Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Confederacy, Bible Belt, and Wilderness Party

I'm going to try to get through my post-election analysis without being too much of a jerk.  But it will be hard.  I'm used to being sort of right but not THIS right.

I caught major grief from friends and foes when I stated as a fact--not a prediction--in September and repeated for emphasis yesterday that the presidential election was over and that Obama had won.  Not only was I correct, but it was actually over for the reasons I stated.  More on why the rest of the news media seemed oblivious to that fact later.

The most relevant statistic that you will not hear anywhere else is that this is the second straight election during which a decent and intelligent Republican candidate did not come close to winning a single state outside the Confederacy, Bible Belt, or Wilderness. 

And for the second straight election that was largely due to the fact that the Republican party has been taken over by people who are so crazy and evil that the candidate had to say so many bizarre things and support such toxic policies to get the nomination that he essentially became unelectable in a national race.

The smart Republicans candidates like Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Michael Bloomberg, and Jeb Bush wanted no part of that game and chose to stay as far away from this election as possible--waiting for saner times in the future.  So it was Mitt Romney who outlasted a field of wing nuts to get the nomination but, despite his last minute efforts to disavow his previous statements to appear more in touch with most Americans, he never had a chance.

All the conversation continues to be about divisiveness and partisanship but the real issue is that the Republicans can't win a national election unless they make some major changes.  The simple fact is that if over the next four years Republican leaders (and many of my friends) would commit the same amount of time, energy, and money to solving our country's problems as they have over the last four years to destroying and demonizing our president and his family, most of our problems will be solved.

After all, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and his co-religionists already have what they have wanted since 2008. The assurance that Barack Obama will not be re-elected four years from now. With that in hand, they might as well try a new approach and focus on helping the country.

As an independent voter who longs for a viable choice again I hope and pray that happens. If it doesn't, it will be sad but not shocking.

What IS shocking is the fact that none of the so-called news media--mainstream or otherwise--pointed any of this out at any point during the campaign.  Even as Intrade was showing us that real people betting real money had determined that Romney had no chance to win (Intrade accurately predicted the outcome in each of the 49 states that have been decided), we were constantly being told right up until the last minute that this was the closest race in history--neck and neck--and it would go right down to the wire.

It was as though a football game between the Green Bay Packers and the University of Wisconsin was being discussed by "experts" as a toss-up with none of them pointing out the fact that real people betting real money had made the Packers six touchdown favorites.

It calls into question if we still have real journalists or real news organizations.  They seem to have been replaced by celebrities who appear on TV shows and write blogs and columns but make their real money doing guest speaking appearances before adoring fans around the country.

Journalistic standards and commitment to the truth have gone so far by the wayside that we now have a handful of people (none of whom are well-known, high paid or famous) who have been delegated as "fact checkers" for various shows and publications.  I must be getting old but back when I was a newspaper and TV reporter, we were ALL supposed to be fact checkers.  That was the job.  Reporting the truth and calling out lies when we found them.

But an article in today's New York Times points out how dramatically that has changed during this election:

...most news organizations (with notable exceptions) abandoned their roles as political referees. Many resorted to an atrophied style that resembled stenography more than journalism, presenting all claims as equally valid. Fact checking, once a foundation for all reporting, was now deemed the province of a specialized few. 
But as this campaign has made clear, not even the dedicated fact-checkers have made much difference. 
PolitiFact has chronicled 19 “pants on fire” lies by Mr. Romney and 7 by Mr. Obama since 2007, but Mr. Romney’s whoppers have been qualitatively far worse: the “apology tour,” the “government takeover of health care,” the “$4,000 tax hike on middle class families,” the gutting of welfare-to-work rules, the shipment by Chrysler of jobs from Ohio to China. Said one of his pollsters, Neil Newhouse, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

So, as Tevye famously said during Fiddler on the Roof,  "Send us the cure.  The sickness we've already got."  Will anything change?  Is there a cure out there?

As far as the Republican Party is concerned it is up to them.  Watching Karl Rove on Fox News last night was like seeing Matthew Harrison Brady at the end of Inherit the Wind as he continued to argue his case even after the jury had rendered its verdict.  He was Don Quixote in a business suit tilting at windmills and flailing at imaginary demons.  I'm curious to hear what Rove tells the billionaires who gave him hundreds of millions to smear Obama regarding what they got for their money.  I wonder if Sheldon Adelson feels his $100 million was well spent.

And the trend is not their friend.  Former Wilderness states like New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada have already joined the civilized world due to changing demographics and places like my home in Arizona and  North Carolina will be close behind.  There are fewer and fewer places where science and facts and American values and freedoms--not as defined by Evangelicals but as defined by history and common sense--just don't matter any more.  We'll see if the Republicans can figure it out or if they will just keep dooming themselves to failure on the national stage.

Regarding the news media, I'm not optimistic.  As with professional sports, it has become a business that seems more focused on individual fame and entertainment than on teamwork, traditional values and a commitment to the public good.  That part is sad.

I guess I will just have to keep writing to try to offset the decline.


Monday, November 5, 2012

The Election Will Resolve an Important Issue

I have received a number of calls from my many fans in recent days who want to know if I still stand by my bold (and apparently annoying) statement of six weeks ago in which I declared the presidential election to be over and declared Obama the clear winner.

I have never wavered in my conviction, despite President Obama's apparent determination to prove me a liar during the first debate, and  I certainly am not concerned now.  At the end of the day, the combination of Romney's weakness as a candidate and the Republican party's toxic platform are every bit as damaging to his candidacy today as they were months ago.

It was over then and it is over now. 

But that is not the reason for this article.

An interesting question that has emerged during the last two months of the campaign has been whether traditional polls (Gallup, Pew, Rasmussen, and such) have gone the way of credit rating agencies and become completely useless as a predictive tool or if they are able to measure public sentiment accurately.

Politcal polls have a spotty track record but in the new world where no one under the age of 50 has a land line telephone any more it really calls into question how a pollster can sample opinion at all today.  During the last few months, I have received more than a dozen calls from pollsters on my home phone but no calls on the cell phone which I use for most of my communication.

How do pollsters sample public opinion if they are using telephone polling but they aren't calling anyone who only has a cell phone?  A good question, but also not the reason for this article.

The burning question is how and why there is such a huge disconnect between the predictions being made by traditional pollsters and the odds being quoted on the betting sites where real people are betting tens of millions of dollars on the upcoming elections?

Full disclosure.  As an investment adviser and as an observer of the human and political condition I have always paid far more attention to how people behave than to what they say.  It is an approach that tends to serve us all well.

That is why I confess to being an addict of Intrade, Ladbrokes, and other betting sites where gamblers (investors) can wager on the outcome of upcoming events.

From the outset, Obama has been a solid favorite to win re-election on all the betting sites and at this very moment with the election just hours away, the president is a 70-30 favorite to win on Intrade and a 2-9 favorite at Ladbrokes (U.S. casinos are not allowed to take bets on our elections) in Great Britain.  Meanwhile, Gallup--the most prestigious of the traditional pollsters--now says that Romney is slightly AHEAD overall.

The odds have always favored Obama although his lead dropped into the 55-45 range during the week after his disastrous performance and Romney's clear win in the first debate in September.  But real bettors betting real money have never--not ever for a second--considered Romney likely to win.

Even more dramatic is the widely divergent message we are getting on the likely outcome in the so-called swing states.  We are told at this very moment by the mainstream media and the traditional polls that the election is neck and neck and could go either way. That states such as Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, Nevada, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire are essentially deadlocked and too close to call.

