Sunday, April 29, 2018

Embracing Empathy

The “Empathic Rationalist” got its name from my first novel, The Creed Room, in which a group of ethnically and ideologically diverse individuals were brought together and challenged with a single task.  Collectively, they could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, but in order to claim the money, they needed to agree upon a single overarching world view.   They met the challenge, and called their creed “Empathic Rationalism.”  Summarizing this world view in a single sentence, they said, “Let passion be your sail, reason your keel, and empathy your rudder.”

Ask any seaman.  We use a sail to propel ourselves forward, a keel to keep from falling apart, and a rudder to steer in the best direction.  Because these functions are all critical, it’s difficult to call one more important than the others.  But in a sense, one is.  You see, everyone recognizes the need for an excellent sail or else they won’t get very far in life.   And we all see a need for an excellent keel because there’s nothing worse in life than falling apart.  Yet it’s easy to ignore the value of an excellent rudder.  After all, as long as you can propel yourself forward and maintain at least some amount of control, you can easily convince yourself that you’re heading in the right direction, even if you’re not.   This is what happens when we let our charismatic friends steer us, even if their wisdom doesn’t match their charisma, or when we allow ourselves to be guided by some of the baser values of our society, or perhaps even by our own superstitions or delusions.  So, for example, our society is currently propelled by mass quantities of fossil fuels (the sail) but because things haven’t totally fallen apart and we can point to a “vibrant economy” as a sign of our successes, we can ignore the dangers ahead and satisfy ourselves that all is well, even if it’s not.    

This is where an excellent rudder enters the equation.  At sea, it means that the seaman is choosing wisely where to travel.  More generally, the person who takes care of her rudder chooses wisely how to live.  In The Creed Room, the participants couldn’t agree on everything.  But they could agree that if we must select one quality to help steer people in our society wisely, that quality would be empathy.  It’s a quality that’s easily enough ignored – individuals don’t need empathy to get fame, fortune or even honors.  But we ignore this quality at our own peril.  We see the lack of empathy every day when we read the newspaper.  It’s reflected in the extent of our political polarization, xenophobia, racism, sexism, classism, you name it.  It’s reflected in the notion that the “other” is our enemy.  Even the so-called “liberals” show their lack of empathy by tuning into entertainment shows that are devoted primarily to ridiculing their political opponents. 

Empathy is indeed hard to come by in our society, or so it appears.  But this quality is precisely what makes any civilization humane, just, and ultimately at peace.  In other words, if we continue to ignore this rudder, we will soon enough find fault with our keel (including our commitment to civility and community), and the rest will be history.

I was reminded of this neglected virtue this past Thursday night when I attended a fundraiser for a non-profit called “World Without Hate” (  This organization was founded by Rais Bhuiyan, an immigrant from Bangladesh who was shot in the face shortly  after 9/11 by Mark Stroman, a white supremacist who was hell bent on killing Muslims.  Bhuiyan lost his eye but ultimately survived, unlike two other victims of Stroman’s spree.  Yet instead of devoting himself to revenge, Bhuiyan led a charge to spare Stroman’s life by embracing the values of forgiveness, compassion and mercy.  In one respect, Bhuiyan failed – Stroman was ultimately executed by the State of Texas.  But in a deeper respect, Bhuiyan has succeeded.  Not only did he inspire Stroman to embrace an ethic of love prior to his death, but Bhuiyan has also served as an exemplar to so many others who have been forced to choose between compassion and revenge.  His cause is similar to that of the Parents’ Circle, the organization composed of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost immediately family members to the conflict between those peoples.  I had already heard members of the Parents’ Circle speak, and now I have heard a talk from Bhuiyan.  These are the individuals in our midst who truly ought to serve as our role models – not the celebrity athletes, entertainers and politicians who are more commonly viewed as heroes but whose lives so often disappoint us when we learn more about them.


