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imagesI was at the Anchorage Museum looking at an exhibit displaying the backgrounds of the various native American groups that have and are inhabiting Alaska. Here is the quote from one that made me pause for a minute, “Our name for ourselves is Inupiaq (the real people).” Instantly I thought of the movie “Dances with Wolves,” where we hear that the Lakota refer to themselves as the “human beings.” I then noticed another Alaskan tribe’s description in the museum and they referred to themselves the same way – as the “human beings.” As I walked the display, it turns out that a number of tribes referred to themselves as “real people” or “human beings.”

It should be no surprise that we Jews are not the only folks with a tradition of being unique, chosen. I am not going to critique the feeling of uniqueness in Jews or any group. It is a common part of ethnicity. What is unique about the Jewish tradition of being chosen is how much debate and discussion has occurred through the centuries over what that really means. Is it a quality of being select? Does it imply greater responsibility? Perhaps, it means adopting a set of ideals and religious approach to life that is different from other groups?

That is the overarching theme I glean from parashat Shoftim. “When you come to the land that Adonai your God is giving you, you shall not learn to do the abhorrant things of those nations.” (Deuteronomy 18:9) The immediate context of this verse specifies certain practices, not putting your children through a trial by fire, no magicians, diviners or other practices that lead from basic morality and truth. Moses is trying to teach that the society the Israelites are supposed to form is one that operates on a different standard than those of other nations.

This instruction becomes elevated when one considers the opening verses of Shoftim. These command the Israelites to create a just court system, highlighted by the phrase, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, usually translated as “justice, justice you shall pursue.” Thanks to the uniqueness of the Hebrew language, this command takes us to a more complex and deeper level. Simply pursuing justice would not make the command to the Israelites unique. All cultures claim to pursue justice. Justice, however, is a relative term. It is too unqualified, open to abuse by authoritarian figures. Hebrew, however, allows us to read the word tzedek in other ways. We can translate the word also as righteousness. The system of justice we are commanded to create is to be guided by righteousness and moderated by mercy. But that is not all. The same Hebrew letters, tzadik, daled, kuf, also form the root for tzodek, which means factually correct. The justice system, indeed society, is to be informed by facts, not by falsehood. Why else would the rabbinic amplification of this system emphasize the need for witnesses who can testify to facts.

A society based on these three translations of the word tzedek: justice, righteousness and factual truth, would be a unique society indeed. It would create a nation unlike all other nations. These values are relevant not just to Jews. These are core values that Americans believe make our nation an exceptional nation. Each one is present in our founding documents. As our country has grown and aged, we have adapted the initial precepts to changing times. For example, the phrase “All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence meant white property owning males in 1776. Today we operate (at least ostensibly) under the assumption this phrase really means “all humans are created equal, no matter what race or gender.” The precepts of justice are outlined in numerous amendments to the constitution. The guarantee of a free press, is a recognition not only of the right to diversity of opinion, but the necessity for a media independent enough to report facts without repercussions from the government.

These are the essential ideals of our country. Rather than exceptionalism based on tribe (our country is an amalgam of tribes), American exceptionalism is based on our founding principles. The Israelites were commanded to create a nation that did not do as the Canaanites did. Our founding fathers tried to create a system for our country no nation had ever attempted. The American experiment was a model and inspiration for many around the world. The potential for people to live in freedom with the opportunity for prosperity has attracted generations of immigrants who have contributed to the building of this country.

But now times are changing. We can legitimately ask if we are adhering to the ideals that made America exceptional. Because too many in our country see our exceptionalism expressed not by our principles, but by our power. Freedom and opportunity are not for all, but for those deemed as acceptable. That is the problem with those who state they want to “make America great again.” They do not mean a return to our founding ideals of justice, righteousness and facts. They mean a reinforcement of a system that returns favor and power to a select few. They see change and diversity as threats to be defeated, as opposed to assets to be harnessed.

Look at reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement as an example. Yes, there are elements in that movement that we can question. Yes we must be careful not to demonize those police forces who are doing a great job in their communities. But to deny the existence and persistence of racism and its impact on African Americans is just covering truth with excuses. And it is not only racism against blacks that exists. The rise of Islamophobia, of anti immigrant rhetoric and more blatant anti-Semitism are all embarrassments that too many in our country refuse to acknowledge.

