Saturday, July 21, 2018

Envision Middle East Peace and How to Get There

Tomorrow night, in Arlington, Virginia, the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS) and eight other organizations will come together for an event entitled “Envisioning Peace/Salaam/Shalom between Israelis and Palestinians.”  The co-sponsors represent a wide variety of communities – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Unitarian-Universalist (UU), and Interfaith.   The event, which is hosted by the local UU church, takes place on the night of Tisha B’av, a traditional Jewish day of mourning commemorating the various tragedies that the Jewish community has experienced over the millennia.   Tomorrow, however, the participants will not so much mourn past tragedies as confront tragedies in the present and future.    As someone who loves Israel and whose trip there in 1981 forever changed my life, I find real tragedy in the fact that the land of Zion has turned into a perpetual war zone, replete with a subjugated, disenfranchised population playing the role that the Jews sadly played for centuries. 

Because I’m moderating tomorrow’s event, I must keep my own opinions to myself.  Others will have the opportunity to begin the evening talking about their respective visions for peace. Then, in the second part of the session, we’ll break into small groups to discuss how to get from here to there.  In other words, what would we like to see the Israelis and Palestinians do to create the conditions for peace?  And what can we Americans do to help?  Or can we help at all?  Again, I’ll have to keep my opinions to myself tomorrow night, but not today.  Not in this blogpost.

My vision for peace involves two states for two peoples. The boundary separating these states would be drawn based roughly on the ’67 borders.  There would be land swaps, but not enough to allow Israel to keep settlements that go deep into pre-’67 Palestine.  In other words, Israel would keep the clear majority of the land from River to Sea but would have to give up some of its most cherished settlements.  Residents of both states would be ensured access to their holy sites and to ample supplies of water.  Further, while Israel would remain a “Jewish State” that will celebrate Jewish culture and  history, recognize Jewish holidays as state holidays, and provide immigration benefits to Jews, it would also fight strongly to provide minority rights and  the same sense of equality that, say, England provides to citizens who don’t come from traditional British backgrounds.  Moreover, the peace plan would make room for a significant number of Palestinian refugee families to return to their ancestral home towns.   Other Palestinian families with legitimate claims to pre-’67 Israel would receive compensation, as would Israelis forced to vacate their settlements in the West Bank.  West Jerusalem would become the capital of Israel; East Jerusalem of Palestine.  (Now, if I had my druthers, Jerusalem would become an international city devoted to God, but even I realize that’s a bit utopian.)

So how do we realize such a vision?  Therein lies the rub, doesn’t it?  In the region, we will need both reconciliation efforts spearheaded by NGOs and efforts among statesmen to enact peace treaties.  The latter aren’t likely to get very far any time soon.  The sad truth is that power brokers in the region who will fight for a two-state vision risk losing their lives.  Just look at what happened to Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who was assassinated by an Israeli after signing peace treaties with the Palestinians and Jordanians.  Rabin is a hero to people like me, but a villain to many others who saw him as giving away what belongs to Israel.  If he had a Palestinian counterpart, that person would no doubt be equally hated as a sellout to the “colonizing power.” In short, regional leaders who are actually effective as peacemakers will need to recognize themselves as soldiers who, no less than those in the military, may pay the ultimate price in service to their country. 

I could go on pontificating about what the Israelis and Palestinians should do to take us from war to peace, but I’m more interested in what we in America can do.   That, after all, is something we can control directly.  Some of my friends urge us Americans to butt out, arguing that the concerns of the religion need to be addressed by the residents there, not by officious intermeddlers from across the pond.  With respect, that would be a lovely idea if the Palestinians and the Israelis were equal in power, but they’re not.  If Americans and Europeans simply sat back and watched the situation on the ground unfold, is there any doubt that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank would spread, the prospects for a two-state solution would dim, and the Palestinian plight would worsen?   Just look at what happened this past week, which the New York Times aptly characterized as “Israel cements a right-wing agenda with a furious week of lawmaking.”  The Times was referring to bills that, respectively, bar certain critics of the West Bank Occupation from speaking in public schools, preclude Palestinians from accessing the Israeli Supreme Court in real estate disputes, prevent single men and homosexual couples from having surrogate children ... and those weren’t  even the most controversial laws.  The Netanyahu regime saved the “best” for last – a “nation-state” bill that, among other things, downgraded the status of Arabic as an official language and failed to stress the importance of minority rights while providing the Jews with “an exclusive right to national self-determination” in Israel.  Left to its own druthers, the Netanyahu regime isn’t exactly poised to implement the kind of two-state solution I mentioned at the top of this post.

