Monday, October 3, 2011

The Rick Perry Mezuzah --Update

I guess I'm behind the curve on this story but I have to admit that it continues to grow on me.

In late June, Governor Perry signed into law a bill that prevents Texas homeowner's associations or condo boards from outlawing the placement of mezuzot no longer than 25 inches on the doorposts of their houses and, presumably upon their gates.  The bill was introduced by a state representative after two his constitutents moved out of their apartment after being told they had to remove a  mezuzah from their door frame.  The couple said they pushed for the new law to protect the rights of other Jews in the future.

Perry, whose credentials as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people are now carved in Jerusalem stone as far as I'm concerned (see previous article), signed it into law immediately.

Within weeks, Tablet Magazine reported The Mezuzah Store had commissioned a strictly limited edition Rick Perry 26 inch Texas-Sized Mezuzah.  The work of art is non-compliant under Texas law but was clearly designed to be a priceless collector's item which pushes the legal limits yet another inch further.

The last time I looked, this one-of-a-kind masterpiece was still available for only $999.99 although the inclusion of scroll upgrades ranging from Kosher to Superior to Alter Rebbe could jack the price up to $1,100.

Among the responses received to this article was one from a gentleman who thought a mezuzah was "one of those obnoxious horns that people blow at soccer matches"  and thought 25 inches sounded about right to him.  Another was from a more knowledgeable respondant who expressed the oft-repeated opinion that "anything over 8 inches is just showing off."

I hope to hear from my rabbinic scholar friends on the halacha regarding whether size matters and to what extent.

Rick Perry's Two-Foot Mezuzah Sealed the Deal For This Jew

Ever since I met Rick Perry in Aspen a couple months ago (before he was an official candidate) I have been convinced that he had a combination of attributes that would likely win him the Republican presidential nomination. (Actually, now I'm not so sure but I digress).

That was before I knew about all his close Jewish friends and his great, unshakable support for Israel. But he truly became my BCF (Best Chaver Forever) when I learned from this article in today's Jewish Daily Forward that Perry changed Texas law to allow gonga mezuzahs of more than two feet in length (batteries optional) to be installed on condominium door frames. We all know that size matters--particularly when it comes to mezuzot--and it's nice to see that Perry believes in taking care of his friends and co-religionists who share his refutation of the theory of evolution.

That and more can be found in the article which is a treasure trove of good news for Jewish voters and which also features a picture that is suitable for framing.

Perry's obvious love for Israel and the Jewish people as well as his astute diplomatic skills have also been on display during the last month. Prior to the U.N. speeches by Netanyahu, Abbas, and Obama, Perry held a news conference with Likud Knesset leader Danny Danon who is bringing a bill to a vote next week calling for Israel to annex the entire West Bank and end all this foolish talk about a Palestinian state once and for all.

Perry honed in on President Obama's "arrogant" attitudes toward Israel and repeatedly criticized Obama's tactics of "appeasement" toward the Palestinians--a subtle yet skillful attempt to conjure up illusions of Neville Chamberlain appeasing that bad guy in Germany a few decades ago.

Of course this news conference was taking place as Obama was infuriating the Palestinians with his strong speech supporting Israeli rights, Netanyahu was praising Obama and stating that our president deserved a "medal of honor" for his strong and instantaneous efforts to save those trapped in the Israeli embassy in Cairo, and Obama was yet again using up huge amounts of political capital to bail the Israelis out in the U.N. But when have trivial facts like that made a difference?

We already know that Perry is a real man with real baytzim who can handle a 25-inch mezuzah.  He's as tough as they come. He has already made it clear to the Chairman of Federal Reserve that the chairman has "almost" committed treason ("almost treason" is probably still a capital offense) and will be shown the door as soon as Perry takes over. In addition, he has warned Chairman Bernanke not to show his face in Texas unless he wants the kind of "ugly (violent) reception" normally reserved for gay men, terrorists, traitors, and almost traitors in that patriotic state.

If the Tea Party and its tactics are the wave of the American political present and future and Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Danon are the same in Israel, then the ties and similarities between our  governments, level of discourse, and commitment to Jewish and democratic values have, in fact, never been more clearly aligned. And none of the other candidates can hold a candle (Havdolah, Yahrtzeit, Shabbat, Chanukah, or otherwise) to Perry when it comes to being a perfect American partner for the Right wing coalition that now governs Israel and the Jewish religious leaders there.

For some of my fellow Jews, that might a cause for celebration.

For the rest of us, not so much.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Buy Good Stocks and Live a Long Time--Lessons Learned From Irene, the Debt Crisis, and TV

For reasons discussed in a series of emails (available upon request), Kristen and I left Aspen last Friday to fly directly into the teeth of Hurricane Irene where we were repeatedly assured by the news media we would face certain death. It was a case of choosing between staying alive, or missing her father's 70th birthday party, and Kristen made it pretty clear that life would not be worth living for me going forward if we missed the party (which was canceled as soon as we landed).

But I digress. This piece is about the stock market and lessons learned.

First let's talk about what we have learned about the news media in general and TV news in particular.
On a broad range of issues, it is clear that given their huge investment in 24-7 coverage, news media's top priority is no longer keeping us better informed. It is now about keeping all of us as frightened and/or angry as possible all the time. It is a lesson that they learned from politicians over the years. Going negative works if your goal is to attract attention.

Let's start with our widely reported debt crisis. Actually, the U.S. doesn't have a debt crisis. A debt crisis is when you owe a lot of money and can't get anyone to lend you any more. The U.S. owes a ton of money, but a whole variety of investors are lined up to loan us more at lower and lower rates. That is despite the threat of the Tea Party Congressmen to make the U.S. default on its debts and promises, the equally irresponsible decision of Obama to cave in to those tactics, and the subsequent downgrade of our credit rating. The net effect of all that was to cause buyers of our debt to loan us even more money at even lower rates.