Why? Because we have turned away from the value of facts. Our media is not a free press that presents facts and then offers diversity of opinion on those facts. It is a series of silos which attract like minded people and offer them spin to confirm and inflame their latent feelings. When a self described news site like Breitbart states that Huma Abedin is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, it is not interested in facts but in stirring the prejudiced emotions of its readership. We value those who bully and feed our worst instincts rather than those committed to righteousness.  We see strength as making loud, assertive statements and not in hard policy decisions. We are allowing the definition of justice to be driven by what benefits a select few instead of what best serves the majority of our population. We are too open to a system of justice driven by fear of people of color, of immigrants, of those who do not practice the majority religion.

Is America an exceptional nation? We like to think we are. It will be for you to determine.

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This week we lost Gene Wilder, one of the iconic comedic actors that my generation watched in movies we consider as classics. I can trace my maturing from adolescence to college to adulthood via Gene Wilder movies. I like pretty much all of his work from the late 1960’s through the 1980’s. Everyone, of course, has their favorites. And I suppose that mine should be “The Frisco Kid,” the hilarious story of a rabbi from Poland trying to find his way across the wild west – it has so many funny Jewish references and insights. However, my very favorites are two of the ones he did with Mel Brooks: “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.”

Both films met with controversy during their development as well as their initial releases. Both tread ground no one dared to walk, showing disdain for the political correctness of their day. Both have moments where I still laugh so hard that I cry – even though I have seen them multiple times.

Brooks always wanted Zero Mostel to play Max Bialystock, but it took Mostel’s wife to convince him to take the role. The original Leo Bloom was supposed to be Peter Sellers, but that did not work out. Brooks then remembered he had spoken to Wilder about the role a few years earlier and cast him. “The Producers” was originally titled “Springtime for Hitler.” It was an idea Mel Brooks had been developing for years before he actually produced it. Major studios rejected the movie “Springtime for Hitler,” saying the idea of using Adolf Hitler for comedy was over the top tasteless. Brooks would say in numerous interviews that the best way to degrade the most vile dictator of the 20th century was to mock him, to make him the butt of jokes. His script for the 1968 film won an academy award. In 2001 he converted it to a musical play that won 12 Tony’s. Yet, even in 2015, some folks protested the play and the film’s mocking of Hitler, saying having Nazi’s parade around the stage in musical numbers is in bad taste, an insult to those who suffered through the Holocaust.

The premier of “The Producers” in Pittsburg, November 1967 was a disaster. The movie studio was ready to shelve it. But Sellers saw it privately and supported its general release. Reviews were mixed. But what do reviewers know? To me the movie is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. It is brilliant in its absurdity.

“Blazing Saddles” also morphed a lot through its production. The original title was supposed to be “Tex X,” a kind of spoof on Malcolm X. Richard Pryor, who was one of the co-writers, was supposed to play Sheriff Bart, but apparently the studio would not issue insurance on him. So the part went to Cleavon Little. Brooks offered the part of the Waco Kid to John Wayne, who turned it down but promised to be first in line to see the movie. It was then given to Gig Young, who collapsed on the set early in the shooting. So it went to Wilder.

Reaction to “Blazing Saddles” was as mixed as the reaction to “The Producers.” Many thought it was hilarious, and indeed it was a box office hit. Others were offended by the frequent use of the “n” word. Brooks pointed out those protests were mostly from whites. However, the movie was incredibly politically incorrect even beyond the language, such as when former NFL star Alax Karras, in his role as Mongo, punched and decked a horse. Or when Madeline Kahn, as Lily von Schtupp, seduces sheriff Bart. One of my favorite moments is when Mel Brooks, as the Indian chief, is shocked at seeing black people and says in Yiddish, “Hast du gesehen deine leiben (have you seen anything like this in your life)? They’re darker than we are!”

Both movies challenge our sense of propriety. Both make us uncomfortable while at the same moment trying to make us laugh. Do we dare see Hitler as funny? Is he being mocked or trivialized? Do we dare laugh at the raw racism depicted by the language and attitudes in “Blazing Saddles?” I think Brooks is correct when he states this movie could never be made in today’s politically correct culture.

