Somewhere around 1983, when I was 13, I discovered that my favorite TV show, M*A*S*H, was actually based on a movie that was loosely based on a book. My parents had recently bought our first VCR, a front loading VHS console that didn’t even come with a remote.
I was in love and obsessed with television’s M*A*S*H. It was the catalyst of my early adolescent discovery of humanistic, authority-questioning ideas in American popular culture. As I transitioned into my freshman year of high school in suburban St. Louis – about as Reagan-enthused a place as you could find in America at the time – I also discovered “the 60’s,” or at least a young, often lonely and depressed suburban middle class white teen’s romantic idea of “the 60’s.”
Knowing the cinematic parent of my beloved television show was a critically acclaimed late 60’s anti-war movie, I placed my hope of renting the movie in our neighborhood video rental shop, Mr. Movies. Mr. Movies had a lot of titles from the 60’s and early 70’s, and I devoured them amidst my parents’ general obliviousness about my growing fascination with and yearning for an era I imagined I would have felt at home in and regretted having missed. The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, To Kill a Mockingbird,Planet of the Apes, In the Heat of the Night, Dr. Strangelove, and Hair were repeat rentals. So were 70’s movies about the major social conflicts of the 60’s: Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter,Harold and Maude.
But I couldn’t rent the original movie M*A*S*H because Mr. Movies only had it in Betamax. Other video rental shops didn’t have it at all. It was agonizing that I could hold in my hands the Beta cassette of the mysterious full-length movie version of my favorite fictional world, but all I could ask the owner every few weeks was “do you think you’ll get a copy in VHS soon?” I did what I could to find out more about the film – I asked my parents, my friends’ parents, and some of my teachers if they’d seen it and what they remembered about it. I gleaned very little.
Then, I found a paperback edition of the Richard Hooker novel/memoir, M*A*S*H, that had inspired Robert Altman’s 1970 film, bought it, and read it. I don’t remember much about it anymore, except that at the time I read it I was puzzled because it didn’t really seem like it had an Alan Alda-esque antiwar-movement soul. I think that in fact it did not – if memory serves, Richard Hooker was a pseudonym for an actual surgeon-veteran who served in Korea and who mainly wanted to write a memoir about the zany absurdist adventures that he and other medical personnel experienced during the war. I think the book did do a lot to portray some of the “futility-of-war” themes that also made it into the movie and the TV show, and it did so by presenting its readers with the insanely contradictory situation of doctors – people trained to heal wounds and prevent death – being put into service doing emergency repair work on healthy young men who, if healed, would often then be sent back out to get blown to bits again or else blow other human beings to bits. But I’m pretty sure it was not taking a political stand against the US decision to fight in Korea, or Vietnam. If I’m wrong, apologies to the author.
Hi all. This is probably the most personal disclosure I’ve ever shared on this blog, which isn’t exactly read by millions, so perhaps this is really just a chance for me to share some of my daily struggle with a small semi-random cohort of people.
So, my day to day life is governed by several relentless fears. They mostly have to do with politics. I mean, it’s quite possible that my brain has learned to displace fears I may have about things that are much more immediately part of my life, like fear of losing loved ones, or fear of becoming horribly ill, and that these fears I have centering around politics are all some kind of cover for something deeper. I can’t say. What I can say is I don’t experience myself going into debilitating funks of fear worrying that something bad might happen to someone that I love or to myself. I worry about those things – sure – but to a pretty normal degree. What I do experience for many of my waking hours is a terrible fear – a dread really – about certain possible things happening in politics. For me, currently, that fear is that Trump will return to the White House, or that someone with a similar neo-fascist agenda will do it instead of him.
I realize that millions of Americans were traumatized by Trump’s election in 2016, were further traumatized by many of the terrible things he did while in office, and continue to be traumatized by his anti-democratic, demagogic, toxic, and narcissistic behaviors. I’m not trying to compare my suffering to anyone else’s.
But what I experience – on an almost daily basis – is a form of suffering. I can’t seem to stop my thoughts from telling me that the possibility of Trump returning to power may be increasing, that I should check various websites online to find out if in fact that seems to be the case, and that if it is true I literally will not be able to live. That’s the constantly repeating thought cascade pulsing through parts of my consciousness. A few things interrupt it (deep focus in my work; animated conversations with others; studying; sometimes writing). A few things help tamp down the intensity of the fear for a few hours (yoga when I manage to do it, a vigorous walk or mowing the lawn). But my brain’s steady state is one of anticipatory fear of possible futures.
I can’t explain it rationally. I just feel inside like if Trump gets elected again I will die. That’s the fear, and it feels immediate, like as if I was staring down the barrel of a gun about to blow me away. There’s a variation of this thought process, which is that if he becomes president again, I won’t die, but I will live in a state of intense fright and agony every day that will be so horrible that I’ll wish I was dead.
