Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Reparations in Exodus: Parshat Bo

January 24, 2021

It was my turn to give the D’var Torah (commentary on the weekly reading) for my Torah study group at Temple Sinai. This week’s parsha (portion) covered Exodus 10:1 through 13:16. The most prominent parts of Parshat Bo are the dramatic final plagues of darkness and death of the Egyptians’ first-born, and God’s instructions to Moses on how Passover is to be celebrated through the coming generations. But I chose instead to focus on a small part: The Israelites taking valuable items from the Egyptians as they prepare to flee Egypt.

One reference occurs in Exodus 11:1: 

And the Lord said unto Moses… Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharoah’s servants, and in the sight of the people. 

The other occurs slightly into next week’s reading, Parshat B’shalach, in Exodus 13:35:

And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And they despoiled the Egyptians.

There is ambiguity in the Hebrew about whether the Israelites are asking to be given or to borrow all this wealth. Robert Alter and JPS translate it as “borrow,” while Soncino translates it as “ask.”  The medieval commentator Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, interpreted the word as a gift, not a loan.

The Israelites taking the Egyptians’ gold and silver, The Golden Haggadah, f. 13, 1325–1349.

Personally I prefer the translation as “ask,” since it avoids the morally uncomfortable situation of requesting to “borrow” things that were never intended to be returned. So for now let’s assume it is an ask and a gift, not borrowing or a loan.

How then should we understand the decision of the Egyptians to give so many of their valuables to the Hebrews, who until then had been slaves, the lowest of the low?

One likely motivation might have been sheer terror. The Egyptians had just suffered the ten plagues; in the final plague, their oldest sons had been killed. In fact, the Torah tells us that “the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste, for they said, ‘We are all dead men.'” So possibly the Egyptians may have been thinking, “Here, take whatever you want, take everything, just get out the Hell of here before your God does something even worse to us.”

Yet the verses talk about the Israelites finding favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, which seems to be something positive rather than the negative motivation of terror. It implies a relationship of friendship between at least some Egyptians and some Israelites: “every man ask of his neighbor and every woman ask of her neighbor.” It implies a relationship where they lived close to each other: I imagine a Jewish woman crossing her yard to borrow salt or olive oil from the Egyptian woman next door, or an Egyptian man knocking on the door of his Jewish friend for help patching a hole in the roof. 

In this case, perhaps the valuables were given out of personal affection, the way many of us would chip in to help a neighbor whose house had just burned down. Yet that personal connection doesn’t quite seem to cover this situation, since so many Egyptians gave so much—not just blankets or food or even an extra donkey or two, but vast amounts of gold and silver. 

So perhaps the valuable were given because of something broader than personal friendship. The verses talk about Moses being “very great” in the eyes of Pharoah’s advisers and the Egyptian people. That leads me to picture a person with the status of a Martin Luther King Jr., a Nelson Mandela, or a Mahatma Gandhi—a liberator of the oppressed whose integrity, perseverance, and eloquence won the respect even of many who had benefitted from that oppression. The verses talk about “the people finding favor” with the Egyptians, which could imply that the Egyptians understood the Israelites’ collective suffering as slaves and wanted to help them as a group, not just as an individual helping out a neighbor.

Which bring us to the modern-day issue of reparations for slavery and oppression. Could we view the Egyptians’ donations of valuables as a form of reparations for 400 years of unpaid servitude?

There’s a story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91A) that indirectly supports such a view.

This story says that in the time of Alexander the Great, the Egyptians summoned the Israelites before Alexander, demanding that they repay the gold and silver that the Israelites had “borrowed” when they fled Egypt many centuries earlier. The sages granted a prominent Jew named Gebiah ben Pesisa permission to advocate for the people of Israel.

Gebiah asked the Egyptians what the evidence was for their claim, and the Egyptians answered that the Torah itself provided their evidence. 