To put these questions in the context of this week’s Torah portion; do we see these movies as a blessing or a curse? Are they just crude attempts at humor or insights into our cultural foibles? The very first word of the portion is re’eh, the imperative form of the verb “ to see.” God commands the Israelites to “see” that the existence of blessing and curse if before us. In Nitzavim we are told to choose blessing and live or to choose curse and die. Here we are told that if we follow God’s commands given that day, we will be blessed and if not we will be cursed. We are then to pronounce the blessing from Mount Gerizim and the curse from Mount Ebal. So what are the commands given that day? Well actually, just one, to “see.” If we combine the references to blessing and curse from this week’s parashah and Nitzavim, we can understand that we are commanded to see the existence of blessing and curse; to acknowledge them and to choose our path.

Traditionally, we look at this under the mitzvah system. If we obey we get blessed. If we do not we get cursed. But I would “see” this a bit differently. We are commanded to look at things and to judge if they are blessing or curse. We are to make the choices based on what we see and from our choices we can build a life of blessing or a life of curse. Even more, can we see that the potential for blessing AND curse exists in each thing, and how we choose to react or to handle each thing determines the degree of each in our lives. While we are told to declare blessing from one mountain and curse from another, the truth is we do not live on either mountain, but at some point in between. How close we move to one mountain or the other depends on the choices we make and the attitudes we choose to embrace.

That is why I am so intrigued by “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.” Each represents a life puzzle. Each can be seen as funny and insightful or as awfully insulting. If we follow God’s command and “see” them in the context of life’s choices, how we choose to frame life, we will learn something about ourselves. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will better understand why we feel blessed or cursed. Our reactions to these movies can teach us a lot about who we are. And we can laugh a lot while we learn.

A Pesach Carol

Nobody ever called me Ebenezer, and no one ever accused me of failing to give Bob Cratchet a raise – I have never employed a Bob Cratchet. I do not think I have been particularly miserly for most of my life, but a few nights ago I was visited by 4 ghosts – 4 Pesach ghosts. No, they did not seem particularly scary. None of them gave off eerie moans. No, I did not see a specter like head appearing on my door knocker at home – probably because I don’t have a door knocker. Yet, four ghosts paid me a visit and so tonight I will tell you about them.

The first ghost was the ghost of Pesach past. He looked rather like Charlton Heston did at the end of the movie “The Ten Commandments;” with flowing grey streaked hair, long beard, billowing robes. I actually thought it might be Charlton Heston coming back from the dead to chastise me for my opposition to the NRA until he told me that his name was Moish. “I am here,” he said, “to review with you the years through the lens of Pesachs past.” “Look Moish,” I said, “You don’t have to put on that spooky voice. Just speak to me like a regular person.” “OK, no problem,” said Moish. “Ghost guild rules require that I at least start out with the requisite voice. Let’s take a look at where you’ve been.”

With a wave of his long staff (did I mention he carried a staff?), we were back in the Pesach of the year 1965. Immediately I recognized the room. It was the dining room of our friends, the Bermans. Diana was one of my parents first friends when we moved to Allentown in 1963. By 1965 having seder with them was a yearly tradition. Her younger daughter Helene, had become one of my close friends – the kind of female friend who, later, when we were teens, would clue you in on what the girls were thinking. I really liked the pool table they had in their basement. My dad would conduct the seder at their house. Diana was divorced. And 1965 was the last year I had to do the 4 questions, as my younger brother was just learning how to read Hebrew.

Spring 1965 was an interesting time. The Yankees had lost the World Series the previous October, for the second year in a row. Their manager, Yogi Berra, had been fired, and the manager of World Champion Cardinals, Johnny Keane, was hired in his place. Mickey Mantle was still “The Mick.” But you had to wonder how much longer he could play on legs that were falling apart more each year. That spring we could not know that the long time Yankee dynasty was at an end. The great Yankee players of the 1960’s pretty much all fell apart that year. The Minnesota Twins would go on to win the pennant – go figure!

But the news that dominated adult conversation was Vietnam. President Johnson had been elected by a landslide that past November, but the war in Vietnam had greatly escalated. He ran as the “peace” candidate, depicting Barry Goldwater as a wild eyed maniac who would lead us into nuclear war. That was a real concern in those days. I remember bomb drills in elementary school, where we would have to go into a hall in the middle, supposedly most protected part of the building, and crouch down. I always wondered what good that would do if the building was caving in because of a nuclear explosion, but I never had the guts to ask the teachers. I just did the drill along with everyone else.

