Hope vs. slippery slope
Yes, I can
Now that the election season is over, I want to share a personal revelation that I think can help bring Obama voters and McCain voters closer together. But first, a
I’ve always loved a good conversation, especially with people whose views are different from mine. But this year, I have been vacillating between McCain and Obama, and without taking a clear stand, I found it hard to have any decent debates. I haven’t met too many other vacillators.
I have, however, met plenty of hysterical partisans.
My McCain buddies have sent me countless e-mails warning me that an Obama victory might jeopardize the survival of Israel and endanger America, and my Obama buddies have been certain that the future of the Western world hangs on their man’s victory.
If I tried to mention at a McCain table how an Obama victory would re-brand America globally, or how his ability to look at different sides of an issue might be a good thing for the country, or how there are advisers around him like Dennis Ross who could hardly be accused of being anti-Israel, I would invariably get an alarmed response demonizing the man. Conversation over.
If I expressed concern at an Obama table about his lack of experience, or his relationships with unsavory characters, or his politically convenient flip-flops on major issues, or if I brought up McCain’s experience and independent nature, I would invariably get an indictment of McCain’s war-like ways, or a demonizing of Sarah Palin. Conversation over.
People didn’t just pick sides. They dug their heels into thick mud and barely moved. Unless you were surrounded by like-minded people where you could just pile on, you either had very short conversations or screaming matches.
So I came up with a secret plan. I shut my mouth. Instead of telling people how I felt about the candidates, I channeled the big “O.”
Not the big O of Obama, but the big O of Observer. I became an observer and a listener. I soaked it up. I asked questions. I observed how people argued, what set them off and how people on both sides acted in similar ways. I learned that when emotions run so high and opinions are so intense, you learn a lot just by observing and studying the show.
And study I did. I read important writers on both sides. I read National Review and the Nation. I read the key blogs. I would go from the passion of Andrew Sullivan and Joan Walsh on the Obama side to the passion of Victor Davis Hanson and Mark Steyn on the McCain side. Somewhere in the middle, I would hear the moderating voice of David Brooks.
Because I have many friends whom I respect who are strongly anti-Obama, I tried to muster some animosity towards the man — but I couldn’t. Maybe it was because I remember how my mother cried on a November day in 1963 when she heard on the radio that President John Kennedy had died. I was a little kid, having dinner with my family in Morocco, and all I remember thinking was: Why would my mother cry for someone who lives so far away?
No matter how many alarming blog posts I read against Obama, I simply couldn’t ignore the few billion people around the world who might soon look up in admiration to our African American president in the White House — just like my mother looked up to Kennedy from her house in Morocco.
And no matter how many brilliant and valid critiques I would hear against Senator McCain, I couldn’t stop thinking about the decent and heroic American that David Foster Wallace wrote about so lyrically when he covered McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” for Rolling Stone magazine in the 2000 election.
Back and forth I went, seeing the power and weaknesses of both sides. Instead of engaging in exhausting debates, I channeled my passion away from ideology and toward understanding.
And by the time the winner was announced, I had received an unintended blessing from my dispassionate journey. A personal revelation, if you will.
It struck me that no matter who runs the White House — even after a historic victory that my grandchildren will talk about — they still won’t be able to help me with the most important things in my life: How I raise and educate my kids, how I deal with my friends and community, how ethically I lead my life, how I give back to the world, how I grow spiritually, how I stand up for Israel and the Jewish people, how I live an eco-friendly life — in short, how I help my country by taking personal responsibility for my own little world.
Those things are not so much “Yes, We Can,” but more “Yes, I Can.”
In fact, I have a wish that our eloquent new president will have the audacity to tell the nation that, for most of us, 99 percent of our happiness is in our own hands. While we await universal health care, we should take better care of our bodies and our health and save the country billions. While we await a better education system, we should read to our kids every night and teach them the values that will make them productive citizens. While we await government action to fight global warming, we should go green in our own lives. While we await a fix to the economic meltdown, we should learn to budget and spend within our means, and, for those of us who can afford to help, have the kindness to help those who have fallen through the cracks of our debt-ridden safety net.
The truth is, despite the headiness of this historic moment, neither President Obama nor President McCain could do for us what we need to do for ourselves and for our country. If our new president can inspire us to understand this truth, he will bring about the real change we need.
Hope breeds strength
PARIS — “It was invisible, as always,” begins Theodore White’s classic “The Making of the President, 1960,” describing the mysterious process by which millions of voters combine to make their most important political decision.
This time, it was visible.
The crowded lines at the polls, the frenzied communications on the pathways of the Internet, the huge crowds at political rallies revealed this to be an election like no other. Most of the time history just happens and we see it in the rearview mirror. This time history happened right in front of our eyes.
The Democratic Party that has won a mandate to govern the White House and the Congress is a party transformed. In the Roosevelt and Truman years, the Democrats were the party of the working class, of the urban and rural areas, and Jewish voters, among many others, were enthusiastic supporters of the New Deal and Fair Deal coalitions. But the issue of race had to be glossed over because a party of Southern rural whites could not be racially progressive.
In the 1960s, the Democrats had to choose, and they chose the side of racial equality, supported by Jews, who were actively engaged in the civil rights movement that forced the hand of national Democrats.
The party paid a steep price for that choice, as white voters in the South and many whites outside the south deserted the Democrats for a rejuvenated Republican party that clearly placed itself on the side of whites. After Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election in 1964, only one Democrat, Jimmy Carter, has received more than 50 percent of the popular vote — Carter got 50.1 percent — and Republicans have dominated presidential elections. (Bill Clinton managed to win twice without breaking 50 percent of the vote.) How to hold onto white working voters and minority communities in the same party became the agonizing task of a party that hoped to provide health care and other progressive economic policies. Meanwhile, the African American militancy of the 1960s and the apparent softening of support for Israel in some corners of the left opened up serious rifts within the Jewish community, concerns that would reemerge in Obama’s run for the presidency.
When this campaign started two years ago, no one anticipated that not only would Democrats finally overcome their painful standing in a presidential election, but that the candidate who would do it would be African American. In fact, history suggested that to be, perhaps, the least likely option. The expectation was that it would take another Bill Clinton, a white candidate who could walk comfortably in both racial camps, to solve the problem. And that maybe Democrats could hold their industrial base and the Northeast and West Coast to squeak out a victory, with one or two more states added in.
Instead, Obama obtained more than 52 percent of the popular vote, the most for a Democrat since 1964. He redrew the political map with victories in Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio and Florida. The most dramatic moments came with his victories in Pennsylvania, and the big fish, Ohio. These blue-collar states, with lots of conservative Democrats, were seen as difficult for Obama, but he won them both. White suburban voters helped Obama win, a significant shift from the days when suburbs helped Republicans beat the urban turnout, and Jewish voters undoubtedly helped Obama turn Florida blue.
The Republican Party, and particularly George W. Bush, helped make this historic election possible. Certain of their dominance of national politics, Republican leaders came to believe that if they simply stuck together and mobilized their conservative base, that the feckless Democrats and moderate Republicans would continue to recede as a threat. Having taken control of the White House in a disputed 2000 election, the Bush team moved to enact their program with discipline and contempt for Democrats. Inspired by Vice President Dick Cheney, they came to believe that they could do whatever they wanted. Victory in the 2002 congressional elections appeared to them to be evidence that the strategy was working. The result was the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003. That invasion set in motion the forces that led to the 2008 watershed.
As weak, demoralized and disorganized as they were, Democrats nursed a grudge that grew into a burning rage against the Bush administration. They could not agree, however, on how to fight back. The Iraq war divided Democrats between the Howard Dean wing of the party that wanted to fight against it, and the Clinton wing that had succeeded by narrowing the differences with ascendant Republicans and hoping to win narrow national victories. Dean proposed a 50-state strategy to put the party into every state and to concede no state. He could not win the party’s nomination in 2004 and instead became party chair where he tried to get the strategy going. When the Democrats finally openly opposed the war in 2006, they won a major victory in congressional elections.
Meanwhile the deterioration of the Bush administration, its handling of Hurricane Katrina and the slowing economy eroded the re-elected Bush’s popularity. His has become the most unpopular presidency since polling began. Obama challenged the inevitable nominee, Hillary Clinton, with his early opposition to the war. That issue, and his decision to implement Dean’s strategy by competing for delegates in red states, catapulted him to a shocking upset of Clinton for the nomination of his party. Yet Obama could not easily crack Clinton’s base among women, Jews, older voters, and Latinos.
Republicans had every reason to believe that they could beat Obama. As an African American candidate, he could directly embody the racialized images of “otherness” that they had so successfully glued to the Democrats. But they ultimately discovered that the “base” strategy that had won the 2002 and 2004 elections would not work in 2008, just as it had failed in 2006. The base strategy cost them the suburbs. It cost them blue-collar voters. It cost them Latinos. It cost them a generation of young voters. It cost them women. And it also cost them Jewish voters. No one understood that black turnout in the south would be so large as to put several red states into play.
The problem with building a party around white racial resentment is that the spigot cannot easily be shut off. Bush, Karl Rove and John McCain all understood that the future of the Republican party rested with the immigrants who had come from Hispanic and Asian nations. The conservatism within those groups could make them natural Republicans. That was the Republican hope for a long-term majority, and it was a pretty smart plan. But the base that Bush and Rove had fed so long turned on immigrants, just as they had earlier turned on African Americans. The Bush-McCain immigration plan that might have built a bridge to Hispanics died, and McCain was forced to renounce his support for his own plan to have a chance of winning the Republican nomination. The result? Obama and the Democrats reaped a massive harvest of Latino votes in the Southwestern states of Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. McCain, the candidate whose image of moderation made him the best choice for the Republicans in a tough year, had to hew the party line as that line became unpopular on issue after issue.
Certain that white, working-class voters would be driven by culture and race to support Republicans, the White House dithered as the economy slid. To the end, McCain stuck to traditional Republican economics, downplaying the crisis and calling for trickle-down economics. Instead, there would be red meat for the culture wars. Joe the Plumber would symbolize the white guy who fears that his tax dollars will go to some vaguely described “welfare” program. It probably did work with some voters. But many other cross-pressured, older white Democrats in the industrial states seem to have ultimately decided that while Democrats may sometimes act like latte-drinking goofballs, they at least ought to get a chance to do something about the economy. That probably blunted some of the much-feared Bradley Effect.
The social conservatism symbolized by a rigid pro-life stance caused heartburn for Republicans among suburban voters, with women, and ultimately with Jewish voters. Jewish women are the most pro-choice group in the electorate, and Jews tend to be on the most tolerant end of most measures of social liberalism. One could almost hear moderate Jewish voters crying out to Republicans to send them a real moderate, a Dick Riordan, an Arnold Schwartzenegger, a Nelson Rockefeller for those with a longer memory. Instead, Republicans sent them the message that Democrats would weaken Israel — don’t worry about those other issues. The Sarah Palin nomination may have been the final push for wavering voters. The relentlessly anti-intellectual Palin was hardly the ideal candidate to appeal to Jews.
It was Obama, of course, who took this situation and turned it into an unlikely victory. If Iraq was his road to the nomination, the economy was his road to November. As the war receded as the decisive issue for the fall election, the economy turned out to be the monster one. As a first time African American candidate, Obama had to run a near-perfect campaign. Many Americans had never had the chance to vote for a black candidate, and voters are extremely cautious about the new and the different. In the debates, Obama showed steadiness and maturity and easily won all three. The comparison between the vice presidential picks of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin could not have been clearer. The Wall Street collapse tore the ground out from under the McCain campaign, and the race did not change much from then until the end. Obama’s organization turned out to be a thing of beauty, and it has replaced the rickety, amateurish Democratic Party organization with a 21st-century version that actually works.
The mood of celebration that has greeted Obama’s victory belies the hard days ahead. The nation expects answers on the economic crisis and also hopes that Obama, inexperienced in foreign policy, will show the steadiness at the helm that he demonstrated in his presidential debates. Pre-election polls showed that Jews had in the main overcome their initial suspicions of Obama to reach more than 70 percent levels of support, but many want to be sure that their decision to take a chance on the new guy over the well-known older guy was well founded. That means close attention to Israel and its defense, even in a period when domestic economic matters are likely to dominate the new president’s agenda.
In the inside-baseball world of politics, Obama’s election probably means a complete shift from one set of Jewish foreign policy advisors for another. Neo-conservatives, a number of whom are Jewish, comprised a core block of Bush’s advisers, and they were a major force in pushing the war in Iraq. As the war went bad, they drifted from the White House to media punditry and other perches. Quite a few gravitated to the McCain campaign, which in that sense campaigned to the right of the Bush White House — which had begun in its late days to quietly walk back from its own unilateralism in foreign policy. McCain’s loss means that they now have to fight for their place in their own defeated party rather than sitting in the seat of power. Their most prominent political ally, now that McCain has lost, is independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who now has to find his own place in a Senate where Democrats no longer need his vote to have a majority.
Obama will bring to the White House old hands like Dennis Ross and Jewish Democrats in the Congress with a different view of foreign policy than the neo-conservatives. How this new foreign policy team operates may not be a central concern for American voters as a whole, but it will certainly be closely watched by Jewish voters and organizations.
New presidents face their first political test in the congressional elections that follow two years after their initial election. In 2010, voters will render their first verdict on Obama’s presidency and his party’s performance. This cycle is a sobering reminder that in a democracy voters only give you the chance to prove yourself, not a blank check. The Republican party, soon to have a bitter internal debate about its future, will be a formidable competitor once again if it can open its doors and its minds to the same winds of change that drove them aground for now.