So what can we Americans do?  It depends on what community we come from.   For me, as a Jewish-American, I’ll need to become even more vocal about the perils of right-wing rule in Israel.  It almost doesn’t matter what specific cause we tackle; if we can legitimately confront right-wing Israeli extremism, we can help Israel find its way to a more just and peaceful state.

Perhaps the most effective way of doing that is to stress not only Netanyahu’s policies toward Palestinians but also his opposition to the rights of Israelis who practice progressive forms of the Jewish religion.  Netanyahu has made a deal with the Orthodox community that they are entitled to monopolize what it means to be a religious Jew in that country.  They decide, for example, how Jews can get married and which conversions are valid.  Here in America, by contrast, religious Jewish life is blissfully diverse. Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanist Jews practice their faith with institutional support and societal legitimacy.  Collectively, they form the bulk of religious Judaism in America, whereas in Israel they are marginalized and trivialized.  For the most part, Israelis are either Orthodox or secular.  Now they have a government committed to keeping things that way.

We American Jews need to become far more vocal about how the Israeli battle against religious pluralism strikes at the very heart of Judaism as we understand it.   Netanyahu’s government will take our money and our support, but they are denying Americans our Judaism.   They look at our preachers as faux rabbis, at our ceremonies as faux ceremonies, and at our converts as Gentiles.   Isn’t it time we sounded the alarm about this outrage?  

I am a dyed in the wool Zionist.  I will continue to oppose efforts, like the BDS movement, that treat Israel as a pariah.  I also plan to support Israel in its right to survive not only as a state but as a Jewish state, and to oppose organizations that can only bring themselves to criticize Israel and never to defend her.   But that doesn’t mean I should sit back and watch that land that I love become an exclusively right-wing domain.  That doesn’t mean I should let Israel define “religious” as “Orthodox only,” or treat progressive religious Judaism as ersatz Judaism. And that doesn’t mean I should wash my hands of the plight of the Palestinians.  American Jews – we need to find our voice in this debate, and we need to find it fast. 

Oh, and if you’re an American Gentile who wants to get involved in these issues, I’m sure you’ll find groups in this country that share your values and vocalize them.   The one exception might be that if you’re a Palestinian who truly supports a two-state solution – not as a “stage” on the path to a one-state solution but as an end in itself – I’m not sure you’ll find an organized group of like-minded people yet.  So start one.  It’s never too late to work for peace, and as visions of peace go, my Palestinian cousins, I think two states is as good as you’re going to get. 

That’s all I have to say on the topic for the weekend.  The Empathic Rationalist will be on holiday for the next two weekends and will return on the weekend of August 11th-12th when – you guessed it – the White Nationalists will be marching on Washington.  We sure live in interesting times, don’t we?

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Democrats: Unify, Simplify and Defy

My fellow Democrats – I offer you a mantra.  You can win with it.  You can’t help but lose without it. 

Unify, Simplify, and Defy.

And here’s why:


Just look at the GOP.  Their leader came to power after having insulted all his GOP rivals, not to mention immigrants, prominent women, and a revered prisoner of war.  He has also been accused of abandoning traditional party principles, like free trade.  And yet, his approval rating within the party is approaching 90%.  From the elites down to the rank-and-file, Republicans are circling the wagons.

