Archive for the ‘Presient Obama’ category

Cuba & Iran: The U.S. Then & Israel Now

November 18, 2013

Over the years, I have amassed quite a collection of DVDs, much to my wife’s chagrin and my daughters’ delight.  The other night, to fill the void of my loneliness, as my children have grown and moved away and my wife’s job has relocated her to Detroit, with only brief weekend visits every other week, I decided to pop in a movie and lose myself in the story on the screen in front of me.  Since we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I thought I would commemorate the event by watching one of my “Kennedy” films.  So I perused my shelves of DVDs and decided on the film “Thirteen Days,” starring Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood.  For those unfamiliar with the film, it is a powerful drama about the struggles within the Kennedy administration over how to address the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I imagine that those younger than me can watch this film and find it interesting but a little too talky.  But I have always found this film compelling.  Then again, I remember living through the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For me, the tension that this film seeks to recreate is not just history.  It is memory.  When the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, I was one month short of my 13th birthday and one month passed my Bar Mitzvah (my parents wanted my Bar Mitzvah reception to be a garden party and a garden party is not a very good idea for November in New York).  I remember sitting in my living room, with my parents and sister, glued to the television as the President addressed the nation, informing us of this very real threat so close to our borders.  This was just the danger for which they had been preparing us in school with those duck-&-cover drills.  It was just the danger which had led so many people to build fallout shelters.  We, in our neighborhood in the Bronx, couldn’t build such shelters.  While we all lived in private homes and had back yards, beneath those back yards were our cesspools, for city sewage pipes had not yet reached our neighborhood.  Unlike so many of my classmates, who lived in apartment buildings with fall out shelters in their basements, in our neighborhood, we had no place to flee in the event of a nuclear attack.  I remember so clearly, the day after President Kennedy’s historic broadcast, standing outside my house with Neal DeLuca, my next door neighbor playmate, sharing our fears and discussing what it would be like to die in a nuclear holocaust.  Over the years, many were the times that he and I played at war, which was common for boys in those days, whether we were playing Cowboys-&-Indians, World War II, acorn fights or snowball fights.  But this was completely different.  This was not our pretend noble deaths of  brave soldiers in combat.  This was a death by fire, completely beyond our control and from which there was no escape and no possibility of being wounded instead of killed.  Nor was it make believe.  It was all too real and all too imminent.  But of course, as school children, we could not help but wonder whether or not school would be cancelled the next day in anticipation of the nuclear holocaust (it was not).  We truly felt that our lives were about to draw to a frightening close and, as you can imagine, especially as children, we had a great deal of difficulty processing this.

Watching that movie reawakened within me all those memories and feelings.  Yet as I reflected upon them, it struck me that what I – and the rest of America – experienced then was probably not that different than what the people, and especially the children, of Israel are experiencing now in regard to the Iranian nuclear threat.  Granted, the threat of nuclear extinction is not as immediate to them today as it was for us during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but still it is no less real.  In some ways perhaps more so because the Iranians have made their intentions abundantly and consistently clear.  They intend to wipe the State of Israel off the map.  Up until now, they have affirmed this intention not only through words but through deeds, such as their significant material support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in their terrorist war against Israel and the West.  They have done nothing whatsoever to lead us to any other conclusion but that if allowed to continue to develop their nuclear capabilities they would add their nuclear weaponry to their arsenal in their war against Israel and the West.  They would employ them against Tel Aviv & Jerusalem, Washington & New York, London & Paris.  In the movie “Thirteen Days,” upon first learning of the Russian missile sites in Cuba, Ken Costner’s character said, “I feel like we caught the Jap carriers steaming for Pearl Harbor.”  In terms of our situation today with Iran, it is as if we uncovered the Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor while their aircraft carriers were still under construction.

With the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was no acceptable middle ground.  Slowing down the installation of missiles in Cuba, with their ability to strike targets in the U.S., was never considered an option, not should it have been.  When it came to the safety and security of the American people, there was only one acceptable outcome; the complete elimination of those missile sites, either peacefully or militarily accomplished.  Anything less constituted just cause to go to war.  The same can, and should, be said about the Iranian nuclear program.  There can be no middle ground.  Their ability to develop nuclear weapons must be completely dismantled.  They must be left with no possibility of ever waging nuclear war against Israel or any of their enemies, which by the way includes the United States.  Anything less constitutes just cause for war, especially as Israel is concerned.

