Archive for the ‘INTOLERANCE’ Category


Soon after the president of the United States reminded us of his “stable genius” by asking why America wants immigrants from “shithole” countries (if he said “shithouse,” does that make a difference?), a friend asked if I was speechless.

My answer, even recovering from a bad flu (haven’t kicked it yet): “Hell, no!” The latest racist blather by Donald Trump offers lots to write about. Failure to do so would make me a traitor to the nation I’ve sworn to uphold and defend.

I am what The New York Times’ Bret Stephens terms a “Holer.” So is he. Our grandparents came to America in what were clearly called shithole countries over a century ago. Mine from Poland and Belorussia, parts of the Russian Empire. For that matter, my father was born in shithole Poland. Worse, we’re Jews! To many Trump supporters, we’re still Holers.

Fortunately, America at the turn of the 20th century continued welcoming—if often grudgingly—Holers from eastern and southern Europe: Jews, Greeks, Italians, Slavs. A growing nation needed more people to work on farms, and in mines and factories. But the picture wasn’t perfect. Although we Holers eventually became successes, we weren’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Grassroots anti-Semitism swept over the nation. In 1924, Congress through the Johnson-Reed Act basically banned Jews and southern Europeans from entry.

Still, we Holers retained our devotion to America and served it well. Ultimately, attitudes towards us changed. Following World War Two, some restrictions against Jews—refugees from the Holocaust—were lifted. Moreover, we could buy a house in most neighborhoods and attend almost any university.

The establishment of the State of Israel touched many American Christians, if perhaps because Christ’s second coming, according to many, depends upon the Jews being in their homeland so we can finally accept Jesus as our savior. Or perish. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War raised the Jewish state to near-mythical status and brought American Jews a great measure of respect. Better late than never.

Holers from all over the world came to the U.S. Filipinos, Nigerians, Haitians, Dominicans, Syrians, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Vietnamese—and sí amigo, Mexicans—became Americans. They worked at some of the hardest jobs available. Opened businesses. Served and died in our military. Earned college degrees. Cared for us as doctors, nurses and orderlies. Became actors, musicians and sports stars. And brought us new foods.

Now, the president seeks to return America to its white-supremacist ugliness of a century and more ago. He wonders why we don’t just take in a lot of Norwegians—16 percent of whom are Holers. Okay, white, ethnic Norwegians. I like Norwegians, and Swedes, and Danes. But the people Trump most wants coming to the U.S.—western and northern European Caucasian stock—won’t likely immigrate. Over seventy years ago, their grandparents learned the perils of racial animosity. Now, they believe that all human beings should be treated with equal rights and respect. The president of the United States doesn’t come close to sharing that value.

I’m proud to be a Holer. An added bonus: I can see and smell a pile of bullshit a long way off. For the sake of accuracy, the distance between San Francisco and Washington, D.C. is over 2,400 miles.

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Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), written according to tradition by Solomon, exclaims, “There is nothing new beneath the sun” (1:9). True that. Ultimately, what goes around comes around—as it did this past week.

Yes, technology races forward. Solomon could not have dreamed of the printing press and steam engine let alone the high-energy particle telescope, smart phone, Internet and Higgs boson—or “God”—particle that may finally have been detected. Politics and economics also evolve. But human nature remains unchanged. We exhibit concerns and passions no different from our ancestors’ thousands of years ago.

Thus the more things change the more they remain the same. Start with the new pope, Francis I. Once, all popes were Italian. Francis, 76, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, is the third consecutive non-Italian pope (although the son of Italian immigrants). He’s also the first from Latin America. But what’s really changed for the Church?

Sexual predators and dubious financial dealings have cast a pall over the Vatican. Nothing new there. Francis declared his intention to transform the Church while maintaining its traditions. He faces a major challenge. Many in the Church hierarchy prefer the status quo. They have their own interests. There’s nothing new about that, either.

Of course, an Argentine pope doesn’t represent the first big change witnessed by many millions of people living today. In August 1945, nuclear energy leaped from the blackboard to Air Force bombers and brought Japan to its knees. In 1960, a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected president of the United States. In July 1969, we literally saw the first moonwalk—on TV.

As the years rolled on, computers came home. The stock market soared and crashed and soared and crashed. Yesterday’s close set a record for the Dow—14,539. A woman, Madeleine Albright, became secretary of state in 1997. And in 2008, a black man—with an Arabic name yet—was elected president.