From my temporary perch in Paris, where I not only talk to lots of people from all walks of life, but collect news from around the world, I can tell you that the global interest in this election has been phenomenal. The raw excitement and expectation that has been set off in recent weeks by the possibility of Obama’s election has been transformational. It is, for me, a reminder that the world has only the greatest hopes for America. In Paris, any discussion of the U.S. election draws a standing-room-only crowd, and it is quite entertaining to hear people discourse about what is going to happen in North Dakota or to debate whether or not there is a Bradley Effect. I think that the often-opaque American political system has now, for the first time, become understandable around the world because of the intensity of the event.
The French now understand that Obama’s election will set off a long overdue debate about the status of minority communities within their own nation. Why, people are asking, are there not more minority members of the national legislative bodies? Would France elect a president of African origin? Nothing is going to be left untouched by these historic events. One of my students, who is black, flew to America to campaign for several days last week, and he told me that if Obama wins he is going to get active in French politics and maybe run for office.
When all is said and done, this is still a time for celebration. Racial divisions do not go away just because of an election, but we might think of these issues in a different way, and sometimes that is how intractable problems become tractable. In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy said memorably “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.” Obama’s victory gives his party a chance at the helm, but more importantly, it has tapped into a rich vein of hope too long hidden by the false confidence of cynicism. For Jewish voters, the decision to give Obama a chance is an important one. If he can fulfill those expectations, some of the ill will that is rooted in recent decades may lose its sting.
Hope is not always rewarded, but it is the one thing that generates the strength to face the worst of problems, and it is therefore the one thing we cannot do without.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII.
Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.
Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?
These are nervous-making times.
No, I’m not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or — at my temple, anyway — whether you’ll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.
What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.
The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.
Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: “Change You Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need. “From John McCain: “The Change You Deserve,” “Change Is Coming.”
Clearly it’s a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.
But can one leader — whether Obama or McCain — really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?
The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.
I’m not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation’s place in the world. The issue I’m trying to get at — and I’ll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable — is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.
Some people maintain — and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from — that people really can’t change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called “human nature.”
Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur — says this point of view — within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.
But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian — the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.
José Ortega y Gasset put this way: “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can’t change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement — abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism — starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”: the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.
Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.
Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species’ fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.
This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.
They also serve: Rabbis’ spouses prove as diverse as roles they fill
Just before the High Holy Days last year, I was sitting in synagogue when I was struck by the star power of its rabbi. When he spoke, everyone listened, transfixed, as if the words he offered were revelations — inspiring, challenging and healing all at the same time.
At the end of his sermon, the congregants erupted in applause. I could hear them whispering about him all at once.
“He’s amazing,” several said.
“I love him!”
That’s when the cantor’s wife, who was sitting next to me, tapped me on the shoulder.
“You know,” she whispered under the din of temple chatter. “I’m waiting for the story about what it’s like to be married to someone in the clergy.”
That’s when I began wondering about the people rabbis go home to at night, the people who don’t just love the rabbi, but who also know the rabbi.
For as long as rabbis have been arguing Talmud, their wives have been at home preparing Shabbat dinner.
Yet that image, along with expectations for clergy spouses, has evolved. For one, they’re no longer all women. They’re no longer always hovering in the background; they’re not even always a different gender from their partner.
Modern rabbis’ spouses don’t fit into any single mold.
” title=”David Light”>David Light balances comedy writing with care of his two daughters; ” title=”Bruce Ellman”>Bruce Ellman brings his psychology training to benefit his temple; Marjorie Pressman served as a fiery force throughout her now-retired husband’s pulpit career; and ” title=”Marjorie Pressman”>Marjorie Pressman put it, “I didn’t marry a rabbi. I married the man I fell in love with.”
And that’s the thread that binds these seven people together.
At the heart of all these stories and all their struggles, are simple, powerful love stories.
Pico-Olympic traffic plan on hold after judge’s decision
Granting a temporary victory to neighborhood councils, a judge today ordered the City of Los Angeles to conduct a new environmental impact report (EIR) before implementing the Pico-Olympic traffic plan.
For the last six months, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Jack Weiss have been promoting a three-phase plan to change traffic through portions of the city and Beverly Hills. But a preliminary injunction filed by the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce (GWLACC), which has served as a spokesperson for its member businesses as well as numerous homeowners groups, has stopped the plan.
“The city of Los Angeles is ordered to fully comply with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act by conducting an appropriate, complete and comprehensive environmental study for the project,” Superior Court Judge John Torribio worte in his decision. “Respondents are restrained from any actions in furtherance of the project unless the resulting document has been prepared, publically circulated, and approved in a manner required by law.”
Jack Weiss said, “While still looking closely at the decision, I’m inclined to move forward with the environmental review to get it done as quickly as possible to relieve traffic in West L.A.”
Organize now against oppression in Burma
We never hear much about Burma, officially known today as Myanmar, until it’s too late. Take, for example, last fall. Crimson-robed monks marched peacefully in the streets of Rangoon, making the case for democratic reforms and human rights.
The monks’ nonviolent approach and well-argued appeals were met by beatings, imprisonment and even death — not all that surprising from a country whose military dictatorship has ruled with an iron fist. Burma — a country roughly the size of Texas and with a population of some 50 million people — manages to put some of the better-known human rights violators to shame.
But when those powerful images dropped off the front pages of newspapers and news sites, they also seemed to drop from our consciousness.
That is unconscionable. Under the current junta, the regime has perpetrated a coordinated program of ethnic cleansing that relies on rape as a weapon of terror, while destroying more than 3,200 villages (displacing far more than 1 million people) and conscripting more than 70,000 child soldiers (putting it literally at the top of the list for any country).
In the meantime, Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightfully elected leader of Burma, whose party won 82 percent of the seats in Parliament, has spent roughly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest. Rather than transforming her nation through her vision and a commitment to nonviolent change, she has been unjustly imprisoned.
So why am I writing this now, when the world’s attention is on issues like the tragedy unfolding in Darfur or the fight for political independence in Tibet? The simple answer is that as important as those two issues are — and they both are of the utmost importance and are deserving of a great deal of our support and attention — there is something so simple about the issues in Burma.
Among other things, there is fact that the Suu Kyi has the distinction of being the only Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was prevented from ever accepting her prize. She earned another honor on April 24, when she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Congress.
What can we do? About a month ago, my friend Jack Healey, a former Franciscan priest, told me about his idea to create a new kind of celebrity-based public service announcement to take the case for Burma to the public. Healey is no beginner when it comes to mobilizing big names. I met him nearly 20 years ago when he was executive director of Amnesty International in the United States. At the time, he had pulled together some of the biggest artists of the decade — Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Police, Peter Gabriel — to embark on a world tour intended to raise the issue of human rights and to put Amnesty International in the public consciousness.
Healey and Jeremy Woodrum, who runs the U.S. Campaign for Burma, have devoted their lives to fighting for the people of Burma, trying to rescue the country from the overbearing grip of a military junta and a violent dictator.
I volunteered to help. In the last month, we’ve managed to put together a campaign of 30 television and Internet spots, shot by and starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names, with the hope that their messages will reach not only millions of Americans but also the rank-and-file soldiers in Burma, who may not even realize how closely the world is looking at the atrocities many of them are carrying out on everyday citizens and, especially, monks.
Our campaign relies on internationally recognized athletes, actors, directors, writers and musicians to address what is happening today in Burma. We are running the spots on our Web site (www.fanista.com), as well as a host of other online distribution sites, trying to drive a million people to sign a virtual petition at www.burmaitcantwait.org.
We have just finished marking Passover, a holiday that demands of us to both celebrate our freedom and fight for the oppressed. It is incumbent on all of us who live in this great country, who have been blessed with the freedoms of democracy, religious tolerance and equal rights for all, to do anything we can to ensure that others — be they within our own communities or on the other side of the world — enjoy those same freedoms.
We are, as I heard Rabbi Elazar Muskin say over Pesach, a “people of hope.” That sense of hope not only allows us to dream of a better and more just world but also obligates us to do what we can to make those conditions a reality. May all of our efforts help achieve those goals for Suu Kyi and the people of Burma and for all oppressed people, wherever they may be.
We don’t need more gabfests on diversity
The details of the ugly dustup between a leading local Jewish philanthropist, Daphna Ziman, and the local African American head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Eric Lee, are still at issue. Ziman disseminated her account of the encounter in a widely distributed e-mail. She claimed that Lee gave a speech at a local fraternity function rife with anti-Semitic statements. Lee strenuously denied the charges, and no independent corroboration exists.
But what is of greater interest than what actually transpired at the Kappa Alpha Psi gathering is the response from the leadership of our community to Lee’s remarks and what that portends for intergroup relations in this city.
Predictably, the civil rights leadership of our communities seems to be responding to the incident just as they have in the past — with dialogue groups and resurrected “roundtables” aimed at convincing participants of the value of diversity and of our historic and present commonalities.
What ought to distinguish the response of today from those in the 1970s and 1990s is the context of our very changed society.
Society has caught up and passed well beyond dialogue groups and the need to justify and rationalize the value of diversity. Every major study conducted in this field has revealed an amazing attitude of acceptance of differences by today’s young people. As Morley Winograd and Michael Hais observe in their just-published book, “Millennial Makeover,” “the great diversity of the Millennial Generation [born between 1982 and 2003] and its experiences growing up in a multiracial society is reflected in their relatively color-blind attitudes on racial relations.”
The Pew Center concluded in its multiple surveys of millennials that “they are the most tolerant of any generation on social issues such as immigration, race and homosexuality.” One example documented by the Pew Center (dealing with a historically incendiary issue) found that that between 1987 and 2003, attitudes toward interracial dating among 18-25-year-olds underwent a sea change — those approving such activity rose from 56 percent to 89 percent. Those completely agreeing with interracial dating rose from 20 percent to 64 percent.
The data of a profound change in attitudes is incontestable and is manifested across racial and religious lines. The Reboot study of millennials, “OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” found that today’s youth are “fully integrated into diverse social networks. While previous generations often lived in homogenous religious communities, among Generation Y [born 1980-2000], only 7 percent of youth report that all their friends are the same religion as themselves. Even the most religious youth maintain diverse networks of peers.”
The study oversampled Jewish and black youth to confirm their findings.
Even the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study of anti-Semitic attitudes indicates a decline in anti-Semitic attitudes among the African American population, historically among the most problematic cohort it surveys. Unfortunately, the ADL study does not disaggregate data for younger blacks and their attitudes.
If one believes the myriad studies that confirm the exceptionally positive trends of the new generation, how should one respond to the Lee incident? More dialogue groups that devolve into vehicles to preach to the converted seems to be what we have in store for us. The Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission and its friends will be busy singing the same old songs.
What ought to inform any actions that grow out of the Lee-Ziman incident is the profound change that has taken and is taking place around us. Young people today don’t need a “coalition” to talk about how to live together — they do it 24/7. Their world isn’t circumscribed by their faith, their race or their ethnicity.
Nor should we trudge out the old nostrums and activities and think that the Lees of the world will change their version of history or their attitudes — nor should we really care. They are not the future, and their historical notions are virtually irrelevant.
Our communities’ leadership has to absorb the reality that the next generation of open-minded young people sees diversity as a plus, not as a burden to be overcome. We need to offer them activities that confirm their positive outlook and involve them in doing, not talking, about things, much as Temple Israel’s Big Sunday program does — people working together as equals, improving our community for everyone. We don’t need more gabfests or sessions of self-flagellation.
Millennials believe that they live in an exciting time, two-thirds rate their lives as “excellent or pretty good,” let’s give them reason to confirm those positive attitudes.
David A. Lehrer is president and Joe R. Hicks vice president of Community Advocates Inc. (www.cai-la.org), a Los Angeles-based human relations organization headed by former mayor Richard J. Riordan.
Black-Jewish Passover not about blame
I am disturbed, not by the content, but by the direction, of the entire discussion regarding the relationship between blacks and Jews, and particularly by the discussion about comments supposedly made at a recent awards ceremony here in Los Angeles.
I am Jewish, of European ancestry; my wife is black, with Chinese and Native American ancestry included. What shall we tell our son this Passover, when we retell the tale of how his Jewish ancestors were freed from slavery in Africa?
Shall we trade accusations against each other? The statement reputed to have been made at a fraternity event, that some Jews in the entertainment industry exploited and profited from black performers, is probably true. It is also true that Jewish union leaders, lawyers and agents in the entertainment industry have fought for better wages and working conditions for blacks and others in the industry. Many Jews played crucial roles in the struggle for civil rights, and undoubtedly there were some on the other side as well. We can go back farther to trade accusations. Were there Jews who owned slaves and were involved in the slave trade? Probably so; and yet there were also Jews fighting for abolition. Does it matter whether those on one side outnumbered those on the other?
To be honest, I must tell my son that his African ancestors were on both sides as well. How else did Africans become African Americans? Did a few Europeans (perhaps including some Jews) march into Africa and march out with tens of millions of slaves? Actually, it was their African “brothers” who sent them into slavery. Whether it was for small reasons like personal squabbles, or large reasons like tribal warfare, it was primarily Africans who sent other Africans into slavery, just as Joseph was sold into slavery in Africa by his own brothers.
So is the point of the Passover story that the Hebrews were the “good guys” being held in slavery by “evil” Africans? Emphatically not. And neither should the point of the current discussion be to lay blame on anyone.
What I will tell my son is how his ancestors woke up to their oppression in Africa, and joined together to claim their freedom. I will also have him dip 10 times from his cup to diminish his joy of celebration by the Ten Plagues suffered by the Africans to allow us to be free. I will tell him of his African ancestors dragged in chains to this country; how a violent war was fought to end the slavery, and a nonviolent struggle fought to gain some of the civil rights he now enjoys. And again, I will have him dip from his cup to diminish his joy by the suffering that was the cost of those advances.
Why was I commanded to tell the story of Passover to my children? I do not believe it is to exchange blame, as I see being done today. No. I believe it is to remember that his ancestors, on both sides, suffered from oppression, and must oppose oppression whenever they see it again. It is my duty, which I must pass on to him, to stand up against such oppression today, whether against my own people or others.
