Archive for the ‘MIDDLE EAST’ Category

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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ALEPPO

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson infamously responded to a question about the tragic war in Syria with “What is Aleppo?” I’ll answer. You won’t be comforted.

Aleppo—not the capital Damascus—was Syria’s largest city and business hub with 2.1 million inhabitants (2004 census). Since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, nearly 500,000 have been killed nationwide. Aleppo’s population has dropped. What is it? No one knows.

What we do know is that Aleppo, the Syrian civil war and widespread violence in the Middle East present a conundrum. The United States is damned if we do get more involved, damned if we don’t.

Start with refugees. Turkey hosts 2.6 million, Lebanon one million and impoverished Jordan over 628,000 (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees). Eastern Europe hasn’t the resources, ability or will to accept many—if any. Germany takes the lead in the West. It accepted over one million asylum seekers in 2015. That’s dropped to 220,000 in 2016 (Deutsche Welle). Germans said, “No more.”

Regrettably, Western Europe long has done a poor job assimilating Muslims. In counterpoint, many Muslims have resisted integrating into Europe’s secular culture. America does much better, but no matter how many refugees we accept, we won’t come close to meeting existing needs.

Militarily—despite Donald Trump’s assertions—we also face limits. In Syria, U.S. weapons, training and airpower have failed to oust President Bashar al-Assad. (ISIS will soon be driven underground.) Diplomatic efforts face intransigence by Vladimir Putin. Inserting traditional American ground forces into Syria risks a violent clash with Russia. No one will win.

In Iraq, we see progress. The crucial battle for Mosul is underway. It will be long and bloody. Clearing Mosul of booby traps and rebuilding will take decades. Estimates place 5,000-6,000 American trainers, advisors, forward air controllers and special operations personnel on the ground. The U.S. could send in 25,000 or more traditional combat troops. But Washington probably would face massive protests at home, particularly with many Americans embittered after a nasty presidential campaign. We’d also see protests throughout the Middle East.

What if we send in combat troops anyway? Following victory, Iraqis will demand we leave. If we stay, we’ll face a new insurrection featuring improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers and sniper attacks. After we go, Iraq will descend into renewed chaos with no dominant indigenous force controlling the fragmented nation.

Feeling conflicted? Who isn’t? Recently on TV, a Syrian man asked how the West could let such brutality continue. Another Syrian man interviewed some months earlier presented another perspective: “Nothing good ever comes from the West.”

We are witnessing a war within Islam between those who accept the twenty-first century and those who long for the seventh. Throw in nationalist/sectarian (Sunni-Shia) and tribal conflicts, as well as political thuggery, and we’re left with a witches brew too toxic to consume.

Limiting our response seems inhumane but reflects reality. Only the peoples of the Middle East can create lasting peace for themselves. This may not happen until the middle or later stages of this century when they’ve been exhausted by death and destruction. It may not happen at all.

What is Aleppo then? A final two words: frustration, angst. I suspect you can come up with many more.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. The post will take a break and return on November 11.

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MUSLIM BASHING AND ANTI-SEMITISM

Does anti-Muslim rhetoric relate to anti-Semitism? Yes, according to my friend Claudia Hagadus Long, an attorney and fellow novelist. Claudia has authored a trilogy about colonial Mexico—Josefina’s Sin, The Duel for Consuelo and (late 2016 or 2017) Marcela Unchained. Given her family’s challenging Jewish history, an undercurrent of anti-Semitism runs through all. Now, Muslim bashing has her on edge.

Claudia’s parents were non-observant Jews, her American-born father militantly so. Her mother was one of the few in her family to survive the Holocaust. When Claudia was a child, her parents, sister and brother moved from Pennsylvania to Mexico City. Her father’s sister had married a Mexican Jew, and the family practiced Judaism in Guadalajara. Claudia’s Mexican friends were Catholic. She and her sister often accompanied them to church. That was okay with her mother, who’d been protected by nuns in Poland and elsewhere. “They helped her survive.”

