Two Interesting Perspectives

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Since the US government’s partial shut down is on everyone’s mind, I thought I would post two interesting perspectives on why Speaker of the House John Boehner has allowed a small minority in his caucus to set an agenda which poses serious risks for the Republican Party. Below are two columns which outline compelling motives why Boehner has chosen this avoidable pain.

The first column in the New Republic theorizes that Boehner has chosen the lessor of evils by allowing a government shutdown. The article ends by stating “Boehner would once again prove he’s far savvier than almost anyone in Washington gives him credit for.” See http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114857/john-boehner-needs-government-shutdown-avoid-debt-default

The second column, from The New York Times, presents an interesting theory that the Republican Party is actually threatened by the Affordable Care Act because its main constituency, the white middle class, stands to benefit greatly once they realize the benefits of Obamacare and that this could undermine their allegiance to the GOP. Thus this is a crucial fight for the base of the Republican Party and the short-term pain of a government shutdown is a small price to pay for that. See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/02/business/economy/why-the-health-care-law-scares-the-gop.html?hp

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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…”

Dispossession

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Yesterday, the Knesset passed legislation in its first reading (two more readings are necessary before it becomes law) to evict 40,000 Israeli Bedouin citizens from their homes and to destroy their villages.  I have written about this issue several times in the past, most recently last month, where you can learn more about this travesty.

This is just another step in what Gershom Gorenberg, in his book “The Unmaking of Israel”, describes as the infiltration of the West Bank settler ideology into Israel, creating in its wake a society infused with injustice, xenophobia, and racism.

Another recent example of this is a headline in today’s Haaretz describing the incarceration of the children of African refugees. As the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reported, legislation passed last year by the Knesset “authorizes the extended detention of children who come here illegally [NOTE: African asylum seekers fleeing war, torture and genocide are barred from entering Israel “legally,” no matter how desperate their situation.] even if they have suffered exploitation, torture and trafficking… Some of the children were taken into custody in the middle of the night under extremely stressful circumstances [NOTE: This experience is a common occurrence for West Bank Palestinian children, many hundreds of whom are arrested each year in terrifying middle of the night army raids.].”

But back to the Bedouin. I will end this column by pasting in below a first-person account of yesterday’s Knesset debate written by Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights. As background, 43 Knesset members voted in favor of evicting the Bedouin and 40 voted against.

43 in Favor of Destroyed villages and a Destroyed Way of Life; 40 Against

 I don’t know whether we will be tried in this world or in another, or by history.  But if this isn’t stopped, we will be tried.  There will be no need for outside commentators or experts or facts or witnesses. It won’t be a matter of a hostile outside world.  Tonight’s Knesset transcript will be sufficient.  Every word spoken by those who rose to defend or decry this legislation will be a fiery witness for the prosecution.  Those in support revealed their true colors, while the words of those opposed ensure that we will not be able to say that we didn’t know or weren’t warned.  We will be tried according to our own words, and found guilty.

I take comfort in our public opinion poll, for which we will be lifting the embargo this morning, our time.  Our hope is that the majority of average Israelis, when the disinformation is stripped away, recognize the fairness in recognizing the historic claims of the Bedouin to a mere 5.4% of the Negev.

Most of the Arab MK’s tore the law up from the speaker’s platform. All expressed anger. Some pleaded not to push the Arab population to the wall, asking “What do you want from us?”

Jewish MK’s from Meretz and the Labor party spoke of the dangerous anti-democratic nature of the legislation, and said that the only way forward was to sit down with our fellow citizens as equals and come to agreement. Their pain and anger was also palpable, as they confronted the imploding of everything they believe in as Israelis and as Zionists.  They asked that the land issue be put aside and that the issue of development and infrastructure be put first. It will be easier to talk about thorny issues after some trust is created.  Michal Rozin said, “First, stop the cruel demolitions.” (She happened to witness demolitions on the day she was on tour with us and our coalition partners.) Almost everything we might have said was said.  Micky Rosenthal and others practically repeated the words of Theodore Bikel when he asked, “How can we do to others what was done to us.” (All MK’s received the Bikel video and our background/position paper)

It was theater of the absurd, as Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein repeatedly expressed his dismay at the violation of Knesset decorum, expelling Arab MK after Arab MK. While many of those opposed spoke of how this was a dark day for the Knesset and Israeli democracy, going beyond the pale of legitimate debate, Edelstein  displayed no empathy, and seemed impervious to the pain, desperation and dismay being expressed.  For him, those emotions were all theatrics, and this was just another Knesset debate that had to be conducted according to the rules. Amid my streaming tears, I reflected on how Chaim Herzog was seen as a hero for tearing the “Zionism is Racism” resolution in pieces while standing on the speaker’s platform at the UN.

The right wing spoke lies about criminal squatters and Orit Struck said bluntly, “It is our land. They don’t have rights.”