Meanwhile, the betting sites are stating clearly that there are only two real toss up states remaining--
Virginia and Colorado (Obama is ahead slightly in each).  Real people betting real money have made Romney a huge favorite in Florida and North Carolina and Obama is a prohibitive favorite--25 points or more--in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Iowa, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin.

If investors are to be believed, it will be a very early night tomorrow.

The issue that should get a lot of attention but probably won't is why, armed with prestigious but probably very misleading polling data, have our mainstream media been tricking us into believing that this race has been a cliff-hanger all along?  Could it be that they are less interested in keeping us informed than they are in insulating themselves from charges of liberal bias from the Right?  And that most of all they are desperate to keep us sitting on the edges of our seats until the game is over even though real people betting real money have been telling us for months that this election will be a blowout?

This is the only real question regarding the presidential election--whether polls are worth the paper they are printed on and the way the media use them--that remains to be resolved tomorrow.  The rest of it was over weeks ago.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Let's Be Honest--About High Holiday Sermons--How Do You Jew--Part II

In the first part of this series, I pointed out that people who view Judasim as an important part of their lives today fall into two denominations--Tribalists and Aspirational--with most of us incorporating aspects of each into our own Jewish experience.

For years we have framed Jewish denominations as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform which differed mainly in their levels of ritual observance.  But the new denominations cut across the old lines and focus on their followers' view of what it means to be Jewish.

Tribalists tend to believe that they were born Jewish and have a responsibility to unequivocally support Israel and to remain vigilant in their fight against anti-Semitism, discrimination against Jews and existential threats to the Jewish people here and in Israel--threats which they believe are both real and daunting.

Aspirational Jews tend to view Judaism as a package that includes a Jewish homeland, a rich history, a written and oral tradition of rituals, wisdom, values, and ethics.  It is an option with which they are fully prepared and even anxious to engage if and only if it can provide them tools that enable them to live happier, better, more productive lives.

The very different messaging and views regarding the true meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and how they are being played out in High Holiday sermons provide a dramatic example of this dynamic.

In Jewish tradition, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--called the "Day of Awe--are a time for intense self-examination (heshbon hanefesh) as each of us is commanded to repent for the sins we have committed during the last year.  We are supposed to seek out those who we have hurt or treated badly during the last year and ask them for their forgiveness.  We also are to do repentance (tshuvah) before God and make our case to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. 

But in recent years, even as life for American Jews has become better and Israel has become stronger and more secure, many Jews and  rabbinic leaders have become  increasingly vocal about their existential fears and sense of victimhood--so much so that their Rosh Hashanah sermons have morphed into fearful and demonizing rants against others--both inside and outside the Jewish tent--who are perceived as threats.

A tipping point occurred two years ago when every Jews Inbox suddenly filled up with forwarded emails from friends sharing what they were calling "The Sermon of the Century."

The now-famous sermon was delivered on Rosh Hashanah in 2010 by Rabbi Schlomo Lewis of  Atlanta's Etz Chaim (Conservative) synagogue. It earned him a commendation from both the Georgia legislature and the U.S. Congress.    

On Rosh Hashanah, instead of helping his congregants with their upcoming negotiations with God where their very lives stood in the balance, Rabbi Lewis decided to deliver a  passionate warning about the evil perpetrators of radical Islam--comparing the Islamists to the Nazis and making numerous allusions to the Holocaust.

He concluded by saying:

Our parents and grandparents saw the swastika and recoiled, understood the threat and destroyed the Nazis. We see the banner of Radical Islam and can do no less.

A rabbi was once asked by his students….

“Rebbi. Why are your sermons so stern?” Replied the rabbi, “If a house is on fire and we chose not to wake up our children, for fear of disturbing their sleep, would that be love? Kinderlach, ‘di hoyz brent.’ Children our house is on fire and I must arouse you from your slumber.”

My friends – the world is on fire and we must awake from our slumber. “EHR KUMT.(yiddish for "He--meaning Hitler-is coming)”

Thousands of Jews were so moved by this Rosh Hashanah message that they forwarded it all over the country and it has received hundreds of thousands of views. 

With others like the blogger Gefilte on it raised some red flags.

Quite simply, it’s nothing but a piece of hate speech by a religious leader. Not only that, it’s a piece of dreck delivered at a pulpit by a rabbi on the first day of Rosh Hashanah — a day for introspection and self-examination, not high political theater.

And the Tribalist approach to the High Holidays continues.

Last week former New York mayor Ed Koch gave his annual "sermon" at the Modern Orthodox Park East Synagogue in New York and reportedly used the opportunity  to deliver a screed blasting President Obama for his policies and actions regarding Iran and his weakness when it comes to dealing with Muslims in general.

This represents the third complete flip for Koch on the subject of Obama and Israel.  Two years ago, he vilified Obama for "throwing Israel under the bus" only to decide months later that Obama was great for Israel.  Now he has apparently flipped again on the subject.  All of that is interesting (or not) but in any event is it what we should be hearing from the bimah during a Rosh Hashanah sermon?

Meanwhile in Israel, two of the most powerful and influential rabbis in the Jewish world sent Rosh Hashanah messages to the their followers.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the politically powerful religious Shas party, sent out a message before the holiday urging all Jews to use the Rosh Hashanah observance as an opportunity to pray for the destruction of Iran.

At the same time,  Rabbi  Shlomo Amar, the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel used the Rosh Hashanah platform to make a single statement--that Reform Jews pose the greatest threat to our people today and that it is better for a Jew not to pray at all than to pray along with Reform Jews.

Most American Jews dismiss the impact of rabbis like Amar and Josef, describing them as fringe elements, fanatics, and worse.  But they are not the least bit fringe.  These rabbis have enormous political power and influence in Israel and elsewhere and their opinions form the basis for policy and law in the Jewish homeland.

Those widely hailed dark and ominous sermons were far different from those delivered  last week here in Aspen.  The sermons on the mount(ain) were the work of Rabbi David Segal, the young spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation--a fast growing center of Jewish life in a community where the congregants range from old and very wealthy to young and middle class and who come from all neighborhoods of the Jewish, economic and political spectrum.

Rabbi Segal is a Reform rabbi who is bright and innovative and would even be called progressive but his sermons seemed far more true to Jewish tradition that those delivered by the more ritually observant religious leaders described above.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Segal  traced the Jewish tradition of reforming the rules and tradition back to Abraham, and suggested that each of us can be true to that tradition by changing it in ways that retain its essence but keeps it relevant.

On Rosh Hashanah morning  he talked about politics.  But instead of promoting or bashing one of the candidates, Rabbi Segal talked about our need to support candidates and promote our political agendas in a way that is consistent with Jewish values and civility.

He closed with the following prayer for the New Year: 

Ribono shel olam, Great One of the World, we’re trying really hard here to put Your will into action through our political affiliations.

Remind us that You are bigger than party and faction, and that some of Your truth always resides in the words of our opponents. Give us the confidence to learn from them, especially the ones who seem so wrong at first... Remind us of the wisdom of our ancestors, who taught,“Who is wise? He who learns from all people” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

Teach us that our People’s record of your Revelation is subtle, complex, multi-vocal, at times confusing and troubling, and elsewhere a clarion call for justice. Help us to study it more (perhaps with a local rabbi), and through our learning to know You better, and Your will, for our action in the world.

Then may we fulfill your promise to Abraham, that we shall be a blessing to the community and nation we all call our home.

As Rabbi Segal quotes from the Talmud, a truly wise person is one who learns from all people.  And as we are also advised in the Talmud, we should travel down some part of the middle of the road and not on the far right or the far left.

