March 8, 2017

Washington, the world's newest Third World capital

Watching the spectacle of TV legend Andrea Mitchell being ignored and ushered out of the seventh-floor parlor of the State Department as she tried to ask questions of our notoriously reclusive Secretary of State and his visiting counterpart, I was reminded of a visit to the President of Azerbaijan nearly 20 years ago.

Our audience with the late Haidar Aiyev was at the Presidential Palace in Baku, overlooking the
As a non-journalist, I was welcome to remain.
sparkling Caspian Sea. To enter the chamber, we had to navigate two dozen reporters, photographers, and TV cameras, recording the whole scene.


We were seated at one long table across from the President's table, with flowers in between. As the junior member of our delegation, I was a few places over from center, next to the U.S. Embassy's political officer. The press were strung out behind us and around the edge of the tables.

Aliyev and our delegation chair exchanged brief greetings and pleasantries. Then, before we got down to the real business, President Aliyev announced, "I would now like thank the members of the press."

As these journalists all raced for the exit, I leaned over and whispered to my new Embassy pal, "In other words, last one out gets arrested." He took umbrage, responding, "The President was merely expressing appreciation!" By the way, such a response can be one symptom of "client-itis", when a foreign service officer identifies excessively with the interests and norms of his or her host country.

Back to the present... This week, for the first time since the end of the Obama administration, the U.S. State Department finally resumed daily press briefings. But the irony of an American Secretary of State whose authoritarian counterparts -- including Russia's foreign minister -- are more accessible to the press than he is boggles the mind.

All those years ago, with the Cold War memories still fresh in my mind and still visible on the faces of the leaders and diplomats across the former Soviet Union, their degree of state control over information was understandable. That comparable optics and limitations are now imposed in Washington, DC, is both shameful and sobering.

February 24, 2017

Hope for a Friday

For my friends -- liberals and conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, independents -- who reject so much of what Trump stands for:

We are living as though in the World to Come, a fogged-in realm where all our former ideological and political differences now seem so trite, where we share common cause, united in nostalgia for a civilized and aspirational existence that we've left behind. Stripped to our bones, this commonality has the potential to restore and reclaim, to rebuild, to revive our society with new life, while never forgetting how precious and vulnerable are truth, justice, compassion, curiosity, meaning.

February 21, 2017

Trump reaffirms fight against anti-Semitism

I was pleased to see President Trump explicitly condemn anti-Semitism this morning. Hopefully, my earlier post will be proven wrong over the duration of the President's White House tenure.

Hopefully, this won't be the end of the story: 
  • Ideally, he will follow it with actions, as his predecessors did.  
  • Condemning, monitoring and combating anti-Semitism should reopen the door to addressing other forms of xenophobia, including Islamophobia, as it did previously in Europe and the United States.
  • The Prime Minister of Israel might come to accept that -- while his top priority is to advance Israel's national interests -- this this doesn't obligate him to excuse negative trends affecting Diaspora Jewry, just to please his hosts.
The President was responding to a reporter's question while out and about, and -- despite his claim that he condemns anti-Semitism at every opportunity -- this appears to be his first time since being elected President. We'll have to see if the Administration will take real initiative and convene consultations, coordinate response by law enforcement, and promote respect for minority rights across the country and around the world. 

This is a cause in which the President clearly deserves our full support and encouragement.

February 20, 2017

Addressing 'anti-Semitism' just ain't gonna be a Trump priority

So that's it??? It looks like our new President just won't be explicitly acknowledging any kind of hatred targeting Jews, whether past or present. As with the prospect of releasing his tax returns, establishing a real blind trust or finally assuming a responsible, Presidential demeanor, calling anti-Semitism by its name probably won't be something he does during his tenure. If he were going to do so, last week's visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- the self-proclaimed "representative of the entire Jewish people" -- would have been the time...not that Netanyahu even seemed to care.

The White House belatedly issued a statement today condemning unspecified "actions", which in this case involved repeated bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country. No mention of Jews or anti-Semitism. Likewise, our Tweeter-in-Chief has yet to even mention last month's mosque massacre in Quebec, even with the recent visit by Canada's Prime Minister. 

