Archive for the ‘Political Campaign Rhetoric’ category

When Purim Invades the Headlines

February 23, 2017

The Jewish world will soon be observing the holiday of Purim.  I said “observing” when truth be known, we Jews don’t just “observe” Purim; we CELEBRATE it!  We dress in costume.  We hold the most raucous, noisiest worship service of the year.  We sing and we shout and we stomp our feet.  We eat and we drink (and I am not just talking about iced tea or punch but the hard stuff, for on Purim the Talmud commands us to drink so much that we can no longer tell the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.”[1]).  And then, of course there is the Purim Seudah (feast – in our case, a pizza dinner) and the ever popular Carnival.  We eat hamantaschen, send shlach manot (food gifts to our loved ones) and matanot le’evyonim (gifts to the poor).  It is Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve, that December season of giving whose name we never mention, all rolled up into one.  It is one heck of a party and we fondly carry our childhood memories of it with us throughout our lives.

Yet somehow or other, in the midst of all our partying, we can often forget why we party so; what is the cause of the celebration?

The answer is wrapped in a sinister cloud.  It is dark and it is painful.  For Purim commemorates our victory over antisemitism.  It celebrates the defeat of Haman – the Hitler of his day – whose goal it was to accomplish nothing short of a genocide of the Jewish people.  So we party hardy as an affirmation of life in what was supposed to be the face of a certain and horrible death.  Purim is the personification of the old saying, “The definition of every Jewish holiday is:  They tried to kill us.  We won.  Let’s eat!”

Today, most of us intentionally avoid these more somber thoughts when it comes to Purim.  We choose to focus on the joy rather than on the fear.

Unfortunately, this year, at least some of that fear seems to be unavoidable for we have been forced to confront the fact that antisemitism is real and alive in our nation as well as in the rest of the world.  Over the last 72 hours the news media has “discovered” that antisemitism really exists in the United States. The dramatic vandalism of the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, with the desecration of over 100 gravestones, along with the addition of 11 more bomb threats to Jewish community centers (bringing the number up to 59 if my math and facts are correct), coupled with the President’s bizarre reticence to address the very issue of antisemitism or to even mention Jews in his statement about Holocaust memorial, and his finally condemning (though weakly) the acts of antisemitism, have forced not only the President but the mainstream media to acknowledge this elephant in the room, if only for the moment. But as we all should know, this issue is an even greater one that many are willing to admit.  And these are only the stories that the mainstream media has picked up on.  For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you know that since 2014 I have been reporting, almost on an daily basis, various acts of antisemitism that have taken place in our country and around the world.  I know that there are those that have found my “Antisemitism in Action” reports to be somewhat irritating and alarmist for our lives have been good lives and we generally don’t live in fear.  But still, these attacks upon our people are real and they have been real for some time now.  Unfortunately, they will continue to be real after this current news cycle ends and the stories of antisemitism once again fade from the headlines.

Obviously, there is nothing new about antisemitism. It has been with us for at least 2,000 years. Over that time it has taken on nuanced changes but at its core, it has essentially remained the same and, of course, its impact upon the Jewish people has most certainly remained the same. It matters but little what excuse the antisemites give for despising us, for degrading us, and for persecuting us, in the end it all results in the same suffering, ranging from humiliation to extermination.

That being said, today what we are experiencing in America is not the same singular hatred that has marked most of the history of antisemitism. Rather, today’s American antisemitism is but one component of a complex dynamic of American hatred that has found its voice and has felt profoundly empowered over the past year, especially in the wake of the recent presidential campaign. For today’s American antisemitism is intimately and inextricably connected to a web of hatred which includes racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism (and probably a few other bigotries I forgot to mention). For quite some time now I have been fond of saying, “Those who hate tend to be equal opportunity haters.” Today in America those “equal opportunity haters” are sensing a new liberation as they are stepping out of the shadows and coming out from under their rocks to assert their prejudices upon our society, and Jew hatred is but one of those prejudices.

