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Nov 17 12

Stand For Peace

by Editor

Like any compassionate human, I am distraught and saddened by the escalating violence, terror, destruction, and death taking place in parts of Israel and Gaza.

But do not ask me to “stand with Israel.” And do not ask me to “stand with Palestine.” I cannot; I will not.

I stand with the people of every nationality, religion, or ethnicity who live in fear for their lives and livelihoods, who worry about how to protect themselves, their families and their children. I stand with the Israelis and the Palestinians who are forced to wonder under what arbitrary moment they may find themselves in mortal danger–merely for being Palestinian or Israel; merely for living–and, especially, with those who, in the face of such terror, are brave enough to resist the temptation to view the conflict in Manichean terms.

The blame for the present debacle falls squarely and evenly on the governing bodies on both sides, in Palestine and in Israel. Sitting in synagogue this morning, listening to my compassionate, erudite, and peace-loving rabbi carefully choose his words and frame his remarks on the subject, it occurred to me that perhaps the best framework for articulating my views is one that follows the traditional form of the Al Cheyt confessional said by many Jews on Yom Kippur. It might go something like this:

For the sins we have committed before You by believing that there is no partner for peace.

And for the sins we have committed before You by refusing to pursue peace before war.

For the sins we have committed before You by exercising power.

And for the sins we have committed before You by believing that power and might make right.

For the sins we have committed before You by those who should know better.

And for the sins we have committed before You by those who never had the chance to learn.

For the sins we have committed before You by using doublespeak, to speak of peace while engaging in war.

And for the sins we have committed before You by equating peace only with victory.

For the sins we have committed before You under duress and willingly.

And for the sins we have committed before You through having a hard heart.

For the sins we have committed before You by instilling fear in the hearts of the innocent.

And for the sins we have committed before You by mistaking aggression for bravery.

For the sins we have committed before You by using fear, oppression, and repression as a tool of politics.

And for the sins we have committed before You by cloaking theocracy in democracy.

For the sins we have committed before You in thinking a Jewish life is worth more than a Muslim one.

And for the sins we have committed before You in thinking that a Muslim life is worth more than a Jewish one.

I am an American, and a Jew. As an American, I “stand with” my country, but part of my standing with it is also standing up to it: speaking out when I believe it is wrong, and when the actions taken by my government do not represent my views or my values.

That I am Jewish does not mean that I am an Israeli. Nor does it mean that I can support or “stand with” Israel–especially when its actions betray the values of the Judaism we allegedly share.

And I cannot stand with Palestine, despite my deep sympathies for their plight and an unwavering belief in the right to Palestinian statehood. But the government(s) of Hamas and Fatah are complicit, along with the Israelis, in de-prioritizing peace and in stoking the embers of a conflict that periodically flares up, at great cost to the Palestinian people.

Instead, I say that now is the time for Palestinians and Israelis–the people, not the nations–to stand with each other and demand a cessation of hostilities. To demand change.

Perhaps the place to start is by atoning for their mistakes, and asking for forgiveness from each other as a first step in rebuilding a comprehensive and meaningful process for peace.

Nov 13 12


by Editor

Since Hurricane Sandy hit New York, I have been out to the Rockaways three times, and to Staten Island once. I have delivered supplies of food, water, diapers, cleaning materials, and other necessities. I have helped unload other cars and vans delivering similar items and load them into a distribution center that was being set up at Saint Camillus Church. I made a delivery of materials to Midland Park on Staten Island. I spent an entire day on assignment by Team Rubicon, emptying and stripping someone’s flooded, moldy basement, carting out mountains of hardware and electrical tools and what must have been a beloved model train installation. I carried water and other necessities up 17 flights of stairs in a high-rise building full of elderly people who had no power, and thus no elevators–and thus limited access to nearly everything they needed to keep themselves alive.

I have written “I” here, but I was hardly alone. I did all of this with friends new and old, with unaffiliated Upper West Side neighbors who responded to a call for help, with people from the Manhattan JCC, and with a group from my synagogue. I did it with the help of friends who used Facebook to post about places in need, people who posted to Twitter about people with needs, and the encouragement of many friends both within and outside the region.

And nearly everywhere I went in the Rockaways and Staten Island, I saw volunteers connected to Occupy Sandy.

So I write, now, to offer an apology to the folks at Occupy. Here you have it: I’m sorry.

In May of this year–before the hurricane, before the election–I stated that I was distinctly unimpressed with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Among other things, I wrote:

Unfortunately, beyond gifting us the convenient marketing idea of the 99% versus the 1%, OWS has not accomplished much—and marketing slogans are useful, but they’re not enough to create or carry a movement over time. Beyond that one framing device, OWS hasn’t taken us anywhere new: complaining about capitalism is hardly a novelty, nor is focusing on the most nefarious or cronyistic aspects of it, especially after the spectacular crash we have gone through in the last three years.

