Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thoughts on BDS; or, What are You Doing to End the Occupation?

I want to start off with this quote from a post on the website Mondoweiss 

There are actually two types of liberal Zionists... One type is genuinely appalled by Israel’s behavior and criticize them almost as harshly as we do. They may even favor BDS or if their Zionism prevents that, they acknowledge that Israel reaps what it sows. The other type only cares about the two state solution as some abstract goal whose only purpose is to make them sound liberal. They downplay the cruelty of Israel as much as possible, never speak about Israeli atrocities though they do condemn Palestinian terror, and restrict their criticism to settlement building. That last bit is crucial– it is true that settlements are a crucial issue, but by reducing Israel’s crimes to settlement building they make Israeli misdeeds seem nonviolent and abstract, while the only violence ever condemned is Palestinian... The injustice to Palestinians isn’t something that should create any sort of rift between the US and Israel. Some people matter and some don’t.

I definitely fall into the first category (I'm going to label these LZ1s). As I have stated previously, i consider the  ongoing Occupation of the Palestinian people by Israel a crime, inexcusable both politically and morally. It can only be supported by Jews both in Israel and in America (that is, by LZ2s) by a combination of willful ignorance, hasbara, and an astonishing lack of empathy for the plight of the people that (need I remind you) we Jews are oppressing.

Israel's actions are protected by the US government both politically, by the use of its veto in the UN Security Council, and economically/militarily to the tune of $3 billion dollars per year, far in excess of both Israel's importance on the world stage and the military threats it faces from its neighbors. As as been amply demonstrated during the current presidency, any attempt to put pressure on Israel to limit its settlement activities or to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians is met with massive of political pressure within the United States, from a Congress that marches in lockstep with AIPAC and from a political echelon (in both parties) who fear "the Israel Lobby" electorally.

Thus, no progress.

So what options are there? One response has been the development of the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Supposedly called for by "Palestinian civil society” (whatever that is), BDS calls for economic and cultural sanctions against Israel, including boycotting Israeli products, encouraging public figures and entertainers not to visit Israel, and dis-including academic and cultural figures from international forums such as conferences etc.

This approach has been criticized as being over-broad and borderline (at least) antisemitic. However, a small but significant and growing number of Jews (usually, but not only, those who don't identify much with Jewish community) do support BDS. The main example of this amongst those who do consider themselves active Jews is Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the Jewish wing of the BDS movement. BDS, and therefore JVP, are considered anathema by the mainstream Jewish communal structures, so much so that it has led to an ancillary conflict on college campuses between those who want to exclude BDS supporters from participation in forums hosted by Jewish institutions such as Hillel, and those who consider this an unacceptable suppression of free speech and expression. But that's a topic for another day.

Amongst those who, like me, are fed up with Israel's intransigence and want to exert some kind of pressure, or at least make our opinions known, the options (aside from all-out BDS) include J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” alternative to AIPAC, which focuses on supporting more moderate Congressional representation; and a kind of modified boycott of products that come from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), proposed with much attention by columnist Peter Beinart a couple of years ago.

Those of us on the left do not consider the OPT part of Israel, and we are at pains to make sure that all institutions continue to maintain that distinction (such as, for instance, maintaining the so-called "Green Line", that, prior to 1967, separated Israel from what afterward became the OPT, in religious school textbooks). In this we act against the will of the Israeli government, which is at great pains to erase the Green Line. 

That is to say, there is a purposeful confusion promulgated by the Israeli government and its international supporters between the boycott of the OPT and the boycott of Israel itself – if there's no distinction between the two, then boycotting the territories is boycotting Israel. This confusion is abated by LZ2s, who may wish for peace but consider off-limits any actions that might influence Israel to pursue it. Those of us who are LZ1s hold onto the distinction, probably well past the point where it actually exists.

Many former LZ1s, through heartache and frustration with Israel's behavior, have become supporters of BDS. I count many of my friends among them - people whose Zionist upbringing and bona fides are beyond question, yet who now serve on JVP's rabbinic council,.A recent “conversion”story was published in the Washington Post by Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard, and Glen Weyl, an assistant professor of economics and law at the University of Chicago. It was called “We are lifelong Zionists. Here’s why we’ve chosen to boycott Israel,” and it's well worth a read if you haven't seen it already.

I can strongly identify with their level of frustration. Between the assault on Gaza last year, the reelection of the Netanyahu government (even more rightwing than the last “most rightwing ever” Israeli government), the ongoing and expanding settlement project (another 454 new units in East Jerusalem this week) and the increasing violence and racism of Israeli society, the humanist values that many of us thought Israel represented have turned into either, “Criticism of Israel isn't necessarily antisemitic, but we can't think of a single example that isn't,” or “Why are you complaining about Israel? Isn't Syria (or Iran, or Isis, or North Korea) worse?”

So, what is to be done?

I have not taken the step of joining JVP or otherwise announcing support for full-on BDS, for a number of reasons:

a) Israelis don't see BDS and say, We better change our approach. They see BDS and think, the whole world is against us.

