Why I Celebrated the Persian New Year on Purim this Year

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Addressing the NIAC Chicago Nowruz Celebration, March 16, 2014 (photo: Roxane Assaf)

Like many American rabbis around the country, I spent the most of the day yesterday leading my congregation’s noisy, joyously raucous Purim celebration, complete with a carnival and a family Megillah reading. As per usual, we read a somewhat watered-down version of the Book of Esther – one that characteristically kept the sexual hijinx and violence to a minimum.  Even with our PG version, however, there was no getting around the decidedly darker aspects of the Purim story – particularly the infamous ninth chapter in which we read that the Jews of Persia slew 75,000 Persians then celebrated the day after with a festival of “feasting and merry making.”

As always, this part of the story stuck seriously in my throat. While we adults can intellectualize the more disturbing parts of the Purim narrative (“it’s irony,” “it’s a revenge fantasy,” “it’s cathartic,” “it’s not meant to be taken seriously, after all…”) I’m just not sure we do any favors to our children when we read these kinds of stories to them, even in censored form. I’m fast coming to believe it’s time to tell a fundamentally different version of the Purim story to our children – one that celebrates the venerable Persian-Jewish experience rather than cynically telling a Persian version of “when push comes to shove, all the world really just wants the Jews dead.”

I’m also mindful that there are all too many adults who are willing to take the Purim story literally. I’ve written before about the disgusting Purim violence annually inflicted against the non-Jewish population in Israel. And on a geopolitical level, leaders of the state of Israel (and many in the American Jewish establishment) have openly and unabashedly used the Purim story to frame our relationship to Iran – presenting present day Ayatollahs and Mullahs as nothing less than Haman incarnate and promoting all out war as the only way to settle the current nuclear impasse.

For all this, however, I’m happy to report that Purim ended for me on something of a redemptive note this year.

As it turns out, the Persian New Year known as Nowruz is fast approaching and last night, I was thrilled to attend a Nowruz party sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).  So after I got home from my congregation’s Purim carnival, I took off my clown costume, put on a suit, and drove to a suburban restaurant where I celebrated the coming of spring with Chicago’s Persian community and supported the important work of NIAC, which among other things supports a “policy of persistent strategic engagement with Iran that includes human rights as a core issue.”

When I addressed the gathering (above), I thanked them for reaching out to me and explained that ever since I returned from a visit to Iran in 2008, I’ve always hoped to score a Nowruz party invitation from my Persian friends. I also explained why celebrating Nowruz with NIAC was for me the perfect, redemptive coda to Purim. And I added that contrary to the impression created by some Israeli politicians and Jewish institutional leaders, there were many in my community who believed that the current crisis should be settled through diplomacy and engagement and not an inexorable march to war.

Now I’m thinking there might well be something to this Nowruz/Purim celebration. Can’t think of a better way to, in words of the Book of Esther, “turn grief and mourning into festive joy….”


My Conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman

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This past Sunday I had the great pleasure and honor to participate in a open conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman in “Progressive Politics from the Pulpit,” a program sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace – Los Angeles. As Rabbi Beerman has been one of my true rabbinical heroes for so many years, it was truly a thrill for me to share a podium with him as we shared our thoughts on the challenges facing congregational rabbis who engage in progressive social justice activism.

As a Los Angeles native myself, I’ve long known of Rabbi Beerman’s inspired work during the years he served as the Senior Rabbi of LA’s Leo Baeck Temple. He was the founding rabbi of Leo Baeck in 1949 and stayed there for the next 37 years until his retirement in 1986. During that time, he challenged his congregants – and the Jewish community at large – to awaken to some of the most critical socio-political issues of the late 20th century.

Rabbi Beerman was a maverick in his day – and in many ways still is. He is a self-described pacifist who came by his stance honestly, after serving in the Marines in World War II and in the Haganah in 1947 while attending the newly founded Hebrew University. He was a student of Rabbi Judah Magnes, the great Reform leader who advocated for a bi-national state for Jews and Arabs – and he remains a passionate advocate for a just peace in Israel/Palestine to this day.

Rabbi Beerman came to Leo Baeck fresh from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati during the height of the Cold War and quickly became an outspoken and visionary peace activist. In one of my very favorite stories, he described his anguish at the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which took place on a Friday afternoon in 1953. During Shabbat services that evening, he decided to add their names to the end of the yahrtzeit list (the list of names read before the recitation of the Kaddish) much to the dismay of some of his congregants.

Rabbi Beerman was also one of the first rabbis in the country to publicly condemn the US war in Vietnam and later instituted draft counseling in his congregation. He invited such figures as Daniel Ellsberg (who spoke on Yom Kippur afternoon while he was awaiting trial) and Cesar Chavez to speak at his synagogue. Rabbi Beerman was also a visionary leader for civil rights and worker justice and during the nuclear arms race was one of the leading Jewish voices in the disarmament movement.

I’ve particularly admired Rabbi Beerman’s fearlessness when it came to the subject of Israel/Palestine – clearly the issue that has earned him the angriest criticism from the Jewish establishment. He was a consistent and faithful advocate for justice for the Palestinian people long before such a thing was even countenanced in the Jewish community. Literally going where few other rabbis would dare to tread, he met with Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Fatah founder Abu Jihad. That he was able to do all of this while serving a large, established Los Angeles synagogue speaks volumes about his integrity – and the abiding trust he was able to maintain with the members of his congregation.

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Now in his 90s, Rabbi Beerman is still deeply engaged in the issues of our day. During our conversation together, we spoke about the current state of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the languishing peace process and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I mentioned to those present that in 2008, during the height of Operation Cast Lead, when Rabbi Brian Walt and I were calling rabbinical colleagues to sign on to a Jewish Fast for Gaza, Rabbi Beerman was one of the first to sign on without hesitation. He did the same when we were forming the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and his presence there is truly an inspiration to our members.

I’m still feeling so happy and proud to have been able to share the stage with Rabbi Beerman. Heartfelt thanks to Estee Chandler, the head of JVP – LA for her masterful stewardship of this wonderful event. Thanks also to Eliyahu and Pennie Ungar-Sargon for filming the program – I’ll post the finished video of our talk when it is complete.

PS: After the program was over, I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Beerman’s wife, children and grandchildren, who were sitting in the front section. As we chatted I mentioned to them how wonderful it felt to get such a nice reception, adding that Leonard and I were worried there might be “troublemakers” in attendance. His daughter smiled and said, “The only troublemakers were up on the stage…”


Sharon’s Legacy: Survival at All Costs

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From Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks at the funeral of Ariel Sharon today:

Like all historic leaders, Prime Minister Sharon was a complex man about whom, as you’ve already heard from his colleagues, who engendered strong opinions from everyone.  But like all historic leaders, all real leaders, he had a North Star that guided him — a North Star from which he never, in my observation, never deviated.  His North Star was the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, wherever they resided.

In talking about his spiritual attachment to the land of Israel back in an interview in the late ‘90s, he said, and I quote, “Before and above all else, I am a Jew…”

As a Jew – and as a human being of conscience – I submit that this myopic obsession with Jewish physical survival “before and above all else” has led the Jewish people down a very dark road indeed. In so many ways, Ariel Sharon represents the embodiment of this obsession – and I for one recoil at the suggestion that he might in any way be held up as a Jewish exemplar.

As the tributes of world leaders continue to roll in, please consider the life’s work of a man Joe Biden quite mistakenly claimed is “loved by the Jewish people:”

- In the early 1950s, as a young major in the Israeli army, Sharon led the infamous Unit 101, which carried out numerous cross-border “pre-emptive” and “retaliatory” attacks into the West Bank, deliberately killing and wounding Palestinian civilians.  In the most notorious incident involving Unit 101, between October 14 and 16, 1953, soldiers under Sharon’s command massacred 69 Palestinian civilians, most of them women and children, in the West Bank town of Qibya. Sharon’s orders included “total destruction of the village and maximum harm to the villagers, again forcing them to flee.”

