Sunday, April 24, 2011


Thinking back on this past week, what sticks most in my mind is the feeling of awe for the holiday of Passover. On Tuesday, we had a family seder in which each of us delivered an encomium (defined as a talk in praise of an idea or thing) on behalf of freedom. It is an idea that I encourage all of you who celebrate the holiday to go ahead and steal next year. Every member of my family prepared a piece for the occasion – for example, one of my daughters prepared and performed a mash-up of a Broadway piece and a Hebrew song; the other, a rap; my wife, a haiku; and me … well, you know, it was my typical prosaic philosophical stuff (combined with a not-so-prosaic reading from Goethe). I can’t remember the last time we had such a fun seder.

Then, last evening, I attended a seder that was every bit as enjoyable and inspiring. It was held at the Adams Center, one of the D.C. area’s most prominent mosques. That’s right – a seder at a mosque! It sounds like a crazy idea, and to be sure, the “wine” was mere grape juice. But otherwise, the feel was incredibly authentic. A few dozen Jews and Muslims toasted the cup of understanding, justice, peace and freedom. And when it finally ended, everyone in the room couldn’t help but think to themselves that the real star of the evening was the (fifth) cup of hope.

I guess that’s what we could offer Elijah. It’s not a cup we’re often permitted to enjoy ourselves – certainly our mass media makes no effort to allow us to enjoy it. If you listen to the radio, watch TV or read the newspapers, you’d have to be convinced that this world is slowly going to hell in a hand basket. So many of our problems require a concerted effort to solve, and are we as a species really ready to come together to solve them?

That sounds like a rhetorical question -- one deserving a resounding “Nyet!.” But after such an exhilarating and uplifting week, I can actually pose the question in earnest. I can actually wonder to myself if we might not in fact be up to the task.

At another mosque this afternoon, where I participated in another interfaith event, a famous statement was repeated by a D.C. court judge: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s an expression associated with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who had he been alive today would have been celebrating yet another holiday this weekend, another holiday of hope. I tend to agree with that statement. With time, our world does tend to bend toward justice. And enlightenment. And peace. And prosperity. The problem is that the “arc” is oh so slow, slow enough that it is easy to lose patience and say that we are quickly running out of time and the sky will soon fall down after all.

Perhaps that is truly the media’s biggest mistake: they create a sense of extreme urgency and implicitly suggest that we are never quite up to the task at hand. But what if our world’s greatest problems aren’t as pressing as they appear? Could it be that our environment is more resilient than Al Gore suggests? Or that even some of our craziest provocateurs aren’t so crazy as to blow up this planet in a nuclear holocaust? Could it be that this world -- a world in which black and white people have been learning to live together, straight people have been learning to respect the rights of gay people, and autocrats have been learning to step aside from the pinnacle of power -- isn’t quite as far gone as we might think?

I wish Elijah were here in my living room and I could ask him directly: is there cause for hope? Have these incredible Passover seders really been a microcosm of all the loving, inspiring activity that is taking place throughout the world today? Can we ultimately save our planet and live in a realm where peace and justice reign supreme?

“Not exactly,” I suspect he’ll say. “Peace and justice will always be tempered by conflict. But if you’re asking if things will gradually get profoundly better and better over time … if you’re willing to ignore the bumps in the road, you just might be pleasantly surprised.”

Usually, I would call that Pollyannaish. But this week, I’m not so sure. Perhaps Pollyanna had a point after all.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


In Moses the Heretic, my second novel, I attempted to tackle the topics of Middle East Peace and Jewish-Islamic relationships. The experience of writing that book gave me the opportunity to reflect long and hard about what is missing from the peace movement. And the answer, at least for me, was clear: we need to see Arabs/Muslims taking public positions in favor of Zionism and Jews/Israelis taking public positions in favor of Palestinian Nationalism.

In the book, I called for a “Singing the Other’s Praises” campaign. It would involve pairs of Jews and Arabs taking to the airwaves and explaining why these so-called “enemies” are really just two sets of cousins who are part of a common family, known collectively as the “House of Abraham.” I figured that there would be no more powerful way of drumming home the beauty of the Zionist narrative in the minds of the public than for them to hear it expressed from the lips of a Palestinian Arab. And there would be no more compelling way of drumming home the beauty of the Palestinian narrative than for the public to hear it expressed from the lips of an Israeli Jew. If only the world could witness the ability of these “combatants” to internalize the truth and justice claims of their cousins, I reasoned, the barriers that have been building for decades would surely begin to fall. And we would all realize that both sets of cousins deserve their own “peace of oith” … their own particular zone of autonomy … just like each set of cousins in a middle-class American family has a home of its own.

