Posted tagged ‘politics’

Politics and Justice: The Foggy Line

May 15, 2013

I tend to be outspoken, both in my synagogue and out in the community, on issues of Tikkun Olam – Social Justice – even when they are controversial; perhaps especially when they are controversial.  Over the years, I have advocated for the hungry, for the homeless, for the newcomers to our shores.  When African American churches were being set on fire in the South, Rabbi Stanley Herman and I organized the Burned Churches Fund.  When local bigots burned crosses in West Davenport, Dan Ebener, who was then the Social Action Director of the Diocese of Davenport, and I organized a Say No to Hate Rally at Sacred Heart Cathedral; a rally which filled the cathedral to overflowing.  When it became apparent that while our community had many wonderful agencies to address the needs of the homeless, they needed help in raising funds of their efforts, I, along with a group of caring citizens, several of them from my congregation, put together a fund raising organization called In From the Cold, which focused its efforts of supporting agencies serving the homeless.  When it became increasingly clear that in my community the primary religious voice that was making itself heard in the publid forum was the voice of conservative Christianity, I joined with Rev. Dan Schmiechen of the United Church of Christ and Rev. Charlotte Saleska of the Unitarian Church in organizing a group called Progressive Clergy, which would serve as the voice of socially liberal religious traditions in our community.  When I became aware of how many of our local school children were without adequate winter wear to fend off the Iowa cold, I got together with the superintendent of the Davenport School District and organized a program called Coats for Kids whose function it was to collect, clean, and distribute gently used winter coats to needy children.  When there were those who were burning the Koran in protest to the proposed opening of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, I was one of the primary supporters of an interfaith solidarity gathering at the Moline mosque.  I have testified before the city councils of both Davenport and Bettendorf in support of both women’s reproductive choice and extending the categories of groups protected by our civil rights ordinances to include the diversity of sexual orientation.  When John Deere sought to cut the health care benefits of its retirees, I led the clergy in protesting that action.  This list can go on and on.

As a Jew, my passion for Tikkun Olam comes naturally to me.  The Torah continually instructs us to be proactive in matters of social justice.  So many are the times when the Torah calls upon us to pursue this course, reminding us, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”; reminding us that as Jews, we have known what it means to be the victims of injustice and from those experiences, we must take away the lesson of how imperative it is for us to pursue justice for all people – “tzedek, tzedek tirdof! – Justice, justice shall you pursue!”  Where the Torah leaves off, the prophets picked up, for their voices were clarion in the call for the pursuit of justice.  Indeed, when Reform Judaism had turned away from the rigors of ritual mitzvot such as kashrut as the primary expression of our Jewish identity, we turned to focusing on the ethical mitzvot, especially the social justice mitzvot.  And what did we call ourselves?  We called ourselves prophetic Judaism.  Indeed, to this day, across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, when we talk about pursuing social justice, we refer to it as a prophetic mission and the prophetic tradition.

There was a time, really not that long ago, when this was almost expected of faith communities and their religious leaders; when the pursuit of social justice was considered an essential part of the mission of communities of faith.  So we saw wonderful images, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking side-by-side with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the cause of civil rights for all people regardless of race.  We saw clergy and congregations across faith lines speaking out and marching in protest to the Viet Nam War.  In my own community, sometimes I would be approached by congregants who would say, “You know, Rabbi, people out in the community tell me how much they respect you for most of the stands that you take, but they are really troubled by your stand on Planned Parenthood…”  In saying that, they were informing me that while there were those who disagree with me, no one was challenging the appropriateness, or legality, of taking a stand on a social issue.

Now you need to understand that for tax exempt not-for-profit organizations like synagogues and churches  there is a very important line that separates social issues advocacy from political advocacy.  While it is perfectly appropriate for organizations like synagogues and churches to take stands on social issues, it is strictly prohibited and jeopardizes their tax exempt status if they advocate for particular political candidates or parties.