As a youngster, Claudia was unaware of her family’s history and attitudes. Anti-Semitism remained “the bear in the living room no one spoke of.” Eventually she learned of her mother’s Holocaust experiences. The story proved so painful, she has not been able to write about it.

But writers find ways to deal with pain. Calling on her early years in Mexico—the family eventually returned to New York, and Claudia attended Harvard—she began writing about conversos. These “secret Jews,” along with Catholics once Jewish, are pursued by the Inquisition. Josefina, heroine of the first novel, is introduced to poetry by a Jew, whose brief appearance lays bare his precarious position in the New World. Consuelo, protagonist in the second, is a converso’s daughter. Her mother and grandmother light candles on Friday night—in secret.

It’s hardly surprising that Claudia is finely attuned to anti-Semitism today. Terrorist acts against Jews throughout the world, she says, are reported with a yawn. Otherwise-thoughtful people and self-proclaimed anti-racists happily vilify Jews. Claudia sees much anti-Semitism in attitudes towards Israel, particularly on campus. She cites a vocal minority of students who consider themselves liberal seeking to exclude Israeli scientists or poets from being part of activities because of their country’s policies. “This allows for a refusal to look at an individual’s contribution to the greater good simply because he or she is Jewish.”

Claudia doesn’t always support Israel’s policies but distinguishes Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora from the Israeli government. Non-Jews are treated differently, she points out. No one seeks to exclude Egyptians, Syrians, Saudis or Iranians from international conferences and forums, although their nations’ policies often raise eyebrows. The United States has committed its share of violence, yet vocal students seeking divestment from companies that do business with Israel never say a word about divesting from American companies.

So how does anti-Semitism connect with Muslim bashing? We’ll always have bigots, says Claudia, but people “who should know better” are jumping on the anti-Muslim bandwagon. It’s now okay for them to be against a particular religion. That being so, anti-Semitism also becomes acceptable. It’s widespread in Europe and openly so.

Where might Muslim bashing lead the United States? While the U.S. offers “unbelievable freedom,” Claudia fears the tide may turn. “If it’s okay to be anti-Muslim then it’s okay to be anti-Semitic—the easiest anti of all.”

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

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TERRORISM 101

Everyone talks about stopping terrorism. But to do that, we must understand what terrorism is. That will help us make rational, as opposed to emotional, decisions about what might work and what won’t.

To begin, terrorism is not a lone wolf or a pair of gunmen with a grudge who shoot up a school or movie theater. That’s criminal insanity and subject to another discussion. Terrorism constitutes a tool—acts of violence or the threat of violence to further an ongoing political or religious cause. Today’s most aggressive and pervasive such cause is Islamism—the desire of some Muslims to impose their fundamentalist tenets on the Muslim world now and the rest of us later.

Islamists know that military conquest of the West isn’t possible. But for now at least they have no intention of conquering us. Instead, they utilize terrorism on a relatively small if murderous scale to sow fear. This they hope will produce enough turmoil to lead to civic unrest and induce Western governments’ withdrawal from engagement with the Muslim world. Weak Muslim nations then will be easy prey.

How do you defeat terrorism? Terrorism, I repeat, is a tool. Intelligence services and military forces can uncover terrorist plots and strike at perpetrators, planners, supporters and advocates. But terrorism cannot be eliminated without discrediting its underlying ideology.

Truth helps. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did the United States no favors by talking about a War on Terror for fear of offending Muslims. Mr. Obama finally used the word “Islamism” in his recent speech from the Oval Office. This was long overdue. Sadly, he often has failed to communicate with candor and anything approaching the passionate resolve Americans expect.