Concerning the current situation with Iran, it is easy for some Americans to fail to feel the imminent threat experienced by the Israelis, and therefore to assume that the Israelis, especially in the person of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are just being war mongers; that all they want to do is embroil our nation in another costly, drawn out, and inconclusive Middle East war, as we have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is easy for some journalists to speak about how a “war weary America” is simply not interested in another military venture.  It is becoming easier and easier for President Obama to compromise his assurances of American protection of Israel and our other Middle Eastern allies from an nuclear armed Iran as he futilely strives to salvage his presidential legacy by disengaging from his failed Middle East policy strategies, leaving a vacuum which Russia is all to happy to fill.  All this is so easy for us Americans because we do not feel the threat as Israel and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt and Turkey feel it.  Indeed, we have forgotten what that threat feels like as we have two generations of Americans who knew not the Cuban Missile Crisis, just as there “arose a pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  Yet the threat remains real.  Not only does it remain real for our allies in the Middle East, but it remains real for us as well.  As for those who never personally experienced the fears brought on by the Cuban Missile Crisis, somehow or other they need to be reminded of the fears they felt after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  For those September 11th attacks were conducted by terrorists, not unlike the terrorist today whose violence and bloodshed is primarily sponsored by the same nation of Iran which is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability; one which they will direct, not only against Israel and their other Middle East opponents, but against all who they perceive as the enemies of their way of life, and on their list of enemies, America ranks near the top.

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What Do We Do About Syria?: One Jewish Perspective

September 8, 2013

Over a week ago, I received a phone call from a dear friend and colleague.  He was seeking my advise as he was preparing some remarks about the situation in Syria which he was planning to deliver to his congregation on Rosh Hashanah, should the United States take action against her by then.  At that point, I told him that I was not going to prepare such a text because the situation was so fluid.  If the need did arise, I most likely would speak extemporaneously.  However, that was before President Obama decided to turn this decision over to the Congress.  With the matter now up for debate in the Congress, with all the variables which that implies, I changed my mind about prepared remarks.  Below are the remarks that I did prepare and present to my congregation at the beginning of our Rosh Hashanah evening service.  They constitute, as my title states, ONE Jewish perspective; obviously one with which I agree.  It is not the only Jewish perspective, but it is mine.  Since these remarks were in addition to the sermon I had prepared for the evening, they were as limited in scope as I was limited in the time I could set aside to present them.  I wish that I could have fleshed them out even further, especially in terms of my vision of what actions the U.S. should and should not take.  In particular, I would have liked to address the multitude of humanitarian actions that the U.S. has yet to take, and should be taking, regarding aid to the thousands of refugees who have fled across the Syrian borders into the lands of several of her neighbors, seeking to escape the ravages of war.  I do want to acknowledge my indebtedness to the authors so many excellent articles, many written by colleagues.  I particular want to mention an article written by Donniel Hartman, entitled “Syria, Moral Responsibilities and Ambiguous Circumstances,” for I found his reflections most stimulating and inspiring.  I now share with you the remarks I shared with my congregation:

As we gather on this Rosh Hashanah eve there is a cloud hanging over our nation and the world.  It is the cloud of war.  President Obama has, in the strongest of terms, expressed his view that it is absolutely necessary that our nation take punitive military actions against Syria in response to that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.  In just a few days our Congress will begin to debate whether or not to affirm our President’s call to action.  To read the newspapers and listen to the electronic media, it is clear that public opinion is torn over whether or not to act, and if to act, how to act.

There have been those who have asked me, “What is the Jewish perspective on this issue?”  That is a difficult question, yet a very important one, for how can we gather on the High Holy Days and not ponder the rights and wrongs of this dire situation?  Therefore, I have taken advantage of the early High Holy Days and have chosen to postpone to Yom Kippur my annual Rosh Hashanah Hunger Appeal, which I usually share with you at this time in order that I can take this opportunity to at least open the discussion of how Jewish texts, teachings, values, and experiences can aid each of us in our own decision making as to whether or not to support the President’s call to action.

I would like to be able to say that Jewish sources are clearly on one side of this issue or the other, but they are not.  Just as there are those in our country today who say we must respond and those who say we must not put ourselves at risk by getting involved in another people’s war, so we will find Jewish texts of equally divided opinion.

