On MJ
July 3, 2009, 12:34 PM
Filed under: Uncategorized

This article crossposted from Jewschool. A fantastic take on an issue which has been bothering me, as well. Enjoy.

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Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, CA. He serves as National Secretary of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, the largest grassroots Middle East Peace organization in the country.

This has been an emotional week for many here in America and some around the world. Thousands, if not millions, of people have been mourning the death of legendary artist Michael Jackson, literally pouring into the streets in an expression of grief, while our media outlets and bloggers have been running nonstop to cover every angle, every crumb, every breath of this story. It is hard when someone who has touched millions of people with art suddenly dies. I understand that and I respect the feelings. However, during a conversation this past weekend with some friends, a few of whom are also rabbis, the conversation turned for a moment to Michael Jackson and the whole tragedy. One of my friends was genuinely upset and felt pained at his death, and she was a bit incensed that I and another friend, were not so much. And, that we were more upset at the outpouring of grief and expression of pain at this death, rather than at any of the myriad other events this past week that could be commanding our attention, was just a total buzz kill for her! I have been thinking about this all week and as we celebrate the 4th of July this Shabbat, the day when we honor our country and all that is good and right, just and joyous about this land in which we live, I want to comment on what I feel is the tragedy within this tragedy as it relates to us as a nation.

John F. Kennedy once wrote in a letter to the publisher of Musical America, “There is a connection, hard to explain logically, but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was also the age of Shakespeare. And the New Frontier for which I campaign in public life, can also be a New Frontier for American art.” (Musical America, Oct. 1960) Certainly one can say today, without a doubt, that the age of cable television and the internet is also the age of a pop musical culture explosion, in which Michael Jackson is surely unmatched. Artists have a way of entering our souls, filling our lives with meaning, offering us hope in times of despair, in a way that very few other people can. And often, as is the case with Jackson, the art becomes larger and more profound than the actual person. With the advent of music videos, and the mass market culture which grew out of the 1980s, Michael Jackson led the way toward a new crossover medium of music, dance, fashion and cultural style. His was not only the voice of a generation, but his dance moves and unique contributions to fashion, embedded him as a cultural icon like none other. Art has always had the power to transform and elevate us as human beings; like the great artists of old, Jackson found a link to our collective consciousness that tapped into something primal in our need for connection, community and inspiration. For that, we should be grateful for his gift and mourn his death. However, what concerns me is this: why is it that the death of a musician, one man, and one with a very troubled life, brings out the passion of Americans onto the street with such force? It is not the expression of grief that troubles me, but rather the lack of expression and energy for things that are truly of greater consequence and importance in the affairs of our world.

What bothers me most is what I see as a disconnect between our emotional outpouring and the priorities of our society. So, I would not be as troubled by the reaction to Jackson’s death, with people sleeping on the streets overnight just to walk by his Walk of Fame star, or setting up spontaneous vigils which draw thousands of people, in tears, if I saw the same kind of reaction and devotion to causes and issues that truly will affect the lives of people. In the same week that hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest a travesty of democratic values, Americans took to the streets for the death of a superstar entertainer. I have to ask: where were the throngs of people when we called for support to end genocide in Darfur? Supporting gay rights as our state voted to support Prop. 8? Protesting the horrendous budget cuts that our state is facing? Speaking out for affordable healthcare? I have been reading the letters in papers, following some of the blogs and talk-radio, which along with Jackson, have been covering the mindless story of South Carolina Governor Sanford’s affair, and noticed, at least in some of the letters, a tone of gratitude for the paper covering something really meaningful and important, rather than, and I kid you not, only covering news issues, like the energy bill, the effort to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that we are aware that the draw down of troops in Iraq began this week. One would think that this would be front page news, no? No, buried somewhere inside. What is this saying about our society?