Today we have new Jewish denominations.  The Tribalists on one extreme who view being Jewish as a real life game of "Survivor" where even today we face enemies and discrimination and existential threats.  And on the other extreme are the Aspirationalists who view Judaism as a value-added set of beliefs, history, rituals, and wisdom traditions that can help us lead happier, better, and more productive lives.

Each side is correct--to a point. There are existential threats to the Jewish democratic state of Israel and to our ability to maintain a vital Jewish community here in the U.S.  But the most daunting of those threats is not a nuclear Iran or radical Islam or intermarriage or anti-Semitism. 

The major threat is that in our efforts to fight each of those very real challenges we lose sight of the Jewish values and ethical guidelines regarding how we treat each other that were the whole point of Judaism in the first place.

Now more than ever before, Jews are in a position where we have the power and standing to implement our tradition and our values more fully and completely than ever before.  Along with that power comes the freedom to make choices--including the choice of simply walking away from a tradition if it loses its meaning and ability to help us be better, happier, more productive human beings.

The key challenge of 5773 is to spend less time demonizing others (even with fair criticism) and to seek out more opportunities for self-examination and linking to our tradition and wisdom in ways that truly make each of us, the world, and the Jewish people better.

That seems like the best New Year's resolution of all.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Let's Be Honest--About Jewish Denominations--How Do You Jew--Part 1

The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the "Days of Awe" since we are supposed to spend them making our case before God that we are worthy to be inscribed in the Book of Life for yet another year.  It is the one short period when we are supposed to focus completely on our own strengths and weaknesses and our personal relationship with God.  The rest of the year, and Judaism in general, focuses on prayers for the Jewish people, the communities in which we live, and the rest of the world.

The various flavors of Judaism--Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Vegan, Jew-Bu, etc.--have always more or less agreed on this model.  We are very different in the trappings and the role that ritual observance plays in the process.  But the various denominational labels have been used for decades to help Jews and other differentiate between the various denominations and how different Jews choose to be religious in their own way.

But as with most labels that have served us well for a long time, those denominational labels are becoming more meaningless by the day.  In the past, the list above (in order) has been used to determine which Jews are "more Jewish" ranging from Orthodox at the top to Jew-Bu at the bottom.
But now, many of my Orthodox friends have become more flexible in their levels of observance while more and more of my Reform friends are wearing kippot and keeping kosher. 

As with our relationship to Israel and a whole broad range of issues, things are just getting more and more complicated when it comes to using the old measures and language to talk about what it means to be Jewish.

I would suggest that as a practical matter, there are really only two denominations of American Judaism that exist today and that they have far less to do with ritual observance per se than they do with the macro view regarding what it means to be Jewish.

One view--the one I hear about in emails from my older Jewish friends of all existing denominations--is that Judaism carries with it first and foremost a set of obligations.  Those of us who were born Jewish have a duty to perpetuate the Jewish people (by marrying inside the faith), to unequivocally support the government of the State of Israel without which Judaism would essentially cease to exist, and to be fully aware that even though things may seem pretty good for us right now, the anti-Semites and Jew haters are still out there and we must always be alert and vigilant for the signs of the next catastrophe. 

We owe it to the memory of those who died in the Holocaust not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory and must forward every article and statement documenting horrible acts of anti-Semitism from anywhere in the world to make sure that the current complacent generation of Jews is snapped out of its dangerous illusion that life for Jews is pretty good here.

The other denomination consists of those who believe that in this new open source world without boundaries and limitations in which we are blessed to live in this country, Judaism like every other religion, way of life, and wisdom tradition, is to be viewed as a choice--not a burden or responsibility.  It will thrive or wither based on the ability of its rituals, ethics, values, historical memories and insights to help people live happier, better, and more productive lives. 

The same applies to the legacy organizations such as synagogues, Federations, pro-Israel groups and all of the other entities that for decades essentially had a large captive audience and suddenly find themselves having to compete for customers in the open market.

Perhaps the best example of how the failure of most Jews and the media to understand that there are now just two relevant denominations has surfaced in the jumbled and contradictory conversations about "The Jewish Vote" and whether President Obama is as popular with Jews as he was four years ago or if he is losing ground to Mitt Romney.  It also applies to the corollary question regarding the role that Israel plays in the voting decision of Jews.

Polls and surveys have yielded a broad range of results and answers to those questions because the pollsters and pundits don't understand that the differences in issues, politics, and actual definition of what it means to be Jewish is so profoundly different between the denominations that the term "Jewish" no longer has a single definition.

Among the "tribal" Jews, unequivocal support for Israel and its government is a huge priority and the almost omnipresent sense of victimhood, fear, and anger that is voiced at meetings and articles that are forwarded by these folks has caused many of them to employ the tactics and tone of the political Right.

Within the other denomination people who turn to Judaism as an important part of their lives embrace its rituals, culture, history, wisdom, ethics, and values as a life choice due to its ability to help them live happier, better, and more productive lives.  They believe that a Jew's first responsibility is to leave the world a better place (tikkun olam) than it was when we got here. 

I will call this group Aspirational Jews--not because they don't feel as strong an historical and cultural connection to Judaism and Israel but because they tend to pick and choose among the rituals and traditions and focus on observing only those that make their lives better, happier, and more productive.  They don't feel "commanded" nearly as much as they feel empowered to make relevant and value-added choices.

As is always the case, the best result will occur when pluralism prevails and the extremists of each denomination work hard to find the partial truths that certainly exist in the positions of the other.

The Tribalists need to understand that we live in times when even the legacy organizations that they embrace have determined that the greatest threat that American Jews face today is not that gentiles hate Jews and want to destroy us but is rather that so many gentiles love Jews so much that they can't wait to marry our children.  That fact should cut into the fear just a smidge.

The Aspirational Jews need to understand that although we enjoy a life in the U.S. that none of our forefathers and mothers ever dreamed possible, there are still enormous threats that exist in a very ugly world and that Jew hatred is a very major challenge in many places around the world.

Our tradition teaches us over and over that some version of the middle road is always the best way to travel.  It also teaches that we grow and survive not by demonizing those with whom we disagree but rather by engaging those very people in dialogue and conversations that will make each of us wiser and lead to the best result possible.

During these Day of Awe we need to look at ourselves and determine how we can best make the positive difference that our tradition teaches were are all obliged to seek.

Part 2 will  be a discussion of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Days of Awe and point out new differences are emerging the the way the Tribalists and the Jews by Choice frame this period as well.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Let's Be Honest--It is SO OVER!

Full Disclosure:  I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and have known for a long time that I will vote for him again in November.  I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative and have voted, worked for, and donated money to the campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans in the past and in the current election cycle.

I had planned to write this article two months ago and I wish I had because back then it was less clear to most people that the upcoming presidential election has already been decided and that Barack Obama has won.  Actually, it is more accurate to say that Mitt Romney and the Republican party have lost.  But the result is the same.

Even though our president has done a pretty good job under horrible circumstances over the last four years, it is disappointing that his imminent victory has come so easily.  Americans deserve a real choice between candidates with a vision for the future.

Unfortunately, for the last four years Republicans have been so caught up in their proudly announced determination to cause Barack Obama to fail and so anxious to please the extremists in their base that they have presented us with a candidate and a platform that are out of touch with the wants, needs, and values of most Americans.

In Mitt Romney, Republicans nominated a candidate that was the second or third choice of most of their party members.  His only seeming strength is his ability to master the ins and out of the legal and free market system to build a huge personal fortune for himself and a handful of wealthy investors.

