Archive for October, 2017

IMMIGRATION AND CULTURE

Twenty years ago, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order posited that the post-Soviet world consisted of nine distinct civilizations. Their cultures and values were different and often in opposition. Huntington was hailed and later assailed. Regarding today’s immigration issues, attention to Huntington must be paid.

Huntington’s new world order consisted of the West, Latin America, Africa, the Islamic world, China, Hindu India, Orthodox Christian Eurasia (Russia and environs), the Buddhist world and Japan. Three assertions—among many—bear study.

— “International organizations based on states with cultural commonality, such as the European Union, are far more successful than those that attempt to transcend cultures.”

— “The philosophical assumptions, underlying values, social relations, customs and overall outlooks on life differ significantly among civilizations.”

— “Global politics has become multipolar and multicivilizational.”

Nations and peoples are not all just the same, and American values don’t dominate the world. This sheds some light on Donald Trump’s position on Muslims—which I do not share—and the European right, which seeks to limit or halt Muslim immigration. Let’s first look at Europe.

Ten days ago, Germany’s conservative political parties reached an agreement limiting the number of immigrants allowed to enter each year. This from a nation that in 2015 welcomed one million immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Last Sunday, Austria’s election produced Europe’s youngest prime minister, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz. His People’s Party wants to strongly curtail immigration of Muslims.

Europe has never exhibited the United States’ ability to integrate immigrants from different cultures. Decades ago, Europeans loved accusing America of racism when Europe’s non-white, non-Christian populations were small enough to seem colorful rather than threatening. What makes Europe and the U.S. so different? I asked my friend Manfred Wolf, author of a provocative book of essays, Muslims in Europe: Notes, Comments, Questions.

Europe puts up cultural obstacles to assimilation, says Manfred. The French, for example, created a highly secular society. (Europe is heavily secular.) Anyone can be French, but religious identity must be kept private. At the same time, he notes, a significant minority of Muslins in Europe are not sure they wish to assimilate. They live in Europe but may not be of it.

America has never had a major influx of immigrants who refused to submit to the nation’s reigning culture and values, according to Manfred. The Amish and ultra-Orthodox Jews have ways that are entirely different, but their numbers are comparatively small. “In America, if Ahmed and Yasmina live next door and don’t make trouble, they’re Americans. We don’t care.”

Manfred’s take on immigration and refugees is personal. As a child, he fled Holland with his family to escape the Nazis. Eventually, they settled in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. He came to the U.S. at 17 to attend college.

He succeeded. “I’d learned English,” Manfred says. “I knew about America. I wanted to accept American culture, which made me a perfect immigrant.” If culture and personality match, he notes, assimilation becomes easy.

It may seem disheartening that immigrants often bring with them values that clash with those of their new country. And yes, much bigotry exists in nations taking in—or rejecting—migrants from other cultures. But solutions to this complex problem require understanding that the problem is, indeed, complex.

My novels, including The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht, currently are unavailable in Amazon’s Kindle store (a publisher matter soon to be rectified). You can still purchase the softcover versions from Amazon—or directly from me.

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ECCLESIASTES AND US

The world seems to be coming apart. Massive fires in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties and elsewhere in California represent the latest “disaster of the week.” Fortunately, a biblical text attributed to King Solomon (died 931 BCE) and probably written 600 years later, offers us the strength to endure.

We’re tempted, of course, to declare that things have never been this bad. But we—and every generation preceding us—have experienced trying times. The book of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew: Kohelet—gatherer/teacher/preacher) reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

One of five “scrolls” in the Hebrew Bible along with Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth and Jonah, Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during the festival of Sukkot, which begins five days after Yom Kippur. Ecclesiastes often is viewed as negative and cynical. Not so, according to scholars. They include Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, a hillside community in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.

Last Monday night in San Francisco, I attended a dinner talk by Rabbi Feinstein. He broke down the text of Ecclesiastes to offer several heartening concepts. Importantly, Rabbi Feinstein never claimed his views were conclusive; Jews question, answer then question again.

Ecclesiastes advises that life and our various accomplishments and sufferings amount only to hevel—a puff of air, a mist, a transitory matter. Moreover, death awaits us all. Neither pleasure, riches, wisdom nor righteousness alter that. Equally disturbing if not more so, good people often suffer, while bad people often attain wealth and fame. (The book of Job offers another exploration of the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”.)

