Letters to the editor: Leonard Fein, Dr. Jose Nessim and ISIS


ISIS Atrocities 

Rob Eshman is to be commended for discussing one of the most disturbing and savage events currently on the planet — the barbaric slaughter of Christians Kurds and Yazidis in Iraq by Islamic Nazis: ISIS (“When Christians Die,” Aug. 15). Several points, though, should be made. As Eshman points out, the silence from Christian communities around the world is deafening. Groups like the Presbyterian Church USA are much more concerned with the plight of the Palestinians who, based on Middle Eastern history, would be first to eradicate Arab Christians as they have in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the Muslim world.  

The frustrating element here, though, is that Hamas, al-Qaida and ISIS are individual teams within the larger league of Sunni Muslim jihadists, as Eshman pointed out. The biased media worldwide treats Hamas as if it is a Hindu pacifist group rather than connecting the dots: If Israel didn’t have the capabilities to defend herself, her fate would have been similar to the Christians of Iraq.

Richard Friedman, Los Angeles


Liberal Deliberations

I was raised, and have raised my children, with liberal values: the rights of all people to be equal, to live a life free from injustice and persecution, to pursue peace and happiness. Inherent to my beliefs of how my fellow man should be treated is the assumption that my fellow man will not try to kill me or deny my right to exist. A liberal who stands by while his house is being bombed isn’t a good liberal; he’s a dead man. I applaud David Suissa’s article, “How Liberal Critics Failed Israel” (Aug. 22), as a thoughtful, and necessary, gut-check for all those who care about preserving and spreading liberal values.  

Stephen Kessler, via email 

David Suissa’s article is just an updated version of the old canard that Jews “shouldn’t wash Israel’s dirty laundry in public.” Progressive, pro-Israel American Jews, like those who support Americans for Peace Now, reject this transparent effort to shut down debate and give cover for policies that are anathema to everything we believe — as Jews, as Americans and as supporters of Israel. Today in Israel, our friends and colleagues are likewise under attack, both rhetorical and physical, from extremists who similarly want to shut down debate. They will not be cowed, and neither will we. We do not apologize for focusing on the imperative of achieving a two-state solution to end the occupation, because the occupation — which for nearly five decades Israel has expanded and deepened with its indefensible settlement policies — is destroying Israel. While Suissa seems mainly concerned about defending Israel’s reputation, we are far more concerned with defending Israel’s survival as a pluralistic, democratic, Jewish state.

Sanford Weiner and Steven Kaplan, Los Angeles area regional co-chairs, David Pine, regional director–Americans for Peace Now

David Suissa responds:

My friends at Americans for Peace Now believe in the value of criticism, except, apparently, when they are the recipients. Then, it becomes an attempt to “shut down debate.” No one is trying to shut down debate. On the contrary, this is a healthy debate about priorities. For those of us in the Diaspora who love Israel, what is the priority? To pressure Israelis to make peace — as if we know something that they don’t? Or is it to defend Israel against unfair attacks from a world that all too often judges Israel based on a double standard? If all we focus on is Israel’s failure to make peace, we cover up Israel’s extraordinary record of tikkun olam and social activism, and reinforce the global lie that Israel is an illiberal demon. Whether or not that’s good for Israel is a healthy debate. 


May Their Memories Be a Blessing

The sad news of Dr. Jose Nessim’s death brought me back to Paramount Studios, where I had the pleasure of presenting him with the 2008 Cohon Award for his work in the field of education and information, which brought benefit to klal Yisra’el — the total Jewish People — by bringing so many young Sephardim closer to us all. His spirit as embodied in the Sephardic Education Center in Jerusalem will surely continue to inspire a new generation to honor his memory.

Rabbi Baruch Cohon via email

It really is so good to have Rob Eshman’s voice back in the Jewish Journal.

His column this week really brings Leibel (Leonard Fein) to all of us (What Would Leonard Say?” Aug. 22). He was a dear friend — we worked together and shared a suite of offices at the then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York (now Union for Reform Judaism). We often sat over coffee and just talked about life. I had him out to Mount Sinai some years ago to spend time with my senior staff and “just talk.” They fell in love with him and did not want him to leave — he brought a unique thinking ability and a graciousness that will never be replaced.

Thank you for remembering him in such a meaningful way.

Len Lawrence, general manager, Mount Sinai Parks

How Occupy will end


No one knows what difference Occupy Wall Street will turn out to make. 

This could the start of something big.  Maybe the burgeoning sense that something is not right in America will reach a critical mass.  It’s already showing up in the polls.  Maybe more and more ordinary Americans will wake up and smell the plutocracy.  The consensus will grow that the only way that income distribution could have become so out-of-whack is that the power in Washington isn’t in the hands of the people we elect; it belongs to the big corporations and Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers who have the country by the short hairs.  We’re at the beginning of a tectonic shift in our politics, our culture, maybe even in our governance. 

