Saturday, May 30, 2009


Before I begin, please allow me to give a heartfelt congratulations to the Los Angeles Lakers for earning their way into the championship series for a record 30th time. That number almost sounds like a typo, doesn’t it? The Lakers are the only elite team I root for in any sport, so I’ve grown spoiled when it comes to them. But even a spoiled fan has to step back and say “wow” when you consider that a single franchise has been one of its sport’s top two teams on 30 different occasions. By contrast, the franchise they beat last night, the Denver Nuggets, has never played for the title, and they’ve been in the NBA since 1977.
One of the problems with being a Lakers fan in D.C. is that you often suffer from sleep deprivation this time of year. So if this post is incoherent, blame dribble drives, three point shots, and the prospect that by mid-June the Lakers might have just won their 15th championship.

But I digress …

After last week’s post, I have read numerous additional e-mails from members of my fledgling peace group. I’ve also kept my eyes and ears open for anything I could find on the topic of how to make peace in the Middle East … and how NOT to go about it. Rather than trying to wax eloquent on the topic, I’d like simply to ask some questions … of each side. I hope to ask these questions of any partisans whom I encounter during the next several weeks. If both sets of questions are hard hitting, even obnoxious at times, keep in mind that we need to do something to shock this world out of its current slumber. Gentle diplomacy apparently isn’t getting the job done.


1. I understand that some of you claim to support a two-state solution, but are unwilling to call yourselves “Zionists.” Is your preferred two-state solution just a temporary stop gap that would permit the Palestinians to acquire all the disputed land in a two-step process, with the first step being a voluntary division of the disputed land followed by decades more of fighting … ultimately resulting in the Jewish people simply emigrating from the area? If, by contrast, you actually support the establishment of a viable, PERMANENT Jewish state in the Holy Land, albeit one that isn’t as large as the area currently under Israeli control, doesn’t that make you a (de facto) Zionist? And if it does, could you please start using that word as a way to demonstrate that you sincerely respect the claims of the Jewish people to their own “piece of earth”?

2. I understand that some of you recognize that Jews might deserve their own homeland, but simply oppose having that homeland in the region known to you as Palestine. But given that (a) Jews have traced their ancestral homeland to that same region, (b) the UN voted to permit the Jews their own state in that very region, and (c) Jews have subsequently been forced to fight with various Arab peoples over the decades in order to retain their land in that region, how can you expect the Jewish people simply to pack up and find another homeland? Wouldn’t they encounter the same problems elsewhere that they’ve encountered in the Middle East?

3. Why are you unwilling to view what the UN did in 1948 as a legitimate exercise of “eminent domain,” albeit on the international stage? Under that doctrine, a government seizes certain privately own land for the public interest, but must fairly compensate the private parties whose land was confiscated. Can’t we solve much of the land dispute in the Middle East simply by ensuring that the displaced Palestinians receive sufficient compensation for their loss of land? Isn’t that a preferable solution to the “endless war” paradigm, which seems to be the only other practical alternative?

4. Why do you speak about the settlements with such utter disdain, while at the same time ignoring the so-called “right of return”? OK, I can guess the reason: you see the settlers who wish to acquire for Israel all of Judea and Samaria as out-and-out imperialists, whereas you see the Palestinians who simply wish to go back to their ancestral homeland as justice seekers. But don’t you get that BOTH visions are equally antithetical to any viable two-state solution? And do you really believe that a one-state solution here is viable?

5. To those of you who come from the Christian left, do you really believe that Jewish history began in 1948? Please explain the following: How is it that you get to go back to your “people’s” glorious homeland in France? Spain? Italy? Portugal? Russia? Germany? … And yet, despite the horrible way that each of those nations have treated the Jews over the centuries, you don’t feel the need to work like the devil for a Jewish homeland? Isn’t that the epitome of chutzpah on your part?

6. For those of you who are Arabs, how can you be so indignant about the way Jews refuse to allow Palestinians to live in Jerusalem, when Jews aren’t even allowed to VISIT Mecca? Of course, it’s not just Jews who aren’t allowed there, it’s all non-Muslims. Why do you get to enforce that kind of rule, and yet Jews are expected to share their holiest city? In fact, why do you get to enforce that rule, AND you get to place a Muslim shrine on the top of the Temple Mount, the holiest place in the world for Jews? Don’t you think it’s a little out of step with the narrative of “Jewish oppression” that the Jews’ holiest shrine is a mere wall of a Temple that cannot be reconstructed because there is a Muslim shrine on that spot, whereas your greatest shrine is (a) an absolutely magnificent structure (b) located in a city that only Muslims can enter?