What we do have is a structural problem, well known to millions of Americans from their personal lives, of spending way more money than we are taking in. That needs to be addressed by finding ways to take in more money and spend less. But the U.S. is not bankrupt by any definition nor are we out of money.
Yet the media treated it as an "end of days" scenario that would kill the stock market and life as we know it as well as causing our borrowing costs to immediately go through the roof.

Without missing a beat, the media obsession transitioned to the European debt crisis and the pending implosion of all their banks.

Then focus shifted to the Middle East and the Arab Spring. We were told that the overthrow of murderous dictators (and our longtime allies) like Mubarak and Assad and Qaddafi would destroy stability and oil supplies in that part of the world and it would kill the stock market and life as we know it. Apparently, the theory is that freedom and democracy are just too messy when they come too suddenly and we were better off when the thieving and vicious despots ran that part of the world.

Just when the Libya story was reaching a climax, reporting from the entire region stopped for a solid week as Hurricane Irene became the only story worth reporting. We were told that the entire eastern seaboard was going to be washed away and life as we know it would never be the same.

I know because I'm still here in Connecticut since all the flights were preemptively canceled for days to accommodate the end of the world which never happened—again.

Do you notice a trend here?

It seems as though whatever happens and wherever it happens in the world today, the story line is always the same. This is really scary and the end of life as we know it. You should be very afraid and sell all your stocks.

The other trend, again because of the desire to keep us glued to our TVs and computers nonstop, is to make investors believe that it is no longer a good idea to buy good companies and hold them for a long time. We are told that we have to be proactive and trading in and out of the markets constantly in order to protect ourselves. And, of course, watch the markets like a hawk every minute of the day to know what and when to buy and sell and buy and sell.

I couldn't disagree more in general and particularly right now.

It is true that our country and much of the world has behaved irresponsibly over the last decade. Spending needs to be cut and tax revenues need to be raised. It is true that high levels of unemployment and underemployment in the U.S. are a huge problem. It is true that the slash and burn ideology-driven political tone in Washington is making it difficult to enact constructive policies. It is true that there are financial crises in Europe and elsewhere that are very frightening. There are and have been real challenges that are worthy of concern.

Like my clients, I want to invest long-term money in assets that offer the best chance for preservation of buying power, future income, and capital appreciation.

But unlike most of the pundits and a lot of investors, I believe that buying gold at $1,900 an ounce and loaning money to the government for 10 years at 2 percent interest or putting it in the bank at zero percent interest is not the way to be safe and prudent.

Unlike CNBC (whose most popular shows are now called "Mad Money" and "Fast Money" (which should speak volumes about their priorities), I continue encourage investors NOT to be very proactive in their trading and check the value of their accounts six times a day (or six times an hour for some).

What is getting lost in the popular discussion is the fact that in the face of all that has happened during the last few years, hundreds of companies are now making record profits, sitting on record amounts of cash, have little debt, and are paying ever-rising dividends that are far higher than the returns available from "safe" alternatives.

Several of my clients contacted me over the last month and asked what I was doing to protect their accounts. I told them I was keeping them invested in what I believe to be profitable, high yielding and/or potentially fast growing companies that are projecting good earnings going forward and are benefiting from macro-world trends that are not changing. I honestly believe that those are not only the best places to be going forward, but are also the safest places to be if your goal is to maintain or grow your net worth and buying power during a period of unprecedented deficits and political dysfunction.

Yes, August was a terrible month for the stock market. Most averages dropped 15 percent or more during just a few weeks. It happens. On average, in normal times, the market suffers a 20 percent or greater correction once every two years.  When that occurs, it is not a "crash."  It is simply the market being the market.

And when that happens, it is generally an opportunity to pick up great companies at good valuations —not the last chance to get out before the end of the world and life as we know it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Barack Obama--Our Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace, and Pro-America President

As an American Jew who cares deeply about my religion and the State of Israel, the last few days have been the best of times and the worst of times.

The good news is that President Barack Obama has once again gone out of his way to show his grasp of the complex issues in the Middle East and his strong commitment to the safety and security of Israel as America's greatest ally in the region.

In both his speech at the State Department a few days ago and his address to AIPAC two days later, he stated (as he did in front of a Muslim audience in Cairo two years ago) his unshakeable commitment to Israel's safety and security.

He also made it clear in no uncertain terms that his support for a Palestinian state was contingent upon their abandonment of terrorist tactics and their willingness to recognize Israel's right to exist.  He made it clear that he will strongly oppose Palestinian efforts to be recognized as a state by the U.N. and all efforts to delegitimize Israel.

Here is what our President actually said:

"For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

 As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

His speech at the State Department seemed to be great news for Israel and horrible news for those who would like to see the views and tactics of Hamas become the dominant culture if the proposed reconciliation betwen that terrorist group and Fatah actually comes to fruition.

The only suggestion he had for Israel was to pick up where former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert left off and to use the 1967 borders as a starting point for boundary discussion with mutually agreed upon land swaps that reflect the changes that have taken place since Israel took control of the West Bank 44 years ago. 

This was not a new or shocking suggestion.  Olmert made the identical statement just two years ago.

"On the 16th of September, 2008, I presented him (Abbas) with a comprehensive plan. It was based on the following principles.

One, there would be a territorial solution to the conflict on the basis of the 1967 borders with minor modifications on both sides. Israel will claim part of the West Bank where there have been demographic changes over the last 40 years.

I repeat (for emphasis) that the above quote is from then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert detailing what he offered the Palestinians two years ago.  Whether one thinks his approach was ill-advised or not, there is no doubt that Obama was simply repeating a stated position of the Israeli government--not coming up with some radical new game changing idea.

Obama's speech at AIPAC put an exclamation point on all those sentiments and should have been reassuring to all of us who care deeply about Israel and long for peace in that region.

That assessment was clearly shared by many others who care deeply about Israel and the Jewish people.

