Letters to the editor: The death penalty, marriage equality, Downtown J and more

Convict Convictions

I must agree with Dennis Prager regarding the death penalty (“Opponents of the Death Penalty and the Escaped Murderers,” June 19).  

When the discussion of the death penalty first began in New York, where I lived at the time, a poll was taken of the attitude of convicts. The majority of them agreed that the death penalty was a deterrent. The idea of life in prison is not a deterrent, in fact, it seems that life with assurance of food, clothing, shelter, and medical and dental care is preferable. While I admit I don’t know the exact cost of providing for the needs of the prisoners, I believe it might be better spent on programs that would help to identify and deter the reasons that people turn to crime. It bothers me, and should concern others, that a convicted criminal is provided these necessities while there are honest, innocent people, including children, going hungry and homeless.  

Frances B. Parker, Hermosa Beach

Davening Downtown

As someone who has been [to Chabad of Downtown L.A.] many times, I can say that it’s a blessing for us in downtown Los Angeles (“An ‘Island of Spirituality’ in L.A.’s Fashion District,” July 3). Have learned so much from this man. What he does is beyond appreciated. God bless Rabbi Moshe Levin and the entire Chabad community. Shabbat Shalom!

Victor Mizrahi via jewishjournal.com

Murky Morals

Good stuff here (“The Value of Apology,” July 3). We can only hope that Israelis on the left and right are learning to respect the human rights of their Israeli “opponents” (not to mention, to walk in the shoes of Palestinians and others). We can only hope that we feel secure enough to learn to listen better. 

That said, why do we have to claim ourselves the “moral victors”? Why can’t we, as wise spiritual beings, know that all of us are simply doing the best we can? We all believe we are helping our family, our group, our people — even when we go to war. Morality is a relative concept. Still, I understand that in order to enlarge our hearts about the other, it also helps if we feel we have done our best. As Andrew Friedman says, the future is more important than the past. How can we look inside and be moral in the complexities of right now?

Harvey Stein via jewishjournal.com

Come and Get Your Love

A beautiful personal testimony to the wondrous turn of events, and a remembrance of how bad things once were (“From Fear to Elation: My Mother’s Love Wins,” July 3). Let’s cross all the oceans and sing dozens of songs together.

Bill Burnett via jewishjournal.com

Thank you, Rabbi Susan Goldberg, for a lovely essay.

Harriett Neal via jewishjournal.com

This is really beautiful, Susan.

Meredith Cahn via jewishjournal.com

Are we ever going to hear from the other side of this? Doubt it. The Jewish Journal has never been about equal access or diverse opinions. What a rag.

Roberta Scharlin Zinman via jewishjournal.com

You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling

I don’t think the idealist love as it is portrayed in films or romantic novels, where beautiful young people put flowers into barrels of guns, can win (“Will Love Win?” July 3).

Our inherent human nature is self-centered and egoistic. Basically, deep down we are capable of loving only ourselves. When we seemingly love someone, we love because it gives us joy and gives us pleasure.

In order to create the love that facilitates mutual interconnections, the mutually complementing cooperation our survival depends on, we need to develop love above hatred. We need a practical method that enables us to feel our inherent differences and mutual distrust on one hand, and still accept each other, love each other and collaborate.

This practical method was given to the Hebrews escaping Egypt at the “Mount of Hatred” when they pledged to unite “as one man with one heart,” being mutually responsible toward each other despite their differences and their mutual hatred. And when they fell back into mutual hatred despite having the method, they were exiled.

Today, Jews and the nation of Israel need to re-create that unity and mutual responsibility using the same method. Not only for their own survival but in order to show positive example, the only remedy to self-destructive humanity.

Zsolti Hermann via jewishjournal.com

On having your (political) heart broken — the Edwards scandal

The e-mail came when I was in Mexico, at a fitness resort that — in pursuit of wellness — confines BlackBerry use to guests’ rooms.

“Need to chat briefly with you regarding John Edwards and the effects of this scandal on his future political career.” It was from a reporter I know at People. I had no idea what he was talking about. Though I’d cut way back on my news intake, not to mention my beloved carbs, while at the ranch, I figured that my furtive Web browsing during the week was keeping me reasonably well informed on the big stuff.

His follow-up message, in response to my away-from-my-e-mail auto-reply, vibrated in my pocket during dinner, where no one else at my table had a clue what scandal had erupted. I stole a look at the screen, my transgression, I hoped, concealed by the tablecloth.

“What do you think are going to be the effects on John’s political future, most notably his chances for a vice presidential nod from Obama? From your perspective, where does this scandal, if you will, rank in the history of American politics? Why do you think so many people are appalled by these developments? His wife’s illness?”