Or the movement fizzles.  The demographics of the demonstrators don’t keep expanding.  Unemployment and foreclosure turn out not to be the contemporary equivalent of the draft’s role in mobilizing broad opposition to the war in Vietnam. Winter, and shrewder policing with less blowback, take a toll on the encampments.  Occupy becomes just another tale of the fall 2011 media scrum, alongside the Conrad Murray trial.  In retrospect we realize that our political elites have grown so dependent on our predators that the whole corrupt system is immune to challenge.  Occupy goes nowhere – there’s no wave election, no campaign finance reform, no reregulation or rule of law for the financial sector, no increase of progressivity in the tax code, no infrastructure rebuilt by no jobs program, no course correction for the American dream. 
 

Since no one really knows what Occupy’s impact will be tomorrow, there’s a contest going on today, a battle for control over how the story is being told right now.  And the way it’s framed could actually determine the way it will play out in real life.

The right’s strategy is: If we don’t build it, they won’t come. So its narrative is: These people are lazy, losers, hippies, stooges, drug-takers, a mob.  They don’t know what they want.  They want to destroy capitalism.  This is no Tea Party. Move along, there’s nothing to see here. 

It’s a bit incoherent, but they’re sticking to it, and their intention is to prevent any more of their pigeons – the 99 percenters – from figuring out how deeply they’ve been shafted by Koch-era robber barons and their political puppets.

The left, on the other hand, hears the strains of “Something’s Coming” in the air. Its aspirational narrative sees the pendulum swinging the other way.  A moral confidence is stirring. Yes, the political system is dysfunctional, but the urgency of protest will not be paralyzed by pragmatic cynicism.  We really can do it.  We can reclaim our country from the oligarchs.  We can recapture what America used to be about.  These Occupy encampments spreading from city to city?  That’s what it looks like when hope shucks off the victim script.

The arena where these warring narratives are slugging it out is in the media.  Fox, which has been the publicist, cheerleader, speakers bureau and enabler of the Tea Party, is of course relentlessly dismissive of Occupy.  Over on MSNBC, police bungling fuels support, and the messages on the demonstrators’ hand-made signs provide a counter-narrative to the corporate triumphalism that has dominated public discourse for decades.  CNN’s account of Occupy is whiplashed between the false equivalence its brand requires – kabuki pundit combat, always ending the same way: “We’ll have to leave it there” – and the need to hold eyeballs during commercials, which mandates you-won’t-want-to-miss-this alarmism.  The prestige press needs to play it both ways, in an only-time-will-tell frame, though it’s always safe to go meta: “Every Movement Needs a Logo” was the title of a New York Times gallery of graphic identities proposed by designers, while New York magazine asked an ad exec and a PR pro to give letter grades to the occupiers’ protest signs.

Social media, whose importance to the Arab Spring has become a benchmark of subsequent protests, is atwitter with people talking directly to themselves; it’s an organizing tool, and a gauge of popular sentiment, that doesn’t require the dots of the story to be connected in prefab patterns.  But no matter how immersed we may be in virtual and mediated reality, Occupy is an essentially offline phenomenon.  It has required real people in real places – not viral videos or Facebook pages—to give it credibility.  It is as local, grassroots, bottom-up and non-hierarchical a movement as they come – the antithesis of billionaire-funded astroturfing by the likes of FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.  No one sleeping in those parks and plazas has a clue how this will all turn out.  But their sheer physical presence gives them a narrative authority that the media and the chattering class lack. 

Every day brings a fresh blizzard of data about the world.  But which information gets our attention, and how it acquires meaning, depends on the story-in-progress at the time.  A Congressional Budget Office study of income distribution can be the usual one-day story, like other CBO studies, or it can get massive coverage because Occupy put the topic on the nation’s front burner. Record-breaking oil company profits can be framed as just another business story, or it can be reported in the context of the industry’s climate change denial campaign, and the hold its lobbyist have over Congress, and our political system’s imbecilic failure to address our direst global problem.  Wall Street’s escape from accountability, its capacity to thwart even the most modest attempts to rein in future recklessness, can be a story about the regulatory process, or it can be a warning that there are dangers to democracy that our Founders’ checks and balances were unable to anticipate. 

“We are the 99%” could turn out to be a popgun, or it could be the shot heard round the world.  Just don’t let anyone tell you that the answer is already a foregone conclusion. 

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Marty Kaplan: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Streets


The power has gone out in a typical American town.  Wait—it’s not just the electricity.  The phones don’t work, either.  Portable radios are dead.  Cars won’t start. 

But then lawn mowers and cars and lights inexplicably start and stop on their own. What’s going on?  A meteor?  Sunspots?  Or are there, as Tommy’s comic book suggests, aliens among us, preparing for a takeover? Suspicion poisons the air. Neighbor turns on neighbor. A scapegoat is blamed. A shot is fired.  Panic, madness, riot.

And while the humans behave monstrously, the real monsters watch from a nearby hilltop, working a little gizmo that messes with the power on Maple Street and marveling how easy it is to manipulate these earthlings into destroying themselves.

In what is arguably the best “Twilight Zone” episode ever, “” target=”_hplink”>declared their willingness to return to the table and negotiate a shared sacrifice. The monsters are on Wall Street, where state pension funds were sunk into toxic sub-prime mortgage-backed securities.  The monsters are on K Street, where lobbyists are fighting financial industry oversight. The monsters are the politicians who are using Wisconsin’s deficit as a pretext to ” target=”_hplink”>so be it” language of their leadership, you’d think that the federal deficit is caused by the very people who who’ve been suffering the most in this recession.