7. For those of you who are Jewish – and who always seem to want to blame Israel first and foremost – couldn’t it be that you hold the Jews to a higher standard than you hold everyone else? Why are you so “understanding” when the Arabs (a) kill civilians, (b) preach anti-Semitism in their school books, (c) fail to come together and ensure that there exists a single organization capable of binding the Palestinians in negotiations with the Israelis, and (d) continue to refuse to acknowledge that the Jews have a right to their own homeland? Given your empathy with the Palestinians, why aren’t you equally understanding that the people of Israel, who must deal with periodic terror and constant verbal threats, are loathe to part with the small amount of land they’ve acquired?

8. How can ANYONE hold a state to the highest standards of Judaism when, from the day it was created, it was under siege by hostile enemies? Do Americans have to live like that? How about the nations of western Europe? Who are we in America to judge Israel so harshly when, as soon as we’re exposed to threat of international terrorism, we absolutely panic and implement a policy of bombing and torturing?

9. Aren’t the Israelis asking simply for an opportunity to build a truly Jewish country, one that doesn’t have hostile enemies constantly threatening their survival? If the country is allowed to live in peace for the first time and set up to have a heavily Jewish majority, I think most Jews would accept the consequences if religious conversions and legalized immigration alter the state’s religious or ethnic character. But isn’t it likely that such a country would flourish as a Jewish homeland, much as Italy as flourished as an Italian homeland, or France as a homeland for the French? Why do the French, Italians – or for that matter, the Arabs, who now control nearly all of the Middle East – deserve their chance at self-determination, and not the Jews?

10. When will the Arab world start getting representatives on television who consistently tout their respect for the legitimate claims of Israel for territorial autonomy? Yeah, I’ve heard the old saw that “there are plenty of Palestinians and other Arabs who speak out in sympathy with Israel, but the media just doesn’t bother reporting about them.” With all due respect, isn’t it incumbent on these “moderate” Arabs to make sure that the media reports about them? If they’re so impotent that they can’t figure out a way to get themselves on TV, how is Israel supposed to trust that they can defeat the pro-terror forces within the Arab world?


1. From what circle of Hell did you come up with the idea that Israel should indefinitely build more and more settlements on the land that we will need to give back under any viable two-state solution? You’re not possibly arguing that these ever-expanding settlements are required to ensure Israeli security, are you? So then why continue to populate the Territories with Jews? Isn’t that just a thinly-veiled way of telling the Palestinians that they’re going to have to leave the region altogether, because Israel will soon have gobbled up virtually all of the attractive land in the region?

2. Do you really think you can unilaterally impose a particular division of land on the Arab world? And if so, why would you impose a division of land that is so disrespectful to the claims of the Palestinians? Do you expect them to stop fighting for what they believe is theirs, while you refuse to negotiate with them and prefer instead to simply wall off the tiny bit of attractive land that you have allotted to them? What is it about Palestinian culture that gives you confidence that they will simply back off like sheep and defer to the “mighty” Israelis? And speaking of mighty, are you taking the position that, in Judaism, “might makes right”?

3. Hasn’t Israel gone way overboard in the extent to which it precludes freedom of movement and freedom of trade within the Territories? Is there a possible justification for maintaining the Palestinian people at such decrepit economic levels? Does Israeli security truly require us to deny them all food other than the bare “necessities?” Doesn’t this strategy smack of torturing the Palestinian people into making concessions? Or suggest that to the Israeli Government, Palestinians are somehow less than human?

4. Is Bibi daring Barack to impose sanctions on Israel for refusing to seize more and more of the disputed land (i.e., for refusing the settlement freeze)? Isn’t Bibi saying, in essence, “I know we are completing disregarding one of the fundamental principles of U.S. policy with Israel, but there’s nothing you can do about it because of how powerful our lobbyists are in your country”? If that’s the message, why shouldn’t Barack stand up to that kind of bullying and impose economic sanctions on Israel if the settlement growth continues? Why shouldn’t the United States flex a few of our own muscles and tell Israel that we don’t write blank checks to governments that deliberately impede the prospects of a Middle East peace?

5. How does the IDF continue to boast about its humanitarian policies during the Gaza invasion when, in fact, it refused to allow members of the media to enter the Gaza Strip and report on the war? Can’t we presume from that refusal that Israel acted with indifference to the lives of Palestinian civilians? Otherwise, why not let the media see Israeli virtue for themselves … and report on it?

6. Why does Israel continue to insist on pre-conditions before it engages in peace talks? Doesn’t that suggest that Israel doesn’t want to negotiate a peace deal, but would rather unilaterally divide up the land (in a manner that favors Israel and screws the Palestinians)? Otherwise, why not at least bring the leaders of Hamas to the table and see if they’re grown tired of endless war? What is there to lose in talking? What is there to gain in the status quo? Oh yeah -- a unilaterally imposed peace in which the Palestinians are supposed to serve, passively, as the “eggs” that must be cracked in order to make the Israeli omelet?