Gebiah responded that he would also bring evidence from the Torah in Israel’s defense. He quoted the sections that talk about the Hebrews’ 430 years of enslavement, and how they left Egypt with 600,000 men, and he demanded back wages from the Egyptians for 600,000 men working for 430 years—which would have been a staggering amount of money.

Alexander turned to the Egyptians for a proper answer. The Egyptians said they’d respond in three days but couldn’t find a satisfactory answer and fled.

Today we as Americans have an opportunity to address the damage caused by 401 years of slavery and its aftermath of systemic racism. The first African slaves were brought here in 1619. Their forced labor didn’t just make individual white landowners rich; they provided the basis for the cotton and textile industry that built and underpinned the economy of our young country. In that sense, we all benefited, even if our ancestors never set foot in the south or owned a slave. 

The abolition of slavery in 1863 didn’t end the inequality and exploitation of Black Americans. Jim Crow laws in the south and discriminatory policies and culture in the north meant that whites have had unfair advantages throughout the past century, up through the present day. 

Many of us who are Jews of European descent have traditionally taken moral comfort in thinking, “My ancestors were poor immigrants who came here in 1880, or 1920, or 1950. I never benefited from slavery or racism.” But in fact, white Jews—even those who came as poor immigrants to the tenements of the Lower East Side—HAVE benefited from what journalist Isabel Wilkerson describes in her recent book as a caste system. 

Because blacks were defined as the “other”—the lowest caste—European Jewish immigrants could define themselves as white. Yes, we faced anti-Semitism but we could also fit under the umbrella of being white. We were allowed to join labor unions, enter elite colleges (albeit with quotas), enter professions, obtain government-backed loans and mortgages, buy homes in many (though not all) white neighborhoods. 

Our immigrant grandparents, just a week off the boat, could apply for entry-level jobs that were not open to Black Americans who had been in this country for 300 years. 

Yes, we were poor immigrants, but we were also white, which gave us privilege. It allowed our grandparents and parents to start accumulating generational wealth—owning a home, building up savings accounts, perhaps investing in stocks—that they could pass on to our generation, either directly or through financing the education that allowed us to become doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.

So even if our ancestors didn’t arrive here until 1920 or 1950, we benefited from these four centuries of subjugation of Black people. We have a moral obligation to take part in repairing that damage: The word “reparations” comes from the word “repair.”

There has been so much written on this in the past few years, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal 2014 essay in The Atlantic. I can’t possibly do it justice in a short commentary. If you’d like to learn more about the history of systemic racism and the idea of reparations, there are many resources including Coates’ essay, Wilkerson’s Caste, and Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law.

There was also a terrific d’var Torah on reparations in this week’s email from the Union of Reform Judaism. Or see the URJ’s 2019 statement on reparations.

Over the past four years, we watched a presidential administration try to turn back the clock on civil rights. My hope with this week’s new administration is that, instead, we can enter into a national discussion of how to repair the economic and social damage done by slavery and institutionalized racism. 

It’s not just about giving people money. It’s not about expiating guilt. The gold and silver given by the Egyptians to the freed Israelites ended up providing the building materials for the tabernacle. So those Egyptian treasures were a kind of capital used to launch a new society—they helped take the Hebrews further than they’d ever been before—beyond that single family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, beyond twelves tribes—into the creation of an actual nation with a distinct and revolutionary monotheism and culture. Those Egyptian reparations helped build a new and better society. 

Similarly, a plan for American reparations should be something that acknowledges past oppression and uses that understanding to build something new and larger and better. Something that will provide more opportunity, dignity, and security for the broad community of Black Americans, and in so doing a better and more inspiring country for white Americans too. 

Let us move from a shehecheyanu for reaching this inaugural week, to a yihi ratzon for racial justice:

May it be God’s will. 

Postcards to Georgia

November 16, 2020

Thank you for volunteering to write postcards to Georgia voters in this all-important run-off Senate election! Here are some tips for successful interactions with potential voters:

1. Address your recipient by their full name—for instance, “Dear Jane Doe.” Do not say “Ms. Doe.” Do not say “Miss Doe.” Especially do not say “Dear Peaches.”

