Why I support Barack Obama

It is highly unusual for me to be speaking out politically.

I have worked for Republican and Democratic presidents alike. I was a political appointee during the Reagan administration, serving on the National Security Council staff in the White House. I held a senior position in the

State Department during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. And, I was Bill Clinton’s Middle East peace negotiator — also a senior appointee position.

I have been largely nonpartisan, living the ideal that politics stopped at the water’s edge, and foreign policy should somehow be above politics. So why am I now speaking out and calling on others to support Sen. Barack Obama?

Put simply, because the stakes are so high. For one thing, the financial meltdown has huge implications for our place in the world. We cannot be strong internationally if we are weak at home, with an economy in crisis. Our next president must understand the global economy and financial markets — and be able to inspire confidence at home and abroad. But he must do so at a time when our standing in the world has, at least in my memory, never been lower.

While we must never rely on anyone else to do for us what we must do for ourselves in national security, there are multiple threats today that we cannot resolve without the cooperation of others. In fact, when it comes to preventing the worst weapons from falling into the worst hands or defeating apocalyptic terror groups or coping with global health challenges or stopping global warming or avoiding an international depression, we cannot do everything on our own. We need others internationally to accept our objectives and be prepared to join their means to ours.

When I was with Obama in Berlin and more than 200,000 people turned out in the heart of Europe to wave American flags, this was an extraordinary development. It reminded us that an American leader who is admired can lead not only our country but also make it easier for others to follow our lead. And, when I look at the Middle East — where we face our greatest threats today — we need others to follow our lead in stopping Iran from going nuclear and discrediting radical Islamists.

Today, we are in trouble in the Middle East. Everywhere we look — whether in the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon or Gaza and the West Bank — we see Iran challenging American interests and allies. Iran uses coercion and intimidation — using groups like Hezbollah and Hamas — to weaken existing regimes and to employ terror. It is Iran that arms these groups and threatens Israel on a daily basis.

Consider what has happened to Israel’s strategic position during the course of the Bush administration. In 2001, Iran was not a nuclear power, but it is today. It could not enrich uranium then but it does so now and has already stockpiled several-hundred kilos of low-enriched uranium — about half of what it would need for its first nuclear bomb. The Bush policy on Iran has failed, and unless the next president can change Iranian behavior, Israel will face an existential threat. It already faces a dramatically different threat from what it faced seven years ago from both Hezbollah and Hamas.

Hezbollah now has a veto power over any decision the Lebanese government can make and possesses 40,000 rockets — and those rockets are not only three times as many as it had only two years ago but are more accurate and have longer range than the ones that hit Israel in the summer of 2006. Hamas has taken over Gaza, creating a miniterror state there and today has over 2,000 rockets.

Israel cannot afford four more years of seeing the threats grow against it. It cannot afford four more years of U.S. policies that are tough rhetorically but soft practically. It cannot afford four more years of America being on the sidelines diplomatically.

When I was in Israel a few weeks ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Sheikh Hamid of Qatar were all visiting Damascus, and Israelis asked me who was there watching out for Israel’s interests? Similarly, who was there to watch out for Israel’s interests when Qatar brokered the understanding that gave Hezbollah a veto over any Lebanese decision after the fighting in May? Israel can surely watch out for its own interests in the indirect negotiations that Turkey is mediating between Israel and Syria, but will Turkey be as concerned for Israel’s interests as America would be?

It should come as no surprise that when America sits on the sidelines in the Middle East, it creates a diplomatic vacuum, and others invariably fill it. Since the Bush administration would not engage Iran, the Europeans have taken the lead on the diplomacy. While their efforts have been serious and genuine, it is clear that they have not generated the pressure that America in the lead might have produced — and absent that pressure and absent the Iranians being forced to make a choice, Iran will not change its behavior.

I was with Obama in Israel and in Europe, and I saw how he focused on the urgency of the Iranian threat. I saw how he used his discussions in Israel to remind the European leaders that Israelis are justified in seeing Iran with nuclear weapons as an existential threat — and that for Israel’s sake and our own we must put far more pressure on Iran if we are to stop it from going nuclear.