I will tell my son of one of my own heroes. Not Moses or Jesus or the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr., but someone very few people ever heard of: Sigismund Danielewicz.
Danielewicz was a Jewish barber from Poland who became one of the most prominent leaders and organizers of California Labor in the 1880s. His downfall came at the convention called in 1885, which was the forerunner to the current California Federation of Labor. The main issue on the table was a resolution to drive the Chinese from the state within 60 days, by force if necessary. Danielewicz alone spoke out against the resolution. He pointed out that he was a member of a race still persecuted, and challenged each group there to say whether the persecution of the Chinese was more justifiable than the persecution they had suffered themselves. His call for unity among labor was jeered, and he was declared out of order. The resolution passed, and was the justification for a virtual pogrom of deadly violence against the Chinese in the months that followed.
Danielewicz sank into obscurity. He was last seen homeless and on foot toward the East Coast in 1910. Why then do I idolize a man who was driven from the podium and doomed to obscurity? Because he had the chutzpah to stand up against oppression, no matter what the cost, simply because it was the right thing to do.
This is what I will tell my son on Passover: It does not matter what color your skin is, nor even what faith you profess to hold. What matters is what you do; which side you choose to be on. The question we must face is not who is to blame for injustice and oppression of the past, but what can we do to fight injustice and oppression now. We should not exercise moderation in this regard, as some have suggested. We must be forceful and as persistent as our ancestors who fought oppression were. We cannot change the past, but we must remember it. We must look up from our own oppression to the light of freedom. We must not look away from the oppression of others, but confront it directly. We must be brave enough to stand up against the tide as Danielewicz did and cry out against oppression, no matter what others say about us.
Even if we do not see the Promised Land ourselves, as with Moses, and even if our words seem to fall on deaf ears, as with Danielewicz, our words and deeds are not lost. The words of my real Jewish barber hero were heard again in Charlie Chaplin’s fictional Jewish barber, with which I conclude my Passover story:
“Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly.”
City Voice: Yaroslavsky takes on developers in push for affordable housing
In defending middle-class neighborhoods, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is taking on an issue that reaches to the heart of Los Angeles’ ethnic, political and class divide.
All those matters are involved in a dispute over a new city development ordinance that eases restrictions on big residential buildings in such areas. This ordinance was passed to meet the requirements of a 2005 state law ordering cities to allow more dense development to create housing.
The question of preserving middle-class neighborhoods while also building affordable housing affects a huge part of Los Angeles, from the dense and impoverished Latino neighborhoods of Central Los Angeles to middle-class Jewish areas in West Los Angeles and the western San Fernando Valley. It includes the Jewish neighborhoods of Fairfax and Pico-Robertson as well as multiethnic Venice, long targeted for heavy development.
Yaroslavsky, once a Los Angeles city councilman, surrendered his role in city affairs when he was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1994. As a council member, he had been co-author of a successful ballot measure that scaled back development in residential areas. The measure, Proposition U, co-sponsored by the late Councilman Marvin Braude and passed in 1986, was a successful effort to outmaneuver the land developers and their lobbyists who, then as now, have huge clout at City Hall. The measure reduced density by limiting the size of many business and residential projects. Supervisors don’t have power over development within cities, so Yaroslavsky’s election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors should have taken him out of the game.
But in 2005, the Legislature passed and the governor signed the measure designed to stimulate housing construction. It did this by telling cities to put aside zoning and other planning limitations if developers agree to include some low- and moderate-priced apartments in their projects.
Los Angeles and other cities were required to implement the state law with their own municipal ordinances.
Even though he was a supervisor with no jurisdiction over the matter, Yaroslavsky, a Los Angeles resident who has retained a strong political following in the city, stepped into the negotiations over the proposed implementation ordinance. He persuaded City Council members to modify the proposal. The council and Yaroslavsky agreed on modifications designed to limit teardowns of apartments in residential neighborhoods and other steps to preserve such communities.
With those modifications, the Los Angeles City Council recently passed and the mayor signed the ordinance implementing the state law. Under the ordinance, the city permits a builder to go 35 percent over zoning limits if 11 percent of the units are set aside for low-income residents or 30 percent are moderately priced.
But Yaroslavsky still was not satisfied. He objected to giving developers permission to build larger structures if they include low- and middle-income units. This, he said, was a bonus for developers. “L.A. doesn’t need to offer development bonuses allowing taller and bigger buildings” to create more affordable housing, Yaroslavsky wrote in a Sunday Opinion article for the Los Angeles Times. But with the state law and the city ordinance implementing this practice firmly in the books, there doesn’t seem much Yaroslavsky can do now, short of starting an initiative campaign.
His entrance into the fight has prompted speculation that he is interested in running for mayor, an office he sought years ago when he was in the council.
CityBeat’s Alan Mittelstaedt asked Yaroslavsky about the speculation after the supervisor discussed the development controversy at Emma Schafer’s Public Affairs Forum, a monthly gathering of political and government insiders.
“If I were running for mayor, you’d know about it.” Yaroslavsky said. “Most of the talk about me running for mayor has been emanating out of City Hall from people who are trying to marginalize some of these policy issues by reducing them to political tiffs when, in fact, they’re substantive policy issues. I’m not going to keep my mouth shut when I see my neighborhood affected by what the city does. And as a former city councilmember, I’m not going to sit back quietly and watch 20 years of my work product dismantled without a fight. This has nothing to do with running for office.”
Advocates of more affordable housing say the state and city laws are needed by neighborhoods such as Pico-Union and MacArthur Park just west of downtown Los Angeles, where Latino immigrants, some here illegally, crowd into old apartments and live in incredibly bad conditions. Those walking from Langer’s parking lot to the restaurant for a pastrami sandwich may not know they are passing through one of America’s most densely packed slums.
These same advocates say the council’s decision to ease development restrictions will make affordable housing available throughout the city. Some Pico-Union and MacArthur Park residents could then afford to move westward or into the San Fernando Valley.
This possibility complicates the dispute, however, bringing in issues of race and class.
Although the demographics of parts of Los Angeles, such as the San Fernando Valley, are changing, much of Los Angeles remains segregated by race and income. Building low-income units in West Los Angeles and the West Valley would change the pattern. Poor Latino immigrants could move into Fairfax and Pico-Robertson.
The politically correct news media and political community do not mention this aspect of the dispute, but it’s important.
But it is also important to consider the desires of middle-class L.A. residents to preserve neighborhoods that are part of the fabric of Los Angeles.
This dispute will be a big factor the city election in 2009 when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to seek a second term. Right now the mayor is playing both sides of the issue.
He favors more housing construction, especially of the affordable kind. He’s developer friendly, approving of the commercial and residential units that were going up around the city at a brisk rate before the credit crisis slowed construction.
But Villaraigosa has also become an advocate for neighborhoods and has worked hard to strengthen his ties with Jewish communities around the city.
I would be surprised if Yaroslavsky runs against him. He can remain supervisor until 2014 when term limits force him out. Supervisors run virtually unopposed. Why give up a low-stress job for the heat of the mayor’s office?
But Villaraigosa, even without strong opposition, will have to contend in his re-election campaign with the powerful forces shaping the dispute over neighborhoods and development.
Elegy for a Dream
I came to America 30 years ago last month. I arrived in Los Angeles the night Elvis died. I was 16 years old, fresh out of a Swiss boarding school, about to
start my first year of college.
This was two years before the Islamic Revolution, yet I had left Iran willingly and without regret, certain that I would never go back except to visit. I did love the country, and most of its people. To this day, I think it’s the most beautiful place I have seen, and that its people, by and large, are among the smartest, most hospitable, most capable in the world.
But even in 1977, when the Shah was still firmly in power and his kingdom was, in the fateful words of President Carter, “an island of stability,” Iran was a place of great injustice and vast intolerance — a land of the mighty where the rich, the well-connected wielded nearly absolute power over the weak. And though I came from a well-to-do family, at a time when the Jews had thrived and prospered thanks to the Shah, I was acutely aware of the small and large cruelties — the devastating limitations imposed on the poor, the meek and women by religion and geography and thousand-year-old traditions.
The first two years in Los Angeles were a time of great loneliness for me: I had lost touch with my Iranian friends when I left for boarding school, and I lost my boarding school friends when I left for America. Back then, most Americans had not heard of Iran and couldn’t imagine what kind of place it was. When I told them it’s somewhere in the Middle East, near some Arab countries, and that we had oil, they asked, without malice or sarcasm, if I could belly-dance and if we had paved roads and cars or if we rode camels to work and school. When I told them that Iranians are not Arabs, that Iran is the old Persia, they looked at me suspiciously and asked why, then, had I claimed I was Iranian, and not Persian.
Still, there was something about being cut loose from the past, existing in a vacuum of tradition and identity so dissimilar to the rigid structure that would have stifled me in Iran, having possibilities I wouldn’t have dared contemplate as a woman or a Jew back there, that gave me a sense of exhilaration and optimism.
When the Shah fell in early ’79, and tens of thousands of other Iranians began to settle in Los Angeles, I thought I had been granted two blessings at once: I could live in the proximity of my Iranian family and friends, without having to submit to the inequities of Iranian society. I found it strange that other Iranian Jews, even women my age, lamented the fall of the Shah and their own subsequent exile with such great passion, that they spent months, even years, glued to American television and Farsi language radio, waiting for news of the coup they were sure the Shah, and later his son, would stage. I could understand the sense of loss and disorientation, the nostalgia for home and country that many of my fellow Iranian Jews suffered from in those days, but I didn’t see how any of us would want to return to the place we had been, in my mind at least, liberated from. How we could, in good conscience, pray to return to life in a dictatorship when we could live in a democratic country; how we could wish to be ruled by one man’s whims and wishes when we could opt for a set of laws that transcended the individual?
Once the Shah died and his crown prince assumed the role of “monarch in exile,” I watched with wonder as Iranians rallied around him in hopes that he would unseat the mullahs and bring them all back home. I had seen him — Crown Prince Reza — when I was a child in Iran. He was about my age. In official photographs and on the television news, he looked lost in his surroundings, uncomfortable in the French suits and military uniforms he was made to wear, uneasy before the grown men who bowed before him and kissed his hand, the jewel-clad women who were moved to tears by the honor of having permission to curtsy before him.
Three decades later, in the gatherings hosted by Iranian immigrants in Los Angeles, he was tall, graying, and still, to my mind, a bit lost. He spoke about his imminent return to Iran, how he was going to save the country and its people, rule as a constitutional monarch. To me, he sounded tentative — as if he were playing a role he had assumed for lack of another option, chasing a destiny that, try as he might, he knew he wasn’t going to catch. But all around me people sat glued to his words, praising his speeches, rushing to applaud.
I could understand the adoration most Jews had for him and his father: The Shah had been good to us. He had given us freedom and opportunity and a sense of safety we hadn’t known for more than 1,000 years of living in Shiite Iran. But he had also ruled as a tyrant who claimed he was God’s personal envoy on Earth, who insisted that his portrait be displayed in every house and business establishment in the country, that his anthem — not the national anthem, but the one created to worship him — be played in every movie theater before every showing of every film. That schoolchildren everywhere in the country begin their day with a prayer for his health and well-being. His appetite for power was endless; the consequences for disobeying were unthinkable. Is this, I wondered, what people were wishing to return to?
On Aug. 24, I was clearing out my junk e-mail when I came upon an e-mail sent by one of the many Iranian-American groups active on the Web. Perhaps because it was the anniversary of my arrival in the United States, because I was already amazed and stunned at the speed with which time had passed, I opened the e-mail. It was a grainy, black-and-white, home video shot by an unsteady hand and posted on You Tube. It showed images of Tehran on the morning of the Shah’s official coronation: Empty, barricaded streets; the Shah and his family inside a palace, walking down a velvet rug, up to a bejeweled throne where he placed a crown on his queen’s head, and another on his own. Afterward, thousands of people lined up behind barricades on the sides of the streets, an endless police motorcade, two carriages — one for the Shah and his queen, the other for the crown prince — pulled by white horses. It was an unreal sight — the young prince, so small that his feet, I imagined, didn’t reach the floor of the carriage, sitting behind the window with the solid gold frame, waving his little hand at his father’s subjects, traversing a street, a city, a country that, he has been told all his life, will one day be his.
Mourning the Morning Call — back in New Orleans
If you visit New Orleans, you will certainly go to the French Quarter to seek out the well-known open-air coffee stand near the Mississippi River named Café Du Monde.
You’ll partake of the rich culinary indulgences from its spare menu.
The first menu item you will find is a cup filled from two large steel kettles simultaneously pouring hot liquids — one black, the other white. The black is thick chicory-laced coffee, the white is an equal amount of hot milk. The second menu item is the beignet: The sweet, hot, fluffy square of fried dough that native New Orleanians simply call a doughnut. Sprinkled with powdered sugar, which will also cover the table and your clothes, and dipped into the coffee, you will taste one of the quintessential delights of a town that pleases all the senses, even when it also breaks your heart.
You will sit there, in a seemingly motionless moment of delight as you hear the passing hours chimed from the St. Louis Cathedral across Jackson Square, and your body will fully understand what your mind, in its yearning for the opaque and consistent, will want to deny:
As you sip your coffee and your tongue detects its various layers of flavor, your skin and nose will also sift through the sensory impressions of the air around you, perceiving shifting smells, textures and levels of moisture in the atmosphere of this place where the city meets the river.
Meanwhile, your eyes will discern the fluctuations of the light as the sun glides in and out of the cover of clouds of varying thickness. The solid three dimensions of your moment, as you sit, drink coffee and eat doughnuts at a sidewalk cafe, slide open to transcend your concrete place in time.
And with the nearby sounds of the hoofs of horses drawing carriages, the cars passing to the east and the ships to the west, the boundaries of time dissolve and you are sitting in “days gone by” and in “the world to come.”
