November 21, 2018

History forgotten, Saudi Arabia trumps Pakistan and Iran

President Trump uses American jobs as the reason he’s setting aside the CIA’s report that—as has been inescapably obvious for weeks—Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their Istanbul Consulate. How about the thousands of American jobs already being lost as a result of the President’s new trade war with China—the one he said would be “easy”?

Another reason the President gives is Saudi Arabia’s support for his take-no-prisoners policies against Iran, despite the Islamic Republic’s continued compliance with the multilateral nuclear agreement. Coddling a brutal autocrat—the Shah—was how we lost Iran 40 years ago in the first place. What happens when the Saudi regime is overthrown because we encouraged their excesses? And who will take over then? Meanwhile, the homegrown Saudi animosity against Iran requires no incentivizing from Washington.

In almost the same breath, on Twitter, the President also slammed Pakistan for allowing Osama bin Laden to hide from justice. And what does Pakistan do for us anyway... Well, aside from the fact that our assistance helps stabilize a regime that owns nuclear weapons, and that—with a few well-placed Trump tweets—Pakistan could be far more anti-American than it is—let's stop and really think for a moment about OBL.

Let’s consider not where Osama was hiding, but where he got his start and his cash and nearly all the recruits for his 9/11 attack on our homeland. That’s right—Saudi Arabia!

So, if enabling Osama is the litmus test for cutting off relations, then why is Donald Trump doubling down on the Saudis?

October 31, 2018

Pittsburgh's uneasy spotlight

You don’t have to be Jewish to have deep feelings about last week’s terror attack in Pittsburgh. And there is no shortage of emotions and deeper meanings to take away from this horror. Here are a few of my own early thoughts.

Of course for many of us, the Pittsburgh attack is close to home. I’ve been in the Tree of Life for a wedding long ago, and Jews are all connected. And as a security volunteer in another synagogue hundreds of miles away, I was actively dealing with safeguarding and with liaison to our local police. But somehow it’s more, and I’m choosing here to leave out the very compelling political and security ramifications because I think there’s something innate that also merits exploration. 

Perhaps we (somewhat like Israelis) have tried to put the shame of victimhood behind us. We watch the massacres and violence around the United States and we sympathize, empathize, pledge solidarity, and step up to help. But now we Jews are in the spotlight, we are the ones receiving sympathy and assistance. Cable news is focused on US. Not Israel, not a multi-ethnic public school, not a military base. 

We have the spotlight right now, and we may not all agree on how to use it. But it feels very strange to be noticed for what was done to us, and not for what we have done -- whether good deeds or bad. Almost unavoidably, we are objectified. Our rabbis are elevated to the national stage, “Shabbat” is a term mentioned by CNN, and the Jewish experience and current trauma have been universalized to a national and international audience.
Maybe this just takes some getting used to. And maybe the pain and sorrow are still too overwhelming.

February 19, 2018

About parades and insecure rulers

President Trump seems intent on staging some glorious and costly parade, to showcase our military might and — presumably — to celebrate his own power as America’s Commander in Chief. Why does this sound familiar to me?

Nicolae Ceaușescu was still ruling Romania with an iron fist in the summer of 1976, when my parents brought us back for a week-long visit with friends in the lush countryside. In one town near the border with Serbia (then called Yugoslavia), we happened upon a strange spectacle. A few days before Liberation Day, citizens were lining the main street and cheering as soldiers and workers and schoolchildren marched down the middle. It seemed the whole town had turned out for what amounted to a dress rehearsal for the big event — marchers and spectators included. Such was the hero worship of this hollow autocracy, that the farce of national strength and solidarity had to be practiced. 

The spectators even waited as the marchers ran back down a side street in order to repeat the exercise from the top. On TV, I had seen the fancy parades in Beijing, Moscow and even Bucharest, but it had never occurred to me just how absurd was the farce and how insecure the ruler — or to what degree everyone knew it. 

I have been to Paris for the July 14 parade, which is impressive and genuinely popular. It is embedded in the national consciousness, and never about the politicians who happen to oversee France's military professionals.

Romania got rid of Ceausescu's parades in 1989,
but North Korea's Kim is still going "strong"...
I doubt we civilians will be required to practice cheering in advance of Trump's big day, though the President has already branded as traitors any Members of Congress who didn’t stand and applaud for his State of the Union address. Personally, I need no practice. I’ve seen this movie before, about the cult of personality, and I don’t need to watch it again. #SpoilerAlert 

September 11, 2017

Today we mourn, tomorrow we vote

September 11, 2001, was a Tuesday. Though our leaders seemed to be asleep at the wheel in the months preceding, and in the first minutes of the horror, these attacks were essentially a physical assault from the outside. 