That, at least, was my vision for peace. And while it might sound utopian to some, you have got to concede this much: it’s not like any other approach has worked. We’ve had many decades of Jews fighting publicly for Israel and Arabs fighting publicly for the Palestinians and the result, for the most part, is enmity and fear.

These last couple of weeks, while I have continued to spend much of my spare time on Middle East Peace activities, my thoughts have increasingly turned to the domestic problem de jour here in America: the gargantuan national debt. We used to think of the debt in terms of millions … then billions … but now, we’re talking trillions. Many trillions. Taking on that behemoth is beginning to sound as challenging as solving the Middle East Peace conflict. And in each case, the problem seems worse and worse with every passing year.

So what do we do? How about whipping out a “Singing the Other’s Praises” campaign? I’m quite serious – let’s pair up a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat, and have them take to the airwaves together. Talk radio. Fox News. MSNBC in the evening. CNN. Local news. Wherever there’s a microphone, pairs of politicians should grab the mike and chatter away. But the catch is that each politician would have to stay in character – and that would involve what Hollywood calls “playing against type.” It would become the job of the liberal Democrat to talk about how we can no longer afford the magnitude of entitlements that we’ve enjoyed during our nation’s economic peak. This includes entitlements for that most beloved of Democratic fundraisers, the obscenely wealthy trial lawyer, and entitlements for the those who believe that once you reach 65, you have the God-given right to spend bazillions of taxpayer dollars on every possible end-of-life treatment imaginable and without regard to cost. As for the conservative Republicans, it will fall to those politicians to talk about the need to restore some semblance of fairness to how we finance our government and to how we spend our scarce governmental resources. So they would be the ones to express the need to increase taxes on the wealthy, curb defense spending (and wars of choice), and eliminate the tax loopholes and subsidies that large corporations seem to view as their privilege.

Just consider what such a campaign would sound like. For starters, everyone would be speaking the truth. Lord knows that the present system of expenditures and revenue generators is untenable, and the only way it has been allowed to continue is that each side can point to how unreasonable the other side has been. With a “Singing the Other’s Praises” campaign, however, those who are truly serious about debt reduction would stop the finger-pointing and start giving credit where credit is due. Just as with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, both parties have a point when it comes to identifying the causes of the ballooning national debt. It is now time to get together and take on these causes. It’s not hard to figure out what they are; the difficulty lies in politicians summoning the political will to fight their party’s establishment. But if those politicians could pair up with people from the other side who truly have their back, maybe they could summon the needed political courage. In fact, if a national campaign were to begin in which people took on corporate welfare, an ever-expanding military complex, and the insatiable appetites of those from every stratum of the economy who have grown addicted to federal handouts … we just might be able to put our house in order.

Utopian? Sure -- if you think I mean that all of a sudden, every politician in America is going to join this campaign. But all we need is for the campaign to grow two at a time … like the animals arriving in Noah’s Ark. And surely, such politicians exist. Let’s hope they find each other, and fast … before the National Debt balloons from trillions into quadrillions.

Millions, billions, trillions, quadrillions, quintillions, sextillions … pretty soon, you’re talking real money.

Saturday, April 09, 2011


Washingtonians have a reputation for taking themselves way too seriously, and I cannot say this reputation is totally undeserved. You can hear it in the way people talk about their jobs, as if tomorrow’s sunrise depended on their being at the office. And you can hear it in the way people talk about the city itself, as if it is the Emerald City and every place else is Munchkin Land.

Bostonians may call their town the “Hub of the Universe,” but when I lived there, I always thought that statement was meant somewhat playfully. By contrast, here in D.C., when one of the local TV personalities refers to our town as “The Most Important City in the World,” you get the impression that they mean it. And I suspect a lot of Washingtonians believe that drivel.

Well, I don’t. My parents raised me with too much of a respect for the importance of economics for me to elevate D.C. over, say, New York. Still, every now and then, even I have to note that all eyes – nationally and internationally – focus on Washington. And well they should. One of those days was the day after Obama was elected President. Walking around town that morning, I felt like a character in a sci-fi movie. Nothing seemed real. People couldn’t believe that with all of our racist baggage, this nation was actually electing a black man as its President – and in a landslide at that. I will never forget standing outside the Newseum and reading the headlines from around the world. Every one dealt with the election. And I’m sure that all eyes returned to our nation’s capital two months later when Obama was inaugurated, and literally millions descended on the National Mall for the world’s biggest party. Those were days when you felt blessed to be a Washingtonian. Yesterday … not so much.

