27 March 2007

Reading: There & Here


1. The Nation has an amazing new article worth reading to anyone interested in the treatment of returning - and disabled - American soldiers: "How Specialist Town Lost His Benefits," by Joshua Kors.

2. Just in time for Passover, The Forward has a terrific new editorial, "The Choices of Freedom," that is worth reading for anyone interested in American-Israel relations (and problems like the ones I mentioned here, here, and here, among many other articles).


3. With Passover closing in, how about some pointers to Passover-related items of my own, from 2002, 2003, and 2004. If one reads the comments posted under The Forward editorial I just mentioned, a few people criticize the paper for the connection it draws between being Jewish and being American. Re-reading my own, old Passover essays, I clearly agree with The Forward: there are lots of emotional and psychological connections here, and we should celebrate, not scorn, them.

25 March 2007

Irrelevant Distractions

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Back when George W. Bush was running for president the first time around, there was much discussion about his self-acknowledged, hard-partying past. The accusations tossed around about Bush’s personal history focused on whether or not he lied about certain actions (e.g., whether he had used cocaine), and about whether this implied something about the kind of president he would be (arguably, yes). But the word “alcoholic” was not used and there was very little analysis that suggested this reformed drinker might lapse while in office, giving way to a temptation that would have had negative consequences for his presidency and the country.

This not-too-distant history seems relevant yet again during a week that came to be dominated by the news that Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Senator and current presidential candidate John Edwards, has incurable cancer. Actually, the news was less about Mrs. Edwards’ cancer and more that, in the face of the disease, both Senator Edwards and his wife agreed that his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination will continue. That has occasioned much comment – about her bravery, their marriage, and his devotion to her and to the job he hopes to hold. It has also lead to a lot of public discussion and comment about whether or not Mrs. Edwards’ illness would prove to be a distraction for the Senator should he become president – and whether, on its own, the fear of this distraction would (or should) be enough to undermine his campaign.

Since it is a staple of American politics today that just about everything is relevant to each candidate’s likely success or failure, the whole construct of in-office distractibility is both hard to pierce and yet also rather absurd. Consider, for instance, not just President Bush and the theoretical danger of his alcohol-infused past, but the fact that for seven years we have had a Vice President with a fairly consistent set of serious health complications, which (most recently) had him back in the hospital over a blood clot of the kind that (the Associated Press noted) kills more than 60,000 Americans a year. Cheney’s hospital visits were noted by news outlets, but there were no suggestions either that Cheney should step down from office, or that his challenging health situation was weighing on President Bush’s ability to do his job.

Senator Hillary Clinton, also running for president, also has a spouse with an illness – albeit a treatable one that appears under control: former President Bill Clinton’s heart seems to be healthy, but he did have a rather serious operation not that many years ago. Still, whatever the arguments against her, it has yet to be suggested that Bill Clinton’s health should weigh down her campaign. Senator John McCain, gunning for the Republican nomination, has had several bouts with cancer himself, and has tried to joke about it, along with his comparatively advanced age. There are plenty of reasons to feel negatively disposed to McCain, but if concerns about his health and its impact on his potential job performance were among them, he would be out of the race already.

Furthermore, to say that the presidency is a demanding job is surely an understatement. Distractions of all kinds must be the bread and butter of life in the White House, no matter how well-organized or CEO-like a president seeks to be. If this appears to argue for electing a candidate without an ill spouse, consider the general set of vulnerabilities inherent in marriage – indeed, in our species writ large. No one can predict what might happen to any individual who holds office, or whether something happens to their spouse, children, parents, or to the nation. After all, during Bush’s term, he choked on a pretzel; he may not have been in serious danger, considering the number of people watching over him, but anyone who has ever choked on anything knows the sense fear that choking rightly evokes. More to the point, something worse could have happened, but we do not generally make our voting decisions on that basis.

