Monday, December 28, 2009


Sunday evening at Union Square I joined the interfaith remembrance of Gaza's dead from a year ago.    I was saddened by the line of loud and angry pro-Israel demonstrators across the street, stretching from Geary to Victoria's Secret in front of the St. Francis…and saddened maybe even more by the post-Christmas shoppers seemingly oblivious to what happened and is happening in Gaza.   


There, at the start, was Miriam, a fifteen-year old Gazan, a faint smile on her face, surprised, it seemed, by her own power, as she described the loss of her eye and her father.


It was a Jew – a later speaker from Jewish Voice for Peace – who drew our attention to a sign across the street that read "Jews don't turn the other cheek."  But I could recall one Jew who did.  His birthday was, I recalled, two days earlier.


It came time to light the candles.  A Jewish lady gave me a candle she brought.  I lit it from the flame of Miriam's candle.  We all smiled.


Candles in hand, we marched silently around the square.  I tried to make eye-contact with the uninformed, uncaring shoppers.  A few took flyers, but most hurried by in silence.


Having completed our circuit of the square, the shouted insults from in front of the St. Francis became louder, angrier.  As the two groups, lined up on either side of Powell, began shouting at - past - each other, I drifted off into the darkness of the square, past the children gawking at the giant tree, past the skaters on the ice...silent thoughts of Gaza on my mind.


Gaza was still on my mind this morning, as I engaged in my Monday morning ritual of plowing through the Sunday New York Times over breakfast.  There, in the "Books of the Times," was a surprisingly frank and favorable review of Joe Sacco's new graphic novel - Footnote in Gaza - about two earlier massacres, forgotten "footnotes" to the 1956 Suez War.  Though I was a teenager at the time, I remember them well.  They were the stuff of the beginning of an education.  (The review, well worth reading, is at  It may add to your education.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The President Has Spoken


The President has spoken.  He has made his decision.  This is now his war…and ours.  It will be our longest war and right up there with Iraq and Vietnam in terms of wrongheadedness and futility. 


And, as I listened to the President's speech, Vietnam was very much on my mind.  It weighs too heavily on my soul not to be.


But it was only one of three places - three places in time in a tangled life - from which I listened to all his words.


When I was young, I was a soldier in a strange land, believing lies about myself and my country.  I killed for my country and am still tormented by what I did and by all the horrors of a senseless war.  War, for me, is not something from a book.


For most of my life I was a diplomat on the front lines of a Cold War with a formidable adversary.  The art of diplomacy is, I learned in the process, not to sharpen differences, but to find and expand the common ground that always exists between would-be adversaries…so that younger people need not die in another senseless war.


And now – in my old age – I am a deacon, a person of faith, who seeks to represent my church and my God and, on their behalf, to speak for peace.


I seek to speak for the peace of Shalom, Salaam – not the peace of the graveyard that darkens the land when two armies stand exhausted, but rather real peace that is built on the solid ground of justice.


It's the shouted chant you've heard in countless peace marches over nearly a decade now – "No justice, no peace!"  "No justice, no peace!"  "No justice, no peace!"  That's not just a slogan.  It is a moral imperative.


I seek also to ask questions.  Why do they hate us?  Why wasn't that question asked in the immediate aftermath of September 11…and the day before?  Why do we talk of "them" and "us," when we worship the same one God…the same one God who loves us all equally?


Why – eight years later – are we still killing each other in Afghanistan in a war that long ago ceased being - if it ever was - a war of necessity?  Why – six years later – are we still killing each other in Iraq in a war of choice? 


Why are only one percent of our sons and daughters – and their families – bearing all the burdens, while we – you and me – go about our daily lives oblivious to their pain?  Where is the justice in that? 


Where is our vaunted compassion, when we can't even see much less care about the many thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, and Palestinians who have been killed in our name?


Where is our outrage over the nearly trillion dollars that has been poured down the hole of these wars, while our brothers and sisters go hungry and homeless on our cold, dark streets?


Where is our sense of history, morality, absurdity, as we calmly discuss our next war of choice against yet another country – in this case, Iran – that has done us no harm?  When did a war of aggression become a war choice?  When did such a choice become legal?  When did it become moral?


It's enough to make one cry.  It should be enough to bring us to our knees to pray for personal and national forgiveness…for "what we have done and for what we have left undone."


I ask you to do just that – to pray…to pray for forgiveness…and for peace.


But we must also work for peace, fight for peace. 


We both know – you and me – that that fight has been long and hard.  It always is.  The temptation to give up, to throw in the towel, is always there.


But, as the late William Sloane Coffin reminded us, "to give up on peace is to give up on God."


Don't give up.  Keep fighting.  Keep marching.  Keep praying.  God needs your effort!  So do our young men and women in harm's way.  And so does our President…especially our increasingly lonely President.


Friday, September 18, 2009


"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag

and carrying a cross."


Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here, 1935


Fascism, I fear, is coming to America.  It has been wrapped in a flag and is being promoted by those carrying a cross…and a gun.  Those in the vanguard include the dangerously deluded like Glenn Beck, the cynically manipulative like Frank Luntz and Rush Limbaugh, and the anonymous wealthy ideologues who have – sans accountability – financed downright scary full-page ads in hundreds of newspapers.  And marching behind them is a growing army of true believers whipped into a frenzy by those who have stoked irrational fears with a steady diet of delusional rhetoric and outright lies.