What you might not know, as a tourist in the French Quarter of the 21st century who is searching for an authentic experience of New Orleans, is that the coffee and doughnuts that you are enjoying are a shadow of another New Orleans. A few blocks up and four decades earlier there was another coffee stand named Morning Call.
New Orleanians drank their coffee and ate their doughnuts there beginning in 1870. Located at the edge of the French Quarter, its clientele sat on the red leather seats of high stools and stared into mahogany-framed mirrors while they drank their coffee at the marble counters to which large silver sugar bowls were chained.
Morning Call was frequented in the dawn’s breaking light by people of all ages in formal clothes ending a night of celebration, as well as by dock workers dressed to begin a day unloading crates at the port.
Its coffee was a little thicker; its doughnuts a little lighter than those served at the cleaner, more tourist-friendly cafe closer to the cathedral. And then, in 1971, when the city proposed widening the surrounding streets, limiting street access and parking, Morning Call relocated to a strip mall in suburban Metairie, a part of Jefferson Parish, which more closely resembles Anywhere, U.S.A.
In 1971, I was outraged at the betrayal of the move. It symbolized New Orleans’ shift of identity from a multicultural city at the crossroads between the Americas, shaped by the traditions and rituals of its populations of various skin colors, languages and religion, to that of a 20th century North American city shaped by oil money, greed and the homogenization of culture. I never visited Morning Call again.
But in 2005, when I returned to New Orleans a month after Hurricane Katrina to lead Rosh Hashanah services, I suddenly found my car in front of its strip mall location. I decided that 34 years and the waters that had broken through the levees had washed away the validity of my boycott. Besides, it appeared to be the only cup of coffee in town. Things change.
Yearning for something of substance to connect me with the New Orleans that had not washed away, I parked my car and walked through broken branches and piles of debris, through the doors of a commercial establishment in an American strip mall. I crossed the threshold and while the face that looked back at me from the mahogany-framed mirrors was not the same, the marble counters, red leather-topped stools, chained silver sugar bowls and the coffee were the same. In the turmoil and transformation that followed Katrina, I was sustained by the continuity in a cup of coffee. Some things don’t change.
I am a New Orleans Jew. The values of those identities fuel me like the smooth-yet-caffeinated drink that is the trademark of my hometown. I embrace the changing communal calendars and the rituals for their observances of joy and tragedy. These have taught me what it means to be human and how to extract eternity from the changing seasons.
Through the ritual markers of the calendars of my communities, I have received tools that have instructed me as I have been challenged to embrace my personal calendar and its flow of heartbreak and delight.
It is through an appreciation of the possibility of the sacred eternal that is hidden in every changing moment — like the past and future that hide in a cup of coffee — that I have been able to find peace in the fact of change.
It is through ritual that change itself is transformed from destroyer to healer. It is through ritual that mourning, as we are told in Psalm 90, becomes dancing and that our mourning becomes our call.
Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.
To Hear or Not to Hear
If your life could change in a moment, what would you want it to be?
Most of us quickly consider what we’d want from the world or
from another person: more love, more money, more respect, more health, more learning, more time.
Now, instead of changing factors outside of your life, think about your own character. What would you change about yourself?
Having a clear answer to that question helps define a serious Jew. When we study the expanse and depths of Jewish moral literature, we see that its words are reaching out to us to transform us.
Jews who take the tradition seriously allow and invite its wisdom to reach into and transform us. We can live with greater truth and less falsehood, with greater compassion and patience and less anger, with greater perspective and less “judgmentalism,” with greater wisdom and less small-mindedness.
Here, of course, is the problem with life-changing wisdom that comes from a tradition, or from any source. Unless you want to change, unless you can clearly detect the ways in which you need to transform yourself, you will experience such wisdom directed at you as misaddressed, mistaken and misconceived.
How many of us can remember cogent and timely advice given to us, but we could not understand how crucial it was for us at the time? How many of us have given advice to another out of true love and concern, and seen our advice misunderstood or ignored? We need to be spiritually and morally ready, it seems, to hear the truths we need to hear.
Back in Torah portion Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), the Israelites were not ready to hear. When Moshe came down from Mount Sinai, the Israelites were cavorting with the molten calf. If we understand this psychologically and archetypically, this cavorting with the calf was a way of not listening, of making ourselves too busy to attend to the truth that was presented to us.
The Holy One has redeemed us from slavery; not just political oppression, the rabbis remind us, but also from a spiritual death. We were steeped in sin. I think of cultures and subcultures today that have gone bad, of nations and neighborhoods where basic human values are forgotten. I think of individuals I have known, wracked by anger, envy, resentment or fear, taken far from the center of their being.
The Holy One addresses us, calling us to lives of nobility, but we don’t hear; a “not hearing” that continues in each of us at one time or another.
And then there are moments when we do hear. This week’s parsha, Vayakhel-Pekudey, is such a moment. After the disaster of the molten calf incident, Moshe provides forgiveness from God for the people. He ascends Mount Sinai and receives another set of tablets, engraved with words that evoke the wisdom of the divine implanted in each person’s heart.
This time, we don’t shut out those words that evoke us into full being. In this week’s parsha, we find the people of Israel donating of their wealth — not to an idol that helps mute the divine, but rather to building a sanctuary that will keep the divine word alive in their midst.
That sanctuary we built in the desert thousands of years ago seems to be the key. There are words in our tradition that can alert each of us to full consciousness — a different word for you, a different word for me. What makes us fellow Jews — Jews in fellowship with one another — is that we listen to the same tradition together, we study together, we work together to keep each other awake.
We must build sanctuaries — communities of learning and devotion, fellowship and service — in which this holy wisdom is preserved and lived out. The Hebrew word root of the name of our parsha, “Vayakhel” also gives us the word kehilla, which means congregation or community.
From a Jewish perspective, from the wisdom of our parsha, these must be communities of meaning, where we are taught how to change our lives, where we are given a vision of what our lives could be become. Our communities can be places where the divine word given to each of us is heard and lived, lifting us to the lives to which God is calling us all.
Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation, as well as provost and professor of liturgy and mysticism at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.
Orthodox feminists make little progress on agunot
With strident calls for action and threats of “taking to the streets” if the issue is not soon resolved, participants in the 10th anniversary conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) ratcheted up the rhetoric around the plight of agunot, “chained women” whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious bill of divorce.
“Let this be the last JOFA conference where we need to ask if there’s a halachic heter [permissive legal ruling] for agunot,” Tova Hartman, founder of an Orthodox feminist synagogue in Jerusalem, told the approximately 1,000 people, mostly women, who attended a conference earlier this month in New York City. “The time has come to stop kvetching.”
The rhetoric on agunot contrasted sharply from that on other topics at the conference, where a sense of confidence bordering on the triumphant prevailed, owing to the substantial progress made in the decade since JOFA’s founding.
Women today serve as congregational heads, spiritual leaders and advisers on matters of religious law. They have greater access to rigorous textual study that once was the domain of men. And their participation in public prayer is on the rise with the growth of so-called “partnership minyanim,” in which women take on some leadership roles — including reading the Torah and leading certain prayers — in an otherwise typical Orthodox service.
Other issues, like marking a girl’s bat mitzvah, have fallen off the agenda entirely now that such celebrations are par for the course in Orthodox congregations.
“It is a slow and gradual progress,” JOFA Executive Director Robin Bodner said. “There is definitely progress. There is definitely change.”
Hartman electrified the conference with her talk of civil disobedience and the creation of alternative religious courts to address the plight of agunot, who under Jewish law are forbidden to remarry until their husbands have “released” them from marriage with a get, or religious bill of divorce.
In the worst cases, husbands have refused to grant religious divorces to their wives for years, sometimes issuing the documents only in exchange for sizable ransoms.
In the United States, various rabbinic courts and civil laws provide some recourse. In New York, state law requires spouses to remove all religious barriers to remarriage before a civil divorce is granted; a similar law is under consideration in Maryland.
In Israel, marriage remains under the purview of rabbinic courts that have the power to enforce their rulings. The problem, agunot advocates say, is that those powers are rarely used by judges, all of them male and drawn mostly from the ranks of the ultra-Orthodox.
An international rabbinic conference on the topic, the first of its kind, was scheduled for last November by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar. It was canceled at the last minute, however, reportedly due to pressure from Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, an Ashkenazi rabbi widely considered the most authoritative figure in the fervently Orthodox world.
“It’s time that we in the Modern Orthodox world challenge the power of a handful of extremist Charedi rabbis,” Sharon Finkel Shenhav, the only woman serving on Israel’s commission to appoint religious judges, said at the conference.
Shenhav said the ultra-Orthodox, also known as haredim, control the courts only because “we let them.”
One possible halachic solution, the so-called “tripartite” solution, would have couples sign a prenuptial agreement stipulating that the marriage is dissolved if a husband and wife voluntarily live apart for a certain amount of time.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the American-born chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, argued for that option in an address to a standing-room only crowd at the convention.
While some accused the rabbinic courts of outright corruption, Riskin said the principal obstacle to resolving the issue is the courts’ preoccupation with “what they think is the purity of Israel as over and against the plight of the agunah.”
The tripartite solution is nearly airtight from a halachic standpoint, Riskin said, but it would only affect future marriages and would have little impact on existing agunot. Even so, he’s under no illusions that the idea will be enacted.
“If it does not work, then I believe we will have no choice but to establish alternative batei din,” or rabbinic courts, he said.
JOFA plans to take ads in Jewish media demanding action on agunot from the Orthodox rabbinate. The ads, which call the situation an “injustice” and a “disgrace,” would be timed to coincide with the Fast of Esther, which falls this year on March 1.
“If the community rose up, ultimately that’s how things are changed,” Bodner said. “We need to keep pushing for this change. We’re going to do it. Somehow, some way.”
The Times, it is a-changin’
How many times have you unsuccessfully tried to interest the Los Angeles Times in an important organizational event or, harder yet, tried to get the paper to devote
some space to articles reflecting your views on an issue?
Suppose for example, your synagogue is hosting a discussion on mixed marriage, and you think it should be covered or even just publicized with a small notice.
You phone the paper or send in a press release, but it never makes it through the layers of editors and gatekeepers. Or, suppose you are mad at a Times editorial. You write a letter to the editor, and your letter is either savagely edited or not published at all.
Times are changing, and the Times, with circulation and advertising dropping, can no longer afford to be so high and mighty. At long last, the paper is going to juice up its Web site, and community input like your synagogue discussion meeting and your opinions and activities may be a big part of it.
I hope the Times follows through on improving its Web site. I had lunch with the Times’ new editor, Jim O’Shea, and he’s got some good ideas. I hope he sticks around long enough to put them to use.
Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let me state for the record: I am a trendsetter.
This just in, according to no less an authority than The New York Times. Based on their most
recent census analysis, more American women are living without a husband than with one.
Yes, that’s right: 51 percent of women in 2005 said they were living without a spouse, compared to 35 percent in 1950. Living without a spouse doesn’t exactly mean single in the traditional sense of the word, if there is a traditional sense of the word. Some are living with partners (“in sin”), some have been married and are now widowed or divorced, and some, like me, just haven’t married yet because women are marrying later in life.
Incidentally, in 2005, married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time.
It’s comforting to know that at least I’m part of a majority.
So here’s what I’m wondering: If this trend continues, and, say, in a couple of decades the numbers shift so they’re the opposite of those in the 1950s, and only 35 percent of adults are married, what would the world be like? I mean, what would it be like for a nonmarried person?
You’d be at a meal with a group of people and everyone would be mingling with each other and having fun, and all of a sudden one man says, “We’re married.”
A silence would fall on the table, like in the old days, when someone confessed to being … single.
Finally someone would break the silence: “How long have you been married?”
“Ten years,” the “wife” would say.
Again the silence, and you are the one to ask what no one else could say. “But you’re so young! How old are you anyway?”
When it dawns on the crowd that the two are both 35 and have been married since they were 25, shock turns to disbelief, and the ice breaks. Everyone has questions. They’ve all forgotten their fun, single, happy life for a moment and turn to talk to this anomaly.
“Why do you think you’re still married?”
“I mean, are you even trying? Do you just stay home with each other?”
“Do you think maybe you’re too un-picky? I mean, maybe if you were more selective you wouldn’t be married.”
“God, it must be so hard for you to be married at your age,” someone would say, sort of sympathetically, but mostly inordinately relieved for herself that she’s not in that position.
“I think I may know someone else who’s married,” one man would add, trying to be helpful. Then he’d remember: “No, forget it, they split up.”
Soon, of course, the conversation would turn to fertility, as it always does in these situations.
“Aren’t you worried about your biological clock? I mean, you’re not getting any younger, and there still might be time to have children with other people. I guess you could always freeze your eggs — lots of married people are doing that these days, I hear. Why, this one friend of mine paid $100,000 in fertility treatments and got three viable eggs!”
And then everyone would be off, talking animatedly about doctors and sperm banks and adoption and how children these days are much better off than they were when we were growing up because there are so many parental units and families are so fluid and there’s so much less pressure to marry and to stay married and no stigma on divorce so kids can just focus on finding themselves and being good, productive people in good, healthy relationships.
Then some socially clueless person, who didn’t realize the conversation had finally taken its spotlight off the uncomfortable, lone, married couple, would pipe in, “I hear married people die younger than unmarried people.”
At that point you’d be able to hear the forks clatter to the plates, and everyone would be looking down, because even if that much-bandied about statistic were true — who researched those things anyway? It was like that urban legend in the 1980s, about a single woman over 35 being more likely to get killed by a terrorist than find a mate — was it really necessary to point it out?
Immediately everyone would start talking again — about the latest art opening, real estate prices, the upcoming ski trip to the Alps — anything to change the subject, because everyone would suddenly start to feel bad for the married couple, because really, it wasn’t their fault, exactly; it could happen to anyone if they weren’t careful.
