Archive for February, 2015

THE CAMPUS DISEASE

Cairo’s Al-Azhar University is the Muslim world’s preeminent Sunni religious institution. The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) provides outstanding higher education in the United States. Both seem quite different. Yet both share something in common besides being well-known universities. It’s cause for concern.

Last Sunday in Mecca, Ahmed al-Tayib, Al-Azhar’s grand imam, addressed leading Sunni clerics from around the world. He called for Muslim educational reforms to halt the spread of religious extremism. “The only hope for the Muslim nation to recover unity is to tackle in our schools and universities this tendency to accuse Muslims of being unbelievers.”

So far, so good—unless you’re uncomfortable with the word “unbelievers.” And maybe the fact that al-Tayib spoke only to problems among Muslims. In the same address, according to Agence France-Presse, al-Tayib “blamed unrest in the region on a conspiracy by what he called ‘new global colonialism allied to world Zionism.’” What’s the cause of the bloodshed in Iraq and Syria; Afghanistan and Pakistan; Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria? It’s the Jews.

Something just as disturbing emerged from UCLA. On February 10, the school’s Undergraduate Students Association Council considered the application of sophomore Rachel Beyda to serve on that body. At least one council member specifically questioned Beyda about whether she, as a Jew, could neutrally judge campus policies. It seems that despite what’s happening in the countries I just mentioned, and the usual issues faced by colleges and universities, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of preeminent importance on the Westwood campus. Might Beyda’s Jewish involvements, she was asked, create a conflict of interest?

This line of questioning seemed odd given that several students on the Judicial Council have names suggesting they might be Muslim. Do they have a conflict of interest? Interestingly, council president Avinoam Baral is Jewish. So maybe this whole incident is overblown. But I doubt it. Last May, UCLA’s Muslim student newsmagazine, Al-Talib, attacked Baral for being part of a Jewish program that helps young Jews visit Israel because it “actively (contributes) to violence against Muslims.” If that’s valid, should we assume that visiting the West Bank or Gaza contributes to violence against Jews? Should Muslim students who do so be banned from university government?

Across America, college campuses are rife with anti-Semitism. Jewish groups and individual students are harassed continually. Muslim and other students—including leftist Jews—see Israel as the fulcrum of the world’s problems. Jews can do no right. Muslims can do no wrong. But is that so?

Last Monday, a Federal District Court jury in New York found the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization liable for six terrorist attacks in Israel between 2002 and 2004. It awarded the plaintiffs $218.5 million—to be tripled to $655.5 million under U.S. hate-crime provisions. Dr. Mahmoud Khalifa, PA deputy minister of information, said the PA would appeal. “We are confident that we will prevail, as we have faith in the U.S. legal system and are certain about our common sense belief and our strong legal standing.”

Unless, of course, the Jews, who control the courts and Washington—along with Wall Street, the banking system, the media and the arts—undermine the appeal. Sounds far-fetched? If you can believe Ahmed al-Tayib and too many college students across the U.S., you can believe that.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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COMIC STRIP WISDOM

I read comic strips. As a kid, my favorites included “Dick Tracy” and “Li’l Abner” (Daisy Mae, yes!). Today, it’s “The Knight Life,” “Rhymes With Orange,” “Zits” and “Garfield.” Occasionally, I read “Sally Forth.” A few weeks ago, a particular “Sally” inspired me.

In a fantasy sequence, it’s 2025. The dad, Ted, counsels his adult daughter Hilary (12 or so in the present) about her music. She’s having a tough time. A musician’s life constitutes hard work and exhausting travel. I get it. My son Yosi plays fiddle for Hurray for the Riff Raff. Fortunately, they keep moving up through will, effort and, of course, talent.

Ted’s advice—in the present he’s rather childlike, but he’s matured—resonated. My novel Flight of the Spumonis just became available at Amazon as I began a new and very different book. Ted asks rhetorically if Hil knows why musicians make music or writers write or actors act. Then he answers, “It’s about having a voice. And if you don’t pursue your art, you may lose that great opportunity to have your say.”

It’s not about money. I know. Many years ago, I hoped to break through as a writer of fiction. I had a few stories published in small magazines. Won third-place in a contest. I wrote a novel and found an agent. Editors were complimentary but didn’t buy. I wrote a few more novels, including the first version of Spumonis. Nada. No more agent, either. I stopped writing. I had a growing family and a growing business. I chose not to feed Carolyn and the kids scraps so I could pamper my ego as a struggling artist. I figured I could always write later in life. It all worked out.

I wrote two non-fiction books. Solo Success found a home at Crown Publishers (Random House). I had my 15 minutes—okay, seconds—of fame. The money wasn’t much, but I loved the emails and letters I received from freelancers around the world. I published God’s Others myself. Close to 65, I got back into fiction after telling a wild story to my friends Dan and Ira over coffee. Dan said, “That would make a good novel.” It became Slick!

I’ve always been a storyteller, and fiction gives me a voice. Slick! mocked corruption and hypocrisy—Middle Eastern and American. Kirkus Reviews named it one of the 25 Best Indie Books of 2012. I followed up with San Café, set in Central America. Then I switched gears. The Boy Walker examined the impact on a father and son of losing a wife/mother and daughter/sister. My research included both oncology and stand-up comedy. Now, Flight of the Spumonis looks at 1980 America struggling with a damaged economy and geopolitical frustration. We see a time much like ours through the eyes of a 13-year-old trapeze artist who runs away from the circus and journeys across the continent.