7. You frequently talk about the myth of “moral equivalency,” and how unfair it is to compare the misconduct of the Israelis with the much more obscene misconduct of the Arabs. And to prove your point, you invariably argue that at least the Jews don’t target civilians, whereas the Arabs not only have terrorized countless Jewish civilians over the years but would happily butcher all the Jews who remain in the Middle East if only they had the chance. But isn’t that argument just a tad glib? Why should Israel target civilians when it has the military might to dominate the region? Isn’t terrorism merely a strategy employed by movements lacking conventional military power? And isn’t this strategy the only means that the Arabs have at their disposal to fight for justice … other than hoping for the good graces of Israelis like Bibi Netanyahu?

8. While it would obviously be preferable for the Palestinians to behave like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi and assert their claims non-violently, how have the right-wingers who now control Israeli politics given the Palestinians comfort that such non-violence would generate profound concessions of land? Isn’t the resumption of settlements proof positive that Israel simply wants to expand their grip over the disputed land, and only violent resistance will get the Israelis back to the peace table? After all, isn’t one of the lessons of the last few years that once Israel figured out a way to stop Palestinian violence (such as by building the wall), it turned the nation’s Government over to the right-wingers, who have no trouble standing up to calls for peace from Washington, let alone Hebron or Gaza?

9. Rather than simply decrying the way Israelis are presented in Arab textbooks, have you investigated the way Arabs and Muslims are treated in Israeli text books? Or the extent to which Jews in Israel and abroad continue to be woefully ignorant about Islam? Those Jews who have studied the issue have the deepest respect for Islam as a fellow member of the House of Abraham. But what is Israel doing to ensure that all of its Jewish inhabitants come to see the religion of Islam as a sister faith, and come to see the Arab practitioners of Islam as their own cousins? In the long term, isn’t that kind of education the surest way to bring about peace in this region?

10. Isn’t it possible that all of the centuries of anti-Semitism has made us Jews more than a tad paranoid? Now don’t get me wrong; sometimes paranoia is justifiable, and this is definitely one of those times. But even Jewish paranoia, as sensible as it is, needs to be swallowed in moderation. To be sure, there are plenty of Palestinians specifically, and Arabs generally, who want us dead, but there are MANY more Palestinians and Arabs who want to embrace us as fellow children of Abraham. Should we truly be holding off on working for peace until every last Arab has been certified kosher (i.e., accepting of the Jewish claim to at least part of the Land of Israel)? Or is that strategy simply a way of “waiting for Godot? Wouldn’t it be better if we began making significant concessions NOW of some of the most hotly disputed land, and empowered our moderate Palestinian allies so that they can deliver to the Arab Street a better way of life?

And here's one more for good measure, just so I'm not accused of being too "pro Israel" (even though that is where my bias lies):

11. To those of you who think that Israele tried making a substantial concession when it cleared out the settlements in Gaza, only to see that strategy backfire in the form of rocket fire, have you thought through the how absurd that sounds? Do you really think that when the Palestinians were handed control over Gaza, they were allotted a truly viable state? Isn’t that like offering people a “state” composed solely of the South Bronx? Or South Central LA? Hasn’t Israel grown so tired of having to deal with the Palestinians that it is now channeling its inner Marie Antoinette? “Let ‘em eat cake!” seems to be the new message that Bibi and the boys are offering to the Palestinians. Once all the settlements are built out in the West Bank, will you at least show us peaceniks the courtesy of explaining what type of cake you are offering? Even as a vegan, whose taste buds have grown more flexible over the years, I suspect I’d find it inedible.

The truth is that I could have probably gone on for a while, identifying seemingly infinite numbers of concerns with both perspectives. But truly, the better course is to on the ultimate outcome we'd like to see come about, and then work backwards from there, rather than focusing on all the problems that have led to the current mess we're in and playing the "blame game." I hope to move on to other topics next week, but let me reiterate for the record that I am a proud Zionist who pines for the day when Jews, Muslims and Christians can share Jerusalem and when Jewish settlements are confined to areas inside the Green line. Will we get there? I think so. How will we get there? Now that is a bit more difficult to answer. Still, whatever the answer is, it surely begins with dialogue ... and patience.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


“May the One who makes peace in the heavens create peace in our world as well, peace for us, peace for all of Israel, peace for all people and peoples. And say, Amein!”

There you have it, folks. The English translation of the prayer that we recite at our synagogue multiple times every Friday night. I love saying the Hebrew version of that prayer. And yet … for some reason, going to shul and praying for peace just wasn’t enough for me.