But the monsters aren’t low-income ” target=”_hplink”>health insurance to cover them; or ” target=”_hplink”>Pell Grants; or people who think their government’s job includes preventing their air and water from ” target=”_hplink”>billionaires who’ve benefited from a massive transfer of wealth from the middle to the top and whose political puppets protect them from paying their fair share of taxes.

They’re the corporations whose cash has convinced Congress to deregulate industry after industry, despite all evidence that it is the enforcement of rules – not the magic of the marketplace—that protects the public’s rights.

They’re the defense contractors and pork appropriators who’ve used the cover of “national security” to shield the Pentagon’s budget and its procurement process from the cuts and reforms that even Republicans like the Secretary of Defense are advocating.

They’re the front groups and propagandists, like FreedomWorks and Fox, who use class warfare and culture wars in order to turn Americans against their own economic interests.

They’re the Supreme Court justices whose Citizens United decision, overthrowing a century of settled law, has made our campaign finance system an open sewer, and whose indifference to ” target=”_hplink”>coming case promises to throw sick people back onto the tender mercies of insurers and to destroy our best hope to curb Medicare costs – further ballooning the deficit and providing cover for even more draconian cuts.

The game in Washington is to use the deficit as camouflage for destroying government’s capacity to promote the general welfare.  The game in Wisconsin and other states whose new Republican governors and legislative majorities are feeling their oats is to shelter the income of the wealthiest, and to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class. 

At the end of the episode, Rod Serling says this:  “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men.  For the record: Prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own—for the children, and the children yet unborn.  And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the twilight zone.”

Sometimes it’s hard to watch the news and not think that things are surreal.  The other day, when what’s been happening in Madison reminded me of what happened on “Maple Street,” I suddenly realized the theme music that goes with it.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Religious Right, Left Find Political Guide in Bible


The fast-emerging religious left contrasts sharply on many issues — from homosexual marriage to socialized medicine — with its longer-established competitor, the
religious right. Yet these two Bible-citing political movements equally have woken up to the realization that there is something intrinsically American about using the Bible as a guide to practical politics. That’s good news and a blow to secularist orthodoxy.

As I have previously noted, the current debate about immigration signals a major sea change in rhetoric from the left. Against Republicans who want to get tough on illegal immigrants, amnesty advocates like Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) have invoked the Christian Bible image of the good samaritan and Matthew 25 on welcoming the “stranger.”

If Clinton becomes a presidential candidate in the next national election, then 2008 will likely prove to be the year of the Bible. That would please religious left gurus (and best-selling authors) like Rabbi Michael Lerner (The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right), the Rev. Jim Wallis (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It) and former President Jimmy Carter (Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis).

When I reported in the book industry magazine, Publishers Weekly, on a raft of forthcoming books dealing with the intersection of faith and politics, I found that a large majority — applying spiritual insights to issues related to sex, race, poverty, the environment, you name it — were by religious writers with a definite leftward orientation. “Spiritual,” of course, is not a synonym for good, true or even credible.

Clearly the religious left reads books. Is it prepared to make a difference at the grass-roots level? Well this month, a new outfit, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, drew a thousand activists to a religious left teach-in in Washington, D.C. — not enough to fill a megachurch but still evidence that something important is percolating.

That liberals would contemplate shrugging off their customary secularism is new. But the insight that government and the good book go together may be traced back to the beginnings of the American political tradition.

Our country’s founders were disciples of the 17th century liberal philosopher John Locke, whose major book is the Two Treatises of Government. When Locke’s work is assigned in college classes, the first treatise is usually skipped over. That’s too bad, because it is devoted almost entirely to biblical interpretation, with numerous citations from the Hebrew Scriptures, including learned commentary on the Hebrew language.

Locke’s more pessimistic counterpart in English political theory, Thomas Hobbes, similarly expends about half of his great book, Leviathan, on drawing out the political lessons of the Bible, contrasting the ideal “Christian Commonwealth” with the “Kingdom of Darkness.” He defined the latter as the condition of “spiritual darkness from the misinterpretation of Scripture.”

Locke and Hobbes followed in the footsteps of earlier thinkers, as Israeli scholars Yoram Hazony and Fania Oz-Salzberger have pointed out recently. When Protestant political theory wished to find a way to cut loose from the Catholic Church and its thinking on the relationship between faith and state, English, Dutch and Swiss Christian Hebraists from the 16th century on pointed to the Hebrew Bible as the world’s first and best political text.

Philosophers like Cornelius Bertram, Petrus Cunaeus and John Selden wrote works with titles such as, respectively, The Jewish State (1574), The Hebrew Republic (1617) and Law of Nature and the Nations According to the Hebrews (1640). Christian-Hebraic political thought achieved a practical breakthrough with the English Puritan revolution, which took the Jewish commonwealth described in the Bible as its model. The Puritans later brought these ideas to our shores, declaring that they would found a “New Israel” here. America’s political roots truly lie in the Bible.