World Without Hate has a flagship program entitled the “Empathy Ambassadors Leadership Training Program.” It involves an educational initiative designed to help young people explore their capacity for empathy.   Here’s part of the program’s description from the organization’s website: 


“The first phase of the program focuses on a student’s personal identity and sense of individuality. It asserts self-worth and an awareness of one’s uniqueness. The second phase explores the unique value of ‘other’ human beings, both those who are ‘like me’ and those who are ‘unlike me,’ however that is defined. It focuses on how we bring value to one another’s lives, what we miss out on when we exclude people from our lives before getting to know them, and what others might need from us. The third phase focuses on how we are all members of community, what we gain from that, and what [we] owe to it.

“The training employs rhythm, movement, drums, improvisational role-playing, creative writing, story-telling and many other forms of experiential learning.

“The program asserts the inestimable worth of individuals regardless of age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, intellectual ability, economic bracket, etc.  It encourages students to build bridges among and within disparate communities and to work toward creating a new, vibrant human community which embraces all.”

It’s easy enough to scoff at such a program by saying that the organization is surely appealing to the families who need empathy training the least.  As the president of a different 501(c)(3), I often hear that same criticism – “you guys are just preaching to the choir.”  But imagine if the Empathy Ambassadors program was made available widely in a public school setting.  Imagine, in other words, if empathy education became as critical to the way we educate our youth as is STEM instruction. teaching about wars, or traditional physical education activities.  Then we wouldn’t just be preaching to the choir.  Then we’d be taking the illness that is ruining our society and inoculating our children.  If we do that for diseases of the body, why not do it for diseases of the spirit, like polarization and hate? 


I encourage each of you to check out the website of World Without Hate and see for yourself if this is an organization worth supporting.  The more funds it gets from people like us, the more widely it will be able to offer educational opportunities to a society short on empathy.  I suppose you could say that what the Parents Circle promises to do for the Israelis and Palestinians, World Without Hate promises to do for the United States.  These organizations and their activities serve as beacons.  You need those at sea.  And believe me, my friends, our society is very much at sea.


Take a look at the website and open your wallet.  You won’t regret it.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Poverty of the Body and the Soul

This past Wednesday, most of Puerto Rico was literally in the dark.  Victims of both Hurricane Maria and rampant poverty, the residents of this island have spent much of the last seven months without power.   We on the mainland have generally paid the islanders’ suffering little mind.  But Wednesday was different – the eyes of baseball fans all over the USA were focused on this American territory, which was hosting a nationally televised two-game series between the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins, and this last power outage came right in the middle of the series.  Thanks to a combo of backup systems and lights from mobile towers, the Major Leaguers were permitted to “Play Ball!”  The game lasted 16 innings, long enough that fans could gradually see some neighborhood lights come on by game’s end.   Meanwhile, fans like me who watched on TV saw commercials about Puerto Rico’s sandy beaches and beautiful sunsets.  The hope is that those of us with money might be tempted by the TV ads to hop on a plane and head to the island, where we could spend money on snorkeling, the gumbo dish known as “asopao,” and pina coladas.   We’d enjoy a trip to the Caribbean, and the money we spent would trickle down to the natives.  This is what “charity” looks like in 2018. 

To the extent poverty continues to delay the island’s recovery, well, that’s not perceived on the mainland as our problem.  After all, Puerto Rico is widely seen as just-barely American.  Even though the population of the island dwarfs that of several states, we don’t give Puerto Ricans representation in Congress.  Here, in Washington, people can talk about the fate of Puerto Ricans, but nobody is going to get worked up about them.  And so, like the proverbial Jewish mother (Q: “How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb?”  A: “Don’t worry, I’ll read in the dark.”), Puerto Ricans will continue to suffer in darkness and in silence.