And they are being enabled by the very people and organizations that we depend on to defend truth and reasoned discourse – the newspapers and broadcast media of our Fourth Estate.  Witness the full page ads of the so-called "U.S. Citizens Association" that were carried on August 26 by the Vallejo Times-Herald, the Contra Costa Times and hundreds of other papers from New York to Dallas.  Why was it that the working journalists of the Times-Herald asked no questions about the nature of the  "U.S. Citizens Association" that appeared out of nowhere just a few weeks earlier. Why no questions about the people and finances (presumably hundreds of thousands of dollars) behind the ad?  Why no discussion on the news pages about the over-the-top nature of the lies.  If we're going to be propagandized, don't we have the right to know who's writing the propaganda and who's paying for it.


Our political debate about health care reform is awash in hidden money that has crowded out other, less affluent, less reasoned voices.  This has distorted the debate to the detriment of democracy.  As the eminent political scientist T. H. Marshall has written, "the right to freedom of speech has little real substance if, from lack of education, you have nothing to say that is worth saying, and no means of making yourself heard if you say it."  I hope I have something worth saying and can hope to have these few words printed in the Times-Herald.  But I cannot buy a full page ad in hundreds of papers.  I can write letters to Senator Max Baucus and the fellow members of his "Gang of Six."  But I cannot buy the face-to-face access that the health industry has bought with the $1.5 million it has given to Senator Baucus or the $150 million it has devoted to its campaign to defeat health care reform.    


The result has been a cynical replaying of the shameful "swiftboating" of John Kerry…the same people, the same money, the same level of lies, the same emotional manipulation.  This time, however, it has reached truly dangerous proportions.  How else to describe the anti-government rantings of Beck, the jocular racism of Limbaugh, the calls for secession and revolution by wing-nut politicians, the conscious distortion of the health reform debate by others who find it amusing to scare our seniors with made-up lies about "death panels" and "pulling the plug on grandma?"  Where is our Joseph Welch to say to Senator Coburn or Senator Grassley "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?


Political debate has been replaced by Madison Avenue-style manipulation reminiscent of Orwellian "Newspeak."  Why not?  1984 was twenty-five years ago.  We have become inured to words that have lost their true meaning, accustomed to being motivated not by thoughts, but by emotional stimuli.  Frank Luntz gives the objects of his studies little dials and tracks their emotional responses to particular words and phrases and, from those studies, designs pre-packaged stimuli – phrases like "death panels" - designed for maximum effect.  To hell with right and wrong, truth and falsehood, left or right.  It's downright Pavlovian! 


The danger to our democracy has become imminent.  How else to describe a situation in which it has become commonplace for people to show up at political events with a pistol strapped to a leg or an assault rifle slung over a shoulder; in which it has become acceptable to shout down your elected officials and fellow citizens with canned talking points?  Who are we to turn to to say "Enough!"


Where are our media?  Where are our churches?  Where are our other ethical watchdogs?  All of them, I fear, are missing in action.


Take the media.  Fox has staked out the right.  MSNBC has staked out the left.  And CNN has staked out Michael Jackson.  Radio has become a right wing echo chamber and network television a wasteland of mindless bread-and-circus. 


And then there are the churches?  Where, I've often wondered, are the voices from the pulpit?  Watching the Sunday morning televangelists of a prosperity Gospel that Jesus wouldn't recognize, you too might wonder.  But there are worthy voices like that of Sojourners' Jim Wallis ( and Tikkun's Michael Lerner (  Perhaps in response to the anger, hate, and lies, those voices are growing more numerous and bolder.  Listen to one such voice, that of my sister Episcopal deacon, Laina Casillas:


"Jesus would not tell us we cannot afford to help the sick.  Jesus would not tell us that the decision as a people to tend the sick is somehow government conspiracy to enslave the citizenry or euthanize the weak.  This ought to be pretty simple.  Perhaps we ought to try asking first questions first.  Instead of jumping to, "What should insurance and health care systems look like in America?" I think we ought to ask, 'What is our common agreement as to what we regard to be decent living conditions for the citizens of America?  What policies are consistent with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which we all claim as the standard to which we aspire in our conduct as a country?'  As Christians and as all faithful citizens of America, I think it would be most helpful to begin with agreement upon a common level of decency as regards the health needs of our people."


As a Christian and a faithful citizen of America, I ask you to put aside, the anger, the hate, the lies and distortions and to ask these "first questions" as we go forward.  The stakes are high.  It can happen here! 


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On Being Pro-Life and Pro-Choice

A few days back – in the wake of the murder of Dr. George Tiller – I wrote a friend, a priest, to voice my grief and horror about that murder and all the hate and fear promulgated around the issue of abortion…adding that I did so as someone who is both pro-life and pro-choice.


He wrote back asking how I could be pro-life and pro-choice.


"Easy," I replied.