It would be 24 hours later that I fully re-introduced media toxins into my system. Ingesting the National Enquirer account of Edwards’ purported Beverly Hills Hotel visit to the purported mother of his purported love child turned out to be as shocking to my system as the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Light that I unthinkingly shmeared on the ranch bread, won at bingo, that I’d brought home with me.

But the e-mail alone — “appalled,” “his wife’s illness” — was enough to get me to contemplate the awful, unsubstantiated conclusion the moment I got it. I know enough to mistrust rumors. But I couldn’t help hypothetically feeling the same nausea, the same kicked-in-the-stomach wallop that hit me when Bill Clinton fessed up to his sexual infidelity and to lying about it. Appalled? No, more like heartsick.

I had spent the weekend before the Iowa caucuses — still undecided, even after the torture of watching what seemed like a gazillion pre-primary debates — taking in every minute of every Democrat’s stump speech that I could find on C-SPAN. Some online issues poll I’d taken told me that Dennis Kucinich was the candidate closest to my views, but I was in no mood to be romantic or sentimental about my choice.

What surprised me was that Edwards turned out to be my candidate. I wanted a fighter, someone as furious about what had happened to America and to the Constitution as I was, and Edwards — unlike Barack Obama, who struck me as having been snookered by high-minded editorial writers’ jonesing for bipartisanship — seemed ready to kick butt and take names. And much as I respect Hillary Clinton’s smarts, I was world-weary of the pols and hacks who surrounded and spoke for her, and her stump speech sounded uncannily like what I had written for Walter Mondale; much as I respect him, 2008 isn’t 1984.

Edwards’ populism rang my bell. He had some political problems — the haircut, the house, the lackluster performance in the Cheney debate — but watching him ignite crowd after crowd that snowy weekend, I experienced him as sublimely authentic. Plus, of course, there was Elizabeth.

It wasn’t just her bravery in the face of cancer that made people love her. It wasn’t just the young children. It was also how authentic she was, and how smart, and the sacrifice she was prepared to make, the trade of precious family time for a higher purpose.

John Edwards couldn’t recover politically from his loss in Iowa. As I write this, his camp is dismissing the Enquirer story as typical tabloid trash. That may be entirely true, just as other political scandals, from John McCain’s love child to John Kerry’s swift-boating, have also turned out to be smears spread by political enemies. Is mentioning the Enquirer story lashon hara, the evil tongue? If you can’t talk about contemporary political discourse — all of it, even the vile — you can’t talk about contemporary politics.

Even if the Enquirer’s story turns out to be no more than a hit job, I won’t soon forget the feeling that those e-mails from People churned up in me.

As potentially appalled as I was for Elizabeth Edwards, as potentially amazed as I was by what would have to be John Edwards’ colossal arrogance, what disturbed me most was the possibility that I may have been played for a chump, that I had been as politically na├»ve as any greenhorn who’d just fallen off the turnip truck, that my belief in Edwards — not just in the message, but in the message-bearer — demonstrated that, for all my years of accumulating a justifiable cynicism, I was still susceptible to the stagecraft of political authenticity.

The night that Obama won the Iowa caucuses, I found myself, like many Americans, thrilled by his rhetoric and moved by his story. The Edwards “scandal” has made me mindful of how inclined I have become to believe in Obama. His recent positional shifts, while disconcerting, I have chalked up to a misguided effort to chase voters who will never be for him anyway. But the emotional whiplash engendered by the Enquirer allegations has reminded me that Kool-Aid, like in-room cable news, was also absent at the wellness ranch.

I believed in “I still believe in a place called Hope” until the blue dress. Do I still believe in the “audacity of hope”?

New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked, “There’s no point in being Irish unless you realize that sooner or later the world will break your heart.”

He may just as well have said Jewish.

Marty Kaplan was deputy campaign manager of Walter Mondale’s presidential bid (yes, he lost 49 states), and chief speechwriter for Mr. Mondale when he was Vice President. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

What’s so good about Israel? Let me tell you!

It took me six years of living abroad to love Israel as passionately as I do. As soon as I returned from two months of living in China, two years of high school in Italy and four yearsof college in the United States, I became convinced that there is simply no better place than Israel for Israelis.

You see, Israelis have this inexplicable urge — a genetic disposition perhaps — to want to live abroad: “Israel is too small,” “Israelis are too nervous,” “life under terrorism is unbearable.” They just need to get out.

Israeli youths drool over the possibility of getting a European passport from their deceased, Holocaust-surviving great-grandmother and leaving the Middle East behind, wrapping it with a cloud of dust. If not to Europe, Israelis fancy winning the green card lottery or marrying an American stranger in the midst of Manhattan, just to be able to live and work legally in the United States.

Against the common view that life elsewhere is better, and with a bag loaded with juvenile experiences abroad, I confess to you that life in the heart of the Middle East is 10, if not a hundred times better for Israelis than anywhere else in the world.