The American Jewish Committee came out with a strong statement praising Obama's comments.  Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League called Obama's speech strongly pro-Israel and said it showed that Obama has a good understanding of the issue in the Middle East.  Atlantic Magazine columnist Jeff Goldberg, a strong supporter of Israel and former soldier in the Israeli army, concurred.  Tzipi Livni, the member of Knesset who heads Israel's largest political party, praised Obama's comments in the strongest terms.  J Street added its approval as well.

But, as we all know, Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to Obama by throwing what several analysts referred to as a "hissy fit" and just one day before he was to privately meet with our president he felt the need to publicly state that he "expected" Obama to take back what he had said.  Then, the very next day, he openly lectured Obama in a way that suggested that our president was naive and needed a history lesson.

I will have more to say about Netanyahu (this article is the first in a trilogy) after his speeches to AIPAC and Congress but I will simply add now that one has to question the wisdom, common sense, and motivations of a national leader who would go out of his way to publicly admonish and distort the statements of the leader of his country's best and only friend and benefactor in the world.

But Netanyahu's remarks and attitude opened the floodgates for a numbers of Republicans and many Jews who care deeply about Israel to go "birther" and "Tea Party" on our president.

Mitt Romney was first--claiming that Obama had "thrown Israel under the bus" without stating how or why.  He was followed by the rest of the opportunistic Republicans who sensed (falsely I hope) that this distortion of our president's comments could be exploited as a wedge and used to lure our president's massive Jewish support away.

Zionist Organization of America head Morton Klein went the furthest, issuing a vitriolic statement in which he called Obama all sorts of nasty names and called on AIPAC to rescind their invitation for the president to address their conference. ZOA members also led an anti-Obama rally outside the Israeli embassy in New York.

I just heard Rush Limbaugh's cogent assessment of Obama's speeches as he told millions of listeners that "Obama has clearly chosen the Palestinians over the Israelis.  He has told Israel to go commit suicide."  Many other Right wing and pro-Israel bloggers have piled on in an effort to outdo themselves creating adjectives and invectives describing Obama's efforts to destroy Israel.

Equally disappointing was the way the mainstream media promoted the distortion of Obama's comments instead of providing truth and clarity.  Headlines and sound bites repeatedly gave the false impression that our president had ordered Israel to return to the 1967 borders.  None mentioned the other 98 percent of his speech, including the many criteria and guidelines he set for the Palestinians.  It was all about reacting to the distortion that had been angrily invented by the Israeli prime minister.

Never mind that Obama has done nothing of the sort.  Never mind that Obama in his words and actions has done just the opposite.  Never mind that this is the same Barack Obama whom Israeli ambassador Michael Oren--a man who has actually been in the room during each of the meetings between our president and Netanyahu--has repeatedly and effusively praised as a strong and steadfast friend of the Jewish state.

I find all this confusing and depressing.  Not so much the fact that other Americans and Jewish figures disagree with my assessment of Obama's performance but the fact that the smearing and vitriol and lies and distortions that have characterized one-issue fact-free hate campaigns against our president by the birthers (Obama was born in Kenya) and the Tea Party (Obama wants to destroy America) and the NRA (Obama wants to take away your guns) and the Right to Lifers (Obama wants to kill the unborn) are now being employed by Jews and others who claim to care so deeply about the future of Israel (Obama wants to destroy the Jewish homeland).

I believe that many of these people do mean well but it is sad beyond my ability to express that so-called Jewish leaders have resorted to slash-and-burn tactics in their inexplicable zeal to demonize our president. The tactics of distortion and fabrication have apparently replaced the respectful and nuanced, fact-based conversation that has always been the hallmark of Jewish debate.

It is both sad and disappointing that they are targeting a man whom I believe has acted and spoken more honestly and courageously in his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and generate the best outcome for Israel and the U.S. than any president in my lifetime. 

It is even more tragic what this tone and attitude is doing to our efforts to build community and have a civil, productive conversation as committed American Jews.  Jeff Goldberg has shared some of the hatemail he has received from fellow Jews after he stated that he believes Obama is pro-Israel and made a wonderful speech.   But that too is a topic for another day.

Monday, February 28, 2011

J Street--A Breath of Fresh Air

 I am in my third day of the J Street annual conference here in Washington. What I have seen in person on the ground here is an energized and committed group of people--almost all Jews--who care deeply about Israel and the Jewish people and who are very concerned that the policies of the current Israeli government and religious leadership are doing a great deal of harm. I have always been taught and believe that acting and speaking out on those kinds of concerns are the highest form of patriotism and Jewish responsibility. 

The sessions have featured amazing speakers, including former AIPAC execs Tom Dine and Doug Bloomfield, Dennis Ross, Rabbi David Saperstein, Imam Faisal Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative, Peter Beinart, Steven Cohen, Daniel Levy, many members of Congress, and five members of the Knesset representing different parties who are here to both express their views and to show their support for J Street and what it represents. 

Although J Street is barely two years old, the conference has attracted more than 2,000 attendees including 500 students. More than 11,000 people have attended J Street events during the last year and the are now 38 local chapters in 26 states and J Street U chapters on 182 campuses. 

The conference has featured a number of plenaries and dozens of breakout sessions. I haven't heard a single comment from anyone who doesn't care deeply about Israel's future as a Jewish state.  As with all healthy organizations, I have heard a lot of introspection and self-criticism. 