But all this should not get us down.  After all, soon it will be Purim and we will be celebrating; celebrating vigorously.  Why will we be celebrating while bomb threats may be continuing to roll in and perhaps other Jewish cemeteries will be desecrated?  We will be celebrating because, just as our history has shown us, no matter what they try to do to us, in the end we will win.  We will win because it is our right to win.  We will win because there are too many good people in this world to allow evil to prosper.

There is an old Midrash about two men on a lake in a rowboat. One of them takes out a drill and starts boring under his seat. The other, in distress, calls out to him: “What do you think you are doing?” The fellow replies: “What do you care? It’s none of your business. I’m drilling under my own seat!” The moral is that we are all in this boat together – sink or swim. We cannot afford to focus solely on the prejudices that attack us personally. We must ban together – all victims of prejudice, along with all people of good conscience – and confront the current hatred in all of its forms, standing up for each other and standing with each other in common purpose.

If we ban together with others of good conscience in opposition to ALL forms of bigotry, including antisemitism, then we will win because we will not let the purveyors of hatred win.  We will stand up to them and we will defeat them, in much the same manner that Mordecai & Esther defeated Haman.  Each of us will just have to choose to be the Mordecai and the Esther of today.  HAPPY PURIM!!!!!!!

 

[1]   Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 7b.

Pre-Caucus Reflections

January 30, 2016

As many of you know, the Cantor and I will be leaving tomorrow to attend the annual meeting of the Mid West Association of Reform Rabbis. This particular gathering is without question my favorite of all my professional meetings and that is not just because it takes me annually to sunny and warm Scottsdale, Arizona in the midst of our Mid West winters. However, as much as I enjoy this annual gathering, this year it also makes me sad. It makes me sad because it will be pulling the Cantor and I, as well as the other Iowa Reform rabbis, away from the Iowa Caucuses. The Cantor and I have lived in this community for over 30 years and this will be the first time that we will not be attending the caucuses, and I feel very bad about that.
The Iowa Caucus experience is one of those “You-Had-To-Have-Been-There” type of events. It is not something that you can fully explain to others; at least not so that they can truly appreciate it. Our congregation draws from both sides of the River and how I wish we could give our Illinois congregants guest passes to the Caucuses just so that they can have the experience and not just assume that it is a glorified primary, for it is not. Indeed, on a personal level, being a registered member of one of the political parties, still I have this fantasy of being a fly on the wall at a caucus meeting of the other party, if for no other reason, the entertainment value of it all.
When the Cantor and I first came to Iowa, no political process could have been more foreign to us than the Caucus process. Growing up as we did in big cities of big states – New York and Detroit – our exposure to the political process was always rather impersonal and mechanical. Only once in my 25 years of living in New York City did I ever get to even see a presidential candidate in the flesh. It was Lyndon Johnson, back in 1964. He made a stump speech on the corner of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Thousands crowded the streets and from my vantage point, he looked about a 1/4 inch tall and there was no way I could even begin to make out his facial features. Since we have come to Iowa, we have not only experienced candidates in small groups but have enjoyed personal face-to-face conversations with several of them and even have had some of them, like John Kerry serve us food at a pancake breakfast. Now how many Americans can say that they have had the current Secretary of State plop a couple of pancakes on their plate?
But as exciting as all of that is – and you have to admit that it is very exciting to enjoy the exposure and the access that we have to these stars of the American political scene – in the end it does not even begin to compare with actually participating in the caucus itself. For attending and participating in a caucus is almost like stepping back in history, to a time when America was a more intimate place and the political process was really very personal; when not only your vote counted but also your voice.
I have to admit that at the first caucus we attended, we were pretty much thrown for a loop. We didn’t know what to expect and we surely did not expect the small group dynamics which is the heart and soul of the caucus event. There we were, with this mass of people in this site when we were told, “Those who are caucusing for this candidate meet in this corner and those who are caucusing for that candidate meet in that corner…” and so on. So, a bit disoriented, we walked to where the supporters of our candidate were gathering. Honestly, I cannot remember whether or not the Cantor and I were supporting the same candidate. A head count was taken and then we waited to find out whether our group was viable; whether we numbered enough to meet the minimum required percentage of the total population of our caucus site.
Well, we did, but other groups didn’t. So, somehow or other a leader of our group arose – I am not quite sure how – and he started tasking us on how to approach the members of the non-viable groups and convince them to join our ranks. So we went out to hock our wares; to convince these people to throw their support behind our candidate. Suddenly we found ourselves being not just voters but campaigners; advocates for our candidate, promoting the strengths of our candidate’s platform. In other words, we were called upon to be informed of the issues and where our candidate stood on them. We were called upon, not only to present to others where our candidate stood on the various issues but also why we personally felt that our candidate’s take on those issues were so important for the future of America.
Then there came the point where we had to gather with our new “converts”, take a new head count, report it to the officials so it could be submitted, and the rest was history.
There are those in other states who mock the Iowa Caucuses and shake their head in disbelief that such a small and unimportant state should have such a significant say in the future of our nation. I am sure that part of their mockery is pure jealousy, but most of it is pure ignorance; ignorance of what the caucus process is really like. Back in their states, they will vote on candidates without ever having set eyes on them except on television. Some of them will seriously explore and compare the platforms of the various candidates but most of them will depend upon those horrible, back biting, blood thirsty, campaign ads for the making of their decision. They may or may not ever engage in a conversation about the issues and which candidate holds what position on them. With little or no serious discussion, they will walk into a voting booth and cast their ballot.
But we, on the other hand, have received the greatest gift democracy can offer; the opportunity to become highly informed on the issues, to seriously grapple with the different stands of the candidates, and to participate in an electoral process which is not just isolated and solitary but is vibrant and interactive, and most of all, one that challenges us to be the most responsible voters we can possibly be.
This coming Monday I will surely miss participating in that process but if you are an Iowa resident, you need not miss it. I implore you not to miss it, no matter what party you identify with. In our democracy we say that our elections are the voice of the people. No where is that more true than in Iowa during the Caucuses. So make your voice heard! Don’t be one of those pathetic Americans who, after all is said and done, rants and rails about their bitterness, and complains that they did not have a say.