Instead, I said, if…

“…the Occupy-ers really want to have an impact, a transformational effect on our society, then they should take steps to influence our society directly. Instead of expending oxygen saying there’s no explicit political agenda, or arguing over why it’s important that they remain leaderless … move away from political protest and get engaged in real social change. Perhaps the most valuable thing these people could give is their time—time spent doing something rather than, er, nothing.”

That is exactly what has happened, and I suppose one could say I called this outcome rather presciently. But I could never have predicted Hurricane Sandy, and what was missing from my complaint and my suggestion was the creation of the network in the first place. If OWS had not happened–whether you consider it a success or not, or whether you consider “success” beside the point–the network that enables Occupy Sandy to help so many people is clearly a direct outgrowth of the methods tested and the network built during the height of Occupy Wall Street.

Some issues still exist; the insistently leaderless nature of the Occupy movement has its drawbacks. On my first run with supplies, I was directed to go to a church in Belle Harbor. By the time I got there, an hour later, they were no longer accepting deliveries and there was some confusion as to where we should go. On my second run: same problem, a full distribution center and clearly we should have been sent somewhere else. This time, as it began to get dark, the shelters began to close–but no one (Occupy or otherwise) seemed to have a clear sense of where we could go to unload a car full of items, rather than haul them back to Manhattan. As responsive as the group has been, especially via Twitter, the lack of a “central command” means just that: there’s no single master plan.

Overall, though, the impact in hurricane-stricken areas been a well-deserved, well-earned triumph for Occupy. I would not wish the destruction of Hurricane Sandy on anyone, but it has demonstrated a capacity for caring and community engagement that goes miles beyond neighborliness. Personally, I am hoping to make another trip and put in another day of labor. So, I am sorry, Occupy folks, and you have my apology. And I hope when the hurricane crisis fades, you will be able to take what you have learned from this experience and reapply it back to the political arena. Clearly, our nation needs more hands-on help than just slogans about the things that divide us.

Coming soon, part II: New York Neighborly State of Mind

Oct 24 12

Fundamental Beliefs

by Editor

By now, if you’re paying attention to election politics nationally, you know that Richard Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer and the Republican candidate for the state’s open Senate seat, made some interesting remarks during a debate with his opponent. Referring to his absolutist position against abortion, even in instances in which the pregnancy was the result of rape, he said:

“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mr. Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Those two sentences caused a bit of a firestorm, resulting in a statement of clarification from Mourdock:

“God creates life, and that was my point. God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that he does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick.”

Feel better now? You probably shouldn’t–but likely not for the reasons you think.


I believe Mr. Mourdock when he says that rape is horrible and he hadn’t intended to suggest otherwise. I also believe him when he says that he’s pretty sure God doesn’t want rape either. But in reading and re-reading Mourdock’s different statements, his phrasing–perhaps less deliberate in his debate remarks, and surely more careful in his subsequent clarification–raises a different question about who is responsible for a rape, and for everything else that happens in the world.

If Mr. Mourdock believes, as he says, that God “intended” a pregnancy to happen after a rape, then surely this does also mean that God’s will is an active and omnipresent force, reigning over everything: from the decisions of the rapist, to the decisions of the rape victim, to the decisions of all the voters who might (or might not) elect him to the Senate, to every decision he has made or will make going forward. Including his remarks about rape, God, and pregnancy. In other words, if one espouses a view of God’s role in the world that is fundamental, how can one possibly draw lines to say this is where God is influential, focused, attentive … and this is where God is not? How would any of us know? For Mourdock himself: if wins his race, he will almost surely thank God. But will he also accept defeat as God’s will?

The only real alternative to this fundamentalist point of view is to ascribe certain actions and occurrences to a nearly as powerful but much more malign force, i.e., Satan. There is a long history of that, but it is also not without its problems: if Satan is responsible for the horrible actions of the rapist, how do we know that Satan is not also responsible for the pregnancy that might result from the rape? How can Mr. Mourdock be so sure that God didn’t intend for the rape to happen, but did intend for the pregnancy to happen?


Of course, hearing statements to the effect of “Life begins at conception” always makes me think: duh.

From a hardcore scientific perspective–let’s put God out of this equation for now–it seems quite likely that this is true: life begins at conception. The fertilization of an egg and the creation of a new being, one with a different (but related) genetic composition from its host, all sounds like “life.” Is it a life capable of an independent existence untethered from its host (also known as Mom)? In the case of humans not for many, many weeks. Is it a life about which anyone can say anything beyond the host’s individual hopes, expectations, anxieties, or devastations? No. Capable of independent thought? Not yet. (Is it a life according to Judaism? No.)

But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t a life, in a scientific way.

Nor does this mean that there aren’t priorities greater than this unborn, unsustainable life.