I don't remember where I saw this, but an article recently articulated a major difference between South Africa and Israel: white South Africans maintained their identities as Europeans, maintained cultural and familial connections with family in Europe and thus felt they had someplace to go if they felt that they needed to after apartheid fell. Israel, on the other hand, is the product of the idea that the Jewish people have no place else in the world to go, that all the options had been tried and had proven to have failed. This idea – that “we have no place else to go” - whether it's literally true or not, is psychologically very strong. 

b) The mainstream Jewish community rejects BDS, and - despite my, shall we say, checkered history within it – I still hope to retain some influence there. Or at least not have my opinions rejected out of hand.

c) As a human rights advocate and a civil libertarian, I am in principle opposed to cultural and academic boycotts. To this I would add two codicils:

1. This does not require anyone to go to Israel for cultural events or academic conferences, and
2. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: pushing Steven Salaita out of his post at University of Illinois because of his political opinions, or objecting to pro-Palestinian speakers or activism on college campuses, are every bit as objectionable an infringement on academic or cultural freedom as boycotting an Israeli academic or speaker.
d) A lot of BDSers are against the existence of the state of Israel, and JVP itself is agnostic on the subject, but for me, the alternatives are bleak. It's hard to imagine a binational state working after everything that's happened, when even the Czechs and the Slovaks don't want to be in a state together. Maybe some kind of federal arrangement could work, I don't know. I'm rather a Utopia, so i don't want to say it's impossible. But while the time for the two-state solution may well have passed, any final status arrangements will have to include some mechanism where the Jewish community can control the borders, cultural and policies of whatever territory it is left with. In the end, I'm still a liberal (post-)Zionist, lame as that may be at this stage.

So if a full economic, academic and cultural boycott of Israel is not the answer, but yet the status quo is intolerable, something must be done – but what?

a) Support J-Street. The Iran deal contretemps exposed fissures in the bipartisan support of the political echelon for Israel's policies. (Note that I don't say, “Support for Israel.”) In particular, the grassroots of the Democratic party doesn’t seem to feel that Netanyahu deserves unquestioning American protection and support. Hillary Clinton’s recent love letter to Netanyahu is a throwback to an earlier era, when AIPAC was invulnerable and Democrats feared being seen as unfriendly. There may be billionaires who will decide how to spend based on Bibi-friendliness, but Jews don't vote that way and the oligarchs weren't going to give that money to Democrats anyway.

J-Street has its problems, being at once too moderate, too inside-the-Beltway, and too autocratic. But given where the politics on this issue are, it has an crucial role to play.

b) Support New Israel Fund. One of the most scary aspects of Israel's tumble down the right-wing rabbit hole has been the vilification of vital human rights NGOs such as B'Tzelem or the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). There is even a current proposal that their representatives wear distinctive markings when they visit the Knesset, which is unfortunately not the only way Israel has become like that which it hates. (This dynamic exists in American Jewish precincts as well, primarily in the case of Human Rights Watch, which apparently doesn't continue its name with “except when it comes to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.”)

New Israel Fund (itself similarly vilified) is the main overseas fund-raiser of these irreplaceable organizations.

c) Stay informed. Ignorance is not an excuse. There is plenty of information out there, even excluding people who don't want Israel to exist. Read the webpages of the human rights organizations I mentioned earlier. Read Gideon Levy and Amira Hass (both in Haaretz). Read Juan Cole and +972 Magazine, especially Dahlia Scheindlin and Noam Sheizaf. Read Daoud Kuttab and Rami Khouri. If you're really brave, read Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal. (These last don't want Israel to exist, at least as it is now. But it's worth reading what they have to say anyway. Don't be afraid to look the truth in the face.) (Most or all of these also have Twitter feeds, so they're easy to find and follow.

d) Stop denying and justifying. People are so eager to see plausible (-ish) justifications for positions they desperately want to agree with. Israel has a ton of people doing hasbara (propaganda) for it, some of it paid for by the Israeli government, some of it by American philanthropists. It has as much value as any other propaganda, which is to say, not much. The idea that the IDF or the Israeli government is somehow more credible than other sources, in situations  where their interests are in making themselves look blameless, is implausible, to say the least. The phrases, “They deserved it,” or “they use human shields” or any variation of Golda Meir's ugly and tiresome, “We'll never forgive them for making us kill them” should be treated with an entire shaker of salt, not just a grain. And Stand with Us, Emergency Committee for Israel, Free Beacon, or their ilk should not be treated as any more than the propaganda outlets they are.

e) Support economic sanctions that are targeted at the Israeli occupation. Several years ago, when I was a Jewish Federation director, our major communal relations initiative was to fend off church-based economic sanctions against Caterpillar and other companies whose products are used to support the Occupation. My language in those interactions was focused on Israelis and Palestinians understanding each other's narratives, the long history of Christian antisemitism, and the importance of not usurping negotiations. Since then it has become apparent to me that international quiet only leads to more Israeli intransigence. So – the European labeling of settlement products? Go for it. The Episcopal Church wants to divest from Caterpillar because of the use of its products in human rights violations? I'm completely supportive.

Either the Occupation is not Israel, and actions targeted against it are not against Israel's “right to exist,” or the Occupation is Israel, and Israel’s existence depends entirely on the forced suppression of Palestinian identity and nationhood. In the latter case, we would have to rethink the entire Zionist project, which I suppose is what BDS does. I'm not there, but you can't have it both ways.

Oh, and feel free to academically and culturally boycott anyone who lives or works in the Occupied Territories as well.

f) Grow your compassion. This is a personal, or I guess communal, spiritual practice. Need I remind you, that the Torah time and again instructs us to “love the stranger, for you yourself were strangers in the land of Egypt"? The greatest contribution of contemporary Judaism is the idea that human beings have a responsibility to partner with God to repair the world. Dedication to human rights, economic justice, and tikkun olam are, in my opinion, core Jewish values. Israel is currently, tragically, on the wrong side of these issues. Saving the remnant is important, but not at the cost of our souls.

