Wednesday, August 23, 2017


President John F. Kennedy speaks to the nation after
University of Alabama is integrated for the first time,
taking two African American students.

Let's talk about being "color blind." I still hear a lot of us say, "I'm color blind. Color doesn't matter to me." If you're someone who's said that, I get that you are saying, "I'm not a bigot." And thank you. We need more like you. Even so, I'd like to ask you to reconsider. I'd like it to be ok for you to "see color." I think it's critical for you to see color.
Let's see if I can help you see why I don't see "color blind" as an answer. See if you can relate to one of these situations, or can think of something similar that's happened to you.
Maybe you've always had an extra 20 or 30 pounds, or maybe you don't anymore but you did when you were a kid. Maybe you were the chubby kid, the tubby girl in school. How did that impact your friendships, your ability to date, the way other people interacted with you, your own sense of self?
Maybe you're a veteran. Or maybe your kid, your brother, your sister, your spouse, your dad is a veteran. Maybe you (or they) went off very patriotic and excited about serving our country, but... came back different. Impacted. PTSD or physical injury or both. It's changed you. It's left internal or external marks that sometimes are ugly or painful, and maybe keep you from doing things you want to do, keep you from connecting to people you love, keep you from feeling comfortable in your own skin. If you're not this vet, in this day and age it's hard to believe you haven't met this vet.
Maybe you are an egg-head, the nerd. Maybe you are a whiz at math or memorization, but you had a hard time making friends in middle school. Kids avoided you, made you the butt of their jokes, never chose you to be on their team for P.E. How did that impact who you became? Did it make you more ambitious so that success would prove your worth? Did it make you insecure, so that first meetings are still difficult?
Maybe one of your parents was an alcoholic. Maybe it made life at your household really, really difficult. Maybe everyone tippy-toed around your dad when he was drunk, or had to fend for themselves when your mom was in her room, "feeling sick." Maybe the dynamic in your childhood household made it hard to make a relationship work, or maybe you've had trouble picking a partner who's emotionally healthy.
I could go on. Each of us has some experience that impacted our lives, influenced our development, shaped the person we are today. When sharing the stories of our lives, if we leave out this part of the narrative, we are leaving out information that helps the listener understand us more deeply - and why we are the person we've become. And, if we fail to share our story in all of its nuance and complexity, people won't really know or understand what makes us tick. We deprive that person of an opportunity to show us empathy, to accept us for who we are.
Living as a person of color in America also has many ramifications in an individual's life. To understand the impact and influences, both positive and negative, you have to be willing to hear the whole story of what being "of color" (non-white) means to those who live in that skin. Even if you'd rather not. Even if it's painful. And to those who think it's best not to see color, I give you a quote I first read in a book by white teacher, Gary Howard, "You Can't Teach What You Don't Know," "if you don't see color, you don't see me."
Now, while we're at it, go ahead and extrapolate that to age, ethnicity, body image, disability, veteran status, intellect or lack, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, and so forth.
If you don't see those contextual experiences, then you're missing a large part of the story. Please, don't be blind. See it. Be intentional

Monday, March 6, 2017

Progressive American Opinions about Israeli - Palestinian Conflict in a World of Polarization
This post was written as a first conversation with a left-leaning Jewish friend who has succumbed lock, stock and barrel to the good guy-bad guy "occupied Palestine" meme. Memes often contain a grain of truth, or look like they do when taken out of context.  In this case, it's both.  I argue that we have to understand the facts, as complicated and nuanced as the situation is, if peace is ever to come.

Unfortunately, the "occupied Palestine" meme is surging in part because it is now associated with the Progressive left (my own inclination, actually). The result is a lot of under-informed individuals who use the heuristic short-cut, "if those who share my basic ideology think Israel is villainous, then it must be true."  The Progressive framing of the Israel question is unfortunately a by-product of America's choosing up sides as a substitute for educating ourselves about each of the issues.  This short-cutting is called "heuristics" and is entirely human - who's got time to fact-find absolutely every issue on the world table right now?  Instead, we find someone or an organization or a political perspective we generally trust - then we simply adopt their opinions.  The belief that we are rational, making rational decisions based on facts, is being proven too simplistic by modern brain science.  In fact, humans use an assortment of heuristic short-cuts to make decisions, and then cherry-pick from the available facts to support our decisions. This heuristic choice-making sometimes happens without much thought at all, even though really important policy matters deserve more than short shrift.  
I try to teach my students to step back and question their assumptions.  Where do they come from?  Do they really apply here?  If you want to read more about how this works, two of the first works I read on this years ago, and still favorites for their clarity, are "Hazardous Heuristics" (2002) and "Moral Heuristics" (2003), both by Cass Sunstein. 