For, though I personally oppose abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the would-be mother's health is gravely endangered, I believe that the decision for or against an abortion must always be left up to the would-be mother in consultation with her physician and her God.  And, whatever her decision, we - her family, church, and community - should always be there to support her and, if she so chooses, her child, with compassion and non-judgmental love.


And, we - family, church, community, and government - should do all we can to decrease the numbers of unwanted pregnancies by providing adequate access to sex education, birth control information, and, yes, condoms.  The bottom line is simple - abortion should be rare, safe, and legal.


Two other related thoughts come to mind.  First, I don't have any idea when "life" begins, when a fetus becomes a human being, when the soul enters a body...or leaves it.  I am not God, nor do I know the mind of God with certainty.  Second, I wish we would all show equal concern for the lives of humans who walk among us.  I wish we would stop killing each other in executions - state-sanctioned murder; in the state-sanctioned murder that is war; and in the slow deaths we inflict on others through our indifference to poverty, starvation, and genocide.


I feel, moreover, that each of us should be allowed the freedom of conscience - and the dignity - to determine when and how our own lives should end when that end is near and clear and when prolonging the inevitable would be too painful to body and soul.  Life is precious, but not so precious that it is preferable to what awaits us?     


There's a certain attractiveness and seamlessness to the Roman Catholic teachings on the sanctity of life, especially as propounded by John Paul II.  Too bad, however, that so many have expended all their concern and energy on abortion and apparently forgotten his opposition to capital punishment, unjust wars, and other forms of violence we visit upon each other.  But even those teachings - cast, as they are in black and white - fail before all the grays we must all struggle with morally and ethically.  For my part, I'll keep struggling in that gray area where one can be pro-life and pro-choice.


And, as you do, I ask you to ponder the words of the President at Notre Dame about how to discuss and debate these issues with civility and compassion.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Under a headline "Pro-Israel Group Reasserts Clout," The New York Times ran a story today on the annual convention of AIPAC - the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  It ended with the following put down of other pro-Israel groups which, like J Street, have the temerity to also be pro-peace: "AIPAC officials have tried to treat J Street as if it were lint."
- The orchestrated effort to shift the agenda and attention away from Palestine and toward Iran; i.e., Palestine can be addressed only after Iran is "dealt with."  That might have succeeded if Dick Cheney were still running the White House.  One can only hope that the current occupants are somewhat saner.
- The silence on Gaza and its consequences, both moral and strategic.
- The unapologetic, in-your-face touting of how many fully-paid "America Israel Education Foundation" trips each congressional speaker has taken.
- The overall cognitive dissonance between the rhetoric in the hall and the reality in the world outside.
- The awkward juxtaposition of invocations of prophets like Amos, Micah, and Jeremiah with the drumbeat of rhetoric calling for reliance on military might; witness Newt Gingrich's soaring bellicosity.
- The refreshing, solitary, hopeful voice of reason that was the Vice President's, insisting on a two state solution and a real freeze on the construction of settlements.
- The silence of television news - across the board - on what was being said inside the Washington Convention Center.
- The eery feeling that AIPAC is to Israel what the NRA is to guns; i.e., there can be no hint of compromise, not the slightest  bow in the direction of a modicum of rationality or, God forbid, even-handedness in U.S. policy vis-a-vis Israel/Palestine.  No matter how pro-Israel they may be, those like J-Street, Brit Tsedek, or the Network of Spiritual Progressives who entertain thoughts of deviation, however slight, from maximalist Likud postions are to be treated as "lint."  
My sense - especially since Gaza - is that the lint is collecting.  Allowed to build up it can gum up the works of the most smoothly running machine - be it my Admiral dryer or AIPAC.  Collected and worked on by skilled, caring hands, however, it can be formed into a beautiful flannel garment...perhaps one of many colors.  I think we've now got enough lint to get started on that.  Got a loom?  Ready to work?

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Saturday, April 11, 2009


I find myself pained and saddened by the anger, hate, and violence afoot in our land and, even more, by our inability and apparent unwillingness to do anything about it.


We all know the litany of headlines:


March 21 - Gunman kills 4 policemen in Oakland, California.


March 29 - 8 shot and killed at North Carolina nursing home.


April 3 - 14 shot and killed in Binghamton, New York.


April 4 - 5 shot dead in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


April 4 – Graham, Washington father kills his 5 children.


Still grieving from the shootings in Binghamton, where I have a friend seeking to cope with the aftermath of that massacre, I awoke the next morning, turned on the TV, and almost dropped to the floor at the rapid-fire "crack, crack, crack" of gunfire that emanated from a live report from Pittsburgh.  It was a sound that I recognized from the long-ago horror of Vietnam.  Then it dawned on me - We ourselves, at home, have killed many more fellow Americans these past two weeks than our enemies have killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.  We have done so with weapons that only our soldiers should carry.  And some of the gunmen, who pulled the triggers, wore flak jackets that only our soldiers or police officers should be entitled to wear.


