Happy birthday to me

Not long ago, a guy I know, a good guy who to all outward appearances seems happy and successful, replied to a birthday e-mail I sent him at work — “go
home and blow out some candles” — with this:

“I’m 40-f—ing-8, give me a break. They tell me that’s close to 50, but I refuse to believe it.” (Only he didn’t leave any letters out of “f—ing.”)

I wrote back: “you’ve got your hair, a flat stomach, and a wife. I’d say life is good.”

To which he replied: “At 20 you won’t settle for less than several million, two best-sellers and a house in Majorca. At 48, what you said sounds really good.”

Expectations are strange things. When we’re kids, and when we’re parents of kids, we have no compunction about shooting for the stars. Every child is encouraged to believe that becoming a Michael Phelps or a Golda Meir, or however your tribe fills in the blank, is within the realm of possibility. B’nai mitzvah speeches and commencement addresses are universally about holding fast to your dreams.

But nevertheless, somewhere along the line we’re supposed to learn that the secret to happiness is adjusting our expectations to reality. Maturity means accepting that failing to get the gold or the Golda isn’t the same thing as failure. The good life is to be found in wanting what you have.

To be sure, the self-help sections of bookstores are filled with inspirational messages and 10-point-plans to the contrary. If only we visualize what we want, if only we believe in ourselves, if only we buy this book, then love and riches, fame and health, six-packs and serenity will be ours, no matter how far along in the life cycle we are.

But by and large, despite those enticing pitches, adulthood turns out to mean acceptance — of how you played the hand you were dealt, of mortality, of beshert — even if it sometimes includes flashes of 40-f—ing-8-like fury at the way the world turns out to work.

I wonder whether that rage would be mitigated if, instead of everyone being brought up to think we could be president, we were raised to believe, as Buddhists are, that desire is the source of suffering. I wonder if the gross domestic product would really shrivel, or the upward mobility of classes would stall, or the amount of art and justice in the world would decline, if we grew up already knowing how things more often than not turn out to be — if we understood early on the unreliability of the meritocracy, and the odds against our dreams, and the huge role in life of dumb luck — if the rough passage signaled in the cry of “40-f—ing-8” were not something kept hidden from children, like the true identity of the tooth fairy, the mutability of beauty, the lifelong wrestling with the meaning of existence that lies ahead of them.

In “The Uses of Enchantment,” child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim explains that the purpose of fairy tales is to give children an arena — a proxy world — in which to come to grips with evil, to come to terms with loss, to train their emotions for the inevitable struggles and disappointments of life. Anyone who has read the cruel original fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm will recognize the sense of this. But anyone who knows these stories only from their Disney versions will recognize how diligently we now go out of our way to insulate kids from the disturbing stuff that Bettelheim says is good for them.

Yes, I know that Bambi’s mother is killed, and plenty of other modern classics include scary separations from parents. The murder of Harry Potter’s parents by Lord Voldemort is of course the setup for the series. But (spoiler alert) no one in those seven volumes is forced to reconcile with the whole panoply of less lethal but no-less-soul-crushing disappointments — being downsized, pink-slipped, passed over, left — of which many, maybe most, lives are constructed. We are all broken vessels.

Recently I found myself reading the ” target=”_blank”>jewishjournal.com/sowhatsnew. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Gaza Strife and American Jews


Civil strife in Israel over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan could cause new strains in the American Jewish community and accelerate the turning away from the pro-Israel cause, especially among younger Jews.

The mounting strife, which includes death threats by anti-disengagement activists and comparisons of the withdrawal to Nazi efforts to make Europe Judenrein, could add to Israel’s public relations woes in this country.

Those concerns are being quietly discussed in Jewish boardrooms across the country.

Support for the Gaza plan remains strong among American Jews, despite bitter opposition by a handful of Jewish and evangelical Christian groups. But uncertainty over the outcome and the fear of further enraging strident opponents have pushed some major Jewish groups to keep a low profile on the plan.

“We’re not prepared for it,” said an official with one major Jewish group. “We’re not prepared for the possibility of virtual civil war in Israel, and we’re not prepared for the fallout in our own community.”

Most major pro-Israel groups say they support the policies of the Jerusalem government, including disengagement. But many waited until the withdrawal was impending to speak up directly; others continue to keep their heads down, avoiding the issue as much as they can.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, with a diverse membership that includes some disengagement opponents, has been criticized for months for what some say has been a limp response to the plan; only in late February did its chairman tell Sharon that the umbrella group “proudly supports and has supported your historic disengagement plan.”

The pro-Israel lobby has supported Sharon, but has been uncharacteristically reserved about it as the debate rages in Israel and as some pro-Israel forces in this country campaign against it.

Overall, the attitude has been this: if Sharon, who has spent his life fighting for Israel’s security, wants to get out of Gaza and some of the West Bank, who are we to second-guess him? But there has also been a reluctance to be too out-front on the subject.

Very few mainstream Jewish leaders actively support the settler movement, but many are fearful of being regarded as opponents.

Some, feeling betrayed by an Oslo peace process that turned sour, are determined to restrain their enthusiasm for any new peace move, fearful that it, too, could prove a chimera.

Groups on the left are in an even more awkward position.

Many believe that Sharon’s real goal is to use the Gaza plan to solidify Israel’s hold on major portions of the West Bank by putting new peace talks in “formaldehyde,” as a Sharon aide once said. That, most doves believe, would produce new conflict and kill any chances for peace.

At the same time, there is hope the plan, if implemented, will set a precedent that will make Israel’s exit from most of the West Bank inevitable, regardless of Sharon’s real motives.