That’s why I felt compelled to get involved in peace organizations. The Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society (JIDS) of Washington, which I recently co-founded, is a peace organization of a sort. JIDS helps the members of these two communities recognize what it means to be “cousins” from the family of Abraham, rather than rival systems of faith. I find the discussions enlightening and sometimes even inspiring. In the long run, these dialogues might even have some peace dividends. And yet … in the immortal words of Maynard Keynes, in the long run, we’re all dead.

That’s why, when invited to join an organization designed for no other reason than to promote Middle East peace, I jumped at the chance. I assumed it would be at least as fulfilling as praying for peace or dialoguing with my Muslim cousins. I also assumed I would feel at home in this organization – much as I do when I pray at shul, or get together at a mosque for a Muslim-Jewish dialogue. And yet … what I didn’t fathom was that the very Judaism that allows me to enjoy prayer and interfaith dialogue has somewhat alienated me (so far) from my fellow peaceniks.

To explain the cause of my alienation, I have to fill in a bit of my background. Early in my childhood, whenever I visited my grandparents, I would go into their bookcase and examine a certain brown book with a swastika on the cover. The book is called The Brown Book of Hitler Terror, and it contained hundreds of pages of prose, as well as various photographs, including pictures of Jews who had been beaten to death. On the inside of the book I found an inscription:

“Feb. 13, 1934,
To a buddy of social science
From a Veteran.”

And a few pages later, I noticed that the book was published in New York in 1933.

My mother explained to me that the “buddy of social science” was my grandmother Fanny Siegel, a woman who had lost several of her siblings in the Holocaust and contributed many hundreds of hours of her time to the war effort. By the time I was ten years old, I was familiar with the basic facts of the Holocaust, and horrified by the thought that Jews like my grandmother were aware of Hitler’s terror as far back as early-1934 (a year after the Nazis came to power), though our nation didn’t declare war against Germany until 1941. I also understood that the Holocaust was merely the crown jewel of a lengthy history of violence perpetrated against the Jews. This commenced with the invasions of the “Promised Land” by the ancient Babylonians and Romans. It continued with the expulsion of Jews from such other Mediterranean nations as Spain and Portugal, Jewish ghettoization in the cities of Italy, anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, and official discrimination in just about every country that called itself “Christian.” Ironically, the nation that masterminded the slaughter of six million Jews was the very nation in which the Jews had most successfully assimilated (or so everyone thought). Weimar Germany was supposed to be an argument for why Jews didn’t need our own state. Hitler – and all who cooperated with him – destroyed that argument once and for all.

Growing up Jewish in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Holocaust was not a very distant memory. Fortunately, we Jews were blessed with an “antidote” to obsessing about that horror. We could think instead about those modern day heroes, the intrepid Israelis, who would ensure that we Jews would never again be expelled, ghettoized, or slaughtered because of our minority status.

The wars of ‘67 and ‘73 were reported to me as glorious victories against long odds, given that numerous Arab nations were gunning to drive my fellow Jews back into the Mediterranean, so that the land could be reclaimed by its rightful owners. I had hoped that the United Nations would come to the Israelis’ rescue – after all, it was under U.N. auspices that Israel was created in the first place. Instead, I learned about resolutions declaring that “Zionism is racism.” And I was left, as a teenager, to consider a world where the Christians controlled all of Europe, North America and South America, the Muslims controlled nearly all of the Middle East and nations in the Indian Subcontinent and Orient, and the Jews had to struggle to control a land mass roughly the size of New Jersey. Worse yet, it was the Jews who the world saw as the land-rich oppressors and the Arabs as the poor victims, while the same Christian nations that for centuries treated Jews like sub-human creatures were able to wash their hands of any further responsibilities.

You’ll forgive me if, as a child, I looked at Jews as victims and not as perpetrators. You’ll forgive me if I looked at Zionists as targets of racism, and not as racists. You’ll forgive me if I believed that if any other nationality had been treated as savagely as the Jews had been treated and finally was given a “piece of earth” to call their own – only to learn that their neighbors were willing to die in order to expel them from the land – they could hardly be expected to behave more humanely than the Israelis had behaved.

Even as a child, I realized that the above perspective may have been “the truth … and nothing but the truth” … but it was hardly “the whole truth.” Stated simply, I realized that the Jews weren’t the only innocent victims in this international horror story known as anti-Semitism. The Jews weren’t even the only Semitic victims. I had in mind the Palestinian Arabs. Much like my own Jewish ancestors had lived in era after era, the modern Palestinians had been booted from their own land to make room for the Jewish state, and were left to rot in poverty. Some of them responded by advocating violence against Jews, but the violence advocates were few in number. For the most part, the Palestinians were a peaceful Semitic people, much like my own, who only wanted their own “piece of earth.” It was easy enough for me to say “why don’t the Saudis take them in, share the wealth, and give them middle class lives,” but that wasn’t an option. So I added the Palestinians to the list of folks in the Middle East with whom I empathized deeply. Their pain became my pain. Their plight, my plight. After all, to be Jewish is to always be in sympathy with those who have been oppressed, and I came to see both the Israelis AND the Palestinians in that light.