Obama understands that weak sticks and weak carrots — the current policy — can’t work. We need strong sticks to concentrate the Iranian mind on what they stand to lose, and we need strong carrots, conveyed directly, to show the Iranians they have something to gain by giving up their nuclear weapon pursuit. And, if in the end diplomacy fails, the fact that we engaged directly and Iran was unwilling to alter its behavior creates a very different context for tougher options.

Engaging without illusions might be one way to describe how diplomacy would be conducted in an Obama administration. Just like with Iran, he would engage on Arab-Israeli peace. Not because he knows it will produce peace, but because he again understands the consequences of disengagement. Who gained when the Bush administration walked away from peace making for more than six years and then in its last years pursued it incompetently? Hamas, because like all radical Islamists, they gain when there is hopelessness and frustration. Who lost? Those in the Arab and Palestinian world who favor a two-state solution but need the possibility of peace to make their case and to have the political space to build their authority.

It is my Middle Eastern hat and my attachment to Israel that ultimately inspires my support for Obama. I saw first hand his appreciation for Israel’s predicament, its needs and his instinctive and emotional commitment to the relationship. But more than this, I know he understands that neither Israel nor America can afford four more years of Iran and the radical Islamists gaining strategic leverage in the Middle East. Slogans won’t prevent that. A fixation on Iraq won’t prevent that. But a leader who understands how to use all the elements of American power, revitalize that power and influence and get others to follow us in order to ensure we win the battle for hearts and minds will be able to do so.

In this election, it is clear to me that Obama is that leader.

Dennis Ross served as President Bill Clinton’s Middle East negotiator and President George H.W. Bush’s head of policy planning in the State Department. He gives advice to the Barack Obama presidential campaign and recently accompanied Sen. Obama on his trip to the Middle East and Europe.

Balance Paramount to UPN Head Ostroff

Dawn Ostroff, who in addition to being a religiously observant wife and mother, has worked her way up to a glamorous, powerful and exciting position: president of entertainment at UPN. Offering insight into the art of balancing home and work life and achieving one’s professional dreams, she reminds us that it’s never too late.

Determine what is important.

Ostroff is responsible for all creative aspects of the network’s entertainment, including programming and development for weekly shows, specials, movies and miniseries. Additionally, with the help of a nanny, she cares for her two young children, while her husband Mark is across the country half of the month. She also volunteers on professional committees, but only a select two that are very close to her heart. While others are soliciting her leadership, she prioritizes what causes are most important, and turns down the other committee positions.

Focus and compartmentalize.

To balance her personal life with her professional responsibilities, the 44-year-old UPN power-exec stays focused.

“When I’m at work, I’m really able to focus on work, and when I’m at home, I’m really able to focus on my family. Of course, there are always times when things cross over, like when my child is sick or I have an obligation at school. Or, when I’m home and the phone is ringing and I still have work to do,” Ostroff said. “But for the most part, I really try to be respectful of wherever I am in my life, and covet the time and focus on what I need to get done. Or when I’m with my family, really focus on just enjoying them.” Having a toddler, she joked, “who is just demanding and wants you certainly makes it easier to focus on him.”

Balance your schedule to work for you.

Ostroff starts her days at 4 a.m. and usually works until 6 a.m., when her son Michael usually wakes up. After spending a couple of hours with him and her baby, she is at her desk at about 9 a.m. Ostroff is typically busy with meetings, returning telephone calls and “keeping up with everyone.” She also visits a set to watch rough cuts or catch up with other production-related duties. Ostroff usually gets home around 7:30 p.m., has dinner with her family and relaxes with her husband.

“And the weekends, we spend as a family,” though she has also devoted herself over the years to philanthropic organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, which brings international relief to victims of hate and bias.

Ostroff flies to New York about once a month to see her two stepsons. Her husband commutes to New York every other week, and has an office in both locations.

“We definitely have a challenging lifestyle, but it works for us,” she said.

Passion, patience and persistence.

Ostroff has a motto for her success.