What’s happened on that island is simply one of many examples of how our society deals with its poverty problem.  Plenty of families don’t pay it any mind.  As the story goes, their own ancestors came to this country poor, “picked themselves up by the bootstraps,” and now serve to illustrate how poor people have only themselves to blame.  We’ve all heard that attitude expressed; it makes me wince every time I hear it.   And worst of all is to listen to the silver-spooners – the individuals who come from money, pretty much screw around throughout their childhood and young-adulthood, and yet make condescending judgments upon any of their poor counterparts who don’t behave like paragons of virtue and mold their biographies into Horatio Alger stories.   Our nation’s poor must negotiate an obstacle course filled with drugs, violent crime, and incarceration, not to mention burnout teachers.  And, like the Puerto Ricans without power, they must suffer in silence, for just about nobody on the “mainland” – meaning outside their own enclaves – seems to get worked up about their plight. 

Believe me, some of us may not see the consequences of poverty, but we all feel them.  We feel them in the overall economic productivity of our society.  We feel them in the burdens on our health care system.  And we even feel them in ways that most of us can’t even imagine, including something as seemingly far afield as anti-Semitism.

I was reading this morning about different African-American leaders who have expressed support over the years for Louis Farrakhan, the virulent and blatant Jew-hater who has headed up the Nation of Islam.  It is glib to attribute Farrakhan’s popularity primarily to his anti-Semitism.  More likely, Farrakhan and his organization have capitalized on the fact that they work diligently to serve poor communities in an era when most public leaders behave as if the poor don’t even exist.  In other words, our collective amnesia on the topic of poverty has created a vacuum and Farrakhan and his minions have filled it.   Then, when he spews bile about Jews, the same people who don’t otherwise ignore poverty will ignore his anti-Semitism (which is seen as less important than his positive work).  This is one reason why Jews are increasingly hated not only by the alt-right but also by the hard-left.   If we confront poverty, much of this goes away.

Sadly, in the previous decade, the national voice who was loudest on this issue was John Edwards, a flim-flam artist.  Then, when Bernie Sanders focused a light on poverty in the past election cycle, he was hit with a devastating one-two punch: the huge popularity of the Clintons among African-American leaders and the willingness of the Democratic establishment to cheat in order to get their favorite candidate nominated.  Bernie’s candidacy was the little engine that could, until it ran up against one “hill” too many, and the rest is history.  Now Bernie is back to being a voice in the wilderness, poverty is back to being a hidden issue, and the press is obsessed with sex scandals and other kinds of misconduct that don’t involve the neglect of the poor.

Apparently, Jesus was indeed a prophet when he taught that the poor will always be with us.  But perhaps, instead of thinking about that statement, we should reflect on the words of his disciples, who questioned Jesus for wasting perfume on himself when it could instead have been sold and used to help the poor.  Credit those disciples – and, of course, their master – with a sincere passion for lifting up those who are most in need.  Whether the nation’s poor live in San Juan, Puerto Rico or in urban mainland neighborhoods like Watts, Anacostia or Hunts Point, the rest of us ignore them at the expense of our own souls.  You may want to think about this when you go to the polls in this primary season.  Ask yourselves which candidates are calmly talking about this issue, and which candidates are getting worked up about it.  The latter are the ones who are taking our prophets seriously.  The latter are the ones who deserve our vote.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

On Syria

Last night’s attack on Syria was reassuring.  That’s the word that was used by the New York Times this morning in its lead editorial, and it’s an appropriate word.   After all the fear-mongering on the left that President Trump would listen to John Bolton and unilaterally blow the Syrian leaders to smithereens, what we witnessed instead was the mission advocated by General Mattis.  Precise.  Proportional.  Relatively riskless. And anything but unilateral. (The Brits and French were also involved.)  In short, it was the kind of mission that former President Obama would have been proud to have carried out, if only he could have summoned the guts to do so.  It was a fine military response to the unconscionable use of chemical weapons.