In Rabbi Saperstein's keynote address, he broadly praised J Street for filling a huge void that existed in the pro-Israel pro-peace conversation but went on to criticize J Street for it's politically questionable decision to urge the U..S. to refrain from vetoing the resolution condemning Israel's settlement policy.  It is refreshing to be part a pro-Israel group at a conference where people are encouraged to express their personal opinions, criticisms,  and concerns out loud. 
I am saddened that so many of my Jewish friends have resorted to the Fox News-like tactics of using lies, partial truths, and distortions in an effort to demonize J Street and smear its donors and professionals. Virtually every viral email I have received was written and/or forwarded by people who are not here at the conference nor have they ever had any first-hand contact with anyone from J Street 

What we have now in the Jewish and pro-Israel movement is a healthy alternative. For Jews who believe our top priority--not the only priority but our top priority--is to protect and defend the State of Israel, then AIPAC  (I support AIPAC financially and have served on it's local board) provides a great way to leverage that feeling.
For those who believe our top priority is to live out their Jewish values and who are focused on the commandments to work for peace, to improve the world, and to love the stranger then J Street provides a vehicle to leverage that approach.  As a serious Jew who cares deeply about both Israel and Jewish values, I am thrilled that both organizations are part of our political and Jewish landscape. 
I attended a J Street leadership meeting here a few months ago where Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren congratulated J Street for having "made it" and expressed his desire to work closely with J Street in the future. 
I have not heard AIPAC negatively mentioned once here at the conference and yet I read articles and receive frequent emails from my AIPAC friends trying to delegitimize and destroy J Street. It is as though they believe if they say enough bad things, J Street will just go away.  They remind me of the Wizard of Oz frantically scurrying around telling Dorothy and her friends to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
As the Wizard found out, that is not an approach that works well or for long. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The American Jewish Narrative 2.0--Israel Version

We have all been shocked and amazed in recent weeks as we have watched the instant unraveling of many Arab empires of the Middle East. On one level, we knew that the oppression and harsh authoritarian tactics that the leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere have used for decades to enrich themselves and exploit their people would come home to roost.

But no one foresaw the sweeping changes and revolts that are changing the landscapes of those countries overnight and, to be honest, no one knows how this story will play out.

For some self-proclaimed and organizationally-designated American Jewish leaders (Thomas Friedman once told me he had never met an American Jewish follower) this is simply the most recent and dramatic episode in a serious of changes that have rocked their world and marginalized The Jewish Narrative 1.0 that has served us so well for decades.

This latest tarnished truth is that all Arab Muslims in the Middle East are motivated by one emotion--their hatred of Jews and all-consuming desire for the destruction of the State of Israel. Those of us who have suggested that just maybe most Palestinians and others also have a desire to feed their families and secure a more promising future have been accused of being hopelessly naive and endangering the future of the Jewish people.

Despite the best efforts of self-described "pro-Israel" Jews and their media to find the anti-Semitic needle in the haystack, we have neither seen nor heard much mention of hatred of Israel or Jews on the part of the protesters.

It is certainly possible that the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas-like groups will fill the voids that will are being created as dictators fall, but that is by no means certain at this point. Meanwhile, my Jewish friends keep sending me articles warning that these so-called revolts are really a way of turning on Israel and hastening its demise. The Jewish Narrative 1.0 predicts with certainty that it will be bad for Israel and the Jews.

Take for example that Israel is our Jewish homeland. Let's be honest.  Do we really believe that?  Can we call it our homeland in any real sense if it is a place where very of us were born and where, now that we have been free to move there for decades, few of us want to live?

As obvious as the answer might seem, it actually came as a huge shock and disappointment to most of my My Israeli friends have know this for 30 years now. They had assumed that once things in Israel settled down a little that all Jews would want to live there because anti-Semitism in the diaspora was so pervasive and rampant and that the quality of Jewish life in Israel was so unique and wonderful that we would all flock there.

They were shocked and unprepared for the fact that anti-Semitism in the U.S. would disappear pretty much completely and be replaced by an environment where Jews were considered very desirable marriage partners by gentiles and Judaism would become the most admired religion in America according to polls.

For those of us who live elsewhere, Israel has actually become a place of refuge for Jews who are not us (and others pretending to be Jews) who live in horrible places where everybody wants to get out and move to the U.S. Since the U.S. won't accept most of them, more than a million Jews have fled to Israel--not making aliyah but going to the only place that would take them. That is an important and wonderful outlet and Jews who live in horrible places are very lucky to have it as a choice. But it doesn't make Israel a Jewish homeland anymore than a battered women's shelter can be considered a homeland for women.

In addition, AIPAC and other groups that claim to be pro-Israel are no longer completely Jewish.  In fact, non-Jews comprise the fastest growing segment of AIPAC in recent years and passionate and compelling Christian speakers are regularly featured at the organizations events.  In addition, groups like Christians United for Israel (CUFI) have exploded in popularity, boasting more than half a million members in just five years of existence. 

CUFI is headed by Reverend John Hagee, a charismatic evangelical minister who was given a keynote speaking position at the AIPAC National Policy Conference and received multiple standing ovations.  When he is not out supporting Israel, Hagee has championed a number of positions on gender and abortion rights issues that are anathema to most Jews.  His statement that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment to New Orleans for having a gay pride parade was among those that caused John McCain to reject his endorsement during the last presidential campaign. 

At the same time, groups like J Street are growing in popularlity inside the Jewish community.  A growing number of Jews who care deeply about Israel have grown uncomfortable with the notion that one is not allowed to be in the booster club if he ever criticizes the coach or players on the team.  Many Jewish leaders believe and have stated that once you criticize the Israeli government in public, you are automatically thrown out of the booster club.

I'm not saying whether this is a good or a bad phenomenon.  But what we no for sure is that times have changed a great deal and are continuing to morph every day.  Israel is increasingly viewed as an American ally and vibrant democracy by the growing numbers of non-Jews who are supportive and the pro-Israel movement is no longer the exclusively Jewish club that it once was.  Like most aspect of Jewish life in our country, it is becoming more American.

Another bug in the 1.0  program is that the Judaism that most of us practice is far more attractive and meaningful to us than what passes for religious Jewish life in Israel.  

The sad (actually tragic) fact is that many of us are repelled and ashamed by the statements and actions of Jewish rabbinic leaders in Israel and the fact that the worst of them seem to have so much control over Israeli government policy.