The other big conversation going on was the situation with African Americans. The previous summer there had been terrible race riots in Philadelphia, just 50 miles away from us. Although the President was pushing through many bills to ease the problems of African Americans, it did not seem like enough to stem the rising anger. Little did anyone know that the Philadelphia riots of August 1964 were just a glimpse at what would happen throughout the 60’s in places like Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Asbury Park. At Pesach 1965, there were really no hippies – the word would be used in print for the first time in September of that year. The Beatles were still writing love songs and John had not yet met Yoko. We lived in a world in which “The Sound of Music” would win the Academy Award for best picture.

Moish, however, decided not to let me tarry too long in Pesach 1965. With a wave of his staff (did I mention he carried a staff?) we were transported to Pesach 1978. The scene was my in law’s dining room, where almost 30 family members gathered for seder. Audrey’s dad led the seder and some of her young cousins all took turns singing the 4 questions. One young 4 year old cousin, too young to know Hebrew or be able to read, was not happy that other cousins got to sing, so he announced he wanted to sing as well and serenaded us with “I’ve been working on the railroad.”

That spring the Yankees had just reestablished themselves as World Champions, beating the Dodgers the previous October. Led by Reggie Jackson, they were absolutely the team to beat that year. They would win it all again in 1978 and one more time in 1981. In this time just a few years removed from the angst of Vietnam, the Academy Award winner was “The Deer Hunter,” one of many, edgy films that was critical of the war.

The big crisis in those years centered around the price of gas, which drove inflation into double digits. The cost of borrowing money was so great that no one could fathom how the economy could ever move forward and break the cycle of high inflation and high unemployment.

The great hope that spring was in the Middle East, where just the previous fall, Anwar Sadat made his famous, dramatic trip to Jerusalem. Sadat’s grand gesture, which he hoped would lead to a swift, comprehensive peace agreement between the Arab world and Israel, an agreement that would include self determination for the Palestinians, took the world by surprise and created a aura of hope for the intractable conflict. The Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, however, would end up derailing this grand gesture through a constant focus on legal details rather than grand principals. Begin was trying to consolidate the Israeli hold on the West Bank and used this time to accelerate the building of settlements there. While a peace was achieved with Egypt that holds until today, Sadat paid with his life and Begin’s West Bank policy helped to create the boondoggle that clogs any attempt at a peace process today.

I was about to ask Moish to what year we were going next, when I was back in my bedroom. “What a dream!” I thought to myself. Then I saw a tall, thin, African American man walking towards me. “President Obama!” I cried, “What are you doing here?” “I am not President Obama,” he said. “I am the ghost of Pesach present.” “Well why do you look like the President?” “First of all, because he hosted a seder in the White House. Second, what better way to get you to focus on what is happening in the world around you right now?” “Well,” I said. “The Phillies are rebuilding, and it looks like the Cubs might finally break their 118 year curse. “No, I want you to be aware of some other things beside baseball,” he said.

So he waved his staff (did I mention he carried a staff? It seems that all Pesach ghosts carry a staff), and we were looking into my dining room, in my house, with all of our invited guests. The food was plentiful, delicious, and all seemed to be having a great time celebrating our seder. The children of our guests were singing the 4 questions. “It all looks just like it should,” I said. “Yes, but now you need to see this.” And he waved his staff again and there I was staring into another Jewish family’s home. They were distraught. No seder was happening. They were a family in crisis. Their jobs did not pay enough – bills piling high. The family was in counseling. The children were struggling in a substandard school. They had no time or appetite for sitting at a seder. Their questions were not about how this night was different from all other nights, but how to survive. I turned to the ghost and asked, “Why are you showing me this?” But he was gone and suddenly I found myself back in my bedroom. “Wow, what a dream.” I thought.

Then, I saw a rather scary figure – just like out of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. A figure draped in a black shroud, hooded and carrying a staff. This one spoke not a word. “Are you the ghost of Pesach future?” I asked. The figure nodded. “Where are we going now?” The figure just waved his staff and pointed.

It is a seder in my dining room. My kids are there and my youngest granddaughter, Libby, must be about 10 years old. She has just finished singing the 4 questions. She looks up at me and says, “Saba, can I ask you another question?” “Of course,” I say. “I learned in school this past week about how angry people were when I was a baby. I heard there were police shooting black kids. I heard people hated Muslims and Mexicans. Lot’s of people were really upset. The teacher said too many people did nothing to stop people from hating. When you were working in your congregation, what did you do? I cannot tell you my answer because all of a sudden I was back in my bedroom.