In the Torah we read “You must not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is being shed”[1] – in fact we will read that very text on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Yet the rabbis saw a limitation to that requirement.  They tell us that even though we are required to rescue others, we are not required to do so at the cost us our own lives.  In the Talmud, in Tractate Baba Metzia, there is a case presented in which two people are in the desert but only one of them has a bottle of water.  If they share the water, they both will die while if only one drinks, that person will survive.  What should be done?  The rabbis decided that the owner of the water should keep it for himself, and survive, for one’s own life takes precedence over the life of another.[2]

In these two texts we see the core of both sides of the argument as being waged today.  On one side, in the spirit of Leviticus, there are those who claim we have a moral obligation to rescue those who are being callously slaughtered in Syria.  On the other side, in the spirit of Tractate Baba Metzia, there are those who argue against intervention lest it cost more American lives.  It is this very ambiguity between the perspectives of Leviticus and Baba Metzia which has kept us out of the Syrian conflict up until now.

But now the game has changed as the Asad regime has introduced the use of chemical weapons even though they are illegal and constitute weapons of mass destruction.  What is a weapon of mass destruction?  It is a weapon which when deployed kills on a mammoth scale, making no distinction among its victims between combatants and non-combatants.  In utilizing such weaponry, the Syrian government forces have crossed the line from waging conventional warfare to perpetrating atrocities.  This is the red line of which President Obama has often spoken.

Why is this red line so important?  Because failing to take action when chemical weapons are used because, at this particular time, somebody else and not our people, are the targets, is to give tacit approval to the use of chemical weapons in general; it is to send a message to any despot, any terrorist group, any evil doer that they, too, are free to employ such weapons against any target they so choose.  Today, the target is the Syrian rebels.  Tomorrow it very likely could be Israel.  But it could also be London or Wash­ington or New York.  If our experience with terrorism has taught us anything, it has taught us that if left unchallenged, there is no containing terrorist activities and everyone is a potential target.

That brings us to the argument of self defense; that taking action against Syria now is actually an act of self defense lest at some future time someone chooses to use such weapons against us.  Here, too, Jewish texts have something to say.  In the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Laws, we are told that we are obligated to take the life of the “pursuer” – someone who is attempting to kill us – in order to save our own life.[3]  So if we view Syria’s use of chemical weapons as potentially opening the door to the proliferation of such use, which in turn would endanger the American people, then  taking action against Syria is necessary.

Stepping away from classical Jewish texts, we also need to look at historical Jewish experience.  One most certainly can draw a parallel between Syria having crossed the line in its use of chemical weapons against its people with the Nazi’s crossing the line in their use of chemical weapons – the gas chambers – against the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  After the Holocaust, we said “Never Again!”  When we said it, we did not just mean, “Never again will we permit them to do this to Jews.”  Rather what we meant is that “Never again will we permit one group of people to do this to any other group of people.”  We have already failed in that commitment when we turned a blind eye to the slaughter in Rwanda.  And though we spoke a good game about our opposition to the genocide in Darfur, our response was painfully slow and inadequate.  The question becomes, will we once again fail to live up that pledge?  If we do fail, then we have to face up to the fact that there is a great deal of hypocrisy ever time we hold a Yom HaShoah service.

If we choose to act, what should be the outcome we seek?  It should not be regime change or supporting one side over the other in the Syrian civil war.  A civil war is just that; a civil war; an internal national struggle between citizens, which must be resolved internally.  Rather the outcome we should seek is to send a clear and decisive message that if you need to fight to resolve your internal differences, the go ahead and do so, but you must do it with conventional weapons and not with weapons of mass destruction.  We will not tolerate the use of such weapons and we will not stand idly by if they are used.

Lastly, what about Israel?  People on both sides of this issue have claimed that they have Israel’s best interests at heart.  First of all, we need to understand that no matter how the Syrian civil war ultimately resolves, Israel is the loser.  If the rebels win, then Israel will find the rebels’ allies – Al Qaeda – camped along its borders, ready to strike.  If Asad’s forces win, then the hands of Hezbollah will have been strengthened and Iran emboldened.  Yet as great as those threats are to Israel, far more does she fear that American inaction at this time will give her enemies the green light to employ chemical weapons against her.  Nothing could make that clearer than the fact that Israeli leaders from such opposite ends of the spectrum as are Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres agree on this matter.

