Saturday, December 24, 2016

What a Time to be a Jew

This is a tough day to be Jewish.  Yesterday, Obama ripped the Band-Aid off of Israel’s ugly sore and showed the whole world that, voila, there are an increasing number of Settlements in the West Bank, and that fact totally stinks!   Tomorrow, Hanukkah arrives, but so does Christmas, and let’s face it, as Holidays go, Christmas kicks Hanukkah’s tuchus.   

What is a nice Jewish boy to do?   The Jewish State has been publicly humiliated and a Jewish Holiday isn’t measuring up.  And all this is happening at the same time.  “Hey God,” we’re tempted to say, “if this is the treatment we’re going to get, choose somebody else!”

But honestly, we’re nothing if we’re not resilient.   And all joking aside, we’re a pretty proud people too.  Humble, when it comes to relating to God, but proud, when it comes to relating to the human race.  We can laugh at ourselves and some of our lamer holiday traditions (neither Hanukkah gelt nor dreidels measure up to a good Christmas carol).   And we can cry when it comes to the Jewish State and the fact that nearly seven decades into this whole Israeli experiment, it still hasn’t found peace with our Palestinian cousins.  But a real, authentic Jew enjoys Hanukkah just the same and loves Israel from the bottom of one’s heart.  

I’m tempted to add that a real, authentic Jew is indeed a proud Zionist.  But I’ve learned over time that you can be one without being the other.  Just join the peace movement if you don’t believe me.  I did, and it wasn’t until doing so that I realized just how proudly Zionistic I am.  When I think about yesterday’s UN Resolution condemning Israel, I can’t help but think back 41 years at another famous UN Resolution, where that august body declared that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination."  Really?   Zionism is racism?  Now think about all the scores of countries who voted for that resolution – including even places like East Germany, Poland, and Hungary which worked so hard to cleanse themselves of Jewish flesh and blood during the Holocaust.   Who the hell are they to condemn Zionism?  

At bottom, Zionism is the desire of Jews to have a piece of earth where they are neither ghettoized nor marginalized.   Zionism is holy – every bit as holy as the desire of black people to live in liberty or of Native Americans to control their own land.   In recent decades, many Progressives have proclaimed that Zionism is a movement of exploitative, colonial fat cats, but it’s not.  It’s steeped in the desire for justice, which is precisely why most Zionists over the years have supported trading land for peace.   

But let’s face it -- yesterday’s UN vote made a whole lot more sense than the one in 1975. It was a direct attack not at Zionism per se but at a particular strand of Zionism that is expansionist and Biblically literal.  “Judea and Samaria” are code words for “Screw the Palestinians – we want ALL the land, and the Settlements are the path to get it.”  If your goal is a two-state solution, the Settlements are a cancer.  If your Zionism includes compromise, the Settlements are a slap in the face.   And if yesterday’s UN vote somehow curtails the Israeli tolerance of the Settlements, then it will end up being a good thing.

But it’s just as foreseeable that yesterday’s vote will cause a pro-Settlement backlash.  And that’s because the venue – the United Nations – is such a pathetic tribunal in which to try Jewish claims.  It demands virtually nothing from the Palestinians other than to stop participating in that long-lived international tradition known as Jew-slaughter, whereas when it comes to Zionists, it expects them to walk the chalk.   And let me give you a little tip about Jews: we’re getting really sick of being held to a higher standard than everyone else.

Yesterday’s vote scares me, because the key to peace in the Holy Land is to uplift the moderate forces in both camps and not to embolden the extremists.  Given the well-documented UN bias, yesterday’s vote may be perceived by the extremist Zionists as spit in the face – as, in essence, a big fat dare to expand the settlements.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they take up that dare, which would make the two-state solution much less likely to achieve and turn yesterday’s vote into a cruel joke on everyone who believes in compromise.  

I guess time will tell as to how everyone reacts to the vote on the Israeli side.  As for the Palestinian side, I’m still waiting for a time when Palestinians publicly declare their respect for a PERMANENT Jewish State.  Most Palestinians give the Israelis no confidence that if there were to be a treaty that carved out two states roughly along the 1967 borders, they wouldn’t ultimately resume the fight for one state with a presumably Arab majority – which seems to be what Palestinians generally believe is the only just outcome.  Don’t expect any time soon for the United Nations to push back on the Palestinians in their fight for a one-state solution.     