July 4 celebrates the noble actions of our ancestors who fought for freedom, stood up to tyranny and helped to create the foundation for the birth of our blessed nation. I fear that what we are spreading now is not the values of our nation but only our pop culture, a culture that elevates superstars to gods, encourages consumer capitalism based on false values and promotes a quasi idolatry. People all over the world look to America and are copying what we do; yet, are we truly aware of what aspects of our culture others are mimicking? Do we only want the music, clothes, videos and violent components of our society transmitted to others around the globe? Do we not want people to look to America and see us rallying for justice, promoting, with strength of numbers, the values we hold dear, and actually exercising our democratic rights by voting? Will we rally on the streets to promote alternative energy? Will we rally on the streets to protest unfair and immoral healthcare coverage? Will we rally on the streets to end wars and stop violence? A generation ago, people risked their lives for causes that changed the course of our nation. Today, most of us don’t risk our lives for anything, but have no problem spending a day, a week, a month, mourning a superstar, waiting in line for the newest video game machine, or trampling one another to get to the sale rack first. On this 4th of July, let us think about our priorities and assess where we stand.

I close with a rabbinic parable. A king had some empty goblets. He said to himself: “If I pour hot water into the goblets, they will burst, and if I pour cold water into them, they will crack.” So what did the king do? He mixed hot and cold water together and poured that into the goblets and the goblets did not break. Similarly, when God created the world, the Holy One said, “If I create the world on the basis of mercy and compassion alone, it will be overwhelmed by sin; on the basis of justice alone, the world cannot exist. So I will create the world with both justice and mercy; that way it will endure!” (Genesis Rabbah 12:15). Our emotional outpouring over Michael Jackson is the legacy of mercy and compassion, the hot water, and it is necessary and encouraged. Yet, if it is not balanced with an equal amount of cold water, our concern for justice and righteousness, then we are going to shatter our glasses, our world will not endure. Let us keep this message in mind the next time we are called to dedicate our time, our lives, to a cause. May the energy we give to the mercy and compassion be matched by the energy we give to justice. In that way, we imitate God and make our world an even holier and more profound place to dwell.

Shabbat shalom.

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On My Nightstand – What I’m Reading
June 19, 2009, 8:11 PM
Filed under: America, Israel, Shabbat Shalom, Uncategorized | Tags:

I try to read as much as possible – whenever I am not reading something for a specific class (guess which one happens more). Though I enjoy classics and famed authors – Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson – I focus mostly on Non-Fiction, so that I might get in depth analysis on specific issues frequenting my mind and our News sources.

Amongst other things (Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath), I just picked up Dan Fleshler’s Fix-America’s-Middle-East-Foreign-Policy guide, Transforming America’s Israel Lobby. You may know Fleshler from his work with left-of-center leaning pro-Israel organizations (Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, J Street), but suffice it to say, a smart person wouldn’t be caught reading a copy of his book in AIPAC’s offices.

I have made my views known on Israel’s overarching predicament (once, and a second time), and though I am only 50 or so pages into Fleshler’s book, it is apparent that he and I draw the same conclusions, albeit mine being far less expressive or eloquently stated. Flesher writes:

Regardless of what the United States chooses to do [with out M.E. Foreign Policy], if it pushes back against Israel in any way, it will be attacked by well-organized American constituencies who believe it is their mission to squelch any disagreements. And that is why a stronger political alternative, a lobby for the rest of us, is needed. (22)

…it is time for American Jews who care about Israel to find new ways of expressing themselves, new forms of activism to help both America and Israel address today’s challenges. And it is time to join together with others in the United States who see no contradiction between being pro-American, pro-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian. (27)

So far, Flesher seems to deliver a balance of criticizing AIPAC (he insists the proverbial gorilla that is AIPAC is more like 400 pounds than 800, if you will), while promoting an American F.P. which does not bow to Israel, but rather, allows an even-minded representation of both sides’ respective narratives (an idea Flesher expands on better than I can rephrase: read the book).

Clearly a fascinating read so far – I’ll be interested to see what other points Flesher makes, as well as my feelings about the Israel Lobby once I’ve finished the book. I look forward to reading about it over Shabbat – I’ll edit this post motzei Shabbos with new thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom!



Entourage…The Real Deal
June 10, 2009, 10:28 AM
Filed under: America | Tags: , , ,

For those of you as into (read: obsessed with) HBO’s smash hit Entourage as I am, an article in todays New York Times chronicles the rise (to the next level of Hollywood Power) of Ari Emanuel, brother of Rahm, who is reportedly the prototype for Entourage’s aptly named Ari Gold – played by Jeremy Piven.

