Archive for January, 2019

THE WRONG OF RETURN

Ten days ago, I and several members of Congregation Sherith Israel met to determine how to present programs on Israel. Regarding the Palestinians, we face a challenge. A January 19 New York Times  column by Michelle Alexander demonstrates the issue’s difficulty.

Our synagogue—and we as individuals—support Israel’s right to exist. But the question of Israeli government actions towards Palestinians is fraught with emotion and disagreement among congregants and the American Jewish community. Moreover, not only Diaspora Jews express a multitude of opinions.

Israelis do not march in political lockstep. We mostly hear from the far right because the political edges make the most noise. But debate in Israel, as reflected in the nation’s multiplicity of parties—and on issues involving other than the Palestinians—is continuous and often raucus.

American Jew often remain quiet. Two weeks ago, Carolyn visited our son Yosi in Los Angeles. Yosi and his friends are more supportive of Palestinian causes than we are. At dinner, conversation was steered away from Israel. I emailed Yosi that that was unnecessary. Mom and I want to know what he thinks—to listen rather than argue.

When I read “It’s Time to Break the Silence on Palestine” by Michelle Alexander, I did so eager to know what she thinks. I agree that Israeli actions towards the Palestinians are often heavy-handed. There is an element in Israel that despises Palestinians as human beings. But this element does not represent all—or even a majority of—Israelis.

Like the late Israeli writer Amos Oz and Times columnist Roger Cohen, who wrote about their friendship, I believe in a two-state solution. Yet also I get the position of Israeli writer Matti Friedman: Peace with the Palestinians isn’t enough. The Middle East remains a powder keg. A weak Palestinian state could endanger, not enhance, Israeli security. For the record: Oz, Cohen and Friedman advocate treating Palestinians with respect.

Where does Alexander not get it? She condemns Israel for not being willing to discuss a Palestinian right of to return to Israel within the “green line” established before the 1967 Six-Day War. Note that the 1947 United Nations partition gave Palestinians moreterritory than contained within the ’67, pre-war borders. In 1948, five Arab nations and Palestinians attacked Israel after its declaration of independence. Israel won and gained land Palestinians would have now for their state had they chosen peace.

Ms. Alexander opts for considering the simplistic, self-righteous Palestinian position—let the refugees back. But if millions of Palestinian—grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fled or were pushed out 70 years ago—can return, where do Israelis go? “Back” to Russia, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia, India? Or must they contract into overcrowded ghettos?

It’s time to break the silence regarding the folly of those who wish the world were perfect—from theirperspective. No nation legitimizes self-destruction. While I believe resolving the issue should produce a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, this represents a trade-off. Palestinians will have to forego a right of return less a few symbolic families. As long as Palestinians and their supporters cling to the delusion that Israel opening its borders is up for discussion, a better life for Palestinians also remains folly.

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ROOTING AGAINST OURSELVES

A column by Nick Hoppe in Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle reflected on his father Art, a longtime Chron columnist, writing in 1971 against the Vietnam War. In effect, Art Hoppe rooted against his own country. That poses some interesting questions.

We lost. Withdrawing our last combat troops in 1973 enabled North Vietnam to overrun the south and enter Ho Chi Minh City in 1975. What if we’d won? Would we have defeated our real enemies—the Soviet Union and China?

We didn’t need to be in Vietnam. China was a half-hearted “ally” of Vietnam. In 1979, the two nations fought a brief border war after Vietnam invaded Cambodia. As to the Cold War’s bigger picture, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Two years later, the Soviet Union dissolved.

Hoppe asks his own tantalizing question: What happens when Americans—himself included—root against our country today because we see it engaged in wrong behavior. If the American economy prospers—more jobs, a rising gross domestic product, a stock market climbing again—does that justify Donald Trump in the Oval Office?

Hoppe concedes that rooting against America is rooting against himself. He has to make a living. He has a 401(k) plan. Are he and so many other people opposed to Trump willing to suffer short-term, and perhaps painful, economic stress to limit Trump’s time in office? Bear in mind that the report from the special commission headed by Robert Mueller could offer proof of collusion with Russia and lead to impeachment—or not.

I suspect that many Americans are undergoing such a challenging conflict. They want to succeed personally. And they’re not selfish. They want others to succeed. Still, they hope the nation experiences failures. Yes, they’re alarmed that 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed without pay for four weeks, but they view the partial government shutdown as an opportunity to de-legitimize the president. Trump states that the furloughed workers support him along with farmers. The latter, unfortunately, can’t utilize critical government services informing them of the best times to plant and enabling them to apply for loans. Do those who suffer the most pain really want to endure it?

My key question: If under Trump’s policies—steep tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich, economic and environmental deregulation, trade wars, strained international relationships—the economy continues to grow—and we all do better—shouldn’t “Trump 2020” be on everyone’s lips? Does it matter what insults he hurls? What encouragement he offers racists? How he maintains a relationship with Vladimir Putin?

Isn’t it all about the money?

A look at history: In the 1920s, after Benito Mussolini took power, his government circulated word that the fascists had upgraded the nation’s dilapidated railway system. Even after World War II—Il Duce was shot and his mangled corpse hung at a half-finished gas station in Milan—his supporters comforted themselves by reflecting that “at least the trains ran on time.”

What trade-offs are we Americans willing to make for a thriving economy? Will we sacrifice our democracy, granting its imperfections? Is there a price high enough to impel us to sell out the Constitution? Or is rooting against ourselves, as Nick Hoppe suggests, an illogically logical proposition?

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AMERICA’S REAL CRISIS

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump offered his pitch on TV that America needs a wall across our Mexican border because we face a grave crisis. The president was right. But not necessarily about the wall.