By contrast, the Democrats are circling the drain.  More precisely, they’re chasing their tails by waging nasty battles with one another.   In 2016, it was Bernie vs. the DNC.  Today, it’s the progressives versus the moderates.  Consider the example of my own beloved Montgomery County, Maryland – home of roughly 1.1 million people, and easily one of the nation’s most affluent counties.  Here, one Democratic member of the County Council is running for County Executive as an Independent, taking on the Democratic Party’s nominee (with whom she also serves on the County Council).   The race figures to be a bloody one, pitting the “pro-business” moderate, fueled by a big-money advertising campaign, against the “pro-labor” liberal, fueled by a ground-game of canvassing activists.   But while those activists are waging this Democrat vs. Democrat war, they will NOT be taking on the incumbent Republican Governor who is up for re-election, or the incumbent Republican Congresswoman across the river in Virginia. 

In short, one party is playing chess. The other is playing hari-kari. 


Parties need a simple message.  The GOP came to power with a message of gutting Obamacare and putting America first.  You might not agree with the message, but at least you can understand it. 
The Democrats?  We have 12-point plans enunciated by self-proclaimed policy wonks.  Michael Dukakis, the quintessential Democratic Presidential nominee, illustrated the problem perfectly when he (a) couldn’t get the least bit emotional when asked if he would change his stance on the death penalty if his wife were “raped and murdered” and then (b) declared that his election would be about “competence, not ideology.”  He was right.  Any candidate who acts in a way that regular people can’t relate to is flat out incompetent.  And any candidate who can’t enunciate a clear vision of how they’re going to make life better for the working class or the middle class is also incompetent.  

Democrats seem to take pride in how woodenly their candidates communicate, choosing instead to take pride in how well they would govern once elected.   Their leaders frequently begin a response to questions by saying “Well, in my plan, I ...”  The hell with your “plan.”  Speak from the gut.  Say it plainly.  Talk like every election is a change election unless you personally are the incumbent.   And whatever you do, keep it simple.  Otherwise, in the game of campaigning, you are incompetent.


Syria crosses Obama’s Red Line of no chemical weapons.  And what does Obama do?    Bupkis.

More than ten months before Obama’s term would end, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to allow Obama’s Supreme Court nominee even a hearing.  And what does Obama do?  Pretty much bupkis.

The Russians intervene in our Presidential election against Obama’s would-be successor.  And what does Obama do?  Once again, bupkis. 

I guess he really did take to heart his wife’s statement that “When they go low, we go high.”   The people at the Democratic Convention actually cheered that line.  We’re the “turn the other cheek” party.  We’re the “two wrongs don’t make a right” party.  We’re the “good little boys and girls” party.   Meanwhile, the Republicans dominate the White House, the Supreme Court, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the State Houses.     

Please remind me of how Democrats benefit from refusing to defy their opponents?   The last time I checked, there is no prize for Miss Congeniality in politics.  There are only winners and losers.  
Winners fight back. 

So there you have the mantra: Unify, Simplify and Defy.   Pass it on. 

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Voila Un Homme

It’s common for parents of young children to dream about their children’s futures.    I can easily imagine a new father looking through a glass of wine and smiling about his newborn’s vast potential. “Perhaps my son will become a world-renowned doctor – the chief physician to the head of state.  Or maybe he’ll write groundbreaking books about medicine. Of course, I wouldn’t complain if he devoted his time instead to law and became a great judge.  Or if he turned out to be a statesman with vast political and administrative powers, which he uses to guard the people against tyranny.   Then again, maybe my son will become a religious figure, a revered teacher of the Holy Word, who will so brilliantly and concisely summarize the laws of his faith that his work will become the standard for centuries.  Or perhaps he’ll be a respected mathematician.  Or ... I know, he’ll become a great philosopher, one of the foremost synthesizers of religious and secular philosophy that our species has ever known.”

Or maybe he can be all of the above.   It’s possible – if his name is Maimonides.