For most of my rabbinate, and before, the lines separating those two types of advocacy were pretty clear and such conflicts were easily avoided.  But in the course of time something has changed, and these lines have gotten blurred.  They seem to have gotten so blurred that today there are those who feel that they can claim that advocating for particular social issues is, in effect, advocating for one particular political party over another; one political candidate over another.  Therefore, for a synagogue – and perhaps even its rabbi speaking and acting outside of the synagogue – to advocate for a particular social issue would seem to violate the prohibition against engaging in partisan politics.

In the world of politics, it seems that times have changed.  There was a time when a political figure’s stand on any given social issue was not a function of party politics but rather of personal conscious.  There was a time when our political leaders felt freer to follow their consciences rather than the agenda of their parties.  Anyone who has seen the recent movie “Lincoln” knows from whence I speak.  The 16th amendment passed, granting freedom to African Americans, because there were those in Congress who were willing to vote their conscience rather than their party.  As a youth I recall reading with wrapped attention John F. Kennedy’s book, PROFILES IN COURAGE, in which he raised up 8 U.S. senators who courageously crossed party lines in order to vote their conscience.

But somewhere along the line, the landscape of American politics changed.  I remember first clearly noting that change while watching President Bill Clinton delivering one of his State of the Union addresses.  As I watched, I noticed that when it came to the applause, the members of Clinton’s party applauded every time.  However, the Republicans only applauded when signaled to do so by their Congressional leadership.  The members of both sides never really chose for themselves but rather they stood by their parties.  Once aware of this, of course I needed to test my theory.  So I would continue to watch State of the Union addresses with this in mind, and sure enough, this held true during the presidency of George Bush with the Democrats reserving their applause only to those times when they received the signal.

What I was witnessing is something that we all already know; that our country has become divided along political party lines.  As a manifestation of that political divide, each of the parties has staked its claim on one side or the other of social issues.  Therefore, if you take one side or the other, you can be accused of lining yourself up with one party or the other.  As things have shaken out, the Democrats tend to be more on the left, and the Republicans more on the right.  So no matter which position we as a faith community take – the more liberal or the more conservative – there will be those who accuse us of engaging in partisan politics.

This situation tends to paralyze American congregations and clergy of all faiths.  They so fear becoming identified with one political party or the other, and therefore risking the loss of their tax exempt status, that they choose to refrain from all Tikkun Olam activities or restrict themselves to only the least controversial, or the non-controversial, such as supporting meal sites and hunger programs.  While these are indeed good works, and should be pursued, that is not nearly enough for faith communities, for if faith communities relinquish their role as the guardians of conscience in our society, then who will pick it up?  Regardless of what faith we profess, our faith calls upon us to be courageous in our efforts to care for and protect all of God’s children.  We must be courageous as the prophets were courageous; we must be outspoken as the prophets were outspoken.  Because there are those who accuse us of being partisan in our politics, that does not grant us license to abandon the demands of our conscience.

We must come to recognize that the problem does not reside in our having become partisan in our politics, for we are not.  As long as we focus our words and actions on the issues and not on the political parties or the individual politicians, we are not engaging in partisan politics.  We are engaging in Tikkun Olam.  Where the problem does reside is to be found in what has happened to our political system, where the party line has drowned out the call of conscience.  And that is partly our fault.  It is our fault in that we no longer demand of our political leaders that they be people of conscience; people who are willing to cross party lines to support what they truly believe in; people who are more interested in advancing the interests of the American people than then interests of their particular political party; people who would qualify for inclusion in John F. Kennedy’s book PROFILES IN COURAGE.  We have the power to make that happen, for we have the power of the vote.  We have the power to tell those who aspire to political leadership that our top priority is that they do the right thing – following the dictates of their conscience – even when it is not the party thing.  Then once again, we will find ourselves living in an American where there can be times when Republicans and Democrats stand together to do the right thing.  When standing on one side or another of an issue will no longer be confused with engaging in partisan politics.