And then they’d think back to an earlier, bygone era, back in the beginning of the millennium, say, in 2000, when married people were still the majority, and they’d thank their lucky stars for being born in such enlightened times.
New faces and new places for Consuls General of Israel
A new Israeli consul general, Yaakov (Jacob) Dayan, will arrive in Los Angeles in November to succeed Ehud Danoch as his country’s top diplomat in Southern California, five southwestern states and Hawaii.
At the same time, it was announced in Jerusalem that two Los Angeles alumni of the Israeli foreign service will assume high-ranking posts this summer.
Former Consul General Yuval Rotem has been named ambassador to Australia, and his former deputy, Zvi Vapni, ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines.
Dayan, 40, has served as chief of staff to both former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and present Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and most recently headed a study on possible diplomatic approaches to Syria.
He accompanied Shalom on two trips to Los Angeles in recent years and said he was looking forward to a longer stay in the city, together with his wife, Galit, and their three children.
“Los Angeles and this region are very important to Israel, so I take this as a huge challenge, but I know I will be working with a wonderful team at the consulate,” Dayan said in a phone call from Jerusalem.
For Rotem, a popular figure during his five-year tenure in Los Angeles, the new appointment comes after a difficult two years in Israel, during which he was largely sidelined from active involvement in the Foreign Ministry.
Part of the reason was that Rotem, whose foreign service career had risen unusually fast, had to compete with other senior officials for the most desirable appointments and had a hard time finding the right slot, knowledgeable sources explained. During last year’s conflict in Lebanon, he served as head of a liaison unit with United Nations and Lebanese officials, which, among other tasks, provided relief for the local population.
Rotem’s new duties will take him to all parts of Australia and New Zealand, as well as Papua New Guinea and the Fiji Islands, Rotem said in a phone call from Jerusalem. Accompanying him will be his wife, Miri, and the two youngest of their children. His oldest son will be performing his military service.
Vapni’s territory in the Philippines will cover 7,000 islands, and include a Jewish community of about 250 people, “quite a change from 500,000 in Los Angeles,” he noted.
Currently on special assignment in Ireland, Vapni was in charge of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Israel, among other assignments. Joining him in Manila will be his wife, Limor, and their two young children.
The new diplomatic appointments partially represent routine reassignments, but also reflect a professional boost for career diplomats, following protracted labor negotiations within the Foreign Ministry and the appointment of Livni a year ago.
Up to last year, the government was able to make 11 “political” foreign service appointments, generally to the most prestigious jobs abroad. Now that number has been reduced to two, most likely for ambassadors to the United Nations and Washington, D.C.
Both the outgoing ambassador to the Philippines and the current consul general in Los Angeles were political appointments and are being replaced by career diplomats.
The Los Angeles post is considered one of the top assignments in the Israeli foreign service. Although the consul general here doesn’t deal with relations between Israel and other nations, he (there has never been a female consul general in Los Angeles) plays a crucial role from the Israeli perspective.
“We see Los Angeles as one of the five most important assignments in the world,” said Ido Aharoni, Livni’s media adviser.
“The city’s importance lies in its economic strength, the size and influence of the Jewish community, political clout, ethnic and religious diversity — and, of course, Hollywood,” Aharoni said in a phone interview.
“We have sent some of our best people to L.A.,” he added. “Ehud Danoch has been doing an excellent job and Yaakov Dayan is a terrific diplomat.”
Aharoni served in Los Angeles as consul for public affairs from 1994 to 1998. His wife, Julie, the mother of their three children, is the granddaughter of Lou Boyar, who was a legendary mover and shaker in the Los Angeles business and Jewish communities.
He endowed the Mae Boyar High School in Jerusalem in honor of his wife, and, to round the circle, Julie Aharoni is now a teacher at the school.
As Israel’s top representative in this region, the consul general has always exerted a strong symbolic influence in the Los Angeles Jewish community, and his actual impact has varied according to his own priorities and changing circumstances.
Some of the earlier diplomats focused on the top Jewish leadership, encouraging philanthropic, business and tourism ties with Israel.
Rotem had a special interest in the city’s diversity, establishing close ties with the Latino, African American and Christian communities.
Danoch, who will conclude his three-year term toward the end of 2007, has been particularly successful in enlisting Hollywood talent to visit Israel and supporting its cause in the media.
Despite past sparks, Al-Marayati wants Jewish dialogue
It’s a Saturday morning, and Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), is playing basketball with a group of friends. He pounces on loose balls, wrestles away rebounds and knows just when to feed a teammate a perfectly telegraphed pass for an easy layup.
“He gives it 110 percent and leaves everything behind,” said his friend and occasional teammate, Ramsey Hakim, who also serves on the MPAC board. “He’s quite the competitor.”
Al-Marayati’s game, marked by a kind of intensity and focus rare among weekend warriors, reveals the kind of guy he is — in his work as a leader and spokesman of the local and national Muslim community — and as well as in his play. Simply put, he plays to win.
Over the past two decades, the Iraqi-born, American-reared Al-Marayati, 46, has helped grow MPAC from a start-up advocacy operation founded in 1988 by Dr. Maher Hathout, past chair of the Islamic Center of Southern California, into one of the country’s leading Muslim political groups, with offices here and in Washington, D.C. He has traveled the country, met with the president and other political leaders and written opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Washington Post and other publications, advocating a more moderate vision of the Muslim world, and, in particular, of American Muslims.
He talks of a faith that encourages equality between the sexes, of Muslim integration into American society and of respect for and partnerships between Jews and Christians. Al-Marayati has also fought to combat what he calls “Islamophobia” wherever it crops up.
“I want my children to have a future of hope, a future where they can contribute positively to American society as Muslims,” Al-Marayati said. “I don’t want a future of prejudice, fear and victimization.”
In the process, Al-Marayati has become “one of the major mainstream American Muslim leaders,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group.
Al-Marayati has met with President Bush three times, as well as with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, on the subject of counterterrorism, and he has testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on the need for the government to work with, rather than shut down, Islamic charities aiding poor Muslims around the world. On Jan. 8, Al-Marayati and other Muslim leaders conferred with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in his Washington office about the need to counter anti-Islamic sentiment so as not to alienate young Muslims.
“I told Attorney General Gonzales that the way to discourage radicalization is to promote integration, which is a joint responsibility of government and community-based organizations like ours,” Al-Marayati said in the deep, sonorous voice that is one part of what makes this rising star of the Muslim community sound statesmanlike.
During an interview at MPAC’s L.A. office, Al-Marayati comes across as serious and even a bit distant. With the din of ringing phones and staff members’ voices in the background, he maintains eye contact at all times. Dressed in a well-tailored suit, the trim Al-Marayati eschews small talk and answers questions deliberately, choosing his words with care. He cites as inspirations Green Bay Packers’ legend Vince Lombardi’s commitment to winning and teaching, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to civil rights and fairness.
Al-Marayati’s biggest influence, he says without hesitation, is the Prophet Muhammad, whom he calls the “epitome of compassion, mercy and justice.”
Despite Al-Marayati’s commitment to interfaith dialogue and his open-door policy, even to critics, many in the Jewish community remain deeply suspicious of him.
On Sept. 11, 2001, just hours after the terror attacks, Al-Marayati hypothesized on a radio program that Israel might have orchestrated them “because, I think, this diverts attention from what’s happening in the Palestinian territories, so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies.”
Months later in April 2002, Al-Marayati appeared on the CNBC show, “Alan Keyes Is Making Sense.” During the interview, he told the host that “the country that introduced terrorism in the region is Israel. The root cause of terrorism is the illegal Israeli settlements.”
Although Al-Marayati said he subsequently personally apologized to many Jewish leaders for his Sept. 11 remarks, the damage had been done: The multiorganizational Muslim-Jewish Dialogue that Al-Marayati had helped create just a few years earlier lay in ruins, with other participants outraged by his remarks and remaining suspicious of him ever since.
“I won’t work with him, because I don’t trust him,” Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, said last week in a phone conversation. Rosove was among those who quit the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue soon after Al-Marayati made his initial Sept. 11 remarks.
Al-Marayati does have some friends in the Jewish community. Among them is Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who is Jewish. Schiff has worked with Al-Marayati for years on interfaith issues and said he has found him to be a dedicated partner.
“We both believe that by sharing insights and strengthening voices of tolerance, we can find common ground in improving the quality of life for the entire community,” the congressman said.
Al-Marayati said the hostility from segments of the Jewish community continues to surprise him. MPAC, he said, has gone on record as supporting the two-state solution and has condemned suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism, regardless of the perpetrators.
“I’m committed to dialogue emanating from the best traditions of Judaism and Islam,” Al-Marayati said. “It pains me to hear comments questioning my commitment. As I’ve stated before repeatedly, the door remains open, especially to those who have those criticisms.”
Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a Los Angeles-based social justice organization, said Al-Marayati has repeatedly lent support to him in times of distress. For example, moments after the shootings at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle by a gunman upset by Israel, Al-Marayati called him to express his sorrow and concern, Sokatch said. Al-Marayati asked Sokatch whether there was anything MPAC could do to show solidarity with the Jewish community.
“He always reaches out,” Sokatch said.
Breaking new ground: Jewish, Muslim groups’ program encourages leaders to see the ‘other’ as friend
Is it possible for Los Angeles Jews and Muslims to talk to one another, to share peacefully at the table?
This is the question that some leaders of both groups locally are asking themselves.
These are the ones who are willing to keep trying, despite the enmity in the Middle East and despite a history of conflict among some leaders in the Jewish and Muslim communities here. Early next month, a new effort jointly organized by the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) will be unveiled.
It will not be the first attempt.
Little more than a decade ago, in the warm afterglow of the Oslo accords, a group of Jewish and Muslim leaders in Los Angeles regularly met and talked together in formal and informal groups. Known as the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue, this group of leaders from several organizations hoped to forge a new understanding between the two communities and model the kind of peace moderates on both sides were hoping for in the Middle East.
But despite early optimism, world events got in the way, and the conversation was repeatedly interrupted by news of terror attacks, Israeli settlements and mistrust borne from the faltering Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
In the aftermath of that day, with the Western world’s frightened eyes turned on the Muslim community, Los Angeles, too, saw relations between Jewish and Muslim leaders descend into a cross-fire of accusations and distrust. As a result, the official dialogue petered out, becoming largely moribund by 2002.
Local Jewish-Muslim relations, seen for a brief moment as a paragon of interfaith cooperation, continued to deteriorate to such an extent that a few months ago,much of the organized Jewish community united to protest the honoring of MPAC founder, Dr. Maher Hathout, with a prestigious award from the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.
Symbolically, Hathout’s supporters — not all of them Muslims — sat one on side of the room during hearings over his suitability for the honor, while his mostly Jewish detractors sat on the other side. Hathout got to keep the award.
Daniel Sokatch, who began participating in the dialogue in 2000 after joining the PJA, a social activist group, thought there had to be a better way. As PJA executive director, he was frustrated to see local Jewish-Muslim relationships constantly held hostage by events taking place thousands of miles away.
Sokatch focused on how much Jews and Muslims here have in common, including traditions that emphasize the need to build a better world.
Recently, Sokatch has been working with Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of MPAC, the Los Angeles-based policy advocacy organization, and in early February, PJA and MPAC will unveil NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.
The program aims to encourage a new cadre of Jewish and Muslim leaders to see the “other” as a friend, said Aziza Hasan, MPAC interfaith program coordinator.
The plan for NewGround is to bring together as many as 30 Jews and Muslims who are in their 20s and 30s for a period of 10 months. Initially, participants will meet with only their own colleagues to confront their prejudices.
When the two groups join together, they will discuss issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to immigration to homelessness.
Working with trained mediators, they will also learn how to communicate honestly. Finally, participants will join forces on a yet-to-be-determined civic improvement project, such as homelessness or poverty, said Malka Fenyvesi, PJA interfaith program coordinator.
“I’m delighted, impressed and grateful that such visionary leaders are doing this,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector at All Saints Church in Pasadena and a self-described friend of both Sokatch and Al-Marayati. “I think this offers great promise for Jews and Muslims to come together.”
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, founder of the new Rabbi Jacobs Progressive Faith Foundation and rabbi emeritus at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, called the PJA-MPAC initiative “groundbreaking.”
He added: “There’s too much demonization going on, and this program will help break down the fear that exists in both communities.”
Not everyone shares that enthusiasm. Some Jewish leaders question the wisdom of working with MPAC, which they see as unremittingly hostile to Israel and “disingenuous, pretending to be something they’re not,” in the words of Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group.
The roots of the distrust hark back to just hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Al-Marayati went on a radio talk show and suggested that Israel might be behind the attacks, because, he said, “I think this diverts attention from what’s happening in the Palestinian territories, so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies.”
Although Al-Marayati has said he later apologized to some Jewish leaders for his remarks, many in the Jewish community continue to distrust both Al-Marayati and MPAC and will have nothing to do with them.
Terrorism expert Steven Emerson, author of “American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us” and a former senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, said he believes MPAC is a “front group, a public relations group for radical Islam.”
PJA, Emerson believes, is being used by MPAC to confer legitimacy on an organization that, he said, hopes to spread Islam and undermine American support for Israel.
Al-Marayati, for his part, said many Muslims regard Emerson as a cynical “profiteer,” who fans fears about Islam for personal gain. Emerson’s characterization of MPAC as radical, Al-Marayati said, ignores the group’s goal of integrating Muslims into mainstream American society, its condemnation of terrorism and support of the two-state solution.
Still, many Jews pay close attention to Emerson’s pronouncements. Following the announcement in July of the county’s award to MPAC founder Hathout, Emerson wrote a harshly critical article for New Republic Online, depicting Hathout, former chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, as an apologist for terror groups and strident critic of Israel, who once publicly characterized the Jewish state as “a racist, apartheid state.”