Then, there were the “Moderates.” Ruby Rivlin (Likud) and Meir Shetreet (Tnuah) spoke for passing the law and then continuing the negotiations. But they and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid)  made it perfectly clear that the Bedouin would have to change their way of life. They paternalistically maintained that little urban boxes with electricity and running water would be good for the Bedouin.  They glossed over the fact that plenty of Jewish Israelis enjoy electricity and running water in rural settings, and certainly didn’t breath a word about the fact that “Changing their way of life” included dispossession from their land.  The opposition pointed out that there was no necessary connection between the issue of where the Bedouin should live and their ownership of their lands. 

MK Issawi Freij (Meretz)  summed it up best.  This bill says, “We will give you water if you give us your lands.” 

Ya’akov once said to Esau, “I will give you food if you give me your birthright.”  He thought he was being clever, but the price was anger, enmity, and twenty years of exile and estrangement from his brother.

Not only will we be judged if we do not pull back from what we did this evening, but we will pay a terrible price. Please stand with us, and be our mirror.

Destroying the Lives of 40,000 Bedouin Israeli Citizens

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“I truly believe that history will judge all of us on how we act in the coming days. The enormity of the impending moral disaster is perhaps greater than any I have dealt with in the 18 years I have been working for Rabbis For Human Rights.”

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Rabbis for Human Rights, May 5, 2013

The government of Israel wants to advance a bill in the Knesset that will forcibly expel 40,000 Bedouin, all citizens of Israel, from villages on their ancestral lands. In past centuries, the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate recognized the land as belonging to these Bedouin. Israel, with new laws passed since the founding of the state, has unilaterally taken away these ownership rights and the government, echoed by the media, now publicly calls the Bedouin “squatters” as if they have no historical and legal connection to their homes.

The plan is to demolish the Bedouin villages and force residents into artificially created towns where there are no jobs, no hope, and crime and drugs are rampant. Experience has shown that their social structures will collapse when separated from their land and traditional way of life. Besides the moral implications, this is a dangerous strategic move for Israel — destroying the lives of 40,000 loyal (until now) Muslim citizens.

As background, I posted two columns about this last year.  Click here and here (scroll down a bit).

A Ministerial Committee is meeting Monday, May 6, to decide if the plan will be forwarded to the Knesset for approval. If you want to help stop this action, please sign this petition – and forward this on to others who might be interested in stopping this legislation. We only have 24 hours. Click here for a history of how this particular plan was developed.

I have pasted in below selections from a column by Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights which describes how this plan is a violation of the ethical and moral foundations of the Jewish tradition – and mirrors the policies that were used to oppress Jews in the past.

From the moment that I first understood our government’s intentions, I have not been able to get out of my head the final scene of “Fiddler on the Roof,” as the Jews of Anatevka are expelled from their homes. Watch it for yourselves, starting at 2 hours and 36 minutes.

I imagine the residents of El-Araqib saying goodbye to the generations buried in their cemetery, and the residents of numerous villages giving one last longing look at their lands. I imagine the Bedouin soldier serving in the IDF returning his uniform after taking a furlough to help his family pack. At least as likely, I imagine 40,000 Bedouin battling the special police force to be created to enforce this plan, and eventually being forcibly herded into the “Pale of Settlement,” where they will be allowed to live. I see the hatred in young people’s eyes, rising incidents of skirmishes between Jews and Bedouin, and the headlines mourning declining investments and rising unemployment for Jew and Arab alike. As we are warned in this week’s Torah portion, “If you reject My Laws and spurn “My rules,….I will wreak misery upon you…” (Leviticus 26: 15-16)

The bottom line is that successive Israeli governments have desired for years to move the Negev Bedouin out of villages where they have lived before the creation of the state, or in some cases from villages into which Israel had forcibly moved them during the first years of the state. The goal has also been to take over their lands. Fear mongers have told the Israeli public that the Bedouin are criminals who will take over the Negev if they are not stopped. The truth is that, if the Bedouin were granted a fair opportunity to prove their land claims, and were they to win every claim, they would hold on to 5.4% of the Negev.

The Ministerial Committee on Legislation is scheduled to vote on Monday whether or not to send the latest plan to the Knesset to make it into law. Our ask is very simple. “Don’t approve this, or any other proposal that steals land and hope. Build a better future together with the Bedouin” Beyond the enormous moral implications almost impossible to grasp, there is self interest as well. The additional tension, strife and social problems will drive away investments, and discourage people from living in the Negev.

When Sheikh Sayekh al-Touri [from the demolished Bedouin village of Al-Arakib] watched that scene of the Jews of Anatevka being expelled from their homes. He exclaimed, “They did to the Jews just what the Jews are trying to do to us!” However, I was always taught that we are a people commanded to learn from our own oppression how NOT to treat others, and how NOT to repeat history, “For you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt.”

And so, I also have an alternative vision in my head. It is one of Jews and Bedouin working together for the good of theNegev. It is one in which we will merit the blessing of this week’s Torah portion,”You shall observe my laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security, the land shall yield is fruit and you shall eat your fill…”(Leviticus 23:18-19), because we will remember that even the Covenant between God and the Jewish people does not mean that the land belongs to Arab or Jew, “For the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me.”(Leviticus 25:23) If we act fairly and justly to Jew and Bedouin alike, we will be truly living the Torah’s command:

“You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for ALL its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 25:10)

Please act now. Your decision at this moment could influence whether Israel ignores the moral lessons of our own history and perpetuates strife, or whether Israel acts according to the precepts of justice and fairness at the heart of our Jewish tradition, and promotes a better future for both Jews and Bedouin in the Negev.