It is no easy task to keep the world safe from those who revel in death and destruction.  May we find in this quagmire an all too hidden path to peace.

AMEN


[1]LEVITICUS 19:16.

[2]BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Baba Metzia 62a.

[3]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 72a and Shulchan Aruch 425.

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.

Dare I Speak of the Tea Party Once More?

July 28, 2010

Last April was by far the biggest month when it comes to readership of this blog.  It received 493 hits, which is over twice the number of hits it received on the next most viewed month (last May – 243 hits).  When you consider that the average hits per month are 218 and that the lightest month had only 105 hits, the volume for April is really quite remarkable.

Why this significant spike in readership?  Controversy!  Everyone loves to savor a juicy controversy.

What was the source of this controversy?  It centered around two of my postings – “The Perfect Storm” and “The Perfect Storm Revisited.”  These postings addressed my deep concerns about the actions and directions of the growing Tea Party movement, and my concerns about the connections which I perceived existing between the Tea Party and the Republican Party.

Well, let me start off by saying that my posting of “The Perfect Storm” was far from perfect.  Indeed, the very fact that I followed it up with, “The Perfect Storm Revisited” testifies to my own sense that it did not successfully communicate the message I intended for it.  But one need only read the comments to the “Revisited” posting to see that my critics were far from satisfied with my clarifications within expressed in this revisiting.  While today, I could readily revise my statements in that posting as well, I still maintain that the heart of its message was on target.

Recently, the Tea Party has once again become the center of public attention.  This time it is because the NAACP, in convention, ratified a resolution chastising the Tea Party for not repudiating (or as Sarah Palin would say, “refudiating”) those elements within its ranks that proclaim a racist ideology.

When I first heard that report, I admit that I smiled.  After all, that is the very message which I attempted to communicate in my “Revisited” posting, and for which I was so thoroughly castigated by so many, even to the point where the leadership of my congregation strongly encouraged me to place an open disclaimer on the blog itself, distancing the congregation from the contents of the blog.  Now, my posting did not only reference the racism found in elements of the Tea Party, but other hate ideologies and the endorsement of violent actions as well.  But then, of course one would rightfully expect an organization like the NAACP to focus on racism.  After all, that is their mission.

Though I smiled at first hearing the news reports, that smile quickly faded as I started to hear the responses coming from Tea Party supporters, and even from some who would not be considered supporters – such as President Obama and Vice President Biden.  From the Tea Party itself came a rather bizarre mixed message.  The first thing they did was to remove from their coalition one of the most offensive of groups along these lines – the group called the Tea Party Express.  But then Tea Party spokesmen started making remarks about how the NAACP itself is a racist organization, even pointing to the fact that their name uses the “racist” term “Colored People.”  In other words, while on the one hand, they admitted that racism was a problem within their ranks, and needed to be repudiated, on the other hand they sought to deny that racism was their problem but rather chose to declare that it was far more the problem of the NAACP.  Talk about projection!

It should come as no surprise that I support the NAACP in their recent action.  While I hesitated to publicly proclaim this support at first – for fear of stirring up that previous hornet’s nest – I came to realize that more than I feared being caught up in another controversy, I feared that my silence on this matter could somehow make me complicit in the promulgation of hatred and prejudice.  Our past is full of bystanders who may not have agreed with the purveyors of hate, and who may have been repulsed by the actions of those hate mongers, but who, for various reasons, but mostly out of fear, chose to remain silent and on the side lines.  I cannot and will not become one of them.

As I stated in my “Revisited” blog, in no way do I challenge the right of the members of the Tea Party to hold and express their political opinions, regardless of whether or not I agree with them.  That diversity of thought and expression is what makes America great.  However, when such free discourse turns into expressions of hatred, that is where we need to draw the line.  All people of good conscience – whether they be Democrats or Republicans or members of the Tea Party – should and must feel duty and honor bound to purge such prejudice from their political rhetoric, and they must actively denounce and distance themselves from those who promote such messages.  That is what I said in April.  That is what the NAACP has said in July.  I stood by that message then and I stand by it now.  However, I have to admit a certain relief in finding that others, especially those of the caliber of the NAACP, seem to agree with me.