Like the killers, this is insane!  Oh, I know the knee-jerk letters this will generate.  I know already the words they will contain.  I know the authors' names.  But I'm sick at heart at all the disingenuous words and I just don't want to hear them anymore!  Let me say it clearly – The Second Amendment is an antiquated abomination that should be repealed.  And, short of that, guns should be sensibly registered and regulated…just like cars and controlled substances - other objects that kill.  Having lived in several other free and democratic countries, where hunters and sportsmen have regulated access to sporting guns, I find our unfettered access to military-style weapons, whose only purpose is to be found in war, an uncivilized aberration.

Such unfettered access is particularly dangerous in a time of economic high anxiety.  People are scared.  All Americans are hurting.  And, as Charles Blow pointed out in the New York Times - as fate would have it, April 3 - many on the right "feel isolated, angry, betrayed and besieged. And some of their 'leaders' seem to be trying to mold them into militias."

What "leaders?"  How about Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman who, on the day four Oakland policemen were gunned down, called on her fellow Americans to be "armed and dangerous?"  How about that self-proclaimed "patriot" Chuck Norris who asks "How much more will Americans take? When will enough be enough? And, when that time comes, will our leaders finally listen or will history need to record a second American Revolution?"  Then there's Glenn Beck who, on February 13, warned that the only thing standing between "responsible citizens" and an oppressive government are guns in private hands.  "So you before you lose your rights," he says, "you go buy a gun as a responsible citizen."  "But I'm telling you," he warns, "there will come a time, if you don't have one - you ain't getting it. And I fear it's coming soon."

This, Blow warns, is "not all just harmless talk. For some, their disaffection has hardened into something more dark and dangerous. They're talking about a revolution."  Yes, folks like Beck and Bachmann are talking about revolution against the duly elected government of the United States of America…our government, their government.  What kind of "patriots" are folks like these, folks like Beck who stoke the fires of fear and urge their listeners to "think the unthinkable?"

And what is our responsibility as truly responsible citizens to counter the inflammatory rhetoric and to begin – at long last – a sensible conversation about guns?  We could start by urging our Congressman George Miller and Senators Boxer and Feinstein to support minimal legislation to get a handle on this problem.  This should include closing the gun show loophole, banning cop-killer bullets and making the assault weapons ban permanent.  Attorney General Eric Holder is of the opinion that such steps would be permitted by the most recent Supreme Court ruling in Washington, D.C. v. Heller.

Of no small import, Holder and others feel that reinstituting the assault weapon ban would also stem the flood of military-style weapons flowing into Mexico and into the hands of drug cartels which are destabilizing the Mexican government and now threatening our border area with increasingly deadly violence.  As a recent Department of State travel advisory warned, "Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades.  Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico, but most recently in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez."


It's time for clear-thinking, responsible Americans – the true patriots – to stand up to the NRA and their apologists on the loony right and, paraphrasing Chuck Norris, to say "Enough is enough!"

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009


[My hometown paper the Vallejo Times-Herald has a columnist, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen, who is well-known in local circles for her Arab-bashing, Muslim-bashing rhetoric.  Her column this week was so much over the top, that her editors apparently thought it best not to carry it on their website.  Too bad.  You'll have to extrapolate what she had to say from my response here.]



Having kept such a low profile during all the killing in Gaza, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is back…back on her favorite topic.


She's back at it, spewing her trade-marked anti-Arab, anti-Muslim invective, making all the wrong judgments, oblivious to the irony of the charges she tosses out left and right, mostly right.


Irony?  Let's take her opening salvo last Tuesday, keyed to the President's message to Muslim leaders that their people will judge them by what they build and not by what they destroy.  Might we apply the same standard to Israel's leaders, who, in the run-up to the country's February 10 election, seem to be out-segging each other over how many Palestinians they can kill? 


What have they built?  A wall three-stories high to pen in one people and blind the other to the reality of what happens on the other side.  Then there are the settlements – the huge white cities that dominate every hill from Hebron to Ramallah; the subsidized housing on someone else's land for over 260,000 Israelis, the "new reality on the ground" that, as Bob Simon pointed out on "Sixty Minutes," undercuts the two-state solution.


And what have they destroyed?  In just the last month, they've destroyed 1,300 lives, more than half of them women and children.  In that time, they've destroyed mosques, hospitals, food storage facilities, olive groves, 20 United Nations schools, and countless homes.  They've destroyed the already-frayed support for moderate Palestinian leaders like Mahmoud Abbas.  They've crippled hope.  Worst of all, they've dragged the good name of Jewish moral sensibility through the muck of senseless, often gratuitous violence, putting their faith not in their – our – God, but rather in their military prowess unleashed against an essentially defenseless civilian population.  And that is a sin I think Jeremiah might have something to say about. 


But there is a second irony in Rachel's latest that needs addressing.  It is her contention that there is some is some "unrivaled" Muslim "propaganda machine…that uses every conceivable cynical means to its end…the destruction of Israel, the Jews, the Christians and the West in general."  Phew!  Talk about apocalyptic rhetoric!  Trouble is it's fantasy.  Sorry, Rachel, Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians do not "know us better than we know ourselves," although, I agree, they know us "infinitely better than we know them."  For how can we know them, if we don't get any information about them, much less accurate information?


The irony in this second contention of Rachel's is that the "unrivaled" propaganda machine at work around the Israel-Palestine issue is the Israeli Hasbara, an operation I'm sure Rachel knows well.