Getting back to the subject at hand, the situation in Israel is so complicated, so mired in a history that few remember, and so culturally, politically and ideologically locked into the middle east, that modern Americans have trouble "groking" without a lot of study.  So, we rely on others, heuristically speaking, to do the thinking for us.  That, by the way, goes for both sides, the Right and the Left. Therein lies our polarization problem.

Those of you who are already positioned on the Left (the Palestinian "side") of this issue are by now bracing yourselves for an apologistic support piece on Israel.  Forget it.  You won't get that here.  All dynamics take (at least) two to tango, so to speak, and I recognize that Israel has culpability in this matter.  But that is well-documented elsewhere because that story is the Israeli-Palestinian meme of our time.  If you're looking for a journalistic-y sounding piece supporting the Progressive frame, you can get it from this piece, "Everything You Need to Know About Israel Palestine." Unfortunately, what you won't get from the piece is enough factual information to know whether the perspective you're hearing is valid.  You wouldn't even know where to begin asking questions.  It is the counterbalance I hope to shed a little light on here.

No one will be surprised to learn that, as much as possible, I prefer to base my opinions on actual, on-the-ground facts rather than memes, whether those memes be far Left or far Right.  I'm human, and so I know I'm not able to completely avoid my inner bias.  And in particular, I am Jewish, raised to the rousing songs of Israeli nationalism.  It is sometimes difficult to know what lurks in our subconscious.

But that very upbringing set up a tense internal dance, pitting my pro-Israel upbringing against a strong Progressive leaning, forcing me to do a deep internal reflection along with some factual research.  I have tried very hard to draw my perspective from my training as a mediator and facilitator:  I know that to get from here (little peace) to there (better peace), we must start from a place of reality.  Undoubtedly, one of the current realities is that perception is reality for many.  But any mediator knows that parties often walk in with their "best stories," hoping to more easily sway others.  If, however, those "best stories" are a cover for the party's actual agenda - the agenda the other party is keeping to him or herself because it's not as sympathetic, everyone at the table will be brainstorming solutions to the wrong problem - the problem in the story rather than the actual agenda.  The best story frame for the Palestinians is that Israel is an evil occupying oppressor.  And that story appeals to the Progressive Left because we care deeply about the oppressed. Really.  And although it is true that many Palestinians are miserable in current situation, using the "Evil Israel best story" obscures several underlying truths that force Israel to be a recalcitrant peace partner.  In fact, using the Evil Israel story even obscures several truths that make the Palestinians an unwilling peace partner. In fact, some of these very same facts help explain why Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Yassar Arafat was pressured away from a Clinton-brokered peace deal in 1993, after agreeing upon its parameters and historically shaking the hand of his former enemy, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on the White House lawn. When you've only solved the "spoken agenda," the solution may not be liveable because it still doesn't satisfy the underlying, unspoken agenda.

From this point forward, I want to offer a few "truths" that continue to act as barriers to peace.  As long as we cling to our "best stories," and don't take the time to learn "the rest of the story," as Paul Harvey used to say, we will continue to be very confused as to why Israel is so reluctant to enter into a peace deal. We will continue to sit by as much of the world vilifies Israel and puts forth solutions for problems framed around stark fallacy.  It is my goal in writing this blog post to provide some historical and pragmatic context in the hopes that doing so will bust up some of the erroneous assumptions underlying the Progressive framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  If nothing else, I hope to raise some doubts about the veracity of a straight good guy-bad guy meme, and provide a few factual insights to help us all ask better questions of our policy-makers in the future.