That fateful Tuesday was a primary election day in New York, and it was appropriately postponed. In the years that have followed, and right up to recent days, we have seen our democratic way of life both tested and diminished -- that is on us, not on the terrorists. 

Tomorrow is another such primary day, giving us a new opportunity to honor and reaffirm our democratic institutions in real time. If you are registered as anything other than "independent", then please come out and vote to determine who will be the nominee for your party in the November general election. 

We cannot bring back those we lost on that beautiful sunny day, nor the thousands more we sacrificed in pyrrhic pursuit of vindication in Afghanistan and Iraq. But we can do this little act of faith and commitment to the values for which we have always struggled.

Today we mourn, tomorrow we vote.

August 10, 2017

Our 'madman' against theirs

With Ban Ki-moon (NOT a madman)
In one of the private meetings I was privileged to join with Ban Ki-moon when he was UN Secretary-General, he shared a basic and important insight about dealing with the North Korean regime. As a native of the territory which is now the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Ban and his family fled south as refugees. Many years later, he confessed to us that even he as a Korean cannot make sense of that regime.

The so-called "madman theory" contends that an unpredictable leader can extract better concessions if the other side is duly frightened. This may explain some of Ronald Reagan's success in the waning years of the Soviet regime. But when the DPRK's Kim Jong-un makes wild threats and U.S. President Donald Trump responds with apocalyptic rhetoric, then the madman theory is out the window, and it's simply a race to macho demonstrations, miscalculation and broken chains of command, any of which can result in catastrophic escalation.

Cooler heads can only prevail when they are among the decision-makers. Trying to out-brag a braggart is hopeless, and with nuclear and conventional weapons threatening millions in Asia and the United States, it's a recipe for Armageddon. Whether out of pride or survival instinct, a true madman (and one who surrounds himself with fawning sycophants) is less likely to back down in the face of escalating threats and more likely to move closer to the brink.

I don't think Mr. Ban or any other level-headed diplomat can make sense of Mr. Trump, and this is a looming liability. With respect to nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, it is cause for alarm.

July 26, 2017

Remember Stalin? He's back.

Precisely 25 years ago, when we were distributing 250,000 food packages around Moscow, the "Memorial" office was one of many distribution sites. When an elderly recipient saw the U.S. flag on one side of the box, and the Joint Distribution Committee menorah on another, he told my colleague that Stalin's regime had sent him to the Gulag, falsely accused as a spy for the CIA and the Joint. Now, he was receiving a modest but vital gift from the U.S. Government and the Joint. And now, this.

June 28, 2017

LGBTQ, Jews, and Israel? It's complicated.

Many in the Jewish community seem dazed by the recent incident in Chicago, where marchers with a Magen David-emblazoned rainbow flag were ejected from this year's Dyke March. Though this exclusion seems unambiguously offensive and hypocritical, I believe there are many sides to what happened. Here are a few of my own thoughts:

1. The organizers seem to have taken their own decision, so this need not reflect a consensus within the Chicago LGBTQ community.

2. But in Chicago, of all places... REALLY??

3. We should not assume that everyone demanding acceptance is equally committed to accepting of others. Nor should we assume that everyone with an inherent LGBTQ identity is automatically "progressive", that "progressive" carries the same meaning for everyone, or that Israel and its advocates naturally deserve a place at the progressive table.

4. The Magen David (Star of David) was consciously adopted as the symbol of Israel, a sovereign state with policies and enemies. Attacking that symbol does not necessarily reflect anti-Semitic intent. Within the Jewish community, there is now a flare-up of tensions regarding access to the Western Wall and the underpinnings of the relationship between Jewishness and the State of Israel; with no hint of irony, Chicago's own Jewish Federation -- which has long condemned boycotts against Israel -- is now boycotting any Knesset Member who voted for new restrictions on conversions to Judaism.

5. Israel does engage in a bit of 'pinkwashing' hasbara, as though being the most LGBTQ-friendly Mideast nation outweighs anything it does vis-à-vis Palestinians. Seeing Jews march with a Magen David on their rainbow flag may have engendered some resentment in this regard.

6. Jared and Ivanka, and even President Trump, have been trading on their LGBTQ hip, while the Administration and the GOP shamelessly target that community's equal rights. Many in Israel and in the Orthodox community are disproportionately and publicly supportive of POTUS and his exclusionary, divisive agenda. We may start seeing more reactions targeting Jews and Jewish symbols in misguided retaliation for this perceived complicity. I doubt our organizations or leadership have dared to analyze or prepare much for such potential manifestations.

7. Chicago has a very active and visible Jewish community and a Mayor with well-known personal and family ties to Israel. Somehow, I am not overly worried, especially in light of the widespread coverage and condemnation of the incident.