Anyway, enough with yesterday.   Today, we look forward to tomorrow.   Santa Clause will have come and gone.  Rudolph will be back to bed.  The baby Jesus will be remembered as the pinnacle of purity.   And houses will be littered with green trees, ornaments, lights, presents, music, enchantment.  And we Jews?   We can spin our little tops, eat our little chocolates, light our little menorahs, and maybe, just maybe, come to grips with the fact that the real enemies of the Maccabees, the heroes of the Hanukkah story, were those Jews who assimilated with the advanced, secular culture of their day.

Some Jews – the same ones who do nothing but criticize Israel -- will be ashamed of the Maccabees and the real history of Hanukkah.  But most of us will smile with pride at the thought of this little holiday and the history behind it.   It may not have Christmas’ pageantry.  But it’s what we’ve got.  For to be Jewish on those rare occasions where Hanukkah begins at the same time as Christmas is like sharing a birthday with a beloved celebrity.  Surely, most folks would rather honor that celebrity than you.  But you still need to proud of you who are, where you come from, and what you might someday accomplish.   And when you’re a real authentic Jew, you come to see your cultural traditions and your ethnic holidays – even the less important ones like Hanukkah – as an extension of self.  

So let South Park Eric Cartman’s sing his Dreidel Song, “Jews, play stupid games. Jews, that's why they're lame.”  And let the United Nations hold Jews to one standard, and the rest of the world to a much lower one.  None of that can take away from one simple fact:  we’ve been around for more than 3000 years, and we’re not leaving.  Nor are we ever again going to let the world round us up and do with us what they will.   

We are humble.  But we are also proud.   Proud of Yom Kippur.  Proud of Passover.  And proud, even, of Hanukkah.  So let those dreidels spin, eat your potato latkes, and raise a glass to those fanatical Maccabees – regardless of what the United Nations might say about them.

Postscript:  The Empathic Rationalist will be vacation until after the New Year.  Happy Holidays to one and all!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Making Sure that Our President’s Interests Align with Ours

I have no time to be eloquent. So allow me to be blunt.

If you believe such venerable news outlets as the New York Times and Washington Post, you probably accept the following seven points: (1) the U.S. Government is claiming that the Russians hacked our computers in order to influence our elections, (2) the Russian hacking was clearly designed to turn the American public against certain Democratic candidates, including not only Hillary Clinton but also certain Congressional candidates, (3) Donald Trump has reacted with skepticism to reports that the Russians were tampering with the Presidential election, (4) Donald Trump has also seemed relatively uninterested in getting sufficient briefings necessary to fully evaluate matters of national security (which would surely include tampering with elections), (5) Donald Trump has been involving his oldest children, including his two oldest sons, in his official post-election meetings, and may be leaning on the advice of his sons in determining who should staff important Government posts, (6) Donald Trump is preparing to turn over to his sons hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars of assets, many of which are overseas, and to allow his sons to manage these assets while he is President, and (7) while the public is not aware of all of Mr. Trump’s assets, we have reason to believe that he has had done considerable business with Russia, whose leader Trump has spoken of highly and who is friendly with Mr. Trump’s choice for Secretary of State.

If that is all true, and many if not most Americans believe it is, how is the American public expected to be confident that Mr. Trump will invariably make decisions of vital national security significance without taking into account the effect that these decisions will have on his family’s considerable business interests?   

To me, there is only one way for the public to gain such confidence: for Mr. Trump and his family to turn over complete information about their corporate assets to the Government.  The Government would employ trained financial analysts to estimate the fair market value of these assets – not the kind of “fire sale” value that many Democratic partisans would like them to receive if Mr. Trump was forced to sell the assets prior to the time he took office – and then provide that fair market value to the Trump family in some sort of cash equivalent in exchange for the sale of the assets.  Consider this akin to the eminent domain principle that most of us are familiar with.   

I realize that such an outcome may not seem fair to the Trump children, who did not themselves decide to run for President and, all else equal, should be allowed to serve in their chosen field (business) while their father is President.  But these are not ordinary times, and we need to figure out the “least bad alternative” to respond to the seven points identified above.  Besides, Mr. Trump’s two oldest sons have participated in both his Presidential campaign and his post-election activities.  They surely can find outlets for their energies while their father is in the White House – akin to the kind of outlets that Hillary Clinton found when her husband was President and to the outlets that Mr. Trump already is planning for his daughter Ivanka and her husband.   