Good Out of Gaza

June 6, 2010

Ever since the Israeli boarding of the Mavi Marmara turned tragically violent, accusations and counter accusations have filled the air like the shells of an artillery engagement.  Who was is in the right?  Who was in the wrong?  Who were the villains?  Who the heroes?  Who the perpetrators?  Who the victims?  As some commentators have correctly pointed out – painfully so – there has been so much debate over issues of responsibility that no one, on either side, has taken the time to honestly lament for those who were killed or injured.  Yes, both sides have decried the bloodshed, but to be truthful, their outrage has been far more politically motivated than humanely so.  The dead and injured on both sides quickly ceased to be human beings, having been transformed into political pawns.  Sounds harsh?  Then consider this.  How many articles and news reports or releases have you seen that actually have mentioned these individuals by name?  Names do not seem to be important here; just numbers, as though we have been keeping some sort of macabre score card.

With all the heated rhetoric of the moment, it might appear as though the world is falling apart.  Maybe it is.  But then again, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe the Arab world will unite under the leadership of the extremists in Iran and make one more attempt to annihilate the “Zionist entity.”  But then again, after all the shouting dies down, few Arab nations will really be interested in aligning themselves with Iran and fewer still will be willing to actually go to war with Israel.  And all this will turn out to be just another one of those earth shattering momentary crises, as the world, and especially the Middle East, returns to the status quo.

But then again, maybe out of this painful tragedy some light might be shed.  Maybe what today may be perceived as possibly “the end of the world” may actually wind up turning out to be the birthing of a new future.

Let’s admit it!  The naval and land blockade of Gaza is not exactly new news.  Yes, pro-Palestinian supporters and sincere human rights activists have voiced their protests over the suffering of the residents of that besieged strip of land for some time now.  Israelis themselves have expressed their deep regret – indeed anguish – over what they have perceived as their need to impose such a stranglehold on Gaza and the suffering which it causes.  Yes, Israel has presented massive amounts of compelling evidence as to why they must control Gaza’s borders so diligently in order to prevent a steady influx of weaponry which would be directed against Israelis, and especially against Israeli civilian population centers.  The thousands upon thousands of rockets and mortar shells which have rained down upon communities such as Sderot, launched by Hamas from Gaza, have been pointed out to the world as proof positive of the very real dangers that the Israelis are attempting to address.  Yet, while everyone in the world has made note of this situation, expressed their concerns and regrets, still, at the end of the day, no one has really stepped forward with any real energy or creativity in an attempt to resolve it.  While everyone had an opinion, and many expressed their opinions, still beyond the talk, people just seemed willing to let the matter stand as it, accepting the simple alternatives of blockade or no blockade, with nothing in between.

But not any longer.  Now, as a result of this tragedy, everyone, including the Israelis, are looking at the blockade of Gaza with new eyes.  Everyone, including Israel, have come to the conclusion that the status quo simply will not continue to work.  Change is in the air.  Change is inevitable.  Maybe.

Today, outside of the Arab world, the critics of the blockade are no longer simply staying, :Lift It!”  They are recognizing that raw pressure will never succeed in budging Israel.  Indeed, seeing how serious Israel is about maintaining this blockade – even at the high cost we have witnessed – they are coming around to recognizing that there can be no change in this situation without seriously addressing Israeli security concerns as well as of the humanitarian needs of the residents of Gaza.  One need look no further than at the Obama administration, which has been coming down heavily on Israel as of late and has been talking more and more about Israel being a strategic liability rather than an asset to witness such a broadening view.  When the 7th vessel set off on its journey, the United States chose to join Israel in encouraging them NOT to attempt to run the blockade but rather to allow themselves to be escorted into the port of Ashdod, where their cargo could be inspected, off-loaded, and then sent via land to Gaza.  The Israelis even agreed to permit the transport into Gaza of concrete, which the humanitarian activists claim is for building homes but which Israel has seen Hamas sidetrack in the past to be used in the building of bunkers.