Just watched Under the Bombs for the first time, a 2007 Lebanese feature film directed by Philippe Aractingi and written by Aractingi and Michel Leviant. Nada Abu Farhat plays Zeina, a wealthy Lebanese Muslim mother of a young boy, Karim, from whom she has been separated during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah (started July 12, 2006 – ceasefire took effect August 14, 2006). Zeina is recently divorced from her globetrotting businessman husband, and their marital difficulties had led them to ask Zeina’s sister, Maha, to host their son for the summer while they attempted to work things out in their marriage. Unfortunately, Maha’s home was in the south of Lebanon, the region that was hardest hit by massive Israeli aerial bombing raids. Zeina flies into Beirut just after the ceasefire goes into effect, and desperately offers lots of cash to any taxicab driver who is willing to take her into the devastated and still dangerous south in search of her son and her sister.
Enter Tony (played by Georges Khabbaz), the only cabbie willing to take the chance. The movie turns into an “odd couple on the road” film, as Tony, a Lebanese Christian who knows the villages of the south like the back of his hand, becomes Zeina’s driver, cheerleader, detective, entertainer, confidant, and eventually, attempted romantic suitor. Although there are some lighthearted moments, the mission they are on to find Karim and Maha gets off to a grim start. Filmed amidst the actual ruins and rubble in the months immediately following the war, they drive from town to town, often having to backtrack due to blown out bridges, finally making it to the town where Maha lives. That’s when they learn that Maha didn’t make it – her body was found under the rubble of her home – she died “under the bombs,” as the local expression goes.
Check out this podcast interview in which Bryan Schwartzman of Reconstructing Judaism asks me about some of the things I’ve been blogging about lately re Israel and Palestine: https://evolve.fireside.fm/28
Note: this articlewas published for Evolve, a project of Reconstructing Judaism. This blog post only contains the beginning of the article, and then provides a link to the full article on Evolve.
So much has been written about the decision by Ben & Jerry’s corporate board last spring to stop selling ice cream in the West Bank that one might think there’s nothing more worth saying about it. As the dust settles, I think there are some important things that the controversy has revealed about the way Americans talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the way the thorny topic of boycotts is discussed in the progressive Jewish community.
Supporters and opponents of boycotting Israel see their position as an urgent moral calling, and as a result, the public debate about Israel/Palestine often takes on the hardest lines of opinion that both activist bases promote. Here’s how I understand the way in which both camps narrate and morally frame their positions.
Pro-boycotters often argue that boycotting is a time-honored non-violent form of activism, and that people should boycott Israel until several goals are achieved: ending the occupation of the West Bank, removing the blockade of Gaza, and granting all Palestinian refugees and their descendants the right to return to their homes and lands. The status quo on each of these issues is, for the boycott movement, an intolerable injustice that must be resisted with non-violent, worldwide non-cooperation with the responsible regime. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement wants to end the daily human rights abuses and indignities that Israel imposes on Palestinians and draws inspiration from the boycott of apartheid South Africa. The movement is agnostic on the question of whether, once its desired goals are achieved, there should be a final political arrangement that includes a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state, and many BDS supporters regard even the minimalist aims of Zionism—the secure existence of a Jewish and democratic state in some part of the Jewish people’s ancient homeland—as an inherently unjust project that must be replaced.
I have the privilege of getting to work with Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., as part of my job at Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism. The current landscape of antisemitism is toxic in ways that demand clear thinking and a willingness to make our struggle – the Jewish people’s struggle – interconnected with the struggle for justice and equity for all.
Note: you can listen to an audio version of this post at this link.
Just finished reading Red Line, by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Joby Warrick. It was published in February 2021.
Warrick tells the story of how, since the 1980s, the Assad regime in Syria built a massive chemical weapons production industry and a stockpile of weapons capable of killing tens of millions. Thanks to a highly placed CIA informant within the program, US intelligence services were able to keep relatively informed about it. After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Assad began dropping chemical weapons on rebel-held villages, in civilian centers, and a number of brave Syrian civilians risked their lives to gather evidence and smuggle it out of the country so that the rest of the world would know.
Soon after the civil war began, when Assad’s regime looked ready to collapse, many world leaders, especially in the West, hoped Assad would be forced to flee. On the other hand, while some of the rebel groups seeking to oust Assad were pro-democracy and pro-pluralism, others, like ISIS, were intent on seizing power and imposing their own form of tyranny and brutality. Obama and other world leaders became alarmed at the possibility that Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities might fall into the hands of ISIS or one of the other Islamist rebel groups, and the US defense department began working on a massive effort to prepare for the possibility of needing to act to secure and destroy those weapons if they were about to fall into jihadists’ hands.