Here's a question to ask your synagogue or rabbi, your Federation, your JCRC, your local Jewish newspaper. It's a simple question, very clear and concise. It deserves to be considered, and it needs to be answered. It is this:

What are you doing to end the Occupation?

The oppression of the Palestinians is inexcusable. It is not “Jewish” in any way that makes any sense to me.

BDS is a response to Occupation, and is not, in its origin and motivation, an expression of antisemitism (although antisemites may well find common cause there). If Israel wants to deal with it, and to be a full and fully accepted member of the international community, even in the eyes of its coreligionists, then the Occupation must end. It's really as simple as that.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Three Thoughts about the Royals

Before this amazing season fades into memory, I want to get on paper (metaphorically) three thoughts I've been having about the Royals.

1- How I became a Royals fan

I grew up a hardcore Mets fan. I can still remember who wore various numbers in the 70s and 80s.

In the 90s two things happened. First, I lived in Israel for four years, when the internet was just getting started, and I kind of lost the thread. Second, I met and married a girl from Kansas City. I started following the Royals so I would have something to talk about with her father. I used to call her brother during the All Star Game when the one Royal representative made an appearance. I traveled to Baltimore from Philadelphia  a couple of times to see the Royals play the Orioles. Over the course of time we moved here, and it's become more of a hometown to me than my real hometown.

I had the misfortune of picking up the Royals just as they were entering the hell years. They were usually out of contention by Memorial Day. The Mets had also often sucked when I was a kid, so I was used to it. And the band of Royals fans in those years (now linked by Twitter) were a hardy bunch.

But everyone, including me, has now rewarded in spades for our fortitude by what's happened over these past couple of years. Speaking of which...

2 – Bandwagon Fans

When I was back east the hardcore fans used to resent it when the team got good and people who usually had no interest started following along. Metsie-come-latelies, we called them. They made it harder to get tickets and in two weeks when the fun was over they would go right back to arbitraging their derivatives or whatever it was they did the rest of the time.

You never hear anything like that here. The city got behind this team in an amazing way, especially
over the last couple of months. They broke their record for home attendance; the TV ratings were through the roof; and of course yesterday hundreds of thousands of people descended on downtown KC for a Royal celebration.

Most of those people were not among the 15,000 die hards who attended games during the hell years, but who cares? The Royals' run through the playoffs brought the city together in a way probably nothing else could have. I drive Uber on the weekends, and there were people in my car who you know didn't know a bunt from a sac fly, but they knew the score of the game and exited the cab with a “Go Royals!” It was like a mood elevator for the city – municipal Prozac. I wasn't resentful, I was excited, and I guarantee you every long-time Royal fan felt the same way.

Actually, the concept of “bandwagon fan” was brought up by one person in my car. I asked him where he was from, and he said, “St. Louis.”

3 – Shut up.

But that doesn't mean there aren't killjoys, both in and out of town.

My father wrote me to say that I should be more concerned about economic concerns in Kansas than about the Royals.

A number of people posted on Facebook that if as many people voted as went downtown yesterday it would make a big difference.

One of my environmental colleagues asked why 1% of those who attended yesterday can't come to a climate change rally, to be heard on an issue that 'really matters.”

One of the rabbis in town had a letter in the paper today decrying the fact that the schools closed yesterday to allow teachers and students to attend the parade.

To all I say – shut up.

It's not just that you're trying to be buzzkills when everyone is in a state of happy reverie. It's that you're wrong. This is not simply some frivolity that has captured the attention of the community to the detriment of other issues. Civil engagement is important. Feeling like a community is important. Feeling good about the city you live in is important. People who attend such an event may now feel that they have an emotional investment in the city and the area that they didn't feel before. They may realize, if they hadn't already, that in many ways - more than just in baseball - Kansas City is, indeed, a major league city.

And as far as school is concerned – every kid who went yesterday, or watched on TV, will remember this a lot longer than they'll remember another lesson in multiplication tables or sentence diagramming. And they'll add the day to the end anyway, like a snow day. So double shut up to you.

Go Royals!   

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Four Principles of Conflict

1 – Violence against civilians is wrong. It doesn't matter who does it: Israelis or Palestinians, ISIS beheadings or American drones – it's always wrong. And rationalizations - “we weren't targeting civilians” or “our oppression made us do it” - are only lame excuses.

2 – No one is completely wrong, and no one is completely right. We can't divorce actions from the conditions that give rise to them. Saying “don't write the second paragraph” is an attempt to cut off understanding the conditioning of your adversary at a point at which you can feel virtuous about your actions – but no one is blameless, and no one deserves to feel virtuous. If we don't make an effort to understand the other side's conditioning we'll never achieve peace.

3 – If you say you want peace but you won't work for justice, all you want is quiet, and you won't get peace or justice.

4 – As Rabbi Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Losing My Religion

This time of year is when Jews are supposed to do self-assessment in order to be forgiven for our sins and to live better in the year to come. I've been doing a lot of self-assessment lately and I'm staying home from synagogue today to do a little journaling.

For a variety of reasons I haven't been attending synagogue lately. I'm not feeling the community thing, so much, and in fact my Judaism is in a bit of a crisis right now.

My life for the past year or 2 has been really stressful. Up until May of this year I had two demanding part-time jobs, one with Kansas IPL and the other with the synagogue in Lawrence. I also have three children who are troubled in varying ways, ways that I find difficult to manage. We also have severe financial stress, which is leading to us declaring bankruptcy, a process that has been underway for over a year.