- On October 29, 1956, Israel attacked Egypt, part of an invasion in conjunction with Britain and France. During the resulting hostilities, soldiers under Sharon’s command committed a series of massacres of POWs, including more than 100 civilians. In one incident, Israeli soldiers shot and killed 49 Egyptian prisoners of war, including civilians, after binding their hands and forcing them into a quarry. In another, 56 Egyptian civilians were murdered while sheltering in the back of a truck. In a third incident, some 50 Egyptian civilian workers were murdered by Israeli soldiers near the town of Ras Sudar.

- Following Israel’s surprise attack against Egypt in June 1967, which resulted in Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Egyptian Sinai peninsula, and Syrian Golan Heights, Ariel Sharon, by now a general responsible for Israel’s southern command, was tasked with “pacifying” Gaza. In his efforts to crush resistance, Sharon ordered his soldiers to execute without trial any Palestinians suspected of involvement in the resistance, resulting in the killing of more than 1000 Palestinians.

- On June 6, 1982, Israel launched a massive invasion of Lebanon, masterminded by then-Defense Minister Sharon. Between June and September, the Israeli army killed between 18,000 and 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, bombarding and laying siege to the western half of the capital of Beirut.

- On September 16, 1982, under Sharon’s direction, Israeli soldiers surrounded the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and sent in about 150 of their local Christian Phalangist militia allies, even though the long and bloody history between Palestinians and Phalangists in Lebanon was well known to the Israelis. Over the next three days, between 800 and 3500 Palestinian refugees and Lebanese, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were butchered by the Phalangists, who sexually assaulted, tortured and mutilated many of their victims, in one of the worst atrocities in the modern history of the Middle East.

For more details on these facts – and other aspects of Sharon’s legacy that were likely not recounted at his funeral today, click here.


Morning in Nabi Saleh

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Mohammed Tamimi, Abu Hussam Tamimi, Bassem Tamimi, me (left to right)

On Monday morning our group traveled to the nearby village of Nabi Saleh, another prominent community in the Palestinian nonviolence resistance movement. You may have heard recently about Nabi Saleh from this New York Times Magazine cover story by Ben Ehrenreich last March. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it – I believe it is by far the most thoughtful consideration of this movement by the mainstream media.

Although this was my first time in Nabi Saleh, I met Bassem Tamimi, one of its most prominent leaders briefly in Ramallah on our congregational trip to the West Bank in 2010. That’s me above with Bassem, his cousin Abu Hussam Tamimi and nephew Mohammed Tamimi.

Our group spent several hours in Abu Hussam’s home learning about the history of Nabi Saleh and its place in the greater popular movement. Bassem explained to us that unlike other villages, Nabi Saleh’s protest is not directed toward the separation wall, but rather the confiscation of the village’s lands and the takeover of its spring by the nearby Israeli settlement Halamish.

The protest movement in Nabi Saleh began when Bassem and other village members met with and learned from leaders of similar demonstrations in Budrus and Bil’in. Rejecting the violent resistance of suicide bombers in the Second Intifada, they consciously sought a return to the approach of the First Intifada – a nonviolent popular grassroots resistance that evolved into a coordinated mass movement.  The village leaders of Nabi Saleh studied the work of Ghandi, King and Mandela – knowing at the same time that the Palestinian nonviolent movement had its own unique context and would have to have its own unique characteristics as well.

Nabi Saleh launched its first demonstration on December 9, 2009 – the anniversary of the First Intifada – and since that time, it has been an critical link the chain of the Palestinian popular resistance. Like Bil’in and other villages that hold weekly demonstrations, their protests have been met with visceral force from the Israeli military. Protesters have been regularly met with tear gas, shot with coated steel bullets and sound grenades and sprayed with skunk water. These “crowd-dispersal” weapons invariably cause painful, often grievous, physical distress – and almost all of these armaments are manufactured in the US.

Bassem and the other leaders of the Nabi Saleh resistance have suffered profoundly for their efforts. Bassem has been arrested twelve times by the Israeli military – at one point spending more than three years in administration detention without trial. His most recent arrest took place on March 2011 and led to a year-long prison term. He was released one year later. Tragically, like other villages Nabi Saleh now has its own martyrs: Mustafa Tamimi was killed when he was shot in the face with a tear gas canister at point blank range in December 2011. And on November 2012, Rushdi Tamimi was killed after being shot in the head while protesting the Israel’s military attacks on Gaza in November 2012.

When I asked Bassem about the status of the Palestinian popular movement, he responded that while it is still growing, and despite the ongoing weekly demonstrations of ten to fifteen villages every week and the proliferation of popular committees, they are still far from the “Third Global Intifada” that he and other Palestinian nonviolence are advocating. Bassem and his fellow leaders seek nothing less than a worldwide movement that seeks to leverage the power of nonviolent resistance – including Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – to eventually shift this unjust balance of power. Still it is clear that they these leaders are settling in for the long haul. And the fact that Israel reacts so strongly and violently to these efforts that it takes such a prospect very seriously indeed.

During our visit, enjoyed a sumptuous lunch graciously served to us by the Tamimi family. They also showed us several YouTube videos of significant Nabi Saleh demonstrations over the past few years. Our consensus favorite was the video, below, of Bassem’s thirteen year old daughter Ahed and her young friends confronting the Israeli military after the arrest of her mother, Neriman. By the end of the video, this little amazing girl was, quite simply, our hero. Please watch and see for yourself (Ahed is the little blond girl with the red pants):

We were so thrilled to actually get to meet Ahed when she came home from school.  Somehow, the quiet, shy girl we met seemed to bear little resemblance to the ferocious, courageous girl speaking her truth to overwhelming military power – yet another example of how the battle for justice is being waged by ordinary people and families who find themselves living in extraordinary times. (That’s her below, with delegation participants Estee Chandler (left) and Shafic Budron (right):

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We’re actually meeting and spending time with many amazing children growing up in activist families during our stay here. I will be writing more about this subject – among many others – in upcoming posts. Please stay tuned.


At-Risk Communities from Syria to the South Side: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5774

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While I’m sure that Syria has been on the lips of many a rabbi this High Holiday season, I’ll be honest with you: I’ve struggled with whether or not to give that sermon this year. Not because I don’t consider it to be an issue of critical importance, quite the contrary – no one can deny that the situation in Syria is a tragic and critically important one in our world at the moment. If I’ve been hesitant, it’s only because I’m not really sure I have much to add to the myriad of political analyses we’ve heard in the media these past few weeks.

So while my words to you today are not directly related to Syria, I would like to begin with one small but powerful story out of this crisis. It comes from an article written by my friend Aziz Abu Sarah, a young Palestinian peace activist and educator. At the moment Aziz is the Co-Executive Director at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University – and he was recently made a National Geographic Emerging Explorer where he serves as a cultural educator. Several JRC members know Aziz well as he was one of our tour guides of a JRC trip to East Jerusalem and the West Bank two years ago.

As the news out of Syria became more and more dire, particularly the news of the growing refugee crisis, Aziz and a colleague put their heads together to explore some kind of action they might possibly take. There are currently more than 2,000,000 Syrian refugees in camps throughout the Middle East – mostly in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Women and children make up three quarters of the refugee population. There are over 1,000,000 children refugees as a result of this crisis.

In the end, Aziz and his colleague decided to establish an educational summer camp for refugee children on Syrian-Turkish border. In a blog post about his experiences in the camp, he wrote, “Whether the US bombs Assad or not is not in my control, but being active to help those in need is.”

In his post, Aziz wrote movingly about the children he had met and the stories they told him – stories that were at once horrific and at the same time the ordinary everyday stories of children everywhere. At the conclusion of his post, he wrote:

These are the stories that we need to remember when we argue about Syria. These are the people paying the heavy price. When we pass by a news item about Syria, we must remember the millions of children that could become another lost generation without our willingness to engage and help…

Opening our hearts and finding compassion must come before any discussion on military intervention.

When I read Aziz’s post, it reminded me how easily we debate these crises even while knowing so very little about the people who are actually living through them. How we tend to view these kinds of global tragedies in the abstract. It’s understandable, of course – when we read the staggering statistics coming out of these crises zones, it literally staggers our comprehension. How on earth do we grasp numbers such as these, let alone the reality of the suffering behind the statistics?