Hasbara?  It is the Hebrew word for "explanation," or, more liberally translated, "public advocacy."  And it is the Hasbara that is the "unrivaled propaganda machine."  Having proudly worked for the U.S. Information Service for three years, I am in awe of it.  Rather than try to explain its scope and reach, I'd just recommend that you click on or or just google "Hasbara."  You'll get the picture.


This was the network that was activated in the midst of the Gaza operation when the scope of the carnage could no longer be denied.  In mid-January, the Israeli Foreign Ministry sent an urgent message to all its "Dear Friends."  It read: "We hold the [sic] military supremacy, yet fail the battle over the international media. We need to buy time for the IDF to succeed, and the least we can do is spare some (additional) minutes on the net….The more we post, blog, talkback, vote – the more likely we gain positive sentiment."  To that end, as the Jerusalem Post reported, Israel mobilized an "army of bloggers" to "explain" the pictures of destroyed schools, hospitals, and mosques…and all the dead children.  Trouble is there is no way to explain away what you see with your own eyes, no way to bring the children – the hundreds of children – back to life. 


And, so, Israel has won its "war" against a hapless civilian population, but lost the bigger war for hearts and minds, ours included, and, in the process, tarnished its own image and strengthened the hand of Hamas vis-à-vis Fatah and Israel.


What's left?  Sadly, just the name calling, the ad hominem, shoot-the-messenger invective against critics – Israeli and American – who support the legitimate interests of Israel and the United States and urge critical thinking on their behalf.  As one Hasbara site cynically put it: "For the Israel activist, it is important to be aware of the subtly different meanings that well chosen words give. Call 'demonstrations' 'riots', many Palestinian political organizations 'terror organizations', and so on. Name calling is hard to counter."


Yes, it is.  Rachel does it so well, sometimes subtly, as when she puts quotation marks around Palestine…as in "Palestine," as if there really were a "land without people for a people without land."  And then there are her nasty habits of morphing Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims (Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Indonesians?) into one menacing "radical Muslim world" and her use of pejorative adjectives like "totalitarian," "terrorist," and, shades of Michael Savage, "Islamo-facist" and sticking them on any old Palestinian or Arab she comes across.  Stereotypes are hard to shake.  One has to wonder, however, does she know the difference between an Afghan and an Arab, between Shi'a and  Sunni…or that there are 160,000 Palestinian Christians?


And then there is CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, that has taken the art of name-calling to unparalleled heights in responding to even the slightest criticism of Israel.  In recent days, for example, it has spared no invective in attempting to smear Bob Simon, who dared express despair on "Sixty Minutes," and President Jimmy Carter, who dared invoke hope in his latest book We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land.


Bottom line, the time for knee-jerk name calling is over.  Too much blood has been spilled in our shared Holy Land.  It is time to see things clearly and to think critically and honestly not about scoring points, but about finding solutions.  It is time for truth and reconciliation.  Shalom, Salaam.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009


What follows below is, on one level, a film review, a Pauline Kael-worthy review of a worthy Golden Globe winner, "Waltz with Bashir."  Like the film, it is also moral reflection on the character of moral courage in what the article's Israeli author calls the "post-moral world."


Given the author's background and the nature of the film, it would be too simple to say that this is all about Lebanon and Gaza and Israel…about a particular guilt in a particular place in a particular time,,,about a guilt, a night sweat terror, a spiritual crisis that need not concern those of us who were not at Deir Yassin in 1948, Sabra and Shatilla in 1982, or Gaza last month.  And, given Burston's aim – to plumb the troubled Israeli soul – he makes it too easy for the non-Israeli to fall into that trap, just like non-Germans more than sixty years later too easily wrap the Holocaust in a unique box – the particular crime of a particular people in a particular time and place – never to be paralleled, never to be repeated, never to trouble our pristine consciences.  To fall into that trap, however, threatens one with a simplistic, unhistorical, and ultimately very dangerous form of moral cowardice.  Listen to the eminent Polish Jewish sociologist who, in his Modernity and the Holocaust, wrote:


…the exercise in focusing on the Germaness of the crime as on that aspect in which the explanation of the crime must lie is simultaneously an exercise in exonerating everyone else, and particularly everything else.  The implication that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were a wound or malady of our civilization – rather than its horrifying yet legitimate product – results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but also in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament.  It all happened 'out there' – in another time, another country.  The more 'they' are to blame, the more the rest of 'us' are safe and the less we have to defend this safety.  Once the allocation of guilt is implied to be equivalent to the location of causes, the innocence and sanity of the way of life of which we are so proud need not be cast in doubt.


But that is precisely what Burston and Ari Folman are about – subversively, no, frontally casting doubt on the sanity of the way of life their countrymen are so proud of.  And the key word in all this is "sanity," for what Burston and Folman are concerned about is the moral insanity of young Israelis partying in some Tel Aviv nightclub or settlers on the West Bank watching some sitcom on their living room TV, safe behind their walls, "getting on with their lives by turning a blind eye to, blaming away, repressing, or somehow ideologically reprocessing genuine tangible horror."  "It has to do," Burston writes, "with the fear of memory…the reluctance to look inward, the quiet terror of what one might actually uncover."  