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Gun Violence: A Personal Reflection

January 17, 2013

As I write this, our nation is embroiled in a heated debate over whether or not to limit the Second Amendment rights regarding gun ownership.  This is a debate far too long delayed in our land.  Every year has brought new tragedies born out of the barrels of guns while our legislators have waffled and buckled under the tremendous pressure placed upon them by the gun lobby.  This failure to act sadly has been reinforced by the toxicity of the temporary attention span of the American public as the outrage over each and every mass murder has too quickly faded from memory and has morphed into renewed apathy while we have redirected the focus of our attentions to the latest drama reported and exploited by the news media. In fact, just the other day, I mentioned to someone the movie “Bowling for Columbine,” only to receive the response, “Columbine?  What is Columbine?”  However, now that the American people have suffered such a trauma and are feeling so outraged by the slaughter of so many little children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, it would appear that finally those in favor of some form of gun control may have gained some traction.  Maybe, but I am a pessimist.  I have to wonder how concerned about this issue people will be a month from now; in six months from now.

It is no secret where I stand on this question.  Of course, I could take this opportunity to regale you with all the argumentation offered by those who share my views on gun violence but I suspect that in so doing, I would be offering very little information that you have not heard before.  Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to share with you something a bit different.  I want to share with you why for me this is such a personal issue and not just another topic for debate.  I wish to share with you a painful story from my past.

From 1977 to 1982 I served as the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Lincoln, Nebraska.  I was a young rabbi, filled with enthusiasm and idealism.  I threw myself completely into everything I did and the congregation just ate it up.  One of my projects was running a one-man Jewish Studies Academy (that is what I called our adult education program).  One night a week, every week, I taught two different mini courses of 4 to 5 sessions duration, maybe offering 10 courses in a year.  It was fairly popular, attracting non-Jews as well as members of the congregation.

One such non-Jewish student was a young divorcee who, while never broaching the subject of conversion, attended every class and most services.  She quickly became an “unofficial” member of our congregational family, surrounded by a growing group of Jewish friends, my wife and I included.

This woman had two sons, both teenagers; one was around 13 years old and the other 15.  They were nice boys but understandably troubled by the breakup of their family.  Then one day tragedy struck.  After school the two boys brought two girls to the home of their father while their father was at work.  Both boys were trying hard to impress the girls.  So the older brother ordered the younger one to do some menial household chore.  Not to be shamed in front of the girls, the younger brother refused.  The older brother insisted. The younger one continued to refuse.  Then the older one went to a closet and pulled out a rifle.  He pointed it at his brother’s head and said something to the effect of “Do what I say or I’ll blow your head off!”  Not to be intimidated, the younger brother continued to refuse.  So the older brother pulled the trigger and did just what he said he would do, shooting his brother in the head at close range and killing him.  A 20th century reenactment of the story of Cain and Abel.

Here I was, a young, inexperienced rabbi, feeling as though I was expected to offer sage counsel and support to a women who had one son lying dead and the other in jail, guilty of the murder of his brother.  All because their foolish father kept a loaded rifle unlocked in his house.  But what could I say, what could I do in the face of such profound tragedy?  There are no words that could even begin to take away that mother’s pain.  There is no wisdom that could even begin to make sense of that horror.  All that I could do was to be a presence.  Obviously, those events continue to haunt me to this day.  God seemed absent from the world at that moment.  Today I understand that God was not so much absent but rather exiled from the world at that moment; exiled not just by the act of violence itself but also by the various human choices which ultimately contributed to that act of violence, including the legislative choice to allow that young man access to the gun with which he slew his brother.

Limiting access to guns won’t eliminate the problem, for the problem is a complex web of contributing factors, but, God willing, it will reduce the number of victims.

A personal confession.  Prior to these events, I was one of those Americans who shared our apparently national love affair with guns.  Being raised in the ’50’s & ’60’s, how could it be otherwise?  The heroes of my childhood were the cowboys and the frontiersmen who constantly flashed across both the silver and the TV screens of that day; Davey Crockett, the Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, Marshall Matt Dillon, Paladin, and of course John Wayne, just to mention a few.  As a child, I was the owner of a veritable arsenal of toy guns.  While never a hunter, even into my college years, I loved to target shoot in my back yard with a variety of BB pistols and rifles.  But having witnessed up close this parent’s nightmare, from that day to this, I have never again fired one of my weapons.