Below I lay out some of the lesser known pieces of information that help inform the situation on the ground... about the settlements, the 1967 borders, water scarcity (which equates to life), foreign powers blocking Palestinian peace, and so forth.  In each case, I provide reading materials, rather than typing it all out. You will have to judge for yourself the value of the reading materials.  I've looked for unbiased sources, but where an author is accurate, in the interest of time, I've adopted sources that may in fact be biased.  If I'd had, say, a week to work on this, it would be different.  Maybe I'll back-fill some day.  

Spoiler alert:  At the end, I make an under-developed plea for strong economic and community development in the Palestinian territories, which I believe can drastically shift the prospects for peace between Palestinians and Israelis in a way that nothing else can. I believe that enhancing the quality of Palestinian life will embolden Palestinians to urge their leaders to reject the ideologies of foreign Imams using this conflict for their own larger agendas in favor of Palestinian state-building and collaboration with its neighbors, Israel and Jordan.  
Does Israel need to get out of its own way to help make this happen?  No doubt.  If anyone asked me, I'd suggest that they envision an economically and socially healthy Palestine and then identify all the assets available to achieving it, and begin removing the obstacles blocking it.  I've provided a couple of optimistic articles about how this might happen, one of which is a very old World Bank report that I would dearly love to see updated, and the other is a young academic's optimistic thesis.  

# # #

Dear old friend,

You raised the settlement issue.  I think it's really important to keep in mind that there are two echo chambers here - the strong anti-settlement echo chamber as well as the strong pro-settlement echo chamber.  

I am just as wary of the framing by the Left as I am by the Right.  Both of these frames are problematic.  Israel's rights - or lack of rights - to the settlement areas are not as cut-and-dried as either of the factions would have you believe.  And there are far bigger obstacles to making peace than the settlements - really.  

Water Scarcity.  Did you know, for example, that one of the reasons Israel refuses to return to the 1967 borders is because when Syria had control of that area, the Arab states co-funded the diversion of the Jordan River, Israel's main water source?  Think of this.  Diverting the water away from Israeli accessibility is not a small task.  It required engineers and funds and equipment and time.  It's not like digging a tunnel under the border for an sneak attack on a farm community, digging secretly, out of the public view, quietly in the night.  No. The entire world watched while the Arab states discussed and then funded the diversion of this life-giving water, and made barely a squeak as Syria attempted to dry up Israel.  How the world could stand by and watch is a good question, but not that hard to believe, because it was not many years before that the world met at Evian, France to discuss "the Jewish Problem," and left without a solution other than Hitler's Final Solution.  These events leave me to wonder how much antisemitism remains in today's world.  If you are interested enough to read further, you will learn that the Syrian use for this diverted water was recreational, e.g. as in boating and swimming, and therefore it's not an argument about who needs the water more.  Syria's water sources are elsewhere. 

1967 Borders:  So, no, there's just no way that Israel is going back to those old borders.  And - while we're discussing this, you might ask, what exactly do the 1967 borders represent - these borders that "everyone" wants Israel to return to?  Historically speaking, the borders, weren't actually "borders." They represented the boundary of Arab military aggression, 
called "the Green Line," at that point in time.  It's interesting that the world wants to give the Palestinians control over what amounted to "conquest territory" (conquest by the Arab nations, not Israel, at that time) but has always insisted that Israel return its conquered territory. 

I've provided a couple of articles going over the actual historical facts here, and here.  I chose these articles for their historic accuracy, rather than the publications' ideological neutrality.  While the publication in both cases may be pro-Israel, these articles are no less factual for that.  These facts shed a different light on what's going on in Israel, and why the Israelis haven't backed down. 

In other words, let us not roll over and adopt everything the anti-Israel left is saying. 

Myth of the Two State Solution:  Did you know that much of the far Left is pushing for a one-state solution rather than a two-state solution?  The one-state solution is sometimes sold on the idea that Israel should be a straight up democracy - Jews and Palestinians living together with equal political power, rather than a Jewish state with a form of democratic government.  Those of us who love democracy, can envision a kumbaya nation, with swords beat into plowshares.  But others have a very different idea.  Here is a quote from Al-Jezeera:

"[I]n a unified Israel, Arabs would be the majority if afforded the same right to return that the Jewish diaspora has; there are 3 million registered Palestinian refugees in LebanonSyria and Jordan. And demographic projections suggest Jews will soon be the minority even without considering the Palestinian diaspora. Accordingly, Palestinians would have much more leverage in a one-state scenario; their quest would then be for equitable power sharing and civil rights." From "Israel & Palestinians need a one-state solution," by Musa al-Gharbi, Jan. 6, 2015.  You can Google this and find that this guy's opinion isn't a minority in many Arab countries.  

