Monday, March 9, 2009

Purim 2009

I wish I could write some Purim Torah. I have never been great at scripted humor but I am not in a humor-writing mood right now. The Jewish world faces an existential crisis. Enemies in Persia seek to destroy us, to wipe us off the map. Internally, we face the consequences of the economic downturn – or fall off a cliff – combined with the consequences of dependence on big donors , lack of vision and leadership in some quarters, and the collapse of the Madoff Ponzi scheme. It is both a time of fear and opportunity. As I prepare the chapters I will read tonight and tomorrow for Purim, I am drawn to the fourth chapter of Megillat Esther as a recipe for what is required in this dangerous time. Let’s take a moment to summarize:

Esther is now royalty.

Haman, in his fury over Mordechai’s ongoing refusal to bend or bow to him, resolves to rid the world not only of Mordechai but of all the Jewish people.

Haman convinces King Ahashuerosh to allow him to kill the Jews.

Mordechai, having heard the king’s decree, dresses up in sackcloth and ashes, and goes and sits near the palace within site of Esther. Esther is distressed by her uncle’s mournful appearance, sends clothes, and when they are refused, sends a messenger to find out what this is all about.

Mordechai, via Hatach, tells Esther that the King is going to kill all the Jews and that she must go to the King and appeal to him to avoid the slaughter.

Upon hearing about the impending disaster, Esther responds that she cannot simply walk in to see the king, that there is a certain protocol, and that violating that protocol means risking death. Mordechai retorts:

“Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a crisis.”

Esther is moved to act. She sets a course, creates a plan, invites others to join her, and then executes the plan flawlessly. In the end, the Jews are saved!

Now, let us look at the fourth chapter through our own lenses and in our own language. There is a crisis. Mordechai, like everyone else, is stunned. It appears, however, that while others are paralyzed by the disastrous news, Mordechai is move to lead. He does not sit in his cocoon resolved to his impending doom.; rather, he goes out and calls for action. Mordechai sees a potential solution and he goes to the person best positioned and well suited to seize the moment: Esther.

Esther’s initial reaction to Mordechai is embarrassment at his outward appearance. She looks at the superficial. She has a knee-jerk reaction. She does not ask questions. She sends clothes: “Cover up. Don’t embarrass me. Don’t put whatever it is out in the open.” It is only after being rebuffed that Esther sends someone to ask what is bothering her uncle.

Mordechai sees the need for action and knows that the Queen, the insider, is well positioned to save the Jewish People. But Esther’s response is that there is a usual way of doing business and this is not it. She cannot see outside the box. She is concerned initially only with her own life, her own budget, her own position, her own turf.

Mordechai is brilliant in his response saying, “Esther, you can stick to business as usual. That is a legitimate choice. It does, however, have consequences. Namely, staying the old course will mean that you will not be part of the solution or part of the future. Salvation will come from someone or somewhere creative and innovative. You, however, will disappear!”

Esther now reconsiders. She realizes that she is kidding herself, that business as usual will fail, and that she cannot rely on someone else to come and solve the problem. She has to act. But she does not do so immediately. She creates enough time and space to step back and think, to plan, to be responsible. She is calm and thoughtful in the face of crisis, not fearful and reactionary. As a result, she designs a strategy, executes it to perfection, wins the day, saves the Jewish People and strengthens herself.

The Jewish People, in North America, in Israel, throughout the world, faces a dramatic moment. We are threatened by external foes and internal stultification, overt and covert anti-Semitism and internal lack of leadership and creativity. We are standing on a precipice, one that can lead to disaster if we simply live in fear or can represent the greatest opportunity for re-organization of the Jewish community in our lifetimes. Those organizations that choose business as usual – turf, hierarchy, “we’ve always done it this way” mentalities – will shrink or disappear. Those who act rashly, who wield the machete unthinkingly at budget meetings, who shoot first and aim and ask questions later, will be just as endangered as those who stick to “business as usual.”

And perhaps it is time, painful though it is to say, that some Jewish organizations, institutions, and frameworks be put to rest. Rather than struggling through painful efforts to “re-package” or “re-engineer” maybe that time and effort and those resources are simply better spent creating new, more nimble, more creative addresses to focus on the Judaism of the future. Moreover, those who wait for someone else to solve their problems, who call on everyone else in the world to “help” but are not willing to commit themselves, their time, and their financial resources, will discover that the problem will be solved – their doors will close, plain and simple.

This is a time for bold action, for reprioritization, for creativity and forward thinking. It is a time when Jewish education, Jewish meaning, Jewish learning, Jewish living, and Jewish creativity – all broadly defined - must be seen as our currency, our capital, and our generated revenue. This is what we are about. And if we don’t focus on this now, in a smart way, others will and they will be the solution.