Rockets, Bombs, & Blood: Reflections on the Gaza Conflict

November 24, 2012

I have done some traveling in my time.  I am by no stretch of the imagination as well-traveled as some, but still I have set my foot on the soil of several foreign lands.  From these journeys, I have not only learned much about those individual nations and their cultures but I have also come to receive some very important insights into people in general and the world in which we live.

The first, and most important, of these insights is that it matters not where you go, whether it be in the land of friends or the land of foes, in general, people are good and decent.  They may speak different languages and dress differently, they may pray in very different ways or not pray at all, but when it comes down to fundamental human character, they are not really any different from us.  Like us, just as we have some very good people and some very bad ones in our society, so do they in theirs.

I first came to this realization during a frigid December while walking the streets of Moscow, when it was the capitol of the U.S.S.R., or as Ronald Reagan liked to call it, “The Evil Empire.”  I learned it while watching these blood enemies of the American way as they stood in long lines waiting for a bus in the freezing cold, yet they automatically welcomed pregnant women and women with small children to the front of the line.  I learned it while watching a Soviet father, in the midst of winter, pushing his child on a swing in a snow covered playground.

I learned it in Israel, particularly in the Old City of Jerusalem, as I sat, drinking Turkish coffee, schmoozing and laughing with Palestinian storekeepers as we cordially bandied over the price of possible purchases.  I learned it there as I watched one Palestinian merchant playfully haggle with 8 year old Helene over the price of a tee shirt, and letting her get the better of him.  I learned it there while on a UJA – now United Jewish Communities – mission with Dick & Harriet Gottlieb and their children.  After hearing stern warnings by our tour guide to protect our wallets and purses from the thieving Palestinians, one Palestinian teenager walked up to Jason Gottlieb and warned him that his backpack was open.

The second of these insights is born of the first.  That insight is that we cannot confuse a people with their government.  We are blessed to live in a true democracy where here, maybe more than in any other country on the planet, our government does accurately reflect the will of our people, for we express that will through the choices we make in the polling booth every election day.  Yet it is easy for us to forget that we are in the minority; that most people on this planet are not so blessed; that the positions and policies of their government may not accurately reflect their own values and desires.  While their governments may be evil, doing evil things, the majority of the people may actually be good at heart.  If the politics did not get in the way, we might find the we could be good friends.

I share this with you because these are important things to remember especially when missiles are being fired and bombs are being dropped, and blood is being spilled on both sides of the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Good people, on both sides, suffered.

It is easy for us as Jews to demonize the Palestinian people, especially when hundreds of rockets have been intentionally aimed and fired at Israel civilians – our brothers and sisters, from infants to the elderly – by Hamas and related terrorist groups in Gaza.  But to do so would be an injustice, not only to the Palestinian people as a whole, and not even only to the possibility of forging a future peace, but also to our very souls.  For when we demonize a whole people on account of the actions of an evil few who may possess inordinate power, we bring ourselves down to the level of all those who throughout history have mindlessly hated all Jews, for ills, real or imagined, that they felt some Jews may have inflicted upon them.  I don’t know about you, but as a Jew, I do not want to be held accountable for the misdeeds of someone like Bernie Madoff.  So why should we hold all Palestinians responsible for the misdeeds of Hamas?

That being said, the situation facing Israel makes it all but unavoidable that there will continue to be many Palestinian people – Palestinians who are not members of Hamas, nor who wish to be – who will suffer and even die as a result of Israeli military operations against the terrorists.  We cannot forget that the death of the innocent is the greatest tragedy born of war.  This is not something to celebrate, as members of Hamas did upon learning of the Tel Aviv bus bombing, but rather it should be something over which to anguish; something that stabs at our conscience as we lament the fact that when we choose war, we should always be choosing it as the lesser of two or more evils.  For in war, there really is no glory.  Just human suffering which is part of the price we pay when we are convinced that we have been left with no other options but victory.