“I believe in the three Ps: passion, persistence and patience. I always feel that if you have these three things, good things will come to you if you set your sight on something,” she said.

Good things have come her way since she began her career at 16.

“At 16, I was already very interested in the media and wound up answering request lines at a local station in Miami. Then I ended up interning at a lot of different TV stations down there. By the time I was 18, I was a reporter for the CBS ‘All News’ radio station WINZ in Miami.” All while attending college.

“I was very determined. I worked weekends at the radio station as a reporter and an anchor and I worked the weekdays as an intern at the local CBS television affiliate on sort of a local ’60 Minutes’-type show called ‘Montage.’ I really started to figure out what part of the business interested me and started to explore all different areas. I worked in the promotions department, the news department, and produced documentaries,” she said.

Fine-tune your interests.

After trying different positions, Ostroff made the critical decision that news didn’t fit the way she wanted to live her life: “At 18, I had seen more tragedy, death and despair that most people see in a lifetime. I decided that there might be a happier way for me to earn a living.”

A college graduate at 19, Ostroff began her career from the bottom up all over again.

“I had an opportunity to move to Los Angeles and go into the entertainment side of the industry, and I just took the chance when it came up and moved to L.A. by myself when I was 21,” she said.

In Los Angeles, she worked as a casting assistant, a secretary floating for different departments at 20th Century Fox and then figured out the area that really interested her: development.

Develop your skills

From there, she got development jobs and worked her way up.

She was at 20th Century Fox as an assistant for several years before securing her first opportunity as an executive for a small independent company called Kushner Locke, where she produced different “Movies of the Week” and television programs for HBO.

“As I started to develop my skills,” Ostroff said, “the company was developing at the same time.”

Take intermediate steps

Following her seven-year stint at Kushner Locke, Ostroff was offered a job at Disney to be a producer with writer Michael Jacobs. Together, they produced sitcoms for several networks and worked on shows like “Dinosaurs” and “Boy Meets World.” She stayed with Jacobs for five years.

“We enjoyed a good amount of success. ‘Boy Meets World’ is still on the air all the time now,” she said.

Ostroff’s career took off at high speed from there. She was offered a position at 20th Century Fox, where she served as president of development.

“A couple of shows really seemed to strike a chord, so that was really great. In fact,” she said. “One of the shows I developed was ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'”

Work well with others.

By “developed,” Ostroff means that producers and writers bring her an idea and, as an executive of the studio, she develops it with them, helps them sell it and “sits on the sidelines as a guidance counselor/champion of the project.”

“In no way do you create it” she said. “You are just there to support the creative entities and make sure all the pieces fall into place so the show can be successful.”

She is involved in casting, script notes, selecting the director and the other important pieces of the puzzle. It is then pitched to the network.

Keep up the stride.

Following her executive position at 20th Century Fox, Ostroff was offered a position at Lifetime and, under her stewardship, it rose from the sixth highest-rated network in cable television to the No. 1 in prime time.

“A lot of people didn’t believe that a network geared toward women could ever become the No. 1 cable network,” she said, but attributed its success to good projects, network talent, and a supportive board.

This was the last rung on a long ladder to success before landing at UPN.

Always evaluate where you are at.

Would she change any step she’s taken during the course of her career?

“I think there were different times when I would have changed things, but in hindsight the experiences that I had helped make me a better-rounded executive, and that’s the thing that I’m most appreciative of.”

“I do believe that everything happens for a reason,” she added. “One of the things that I am really grateful for is the many experiences I’ve had behind the camera, in front of the camera, as a producer, as an executive, that I feel that I can identify with everyone throughout the process and I understand what everybody’s going through. I understand what their issues are and I think that makes me a better executive because I am able to really able to put myself in everyone else’s shoes and know what they have to do to get the best project.”

Remember, you can have it all.

And after the weekend, she is just as motivated to once again rise at 4 a.m. to meet the challenges of her job. According to the tireless Ostroff, she has a great passion for her work.

“It’s never a chore,” she said. “Never. I can’t really say that there’s too many days when I wake up and say, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to go to work,’ like I felt about school. I’m excited every day and I’ve been doing it forever.”