But while it’s understandable, I do find something profoundly troubling about this phenomenon. Because when we reduce people in crisis zones to abstractions, it invariably creates a kind of emotional callousness in the ways we think and form our opinions about the crises themselves. When we don’t make an effort to understand the human reality behind the headlines, it seems to me, our political ideas emerge in something of a moral and emotional vacuum.

I do believe that Aziz is absolutely right: before we start holding forth on whether or not to bomb, we must first open our hearts and find compassion for the people of Syria. We must make an effort to learn who they are, to learn about their unique experiences, to listen to them. Whatever we believe must be done, the process by which we form our opinions must begin with an effort to get to know the human beings behind the abstractions.

Now I realize that most of us don’t have the wherewithal to pack up and move to Turkey to work with Syrian refugees – but this doesn’t let us off the hook. Because quite frankly, we don’t have to literally go to the Middle East to discover populations at risk. While Syria has been at the center of the headlines of late, in truth there are all too many of communities in crisis in our midst. We don’t have to go all that far to find them.

Indeed, this is another way that our abstractions affect our perception of the world. Crises are things that happen “over there.” To be honest, sometimes it seems to me that we relate to the at-risk populations in our own backyard as if they are as far away as the Middle East. But of course, they’re not. They are right here, right outside our very door. They may not be of the same magnitude of those in places like Syria, but they are all too real nonetheless.

Here’s but one example, from right here in Chicago. Many of you, I know, are familiar with the initiative known as “Safe Passage” a program formed in 2009 as a response to gang and street violence in at risk Chicago neighborhoods. The program places community workers wearing bright fluorescent vests near public schools as a presence that will help create “safe passage” for High Schoolers who were walking to and from school.

The program was expanded significantly this past May, after the Chicago School Board closed almost 50 public elementary and middle schools in predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities on the South and West sides. Among the many devastating impacts of this decision was that it forced many children to walk longer routes to their new schools, through additional dangerous neighborhoods and across multiple gang boundaries. Whereas these children had previously walked an average of a few blocks to their neighborhood schools, many of them now have to walk half a mile or more through areas that are, quite literally, battle zones.

To deal with this reality, the school board expanded Safe Passage, hiring an additional 600 workers at $10 an hour to serve 12,000 schoolchildren in at-risk communities on their way to their new schools. While it is still early in the new school year, the preliminary reports are not promising. There have already been reports of violence along Safe Passage routes – not including the myriad of areas where children are not served by the program. We are now hearing reports that overwhelmed workers are quitting or just not showing up for work. One alderman has suggested the use of drones to protect children along Safe Passage routes.

No, we don’t need to look far away to find stories of children in battle zones. They are, in a very real way, right outside our door.

How do we respond to news such as this? Though it pains me to say so, I would suggest most of us who live the relatively safe and secure neighborhoods of greater Chicago respond to this news the same way we respond to the tragic news coming out of Syria, or Somalia or the Congo. Most of us, I think, thank goodness it’s not our reality. We quantify it in the abstract. We respond as if it’s happening “over there.”

Except it’s not. It’s happening right here in our very own community and in communities just like it across our country. These populations may not be terrorized by tyrannical dictators or civil war, but their lives and their families’ lives are at risk in a very real way. As a parent, I cannot fathom how it must feel to raise my children in neighborhoods wracked with violence, to send them off to walk miles to school through gangland battle zones. I cannot begin to fathom it. And maybe that is part of the problem.

This Yom Kippur, the season when our community honestly takes account of itself and how we might collectively atone, I think it is eminently appropriate to ask ourselves: what has been our response to communities in crisis? And are we truly able to see them? Have we truly opened our eyes and our hearts to their realities – particularly those who live right here in our own nation, our own city?

I can’t help but wonder what our communities would look like if our public policy was guided by such an approach. Let’s return to the example of Safe Passage that I gave earlier. There is no doubt that Chicago Public Schools, like all major urban school districts, faces daunting challenges. But unfortunately in my opinion, the Chicago School Board, like so many other urban school boards, now seeks to address these challenges from a corporate, efficiency-focused mindset rather than a community-based one.

I believe this approach to public education is problematic on many levels – but perhaps the most troubling is the way it has utterly blinded us to the critical role neighborhood schools play as the bedrock of our communities – particularly our at-risk communities. In areas that have already been profoundly destabilized by massive cuts to public services, neighborhood schools have served as the only real glue that holds these communities together. By closing these schools, CPS was in many cases literally cutting the final piece of government investment in these communities – and the last remaining institution in which residents can invest in one another.

It is impossible to understate the devastation these kinds of decisions inflict on low-income communities that have long been seriously at-risk. For decades, in fact, urban renewal policies have been decimating neighborhoods, uprooting residents who are largely poor and people of color. Neighborhood assets, like churches, stores, and parks that have been important community centers for generations, have become abandoned or have disappeared. And so residents have been forced out – they have become refugees, in as sense, of a different sort.

The neighborhood school is often the one institution still surviving in low-income neighborhoods and it has historically served as points of pride and community for families. If you had any doubt that these schools are important to their neighborhoods, you had only to listen to the thousands of parents who attended community meetings on school closings over the past few months. Despite their pleas, however, our new “education reformers” have chosen to close schools rather improve them, using the argument that we are in a time of public sector austerity and that we need to orient them to market forces.

This is what happens when leaders view schools using a corporate model rather than a community-based one. When CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools and slashed the budgets of those that remained, Chicago’s non-elected board addressed this issue with a top-down mindset that was ultimately divorced from the real-life reality on the ground. And so now we have it: thousands of students are now leaving their already devastated neighborhoods every day are forced to walk through battle zones in order to get to their schools.

Of course this phenomenon is not only restricted to our schools. In too many ways, our public policy is guided by the corporate goals of efficiency and profit over community and the greater good. While it is certainly true that many of our public institutions are bloated and inefficient and in need of reform, when we destroy them wholesale in this manner, we fail to reckon with the very real human cost of these actions. Even worse, when we privatize our public works, whether it is public housing, our health care system, or our prisons, we do more than simply turn lives into abstractions. We increasingly view human lives – and in some cases, human misery – as commodities to be profited from.

Whether we call this privatization or neo-liberalism whatever we choose to call it, I do believe it represents a very real form of institutional oppression. It may not be as obvious or as brutal as the oppression meted out by the Bashar Al-Assads of the world, but I submit it is a form of oppression nonetheless. Both stem from a view of our neighbors as somehow “other.” Both benefit from a more privileged people’s willingness to turn a blind eye. And most important, both forms of oppression affect the real lives of real people.

So what is there to be done? On an individual level, I think, one answer is very simple: we need to connect. We need to venture out of the hermetically sealed worlds we too often construct for ourselves and learn more about the people with whom we live – particularly those whose day-to-day reality is fundamentally different from our own.

Earlier this month, I read an article by a German journalist who was in Chicago to write about urban gun violence through a grant from the Pulitzer Center. It was fascinating to read the impressions of this European visitor from a Berlin, a city larger than Chicago but with a fraction of the homicides.

Here is how the journalist, Rieke Havertz, ended the article:

It is human nature to ignore Chicago’s gun violence as long as the shooting stays in the “bad” neighborhoods. Don’t take the “L” down south — that was the advice I always heard when I spoke about visiting less-fortunate neighborhoods.

I ignored the advice and nothing happened to me except that I got to know the city. I discovered that it’s not just money that needs to be thrown at these neighborhoods. They need economic opportunity, education, health care. They need a Chicago that is not a segregated city.

They need people who care. Take a different path, reach over the walls.

I know many JRC members who work and volunteer with in at-risk communities in Chicago and right here in Evanston – and I have learned a great deal from them over the years. I think it would behoove us all to not just to learn about these communities, but to create real connections, nurture real relationships. To meet and listen to those who live there. To relate to them as real people, not as charity cases to be helped or problems to be solved. To learn about their reality, their struggles, their needs, from them, not news reports or politicians or pundits.

