August 10, 2017

Our 'madman' against theirs

With Ban Ki-moon (NOT a madman)
On 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.

June 25, 2017

Do US Jews value pluralism over justice?

I am outraged by Israel's long years of bait-and-switch with Judaism's non-Orthodox denominations, most of whom fervently support and advocate for the Jewish state, culminating in the latest decision to abandon even a compromise of their basic religious rights. This last straw in a long-running scam to exclude and demonize non-Orthodox Jews should rattle us all to our core.

Equally striking, however, is the general contrast between our community's instant and very public outrage over this spiritual and emotional offense, which targets mostly absentee co-religionists who otherwise enjoy freedom of travel and self-expression vs. the daily and hourly humiliation and subjugation of 2+ million Palestinians -- whose plight, regardless of who is at fault, is at least somewhat and significantly in the hands of the same Israeli government which has now again inconvenienced and insulted Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews. 

Unless as a throwaway line with which to blame "the Arabs" and excuse Israel, even mentioning the Palestinians' situation commonly engenders charges of anti-Semitism and perfidy hurled reflexively by Federation leaders, pulpit rabbis, radio hosts, and blog idols of the official pro-Israel line. Speakers are disinvited, academic tenures are threatened. 

The American Jewish Diaspora won't dare notice -- and actively distracts from the reality -- that Palestinians are routinely and daily denied basic human dignity, rights and services, except to blame and denigrate the Palestinians themselves. Yet, for over three decades, to have one integral but single right -- the right to non-Orthodox observance, including "Who is a Jew" -- denied them in the land of our forefathers is an existential crisis demanding urgent moral umbrage.

In most cases, the same American Jewish establishment which once again warns vocally and righteously of the specter of an alienated American Jewry still thinks little of the Palestinians who live within sight of the Western Wall. As a community, we staunchly defend the Israeli Government's actions with regard to the basic rights of Palestinians, then we turn around and expect that same government to show remorse for how it allows us to pray and validate conversions. 

If this is the Light Unto the Nations, then which nations do we mean? And if we cannot even bear to hear the prayers and grievances of those under our immediate or indirect control, then how can we expect God to hear our own entreaties at the site of his Holy Temple?

April 23, 2017

Trump has no credibility to pledge "Never again"

It has been reported that President Trump will address Tuesday's "Yom Hashoah" Holocaust commemoration at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In addition to Holocaust exhibits and documentation, the Museum very consciously houses the Committee on Conscience and the Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

Today, addressing the World Jewish Congress via video, he pledged, "We must stamp out prejudice and anti-Semitism everywhere it is found." And finally, months after his White House denied the need to mention Jews in connection with the Holocaust, he did mention Hitler's six million Jewish targeted victims. But his rhetoric is very thin on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and ignores his administration's consistent refusal to act in support of contemporary victims of mass killings and of racial and religious persecution, even while he and his aides routinely appeal to Islamophobia and other forms of xenophobia here in the United States.

Unless he announces that he's abandoning the border wall, dropping the arbitrary ban on refugees and certain Muslim states, and firing the "Alt-Right" white supremacists and the second-generation card-carrying Nazi working inside his own West Wing, anything he says there can be nothing more than a desecration and betrayal of the memory and lessons of the Holocaust. Singling out Jews for special recognition and protection, while actively sowing fear and hostility toward so many other minorities, does us no favors.

April 8, 2017

Trump attacks Syria - Context & consequences

I was writing up a new post with some thoughts about this past week's U.S. retaliation against Syrian forces, and decided to record it as a podcast for The Bottom Line. Please listen to the nine minutes and let me know what you think!

April 5, 2017

What Trump could do NOW on Syria

Following this week's massacre of civilians by Syrian government forces, using specialized chemical weapons, a friend asked me what President Trump should do at this stage. To recall, President Obama averted military intervention by securing Syrian President Assad's agreement to remove all chemical weapons. While Obama should never have thrown down a red line over Syria's potential use of chemical weapons, it could have been catastrophic for the region and the United States had he backed that up when Assad indeed deployed such weapons. 

To be sure, with Russia and Iran's active support Assad has been committing mass murder and devastation against his own citizens. But until last week's indication by Trump's Secretary of State that the UnitedStates is ready for Assad to remain in office, Assad had avoided using more than off-brand chemicals such as dropping barrels of chlorine.

A friend has challenged me to suggest what Trump should do at this point, beyond empty statements. 

So here are a few ideas:

1. A statement condemning would be a good start. 

2. Countermanding Tillerson's explicit approval of Assad's legitimacy would be even better. 

3. Demand that the Russians cooperate in holding Assad accountable and removing these new stockpiles (which Russia may have itself supplied. 

4. Get ahead of the courts and formally rescind the U.S. ban on refugees from Syria who have already been exhaustively vetted -- and call on European nations to redouble their own programs.

Obama came in on the heels of George W. Bush's obliteration of Saddam's orderly dictatorship, which unleashed the cynical and destructive forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. That same obliteration freed Iran to pursue its goals in Syria largely unchecked. Obama made some missteps, but he did better than average with what he'd been dealt -- and at least he tried. 

Trump may still have a narrow opportunity to minimize the damage from the current situation, but by accepting Russia's dominance and legitimizing Assad, he's already taken a bad situation and made it so much worse.

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

February 7, 2017

Trump plays with fire, and we get burned


Even if the federal courts overrule him, President Trump's immigration ban on Muslims -- and on refugees who survive the very crimes he claims to defend us against -- has already inflicted permanent damage on our strength and our spirit. Now, his words may add injury to the insult.

The stated and implicit goal of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda is to force a civilizational conflict between the West and Islam, to demonstrate to 1.6 billion Muslims that there is no place for them in the modern world or among non-believers. The vast majority will probably not accept Trump's contrived declarations, or they will take them on face value without acting on that hostility. But the promise and momentum of the post-War decades, stalled at the threshold of globalization and common cause, are now traumatically inundated with doubt and distrust. Thanks, Donald.

I need not elaborate here on the consequent undermining of our security, boosting recruitment by terrorist groups, alienating of military and economic partners, further stigmatizing Muslim Americans, reducing U.S. standing as a global leader, betraying our basic Constitutional principles.