Perhaps the day is not to far off when such cargo ships can be inspected at sea; when the nations of the world will respect Israel’s responsibility to protect its citizens from the import into Gaza – into the hands of Hamas – of weapons intended to be used against Israel.  Perhaps the nations of the world will cooperate with Israel in the thorough conduct of such inspections.  Perhaps, if Israel could be convinced that by such inspections, Hamas could effectively be denied the receipt of more arms, then once inspected, she will permit these ships to continue on their journey and reach the Gaza shores, where the humanitarian aid could be delivered direct.

Of course, the wild card in all this is Hamas.  So far, Hamas has claimed that they will not permit the humanitarian supplied, off loaded in Ashdod, to enter Gaza.  It is obvious that the “breaking” of the blockade is a far higher priority for them than alleviating the suffering of their people.  But can they sustain that posture?  Any gains which they have made as a result of the recent events can easily slip from their fingers if they expose themselves to the eyes of the world as the true barrier denying the people of Gaza the help they need.  But, of course, that would only happen if the nations of the world would open themselves to admitting that in this situation, Israel may not be the only villain, nevertheless the primary villain.

Violence and bloodshed are essentially meaningless.  Lives lost in this way are certainly lost in vain.  They are lost due to the failure of reason.  But if the suffering born of these recent events results in laying the foundations for a more effective, humane, and mutually workable resolution to the challenge of getting humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza without arming Hamas at the same time, then perhaps the suffering born of this tragedy might result in having served some higher purpose.  Only time will tell.

Reflections on Peace Advocacy and the Gaza Floatilla

June 2, 2010

Israel has been on my mind a great deal of late – even before the crisis over the tragic interception of the Gaza Flotilla.  Prior to this most recent crisis, I had been anguishing over whether or not to officially add my name as a supporter of J Street.  It all started when one of my congregants approached me about it.  He had read some J Street material and wanted my advice as to whether or not he should throw in his support.  His questions brought focus to my own indecision on the matter.  So I went back on the J Street website, read their vision statements, and, like my congregant, found a great deal with which I could agree.  For, I too, am a big supporter of a two-state solution which needs to be arrived at through serious non-violent negotiations; a two state solution which would deliver to the Palestinians a nation of their own of which they could be proud, while at the same time would deliver to the Israelis a positive resolution to their security concerns.  However, all that being said, I still had an uneasy feeling that rightly or wrongly, J Street was identified as an influential Jewish voice, all too often critical of Israel.

In my struggle to resolve this question, I gathered, via email, a list of some 50 rabbinic colleagues whose opinions I value greatly; some of them ardent supporters of J Street, some opponents, and many whose positions  I simply did not know.  I shared with them my indecision and my questions, seeking their insights and counsel.  And we were off to the races.  Not all responded to my queries.  Many of those who did, did so privately.  Others shared their thoughts with the entire group.  Many and diverse were their opinions.  So many excellent points were made on both sides.  My eyes were opened to new perspectives on the issue. But in the end, I still remained undecided.  Yet in the process, I came to truly believe that J Street was often misunderstood and intentionally misinterpreted.  I found that more often than not, their statements honestly strove to be evenhanded and fair, but between sensationalist media, unscrupulous politicians, and Israel’s enemies, what came most to the public eye were, and are, their critiques of Israel.  I saw it  akin to the old media adage about “Man bites dog” over “dog bites man.”  It is not news when Jews support Israel or criticize the Palestinians, but when Jews criticize Israel, now that is newsworthy.

I also was brought to the realization that it would be great if there was a “J Street” like organization on the Palestinian side, equally dedicated to the peace process and equally willing to criticize both parties in an evenhanded manner.  But alas, while there are Muslim peace organizations, they usually speak in whispers and do not garner the type of support and prestige that an organization like J Street does within the Jewish and the general community.  This is a tragic unfulfilled need, for in order for an organization like J Street to most effectively address its mission, it really needs a real Muslim partner organization with which it could work hand-in-hand.

It was while my colleagues and I were in the midst of these discussions that we woke up one morning to learn of the violence which had taken place in the waters off of Gaza.