This is not an endorsement of Senator Edwards’ campaign; I am neutral on that, for now. But whatever the discussion about John Edwards’ weaknesses and challenges, his wife’s illness should not be counted among them. We are a fallible, fragile species, trying our best to survive in a world fraught with unpredictable dangers. Better to focus on whether Senator Edwards – or any other candidate – is prepared to face what comes, and has the right principles and policies necessary to lead us through any challenge s/he and we may face.

18 March 2007

Using Kids Badly

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The new television game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader” is clever and witty, and its success in the ratings bolsters this point. But, as with past game show / reality TV exercises such as “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People”, this new series rather misses the point, not to mention a great opportunity. The producers should have taken advantage of the less-sullied minds of today’s fifth graders to ask questions that will really challenge the contestants, and American audiences broadly: to learn more about the world, to decipher the mysteries of life, and to evaluate the moral and ethical questions that kids so often see with a clarity unavailable to adults.

Imagine for a moment, while I offer three examples...

  • Instead of asking “How many cups are there in 8 gallons?”, participants might have been asked “How many Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) were found in Iraq?”

  • Don’t bother with “What year was Abraham Lincoln first elected?” Move directly on to “In which recent election were ballots in many states not properly counted?”

  • Why worry about “Which geological period are we currently in?” when rapid climate change may hasten the arrival of the next one. Perhaps the question posed should be “Which nation produces the most carbon dioxide?” or even “Should global warming be of concern to America?”

The idea that Americans have a problem with a very basic level of “literacy” is hardly new. Our public school system was (once) pioneering, driven by the belief that education is critical to the success of the nation. We have wavered since then, creating systems that don’t work, or work quite poorly. Many critics have also achieved great fame (and, likely, small fortunes) by establishing the scope of how much we don’t know and trying, in one way or another, to remedy the problem. Bully for them, though it seems rather more difficult to measure subsequent improvement, despite the “information age”in which we allegedly live.

Alas, Fox’s new TV show does not do much to help. At a time when we have a deeply incurious, anti-intellectual president, a four-year war with no end in sight, a Congress firmly intent on doing nothing (while looking very busy) until the next election, presidential candidates who lack either a sense of direction or, simply, common sense, and a population that seems increasingly less able to distinguish between Britney and Brittany, we ought at least to put the wisdom of our children to better use. Either that, or get them off of television and outside for some exercise – which might address another of our “growingproblems.

14 March 2007

It's Noirish On the Other Side

On the other side: a new post on the back-catalog of books by Lawrence Block, many of which are now out in print again. For Block fans, mystery readers, etc., check it out.

11 March 2007

Protesting Too Much

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Professor Stanley Fish, one of The New York Times’ blog-op-ed-ers, recently wrote a fascinating post: “Is It Good For The Jews?” Among my many reactions to this (well-written and articulate) set of arguments was the feeling, yet again, that I have more to fear from the American Jewish institutional community than I do from Americans generally. Too much of American Jewish life become fixated on the idea that we have reason to be concerned for our welfare, our community, and (above all else) our co-religionists in Israel. Therefore, these organizations – like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, not to mention the many “United Jewish Communities” fundraising organizations – have decided that the best method for ensuring uncritical American support for Israel is to create an American Jewish community that is perceived as unified in thought and deed by forcibly squashing alternative opinions wherever possible. The American Jewish Committee’s terrible and nasty publication “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, is but one example of this.

Fish’s post further concluded that he “can’t buy” the idea that, as he quotes a friend, “criticism of Israel is one thing, anti-Semitism another.” This reflects a common tactic of this American Jewish political correctness, to label anyone who disagrees, Jewish or not, an anti-Semite. Let me be clear: I am not accusing Professor Fish of doing this; but his comment mirrors that effort, while perpetuating the belief that the fates of Israel (a nation-state) and worldwide Judaism (a religion) are inextricably intertwined, and that they cannot be legitimately separated out for analysis. This view is simplistic and irrational.