At the same time, many of the steps he has taken have been correct if limited. And Mr. Obama understands that Islamism will not be obliterated without the assistance of the Muslims it directly threatens. Yet obtaining that assistance won’t be easy. According to a July 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, “The Middle East is the sole region where anti-Americanism is both deep and widespread. Eighty-five percent of Egyptians and Jordanians and 73% of Turks voice a negative opinion of the United States. Only 10% of Egyptians, 12% of Jordanians and 19% of Turks have a favorable view.” Fortunately, the numbers are slightly more favorable than a year earlier.

Still, Donald Trump wants to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. Ted Cruz calls for carpet-bombing Raaka (Syria), ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital, killing masses of civilians along with ISIS fighters and administrators. Both acts will alienate our own Muslim citizens and Muslims abroad who might work with us.

Statesmanship must play a major role in combating ISIS. It demands carefully chosen—but not misleading—language. This means not backing other Muslim nations into a corner while retaining our strong resolve. I recall a newspaper article from years ago. A teacher in a Chicago high school encountered two combative students. One had a gun. The teacher never threatened. Instead, he said, “Let me hold your gun.” The armed student—called out but not cornered—yielded the weapon.

I ask Republican candidates to think before they speak—a tall order. And I ask our government to acknowledge reality. Both rabblerousing and disingenuousness only make the problem worse.

The blog will take a break during the end of the year and resume on January 8. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate and to all, best wishes for a happy, healthy, rewarding New Year.

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

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SAN BERNARDINO

In a way, San Bernardino in Southern California’s Inland Empire has become America’s Paris and also its Jerusalem.

Why Paris? The City of Light symbolizes Western enlightenment and respect for human rights—values Islamists deplore. Why Jerusalem? The capital of Israel—even if the United States maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv—represents another symbol deplored by Islamists. It’s the power of Jews to direct their own future in the Middle East no longer subjugated, and periodically persecuted, under Muslim rule.

Why San Bernardino? While major cities across the nation guard against Islamist terrorism—New York and Boston have been there—“San Berdoo” in Southern California’s Inland Empire proved a target of opportunity. A Muslim couple—local residents—appear to have chosen to make a statement: No one is safe anywhere in America.

Much investigative work remains before conclusions can be drawn about whether the couple—he American-born, she Pakistani-born and raised in Saudi Arabia where they met—constituted a sleeper cell of ISIS or one of the Al Qaeda groups. But they seem to have become radicalized at some point, possibly years ago. And the military-style clothing, body armor, automatic weapons and remote-controlled bombs hint at long-term planning indicative of much more than a workplace confrontation.

Here, I want to go back to Israel, the Islamist mindset and Western perceptions. While Paris has been tense but thankfully quiet for the last few weeks, Jerusalem and all Israel continue to face what some term the “Knife Intifada.” Many dozens of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians—women as well as men—have attacked Jewish civilians, soldiers and police. Most have used knives. A few have used vehicles. Some attackers have killed Israelis. Many attackers have been killed as Israelis defended themselves.

The West was riveted by Paris. Now, the American media understandably devotes much time to San Bernardino. Yet while Frenchmen and Americans are up in arms, the story in Israel arouses little ire. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry appear to see these as “small” political attacks divorced from Islamism and anti-Semitism. Mr. Kerry initially suggested the “logic” of disillusioned Arabs in Israel and on the West Bank expressing frustration with the failure of talks to establish a Palestinian State.

When it comes to Israel, the media often skews the situation. On Wednesday, the San Francisco Chronicle’s World section headlined: “Israeli troops kill 2 Palestinians after stabbing attempts.” Imagine running the headline, “California police kill 2 Muslims after shots fired in government building.”

That said let’s not lust after simple solutions. Fighting a totalitarian pathology like Islamism—Muslim but not to be confused with Islam—represents a complex undertaking. We’ll likely see more U.S. military muscle in Syria and Iraq during 2016. That’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Regrettably, we’re also likely to see more anti-Muslim paranoia. That’s both wrong and foolish. As Haider Ali Hussein Mullick, a Navy reserve officer and teacher at the Naval War College wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, “If we don’t want to play into the hands of Islamic State propaganda that America is at war with Islam, we must stand up against Islamophobia.” As rhetoric heats up may cool heads prevail.