During the last few months, his ineptitude in the areas of diplomacy and foreign affairs has been showcased through a serious of unforced statements that make most people cringe.  He has declared Russia to be the number one geopolitical threat to the U.S., has gratuitously insulted the people of our most reliable ally by saying they weren't ready to host the Olympics, has said he would do "everything the opposite of Obama" regarding Israel even though Obama has been called the most pro-Israel U.S. president ever and cited as a true friend by current and former Israeli prime ministers, and has recently used the tragic murders of U.S. diplomats in Libya for political purposes.  Enough said.

Also to blame are Romney's campaign advisers who have led him horribly astray.  His first major downturn came when he responded to calls for him to release his tax returns by mounting a racist offensive against the president stating that Obama "needs to learn how to be an American."

But most damaging was choosing to key his entire campaign around asking Americans if they are better off today than they were four years ago.  The answer for most Americans is a resounding "yes."  The stock market has doubled, millions of new private sectors jobs have been created, the real estate collapse has started to reverse, and polls show that consumer spending and confidence are now at four year highs.

Does it make sense that the Romney campaign is spending millions to encourage Americans to realize that under President Obama our nation and most voters' view of the future have emerged from a death spiral and are headed in the right direction?

But the impending Republican disaster is not all Romney's fault.  The truth is that the Republican Party never really had a chance.

He has been saddled with a party platform that is so extreme and out of touch with most Americans on a broad range of social issues and the role of religion in our government that only those who truly hate Barack Obama could support him.

This sad story for Americans like me who were hoping for a real choice has been unfolding for months but just a few weeks ago the race was still close.  The politics betting site Intrade showed Obama as a 54-45 percent favorite to win in November.

Then came the Republican convention followed by the Democratic convention and that was that.  The focus of each convention was Obama.  All of the energy and passion and both conventions were in speeches about Obama.  The Republicans hate him and the Democrats love him.  But it also became painfully clear that Romney was the second or third choice for most Republicans.  They aren't passionate about HIM.  They are passionate about beating Obama.  The Democrats on the other hand are running the candidate that all of them want.  The difference in energy level, organization, and charisma from one week to the next was palpable.

Then came Romney's unfortunate and unpatriotic comments in the wake of the catastrophic murders of U.S. diplomats in Libya and suddenly it was over.

In an unprecedented three week slide on Intrade, the odds on the election have suddenly exploded to the point where Obama has now become a 67-33 favorite to win.

It has been a Wizard of Oz-like stretch where suddenly voters realized that the man behind the Republican curtain is not a wizard at all and that the party he represents has become so consumed with demonizing the president that they have forgotten to put together a positive plan for the future that makes any sense.

Just look at what has happened in Virginia--a key swing state that had been leaning toward Romney prior to the conventions.  The Republicans became so obsessed with including every Obama-bashing speaker in their shortened convention that not a single speaker--including Romney--made even a mention of the fact that our country is at war in Afghanistan and that tens of thousands of troops are fighting and dying there every day.

The Democrats then seized on the opportunity and made the troops a key part of every day's agenda.  They even had a mother of four servicemen--one currently serving in the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy--introduce Michelle Obama.  Both Obama and Biden talked extensively in their speeches about how grateful our country is to our men in uniform.

In Virginia, where one out of every three voters is either a veteran or a current member of the Armed Services, voters were apparently listening.  Senate candidate and former Governor Tim Kaine told me this week that support for both him and the president spiked dramatically during the last 10 days. 

Now Intrade shows Kaine as a 58-30 favorite in his race while Obama is listed as a 58-42 percent favorite.  Both races were neck and neck just two weeks ago.  Romney's numbers have also fallen off a cliff in Wisconsin, Ohio, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, and Iowa since the conventions. 

You get the picture.

There are thousands of writers and broadcasters who will make their living over the next seven weeks trying to convince us that the race is neck and neck and could easily tilt in either direction.  That the three upcoming debates will swing the race one way or another. That's their job.  But they will be fibbing.

It is over. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Let's Be Honest--About Iran

After studying with the Dalai Lama and his chief rabbis (they actually called themselves "rimpoches" but I assume that is Tibetan for "rabbi") here in Aspen a few years ago, I realized I needed a mantra. 

So I came up with the observation that "the more I know, the less I know for sure" which isn't all that different from the mantra of CLAL that we should always be looking for the partial truth in the opinion of others or the statement in the Talmud that a truly wise person is "one who learns from all people."

It has actually been a very useful mantra during these times when we are confronted by so many people who believe they have 100 percent of the truth on a variety of complex issues and instead of engaging with people who have different opinions and trying to learn from them the response too often is to demonize and delegitimize others and simply turn up the anger and the volume on their own positions.

With that as background, let's look at the situation in Iran and the conversation regarding what, if anything, the U.S. and Israel should be doing in response to that country's presumed march toward a nuclear weapon.

In the media and blogosphere, the conversation is relatively simple.  On one side are those who believe that Iran is on the verge of manufacturing a nuclear weapon that would pose and existential threat to Israel and other countries in the region and that the only responsible action for Israel and/or the U.S. to take would be to launch a preemptive military strike against Iran to destroy that country's nuclear capability.

On the other side are those (including most military experts in both Israel and the U.S.) who believe that Iran is not that close to developing nuclear capability and/or who doubt that a military strike would accomplish its goal in any event.

It seems pretty straight-forward. But the more one knows, the less one knows for sure.
President Obama has stated repeatedly that he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and has imposed harsh economic sanctions against Iran which by all accounts are causing great economic hardship to Iranian citizens and which are therefore considered to be successful by many people who are hopeful that the people there will pressure their government into abandoning their nuclear aspirations.

Here in Aspen I met with Clifford May and Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) who acknowledge that the sanctions are indeed making life miserable for average Iranians.  They reported that the price of chicken--the staple of the Iranian diet--has quadrupled in recent months and there are other hardships.  But they claim that the hatred of Israel, Judaism, and western values is so hard-wired into the soul of the radical Muslims who run the country that it won't have any impact on their quest for a nuclear bomb. 

Despite their reservations, FDD is reportedly pushing for even tougher sanctions and its leaders are actually helping to draft them.

Then I had lunch in Washington with Dr. Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) this week who told me that Obama and the FDD are both correct that sanctions are indeed making life miserable for Iranian citizens but they are hurting--not helping--the Israeli and American cause.

Parsi claims that most Iranians actually love--not hate--America and western values.  Their real hatred is reserved for their own corrupt, fundamentalist government leaders who have no qualms about making their own people suffer.  But now that the American-led boycott is creating a shortage of medicine that is causing many Iranians to die needlessly, he says a lot of that anger is being redirected toward the U.S. and Israel and away from the very government leaders that we are trying to hurt.

Later the same day, I talked with former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Dan Haloutz who believes that Iran has no intention of developing a nuclear weapon at all and that even if they did, Israel is the last country in the region they would ever attack.  Israel, he pointed out, is the one country in the neighborhood that is already a major economic and military power that could wipe Iran off the face of the earth in a retaliatory attack so, he asks, why would Iranian leaders (who may be evil but who are not stupid) pick a fight with the toughest kid on the block.

Haloutz, like virtually all current and former Israeli military and IDF experts, doubts that a preemptive Israeli strike would succeed in destroying Iran's nuclear capability and that the inevitable Iranian response would result in massive casualties among Israeli citizens--most of whom are opposed to an attack in the first place.

And because this is the silly season in the U.S., everything has a political component.  The Right wing has used Obama's unwillingness to endorse an attack (which polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans and virtually all of our military leaders oppose) as a sign of his weakness and lack of true support for Israel.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has shockingly decided to once again publicly criticize the leader of Israel's only major ally and benefactor in a very public and direct way, leading to speculation that he is trying to help his friends Mitt Romney and Sheldon Adelson accompish their goal of defeating Obama in November.

