Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Great Time … and a Better Suggestion

I don’t have a lot of time to post this weekend – though I did spoil you with two posts last weekend, so don’t feel abandoned.  My uncharacteristic brevity stems from other commitments, but none was greater than the opportunity to see an old friend who I have not seen in literally 30 years.

I went to college with that friend.   He was in my freshman dorm.   We roomed together sophomore year.   And I went to law school with him as well – once again, we were in the same class.   Then, after graduating in 1984, we never saw each other again … until last evening.  We had a great time.   In fact, our law school classmate, aka my wife, also had a great time seeing him.   

When I dropped him off at the train, I could only shake my head at the absurdity of letting that kind of time pass without reconnecting.  Maybe it was part my fault, maybe part his fault, but surely we both are too blame.   Then again, isn’t that part of the human condition?   Anyone who lives long enough has friendships like these, where both parties simply don’t stay in touch and the next thing you know it would feel awkward to get back in touch.

Well I’m here to say that if a friendship is close enough, it’s like bicycle riding: you can pick up right where you left off during the best of the times that you spent together.   So do yourselves a favor, each of you, and think about whether you have a friendship like the one I’m talking about.   Think about whether you could pick up the phone and call someone you haven’t seen in decades but who you once knew like a brother (or a sister).   And then make the call.

Surely, you can envision one friendship where that call would be worth it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Memorial Day Message

This Memorial Day weekend, my family marks the 102nd anniversary of the birth of Julius Bertram Spiro, who passed away at the age of 90 in 2002.  He was the proverbial nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, who somehow figured out a way to be prideful without ever being egotistical.   Julius stood for many values – devoting one’s career to public service, supporting economic equity, avoiding hypocrisy and dishonesty, loving learning for its own sake, treating others with warmth and informality, never trying to call attention to oneself, and recognizing that the smallest among us are the ones who think of themselves as the greatest.

Julius was an economist by trade who as far as I can tell never worked a day in the private sector.  Sadly, he spent much of his adult life regretting that he never went into physics.   But when I told him I was going to law school, he lamented that I should have picked a career in economics instead, because there was more room for intellectual creativity in his field than in the law.   Perhaps, though, he was subconsciously revealing his opinion of lawyers, and the egos they tend to bring to the table.  Similarly, he referred to doctors as “glorified auto mechanics” and looked at the famous right-wing televangelists like Billy Graham with scorn.  He preferred cantors to rabbis – perhaps because he had plenty of tolerance for praying and little tolerance for bullshit. While it is true that he kept kosher in order to honor his own father and enjoyed spending time in synagogue, he never wore his religion on his sleeve.  In fact, he spoke little to me about religion, other than to point out how hypocritical religious leaders can be.

Julius loved animals and children more than anything else.  He was a big wig in the Washington, D.C. area Cub Scouts, and tutored students in the University of Maryland well into his 80s.   As an octogenarian, the last group of folks he wanted to spend time with was old people.  When they got together to speak about such topics as investments and illnesses, they just depressed him.
Julius enjoyed watching sports, especially baseball and boxing.  Basketball bored him to tears. He felt it was repetitious.   

Julius visited something like 60 countries.  India was his favorite, even though he almost died there due to some form of microbe.     

Julius had a particular fascination with astronomy and at one point even built his own telescope.   He clearly saw this planet and its inhabitants as tiny in relation to the universe.   Yet he was in many respects a humanist, who had absolutely no stomach for injustice.   He made sure that as a little child, I went to civil rights marches.  I’ll never forget going with him to Resurrection City when I was seven.  

Every year at this time, I try to remember Julius for the way he lived and not for the way he died – with a feeding tube that was installed just the night before.   The family put him on that tube because his brain was still functioning decently, and it had always been Julius’ desire to live as long as his brain lasted – because he wanted to learn for as long as possible about what was going on in the world.   Nevertheless, it broke my heart when during the day or so before he died, he occasionally spoke to me by referring to himself as my “son.”

I found out about his death at 5:00 a.m., and learned the meaning of the word “keening” shortly thereafter.  That evening, I attended a meeting of the Washington Spinoza Society.   I figured he would have wanted me to do something mind expanding with my time that evening.   

