Deafening Silence On 9/11, Remembering the Enemy Within

Four years ago during the homestretch of the U.S. presidential election the Democratic and Republican nominees were asked about the existence of evil by an evangelical Christian pastor who supported the 2003 military invasion of Iraq.

At his super-sized McMansion church in Orange County, Calif., Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren quizzed Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain separately and in front of a live TV audience. Among other things, Warren asked each this question:

“Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? [How] do we defeat it?”

Two weeks ago, during another presidential homestretch, I sat on a 9/11 panel at a social-justice Christian festival in Oregon. Four other authors and speakers and I were asked to discuss, in effect, how our political and religious leaders could have better responded to the terrorism of 9/11. Of course hindsight, like insight, has its advantages. At least it should. But in listening to how our 2012 presidential nominees plan to fix an ailing economy I’m not convinced that Republican Mitt Romney has learned squat from history. Obama is reducing our gargantuan military budget and is making a light-hearted attempt to tame our Wall Street military. Romney, on the other hand, promises 12 million new jobs and an expanded military budget. (Mix those two promises together and see what explodes.)

So on Sept. 1 at the Wild Goose Festival in Corvallis, Ore., I recalled the very different and revealing responses given to Warren at the Saddleback Church on Aug. 16, 2008. In context and possible consequence it is important, I argued, because Obama’s perspective possesses a global breadth that eclipses any nearsighted nationalism expressed by hawkish Republicans.

Obama to Warren:

“Evil does exist. I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely. … [But] one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we’re trying to confront evil. … One thing that is important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.”

Then came McCain and the right-equals-might posture of the GOP.

 

Warren: “How about this issue of evil. I asked this of your rival. … Does evil exist and, if so, should [we] ignore it, negotiate [with] it, contain it or defeat it?”

McCain:

Defeat it. Couple of points: One, if I’m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow [Osama bin Laden] to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. No one — no one — should be allowed to take thousands of American, innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated. … My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century — radical Islamic extremism.”

The churchgoing crowd that had crowded into Saddleback Church exploded in applause for McCain. Woot-woot. It sounded like a Christian war cry (a contradiction in terms?)

 

You see, to McCain and profit-driven hawks, evil is the dark force that exists only as something out there. Something to call out, point at, condemn. Like gay marriage and atheists. Or religious extremism called by any other name than Christianity.

It’s this sort of spiritual myopia that keeps humanity locked in its primitive cycle of violence. Like an alcoholic who sees no problem with his drinking, Washington, Wall Street and our military industrial complex will never defeat evil because it lives and breathes on willful ignorance. Until we see the evil in capitalism infected by corporate greed and economic inscription we will continue to kill and be killed and sow nothing but violence for our children. Live by the sword, die by it.

Read the responses again. Now watch video of the nominees answering Warren’s question on evil: first Obama and then McCain.

One party’s candidate expresses an evolving perspective on evil and the role we all play.

The other party is doomed to repeat history.

 

Internal communications report there may be oil in the occupied Palestinian territories [AFP]
For the past eight months, we have sought classified correspondence from the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to find out what is preventing the Palestinians from developing recently discovered oil and gas fields in the West Bank and Gaza. The documents, released under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, show that Israel is deliberately preventing the development of Gaza’s natural gas fields and may also be exploiting oil fields in the West Bank. The revelations, if true, further expose the folly of aid from the international community, in particular from the United States and European Union, ostensibly aimed at helping the development of a Palestinian state, but whose main achievement has been underwriting Israel’s occupation policies and ensuring Palestinian dependence.

Of course the acquisition of territory and resources has been a hallmark of Israel’s 45-year occupation of the Palestinian territories and is contrary to international law. These new revelations come at a time when the United Nations and World Bank have declared that the Palestinian economy is close to self-sufficiency, with the major stumbling block being Israel’s occupation policies. With oil and natural gas added to its other economic resources – and free from Israel’s occupation – a free and sovereign Palestine would truly be independent and viable, as these frankinternal communications underscore.

