Archive for December, 2016

JERUSALEM, RAMALLAH & WASHINGTON

Once, a man stacked up piles of dried grass, sticks, branches then logs in a heat-baked land. A friend asked, “What’s with all this fuel? One spark could set the whole area ablaze.” The gatherer said, “Maybe the weather will turn cold. But relax. I certainly won’t start a fire now.” The friend shook his head. “It’s not you starting a fire I’m worried about.”

One week ago, the #UnitedNationsSecurityCouncil condemned #Israelisettlements in the West Bank, 14-0. The United States abstained rather than vetoing the measure. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu lashed out at the Obama administration. “Friends don’t take friends to the Security Council.”

I love Israel. Which is why I say, “Friends don’t let friends stack up fuel for someone else to set on fire.”

On Wednesday, Secretary of State #JohnKerry spoke about new settlements preventing a two-state solution between Jerusalem (yes, the capital of Israel) and Ramallah (capital of the Palestinian Authority). Washington supports a two-state solution. I do, too. An Israel encompassing the West Bank ultimately cannot be both a Jewish and democratic state. A one-state solution eventually will lead to Palestinians lighting a match and possibly causing a major conflagration.

Bibi, in turning to Israel’s far right for political support, continues to kick the can down the road. The can makes an increasingly explosive noise. The world community—hypocrites that so many nations are—will become even more antagonistic towards Israel. Yes, Israel is forging ties with India and China (the latter a member of the Security Council), African and Latin American nations, and Russia (also a Security Council member). It’s renewing ties with Turkey and creating “under the table” relationships with Sunni Arab states. Those are all positives. But Bibi keeps gathering fuel and painting Israel into a corner.

Am I bashing Israel? No way. Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is non-negotiable. Moreover, while the Israeli right remains intransigent about holding on to Judea and Samaria, it’s the Palestinians who turned their backs on a meaningful (read that negotiated, not dictated) two-state agreement. In 2000 and 2008, Jerusalem offered Ramallah East Jerusalem along with modified West Bank borders compensated with land from Israel proper. The Palestinians walked away.

In 2014, Kerry offered what we can surmise to be a similar plan. Jerusalem—read that, Bibi—expressed willingness to talk. Ramallah—P.A. president Mahmoud Abbas—never responded.

Ramallah will continue to avoid making necessary compromises—Israel also will have to compromise—to achieve a Palestinian state and peace. Moshe Yaalon, former Israeli Defense Minister and military Chief of Staff, presents a sad but cogent reason in Foreign Affairs (Jan./Feb. 2017). “Rejecting Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people means that the conflict is not about borders but about Israel’s very existence.” The Palestinians’ “chief objective has been not to achieve their own national community but to deny the Jews theirs.”

It’s in Jerusalem’s best interest to halt settlement building inside the West Bank and hit the ball squarely into Ramallah’s court. Let the Palestinians find another lame excuse for avoiding negotiations and take the blame they deserve. Removing all that highly flammable fuel will help Jerusalem keep from burning down its own house.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And Happy New Year. May 2017 bring us all meaningful steps toward healing and peace.

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ALEPPO REVISITED

Two months ago, I wrote about the battle of Aleppo pitting Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Russia against a hodgepodge of rebels, from secular to Islamist. Despite the horrific violence, I thought major U.S. involvement unwise: “Only the peoples of the Middle East can create lasting peace for themselves.” The battle’s over. I haven’t changed my mind.

The Syrian bloodbath didn’t occur because President Obama foolishly drew a red line in the blood-soaked sand then backed off when Assad used chemical weapons. (True, he did.) It started well before and increased in ferocity when Russia and Iran tilted the battlefield towards Assad.

Are Americans aghast at the slaughter and destruction in Aleppo? Yes, and rightly so. But using American military power to halt the ghastly actions of appalling political leaders sometimes runs deep risks.

Would Russia and Iran have withdrawn so we could roll over Syria’s military and depose Assad? I doubt it. If they did? We’d have won a short-term victory then been saddled with overseeing the formation of a new government.

Once again, American troops would have to protect a government lacking widespread support. We’d also have to build a trusted Syrian security force while American troops faced insurgency and terrorism from many quarters. We’d suffer casualties. And all with no guaranty of Syrian stability once—whenever that might be—we left.

Some Americans might say, “We have to project American power in the face of inhumanity. Freedom isn’t free.” They can afford that stance. I agree that freedom’s not free, but they don’t pay the price. Ours is a military of courageous volunteers. Many Americans encouraging the nation to throw its weight around have no skin in the game. Their children don’t serve. They never served.

Is America toothless? Hardly. Should we withdraw to Fortress America? No. The U.S. plays a special role in helping keep peace—where strategic considerations are most critical. An evolving geopolitical climate demands that we understand military power’s limits.

Reality is, we’ve never ruled the world. That’s why I was taken aback when the New York Times’ Roger Cohen wrote that the Pax Americana—the global peace guaranteed by the United States—is over (12-16-16). Pax Americana represents a semi-myth.