This morning, I listened to the Pentagon briefing, which was delivered with a high level of transparency about the operation.  Again, it was delivered in a way that would have made the Democrats proud if only their leader had carried it out.   Shortly after the briefing was over, I tuned in to MSNBC, where Joy Reed was beginning her program.  What I heard was predictable: mockery of Trump and the Syria operation.   She and her guests mocked the build-up to the operation and then questioned the unambitious nature of the operation itself, including whether the President “wagged the dog” (i.e., engaged in military strikes purely to boost his own political popularity).

Clearly, to Ms. Reed and her guests, Republican Administrations are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  If they hadn’t given advance warning about military strikes in Syria, they would have been accused of risking nuclear war with the Russians.   But since they did give such warning, they were mocked for allowing the Russians and the Syrians to save a fraction of the chemical weapons assets (i.e., the portion that can be easily moved).   Similarly, if they had engaged in sustained, massive attacks to the infrastructure of the Syrian military capabilities, they would have been accused of risking the kind of military escalation that engulfed Bush Jr.’s Administration in Iraq.  And yet, when they engaged in a precise, surgical strike against Syria’s largest chemical weapons facilities and nothing more, they were criticized for not doing enough to stop Assad.  

In theory, Trump could cure breast cancer and bring peace to the Middle East and MSNBC hosts would still figure out a way to mock him.   As someone who hates double standards and especially hates conduct that gives progressives a bad name, I’m embarrassed this morning.    

So, allow me to praise the Administration for engaging in a measured and appropriate response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons last night.  Allow me to praise the President for calling attention to just how monstrous Assad has been as the leader of the Syrian people, and for calling attention to how Russia and Iran have served as his enablers.  And the next time someone cries "wag the dog" in response to a fully justifiable military action, consider the source.  Full stop.

Having said that, the “Mission” has not been accomplished.  The Mission ought to be dealing with the ongoing atrocity that has been engulfing Syria for years.  That atrocity involves the use of illegal chemical weapons, to be sure, but far more than that, it involves the use of “legal” weapons by a bully regime against an innocent helpless populous.  All this rhetoric – and it started with the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administration – about Syria’s use of chemical weapons and only its use of chemical weapons is making me think about how my own family was largely wiped out in the Holocaust.  I don’t know how many of my great aunts and uncles were killed by bullets and how many were killed by Zyklon B gas, and do you know what?  I don’t really care.  Even if the Nazis had never thought to gas people in the showers, I’d still view them as genocidal monsters.  And I would hate to hear their savage attacks on Jews and others dismissed as a mere “civil war.” 

What Assad and his enablers are doing to the Syrian people with conventional weapons is itself worthy of the strongest possible rebukes.  The “Mission” is not accomplished until we do whatever is sensibly in our power to respond to those weapons.  For starters, we need to consider economic sanctions against those enabling powers.  Next, we need to step up our willingness to accept refugees from Syria.  And third, we need to speak honestly about the use of conventional weapons in Syria with the same language that we previously have used to speak about the use of chemical weapons.  Maybe we should respond militarily against these conventional weapons, maybe not, but we should at least be honest about them.  

You don’t need to use chemicals to be a monster.  Monsters tend to use them when they can, but if properly deterred against such attacks, they can still behave like monsters.  Assad has proven himself to belong in this category.  And the entire world is responsible for reacting humanely to his behavior.   Last night was a good start.  Let’s acknowledge that fact, and then continue, with whatever means at our disposal, to accomplish this mission. 