The internal communications not only reinforce reports there may be oil in the occupied Palestinian territories but also suggest that Israel may actually be exploiting it, much as it has Palestinian water resources. They describe how Norwegian consultants were engaged in determining the feasibility of a Palestinian petroleum sector. The consultants’ survey covered a drill site on or near the “Green Line” – the 1949 armistice line between Israel and the occupied West Bank – that could indicate the Israelis were tapping Palestinian oilreserves.

 

The consultants also said there may have been a second oil discovery near the West Bank city of Hebron. Indeed, the Ma’an News Agency reported in April 2012 that “international and local experts started research months ago in Ramallah and southern Hebron and found an oil field in the village of Rantis, west of Ramallah”. It added that there may be a second field in as-Samu, south of Hebron, and possibly a third oil and gas field in the northern West Bank near Qalqiliya.

These oil field discoveries prompted one staffer in the British Consulate General in Jerusalem to observe “Oil. Religion. Occupation. And possibly Hebron. A combustible mix. Boom boom”.

He added, “More seriously, if it is shown that Israel is illegally extracting oil reserves from under the West Bank (in contravention of International Humanitarian Law and the Israeli high court) then we will have another issue to add to the lobbying database. This is both an Area C/sovereignty issue and a UK taxpayer issue. It’s hard enough already to justify spending £100m a year on an economy that would be self-sufficient if able to exploit its own natural resources. Harder still if those resources included oil.”

This is not just an issue for British taxpayers but for Americans and many other countries around the world. US taxpayers in particular should stand up and take notice: The US government not only sends over $3bn a year to Israel, enabling it to maintain its occupation of the Palestinian territories, it also sends some $600 million a year to Palestinians under occupation to help them survive that occupation – and to pacify resistance to Israel. The FCO documents affirm that the natural resources in an independent Palestine would be sufficient to make it economically viable and self-sustaining and that taxpayers are supporting nonsense – and a crime.

Those resources also include natural gas off the Gaza Strip, as we reported in April. The gas fields were discovered nearly 13 years ago but have yet to be developed because Israel is unwilling to “allow” the fields to be commercialised unless it can get Palestinian gas for a pittance, as the newly released documents confirm. As with water and land, the presence of oil and natural gas are considerable inducements for Israel’s continued seizure – or, to put it in more straightforward terms, robbery – of Palestinian natural resources in clear violation of international law. Once again, the international community is presented with evidence that they are paying for Israel’s occupation.

The unknown British official who said, “This is both an Area C/sovereignty issue and a UK taxpayer issue”, not only put a finger right on the nub of the problem but pointed the way to a solution. European and American taxpayers should redouble their lobbying efforts with their governments to demand freedom, equality and other human rights for the Palestinian people. It is not just the right thing to do: For taxpayers, peace would be cheaper.

Insulted by Republicans, abandoned by Democrats, who speaks for the stateless people?

The Democratic Party’s 11th hour move at their national convention this week to reintroduce language in the party platform that refers to the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital upset Palestinians and human rights activists, but it should not have surprised them.

Neither of this country’s two major political parties has taken concrete steps in recent years to support the Palestinian push for statehood. This formal, albeit symbolic, declaration of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is likely another step backwards — and actually contradicts the official position of the U.S. government, which is that the city’s status should be determined in a negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. The political status of Jerusalem is one of the most contentious issues in any potential peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with both sides asserting that the holy city is their capital.

To be sure, Democrats have steered clear of the kind of incendiary comments uttered by Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who implied while on a fundraising trip to Israel in July that Palestinians were culturally inferior, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said last December that Palestinians are an “invented people”. (“I am here, born here, and my ID says I am from Bethlehem,” Ibrahim Shomali, a Catholic Priest in Bethlehem in the West Bank, said in response to Gingrich’s provocative claim.)

But the party of Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton and Obama is no mantle bearer, either, for the Palestinian cause. New York Democratic Congressman Steve Israel introduced a bill last year that would deny “Foreign Military Financing program assistance to countries that vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state.” Meanwhile, Rep. Howard Berman, ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “should the Palestinians pursue their unilateralist course, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual assistance that we have given them in recent years, will likely be terminated.”