Occasionally, as with the "Who is a Jew" issue years ago or the outrage over a proposed change in conversion laws last year, the rigid and often insensitive actions by Israeli rabbinic leaders and members of the Knesset strike such an emotional nerve and are so offensive that American Jews rise up in protest.  When that happens, the Israeli government leaders and the rabbis say and do enough to humor us and defuse the issue--but no more than that.

Who among us didn't cringe at the recent statements by the chief rabbinate and heads of Shas when they determined that the horrific Carmel fires where dozens were killed and tens of thousands of people suffered horrible losses were the result of inadequate Shabbat observance in the region? Or that it should be illegal for a Jew to sell land to an Arab.

And that according to investigations and reliable accounts, it was a group of influential rabbis that encouraged young Israeli soldiers to commit vicious war crimes against innocent Gazans during Operation Cast Lead several years ago--crimes for which soldiers were convicted and went to jail.

When the Shas (the ultra-Orthodox political party that is part of Israel's governing coalition) Interior minister deliberately and successfully embarrassed Vice-President Biden and insulted the United States by announcing the growth of new Jewish neighborhoods in Palestinian parts of Jerusalem during Biden's visit last year, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized for the timing. But at the end of the day, he supported the actions and is now committed to expanding settlements and neighborhoods in Palestinian-occupied areas. And, despite his obvious attempt to embarrass and insult Israel's most important ally, the Shas minister kept his job in Netanyahu's cabinet.

This is an issue that should have moved to the forefront 15 years ago when Israeli and U.S. Jewish religious leaders put a death sentence on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and actually encouraged and motivated his still-unrepentant murder to shoot him in cold blood to save Israel and the Jewish people.

While American Jews were shocked by Rabin's murder, there was and still is virtually no conversation in the U.S. about about the role of major Jewish religious leaders in bringing it about. Even today, a majority of Orthodox Israeli Jews consider the murderer Yigal Amir a hero and hold rallies demanding his release and pardon. While in prison for murdering the prime minister, he has given media interviews and has been allowed to marry and father children.

The Israel that many of us fell in love with and made us feel so proud was a place where we believed that when non-observant secular kibbutzniks reached their teens, they suddenly morphed into crack soldiers and paratroopers who could prevail against insurmountable odds as they repeatedly defeated and outsmarted the armies of their evil Arab neighbors who outnumbered them and were determined to destroy all Jews and Israel.

There was some truth in that narrative. But there was a lot of pathology as well.

Fifteen years ago I participated in the Prime Minister's Mission where six-figure givers to the Federation went first to the Soviet Union and then flew to Tel Aviv on a plane loaded with olim (immigrants) who were making aliyah (immigrating to Israel). The immigrants on our flight all spoke English and told us in dozens of one-on-one conversations that thanks to our help (money and political clout), their families had been rescued from a horrible situation and would have a new start in Israel.

Once in Israel, we visited military installations and religious sites and met with the highest government leaders. The climax of the trip was a dinner with Prime Minister Rabin at the Israel Museum where each of us stepped to a microphone so we could personally tell him of the six and seven figure commitments that each of us was making to Israel and how proud we were to do it.

Rabin then told us that we were true heroes and saviors of the Jewish people. He and I conversed a little in Hebrew and I felt like a superstar. Everyone went home feeling amazing. We Jews who were on the verge of extinction and the most powerless group in the world just a generation before now had our own country and were in a position to support it with vast fortunes. It was a great story and it was all true.

But, as with most real stories in our dynamic world, some things began to change. Israel's economy began to grow and our money became less essential--still important, but not as much as it had been.  Israel became a nuclear power as well and is now in its 44th year of occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan River--an area that was almost exclusively occupied by Palestinians and still would be if not for the many Jewish settlements that have been built by the government from scratch in recent decades solely to change the demographic facts on the ground.

In fairness, Israeli Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert did make very attractive offers to create a Palestinian state and cede control of most of the West Bank.  But the recently released Palestinian Papers have shown that their current leaders have been far more willing to make concessions for peace than The Jewish Narrative 1.0 would indicate. 

But now, two generations later, the Israelis not only still control those Palestinian areas--it continues its decades-long policy of building Jewish settlements there which sends a troubling message to the world.  Why would Israel build Jewish settlements in the West Bank unless they plan to stay forever and never give the area back to the Palestinians?

It cannot be denied Israel is still unfairly held to a double standard and is wrongly singled out for criticism in the United Nations. It is still surrounded by Arab neighbors--most of whom would prefer that the country did not exist. It has been the victim of terrorist attacks for decades. But the facts on the ground, the demographics, and a broad range of factors have changed anywhere from a little to a lot there over the last 20 years.

At the same time, as Peter Beinart pointed out in his brilliant and troubling article last year, fewer liberal and less ritually observant Jews consider themselves Zionists at all. The term Zionist itself is a vestige of a time just a couple of generations ago when Jews claimed they longed to return to Israel but were prevented from doing so. Now that any of us can get on a plane from anywhere in the world and be in Israel in a few hours and become citizens a few hours later (if the rabbis there say we are really Jews and let us), one has to wonder why that term Zionist is still used to describe people who choose to live elsewhere.

Many long time lovers and residents of Israel such as Jeffrey Goldberg, Thomas Friedman, and Rabbi Daniel Gordis have become sharply critical of both the morality and wisdom of the decisions and statements of Israel's government and religious leaders--voicing the kind of public criticism that is still considered heresy by many American Jewish leaders and their organizations.

After Israel's disastrous attack on the Turkish blockade-busting flotilla bound for Gaza, Goldberg--who once moved to Israel and served in the army as a prison guard in the West Bank--wrote the following:

"What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today?"

Gordis, an American-born rabbi who moved to Israel with his family and is a favorite speaker of many pro-Israel groups, recently wrote what appears to be a lament in his blog saying the following:

"Anyone who imagines that (just because there is no fighting on any of our borders at the moment) the status quo is tenable is sorely mistaken. The writing on the proverbial international wall requires no deciphering. Without some serious attempt at making progress – even if Palestinian recalcitrance ultimately renders it wholly unsuccessful – Israel effectively contributes to its own marginalization."