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

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PARIS AND BEIRUT

Last Friday’s terror attacks in Paris continue to dominate the news. Not everyone thinks that’s good. Lebanese commentators ask why Paris eclipses ISIS suicide bombings that killed 41 in a southern suburb of Beirut. That was a horror. But there are understandable reasons why the West cries for Paris.

Yes, the City of Light represents the West. Beirut is Arab. But here’s what really impacts Western sensibilities: Following the barbarity of World War Two, Europe reinvented itself. The Middle East—allowing for colonial and post-colonial influence—did not. The region failed to address its underlying religious, tribal and political conflicts.

Take Lebanon’s civil war. From 1975 to 1990, multiple factions slaughtered each other and innocents. Christian, Muslim—Sunni and Shiite—and Palestinian militias went at it. Syrian, Iranian and Israeli forces—as well as a multinational force—entered the country. Deaths are estimated at 150,000.

Now look at failed Arab wars against Israel despite the United Nations partition of Palestine, the assassination of Egypt’s president and peacemaker Anwar Sadat, and the bloody aftermath of the Iranian revolution. Add in the Iran-Iraq war in which at least half-a-million troops perished. Consider the brutal dictatorships of Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Muammar Qaddafi (Libya) and Syria’s Hafez al Assad, who in 1982 repressed the Muslim Brotherhood by flattening the city of Hama and killing from 10,000 to 20,000 people.

Tragically, there was more: Taliban savagery in Afghanistan. Jihadi attacks in Pakistan and India. Al Qaeda and 9/11. Saddam’s sacking of Kuwait. Iran-backed Hezbollah taking over southern Lebanon. The Arab Spring that produced Arab Winter. Hamas’ attacks on Israel that brought great destruction to Gaza. Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel and resultant suffering in Lebanon. The death cult of ISIS perpetrating such cruelties as the slaughter and sexual enslavement of Yazidis. Then there’s the Syrian civil war and more than 250,000 deaths.

Beirut didn’t disappear from the headlines because the West devalues Muslim lives but because Islamists and so many Muslim leaders do. The West is far from perfect. Colonization was wrong. But that was yesterday. Much of the Middle East so dwells on the past that it can’t focus on the future. (Sidebar: Only twenty years after the Holocaust, Israel established diplomatic relations with West Germany.)

When bombs explode in Lebanon—or elsewhere in the Middle East—the West takes such violence in stride. Sadly, bloodshed will continue as the norm until the region re-imagines governance beyond religious tyrannies, military dictatorships, royal families and corrupt faux democracies.

And this: On Tuesday, Islamist suicide bombers killed 32 people in northeastern Nigeria. The online edition of the Daily Star, Lebanon’s English-language newspaper, provided no coverage on its home page. I had to click on World News then scroll. Way down. In fairness, today’s Daily Star home page reported deadly terrorist attacks in Bamako, Mali and in Baghdad. Ongoing coverage remains to be seen. Lebanon, like the West, has its own issues.

So let’s mourn the deaths in Beirut. Let’s also see Muslims worldwide stand up to the hatred in their midst—the only hope for permanent change. Some are doing so now. I salute them. As the 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

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

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EUROPE AND THE SLIPPERY SLOPE

American politics often seizes up atop the slippery slope. When common sense dictates compromise, Democrats and Republicans refuse to take a first small step. They reason that a tiny compromise will lead to larger compromises eroding their core principles. Europe, too, faces a slippery slope in regard to refugees fleeing the Middle East and South Asia.

We’re all familiar with rickety boats crossing—or sinking in—the Mediterranean. Refugees come ashore in Greece and Italy then go on. Hungary, a way station to prosperous Germany, closed its border. Croatia, another way station, will no longer offer refuge. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said of refugees, “They will get food, water and medical help, and then they can move on… We have hearts, but we also have heads.”