We need to learn and act on an advocacy level as well. Here in Chicago, there is a remarkable grass-roots coalition that is shaping up and organizing on behalf of the at-risk communities in our city. In fact, polls show that 60% of Chicago’s citizens oppose the school closings and they are starting to make their voices and their presence heard in a major way. After the CPS’s announcement, many of us took to the streets for three straight days of marches in protest – and although the school closings and budget cuts are now a reality, they have galvanized a movement that is attracting a remarkable coalition – including growing numbers of young people.

But this movement has not grown up overnight – and it is not simply focused on the issue of public schools. It has in fact been building steadily over the years; it is the product of many community-based organizations mobilizing and organizing on behalf of the most vulnerable members of the greater Chicago community.

I’m proud to say here at JRC we are becoming increasingly active in this movement. I encourage you to find out more about our efforts and seriously consider lending us your support. Specifically speaking, I encourage to consider getting involved in our Labor Justice Task Force, our Immigrant Justice Task Force and to speak with JRC members who are currently exploring ways we can become active with Northside P.O.W.E.R., an institution-based people’s power organization with members on the Chicago’s North side and in North Shore Communities.

I have also personally been active with the wonderful organization Arise Chicago, an interfaith community organization that does important, critical local work on behalf of worker justice. (And of course, I would be derelict if I did not mention that we have many other active and vital Tikkun Olam Task Forces at JRC – I hope you will speak to JRC’s VP for Tikkun Olam and  learn how you can get involved in our ongoing social justice efforts.)

I also want to encourage us all to educate ourselves and find ways to act on a national level as well. Indeed, it is not an understatement to say that the at-risk populations in our country are currently vulnerable in ways we haven’t seen in decades. According to new data from the US Department of Agriculture, more than one in five American children face hunger, this at a time in which our Congress is considering cutting the SNAP program (aka food stamps) for more than 800,000 Americans who currently receive them but still do not get enough to eat or maintain only a barely adequate diet.

The crisis facing our food stamp program is a particularly critical issue at this very moment – and I would be extremely derelict if I devoted a sermon to our at-risk populations without mentioning this. According to a new report released just a few days ago by the Agriculture Department, food insecurity in our nation remains at a stubbornly high 14.5 percent. According to these statistics, one in five American children are currently facing hunger.

Thanks to the stimulus package, we’ve been able to address this issue through the SNAP program, which last year served 47 million Americans to meet their basic nutrition requirements. However next week, House Republicans, in an effort led by Representative Eric Cantor, will vote to cut $40 billion out of the food stamp program – an act that would literally force hundreds of thousands of Americans into food insecurity.

In regard to this bill, Rep. Jim McGovern made this very astute comment:

There are 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry, 17 million are kids. It is something we all should be ashamed of, and the United States House of Representatives is about to make that worse. This is a big deal and my hope is that we’ll treat it as such and not just let it go by without a lot of discussion and debate because we’re all focused on Syria.

Now these cuts are unlikely to become law since the Senate would never pass them and President Obama would certainly never sign them. But the very fact that such a bill could even be voted on in the House is a clear sign that those advocating for the poor and the hungry in our country must remain incredibly vigilant. We simply cannot let our foreign policy discussions, however important, to eclipse these critical issues facing at-risk citizens here at home.

Every Yom Kippur, we recite our prayers in the first person plural. When we seek atonement, hope and healing for the New Year, we don’t do so for our own individual selves – we ask for these things on behalf of our entire community. I would claim that in this day and age it is getting harder and harder for us to connect with this aspect of our Yom Kippur prayers. Increasingly, it feels to me that we liturgical lip service to the concept of community. Too often it seems like we’re all living our parallel lives, without the sense that at the end of the day we’re all somehow in this together.

But in fact, we are. I do believe this sense of living separately from one another is itself the illusion. At the end of the day, our fates are intertwined. We’re very much mistaken if we believe that we’re somehow immune from risk. As we all know too well, the middle class is being squeezed and endangered in ways we haven’t witnessed in decades. Over the years and even now, there have been JRC members living on the verge of hunger and homelessness. These problems are not somewhere “over there” and in truth, they never really were. Perhaps it’s only our individualistic 21st century perspective that has changed.

So this Yom Kippur, I’m suggesting a recalibration of our spiritual perspective. To view the risk to the well-being of some members of our community as a risk to our own well-being. In a very real way, to own the danger and let go of our illusions of invulnerability. Otherwise, what do all of these prayers really mean? What do our lives really amount to if we cannot somehow see them as integrally connected to the lives of others, whether they live in Syria or the Southwest side of Chicago or in Evanston?

May this be the new year we let go of our illusions. May this be the year we decide to share the risks as well as the rewards.

May it be a rewarding year for us all.

(Click here to sign a petition that tells the House and Senate to put low-income families ahead of corporate welfare and to oppose all cuts to food stamps.)


Blowing the Whistle: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5774

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I’m sure many of you remember the story of John Walker Lindh, a young American citizen who converted to Islam as a teenager and eventually went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Lindh was captured by the US military in November 2001 and was eventually brought back to the US to stand trial.  It was the Justice Department’s first high-profile case in the post-9/11 war on terror.

While many are familiar with the story of the so-called “American Taliban,” I’m sure far fewer know the story of a woman named Jesselyn Radack, who was a legal advisor to the Justice Department at the time.  Shortly after Lindh was arrested, Radack received a call from an FBI attorney, who asked her about the ethics of interrogating Lindh without a lawyer present, specifically mentioning that Lindh’s father had retained counsel for his son. Radack told the FBI that under no circumstances could Lindh be interviewed without his lawyer present.

In spite of her clear response – and numerous follow-up emails to that effect – John Walker Lindh was subsequently interrogated without counsel. Attorney General John Ashcroft then held a press conference where he stated, bald-faced, “The subject here is entitled to choose his own lawyer and to our knowledge has not chosen a lawyer at this time.”  It was clear to Jesselyn Raddack that Ashcroft and the Justice Department had lied to the American public about its legal handling of John Walker Lindh.

Around this time, Radack discovered the emails she had written to the FBI – emails that explicitly spelled out Lindh’s rights – had disappeared from the Justice Department office files.  When she realized what was going on, she resigned her post. To her mind, something very, very wrong was going on and she refused to be party to it.

When Lindh’s initial hearing began, it became clear to Radack that none of her emails had been presented to the judge on the case – communications that were clearly germane to Lindh’s defense.  Now Radack was now faced with an even more powerful ethical decision.  She could do nothing, which would in effect continue the cover-up, or she could blow the whistle on the Justice Department.

So in June of 2002, three weeks before Lindh’s hearing was to take place, Jesselyn Radack downloaded the emails from her personal files and sent them to Newsweek magazine. Her revelation of the Justice Department’s malfeasance had a powerful impact on the government’s case.  Although he originally faced three life sentences, Lindh eventually plea-bargained to 20 years in prison without possibility of parole.

For her part, Radack’s whistleblowing came at a huge price, as she knew it would.  The Justice Department subsequently brought a criminal case against her, although she was never told for what she was being investigated or for what she might be charged.  She also lost her new job at a private law firm after her former government employers put pressure on her partners.   The Justice Department then referred her for discipline to her bar associations, effectively rendering her unemployable. As a final insult, she was placed on the national “no-fly” list.

The criminal case against Radack was later dropped without explanation and she was eventually removed from the no-fly list, but the damage to her career and her livelihood was permanent.  Her experience obviously cost her any future in government, but in the end it led her to a different calling.  Radack now devotes her life to defending whistleblowers at the Government Accountability Project.

I first learned about Jesselyn Radack’s story when I read an article she wrote about it in, of all places, Reform Judaism magazine.  In the article Radack, who is an active member of the Jewish community, wrote openly and passionately about the Jewish values that lay behind her actions. She quoted her adult Bat Mitzvah Torah portion: “Lo ti’eh aharay rabim” – “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do wrong” (Exodus 22:3) – a dictum she says has motivated her ethical decision-making ever since.