That leads to the very sort of cognitive dissonance I encountered last November, as, again and again, back and forth, I traversed that ugly Wall that separates Israel from Palestine, reality from fantasy.  It is the sort of cognitive dissonance that, if not confronted and dealt with, leads ultimately to insanity.


For his part, Burston identifies the raft of palliatives which people attempt to deploy against that threat, among them self-delusion, denial, and superstitious silence…the sort of whistling past the graveyard going on now in Jerusalem and, for too long, in Washington.  But sometimes those palliatives prove insufficient, yielding instead to drugs, alcohol, PTSD, anger, rage, and the sort of sociopathic behavior that can yield, in turn, to homicidal violence.


Burston's project, then – as Folman's – is one of moral rehabilitation, of redemptive sanity in the midst of all the madness that is hatred and war.  His closing message is simple: "our humanity is better off left open to the air, than locked away for safekeeping."


I urge you to read what he has to say and to go out and see "Waltz with Bashir" (an excellent trailer is at  You will be moved.


And, when you do, please don't leave the theater thinking it's all about an Israeli-Arab thing that "happened 'out there' – in another time, another country."  I'd be glad to loan you my copy of "Apocalypse Now" that I turn to from time to time to remind me of another special place in hell.


Here then is Burston's reflection from the February 2 edition of Haaretz:



A Special Place in Hell: "Waltz with Bashir," Gaza, and the Post-Moral World


By Bradley Burston


I went to see "Waltz with Bashir" this week, not suspecting for a moment that the story it told would have anything to do with me.

That, it turns out, is precisely what the film is about. It has to do with everyone who has been in a war here, which is everyone here. It has to do with all those who have succeeded in getting on with their lives by turning a blind eye to, blaming away, repressing, or somehow ideologically reprocessing genuine, tangible horror. It has to do with the fear of memory here, the reluctance to look inward, the quiet terror over what one might actually uncover. And because it has to do with the moral failings of bitter enemies, we are, every one of us, in the movie.


I knew, going in, that the film had to do with the filmmaker, Ari Folman, and his inability to remember his experiences as a 19-year-old soldier during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and, in particular, at the time of the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp massacre.

What I did not know was that, scene by scene, the film was about to invade me, rumble over me and through me, corner me and take me over. I went to see Waltz with Bashir, but it wasn't really seeing that I did. It wasn't long before the film turned visceral. I saw armored personnel carriers and knew how to operate and load and clean the machine guns at their turrets, and I began to feel a fist inside rise from my gut upward until it took my windpipe, still from the inside, and strangled the air out of me, long ago, in a green uniform gone black with sweat, in what I would only later and only for that one instance recognize as claustrophobia.

The Christian Phalangists began emptying their AK-47s into the air, and I could smell the cordite as if they were in the next row.

For the time of war, adrenaline can seem good for whatever ails: claustrophobia, moral qualms, mortal fears, sleeplessness, free-floating anger, free-floating anxiety, depression. When it wears off, there are other palliatives for those of us who get off lucky, alive, limbs intact, minds formally whole. There is survivor guilt, which can manifest itself in self-delusion and/or self-hate and/or political activism and/or political extremism. There is denial. Then there is my personal favorite, a certain silence born of superstition, the sense that if you don't talk about a fortunate near miss, or those killed and crippled in a place you might have been, then it won't happen to you or your loved ones in the cumulative balance sheet of grief.

On January 11, when Waltz with Bashir won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, the war in Gaza had been raging for more than two weeks. Without commenting directly on the fighting in the Strip, Folman told The New York Times that the film, which he has called apolitical but anti-war, "will always be up-to-date because something will always happen again."

In a modern climate of diminished reality and computer-generated truth, the honesty of Waltz with Bashir comes as an astonishment. The Times interviewer, somewhat taken aback, responds: "You mean the prospect for peace seems so remote? That's sad."

"But it's true," Folman answers.

Folman's comment, and no less, his film, suggest that we now live in a post-moral world, a world in which, if nothing else, we can discern that both sides to this conflict commit grievous crimes, to little if any lasting effect, other than the injury done the victims on both sides.

If there is to be peace, and this is one of the world's faster growing of all "ifs," perhaps it will be just this post-moral outlook which will save us. For far too long, the attitude of pro- and anti-Israel sides to the wrangling over the Holy Land, has revolved over sophisticated versions of an "I was right all along" approach better confined to a kindergartener's arguments in schoolyard fights.

Perhaps its time we surrendered to what we know to be true, Arab and Jew both: The leaders on both sides lie. That is their job. They resort to war to protect the lies. Lies like We Will Never Recognize the Enemy. Our Efforts Will Bend Their Will. Only If We Demand Our Full Rights Will We Prevail.

We try to look beyond our leaders, to see someone better, but we can see little down the road.

There will be an election here in a week, but there will be no one to vote for. If the Palestinians were going to the polls on Tuesday to decide between Fatah and Hamas, they'd probably feel exactly the same.