As an adult, I’ve religiously stopped associating myself with one of these groups of people as opposed to the other. Whenever I see a sign in front of a synagogue that says “We Support Israel,” it makes me wince. I don’t simply support Israel, I support the Palestinians too. In other words, I support PEACE, which requires prosperity and security for both sets of Abrahamic cousins. I support envisioning a time when both of these peoples will have their own state and these states can exist side by side. But in that vision, Israel would always be a Jewish state – in other words, it would be a democracy led by a Jewish majority. Remember: I was committed to never again allowing billions upon billions of people to populate this planet without at least providing for one tiny land mass to be controlled by the Jews. That only seemed fair to me, given all the land controlled by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc.

A few years back, when I wrote my second novel, Moses the Heretic, I realized that there was one missing piece from my vision. I had previously been imagining Israel essentially shrinking back to its pre-‘67 borders, which would mean that the Palestinians would control all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. While writing that novel, it dawned on me that in order for Israel to merit the moniker of a “Jewish state,” it would need to do one more thing: share Jerusalem. Specifically, I had in mind Israel ultimately ceding control of that city to the United Nations (once it stopped being so anti-Israel), which would devote the city to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. Nothing else seemed consistent with the Jewish principle of generosity, which is another word for justice. When I visited Jerusalem, I felt that it was the world’s holiest city. That’s precisely why it needs to be shared – it belongs to God, not to any one tribe.

And it was that perspective that I brought to the new peace organization referred to above.

So, why has this organization driven me to distraction? That could be stated simply. One person after another, both Christians and Arabs, explained what they thought America should do: come down hard on Israel. There seemed to be a consensus among my fellow peaceniks that the party “primarily at fault” was the Israeli Government. They are the party with power, so they are the party that needs to make concessions first. Then, once we bully Israel into giving back land and allowing more freedom of movement to the Palestinians, then and only then should we lecture the Palestinians about doing their part.

I’m sorry, folks, but I don’t buy it. I can be as pro-Palestinian as the next guy. But I simply cannot view Israel as THE bad guy here. At least not yet. They still live in fear of hostile enemies. Just look at the group that was democratically elected to represent the Palestinian people: Hamas! Is there any question that some in Hamas would advocate the destruction of the Jewish people? Is there any question that some in Hamas would kill as many Israelis as they could from the moment they got the opportunity? And should the Israelis simply relax all their restrictions immediately and allow Hamas free reign?

To me, it is simply not productive to identify either of the parties in the Middle East conflict as the “primary” wrongdoer. It is also not productive to suggest that one party take the first step in reforming their conduct. We need BOTH parties to reform their conduct. The Israelis need to give up land and cede control, and the Palestinians need to incentivize them to do that by calling an end to the strategy of violence and by coming to embrace Zionism. That’s right, Zionism! Also, both groups need to educate their people about what it means to have cousins in the family of Abraham. In other words, the textbooks in this region need to be radically transformed so as to become vehicles of compassion, not of bigotry.

I am proud to call myself a Zionist, albeit one with a small Z. I don’t believe we Jews have the luxury of overseeing a large Jewish state. But I still believe we deserve our “piece of earth.” That precludes the so-called “one state” solution. That precludes any outcome that could possibly give rise to a non-Jewish majority. Isn’t it enough that we will never have a Jewish majority in America, in Russia, in China, in India, in Italy, in France, in Spain, in Saudi Arabia, in Iraq …

Please, my peacenik friends, join me in being a Zionist. A pro-Palestinian Zionist. There are not many of us now, but if you really want peace, this is the best way I know to get there.

When my grandparents died, I asked for and received The Brown Book of Hitler Terror. It’s one of my prized possessions. I don’t look at it very often. I’d rather dwell on visions of a peaceful future than realities of a tragic past. But nor do I plan on forgetting the past. And whenever I’m exposed to those who wish to blame the Jews first (I mean “the Israelis”), I’m reminded that our history did not begin in 1948, or for that matter, near the end of the 19th century when my ancestors began to flock to the “Promised Land” in droves. Jews have been around for thousands of years, and are the oldest members of the House of Abraham. To understand our conduct requires appreciating each millennia of our history, and not any one decade or group of decades.

