December 19, 2016

Death in Ankara, and beyond

There was horrible news out of Ankara today, with the brazen assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov. Here are a few immediate thoughts:

1. Whatever war crimes are bing committed in Russia's name in Syria and Ukraine, or in cyberspace, the sanctity of diplomatic culture underpins any hope for resolving and preventing such atrocities – now and in the future.

2. Having worked closely with Russian diplomats over the past 25 years, this also hits close to home.

3. Russian President Vladimir Putin's alliance with the Orthodox Church is a primary source for his support within Russia and among other lands in the region, including Greece, Serbia, and parts of Ukraine. The ultimate prize for many of those faithful will be the former Constantinople, ancient seat of the Byzantine (Orthodox) Church. Whatever criminal motivation lay behind today's attack, the long-term battle for Turkey and for modern-day Istanbul should not be ignored.

Istanbul remains home to Hagia Sophia, the monumental cathedral converted centuries ago into a mosque and celebrated today as a landmark museum. Turkey's proximity to Syria, where Russian forces have rained death and destruction by order of magnitude since U.S. Election Day, and Turkey's vulnerability to refugee flows and Kurdish insurgents, raise the specter of Russian designs on the Orthodox prize (and of course, strategic access to the Black Sea and beyond). – Conspiratorial, for sure, but nothing is too far-fetched when it involves Kremlin.

My heart goes out to Russian friends and colleagues, even as it bleeds for the innocents being starved and slaughtered in Aleppo and other lesser known cities across Syria. Social media can often lead us astray, and my prayer today is that cooler heads will prevail on all sides.

Note: I know I've missed many items the past few months, but events were frenetic and distractions abundant. Since the U.S. election, I again have the distance and perspective to share some more developed thoughts and – hopefully – to generate some constructive discussion.

September 11, 2016

9-11...and every day since

Whether we realize it or not, each of us has at least one point in our lives where it all could have ended. For me, it was an unmarked oil barrel sitting in the middle of I-95 in the unlit Larchmont overpass, late one night circa 1989... instinctive swerve and good suspension, or maybe something more powerful at work. Every day since that point is an extra gift. For us, collectively, 9/11/01, is such a point. We mourn, we avenge, and we treasure and add meaning to every single moment going forward. And then, we mourn again.

July 12, 2016

Bibi imposes Putin-leaning NGO restrictions

In Israel today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's carefully constructed Knesset majority passed a new law restricting NGOs that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments. Effectively, it establishes a second class for those NGOs, nearly all of which are devoted to expanding civil society and to connecting Israelis with likeminded democracy activists in Western Europe and the United States. That's right, U.S. Government-supported organizations are also included.

Not included? Dozens of right-wing, pro-settlement groups which receive funding from non-governmental foreign sources. In most cases, this unofficial funding is difficult to trace. And in many cases, those donating to the 'acceptable' NGOs are also major donors to political campaigns in the United States...invariably, Republican ones. And guess what? Netanyahu's Likud also receives significant support from those same individuals and enjoys close ties and coordination with the U.S. Republican Party; as Ambassador to the United States, Netanyahu confidant Ron Dermer has even spoken at the annual Republican strategy retreat convened by Sheldon Adelson. And Adelson is the most prominent of these donors, putting him in position to pull the strings of major politicians in both countries. And yet, no need for disclosure or special status, or Knesset speeches denouncing the right-wing groups as traitors.

June 28, 2016

Trump, Brexit, and that 'power to the people' myth

Across blogs and social media, and on the air, it's very common to find pundits and screen warriors praising populist rejections of globalization as important "wakeup calls" and breaths of fresh air. Such claims are either deliberately misleading or dangerously uninformed.

As with the late Meir Kahane and other demagogues, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump -- and the Tea Party -- can sometimes hit on some of the very real shortcomings of our society and in our global order, and the solutions they offer are both popular and counter-productive, and ones in which they themselves probably don't even believe.

We know for a fact that the 
Brexit and Trump campaigns have routinely been lying outright and inciting violence just to gain power.

Are we serious about power to the people, about ensuring everyone has a voice and everyone gets a fair shake? The "NRA" is 
disproportionately funded by the gun manufacturers and not by citizens seeking to exercise their Second Amendment rights. The defense industry plunks down millions in political contributions and hires the very generals and government officials who decide where to buy new systems. The pharmaceutical industry hires Committee chairs mere days after they push through favorable legislation.

As long as the rich can keep using their government-subsidized windfalls to drive more legislation and regulation in their favor, the 98 percent really stand no chance.