One of the things I enjoy most about going to synagogue is when I stop praying to God and start speaking to Julius.   I scrupulously avoid going to any place of worship in which I don’t speak to him.   My monologue is not a symptom of ancestor worship.   It’s just recognition that I wouldn’t know how to behave as a civilized human being without having been steeped at any early age in the philosophy of Julius Bertram Spiro.    Even though he never spoke well of the discipline of philosophy – even though he always had more respect for facts than for speculation – it is precisely his philosophy that made the greatest impression on me, other than his heart.    I’ve never known a man to have a bigger one.   It is ironic that it was his heart that ultimately gave out in October of 2002.

But this isn’t October.  This is no Yartzheit.  This is Memorial Day weekend – the anniversary of Julius’ birth.   And so, this weekend, my family marks the birth and the life of a wonderful father, a doting father-in-law, the best husband I’ve ever witnessed, and a loving grandfather.  We keep him alive by pointing out his legacy.   And in his name, we ask that each of you search your souls to remember your own loved ones on this day whether they were veterans, Presidents, billionaires, or, in the case of my dad, just a regular guy.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Islamophobia Unmasked

Last week, I delved into the scourge of anti-Semitism.  This week, I had hoped to talk about something completely different.  And then this happened:      Yup, these disgusting ads will now be adorning the public buses in my beloved city and nation’s capital.  We have something called the First Amendment in this country, and it allows us to publicly spew all sorts of vile statements.  These particular ads certainly set a fairly high bar when it comes to communicating in a manner that is not only misleading but guaranteed to further rip asunder an already fragile social fabric.  

“Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Quran,” is the ad’s most prominent statement.    A half-truth?  It’s not even a quarter truth.   The Qur’an honors the Jewish people in so many passages that it is impossible for any objective Jewish reader not to feel honored by the faith of Islam.   Of course, it is also true that Muhammad had his run-ins with different groups – Jews as well as Arabs – and the Qur’an did not shy away from using strong words of rebuke in certain circumstances.  But to conclude from this that the Muslim Scriptures disrespect Jews as a people or Judaism as a religion is an absurdity.  If anything, the Qur’an places Judaism on a pedestal that is not fair to the worthy religions of the East, which are not treated with nearly as much respect as the faiths of Abraham.

The second most prominent statement in the ad is not verbal.   It’s a picture of the one-and-only Adolf Hitler sitting down with an Arab.  The caption beneath it reads “Adolf Hitler and his staunch ally, the leader of the Muslim world, Haj Amin al-Husseini.”  There is no denying that at the time the Nazis were in power, al-Husseini had the title of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and that he sought out any and all allies in the fight against Zionism, including the evil creature who massacred most of my family in Eastern Europe.  But Muslim leaders were hardly the only ones who went to bed with Hitler and turned their backs on the plight of the Jews.  Even here in the good old US of A, Franklin Delano Roosevelt felt no compunction against sending a boatload of Jews back to Europe, where these would-be Americans would instead be graced with the pleasures of Zyklon B gas and perverted dental experiments.   How dare anyone single out the Muslims for their role in the Holocaust without even making a passing reference to the aiding and abetting that went on in so-called “Christian” Europe and throughout the world.    

Last week, this blog reported the results of the Anti-Defamation League’s survey on world anti-Semitism.  That survey demonstrated beyond question that anti-Semitism is at its height among Muslim communities, including those that are thousands of miles away from any significant Jewish population.   This is a point that should not be lost among any of us, and especially not among Muslims.  Nor should anyone fool themselves into believing the canard that, historically, Jews living in Muslim-ruled countries have generally enjoyed complete equality and freedom.   This is one of the many reasons why we Jews deserve our own homeland: we haven’t tended to do so well when living as minorities, notwithstanding the efforts of the hard left to whitewash the injustices that have befallen Jews over the centuries and obsessively single out Jews for their acts of oppression.   But to take these simple facts, work yourself up into a lather, and suggest that the religion of Islam is inherently anti-Semitic or that the Jews have historically been treated as badly by Muslims as they’ve been treated by Christians epitomizes intellectual dishonesty at its height.  