Some on the left are loathe to be seen lining up behind Sharon, the early engine behind settlement expansion, but fearful of not supporting the only peace move currently on the table.

While Jewish groups try to find ways to express support for the plan without being too open about it, or simply cower before a vocal minority of opponents, the images coming out of Israel are already sending shock waves through the Jewish community and the American public.

Settlers threatening violence against the soldiers sent to remove them, or rabbis who issue religious edicts justifying the killing of the Gaza pullout planners, do not represent the picture of Israel Jewish leaders here want Americans to see.

The Christian Zionists who are traveling to Gaza to proclaim that the pullout is a violation of “God’s plan” for Israel symbolize a kind of extremism that many fear will further tarnish Israel’s image with mainstream America.

American Jews are busy telling their non-Jewish neighbors that Israel is a moderate, peace-loving place and the only democracy in the Middle East, but the shrill death threats against Sharon and the fiery visions of Israel’s future by some of the Evangelicals contradict that message.

At a time when Jewish groups are fighting the divestment effort by mainline Protestant churches, the anti-withdrawal vitriol of some of Israel’s extremists will just add fuel to that bias-fed fire.

Also troubling may be the impact on an American Jewish community that a recent study showed continues to edge away from active involvement in the pro-Israel cause.

Civil strife in Israel and the extremist positions of those who promise fierce resistance to any effort to uproot them are likely to accelerate that trend, especially among younger Jews.

Jews who are deeply committed to Israel will be saddened and disturbed by the likely confrontations over Gaza, but their attachment to the Jewish state will not be changed. But for many whose connection is much more tenuous, the expected clashes and the poisonous political atmosphere could accelerate an estrangement that will further weaken the bonds between American Jews and the Jewish state.


Democracy in the Mideast?

President George W. Bush is certainly putting his money where his mouth is. Last week, the State Department announced it will invest $25 million to promote democracy throughout the Arab world. The goals of the program, which will train political advocates, journalists and others, are economic reform and private sector development, education, promotion of civil society and respect for the rule of law.

But is throwing money at the problem enough? Bush’s initiative begs the question: How might democracy blossom in a culture where none has existed in the past? Will it flourish organically, or will it require some gentle prodding, such as with the butt of a gun, for example?

Historically, democracies have emerged from centuries of dictatorships and monarchies. Some have become democracies only after unconditional surrender (Japan and Germany). Others have seemed to choose democracy without any formal surrender (Russia). What explains this difference?

Part of the answer may lie in timing. Russia is the most recent of the three democracies I’ve mentioned. Unlike the others, Russia became a democracy during the media age, and during the beginning of the globalization of information.

Similarly, forces are now emerging that may encourage the Arab world to democracy. Here are some:

(1) Globalization and the Internet. As Thomas Friedman explains in his new book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," we are seeing democratization of (a) financial markets; (b) technology; (c) information; and (d) politics. Until recently, the Arab world has successfully prevented Western news sources from "contaminating" their subjects, using brutal repression and controlling their media. But the Arab world can’t stop the Internet or satellite news. Saudi Arabia has recently instituted a policy of allowing access to the Internet to university students, albeit at limited speeds, and only for five minutes at a time. However, this may be the first crack in the dam.

(2) The Plight of Arab Women: One day, the media will turn its cameras to the barbaric manner in which the Arab world treats women. It will expose the Arab world’s ritualized female circumcision as a form of sexual control, use of rape as an official tool of punishment and execution of unmarried women for merely holding a man’s hand — to say nothing of women’s utter inability to participate in society. This exposure will create pressure on the Arab world to make other social reforms.

(3) Oil. This may be the biggest factor. Saudi Arabian Muhammad Al-Sabban, head of the senior economic advisory to the Saudi Oil Ministry, acknowledged that Arab oil will play a major role in the world’s energy mix only for the next 15 years, at most. Once this bargaining chip vanishes, the Arab world’s ability to act as a force of menace will diminish — like a school bully who suddenly shrinks a foot or two. What will also diminish is the West’s one reason to pander to the brutal dictatorships in the Arab world. So, too, will the non-oil-producing Arabs’ power wane (such as the Palestinians, Syrians and Egyptians), all of whom now enjoy the indirect benefits of the collective oil cudgel from their Arab brethren.

(4) Generally Accepted Democratic Principles. Here’s an irony: Despite their angry beating of the chest when it comes to the West, most Arab dictatorships actually claim to observe democratic principles. As brutal a dictator as Arafat is, for example, he still insists his people have chosen him in fair democratic elections, and that his press is "free." Dictators do this to appear as honest brokers to the outside world. This is like the embezzler who insists he zealously follows generally accepted accounting principles. He does so because he implicitly acknowledges the correctness of those principles. Similarly, in making their claims of democratic treatment of their people, are these dictators not actually acknowledging democracy as the "proper" form of rule? One day, the Arab people may ask: if our leaders praise democracy, then why aren’t we one?

Some will argue that these factors may topple the existing governments, but will lead, at best. to anarchy or greater fundamentalism. For democracy to occur, they will say the West’s intervention is necessary, as it was necessary after World War II. But the world has changed since then: everyone can now see what everyone else is doing, and everyone can more easily see how the other world lives. And so the factors that previously led to the democratization of Russia may also now lead to the organic democratization of the Arab world. For that to occur, we may only need to ensure the continuing globalization of information. And that is a force no Arab country can hope to stop.

Barak Lurie is an Israeli and American citizen and a specialist on Middle East affairs. He serves as general counsel for the Sterling Corp.