I have some thoughts on who is more right than wrong on each of the above issues, but there is certainly a lot of truth in each of these positions and points of view.  And I have no doubt that all of the people I refer to above are sincere in their belief that their position on Iran is correct and will lead to the best result.

And, because our media has become more focused on advocacy and quick and simple answers than on providing real insights and education, there is a lot more heat than light being produced by all the ranting and raving on this issue. 

And the energy and passion are coming from those who are convinced the situation is simple--not complicated--and that their side has 100 percent of the truth.  Their response to troublesome facts or different opinions is to either ignore them or demonize those who voice them.

But for those of us who dig even a little bit deeper, it is clear that nothing is clear.

The more I know, the less I know for sure.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Let's Be Honest--J Street is SO Inside the Tent

Full disclosure up front.  I have been very involved in Jewish and pro-Israel organizations for three decades and I try to use Jewish wisdom, values and ethics as my moral filter.  I have chaired two Federation campaigns, chaired state Israel Bonds campaigns, made 20 trips to Israel, served on our local AIPAC board and am now on the National Advisory Committee of J Street. 

I spent the last couple of days in Washington, D.C. at the J Street National Leadership Summit and came away proud and enthused over how J Street has evolved and matured during over the last few years.  It has truly taken its place among the ranks of the important national Jewish and pro-Israel organizations in a very short period of time.

You don't have to take my word for it.  The list of speakers who addressed us and their tone and message said it all.  I'll deal with some of what I heard and learned in subsequent articles over the next couple days.

But first and foremost, my many self-described pro-Israel friends who have been anywhere from very suspicious to downright hostile toward J Street since its inception just a few years ago should all know once and for all that J Street is here to stay and has clearly established itself as a major pro-Israel player on the national and international scene. 

The days are long gone when small, wealthy passionate groups of wealthy Right wing Jewish community leaders will be able to intimidate community professionals and rabbis who have agreed to host J Street programs and speakers.  The most egregious example of that behavior occurred two years ago in Boston where a speaking invitation to J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami was cancelled by a synagogue rabbi just hours before a scheduled event after the rabbi said he was pressured by a few large donors.  But those days are behind us..

J Street's amazing growth (more than 180,000 donors and followers and a Rabbinic Cabinet of more than 600) is a reflection of the huge void in the American Jewish discussion about Israel it has filled.  It is the only place where honest, open and balanced conversations about the many nuanced and complicated issues surrounding Israel can really take place.

Look at what happened in just 24 hours in Washington this week.  Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren spoke to our group of about 75 J Street leaders.  Although his specific comments were off the record, the difference in his tone was like night and day from his appearance at the same event two years ago when he spent all his time criticizing J Street for everything from its unhelpful statements and policies to its logo.

This time, he didn't talk about J Street's credentials as a pro-Israel group--that was a given.  Instead he gave us a detailed update of all the issues and challenges confronting the Jewish state.  It seemed obvious that his different and friendlier tone was based on J Street's clear stands on a number of issues over the last year that removed doubt about its commitment to Israel as a Jewish democratic state.  Oren answered many questions from the audience--all of which were respectful and asked by people who clearly cared about Israel.  But he still hates our logo.

His talk was followed by an interview of former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff General Dani Haloutz who is in the U.S. on a three-day J Street speaking tour.  Gen. Haloutz was interviewed by
Jeffrey Goldberg--a highly respected reporter with The Atlantic who had accepted an invitation to appear at a national J Street event for the first time.  Jeff told me after his interview that he was surprised by the "moderate" tone of the questions and the crowd in general.

That night, our group attended a J Street fundraiser for former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine who is running for the Senate in a close race.  Kaine has accepted J Street's endorsement--as has California Senator Dianne Feinstein and more than 60 other Congressional and Senate candidates.  Just two years ago, candidates of that stature told J Street they couldn't accept our money or endorsement for fear of being ostracized by those on the pro-Israel Right.

But a lot has changed in two years.

The next morning, we heard from PLO Chief Representative Maen Areikat who gave us a very different perspective than the one presented by Oren.  He was also treated with respect and was pressed hard by the group with questions about his version of the story.

Then we went to Capitol Hill where I had the opportunity to meet with two Congressmen from former homes--Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio who represents the district including Oberlin where I sent to college and lived for nine years.

It was an energizing and informative couple of days and I came away very aware that only J Street could have put a program like that together.  No other Jewish or pro-Israel organization would invite and treat with both respect and probing questions a group of top level speakers representing such a rich and broad range of perspectives. 

That's because J Street doesn't do pep rallies and is not strictly a booster club for the Israeli government .  J Street promotes conversation and informed discussion for those who acknowledge how complex and complicated the issues surrounding the relationship between the democratic State of Israel and most Jewish Americans have become.  What an opportunity and what a blessing it is that J Street has filled that gaping void in our national Jewish conversation.

It is defiinitely time for those who have never attended a J Street event or read a J Street statement or policy from our website but instead have forwarded vicious emails decrying J Street's hidden agenda of destroying Israel to actually do some reading and get some first-hand knowledge of the important role the organization is playing on the political scene after just a few short years.

Thankfully more and more people like Michael Oren, Jeffrey Goldberg, dozens of members of Congress and many, many others are no longer part of that crowd and are acting out the Jewish mandate to try to learn from all people and to embrace disagreements that are the result of good, caring people all working to make the world a better place.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why is Obama Still So Far Ahead?

By any measure, this has been a very rough week for the Obama re-election campaign.

It began with the decisive decision of the voters in Wisconsin to allow Republican Scott Walker to remain governor. Then on Friday, the President held a brief news conference during which he was not at his best. He fed his detractors a line--"I believe the private sector is doing just fine"--which is already coming back to haunt him.

Actually, I agree with Obama that by any reasonable relative measure the economy, the stock market, corporate profits, consumer confidence, the housing markets, and job creation are doing so much better than they were three years ago. But during this politically supercharged election year, it was not a smart thing for Obama to say.

Many of my Republican friends have sent me emails dripping with confidence and glee telling me that the events of the last week have pushed Mitt Romney far into the lead and, as my friend Jeremy exulted, "your boy Obama is toast."

But, as is so often the case with pronouncements from the Right wing echo chamber, that is simply not the case. Like a fifth marriage, it is yet another triumph of hope over experience

The only polls that are always correct and that really matter--the online and Casino based betting sites--show that Obama is still a more than 10 point favorite. A recent check of Intrade shows that one would has to bet 54 cents on Obama today to win back a dollar while a mere 43 cent bet on Romney is required to win back the same dollar. Romney remains a big underdog in the only poll that matters--the one which measures how real people are betting real money. The betting odds at the casino-based sites are pretty much the same. In fact, Obama is a slightly bigger favorite there.

Of course the odds are dynamic and if bettors change their behavior, the odds will reflect that in the future. But Intrade has never been wrong by the time elections roll around. Last week, as the news media tried to convince us that the Wisconsin election was going to be close, Intrade was showing that Scott Walker was a 20-1 favorite to defeat Tom Barrett. If you want to know how things are really going, follow the money--not the pundits.

So why is Obama still favored by so much, even as the point men on the Right flood the talk shows with examples of his supposed incompetence and describe an administration that is out of control and out of touch with what is really going on in America?

My answer is what it has always been. There simply aren't enough Obama detractors out there to get Romney elected. If a voter dislikes Obama and his performance and, over the course of time, comes to dislike him even more, that voter can still only cast one ballot. For Romney to win, he will have to display a vision and a program for the future that inspires millions of American independent voters and get them to vote for him. Thus far, Romney hasn't even been able to inspire most Republicans.