I’m sorry, but I just cannot identify a better approach.  As long as Mr. Trump retains the assets at issue – and I consider turning them over to his sons to be a form of retaining them – I don’t know how a President-elect can expect an entire nation to trust him to do the job for which he was elected.  We are talking about blatant conflicts of interest, which just happen to coincide with an apparent unwillingness to get to the bottom of the attack that our Government is now attributing to their Russian counterparts.   Only the most extreme Republican Partisan – or anyone who hosts a show on Conservative Talk Radio – can fail to see the problem.  

Saturday, December 10, 2016

On Diversity in Politics

"I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent." 

 Sec. of Interior James Watt, in a Sept. 1983 speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

I was reminded of that infamous quote yesterday when reading the New York Times and, in particular, an article entitled “A New Class of Democratic Leaders Is on the Rise in California.”  Clearly, the title was not in reference to the fact that 76-year-old Nancy Pelosi prevailed once again in the election to become the House Minority Leader.  Nor was it in reference to the fact that the sitting Senators from that state are 83 and 76, respectively, or that the Governor is our old friend Jerry Brown (78) for whose benefit I attended a concert with the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt in the 70s.  And nor was it in reference to the fact that outside of the State of California, it would appear that the Democratic Party has no superstars who haven’t already gone through menopause or had their first prostate operation.   Joe Biden indicated that he was thinking about running for President in 2020 when he’ll turn 78.  Who knows?  He may be joined in that contest with such other septuagenarians as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.    They may have to move the Primary Debates to 3:00 p.m. so as to allow the candidates to finish in time for their early-bird specials.

Under the circumstances, I was excited to read that in at least one of our 50 states – and a big one at that – we actually have new Democratic talent in the farm system.  The title alone gave me hope.  Then I happy read on and eventually came to a picture of the 11 rising superstars on which the article was based.  Next to each individual there was a one-paragraph blurb.   And I was struck by the overarching but unstated theme of the portraits: diversity.

All 11 were in their 40s or 50s.  Ten of the 11 were Democrats.  Of those ten, five were Latino, one was Jewish, three were women, two were Asian, three were women, one was a lesbian.  (No, I’m not bad in math – some of these politicians can check off multiple boxes, such as U.S. Senator-Elect Kamala Harris, a woman who will be both the first black and the first South Asian senator from the state.)  Of the ten rising Democratic stars, the only straight white male was Gavin Newsom, who came to be nationally known by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples back in 2004 as the mayor of San Francisco.   

Folks, this is truly inspiring stuff.  Think about how far we’ve come in the last 50 years.   Think about what a group of 10-11 blurbs about rising political stars would have looked like in, say, 1960.  Think about how far our society has come in accepting not only the value of respecting people from different backgrounds, but also the value of having representatives of different backgrounds as leaders.  The societal benefits from this kind of diversity are indeed profound, and don’t let resentful traditionalist tell you otherwise.  

But then I started asking myself a question:  can we tell from the ethnicities, genders and sexual preferences alone whether this group of 10-11 rising starts is truly diverse in all important respects?  Or even in all necessary respects?  How well can they relate to Americans who are NOT at the top of the socio-economic ladder?  Do they know what it’s like to work a blue-collar job, or to be out of a job?   Do they understand in their bones why so many Americans have grown alienated from Washington (and, no doubt, Sacramento)?   Do they speak more like they’re on a Brookings Institution panel or like they’re at a Union Hall?   Have they risked their political futures because of their passion to help the needy, or have they succeeded politically because of their passion to advance their own careers?  

Frequently, I’ll turn on MSNBC in the evening and I’ll see a parade of talking heads reflecting various ethnicities and both genders.  Yet they don’t strike me as diverse.  As a general matter, they come across as smug, narcissistic, and disrespectful toward those whose ideologies differ from their own.  They tend to prefer mocking their political opponents to learning from them.  And yet somehow, despite these unflattering characteristics, they also seem very well-heeled.  Diversity is the last word that comes to mind when I watch that network.

But I won’t condemn the gang of ten from California.  I honestly don’t know enough about them to form an opinion.  Frankly, our country NEEDS this group to produce some genuine superstars.   Whether it’s the woman who is both black and Asian or the straight white male, I’d be thrilled if they fit the bill.  I just want some of these folks who “get it” – who care deeply about poverty, climate change, economic inequalities, corporate fraud, infrastructural degradation ... and yes, the value of diversity.   