It was with all of these concerns very much top of mind that I read with sadness the recent story of the two German bishops who, following a visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories, were quoted as drawing interesting historical connections. The New York Timesarticle on 10 March said: “‘In the morning, we see the photos of the inhuman Warsaw Ghetto, and this evening we travel to the ghetto in Ramallah; that makes you angry,’ Bishop Hanke was quoted as saying...” A Jewish Press report said: “Asked to confirm that statement, [Bishop] Mixa said, ‘I wanted to say that building the wall between Israel and the Palestinian autonomous areas, as well as the many Israeli settlements, amounts to a degree of provocation from the point of view of the Palestinian population.’” (For other articles, of which there are many, see: Associated Press, as well as this news search or this news search.)

The Jewish reaction was swift and harsh. The tireless and ever-vigilant Anti-Defamation League put out a press release calling for the bishops to “publicly repudiate” their statements. The director of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, said “Israel's actions do not bear any resemblance to the Nazis,” and that these comments do “nothing to help us understand what is going on [in Israel] today.” The Times reported Israel’s ambassador to Germany as saying that these comments were “verging on anti-Semitism,” while the highest-ranking Catholic in Germany quickly put out a statement distancing himself and the German branch of the Church from these statements. And as the above news searches show, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

And so, to Shakespeare, because there is too much protesting going on here. It is true that Israel is not – absolutely is not – conducting a simple, genocidal campaign against the Palestinian people.

But the situation does bear resemblances to other conflicts, including those of World War II, and in this it must be acknowledged that these two German bishops had a few good points to make. Israel has effectively cordoned off Palestinians into ghettos, much as the Germans did to Jews across Europe (not just in Warsaw). Access in and out is tightly controlled; while the Israelis have freedom of movement, the Palestinians do not. Moreover, this access extends to everything from money to supplies, ensuring that the Palestinians living in these ghettos do suffer a range of deprivations, while the Israelis on the other side of the Israeli-built border wall have access to just about everything they can afford to buy. And these oppressive conditions certainly “amounts to a degree of provocation from the point of view of the Palestinian population,” as Bishop Mixa said – just as partisan fighters in Europe’s ghettos fought back against their imprisonment.

The pro-Israel counter-arguments are to fall back on attacking the implied connection of genocide – not, it should be noted, ever stated directly by the bishops – and to then twist the politics into knots by declaring that the Palestinians have only themselves to blame. After all, asks Commentary, are the bishops too stupid to know that “Israel’s fence, [was] built to protect its people from Palestinian terrorists”? And so here we are back at the weakness of the American Jewish lobby, which cannot tolerate any Israel criticism whatsoever – even when true. The Palestinians have certainly been guilty of terrible acts of terrorist violence, and should definitely change their ways. Violence only begets more violence, as I keep writing. But the failures of the Palestinians cannot always justify the inhumane actions of the Israelis. The real shame of it is that, at some point, American citizens will realize – as with the Iraq war – they they have been mislead, and eventually the entire framework of American support for Israel will collapse. That, to Professor Fish’s point, would surely be bad for the Jews.

08 March 2007

Clueless in Chicago

I'll make this fast and then commit to leaving this subject alone for at least a few days. But...

On Sunday, I posted about Senator Obama's speech to AIPAC and my attempts to give the campaign some feedback. Yesterday, I received not a reply to my comments, but a fundraising e-mail. An e-mail that seemed somewhat at odds with the Senator's speech to AIPAC, as I noted in the second post.

We're now on to post #3, because tonight I received yet ANOTHER e-mail, this one ostensibly from David Plouffe, apparently Senator Obama's Campaign Manager. This e-mail was -- if you can believe it -- a forward of yesterday's e-mail with a new note at the top. It said, in part:

I just wanted to follow up with you on Barack's note below.

Something unique happened yesterday: more than 5,000 people participated in our new donor drive in the first 24 hours.

But more important than the numbers themselves is the way people got involved.