And for each of us, - professional leaders, lay leaders , the Jews in the pews, etc – the question for us is how are we going to answer Mordechai? Business as usual or strategic action with an eye toward the future? Make a choice about that while waving your grogger in the air tonight.

Purim Sameach.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Carter Redux - Reactions to Carter's First Book on Peace in the Middle East

I have not read Carter's new book yet but his name has been coming up quite a bit lately. As such, I feel compelled to re-post a piece I wrote, pre-blog years, for Parashat Shemot in January 2007 after reading his last anti-Israel diatribe. While we are well past the opening Parashah of the book of Exodus, perhaps as we approach Purim, Carter is on my mind again. This is a long post so thank you in advance for reading and please feel free to share your comments and opinions.

My colleague looked up from the table, smiled, and said, “This is such a typical Jewish conversation!” We all laughed knowingly since he was right. The discussion at hand was the corollary to the “Is it good for the Jews?” discussion in which we so often engage, except that in this case the question was “Who is worse for the Jews: the Holocaust Deniers or Jimmy Carter?” This was not a heated discussion or argument but was a rather matter of fact conversation between a group of colleagues that over the past four months have become friends.

On Monday night, I found myself at the Barnes & Noble at the Grove, an outdoor mall in Los Angeles. Stepping in the door, I was immediately confronted by the opening display, piled high with copies of Former President Jimmy Carter’s new book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. I listened to sermons about the book, read articles, opinion pieces, and most recently a review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review section by Ethan Bronner but I had not read the book. Standing before the display, I pondered my dilemma: Do I buy the book thereby giving money that would in some way provide material support to Carter? Do I wait until the book is available at the Cobb County Public Library and then check it out in perpetuity? Or, do I boycott the book entirely? In the end, I bought the book but felt pretty shmutzy doing it. I sheepishly approached the counter wondering all the while what the cashier was thinking as she ran the credit card of Rabbi Loren Sykes through the register.

Former President Carter’s book is an easy and quick read. The book demands no intellectual rigor. You need not check the footnotes or end notes to gain deeper insight into matters nor to check the bibliography for citations or references since there are NO end notes or bibliographic citations. There are lots of nice folksy stories about Jimmy and Roslynn’s trips to the Middle East, lists of menu items consumed and Holy Places visited. Carter’s is a seductively easy book to read and since he was President of the United States everything he writes must be true and accurate, right? Which is precisely why I believe strongly that Former President of the United States, James Earl Carter is ultimately a more dangerous and evil threat to Jews the world over and to Israel than are the Holocaust deniers. That is by no means to say that they are irrelevant or that they are not dangerous at all. They are, and very much so. But Carter is far worse and more dangerous. Carter’s book will be translated into French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. It will be applauded throughout the world as a heroic and courageous gesture on the part of a former American President to take on the so-called “All Powerful Jewish Lobby” and Jewish control of Washington DC and the media. What is worse, it will be read as undisputed fact, as true and accurate, fair and balanced, which it is not!

In Carter’s World, all Arab leaders are basically good, honest and willing to live peacefully with Israel if the Israelis would just give back every inch of land conquered in 1967. Yassir Arafat really and truly renounced violence. The Camp David Accords were a heroic act for Egypt and Israel did not live up to its commitments. For Carter, there is a warm Peace between Israel and Egypt.

In Jimmy’s World, if a Palestinian says it, or claims it, then it must be true. Israelis, on the other hand, almost never give honest or direct answers. Claimed violence against Palestinians is always an overreaction by the Israelis and happens exactly as Palestinians tell it. Homicide bombers do occasionally kill a few Israelis but are mostly just a pre-cursor for more Israeli overreaction. Israeli security measures are solely responsible for Palestinian misery and economic suffering and Israeli Settlements are the only reason that there is not a comprehensive Peace in the Middle East. Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was unquestionably the sole reason for the “spontaneous” outbreak of the second intifada (ignoring the fact that anti-Israel violence started at least one if not two days prior to that visit).