Among these thinkers, it was never the intention to simplistically copy biblical institutions like the Jewish high court (the Sanhedrin), the Jewish king, the Jerusalem Temple with its priests and so on. Rather, the idea was to discover philosophical principles in the Scriptures that could be translated into a modern secular government.

Those principles included the superiority of a transcendent moral law to any law the government might invent and the belief that men and women should be held morally responsible for their deeds.

Such ideas, still controversial today, deserve to be discussed openly in public forums, including political ones, with due attention to their source, the Bible, and its proper interpretation. For what separates the religious left from the religious right is precisely what Hobbes warned of, the question of how to read Scripture correctly. Religious conservatives and liberals can agree that it is important to get the Bible’s meaning right, while debating what that meaning actually is.

So let the debate begin.

My Work Is Not to Blame for Jew-Haters


Usually I only respond to fair and thoughtful criticism, but I’ll make an exception in this case, because people I respect tell me that Rob Eshman, the editor-in-chief of this publication, is both a smart and decent guy.

Recently, he wrote a column on July 29 about my new book — “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken is ’37),” and this is how the column began: “Jewish Americans are only 2 percent of the nation’s population, but they are 25 percent of its problem.”

Of course, he doesn’t believe that. The point was that I supposedly believe that. Why? It seems that Eshman actually counted up all the Jewish people on the list, came up with 25, and, well, you do the math.

Good thing my name is Goldberg and not something WASPy or the column might have begun, “This is a book written by a Jew-hating bigot.”

The truth is, I don’t have a clue as to how many Jews are mentioned in my book. I never thought about who was Jewish (or any other religion). It never occurred to me to count people by their religion. It’s my friends on the left who love to put people in groups and count them up like so many beans. Liberals love diversity — just not the intellectual kind.

Let’s acknowledge that Eshman was trying to make a serious point: That I’m giving ammunition to lunatics who hate Jews. If my book contributes to their dark fantasies about Jewish control of America and the world, I’m sorry. But what should I do? Stop commenting on successful, prominent people in our culture — who happen to be Jewish?

That’s a very illiberal road to travel. Are liberals who protested the war in Vietnam responsible for Pol Pot’s killing fields, which happened only after American troops pulled out of Southeast Asia — thanks in large part to the anti-war protesters? Are liberals who supported civil rights in the 1960s responsible for anti-Semitism among some blacks today?

Of course not. To even suggest as much is obscene. Yet, Eshman tells us about Web sites that preach anti-Jewish hate and says that one of them, “either rips Goldberg off or just happened to arrive at a similar revelation: It lists the same Jewish media execs he does….”

Get it? I mention some prominent Jewish media executives in my book; the lunatics do the same. And what? I’m egging them on?

Well, not exactly. Even Eshman says I’m not “responsible for the delusion of others.” (Thanks.) But then he goes on to say, “But [Goldberg’s] list … is not without risks.” Meaning? In times of social upheaval, he writes, people look for scapegoats and lists “especially ones weighted so heavily to one minority group — are ready-made red flags.”

Sorry. People who hate Jews are responsible for hating Jews. Not people who write books about the culture that happen to include Jewish people in it.

And let’s face it: The Jew-hating nuts on the fringe right in this country are just — nuts! They have no standing in the culture. The nuts on the left are another story altogether.

Remember the joke that was going around Hollywood right after George Bush won election in 2000?: “What’s the difference between George Bush and Hitler?”

Hitler was elected.

Unlike the right-wing screwballs, liberals were telling the Bush/Hitler joke in polite company in places like Beverly Hills. Did that offend Eshman’s sensibilities, as a Jew or as a liberal?

How about the Hollywood actor who told a national radio audience, “I’m not comparing Bush to Adolf Hitler — because George Bush, for one thing, is not as smart as Adolf Hitler.”

Did that one trouble Mr. Eshman, just a little?

John Leo, the columnist, Googled, “Bush is a Nazi” and came up with more than 400,000 hits. I’m guessing it wasn’t conservatives comparing Bush to Hitler.

Jewish people have done very well in our culture — disproportionately well. There are more prominent Jewish people in the arts, at universities, in law and in the media than a mere 2 percent of the population would suggest. That’s why certain people are on the list. Because — no matter what their religion, race, or anything else — they matter! And, in my humble view, they are doing things that are coarsening the culture.

Reasonable people, as they say, may disagree. But to suggest that I’m putting Jews in danger because my book may inflame some crackpot is a nasty stretch. Crackpots don’t need excuses, or books, to hate Jews — or blacks or Hispanics or gays or anybody else. To put that on me — indirectly or otherwise — is indecent.

For more responses to Rob Eshman’s editorial, see letters

Bernard Goldberg is the author of “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken Is ’37)” (HarperCollins, 2005)

 

Goldberg’s List


Jewish Americans are only 2 percent of the nation’s population, but they are 25 percent of its problem.

That’s according to Bernard Goldberg, whose new, bestselling nonfiction book is called, “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken is No. 37).”

The book offers one- and two-page mini-attacks on people who, Goldberg writes, “are not only screwing things up in this country, but who often are wildly succeeding by screwing things up.”