On a base political level, it's clear President Trump attracts his strongest support from the so-called "Alt-Right", what we used to call the white supremacist movement. His chief White House strategist, Stephen Bannon, used to run Breitbart, which he proudly labeled "the platform for the Alt-Right." 

Trump's core demographic hates Jews, Muslims and Latinos, as well as the Catholic Church -- especially under Pope Francis. Trump shares their animosity toward the latter groups. He happens to love Jews, especially his daughter and her family, and he seems to genuinely love Israel. But he also clearly understands the political convenience of not condemning his most fanatical followers. By leaving out mention of Jews, even from his official statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day, that should be sufficient to appease those supporters -- it's not like they're going to defect to the Party of Obama. 

Aside from legitimizing -- by default -- acts of hate within the United States, Trump's silence also undercuts the global fight against anti-Semitism and other forms of hate and xenophobia. The United States has been the locomotive for this cause and still sets the tone for international discourse. And on a practical level, we won't have credibility admonishing other governments to do better. Hopefully, the work we have accomplished with key governments and multilateral institutions during the past 25 years has become part of the legal and political cultures, and of law enforcement protocols... but this won't be pretty.

Justice is a tool, righteousness is a way of life

It's time to correct a common mistranslation. 

How often are we reminded in our society, "Justice, justice shall ye pursue..." And yet, the Hebrew "tsedek" (צדק) means righteousness, not justice. Righteousness isn't about blindly enforcing laws or following orders, or judging a case on the strictest legal merits. Righteousness is about doing what is right, even going beyond the letter of the law, beyond one's minimal obligation on behalf of another. It isn't about lowering our standards, it's about exceeding them.  

Let us seek out opportunities to practice righteousness, and -- as elsewhere in the Bible -- "to walk humbly with the Lord your God."

February 19, 2017

If neutrality was a sin during WWII, what is acquiescence today?

Observing the unfolding dystopia known as President Trump's immigration regime, I am reminded of my experiences in Switzerland. That country's "neutrality" throughout World War II also serves as a warning against acquiescence and indifference. 

On my first visit to Stein am Rhein over 25 years ago, I wandered about that medieval walled city northeast of Zurich. I overpaid for an eyeglass case, marveled at the outdoor frescos along the main square, hiked through the vineyards up to the Hohenklingen castle, gazed out upon the Swiss landscape and across into Germany. I followed a winding road along the Untersee, past lakeside villas, and reached the border with Germany. I passed the border post, which resembled a toll plaza without gates or payment, and now I was in Germany. 

I have been to Germany many times over the years, originally crossing between the Communist East and the free West, including divided Berlin, which in its reunified form has become one of my favorite cities. Knowing we could cross through the Berlin Wall while East Germans were risking their lives for the same chance was a formative experience for a five-year-old lucky enough to have been born in freedom. On one visit in the 1970s, I was already old enough -- and it was still early enough -- that I could reasonably imagine any middle-aged man on the street as a young soldier in Hitler's army. In our new millennium, I was fortunate to work very closely with the German government to come to terms with that past, and to lead the fight against a newer surge of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. 

February 17, 2017

Thanks to Trump, Jared's Jewishness is not off limits

Not only as an American, but as a Jew, I am embarrassed by Donald Trump. So what do about it?

Without questioning the religiosity of individual Jews, I do think the President and his team -- including his extended family -- have put the question of Jewish affiliation on the table. Because they are trading on their Orthodox Jewish cachet, it seems appropriate -- if a bit awkward -- for Peter Beinart and others to second-guess and to reject this use of our community's hard-fought brand to buttress objectionable decisions.

Last year's big insider joke was about the difference between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump: Trump has Jewish grandchildren. 

This week, two days in a row, the President used a press conference to dismiss concerns about increased anti-Semitism, emphasizing that his daughter is Jewish, and he has Jewish grandchildren. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister of Israel -- the Jewish State -- explicitly endorsed this excuse for not addressing threats against American Jews -- Bibi knows Jared's family