In Carter’s bizarre world and clearly faded memory, at no time during the Oslo years did Palestinians have any autonomy and no offer made at Camp David during the Clinton era was actually generous or possibly acceptable to the Palestinians. Sadat is a great statesman but Begin is relatively awful, and Gold Meir is chided for leading a secular people. Ezer Wiezman and Yossi Beilin are generally the only good Israelis and that is because they agree with Carter. Israel built a wall around the entire West Bank (forget that it is almost exclusively a fence except in very specific areas) to seize Palestinian land and not to protect citizens. In fact, a short summary of the book would read like this:

“There would be Peace in the Middle East now if only those darn Israelis would close up shop in the West Bank, like they promised they would and as UN Resolution 242 says they MUST (Carter’s wording – neither MUST nor ALL appear in 242), move all of the Jews completely out of the area, give back the Golan Heights to Syria or at least turn it over to an International Force, give all of East Jerusalem back to the Palestinians, and make the Old City an International City with Israel retaining control over the Jewish Quarter. After all, the Saudis promised it would be so (in English anyway)! Please note that it seems that Former President Carter does not read, speak, or understand Hebrew or Arabic!

“And there arose a new King over Egypt who knew not Joseph…” we read in the opening verses of the Book of Exodus. Rashi explains that the new Pharaoh chose to ignore all that Joseph had done, chose to not know. Sadly, so is it with former President Carter. The title of the new book doesn’t even mention Israel. James Earl Carter is no different than the new Pharaoh: He ignores Israeli suffering; ignores Palestinian violence and murder of civilian Israelis; ignores Israeli efforts and then acts of unilateral withdrawal as at all sincere; and accepts at face value any and all Palestinian claims as true and all Arab statements in English as their actual opinions, while dismissing Israeli gestures as sinister acts to further seize and colonize “Palestinian” lands. In so doing, Carter shows his true colors, does himself and his cause a disservice, and does severe damage to the Peace Process. In the end, Carter is the new Pharaoh: he chooses not to know. I do find it a bit reassuring to remember that at the end of the story the new Pharaoh and his troops are vanquished and disappear while Israel and the Jewish people endure forever.

Because he is a Former President of the US, because he speaks so authoritatively, because he cites no sources, and because he is a Nobel Prize Winner, James Earl Carter is far more dangerous to world-wide Jewry and Israel than the David Dukes of the world. They cannot be ignored, especially those like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who pursue nuclear weapons in order to wipe Israel off the map. But, the overwhelming majority of rational people in the world know that the Holocaust did happen, that it is a fact and reality, and that those who deny it are crackpots and crazies. But those same rational people who have little knowledge of the facts of the Middle East may very well read Carter and accept his twisted, biased, one-sided, factually incorrect and false presentation of the situation – that Israel is to blame for the absence of Peace – as fact. And that could lead them to the screed presented as academic research written by Professors Walt and Mearsheimer, two respected academics at prestigious universities like Harvard and the University of Chicago, that is practically a modernized version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, namely that the Jewish Lobby is responsible for War in Iraq and controls the President, the Government and the media. Since they are respected academics, some will believe this to be fair, accurate, well-researched and thus, true! And the distance for that basically rational person to move to anti-Israel and then to anti-Semitism just got a lot shorter.

It would take too long to refute all of Carter’s arguments, to show his factual inaccuracies and bias, here. I am told that just such a point by point refutation will appear soon by a respected scholar of the Middle East. However, agree or disagree with Israeli settlement policy, settlements were and will never be the greatest obstacle to Peace in the Middle East. The hatred Palestinians inculcate in their children, their steadfast refusal to categorically accept Israel’s right to exist, to have security, and their refusal to cease acts of terror are the true enemies of Peace. Is Israel perfect? No. But can arabs live in Peace in Israel? Absolutely, as they do this very day. The same , however, cannot be said of Jewish Israeli citizens wherever they may live, from the outposts of the West Bank to the downtown of Tel Aviv.

This coming week, I strongly encourage you to go out and buy and read Carter’s book. We are obligated to read it and know what he says not by way of reviews but from the text itself. If you have any question as to Carter’s true feelings about Israel read pages 208-210 closely, where he argues that there is a Jewish lobby in control of Washington DC and the media. Buying the book may put a few more pennies in Carter’s pocket but it will also keep one more copy out of the hands of unsuspecting readers. I have been told that if you buy the book at that the author does not get royalties, for what that is worth. Respond orally and in writing to those who praise the book pointing out the errors in fact and the biased nature of the book. Challenge them factually and ideologically. Fill in the gaps that Carter so egregiously omits regarding Israeli suffering, Israeli gestures of Peace, Palestinian corruption and violence, and the disparity between that which Palestinians say in English and what they say in Arabic. Silence is untenable, as is Carter’s fallacious and sad argument. And if after reading the book you feel a bit depressed, do as I did and turn to Exodus chapters 14 – 15. The end of the story may bring you some peace of mind!

With that, I get ready to head to New York for two days and may, just may, read Carter's new book along the way. I feel compelled to re-post this especially in light of the importance that Carter may be playing in the new administration and with the appointment of Chas Freeman, former Ambassador to the Saudis, to a central role in national security.