Love

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This post is not about Israel but rather about a theme that transcends the day-to-day and is a reminder of what is most important and precious in life.

A few days ago I read a story in The New York Times that was simply beautiful. My wife, the author Joan Leegant, and I tried to figure out how the writer, Peter Mercurio, was able to construct such a moving story that was written in such a simple, straightforward style. We were unable to identify specific techniques other than it illustrated the gifts of a talented writer, one of those miracles of the creative consciousness where I think God is present. So read on….

The story of how Danny and I were married last July in a Manhattan courtroom, with our son, Kevin, beside us, began 12 years earlier, in a dark, damp subway station.

Danny called me that day, frantic. “I found a baby!” he shouted. “I called 911, but I don’t think they believed me. No one’s coming. I don’t want to leave the baby alone. Get down here and flag down a police car or something.” By nature Danny is a remarkably calm person, so when I felt his heart pounding through the phone line, I knew I had to run. 

I hope reading the rest of this tale will brighten your day. See: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/28/we-found-our-son-in-the-subway/

Blockbuster Scoop

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Among the issues recently dominating the front pages of Israeli newspapers are the tortured negotiations to form a coalition that will govern the country while the growing riots and demonstrations on the West Bank might be the opening salvos of a new intifada as hope for freedom among Palestinians dwindles to zero.  These daily stories appear against the backdrop of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strikes, a recently arrested Palestinian who died while undergoing interrogation by the Shin Bet (amidst allegations of torture), more threats about Iran, Israeli forces on the move in the Negev demolishing Bedouin homes, and the racially-motivated beatings of Arabs by violent mobs on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the aftermath of Purim festivities, events that are no longer aberrations.

One item that caught my attention was a controversy around the pending deportation of 25 African refugees back to Eritrea. Eritrea is one of the most oppressive regimes in the world where there is a universal, lifelong conscription of young men into the army. Draft dodgers are severely punished with torture and often death. Their plight reminds me of the multitudes of Jewish men who fled Czarist Russia back in the 1800’s which is why many found their way to America and some even to Palestine at the time.

Needless to say, these Africans have not found a warm welcome in Israel as I have written about repeatedly. The new law passed last year criminalizes these asylum seekers with an automatic three-year prison sentence with unlimited extensions. There is no trial or appeal. Apparently these 25 refugees opted for “voluntary repatriation” when faced with the threat of indefinite imprisonment. Human rights groups were up in arms over the pressure brought to bear on these helpless people who would face a guaranteed brutal reception when they landed in Eritrea.  So this controversy was simmering in the background of all the other news.

But then the blockbuster story appeared yesterday. Splashed across the front pages of the Haaretz newspaper was the scoop that Israel has already “voluntarily deported” 1,000 asylum seekers back to Sudan. Many of these refugees fled genocide in Darfur and more recently from the Nuba Mountain region where the government has conducted a brutal campaign against the civilian population including aerial bombings, the destruction of entire villages, mass arrests of thousands, and a government initiated famine. (Click here and here for articles written last year by Nikolas Kristof in The New York Times about this genocidal war).

This deportation is a blatant violation of the UN Refugee Convention that Israel helped develop in the 1950’s in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) representative stated, “…deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed.” Although Israel claims the deportations were voluntary, the UNHCR stated there is no “freewill from inside a prison.”

Sudanese officials have consistently warned that it is a serious crime for any citizen to go to Israel and offenders would be punished. Let’s remember these people were already fleeing slaughter.

Trying to defend itself, Israel states that it is not deporting the refugees directly to Sudan but, by prior arrangement, they are being deported to a third country that, in turn, deports them to Sudan – as if this strategy will not quickly be discovered by the Sudanese authorities.

One Israeli human rights activist, Reut Michaeli, summed up this stunning news perfectly.

“The ease with which the State of Israel is willing to force people to return to a place where their lives are in danger…shows that we have become a society that sanctifies Jewish demography and gives it priority over humanistic Jewish values.

[Sudanese] who hear from [Israeli] government representatives that the law enables them to be held in prison forever without trial, and without their being able to apply for refugee status, despair. They are even willing to endanger their lives to gain a slim chance of freedom.”

Israeli officialdom has been mum about this development. Silence reigns from Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Except that we know Netanyahu’s attitude given his government’s long record of incitement against the refugees.  Just a few weeks ago, in a Jerusalem speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he repeatedly labeled all African asylum seekers in Israel “illegal job immigrants.” This while his government was sending 1,000 people back to their probable imprisonment and death in Sudan.  And, of course, those paragons of virtue in the audience gave him adulatory ovations, having forgotten they owed their own freedom to their ancestors who fled to America to escape similar bloody persecution or genocide.

ASSAF, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, issued the following statement in Tel Aviv, “In deporting [people] to Sudan, Israel has crossed a red line and is not only violating its most basic obligation under international law, but demonstrating cruelty, hard-heartedness and indifference to the fate of human beings.”

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