The way I see it, if Goldberg could take the time and trouble to list these people, the least that I, the Jewish journalist, could do is count the Jews among them.

I came up with 25.

So there are 25 American Jews who, in Goldberg’s words, produce “a slow poison running through the veins of this great country.”

The screed of this scribe has a history. Every couple of years, Goldberg releases a new book attacking liberals in America. His first was called, “Bias,” and it was a fun read, because the author had been a CBS News correspondent, and had scores to settle and grudges to nurse.

His second, “Arrogance,” I didn’t read — it was beneath me — and this new one continues the same general line: political, media and entertainment elites, spurred on by the liberal-educational complex, have debased and coarsened American culture.

The book is a bestseller — No. 2 on Amazon.com and climbing the New York Times list — and Goldberg is out flogging it everywhere. Droning on through droopy jowls, working himself up into a kind of lackadaisical outrage about Barbra Streisand and Howard Stern, Goldberg is the thinking man’s Deputy Dawg.

He wags a finger at radio pioneer Stern, though he is quick to say he opposes media censorship. His cover promises a full frontal attack on Franken, who took apart “Bias” for factual inaccuracy, but Goldberg doesn’t marshal anything more than a fictional conversation between himself and the Air America host.

His indictment of Michael Moore, who ranks No. 1 on the list, consists of a full-page photo of Moore and a single quote.

Most of the nonliberals who make the list — there are five — either broke the law or killed someone.

“The Unknown American Terrorist” is No. 23. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is No. 8.

Serious, thoughtful work this book is not.

So which Jews make the list?

Other than Franken, Streisand and Stern, there is billionaire Democrat George Soros; activist Laurie David; schlock hosts Jerry Springer and Maury Povich; professors Eric Foner, Jonathan Kozol, Peter Singer and Noam Chomsky; right-wing talk show host Michael Savage; director Oliver Stone; “Vagina Monologue” author Eve Ensler; Norman Mailer; feminists Gloria Steinem and Linda Hirshman; Nation writer Katha Pollitt; Interscope’s Ted Field; “Fear Factor” producer Matt Kunitz; New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, and columnist Krugman; Barbara Walters; NBC News president Neal Shapiro; and ABC News president David Westin.

Of course, Goldberg makes nothing of the fact that these people happen to be Jewish. It’s possible that no one but me will notice. It’s not like anyone can accuse a middle-aged author named Goldberg who lives in Miami of being an anti-Semite. You might even say it’s a good thing that someone can publish a best-selling diatribe listing more than two dozen Jews who are poisoning the American bloodstream and not one crackpot picks up on it.

Well, not quite.

Goldberg’s callings-out turn up quite frequently on the Web sites of white supremacists and anti-Semitic hate groups. Even nutjobs need validation, and who more authoritative than a man named Goldberg to assure the hatemongers that, yes, if the whole, anti-American entertainment and media elite seems Jewish, it’s because it is.

Take this from www.thepriceofliberty.org: “The Zionist domination of the media has been repeatedly proven, and this domination is evident in both the electronic and print media. The commonality of “news” reporting in all the news media, to include major leading newspapers and both network and cable TV journalism, was definitively exposed in Bernard Goldberg’s two best-selling books: ‘Bias’ and ‘Arrogance.'”

Just wait until they read the new book: It’s the same ideas with twice as many Jewish names.

Another web hate site, www.rense.com, either rips Goldberg off or just happened to arrive at a similar revelation: It lists the same Jewish media execs he does, like Shapiro and Westin.

Goldberg isn’t responsible for the delusions of others. But his list, which he calls, at the end of his book, “the fun part,” is not without its risks. A just-released study in Britain found anti-Semitic actions among the general population on the rise — some42 precent in 2004. In times of social upheaval and terror, people look to scapegoats, and simple-minded lists — especially ones weighted so heavily to one minority group — are ready-made red flags.

Some fun.

 

Analysis – Leftists Try to ‘Take Back God’ in 2008


The 2008 election may be more than three years away, but one group is hoping to press the Democratic Party to infuse spirituality into its platform for that campaign.

“The right is correct; there is a huge spiritual crisis in America,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine. “And the left doesn’t get it.”

Republicans and their allies on the religious right have “done a good job” of articulating that crisis, Lerner said, but their analysis is “fundamentally flawed” because it’s based on demonizing “feminists, gays, liberals, African Americans.”

Lerner made his comments before an opening-night crowd of 1,200 attendees at a four-day interfaith conference on spiritual activism.

An initiative, as several speakers put it, to “take back God” — and the White House — from the religious right was the principle behind the forum, held July 20-24 at UC Berkeley.

The real crisis in the United States, according to Lerner, is generated by the “ethos of greed and materialism” that drives Western culture and impoverishes human relationships. And until the left and the Democratic Party understand that deep human hunger for meaning, the religious right will continue its ascendancy.

“We have not yet built a movement that speaks to those human needs, and until we do, the right has cornered the market,” he said.

The organizers hope to create a “network of spiritual progressives” who will, over the course of the next three years, develop a spiritually based platform they hope to take to the 2008 presidential elections.