Here’s what Radack had to say in the conclusion of the article:

People also ask me if this experience has engendered a crisis of faith. On the contrary, Judaism has helped me get through this difficult period. My (rabbis have) been sympathetic and supportive. I have also drawn strength from the writings of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who taught me that God did not cause my suffering and could not prevent it.  Rabbi Kushner’s re-interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve teaches that the ability to choose between right and wrong is what makes us human. God does not interfere with that choice. But God can give us the strength of character we need to handle the consequences.

I chose my conscience over my career and take pride in having spoken truth to power.

I remember reading that article back in 2006 – and in particular I remember being deeply affected by the religious and moral convictions that motivated her actions.  On a personal level, I’d always been a strong advocate of whistleblowers and the value of government transparency.  But I don’t think I had ever truly thought about the act of whistleblowing in the context of Jewish values until I read Jesselyn Radack’s words in Reform Judaism magazine that day.

Since that time, I’ve thought a great deal about this issue.  And so this morning I’d like to take some time to discuss the subject of whistleblowing – a subject that has been in the media spotlight a great deal this past year.  I’d like to explore the issues raised by the more well-known whistleblowers such as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden – and others who are not as well known but whose actions are just as worthy of our attention.  Most of all, I want to share with you why I believe whistleblowing is not only a critically important American value, but a deeply sacred Jewish value as well – one that challenges us particularly as we gather now for the New Year.

I’ve often been struck that while government whistleblowers are often excoriated as unpatriotic at best and traitors at worst, the practice of whistleblowing is in fact rooted in American values. Our founding fathers fervently believed, and wrote repeatedly, that democracy is strengthened when it is transparent – and that government can only be truly accountable when it ensures an informed citizenry.  As John Adams famously wrote:

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge … But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

True whistleblowing is not a traitorous act, though I think many governments would love their citizens to believe so.  Whistleblowers are not employed by enemy nations – by definition they act individually and out of their own conscience. And while they do break laws, they do so not for personal gain but for the greater good. They do so to assert that no one – not even the most powerful of governments – are above the law.

In their defense, governments will invariably claim that secrecy is essential to “national security.”  On the face of it, it’s difficult defense to for us to refute.  After all, every nation’s primary duty is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens – it would be naive and in fact dangerous to try to claim otherwise.  But it would be equally naive to assume that when our government acts in secrecy, it must somehow be doing so for reasons of legitimate national security.  History has taught us repeatedly that governments will invariably use secrecy to cover up their own illegitimate actions – actions that will often end up betraying the very well-being and security of their own citizens.

Possibly the most famous whistleblower in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, has written extensively and eloquently on this subject and about the process he went through that ultimately led to his revelation of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  Ellsberg was a former marine who joined the Pentagon in 1964 and later worked for the RAND Corporation.  Like almost all whistleblowers, he was originally among the “true faithful” – a patriotic American who believed that the US could and should be a force for good in the world.  But as his government career progressed, he harbored profound inner doubts as he became privy to the highest decision making institutions during the buildup of Vietnam War.

Daniel Ellsberg had first hand knowledge that leaders at the highest levels of government knew from early on that the Vietnam war could never be won and yet insisted otherwise to the Congress and the American public. Moreover, they continued to escalate a war they knew was doomed, knowing full well their actions would lead to more American deaths overseas.

When Ellsberg went public with the Pentagon Papers, he went up against a powerful bureaucracy and government culture of secrecy. As a former insider, he had a first row seat at a massive act of government malfeasance, but he also was constrained by a deep-seated mentality that considered the telling of secrets to be a traitorous act.  It’s no coincidence that most whistleblowers begin as patriotic insiders. But ironically enough, it’s the same motivation that initially drives them to serve their country that eventually drives them to bring the truth of their government’s wrongdoing into the light of day.

It is, of course, an act that carries with it a huge cost.  When whistleblowers decide to go public, they know full well it is an act that will cost them their jobs and their livelihoods.  They know they will likely be publicly vilified, their personal lives dissected, their reputations slandered.  And of course, they also know they will likely endure prison time, be forced to go underground or live in exile.

Whistleblowers are indeed lightning rods – and governments count on this.  That’s why, I believe, we invariably focus more attention on the whistleblowers themselves than the actual crimes they reveal. That’s why, for instance, I believe we’re hearing so much bandied about regarding Chelsea Manning’s personal life and emotional struggles.  Our leaders and the media would much rather we focus on Manning personally. As long as we do so, we’re given a pass on the disturbing information Manning brought to light – and we don’t have to confront the truths of our nation’s crimes in Iraq, in Guantanamo and around the world.

Among Manning’s many revelations through Wikileaks is the now infamous video taken from an Apache helicopter in 2007, in which Americans soldiers shot and killed eleven individuals, including two Reuters reporters, in the streets of New Baghdad.  When a van arrived to help the injured, the soldiers fired upon it as well, seriously injuring two children. As you watch the video, you can hear the voices of American soldiers urging each other on, joking about the dead and dying. At one point a soldier laughs when Humvee runs over a dead body lying in the street.

I remember watching this video when it was released in 2010. I posted and wrote strongly about it on my blog at the time. It was deeply and profoundly horrifying to see the dark reality of our military actions in Iraq in such a graphic and brazen manner.  But I remember well being so grateful that this video had been brought out into the light of day.

As it turned out, however, Manning was not the only member of the military who recoiled from this particular action.  An American infantryman named Ethan McCord rescued the two children from the shot-up van – and after the video was released, McCord publicly thanked Manning for bringing it to light.

McCord later criticized the media for going into great and often lurid detail about Manning’s gender identity issues while utterly ignoring the devastating significance of his revelations.  In a letter to the editor of New York Magazine, McCord wrote the following:

By focusing so heavily on Manning’s private life (the article) removes politics from a story that has everything to do with politics. The important public issues wrapped up with PFC Manning’s case include: transparency in government; the Obama Administration’s unprecedented pursuit of whistle-blowers; accountability of government and military in shaping and carrying out foreign policy; war crimes revealed in the WikiLeaks documents… and more.

McCord then ended his letter with these words:

If PFC Manning did what he is accused of, he is a hero of mine, not because he’s perfect or because he’s never struggled with personal or family relationships –most of us do – but because in the midst of it all he had the courage to act on his conscience.

Chelsea Manning has paid a profound price for blowing the whistle on the actions of the American military.  After her arrest, she was put in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for nine months, forced to sleep naked without pillows and sheets and restricted from physical recreation or access to a television or newspaper. Manning’s punishment was later condemned as “excessive” by a military judge and “torture” by the UN. And of course, Manning has now been sentenced and faces an additional 35 years in prison.

As for the soldiers responsible for the attack in the video?  The US military conducted its own investigation of the incident and eventually cleared everyone involved of wrongdoing. To date, no one has ever been held accountable – for these or for any of the numerous disturbing revelations Manning has brought to light.

I don’t think I could put it any better than the ACLU when it made this statement following Manning’s sentencing:

When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.

On Rosh Hashanah, the day for asking the hard questions, it’s well worth asking: who has committed the greater crime? The government that breaks the law and covers its actions up under the pretense of national security, or the single individual that breaks the law in order that these crimes might be brought out into the light?

It’s well worth asking why?  Why is Chelsea Manning facing thirty five years in prison for revealing the disturbing truths about our government’s actions in Iraq while the very leaders who deceived us into that war have yet to be made to account for their actions?

And why, for that matter, has Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance on American citizens, been forced to live in exile in Russia while our Director of National Intelligence can deny the facts Snowden brought to light under oath and still remain in his job?

I believe Jewish tradition demands that we ask these kinds of questions. After all, asking hard questions to powerful leaders is a time-honored Jewish value that dates all the way back to the days of the Prophets.  The Prophets were, in fact, the whistleblowers of their day. Just like our present day examples, they too spoke truth to power; they too sought to publicly reveal political corruption and hypocrisy of the governments of their time; and they too were hounded and persecuted by the powers that be for their truth-telling.