Many groups and world leaders were quick to make statements in response to that situation, even though the facts were far from complete and the story was still unfolding.  Among them were Jeremy Ben-Ami, the President of J Street, as well as Yaariv Oppenheimer, speaking for another Jewish peace organization – Americans for Peace Now.  Mr. Ben-Ami made the following remark which I found disturbing:  “We do know, however, that today is one more nail in the coffin for hopes of ending of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully and diplomatically and for preserving Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.”  As for Mr. Oppenheimer, in an article published in the Israeli newspaper, MaAriv, he wrote a statement which I found equally disturbing:  “Tonight Israel marked a new low point in the way it chose to contend with its domestic and external policy dissidents.  A state that will not let its citizens protest, demonstrate and demand justice, a state that is busy composing loyalty tests for its citizens and passing laws to limit the freedom of expression, failed again in the real test and stopped a protest fleet of civilian ships at the cost of more than ten lives.”

Statements like these are precisely why I have discomfort with organizations like J Street and Peace Now.  While I share their ultimate vision of arriving at a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I cannot condone  their knee jerk reactions which immediately assume that Israel is in the wrong in whatever crisis arises.  I find myself scratching my head and wondering why Mr. Ben-Ami of J Street could not have ended his statement at the word “diplomatically” but felt the need to go forward with the assumption the Israel’s actions have done great harm to her fundamental “Jewish and democratic character.”  And as for Mr. Oppenheimer, just the simple fact that an article such as his could appear in a major Israeli publication like MaAriv gives far greater testimony in opposition to his premise for the Israeli democracy is alive and well as long as it permits those who so wish to publicly protest against the actions and policies of its government.

For my part, the events of the last few days have triggered an odd confluene of reflections.  It almost seems ironic that a short while back, I was re-watching the film “Thirteen Days”, about the Cuban missile crisis.  Every time I watch that film I am flooded with memories of the actual event.  As if it were yesterday, I recall my childhood conversations with my childhood friends, wondering whether or not the end of the world was upon us; whether or not the Russians would stage a nuclear attack.  It was indeed a frightening time, especially for children.  Yet with that danger being real and present, there was no question of the legitimacy of Kennedy’s use of a naval blockade in defense of our country; at least not among those of us us who were living under the threat of a missile attack.  Then my thoughts have likewise turned to the painful fact that as Americans, at this very hour, our combat troops have their boots on the foreign soil of two nations – Iraq and Afghanistan – ostensibly waging a war against terrorists who supposedly threaten the security of our nation and its citizens.  So one American President can conduct a naval blockade – in international waters – against another nation, in defense of our country, and it is considered appropriate and heroic.  Two American Presidents can send and maintain troops on the soil of two sovereign nations, having invaded both of them, in defense of our country against terrorism.  While there are those among us who protest this fact, those troops remain, yet we do not view the failure of our protests to achieve their goal as indicative of the demise of American democracy.

Then we have Israel.  Who in their right mind can question the very real danger posed to the security of the nation of Israel and its citizens by the terrorist actions of Hamas, coming out of Gaza?  Who can doubt that if the borders of Gaza were left wide open, there would be no question but that arms aplenty would flood into Gaza, all intended to be used against Israel, and specifically against Israeli citizens?  The threat of arms being smuggled into Gaza is a very real one and an Israeli government which would intentionally ignore that threat would be dramatically negligent, and perhaps even criminally negligent.  So while a blockade and a siege of Gaza is not a desirable course of action, especially from a humanitarian perspective, it – like the naval blockade of Cuba in the 60’s – would seem to be a necessary one in the name of national defense.  It is tragic but unavoidable that in defending one people from those who threaten its security, there very well may be loss of life – sometime, most tragically, innocent loss of life.  If any nation should understand that harsh reality, it should be the U.S., which has been faced with that very same situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  There is a certain hypocrisy when an American President (one whose election I personally supported and worked for, you should know) who is the Commander-in-Chief of combat troops on foreign soil waging active war in defense of our nation’s security, turns around and criticizes Israel for committing her troops in order to defend her people.  It is wrong to have two standards of behavior – one for the U.S. and another for Israel.  I cannot help but think that the children of Sderot – especially before the Gaza War – were holding among themselves conversations quite similar to the ones I was involved in as a child during the Cuban missile crisis.