Thankfully, though, part of our history is that we Jews love working diligently for peace, justice, and fellowship among all peoples. And just as importantly, we love to dream about a time when we all shall “beat [our] swords into plowshares and [our] spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

So, with one eye looking back in time and another looking forward, allow me to utter the words that have been my people’s rallying cry for centuries, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Just keep in mind that in the highest spirit of my faith, I offer that dream not only for Jews, but for my Muslim and Christian cousins as well. That city belongs to all of us … or more to the point, it belongs to Allah. Only by bringing peace to Jerusalem can we truly honor Ha Shem and bring honor to ourselves.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


The title of this post represents my description of the new Star Trek movie – you know, the one that every reviewer seems to love. The fact is that I enjoyed it as well. The pace was excellent, the characters were likeable, and the by-play between those characters was worthy of the original series. Perhaps as a result of those assets, the movie never left me bored – unlike, say, the much decorated “Slumdog Millionaire,” which definitely dragged at times.

Even though the new Star Trek introduced events that were inconsistent with the events of the original series, I enjoyed the movie enough that I was willing to give it a little license to stray from Star Trek orthodoxy. After all, it wasn’t like the original show was perfectly consistent either.

All that said, there was nothing about the new Star Trek that was memorable. Nothing poignant, nothing that evoked even the most elementary insight, and no vision that sticks in your mind – except, perhaps, for how damned good looking all the actors were, male and female. In short, it was the perfect movie for its time, requiring neither emotional nor intellectual energy from its audience, yet remaining continually pleasant. After a long day at the office, or an even longer day spent looking for work, who in this society has the energy for art that requires you to think or feel deeply?

I should have known that this movie would be less than ambitious when I saw the coming attractions. Every last one of the flicks advertised were action movies emphasizing special effects or violence, with the occasional low-brow joke mixed in. I realized then that the Star Trek franchise had become just another “action” film, a genre for which I rarely have any use.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed a few of those flicks. The first two Terminator movies, for example. Die Hard was another. And I’ve liked several Bond movies. But the reason why I remember those movies was because the characters of the heroes and/or villains truly stood out. By definition, that’s an unusual occurrence, and there was no character in the new Star Trek that would have “stood out” to anyone who was not already smitten by the earlier series.

Watching the movie unfold, I began asking myself whether my “Trekkie” status was merely an accident of birth. Star Trek came out when I was six, and I began watching it at age eight, which was just about the time that the show was cancelled after only three seasons. From that point until the time I graduated from high school, its 79 episodes were televised over and over again every weekday afternoon, and I had them practically memorized. The show stoked my lifelong love for philosophy, and probably even shaped some of my values. Collectively, it influenced my childhood far and away more than anything else Hollywood produced.

As an adult, I’ve often wondered whether my love for the original Star Trek is purely a function of the fact that I was first able to watch the show when in elementary and junior high school. Are the show’s philosophical ideas so rudimentary and superficial as to be worthy only of children? Are the show’s characters compelling? Or did I like them so much merely because my 8-10 year old mind wouldn’t know how to process characters that possessed any depth?

Perhaps I know the answers to those questions all too well and simply refuse to believe them. Truth be told, I have never been riveted by any of the Star Trek movies or by any Star Trek TV series other than the original, and it hasn’t been lost on me that I was an adult when all of that came out. But … loyalty is one of my favorite vices, and I don’t apologize for that either. If I can count any person, institution or TV show among my greatest benefactors, I will be hard pressed to cast that benefactor aside. I will, it seems, extend to that benefactor the benefit of quite a few doubts. (If that undermines one of the premises of Empathic Rationalism, so be it.)

With all that as introduction, let me say that I am anxiously awaiting the NEXT Star Trek movie. I look forward to seeing these likeable young actors and actresses attempt to recreate the roles that I’ve enjoyed so much over the years. I can’t wait to see whether the producers of these films intend to challenge the audience. Will the ideas they summon be as stimulating as those of the “The City of the Edge of Forever” episode? Will they tug on our hearts, as in “Balance of Terror”? Or will they instead give us just another cookie-cutter action flick, pleasant enough to view, but ultimately unmemorable?

I’m going to cut plenty of slack for those who made the recent Star Trek movie because their primary job was to introduce a new cast to the audience, and they performed that task quite well. But I won’t be so forgiving when the next film comes out. Let’s boldly go where no Star Trek movie, not even the beloved “Wrath of Khan,” has gone before. Let’s introduce some real art, or some profound philosophy, and thereby put this franchise back on the map. The person-stages of my childhood could use the vindication.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


Barack just threw down the gauntlet – and I don’t mean to the Republicans. This week, he made a statement to his fellow Democrats. If there’s a reason to have 60 votes in the Senate, if there’s a reason to dominate both houses of Congress, it’s to enact bills like the one he has in mind. A bill to eliminate foreign corporate tax havens within two years.