Myth of Apartheid.  I admit it is difficult to square the Progressive Left's embrace of the rise of the Latino population in the United States.  We on the Left are not bothered by the shift in skin color on the light-to-dark continuum.  We don't understand why the Israelis want to keep the Palestinians out or down or wherever.  Isn't this apartheid?

Well, actually, no, it is not apartheid.  Israel is a full-on representative democracy that welcomes political participation by its Arab citizens.  Consider this: Israel's Arab population is roughly 20 percent of the whole population, and its 17 Arab Knesset members are roughly 15 percent of the Knesset membership.  Female representation, at just under 25 percent of Knesset membership, fairs worse than the Arab representation - but surprisingly better than in the US, where women fill 20 percent of our Senate seats and 19.3 percent of our Congressional seats.  I could go on, but the link above has your data.  Skin color discrimination and anti-Muslim discrimination are hot-topics among the Progressive Left. We care about it, are looking for it.  If you're a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.  Nobody would try to deny that religion- and skin-color based discrimination occurs in Israel - like everywhere else - and it should be eradicated.  But do you want to call that apartheid?  If so, then the USA had better start looking in the mirror.  Well, we should be looking in the mirror.  But not because we're an apartheid nation.  Yet.

Safe Haven for Jews.  The more critical question is not about apartheid, religious discrimination or skin color.  The big question for Israel is, what happens to the status of Israel as a safe haven for the Jewish people if the country loses its Jewish majority?  Israel was 60 years in the making, but the final push came from America itself, in the personage of President Harry Truman, whose main motivation was to create a safe haven for the Jewish people.  When I was at Spertus College, taking Judaic Studies classes, I remember being told by one of my professors that, over the course of written history, there has never been more than 200 years between genocide attempts.  Purists will say that we should all live in peaceful democracies that don't see skin color, religion, and other differences, except for the richness and diversity that they bring.  Pragmatists like myself say, prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.  The past is grim.  This week's threats to Jewish institutions around the United States and the increasing number of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. and elsewhere suggest that we not fool ourselves. Why should Israel be anything other than the safe haven it was conceived to be at its founding?  

Outsiders Pulling Palestinian Strings.  Did you also know that much of the terrorism that Israel is confronting in Gaza and the West Bank is not actually Palestinian but driven by foreign governments who use Palestinians as a ploy in their larger games against the west?  The Brookings Institute writes about Iran's financing of Palestinian aggression toward Israel, and it's easy to find other articles about Iran and other Arab countries doing the same thing.  It would be easy to write this off as a Muslim big brother helping the oppressed Jews, but it's become increasingly clear that is not the case. Radical imams around the middle east are not providing funds because they care about Palestinian lives, well-being or community.  They care about using Palestinian territories to promote their own agendas, which include, for example, digging tunnels from the territories into Egypt - not Israel - in order to undermine Egypt's current moderate regime.  Hamas, which is funded by these outside influences, has contributed to the number of Palestinian casualties by creating curfews that force Palestinians to stay in place when Israel has warned of upcoming military action by peppering buildings in the action zone with paper and cell phone warnings telling residents to leave the area.  These outside funders are not interested in peace with Israel.  They're not even interested in peace with other members of the Arab world.  Until we understand that this tiny little strip of land is a tool in a much bigger drama, we will continue to point at least some of our fingers in the wrong direction.  Again, this does not mean that I am a huge Netanyahu fan, or that Israel is blameless.  Only that solutions start from reality, not from meme.  

In conclusion.  I am not defending Israel's acts of injustice, and there have been and no doubt there will continue to be plenty.  But those are well-documented and I don't need to debrief them here.  My point has been to demonstrate that there is factual basis for another side of the story, a strong side. And that we must be careful about taking sides based on heuristics.  We don't really have the full story most of the time... Until the other parties - us included - get out of the way and let the actual Palestinians (not their Imam sponsors and not the US and not Europe) work out something both sides can live with, we are unlikely to have peace.