Sometimes, the surreal can be wonderful. Yesterday, our sur-reality evoked a sense of pathos. We knew that, once again, all eyes were on Washington, but this time, the world was shaking its collective head. There was only one question in everyone’s mind: how can the country with the planet’s largest economy not figure out a way to keep its Government running? Is it so difficult to make budget compromises? Or is something else at play here – something quite unattractive about our nation’s present mindset. From what I can tell, Washingtonians did not have much trouble answering those questions, albeit cynically.

The good news is that the leaders of both political parties ultimately were pragmatic enough to get the job done and avert a Government shutdown. But this was not without wasting huge amounts of taxpayer dollars, as every agency had to waste its time on shutdown contingency plans, rather than doing the nation’s business. How, you ask, did we reach the brink of a shutdown? Was it just that both sides care so deeply about the substance of budget issues that they felt compelled to fight to the bitter end for their principles? I wish that was the explanation.

As I walked around town yesterday from one Government meeting to another, I could not help but reflect on the real subtext to this latest Washington Soap Opera. Increasingly, we are facing a situation in which millions of Americans – many more, in fact, than the numbers who came to town for Obama’s inaugural – have decided that the enemy isn’t so much the deficit, but the Government itself. You can see this in the concerns raised by the organization that represents these people, the so-called “Tea Party.” Tea Partiers are not whining about the tax cuts for the rich, even though those tax cuts balloon the deficit. Similarly, Tea Partiers are not whining about the Government subsidies for large and already-profitable corporations, even though those subsidies further balloon the deficit. In each of those cases, the money is perceived as being plowed directly back into the hands of the very people who generated the tax revenues to begin with, and is thus a tolerable expenditure. Rather, the Tea Party reserves its barbs strictly for those instances in which the Government employs people to make discretionary decisions as to how to spend the taxpayers money. That, and that alone, is the perceived assault that shocks a Tea Partier’s conscience.

When Spinoza wrote that “hatred is pain, accompanied by an external cause,” he was voicing what few of us like to admit about ourselves, but most of us know to be the case. Here, when so much of the Tea Party’s anger is directed to how Government workers exercise their discretion to spend taxpayer dollars, is there any question that the Government workers themselves have become the object of the Tea Partiers’ anger and resentment? And yesterday, when roughly a million such workers faced the possibility of being deprived both of their salary and the opportunity to do their jobs, is there any question that many a Tea Partier inwardly glowed at that prospect?

As I walked across town yesterday, thinking some of these cynical thoughts, I assumed that the Government would be shut down for the weekend – just long enough to give the Tea Partiers their pound of bureaucrat-flesh, but not so long as to do any obvious long-term damage to our nation’s infrastructure or economy. The fact is, however, that damage is being done whenever Government workers perceive themselves as the enemy of millions of Americans, and politicians fan the flames of those who would create this adversarial relationship. This cannot be good for Government morale, and it is hardly likely to lead the public to make the best decisions in choosing their legislators or, for that matter, their Presidents.

As a lifelong civil servant, I will continue to work long hours to protect the interests of the public to the best of my abilities. But I’ve already seen the popular hatred of the Government impact my ability to do that job, as it affects the willingness of people to cooperate with the Government. Without cooperation between the Government and the people, what you have is a third-world nation. Yesterday, walking around Washington, D.C, I was beginning to feel like we are turning into just such a place.

Saturday, April 02, 2011


When I heard that the U.S. military would help enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, my visceral reaction was joy. Though I realized this could mean involvement in a war, Obama’s decision just felt right. Gaddafi had said to his political opponents in Libya that “We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.” And in uttering those words, he was threatening the residents not only of Libya but of any Arab country who dared to fight tyranny. Indeed, Gaddafi was also providing a road map to tyrants: brutalize your would-be reformers in the worst way, or risk going the way of the dodo bird … or Mubarak.

Sitting in the relative calm of my home in Bethesda, Maryland, I had but one sentiment: we’ve got to stop this son of a bitch. We can’t let a few power-crazed strong men snuff out expressions of dissent in the Arab world. In Gaddafi’s case, he wasn’t just talking about cracking down on reformers. He was going to get Medieval. Tarrantino, DePalma, and the ghost of Kubrick couldn’t help but be impressed by the impending “ultra-violence.”

When it comes to the emotions, then, my reaction to Obama’s call to arms in Libya was unambiguous. Intellectually, though, certain doubts crept in. How, I asked, is this any different from the other circumstances where we used force to impose our own chosen type of government on another people? Should we invade every country whose leader strong-arms would be reformers? Should we bomb the compounds of all the world’s dictators? Should we give the leaders of developing nations a choice: implement a republican democracy or die?