Why not start by fixing the bipartisan campaign finance reform championed by Senators McCain and Feingold? Why not assign Congressional redistricting to commissions of career professionals? Anyone who thinks Trump would ever act in the interests of the people is naïve enough to make the elites of both parties look prescient.

Let's watch how the British handle Brexit's increasingly real consequences, including the buyer's remorse in just the first few days since the vote. Now imagine what America and the world will feel like on November 9, or next January 20, should Trump actually manage to get elected.

April 12, 2016

Why Religious Zionists don't want Diaspora's advice

The latest poll of Israeli attitudes on religious issues is full of insights and paradoxes, all very useful. Some of this is news, and some of it highlights more obvious trends. 

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, religious Zionists are the least likely Israelis to welcome involvement by Diaspora Jews in Israel's religiosity debates (13 percent). Sure, it's understandable from a tactical perspective: They know their overseas brethren are mostly progressive or non-religious, and that they support an eventual peace deal that gives up most of the West Bank (aka "Judaea & Samaria") so Israelis no longer have to oversee the two million-plus Palestinians (including in Gaza) who don't appreciate Jewish control. Despite the recent internal violence and regional mayhem, most Israelis also remain supportive of such a deal. The last thing the latter-day religious Zionist camp needs is more 'peaceniks' from overseas.

On a strategic level, and by definition, it's the religious Zionists who should be soliciting and nurturing Diaspora involvement. The official Rabbinate remains firmly in the hands of the non-Zionist Haredi establishment, which negates much of the modern-Orthodox theology and practice of religious Zionists. 

Religious Zionism was rooted in a Jewish nationalism premised on a strong connection to all Jews around the world, with Israel as the vibrant religious and spiritual core. In the early days of the state, religious Zionist leaders were reluctant to join the secular Labor Party's negation of the Diaspora, though they did join coalition governments.

Religious Zionists may also be embarrassed by progressive American Jews, who undermine their own claims vis-a-vis Haredim that a little modernity won't erode halachic precepts. 

Have real political dynamics, a highly evolved attachment to the land and an unquenched prophetic pioneering spirit combined to override the interest in having a true dialogue with dissenting Diaspora Jews? In many ways, the State of Israel is no longer seen as a reflection of world Jewry, but rather the other way around. 

Here in the United States, many Jews have already internalized this reversal. Whether through Birthright or AIPAC or the war on BDS, or even the Iran deal, Jewish identity in the Diaspora is increasingly understood and cultivated through a right-wing Israeli lens. More and more, our community looks to Israel and its leaders for guidance. 

This general deference to Israel works just fine for the Haredi establishment which prizes religious dominance above all else, and for the settler-driven religious Zionist movement for which any territorial compromise is viewed in cataclysmic terms. Of course, our dollars and unquestioning support are always welcome and expected, but -- for this segment of Israelis -- candid input and independent initiative are reserved for Israelis.

April 8, 2016

Bernie-Come-Lately does no favors for Mideast peace

Bernie Sanders' recent missteps on Israel and Gaza are disturbing for a few reasons.

First, he was asked about the topic because he's repeatedly mentioned his concerns about Israeli policies and use of force. A serious politician would have known the difference between 10,000 killed and 10,000 injured Palestinians, and a principled politician would have accepted being corrected (after literally asking for it) -- yet Senator Sanders then countered it was even more than 10,000, and implied they were all innocent

On other occasions, I've expressed my own concerns about Israeli actions, including in Gaza. Sen. Sanders is the most visible critic of such policies, and by implication he's the test case for a progressive solution to the Palestinian issue. The fact that he pushes so hard on Israel's buttons without even a sense of the scale of the conflict undermines the credibility for the rest of us, who really put ourselves on the line with friends and the powers that be.

On a more personal note, I've been seeing the relentless defensive tactics of Sen. Sanders and his apologists, most directly (and also directed at me) on social media. This includes questioning my sophistication, challenging my motivations, misrepresenting my arguments, and dismissing the relevance or significance of The Bern's inaccurate, self-righteous and counter-productive complaint against Israel. I've been accused of being an AIPAC stooge and not caring about Palestinian lives, all because I refuse to be satisfied with the Sanders retort that the number wasn’t what’s important…

Accountability, it seems, is only to be demanded of those remaining outside the Sanders camp. The left-wing peace movement is rallying behind him, especially on this point, which unfortunately suggests that -- like Sen. Sanders -- these groups are more interested in scoring points with their home base rather than with convincing anyone else, or with effecting substantive change over the long haul. 

Not that I'm shocked by any of this, but it would have been nice to see some statesmanship.