When I told my friend Rabbi Alex that I wasn't going to shul or daven some months ago she said, “How are you taking care of yourself spiritually?” I said that I was finding the my political activity was sufficiently spiritually fulfilling. She expressed skepticism, rightly as it turned out.

In March of this year an ongoing conflict I had with the then-president of the synagogue culminated in me yelling at her in a meeting. This started a process which led, a couple of months later, to me losing that job. I can't really say too much about this because I agreed not to discuss it publicly.

But the incident made it clear to me that I was not handling the stresses skillfully. So I began a program of self-care which included daily meditation and exercise, and not long after that I began therapy.

The meditation practice that I began is in Buddhist in nature. It started off as mindfulness but it didn't take long to realize that there isn't much of a line between mindfulness practice and Buddhist practice. There is a secular form of mindfulness but I'm not really a secular person so the spirituality piece rose up prominently pretty quickly.

So why didn't I double down on Jewish practice? I've gone through long periods of near-Orthodox practice, including when I first moved to Kansas City where I prayed almost every week for more than a year at the Orthodox congregation near my house. Yet when I was in crisis I didn't choose that path – why?

The three main reasons are: services are boring, I've lost my faith in Jewish community, and Israel is a mess. Taking these in order:

I like leading services, and I'm sufficiently innovative that I am able to keep myself, if no one else, entertained. But I'm not doing that anymore, and sitting in the pews through a 2-1/2 hour service, all in Hebrew and with a long Torah reading, and (God help us) musaf, is just absolutely excruciatingly painful. I'm not finding it spiritual in the least. And in the Conservative context it's impossible to change because they're beholden to the myth of Jewish law.

The Reconstructionist movement to which I am a (rather distant) member emphasizes the synagogue as community, and that's something I've emphasized that in my rabbinate wherever I've gone. “We're here to be here for each other, to bring out the best in each other, etc.” I probably will eventually write more about the problems with this, but for this moment suffice it to say that I have not, since I graduated rabbinical school, been part of a community that wasn't happier, in the long term, not to have me as a member. I've always cared about them a lot more than they've cared about me, and I'm burnt out on it now. 

And third is politics. Since the Gaza episode in 2014 my feelings about Israel have concretized, perhaps even radicalized, and it's having a huge impact about the way I think of the Jewish world in general.

This summer the Iran deal was hugely controversial. As I've said before, I believe that Netanyahu uses Iran to distract from his unwillingness to deal with the Palestinians. I also believe that he and his backer, Sheldon Adelson, have a long-term project to drive a wedge between Jews and the Democratic Party. In other words, Netanyahu's opposition to the Deal should have been taken with a grain of salt, to say the least.

Yet the institutions of the American Jewish community, and hundreds of rabbis, fell in lockstep behind this disingenuous man to claim that the Iran Deal was an existential threat to Israel, and that anyone who supported it was naïve at best and antisemitic at worst.

Yet Israel has maintained a violent military dictatorship over a subject people for nearly 50 years. It steals their land and allows the most violent, racist and revanchist elements on society free rein to commit violence on their persons and property. The government is made up of, and represents, those violent, racist and revanchist elements. It has no intention of ever giving the subject population political or economic rights.

Forget about not taking in Syrian refugees: Israel is trying to rid itself of African refugees. How a people that within living memory was refused safe haven from violence and oppression can turn around now and commit the same wrong is astonishing to me. (For more on this, read Daniel Sieradski's recent post on the subject on Jewschool.)

And we American Jews defend every one of these actions.

Every element of this is anathema to my understanding of Jewish values. “Care for the stranger, for you were strangers,” the text says, and it couldn't be more clear. But we ignore it, or rationalize it, or claim that criticism of our actions that violate it it are motivated by antisemitism or the refusal to grant the Jews a state of their own. It's intolerable.

The point is that you can go to the vast majority of synagogues pretty much forever before you'll hear anything about any of this. In fact, you're far more likely to hear defenses of this, or justifications, or dismissals. Or no mention at all. Rabbis have contracts that need to be renewed, after all.

So what we have is a situation where the Jewish state, the main project of the contemporary Jewish people, acts in ways that are clearly (to me) unjust, and the mechanisms of American Jewry, which are supposed to be teaching ethics and values, instead spend what little remaining moral capital they have left defending or ignoring what should be indefensible.


This situation is causing a rupture within Judaism. What's appears to be happening is that the more committed and religiously observant people are becoming more particularistic and right wing, and those who (like me) hold on to the values of democracy, anti-racism and social justice are either finding non-synagogue organizations to belong to (like Mazon or Bend the Arc) or they're dropping out completely – keeping their Jewish identities but despairing of an opportunity to belong to a Judaism that reflects their values.

I love Judaism. I love the people who are doing great work in bringing the theology into the new era, like Arthur Green and Jay Michaelson, or into political awareness and activity, like Arthur Waskow and Brant Rosen, or into new forms of spiritual connection, like Shefa Gold and Marcia Prager and Marcia Falk. We're also in a great period of cultural flowering as well. I feel blessed that I have access to such people, through their books and other publications, through the internet, and in some cases through personal connection.