Most Americans agree that the United States has a right to control its border and who may enter the country, including refugees. This does notrepresent an anti-immigrant stance. Despite Emma Lazarus’ moving poem, we no longer can open our borders to all the world’s tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We’d be swamped. Moreover, the nation has changed. In 1906, my father—as a small child—sailed into New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty. America’s western frontier had been deemed closed less than 20 years earlier. The Wright Brothers flew the first powered airplane little more than two years before. Now, we’re a post-industrial society.

Will more wall—we’ve built over 700 miles of barriers, many during the Obama administration—best secure our border with Mexico? Maybe. Read Bret Stephens about Israel’s “smart fences” in yesterday’s New York Times. The problem is, Trump spews hysteria, obscuring reasonable discussion.

Effective leaders examine potential solutions to problems rather than pre-determine them. They call on experts—widely scorned by those on the right—listen to ideas, then propose approaches based on reality rather than ideology or politics.

Congress doesn’t help. It continually fails to pass comprehensive immigration legislation. Some members feel heat from the far left, who want open borders. Others fear the far right who, like Trump, would accept limited numbers of ethnic “Norwegians,” who meet their definition of true Americans as white Christians.

Lately, Trump said he’ll accept a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall. Yet former White House chief-of-staff John Kelly stated that the idea of a concrete wall was shelved a year ago. Trump kept trumpeting that wall to incite and deepen his base rather than widen it. He insists that Congress appropriate $5.7 billion for a symbol of border control, not a well-thought-out solution. And Mexico will pay now thanks to the recent trade deal. Really?

Engaged in a pissing match with the new Democratic House majority, Trump insists that the 800,000 federal workers going without paychecks today support him—and will if the government shut-down continues for months, even years. Really?

Frank Bruni wrote in last Tuesday’s New York Times that “it’s not really a wall that Trump is after, if indeed it ever was. It’s a victory for victory’s sake. It’s a show of his might. It’s proof of his potency.” Bruni added, “Seldom has a president’s ego been this tender, and seldom has it required so much shoring up. There’s not enough concrete in creation for that job.”

Like the Energizer Bunny, Trump keeps on going. On Wednesday, he said he has a right to declare a national emergency. Yesterday he said he well might exercise it.

A workable new immigration policy demands stepping back to lay out the facts and objectively determine our options, no matter how imperfect. That our president is incapable of doing this represents a true national emergency. His insistence on a wall as a political sop to his base sends a loud message that the Oval Office is swamped by ignorance and incompetence. That’s America’s real crisis.

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A SERIOUS RESOLUTION—KIND OF

I love to laugh. So I’m going to tell you one of my favorite jokes—in a moment. But you may not hear much humor from me in 2019.

Don’t get me wrong. Growing up in New York, exchanging banter was as natural as drinking mother’s milk. Although I was bottle fed. Scotch. When I outgrew my bottle, I learned to drink from a tippy cup. Vodka. But sometimes humorous comments get in the way. And as I grow older, I sometimes go to extremes. I reference the late George Carlin.

Carlin—also a New Yorker—offered, “Class clown becomes office schmuck.” I was never class clown, although I was chief comic among my friends. I was never office schmuck. But that slippery slope beckoned, and among friends, I often teetered on the brink. I’m pulling myself back. It’s so important to let other people speak and actively listen to what they say. Imagine if Donald Trump, the Oval Office schmuck, followed suit.

Not that I’m burrowing into a hole and clamming up. Although I did that recently. I experimented by spending one year of Torah Study rarely making comments. I wanted to learn more from our teacher and other students. Admittedly, I withheld observations that might have clarified our discussions. The Sages say not to do that. Apologies. When that year concluded, I dialed back my silence and shared thoughts I believed critical, particularly when discussions came close to veering off the rails. In that light, I’ll try to modify all my social interactions in 2019 to be less of a wiseass.

Not that I’ll stop laughing. Last week, Carolyn and I flew to Baton Rouge—a mirthless adventure that took over 30 hours thanks to electrical storms in Texas and Louisiana. Still, we had a wonderful visit with our son Seth, a grad student at Louisiana State University (LSU) in video game design. His degree combines art and technology, and he showed us some of what he’s doing. Fabulous.

Seth gave me a belated Chanukah gift, the book Old Jews Telling Jokes. It’s a compendium told by—yes—old Jews (60 and up) on the YouTube site of that name. Interestingly, Carolyn and I saw an off-Broadway version a few years ago. One of us laughed a lot.

Now for that joke I promised. (It’s not in the book). It was told, as I recall, by the late Myron Cohen. It involves ritual circumcision. If this seems too much for you, don’t read any further. But you won’t find in it the word penis or any of its Yiddish terms, like schlong or schwantz. Still reading? Good.

A mohel (MOY-al)—a ritual circumcizer—enters a luggage-maker’s shop. He says, “Fifty years I’ve been snipping baby boys, now I’ve retired.” He presents the luggage-maker with a large sack. “I saved every foreskin. Make me something to remember my life’s work.” The luggage-maker says, “Sure. Come back in a week.” The mohel comes back and receives a package in a plain brown paper. It fits in the palm of his hand. Wary, he unwraps it. “A wallet? Fifty years, and all I get is a wallet?” The luggage-maker grins. “Rub it. It’ll turn into a suitcase.”

Happy New Year!

The above commentary does not constitute a legal declaration—explicit or implicit—that the writer (aka David Perlstein) will refrain in whole or in part from telling jokes or making comments intended—but not guaranteed—to be humorous at any time and in any place of his (but not the listener’s) choosing during the year 2019 of the common era. Further, this statement does not constitute an agreement with his wife Carolyn that he will refrain from making adolescent comments typical of a man at the age of sixty-fourteen.

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