Progress? Yes and no. Our A-bombs hastened the end of the war but killed over 100,000 Japanese. They also created a frightening arms race, because weapons change but not the traits of fear and aggression. The race continues. Witness North Korea and Iran.

And while nuclear energy created cheaper electricity, it also engendered disasters at Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and Fukushima. History repeated itself when America’s Catholic president was assassinated. Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley had preceded him. Manned flights to the moon were abandoned. But other nations and groups developed rocketry to assault neighbors or deliver nuclear weapons across the globe.

We know as well that the Internet brings porn into millions of homes and offices along with cyber bullying and ignorant rants inciting hatred. The human mind, capable of nobility and compassion, still works in perverse ways.

So it comes as no surprise that we’re on the cusp of time travel. Banana Republic has introduced its Mad Men collection so we can retreat to the good old days of 1963. Which the show clearly demonstrates were not terribly good at all.

And which offers the validity of another pearl of wisdom: everything old is new again.

Please note that my next post will appear on Monday, March 25.

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They want to retreat centuries to a purer time when men were closer to God. No, not Islamists seeking to return to the time of Muhammad in the seventh century. I’m talking about the haredim, Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews.

First, a bit of Torah. People have long believed in an idyllic past. Witness the Garden of Eden. Initially, Adam and Eve live in innocence. But the clever serpent talks Eve into violating God’s command thus earning women everlasting condemnation from conservative Christians, Muslims—and ultra-orthodox Jews. (Of course, as the narrator in my novel in progress, The Boy Walker, comments, “Remember, that schmuck Adam bit a chunk out of the forbidden fruit without a word of protest.”)

We see something of the same longing for the past in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash. Jacob tells Pharaoh, “Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns” (Genesis 47:9). Jacob sees himself farther from God’s presence than Isaac and Abraham.

And the haredim? They march backward to their ideal spiritual past in the seventeenth century resisting change and scorning modernity. Fine. That’s their right. But they react with hatred and violence to those who seek a Judaism compatible with the contemporary world. And that’s wrong.

Witness the travails of the city of Beit Shemesh. Haredim, who impose strict standards of “modest” dress on their wives and daughters, segregate males and females in their publicly funded schools and seek to do the same on public transportation. In the name of God, they’ve spat on an eight-year-old orthodox girl named Naama Margolese. Grown men have called her a whore. Naama’s crime? She doesn’t dress like a haredi schoolgirl. Naama, on her way to school, is guilty of “encroaching” on haredi territory—an enclave on which the rest of Israel may not intrude. In fact, the haredim want Beit Shemesh split in two so they can have their own city with their own laws—funded by others since they don’t work but receive stipends form the government. The government says no. One state. One set of laws. But it’s not that simple. Segregated buses continue to run in Jerusalem with government sanction because of haredi political clout.

Anti-haredi protestors have taken to the streets in Beit Shemesh. How this matter will conclude is anyone’s guess. Israel gives small religious parties the power to be part of coalitions. Haredi minority parties can make or break a government. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party is likely to speak volumes but tread lightly.

Lest the U.S. rebuke Jerusalem for upholding a double standard—which Jerusalem does—consider this. A few weeks ago, Saudi Arabia beheaded a woman for practicing witchcraft. Our Salem witch trials ended long ago. But no public outcry came from the White House. And yesterday, Washington announced it is sending $30 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to the kingdom. National security and all that.

The Israeli government can look to this and other precedents to excuse its accommodation of the haredim. It’s all politics. Sooner or later, Israelis will have to decide what kind of politics they will tolerate regarding those who will not tolerate them.

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Lowe’s, the home improvement chain, beckons shoppers with, “Let’s build something together.” Earlier this month, Loewe’s sought to help build walls around American Muslims. This gives a whole new meaning to the ancient meaning of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. So let me unravel the mystery.

The Tampa-based Florida Family Association took umbrage at a reality show on TLC (formerly The Learning Channel) titled “All-American Muslim.” The show tracks five Lebanese Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, a Detroit suburb with over 30,000 Arab-Americans. The FFA believes that “All-American Muslim” seeks to hide American Muslims’ desire to subjugate the U.S. to Sharia—Muslim law. So the FFA sent emails to companies asking them to pull their advertising. Lowe’s complied.

Interestingly, I heard one of the show’s producers on the radio. He took heat—from Muslim-Americans. They complained that the families “All-American Muslim” portrays are too American. Not all the women wear a hijab (head scarf). One woman wants to open a nightclub. And why just Lebanese-Americans? The producer explained that these were real people, and should the show be renewed, it could explore the dynamics of other American Muslims. His critics continued attacking.