They also plan to call for various international initiatives, including a “Global Marshall Plan” in which the developed countries that are part of the G-8 group of nations would each donate 5 percent of their gross domestic product for the next 20 years to eradicate poverty and hunger and rebuild the infrastructure of Third World economies.

“We’ve created this gathering for people who want to challenge the misuse of God and religion by the religious right and build a new bottom line whereby institutions will be judged rational, productive and efficient not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, generosity and kindness, ethical and ecological sensitivity,” Lerner outlined.

Although the conference organizers insist they’re apolitical, they’re clearly aiming their words at the Democratic Party, which like the rest of the left is, they say, tainted by “religio-phobia.”

“It’s easier to come out as gay in Boston than as religious in the Democratic Party,” said the keynote speaker, Rev. Jim Wallis, a well-known progressive evangelical Christian and the author of the best-selling “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.”

Wallis, who has just wrapped up a 47-city book tour, told the crowd that many Americans consider themselves people of faith but don’t feel the religious right speaks in their name.

“The religious right think they own God,” he continued. “They think there are only two moral issues: abortion and gay marriage.”

Instead, he said, ending poverty should be the highest priority of a faith-based politics. “Now that’s a moral value,” he stated.

This isn’t the first faith-based progressive movement to champion social justice. Groups including the Clergy and Laity Network, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and the Nevada Interfaith Council for Worker Justice also try to bring together representatives of various religious organizations in the name of specific social or economic issues.

But the Berkeley initiative, a project of the Tikkun community created by Lerner, reaches beyond synagogue, church or mosque walls to “people who are spiritual but not religious,” organizers said.

Although the gathering’s theoretical underpinnings — merging traditional leftist ideas of social justice with spirituality — are very much Lerner’s, the conference itself featured speakers from Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and nonsectarian backgrounds, and its focus was clearly nondenominational.

There was just a handful of rabbis and no leaders of major Jewish organizations in attendance. Some people who helped put the conference together admitted privately that they were “disappointed” at the lack of response from the organized Jewish world.

“We are definitely interested in reaching out to them,” said Lerner, adding that he expects that the network’s next conference, in February in Washington, “will attract much more of the Jewish establishment.”

He hopes that this new network and the movement it spawns “will provide a way for Jewish liberals and progressives to unite around issues of concern” to them.

Throughout the conference, speakers urged participants to “go home and organize locally” and spoke of creating progressive, spiritually friendly caucuses within the Democratic and Green parties “and maybe even the Republican Party,” Lerner said.

 

Why the Left-Wing Hand-Wringing?


I should have known better than to forward an e-mail recommending a boycott of French products for France’s anti-Israel stance and willingness to tend to Yasser Arafat on his deathbed.

In an age of e-mail overload, forwarding e-mail is already a risky proposition, and usually I am more careful. But the real whopper was sending it to two of my Jewish friends who are Democrats.

One replied with a line lifted directly from the Democratic Party playbook: “We can’t continue to alienate every country on the globe over issues that have always been settled diplomatically in the past,” this friend noted. My other friend’s response was more unsettling: “I can’t support a group that uses Bush and Cheney as a drawing card. They sicken me. That’s the least offensive thing I can say about them.”

This hatred of President Bush comes from people who I know to be otherwise thoughtful and intelligent. Unfortunately for them, their “anybody but Bush” mantra helps to explain the Kerry defeat. Negativism and name-calling is not a winning political strategy.

These friends’ angry and contemptuous post-election sentiments are part of a larger mass hand-wringing among the left. On an Internet-based writers’ discussion board that I belong to, more than 150 messages were posted the day after the election, 90 percent of them expressing shock, dismay, deep mourning and sheer embarrassment. The sky-is-falling responses included plans to move to Canada and predictions of the destruction of the world environment, obliteration of all civil rights, and a looming Christian-based theocracy. That’s quite an agenda for only four years! Wonder if W can pull it off?

One writer likened President Bush’s religiosity to mental illness: “It’s a sad day when a man claiming to follow God’s instructions prevails in an election. Prominent people who hear voices include the Son of Sam and all those schizophrenics on lifetime medication.”

Most Jews would not, I hope, make this odious comparison. Nonetheless, many of them, including my friends, worry that President Bush’s overt faith is somehow dangerous. “I can’t think of anyone worse for the Jews than Bush,” said one of my e-mail recipients.

Just what are they so afraid of? After four years of a Bush administration Jewish life in our country is thriving and free. The United States has not been attacked again since Sept. 11 despite the efforts of known terrorist cells throughout the world and in the United States — including Los Angeles. Why the refusal to give credit for keeping us safe from further terrorist attacks? The Bush agenda also fights aggressively for the democratization of the Arab world, believing, in contrast to many on the left, that they are capable of democratic self-government. President Bush has also been a stalwart supporter of Israel’s right to defend itself and refused to deal with Arafat, recognizing him as the terrorist and mass murderer that he was.

I wished I could have engaged my friends on these issues, but with emotions running so high I didn’t dare push it. I value my friendship with them more than I value the highly unlikely chance that I might sway their opinions.