In response, Jewish groups, ranging from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to the Zionist Organization of America to the American Jewish Committee to StandWithUs, joined forces against Hathout.
Progressive values propel Daniel Sokatch’s rising star
When Daniel Sokatch enrolled in rabbinical school in Israel in 1994, he had visions of becoming a religious leader dedicated to social justice, much in the vein of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But Sokatch, now 38, quickly realized that the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem was committed to training rabbis and not activists. So after eight months, he decided to quit.
Sokatch met with the school’s dean at the time to break the news, telling him that he planned to get a law degree, study international relations and work in the Jewish community, pursuing social justice in some capacity. The dean looked at Sokatch, paused, and shocked him by promising to forgive the thousands of dollars in loans Sokatch had racked up for school tuition.
“I believe you’ll do everything you say you’re going to do,” he said.
And so he has. Sokatch is the founding executive director of Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a nondenominational group dedicated, in his words, to “connecting Jews to the critical social justice issues facing our city, such as criminal and economic justice and interfaith dialogue. ”
Under Sokatch’s seven-year tenure, PJA’s membership has reached 4,000. In May 2005, the nonprofit opened a second office in San Francisco.
The Forward has twice named Sokatch to the “Forward 50,” a listing of the most influential Jews in America.
“He has kept a steady focus on labor and immigrant issues, leading efforts for Muslim-Jewish dialogue and helping patch up labor disputes,” the newspaper said.
PJA has played an important role in the enactment of anti-sweatshop legislation in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley, reflecting Sokatch’s belief that “kosher should be about more than the way food’s prepared; it should be about the way people are treated who work with us.” PJA has also successfully lobbied on behalf of Los Angeles hotel workers to increase their wages. In 2002, PJA created a mediation program for nonviolent juvenile offenders that offers an alternative to incarceration. The program has a recidivism rate of less than 20 percent.
“I think Daniel is a rising star in the Jewish professional constellation of this city,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “He’s smart, charismatic and effective.”
PJA has also taken controversial steps to keep alive communication between local Muslims and Jews. Early next month, the PJA and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) are expected to unveil NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, a program designed to foster greater interfaith dialogue and cooperation. (See related story on page 14.)
Sokatch, as he promised the HUC-JIR dean all those years ago, did become a lawyer. But it is his Jewish values that most define him. He steeps PJA’s efforts in Jewish tradition and in tikkun olam (heal the world), giving political and social action a religious basis. His single-minded commitment often drives him to put in 70-hour work weeks and push until some measure of justice is done.
“If you are Jewish, whether secular or religious, whether ethnically or culturally, atheist or Orthodox, there is a central animating principle to being Jewish, which is repair the world,” Sokatch said. “That is the prophetic mission and the rabbinic imperative.”
Sokatch and his younger brother, Andrew, now an expert in educational reform and child welfare, grew up in Cheshire, Conn., in a “good, Jewish liberal home.” His father, Sy, worked as the director of human resources at Yale University. His mother, Ann, studied counseling psychology at Southern Connecticut State College. From his parents, he said he learned “the importance of the warmth and love of family and the need to work hard.”
But it was a trio of older relatives in New York City, he said, who shaped his views on civic engagement. His aunt, Lottie Gold, served as New York state’s first female deputy secretary of state in the 1950s. Sydney Gold, his uncle, and Irving Stillerman, his maternal grandfather, were New York City judges.
“What I got from these people was a deep, deep sense of patriotism and a love of country,” Sokatch said. “They taught me that service to the community at large was something we just did, both as Jews and as Americans.”
Judaism was another major influence. Raised Reform, Sokatch attended Jewish summer camps and went to Hebrew school throughout high school.
“I loved all aspects of Judaism, the traditions, the holidays, the story of Israel,” he said. “It always felt natural to me. It felt like breathing.”
At 11, his family moved from liberal New England to conservative Cincinnati, where Sokatch spent nearly a decade. It was there, Sokatch said, where he learned that “there is no us or them, blue states or red states; we’re all Americans who share the same goals of a better world.”
Sokatch spent his junior year of college in Ireland, studying the Irish conflict. He later earned a master’s degree in international affairs at the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston, further deepening his empathy for and appreciation of different cultures.
“He’s a 21st-century prophet,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, who calls himself a “soul” friend of Sokatch. “By that, I mean Daniel knows that God is for all people and cares about the happiness and healing of everyone.”
Sokatch’s even-keeled temperament and unfailing graciousness have won him plaudits from many in the Jewish community who do not always share his political views. Gary Ratner, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Western Region, said he considers Sokatch an “excellent, excellent, fine young man” with a deep commitment to making the world better, this despite the fact, Ratner said, that “we certainly have many disagreements about what those problems are and how to fix them.”
However, Ratner and other Jewish leaders are troubled by Sokatch’s willingness to work with MPAC, which they consider a radical, anti-Israel organization.
Palestinian remarks generate cheer and gloom
Cheerful news reached us last week from Damascus. Hamas’ political chief, Khaled Meshal, told Reuters in an interview on Jan. 10 that Israel is a “matter of fact,” and that Hamas
might consider recognizing Israel once a Palestinian state is established.
Don’t misjudge me. I am not particularly thrilled with the content of Meshal’s statement, especially after learning that one hour later a Hamas spokesman denied any change in Hamas’ refusal to ever recognize Israel. What I do find refreshing, though, is that Reuters asked the question, dozens of linguists and analysts were busy interpreting the answer and news channels from China to Africa were eager to report the results.
What made me cheerful was seeing that the fundamental question of whether the Palestinians would ever recognize Israel, the key to any peace settlement in the region, is back on the table and can be discussed in good company without fear of dismissal or ridicule.
Let me explain. Five years ago, if you were to ask this question among Middle East analysts, you were sure to be scolded by an army of well-meaning conflict-resolution experts for being a spoiler of peace or ignorant of the latest polls from the West Bank.
“It does not matter what the Palestinians think about recognition or legitimacy,” was the standard answer, “what matters are conditions on the ground.”
“The road to peace is incremental,” repeated all the headlines.
Remember Peter Jennings, the legendary ABC News anchor? When he interviewed Hanan Ashrawi on his show and asked her about Israel’s right to exist, she hushed him with: “Chairman Arafat has recognized Israel in 1988,” and this kept poor Peter meek and timid for the rest of the interview.
When the Syrian Ambassador spoke at UCLA in 2005, and I asked him whether he personally recognizes Israel’s right to exist, my learned colleagues were quick to rebuke my question as impertinent — “What further proof would Israelis want to convince themselves of Arabs’ intentions?” they asked.
In other words, the question of Arab intentions, the mother of all questions and the key to all solutions, has been locked in the closet for 10 good years, and it is only Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian election, together with financial sanctions by Israel and Western governments, that have brought it back to the spotlight it deserves. Moreover, now that Hamas is recognized as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Hamas’ official stance toward Israel has given Western observers a crisp and reliable thermometer to gauge the Palestinian vision of peace, many times more reliable than the ambiguous polls and speeches we have been reading about in the past.
The emergence of such a reliable thermometer now provides valuable new insights into Middle East affairs, especially for those who believe that honesty and clarity are prerequisites to peace. True, we owe this progress to Hamas, but we have never denied credit where credit is due.
However, before we gloat, I should note that my friends in Israel have been consistently skeptical of all polls and speeches since the outbreak of the second intifada, and they have paid no attention at all to those who debate whether Hamas truly represents the heart and mind of Palestinian society.
Most Israelis today have become resigned to some version of the “salami theory,” according to which the vast majority of Palestinians, Fatah and Hamas alike, will never accept Israel as a legitimate neighbor and no matter what agreement is signed, will continue their struggle to “liberate Palestine” in incremental stages (“shlavim” in Hebrew.)
The current fighting between Fatah and Hamas is viewed by most Israelis as a confrontation between two tactics aiming for the same goal, one calling for dismantling Israel in stages, using diplomacy, international isolation, demography, deceit and occasional terror and attacks, the other calling for open warfare.
This gloomy view, depressing as it is, rests on some hard evidence, which even moderate Palestinians have not been able to dispel. Aside from Arab’s century-long rejection of Jewish sovereignty on any part of Palestine, well funded Palestinian organizations have recently intensified their anti-Israel campaign in Europe and on U.S campuses, aiming not at ending the occupation but at undermining the legitimacy of Israel as the historical homeland of the Jewish people.
Another indicator viewed with alarm by Israelis is that the subject of “comprehensive peace,” including hopes, images and responsibilities of state ownership, is not being discussed in the Palestinian street. While Palestinians do lay conditions for peace, they refrain from discussing its parameters, even behind closed doors.
Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, is the only leader who dared remind his countrymen that compromises on the refugees “right of return” must be made if peace is to be given any chance at all. But all discussions of such compromises are considered taboo by the rest of Palestinian society, for whom “peace” has always meant a return to Jaffa, Haifa and Ramlah.
Finally, Palestinian intellectuals have been a great disappointment to Israeli peace activists. In an unprecedented candid exchange between two of the Middle East’s most respected journalists, Salameh Nematt, an Arab, and Akiva Eldar, an Israeli, Eldar writes (Ha’aretz, December 2006): “The Jewish minority, which calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from their land and steals their olives, is my enemy. I will do everything legally possible in order to protect my Arab neighbors from the obnoxious attacks of this racist minority.
“But Israelis need to know that Arabs who call for the expulsion of Jews from their [Jewish] land and deliberately murder their children are enemies of yours, and that there are many among you willing to defend my family against those who deny my right to a secure existence in my own country.”
Those familiar with Eldar’s record as a peace activist and a champion of Palestinians’ rights and statehood would appreciate his readers’ disappointment — after 30 years of intense outreach efforts, Eldar is still begging his Palestinian friends to acknowledge his “right to a secure existence in my own country.”
‘Yippee’ — Paul Mazursky documents Chasids gone wild
In all his 76 years, filmmaker Paul Mazursky had never seen anything like the 25,000 Chasidim singing, swaying, blowing shofars and dancing around a lake.
“It’s like the old days at the Apollo in Harlem, with the crowd going wild,” the irreverent Mazursky said. “Can you dig it?”
The scene is from his documentary, “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” which had its Southland premier this week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The film is quite a change of pace for the creator of such quirky social comedies and dramas as “Bob”&”Carol”&”Ted”&”Alice,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies: A Love Story.”
Despite his artistic reputation and string of Oscar nominations, Mazursky has found it increasingly difficult to find backing for his iconoclastic movies, which are infused with his wry take on the human condition.
During the past decade, after a quadruple heart bypass operation, Mazursky has gone back to his roots as an actor and comedian, including parts in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Sopranos,” while looking for the right combination of film and financing.
But last year, he and his two camera crews found themselves in Uman, a Ukrainian town of 80,000, whose population swells every Rosh Hashanah during an invasion of ecstatic Chasidim dressed in white kitels (robes), black suits or streimels (fur hats).
They come to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great Chasidic master, disputatious tzadik (learned scholar) and great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. Nachman was buried in Uman in 1811 at the age of 38.
What had brought the insistently secular Mazursky to Uman were the urgings of three disparate Angelenos: David Miretsky, his optometrist; Shmuel Levy, a devout Moroccan-born rock musician; and Rabbi Ezriel Tauber.
All three regularly participated in the pilgrimage to Uman, and they promised Mazursky that he would witness an event unlike any he had ever experienced.
Putting up $50,000 of his own money, and with his broken arm in a sling, Mazursky embarked on the adventure with his friends and a six-man crew, including his son-in-law.
During a brief layover in Munich, he warmed up by filming the beer-swilling Oktoberfest, before stopping in Kiev, where his grandfather is buried, and then reaching Uman after a three-hour drive.
In the run-up to the climax of the three-day celebration, Mazursky meets and talks with Chasidim, policemen, scholars and peasants, combining the roles of an innocent abroad, travel guide and self-described “wise guy from Brooklyn.”
Typical is his encounter with two local peasant women selling fruit from a sidewalk cart. They, like all the other Uman natives, know about Rosh Hashanah, which enriches the town by $2 million each year.
Despite the windfall, one woman is not entirely happy.
“Jews are not cultured people,” she complains. The other woman disagrees.
“They are cultured,” she insists, “they are just different.”
Mazursky’s camera lingers on other happenings. There is a rustic folk festival with pretty dancing girls in costumes and later, Vodka Appreciation Day, during which the filmmaker digs into his bottomless reservoir of jokes, many unprintable.
His favorite joke, told at least three times in the film, goes something like this: Cohen meets Schwartz in New York’s old garment district and Cohen says, “I heard about the fire.” Schwartz puts his fingers to his lips and whispers, “Shhhh, tomorrow.” (The joke dates back to at least the Great Depression, when some storeowners facing bankruptcy would set fire to their shops to collect insurance money.)
The film climaxes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, when the 25,000 Chasidim throw their sins into the lake and pray, dance and sing through the candle-lit night.
“Madonna and Woody Allen should be here,” Mazursky murmurs.
Before leaving, Mazursky organizes a bull session with Tauber and Dr. Julian Unger, a British neurologist, to explore the meaning of what he has seen.
“We come to Uman because on the day of judgment, Rabbi Nachman will be our lawyer, pleading our case before God,” Tauber explains.
Unger has a darker observation. “You know, 37 years before Rabbi Nachman came to Uman, there was a great pogrom here and thousands of Jews were drowned in the lake.
“When the Nazis came, they again murdered Uman’s Jews,” Unger continued. “It is a great irony that in 2005, we should be dancing in the streets of Uman. We are dancing on the graves of our martyrs.”
Mazursky, the wise guy from Brooklyn, drew his own lessons. “I could never think like a Chasid,” he ruminated during a two-hour interview in his crowded Beverly Hills office.
“I think of life as a cosmic joke, which keeps getting bigger all the time. But I’ve learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Chasidim. They are real people, who can see light in the darkest things,” he said.