When I saw pictures of those bus ads only a week after I saw the ADL survey on world anti-Semitism, I couldn’t help but ask myself a simple question:  what percentage of adults in the world are neither Islamophobic nor anti-Semitic?   If you want to add “anti-Christian” to the mix, feel free.  But you probably don’t have to, because the first two monikers alone probably bring the number down to well below 50%.  Folks, is there any wonder why we are burning up our environment if we can’t even reconcile with one another?   Indeed, is it an exaggeration to say that the degree of distrust between groups – and I’m including domestic political enemies every bit as much as different faiths and nationalities --  has reached epidemic proportions, and that the epidemic shows no signs of being controllable even in theory, let alone in practice?

Obviously, those of us who vehemently oppose the kind of rank bigotry that is destroying our species, not to mention our ability to come together to protect our planet, must take action when we can.   And I for one am committed to joining with a group of other local leaders to figure out what type of response can be made to these disgusting Islamophobic ads.   But allow me, for just a moment, to put aside all the inter-group hatred we’re experiencing and leave you with a glimmer of hope, or at least a ray of sunshine.   It is an article that was written about the reaction in parts of the Arab world after a former Israeli prime minister was held accountable for acts of corruption.  And it points out that even among so-called “enemies,” there are folks who are willing to look across the aisle and find admiration and enlightenment in what they see, just as I have done when given the privilege to read the Qur’an.   The article is entitled:   “Arabs: We Want Democracy – Like Israel,” and it is written by a man named Khaled Abu Toameh.  Here it is:    

May that article remind us all that at bottom, none of us are enemies.  We are all family.  Once that is realized, stupid ads on buses will come across as nothing more than children pitching temper tantrums.  Every family has them.   It’s our job as adults to take control.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Anti-Semitism Unmasked

Thursday night, I did what every Jew in Israel and the United States should do from time to time.   I sat in a room and listened to 90 minutes of anti-Israel propaganda.   Why?   Because there really are two sides to every conflict, Palestinians have legitimately been screwed by Israel and the rest of the world, and we Jews owe it to them to listen to their narratives.  Some of them truly have been dehumanized and abused by our Jewish brothers and sisters.

OK.  I did it, and I said it.  Now, can I please add that I am sick and tired of the anti-Jewish lobby?   I am sick and tired of hearing Palestinians say that they “don’t want dialogue, they want action.”   I am sick and tired of hearing about how the Israelis are, above all else, oppressors and the Palestinians are, above all else, victims.   And I am REALLY sick and tired of hearing incessant Israel-criticism with no corresponding Palestinian-criticism coming from Jews.   Indeed, the Thursday night event I attended was led by a Jewish filmmaker whose proposed solution seemed to be to boycott Israeli products, wait for the older generation of Jews to die out and get replaced by younger and more progressive Jews, and refrain from making any suggestions to Palestinians since it is allegedly not our place as Jews to tell our victims what to do.

There’s nothing quite like seeing a Q&A session in which a Jewish speaker, after leading a one-sided anti-Israel church service, entertains comments from gentiles (in this case, progressive Presbyterians) who compare the Nakba to the Holocaust …  and offers not one bit of an objection.   Yup.   For a guy like me who loves Kubrick and Hitchcock, that kind of horror show can’t be beat.

Or maybe it can.   Have you seen the reports this week of the Anti-Defamation League’s survey of world opinion on Jews?  You can find it by clicking on “the survey” in this link:   It seems that anti-Semitism is alive and well – and the numbers of adult anti-Semites have now hit the 10-digit level.  By “anti-Semitism,” I’m not referring to the opposition to Israel or Zionism.  I’m talking about garden variety distaste for Jews as such.  According to the survey, more than 90% of the adults in Palestine and Iraq suffer from it, 88% of the Yemenites, 81% of the Jordanians, 75% of the Egyptians, 69% of the Greeks, 61% of the Malaysians, 45% of the Poles, 41% of the Hungarians and the Columbians, 37% of the French, 30% of the Russians … and 0.2% of the Laotians.   Anyone know of any job opportunities in Laos?   Maybe that’s where we should hold the next Olympics.