Tell me, David: how did they get involved? Probably not by contacting the campaign about an issue of importance to them and seeking clarification on the Senator's views. I can say that from personal experience.

Meanwhile: how is that the Obama Campaign can figure out that they should forward me an e-mail they already sent me (to which I clearly did not respond), but they can't figure out how to respond to a call I placed to the campaign ... and a message I sent through the campaign's web site ... and first one, and then two, rather public messages on the web?

Ok, I'm done. Let's just hope it's out of my system.

07 March 2007

New in Obama-Land

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Following up on Sunday’s post about my call to the Obama campaign last week, a few things have happened...

1) I received more e-mail from Senator Obama. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it, especially after the comments I sent into the campaign? Well, no. With a subject line that said “Waiting to hear from you,” the e-mail went on to say:

The special-interest industry in Washington has only grown since the last election, and it will spend more money than ever this time to try to own our political process and dictate our policies in Washington.

We're not going to play that game. We're not taking any contributions from Washington lobbyists or political action committees.

We're going to transform the political process by bringing together hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans to build a campaign responsible to no one but the people -- people like you.

Well, actually, Senator, all of this doesn’t feel quite right, following on the heels of your speech to one of the most powerful political action committees, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Furthermore, Senator, if anyone is waiting to hear from anyone in this relationship, I am now waiting to hear from you. I have called. I have sent a comment via your web site. You talk about “a campaign responsible to no one but the people,” but I am currently waiting for a little proof of that.

2) Meanwhile, although it’s easy to pretend that supporting Israel is the best or only path to Middle East peace, the King of Jordan today gave a speech to Congress pushing for greater, and better, and more effective U.S. involvement in this process, and it is clear that this will involve some concessions from everyone involved, including from Israel.

3) And Senator, I hate to be a downer, but what’s this whole thing about your investments? That’s some “blind trust”!

04 March 2007

Dear Senator Obama

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

On Friday, 2 March, the morning news reported that Senator Barack Obama would be speaking to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, at a meeting in Chicago. There, the announcer said, the Senator and presidential candidate would provide more information about his views on Israel. Well, I thought: much like Catholics kissing the Pope’s ring, a speech to AIPAC is, unfortunately, a requirement for anyone seeking the presidency. In and of itself, however, a speech to a political interest group is only that; for truth of content, we must look further. So, I looked at the Obama campaign web site and, indeed, more information was available, including an an article from the Chicago Sun-Times (dated 1 March 2007) about how the Senator is a stalwart Israel defender. In fact, referencing a speech the Senator gave to an audience in Cape Town, South Africa, the article concludes:

The crowd, clearly hostile to Israel, expected Obama to bash Israel on Lebanon. He did not. They were surprised.

They just did not know Obama well enough to realize who they were dealing with.

Undecided about a 2008 presidential favorite, and generally unhappy with the range of options, I nonetheless admire Senator Obama’s pluck, and he seems refreshingly un-bogged-down by some of the troublesome baggage of Senators Clinton, McCain, etc. A candidate’s views on Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be the determining factor in my selection process, but these decisions matter – and particularly whether a candidate has a sense of what must be done to encourage peace-making on both sides of the problem. In this light, the Sun-Times article on Obama’s views was not an auspicious sign, because no-holds-barred support for Israel will not lead to peace. Moreover, since AIPAC likes to present itself as representative of the American Jewish community writ large, a speech to this group is no mere campaign whistle-stop.

I decided to call Senator Obama’s campaign, ahead of the speech, to let the campaign know that the American Jewish community is not monolithic in its views or its votes – and to see what kind of a response I received. Things went down hill rapidly from there.

Call Center

The web site lists a toll-free number (866-675-2008), which first got me a recorded Obama telling me about his commitment to work for a better America. Shortly after that finished, the system clicked in the background, and then I found myself listening to a woman introduce herself (she gave me her name, which I will withhold for her benefit), followed by the reading of a statement about Senator Obama’s campaign; then she asked me what she could do for me. She had a bit of a twang in her voice and she sounded rather young, and her reading of the statement was clear but not especially impassioned; I could not discern much beyond that.