In some cities there are a wider range of options for someone like me, but in Kansas City the kind of community that I would want to belong to – even just as a member, not the rabbi - just doesn't exist. The opportunities that are available to me here are either not particularly compelling or are in actual opposition to these values. If the more "religious" people defend the indefensible, it's a problem. To put it mildly, it interferes with my ability to find spiritual sustenance in contemporary Judaism. 

So while I maintain my identity, and much of my practice (next week I'll fast for Yom Kippur, and then I'll build a sukkah), when I'm in need of spiritual succor, I'll follow my breath, thank you very much.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Why I Support the Iran Deal

Reasoned opposition to the Iran Deal tends to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Iran can't be trusted, they'll cheat, game the system, the inspections regime isn't strong enough, etc. 
  2. The deal doesn't do anything about Iran's desires for hegemony in the region; they'll use the money from sanctions relief to increase their support for "terrorists" like Hamas and Hezbollah. 
  3. In 15 years, when the agreement ends, Iran will just get the centrifuges going again and it will be "build a nuke free" time. 
Of course, I'm not an expert, but taking these backwards: 

If we're in a situation where the deal is nearing an end that would mean that it worked. Diplomacy would have succeeded in keeping Iran from a bomb for 15 years. 15 years is a long time, a lot could change, there could be a real detente between Iran and the west. Even if that doesn't happen, there's no reason to think that the international community (including Russia and China) would want Iran to have a bomb then either. (Question: Is it possible the deal could just be extended?) In other words, if everything remains the same and a government of Israel and/or the US is jumping up and down about Iran getting a weapon, I believe that international pressure (if not the previous level of sanctions) could continue the international arrangement that would have been effective thus far.  

The main problem with number 2 is that it's adding a condition that wasn't a condition of the negotiations. If the biggest threat to Israel, world peace, etc. was Iran getting a bomb, and we negotiated a deal so that Iran doesn't get a bomb, to then say, well, they're just going to fund Hamas more, is adding a condition. 

Iran thinks what it's doing with Hamas and Hezbollah is in its national security interests, and it wouldn't come to the table to give those up. It's a little like Israel adding "recognize us a Jewish state" to the negotiations with the Palestinians: it's adding a goal at late stages that essentially guarantees the failure of negotiations. 

And the other thing to keep in mind here is that this idea that Israel is the good guy and Iran is the bad guy, that Iran funding Hamas and Hezbollah is "international terrorism" without any legitimate security purpose (from the point of view of the Iranians) is not a universally accepted principle, to say the least. This is where Israel's rather cavalier attitude toward international diplomacy costs it. Not only Russian and China, but France and Germany believe that Israel is not doing all it can (again, to say the least) vis-a-vis the Palestinians, so while they're willing (for their own reasons) to go to bat for a nuclear deal with Iran, they have no intention of subordinating their own national security interests to an uncooperative and recalcitrant Israel.

As for the first bullet-point, well, that's actually Benjamin Netanyahu's position. And that's in keeping with his neo-conservative tendencies. A large part of the opposition to the agreement is the idea that diplomacy is naive, that it can't work, and that's been a constant since the Iraq War, when weapons inspections were halted prematurely in the interest of a disastrous war. A war, it should be noted, that Netanyahu supported. 

And here we get to what we might call the "faith-based" opposition to the agreement: the idea that diplomacy can't work, knee-jerk opposition to anything Obama does (as in the Republican congress, not one of whom supports this deal), the idea that Obama is a stooge whom the Iranians must have gotten over on, that Netanyahu is a just a much more worldly and competent man than Obama, or finally that Netanyahu (or in some iterations, "all of Israel") opposes the deal and therefore Obama is throwing Israel under the bus. 

Supporters of the deal also have their "reasoned" side and their "faith-based" side. On the "faith" side, to me at least, is a preference, always and forever, for diplomacy, again and again and again. Above sanctions, above air strikes, certainly above war. Mike Huckabee compared Netanyahu to Churchill, but it's Churchill who said that he preferred "jaw-jaw" to "war-war." They always forget that part. 

On the "reason" side, it appears to me that the vast majority of analysts who have looked at this agreement on its merits (again, not counting what it wasn't intended to do, number 2 above), find it an effective non-proliferation regime. To whit: 

Granted it comes from the White House, but I find it pretty convincing. Against this we have, what? John Boehner? Marco Rubio? The Boston Jewish Federation? 

No - against this, most significantly, we have Benjamin Netanyahu. And ultimately, what side you come down on on this issue is largely dependent on in whom you have more trust: Netanyahu, or Obama. For federations, for AIPAC, for the Republican congress, it's Netanyahu. For myself, and for many like me (including, thankfully, most of the Democratic members of Congress), it's Obama. 

I don't trust Netanyahu further than I could throw him. This is the man who suborned incitement against Rabin that contributed to his assassination. This is the man who did everything he could to thwart the Oslo process in the late 90s. This is the man who has done nothing to reach a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, and in fact has taken every opportunity to disempower and humiliate the PA. This is the man who allowed his political party to be taken over by the most racist and revanchist elements in Israeli society. This is the man who was elected by, and who supports and rewards, those same elements. This is the man who has taken every opportunity to embarrass the president of his country's most important ally, and who made clear his partisan political preference in the last presidential elections. This is the man who testified in support of America's worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam. So why would we think that he's such a great foreign policy maven?