Give and Take

Max and Irving went fishing on an overcast afternoon. About two hours into their expedition, a fierce storm developed.

Their small rowboat tossed, turned and finally flipped over in the lake. Max, a strong swimmer, called to save Irving. Inexplicably, Irving did not respond to any plea and drowned. Max swam to shore to break the terrible news to Irving’s poor wife.

"What happened?" she screamed. Max recounted the entire episode in full detail.

"But what did you do to try to save my Irving?" she shrieked. Max explained once again. "I kept screaming to your husband, ‘Irving, give me your hand, give me your hand, give me your hand.’ But Irving just gave me a blank stare and drifted away."

"You fool!" shouted Irving’s widow. "You said the wrong thing. You should have said, ‘Take my hand.’ Irving never gave anything to anybody!".

Do you know Irving? Don’t we all know an Irving or two? Unfortunately, the tragedy of the Irving persona is endemic to the human condition. Yet, as Jews, we are the proud bearers of a near 4,000-year tradition of giving. Our creativity, compassion and concern for the needs of others have ignited new vistas of chesed (loving kindness). Certainly, there must be a method behind the madness. How have we succeeded in inculcating such a fundamental value? In short, what creates that giving personality?

Our Torah portion employs an enigmatic turn of phrase that appears quite instructive in this regard. As God commands Moses to solicit the necessary stuff to build the Sanctuary, He demands that the Jews "take for Me a portion."

Are the Jews taking??!! Surely it would have been more complimentary and precise to formulate the act in terms of giving, i.e. that the Jews "should give to Me a portion".

As Jews, we believe that every component of our existence is a gift. We are not entitled — rather we are endowed. To paraphrase the Department of Motor Vehicles: "Life is a privilege — not a right" More precisely, we are trustees in God’s world. Eventually, all that we are entrusted with must return to its original source.

Return is a dominant theme in Judaism. Every seven days, on the Shabbat — the Jew returns to God. On the seventh year (shemitta) we return the land to its fallow state. After seven cycles of seven, the Jubilee year marks the return of property and indentured servants to their origins.

After enduring years of barrenness, the great Jewish heroine Chana names her son Shmuel, a Hebrew composite reflecting the notion of her son being "on loan from God." Finally, in death as well as in life, through burial, we "return to the dust." In short, the notion of ultimate possession cannot apply to a human in the realm of the fiscal and the physical.

Seen in this light, the act of giving is akin to a prepayment of sorts. Thus, when the Jews donate to the Sanctuary, they do not give — they return to God — who is taking back what always was, is and will be His. At this point, the pensive Jew might fear: What’s left? Is there anything we may dare to call our own? Is human imperative merely relegated to the role of grand guardian?

Here we return to the Sanctuary and arrive at one of the great paradoxical truths of Judaism. Ultimate taking can only be achieved through giving! God labels the Sanctuary donors as takers, to signify that the only things we own are our deeds. How aptly do the rabbis describe the true beneficiary of the act of charity as the giver, for only he walks away with a true possession, a deed of eternity and an incredible sense of exhilaration! By contrast, the taker experiences that same ole draining (read: "empty wallet") feeling.

Growing up, I remember that my parents (among many others) would accord a quasi-mystical status to ordinary tables. We were not allowed to walk or rest our feet on them (for a child, this constitutes cruel and unusual punishment).

"The table," says the Talmud, "is like an altar."

Much to my amazement, I recently stumbled upon the comment of the Spanish commentator, Rabbeinu Bechaye (1265-1340) who recorded the stunning custom of the pious Jews of France who used the wood of their dining room table as building materials for their own coffins. It all clicked in. Long after the food has been cleared away, it is the symbolism of the dining room table and its accompanying kindnesses that sustain our people. May we have the clarity of vision to focus our deeds — they’re ours for the taking.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High schools.

Out of “Focus”

"David Mamet calls me Hebraically challenged," confides actor William H. Macy, a longtime collaborator of the esteemed playwright. "I’m the ultimate [gentile]. Part of me is the imploding WASP, a role I’ve certainly played to death."