I’ve said and written often that I believe the prophetic stream in Judaism to be the most important – and in many ways the most sacred – of our tradition. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to government power. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision that says there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the mighty Roman empire and the myriad of powerful empires that have come and gone since.

As Jews, we know all too well that powerful nations and empires have historically exploited fear in order to increase their control at home and abroad. To be sure, it’s when times are fearful that we need these kinds of truth tellers the most.  In today’s post 9/11 world, I think it’s fair to say that levels of our government’s control – and the secrecy it employs to cover it up – go deeper than anything we witnessed even at the height of the Cold War.

Indeed, over the past decade, we’ve created a national security bureaucracy that many believe has evolved into a juggernaut with a life of its own. As one important Washington Post investigative article concluded:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to rein in Washington’s culture of secrecy that has grown so significantly during our nation’s so-called War on Terror.  While we can argue about whether or not he’s been successful in this regard, it cannot be denied that Obama has become he most aggressive president in American history when it comes to whistleblowers.

Until this administration, only three government whistleblowers (including Daniel Ellsberg) had ever been charged by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act of 1917.  Under Obama, the Justice Department has brought charges against eight individuals – more than all previous American presidents combined.  His administration’s actions drive home the reality that this issue is not really about left or right.  It is about government – and in particular, large powerful governments such as ours, that will invariably abuse their power and act to cover up their abuses.

To quote another great American truth teller, the venerable investigative journalist Izzy Stone,  “All governments lie.”   Stone didn’t mean this to be a criticism of government itself – on the contrary, he wrote endlessly about the critical role governments must play in creating ordered and just societies.  He simply meant that there will always be a gap between what a government does and what it says it is doing. And that as citizens, we simply cannot sit back and assume governments will voluntarily rein in their abuse of power or hold themselves to account.

That, quite frankly, is our job. And that is why whistleblowers are so critical and why I believe they are worthy of our gratitude and support. They represent, in a sense, the final defense of an informed citizenry. They are the ones who are willing, at great personal sacrifice, to hold the most powerful people and institutions in the world accountable.

I know that all citizens want to trust their governments. We all want to believe our governments have our best interests at heart and will act to keep us safe – particularly in fearful times such as these.  But as fearful as we are, we would do we to ask whether increased militarism abroad and the narrowing of our civil liberties here at home will truly bring us security in the end.

As for me, I tend to agree with Daniel Ellsberg, who recently wrote: “One of the lessons of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s leaks is simple: secrecy corrupts just as power corrupts.”  Today, as in years past, we owe a profound debt to those who courageous enough to tear down the shrouds of secrecy, often at enormous personal cost, so that we may all find our way to a future of true security – not a false sense of security in which the powerful hide behind higher and higher walls but a real security based upon leaders and citizens are truly accountable to one another.

After all, isn’t that really what our sacred day today is all about? When we sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we are, in a sense, “blowing the whistle.”  The Shofar represents, among other things, an act of revelation. When the shofar is sounded, we bring all the secrets of the past year out of the shadows. We announce our readiness to shine light into the dark places of our souls and all the actions for which we are accountable.  We do this because we know, deep down that secrecy corrupts the soul – and that true security, true liberation, can only come from living lives of transparency and openness.

I do believe what is true for our national soul is true for our individual souls as well.  Up until now, I’ve been specifically addressing the topic of government whistleblowers, but of course, whistleblowing takes many forms – it comes in may shapes and sizes. You might say that each of us is presented the opportunity to be a whistleblower in ways large and small each and every day. Every day, each of us is challenged by the Torah demonstrated to us so eloquently by Jesselyn Radack: “Do not follow the multitude to do wrong.”

Indeed, in the coming year, each of us will inevitably be faced with the challenge to speak out or remain silent. To remain in the darkness, in a place or secrecy and shame, or to shine a light into the dark places that we might all find our way forward together.  This New Year, I hope we can all find the means to be truth tellers in our own right, to find the courage to speak where there is only silence.  And to wrestle honestly with the questions: what is the world in which we truly seek to live?  Where, in the end, will we find true security? And what will we be willing to do about it?

Baruch ma’avir afeilah u’meivi orah – Blessed is the one who removes the darkness and brings light.

Amen.


Zero Dark Thirty: My Shalom Rav Review

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Finally saw Zero Dark Thirty yesterday. Here’s my review:

From an artistic point of view, I can say without hesitation that I was riveted by ZDT from beginning to end. Kathryn Bigelow is clearly one of our most talented American directors, particularly in her ability to construct a film with a palpable sense of documentary realism. In so many ways she, along with screenwriter Mark Boal, and her entire filmmaking team had me in the palm of their collective hand.

Which is why I also found ZDT to be a morally reprehensible piece of cinematic propaganda.

My experience of this film, among other things, was a profound reminder that movies have immense power to manipulate emotions and shape attitudes. I will readily admit that I found myself thoroughly caught up in the intensity of the CIA’s quest (embodied by character of the passionately driven agent “Maya”) to find and kill Usama Bin Laden. What can I say? For two and half hours, the film worked its magic on me. But when it was over, all I felt was dirty and ashamed. Sickened, actually, that I allowed myself to be seduced by what amounted to an insidious, if deeply sophisticated, revenge fantasy.

I use the word insidious very consciously here – particularly since the film purports to be a facts-driven portrayal of the CIA hunt for Bin Laden. In the very first frame, in fact, a title that tells us we are about to watch a film “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”. The next title we see are the words “September 11, 2001″. Then for at least a minute we listen to audio tapes of terrified 9/11 victims calling for help. One woman in the World Trade Center tells a 911 dispatcher that she is “burning up,” then says, crying, “I’m going to die aren’t I?” The dispatcher tells her to “stay calm” but there is no further answer. The last thing we hear is the dispatcher’s voice saying, “Oh my God…”

This is how the movie is framed from the outset: we are told we are watching a movie based on actual events, constructed from information gained from those who were there. We hear the very real voices of American citizens as they are being burned alive.  Then we watch the “real-life” account of how the man responsible for their deaths was hunted down and killed by the CIA.

Listening to those terrified voices unsettled me to my core – but it was only after the movie was over that I realized how obscene their usage actually was.  Why did the filmmakers choose to play these recordings? After all, aren’t the tragic events of 9/11 well-known to everyone in the world? If the filmmakers were really interested in making a dispassionate, non-fiction account of the hunt for Bin Laden, wouldn’t it have made more sense to start with the beginning of the hunt itself?

Indeed, Bigelow has been quoted as saying she used “a journalistic approach” to making this film and that “it doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” This, of course, is hogwash.  If Bigelow and Boal were interested in presenting a “values-free” docudrama, they certainly wouldn’t have manipulated viewers with the voices of civilians being burned alive. After hearing the terrified voices of actual victims, how could we not cheer the CIA on as it uses any means necessary to find and kill Bin Laden?

Much has been written about the infamous scene in which one tortured Al-Qaeda operative gives up the name of Bin Laden’s courier after having been beaten, waterboarded, sexually humiliated and stuffed into a tiny wooden box. The inclusion of this scene – along with numerous references to information gained from tortured detainees – has been rightly condemned by many who point out it has already been conclusively determined that the information that ultimately led to Bin Laden’s execution was not gained through the use of torture. By including these scenes, ZDT conveys the incorrect – and dangerous – impression that torture “works.”  It’s a critical point to which I have nothing to add except to refer you to Glenn Greenwald’s excellent pieces on the subject.

Beyond this issue, ZDT is dangerous for an even more essential reason. As Peter Haas pointed out in a recent piece for the Atlantic, it represents a new genre of “entertainment” he calls “embedded filmmaking”:

The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return. Embeds, officially begun during the invasion of Iraq, are deeply troubling because not every journalist or filmmaker can get these coveted invitations (Seymour Hersh and Matt Taibbi are probably not on the CIA press office’s speed dial), and once you get one, you face the quandary of keeping a critical distance from sympathetic people whom you get to know and who are probably quite convincing. That’s the reason the embed or special invitation exists; the government does its best to keep journalists, even friendly ones, away from disgruntled officials who have unflattering stories to tell…

(The) new and odd rub in the case of Zero Dark Thirty is that the product of this privileged access is not just-the-facts journalism but a feature film that merges fact and fiction. An already problematic practice—giving special access to vetted journalists—is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA). If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history’s first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we’re getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.