Often I find it easy to dismiss the fantasy worlds of shows akin to Entourage (it’s a show about moochers, a friend of mine adamantly exclaims whenever the show is mentioned), but, of course, celebrities exist, and so too, agents to represent them.  

No real point to this post – just an interesting read about a world typically reserved for HBO, E!, and the tabloids…enjoy.



“Why The American Jewish Right Wing Matters
June 5, 2009, 1:57 PM
Filed under: America, Barack Obama, Diaspora Jewry, Foreign Policy, Israel, Shabbat Shalom

Really interesting article In The American Prospect, re: The American Jewish Right.

“There has been a reluctance among American Jews, even progressive ones, to confront the ways in which our narrative of overcoming oppression has contributed to a culture in which we fail to grapple with our own privilege, with the moral implications of Israeli occupation, and with the suffering of Palestinians.

Why is that failure significant? Because in our political context, we need a great many committed, strong Jewish voices calling for a change in the United States’ Mideast policy. American Jews led the way, and rightfully so, in garnering American support for a Jewish homeland. Now we should be leading the way toward becoming, as the president has phrased it, the kind of honest, tough-minded friend Israel really needs at this crucial political moment. One step is calling out — and engaging with — the bigots and hard-liners within our own community.”

I feel that very much of what I responded to last night was this attitude. It is so potent. The video, prompting this article (which, because I am at work, I have not had a chance to watch with sound, yet) shows young American Jews – my generation – bad mouthing Obama. As Joseph Dana puts it:

“The answers in this video reflect the education and worrisome perspectives that many American Jews harbor towards Israeli politics. The sense of entitlement that the American Jewish community has when it comes to Israeli policy is on full raw display in the words of these young adults.”

An unsettling note to leave an entry on – but certainly leaves one with food for thought during Shabbos. So, what do you think? How will this turn out, and how do we get our generation to calm down?

Shabbat Shalom!



In Response to a Response…
June 4, 2009, 8:13 PM
Filed under: 14968398, America, Barack Obama, Israel, Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

I received a response to my self-admittedly scattered Blog post last night, from a very good friend – whose opinions I both respect and try to understand, but on many points overwhelmingly disagree with. I hope to voice my response to what I see as her main points, found in bold below. Currently, the full comment can be found linked to my previous post:

“I hate to break it to you, but Obama is nothing but a fake. The charisma and shining intellect you so admire in Obama is nothing but an act he puts on to make people like him.”

Talk about getting my blood boiling quickly. I am typically not one to use the word hate – and mean it – but I hate this argument, and as I mentioned yesterday, I feel like it’s everywhere. Those espoused to the ideology of the Israeli right are scared absolutely shitless of a President Obama who, as JewSchool‘s Kung Fu Jew put it: “[treats] Israel not as a pampered toddler but as the adult country it is.” As far as American Foreign Policy goes, I feel much more comfortable with a US-Israel relationship not based on blind, unrelenting support, but dialogue, and at times, disagreements. The Bush years of Middle-East Foreign Policy centered around the Arab world as the enemy, making Israel the United States’ de-facto ally. I am, and always have been a proponant of a strong Israeli-US relationship, not because of our supposed shared enemies, but because of our shared goals of Democratic values and yearning for peace. To move back to the initial comment: I view our President as far from a fake, but rather a man who is not afraid to make the appropriate, difficult moves in reaching out to the Arab world which previous Presidents have been unable to do. I am cautious of what he says and does with Iran and other known terrorist organizations, sure, but this forces me to label him not a fake, but a realist. I truly believe his charisma and intellect to be true, and I resent those who say otherwise.

“Now that he is president he has turned his back on many of the communities that supported his campaign.”

To make such a statement is both premature, and hostile. Obama has inherited one of the worst recessions this country has ever seen, with unemployment at all time highs, thousands of Americans losing their homes every day, struggling to put food on the table. Any American President is going to be faced with a diverse array of issues each morning he shows up for work. Certainly, he cannot tackle each individual issue the moment it is brought to his desk – we must wait to see these results. A President, though elected for what he proposes to do in his four years, must not be judged on his ability to check issues off of his platform. Rather, we must judge him by what he accomplishes by January of 2013. I am confident that President Obama has not forgotten about the issues or groups which elected him – just give him time.