James Watt was wrong to mock affirmative action.  But truly, affirmative action and identity politics cannot become a fetish.  Before we are women or Jews or blacks or gays or white males, we are still just people.  Some of us are skilled at our jobs, others aren’t.   And whether it’s time to pick a teacher, a doctor or a statesperson, I want the most qualified person for the job, full stop.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Time to Put Environmental Protection at the Top of Our Personal Agendas

Even though the media seems to be giving the issue relatively short shrift – at least compared to more pressing topics, such as what the President-Elect and Mitt Romney had for dinner during their latest meeting (frogs’ legs) -- I have been thinking lately about the North Dakota oil pipeline dispute.   The reports that have emerged are very disturbing.  Allegedly, the members of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are being told in essence to trust the powers-that-be that their native lands will be fully secure even though a burst in the oil pipeline could have catastrophic consequences to that land.  At the same time, we all are being told that the new Administration intends to make major rollbacks on regulations, including environmental regulations.

What then should be the basis for the Standing Rock Sioux’s confidence that their sacred lands will be protected?   Am I missing something?

If we pay close attention to the needs of our planet, the Standing Rock Sioux dispute is but one of many environmental controversies that we can expect to hear about in the upcoming months.  Personally, I am very fearful about how the environment will fare in the next few years – and believe me, it’s not exactly like our nation’s record over the past several years has been stellar, but I’m preparing for matters to get far worse at a time when we can least afford it. 

Given that we are precisely one week away from the Washington, D.C. Imam-Rabbi Summit, I am reminded of a passage from one of my novels when a character discusses the importance of environmental protection in the context of a Scriptural story that is sacred to Jews and Muslims alike.  The book is Moses the Heretic (published by Aegis Press), and the passage I have in mind begins at page 93.  It is told from the perspective of the book’s title character, a contemporary rabbi named Moses Levine.  I will end this blogpost by quoting the passage in its entirety.   May it remind you of the duties that we all as individuals have to our planet and the fact that these duties arise not only out of secular principles, but religious ones as well.  Here are the words of Moses Levine, talking about one of his sermons:

I told my congregation that it always bothered me to hear people interpret the Akedah as pointing out the importance of obeying God.   “Because of this story,” I told my congregation, “Abraham has gone down in history as the quintessential servant.  His master says 'Kill your son.'  And Abraham doesn't need to know why.  He heard the command, and that's all he had to hear.” 

“Frankly,” I continued, “that Abraham sounds more like a Nazi executioner than a Jew.  My Abraham is a little different.  He isn't just any Jew, nor is he just any Patriarch.  He is the very first Jew, a true pioneer.  He is the one who saw for himself that only the one eternal, limitless source of all beings, living and dead, is worthy of the term 'God.'   And Abraham had the will to commit himself to this philosophy when all around him worshiped idols. 

“Does that man sound like someone who doesn't question, but just follows orders?

“If you want the Akedah to symbolize something meaningful, you don't have to rip apart your image of a great Patriarch.  You only have to consider what finally happened, and why.  At the end of the day, Abraham didn't kill his son.  We learn, in fact, that such sacrifices are contrary to Judaism.  The Akedah demonstrates in the most graphic way possible that some conduct is simply unacceptable no matter what the circumstances.

“A great story like the Akedah has many lessons.  Perhaps the most powerful is that one generation has no right to sacrifice the next.  Most people understand that we’re not meant to be our children’s executioners, but few appreciate their proper role as trustees.  Think of the Akedah when businesses spoil the environment.  Think of the Akedah when politicians run up the national debt.  Think, too, of the Akedah when you contemplate a really good grade-school teacher you once had.  That teacher could surely have made so much more money in another occupation, yet for some reason she chose instead to educate a future generation.  She decided to enrich and nurture those who will follow her as adults.  So did Abraham.”

“Thomas Jefferson wasn't a Jew, but he often wrote like one.  In a letter to Madison, he wrote that 'The earth belongs in usufruct to the living.'  I'd never heard the term 'usufruct' before I read that letter, but it was the perfect choice.  To possess property in usufruct means to have both the right to enjoy it for the present and the obligation to preserve it intact for the future. 

'Usufruct' is a difficult word; it almost makes you grind your teeth to say it.  But that's fitting, because holding the earth in usufruct isn't an easy thing to do.  Consuming is fun, and serving as a steward can be frustrating.  But Jews have no choice.  We adults owe it to our descendants to let them inherit all the beauty we were given – every species of animal we can befriend, every rose we can smell.  This earth, God’s earth, belongs as much to our children as it does to us, just as Jewish traditions belong as much to us as to those who stood at Sinai with Moses. 

That, my friends, is what the Akedah means to me.”