This is the kind of bill that if it were promoted by a Republican President, he’d be thrown out of the Party. Even some moderate Democrats – like Senator Max Baucus of Montana – have been lukewarm, lest they come across to their campaign contributors as “anti-corporate.” But there’s nothing anti-corporate about the desire to compel corporations to pay their fair share.

One of the litmus tests of being an enlightened and devoted citizen is the willingness to pay a significant amount of one’s disposable income in the form of taxes. If those who can afford to give weren’t willing to be taxed, we would never have decent public schools, a well-equipped military, an adequate transportation infrastructure, or numerous other services that we’ve all come to expect in an advanced economy.

In theory, the tax on corporations is a robust 35%. In practice, however, according to the Treasury Department, American multinational corporations have been paying only 2.3% of their foreign income in the form of taxes. The result is that our tax base has been suffering a 12-figure loss each year at a time when our national debt is bursting at the seams.

I’m all too aware of the fear-mongering on this issue. Once we force our multinational corporations to pay real money in the form of taxes, they’ll flee the United States for good. But my response to this argument is always the same: why do we simply assume that our largest corporations are run by men and women without a drop of patriotism in their blood? Why don’t we challenge them instead to serve their country by supporting their government and their country, rather than simply their shareholders?

At this time, we are asking our soldiers to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan under anything-but-ideal conditions. We are asking our nation’s poor to continue to live without health insurance. We’re asking our children and grandchildren to please bear with us, as we continue to go deeper and deeper into debt. And we’re asking our elderly population to make do on a whole lot less money than they thought they had when they retired, only to recognize that the stock market isn’t the panacea it was cracked up to be. Is it not obvious that everyone is being asked to pitch in for the greater good? And if so, why shouldn’t that apply to our multinational corporations?

Over the next few weeks, I expect that the business community will fight like devils to retain their tax havens. They’ll surely be joined by most, if not all, of the Republican legislators, not to mention some frightened Democrats who don’t want to bite the hands that feed them. But Barack must stand firm. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the Presidential thing to do. And it’s the Democratic thing to do. It’s about time he took a courageous stand and showed the nation that while Rush and his minions might have succeeded in destroying the Republican Party, the Party of the donkey is alive and kicking.

Saturday, May 02, 2009


The speech the Man of the Week really should have given:

“My dear friends. Fellow Pennsylvanians. Fellow Americans. I come here this morning with a heavy heart, because I know what I’m about to say is going to earn me comparisons to none other than Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot. Arnold sold out the principles that are most holy in the sphere of politics – principles such as the right of all peoples to self-autonomy, liberty, and an equal claim to human dignity. As for Judas, he sold out principles that are analogously paramount in the spheres of morality and theology. Yes, even as a Jew, I can appreciate the horror of what Judas represents, and why he has become for Christians as powerful a symbol of evil as Hitler has become for the Jews.

“Nobody wants to be reviled. No man wants to be seen as a snake. Yet that will inevitably be my fate among the very portion of this nation who has supported me in the past. I can still hear the cheers and praises that were sent in my direction after I took my most dramatic public stand. Need I remind you of the incident? I sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, who was applying to be the first black American on the United States Supreme Court. A woman named Anita Hill, a black college professor, accused Thomas of egregious sexual harassment, much to the joy of liberals throughout the nation who felt that Thomas was not only unqualified but way too conservative to merit the title of Supreme Court Justice.

“Other Republican Senators demonstrated their support for Thomas. But I went further. I ripped into Hill like a rabid dog. I accused her of “flat out perjury.” And I did it with a heart of stone in front of hundreds of millions of Americans. For that performance, I instantly become a Republican hero. Yet to the Democrats, I became the quintessential bully. I was like the character on those Lifetime Channel movies who treat the victims of rape as if THEY were the criminals, and the rapists the victims. Back then, I was perceived by Democrats as evil incarnate. And after today? That will be my reputation among Republicans

“Imagine that – an enemy of Republicans and Democrats alike. That is my destiny, at least for the near future. It is also my destiny to be re-elected next year to a sixth term as Senator from the great state of Pennsylvania. You don’t believe me? Just watch.

“I’ve struck a deal, you see. Tomorrow morning, I intend to stand before you with President Barack Obama on my right, and Vice President Biden on my left. The Vice President will talk about what great lifelong friends we are, and how we have ridden the Acela train together for decades, and how we have jointly helped saved that train and collectively toiled on various crucial pieces of legislation. And the President? He will say the magic words: that he and the Vice President are committed to supporting my bid for re-election to the Senate.

