Posted tagged ‘President John F Kennedy’

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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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.

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.”