The title of the film comes from another Mazursky observation. “It is better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say ‘Yippee.'”
“Yippee” is available on DVD through the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and will be included in a retrospective of Mazursky’s works at New York’s Lincoln Center, May 4-10.
PBS: ‘Los Angeles — Dream of A Different City’
Sick of traffic? Sick of smog? Sick of urban sprawl?
Don’t just complain about it. See what’s being done to change it.
On Jan. 11, KCET will air a Los Angeles-focused segment of its acclaimed series “Edens Lost & Found.”
This one-hour installment of the multipart series titled, “Los Angeles: Dream a Different City,” will focus on community leaders and groups in the greater L.A. area who are finding solutions to what a century of almost unchecked growth has wrought on our landscape and our lives.
The segment begins with host Jimmy Smits providing a quick overview of a familiar litany of problems besetting Los Angeles. There are traffic-choked interchanges, vast tracts of unchecked development, a trickle of water to slake a thirsty city and brownish air.
“If Southern California can solve these problems, there just might be hope for the rest of the world,” Smits says.
Producer and director Harry Wiland and Dale Bell track down the people and groups who have found ways to confront these problems. To watch the documentary is to find much reason for hope:
- TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis, who talks of discovering the importance of trees during summers at a Jewish camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, shows how urban forestry and water recovery projects throughout the city can provide shade, lower electricity usage and replenish groundwater.
The 35-year campaign has gained powerful allies. TreePeople’s main on-screen advocate is L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose first act as mayor was to plant a tree. And County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says of the groundwater recovery efforts, “If it works it will revolutionize the way we do flood control.”
- Lewis MacAdams of Friends of the Los Angeles River and Melanie Winter of The River Project show how the battle to re-green the 58-mile cement ditch will reshape the city.
- Darrell Clarke and Presley Burroughs of Friends 4 Expo Transit speaks of his 21-year struggle to get a light-rail line from downtown to the beach.
“It’s a ladder for upward mobility,” Burroughs says.
That last theme is crucial to the filmmakers. A good amount of the program looks at how economically depressed areas in Boyle Heights, the north San Fernando Valley and El Monte benefit from re-connecting and fighting for Los Angeles’ environment. “Improving L.A.’s natural environment,” says the mayor on screen, “will improve families and the economy.”
“Eden’s Lost and Found” is part of a series that also looks at innovative solutions in Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago and other American cities. A companion book and DVD provide ample information for would-be activists.
Wiland, a Venice resident and Jewish activist, sees the effort as part of a larger educational and social campaign. “We want everyone to be involved in dreaming a different city,” he said.
Noah Bleich: A Man of Many Hats
Noah Bleich is standing at the entrance of an elementary school with a blue-and-white menorah on his head. Once again, he has dragged himself out of bed to read stories to children.
“I’m not a morning person,” he says, “but it’s easy for me to get up if I have a reason.”
Every other week, for about three years, Bleich has been visiting neighborhood schools to read to kids. Each time, he arrives in a different hat. This morning, he has tossed aside his zebra-print cowboy hat, giant sombrero and Mad Hatter top hat in favor of a white faux-fur and blue velvet piece topped with felt candles. The kids love it.
Bleich, 31, is used to wearing many hats. As the newly elected president of the South Robertson Neighborhood Council, Bleich not only runs the council’s monthly meetings, but he spends much of his time — as many as 30 hours a week, he says — planning projects to benefit the community.
“He’s like the Superman of the Neighborhood Council,” said Steven Coker, a council board member. “Most people think of themselves first, and if there’s time or money left over, then they think of everybody else. With Noah, it’s reversed. He thinks of the community first and himself second.”
An observant Jew, Bleich provides a Jewish rationale for his commitment. While Judaism teaches that each individual is unique and special, it also emphasizes community, he says.
He tries to put this teaching into practice: “Judaism should be about living it.”
Bleich, a self-employed computer consultant, has started building a computer lab at the local community center. He has also written a grant application, asking for funds to renovate the center and build a garden outside.
He recently helped a group get funding for a three-week program for at-risk youth. Kids will now be able to go to the community center to take life-skills classes during their winter break from school. Bleich has volunteered to coach the children on how to build computers and how to cook.
One of Bleich’s greatest passions is protecting the environment. As the leader of the council’s Green Team committee, Bleich runs monthly neighborhood cleanups to pick up garbage, paint over graffiti and plant trees and flowers (he initiated a project to plant hundreds of trees in honor of the firefighters who died on Sept. 11 and the Los Angeles firefighters who have died in the line of duty).
Bleich pays careful attention to how his own actions impact the environment. To save gas, he walks, bikes or takes the bus whenever he can. He is a vegetarian who uses canvas shopping bags and energy-efficient lightbulbs. Bleich will pay extra for goods made in countries with high environmental and social standards.
He tries hard to do the right thing, he says, not because he believes he will change the world, but because he sees no satisfactory alternative.
“I don’t do the environmental work because I think I’m going to make a difference,” he says. “I don’t think I can, given the scope of what needs to be done.
“I do it,” he says, “because I don’t believe I’m excused from trying.”
To get involved in the South Robertson community, e-mail email@example.com.
A number of years ago I had to fly from Los Angeles to Cleveland, with a stop in St. Louis. The plane was supposed to leave at 8:45 a.m. and arrive in Cleveland in the
late afternoon. But due to a mechanical problem our flight didn’t leave LAX until 1:30 p.m., which put our Cleveland arrival at midnight on the first night of Chanukah.
As I stood on the very long line to change our tickets for the connecting flights, the fellow ahead of me dressed like Crocodile Dundee turned around, looked at me and said in a deep Midwestern accent, “Hi, my name is John, and boy are you in trouble.”
What a way to introduce oneself, I thought. He continued, “You are going to be arriving after sunset.”
At first I had no idea what he meant. Looking at my watch, I replied, “The way things are going it might even be tomorrow morning.”
“So what are you going to do?” he asked.
“Sleep,” I answered.
“No, I mean what are you going to do about lighting candles?” he said. “Isn’t tonight the first night of Chanukah?”
I thought for a moment that maybe “John” was a real Torah scholar who was raising a legal question about how late one can light Chanukah candles.
Although most authorities agree that one can kindle the menorah as long as a minimum of two people are still awake and can see the lights, perhaps he was referring to the opinion that you can kindle only if people are still walking outside.
But then looking again at him, I said to myself, “This fellow probably isn’t even Jewish let alone knowledgeable about halacha.”
Propelled by curiosity, I asked, “By the way are you Jewish?”
“Not at all,” he answered. “I was born Presbyterian, and now I am a Baptist. Maybe one day I will become Jewish. What do you think of that?”
Deciding it would be best not to answer, I acted Jewish and responded with a totally different question: “How do you know so much about Judaism and Chanukah?”
With total seriousness he said, “You can’t claim to be a religious Christian without knowing Judaism. All religious wisdom starts with Judaism.”
The truth is that we can find an elementary concept of wisdom in this week’s Torah portion.
Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s uncanny ability to correctly interpret his dreams.
Almost in awe of the profound knowledge that Joseph reveals, the Egyptian monarch declares: “After God has informed you of all this, there is no one so understanding and wise as you” (Genesis 41:39).
Joseph is the first man in the Bible to be called “wise.” But what, asks 20th century biblical commentator Benno Jacob, was so special about Joseph’s wisdom that “all the wizards of Egypt and all its wise men” didn’t possess? The answer, he says, is obvious from the text: “Joseph’s wisdom defeated that of the Egyptians because it emanated from God; it was wisdom that led directly from God to him, and is fundamentally identical with fear of God…. It presents the genuinely Jewish combination of brains and heart.”
True wisdom, Benno Jacob argues, recognizes first that there is a God, and second that He is the source of all our talents and wisdom. There is no room for the haughty who think they are to be respected and worshipped because of their brains or special talents. Humility is the only possible response for men, for all emanates from God.
I remember that in my first position as rabbi when I was a young rookie just out of rabbinic school, one congregant publicly criticized me to the other members because I quoted my rabbinic teachers whenever I had to decide a question of Jewish law. This member opposed me by questioning, “Doesn’t Muskin have any opinions of his own?”
When I was informed of this criticism I was asked for a response. I replied with humor, “I don’t know, I will have to ask my teachers.”
After the laughing stopped I answered that I was actually honored by the comment. The truth is that as soon as we think we know all the answers and we do not need to turn to those with more knowledge and experience, we have demonstrated our ultimate ignorance.
Joseph taught us that our knowledge all comes from God in the first place, and if we have an opinion it better be His.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.
Iraq war conspiracy — you can’t blame the Jews
Did the Jews do it?
I mean, after killing Jesus, did the Elders of Zion manipulate the government of the United States into invading Babylon as part of a scheme to abet the expansion of greater Israel?
The question was first posed to me in 2004, when I was speaking at a meeting of Mobilization for Peace in San Jose. A member of the audience asked, “Put it together — who’s behind this war? Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams and the Project for a ‘Jew’ American Century and, and, why don’t you talk about that, huh? And ….”
But the questioner never had the full opportunity to complete his query because, flushed and red, he began to charge the stage. The peace activists attempted to detain the gentleman — whose confederates then grabbed some chairs to swing. As the Peace Center was taking on a somewhat warlike character, I chose to call in the authorities and slip out the back.
Still, his question intrigued me. As an investigative reporter, “Who’s behind this war?” seemed like a reasonable challenge — and if it were a plot of Christ killers and Illuminati, so be it. I just report the facts, ma’am.
And frankly, at first, it seemed like the gent had a point, twisted though his spin might be. There was Paul Wolfowitz, before Congress in March 2003, offering Americans the bargain of the century: a free Iraq — not “free” as in “freedom and democracy” but free in the sense of this won’t cost us a penny. Wolfowitz testified: “There’s a lot of money to pay for this that doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer money.”
A “Free” Iraq
And where would these billions come from? Wolfowitz told us: “It starts with the assets of the Iraqi people…. The oil revenues of that country could bring between $50 billion and $100 billion over the next two or three years.”
This was no small matter. The vulpine deputy defense secretary knew that the number one question on the minds of Americans was not, “Does Saddam really have the bomb?” but, “What’s this little war going to cost us?”
However, Wolfowitz left something out of his testimony: the truth. I hunted for weeks for the source of the Pentagon’s oil revenue projections and found them. They were wildly different from the Wolfowitz testimony. But this was not perjury.
Ever since the conviction of Elliott Abrams for perjury before Congress during the Iran-Contra hearings, neither Wolfowitz nor the other Bush factotums swear an oath before testifying. If you don’t raise your hand and promise to tell the truth, “so help me, God,” you’re off the hook with federal prosecutors.
How the Lord will judge that little ploy, we cannot say.
But Wolfowitz’s little numbers game can hardly count as a great Zionist conspiracy. That seemed to come, at first glance, in the form of a confidential 101-page document slipped to our team at BBC’s “Newsnight.” It detailed the economic “recovery” of Iraq’s post-conquest economy. This blueprint for occupation, we learned, was first devised in secret in late 2001.
Notably, this program for Iraq’s recovery wasn’t written by Iraqis. Rather, it was promoted by the neoconservatives of the Defense Department, home of Abrams, Wolfowitz, Harold Rhode and other desktop Napoleons unafraid of moving toy tanks around the Pentagon war room.
Nose-Twist’s Hidden Hand
The neocons’ 101-page confidential document, which came to me in a brown envelope in February 2001, just before the tanks rolled, goes boldly where no U.S. invasion plan had gone before: the complete rewrite of the conquered state’s “policies, law and regulations.” A cap on the income taxes of Iraq’s wealthiest was included as a matter of course. And this was undoubtedly history’s first military assault plan appended to a program for toughening the target nation’s copyright laws. Once the 82nd Airborne liberated Iraq, never again would the Ba’athist dictatorship threaten America with bootleg dubs of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.”
It was more like a corporate takeover, except with Abrams tanks instead of junk bonds. It didn’t strike me as the work of a kosher cabal for an imperial Israel. In fact, it smelled of pork — pig heaven for corporate America looking for a slice of Iraq, and I suspected its porcine source. I gave it a big sniff and, sure enough, I smelled Grover Norquist.
Norquist is the capo di capi of right-wing, big-money influence peddlers in Washington. Those jealous of his inside track to the White House call him “Gopher Nose-Twist.”
A devout Christian, Norquist channeled $1 million to the Christian Coalition to fight the devil’s tool, legalized gambling. He didn’t tell the coalition that the loot came from an Indian tribe represented by Norquist’s associate, Jack Abramoff. (The tribe didn’t want competition for its own casino operations.)
I took a chance and dropped in on Norquist’s L Street office, and under a poster of his idol (“NIXON — NOW MORE THAN EVER”), Norquist took a look at the “recovery” plan for Iraq and practically jumped over my desk to sign it, filled with pride at seeing his baby. Yes, he promoted the privatizations, the tax limit for the rich and the change in copyright law, all concerns close to the hearts and wallets of his clients.
“The Oil” on Page 73
The very un-Jewish Norquist may have framed much of the U.S. occupation grabfest, but there was, without doubt, one notable item in the 101-page plan for Iraq which clearly had the mark of Zion on it. On page 73, the plan called for the “privatization…[of] the oil and supporting industries,” the sell-off of every ounce of Iraq’s oil fields and reserves. Its mastermind, I learned, was Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation.
For the neocons, this was the big one. Behind it, no less a goal than to bring down the lynchpin of Arab power, Saudi Arabia.
It would work like this: The Saudi’s power rests on control of OPEC, the oil cartel which, as any good monopoly, withholds oil from the market, kicking up prices.
I’m at a stunning house in Beverly Hills. The hosts are pillars of the Persian Jewish community. The food is incredible. Milky raw almonds and walnuts floating insilver bowls of ice water. Candied kumquats on gilt platters. Fragrant rice pilafs beribboned with dried cherries and pistachios, and uniformed waiters offering hillocks of grilled lamb chops.