In other words, no matter how unsavory the protagonists behavior might be, no matter how “gritty” and “journalistic” the style, this is the CIA’s movie through and through.

In a more recent article, Greenwald pointed out the essential simplicity of ZDT’s world view:

All agents of the US government – especially in its intelligence and military agencies – are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network…

Other than the last scene in which the bin Laden house is raided, all of the hard-core, bloody violence is carried out by Muslims, with Americans as the victims. The CIA heroine dines at the Islamabad Marriott when it is suddenly blown up; she is shot at outside of a US embassy in Pakistan; she sits on the floor, devastated, after hearing that seven CIA agents, including one of her friends, a “mother of three”, has been killed by an Al Qaeda double-agent suicide-bomber at a CIA base in Afghanistan … Nobody is ever heard talking about the civilian-destroying violence brought to the world by the US.

The CIA and the US government are the Good Guys, the innocent targets of terrorist violence, the courageous warriors seeking justice for the 9/11 victims. Muslims and Arabs are the dastardly villains, attacking and killing without motive (other than the one provided by Bloomberg) and without scruples. Almost all Hollywood action films end with the good guys vanquishing the big, bad villain – so that the audience can leave feeling good about the world and themselves – and this is exactly the script to which this film adheres.

And in the end, that is what makes the technical and narrative brilliance of this film all the more pernicious. It creates the illusion of authenticity and truth when what we’re really watching is the CIA’s truth. One in which Bin Laden was never, once upon a time, an ally of the United States government. One in which “heroes” commit war crimes in secret locations in the furtherance of extra-judicial assassination. One that utterly ignores the realities of what the CIA’s civilian-destroying violence has wrought.

More than anything else, this is why I felt so very dirty after allowing myself to be entertained – and at times even moved – by Zero Dark Thirty.


On the Killing of Children and the Price of Our Freedom

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Last night Hallie and I watched President Obama’s eloquent and moving speech at the interfaith prayer vigil for those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. About halfway through, when Obama discussed our nation’s collective responsibility to our children, a certain cognitive dissonance popped into my head – a pesky, but familiar distraction that remained with me for the rest of the speech.

Obama concluded by reciting the first name of each of the 20 children killed. When it was over we both sat silently looking at the screen. “Don’t say it, just don’t say it” I thought to myself.

“What did you think?” she finally asked me.

“Very moving” I said, “but..”

“But what?”

“What the hell,” I thought to myself, “go ahead and say it…”

“I don’t know, it’s hard for me to listen to Obama talk about our responsibility to keep our children safe knowing that he personally approves the drone strikes that kill hundreds of innocent children in other countries.”

Hallie rolled her eyes at me. But before she could say “Oh my God, can’t you give it a rest just this once?” I said it myself: “I know, I know, I can’t help it..”

Over the weekend, I thought of a certain moment in the Michael Moore documentary “Bowling for Columbine.” Toward the outset of the movie, Moore pointed out that the Columbine shooting took place during the largest one day bombing by the US in the Kosovo war.  He showed news footage from that day which showed the bloody aftermath of the bombing that killed numerous civilians, including those in a local hospital and primary school. The news footage also included President Clinton telling reporters that the US military was trying to “minimize harm to innocent people.”

Then Moore flashes the words “One Hour Later” and there’s Clinton again: “We all know there has been a terrible shooting at a high school in Littleton, Colorado.” Moore’s point was clear: there is an important connection to be made between our killing of Serbian civilians and the killing of students in Columbine.

So too, I believe there is a similar connection between the killing of innocent children in Newtown to the killing of innocent children in Pakistan.  Both are the product of a uniquely American culture of violence, insecurity and fear – and both are the consequences of a national penchant for manufacturing, selling and profiting from ever more sophisticated weapons of death.

Might it be that our Constitutional right to bear arms reflects a national sense of entitlement to create and sell weapons and to use them wherever and whenever we see fit?  And if so, might we be ready to limit this right for the sake of our children both here and around the world?

In this regard, I think the most telling moment in Obama’s speech was when he asked the rhetorical question:

Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

Would that our President would ask himself that very question before he approves his next drone strike.

(Please read this recent report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that determines over 160 children have been killed in seven years by US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.)


Khaled Meshaal’s Speech: Actions Speak Louder

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I’ve just finished reading Hussein Ibish’s excoriation of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s victory speech in Gaza last week, in which he accuses Meshaal of “unhelpful escalating rhetoric” against Israel. Along the way, Ibish dishes out a fair amount of rhetorical hyperbole himself, calling Meshaal’s speech “one of the most cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches in the history of the Palestinian national movement” and “profoundly toxic from every perspective.”

It’s certainly true that Meshaal’s speech, which he delivered as he made his first-ever visit to Gaza on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Hamas and the end of Israel’s latest military campaign, Operation Pillar of Defense, struck a note of resolute defiance.

Here’s a translated excerpt from an Al Jazeera report:

“Palestine is our land and nation from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, from north to south, and we cannot cede an inch or any part of it,” he said. “We fight Zionists, not Jews. We fight whoever occupied our land, regardless of religion … Statehood will be the fruit of resistance, not negotiations,” Meshaal told cheering fans.

Hamas does not belong to the PLO, but Meshaal said a year ago that it and other factions were “on the path to joining” it.

While this is certainly strong – even incendiary – stuff, are we really to believe it was “one of the most cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches in the history of the Palestinian national movement?”

First of all, let’s take a closer look at the context in which this speech occurred. Shortly before Meshaal’s visit, Israel had leveled a devastating military assault against Hamas in Gaza. During two weeks of fighting, Hamas sent numerous missles into Israel – some of which landed close to major population centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The violence was eventually quelled through a US/Egypt brokered ceasefire. 

In other words, this is what it took to elicit the US’s active engagement with Israel and Palestine. Years of IDF crushing of Palestinian non-violent demonstrators have garnered nothing but silence. The PA’s attempt to gain recourse through the UN was met with active opposition from the Obama administration. It was only the armed resistance of Hamas in Gaza that managed to bring Hilary Clinton to the region and actively engage with the Israelis and Palestinians. In the end, what kind of message does that send to the Palestinian people?

So yes, Khaled Meshaal, told a cheering crowd that “statehood will be the fruit of resistance, not negotiations.” But should we really be so surprised? While negotiations have proved disastrous for the Palestinian people, armed resistance seems to be the only way they ever catch the attention of the international community.  Did Ibish really think Meshaal was going to get up on the podium and call for a resumption of the peace process?

Although those who consider Hamas to be an unrepentant “Islamist” terror organization would likely scoff, Meshaal and other Hamas leaders have in the past made noteworthy overtures that indicated a willingness to engage in a US-led peace process (albeit fundamentally different than the one embodied by the follies of Oslo.)  Most notably, following President Obama’s Cairo speech (which signaled at the time, a different American attitude toward the Muslim world), Meshaal responded with an important 2009 policy speech in which he welcomed a “change of tone” from Obama.  He went on to attribute this new American tone as the fruit of the “stubborn steadfastness of the people of the region, while resisting in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan” and stressed that it was not merely a change of tone but a change of policy that was needed to make progress in the region.

Meshaal added that Palestinians would judge the US not by its words but by its actions, which would have to “begin with reconstruction of Gaza and the lifting of the blockade, lifting the oppression and security pressure in the West Bank, and allowing Palestinian reconciliation to take its course without external pressures or interference.”

Whether or not one believes these overtures were genuine, we’ll never really know. Meshaal’s opening went utterly unregarded by the Obama administration, who refused to deal with Hamas and chose to maintain its support of Israel’s crippling siege of Gaza.

Given this history, are we really to believe, as Ibish would have it, that Meshaal’s recent speech is one of the most “cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches” Palestinian history?  Or is it merely a reflection of its time – a moment in which the Obama administration has thoroughly squandered its own stated desire to usher in a new era of engagement in the Middle East?