Before that scenario had a chance to play out, intelligence reports started arriving in the US and elsewhere indicating that Assad had begun using poison gas against rebel held populations. Then came a press conference, actually about health care, during which Obama was asked a question by a reporter about the possibility that Assad was using chemical weapons in battle. In his response, Obama used the phrase “red line” for the first time to warn Assad that use of chemical weapons would lead to the US taking action against him. He would go on to use the phrase two more times in prepared remarks, including during a speech he gave to university students in Israel.
The story that Warrick goes on to tell is as depressing as any deep-dive piece of reporting on war crimes and atrocities, and it shines a light on many heroic individuals who tried to save lives and stand firm against inhumanity. Warrick describes a UN team of inspectors who were allowed into the country with a mandate to collect evidence to determine whether or not chemical weapons had been used, though they had to accept Assad’s condition that any report they made would not be allowed to make claims about who was responsible for using the weapons. In this manner, Assad and his Russian backers would be able to maintain their disinformation campaign claiming that if anyone had used chemical weapons it must have been one of the rebel groups.
While the UN team was in Syria, one of Assad’s generals ordered a large scale chemical attack, using sarin gas, on a rebel held Damascus suburb called Ghouta, killing about 1,400 people and injuring thousands. Many children were among the victims. (Here is a link to a Human Rights Watch report on what happened at Ghouta. But before you go there, a warning – the very first thing you see is a photograph of dozens of dead children killed in the attack. I wasn’t prepared for that when I visited the site, and it hit me very hard.)
The UN team decided to do all it could to gather evidence from the Ghouta attack, but meanwhile various intelligence agencies had concluded firmly that Assad had indeed used chemical weapons in the war. Assad had crossed Obama’s red line, and Obama had to decide how to respond. Initially, he wanted to launch airstrikes in Syria, but he didn’t want to imperil the UN inspection team. He tried to get the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to pull the inspection team out ASAP, but Ban wouldn’t do it, arguing that it was against his mandate to remove a diplomatic team seeking to gather evidence about chemical weapons use in order to help another country carry out a military strike.
A few weeks of this stalemate elapsed, and in the meantime different domestic and international leaders sought to influence Obama’s thinking regarding what consequences he might impose on Assad’s regime for crossing this line. There were leaders who were worried that airstrikes might backfire in any number of ways. There were progressives who did not want any president taking military action against a new foe without getting authorization from Congress – something that candidate Obama had stressed was the Constitution’s requirement for waging war. Ultimately, Obama announced that he would seek Congressional authorization of military action – something he thought he would easily get. But he and his advisers misread the political moment in Congress. Republicans were against anything Obama wanted to do and signaled their unwillingness to support him in this effort if for no other reason than simply to hurt him politically. But most Democrats were also opposed, saying they wanted no part of risking the opening up of a new potentially endless war in the Middle East.
Then came a diplomatic breakthrough. Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, had been meeting with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, intensively to look for ways to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons. Thus began the intensive Obama administration diplomacy that led to “the deal,” the September 2013 agreement signed by the US and Russia to oversee the removal of Syria’s entire chemical weapons stockpile and destroy its production facilities. Russia, Syria’s main ally, was able to push Assad to accept the deal, which meant there would definitely be no US-led military attacks against his forces in the coming months and that Russia would be able to continue to grow its influence in the region. For the US and the rest of the world concerned both about Assad’s use of the weapons and the potential for jihadist rebel groups to steal some of the weapons, the deal meant achieving two important goals: 1) imposing a major consequence on the Assad regime for crossing Obama’s “red line,” and 2) removing (hopefully) all of the weapons and Assad’s factories for making more.
A piece I wrote in 2011 – wondering if it still holds up to the scrutiny of hindsight given the last decade’s events.
Recently I saw Romney on TV warning that Obama is on a mission to change America into a country that we hardly recognize, and that this election represents our last chance to stop him before we lose “the America we know.” Echoing this message of cultural paranoia, last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC provided a platform for the most extreme versions of this thought, including panelists associated with white nationalist and anti-immigrant groups. The GOP’s core campaign message so far appears to be “Obama is dangerous because he isn’t really one of us.”
In the first couple years of Obama’s presidency, the right promoted this message in the form of “birtherism” and the “he’s a Muslim” claim. Now they’re pushing it in the form of the “he’s a European socialist” canard. In the space of three years, right wing paranoia has moved the geographic location of Obama’s Otherness from Kenya, where he wasn’t born, to Mecca, towards which he doesn’t pray, to Western Europe, whose fully socialized medicine he didn’t promote. Republicans are going to need a GPS navigation system to keep the American people up to date on the geography of their fictional portrayals of Obama.