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Still Cranky After All These Years

“Hello? Hello? Hello?  Is there anybody in there?  Just nod if you can hear me.  Is there anyone at home?” So begins the song that many think was Pink Floyd’s best.  The words describe a feeling we can all relate to – one of despair, isolation, alienation.  In the case of this song, the feelings of pain eventually subsided and the protagonist, “Pink,” became “comfortably numb.”  Rolling Stones fans, partial to the song “Rocks Off,” might prefer the phrase “I can’t even feel the pain no more.”  It means the same thing -- the idea that while the source of one’s agony and loneliness is deep, the thought of a solution is hopeless, so why bother to fight any more or even worry about the problem?  Why not just accept that this is as good a hand as fate is going to deal us, and get on with our hopeless, dreamless life, numbness and all?
Yesterday, for the second Friday in a row, riots erupted at the Gaza/Israel border, resulting in multiple deaths and many hundreds of injuries.  I’ve seen reports of ten Palestinians killed yesterday and 21 killed the Friday before.  These protests have been instigated by Hamas.  That group pledged that the demonstrators would not be armed, though they have, in the words of the New York Times, “carved out an exception for rock throwing.” 
I include those facts because, from what I can tell, they are not in dispute.  Nor is it disputed that the Israeli army used tear gas and plenty of live bullets to repel the demonstrations.  As for what exactly the protestors have done to elicit that response, I don’t doubt that we would hear highly different reactions depending on whether we asked the Gazan or the Israeli leadership. The U.N. Security Council recently received a call for an investigation of these events, but the United States has already blocked an earlier draft of such a request and, of course, the US has veto power in the Security Council.  Israel has also indicated its opposition to calls for an independent investigation. 
I’ve heard precious little about this story on cable news.  What’s more, when I did a quick on-line review this morning of the largest newspapers in certain major Midwestern cities, I found no mention at all of the story.  Not in the Indianapolis paper, the Minneapolis paper, or the Milwaukee paper.  All this reminds me of the old philosophical question, if hundreds of Palestinians get shot and nobody in the Midwest hears them fall, did they really make a sound? 
The truth is, though, that the silence isn’t just a Midwestern problem.  This story isn’t captivating people on the coasts either.   Even in the New York Times and Washington Post, it was covered on pages A9 and A10, respectively -- worthy of mention, but not emphasis.  Perhaps the thinking is that the readership has become “comfortably numb” about the whole Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, which is no longer seen by sophisticated minds as solvable.
Back in early 2009 when I co-founded the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, the conflict was generating a fair amount of interest among activists.  It was spoken about with urgency, if not optimism.   Activists didn’t all agree about how to resolve this conflict or who is to blame for it, but what they agreed on is nothing to sneeze at:  We all should care deeply about this conflict.  It’s not too late to find a peaceful solution.  And, may I add, we have a President in the White House (Obama) who is committed to bringing both sides together and making some real progress.   . 
That was then, this is now.  There is no sense of urgency any more.  There is barely any sense of hope.  People don’t seem interested in discussing the topic.  What’s to discuss?   The two sides seem to be embroiled in a never-ending dispute that they don’t care to solve, so how can we Americas help?  That’s the attitude. Tell me you haven’t heard it yourself.  Tell me you haven’t felt it yourself.
And yet, here we are, talking about one of the cradles of our civilization.  Some call it the Holy Land, some call it the Promised Land, and undeniably, this place is special to Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’is alike.   If we give up on peace there, haven’t we in essence given up on the whole religious project?   For once you lose the hope for peace in our holiest of places, haven’t you lost all faith in humanity, and once you’ve lost all faith in humanity, how can you possibly hope to honor God?
It matters little to me today which side or sides you blame for the clash in Gaza, or for the war between the Palestinians and the Jews.  What matters to me is whether you still care about this battle and this war.  Or are you so comfortably numb that you can’t even feel the pain no more?
I still feel the Palestinians’ pain when they talk about being trapped and stateless.  And I still feel the Jews’ pain when they are denied their own right to a state of their own.  I still pray for a solution – and, more specifically, a generation of leaders on both sides of this divide who are sufficiently compassionate about “the other” that they can imagine concessions their fathers and grandfathers wouldn’t make. 
I don’t intend to stop praying for this solution, nor to stop working for it.  When I do stop, that’s when you know I’ve given up on far more than the Israelis and Palestinians.  That’s when you know, God forbid, that I’ve given up on my Judaism.