I've always suspected two things: 1) that Netanyahu was using the Iran issue as a way to distract attention, both domestically and internationally, from the Palestinian issue, and 2) that he is largely motivated by partisan political considerations, and by this I mean American partisan political considerations. He's come down significantly on the side of Republicans in the US's political wars, possibly because he thinks they're "better for Israel" (that is, more willing to let the Israeli government do whatever it wants). He wants Jews to support Republicans, both with votes and with money. In so doing he's involved himself in American politics in a way that's wildly inappropriate for a foreign leader. And by so doing, he's alienating a significant portion of American Jewry from Israel, which will have to be the topic for another day.

So underneath all the "reason", we come down to "faith" - as in, which leader do I have more faith in? I voted for Obama twice, and I wouldn't vote for Netanyahu for dog catcher. I have a lot more faith in the wisdom of Barack Obama than I do in that of Netanyahu. Ultimately, that's why I support the Iran deal, and I'm happy to see that it looks like it's going to get enough Democratic support to clear Congress.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Our liberation is bound up in theirs

The Times of Israel ran an article today that included the following (h/t Joel Alan Katz):

The cabinet repealed Sunday an initiative that would recognize conversions to Judaism conducted by a wider circle of rabbis, and separately approved the transfer of authority over the country’s rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry to the Ministry of Religious Services.

The modest progress that had been made on the issue of (Jewish) religious pluralism in the previous government (which included the secularist Yesh Atid party) has been rolled back by the current government, which includes the ultra-Orthodox parties. 

This issue is of great and understandable concern to a lot of people, and not just non-Orthodox American Jews. Up to one-sixth of weddings that include Israelis take place out of the country because of the restrictions placed on Jewish ritual activities by the (ultra-Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate. 20% of the Jewish population are immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their children, and many of those are not considered Jewish by halakhah (Jewish ritual law). Efforts to repair this issue by standardizing conversions have been blocked by the Chief Rabbinate, which expects a level of Jewish ritual observance from converts that few are willing to meet. 

Many of my friends and colleagues are concerned about this issue. Rabbi Uri Regev, whom I know from my time in Israel and whom I admire from his previous work with the Israel Religious Action Center, has founded a (Jewish) religious pluralism in Israel advocacy group, Hiddush. Rabbi Mark Levin, my friend and colleague from Kansas City, is on the board of this organization. 

Hiddush and other groups of this kind try to stay away from "security" issues - they want their struggle for (Jewish) civil rights in Israel to be dealt with on their own merits and not to get bogged down in the intractable issues of "defense," settlements, borders and refugees. The 2011 Israel social justice protests were the same in this regard. They were protesting the cost of housing (for Jewish Israelis), and painstakingly kept the Occupation and all its elements out of their discussions. 

In fact, those who are liberal on (Jewish) social justice issues in Israel might very well be conservative on security issues. And they are quite likely to be among the 94% of the (Jewish) Israeli population who supported the 2014 Gaza military campaign. 

But today's news shows the fallacy of this approach. As long as governments are elected and formed based on continuing the Occupation, the government will rely on the participation of the ultra-religious parties, & the cost of that protection is continuation of their monopoly.on religious issues in Israel. 

Thus, even on this most practical level, religious freedom for Jews in Israel is inseparable from political freedom for the Palestinians. The sooner social justice advocates in Israel recognize this, and act on it, the better it will be for everyone. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dignity and Equality

Here are the remarks I deliverd at the Dignity and Equality Rally at the Kansas State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2015.

I spent the past 3 years working to protect the RPS. We lost it this year, but it had become a bit of an grind. Can you imagine a government of Kansas that wouldn't do everything it could to attract wind energy to this state? Yet the chairs of the committees in both houses have done all they can to destroy Kansas' wind industry. It's like Vermont not supporting its maple syrup industry, or Georgia not supporting its peach industry. “Here in Newcastle, we don't support coal.” It's absurd.

There's something you can get involved with now. How many people are Westar customers? Westar is trying to raise fixed rates to undercut distributed solar and energy efficiency. There are hearings in July.

Because you know what? (look L R) Climate change is real. The other thing we worked on this year were a number of laws to undercut the EPA's clean power plan. I sat in hearing about the clean power plan for 2 weeks, and finally I got up and said, It's not just about this thing called the CPP, it's about climate change, and the committee chair, Olsen, ran me off. Olsen is the chair of the Utilities committee, who on the floor last year opposed the RPS on the floor on the Senate because he thinks wind turbines are ugly. And when the bill on the CPP finally past, at the signing ceremony he said he doesn't believe carbon dioxide contributes to climate change.

But it's not just climate change. It's Medicaid expansion, it's the budget and taxes, it's reproductive health, it's guns. How many major issues is the radical conservative majority in the KS Leg on the wrong side of?

Do tax cuts on the rich raise revenue?
Is it fair to raise the sales tax on everyone to support income tax exmpetions for the wealthiest among us?

These people are hostage to an ideology. It doesn't matter how many times their talking points are proved wrong, they just keep spouting them. Supply side was disproven in Ronald Reagan's first term. Yet here we are.

There's a truth deficit here. Look at yesterday. Is there anything more immoral than hoping and praying that more than 6 million Americans will lose their health insurance? Yet what's the quotes from our legislators? (Swanning) “Obama care's a disaster, we have to repeal it...”

Let me ask you: Is Obamacare a disaster? How many people are on Obamacare?
Do people on TANF go on cruises?
Do wind farms raise your electricity rates?
Do abortion laws need to be loosened and gun laws tightened every ...single ...year?

There's a truth deficit here.