“The Jewish community has been left out in the cold as well.”

No. It has not. The Jewish community – via people who share this argument – are portraying themselves as left out in the cold because they are not seeing a President make the decisions they want him to make – which is difficult, of course. We must remember that in a Democracy there will always be two sides of an issue, and people on both of those sides feeling pasionately. In George W. Bush, the pro-Israel community had a President whom we did not need to worry about (on this issue, anyway, everything else was a different story) – we knew how he was going to react, and we knew that he was not going to criticize Israel, so we moved on and complained about other things. Now we encounter a President who is interested and motivated in making significant steps towards a two-state solution – which is what we will, I promise you, end up with further down the road. The steps to getting there will be incredibly difficult, and will involve sacrifices from both the Israelis and the Palestinians. A pragmatic opproach to solving the Middle-East crisis suggests that we cannot solve such a complicated problem by hoping it will go away, or ignoring it. We – the Jewish community – must man up, as it were, and face these problems head on.

“Now, he is sympathizing with Palestinian terrorists set on destroying Israel. There is a difference between forging connections between enemies and sympathizing with a terrorist government and forcing an ally into a situation that is unsafe for its people. Obama is the end for Israel.”

We must remember that amongst the Palestinians, there is neither one clear leader, nor a leader at all without some ties that the pro-Israel community will find objectionable. I would never suggest or support complete reliance on negotiating with those people deemed or associated with terrorists, but it is vital to remember that these are the cards dealt to us at the moment – if you will allow the analogy. Though it is much to our chagrin, it is much more important at this hour to talk with anyone and everyone we can about peace, rather than selectively not talking to them because we disapprove of their ideals or actions – even if those actions are detrimental to us.

In the end, I know that Israel’s leaders will never allow themselves to be put into a situation they deem unsafe for the Israeli populace, but they must understand that living stubbornly under the status quo – in which both sides wait for the other to make the first, hardest move, all the while pointing fingers – will never work. I am upset that many consider Obama “the end for Israel.” I view this, obviously, to be far from the truth. Bear in mind the advisors President Obama keeps closest to his office – namely his Chief of Staff, Rahm Israel Emanuel (his real middle name, not satire) – another former Senator from Illinois. If anyone has Israel’s best interest at heart, it is he. After all, have any of us made as significant sacrifices for her safety as he has?

“The PA is unwilling to recognize the state of Israel and will not stop anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda in its territories…Obama cannot expect Israel to forget their conditions for peace if the PA won’t do the same.

If not, then that is their prerogative, and peace talks will not go forward. This is one of the conditions which Obama has set forth for the Palestinians to confront as a peace process is pursued. If they openly choose not to recognize Israel after encountering an American President who is such a willing partner, such a move will resonate loudly across the world. Though Obama is currently, with this mornings speech in Cairo, addressing the Muslim community as a whole, in that speech he restated expectations of both parties. We must assume that this means he intends to hold both Israel and the Palestinians to these expectations.

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Solving the Middle-East conflict, at this point and from now on, needs to be a process of making decisions few of us want to make. If we do not make them, we will only continue this ugly path, to revisit the same questions and issues further down the line. I believe we have an American President in Barack Obama committed to finding a middle ground which neither side will be completely thrilled about – suggesting that we have truly found a middle ground.

Time will tell.




Obams…
June 4, 2009, 12:12 AM
Filed under: America, Barack Obama, Frustrations, Israel, Politics

Nearly six full months later…I’m back? Lets jump straight in.

Most of you know – certainly anyone who has read these pages does – that I have supported President Obama from day one. I enjoyed his address at the DNC in 2004, forgot about him during his following months as Junior Senator from Illinois, and quickly picked up pace by the time significant Presidential aspirations seemed eminent.