In fact, his performance on the campaign trail has been almost Palinesque. Throughout the Republican primaries, he seemed to be his own worst enemy as he made comment after comment that revealed his seemingly hard-wired affliction with either stage fright or stupidity.

He talked about how much he enjoyed firing workers at the companies that Bain Capital took over. In an effort to show a patriotic commitment to America and what an "ordinary" guy he is, he mentioned that his wife buys American and owns a couple of Cadillacs. He went on to take credit for the new found success of the American auto industry--companies from his home in Michigan which he famously wrote should be allowed to go broke just a couple years ago.

During just the last few weeks, the presumptive GOP nominee has stated that it is Russia--not Iran or North Korea or Muslim terrorists--that poses the greatest geopolitical threat to the U.S. Why does he feel that way?  He didn't say.

And he recently praised the massive layoffs of public employees--including thousands of teachers, police, and firefighters on the state and local levels in dozens of states led by Republican governors around the country.

There are still almost five months remaining before Election Day in November. A lot can change.

But I still receive several emails and read articles and hear Right wing news and media reports every day reminding of what a horrible president Barack Obama has been. There are tens of millions of Americans who feel that way and since they get most of their "information" from inside the echo chamber where only voices confirming the previously held beliefs are allowed, the the outrage, fear, and anger expressed inside that closed environment will only grow.

Meanwhile, I have yet to receive a single missive extolling the leadership qualities and vision of the man who they plan to vote for in November. Not one.

Unless and until that message starts getting framed and expressed in a convincing manner, there is no reason to believe that Barack Obama will not be our president for four more years.

The best way to keep track of what is really happening is not to stay tuned to Fox or MSNBC or any of the mass media outlets that thrive on dissension and close races. Just make Intrade your home page and check it on a regular basis. If and when Romney pulls ahead in a meaningful way, you'll be the first to know.

But for now, like it or now, Obama is still a heavy favorite.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

J Street Makes it to Main Street

For more than two years, I have become increasingly involved with J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that shares. discusses, and promotes the belief of most Jews that Israel cannot remain a viable Jewish democracy unless and until an independent Palestinian state is established in much of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Unlike other pro-Israel organizations, J Street believes it is not only permissible but it is actually positive for those who care deeply about Israel to engage in public discussions regarding what we believe makes the most sense for Israel and the Jewish people.

Since J Street was created just a few years ago, leaders of the Israeli government and other American Jews who also care deeply about Israel's future have done their best to frame J Street and its leaders as dangerously misguided.  So much so that they have put enormous pressure on Jewish professionals and rabbis to keep J Street speakers out of synagogues and other Jewish centers.

Nevertheless, J Street has consistently gained traction and credibility.  There are now dozens of J Street chapters around the country and branches of J Street U on dozens of campuses.  More than 600 rabbis and cantors proudly serve on the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet and J Street now has more than 10,000 donors and almost 200,000 followers.

Still, the debate raged on in certain circles over whether J Street should be allowed "inside the Jewish tent" or whether its message was just too toxic and threatening to even be heard.

While not everyone who cares about Israel is part of J Street or will ever agree that its message and approach are a good thing, there now seems to be little doubt that J Street is now clearly inside the tent and the tactics and efforts used to destroy it have failed.

Just a few weeks ago, the Israeli government sent Baruch Binah, the second highest-ranking diplomat in the Israeli Embassy in Washington to attend the J Street National Conference where it was my privilege to sit with him at the gala dinner attended by more than 2,500 people.  In his speech, Binah made it clear that the Israeli government is not a fan of J Street's approach but it was equally clear that the government knows J Street is here to stay.

Just last week , Conservative pundit Bill Kristol appeared in a debate with J Street founding president Jeremy Ben Ami.  The debate, moderated by Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner, drew a standing room only crowd and there have been no reports of anyone contracting a disease from watching two thoughtful Jews who care deeply about Israel discuss their contrasting views in public.

Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev attended the debate and wistfully wrote that he was jealous that civil and respectful conversation could take place here in the U.S. in ways that it never could in Israel.

"As an Israeli observer," Shalev wrote, "I must admit I found myself envious of the ability of the two debaters and of their audience to conduct such a potentially volatile political debate in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In Israel, I suspect, such civilized debates may no longer be possible."

Shalev attributed the respectful atmosphere, in part at least, to the relatively moderate tone and tenor of Kristol's remarks. He was not vulgar or offensive in reference to President Obama. And he proclaimed his support, in principle, for the two-state solution. Indeed, both debaters strove to eschew emotive extremism in their presentations.

And just a couple of days ago, MSNBC contributor David Goodfriend appeared on the Dylan Ratigan show and told the world why he is a strong supporter of J Street  after Goodfriend returned from a family trip to Israel that was highlighted by his son's bar mitzvah.  Goodfriend's sentiments and reasoning are typical of what I have found among most of my fellow J Street supporters.  It is very different from the way we are portrayed by our many detractors on the outside.

Left to our own devices, we American Jews will revert to the pluralistic values of free speech and trying to find the partial truth in the opinions of others. As I wrote several weeks ago (J Street and AIPAC--These and These are the Words of Being Pro-Israel) we are always well served by having multiple approaches and opinions to sift through.  That's how we have always learned and grown.

Despite the best efforts of many of our wealthiest and most influential leaders, it seems that more and more gatekeepers of the Jewish tent have opened the doors to J Street.  Not necessarily to agree with us but to acknowledge the infinite value of open discussion.

These and these are the words of the living God.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Auschwitz, Israel, Arizona and This Week's Torah Portion

The headline story in the Arizona Jewish Post this week was a report on the 2012 March of the Living and the joy that my fellow Tucsonan Bill Kugelman felt in being part of it

The March of the Living is a 24-year old program that has involved more than 200,000 participants since its inception. On its website it states its mission as follows:

The March of the Living brings students from around the world to march from Auschwitz-Birkenau on Yom Hashoah in memory of all Holocaust victims. After visiting other places of Nazi persecution and sites of Jewish life in Poland, many participants travel to Israel, the homeland of the Jewish People.

I have many friends who have participated in this program over the years and found it to be a memorable and worthwhile experience.

Bill is an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor who has lived in Tucson for almost 50 years and has devoted a large part of his life to educating others and sharing his memories and knowledge about the horrors of the Holocaust.

It is clear that his concentration camp experiences of almost 70 years ago have played a major role in shaping his world view and his life even today.  His presence on the trip must have added great value since he was able to walk with the young people as someone who actually lived in the places they were seeing and could tell them how it felt to be part of the history they were trying to recreate in their own minds.

When Kugelman was asked what he hoped to accomplish and why he agreed to go on the trip at the age of 88, he said something that really got my attention.

"If Jewish parents want their kids to remain Jewish, to have a spark of Jewishness, they need to know the price of Jewishness."

Kugelman, speaking sincerely based on his own very real life experience, seems to view the message of the Holocaust in Jewish terms--a narrative that he finds every bit as relevant today as he did back then. The Nazis were the latest in a long line of people who have hated Jews and came after us.   He believes that any Jewish parent who wants his child to remain Jewish owes it to that kid to teach him about the Holocaust so he will know how high that price might be.

Near the end of the article, a teenager from Tucson who also went on the trip talked about why the trip was such a transformative and meaningful experience to him. After spending time in Auschwitz and then in Israel on a trip that is choreographed to highlight the Jewish journey from death and despair to hope and prosperity, Benjamin Bressler said,

"I cannot stress how important the trip is. Not just because you are Jewish but because you are human."

Benjamin's comment provides what is to me a more contemporary perspective.  And on top of that, it really reflects a more Jewish perspective as well.  Our Torah and our values have always obsessed on ways to make the world a better place for all people--not just a safer place for Jews.