That’s why as a religious Jew, I am not threatened by the president’s basic Christian values. I am more threatened by the moral relativism of the left, which questions the war on terror, where third-trimester abortions are coyly framed only as a woman’s “right to choose,” and where those who fight to preserve the institution of marriage are instantly called bigots, shutting down any further discussion.

Many Jews respond that Christian support for Israel is self-serving: the second coming of Jesus cannot happen until Jews are safely in Israel. But it’s only a small minority of Christians whose support has ulterior motives. I am friends with several religious Christians who have had many opportunities over the years to try to get me to “come over to their side.” They never have. Instead, they have participated in missions to Israel where they helped shore up flagging tourism even during the darkest days of the intifada. Most religious Christians support Israel because they take seriously the Torah’s promise of God to Abraham: “Those who bless you I will bless; and those who curse you I will curse.” Perhaps if more Jews realized how much Christians have also suffered at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, who have committed mass murder of Christians in the Philippines, Pakistan, East Timor, the Sudan, Indonesia, Nigeria, and the West Bank, they would be less suspect of Christians’ motives in supporting Israel.

I admit that until I was in my mid-20s, I myself was a proud Jewish liberal. In fact, when I met my husband-to-be in 1984 and learned he was planning to vote for President Reagan’s re-election, I nearly wrote off the fledgling relationship. Dating a Republican felt like a violation almost as severe as dating out of the faith.

It took “four more years” for me to finally believe that Republican values of lower taxes, strong defense and support of traditional family values were in the best interests of American society and more consistent with my Jewish values of justice and compassion. Like so many other Jews, I had been deeply emotionally invested in my Democratic affiliation.

Polling pundits claim that in this election, Bush claimed 25 percent of the Jewish vote, up from 19 percent in 2000, although Jewish support in Florida and even the hotly contested Cuyahoga County in Ohio were thought to be significantly higher. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Martin Peretz, editor of The New Republic, surmised that Jewish support for the president was even higher, but that many Jews just couldn’t bring themselves to admit they voted for a Republican.

I’m pretty certain that my friends were not among those voting Republican and just unable to fess up. But I hope that in the next four years, the good effects that I expect from President Bush’s policies for the entire country will at least make me seem less vexing to my Jewish friends on the left.

Judy Gruen is a humorist and author of “Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout.” Read more of her columns on www.judygruen.com.

God, Gays and Guns: The U.S. Fault Line


About the same portion of Americans describe themselves as being liberal (19 percent) as believe that the world will come to an end in their

lifetimes (17 percent).

Right-wingers have so effectively besmirched the term (“wishy-washy liberals,” “tax-and-spend liberals,” “limousine liberals”) that only a few political martyrs and masochists publicly proclaim their allegiance to the cause once championed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The word preferred by left-of-center types in the United States is “progressive,” which harkens back to the earlier Roosevelt, Teddy, a turbocharged Republican who whipped monopolists and gleefully asserted the power of the federal government.

FDR’s robust liberalism focused on social justice at a time when one in four workers had lost their jobs in the Great Depression, and then on social solidarity, when the United States entered World War II. By now, much of that twin legacy has disappeared.

But look beneath current political labels and you find a nation still clinging to several liberal ideals. Polls show, for example, that an overwhelming majority of Americans support Social Security, unemployment insurance and a minimum wage, as well as Medicare for the elderly (courtesy of Lyndon B Johnson), strong environmental protections (Richard Nixon’s contribution, surprisingly enough) and a graduated income tax.

Most believe that government has no business snooping into people’s private lives without cause to believe that they have been involved in crime. The vast majority favor equal civil rights for blacks, women and ethnic minorities.

And George W. Bush’s swagger notwithstanding, most Americans oppose unilateral assertions of U.S. power abroad. An overwhelming majority believe we should work in close concert with our long-standing allies, including France. The shrill, right-wing rantings of radio and television talk show hosts do not reflect the views of most Americans — or the manner in which they disagree with one another.

The political fault line in modern America has become cultural. It is about religion, sex and firearms — or, in the vernacular, God, gays and guns. Since Sept. 11, the culture war has been extended to global terrorism.

On the conservative side are Americans who attend church regularly, believe that homosexuality is morally wrong, want the government to ban abortions, take offense at out-of-wedlock births and think they have a God-given right to own any gun they wish. They also want the United States to exterminate all terrorists, including anyone with terrorist leanings.

Most of the people who think this way reside in rural and southern parts of the nation, towns and small cities and outlying suburbs. They are the majority in what are now called “red states” — states that lit up bright red on the electronic TV maps late on election day 2000 and 2004, when returns showed that most of their voters had cast ballots for Bush.

They dine nightly on meat, potatoes and a vegetable, watch Fox News, shop at Wal-Mart and enjoy NASCAR races and wrestling on TV. They earn between $20,000 and $60,000 a year — straddling the middle and working classes, doing jobs ranging from mechanic to clerical worker, beautician to physical therapist and low-level managerial and technical work.

On the liberal side of the cultural divide are those whose church attendance is irregular at best, who harbor far more permissive attitudes toward sex and think government should control gun ownership and ban handguns and assault rifles. They believe terrorism is a complex problem, requiring better intelligence and more effective ways to win the hearts and minds of Muslims who now opt for suicide missions.