“Wow, what a dream,” I thought. I was finally about to try to go back to sleep when I saw another black man, but different this time. He was dressed in a tee shirt and jeans, and had a head full of dreadlocks. “Who are you and how did you get in here?” I asked. “You know me mon,” he said. “I am Marley’s ghost.” “Jacob Marley’s ghost? Aren’t you in the wrong story?” “No mon, I am Bob Marley’s ghost, and I am in the right story.” “How do you fit into this story?” “Because of a song that I wrote, that you need to remember. It is called ‘Redemption Song.’” And then he began to recite the following:

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,

None but ourselves can free our minds.

How long shall they kill our prophets,

While we stand aside and look,

Some say its just a part of it

We’ve got to fulfill the book.

Won’t you help to sing, these songs of freedom?

‘Cause all I ever have:

Redemption songs, Redemption songs, Redemption songs.”

Pesach sameah (Happy Pesach) to everyone!

I begin with this. I, along with many if not most American Jews, understand the need for a just solution for the Palestinian people. I knew in the 1970’s, when the first settlements in the West Ban…

Source: BDS – The Wrong Approach

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I begin with this. I, along with many if not most American Jews, understand the need for a just solution for the Palestinian people. I knew in the 1970’s, when the first settlements in the West Bank were established, that this was a disastrous path for Israel. They were letting right wing religious extremists in a door that should have been closed to them. Let me put this in more a personal light. On my first trip to Israel in the summer of 1971, a teen group tour, we were guests at a Palestinian community center where the guys played a basketball game against their team (we lost); then all of us shared a wonderful meal together. I doubt that experience could be duplicated today. How sad.

So I, like many American rabbis, am critical of the Israeli government, often to the chagrin of some American Jews. I criticize the settlement policy, as well as many aspects of what happens in Israel, such as issues over religious pluralism, the dominance of the orthodox rabbinate, and the treatment of Israeli Arab citizens. We do not shy from looking into ourselves and voicing criticism of Israel. I see it as a religious duty to do this as a people and be honest about how Israel conducts itself.  However, underlying any criticism I might have of the Israeli government is my commitment to the principle of the legitimacy of the State of Israel. I have studied its history. I have been there numerous times including living there for a year. None of my criticism is ever meant to undermine the legitimacy of Israel, but to apply pressure for it to follow the better, more idealistic course I have always believed it should and could.

Now we confront the BDS movement. This calls for the boycott of Israeli products, be they commercial, academic or artistic. It calls for divestment of economic commitments to Israel by entities doing business or investing there, and it calls for sanctions to be levied against Israel, much like the sanctions that were levied in the 1980’s against apartheid South Africa. BDS proponents claim they are just looking for a peaceful way to push Israel onto the same path that people like me desire. It all sounds very good and righteous – until one looks at the details.

First, the BDS movement aligns itself with campus organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine. Having appeared in a program with a representative of that organization, it is clear that this organization is not about justice, but revenge. Most important, this organization does not see Israel as having a legitimate right to exist. It excuses the most violent actions by Hamas by saying an oppressed people have a right to use any means at their disposal, including the targeting of innocents. Even more, SJP (at least the representative I was with) is completely unfamiliar with the history of the region. Her opening statement was “before 1948 Christians, Jews and Muslims all got along fine.” The implication here is that all of the problems began with Israel’s independence declared in 1948. There is no acknowledgment of a continued Jewish presence in Palestine from Roman times until the Zionist movement began in the late 19th century. While Jews were a minority in Palestine, they were there and at the end of the 19th century were even a majority in Jerusalem.