Does this paint a portrait of humanity too glum to bear? No. Ecclesiastes counsels, in this translation by my friend Dan Weiss and his study partner Israel Amrani: “I praise joy / Nothing is better for man under the sun / than to eat and to drink and to be joyful” (8:15). Let’s put this in perspective: Ecclesiastes does not extol gluttony, drunkenness and sexual indulgence. These, too, are hevel.

Rather, Ecclesiastes states that for everything there is a season. (Now you know the source for the Pete Seeger song covered by the Byrds.) We experience good. We also suffer, as do so many Americans now in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and California. Basically, life happens. For the most part, we can’t control it. The world—indeed, the universe—is too big and complex. The best we can do is enjoy what we can while we can. As my mother, Blanche taught me: “You have to take the good times with the bad.”

We find additional hope in what this book does not say, according to Rabbi Feinstein. Ecclesiastes sees the world in the guise of a lone figure without family and friends (although not without wives and concubines). Family and community make a difference. While our lives are finite, we achieve a semblance of immortality—of something lasting—when we teach our children and others, display love and cultivate friendships. In Jewish tradition, we “live” so long as we are remembered.

I offer this final summary of Ecclesiastes paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, the great sage of 2,000 years ago: Life crushes the ego. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Rabbi Jessica Graf and Cantor David Frommer will present Ecclesiastes today (Friday), noon–2 pm for Congregational Sherith Israel’s Prime Time Club for people 65 and older. Complementary lunch is provided. While food has been ordered, we always find room for a few more people, members and nonmembers.

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LESSONS OF TIMBUKTU

America’s cultural divide runs deep. The far-right’s vote for Donald Trump protested the “elites.” Considerable danger lies in this. We find a prime example in a region of the world usually ignored—sub-Saharan Africa.

What are elites? Trump supporters generally consider them to be inhabitants of big cities on either coast and holders of college and post-graduate degrees. Diplomas concentrate heavily in science—hard and soft—medicine, journalism, the humanities and the arts. Education aside, elites include artists and those involved with the arts.

What’s the gripe? These educations and careers invite and require continuously questioning assumptions. Traditional thoughts may be toppled. This makes conservatives uncomfortable.

Note that many college graduates voted for Trump. Still, Hillary Clinton carried grads 52% to 43% (Pew Research). I suspect that most Trump supporters with college degrees studied business, law and engineering. Some computer science. Trump also found favor with graduates of Christian evangelical institutions.

Where might dissatisfaction with elites lead America? Joshua Hammer offers an intriguing view in his New York Times (fake news?) best-seller (read by elites?) The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts.

Timbuktu in the West African nation of Mali constitutes a symbol of remoteness. Yet in the late 14th century, the town emerged as a center for Muslim religious and cultural scholarship. Academics visited from many corners of the Muslim world. Trade grew. Timbuktu became a wealthy city of the Songhai Empire. It did business with North African camel caravans trekking south through the Sahara Desert carrying salt and boats plying the Niger River from the Atlantic coast bringing goods from Europe. In 1375, Timbuktu appeared on a European map drawn by the Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques.

“Despite the dedication to religious scholarship, the Islam that took root in Timbuktu was never very strict,” Hammer writes. Scholarship, inquiry and the city grew together. Unfortunately, the city fell more than once to rulers demanding their strict interpretation of Muslim law. They looted and destroyed Timbuktu’s vast libraries. Yet area residents hid hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and passed them down from generation to generation. Many survived in reasonable shape.

Hammer details the efforts of a young archivist, Abdel Kader Haidara, who over three decades starting in the 1980s located, purchased and brought to safety 350,000 centuries-old manuscripts. Yet Haidara found himself having to move protect the manuscripts he’d collected from jihadists of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who loathe science, philosophy and literature.

Hammer’s book suggests a parallel in the United States. Trump’s base sees their America facing an existential threat from liberal elites who question their views of the Constitution, the Gospels, Christianity and “accepted” values. Political activism along with private Christian schools and colleges, and Christian home schooling, seek to keep unwanted ideas at bay. Faith replaces empiricism to negate the acknowledgment and understanding of such issues as evolution and global warming along with separation of church and state.

Today, Timbuktu is a backwater of 55,000 people living in mud-brick homes. The desert has encroached.

If the United States is to thrive as a democracy capable of providing for the wellbeing of all its people and maintain global relevance, we must appreciate what once made Timbuktu great. We must also guard against what destroyed that greatness.

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