Soon, I started hearing the voice of that Klingon from an old Star Trek episode: “Surrender must be unconditional and immediate … Prepare to be boarded, or destroyed.” Somehow, an act of humanitarianism had turned into a macho chant of jingoism. And that’s when it dawned on me that the problem was simple: wars should be initiated very, very sparingly, and only based on compelling and clearly enunciated principles. Otherwise, the next thing you know, you’ll be behaving like a Klingon … or a Cheney.

So, here’s the question: have we enunciated sufficiently compelling principles that support waging war in Libya? The answer to that is obvious. We haven’t clearly enunciated much of anything when it comes to Libya – except for the idea that Gaddafi is a bad man who ideally would be out of power. (Something that could be said for numerous other world leaders.) Perhaps because of everyone’s fatigue from the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither the Administration nor the American public is willing to embrace stopping Gaddafi as the grounds for war.

Consider the words of White House press secretary Jay Carney, when we asked point blank this past Wednesday whether we should call what is happening in Libya a “war”:

"Look, it is a -- obviously, it's military action. Did we invade Libya? No. Are we -- do we have U.S. troops on the ground in Libya? No. You can call it -- it's been a false argument that some media outlets have tried to engage about the nomenclature here. It is the use of military force in concert with our allies. Military force is inherently a risky proposition, puts men and women in harm's way, and military -- but what it is not is in the context that we live in today, anything like a situation where you had I believe at one point 170,000-plus U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq; where you have 100,000 U.S. troops and 140,000 ISAF troops overall in Afghanistan in a prolonged engagement, a prolonged war. That is not what is happening in Libya.”

I think we now have a new definition of waging war – a military action in which you invest a minimum of 100,000 troops. So by that definition, when in Dr. Strangelove, General Jack Ripper initiated a nuclear holocaust of the Russians through the use of B-52 bombers rather than scores of thousands of ground troops, I guess he wasn’t waging war. It was a mere “military action.” Somewhere under the ground, George Orwell is smiling in his grave.

At times, American leaders trump up justifications for war when they can’t think of a good enough reason to explain the real McCoy. In this case, the opposite may be happening. We might be afraid to announce our support for a war even though one could truly be justified. What is a more compelling reason to implement “regime change” than that there exists a madman who is threatening the most inhumane possible slaughter of his people – or at least those of his people who dare to speak out against his tyrannical leadership? And doesn’t this rationale for war become especially compelling when it is taking place during a pivotal juncture in the democracy movement that is spreading throughout the most explosive region in the world?

Frankly, the only way you could justify NOT acting under such circumstances is because you don’t want that democracy movement to succeed. And many westerners don’t. It’s the old line about how “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” In this case, that’s code for the idea that the authoritarian, though somewhat pragmatic, leaders who’ve been dominating the Arab world could well be preferable to the elements in the Arab street who wish to implement Sharia law, at the expense of, among other things, women’s rights and the welfare of Israel.

Truly, I have no crystal ball and am unable to guarantee what will happen in Arab countries like Egypt and Tunisia that are overthrowing their dictators. But I for one would like to see this happen in Libya. More to the point, as a Jew, I can’t sit back and watch Gaddafi threaten what amounts to genocide against the Libyan people, particularly when he obviously had the means to carry out his threat absent NATO intervention.

Another reason why I tend to support the United States’ attack on Libya is because I trust it is not motivated by our typical pedestrian (i.e., short-term, materialistic) sense of the so-called “national interest.” Sometimes, you get the impression that we pick and choose which countries to invade based on whether the enemy poses a threat to our pocketbooks, or its ouster presents an opportunity for our pocketbooks. Personally, I don’t like the idea of waging wars over oil. I prefer the idea of waging wars to stop an impending slaughter. People matter more than oil; it’s just that simple.

So when I hear Secretary of Defense Gates say that it “is not a vital national interest of the United States” to involve itself in the Libyan conflict, that actually makes me MORE likely to support military involvement there, not less. It makes me trust that the NATO nations are compelled to act because Gaddafi is presenting an unusually profound humanitarian threat, and nothing short of military means can stop him. I still don’t know the end game. I still don’t know how many NATO lives and how much money will be lost in the fight to remove Gaddafi. So yes, I still have my intellectual doubts. But all and all, if asked whether I would support war here, the answer would be yes. It continues to be in the long-term national interest of the United States – and any other nation that has learned the lessons of the Holocaust – to prevent an impending genocide if at all possible. And who knows, if America can help stop Gaddafi and return Libya to the Libyans generally, and not to one megalomaniacal Libyan in particular, maybe, just maybe, the Arab street will deeply appreciate us for our selfless act of humanitarianism on their behalf.

Now THAT would be in our national interest.