A PASSIONATE CALL FOR A RETURN TO POSITIVE POLITICAL CAMPAIGNING

May 24, 2012

Back in 2006, several members of the Quad Cities clergy joined Rev. Ron Quay – the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area – and me in putting out a call for a return to a positive focus when it came to political campaigning.  Below is a petition document that we compiled and which, in its final form was co-sponsored by the Quad Cities Progressive Clergy and Churches United of the Quad Cities Area.  We did get the support of our local media, both electronic and print.  In fact, it was published in both of the local papers.  Unfortunately, out of a local population of some 350,000 people at the time, we only were able to amass some 400 signatures.  That low number was quite disappointing, considering how much complaining we hear from the public about negative campaign ads.  We attempted to put it forward again, in 2008, in anticipation of the Iowa Presidential Caucuses.  Once again, while we received media and clergy support, we were disappointed with the lackluster response from the community.  With the nominating conventions of both political parties not that far away and as the 2012 Presidential Political Campaign season is about to begin in earnest, I thought that I would share with the readers of this blog, the text of our hopeful and heartfelt petition.  Back in 2006, one reporter asked one of my colleagues whether or not he thought that this effort was a bit Pollyanna-ish.  My colleague responded by saying, “Yes, but what is wrong with that?  Sometimes people have to be fools for truth.”  My personal prayer is that when it comes to negative political campaigning, one day the good people of our country will rise up and with a loud, strong voice, proclaim:  “ENOUGH ALREADY!  We want our candidates to speak honestly about themselves and stop denigrating their opponents.”  I share with you our original petition, for whatever it is worth:

We, the undersigned, are deeply disturbed by the character and tone of the vast majority of political campaigns which are being conducted during the election season of 2006.