Israel and Berman aren’t rogue voices of their party, either. While still Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi insisted that the conflict is about “the fundamental right of Israel to exist” and that it is “absolute nonsense” to claim it has anything do to with the Israeli occupation. Furthermore, it appears that this week’s order to call Jerusalem the Israeli capital came from President Obama himself — likely in an effort to win Jewish-American votes and prevent a Republican attack.

By standing exclusively on the side of Israel — whose illegal occupation of the West Bank has choked economic progress, political development and the path to statehood — Democrats have served to further dehumanize Palestinians, a people whom American politicians, the mainstream media and electorate too often view as, at best, foreign and, at worst, dangerous. Are we disoriented by our nation’s unconditional support for the Jewish state, and perhaps still blinded by the trauma and anti-Arab hysteria wrought by the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

In order to give Palestinians a face, and to shed light on their struggles living under occupation, I co-produced a documentary with filmmaker Aaron Dennis titled The People and the Olive, which premiers next week in Traverse City, Michigan, and will appear at upcoming film festivals in Boston and Chicago. The documentary follows this past February’s Run Across Palestine, an effort by the Michigan-based nonprofit On the Ground, which works to support sustainable community development in farming regions across the world. The Run featured six U.S. ultra-marathoners who ran 129 miles in five days across the West Bank while replanting uprooted olive trees in farming villages and illuminating the struggles of Palestinian farmers.

The People and the Olive explores these central questions: What do olive trees mean to Palestinian farmers? Olives are their livelihood, their source of sustenance and the way they root themselves, historically and spiritually, to the land. But Palestinians are denied access to nearly 30 percent of their beloved olive trees in the West Bank as they struggle to live under Israeli military occupation. How do they persevere? And what should the international community understand about Palestinian olive farmers, who love their land and harvest it every season to feed their families — just as farmers across the world do?

“They planted so we ate. Now we plant so they eat,” Palestine Fair Trade Association founder Nasser Abufarha expressed a local proverb. “Past generations planted these trees that we’re eating from and are supporting our lives, and we plant trees for our future generations to support their lives.”

Win the day” is a common refrain in politics. Win enough days and you win the campaign/debate as the logic goes. The Price of Politics, the new book by Bob Woodward, chronicles Washington’s failure to compromise on a strategy to spur the economy while reining in widening deficits. It centers around the big policy fights from President Obama’s first term: health care, stimulus, the debt ceiling and tax cuts but the strategy at the heart of it all: “win the day.” The result is a president and Congress too focused on what the other side is doing wrong and too timid to make bold decisions or compromises needed to get our economy back on track.

Woodward’s book depicts a president confident in the power of his own ideas but ill-equipped to manage the complex negotiations necessary to achieve consensus among legislators, even those in his own party. Members of Congress come to the negotiating table already held hostage to the partisans and interest groups that dominate their parties and thus unmotivated to work together. And no one has much concern about the promises they made to get elected in the first place. All that matters is minimizing liabilities and gaining the upper hand politically.

There is a notable moment of timidity early in Obama’s presidency when he is meeting with Democratic Congressional leaders on health care reform. Around midnight, House and Senate leaders were unable to agree on specifics for a final bill. Frustrated, Obama snapped at the group, “None of you are listening … It is very clear there is nothing I can do to help you.” He left and went to bed. As the group began to head out, then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel went through the proposals from both sides, line by line, and created a framework for a compromise. This was a shocking revelation, the president walking out on his top legislative priority. He was eager to lead but unwilling to do the hard work of leadership.

This wasn’t the only instance of the administration’s complete abdication of responsibility. The Bowles-Simpson commission was little more than a delay tactic on deficit-reduction, and its final report was ignored by just about everyone. The administration’s strategy on deficit-reduction was to “gimmick it up,” in the words of Larry Summers, director of the White House National Economic Council.

Members of Congress don’t fare much better. Early in the book, Woodward describes the administration’s effort to secure the support of Republican Congressman Joseph Cao for the stimulus. Cao was initially a “yea” vote with the expectation that his district would receive more than a billion in stimulus funding and that the president would either endorse him or not actively oppose him for re-election in his heavily Democratic district. When the final dollars were tallied, Cao wasn’t going to get as much as he expected and ultimately opposed the bill.