As for Lowe’s, the company acknowledged that it “managed to make some people very unhappy.” Really? “Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic,” Lowe’s stated, “and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views. As a result we did pull our advertising on this program. We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.”

OMG! Since when is one’s right to exist up for discussion? Does Lowe’s believe that I should respectfully defer to anyone who holds me, as a Jew, in contempt? Lowe’s pulling advertising had nothing to do with rational discussion of legitimate issues. The company yielded to hatred.

Which brings me to Chanukah. Reality is that Jews led by Mattathias and his sons—Judah the Macabee (the hammer) chief among them—fought the Assyrian Greeks who sought to eradicate Judaism. Against the odds, the Macabees drove the Assyrians out then purified the Temple in Jerusalem. A few centuries later, the Sages, under Roman rule, feared celebrating a rebellious military triumph and stressed the miracle of a day’s worth of religiously pure oil lasting eight. Only in recent decades has Chanukah’s military aspect exited the closet. The holiday teaches an important lesson about standing up for your right to be who you are. Not to dominate others. Just to be.

By the way, I checked out the first show of “All-American Muslim.” I liked it. I related, too, because Muslim-Americans’ concerns are akin to those of Jews—even if many Jews see themselves as assimilated and beyond the hostility of others.

The Florida Family Association? It has become a symbol of the un-Americanism of which it accuses American Muslims. And Lowe’s will pay the piper. As Hosea 8:7 warns, “They sow wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

But as Chanukah brightens our winter days and Christmas approaches, something good can come of this. We really can build something together. Decency.

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My oldest son, Seth, recently went on a business trip to Germany. As many travelers do, he suffered some culture shock on returning: the obesity of so many Americans, TVs blaring in airports, disorderly freeway traffic. Of course, Germany is part of the West, but the differences between Western societies are notable. How much greater then are the differences between the West and the Muslim world?

I’ve just read Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Seen Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary, with whom I used to attend the Writer’s Workshop in San Francisco. An Afghan-American, he offers a highly accessible approach to Muslim history. One point in particular struck me. A nineteenth-century Iranian prime minister, Amir Kabir, began a modernization program. As Tamim notes, “By ‘modernize,’ he meant ‘industrialize.’”

Today, much of the Muslim world has embraced some level of industrialization while rejecting modernity, which is seen to cause more problems than it solves. Industrialization itself brings any society a new quotient of the good, the bad and the ugly. Material progress follows for some. That’s good. But as Tamim points out, craftsmen lose jobs and poverty spreads. For a society rooted in communal values—unlike the West’s and particularly America’s penchant for individualism—that’s bad.

Industrialization also has its ugly side. In the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new technology applied to manufacturing. Then the telegraph and telephone started a revolution in communications. Today, smart phones and the Internet represent hallmarks of post-industrial society. People everywhere communicate with people everywhere else. Images and ideas that may be uplifting or unsettling pervade all societies.

Social conservatives find this form of modernity disturbing. Islamists use technology while abhorring the licentiousness—witness online porn—and materialism it often promotes. They respond to the free exchange of communication with repression. Their Christian conservative counterparts in the U.S. share that reaction. They rail against attacks on “family values” abetted by technology that promotes the unfettered exchange of ideas. Yet they use that same technology to communicate their own messages.

The iron fist of those who know exactly how God wants us to live will not put the genie back in the bottle. But unlimited freedom of expression comes with a price. As James Fallows writes in the April 2011 Atlantic (“Learning to Love the [Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable] New Media”), societies may become more pulverized as “people withdraw into their own separate information spheres.” Individualism will run wild.

The good, the bad and the ugly make up human nature. Technology does not create these traits but magnifies them. Supporters of the free flow of ideas take the right approach. In doing so, however, they also face an ongoing struggle with ideas they find abhorrent and even an existential threat.

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Last Saturday while I walked to my synagogue, a car filled with several young men passed me. One called out, “Hey, faggot!” The car sped on. What prompted him to say such a thing? I’m straight. But more important, what concern is my sexual orientation to anyone else? Perhaps some young people were visiting from out of town. Maybe they assumed that any man who lives in San Francisco is, by definition, gay. That such thinking is irrational would not affect them. People who hold to a set proposition rarely let facts sway them.

My stream of consciousness connected to a March 3 article by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. I don’t always agree with Krugman, although I concede that as a Nobel Prize winning economist, his views on bringing the economy back to health carry more weight than mine.