After reading this, one might conclude that I might just be a self-hating Jew who just wants to take potshots at Israel and our community institutions.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I am a lifelong proud and grateful Jew who feels a special relationship with the land and people of Israel.

I believe there is cause for concern but also reason for great hope. I have been asked to chair the Tucson Federation campaign next year--a job I held in Milwaukee 15 years ago. I was on the national board of Israel Bonds and a campaign chairman for more than a decade.  I remain on the boards of two Jewish day schools which I once chaired. I currently chair the board of CLAL--a great organization which focuses on bringing Jewish wisdom to the public square in an accessible and pluralistic way. I am planning my 21st trip to Israel with our community next fall. I continue to support both AIPAC and J Street, and look forward eagerly to my weekly Torah study class.

I have been told by a friend who is a very generous and influential Jewish leader that the issues I raise should not be discussed in public.  He tells me that friends don't criticize friends in public.  He has nothing to but disdain for J Street because it is publicly critical of certain Israeli policies.  By the way, that is a feeling that is apparently shared by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren who has declined to address the upcoming J Street Conference in Washington--just months after Oren spoke to a gathering of J Street leaders and congratulated them on their amazing growth and expressed a desire to work more closely in the future.

I have great respect for my generous friend (and for Oren as well) but couldn't disagree with him more.  All meaningful relationships are based on honesty and the ability to be dynamic in an ever changing world.  It is that ability that has enable Judaism and the Jewish people to survive and grow against all odds for centuries and it is precisely that paradigm that will lead to the new and improved American Jewish Narrative 2.0--a version that retains all the strengths of the existing model and implements changes essential to be relevant and strong in the future.

As with all upgrades, we need to retain the unique and meaningful aspects of 1.0 but we need to be creative, open, and pluralistic as we try to make it better and more resilient.  As always, pluralism and Jewish wisdom will be the keys to moving forward.  Finding the partial truth in the opinions of those with whom we disagree instead of doing our best to demonize them as so many are doing today.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Some Thoughts from Tucson--Let's Create an Economic Crisis For Hate, Inc.

Our President, Barack Obama, came to my home town the other night and told Tucson and America exactly what we needed to hear. He rocked McKale Center and the rest of the country with personal stories that made us cry a lot and words of hope and encouragement that made us cheer.

A number of my friends from out East said they were a little thrown off by the festive atmosphere at McKale given the trauma and tragedy that had rocked our community. But they don't get it. First, Arizona Wildcats basketball fans (and EVERYONE in Tucson is a fan) are used to cheering their heads off whenever they come to McKale.

Also, Tucson had been through real tragedy but we also had real heroes that made us very proud. The college student Daniel Hernandez who saved Gabby's life with his courage and expertise made us proud. So did the three older folks who tackled the murderer and kept him from reloading and killing more people.

And those doctors!
Is there anyone in the country who is not impressed with the University Medical Center's Trauma unit and the miracle workers who staff it?  Not only can they save lives--they can explain frightening and scary medical stuff so the rest of us actually think we understand it.

It was an amazing evening of sadness and hope--of tears and cheers--of shame and pride. And our president topped it off by making the most wonderful speech that most of us have ever heard. It was full of compassion and sympathy but it was also laden with hope, challenge, and a vision of how we can best move forward as a city, a state, and a country.  Obama pointed out that the vitriolic hate speech that has replaced real dialogue in our country was not a direct cause of the shootings, but there is no doubt that without a return to civility and real conversations we have no chance to surmount the daunting challenges we face as a country. 

It is already clear that the attacks from the Right will not go away.  But it's not just because the purveyors of hate speech are bad people. It is because the Right Wing hate industry is a multi-billion dollar business and lots of people are making big money--BIG money.  The behavior will change when the economics change.  Period.

Clear Channel Communications made more than $1 billion in profits last year. They are the patriots from Texas who bring us Rush Limbaugh (who has a $400 million dollar contract to spread fear and outrage through 2016), Sean Hannity ($40 million income a year), Mark Levin (who has threatened to sue anyone who suggests that his vicious rhetoric prompted the Tucson shootings), Michael Savage and other angry radio luminaries.

Fox News made $700 million in profits last year--more than all other TV news operations combined. It brings us Glenn Beck ($32 million in income in 2009), Bill O'Reilly,($20 million), and is committed to bring down our President in the name of saving our country Fox is also providing full employment and millions of dollars worth of free publicity to Sarah Palin and the other potential Republican candidates for 2012 as part of their commitment to spin-free, fair and balanced news.

Those dollar figures debunk the ridiculous claims from my Right wing friends that "both sides do it." It is true that there are those on the left who engage in harsh and sometimes unfair criticism of the Right. But there is no Left Wing hate industry To suggest some sort of equivalency is to suggest that a jaywalker and a murderer are equally reprehensible because they have both committed crimes or to compare a lemonade stand to McDonald's because they both make money selling food. Give me a break.

Keith Olbermann,, Rachel Maddow, and all the other Left-leaning broadcast professionals put together don't make in a year what Limbaugh makes in a few months. And that's not to mention that the are outnumbered
20-to-1 by the Right wing media stars. Meanwhile, the "voice of the common man" Glenn Beck makes twice as much in an hour than an average Americans makes in a year.

The issue is not whether the promotion of hatred and outrage is legal (it is), whether it was the direct cause of the shootings here in Tucson (it wasn't), or whether most Liberals want guns banned (maybe super-sized ammo clips and automatic weapons that are only useful for killing lots of people, but not all guns).  It is about doing what is good for our country going forward.

When you receive an email full of lies and distortions that encourages you to hate or be afraid of good people and forward it to others, don't delete it. Instead,  give the sender links and facts that prove he is spreading lies. Tell him you are disappointed in him for spreading slanderous and vicious lies about those in public life and encourage him to copy you on his apology.  Make our friends who spread hatred and lies pay at least an emotional price for their damaging behavior.