Having said that, I don't think that the other parties will get out of the way until the Palestinians themselves have a reason to push their leadership to get rid of those outside influences - and primarily they need economic security and stability.  I am a big believer that the right way to settle the Palestinian issue is to build the Palestinians' economic well-being, so that it's population is less interested in fighting and more interested in finding collaborative well-being with Israel.  This can actually happen.  Check this World Bank report on economic development for peace in the Palestinian territories, and this paper by Nieme Ayoub on the same topic.

And we in the diaspora need to do what we can to further the dialogue between Israel and Palestinians, by insisting that any money and support we give Israel will be rewarded by a true search for economic and community-based solution that allows Palestinians a quality of life so many are clearly denied.  Unfortunately, we are dealing with two societies who are progressively less interested in peace, or it seems so to me.  The further away Israel is from its roots, the more distrust and anger has built up and has been built-in to the education of young Israelis and young Palestinians - making peace even harder to achieve.  

Thinking of an analogy, imagine your cousin is arrested for murder, but is claiming his innocence.  Unfortunately, the mere fact that he was arrested makes many people think your cousin is guilty, because otherwise, why would the police have taken him into custody?  The world will believe him guilty once the hand-cuffs go on, and even some of your family members may begin to entertain the possibility of your cousin's guilt.  It is a long haul between the arrest and the trial, and during that time, many people will assume your cousin is guilty. Fortunately, today's criminals can rely on DNA evidence to prove their innocence.  Isn't it equally important that we rely upon historical fact as upon public sentiment when drawing lines for Israel?  

Monday, December 7, 2015

Belly of the Beast

I belong to a poetry group on Facebook. It's founder, Nika Renee, gives us prompts, and a week to write. I really don't have a week, so when I have a few minutes I just do the best I can. I am so pleased with this one that I tossed off this morning, off the top of my head, that I just have to share it. The prompt this morning is "the moral economy."  I thought that would be murder to write to, but it turned out to be pretty easy. Here it is.  Anybody want to illustrate it?

The Moral Economy
(to be read out loud, at a somewhat Suess-esque tempo)

I'm reporting to you now
From the belly of the beast
Where we've all settled in
To a thing-fest, a feast
There are sofas and chairs
There are restaurants and wines
There are toys on the floor
And toys for our minds
There is Google and Snapchat and Twitter and such
They take bitcoins and visa and cash if you must
You can spend whole days indulging your passions
Without ever partaking of real interaction
It's hypnotic. It's distracting. It's numbing. It's cold.
And you might never notice, until you grow old,
That you've narrowed your life down to stuff you can buy
And things that might thrill you
And new things to try
But you've missed the fact
That the world's floating by
With its chaos, its conflict,  its war and its norms,
With human pain and child hunger, momma's grief, papa's storms.
With injustice, with plunder,
With rape and with pillage,
Because it's all happening
In some far off village,
So it's no trouble of yours
And though you may twinge
You do not lend a hand
Though you tut while you binge
I have noticed this place
Has no windows to see from
And no pools for reflecting
No chapels to free us
From the throes of this madness
That has crippled our minds
Fed us into a fast lane
And gobbled our time,
And will leave us old
With vision that's waning,
With aches and with pains
And with lonely complaining
And those who would help us
Send us "likes" and thumbs up
Which is less than a Band-Aid
When what we need is a touch
And it's about that same time
When you take a step back
And notice the belly has walls that are black
And although there hangs art
It covers a truth
We've been absorbed by our greed
And it's swallowed our youth
And it's swallowed our middle
And it's swallowed our end
And we suddenly see
We must get out of this pen
So let us scratch, let us scramble
Let us #occupy and shout
Let us all scream together
Pray God the beast spits us out.

To the Left and to the Right, Forward, Side, Together

Yes, some of you may recognize the title of this post as dance steps, and it's a dance I think American political types are doing right now in response to the words of Phil Robertson.  Robertson is the patriarch of an A&E TV family called the Duck Dynasty - and I admit here I am not one of the 14 million Americans who tune into Duck Dynasty weekly, according to Nielson, and frankly didn't know it existed before this bru ha ha. We can talk about how out of the mainstream that makes me some other time.  That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows me.  Anyway, in a  a feature article on Mr. Robertson and Duck Dynasty in GQ Magazine Robertson said some words about pre-civl rights era Black people, and elsewhere, some other words about people of - how should I say this - a particular sexual orientation.  These offending words have been picked up and transmitted far and wide via social media:

Here are the words lifted from the GQ article:

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

And these words:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

And there's this interaction between the writer and Robertson:
“We’re Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television,” he tells me. “You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off. We ought to just be repentant, turn to God, and let’s get on with it, and everything will turn around...."