It’s not easy making sense of life, but fiction offers readers a uniquely empathetic look at other people—and themselves. In doing so, it helps bring people and cultures closer. So in “Sally Forth,” Ted rightly tells Hil that through their art, artists can interpret the world. Which demonstrates that comic strips can be very serious.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or go to Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

JUSTICE AND MONEY

Statues of Lady Justice hold up scales to weigh fairly testimony from competing parties. Since the 15th century, Justice often wears a blindfold symbolizing impartiality. Justice does not favor the rich and powerful. But often overlooked is another aspect of justice espoused more than 2,500 years ago. Some well-meaning people may find it disturbing.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (rules), offers a commandment that always strikes me as exceptional. “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute” (Exodus 23:2–3). Leviticus 19:15 and Deuteronomy 1:17 present the same view.

What were the writers of Torah thinking? Exodus 23:2–3 is preceded by a number of laws protecting the poor from avarice, sexual debasement, slavery and physical harm. It’s easy to preach honesty and integrity when your belly is full. Why not cut the poor some slack in the courtroom?

The Talmud (Chullin 134a) finds a balancing point between empathy and impartiality. It proposes that judges give the poor the benefit of the doubt not by rendering false verdicts but by helping the poor out of their own pockets.

I propose that tilting the scales in favor of the poor harms the nation. It assumes that the wealthy are undeserving at best, criminal at worst. A class-oriented dogma dismisses intelligence, ambition, skill, risk, hard work, the willingness to forego short-term pleasure and, not to be discounted, just plain luck. The mantra becomes “pull down” instead of “lift up.”

Don’t get me wrong. Unlike Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, I wouldn’t spend my life pursing the escaped prisoner Jean Valjean because, hungry and penniless, he stole a few loaves of bread. An objective judicial process can acknowledge a person’s poverty, find guilt where it exists and still arrive at lenient sentencing. But when we plead that the poor are innocent solely because they are poor, when we yield to a cult of victimization that excuses criminal acts, we mock justice and those who adhere to the law. We also help maintain the poor in their unfortunate place by expecting so little of them.

The matter is complex to be sure. America continues struggling to find a balance between the rights of the rich and the needs of the poor. What can government do? What should it not do? A while back, Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor, proposed that the highest federal tax rate be raised to 70 percent. That revenue would help the poor. Reich’s suggestion fell short of the top tax bracket during the Eisenhower years—92 percent on income of over $400,000 ($3.44 million today). I’d still describe it as punitive. We’d do better to eliminate tax code loopholes that offer the wealthy unfair advantages. What are the odds Congress will act?

I’m no archconservative. I just call them as I see them. And as I see it, our society fails the poor in many ways—to our shame. But we ill serve the nation when we excuse people from their responsibilities before the law. Doing so makes all of us poorer.

My new novel FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS is now available at Amazon (e-book and print). I’ll have soft cover copies to sell—and sign—in two weeks.

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IT’S ISLAMISM

The Islamic State’s recent beheadings of two Japanese and burning of a Jordanian Air Force pilot bring reminders from Washington that we’re engaged in a “war on terror.” Nonsense.

Terror is a strategy, sometimes a tactic. We face an aberrant ideology. It’s Islamism, which seeks to impose by force its version of Islam and legitimizes any form of violence to do so. Islamism doesn’t represent all of Islam or all Muslims. But despite President Obama’s refusal to utter its name, Islamism is a form of Islam. Yesterday the President acknowledged ISIS’ religious roots at the National Prayer Breakfast, stating that, “no god condones terror.” ISIS’ version of Allah does.

It’s all about scriptural interpretation and human agency. Take Judaism. Exodus 15:3 states that God “is a man of war.” Deuteronomy 20:13 instructs that if a town refuses to negotiate terms of peace (surrender and forced labor) “you shall put all its males to the sword.” Yet centuries after these texts were written, the Rabbis rejected such violence. Yes, losing wars and risking Roman reprisal helped create that view. Yet three-dozen times the Torah calls for the death penalty regarding Jewish matters. The Rabbis made its implementation virtually impossible.

Muslims call Islam a religion of peace. It is—for those who interpret the Quran that way. The Quran* binds Muslims with Jews and Christians. “Our God and your God is one” (29:46). It promulgates religious freedom. “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Further, “Believers, Jews, Christians and Sabeans—whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does what is right—shall be rewarded by their Lord…” (2:62).

Yet the Quran sees Jews and Christians departed from the monotheism of Abraham. “The unbelievers among the People of the Book and the pagans shall burn for ever in the fire of Hell. They are the vilest of all creatures” (98:7). How should Muslims respond? “Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends… Allah does not guide the wrongdoers” (5:51). Many more verses excoriate Jews and Christians.

Weighty questions confront Islam, although there is no single Islam as there is no single Judaism or Christianity. Can the Quran be read as metaphor? Can 1,400-year-old laws and customs be adjusted to co-exist with modern views in the 21st-century world? Is religious freedom acceptable?

Blood spilled for centuries before the West embraced the Enlightenment and religious pluralism. Yet many people cling to “one truth.” At yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast—an interfaith event—retired NASCAR driver and keynote speaker Darrell Waltrip told attendees that if they’d never gotten on their knees to ask Jesus for forgiveness, “You’re going to hell.” In Cairo, the moderate Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb of prestigious al-Azhar University, holder of a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, expressed revulsion at the Islamic State’s barbarism: The perpetrators, he said, should be “killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off” in accord with Muslim law.

In the ancient Middle East, to know someone’s name was to hold a measure of power over that person. May naming Islamism bring us a new honesty that opens hearts and minds worldwide.

*The Koran: Translated With Notes by N.J. Dawood, New York, Penguin Books, 1978.

Take a peak at my upcoming novel, Flight of the Spumonis. Click on NOVELS.

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