“From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses.”  So read the inscription that was erected on the grave of Moses Maimonides in the Galilean town of Tiberias, where he was buried.  To many Jews, Maimonides is no more of a secret than the other Moses – the one we call “Moshe Rabbeinu,” which literally means Moses Our Teacher.  But the interesting thing to me is that in the so-called “Judeo-Christian” – aka “Western” – world, every educated person knows a lot about Moshe Rabbeinu even if they don’t know him by that name.  By contrast, only a small percentage know much about the second Moses, the one known as Maimonides.  Unlike his predecessor, the second Moses wrote many books, and contemporaries wrote about him.  In fact, unlike the earlier Moses, archeologists will tell you that this second Moses definitely existed.  And yet, most educated westerners don’t know much about him – they might know the name, or the fact that he was a famous Jew from history, but that’s about it. 

Let me tell you the dirty rotten secret about the term “Judeo-Christian.”  It’s a misnomer.  It really refers a whole lot more to Christianity than it does to Judaism.  Obviously, insofar as this term involves the so-called “Old Testament” (a Christian term), then sure, it takes into account a portion of Judaism.  But whatever religiously Jewish teachings or teachers came after Christ are pretty much absent from “Judeo-Christianity” as that term is commonly understood.  That’s why Maimonides, who lived most of his life in the 12th century, is just another dead philosopher who even educated western Christians know little about.  Isaac Luria?  Another non-entity.  The Baal Shem Tov?  “What the hell language is that?  Is that a person?” 

Muhammad?  Now yes, that’s a well-known name throughout the occident.  But the sad truth is that despite the fact that Muhammad entirely located himself and his teachings within the family of Abraham, he and his followers are explicitly excluded from the “Judeo-Christian” world.  If you ask me, that latter term belongs in the scrapheap of history; it may claim to talk about the world view pioneered by father Abraham, but in truth it excludes not only Islam but post-Biblical Judaism too.

Each of the names I’ve referenced above ought to matter to all of us -- whether your background is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu.  I would say the same thing about figures like Jesus, Paul, Aquinas or Martin Luther – figures I learned a fair amount about when I was a kid but only because “Western” ears inevitably hear about them, not because I actively sought them out.  
Fortunately, as an adult, I have opened my mind to teachings about great men and women from faiths other than my own.  Religious Christian voices were the last ones from whom I was willing to listen because I resented the way they strawmanned my own (Jewish) faith and the way their followers claimed to have transcended it.  Even when I recently read the New Testament from start to finish, I was shocked by all the nasty references to the Pharisees, who I had been taught were deeply moral teachers.  I still don’t like all those nasty references.  But damned if that’s going to keep me away from learning what the Christian Bible has to offer – or at least from trying.

During my upcoming summer vacation, I’ll be privileged to spend time with Christians delving into Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  Thirty years ago, I would have hardly wanted to read, let alone discuss, that book.  Now, like the rest of the New Testament, it fascinates me.  I look forward to learning in a safe space that encourages me to be both critical and inspired, depending on the portion we’re discussing.  Indeed, the beauty of interfaith learning is that adults can study a great teacher with almost childlike, awe-filled interest because we probably didn’t have the best kind of exposure to that teacher when we were kids.  In the case of Paul, few Jewish children are taught anything but distrust for what he had to say.  I was no exception.

If I may speak primarily to my Christian friends and family right now, my concern here is not just with my own learning.  It’s with yours, too.  So allow me to ask the question:  have you studied Maimonides?  Or Isaac Luria?   Or the Baal Shem Tov?  Because they are three of the greatest people that Judaism has to offer, and if I can learn from Paul (with all his nasty statements about our beloved Jewish rabbis), you can learn from them.  They all lived a long time after Jesus.  But that shouldn’t be a problem.  Remember – Jesus didn’t come to supersede Judaism.  Nor did he render it antiquated.  Judaism – like all of the great religions – is a living, breathing organism.  It lives through the men and women who taught us in centuries past.  It lives through those of us who are alive today.  And it will continue to live indefinitely through our children and grandchildren who are lucky enough to emulate Maimonides – as a doctor, a lawyer, a statesman, a mathematician, a theologian, a philosopher, or above all else, a mensch.