming our government and our society.

Finally, it’s extremely important to me that politicians have the utmost integrity.  I can’t abide even the appearance of impropriety.   I like politicians who bend over backgrounds to honor the spirit of morality.  In other words, I like politicians who don’t expect to be given special dispensations and privileges because of their self-perceived exalted status.  

Going into this past Tuesday’s debate, Bernie Sanders appeared to have a huge advantage over Hillary Clinton among Democratic voters who share those perspectives.   Whether you’re a political moderate or a socialist, you’d have to appreciate that Bernie doesn’t hold up a finger to see which way the wind is blowing.  Like Howard Cosell used to say, Bernie “tells it like it is” – or at least the way he sees it -- without worrying about how it will play in Peoria.  What’s more, when it comes to Bernie’s beliefs, he sees striking inequities in this country and he has been devoting his campaign to taking them on.  Whether you’re talking about tax policy or campaign finance reform, Bernie advocates transformational steps to support the needs of the poor and the middle class.  Plus, he has been a stalwart throughout his career in standing up to oligarchy.   Nobody would ever say that Bernie is a “Democrat in Name Only.”  As for ethics, I may be missing something, but I don’t recall anything even remotely scandalous about the behavior or the statements of Bernie Sanders, unless you go back to a stupid column that he wrote in 1972 regarding sexual fantasies.   That’s 43 years of scandal-free behavior, which is pretty impressive.  Besides, who am I to hold it against someone for writing a stupid column?

Given what I’ve said, it shouldn’t surprise you that if asked last weekend who I was likely to vote for in the primaries, I would have said Bernie Sanders.   But now?   I’m taking a serious look at supporting Hillary.   You see, I learned something about myself watching that debate.   It’s not enough for a politician to be uber-principled and squeaky clean.  Apparently, I feel in my bones that for politicians to be worthy of the term “statesman,” they must display an even more important trait.  They must be fighters!   That means that when they’re running for office, they must be “in it to win it” and display that will-to-win with abandon.   It also means that once they’re elected, they must be willing not only to compromise when appropriate but also to wage fierce, unrelenting, and pragmatic battles with their political opponents if that is what’s necessary to get the job done.  I’m not sure that Bernie has the right stuff to be called a “fighter” in those senses of the word.

Look.  I understand that when Bernie grabs a microphone on the stump, he speaks with passion.  But frankly, any good professor can speak passionately.  What does that prove?  It’s not hard to speak fervently when you’re addressing a group of adoring fans or a bunch of students who are depending on you for a good grade.   Where’s the accountability in that?  A true fighter is someone who goes to battle in an arena of accountability and demonstrates that their platform can withstand scrutiny.  The only way for that to happen is to get in the face of a worthy adversary and mix it up – offering an argument as well as a reply to the adversary’s counter-argument.  That’s certainly the way the system works in a court of law.  In the case of a fighter who is running for office, especially if they start out as the underdog, it’s rarely enough to elucidate their own positions.  An underdog candidate has to have the guts and the skill to tear into the positions or the conduct of their adversary. 

Sadly, I saw none of that fighting spirit from Bernie Sanders on Tuesday.

By contrast, Hillary isn’t afraid to mix it up.  On gun control, the one issue where her record is more within the mainstream of the Democratic Party than Bernie’s, Hillary let him have it.  She spoke forcefully against Bernie as being insufficiently progressive as an advocate of sensible gun laws.  It was a bold move on her part because she’s the heavy favorite and didn’t need to tear into him in order to emerge the favorite; she needed only to avoid taking major hits from Bernie.  The gun control issue came up early in the debate, and Hillary’s aggressive tone could easily have inspired Bernie to take an equally aggressive tone in response on a variety of issues in which Hillary was more vulnerable.  Under the circumstances, I could thus have excused Hillary for toning down the rhetoric with the hope that Bernie would return the favor.  But Hillary went for the jugular, as you’d expect her to if you’ve watched her over the years.  Hillary, you see, is a fighter, and she is very much “in it to win it.”   That opened the door for Bernie to fight back. 

So what did Bernie do?  He stayed with his stump speech.  He answered every question like he was alone on the podium, introducing himself and his policies to his adoring fans.  He made few if any efforts to differentiate himself from Hillary, let alone to put her on the defensive.   When it came to the moment of the night, an opportunity for him to address Hillary’s latest scandal (the one involving e-mails), he proclaimed not only that he wouldn’t enter the fray but that he’s sick and tired of ANYONE who dares to enter that fray.  

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Bernie Sanders was auditioning for the role of Sgt. Raymond Shaw in the Manchurian Candidate – with Hillary playing the Angela Lansbury role.  She could not have scripted more pro-Hillary answers than the ones that came out of Bernie’s mouth.  Either he was explicitly saying “It is inappropriate to mess with my opponent by ever addressing this issue” or “I am willing to address this issue but not in a way that could in any way embarrass my opponent or harm her chances in the general election.”  

Tell me, was this whole debate choreographed?  Because whether or not we deserved a boxing match or a hard-hitting football game, at least I thought we deserved better than WWF.

The truth is that I’m not a conspiracy theorist.  I don’t really believe that the Party Establishment entered into some sort of arrangement with Bernie whereby he’d play the role of the Washington Generals and Hillary would get to be the Harlem Globetrotters.  Bernie seems to me to be his own man, not someone else’s puppet.  But that doesn’t mean he is a true fighter.

Anyone can grab a microphone and speak loudly into it.  But it takes a fighter to get into the face of a master debater like Hillary Clinton and explain to the nation that if she is elected President, nobody could possibly know where she will stand on any issue because she always seem to advocate whatever position is popular with her core constituency du jour.  Bernie Sanders had every right to make that claim and to make it over and over again.  The path to victory involved making that claim, hearing Hillary’s retort, and then being mentally nimble enough to respond powerfully to that retort.  But instead, Bernie just punted.  Believe me, if the shoe were on the other foot, Hillary would be dry-needling Bernie right where it hurts the most -- as we observed in 2008 when she questioned whether the relatively inexperienced Barack Obama could be trusted to answer that fateful “3:00 a.m. call” in a strong and responsible way. 


I will withhold judgment on who will get my vote in next year’s Maryland Democratic Primary.  But as for who will win more delegates between Hillary and Bernie, I think that question was definitively answered on Tuesday night.  Hillary will be fighting for those delegates between now and the Convention.  Bernie may be fighting for his principles, but none of those principles apparently includes getting the nomination.