The overwhelming use of negative campaign strategies and attack ads constituted nothing less than a national disgrace.  Negative campaigning erodes the moral fabric of our society.  In the eyes of the public, it not only diminishes the stature of the candidates, but also the importance of the offices which they seek.  Such campaign tactics generate an environment of distrust of public officials.  Even worse, by forcing the voters to choose between what is presented as “the lesser of two evils,” these strategies serve to dramatically discourage citizen participation in the electoral process.

The American people need and deserve far more from its political candidates.  We need and deserve to have the candidates’ attentions focused on positively presenting their positions on the pressing issues of our day.  We need and deserve to hear thoughtful dialogue between the candidates on these issues.  We need and deserve to know what our potential future leaders stand for, and what they intend to accomplish should they be elected.

Therefore, we the undersigned, believing that negative campaigning is destructive to the American democratic electoral process:

  1. Call upon political candidates to responsibly present to the public their own positions on the pressing issues of our day, refraining from irresponsible and misleading interpretations of the positions held by their opponents.
  2. Call upon political candidates to cease and desist from attacking the character of their opponents.
  3. Call upon political candidates to distance themselves from and denounce any political ad run by an independent source which supports their candidacy, but which also engages in the destructive practices mentioned above.
  4. Call upon the American public to withhold financial support from political campaigns that engage in a strategy of negativism.
  5. Call upon the news media to monitor and report upon the successes and failures of political campaigns to adhere to these principles.

Responding to a New York Times Editorial Calling Upon Israel to Show Restraint

March 6, 2012

In today’s New York Times, there is an editorial which calls upon Israel not to “doubt the President’s mettle” when he states that he will not stand by and permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons; that Israel should trust the President and refrain from a unilateral attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities.

In response to that editorial, I feel I must point out philosopher George Santayana’s often quoted statement: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” It is precisely this principle which Israel’s critics are forgetting or simply ignoring.

So what should have been learned from history?

1. When a national leader threatens to destroy the Jews, and has or is developing the means to carry out that threat, he should be taken at his word. This was Hitler’s stated intention throughout his rise to power yet few took him seriously. Well, we know how that turned out! Now Mahmoud Ahmadinejab is making a similar threat – that he will wipe Israel off the map – and he is moving forward with the development of the nuclear weapons to accomplish that task. So why should anyone, especially Israel, doubt his intention? She must act upon the premise that he means what he says and will do it at the first possible opportunity.

2. Talk is cheap, especially when it comes from a U.S. President who says he has Israel’s back and that Israel should refrain from engaging in self defense. But at the end of the day, how can we be assured that the President will follow talk with action? In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson kept assuring Israel that America would never let her fall. He did so when Egypt insisted that the U.N. remove its peacekeeping forces from the Gaza Strip, and the U.N., without a moment’s hesitation complied; when the Egyptian and the Syrian armies amassed their forces on the Israeli border; when the Egyptians and the Saudis threatened to close the Straits of Tiran, effectively blockading the Israeli port city of Eilat. But when the they announced that the blockade was in effect then Johnson announced that there was nothing that he could do. Israel found herself standing alone. So she conducted a preemptive air strike, destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground. Thus began the 6-Day War; a war which too many were all to ready to label as an Israeli act of aggression rather than self defense. In 1967 Israel thought that America had its back but wound up standing alone. How can she be expected to maintain confidence that this time will be different? How can she be certain that Obama will not bow to the pressure not to engage in another Middle East war?  After all, this is an election year and there will be plenty of Americans who will be more than ready to remind President Obama that one of the pillars of his last election was his promise to withdraw us from the war in Iraq. Perhaps if the President was to deploy the forces to the Middle East which would be necessary for the conduct of a strike against Iran then he would show in some tangible way his resolve to back his words with deeds. Talk is cheap, but not cheap when it very well may cost Israel countless Israeli lives or even its survival. If, at the end of the day, Israel is to be left to face the threat alone, as she was in 1967, then let her face it while she has a chance to counteract it.