The truth, however, is not that Obama is trying to change America into a country we won’t recognize, but rather that the GOP’s leaders don’t recognize the country that America has already become. America has already changed into, and will continue to become, an ever-more-diverse nation of many cultures, religions, and ideas. Before anybody knew who Barack Obama was, this change had already taken root. Obama is an American with mixed racial heritage and family ties to Kansas, Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia. He also has Muslim, Christian, and even Jewish relatives. He is a walking American melting pot who could only have become president long after the death of Jim Crow America. What the fearful right doesn’t see is that Obama is an awful lot like most people in this country – mixed heritage, ties to different strands of the weave of this nation, and a values system that has tolerance and respect for all these different cultural elements.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2021 / 5782 for String of Pearls – Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
Shana Tovah to everyone.
One of the most wondrous names of God in the Torah is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This is the divine name that means, “I Am Who I Am.” You may remember the scene when God introduces Godself by this name. It’s from Moses’s encounter at the Burning Bush, that scraggly thornbush on the slopes of Mount Sinai that Moses approached because it strangely appeared to be on fire, but not burning up. That’s where God first spoke to Moses. And where God told Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Hebrews that the God of their ancestors has sent him to be the instrument of their liberation. Here’s how the scene plays out from there in the text:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I am who I am.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.’”
Can you imagine being Moses in that moment? First off, you might be thinking “this is a profound, mind-blowing experience. This must really be the Living God and Creator because It just told me that Its name is all-encompassing, inscrutable, fluid, beautiful, immense, abstract, and intimate all at the same time.” But if you were Moses you might also be thinking, “Hang on a moment. How am I not going to be run out of town on a rail by the Hebrews if I show up – a runaway fugitive from justice in Egypt and a former member of the royal family now claiming to be Jewish – and I tell them their God has sent me back to Egypt to liberate them, and then – when they ask for God’s name – I tell them it’s something like the riddle of existence, and that they should trust me?”
Moses’s predicament is even worse than that, because grammatically it’s not clear whether what God tells Moses is that God’s name is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In Biblical Hebrew, the verb tense is unclear – it could be present or future. (If you want to get really nerdy about it, it can also be causative – “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” If you open up a typical English translation of the Bible – Jewish or Christian – there’s a good chance you’ll see a little footnote tagged to this phrase, which will take you to an editor’s note that states some of the other possible translations.
I think there’s a lesson here about both God’s nature and ours, one that’s connected to this time of year in the Jewish calendar – this time of self-reflection, of personal moral accounting, of seeking forgiveness and of working to try to become better versions of ourselves in the coming year. God reveals a crucial aspect of Godself to Moses with this famous declaration – and it’s a really intimate thing God shares. God says “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be” in the same breath. Both are simultaneously true. And both leave us with a lot of questions. When God says “I am who I am,” does God mean to say that God also doesn’t fully understand Godself, but on some level simply accepts who God is? When God says “I will be who I will be,” does that mean God doesn’t know what God’s future being will be like – is God becoming at all times and developing in ways that the God of the moment can’t predict?
In a stunning development that has world leaders scrambling, Ben & Jerry’s Corporation and the Government of Israel are now officially in a state of war. The outbreak of hostilities is the latest strange expansion of the ever-growing War on Christmas begun by Starbucks back in 2011, and which has come to involve dozens of popular snack and beverage vendors in an epic struggle to destroy once and for all the holiday of Christmas and other central icons of Western Civilization such as Columbus Day, the Confederate battle flag, and – apparently – the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Until last week, it seemed July 2021 would end much as July 2020 had – with stalemates in the War on Christmas remaining entrenched, literally and figuratively, across multiple fronts in North America and Europe. But then at dawn on Monday, July 19, thousands of teenage ice-cream store workers converged upon several West Bank settlements and outposts wielding metal scoopers and taste spoons, and demanding that the residents of the settlements surrender unconditionally. Within hours, the settlements of Beitar Illit and Ariel had fallen to Ben & Jerry’s unstoppable phalanxes of cheerful dessert-dishers.
Elite units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) initially responded by surrounding the conquered settlements with tanks and infantry, but each of these situations turned into a stand-off after Israeli troops discovered that the ice cream workers had surrounded the captured settlements with moats of hot fudge and caramel sauce and used a drone force to dump tons of Sprinkles on the approaching rescue teams.
As thousands of Israelis vowed to throw away any pints of Ben & Jerry’s they had in their freezers (after eating most of the remains because it would not be right to waste food), newly sworn in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett convened his cabinet to address the first major military crisis of his administration. By midweek, Israeli war planes had laid waste to much of northern Vermont.