What, in your mind, is sinful?

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

Later, in a statement issued after certain segments of the political world erupted in outrage and A&E suspended Robertson's contract for Duck Dynasty, he also said this:

“I myself am a product of the 60s; I centered my life around sex, drugs and rock and roll until I hit rock bottom and accepted Jesus as my Savior.  My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together.  However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other.”

Robertson's words have been attacked from the left, and defended from the right.  Just the smallest sample of what's out there:

A spokesman for GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), a media monitoring organization, said:
"Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil's lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe. He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans—and Americans—who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples...Phil's decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families." 

At the risk of ruffling feathers, I have an entirely different perspective on all of this. First, we are punishing this man for speaking [ignorantly, I grant you] from the heart. If you've read all his words, he's obviously speaking from his personal experiences (black farmers he worked alongside of) and his religious belief system (his perspective on sexual orientation), but not from any knowledge beyond that. If you've read his words, you know that he comes from a place of ignorance and lack of education in the sense that he hasn't been exposed - perhaps never bothered to expose himself - to the alternative oppressive experiences of black culture and life during the pre-civil rights era. And because he was, in his own words, "white trash" working in the fields alongside the Blacks he knew, he may not have seen his own situation as far removed from theirs. There are multiple power hierarchies. "White trash" - poor white people - are below the rest of the white people on that hierarchy, and even though they carry white privilege - possibly or probably without understanding that they do or the implications of the privilege - Robertson in those days may have related more to his Black co-workers than to his white bosses.

However - and please don't take this as a defense or an apology for Robertson because it's only an observation - he appears not to be malicious in his ignorance - in fact, possibly the opposite. Biblically speaking, which seems to be the frame that informs him and his views, he seems to come from the "right" place in Leviticus - the place that says to love everyone, not the place that says to be a hater. I see Robertson as absolutely the wrong martyr for the Religious Right, and also the wrong punishee for the Liberal Left. Instead, I see this as a teaching moment for both sides. To the Left I say: Don't punish this man as representative of the worst of the right - the true haters. Instead, invite Robertson into an educational experience. I think he'd be open to it, considering his tone and word choice. And to the Right I say: Don't be stupid. Here is a political opportunity for the Right. Embrace the fact that this man doesn't have the whole story, and use this as an opportunity to discuss the need for more extensive education, both about the Black experience in America and the positive contributions to America. Both sides - plus the American people - could score if we saw this as a teaching opportunity.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Let's Answer to a Higher Authority

This morning I got one of those emails comparing the number of Nobel Prizes and cool medical and technical inventions cooked up by Jewish scientists with a lesser number attributable to Muslim professionals.   I do love seeing how many brilliant things come out of the Jewish keppe.  We are truly the people of the book in so many ways.

On the other hand, it saddens me that we play "My dog is bigger than your dog" with the Muslims.  Yes, some of the Muslim world harbors a terrible hatred toward Jews (also toward Americans and the whole westernized world), but I try not to forget that Islam is not just a reflection of extremism any more than Judaism is a reflection of our own bad actors - there have been more than a few, though thankfully not often of the terrorist sort.  I try to remember that Muslims took us in and guarded us during the Crusades and at other points of expulsion from European countries.  Without the kindness of Muslims, Maimonides may not have survived.  More recently, an Egyptian doctor was given the Righteous Gentile award for the work he did saving Jews during the Holocaust, the Muslim countries of Tunisia and Morocco protected its Jews while occupied by Nazi invader.  In my own community a Muslim doctor founded and runs at great peril to himself an international organization dedicated to fighting Islamist extremism.  And in direct controversion to the letter I received this morning, much of early math and physics was developed within the Muslim world.  