Many Europeans are welcoming. Others fear the slippery slope. Let some refugees in and the inflow will become uncontrollable. Resources will dwindle. Moreover, as more Muslims gain a foothold in “Christian” Europe the Continent as we know it will cease to be.

How do you look into a child’s eyes and tell a family to return to a land of violence? For now, Europe doesn’t want to do that although it lacks a coordinated refugee strategy. Germany announced plans to host 800,000 refugees over the next year. The flow increased. Germany raised its target to one million. Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledges German wealth and organizational skills. She also recognizes the moral issue confronting Germany, which slaughtered six million Jews and millions of others.

So we can all feel good, right? I think not. I’d love to believe that generosity of spirit always leads to universal peace and love. I can’t. Europe has done a poor job of assimilating millions of Muslims already settled within its borders. The Germans hold their large population of Turks, many native-born, pretty much apart. In turn, Turkish Germans remain aloof. They welcome German jobs. They’re uncomfortable with liberal Western culture, including equal rights for women and people with a range of sexual orientations. Across Europe and in the U.K., Muslim communities often find themselves at odds with mainstream society because of differing religious and cultural norms.

Maybe I’m prejudiced—influenced by the plight of Europe’s Jews. Young friends in Sweden (see “Should Jews Leave Europe?”) believe they cannot bring up Jewish children in their homeland because of Muslim anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes. Parisian Jews visited my synagogue this summer. They want to come to America because Jewish life in France is perilous. French Muslims make it so. Several years ago, a film producer in London told me that the Jewish community is terribly frightened of Muslim hostility and influence. Yet it’s difficult for these Jews—educated and successful—to get into the U.S.

If Europe were as capable as the United States in assimilating people from different cultures, I’d encourage it to take in large numbers of refugees. Europe is not, and I can’t. Of course, the decision is Europe’s. But even now, European nations are taking a closer look at the challenges they face.

Still, even if Europe eventually closes off immigration, it will have ingested a significant number of Muslims. The conundrum—and it’s particularly upsetting at this time of year—is whether Europe can digest them.

I wish all who observe a peaceful, healthy and happy New Year. May you be sealed in the Book of Life.

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

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STORY POWER

During the past week, two signs from the heavens got me thinking. This is all a bit subjective, of course, but my train of thought led me from a red-tailed hawk and white, storybook clouds to our over-busy lives, one of my all-time favorite TV shows and the function of fiction.

On a recent walk in the Presidio, I saw the red-tailed hawk hovering on a thermal as I approached Immigrant Point overlooking the Pacific, the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. The hawk floated virtually motionless. How elegant. How simple. Hawks fly, eat, mate and sleep. Humans live far more complex lives. We run ourselves in circles. Then we complain. Yet most people take pride in their busyness. It seems to validate their lives in a society that less worships productivity than its impression.

The clouds appeared during a morning walk on Lake Street. They looked just like the clouds at the opening of The Simpsons—a perfect blend of white on blue. (In August we’re usually foggy—a double miracle of sorts.) I literally stopped and stared. I halfway expected to see the yellow-gold THE SIMPSONS title and hear the singing that introduces the show.

What’s true in our lives? What’s merely illusion? Which do we care about? Often what we know to be true moves us less than the stories we read and hear. Even truth becomes a story of sorts.

Most people know that an American hunter killed Cecil, a black-maned lion with celebrity status in Zimbabwe. Protests abounded. Cecil could have been the fictional Bambi. Some people protested the protests. War has displaced millions of people in the Middle East. A quarter of a million people have been killed in Syria alone. Refugees are flooding Europe. Here, an old adage comes into play. A million deaths is a statistic. A single death is a tragedy—and the stuff of stories.

