News Roundup

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I have run across several news items over the past few weeks while sitting at my computer here in Oklahoma that I want to share. They range from the hopeful to the creepy, and I think you’ll find them of interest.

Hope

In case you missed this, two weeks ago the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously struck down as unconstitutional the law requiring a three-year minimum prison sentence for African refugees entering Israel, the vast majority of whom are asylum seekers fleeing war or persecution. Coverage in The Times of Israel quoted two of the justices as follows:

Justice Miriam Naor, deputy president of the High Court, said the ruling could be Israel’s “finest hour,” because it would force the country to find “humane solutions… that match not only international law, but also the Jewish worldview.”

The ruling will create “a difficult task” that Israel will perhaps “have to face against its will,” Justice Uzi Fogelman said, but “we must remember that those who come to our shores… are entitled to the right to liberty and the right to dignity that the Basic Law grants to any person as a human being.”

The African refugee situation in Israel is a complicated issue with no easy solutions. However this ruling offers some optimism that Israeli citizens and their leaders might wake up from their xenophobic fog and recognize the deep roots for justice and respect for all people in the Jewish tradition, especially the poor, the helpless, and those being oppressed. Perhaps this ruling also provides a glimmer of hope regarding the 40,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens in the Negev who are threatened with the destruction of their ancestral villages by the government or the Palestinians on the West Bank still enduring oppression, violence and impoverishment under the yoke of the occupation.

Perspective

Gershom Gorenberg, author of The Unmaking of Israel (a must-read book for anyone who cares about the future of Israel), recently published a column on the Daily Beast about how the growing refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war might offer some fresh perspectives for understanding the Palestinian refugee situation that resulted from the 1948 war. Gorenberg challenges the accepted narratives of both sides in the conflict – that Israel had a premeditated policy in 1948 to expel all the Palestinians or that the Arab countries kept the Palestinians cooped up in refugee camps to keep the struggle aflame. Instead he suggests that the Syrian civil war, where millions have fled the fighting, offers an opportunity to re-examine these accepted notions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Creepy

Transitioning to the United States, there is a well-funded campaign being launched on college campuses, Generation Opportunity, to convince college students not to enroll in health insurance plans that will soon be offered as part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), even if it means they forgo health insurance coverage. As Evan Feinberg, President of Generation Opportunity told Yahoo News, “You [college students] might have to pay a fine, but that’s going to be cheaper for you and better for you.” It’s hard for me to fathom how it will be better for college students not to have health insurance if they have the misfortune of being diagnosed with a serious illness.

In any case, the campaign features some video ads (scroll down to view them) with some creepy images that the promoters hope will go viral. It is distressing to see another example of how, what should be reasoned political discourse, has degenerated into the gutter of misleading information and sound bites.

Stereotypes

And finally, I recently viewed this short, four minute video, originally produced by ABC in 2010 (there is a 15 second commercial at the beginning), of the reaction of bystanders to three individuals – a young white man, a young black man, and a young blond woman – all engaged in the same suspicious act.  Although this was not a scientific experiment and the methodology can easily be criticized, it does give one pause to consider the built-in biases that we may not be aware we have and to honestly ask ourselves how we might have reacted. It is a fascinating video and an interesting thought experiment.

Oklahoma

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“There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow
There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow.
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye
And it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky.

Oh, what a beautiful Mornin’, Oh, what a beautiful day….”

This summer I relocated almost 9,000 miles from Tel Aviv to Stillwater, Oklahoma (population 45,000 plus 30,000 seasonal students). The reason: my wife, author Joan Leegant, was hired by Oklahoma State University as a one-year visiting professor in creative writing.

Needless to say, this move has resulted in a bit of culture shock, although I suppose moving to northern Alaska might have been even more intense. I thought I would share some observations now that it is four weeks since we drove into town.