Millions of peace-loving Muslims do not want to spend the best parts of their lives on conflict with Israelis or other Jews.  Some of these are partners in attempts to build bridges between the two cultures.  There is a facebook page called Israel Loves Iran,, where Israelis and Iranians are coming together to talk about peace.  An Iranian artist filmed a video asking people on the streets of Iran what they wish for Jerusalem, and the response is honest and overwhelmingly about peace.  The video is called "Your heart and mine are one."  It's in Iranian but has subtitles.  In response, a group of Israelis published their own version of One Wish Jerusalem,  The thing that strikes me the most strongly is how alike all these people look and how alike are their hopes for peace - none of them wish to live under the threat of violence for the rest of their lives.  כולנו רק ילדים של אלוהים.  We are all just children of G-d.  

Please understand: I am not defending Muslim extremism in any way, shape or form.  I'm properly terrified of certain imams in Iran and extremist cells in Syria, and I think I might support much of Bibi Netanyahu's military strategy were I Israeli.  I dialogue regularly with my non-Jewish liberal American friends trying to explain the realities on the ground in Israel and in the middle east.  And yet I think it critical that we do not lower ourselves to the level of those, for example, who create the textbooks of the Palestinian children, in which Jews are vilified and Israel is absent.  Like Hebrew National hot dogs, we must answer to a higher moral standard.  How else will we ever get to peace?  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Every Baby Boomer Who Looks At the Clock Asks This Painful Question

"A person who has mastered peace of mind has gained everything." ~ Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv

"As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in the service of God, it is clear that such a person remains remote from true service." ~ Rabbi Yisroel Salanter

"Why is my life - and the whole darn world for that matter - still so far from being what I thought it was supposed to be?" ~ Every baby boomer who just looked up at the clock and figured out that time is running short.

We late boomers coming of age in the 1970s first opened our eyes philosophically speaking onto a mind-boggling public display of soul-stretching, quite the likes of which has not been seen in our western American culture before or after those years. The soul-stretching was both personal and communal.  With the war and race riots in our faces, it may have been inevitable.  Who knows?  John Lennon challenged each of us to  "All shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun." Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young begged us to come together: "We can save the world, rearrange the world."

While the desire to find political enlightenment took young people to the streets, the desire to find personal enlightenment took us outside our own normative paths - the culture and religions we were brought up with, for example. Those who had little discipline or interest in philosophy and theology opted for a fast-tracked, scientifically-induced enlightenment, experimenting with psychotropic drugs like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and magic mushrooms.


Those who craved context for their experimentation had a choice of options including meditation, Buddhism, Taoism, Native American shamanism, Kabbalah and other, more obscure mystical practices.

Back then, in my immature perspective on the matter, I tried it both ways and found that enlightenment seemed to come in two flavors.  One I experienced as intense, super-hero style "knowing."  I remember accepting a tab of acid during my freshman year of college, and then heading off to a concert.  Standing in the space between the first row of seats and the stage, I had an excellent view of the musicians.  I spent the concert being amazed by my ability to see deeply into the soul of each musician.  Thanks to the acid, I knew each of their personalities instantly and intensely.  The key to my insight, I still recall clearly, was each musician's cheekbone structure.  Bone structure, it seemed, offered a detailed blue print to the individual soul.  Acid's power of enlightenment, by the way, had its limits.  Under the influence, I entirely missed the fact that the fellow standing next to me had absent-mindedly tucked the lit end of a cigarette into my upper arm.

The other flavor: figuratively, an out-of-body experience, the feeling of connectedness with the entire universe, the sense of everything being One with Itself, the exact opposite of the aloneness of individuality. It was a spiritual equivalent of becoming aware that you are a drop of water in a vast ocean - together with all other drops merged into the inseparability of the waves, despite your drop-ness.  I kinda, sorta, experienced this, too, in a small town between San Jose and the ocean, under the tutelage of a woman who taught me vocal toning, a form of meditation.  There were weeks on end when I "just loved everybody," wondering whether there was any means to pass this healing feeling along to the rest of the world.

A rabbi once told me that sometimes his congregants dove headlong into certain ritual practices in search of transcendence from the mundane.  He said that, although he was always glad to see people adopt Jewish ritual into their lives, it sometimes appeared to him that these congregants were more interested in escaping reality than in finding a spiritual practice to deepen their lives.