Because of the historical inaccuracies embraced by BDS, they miscast the current situation of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and treatment of the Palestinians as equivalent to apartheid South Africa. The current situation is the result of over 100 years of complex history. It begins with the purchasing of land by the early Zionist movement, often from absentee Arab landowners. The development of these lands had many scenarios ranging from local Arabs and immigrant Jews getting along just fine, to Arab xenophobia not accepting any Jewish presence in land that was once Muslim, to some European Jews acting like colonialists, determined to “civilize” the poor Arabs they found in Palestine. BDS proponents do not acknowledge the Arab massacres of Jews in the 1920’s nor do they acknowledge the virulent anti-Judaism of a significant part of the local population. For example, the Grand Mufti in Jerusalem in the 1930’s aligned himself with and even met with Adolf Hitler, declaring his full support of the annihilation of Jews. BDS proponents see no validity in the UN resolution of November 1947 that recognized there should be two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian. BDS proponents, when talking about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967 never mention this was a war instigated by the actions of Arab nations led by Egypt’s Abdul Gamel Nasser. BDS proponents do not mention that from 1948 to 1967 the West Bank was occupied by another nation, Jordan, as there was no acceptance in those years by Arab states for a two state solution. BDS proponents do not acknowledge that in the aftermath of the 1967 war, Israel offered numerous times to return all territories for a peace agreement.

No, BDS does not acknowledge any of this history. For the truth, as sad and unjust as it might be today for Palestinians, is that the current situation arises from Israel’s success as a nation, overcoming vast economic and sociological difficulties to create a vibrant, dynamic economy, a high standard of living as well as the only state that resembles a democracy in the Middle East. The Israelis succeeded, and tragically, the Palestinians were never given the chance to succeed. Instead, their Arab brethren, in the years after the 1948 war, kept the refugees in displacement camps – an atmosphere calculated to incubate hatred not just of Israel, but of Jews.

And that – hatred of Jews – is what BDS proponents seldom acknowledge as part of the ongoing problem. Yes Israel is far from a perfect actor in this. The building of settlements and the resulting oppression of Palestinians is just plain wrong. But it is not the result of the colonialism or racism that created apartheid in South Africa. Rather, it is the result of a struggle between two peoples, each pushing their own national liberation movement. Israel won, the Palestinians lost. As awful as the consequences might be for many Palestinians, this is NOT the same as what created apartheid. Rather, it is closer to the history of our country, the United States, and its treatment of Native Americans – with one huge difference, however. There has been a continuous presence (albeit a minority) of Jews in Palestine, while there were no Europeans living in the Americas before Columbus.

The point really is that no one questions the legitimacy of the United States existence. We are critical of its history, and of the consequences of that history even today. It is equally legitimate to question the history and actions of Israel. No nation is perfect in its actions. But it is NOT right to question the legitimacy of Israel’s very existence.

The next problem with the BDS movement is its connection to anti-Semitism. True, most of those drawn into the movement are not or do not consider themselves to be anti-Semitic. However, it quickly slides into anti-Semitism through its attempt to align other, very legitimate social justice movements to its cause. For example, BDS proponents have aligned with Black Lives Matter and declared that no Jew who supports the existence of Israel should be allowed to ally with Black Lives Matter. They then draw the comparison to South African apartheid, or even more of an outrage, to the struggle of African Americans in the United States. Conflating the problems of the Palestinians with the struggles of African Americans is a disservice to both. The histories of each struggle are very different and have very different origins. One is the result of conflicting national movements. The other derives from the history of American slavery and the resulting racism. Conflating these two struggles creates anti-Semitism among those supporting Black Lives Matter.

One needs to look at the recent experiences of Rabbi Susan Talve in St. Louis. Rabbi Talve founded and built her congregation based on principles of social justice. She has spent her career supporting Israel, BUT being very critical of its polices and actions vis a vis the Palestinians. As the events in Ferguson unfolded, she protested with African Americans, supporting Black Lives Matter. Some folks in that movement, influenced by organizations aligned with BDS, took a stand that someone who supported the mere existence of Israel could not support Black Lives Matter. They judged it to be hypocritical, and looked to drive Rabbi Talve out. For the full story click here: http://forward.com/news/327466/can-jews-back-black-lives-matter-and-be-pro-israel/

According to this reasoning, any Jew who believes Israel has a right to exist cannot truly support movements in this country like Black Lives Matter. That becomes anti-Semitic. This point is reinforced by what is happening to Jewish students on campuses around the country. One example is that of a Jewish student at UCLA who was at first disqualified from being on student government because her being Jewish was seen as a “conflict of interest.” Is there any other religion someone can have that is considered a “conflict of interest?” For the full account read this http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/us/ucla-student-government-openly-says-student-shouldnt-serve-because-shes-jewish   There are, unfortunately, a growing number of similar examples, in which Jewish students are singled out on the assumption they are pro-Israel – which frankly should not be an excuse anyway. Pro-Israel has a wide range of definitions, which do not necessarily include blanked support of all Israeli government policies.