On the other hand, I ask: Is climate change real? Is it human caused? Should we do something about it?
Should we support and expand our renewables industry?
Should we expand medicare?
Should we raise the minimum wage?
Should we fully fund our schools?
Should we respect a woman's right to choose?
Should billionaires pay their fare share?

To the radical majority in the KS leg I say: You've had your fun. But it doesn’t work. That dog don't hunt. Come back to reality. Accept empirical fact. Moderation is the only way to govern this state.

And if these legislators won't choose sensible government, then I hope we'll soon have some new legislators up here who will.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Some thoughts on the “nones”

The recent Pew study on religious identity showed that the largest growing sector of the American religious population are the so-called “nones” - a category which includes both atheists and agnostics (7%) and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” (about 18%). This makes the nones the second largest religious group in the country, after Evangelical Protestants.

This led to a couple of stories rather hopefully predicting that the nones could become a voting block to counter the Christian right. The problem with this idea is that there's a lot of variation within the category called nones – from Sam Harris-like hardcore atheists to the “spiritual but not religious”, and these varied groups are probably not motivated by the same things politically.

But there's another aspect of the rise of the nones that I want to address, and it has nothing to do with the tired arguments about whether God exists or not. I believe that the decline in religious identification is a significant negative societal indicator.

Let me explain: for the past 30 years all kinds of social groups have declined precipitously, from labor unions to the Rotary Club. Religious groups were the last to fall, but their fall is of a piece with the fall of all these other groups.

This coincides (not coincidentally) with the rise of libertarianism as a political force in the US.
And that decline was not something that just happened. The hyper-individualism of the past three decades was designed (and paid for) to destroy the social bonds between people beyond the nuclear family, and this was done both for business (consumption) and political (the rise of the right) reasons.

Religious groups are almost the last groups that are not self-selected where people are supposed to care for each other. In the absence of faith identity, we choose our communities, based on a number of factors that may include sexual or political identity, personal interests or hobbies, etc. In other words, we join them based on our needs, and we find in them people who meet those needs. There's no selflessness there. Religious communities, on the other hand, are at least putatively based on a higher calling, and we don't get to choose who the other members are. We are forced (in a sense) to care for people who are not related to us and may not be like us in any way other than by creed. With it, there's some element of selflessness. Without it, there isn't.

So to this way of thinking, the decline in religious identity is not a positive, progressive social outcome but is rather part of the work of destroying the bonds between people so that it's every man/woman for themselves. It's also not coincidental that the forms of religious identity that collapsed the most or the fastest are the most progressive – liberal Judaism and Mainline Christianity. In other words, the decline of religious identity is – perhaps paradoxically – counter-revolutionary.

The other thing I want to mention, briefly, is that I'm dubious about the spiritual efficacy of “spiritual but not religious” practice. Going to yoga or doing secular mindfulness meditation is a positive thing, but it's self-centered, part of the “self-help” ethos. If there's anything we don't need more of in this country, it's self-help. Religious traditions are based on the development, over thousands of years, of technologies to help people get over themselves. You just can't make up a suitable replacement on the fly. I don't believe in exclusive salvation, so I'm not saying what practice people have to have, but people have to have a practice.

Without a practice, without a creed, without a community, we only have another form of consumerism. And we don't need anymore of that, either.

Friday, May 29, 2015

What's Missing from "Modernism"?

Last weekend we went to the Nelson. We stayed in the old building because it feels like every time we go there we go to the new building. Joey wanted to look at the Egyptian art, so we did.

Eventually we went to the exhibit, “WWI and the Rise of Modernism.” The exhibit is split into (roughly) thirds: before the war (featuring the rise of Cubism, art-photographers such as Stieglitz, and Italian Futurism), during the way (focusing on artists who served and/or died in the war), and after the war, when, according to the exhibit, modernism split into surrealism/Dadaism and Bauhaus, which focused on design and architecture.

Here's the first paragraph of what the pamphlet of the exhibit says about “after the war”:

Europe was a different place after the war. The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires had collapsed. New countries were born, and national boundaries were redrawn. More than 15 million war deaths left whole countries grieving and impoverished. Germany faced punishing war reparations. In 1921, Adolf Hitler, a decorated veteran of World War I, assumed leadership of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, and in
1933 he became the chancellor of Germany. The stage was set for World War II.

El LissitzkyBeat the Whites With the Red Wedge, 1919, lithograph
What's missing here, and in fact what was missing in the whole exhibit, was mention that this was a period of great political, social and yes, artistic revolution in Europe, particularly in Russia and Germany. Even granting that we're not up to Weimar yet, the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, the German Revolution in 1919, and the entire period through the early 1920s was a time of great artistic experimentation. 

There particularly is no mention of expressly political art, of which there was a lot during this time. The only piece that references revolution is a drawing of a revolutionary shooting a rifle with the body of a capitalist draped over his foxhole. There was a lot of really interesting political print in the period, for example, which the exhibit didn't reference at all, but which is as much “modernism” as Dada is.

Of course, expressly political art is frowned upon in America, where abstraction is considered art and political art isn't. Not only are a whole era's political developments unmentioned, but the art that accompanied it is purged from art history. And Americans remain ignorant of history, and stunted in their politics.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My Favorite Mishna

In honor of my cousin Deb Tannenbaum I'm going to post my most recent (and last) newsletter column. We own a graphic she made that includes this text. 

Between Pesah and Shavuot it is customary to we learn Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). This is a collection of rabbinic aphorisms from the early rabbinic period, redacted in about 220 CE. Unlike other sections of Mishna, of which is is part, Avot does not contain halakhic (Jewish legal) material; instead, it focuses on ethical and spiritual teachings that the rabbis wished to include in this basis of post-biblical Jewish life.