Yes, we kept the former Soviet Union from overrunning Western Europe. We prevented China from expanding in Asia, although China never sought to invade other countries; it seeks to co-opt them economically. We helped protect South Korea but at the cost of over 50,000 U.S. lives. North Korea eventually developed nuclear weapons. Vietnam proved a debacle with 58,000 American lives lost. Genocide ravaged Rwanda, Darfur and the Balkans on “our watch.” Our 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t remake the Middle East in our image. It destabilized it. Witness Syria and Libya. (Yemen had been fractured earlier.)

We court disaster when our hubris exposes our troops to the physical and emotional hazards in lands whose cultures we don’t understand and whose people reject us. The folly grows when many of our most enthusiastic proponents of using force talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. American power takes many forms. Military force is one but not always the wisest choice. That’s a hard lesson to learn. We’re best off learning it.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And do enjoy a Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa or whatever the holiday season means to you. (If you’re into Bah, Humbug!, that’s cool, too.)

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FAKE NEWS

One of my favorite comic strips is “The Knight Life” by Keith Knight. Tuesday’s included a schoolteacher’s statement: “Facts are overrated!! All you need is a loud mouth & some Macedonian teenagers!!” Websites with fake news created by kids in Europe abound—fake news many Americans give credence.

On December 9th, Yahoo News (real) reported that Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, considered by President-elect Trump for Secretary of Agriculture, posts unsubstantiated stories on Facebook, such as the U.S. Communist Party endorsing Hillary Clinton and the FBI restrained from acting after discovering a jihadi training compound in Texas. Said Miller: “I’m not a news source. I shouldn’t be held to that standard…. I’ll put it up there and let the readers decide.” Reasonable?

Ten days ago, Edgar Welch, 28, of Salisbury, N.C., fired a shot in a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. Welch went there to investigate online “news reports” of a child sex slave ring linked to Hillary Clinton. He told the New York Times (12-7-16), “I just wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way.” He added, “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.” Welch refused to dismiss the online claims.

Around the same time, President-elect Donald Trump selected retired army general Michael Flynn as his national security advisor. CNN Politics (12-7-16) reported that Flynn has “spread false stories and re-tweeted anti-Semitic threats.” He also refused to disavow the “Pizzagate” story, which led Welch to fire a semi-automatic weapon at Comet Ping Pong. Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., also promoted the “Pizzagate” story. Flynn Jr. was dropped from his father’s transition team. General Flynn remains Trump’s selection.

So how do we respond to real news? The Central Intelligence Agency believes with “high confidence” that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee. The rest of the U.S. intelligence community does, too. (The FBI takes a neutral stance.) Russia’s purpose may have been to embarrass Hillary Clinton and swing the election to Donald Trump. Mrs. Clinton believes Vladimir Putin was out to get her. Republican Congressional leaders have expressed concern. Mitch McConnell (Senate majority leader), Paul Ryan (House speaker) and Senator John McCain all support an investigation.

President Obama says that the U.S. will act against Russia. He likely knows details unavailable to the American public. What will he do? Stay tuned.

As to the broader issue, knowing the truth remains a requisite for democracy to thrive. The real media play a critical role by reporting what’s happening in our world, as well as questioning authorities at the highest level. Sometimes, leading news purveyors get it wrong. But America’s mainstream media deserves high grades and serious attention from the public.

Sadly, the digital age has polluted what we call news. Yes, there are websites offering serious, professional reporting. But as Keith Knight points out, anyone can post a “news story,” which many Americans will accept at face value and pass on via social media. Witness “Pizzagate.” That’s why our political leaders must embrace truth to keep themselves grounded and help us do the same.

Donald Trump’s response to broad concerns about Russian hacking? “I think it’s ridiculous,” he told Fox News. “I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it.” It’s possible to live in an alternate reality, believing or disbelieving anything and creating your own truth—if facts don’t get in your way.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And follow the sound advice to think before you speak—and read (legitimate media) before you think.

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INDIA, PART TWO

Spend two weeks in India (thanks, Sandra Lipkowitz of We Make Travel Easy), and you can write a book. I provided an overview last week. This week, I’ll present four brief takeaways.

The Taj Mahal. We saw palaces, forts, temples, mosques and monuments. None is more famed than this monument completed in 1648 by Shah Jahan to memorialize his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth at 38 after bearing 14 children. We’ve all seen the Taj Mahal in photos or films. I found it beautiful but no more so than in pictures. Yet I experienced an undeniable thrill actually being there, walking around it and going inside. Being up close and personal drives home the reality that peoples far from America created remarkable civilizations and works attesting to them. Takeaway: Much that is great in the world doesn’t stop at America’s shorelines.