To define an anti-Semite, the survey made 11 statements and required that the respondent answer “probably true” with respect to 6 of them.  The statements were:  (1) Jews have too much power in the business world, (2) Jews have too much power in international financial markets, (3) Jew’s don’t care about anyone but their own kind, (4) People hate Jews because of the ways Jews behave, (5) Jews have too much control over global affairs, (6) Jews have too much control over the global media, (7) Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars, (8) Jews think they are better than other people, (9) Jews are more loyal to Israel than to [this country/the countries they live in], (10) Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust, and (11) Jews have too much control over the United States Government.   Personally, I would answer none of those questions in the affirmative.  But I have heard people who in my mind aren’t truly anti-Semites make the last two statements.  Still, even if you give the respondents the benefit of every doubt and then some, is there really any question that anyone who would respond affirmatively to six of those statements qualifies as an anti-Semite?  And is it not disturbing that 74% of the respondents in the North Africa/Middle East region, 34% of Eastern Europe and 24% of Western Europe qualify?  Methinks that a lot of this Zionism-hatred that is all the rage these days in those areas is rooted largely in the hatred of Jews, rather than Zionism per se.    

Do you want some more facts and figures?  In our most populous continent (Asia), only 44% of the adult respondents have heard of the Holocaust and of that 44%, 41% say it was a myth or an exaggeration.   Indeed, less than one out of four Asians affirmatively responded that the Holocaust “has been described fairly by history.”  

The ADL survey examined the attitudes of 102 countries, and here in the US the percentage of anti-Semites was only 9 – which ranked us tied for 7th (or 95th, depending on your perspective).   That is why we Americans tend not to appreciate how much anti-Semitism is alive and well in this world.  And that could explain why one-sided diatribes against Israel are all the rage among certain corners of the American left, including even among leftist Jews – they truly don’t appreciate that the Palestinians aren’t the only group in the Middle East fighting a war based on justice and the need for self-determination. 

Personally, my own combination of Judaism and Zionism impels me to argue passionately for Palestinian rights, including their own claim to self-determination in a land that is not dominated by a foreign occupier.  But damned if I’m going to sit back and nod while people equate Zionism with racism and/or deny that Zionism has even the slightest connection to anti-Semitism.   And when I hear that trope from Jews, I just keep thinking about Patty Hearst and the Stockholm Syndrome (i.e., the all-too-common phenomenon epitomized by hostages, like Patty Hearst when she was kidnapped in 1974, who come to identify with their captors).  In this case, it’s not the Palestinians who are the captors of the Jewish left.  It’s that the rest of the world has beaten down the Jewish people for millennia, continues in large part to resent the Jews, and the state of Israel is thankfully our primary refuge to put an end to that insanity … but so many members of the Jewish left who truly are not in their bones anti-Semitic have joined the vanguard of the largely anti-Semitic chorus that is calling for an end to any Middle Eastern state that self-identifies as “Jewish.” 

For Jews to feel free to criticize Israeli policies (like the Settlements) and call for reconciliation with our Palestinian cousins is beautiful and necessary.  But for them to engage in such criticism without pointing out that they too belong to a people of victims who are fully deserving of their own state is, quite frankly, hard for me to stomach.   Many anti-Zionist Jews, no less than Patty Hearst, have fallen prey to their captors – only in this case they’ve been “captured” by the anti-Semites who have slaughtered, ghettoized, dehumanized and despised our people and whose descendants now think that we have too much power and are uppity and racist insofar as we demand the very thing that they have in so many of the countries listed above: a state for one’s own people.    

The truth is, though, that this story will have a happy ending for the philo-Semite – or at least a happier ending than for our Palestinian cousins who are being misled into dreaming about a solution that isn’t likely to come any time soon.   The Stockholm Syndrome might be here to stay, but so too is the Jewish State.  Those who support the boycott-Israel movement or otherwise wish to see the demise of Zionism may indeed live long enough to see the last Holocaust survivor depart from this earth, but those survivors will be replaced by other Zionists who shall keep the dream alive.  You see, it is a terrible thing for Jews to wash away Palestinian history (which is why I showed up on Thursday to sincerely and compassionately learn more about it).  But it is every bit as terrible for the hard-left to wash away Jewish history.  And once you steep yourself in Jewish history, it’s hard to be a passionate anti-Zionist…. unless, of course, your hero is the young Patty Hearst.