With his weak smile and wounded-looking blue eyes, Macy was riveting in his Oscar-nominated turn as a car dealer struggling to cover up his wife’s kidnapping in the Coen brothers’ 1996 film "Fargo." He was the humiliated husband of an oversexed porn star in "Boogie Nights," and a beleaguered 1950s sitcom dad in "Pleasantville."

Which is why he was cautious when director Neal Slavin asked him to star in his noirish feature-film debut, "Focus" — based on Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel about a milquetoast mistakenly identified as Jewish by his anti-Semitic neighbors.

"I told Neal I was all wrong for the role," says the earnest, 51-year-old actor. "I said, ‘Anti-Semitism is a vicious thing, and I don’t want to offend anyone by presuming to know what it feels like. Plus, I don’t even look Jewish.’ And Neal very gently said, ‘That’s why you’re perfect. Intolerance has nothing to do with reality.’"

Just to make sure, Macy described the problem to Mamet. "What’s the matter with you?" the Jewish writer retorted. "When Arthur Miller writes a novel, you jump to bring it to the screen."

Mamet reminded Macy of how he’d silenced a journalist who’d asked why there were no Jewish actors in his 1991 Jewish-themed film, "Homicide." "David said, ‘Huh, interesting concept, casting by religion,’" the actor recalls. "That shut her up in a hurry."

Miller wrote "Focus" to expose the seldom-discussed anti-Semitism prevalent in New York in the early 1940s.

Macy says he didn’t witness anti-Semitism while growing up outside Atlanta in the 1950s, but another kind of prejudice profoundly affected his life. When he was 10, his father — a medal-winning World War II pilot — was so shocked by the seething racism he saw at a PTA meeting that he moved the family up North.

At his new school in Cumberland, Md., Macy experienced bias when his classmates jeered at his thick Southern drawl. He was ostracized for years until he sang a sexually explicit song at a high school talent show — and was elected class president. "I was thrust into the limelight, but I still carried this secret that I felt like the outsider," he says. "I think that’s why I’m so good at playing ordinary guys who get in over their heads."

Around 1970, Macy was studying acting with Mamet at Goddard College in Vermont, where Mamet presided over class wearing severely tailored military fatigues. "At our hippied-out school, David was the only teacher talking structure," says Macy, who ultimately mastered the playwright’s difficult, staccato dialogue. "He said, ‘Be prepared, or don’t come to class. If you ask stupid questions, I’ll throw you out."’ In 1972, Macy followed Mamet to Chicago, where he helped him co-found the St. Nicholas Theater and originated roles in Mamet’s plays "American Buffalo" and "Oleanna." He went on to star in other Mamet films such as "State and Main," in which he played a non-Jewish film director fond of matzah and Yiddishisms.

"David just loves to hear me struggling with Hebrew and Yiddish," says Macy, whose first line in "State and Main" is a bungled "Vus machs tu?" (How are you?) "I kept asking him to repeat the words, and finally Dave said, ‘As well as you can say them will be just bad enough.’"

A more difficult task was landing the role of Jerry Lundegaard in "Fargo," which Macy secured after a lengthy period of abjectly begging the Coens. "I was desperate because I’d understood in a nanosecond how to do the character," says the actor, who knew he had to make viewers feel sorry for the despicable Lundegaard. "I fantasized that Jerry’s objectives were pure, and that he felt he was trying to save his family."

Macy says he was drawn to "Focus," in part, "for the chance to play ‘The Guy’ — the leading man — which doesn’t happen that often." The film presented "an interesting acting problem, because my character, Lawrence Newman, is so passive."

He feels the film has an eerie resonance after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when innocent people began to be targets for hate crimes because they looked Middle Eastern. "Osama bin Laden teaches hatred, and so does Jerry Falwell, for blaming the attacks on homosexuals," Macy adds. "It’s our collective responsibility to stand up and tell those people they’re wrong. Just as Lawrence Newman learns in ‘Focus,’ it is our fight. We are all responsible."

"Focus" opens today in Los Angeles.