There is a lot of great stuff in Pirke Avot, from Hillel's famous teaching: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (1:14) to Tarfon's guidance, so important to remember in social justice work: “You are not obliged to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it (2:21).

But the perek (verse) I want to focus on today is Chapter 4, mishna 1. Leaving out the proof texts for each sentence for the sake of space, it goes like this:

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? The one who learns from every person. Who is mighty? The one who conquers his passions. Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with her portion. Who is honored? The one who honors others.

Let's take these one by one. First, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” Rashi says that this wise person “diligently seeks the company of Torah scholars” and is not self-conscious of what she does or doesn't know. Bartenura comments that because he doesn't hesitate to learn from those who are less accomplished than he, it proves that his thirst for knowledge is genuine and not the result of vanity or self-importance. Of course, sometimes the lesson might be in the negative – you might learn from someone how not to behave.

Second, “Who is mighty? The one who conquers his passions.” The literal translation for “passions” is “inclinations,” so we might be tempted to associate this with a general warning against following the so-called “evil inclination,” (yetzer ha-rah), the inclination to do evil. However, the prooftext has a specific yetzer in mind: “The one who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and the one who rules his spirit than one who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32) So controlling one's anger is an act of heroism! Certainly it feels like that sometimes. We can also remember that the reason that Moses was not allowed entry into the Land of Israel was because of his anger, and we can see how spiritually damaging anger really is.

The third sentence of our mishna says, “Who is wealth? The one who is satisfied with her portion. The commentary of Me'am Lo'ez says that “a person who has a good heart, and rejoices with the lot that God has given her, want[s] nothing more than than he has... lives happily her whole life, and is able to serve God properly.” We live in a society based upon envy and competition, where someone is always making more money than we do, or living in a better house, driving a better car, etc. But the wisdom of this text is that as long as we are wise enough to realize that we have enough, we can be happy.

And finally, “Who is honored? The one who honors others.” The prooftext begins with a quote by God from 1 Samuel: “...for them that honor Me I will honor” (2:30). If God Godself can honor us - by making us in God's image, by providing us the means to be happy and to do good work in the world – than surely we can honor each other, as we are all created b'tzelem Elohim - in the image of God.

Do you see why I love this text so much? What is the way to a good life? Having the humility to learn from everyone (even if the lessons aren't always positive ones), controlling one's anger, being satisfied with what one has, and meeting people as if they were (as they are) created in the Divine Image.

Good self-help advice for us all, courtesy of the ancient rabbis.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Some thoughts on the end of Kansas' RPS

Today is the day that SB 91 gets debated on the Kansas House floor. This is the bill that came out of the “deal” between the wind industry and the Kochfrastructure (Americans for Prosperity, Koch Industries and the state Chamber of Commerce). It turns Kansas' 20% mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) into a goal, in exchange for the withdrawal (for now) of a proposed 4.33% excise tax on commercially generated renewable energy. For our response, see this statement.

On the one hand, this feels like a huge loss. Kansas IPL, along with our partners in the advocacy community, in industry, and in the legislature, have worked for three years to maintain the RPS, because it's an important and successful policy and because we didn't want Kansas to be the thin edge of a national movement to repeal RPSs in other states.

On the other hand, it had long started to feel, to me at least, that this thing was taking a lot more effort than it was really worth. As this article from Grist points out, Kansas is already at 21.7% of generation from wind, with a further 1,273 megawatts under contract. On this front at least, the wind industry is correct: the repeal of the RPS is not going to mean that wind energy is going away in Kansas. For commercial reasons – it is the cheapest new-source energy on the market, and new coal is cost- and regulation-prohibitive – it will continue to grow, even without a mandatory RPS.

And even the question of manditoriness (manditorytude?) is unclear. The other issue we've been working on this year is the Clean Power Plan. Under this, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is to develop and submit a state implementation plan (SIP – there's a lot of acronyms in this work) to the EPA; once accepted by EPA, it becomes legally binding. So we think that once the 20% renewable goal is included in the SIP, it will be legally binding – ie, mandatory. So suck on that, Koch Brothers.

The more I think about it, the more I think that CEP's later pressrelease hit it right on the head – the Kochfrastructure spent hundreds of millions of dollars to repeal the RPS, and by the time they did, it had already been surpassed. It's kind of a joke. Although RPSs have been repealed in a couple of other states, the Kochs' fevered dream of rolling back the renewable energy revolution has failed.

One thing I'll say there because I probably won't say it anywhere else: the wind industry people that we've been working with for three years decided, in their wisdom, not to try to convince us (advocates) of the wisdom of the deal, or even to inform us that there was a deal. We never received so much as a phone call, and we were directly lied to when we asked about it. We, being idealists, were hurt by this behavior. This is one of those places that politics is a bitch, and I was involved in politics long before I became a rabbi. You know what? That's their karma.

Kansas IPL has a lot of things to work on. There's an upcoming Westar rate case that will attempt to destroy rooftop solar through high fixed charges. Pope Francis is issuing an encyclical on climate change this summer, and we will be organizing our Catholic supporters to develop and deliver an effective, supportive response. What's going to move the needle on our state's response to the ongoing challenge of climate disruption is grassroots organizing in faith communities. That's our mission, and that's what we'll do, with or without an RPS.

Keep the faith.