Sunday, April 26, 2015

In Support of Political Infighting

Lately, I’ve been noticing some new developments on the national political stage – Republicans are fighting Republicans, Democrats are fighting Democrats, and it’s getting nasty. Thank God.   My hope is that we are seeing just the beginning of elephant-against-elephant and donkey-against-donkey verbal warfare.  

As a Democrat, I’m particularly happy when my own side fights it out.  Some might view that reaction as perverse, but I believe that a healthy political party in a two-party system is one (a) with leaders who care deeply about causes and ideologies, (b) that encompasses a substantial political spectrum (otherwise known as a “big tent”), and (c) whose members aren’t fearful about taking aim at anyone who tries to assert “party orthodoxy.”   Surely, this is a formula for failure in a totalitarian state – or, for that matter, in any military organization.  But I don’t want my party to impose martial law on its members.  I want to see a free, vigorous, internal debate over ideas.   I want to be given a choice among competing visions.  And now that that the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that it has marginalized itself as your great, great grandfather’s party (assuming that “you” are a white Christian), if we’re going to be given the lively debate we deserve, we need to hear that from competing Democrats.

During the past week, the Pacific trade bill has woken up the Democratic populists, and they’re taking square aim at the bill -- and by implication, the policies of the Democratic President who supports it.  When Elizabeth Warren talks about the bill, there’s no avoiding the implication of her message:  one too many times, this Administration has neglected the interests of working class and middle class Americans.  According to Warren, this bill, the details of which are hidden from the American public, figures to put yet another nail in the coffin for the jobs of many blue collar workers, and the President seems to have washed his hands of their fates.  President Obama, for his part, called out Warren for being flat out wrong on trade.  He sees her brand of protectionism as bad for consumers, bad for America’s opportunity to compete on the international stage, and bad for the economy as a whole.  He obviously sees himself as the guy who saved that economy from falling off a cliff in 2009 and is equally proud of measures like the Affordable Care Act that were intended to help the middle class.  But let’s face it: if Elizabeth Warren were President, marginal tax rates would be higher, inequalities would be lower, and MAYBE (and here’s the real issue) the median American standard of living would be higher as well.   It’s that MEDIAN standard of living figure or the poverty rate figures that matters to Warren much more than such figures as the aggregate GNP or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

So there you have it – distinct policy approaches, competing visions, and enough self-confidence on the part of the combatants to air their grievances.  I call it a healthy debate.
Frankly, prior to the last week or so, I’d grown sick and tired of my Party’s sleepwalking through one potential ideological battle after another.   Where have the Democratic critics been of this Administration?   Have they taken him on regarding Afghanistan?  How about Iraq policy?  Syria policy?  Drone policy?  Government surveillance policy?   Tax policy?  Wall Street reform?  Israel/Palestine policy?  

I’m not saying here that the Administration has been wrong in all these areas; whether I personally agree with Obama or not is missing the point.  The problem is that on the Democratic side, we’ve hardly had a real debate – and I mean that we haven’t had a real debate in AGES.  Even when Hillary Clinton ran against Obama in 2008, their ideological differences were minimal. (Yes, Barack took Hillary on for her vote in support of the Iraq War, but did that reflect a difference in policy or merely that Hillary was a U.S. Senator at the time and Obama could afford to cast his no vote in a much more forgiving forum?) Both of these politicians were center-left pragmatists who rarely took a public stand for any cause that was not favored by a majority of the American public.   

It has been virtually an entire generation since the Democratic Party was up for grabs between two or more largely contrasting visions of governance.   That’s one reason we haven’t seen any young Democrats emerge as visionaries.  The talent on display is mostly old, and their interests seem to be more geared toward how to get elected than how to govern once elected.   Just think about the so-called “young talent” on the Democratic side.   Who comes to mind?   I’m still waiting.   What’s that you say -- the Castro brothers from Texas?  Fine, they’re handsome, they’re well-educated, they speak Spanish.  Now tell me one cause about which you’ve heard them effectively demonstrate their knowledge and passion on a national stage.  I can’t think of one either.