Here’s the issue: Republicans want to slash government spending. Yes, the deficit is worrying. And yes, we need to put realistic curbs on such spending. But the extent of Republicans’ proposed cuts meant to starve government would not only impact our poor and our environment but also directly or indirectly eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs. According to Krugman, “Republicans have managed to come up with spending cuts that would do double duty, both undermining America’s future and threatening to abort a nascent economic recovery.” Maybe. Maybe not.

And here’s my point: The young man who called out, “Hey, faggot,” and the far right have much in common. Ideologues, they obsess over the purity of an idea. All men in San Francisco are gay; all gays are bad. Taxes and government spending beyond defense are bad; the marketplace is infallible. No wonder that this year’s Republican freshman class in the House of Representatives has taken as its de facto motto the Tea Party mantra, “No compromise.” They don’t care what works. They don’t care what fails. All that matters is unswerving devotion to an idea that sees the world in terms of black and white.

In effect, conservatives’ faith in unregulated capitalism matches their professed Christian faith. (Yes, House majority leader Eric Cantor [R-Va.] is Jewish.) Belief trumps observed reality. They bristle at any questioning of their values—at the hint of compromise—because such questioning threatens their faith. (Gallileo, remember, was forced by the Church to recant his observation that the earth revolves around the sun.) As I state in GOD’S OTHERS, people who express the most rigid faith often do so to hide their doubts. Rather than seek new answers, they oppose new questions.

So let me suggest my own Eleventh Commandment—something we might add to the ten given at Sinai. “You shall cut each other a little slack.” We would do better to dial back the ideology, listen to each other and balance our desire for a perfect world with acknowledgment of earthly and human flaws we can temper but not control.

A few days ago, 13 people in Egypt were killed in Muslim-Christian violence. My post of 2-11-11, “Post-Mubarak Egypt and Torah,” still holds.

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A friend disagreed with my post of 12-3-10, “Snow Globes and Islam’s Civil War.” I wrote that Islamists hate us not because of what we do—although American foreign policy has often been misguided and not infrequently brutal—but because of who we are. (I expressed extremely rare agreement with former President George W. Bush.)

The January 4 assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, gives credence to my position. Taseer was shot by one of his own guards. What had Taseer “done?” He opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law by which a Christian woman was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Muhammad. The Associated Press reported that dozens of Pakistanis are sentenced to death each year under the blasphemy law. “Most cases are thrown out by higher courts and no executions have been carried out, but human rights activists have long complained that the law is used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.”

Threats followed Taseer’s death. According to Reuters, five hundred Pakistani clerics announced that anyone expressing grief over the assassination could suffer the same fate.

Words and deeds are hard to separate—in the West as in the East. Religious hatred, bolstered by greed, powerfully motivated Europe’s oppressive, often bloodthirsty anti-Semitism. It also led Catholics and Protestants to slaughter each other during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Holocaust, the troubles in Northern Ireland and Christian-Muslim warfare in the Balkans demonstrated that the West’s progress toward honoring religious freedom has been anything but smooth.

Neither do Americans prove exempt from bigotry. Abby Rapoport of (12-3-10) reported on a movement by conservatives to oust Texas House speaker Joe Straus. A Republican from San Antonio (where I lived from 1967-74), Straus isn’t conservative enough. But is the concern Straus’s leadership or his identity? He’s Jewish and attends the same synagogue, Temple Beth-El, that my wife and I did. John Cook, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, offered his thoughts in an email to Rapoport, “We elected a house with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian, conservative running it.” The Texas legislature reconvenes January 11.

Yes, we can blame others for the harm they do. We should. But it’s worth repeating that human beings—Islamists included—have a propensity to hate others because they think and believe differently. Hence Islamist bombings of Catholic churches in Iraq and of Coptic churches in Egypt this past Christmas season. (Copts celebrate Christmas today, January 7.) These Christian minorities “threaten” Islamists by existing and professing different religious views.

While each New Year fills us with hope, I’m skeptical that the vitriol and violence directed against supposed blasphemers will disappear. But I am pretty certain of this: Those who kill and maim others based on differing beliefs actually do blaspheme the God of all humanity.


I spent last weekend in Trinidad on the Humboldt County coast near Oregon. And I found out something very interesting—and instructive—from Don Verwayen, my cousin Bev’s husband. Don is an archaeologist helping area Indian tribes to protect their land, particularly sacred sites. Here’s what I learned.