That is in no way to diminish the very real respect and gratitude that I feel toward Bill and the many other survivors for their tireless effort to create programs and museums and curricula to make sure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.

For the vast majority of the world's Jews who live in Israel and the U.S., the Holocaust years are truly a reflection of a time in history and a mindset that are an important memory--not a measure of our current reality.  In Israel and the U.S. today, Jews enjoy lives of unprecedented power, prosperity, and are widely sought out as friends, business partners, neighbors, and spouses by those around us who are not Jewish.

Both Kugelman and Bressler loved participating in the March of the Living and thought it was important and life changng. It gave the teenager, gave him a first-hand sense of the story of the Holocaust and how it led to the return of the Jews to the State of Israel.  And it showed him how horrible and cruel humans can be to one another and that we need to be vigilant to make sure that kind of behavior doesn't happen on our watch. 

But for the Holocaust survivor, the point of the story is uniquely Jewish.  No parent should allow his child to remain Jewish unless that child understands they will pay the price of being universally tormented by the outside world that will always hate and want to destroy us.

As happens with shocking frequency, I found a line in this week's Torah portion (with the help of my friend and teacher Rabbi David Segal of Aspen) that brought this news story into sharper focus. After outlining dozens of commandments that people are required to follow in their daily lives, God launches into a long and daunting list of curses that will befall those who ignore his instructions and act badly.

One of the more subtle curses--but obviously an important one since it is repeated twice in Leviticus 26:17 and again a few pages (or a turn of the wrist) later in 26:36--is that those who are truly cursed are those who live in constant fear of dangers that are no longer real.

 I will cast a faintness into their hearts...The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight.  Fleeing, as though from the sword, they shall fall, though none pursues.  With no one pursing they shall stumble over one another as before the sword.  They will not be able to stand their ground.   (Leviticus 36:36-37).

I receive several emails daily from fellow Jews who want to make sure I know how anti-Semitism is alive and well and, in the opinion of many, worse than ever. I am constantly being warned by very sincere people that I must remain vigilant in fighting and, in the words of my friend Bill Kugelman, know the very high price that comes with being Jewish.  Meanwhile, I look around and just don't see it. In fact, we are surrounded by signs of the opposite--love, acceptance, and respect for and appreciation of Judaism and Jewish values by my non-Jewish friends.

Is this the fulfillment of God's warning as we all read in the Torah just this week? That we will be self-afflicted with the fear and outrage and anguish that leads to the perpetual feeling of victimhood and the need to flee, even when no one is chasing us?  Is this part of the price we are paying for the inability of so many Jews to treat others in a civil manner?

Perhaps many Jews are doomed to suffer from that curse unless and until they can learn, as so many younger Jews have, to opt for Jewish values, wisdom, ethics, and ritual observance as a treasure that will lead to happier, more productive, and more meaningful lives instead of only seeing being Jewish as a high-priced burden that those who choose to remain Jewish are doomed to bear.

There is a more full-blown blog in that line and it will be coming. But for now, I just wanted to share what started as a random musing that, when seasoned with a little Torah wisdom, became something much more.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Live from the J Street Conference

Kristen and I will be here in Washinton for the next three days for our second J Street National Conference I would encourage all Jews and others who care deeply about the future of Israel and the American Jewish community to follow live at www, or to check out the videos on line.

The conference hasn't even started yet and I've already had a chance to connect and reconnect with a number of Jewish journalist friends from the U.S. and Israel and to have meaningful conversations with Amos Oz, Jeremy Ben Ami and others

I have been to many Federation General Assemblies, AIPAC local and national events, and other Jewish gatherings and haved really enjoyed and learned from then all. But right now today, J Street is tapping into a void that we desperately need to fill.

We have to have a venue where Jews who care about Israel to come and vigorously debate the challenges that face us. Not just to stand and applaud every five seconds and hear speech after speech designed to pander to the wealthiest and politically significant Jews and others who have already made up their minds what policies regarding Israel should be. We don't need another booster club where the kinds of serious debates about morality and values are banned instead of encouraged.

We need a venue where the implications of the actions of American political leaders and the Israeli government and religious leaders are discussed by people who care about Israel's chances for survival as a Jewish democracy and on what it the actions of the Jewish state has on the practical meaning of Jewish values, wisdom, and ethics.

Where the external threats are acknowledged and discussed along with--not instead of--the moral implications of actions taken in the name of all Jews everywhere.

So far more than 2500 people have shown up for the opening plenary. Thousands of caring rabbis, students, and Jews like me. I am really looking forward to the next couple days and will be sharing my thoughts here.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

J Street and AIPAC--"Eilu v' Eilu"--These and These are the Words of Being Pro Israel

Many centuries ago, contentiousness among the followers of two great Jewish rabbinic leaders became so toxic and destructive to the community that God felt the need to personally intervene.

Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai were great sages who disagreed constantly and had very different views regarding how Jews should behave in almost every situation. Then, according to Rabbi Michelle Missagheih:

"So the students of Hillel and Shammai, two schools of thought concerning Jewish law, continue debating for three years and then the Talmud says, “A bat kol – a voice from God – came forth and said "eilu v’eilu divray elohim chaim hen,” meaning “both these and these are the words of the living God.” This is amazing. God is the one who gets fed up with the fight! God can’t take it any more and says “enough is enough. Both of you are right. You both have legitimate approaches to law and life.”

Another implication is that if we take what the Talmud says seriously, and I do, then there is no “truth” with a capital “T.” Being “right” is not the goal. Rather the goal is remaining engaged in the discussion."

I watched the opening session of the AIPAC Conference in Washington this morning--a conference I have attended in person in the past. It reminded me of why that organization is so compelling to so many Americans who care about Israel.

The AIPAC conference has sufficient political clout and gravitas to attract government leaders such as Shimon Peres and Barack Obama to appear at its opening session. And no booster club in the world does a better job than AIPAC of producing multi-media introductions and choreographing events to elicit the maximum positive effect.  I cried during the video introduction to Shimon Peres.  It made me feel proud to be a Jew.

In a couple of weeks, Kristen and I will again attend the J Street Conference in Washington (in the same room in which Peres and Obama spoke today) to hear former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert talk about the critical bonds that connect the U.S. and Israel and to praise J Street for the important role it plays in furthering that process.

As an American Jew who cares deeply about Israel and our Jewish community here at home, It seems both logical and obvious that fellow Jews who share those feelings should rejoice that we have two powerful organizations supporting Israel and trying to secure and promote its future.

And yet, none of my many Jewish friends who support AIPAC can understand how in the world I can be involved in a leadership position at J Street. Most of them read and .forward emails (and, in Tucson, have listened to Yom Kippur sermons) which demonize J Street as being anti-Israel and committed to a Palestinian triumph over the critical interests Jewish people and our homeland. Although those friends have strong negative feelings about J Street, I have yet to meet one that has ever visited the J Street website or attended a J Street event.

Conversely, many of my J Street friends are surprised to learn that I am chairing my second Federation annual campaign and believe that AIPAC is an important and valuable part of the Jewish mosaic in our country. They believe that AIPAC is a tool of the Right wing government leaders in Israel and the U.S. who are committed to an Israeli triumph over legitimate interests of the Palestinians, Jewish values, and the need for a two-state solution to the problems in Israel and the West Bank.

I respect the concerns of all those friends--each of whom I sincerely believe cares deeply about the future of Judaism and our community. But they have apparently bought into the mantra of American politics that if we disagree about anything, then for me to be right, you have to be wrong. To them I recommend Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's important book which clearly states the opposite--"You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right."  It provides a different and much needed perspective.