What’s so good about Israel?

The question by no means seeks to undermine the quality of life elsewhere. As my Chicago friend says, “It is what it is.”

What I intend to do is argue that there are phenomenal things about Israel that Israelis often tend to overlook, forget or maybe are genuinely unaware of. I’ll explain precisely what I mean.

Let’s start with how real everything in Israel is. I personally think there is something charming about how Israelis always tell you the truth, whether you like it or not. If you’re fat, they won’t call you “big.” If you are stupid, they won’t say you are “cerebrally challenged.” If they’re upset with you, they won’t pretend you have just made their day.

The absence of the politically correct allele from the Israeli genome might be considered rude in the eyes of a foreigner. But the fact is, that it creates a culture of openness that melts down interpersonal barriers and ultimately makes Israelis feel and behave as though they were all brothers and sisters.

Camaraderie is indeed another forte of Israel’s society. In Judaism we say, “All of Israel are responsible for one another,” and “All of Israel are brethren.”

Nowhere else in the world have I found the same level of genuine concern about a total stranger as I have in my own country. Here, if you fall off your bicycle in the middle of the street or in a dark street corner, be sure that within seconds you will be surrounded with at least five absolute strangers who will be there to offer you a hand and put you back on your feet (without actually stealing your bike).

Whether it is the imprint of the Israel Defense Forces’ unit cohesion, the Jewish sense of a shared destiny or the remnants of a socialist system, Israelis strongly — and genuinely — care about each other. It’s simply lovely to know there is always someone who’ll be there to help you out and that you’re never truly alone.

Beyond the realness and the camaraderie that characterize Israel, Israelis indulge in one of the most exotic and enjoyable lifestyles found anywhere in the world. It takes a Manhattan-based investment banker to appreciate the fantastic work-life balance struck in the Holy Land.

While Sundays aren’t off, Fridays recently have become half workdays, thus leaving the average Israeli employee with no more than 60 hours of work per week, at the very most.

The rapidly urbanizing society has become a cradle of the cafe culture. Whereas Starbucks startlingly went bankrupt here several years ago, local Israeli coffee chains are bustling with young, as well as old chaps, who enjoy both the indoor air-conditioned ambience and the outside, sunny street corners, chatting heartedly with friends and co-workers.

Add to that the incredibly yummy and healthy Mediterranean diet, largely based on fruit, vegetables and olive oil, and you get a bunch of Jews who are relatively fit and absolutely handsome. And conclude with long beaches and a never-setting sun, and you get something like California, but holier.

For years, some of my friends have tried to convince me to make the most reasonable decision by staying abroad. I would be lying if I told you that the temptation wasn’t there, usually quite dormant, but at times, vibrantly itching. But after living by myself on three continents for six years and retuning home at the age of 25, I doubt it that I will consider such an idea seriously ever again.

Israel is the only place that is right and truly fun for Israelis. Leaving Zionism, brain drain and religion aside, there is no better place for Israelis other than our very own country.

It may sound completely bizarre at first. It may take years of living abroad to realize that. My recommendation, however, is to check out for yourself the validity of my argument. If you find yourself back in the Jewish heart of the Middle East after a long journey abroad, let us all know.

And more importantly, don’t forget to remind us why you came back.

Shira Kaplan is a Harvard student. She is currently completing her thesis on Iran’s crisis behavior in the post-revolutionary era. She served in the Israel Defense Forces for two years before enrolling at Harvard.

Only democratization can fight Islamists

Natan Sharansky’s June 5-6 Democracy and Security Conference in Prague could reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to support the growth of liberal democracy. If not, the Islamists win a crucial advantage.

There are two basic foreign policy philosophies. The idealist school of thought, which holds that our national interests include the spread of liberal democracy, has a long history in the United States, going back at least to Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. It competes with the realist school, which defines national interests narrowly and elevates stability as the foremost value in international relations. President Bush came to office as a realist, and in a stunning post-Sept. 11 transformation became a hard-core idealist.

However, one can be an inept or ill-served idealist. Bush’s errors have led many to reject the underlying theory. But we can throw out the bathwater of Bush’s mistakes, while keeping the baby of democratization.

Under the influence of Sharansky’s book, “The Case for Democracy,” Bush understood that liberal democracies are rarely dangerous to one another. Therefore, fostering democratization abroad bolsters international security and is in our national interest.

As Bush said in Prague, “Years ago, Andrei Sakharov warned that a country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respond to the rights of its neighbors. History proves him right. Governments accountable to their people do not attack each other.”

Bush’s rhetoric has been superb, but his follow through has been inconsistent. In Egypt, for example, Bush pressed President Hosni Mubarak for multicandidate presidential elections. But the election was held under restrictive regulations that heavily favored the ruling party, and today, Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak, sits in an Egyptian prison.