This last statement, finally, brings me back 'round to the two quotes I began with, quotes from rabbis who in their time were teachers of the Jewish spiritual practice called Mussar.  These quotes, which seem at first blush to be in opposition, taken together suggest that we might want to reconsider our youthful ideas about what "enlightenment" looks like.  And the third quote - my own, of course - suggests that simultaneously, we might also want to reconsider the ideas we've held since childhood of what "the good life" looks like.  I don't know about you, but my story was a common cultural one - an early marriage to a boy I would recognize as "the one," followed by children, and a meaningful life of service to family and community.  The communal piece of this story suggested that, as a community, the world was making slow progress toward peace.  That our generation would be stewards of a better world.  Such pretty little visions both, and yet they have been incredibly difficult to pull off.  Children are still dying of hunger.  Men are still bombing buildings.  Companies are still stripping our earth of its resources and leaving pollution and destruction in their wake.  Personally, I've been waylaid, had a gun held to my temple, beat up, robbed, raped and left crying by the side of the road - in some cases figuratively and in other cases literally.  I'll let you wonder which is which.  I've also, by the way, been blessed many times over through family, children, friends, work and service opportunities.

The stories articulated by parents and institution, stories by which we would faithfully steer from childhood through to old age - all unintentionally set us up to feel incompetent when it didn't happen that way and we can't get it done.  I know many people who's stories are more complicated than mine.  I know a few whose stories were more realistic for our times.  But I don't know of anyone whose stories have been easy to pull off.  In fact, I don't know too many people whose lives haven't been fraught from time to time with unexpected trauma, strength-sapping loneliness, mind-numbing boredom - leaving us with that one big question:  "Is this all there is?"   And, as my rabbi pointed out, these stories set us up to feel cheated somehow, with a desire to escape.

Rabbis Salanter and Ziv, however, tell us a different story.  Our true paths require struggle and growing pains.  And when they mention service, we know that what is true for us personally is also true for our communities - communal growth will require struggle.  The key to our enlightenment as individuals and as members of our communities is not to find a way to jump over the struggle, but to work our way right through the struggle, becoming all that struggle can teach us.  And somehow, there is peace of mind to be forged and brought to the work, both personally and no doubt as a community, and we must find it.  And while psychedelia, religious ritual and meditation may be tools we can bring to the party, anything less than a grounded approach to this struggle will distract us from our journey of growth.

To see the struggle as an intentional part of both personal and community life is, for me, comforting and strangely freeing.  It releases me from asking myself, "Why is my life still so far from being what I thought it was supposed to be?" It releases me from wondering why my generation did not manage to "save the world."  Both of these are particularly painful questions to have to ask the older one gets and the less time one - or one's generation - has to "get it right."

Instead, the rabbis open the way for me to ask, "What is the most constructive thing I can do in this place where I currently find myself?"  And for my community, to know that this struggle is not mine alone, but all the generations - and they will continue to strive after I no longer can.  We are all drops in the same sea, despite our drop-ness.

I'm about to begin the study of Mussar with a friend.  I look forward to a journey that promises to help me distinguish the path I am destined to from the detour I've stumbled down in search of something illusory.  If you're interested in following my journey, I'm sure I'll be writing about it here.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Don't Waste Precious Time Apologizing

Nepal © Sandy Price 2012

All of us are bound to misstep.  As we trip through life, it is inevitable.  How precious, then, is the early innocence of children.  How important the opportunity to teach children kindness toward one-another.

There are two categories of wrong-doing, that which is between the wrong-doer and God - or the between you and yourself or the Universe if you're not a God person - and that which is between the wrong-doer and another person.

Remorse - meaning, a recognition of wrong-doing, followed by confession and a firm intention not to repeat the behavior - might more easily be addressed toward God or to the mirror or put out there to the Universe. More easily because the consequences for putting it out there in this way are negligible.  It doesn't stir up any bad feelings or initiate conflict.

It should come as no surprise, however, that in the latter case - wrong-doing toward another person -apology, remorse and restitution must be directed toward the individual who sustained the harm.

Today's Chofetz Chaim addresses an utterance of speech that could result in harm to someone, but as of yet has not. In that case, one's duty is not to run to the target of the speech and apologize, but instead to rush to preempt harm by contacting everyone who has heard and let them know the statement was inaccurate.