09 December 2014

Cheering Like Hell from the Sidelines

After a year in which peace talks collapsed between Israelis and Palestinians; the Gaza War of the summer further isolated Israel from world opinion while confirming that Hamas and an ever-radicalizing Islamist movement rejects dialogue and favors ongoing terror; the growing rift between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu burst into the open; the continued strengthening of ISIS and its particularly virulent and murderous expression of fundamentalist Islam caused increased concern; an increase in racist attacks against Israeli Arabs brought shame; Israeli settlement policy continued unabated; increased terror incidents and random acts of murder against Israeli civilians enraged; and a general sense in the broader Israeli population that the basic services of the government--the economy, infrastructure, housing, education and health care--were not being met as well as they should be, topped off by the divisive "nation-state" measures encoding Jewishness over democracy in the Jewish state, it seems appropriate that Israel's Knesset dissolved itself and decided to head to new elections.

American Jews, who often sit at a considerable distance and judge Israel without ever having to really live in the shoes of Israelis -- a region unlike anything within North American borders (though in a post-9-11 world those borders are shrinking, aren't they?) -- would do well to roll up their sleeves, follow the news closely, and even better, hop on a plane and go talk to Israelis.  See things up close.

One could argue that this is the most critically important election in Israel's history since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  Just as Rabin's murder set into motion certain forces that maintain the agenda in Israel to this day, the current dissolution of this year's Knesset is a chance for Israelis, should they dare, to choose a new direction.

I'd like to see them choose democracy.  This is actually eminently achievable.  It requires a coalition of the Center, the Left, some willing Center-Right members of Knesset, at least one ultra-religious Israeli party (Shas, United Torah Judaism) and the Arab parties.

Impossible, you say?  Could it be more "impossible" than the lack of progress we are currently witnessing?

Unworkable, you say?  Could it be more "unworkable" than what we now have?

If, as Israel's Declaration of Independence originally stated, the Jewish state is to "ensure complete equality of political and social rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex," than what is the problem?  The foundation exists for a Jewish and democratic state, for equal rights before the law, and for the opportunity, for those Israelis of good will--Jewish and Arab Israelis and--to find a way to live together in peace.

It's an election made to call everyone's bluff:

The Left can't govern with strength?
The Right can't tolerate democratic rights?
The Arabs can't accept citizenship with minority rights?
The Ultra-Religious can't accept the reality of the contemporary world with innovations like secular education, equal rights for women, some form of mandatory service beyond the house of study?

If there is not a parliamentary majority of at least 61 Israelis who cannot line up behind the reality that the way forward for a democratic Israel is a majority of diverse Israelis committed to finding a way to live together, now, than these indeed are dark days.

To somehow believe that this is not possible flies in the face of history.  Israel remains for me one of the great, unimaginable miracles of the twentieth century.  What small, far-flung, persecuted but determined nation builds itself a state, reclaims its national homeland, revives its language, and creates, in less than a century, one of the most vibrant, creative, economies and democracies the world has ever known?  Who does that?

This is not apologist writing for all you cynics out there.  This is pride in the unparalelled uniqueness of the Jewish people, which, while it has its own terrible, dark forces it is obligated to tame, prosecute and mend, still stands as a state whose good far outweighs the bad.

I don't live in Israel and I don't vote there.  But as an American Jew, a Zionist, frequent guest in the country, a man whose heart bleeds for peace and co-existence, and a rabid fan of the good Jews can do, I'm cheering like hell from the sidelines.

05 December 2014


It is interesting to think of Jacob wrestling the angel on the banks of the Jabbok River, moments before meeting his sibling rival Esau (from whom he wrangled birthright and blessing) in the context of our nation's coming to terms with issues of race, violence and the law in the era of Ferguson & Michael Brown and Staten Island & Eric Garner.

Jacob, the dweller in tents, as a lad; Esau, the man of the field.  The privileged white child of the manor and the slave, the toiler, the real builder of a nation.

Jacob, the kid from a good neighborhood, sound schools, college and workforce bound; Esau, dodging bullets and mired in poverty, suspicious and always suspected.

Jacob behind the invisible gilded walls of power where it's not even necessary to ask for protection; Esau, who in the wrestling, can't breathe.  Can't breathe.  Can't breathe.

In from the fields in the heat of the day.  Exhausted.  Spent.  In need of a bowl of lentils.  The tradition often credits Jacob for his cleverness in discerning that Esau was not of the moral stature to lead the covenanted people of the God of Abraham and Isaac.  But turn the narrative on its head and it becomes a tale of exploitation:  the starving manual laborer who would be satisfied for a crust of bread, a bowl of soup, and in his haste with the cards stacked against him trades away an unseen future for the immediacy of sustenance and temporary relief.


Yesterday I took a ride around Brooklyn with some friends.  We began in the bricked and brownstoned order of Park Slope; rolled into Gowanus, Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg, ending up back in Crown Heights for a beer.  The admirably singular growth, creativity, and vibrancy of gentrification were everywhere to be seen and, in real time, were gestating social and economic challenges that ought to occupy our imagination and devotion for a generation.