Broken promises are not a new phenomenon for politicians, but coupled with a lack of results, it can become a major liability. It took less than two months for President Obama to break his pledge to reform the earmarking process, caving to pressure from Congressional Democrats on an appropriations bill. Shortly after winning in 2010 on a platform of fiscal responsibility, Congressional Republicans failed to deliver as trillion dollar deficits continued, and the debt skyrocketed to $16 trillion.

So what does this mean? Politicians are partisan, they break promises, and they often shrink from challenges. In that regard, the book tells us little we don’t already know. Washington’s response to the book will be more telling than what is actually in the book. Partisans are mining it for embarrassing details about opponents. “Insiders” will debate who was more in the loop on specific events and point out where Woodward got it wrong. The media will pick winners and losers, and everyone will claim they won. In other words, Washington will parse the details and miss the moral of the story just like it always does.

Woodward’s book concludes with quotes from the administration and House Republicans on the debt ceiling debate. Speaker Boehner blames the president’s team for not effectively serving their boss and cites a lack of management structure in the White House. The president says Boehner wasn’t able to effectively marshal his troops to fulfill promises made. I suppose that one is a draw.

Woodward’s last lines are: “These Washington leaders were risk averse. There was so much effort, much of it sincere, but so little result. Americans are now left with a struggling economy in the midst of a presidential election. It is a world of the status quo, only worse.”

In the Jewish world, this time of year feels like kibbutz galuyot — an ingathering of the exiles. As theYamim No’ra’im, the Days of Awe, beckon, so many of us Jews become restless, uneasy, about our own Jewish selves.

If we’re religiously observant, we may be uncomfortably admitting to ourselves how timely the demand is for our heshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul). If we’re secular, we may be feeling a little restless, a little uneasy, about how to express our own Judaism. Stay home from work and read a good book? Go on a meditative hike in the wilderness? Just fast on Yom Kippur? Bite the bullet and go to a service? And if so, which service, and when to get there and how long to stay?

“You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God,” our parashah (Torah portion) this week begins, calling to us to face what that means, that standing before God, that accounting for our being, that soul inventory, that heshbon nefesh, we may have long been putting off. And if we are not only regular shul-goers but actually even believers all year round, the words that open Parshat Nitzavim beckon to us to probe, take account of, what it signifies to us and what it demands from us, to be a Jew, to live fully as a Jew.

“Who is a Jew?” the Israeli Supreme Court all too often finds itself asking. What does it mean, truly, to be a Jew?

Though I myself have ranged from being a passionate shul-going little girl Jew in Belle Harbor, N.Y., to an adamantly secular Jews-are-a-people-not-a-religion Jew during my years in Israel, followed by an evolution over the decades to an egalitarian left-wing Conservative rabbi-Jew here in Los Angeles, it wasn’t until this past August, as a member of the American Jewish World Service rabbinic delegation to Challenging Heights, in Ghana, that I experienced the most profound, resonant, answer to that question of what, in its essence, it really means to be a Jew.

Our delegation included 17 rabbis — men and women, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and trans-denominational — to Challenging Heights, just one of the more than 400 NGOs that AJWS supports all over the “global south,” the poverty-stricken nations of Meso and South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, including India, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand. CH was founded by a man named James Kofi Annan, who, along with his older five brothers and sisters, had been sold by his poverty-stricken parents into slavery — like thousands of other young poor boys and girls in Ghana — on the fishing boats of LakeVolta. James managed to escape after seven years; he was all of 13. Miraculously, he went on to go to school, even to university, and eventually became a manager at Barclay’s Bank. A modern day Moses, James left the bank to devote his life to redeeming the children of Ghana from slavery. With the support of AJWS, he has sought to end child trafficking, rescue and rehabilitate child slaves, help the parents to find a way out of poverty, and above all educate these once enslaved children them alongside other children who are desperately poor.