In the end, Meshaal’s speech was simply that – a political speech. And history (particularly Middle East history) has shown us time and again that parsing a politicians words are a notoriously bad way to predict what he/she will eventually agree to. In the words of the very insightful Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf:

The bottom line is that none of this matters. It’s all a huge red herring. Nothing a leader says now determines the way he will act in the future. Public statements are important only to a limited extent and agreements depend on the continued willingness of both sides to uphold them. As long as both parties feel that they benefit from a certain status quo, or that their interests are better served than by any alternative, the deal they reach could hold. If one party is coerced into signing but doesn’t have its interests and desires addressed, all the nice declarations won’t matter. Twenty years after the historic peace deal that should have ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but didn’t, you’d think that people would get it.

The arguments about the meaning and importance of the Hamas charter are all but identical to the decade-long debate over the PLO charter. How much effort and time was put into forcing Arafat to change it, and how little did it matter when negotiations collapsed in Camp David and violence returned. The same goes for today: Given the right pressure, a certain Palestinian leadership could be made to promise Israel anything. Yet none of it would matter if you don’t address the fundamentals of the conflict: The occupation, the refugees, the holy sites, the settlements, the access to land and to water. The leaders would change their minds and if they don’t new leaders (“more extreme”) will come. Reality will prevail over rhetoric.

So let’s be honest. Meshaal didn’t mince his words -  but in the end it is actions that ultimately matter.  And in this regard, Meshaal’s words were considerably less damaging to the cause of the Palestinian national movement than the Netanyahu government’s announcement that it would build 3,000 more units in the E1 region, which would successfully cut the West Bank in half and cut it off completely from East Jerusalem, ending any reasonable hope for a viable two state solution. Sadly, the only response this deeply damaging action elicited from the Obama administration were words such as “counterproductive” and “we urge restraint.”

To my mind these kinds of words are considerably more dangerous to the cause of a just peace in Israel/Palestine.


Outrage in Gaza Redux

Israel’s military assault on Gaza in 2008-09 represented an important turning point in my own relationship with Israel. I recall experiencing a new and previously unfamiliar feeling of anguish as Israel bombarded the people living in that tiny, besieged strip of land over and over, day after day after day. While I certainly felt a sense of tribal loyalty to the Israelis who withstood Qassam rocket fire from Gaza, I felt a newfound sense of concern and solidarity with Gazans who I believed were experiencing nothing short of oppression during this massive military onslaught.

And now it’s happening again. Only this time I don’t think the term “anguish” quite fits my mindset. Now it’s something much closer to rage.

It’s happening again. Once again 1.7 million people, mostly refugees, who have been living in what amounts to the world’s largest open air prison, are being subjected to a massive military assault at the hands of the world’s most militarized nation, using mostly US-made weapons. And our President is not only looking on – he is defending Israel’s onslaught by saying it has a right to “self-defense in light of the barrage of rocket attacks being launched from Gaza against Israeli civilians.”

Let’s be clear: this tragedy didn’t start with the Qassams.  It didn’t start with the election of Hamas. And it didn’t start with the “instability” that followed Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.

No, this is just the latest chapter of a much longer saga that began in 1947-48, when scores of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their cities and villages in the coastal plain and lower Galilee and warehoused in a tiny strip of land on the edge of the Mediterranean. By all accounts, most were simply too overwhelmed to realize what was happening. The ones who tried to return to their homes were termed “infiltrators” and were killed on sight. Others resisted by staging raids in the newly declared state of Israel. Sometimes they succeeded, more often they did not. Either way, Israel decided early on that it would respond to each of these reprisals with a overwhelming military show of force.  And those reprisals and that show of force have essentially been ongoing until this very day.

I realize, of course, there is plenty of political subtext to this latest go-around.  I’ve read the timelines and have formed my own opinions on the latest “who started it?” debate. I’ve also read plenty of analyses by Israeli observers who believe that this was not a response to Qassam fire at all but was very much a “war of choice” waged by an Israeli administration looking to shore up political support in an election season.

I’ve also read a widely circulated article from Ha’aretz about Israel’s recent execution of Ahmed Jabari (the head of Hamas’ military wing). I learned that up until now, Jabari was “Israel’s subcontractor” for security in the Gaza Strip, that Israel has been literally funding Hamas through intermediaries in exchange for peace and quiet on their southern border, and that when Jabari failed to deliver of late, the decision came down to take him out. Another article, written by the Israeli who negotiated with Jabari for the release of Gilad Shalit, revealed that negotiations were still ongoing with Jabari when the Israeli military assassinated him with a drone strike.

Yes, the wonky side of me has been avidly reading all these analyses. And while I do believe they provide an important counterbalance to the mythic statements by Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the US State Department, the more I read the cynical political subtext for this war, the sicker I get. No, this isn’t about Qassams, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s about elections either. It’s really just the most recent chapter in a much longer litany of injustice – the latest attempt by Israel bring the Palestinians to their knees through the sheer force of their formidable military might.

Of all the analyses I’ve yet read, one of the very few that truly seemed to grasp this truth came from Yousef Munayyer, of The Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center:

The problem Gaza presents for Israel is that it won’t go away—though Israel would love it if it would. It is a constant reminder of the depopulation of Palestine in 1948, the folly of the 1967 occupation, and the many massacres which have happened since them. It also places the Israelis in an uncomfortable position because it presents a problem (in the form of projectiles) which cannot be solved by force…

Israel has tried assassinating Palestinian leaders for decades but the resistance persists. Israel launched a devastating and brutal war on Gaza from 2008 to 2009 killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians, but the resistance persists.

Why, then, would Israel choose to revert to a failed strategy that will undoubtedly only escalate the situation? Because it is far easier for politicians to lie to voters, vilify their adversaries, and tell them ‘we will hit them hard’ than to come clean and say instead, ‘we’ve failed and there is no military solution to this problem.’

Like last time, I know many in the Jewish community will say it is unseemly of me to criticize Israel this way while Israelis live in fear of Qassam fire out of Gaza. I know there are those who believe that by writing these words, I’m turning my back on my own people in their time of need. But I know in my heart that my outrage at Israel’s actions goes hand in hand with compassion for Israelis – particularly those who know that their leaders’ devotion to the sword is leading them into the abyss.

Additionally, as I wrote under tragically similar circumstances in 2009:

I believe Israel’s response to Hamas’ missile attacks have been disproportionate and outrageous. I believe their actions only further endanger the security of  Israelis while inflicting collective punishment and a severe humanitarian crisis upon Gazans. Indeed, just as I cannot understand what it must be like to be a citizen of Sderot, I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to be a Gazan citizen at the moment, living under constant air attack, with no running water or electricity and dwindling food, as hospitals fill up with wounded and corpses lie rotting in the streets because relief workers are unable to reach them.

When will we be ready to accept that this is not a “balanced” conflict or even a “war” by any reasonable definition – and that it never was?  When will we face the painful truth that this is not a story about one side versus the other but about one side oppressing the other?  Frankly, all the well-meaning liberal comments about “praying for peace on both sides” and leave me cold. Worse, I find them insidious because they simply serve to support the myth that this is a conflict between two equal parties. It is not. And peace will not come until we admit this – until we admit that there is an essential injustice at the heart of this tragedy and that try as it might, Israel will never be able to make it go away through the sheer force of its increasingly massive military might.

Beyond the rage, I’m heartened that this time around there is a growing community of conscience that is speaking out publicly and in no uncertain terms to protest Israel’s latest outrage in Gaza. I am so deeply grateful for my friends and colleagues at Jewish Voice for Peace, who is alone in the Jewish world in condemning this latest assault.  I urge you to read JVP’s courageous statement, which I know gives voice to increasing numbers of Jews and non-Jews, young and old, religious and secular, who are coming together through the courage of their conscience.

At this point in my posts I would typically write “click here” to lend your voice to some kind of collective statement.  I’m going resist that temptation and urge you instead to take to the streets.

I’ll see you there.


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