Education.  Health-Care.  Housing. Work.  Like words of Torah, as the Sages say:  Each cried out, "Interpret me!"  Meaning:  Deal with the issues.  Create solutions.  Fulfill the covenant of our own national sacred scripture, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I see my doctor in an office tour across the street from Carnegie Hall.  It's a very pleasant experience to go there.  We speak the same language; we're of the same world.  Yesterday I drove for blocks and for the life of me couldn't figure out where one would go if one needed a doctor except a hospital emergency room.  The inherent wrong in that was as discernible as the distinction between, well, black and white.

If you drive into the Gowanus from Third Street, just after Staples and Pep Boys, the new Whole Foods comes into view.  Solar powered parking lamps and wind turbines tower over a lot filled with large, new, well-fueled cars.  Building and development is churning up earth at a rate that far outpaces the herculean effort to dredge the contaminated canal.  Among its many deleterious qualities are PCBs, coal-tar wastes, heavy metal and volatile organics.

Volatile organics indeed.  The people are restless.  As the sun set and day turned to night, helicopters buzzed overhead. Demonstrators blocked roads throughout the city, their bodies wrestling injustice, monitored by a hovering whir above.

Drive down Bond Street from Whole Foods and you'll see an abandoned factory about to be converted into artists lofts and galleries; luxury housing rises on the now fetid waters, but renderings envision redemption.  The Ample Hills Ice Cream factory leans into Royal Palms Shuffleboard.  One wonders whether or not Brooklyn's ironic brand has lost its way--they say it's now the most expensive place to buy a home in America.  What a bowl of lentils goes for on one side of the Jabbok River is not what it goes for on the other.

Across the street from the NYCHA Gowanus Houses, with 1134 apartments and 2836 residents, there's a C-Town, the dystopic meme of Whole Foods.  What is sold in the aisles of both stores we ought to know.  Food and Justice bring us back to the elemental fundaments of Torah.

To say that we brothers have our issues is an understatement.


Jacob was terrified the night before he met his brother Esau.  We don't know what Esau felt but we discern his anger, the pain and suffering of disappointment, of being on the outside, of having had to sell his fate in anguished hunger, of simply never having been equitably, fairly, brought in.

"And Jacob was left alone and there a man wrestled with him until the break of day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, "Let me go, for the day has broken."  And Jacob said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

It is the greatest challenge of our generation to realize, yet again, that when we wrestle with black and white in this country, that conflict still too often leads to violence, prison, and most tragically, death.

After receiving his blessing from the angel, from his conscience, from his twin Esau, from God--Jacob awakes and prepares to meet his brother.  At this stage, Esau had been left alone long enough to create his own life, accumulate his own wealth, and regain the dignity he had lost in selling off his birthright in a moment of vulnerability and need.  He had the self-respect of being his own man, in charge of his own destiny.  Expecting confrontation, even war, both brothers fall upon one another's neck and as the Torah indicates, embraced and kissed as brothers.  Their hunger not for food but for love, sated.

No wrestling.  No chokehold.  Just two brothers, by a river, reconciled to the possibilities and blessings of life.

03 December 2014

Why the Eric Garner Ruling is a Grave Injustice

My thoughts on the Eric Garner ruling are published over at Tablet Magazine.

You can read the piece here as well.


The Staten Island grand jury decision to not bring to trial an NYPD officer for the chokehold death of Eric Garner is a tragedy on many levels. First, there is the fundamental tragedy of an unarmed black man dying in police custody. Second, there is the additional outrage of each of us bearing witness to Garner’s death. It’s one thing for most people to read in the abstract about the disproportionate number of black men to white men who die in police custody—whether by gunshot or, in the case of Eric Garner, by a banned chokehold. But with social media, we must bear witness and see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, the pleas of a man pinned to the ground by police exclaiming, “I can’t breathe,” and then watch him pass into convulsions and death. It is gruesome. And it is wrong. It is also unjust.
The specter of injustice haunts the entire African American experience in the United States in ways this country’s Jewish community can only attempt to comprehend. For African Americans, brought to this country against their will as slaves, there would be 200 years of slavery followed by 100 years of endemic racism, lynching, and the denial of equal rights. As a nation we are far from the end of this tragic journey with miles to go. And a black man dying in police custody in Staten Island, or getting shot in Ferguson, or a housing project stairwell, is simply and unacceptably, an all too common event.
As Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative continually reminds us, racism and poverty go hand in hand for the African American community. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One of three black men between ages 18 and 30 in America is either in jail, prison, probation, or on parole. Inequality—in schools, in the workplace, in housing, and before the law—is pervasive. America, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” has a long way to go.
When facing off with God over the potential miscarriage of justice—innocent lives being swept away with evil in Sodom and Gomorrah—Abraham famously said to God, “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?”
That is to say: we are all meant to be equal before the law. And the required sacred trust required between the citizenry and law enforcement officers—who, make no mistake about it, put their lives on the line to keep us all safe every day—is essential. We all must be held to the same standard of the law in the execution of the law in order for, to paraphrase Abraham, the law of the land to do justly.
The chokehold is an illegal move. Even in an NFL marred by its own despicable scandals these days, an illegal move is penalized. It is a tragic perpetuation of the legacy of injustice for blacks in America that a police officer is at the very least not being put to trial, where, with all evidence weighed in the light of day, he can be found innocent or guilty of taking a man’s life. And as Jews, as a people founded on such notions of a Just God being called to justice—and of a Civil Society founded on the idea of Equality Before the Law—we should find today’s ruling a grave injustice.