BDS takes its aim at exactly the wrong elements. They oppose Israeli artists, musicians and academics as propaganda tools of the Israeli government. They oppose Israeli businesses as well as those American and international corporations that wish to invest in Israel, declaring them as exploitative of Palestinians. When artists, musicians, academics, and businesses are targeted, the very folks who are the natural allies in creating a different reality between Israel and Palestine become alienated. Rather, they need to be enlisted. The cooperation of business is necessary in order to create economic opportunities for Palestinians to lift themselves out of an awful situation. The only way to create justice in Israel and Palestine is by creating a non-violent alliance between Israelis and Palestinians who are dedicated to a just solution. Rather than trying to create positive connections between groups, those supporting BDS, willingly or unwillingly, are just driving more wedges between the people of the region, thus creating more bitterness and divisions.

The creation of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a long, hard process. It has started and stalled numerous times over the century since the beginning of the Zionist movement. The only way to start a process that has any hope of success is for those who care about Israel and Palestine to shut up and just listen to each other’s narratives – not always to agree but to learn to understand the background and concerns of each other. By focusing on Israel as the villain, and by ignoring Arab anti-Semitism, those pushing BDS simply add to the poison already in the atmosphere.

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All of us have moments of fear. It is natural. It is human. I believe that one of the measures of our humanity is how we manage our fear. How far do we let it drive us? How much do we allow it to determine our life decisions? How does it affect our attitudes towards others? Fear can be a good thing. It can push us to actions that result in safety. Fear for loved ones can push us to acts of loving sacrifice. But the darkest side of fear pushes us to hatred, to denigration, even to acts of oppression. Excess fear creates darkness.

A couple of days ago I posted a piece in which I declared a blackout on writing or discussing a certain politician. Here is that link: https://thejewishobserver.com/2015/12/08/lets-shut-this-down-now/ This blog is not about him. It is about some of the reaction to the posting, in particular by those who support his policies regarding Muslims, immigration, and the Syrian refugees. This is about the fear they express and how it is driving a conversation that has turned very ugly. And yes, it is also about those who are against the policy suggestions aimed at Muslims, those who wish to welcome refugees, but use insulting, denigrating language to dismiss the fears of the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee crowd. We need to speak to each other reasonably, without name calling, without accusations of being unpatriotic, or stupid, or racist. We might believe any of those things in our hearts. Maybe we are right. Maybe we are wrong. But injecting pejoratives into the conversation is counter productive. So what I will speak about is fear and what it can force us to do.

Fear forces us to make generalizations; to make value judgments on people because of ethnicity, race or religion. As a result of African American attempts to get civil and political equality, white fear led to laws of segregation, attempts to keep blacks from voting, and perpetrated mythologies of black intellectual inferiority. On an even more obscene level, it spread myths about black desires – such as wanting to rape white women. So African Americans were categorized as non intellectual, but great athletes (and entertainers) who needed to be kept at a distance from white mainstream society. The suffering of blacks to just be able to order a soda at the same counter as whites is a sad commentary of American society.

Fear of Jews (most obviously in Germany/Europe but also to a certain extant in the US as well) cast Jews as money grubbers who wished to control society/government through their wealth. Aspersions such as the blood libel (Jews kill gentile children and use their blood to bake Passover matzah) have had legs for centuries. Father Coughlan was quite public in the 1930’s with his outright hatred for Jews in this country. Many shared his feelings. As a result, there was little support for admitting Jewish refugees from German or Europe leading up to World War II. A sad example is the story of the SS St. Louis, a boat filled with Jewish refugees who were refused safe harbor in 1939 in either Cuba or the United States. The boat returned to Europe and most of the Jews on board died in the Holocaust.

Fear in each of these historical examples also shapes the responses of the victims. Many, led by brave and insightful leaders, fight for equal rights. That is how history and attitudes can change. We need visionary leaders who point a way past fear and the resulting bigotry. But, and this is important, another reaction within the oppressed groups, is submission – the sad acceptance of their fate and position. In Germany during the 1930’s, Jews were so in shock that the country in which they had assimilated and succeeded was rejecting them. Fear often kept them from protesting. In our country, African American communities have been filled with tensions regarding how much to protest versus how much to just go along in the name of safety. Talk to African Americans today, and many fear the police. Fear can drive us in multiple directions.

