Everything is easier than doing good

Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.

Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Talking with progressives about Israel

For years, liberal Zionists have been writing about the need to renew the traditional progressive-Zionist alliance, inspired by the civil rights and labor movements, and the importance of using these partnerships to maintain left-leaning allies for Israel.

Getting allies on the right has been easier because supporting Israel fits in neatly with the various goals of groups on the right, such as religious conservatives, the neoconservatives who deeply distrust the Muslim community, or economic conservatives who admire Israel’s thriving capital market. So much so, that political conservatives choose to overlook the “socialistic” policies of Israel, including protectionism, universal health care, education, and equal rights statutes for minorities and women.

The left is trickier. While most on the left side of the political spectrum support Israel, some progressives do not. The irony is that they probably agree with Israel’s domestic social welfare and civil rights policies more than conservatives do, but nevertheless a small element of the progressive movement has taken the “underdog vs. colonizer” model and oversimplified it in the context of a far more complex Middle East than some are willing to admit exists.

However, abandonment of our traditional alliances is only part of the problem. The other problem is how we explain Israel to the left. To paraphrase pollster Frank Luntz, we don’t “frame” Israel in language that resonates with the left.

Groups such as Democrats for Israel, the only Democratic club solely focused on supporting Israel and the Jewish community, made strides in the progressive community by explaining Israel in a way that many in the Democratic Party have embraced, beating back attempts by extremists to get the party to condemn Israel for merely defending itself from Hamas and Hezbollah.

How did we do it? In addition to keeping up partnerships, we learned to frame Israel in a way that resonated with our allies.

Israel is an island of progressivism

Universal education, universal health care, equal rights, minority rights protections, strong activist courts, and gays and lesbians openly serving in the military: Israel sounds like a progressive’s dream. Until I brought this up to several Democratic clubs, they had no idea that Israel was founded by a bunch of socialists on kibbutzim. No other single country in the Middle East has the complete set of social and civil rights that Israel does. 

If Israel was a “creation” of colonialist powers, why is the country so liberal when it comes to activist courts and civil rights?
Israel has limited security choices due to geography and culture

Israel is about the size of New Jersey. At its narrowest point, Israel is about nine miles wide, about the distance from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. This gives Israel very little room for error and sometimes requires it to overcompensate in its security choices.

Also, in the past when the United States publicly backed off its support for Israel, Israel’s enemies have interpreted it as a sign that Israel is weak and can be attacked (some have theorized that Nixon’s weak support for Israel in 1973 led to the Yom Kippur War). Therefore, the United States needs to be careful in how it chooses to resolve differences of opinion with its strongest ally, lest there then become no ally there at all.  

However, every president has had his differences with Israel, just like there have been disagreements with every other ally, and no military aid was cut off to Great Britain or Canada.

Also, the region has more than 60 years of ethnic division building on thousands of years of history. Some Palestinian schools still refuse to teach children that Israel exists, and Hamas’ children’s TV openly preaches anti-Semitism. While Fatah’s leadership may profess to the West supporting peace, their own internal messaging has been more mixed — such as recently naming a town square after a terrorist whose only achievement was killing an innocent Israeli family.
Democracies are not perfect, and neither is Israel

We have heard it repeatedly: “Criticizing Israel publicly is not pro-Israel.” Whether you agree or not, picking on Israel is not what I am advocating here.

We just have to stop acting like we are infallible when we all know that no one, and no nation, is perfect.

We live in a sound-bite age, where pundits are expected to say, “We are right and they are wrong.” Pro-Israel activists are trained to say that Israel takes measures it deems necessary to defend itself and not acknowledge those measures’ collateral effects. It may work for news opinion shows, but the real world is not that way. 

Democratic countries are made of human beings with flaws that extend to their governments, but that does not mean we should get rid of the country. If we got rid of a country just because of mistakes the government made, the United States might have perished numerous times.    

Going into specific faults is unnecessary. Just admitting that our side is not perfect goes a long way toward establishing credibility with skeptics and further acknowledges that Israel at least has the democratic checks and balances that the surrounding countries don’t. 

Nothing in the Middle East is simple

People, especially ideologues, like to see things in the stark contrasts of right and wrong. Just as conservatives value “freedom,” progressives value “justice” and are wary of the use of corporate or military means to oppress or deny any group access to its basic needs and rights, such as food, shelter and freedom of expression.

Progressives distrust state use of military-industrial power, so when they see the Israel Defense Forces in uniforms and Palestinian militiamen in plain clothes, the reflexive reaction is to sympathize with the side that does not appear to be an extension of organized military might (even if both are actually organized armies).

Of course, the situation is not that simple. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very complex, involving land, water, peace and a multitude of groups, some of which have a vested interest in opposing peace. The governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are, for the most part, trying to move to the middle despite the pressures, years of distrust and the fact that neither side has been very good at keeping its word to the other (resulting in many lost opportunities on both sides).

Even the issues of borders and settlements are complex, with the borders changing in 1948, 1967 and even 1973, and with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin both using the issue of settlements as a negotiating chip during peace negotiations (how easily we have forgotten that Begin invested heavily in settlements in the Sinai).

The more we openly discuss how complex the situation is, the more we can shift the argument from blaming one party to a broader discussion of the complexities of the region and how the parties can come together. Other conflicts based on deep and long-lasting religious and ethnic divisions (such as Northern Ireland) were not settled by blaming a single party, but by acknowledging that everyone shares responsibility.

Andrew Lachman is the past president of Democrats for Israel — Los Angeles and is a current member of the Democratic National Committee and a Truman National Security Project Partner.

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.