I am not offering a wholesale justification for Israel’s actions of the past weekend.  She made plenty of mistakes, not the least of which was naively expecting her troops to encounter actual peace activists rather than violent opponents.  But it is far too easy for all of us Monday morning quarterbacks to provide Israel with our sage post facto counsel.  The hard truth on the ground is that Israel had every good reason to suspect that along with the humanitarian cargo on those ships was also a cargo of weaponry.  With that possibility, those ships did pose a very real security threat to the citizens of Israel and needed to be searched.  How Israel did go about that task will be a matter of  fierce debate in the coming months.  But in all of this, I cannot concur with Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street nor with Yaariv Oppenheimer of Americans for Peace Now, that the actions here constitute a threat to the character of Israeli democracy, nor that legitimate attempts to protect the physical safety of her citizens constitute a threat to the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

POSTSCRIPT: Two days after I published the above posting, the Office of the White House Press Secretary released the following statement from National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer:

“The government of Israel has stated its desire to avoid a confrontation and a repeat of Monday’s tragic events on the Mavi Marmara.  It remains a U.S. priority to provide assistance to the people of Gaza.  In the interest of the safety of all involved, and the safe transmission of assistance to the people of Gaza, we strongly encourage those aboard the Rachel Corrie and other vessels to sail to Ashdod to deliver their materials to Gaza.

“We are working urgently with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other international partners to develop new procedures for delivering more goods and assistance to Gaza, while also increasing opportunity for the people of Gaza and preventing the importation of weapons.  The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed.  For now, we call on all parties to join us in encouraging responsible decisions by all sides to avoid any unnecessary confrontations and to ensure the safety of all involved.”

Shall We Burn Elena Kagan at the Stake?

May 18, 2010

Just when we think that those in the political arena could not possibly sink any lower than they already have, they try their level best to prove us wrong!

That was, and remains, my reaction to the recent speculations about the sexual orientation of our most recent Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan.

First of all, Elena Kagan’s sexual orientation should not be an issue for consideration in this matter.  Lesbians and gays are as much citizens of our nation as are heterosexuals.  They pay taxes.  They vote.  The carry upon their shoulders every responsibility that comes hand-in-hand with the privilege of American citizenship.  While we seem to have to struggle constantly to protect some of the rights of these individuals, and to extend to them all the rights and privileges we heterosexuals enjoy – such as the right to be legally wed – still, as citizens, at least theoretically they should be deserving of all the rights bestowed upon the rest of us American citizens, including the right to serve on the Supreme Court, if nominated and confirmed.  That there are certain rights and privileges still denied to them in many states is a testimony to a massive failure in American democracy, and not, as some would prefer to believe, proof positive that they are guilty of some sort of aberrant behavior.

If the implied debate over whether or not gays and lesbians should be permitted to serve on the Supreme Court was not distasteful enough, this stew has been made all the more toxic by the fact that the entire assertion that Elena Kagan is a lesbian has absolutely no basis in fact.  This tempest has been stirred up purely on the basis of crass innuendo and the most distasteful of stereotypes (she wears her hair short?!).  There is no hard core evidence to demonstrate that she is a lesbian.  For that matter, there is no hard core evidence to demonstrate that she is a heterosexual.  We know nothing about her sexual orientation.  And guess what?  It’s none of our business!

This whole matter is nothing more than one of the vilest of smear campaigns.  It feeds upon the fears and prejudices of those who insist that homosexuality is an evil – a perverse choice of “life style” – closing their ears, their eyes, and their minds to the professional and scientific testimonies that clearly indicate that everyone’s sexual orientation is determined at such an early stage of our development that it occurs long before we have the ability to make choices and exercise free will.  The intent here is to drag a decent woman through the mud just so the perpetrators of this outrage can take a swipe at the President who nominated her.

As a Jew, I guess I should feel fortunate that those who will stop at nothing to discredit the current administration have chosen to target Elena Kagan’s sexual orientation rather than her religion.  I guess I should thank God that we are not hearing them protest that the Jews are taking over the Court.  After all, when you want to attack those in leadership any hook will do to hang your hat of hate and prejudice!

Personally, I do not know whether or not I will support Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court.  But I most certainly will not base my decision upon whether or not she is a lesbian.  Rather, I will base my decision upon a closer examination of her credentials for the job and where she stands on a plethora of issues.  How she conducts herself in the privacy of her bedroom is her own business.  How capable she is to fulfill the awesome responsibilities of a Supreme Court Justice and how she addresses the important issues which will come before the Court once she is seated – these are my concerns.  These and these alone should be all of our concerns.

So let us choose to judge this woman for the type of Justice she will be.  This is the only thing that truly counts.