People moments. Foreign tourists came to all the sites we visited, but Indians predominated. After all, Americans flock to Times Square, Niagara Falls, Graceland, the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge. Indian visitors were mid- to upper-middle class for the most part, often young. School groups and families abounded. What occupied their attention? Taking pictures with their smart phones—as we were doing. This produced my favorite moments. Just as we wanted to take photos with Indians, Indians often approached us. We felt like celebrities. Our brief encounters offered delightful opportunities to reach across cultures and even language barriers (although many Indians speak English) by admiring cute children and sharing information about our lives. Takeaway: People everywhere share much in common—and love to share with each other.

Jewish connection. Tens of thousands of Jews once lived in India. Almost all moved on to Israel. In Mumbai, we visited the Kehilla Eliyahoo (Congregation of Elijah) synagogue, a spiritual home of the Baghdadis—Iraqi Jews who came to India under British rule. We spent a few days in Cochin, a major Arabian Sea port in the southern state of Kerala. Cochin Jews consist of two groups. “Black” Jews claim descent from Jews fleeing the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome (66 CE) and even to the time of Solomon (10th Century BCE). They intermixed with local peoples. The Pardesi or “white Jews” trace their ancestry from 16th-century spice traders from Arabia and Europe. We visited Jew Town—not a pejorative; the Maharajah welcomed Jewish traders and gave them special privileges. We strolled the shops of Jew Town Road, visited old synagogues and met Cochin’s oldest Jew, 94-year-old Sarah Cohen. Takeaway: It’s wonderful to be part of a global people with relatives and history everywhere.

Little me. New Delhi is 7,681 miles from San Francisco. While India is one-third the size of the U.S.—still a very large country—it has four times our population with many religions, cultures and languages. Indian history dates back millennia before Plymouth Rock. This realization can blunt American hubris. Yes, our charitable donations and visits along with U.S. foreign policy can play a role in improving the lot of many Indians and building a greater India, already the world’s largest democracy. But India’s place in the world will be defined and determined only by Indians. Takeaway: Travel makes a big world smaller. Sometimes, India made me feel smaller, too.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you’ve had similar travel experiences, let me know.

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INDIA, PART ONE

Posted Dec 2 2016 by in OUR WORLD with 3 Comments

Two weeks in India at the end of October and beginning of November gave Carolyn and me a fascinating look at another part of the world. Even a brief trip to such a distant place can provide for many thousands of words of commentary, and Carolyn wrote notes at length. I just absorbed it all, but I’d like to share a few thoughts this week and next.

Above all, India is a land of contrasts. If you’ve seen movies or news reports, you know that the country boasts a small wealthy upper class and a growing middle class which, while falling short of ours, has lifted millions out of poverty. That leaves, of course, another billion-plus Indians to struggle with daily survival.

In northern cities and villages (Cochin in the southern state of Kerala was different), the “homeless” live on the edges of city streets since sidewalks are rare. The air is foul (Delhi recently had a major emergency.) Dense traffic whirls by. Motorized rickshaws and motorcycles weave in and out among cars, buses and trucks. Two lanes of road contain at least four lanes of traffic. Horns honk continuously as vehicles seek to pass.

Pedestrians—virtually all the women in the north wearing brightly colored saris—walk not only at the sides of roads but in them. The streets themselves are very long with few traffic lights or stop signs, so crossing requires both ingenuity and courage.

Bony cows wander the streets in considerable numbers. They feed on garbage strewn everywhere. As objects of Hindu veneration, they can’t be disturbed or mistreated. Traffic stops or works its way around them. I saw a cow sprawled next to the metal divider on a highway. We detoured. A moment later, a huge antelope-like creature ran across all four lanes just in front of our vehicle. Camel carts and water buffalo also share city streets and country roads.

You wouldn’t want to drive in India. Yet Indian drivers and pedestrians navigate the chaos with grace. Your heart stops now and then, but on you go. I didn’t see an accident—not that India doesn’t have plenty. Neither did I see drivers or pedestrians lose their tempers. I doubt that Americans would react with the same calm and forbearance.

Indians also are merchants of the first order. In cities and villages, stores line the streets, upscale shops alongside more modest establishments. Because summers are brutally hot, Indians generally let building exteriors degrade, whether commercial or residential. We often visited high-quality shops whose plain facades concealed striking interiors.

Our hotels—all five-star—presented the same contrasts. We’d drive along a street filled with traffic, garbage and the poor to come upon a wall and then a gate. Armed security men checked under our vehicle for explosives, eyeballed us non-threatening Westerners accompanied by a licensed Indian guide and driver, saluted and opened the gate to let us in. We’d discover expansive grounds hosting a palace—usually figuratively but sometimes literally as many maharajahs have gone into the hotel business. In India, the term “gated community” takes on a whole new meaning

I loved the trip (if not the time devoted to shopping). The conditions in which most Indians live didn’t depress me because I understood the situation beforehand. What key impressions did I take away? Next week, I’ll offer several.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And consider that the world is a lot smaller than we often think. And, as I’ll mention next week, a lot bigger.

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