Challenging Heights and the surrounding village were rich with energy and bursting with shy but robustly friendly children eager to know our names, sing with us, hang out with us, hear stories from us or just hug us. At the same time the village’s poverty was omnipresent. Though, as Ruth Messinger, the Executive Director of AJWS, insisted that we recognize, other places in the world are much much worse — much, much poorer. The poverty we saw all around us went into our gut: the single faucet of cold water for the surrounding community; the stench of the open sewers and constant eye-singeing smell of burning garbage; the rubbish-strewn fields, the untreated teeth of the villagers; the eyes of the elderly blinded by cataracts; the 16-year-old orphaned boy who explained that his scars were the result of his beatings by a child trafficker or the little girl who confessed that she never quite had enough to eat. One day we took a trip to the Cape Coast slave castle where, below the elegant rooms of the 18th and 19th centuries British governors, Africans captured by slavers had been chained together in dungeons with a tiny window allowing just a tinge of light during the day and barely enough air to breathe. We saw the chains. We saw the drawings of the slave ships. The 25,000,000 men, women and children who survived capture and imprisoment in the slave castle were eventually forced out through the infamous “Door of No Return” to board ships to the Americas, to the sugar cane fields of Jamaica, the cotton fields of the American South. Those who resisted were locked up without light or air till they died.

Every morning, after a meditative hour in Sacred Space, we rabbis got to work: We mixed cement and hauled blocks to build a concrete-block house, an outdoor space for washing, and a wall enclosing CH; we helped level a playing field for soccer. Indeed, we held a Rabbis vs. CH soccer match (and to everyone’s surprise, the rabbis almost won).

And then, in the afternoons, we studied Jewish spiritual sources about the nature of our obligations to one another and the dynamics of our ethical choices, the nature of community, tzedakah and social justice. “To whom are we responsible?” the texts asked. Our young, articulate, committed group leaders guided us in learning about the nature and shortcomings of current global aid, and the nature and root causes of global poverty, and how addressing such poverty means emphasizing all aspects of human rights; the ways in which public health challenges, lack of access to eduation, environmental degradation, and gender inequality and conflict are all interrelated challenges, and in order to effective, responses require a holistic response, one that addresses the interrelationship of these factors.

We learned about the necessity for the empowerment of women and the power of micro-loans; and, quite painfully, we learned of the terrible consequences in poor countries of current American food policy regarding disaster relief. And we learned how the vagaries of American politics have devastated family planning clinics all over the global south with disastrous social and economic results.

We learned the power of advocacy. AJWS taught us, showed us, modeled for us, how each of us, all of us, one by one and together, can make a difference.

Throughout our time at Challenging Heights, the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel reverberated in our sessions: “In a free society,” Heschel said, “some are guilty, all are responsible.”

And we knew we were responsible.

At the same time, the call-and-response chant of the children and leaders of Challenging Heights echoed in our ears: “Challenging Heights! Challenging Heights!” the children sang out with their teachers: “To whom much is given,” called the teachers. “Much is expected!” the children called back.

To whom much is given, much is expected? We American rabbis knew that each of us had been given infinitely, infinitely more than these young former slaves, more than these children raised in poverty, could ever begin to imagine. How much, then, we thought (I think) is expected from U.S.?

We knew the only answer was: A great, great, deal….

During our time at Challenging Heights, in addition to hauling cement blocks, Ruth Messinger shared her knowledge and experience with us. She told us an anecdote from an AJWS-supported project in rural Uganda:

A farmer walked up to the college-aged AJWS volunteer and said, “I decided that I am Jewish.” The young woman looked at him in surprise. What did he mean?

And the farmer went on, “I’m Jewish,” he said, “because I want to leave the world better than I found it.” Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheychem….

Kulanu — all of us — stand before God — hayom — today and, indeed, every day. And each day, whether it is through advocacy, active participation, support, resistance, teaching — and/or by refusing to buy the products of multinational corporations that pay slave wages to workers, or that destroy environments, for example — we can honor that which, beyond all else, is most Jewish about us: We can make this a better world than it is now — a world less mired in poverty, human rights abuses and suffering.

As the prophet Isaiah reminds us on Yom Kippur:

“Is this the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? … No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness … and let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke …to share your bread with the hungry….”

Secular? Observant? Orthodox? Reform? Go to shul? Go on a hike?

 

I like to think that the Ugandan farmer had it right: A Jew is a person committed to leaving the world better than he or she found it.

Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah!

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