But the truth of the matter is that J Street and AIPAC are not competitors.  They are separate organizations with the common agenda of supporting Israel in very different ways.

AIPAC is a pro-Israel booster club--an advocacy and marketing organization. Its stated mission is to lobby U.S. citizens and our political representatives to support whatever actions the Israeli government chooses to take. It is an important job and they do it with passion. Its leaders and followers tend to be Americans (more and more of whom are not Jewish) who view Israel and Jews as the perpetual victims and underdogs facing constant existential threats from hostile neighbors who was determined to destroy Israel and the Jewish people.

Although the AIPAC Conference is just underway, I am confident that all of the conversation and presentations will focus--accurately--on Israel's many accomplishments against overwhelming odds and on the threats to that country's very existence that it faces on a daily basis from hostile neighbors.  There will be no mention of Operation Price Tag or illegal confiscation of Palestinian land to build settlements or the occupation of the Palestinians that is now in its 45th year.  That's not what a booster club does.

J Street is a pro-Israel group whose core belief is that a peaceful two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian situation is the only way that Israel can continue to exist as both a democracy and a Jewish state. Its leaders and followers tend to be American Jews (including a majority of our county's young Conservative and Reform rabbis and cantors) who view the 45-year occupation of West Bank Palestinians by Israeli Jews as a demographic time bomb and a test of whether the Jewish values, ethics, and wisdom that have guided us through centuries of powerless exile can survive in an unprecedented environment where Jews actually have power.

What an amazing testimonial to the power and wisdom of our Jewish community that we have two such organizations--each with thousands of donors and tens of thousands of supporters and followers here and Israel co-existing in a country where just a few decades ago Jews suffered from widespread discrimination and few were willing to raise their voices in support of Israel in a public setting.

Sadly, politics and passion have prevailed and I seem to be among the very few who are actually celebrating this victory for Jewish community and pluralism. Instead, the voices of angry demonizers seem to be the only background music.

As he was introducing Barack Obama this morning, AIPAC president Lee Rosenberg emphasized that Obama was speaking at AIPAC, "THE central address of the pro-Israel community." In my opinion, Rosy didn't need to say that, but I would have really been upset if he said AIPAC is the ONLY address of the pro-Israel community which I regret to report than many of my friends believe.

On the flip side, I have J Street friends who can't believe that I still find AIPAC to be an important and positive piece of the pro-Israel mosaic and not just a tool of the pro-Israel and Republican Right.
According to the Jewish wisdom and values that have sustained us for millenia, they are missing the whole point. What matters is that we recognized what God felt compelled to remind us during a similar time--that these and these are both acting out God's will and it is the acknowledgement and rejoicing in that facts that makes us truly holy.

J Street and AIPAC--these and these--are what being pro-Israel is all about.

Those who don't get and understand that are desecrating God's words and our glorious pluralistic tradition in a fruitless effort to achieve short term political gain.

May the same God who blessed us with the insight of "eihu v'eilu" give those well-meaning people the insight to understand the error of their ways and the great harm they are doing to the Jewish community, Israel, and the United States.  For the sake of us all.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Investment Outlook for 2012--The More Things Change...

I believe that 2012 will be the fourth straight rewarding year for investors who can sleep at night and deal with the very real headline risks that will whip the markets around on a daily basis. I further believe it is an excellent time to be invested in outstanding American companies that are earning record profits, some of which selling at levels we have not seen since I first got into the business more than three decades ago.

More about where we are headed and why in a minute. First, let’s look back on the year just ended and see what we have learned.

On one level, 2011 was an extremely volatile period for the investment markets. It seemed that every day the focus would shift from one economic “crisis” to the next with the headlines of the moment combining with the steroids of high-frequency computer trading to whip the market up, down and around on an hourly basis.

We went from periods of angst about the budget deficits to concerns about the U.S. unemployment rate to fears of the effect of tax increases to the catastrophic implications of a downgrade to the U.S. credit rating to worries about a double-dip recession to the Congressionally-created threats of a U.S. default to the grim speculation over the impact of a Chinese slowdown to the current doomsday scenarios regarding the future of European Union and the economic and financial disruptions that are still being touted as a likely outcome of a full-blown crisis in that part of the world.

Each of these looming disasters was labeled a crisis by the disaster-addicted media—at least until they completely dropped the story the next day—and the ebb and flow of hourly headlines had the ability to create “risk-on” euphoria or “risk-off” despair—sometimes with several of each taking place during the same trading day. And, for the most part, the accompanying frenzies disappeared as quickly as they had appeared and the media spotlight and obsession moved on to the next disaster du jour.

And yet if someone went to sleep on January 1, 2011 and woke up on New Year’s Eve, he would think that things had been pretty calm since all the stock market averages ended the year about where they started. So who were the real experts—those who told us we needed to make daily adjustments to our holdings or face calamity or the guy who slept through it all and didn’t change a thing?

This obvious attempt at sarcasm should not suggest that there aren’t serious issues that hang like a cloud over the future of our economy and that there aren’t real problems out there. Far from it.

Our media’s addiction to crises has distracted investors from the real underlying story. After a real cataclysmic, system-threatening financial meltdown in 2008 followed by three years of rehab, high unemployment and slow economic activity, there seems to be evidence that things are getting better across a whole variety of data points and the slow steady economic recovery of the last two years is finally gaining some real traction. More jobs are being created every month, fewer people are submitting new claims for unemployment, and consumer confidence is rising.

At a time when stock prices across a broad swath of companies ranging from Apple to McDonald’s to IBM to Union Pacific to Nike to Philip Morris trading at or near all-time highs in revenues, earnings, and stock prices and most market averages up almost 100 percent over the last three years, many investors still fear the market and have been steering their purchases to so-called safe havens such as gold and U.S. treasuries.

My plan for 2012 is similar to my approach in 2011. Investors should be positioned in quality companies which are showing outstanding growth in revenues and profits, solid management, a history of raising dividends and distributions in industry sectors that seem likely to benefit from an improving economy and rising confidence. In summary, I believe 2012 should be very much like 2011 in a number of respects—only better.

Those sectors that were favored in 2011 (energy, agriculture, oil and gas pipelines, and life-changing technology) should continue to do well. If the economy and sentiment continue to improve, sectors such as industrials, banks, and home builders could end their multi-year bear markets and finally make a turn to the upside. Even though the headlines remained bad during the fourth quarter, some of the largest gains were registered by housing related investments. Many of the bank stocks have spiked sharply in recent weeks as well. It is an area we will continue to watch.

The headlines will be far different in 2012 as the presidential campaign kicks into full swing. The Republicans will certainly continue to convince Americans that we have been suffering mightily from the policies of President Obama while Democrats will try to focus on all of the many hopeful signs I have mentioned above. As usual, the pundits will do their best to stir the pot and create controversy and confusion.

Meanwhile, I will continue to keep my eye on the data which, at least recently, have shown signs of significant and hopefully sustainable improvement.

Buy good stocks and live a long time. That has been my mantra for more than 30 years. For the first 20 years, it worked like a charm. Not much has worked for anyone during the last 10 years. Now the whole idea of long-term investing has been thoroughly rejected by luminaries such as Jim Cramer and a broad range of high-speed hedge fund traders (many of whom lost quite a bit of their clients’ money last year).

Hopefully, this will be the year that we are all fully rewarded for our belief and confidence in some of our country’s premier companies. Obviously, there are event risks, but I believe there are greater risks to losing both money and/or buying power to those who load up on cash, bonds and gold in the name of safety than to those who buy quality companies at reasonable prices.