When a TV or radio station puts people on the air whose only motive is to promote anger and fear, write the general manager of the station and ask them not to give hate-mongers a podium. Also email the sponsors to make sure they know that You will no longer buy their products until they stop enriching and enabling those who are destroying civility in our country.

The social change organization Jewish Funds for Justice {JFSJ) has submitted a petition signed by 10,000 calling for Fox News to drop Glenn Beck. The letter cites Beck's anti-Semitic series on George Soros in which he referred to Soros as a "puppet master" and a "Jewish boy who helped send his fellow Jews to the death camps." New Yorker magazine accused Beck of broadcasting tropes that "corresponded uncannily to those of classic anti-Semitism."

The letter also pointed out that Beck had made more than 400 references to Hitler and Nazi Germany over the last 18 months--almost always to point out their similarities with Obama and his administration.

In addition, the president of JFSF said that "We are not accusing Glenn Beck or (Fox News head) Roger Ailes or Rupert Murdoch of pulling the trigger in Tucson. Only one man did that. But we are accusing them of playing to the worst in all of us."

The JFSF petition makes great points. But but acts like this by themselves won't achieve great results. As we have learned decisions about guns and what kind of media and government we get are based on money, ratings and sponsors. But there's encouraging news there too.

Recently, Beck was pulled off the air in New York City when radio station WOR dropped his show. Philadelphia radio station WPHT has recently dropped both Beck and Hannity. The shows weren't dropped because of letters or threats. It happened because no one was listening to them. It this case, the stations weren't trying to do the "right thing." It was all about money, ratings, and sponsors.

In the Tucson audience was our Senator John McCain who just wrote in the Washington Post that Obama made a great speech and went on to call our President "a patriot." This is the same guy who two years ago questioned Obama's patriotism by stating that Obama was willing to lose a war in order to win an election.

Fox News boss Roger Ailes instructed his anchors to "shut up and tone it down" after the shootings and told them to "make your points intellectually"--a pretty clear admission that for news reporters to be intellectual and rely on facts would require a huge change at Fox. Then Glenn Beck came out and praised Obama for his speech and said the man who he last year called a racist and a socialist who wanted to destroy America has now grown into a good president.  Do you think these decisions were made due to an epiphany that their behavior was hurting America or was it based on their fear that they had pushed the hate envelope too far and it might start costing them some money?

We should encourage our media and politicians to do the right thing. But the villains here aren't running a charity. They are running a multi-billion dollar business. The key to success is creating an environment where  hate doesn't pay and a financial crisis that brings Hate, Inc. to its knees. 

That's an economic crisis we can all pray comes speedily in our time.  Then we'll really have a reason to cheer.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Some Thoughts from Tucson--Truth and Consquences

Kristen and I were driving to our Tucson home from Phoenix Saturday morning when we heard the news on the radio. Our friend and Congressman Gabby Giffords and more than a dozen other people had been shot (CNN and NPR actually reported that she was dead) outside the Safeway store at Oracle and Ina. We were on our way home and would have driven right by that intersection a few minutes later. We would have certainly stopped to say hello to Gabby.

Instead we had to take a detour around the police roadblock and finish the trip to our house listening to this horrific event repeatedly described as "shocking" by every one on the radio. But I live in Arizona and I live in the United States. As devastated as I was by the news, I was no more shocked than one would be to learn that a person who drank a quart of scotch a day for years had developed liver disease or that a 4-pack-a-day smoker had contracted lung cancer. This was a devastating and sad but totally logical outcome of the toxic trends that have been at work in our country and my home state for years now.

Later in the day, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik hit it right on the head.

"Let me say one thing, because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that," the sheriff said during a press conference. "That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences."

Dupnik declared that "it's time that this country take a little introspective look at the crap that comes out on radio and TV. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital, We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Dupnik did not say that any of the purveyors of hatred ever said specifically that someone should take a gun and shoot Gabby Giffords in the head. He also did not say that there is any way to guarantee that some nut won't take a gun and go out and shoot a bunch of people. He also made it clear that the hate-mongers on the airwaves were not doing anything illegal.

He just said that these actions "are not without consequences."

There is no denying that the use of demonization and promotion of hatred have become well choreographed, well funded, and very effective political strategies in our country in recent years and nowhere has that been more evident than in Arizona.

As a Democrat in a district that had gone Republican for two decades, Gabby Giffords has been in the crosshairs of the haters--literally and figuratively--for the last two years.

She was one of 20 Democrats targeted by Sarah Palin in her now-infamous website posting during the health care debate last year. In a post entitled "Don't Retreat, Instead--Reload!" Palin urged her followers to aggressively go after targeted Democrats and showed a map of the U.S. with simulated crosshairs of a gun scope showing the districts where the offending Congressmen lived. Since the murders, Palin has taken the posting down but Giffords expressed her alarm during a TV interview at the time in which she said "people have to realize that there are consequences of their actions.  On the day of the final vote on health care reform, Giffords' Tucson office was attacked and the front door was smashed.

Shortly before that, a close friend of mine began working for Giffords in that office. She was excited about the job and looked forward to interacting with and helping Tucson residents who came to the Congressman seeking assistance.

Instead, she had to walk through throngs of demonstrators (some of them paid) who harassed Giffords and her staff on a daily basis. She told me that the phone lines were constantly jammed by "the regulars" who called regularly to rant about Giffords' liberal views in a constant stream of abusive and obscene invectives. One day, my friend was physically accosted by an angry and abusive man inside the office and Giffords' Outreach Director Gabe Zimmerman had to intervene to protect her. Gabe, a sweet and wonderful 30 year old man who was recently engaged, was one of those murdered in yesterday's attack.

A short time later, my friend quit her job. She told me she was unable to sleep at night and couldn't take the constant abuse any more.