The problem goes far beyond elected officials. We have learned from weary experience, that the apologists and apparatchiks on both sides lie. That is their job. We try to look beyond them, but there are too many of them to see beyond.

As Jews, we have come to see the post-moral world as caving in on us. On the eve of International Holocaust Day, the Vatican rehabilitated the post-moral British Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson, who had flatly denied both that 6 million Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust, and that any had been gassed.

Classically anti-Semitic incidents have multiplied, with daily reports of hate crimes from Caracas to Turkey.

Meanwhile, Palestinians every reason to echo the cries of a woman seen at the end of Waltz with Bashir, who calls, in her distress, "Where are the Arabs? They should be rushing here [to help us]!" For all of the concern and identification expressed across the Muslim world, the misery of Gaza remains a tragic constant.

Every night of the three weeks of hell in Gaza and the south, I had a different dream about the war. This is the one that, in retrospect, made sense:

As Ahmadinejad's campaign for June elections stalls, he orders the Hail Mary, ostensibly to avenge deaths in Gaza: a proportional military strike against Israel. He miscalculates, however, and annihilates everything in the Holy Land, Israeli and Palestinian alike, except for the three things that even nuclear holocaust cannot eradicate - cockroaches, Qassams, and settlement outposts.

Years from now, we may well look back on Waltz with Bashir as a work of rare maturity, a signpost toward a future less enamored of military means to political ends.

Years from now, we may look back on the film not only as anti-war, but, perhaps even more usefully for our purposes and future, a message that our humanity is better left open to the air, than locked away for safekeeping.

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Friday, January 30, 2009


Dr. Sonia Robbins is a brave, tough-minded woman I met in Daheisheh refugee camp just outside Bethlehem the evening of November 17, 2008. A British reconstructive surgeon working at Gaza's Shifa Hospital, she had been denied access to her patients there since the imposition of the Israeli blockade on November 4. When near fifty of us decided to peel away from the Sabeel Conference * we were then attending to stand in solidarity with the humanitarian NGOs we had learned would seek to enter Gaza the next morning, Sonia volunteered to go with us to the Erez Crossing, offering sound advice on how to behave with the Israeli security personnel and foreign media we were soon to encounter. I will not forget the day - November 18 - nor Sonia. Here is her unvarnished, unscrubbed report from the day before yesterday from Gaza. She finally got in...and this is what she found. I offer it without further comment. It needs none.


From: "Sonia Robbins" <>

Date: January 28, 2009 10:51:19 PM PST

Subject: from dr sonia

hi, what to say? the aftermath of the massacre leaves destroyed families and buildings, no sign of cement coming in, rafah still intermittently closed, many patients transferred to egypt and lost into black hole of buearocracy and families cannot trace. medical staff and people still shellshocked although cars and people on the streets again but all people have the memories of the events of 20 days bombardment, charred bodies and probably no family is intact. we visited a number of homes where people often children sit with legs in plaster, dressings on multiple wounds not sure what happened and what is going to happen as the medical services probably did break under the strain and now only with all the visitors is there an ongoing care. medical staff here need time off but still sit in clinics trying to cope. Money will no doubt pour into the system now but unless there is some justice over the use of unconventional weapons on a civilian popultation so the extent that almost every street had bits of phosphurus mixture that kids play with to make it ignite 20 days later in some cases. That also needs clearing up safely particularly as rain water or heat of the summer could reignite these remnants. children are already getting fingers and faces burnt as they play with remnants in the streets. reports will come out but all effort must be made to bring some justice to the palestinian people.Phosphorus and possible other materials used may also have a later carcinogenic effect. I am ok and being accompanied by Greek and Uk colleagues some of the time which is good when seeing and hearing about these events. such weapons should not even be produced for any use. there are also very disturbing reports of executions by il ground personnel. no wonder il has done its best to keep all journalists and foreigners out as long as they could and for most of the war and still making it very difficult for entry with egyptian beaurocratic help even to deciding that a psychiatrist was not 'medical enough - not needed' in thi situation and therefore not allowed in. knowing when to leave will be difficult as it will take many years and perhaps never for all the physical scars and rebuilding to be done as well as the unseen psychological ones. but much will be healed and helped if there is some justice here. without that the physical scars on the bodies and buildings here may be patched up but the deeper psychological ones will remain without the healing salve of some restorative justice.

the picture is as it says - the american school in gaza targetted by il probably with munitions from usa. what an education we are giving here.



* We were attending an international conference to mark the 60th anniversary of the Nakba or Catastrophe experienced by the Palestinian people in 1948. The conference was sponsored by Sabeel (The Way), an ecumenical Palestinian Christian liberation theology group centered in Jersusalem and Nazareth.



I've waited for this year for forty years…and it's only just begun…a few weeks ago.  A member of the "might have been generation," I'd feared it might never come.  The youthful hopes of '68 dashed in the hail of bullets and burning cities, I learned to make the best of the numbing mediocrity and worse my country had become.  I feared I might never again experience the open-ended optimism of that long-ago time.  I even feared to hope and, in these most recent years, came close to despair.


Then, of a November morning, the sun came out; the long bad dream was over.  I reached for that copy Langston Hughes' Let America Be America Again on my bedroom bookshelf.  Somewhat giddy, I began to read to a dog and a cat:


O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.