They tend to inhabit America’s sprawling metropolitan regions in the northeast and on the West Coast, the larger cities and the inner suburbs. They are the majority in the “blue states” that went for Al Gore in 2000 and Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

Their tastes in food tend toward varied national and ethnic cuisines. They watch the major TV networks or public television and play golf or baseball. They typically earn between $60,000 and $200,000 a year or they earn under $20,000.

Cultural liberals tend to be both richer and poorer than cultural conservatives — moderately paid professionals such as teachers, lawyers and social workers or else low-paid employees, such as hospital orderlies, retail and restaurant workers and hotel personnel. In other words, they are more cosmopolitan than cultural conservatives and more diverse.

Why God, gays and guns? They are proxies for two distinct temperaments that divide the United States like a meat ax.

On the conservative side is a moral absolutism that views the nation’s greatest challenge as holding firm to enduring values in the face of titanic economic and social changes. The common thread uniting strong religious conviction, rigid sexual norms and an insistence on owning a gun is the assertion of authority, typically by men.

The task is to apply strict discipline to those who might stray from established norms and to win what are repeatedly seen as “tests of will.” Since Sept. 11, this has also taken the form of patriotic bravado and stubborn pugnacity.

America, say cultural conservatives, must remain the strongest nation on earth. The best way to deal with terrorists is to demonstrate toughness and never waver. Better to be feared than loved; better to be consistent than appear indecisive. The tough-talking, born-again cowboy president, Bush, perfectly exemplifies this worldview. “Bring ’em on,” he says. “You’re with us or against us.”

On the liberal (progressive) side of the cultural divide is a belief in tolerance, reason and law as central tenets of democracy. Americans who hold to this view consider all public issues to be soluble with the correct and relevant information, subjected to objective analysis and full deliberation. Religion and sex fall outside the public sphere, because they are inherently private matters.

A vibrant democracy must tolerate different beliefs and personal choices. Gun ownership directly affects the public sphere and, as such, is subject to regulation if there are good reasons to limit it. (As there are.)

By extension, the battle against global terrorism requires that we be smart rather than merely tough. We have to get our facts straight (Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction), tell the public the truth (Iraq played no part in Sept. 11), apply rational analysis (our first priority must be to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of potential terrorists) and respect international law (work through the United Nations and NATO, and don’t torture prisoners).

We also need to get at the causes of terrorism — the hate and hopelessness that fuel it. If you want to understand Kerry, look no further.

Cultural conservatives condemn liberals as having no strict moral compass, as being “moral relativists” and “flip-floppers.” These charges predate the 2004 presidential campaign.

Conservatives fear liberals will sell out, because they don’t know what they stand for. In fact, liberals do have strong beliefs (again: tolerance, reason, democratic debate, the rule of law), but these beliefs seem more about process than substance and do not lend themselves to 30-second sound bites.

To liberals, most issues are complicated and nuanced. This attitude drives moral absolutists nuts. American liberals, for their part, worry that the right-wing conservatives are stubborn, intolerant zealots who shoot before they think. Recent history seems to bear out these fears.

Presidential elections in modern America have been about these contrasting worldviews since at least 1964. Starting with Sen. Barry Goldwater’s failed bid in that year and continuing through Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, the new right has emphasized moral absolutes and the need for authority and discipline to enforce them. By contrast, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Gore and now Kerry have focused their campaigns on tolerance, reason and democracy.

Republican candidates repeatedly talk about toughness and resolve, while liberals talk about being correct and thinking problems through. On balance, toughness and resolve have proved the easier sell, especially when American voters are worried about something big.

What about social justice?

This part of FDR’s liberal legacy has been eclipsed by the culture wars. Odd, when the biggest thing voters worry about is their jobs and paychecks, and the paychecks (including wages and job benefits) of most Americans have been declining for two decades, adjusted for inflation.

The gulf between rich and poor in America is now wider than at any time since the robber barons of the late 19th century monopolized industry and bribed the government to do nothing about it.

Yet, in recent years, Democratic candidates have not dwelled on the subject. They have bought the conventional view that economic populism does not sell, because most Americans still want and expect to become rich one day.

That is rubbish. Upward mobility has just about ground to a halt. And it’s circular reasoning.

Economic populism would sell if Democratic politicians explained to the public what has been happening and why. To his credit, Kerry didn’t duck the issue. He promised to end the Bush tax cuts for people earning more than $200,000 a year and use the proceeds to make health care affordable for the working class and the poor.

America is splitting into “two nations” (as Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential candidate said), because the twin forces of globalization and technological change are rewarding the educated and well-connected, while punishing the less educated and the disconnected.

What to do about this?

There are solutions that do not require protectionism and neo-Luddism, solutions much in keeping with the liberal legacy of FDR, but too few of today’s liberals have been discussing them, and the American public doesn’t have a clue. You hear them discussed mostly in the rarefied precincts of university towns such as Cambridge, Mass., and Berkeley, whose inhabitants talk to one another and convince themselves that the rest of the nation must be saying the same things.

One hopes that the conversation will be much wider.

Robert B. Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, is professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University and the author of “Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America” (Knopf).