The abortion arguments remind me of the ways in which Democrats and Republicans, the devoutly religious and the devoutly atheistic, “liberals” and “conservatives,” can talk past each other without ever really getting it. I know very few people who support abortion rights who also believe that abortion itself is a good thing in and of itself. Yet too often people who are “pro-choice” are therefore accused of being “anti-life.”

This misunderstands the arguments in favor of legal abortion, which not only weigh the life of the mother over the unborn “life” that cannot exist without that mother, but also recognizes that illegal abortions have always occurred and are much more dangerous for everyone involved. Instead of fixating on making abortion illegal, those opposed might instead work harder to prevent unwanted pregnancies from happening in the first place. (And I don’t mean by teaching abstinence.)

At the same time, in the zeal to protect abortion rights, the question of “life” often gets less consideration than it might. Perhaps if those who are “pro-choice” acknowledged more readily the scientific possibilities for defining life–rationally, through empiricism and not theism, much the same way one believes in the truth of Darwin’s theory of the evolution of humans–they would find themselves with more respect, maybe even cooperation, from those who oppose abortion out of theological motives. People would continue to disagree, but might do so from a better perspective, one infused with respect rather than hatred.

And ultimately, we might be able to avoid having arguments that place men like Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock in the position of making statements that are offensive, even downright stupid, out of a desire to express their holiness while they sit in judgment of others.

Sep 6 12

Clintonian Nostalgia

by Editor

After last night’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, it is quite clear that former president Bill Clinton is the contemporary Democrat’s answer to Ronald Reagan. It isn’t just that he’s the only living two-term Democrat there is–though this helps. Clinton reflects an era that most Democrats feel they can be proud of, much the way that Republicans reflect on the halcyon days of the Reagan administration. For the older voters in the audience (based on their faces, as the cameras scanned the crowds) Clinton seemed to evoke an appropriate nostalgia, while the younger conventioneers seemed to be looking at him as an elder statesmen–which he now is, hand tremors and all.

It also doesn’t hurt that both the facts and the talking points for the Clinton era–in terms of economic expansion, bi-partisan management of Social Security, welfare, and other “entitlement” programs, and tax policy–are in many ways better than those of the Reagan era. (Especially since Republicans like to forget the ways in which Ronald Reagan raised taxes, skipped pursuing anti-abortion legislation, and subtly abandoned other conservative dogmas in favor of bi-partisan cooperation to expand the military and, of course, “bring down” the Soviet Union.) Yes, Clinton’s speech was long. But he gave the crowd what they seemed to want: a smart, policy driven rationale for electing Obama and rebutting the thin arguments of the Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaign.

However, as impressed as I was by Clinton’s speech, it was difficult not to escape a certain kind of negative nostalgia, too. Every time Clinton sucked on his cheek in between making a point, every time he raised his hands and wagged his fingers, it recalled the worst moments of his presidency. It isn’t that I care especially whether Clinton had affairs while in (or out of) office; I don’t. Ultimately these are issues between Bill and Hillary Clinton. It isn’t even that he lied about them, since this isn’t an especially shocking response. The problem was the person with whom he had the affair–and the collective Democratic response, as led by Hillary Clinton.

Because there is no getting around it. First, Clinton had an affair with someone who worked for him, an affair that can only have been between unequals. Who on a president’s staff is his equal? Certainly not an intern, a star-struck post-college intern. If he wanted to have an affair with some wealthy supporter or other outside lady–perhaps equally star-struck, but less implicitly susceptible to coercion–that would have been a different story. But if you or I had an affair with an office intern, whatever might have been “consensual” would have been immediately considered irrelevant in the face of the workplace power dynamic, a dynamic that could only be worse in the White House. Bill Clinton should have known better and should have done better.

Second, once it became known, Hillary Clinton and a generation of likeminded women rallied around him to condemn every voice that sought to question Bill Clinton’s integrity. No, the Oval Office blow job was not an impeachable offense; but neither was it forgivable. For Hillary Clinton to throw over all the feminist principles to which she had dedicated her life–including the principle (is it a stretch to call it that?) that women in the workplace should be treated as colleagues, not as sex objects–must have hurt. But apparently it didn’t hurt so much that she wasn’t willing to do it.

All these years later it is clear that the Republicans who tried to impeach Bill Clinton overreached. They paid for it politically, too, as well they should have. But all these years later, the Democrats who continue to rally for and be rallied by Clinton would do well not to gloss over this history too readily. This is not about the issues in the Clinton’s marriage; most marriages are complicated and difficult to understand from the outside. This is about being clear-headed in the face of an alluring nostalgia, and about remembering what your principles are, why you believe in them, and not allowing them to be swept away by rhetorical flourishes.

After all, if you want an example of the dangers of lost principles, just look at the Republicans. If Bill Clinton’s stature is like Ronald Reagan’s, then George W. Bush’s is the opposite: the Republicans’ 21st century Herbert Hoover and clearly The Man Who Will Not Be Named By Republicans During This Campaign.