And, for the first time in forty years, I could hope again that it might yet be.  Oh, I realize that there's a lot to be done, a lot to be repaired, but we were free again to try and dream we might succeed.


And, soon enough, it was Inauguration Day, a bright clear morning in Washington…and here in California.  A time to dream.


I waited till they had left the steps of the Capitol to put out the flag, now flapping crisply in the morning chill…a morning marked for me by silence…a silence that was palpable, as I walked Cocoa, my dog…silent waves of recognition from passing strangers, and just the sounds of distant barking dogs.  And, with that sound of silence, peace rushed in, crowding out the anger and discordant noise.


How good, how fortunate the computer's crash last night.  Enforced silence – now embraced – a chance to listen to the wind chimes, to watch the fish, to read, to reflect, to refresh - that monk-like silence that is the predicate of action – Friday?  Next week?  In all due time.  For this is a special time, this time that is an unexpected gift.


Already the urge to poetry, to poetry not of anger, but of hope, has returned.  While walking Cocoa, one word from Barack's speech crowded my thoughts – "endurance."  He spoke of all we had endured and, I added, struggled for.  I thought of those who had struggled and endured; of how few they were at the start, at the darkest time; but, oh, how right and righteous they were…the remnant.  They were the recurring remnant that is always there to call us back, push us forward. 


                                                  God bless the remnant

  That held firm to truth

  And kept the faith,

  Endured, struggled,

  Its voice once faint

  Became a roar –

  Hope, believe, yes!


  Now, in the winter chill,

  A solitary sign –

  "We have overcome!"

  And, in a poet's words,

  The primacy of love,

  The light again of promise.


There were other things to reflect upon – the music of simple things…and of a rising, and of "who we are, what we'll do, and what we won't."


And then there were all those thoughts of children and the child-like that came together last night and this morning in God's serendipity.  There was that moving inter-faith service at Grace Cathedral last night – one long prayer for Martin and Barack.  But, before and after all the pomp and prayers, I paused before the open Book in the side chapel.  It was open to Mark 10:13:


                        And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch

                        them; and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it

he was indignant, and said to them, "Let the children come to

me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of

God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the

kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.  And he took

them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.


This morning Barack, too, spoke of children, but in a different way.  He called upon us to grow up, "to put away the things of childhood."  And, yes, we must.  But for me the juxtaposition of Mark and Paul conjured up paradox.  But so much of the Book is paradox.  Man is paradox…and so is God.


But this was not a time to struggle with paradox, but rather to confront the simplicity of the children themselves.  Joseph Lowery's cheerful, playful words echo in my mind, especially his loving nod to "angelic" Sasha and Malia.  So too those of Jesus: "Let the children come to me…."  And, in those words of Jesus, last night and now, I couldn't help but think again – and weep inside – for all those children in Gaza who have now gone to God…and those I left behind in West Bank towns and camps, their hope still so bright in my memory.  Soon after our return from Palestine, a friend spoke of avocations and vocations – mine being to keep alive the collective memory and current reality of Palestinians, a people facing oblivion under the heavy weight of injustice, ignored by an uncaring world.


And, once again, I was angry.  But having dipped into Obery Hendricks' Politics of Jesus, I found it okay, appropriate, because I was angry not for any injustice visited upon me, but for the "mistreatment of God's children.  I took solace in Hendricks' words:


                        Jesus…shows us that there are things we should be angry about,

                        There are things we must say and do as a testimony against

every action, system, policy, and institution that excludes any

of God's children from the fullest fruits of life for any reason.

That is to say, we must endeavor to love everyone, but we must

also take sides.  We cannot be against injustice if we do not take

the side of justice.  We must be angered by the mistreatment of

any of God's children.


Content that I could now act upon that anger with calm resolve, I turned to my Sunday Times, as always, my week's reading.  Even there I found today the stuff of inspiration and reflection.  There amidst the 'hard' news of the "Week in review," was Benedict Carey's thoughtful essay on that "Miracle on the Hudson" and "The Afterlife of Near Death."  How, he wondered, do people face death…and live with that confrontation?


In "Arts and Leisure," there was a piece on the movies that "made a President," the movies of a lifetime, Barack Obama's 47 years.  It was a good enough list, but, my life having been a bit longer, I wondered why they left out "Nothing But a Man.'


In "Sports," there was George Vecsey's reminder to a younger generation of springtimes sixty years ago, of Jackie, Newk, and Roy, and of "a journey from Ebbets Field to the steps of the Capitol.


And, in "Style," there was a jarring full-page Ralph Lauren ad…a light-skinned black kid, lolling on a classic wooden Chris Craft, wearing a straw skimmer, lots of bling, and a Trump-like arrogance.  Different color, same message, appropriating someone, something new to all the old wrong ways of Me-Generation materialism.


But even that couldn't mar the joy, the incredible lightness of being of a sunny day of new beginnings…and happy endings.  How else to describe that buzzing "It's done" alarm of the Bush countdown clock, that helicopter lifting off disappearing from view?  The nightmare is over.  It's morning in America.   




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