Watching the two night NBC Brian Williams special with my mom this evening, she remarked on how extraordinary she thinks Obama is – and I agreed. His charisma and shining intellect finally provide a President fit for the job – and 63% of American agree! Hooray approval ratings! Americans; we; I, love his ability to articulate his opinion (eight years was a long time), his open-mindedness, and his eagerness to reconnect with the rest of the world. Read: the Arab world.

Yeah. I said it. Ready for the kicker?

I think not sugar-coating everything the United States has to do with Israel isn’t the worst foreign policy move, either, though that one took me a long time to say. Don’t get too excited – that’s as far as I’ll go. Phew.

For quite some time I have held the belief that being a supportive critic of something (something = Israel) is both more productive and indicative of a working relationship than supporting that something without discretion. Read simply: blind support of Israel, though an 8-year Bush policy, is a shitty policy. Note: the 8 year Bush policy consisted of 6 years of not getting involved at all, and 2 years of false promises and failed conferences.

For several months I have been quiet about my thoughts regarding Israel, perhaps, simply, because it is incredibly difficult to criticise her, at times, without being labeled an anti-Zionist, which I am not, or instilling the wrath of right-wingers (of both the Israeli and American political spectrum, though primarily the former). Difficulties also lie in figuring out what I think – something I still need to work on. Either way, let it be made clear that I support and adore Israel, for many of the things she offers her citizens and the world. She is unique in the technology produced within her borders, but above all in the role she serves as the home of so many different people: a homeland both literal and metaphorical for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike.

Israel’s neighborhood and her interactions with those neighbors, though, has up until this point, and likely far past it, been the focus of any significant debate. Indeed, as President Obama prepares to address the Arab world from Cairo in a mere six hours (6:45 am EST) his main objective will be to begin a new page and attitude in US-Arab relations. Of course, I don’t know what the guidelines of this new page will be – that is yet to be seen, and should not be taken at face value, but rather as those guidelines are carried out. Regardless, I am glad that we are taking a step forward in our relations with the Arab world, as the previous administration seemed only to dig a hole that Obama is only beginning to climb out of. So many of my friends and the publications I read (sporadically) are filled with inadvertant, and sometimes blatant racism towards Arabs. Though terrorism and awful attacks both verbal, mental, and physical towards Jews and the Jewish state drive me up the wall, Israel and her supporters need to take the moral high-road and embrace the Jewish values of loving our neighbors and pursuing peace.

And still, I worry.

My worries, it seems, stem from the consequence that this new set of Obama policies will have on Israel – particularly her safety. It is still not clear to me, for example, how far Obama will actually let Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear aspirations go. I am confident in Tzahal’s ability to maintain a secure Jewish state, but the US has and always will be (G!d willing) Israel’s biggest ally. Without us, the list is short…

As for Obama’s urge (request? demand?) that Israel remove its citizens from, and demolish, settlements (yes, including natural growth), I have mixed emotions. I am surely not as educated as I need to be on the topic to fully weigh in on it, but I find it difficult both to make Israeli settlers leave land that, supposedly, they bought, and leave them displaced. In addition, recalling recent history of demolishing Israeli homes (Summer 2006), returning that land to Palestinians, only to watch terrorists shoot rockets from said land in return does not leave me feeling warm and fuzzy. Where is the incentive for Israel in that move? Or removing itself to 1967 borders, for that matter? This issue is a blog post in itself, so I’ll save it.

Excuse this jumble of a post. My thoughts on all of these issues and more remain cloudy on a good day – clearly I have significant thinking to do. In the meantime, I am not particularly optimistic for any major breakthroughs soon – with Bibi’s stubbornness and Avigdor Leibermans (blatant) racism, not to mention infighting and significant sectarian issues amongst the Palestinians, who remain without a leader. Both sides have significant ways to go. The only upside being I have a lot more time to write about it…

We’ll see what Obama says. Will you be listening?



“International Law & Fighting in Gaza”
January 12, 2009, 4:44 PM
Filed under: Uncategorized

Just read a fantastic post over at Blogs of Zion, which highlighted the report published yesterday by the Global Law Center on the legalities of the fighting in Gaza.

I believe it is a solid and beneficial piece, not only because it mirrors my beliefs, but because I think it truly addresses the issues of international law which the media are ignoring.

Please read.