Former Egyptian political prisoner Saad Eddin Ibrahim said in Prague, “I feel disappointed and betrayed by George Bush. He said that he is promoting democracy, but he has been manipulated by President Hosni Mubarak.”

Worse, Bush apparently has a shallow understanding of liberal democracy, equating it with elections. This is clearly nonsense, considering the elections regularly held in such citadels of liberty as the Soviet Union, Cuba and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

In fact, elections without the requisite foundations of an open society, including the rule of law, independent media and noncorrupt security forces, merely permit the most thuggish elements to seize control. This was grimly demonstrated by the Palestinian election that brought Hamas to power.

Nevertheless, this does not invalidate the idealist theory. It simply implies that nurturing liberal democracy requires patience; elections must come at the end, not the beginning, of the process.

Nor has Bush properly used all the foreign policy instruments at his disposal. Military action must be part of the nation’s toolbox, but economic and political pressure are probably more effective in the long run during an ideological war, such as the current war against Islamism.

Bush should have learned this from Sharansky. After all, the United States didn’t win the Cold War by invading or bombing the Soviet Union. The Jackson/Vannik Amendment, linking trade with free emigration, and the Helsinki accords on human rights did at least as much to topple the U.S.S.R. as NATO’s military strength.

Thus, the final document of the Prague conference includes calls for the following:

  • “Seeking national and international initiatives, in the spirit of the Helsinki accords, that link bilateral and international relations to the question of human rights.”
  • “Exerting pressure through peaceful diplomatic, political and economic means on governments and groups abusing human rights to discontinue their practices.”
  • “Providing incentives, through diplomatic, political and economic means, to governments and groups willing to improve the human rights record in their countries and to embark on the road to democracy.”

Nothing has been as disillusioning, nor given realists so much temptation to say, “I told you so,” as Iraq. There’s plenty to be unhappy about when considering post-liberation Iraq.

Still, the essence of the problem is that the Islamists are fighting back. That shouldn’t surprise us. It would be surprising if they didn’t. It just means, as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said in Prague, “We have a responsibility to support the forces of freedom not only when it is easy but when it is hard.”

It is time to renew our commitment to liberalization and democratization — it is what the Islamists fear most. Congress should pass comprehensive legislation conditioning relations between the United States and nonliberal democracies on progress toward liberalization. This is not imperialism. It is support for decent values and democracies abroad.

We have the right to condition trade, foreign aid and other goodies on the character of the regime with which we are dealing. If we don’t, we tacitly support the conditions under which Islamism has flourished. Our national interests are at stake.

Paul Kujawsky is a member of the California Democratic Party Central Committee.

Spectator – Spin-Doctors of the Revolution

Rachel Boynton, director of the documentary “Our Brand Is Crisis,” was excited when she first learned that American political consultants export their work globally.

While a student at Columbia School of Journalism, she saw a film about the history of 20th century nonviolent conflict that included a segment on how American consultants had gone to Chile in 1990 to produce TV ads for a successful campaign to end Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s long autocratic presidency.

“I thought to myself, ‘There’s my movie. I want to follow an American who is trying to run an ad campaign to oust a dictator,'” Boynton said in a telephone interview. “It seemed to epitomize a lot of things I think of as being fundamentally American — optimism, hubris, political idealism and the profit motive all wrapped up in one event.”

Raised by her Jewish lawyer mother, Esther, after her parents divorced when she was 9 months old, Boynton had already lived in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Denver, Ann Arbor and Paris by the time she was in graduate school. Her film’s subject also dovetailed with her undergraduate degree in international relations from Brown University.

After five years of work on “Crisis,” Boynton, 32, has finally completed her movie, which opens in Los Angeles on April 14. But it didn’t turn out as originally planned.

She documents the campaign waged by the liberal firm of Greenberg Carville (as in James Carville) Shrum (GCS) on behalf of the unpopular but reformist millionaire, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (a.k.a. “Goni”), who was attempting to return to office as president of Bolivia.

“I liked GCS because they were very idealistic about what they did,” Boynton said. “Most people expect to see political consultants being very mercenary. This firm professed to be idealistic about their work.”

Essentially the firm’s strategies for advertising, focus groups, polling and image-shaping worked in Bolivia. “Goni” won in 2002. But the rifts caused by the spirited election set in motion a bloody uprising that forced him to flee from office in 2004.

The turn of events left the firm’s Jeremy Rosner and Stan Greenberg — captured by Boynton in post-revolt interviews — feeling melancholy and disappointed. A revolution was not part of their plans.

“They had this American attitude because we live in a place that’s stable,” Boynton said. “That is not necessarily the normal course of things all across the world. We need to recognize our perspective is not universally shared.”

“Our Brand Is Crisis” opens April 14 at the Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For showtimes, call (323) 848-3500.