I said that I was calling because I had heard that Senator Obama would be speaking to AIPAC, and that, having read the article on his web site, I wanted to express a different perspective on Israel, as an American Jew, a voter, and a potential Obama supporter. The woman said that her schedule didn’t show a record of the AIPAC speech, and she paused for a minute to check again, confirming that she did not know about it.

Well, I said, that didn’t matter, since the Senator’s web site said it was happening. More importantly, a picture of the Senator’s views on the subject was beginning to take shape, and so I thought it important to register formally a comment with the campaign that (as I’ve written above) the American Jewish community is not monolithic in its views or its votes. I said that how America handled Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was important to me as a voter, but not necessarily in the way that a candidate might assume from listening to AIPAC. I elaborated further, for a good 60 seconds.

To cut to the chase: the response from the woman on the other end of the phone was underwhelming. She made no attempt to repeat some position point from the Senator’s campaign documents, she didn’t comment, or say something like “That’s very interesting, sir, I’m sure the Senator will appreciate knowing this.” I could have been ordering diapers or dog food, in fact, because after a pause appropriately long enough to suggest she’d heard what I said, I heard, “Great, well, can I have your name?” Sure, why not. I gave the woman my name, an e-mail address, and some other contact info. Then she asked me if the campaign can send me information; sure, I said. Then she asked if I’d be willing to consider finding ways to support the Senator’s campaign; sure, I said, send me some info, I’m undecided at this point, and cannot commit, but happy to consider it.

I hear typing in the background, the clickety-click of a keyboard. Then she said to me, “And what message would you like to give to the Senator?”

Well, at this point, the message I’d like to give is: Senator Obama, this probably isn’t the best way to run a campaign. I may not have been naïve enough to think that calling the Senator’s campaign phone number would get me connected with some Bright Young Thing fresh from a West Wing viewing, someone who would do his or her best to explain to me why their candidate was the best and why my vote matters... That would have been naïve, not to mention hopeful – hopeful in the way that Obama himself suggests voters should be. Much too naïve, clearly, since this conversation was deadeningly clinical and disengaged from any political substance. As things wrapped up, I went for broke and asked the woman who she was really. “I work at a call center,” she told me. She does not work for the Obama campaign, then? No, she’s in Texas, working for a call center; they help take calls for the campaign; she told me she works for a company called ACD Direct; a quick check of their site reveals this is, indeed, their business. “Anything else I can do for you today?”, she wanted to know? Nope, I think she’s done quite enough.

A Message to Senator Obama

After this auspicious start, I decided to use the web site “Contact Us” tool on the Senator’s campaign site to reiterate my message. I had, in truth, no real belief that this would get a better response than the phone call I’d just completed, but as a friend of mine says, “God loves a trier.” Indeed. Here is my message to Senator Obama – and here is the automated reply I received [note: this is a PDF file]. At this point, I don’t expect to hear much more from the Senator’s campaign, but I’ll reiterate my message once again:

I am writing because I think Senator Obama is an interesting candidate, and I’m a New Yorker who does not like or support Senator Clinton. When I heard that the Senator would be speaking to AIPAC – and when I saw the article on the Obama campaign web site – I felt it was necessary to make my voice heard because American support for Israel is an issue that’s important to me.

Senator Obama should know that the American Jewish community is not monolithic. I am a Jew, living in New York; I’m religiously committed, and I support Israel’s right to exist. But I disagree deeply with the perspectives on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are articulated by the likes of AIPAC. I think it’s important for Senator Obama to know that – to know that there are potential voters, Jewish voters, who would like to see a change in U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine and towards the conflict as a whole. We do not all agree with or support AIPAC.

That, Senator Obama, is my message. What happens from here is up to you. I harbor no illusions.

Updated: Also see the second and third posts in this series.