Now we are dealing with a new, different fear: Muslims. It is different because there is a tangible reason for our fear. Muslims have perpetrated devastating terrorist attacks in this country and Europe. ISIS is an expression of a twisted variety of Islam that perpetrates a range of horrors. In a world in which images are transmitted instantaneously, the fear generated by these events goes viral within minutes of an event. Let me be blunt with my liberal friends. By refusing to acknowledge these realities, by pretending there is no connection to Islam, you are creating a fear in conservatives that you are too dense to appreciate the threat. Let me be equally blunt with my conservative friends. By refusing to see there are radical elements that have and still do come into play in ALL religions, not just Islam, you are allowing your fear to descend into bigotry. Everyone needs to see, for example, that the shootings at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, and the shootings in San Bernadino are both terrorist acts. Both have connections to religion. Conservatives will say the Colorado Springs shooter was mentally ill. I would argue that an American born Muslim with a good job who embraces ISIS and kills 14 people is also mentally ill.

Fear of Muslims drives us to consider stopping all Muslims from entering our country. Fear of Muslims drives us to see certain politicians as “truth tellers” instead of ignorant egotists. Fear of Muslims drives us to applaud suggestions like shutting down mosques, or creating a database of Muslims in America. Fear of Muslims pushes us to consider steps that compromise our basic liberties in the name of security. Fear of Muslims prevents us from being the America most of us would like to be.

Fear affects the American Muslim community as well. Imam Nidal Alsayyed of Beaumont, Texas did an interview with his local TV station in which he said he understood why some politicians want the limits on immigration. He did not criticize proposals aimed specifically at Muslims and he said Muslims need to demonstrate they are with their fellow Americans. I would say that American Muslims demonstrate their commitment to the United States all of the time. Muslims serve in our armed forces, contribute to all aspects of American life. The previous U. S. attorney for our region told me of the cooperation and the tips she received from the Muslim community while investigating potential terrorist threats. Surely Imam Alsayyed knows these things. Why would he feel the need passively endorse anti-Muslim policies put forth by politicians like Donald Trump? Well, Beaumont is a small town near the Louisiana border. It is in one of the least tolerant states, in the least tolerant areas of our country. I would speculate that he is experiencing the same fear that all minorities under suspicion experience. I am saddened if he feels intimidated to endorse actions that would be detrimental and insulting to his community. As I said, we are too motivated by fear and not enough by principle, or by morality.

It is significant we are in the middle of Chanukah, the festival that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the religious oppression of the Greek-Assyrians. It is not significant because of the military victory, which is certainly an expression of bravery and belief in the principle of religious freedom. Rather, the choice of the rabbis of the Talmud to emphasize the miracle of the oil over the military victory is significant. They chose to highlight the creation and furtherance of light over violence. What is that light? Psalm 97 states, Or zarua latzaddik ul’yishrei lev simchah. “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright of heart.” Perhaps the light is the light produced by righteousness, a light that triumphs over the darkness of fear, and that lifts the feeling of gladness in our hearts. May we be inspired to spread that light, giving us the strength to turn away from the darkest side of fear.

 

 

 

 

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I am not given to rants, especially about political candidates. But, as Popeye once said, “That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more!” So I hereby declare a “Trumpout,” – a Donald Trump blackout. After this blog post I will no longer write about Trump, follow Trump, or speak about Trump. He is, to quote Mr. Wonderful from “Shark Tank,” dead to me. I urge all of you to share this post and to do the same.

Folks, the man is playing us for suckers as we mindlessly participate in his cruel reality show. If he is serious about what he says (you can look up the litany of ridiculous statements/positions), then he is the most dangerous politician in America since George Wallace ran for President. If he is not, if he is just playing a huge mind game with the American people – then shame on us for stupidly playing along.

I have yet to meet a Republican who embraces this man in any way. The only positive comment I heard, and this was at the end of the summer before the latest foul statements, was an admiration for his honesty. This person did not endorse him or take him seriously, just liked his bluntness. I have no idea how that person feels now. All of my Republican friends are pretty much horrified by everything this man says.

Therefore, I call upon everyone to stop sharing posts about Trump, writing about Trump, and talking about Trump. We need to collectively reduce this man’s exposure on all media, but perhaps we can start with social media. If you have to refer to him in a conversation, then just drop the “T” from his last name – for that describes what he is best.