Let’s face it -- my Party has been going on automatic pilot, and it’s time to let some flesh-and-blood statesmen and women take the wheel rather than to cruise through another election cycle by counting on the Republican Party to crash their plane first.

I sorely miss not having a contested Democratic Primary in 2016.  I think it just stinks.  But I’m reconciled to the fact that nobody with a snowball’s chance in hell is willing to take on the Clinton machine.  So instead, all I can do is sit back and hope that there will be more intra-party battles in which the rhetoric gets hotter and hotter. Maybe some other Democrat will show that they actually care enough about some principle or cause that they’re willing to piss off the powers-that-be.   At least we have the one -- Elizabeth Warren.  Her cause is fighting economic inequality, and there is no doubting her commitment to that cause.   The problem is, she’s not running for President and she’s already 65 years old.  

Warren may well become as influential as Ted Kennedy was after Chappaquiddick.  But I’m more interested in the Party developing candidates who are as influential as Kennedy could have been were it not for Chappaquiddick.   The only way we’ll find them is if our politicians become true pugilists who will fight anyone and anything that gets in their way.  Let the hair pulling, ear biting, and kickboxing begin.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Laryngitis in Israel

I am back in the states after having spent Passover in the place known throughout much of the world as the “Holy Land.”   That, actually, is a Christian term for the place also known as “Israel” or “Palestine” (depending on your perspective).   When I’m there, life just seems more meaningful.  The history seems more relevant, the political issues more momentous, and the religious shrines more moving.  Yes, I realize that as a Jew, I have a bias, but you hardly have to be Jewish to think of Israel as the pre-eminent place to do a pilgrimage.  As I learned during a tour of the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, that land is the center of spiritual life for the Baha’i … in addition to the Jews … in addition to the Christians.   Other than the nearby Arabian peninsula, it’s also the holiest spot in the world for the Muslims as well.   As religiously significant places go, this one has no parallel.

This past trip wasn’t my first rodeo in Israel, but it was the first time I showed up there with a virus.  What I thought was just a mild cold when I boarded my connecting flight to Brussels gradually evolved into one hell of an upper-respiratory infection.  First there was the runny nose, then the sore throat, then the bronchitis, then the fever, and finally the laryngitis.  So there I was, in the Holy Land, unable to pontificate, or even to question my interlocutors.  All I was able to do was to take in the majesty of the land and contemplate what had been going on around me.  Frankly, if you have to contract laryngitis, there’s no better place to be than the Holy Land.

More than anything else that I experienced in Israel, I found myself reflecting about the several hour drive that my family took from Jerusalem down to Eilat, at the country’s southern tip.   I had been to Eilat before, but this was the first time I made that trip in one sitting.   It made me think about how desolate the land was throughout the southern half of Israel.   That region receives virtually no precipitation, its topography is rugged, and in places, it looks more like what we’d expect from Earth’s lunar satellite than from Earth itself.  The land of “milk and honey” it’s not.  To be sure, the Negev (as this desert is called) has some date palms and the occasional settlement, but it is hardly primo real estate unless you are a Bedouin, a camel, or a truly odd plant that needs almost no water.

Why was the enormity and bleakness of the Negev so compelling in my state of forced contemplation?   Because it reminded me of just how tiny the “Holy Land” truly is.   People in the US often say that Israel is the size of New Jersey, but when you subtract the Negev, it’s more like the size of Northern Jersey.   Is such a place big enough to serve as the homeland to a great race of people?  Or should that people try to stretch out a bit in the area up north commonly known as the “West Bank”?   I continue to answer that question with a “Hell, no!”  But every time I think of that drive down to Eilat, I can better imagine why so many Israelis would offer a different response.  They feel that they live in a tiny country surrounded by hostile neighbors, and they see no interest on the part of their neighbors to enter into a permanent peace agreement that involves dividing up historical Israel/Palestine into two states.   So, they figure, why not expand into the West Bank and grab some more high-quality land?  If there’s not going to be a two-state solution and Israel needs more elbow room, why not take what’s available?