During a "Congress at Your Corner" meeting at a different Safeway store more than a year ago, one of the attendees dropped a gun on the ground. After that incident, a caller later warned that if Giffords kept messing with his First Amendment rights then she would have to start dealing with "Second Amendment remedies"--a sentiment echoed by Tea Party Senate candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada a few months ago.

Gabby is a tough lady. But when I last talked with her before the election in November, she shook her head and told me she was both shaken and astonished by both the nastiness of the campaign against her and the huge amounts of money that were being funneled in from out of state to support her opponent, Tea Party phenom Jesse Kelly. Kelly is a 29-year old Montana native who flunked out of college during his freshman year and never was involved in politics until he ran against Gabby last year. Before running for Congress he worked in his dad's construction business.

His first campaign fundraising event last summer was headlined "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help Remove Gabrielle Giffords From Office. Shoot a Fully Automatic M-16 with Jesse Kelly."
Kelly's campaign was largely bankrolled by the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity who funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into Tucson to put attack ads against Giffords on the airwaves and the roadsides. A month before the election, thousands of blue and white signs appeared overnight up over most of the streets and highways in District 8. None of them even mentioned Kelly's name--they were pure attacks on Giffords. "Giffords bailed out Wall Street With Your Money" said one. Another said "Giffords Stole $500 Billion From Your Health Care." They popped up overnight in clusters like Burma Shave signs.

I have seen hundreds of political campaign signs over the years. I never saw one before that was purely negative and didn't even mention the name of the person being supported.

President Obama actually pushed the already bizarre Arizona political scene over the edge two years ago when he asked our governor, Janet Napolitano, to be his Director of Homeland Security. For years, Napolitano was the lone voice of reason in state government and her vetoes kept the Republican legislature in check. But after she left for Washington and was replaced by Republican Jan Brewer, all reason, sanity and human decency disappeared from Phoenix and the inmates took over the asylum completely.

Last year, as Arizona's real-estate based economy sank into depression and our state dropped to 49th in the nation in public education, Brewer and the Republican state legislature were completely focused on dealing with their version of the state's two great problems. The first was a law enabling and ordering state police to harass people who looked like they were Mexican and didn't belong here. It is called an "immigration law" but it has nothing to do with immigration which is a federal, not a state issue.

The second was a law that made sure that any resident could buy automatic weapons and carry them concealed without obtaining a permit. That eliminated the requirement that gun buyers receive any training and is one of the reasons why it was so easy and perfectly legal for the alleged shooter--a 22 year old with a documented history of criminal behavior and mental issues--to walk into the Sportsman's Warehouse here a month ago and buy a 19 mm semi-automatic Glock pistol along with several extended magazines and all the ammo a mass murderer could possibly need.

It also made it perfectly legal for that mass murderer to wander into a crowd of people in a shopping center with that Glock and magazines loaded with more than 60 bullets concealed until he walked up to his Congressman and shot her through the head. The act itself could obviously have happened anywhere but Tucson and Phoenix are the only major American cities where it could it have happened legally.

This has all happened with a national backdrop in which tens of millions of emails are manufactured, received, and forwarded every day in which the angriest among us are increasingly referred to as "patriots" and "real Americans" are urged to take back our country from our president and Democrats who are trying to destroy America and the values that real patriots hold dear.

The cable TV and radio airwaves are full of angry demonizing voices that lend credibility and critical mass to statements that in the past would have been viewed as over the line and shameful.

That is not a clear cut provocation to murder or violence but let's be honest. What is a true patriot supposed to do when he is constantly told by well-funded professional marketers and charismatic communicators that our socialist, alien president and his liberal accomplices in Congress are traitors who are destroying everything that has made America great?

For years, Fox News celebrity Bill O'Reilly ranted about and demonized Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller--calling him "Tiller the Baby Killer" on dozens of occasions and saying that Tiller had "blood on his hands". In June, 2009, Scott Roeder walked into Tiller's church and shot the doctor at point blank range. Reasonable people can and have disagreed about whether O'Reilly was responsible for the murder. But there can be little doubt that when a passionate or troubled person hears a doctor he is predisposed to hate referred to as a killer of babies repeatedly by a respected TV celebrity, it makes it much easier for that person to make the leap from disapproval to violent action.

The same can be said about those Orthodox rabbis who placed a death sentence on Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin 15 years ago and the thousands who held rallies (at which current prime minister Netanyahu actually spoke) where "death to Rabin" was chanted.

None of those people actually went up to the young and passionate Yigal Amir and told him to go to Tel Aviv and murder Rabin at a peace rally, but there can be little doubt that the tone of violence and demonization set by responsible and respected people played a role in Amir's decision to go from being a passionate student to a murderer.

As Gabby Giffords said last year and Sheriff Dupnik repeated after Gabby was gunned down, when people choose to exercise their legal right to spout hatred and demonization and target others as traitors, there are consequences.

Tucson is now awash in media personalities and government officials. Many of the political figures who endorsed the efforts to demonize Gabby two months ago are now singing her praises. The law enforcement people will spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars trying to figure out exactly what happened. They will learn nothing new. We all know what happened here. A troubled young man legally carrying a concealed assault weapon without a permit went on a rampage and murdered and wounded 20 innocent defenseless people.

More decent people will echo the comments about the dangers of living in a society where guns and hatespeech are put on a pedestal and others who have created those values will complain that those liberals are trying to blame good honest American values for the actions of a nut case acting on his own.
There will be a lot of heat and very little light.

None of it will make the murder rampage here in Tucson less horrific or devastating.

But please don't call it shocking.

Instead, look at the emails you have received and forwarded lately and decide if they have created a tone that makes our country and the world a better place.

I'm not a person who prays much, but please pray for our friend Gabby and our state and our country.
And remember what she and the sheriff had to say.

That when we make choices about what kind of behavior and speech is right and decent, those decisions are not without consequences.