The things i wish could be different:

  • Unlike Tel Aviv, where the beach was down the block from our apartment, there is no such sandy shore in Stillwater. The nearest one is 500 miles away on the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. That’s too far to walk.
  • Stillwater seems to be the proud host to every chain restaurant in existence, fast food and otherwise. The avenues are lined with them, one after the other. Taco Bell, Arbys, Olive Garden, you name it, it’s here. Except for the many watering establishments (bars) that service the student population, there are few homegrown and locally owned restaurants. This is in sharp contrast to Tel Aviv where it feels like every block, even the quietist side streets, seem to house a privately owned café, contributing to the cornucopia of incredible food offerings. I anticipate my future in Stillwater will entail lots of home cooking.
  • This is a car — or rather a pickup truck — culture. I have never lived in a place where there are so many such trucks. They are ubiquitous, filling the roads and parking lots, often driven by those who seem to have little need for them. Even students have them (maybe they are useful schlepping books to and from class). In contrast, our Prius is lonely, with only a few others to keep it company, isolated sentinels for energy conservation in the heart of oil country.

The pleasant surprises:

  • Perhaps the biggest surprise is the Oklahoma State University campus. We had anticipated a poorly funded state college with utilitarian or mismatched modernistic buildings. Instead, the campus is beautiful, filled with brick lined walks, ornamental gardens, and a consistent architectural style that creates a picturesque environment.
  • Living in Stillwater is easy, without many of the aspects of big city life that cause stress. This is a very small city – it takes me 5-7 minutes to get all the way across town. There are no traffic jams, except after weekend football games when the university’s giant Boone Pickens Stadium empties out.
  • The drivers are incredibly polite. At four-way stop intersections, I can listen to an entire Shakespeare soliloquy before the first car moves.  And I have yet to hear the honk of a car horn in contrast to Tel Aviv where they start honking at you to get going even before the traffic light turns green.
  • People are incredibly friendly. Everyone will talk with you and, given the slightest opening, will tell you their life stories. It’s like a village where folks make the time to connect instead of rushing to the next task.  Of course, given my background, it can get annoying having to stop and respond to every sales clerk in the supermarket as they give me a hearty greeting and ask how my day is going. I could be rude, nod, and rush past to get my shopping done quickly or stop, break old habits, and engage. I think this may have something to do with “stopping to smell the roses….”
  • Oklahoma has a reputation of being the reddest of Red states. However, Stillwater is a university town and, with faculty coming from all over the world, it has a greater diversity of political perspectives.  Democrats even have a prominent office right on Main Street. The town kind of feels like my home state of Massachusetts that gained the distinction in 1972 of being the only state in the union to have favored George McGovern during the Richard Nixon landslide that year.

But what I thought I would miss the most from moving here was the physical beauty of Israel: the white sand and aqua waters of the beaches, the awe-inspiring vistas overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the Golan, the stark Judean hills leading up to Jerusalem and the West Bank. But surprisingly, I have found Oklahoma to posses a strange beauty that has captivated me. The flat rolling grasslands, the fields of grain, and the endless sky convey a promise of unstated possibilities. Driving along the empty roads on the outskirts of town, I find myself experiencing the same moments of awe as when I viewed the blue Mediterranean. It’s as if God is forcing me to expand my horizons and demanding witness to the infinite variety of creation.

As a final note, I hope to find the time on this now misnamed blog to convey additional thoughts of life in the heartland of America – while still commenting on the worsening tragedies unfolding in the Middle East. But in the meantime, below are two small notices I recently ran across that may convey to all you city dwellers a sense of the environment where this transplanted New Yorker/Bostonian and frequent Tel Avivian now finds himself.

A small ad in last week’s local Stillwater newspaper:

“LOST: 2 black cows. Strayed from 68th and Westpoint on Saturday. Call….”

And this ad was on Craigslist:

“Problems with coyotes or hogs? I am a hunter and respect your land and property rights. I will not cut fences, damage your property, leave gates open, or leave trash around, etc. Willing to leave the meat with you in exchange for letting me hunt these varmints on your property. I do not charge for services. CALL ME AT…”

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