What’s more, as I reflected on my drive to Eilat, I was reminded of what I heard from so many Orthodox Jews who I encountered during my stay in Jerusalem.   They had different opinions as to whether to share “the land” with Palestinians or to simply figure out a way to pay off the Palestinians to leave, but they all agreed on one point:  the West Bank was “our land.”   I interpreted that to mean that God gave it to the Jews, and observant Jews should live there, regardless of what their secular brethren happen to think.   Once again, I don’t share that perspective, but I can’t deny that it reigns supreme among a large, and growing, segment of the Jewish-Israeli population.

And then, as my contemplation continued, I thought about the Jews of Tel-Aviv.   Israel’s second-largest city is also the home of its most Americanized Jews – which is ironic, given that you are much more likely to hear Hebrew spoken in Tel-Aviv than in Jerusalem.  But Jerusalem is dominated by religion, and its residents are all-too-aware of the “Conflict,” given that they can see the West Bank without having to leave their city.  Tel-Aviv, by contrast, is many miles away from either Gaza or the West Bank, and its residents tend to be highly secular.  Frankly, I didn’t feel much different there than I would feel in downtown Bethesda or in Dupont Circle – they may have spoken a different language, but the politics were the same (progressive) and the ethos felt the same (hedonism).   For me, the sense of incredible meaning and history that I was referencing before really applies to being in Jerusalem, not so much to being in the “second city.”  

The polls suggest that Israelis are fairly evenly split between the left/center-left and the right/center-right.  But in traveling through Israel, I felt that those polls are misleading.  They don’t measure the intensity of the people’s passion when it comes to issues of war and peace.   When I was in “Red” Israel (e.g., Jerusalem), I felt that passion constantly.  When I was in “Blue” Israel (e.g., Tel-Aviv), I didn’t doubt that people cared about war and peace matters, but the heat wasn’t nearly as intense.  In Tel-Aviv, there’s a bit of an “out of sight, out of mind,” feeling.  In Jerusalem, neither religion nor politics is ever out of anyone’s sight, so one, the other, or both will always be at the center of their minds.  And what those minds are deciding, it seems, is that unless the Palestinians are going to become strong and vocal advocates of a two-state solution -- which seems unlikely at present -- there is no reason for Israelis to think about two states and every reason to gradually expand the one and only state that the Jewish people possess.

In many respects, I found myself less hopeful about a two-state solution after my trip than I did beforehand.  But I found myself no less passionate about the NEED for two states, and the absurdity of connecting the words “one state” and “solution” in connection with that region.  Both peoples are tough, relentless fighters.  Both feel that they have history and justice on their side.  And both are pissed off about what “the other” has made them endure.  To quote an Israeli I met with who advocates two states and who heads up a political NGO in Jerusalem, “neither of these peoples are Scandinavians.”   Like him, I also don’t see them co-existing as one happy family, especially if it would mean that the Jews (who have the upper hand militarily) would have to voluntarily give up Israel as a Jewish State and potentially position themselves as a minority group in their own homeland.   

No, my friends, I see no possibility of a one-state solution to this conflict.  But, as I indicated, I also am less optimistic about the likelihood of a two-state solution any time soon.  And I had all these thoughts while I was battling an illness that wiped me out from nose, to mouth, to chest.
Nevertheless, there is something about that place – that holy territory – that prevented me from ever getting depressed.  In Israel, no matter what is happening, I always feel alive.  I always feel like we the people MATTER more.  I feel blessed just to be alive. 

So maybe we can’t have peace.  But we can have existence – human existence – for those of us who are survivors.   Whether I was gazing off of a cliff at Masada, floating effortlessly in the salty, low-elevation waters of the Dead Sea, or placing a prayerful note in the recesses of the Western Wall, I was feeling so privileged just to be able to breathe, even if my breaths were compromised by bad health.

And just among us boys and girls, I’ll tell you what the upshot was of my prayerful note at the Well:  may the interfaith movement live on forever!   You see, even though I might go to Israel to get in touch with my Judaism and only my Judaism, that Judaism teaches me above all else to respect the primacy of universalist values.   

“If I am not for me, who will be?  If I am only for me, what am I?  If not now, when?”   So said Rabbi Hillel – just one of many famous residents of Jerusalem.   I only wish he were around today.   For surely, he would be an interfaith leader, a bridge builder, a man of peace, and a proud Jew.