This is the place in which Israel has found itself; not just in this war but in all its wars, especially in its wars against the Palestinians.  There is no question but that Israel cannot ignore or tolerate malicious attacks upon its citizens.  No other nation would ever be expected to do so, so why are there those who expect it of Israel?  Look at the United States.  We experienced one day of attack – September 11, 2001 – and we wound up going to war in two countries; a war which if it ended tomorrow would have lasted for 11 years.  Israel was left with no choice but to go to war in Gaza.

There are those who claim that there is always an alternative to war but there are times when that is simply not the case, no matter how much we wish it otherwise.  Those folks are so ever ready to condemn Israel for what they call its “aggression.”  But in their condemnations, they are being, to say the least, less than honest.  Less than honest because they choose to ignore a long history of all of Israel’s serious offers to make peace with its enemies; offers that have been turned down flat.  Less than honest because while they are so ready to take up on Hamas’ complaints about the Israeli occupation, they conveniently choose to forget that Israel elected to totally withdraw from Gaza 7 years ago; that Gaza is not occupied – blockaded, yes, but not occupied.  Less than honest because they continually turn a blind eye to the true acts of aggression of Hamas against Israeli civilians and then treat the conflict as if the acts of hostility are one-sided.  Less than honest in that they ignore the fundamental fact that just as it takes two to tango, so does it take two sides to make peace.  When it comes to Israel and Hamas, there is only one side that is interested in talking about peace, and that side is Israel.  At best, Hamas is only willing to talk about a cease fire, and then, only when its military resources are depleted and it needs time to regroup and rearm.

When I originally penned these words, a cease fire agreement had just been announced.  At that time, I had no idea if it would actually take place or survive by the time I shared these words with you.  Now I know that it has taken place.  I still am unsure how long it will survive.  While a cease fire is preferable to active combat, it is definitely not the answer.  The Israelis call such conflicts which end in a cease fire “mowing the lawn.”  No matter how nice a job you do when mowing your lawn, and how good it looks right after you are done, you know that the grass is already starting to grow back and the lawn will soon once again need mowing.  A cease fire is not the answer because it does not put an end to the violence.  It only postpones its continuation.  Indeed, it only assures its continuation for it provides both sides with the breathing room to better prepare for the next confrontation, guaranteeing that the next confrontation will be more brutal and bloody than the last.  No.  Cease fire is not the answer.

So what is Israel to do?  As long as Hamas refuses to consider any long term solution, this cycle of violence will continue.  Not because Israel wants it to, but because Israel has been left with no other choice.

Of course, there is one obvious choice, other than giving Hamas carte blanche to attack Israeli civilians without repercussions.  That choice is an all out war and total victory; going against Hamas with the total might of Israel’s military and not stopping until they are either completely destroyed or unconditionally surrender.  Is that not what the Allies did with Germany and Japan in the Second World War?  That is an option, but it is an option that even Israel, in the heat of its anger, finds too terrible to consider.  And that is to the credit of the Israelis.

Even in the heat of battle, Israel has striven not to forget the price of human suffering that innocent Palestinians pay as a result of the terrorism of Hamas.  It has been out of that consciousness that Israel went out of its way in its efforts to minimize civilian casualties, which was just the opposite of the choices made by Hamas.  Food and medical supplies still flowed from Israel into Gaza.  Neither electricity nor fresh water were cut off.  Injured Palestinians were admitted into Israel and treated in Israeli hospitals.  Palestinian civilians received advance warning to evacuate areas that were targeted by the Israelis.  Israeli surgical strikes were, on occasion, delayed in order to permit civilians to clear the targeted area.

As Jews, we should be very proud of Israel for all its efforts to protect life at a time when it was being forced to take life.  As Jews, we should be Israel’s greatest advocates, spreading the word of all the good Israel attempts to do, even in the darkest of times; sharing with our neighbors that information which, somehow or other, the news media either tends to ignore or deems not to be newsworthy.

Most of all, let us pray for peace  – a true and lasting peace.  Let us pray with all our hearts and souls.  Let us pray that the day will soon arrive when Israeli and Palestinian will cease to view each other as enemy and choose to view each other as friend and neighbor.