In 2012 Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl, was shot and badly wounded. Much of the world was outraged. Where was the outrage when thousands of other Pakistanis were murdered over the years? When violence ripped through neighboring Afghanistan? When Islamic State later beheaded hundreds and enslaved women? People responded, yes. But Malala captured their hearts. She was a recognizable individual. She had a name and a face. She wasn’t just a news report; she was a story. Thus on to fiction…

Yes, I read nonfiction. I’m a big fan of Robert Kaplan’s incisive geopolitical books. Nonfiction enlightens the mind. But fiction touches the heart. A year ago, I finally read John Steinbeck’s deservedly classic The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, there was a bit too much repetition for my taste. But wow! How could you not understand the suffering caused by the Dust Bowl and the Depression by coming to know the Joad family?

Economists write books. Politicians make speeches. But giving people a human story with which they can identify—why presidents host “ordinary people” at their State of the Union addresses—creates both understanding and empathy.

That red-tailed hawk and those clouds hit me where I feel. The nation, indeed the world, might be better off if we read more fiction, saw more plays and attended more independent films to get out of our heads a bit and nourish our hearts.

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

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FINGERS ON THE TRIGGER

Two weeks ago, I wrote about paranoia in Middle America. Last week, I wondered about the nuclear deal with Iran. A recent experience and a reader’s comments induce me to amplify my remarks.

Regarding paranoia, many Americans fear both crime and an encroaching federal government. They often turn to guns for protection. Fear of Washington is misplaced, I believe. Not so fear of crime—particularly in small towns and rural areas.

Carolyn and I spent last weekend among the redwoods up north in Humboldt County with my cousin and her husband—I’ll call him Bob. Summer days reach 100 degrees. Nights cool down. Perfect for growing marijuana. Seemingly powerless, Humboldt civic leaders throw their hands in the air—or look the other way. The economy depends on pot. Many Humboldt residents oppose legalization to keep the industry in place, prices high and money circulating.

Big-time operators, including Mexican cartels according to Bob, have established huge grows. Bob points to the mountains—challenging terrain for law enforcement. Big grows exist on federal and tribal (Hoopa) lands. Growers level hilltops and divert streams. They set out poison to kill “invasive” deer. They’re also heavily armed. You don’t want to hike up there.

Job seekers abound. But growers hire only people they trust. Rebuffed, unsavory characters engage in crime. In Bob’s quiet neighborhood, break-ins occur with disturbing frequency. Several took place while we were there. One neighbor doesn’t bother locking his door. It’s cheaper to lose something trivial than replace a doorframe. Guns go off. Saturday night, I heard a rifle shot. Possibly someone was hunting—illegally. (Summers, deer forage at night.) Or someone spotted an intruder. Bob—no paranoid—keeps a .38 handy.

Now to Iran. Chris, a friend of a regular reader, states that Americans misunderstand that country. Having lived in Iran and traveled extensively, he believes that Iranians don’t mean it when they march, chanting “Death to America! Death to Israel!” It’s all a wink-and-nod affair. The marchers are bused in and paid. They also get “brownie points” from the government. University admission might ride on participation. Chris also emphasizes that the government is weaker than Americans think. “There are so many cabals and power camps that it makes ours look like streamlined, FAR more complex than red vs. blue.”

My response: No and yes. No, not all Iranians hate America. Or even Israel (not so sure there). Yes, Iran’s threat in the Middle East is real. Most Iranians may wish only to pursue their education, careers and family matters. But the ayatollahs and the military, chiefly the Republican Guard, still hold their fingers on the trigger to extend Iran’s influence. They support their regional proxies in doing the same. When Tehran—the government as opposed to the people—launches its version of street theater, the world rightly takes such hostility seriously. Still, I agree that ordinary Iranians have much in common with us.

Bottom line: I’m skeptical that we’ll enhance our security by arming ourselves to the teeth at home. Or dropping bombs half a world away. But let’s listen to those who fret that the world can be a scary place. It can be. Common sense might lead us to common ground. And wouldn’t that be refreshing?

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—July sale priced at $15 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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