Chasing Twilight

January 6, 2012

Last July, my part time Cantor, full time U.S. Army civilian employee, wife, Gail, was transferred, along with her entire department, from the Rock Island Arsenal to the Army installation in Warren, Michigan.  So now she lives most of the time in Detroit while I continue to reside in Davenport, Iowa.  Gail comes home for approximately 36 hours every two week, over the weekend.  Being a rabbi, I do not have the opportunity to visit her nearly that often.  So, when Winter Break arrived this year, and our youngest, Helene, came home from her first semester at college, Helene & I jumped at the chance to go to Detroit to visit her mother and my wife.

As Helene and I were driving home from our visit – a seven hour drive – day morphed into night, just like it says in the MaAriv Aravim prayer where it describes God as “rolling light away from darkness.”  Since we were traveling westward, even though we were engulfed in the darkness of the new night, across the length of the horizon, we could still see that strikingly beautiful band of the flaming orange sky of sunset.  As we continued to move at highway speeds, I pointed out to Helene that the band was growing larger, the further west we traveled.  There­fore, at least theoretically, if we drove fast enough, it could be possible for us to travel from night into twilight.  As Helene was quick to point out, “Time Travel.”  We could go backward in time instead of ahead.  That is a mind blowing thought!

But when you think about it, all too many of us spend far too much of our lives aspiring to do just that – go backward in time – but on a far larger scale than a mere step from night into twilight.  We fantasize about turning the clock back not just a few hours but rather several years.  We yearn for the past; the “good old days,” as we are so fond of calling them.  We yearn to return to a time in our lives which we perceive as having been both simpler and happier; when we were better and so was our life.  Indeed, such perceptions become the fodder of many of the political candidates who are quick to proclaim that the present stinks and what we need is to return to the glories and the wonders of the past.

In our journey through life, our memories are fascinating companions.  They most certainly have the capacity to be warm and wonderful, but they also can be remarkably deceptive.  That so many people idealize the past is a testimony to such deception.  For if we are to be honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that while there are many good things to remember about our past, there is also much we choose to forget.  We choose to forget it either because it was truly painful or because, in light of today’s standards, it was simply a less comfortable way of life.  For example, who would want to return to the days before such dishwashers or clothes dryers or air conditioning, nevertheless cell phones, computers, and the internet?  Being as antique as I am, I remember them all, and far more.  I remember scrubbing dishes and pots in the sink.  I remember my mother hanging up the laundry on the clothesline in our backyard and praying that it would not rain.  I remember laying uncomfortably awake at night in my bed, soaked in sweat, unable to sleep.  I remember sitting on the stairs of my home, talking on the telephone, tethered to its base by the line connecting the handset.  I remember writing sermons on legal pads, with all sorts of scratch outs, circled texts, and arrows, meant to direct my secretary for when she had to type it out for me.  Of course, I remember far lower prices but I also remember even lower income levels that made those items at those low prices all the more unattainable.

My point here is that yearning for a return to the “good old days” is even more elusive and futile than racing down the highway trying to recapture the twilight.  The past is the past.  That our memory re­frames it with a focus on all that was good and pleasant about it is a gracious gift but not an accurate presentation.  Rather, we need to live more in the moment.  There is nothing we can do to recapture the past but there is much that we can do to reconstruct the present; to transform our present into a far better time in our lives.  By so doing, we have the power not only to impact our present but also our future and the future of those whose lives we touch.  While the “good old days” can be a mixture of fact and illusion, if we so choose, we can create for ourselves the “good new days.”  We can make today the best day of our lives and tomorrow even better.  The choice is ours.