The Karuk Indians maintain ancestral territory along the middle reaches of the Klamath River. Camp Creek, a 50‐acre plot, serves as one of three traditional dance grounds for performing the White Deerskin Dance. The dance, requiring a rare albino deerskin, seeks to purify the world after the breaking of taboos, which produces evil.

Another culture worlds apart from yours or mine? Let’s look deeper.

Karuk parallels to Israelite worship are striking. The White Deerskin dance must be performed by a priest/medicine man only at one of the three designated sites. In ancient Israel, offerings could only be brought to Jerusalem, site of the First and Second Temples. The Karuk dancer must wear a white deerskin. Israelite priests required purification from water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer or cow, an exceedingly rare animal. Ultra-religious Jews in Israel today are trying to breed one to enable a functioning priesthood for a third Temple, but that’s another story. The White Deerskin dance seeks world renewal. Kabbalah, the Jewish spiritual practice far beyond the simplifications that draw to it the likes of Madonna, seeks tikkun olam, healing of a fractured world.

I’m not suggesting that the Karuk descend from Israelites who fled Judea almost two thousand years ago following two disastrous rebellions against Rome or the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem five hundred years earlier. But it’s apparent that all human beings are bound together by universal questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? Where are we going?

As it happens, this week’s Torah portion, Noach, establishes such a universalism. The Sages deduce from the Flood and its aftermath the seven Noahide Laws applicable to all humanity as descendants of Noah. These prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, incest/adultery, robbery and consuming the blood of a living animal. That’s six. The Sages add establishing courts to uphold these laws as the seventh.

Here’s the kicker: Any non-Jew who obeys the Noahide Laws merits the same reward in the World to Come—however it might be defined—as a Jew required to uphold all the 613 mitzvot or commandments (understanding that some mitzvot can only be performed by men, others by women, still others by the community as a whole, and many only in the Temple or in the Land of Israel).

Beyond adhering to monotheism—and you can define that in a number of ways, too—what counts is what we do, not what we think. Dogma means nothing, actions everything. Every human being can earn God’s approval and salvation. Karuk or Jew, Christian, or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, or anyone else, when it comes down to it, we’re all different just the same.


I’m going to burn a copy of God’s Others.

During the run-up to this year’s anniversary of 9/11, I learned an important lesson in public relations. After 40 years in advertising, you’d think I’d have picked up this bit of business savvy. But I’m not embarrassed. I’m encouraged. Now I can launch a wildly successful PR campaign for God’s Others. And I can do it on the cheap.

I haven’t chosen the venue yet. We’re a little sensitive to fire here in San Francisco after a gas line exploded in nearby San Bruno, killing and injuring residents, and decimating a whole neighborhood.

But this is business. So maybe I’ll torch God’s Others on the steps of City Hall. Lots of protests take place there. Or go incendiary in front of my neighborhood bookstore, Green Apple on Clement Street, and then celebrate with coffee at the Toy Boat. No hunting for parking or paying for a garage. I can walk. I might even burn a copy atop the Marin headlands, which look down on the Golden Gate Bridge. Makes for a great visual. They shoot car ads there all the time.

What’s important is that the media will fall all over themselves to cover the event. They’ve got a track record, you know.

Now, I’m not suggesting that burning my own book rather than someone else’s—particularly another religion’s scripture—will induce comments by President Obama or General David Petraeus. Hilary Clinton probably won’t call. But is a small mention by Katy Couric or Tom Friedman too much to ask?

This I know. If I get only 10 percent of the coverage provided to the pastor of a small evangelical church in Gainesville, Florida—the guy who threatened to burn the Quran on 9/11—I’ll sell a ton of books.

Of course, I’ll need to offer a reason why I’m reducing God’s Others to ashes. But I’m a creative guy. So maybe my justification will be that garlic doesn’t agree with me. Or the Golden State Warriors haven’t won an NBA championship in over 35 years. Or too much fog envelops my neighborhood. If the garlic growers in Gilroy, the Warriors’ dancers or the Chamber of Commerce burns my effigy so much the better. You know the old saying: bad press is better than no press. Way better.

After all, what does it matter if I act like a moron? The more ridiculous I am, the more the media will expose my name and face, the more copies of God’s Others I’ll sell, the more money I’ll make and the more I’ll spend. Which will stimulate the economy and encourage the stock market while our representatives in Washington are busy campaigning.

And that’s what being for God and country is all about, isn’t it?