But — and this often happens — the sumptuousness of the food is in direct proportion to the grimness of the topics under discussion.
I’m here with 30 or so other guests to meet Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Some hail him as a visionary, and others dismiss him as a thug for his call to demand loyalty oaths of Israeli Arabs and cut loose Arab areas of the country.
But what interests me tonight is not Lieberman’s idea for disenfranchising 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, a Kahane-esque ploy that would spell the end of American support for the Jewish state. As much as Lieberman, in his heavily Russian-accented English, pitches that dystopian idea, his audience — most of them from the Persian Jewish elite — express more concern over what Israel will do about Iran.
For this group, of course, it’s personal.
They share a language and a homeland with the mullah-run regime in Teheran. They understand the threat a nuclear-armed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could pose to Israel, and they are anxious over the fate of some 20,000 Jews still living in Iran.
This group wasn’t even that worked up about the Holocaust denial conference Ahmadinejad was sponsoring beginning that very day. Why focus on the man’s minor lunacies when his main one — his quest for nuclear weapons and his vow to destroy Israel — are so much more urgent? What these very elegant, very serious guests want is the bottom line — what can Israel do now? — to counter the Iranian threat.
Lieberman’s answer was not surprising. He spoke of tough sanctions — which no one in the audience seemed to put much faith in — followed by “harsher measures.” It wasn’t hard to guess what the deputy prime minister meant by that. If Israeli leaders haven’t issued an outright call for a military response to Iranian nuclear threat, they’ve sure been hinting hard.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — all have spoken in Los Angeles recently on the need to confront the Iranian threat immediately and forcefully.
But I’m wary.
If the Iraq debacle has taught us anything, it’s to distrust those who promote preemption. The same Israeli and the same Americans who said attacking Iraq was the best option are arguing that now, or soon, is the time to plow our bombs into the bunkers and factories of Iran.
Ahmadinejad has certainly earned the right to be bombed, but is that Israel’s — and America’s — best and only option?
For one, our leaders are perfectly capable of screwing up a military response. If Olmert couldn’t destroy Hezbollah in their Iranian-funded bunkers, how certain is it Israel can destroy Iran’s much more safely guarded nukes? Also, perhaps the Iranian regime is vulnerable in other ways.
“Iran is in a state of upheaval,” the Iranian-born columnist Amil Imani wrote me by e-mail.
“It is prudent that the West does not embark on a trigger-happy policy. The mullahs’ lease on life is just about over. A concerted economic and moral support should be all that is needed for the Iranian people to put an end to the shameful and hate-driven ‘monkey’ and his ilk.”
Imani is a Muslim and an active — and brave, considering the international reach of Iranian agents — opponent of the regime. As much as he hates the mullahs, he doesn’t believe the military option is even necessary at this point. He wants Americans to understand that Ahmadinejad — whom a good portion of the population refers to as “the monkey” — has a less-than-solid grip on power, and the same goes for the mullahs.
But Ahmadinejad can use our saber rattling to rally Iranians around the flag, and extend his otherwise numbered days. Otherwise, their discontent becomes more and more apparent. Local elections throughout Iran on Dec. 16 demonstrated an “overwhelming defeat” for Ahmadinejad and his candidates, Imani said. The winners were a coalition of conservatives and reformers.
Perhaps a better strategy for Americans and Israelis is to do all we can to support Iranian voices of reform and dissent. We’re terrible at that. Seven years ago, on Dec. 9, 1999, thousands of students rallied against the regime. Government troops crushed the spreading protest, killing at least 19 students.
The Disaster of the University Dormitories, as it is known in Iran, received four mentions in major American newspapers, including a small article a week after the fact in the Los Angeles Times. Talk about moral support.
One step we can all take these days is to sign a petition now circulating on the Web calling on incoming U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to hold Iran’s president accountable for inciting genocide under Articles III and IV of the United Nations’ own Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
That’s the least that august body can doAdditionally, both Tel Aviv and Washington can fund television, radio and Internet broadcasts into Iran and offer Iranian dissidents real moral and financial help. Our media can tell stories of these dissidents and track their progress, to enable us not just to gawk at the monkey, but to actually help his opponents.
“Many people have asked me: How long will the present Iranian regime last?” Imani wrote. “No one exactly knows. Who among us expected that when President Reagan said in Berlin, ‘Tear down this wall,’ it would indeed fall within a few years? So, too, it is not possible to tell when change will come to Iran, although it is quite clear that the Iranian people detest the present system and are ready for change.”
New approaches in Iraq could <I>help</I> Israel
For Israel and its American supporters, the Iraq War has scrambled the Middle East in ways that are difficult to navigate.
Once people hoped that the Iraq
War would make Israel safer. The neocons, who cooked up the invasion and sold it to a president desperate for historic glory that would surpass his father’s, considered Israel’s security to be an excellent side benefit of their splendid little war.
For those who missed the first part of this seemingly endless movie, the immensely popular invasion of Iraq would spark a democratic and moderate upsurge in the Middle East. Regimes would be toppled by popular revolts, whose leaders would have Bush’s name on their lips as they called simultaneously for democracy and accommodation with Israel.
Soon the rulers of Iran and Syria would fall and would be replaced by pliant, pro-Israel regimes. Even moderate Arab governments would be rejuvenated by democratic reform from within. Peace would surely follow, for which American military intervention would receive history’s credit.
We can put aside for now the question of how people who believed this nonsense ever came to lead the greatest nation on earth — and, in fact, still run it — are apparently going to blow off both their recent electoral defeat and the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and “double down” their bet by increasing U.S. military forces in Iraq.
But because of their strong rhetorical support for Israel, the damage done to Israel’s regional interests by the Iraq War was masked. Israel is still America’s most ardent admirer and loyalist. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently extolled Bush’s leadership, and Israel may be one of the few places left on earth where Bush is popular. But has the war made Israel safer?
Several outcomes have emerged from the Iraq War. One is that as long as Bush is president, the United States is politically radioactive in the Middle East. The other is that Iran, Israel’s most formidable foe in the region, has been strengthened. No longer facing a hostile Iraq and profiting from America’s unpopularity, Iran has greater freedom of action than before.
America’s allies in the region are confused and alarmed. Saudi Arabia fears that Americans may withdraw quickly from Iraq, leaving their fellow Sunnis to annihilation by the Shiites allied with Iran. The Saudis recently summoned Vice President Dick Cheney to Riyadh to hear their concerns and have suggested that they would use military means if necessary to protect the Sunnis in Iraq.
Meanwhile, someone in the Bush administration implied that the United States is considering picking the Shiites in the civil war in Iraq in order to crush the Sunni insurgency. That plan could place the United States on a collision course with all of its Arab allies in the Mideast, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
One casualty of even speculating about picking sides is the loss of trust in the steadiness of American foreign policy. Of course, that very steadiness is what the Bush inner circle has long detested, seeing themselves as visionaries eliminating a “false stability” in the Middle East. As George Will acidly noted, at least that goal has now been achieved.
The antics of the Bush administration have motivated all sorts of experts and advisers with plans to help him gracefully exit from his Iraq fiasco. James Baker, an unpopular figure among many friends of Israel from his days as the first President Bush’s secretary of state, took charge of the salvage effort called, the Iraq Study Group. Among its recommendations were that the United States talk with Iran and Syria.
But the report also suggested that a deal on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria could help build a better framework for peace. Pressure on Israel to make deals with Syria in order to help the United States exit Iraq may be asking a little too much.
Israel is now stuck between Iraq and a hard place; those in the administration who most uncritically support Israel don’t know what they’re doing, and those who have better ideas are more critical of Israel.
And so, we are left with what to do about Iran. The Bushies long felt that they could defeat Iran in the same rosy scenario they used with regard to Iraq. In their heady early days, they saw the Iraq War as a precursor to regime change in Iran and Syria (along with their other nemesis, North Korea).
They are dealing with Iranian exiles who tell them that we would be greeted as liberators. At the least, they are certain that an air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be a great and easy success.
Given the failure of this group to execute even the most basic elements of any of their policies, it is hard to have a lot of faith in that confidence. Finally, they presumably believe that Israel will deal with Iran if America can’t.
Every one of these scenarios with Iran is based on the absolute certainty of military success. No political or diplomatic concerns are raised or respected.
Yet Carl von Clausewitz provides several useful cautions. He once wrote, “No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” And, “War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means.”
The argument for engaging our toughest enemies in the Middle East is plain to just about everybody except the Bush inner circle. They have long seen diplomacy with opponents in parent-child terms, a carrot given for good behavior and a stick for being bad. Why get dessert if you haven’t eaten your vegetables?
Political engagement and diplomacy, however, do not preclude military action as a last resort. They do assure that war will indeed be a last resort. And they offer possibilities for long-term change, such as strengthening the hand of domestic reformers.
U.S., Israeli officials see conflicting Iraq study ideas
American and Israeli government officials agree on two things: Iraq has nothing at all to do with Israeli-Arab issues.
Except when it does.
From President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on down, the leadership of the Israeli and U.S. governments are simultaneously embracing and rebuffing last week’s conclusions of the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, which makes Israeli-Arab peace progress a linchpin of a successful outcome in Iraq. The crux of their argument is that while it is wrong to blame the Israeli-Arab impasse for any part of the crisis in Iraq, actors in that crisis — chief among them Iran and its allies — are successfully using Israel as a justification for raising the stakes in Iraq.
“We do this not because we are persuaded by some linkage or another, but because it is in the U.S. national interest,” David Welch, the top U.S. State Department envoy to the Middle East, said Friday of U.S. involvement in Arab-Israeli peace when he addressed the Saban Forum, an annual colloquy of U.S. and Israeli leaders.
Another Bush administration official put it more bluntly: “Palestine is not a relevant issue to Iraq, but it is an issue exploited by Iran and extremists throughout the region,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Arab-Israeli peace talks would have a “positive, emboldening effect,” the official said. “If progress among Israel and the Palestinians is manifested, then moderates throughout the region win and extremists lose.”
Conversely, the official said, “We believe that a success in Iraq, a success for moderates against forces of extremism, whether secular or religious, will have a very significant impact in the region, in Syria, in Lebanon, as well as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The Bush administration has welcomed Olmert’s recent overture to the Palestinians, in which he promised a release of prisoners and increased mobility, should a cease-fire hold and the Palestinians prove themselves able to present a negotiating team that renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel’s existence.
Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority president, has all but given up on such concessions from the Cabinet, led by the terrorist Hamas group, and has proposed new elections.
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, said at the Saban Forum that Israel and the West should encourage alternatives to the Hamas government, although she did not elaborate.
Bush launched a weeklong review of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations on Monday, starting with meetings with top State Department officials. Later in the week he was to have met with outside experts, top U.S. diplomats in the region and top military brass.
His primary concern about the report is its deadline for a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the first quarter of 2008. Bush has steadfastly resisted timetables until now. However, after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is scheduled to tour the region, Bush suggested that he embraces the report’s Iraq-Israeli-Palestinian linkage, counting it as one of three ways to move the Iraq process forward.
“The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is important to be solved,” the president said.
That’s music to the ears of Blair and other Europeans. They enthusiastically welcomed the recommendations of the commission headed by James Baker, secretary of state for Bush’s father, and Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana Democratic congressman.
“The German government shares many of the political observations in the report,” a statement from the German Embassy in Washington said last week on the eve of a U.S. visit by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “The entire Middle East region must move into the international community’s scope. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of central importance.”
Such views were hardly welcome at the Saban Forum, where the Iraq Study Group’s report lent an anxious irritability to the weekend proceedings. The Saban Center, a Brookings Institution subsidiary funded by American-Israeli entertainment mogul Haim Saban, attracts top names to its annual colloquies. Last year’s was in Jerusalem.
“The Iraqi conflict has very little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis,” Yuli Tamir, Israel’s education minister, said during a break from the conference’s closed sessions. “I don’t think it’s relevant — it’s a good justification but not a reason.”
On Sunday, Olmert, who had earlier suggested that he disagrees with the report’s conclusions, ordered his Cabinet not to comment on it, saying it was an internal American affair.
Livni did not mention the Baker-Hamilton report by name, but its conclusions were clearly the focus of her keynote address at a gala State Department dinner last Friday.
“There is a commonly mistaken assumption that I sometimes hear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core of the trouble of the Middle East; that somehow if this conflict could be resolved, so the situation could be different, and we can face a totally different region,” Livni said. “So, this is wrong. This view confuses symptom and cause. The truth is that the conflicts in the Middle East are a consequence, not a cause, of radicalism and terrorism.”
Nevertheless, in the same speech Livni was preoccupied by how Iran would fare in the Iraq crisis — and what a success by its Shiite Muslim protégés in Iraq would bode for Israel and the region.
“The idea of spreading Shiism all over the region is a threat not only to Israel but the region itself,” she said, citing efforts by the Hezbollah terrorist group to topple Lebanon’s Western-leaning government.
Bush expressed wariness about the commission’s recommendations to engage Iran and Syria. He was adamant that those countries are out of bounds until they stop backing terrorists. If Syria and Iran are “not committed to that concept, then they shouldn’t bother to show up” to a regional conference on Iraq, he said after meeting with Blair.
Iran’s ambitions dominated much of the Saban Forum. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres spoke darkly of the possibility of war in a Saturday panel with former President Bill Clinton.
“Iran’s strength derives from the weakness of the international community,” Peres said. “If there was an international coalition, there would be no need to go to war against Iran, and Iran would return to its natural dimensions.”
Israel backs U.S. and European efforts to sanction Iran until it gives up enriching uranium, a step toward manufacturing a nuclear weapon. Peres described a range of options to prevent Iran’s nuclearization: monitoring its missiles with nuclear warhead capability, economic sanctions, limiting its oil production and assisting regime change.