“You heard me right. The most popular man in the nation and on the planet is going to pledge to do whatever it takes to keep my job for another 7 ½ years. And for that privilege, all that I have to do is switch parties. Call me Judas, call me Benedict, call me Faust … but what choice is there? You do realize I’m behind in the Republican polls by 14 PERCENT! It’s either cut the deal with Barack, or get sliced and diced in the Republican primary. I’m too much of a fighter to let that happen. Just ask Anita Hill. I’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done.

“Truth be told, when I ran for Philadelphia D.A. back in the mid 60s, I ran as a Kennedy Democrat. Back then, the winds blew in the direction of blue. It wasn’t until the era of Ronald Reagan that I switched to red. Could you blame me? Only losers bet on the wrong horse, and Arlen Specter is no loser. When I see a political tidal wave, I ride it. And there’s never been a bigger wave in my lifetime than there is right now.

“Part of what’s happening is that we have a President who’s about as gifted a politician as Mozart was a musician. But that’s not all of it. The biggest reason why I’m having my Mephistopheles moment is that the Republican Party is bankrupt. And I don’t mean Chapter 11 bankrupt either. Have you taken a look at the face of the party? It’s that drug addict who made fun of Michael J. Fox for having Parkinson’s. You know, the big fat idiot. And if he’s not sounding off, it’s that other guy, the one with the silver hair – the other well-fed boor, who shoved divorce papers in front of his wife when she was in hospital suffering from cancer.

“And this is the party of values? They always seem to vote in lockstep – God forbid a single Republican would take on the party establishment. Look what happened last year when McCain beat a splintered field and claimed the GOP nomination. He had to nominate a ruthless air-head just to unify the Party. How’d that work out?

“No, I just can’t take it any more. I can’t take the pressure of feeling like a second-class Republican because I support a woman’s right to choose … or because I don’t think gay people are sinners … or because I think that Jesus of Nazareth might actually oppose torture. Yeah, you heard me. According to a recent poll, devout Christians are much more likely than other Americans to support torture. We’re talking about the fundamentalists. That’s how they see Jesus, apparently, as an advocate of waterboarding. And THEY are the backbone of the Republican Party. THEY are the ones who are dominating the agenda, exiling moderates like me to the backbenches of the Party, while that Big Fat Idiot is allowed to scream like a Banshee that he is rooting against the President of the United States at a time when our nation is in peril. Who needs this crap?

“With my switch to the Democratic Party, that will give the Democrats 59 members in its Senate Caucus. Once Al Franken mops up his victory in Minnesota, the number will reach 60. I don’t always plan on voting with the liberals, but I don’t plan on filibustering against them either. And I doubt any other Democrats will either. That should mean that from now on, the majority will be able to bring legislation to a vote, and the majority will be able to hammer that legislation home, whether or not the Republicans continue to vote in lockstep … like automatons.

“It’s kind of ironic, when you think about it. It wasn’t long ago when the Republicans were thrilled that they could vote out gay marriage in California by having only a simple majority – even though the California judiciary thought gay marriage was a fundamental right. Democrats thought that the California Constitution was unfair, because it violated the principle that minorities should have rights too, and you should require more than a simple majority to abrogate the rights granted by the courts. Now the shoe is on the other foot. The Republicans depended on having the 41 Senators you need to filibuster legislation and thereby protect the rights of the minority. And now? They don’t have bubkes!

“To be honest with you, I’m proud to serve as the executioner of the Republican Party. I’m proud to sell them out, given what they’ve become. Maybe some day, things will change. Maybe they’ll find another visionary like Reagan who will stand up to the Big Fat Idiot and the Pig Who Dumps His Wife With Cancer. Maybe that visionary will actually realize that in order to be an effective party, you have to have support outside of the Bible Belt. Maybe that visionary will be able to cram into the heads of his supporters that when you’ve got a Senator from a Blue State, someone who’s been elected four times already, the last thing you do is run the guy out of the Party because he’s not “pure” enough.

“You want purity? Fine, I’m going to give you the pure, honest-to-God truth. I’m a politician in the late stages of a large empire that has lost its soul. Not surprisingly, I’ve lost mine too. As a result, what I care about the most when it comes to my job is getting re-elected. And in order to get re-elected, I had better become a Democrat. So today, I am hereby announcing my resignation from the Senate Republican caucus. I will become a proud member of the Democratic Party – just as I once was years back when it was opportune to be a Democrat. If in seven years, I have to switch parties again in order to be re-elected, then that’s what I’ll do. Call it the art of the practical. Call it a survival extinct. I really don’t care what you call it, or what you call me. Judas Iscariot Specter? I’m cool with that. But remember -- it’s SENATOR Judas Iscariot Specter, and thanks to my new friend, Barack, it will be for another 7 ½ years.”