2. Choose a generic postcard image that will appeal to all sorts of people. Pictures of kittens, American flags, or the Statue of Liberty are all good. Kittens waving American flags at the Statue of Liberty are even better. Pictures of Gone With The Wind, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or that great Architectural Digest cover photo of your weekend home on Turks and Caicos will not work as well.

3. Include a sentence about why this election is important to YOU. Write from the heart. We repeat, write from the heart. Do NOT write from the spleen. Or the gut, the fist, the kishkes, the middle finger, or the naughty bits. Do not write, “It’s time for Mitch McConnell’s turtle face to suffer unbearable humiliation and burn in the eviscerating, pustulant, everlasting fires of Hell.”

4. No need to mention how you lost your virginity to REM in your boyfriend’s parents’ minivan.

5. Likewise, don’t reference Midnight Train to GeorgiaGeorgia on My Mind, or Sweet Georgia Brown. Georgians are sick of that sh-t.

6. Do not take sides on Nene Leakes versus Sheree Whitfield. You are not writing to them about important stuff like Real Housewives of Atlanta, just about the future of the U.S. Senate.

7. Keep in mind that not all Atlantans work for the CDC. Please do not ask for behind-the-rope-line VIP access to the Covid vaccine.

8. No threats and no bribes. No marriage proposals, Harry & David fruit boxes, bitcoin, or offers to give them a kidney. 

9. Do not ask if they know anyone with an AirB&B who could lodge you, switch their utility bills to your name, and register you to vote by December 7th.

10. Don’t try to sound southern. Your idea of southern dialect probably sounds like the misbegotten love child of William Faulkner and The Beverly Hillbillies. Y’all hear me, sugar?

11. Keep focused. When writing hundreds of postcards, it’s easy to zone out and slip into automatic pilot. You are NOT asking them to vote for Sara Gideon! Repeat to yourself: Not Sara Gideon. Not Sara Gideon.

12. Maintain an upbeat tone. Sound like a friend. That doesn’t mean you need to share how you were on anti-depressants from November 8, 2016 through November 7, 2020, even your emotional support dog was on anti-depressants, and your therapist moving to Canada didn’t help.

13. Remind them that an important holy day is coming in December. Not Christmas, not Chanukah, not Kwanzaa—December 14th, the start of early voting! The rest of the country—heck, the rest of the world—is deeply envious of Georgia and its local political consultants, TV stations, printers, and mail houses who will have a busy and happy holiday season. Don’t let us down. Voting is a muscle. Exercise it! Drop and give us twenty! Pump that ballot! Five laps around the county courthouse! 

14. End on a friendly note by signing the postcard with your first name. But not Sherman. Come to think of it, not even Herman.

Y’all hear me now, sugar? Write those postcards!

A 2020 Bedtime Story

October 10, 2020

Once upon a time, there was a land threatened by a new and unknown plague.

Informed of this threat, the president convened a team of expert medical advisors. Then he called a meeting with the leaders of the two main political parties, all of whom went on TV together calling on the nation to unite and fight this threat, the way they fought fascism in WW2 and terrorism after 9/11.

The leaders wore masks—mostly red-white-and-blue masks, although one spunky left-wing politician wore a mask saying “Medicare for All” and am equally fervent right-wing politician wore one saying “Protect Life.” Together they warned that we would all face sacrifices, but inconvenient steps like wearing masks and sheltering at home were better than losing neighbors and loved ones to this illness.

The president pressured factories to shift production quickly to protective equipment, and directed that equipment to frontline workers. Pop-up clinics with free testing and free groceries were set up in low-income neighborhoods. The Department of Education rushed big grants to school districts to ensure that all children had computers, Internet, and tutoring help while classes were temporarily moved online.

Masks became the hot collectible of the year, with the First Lady sporting masks by Versace and Gucci, the NRA selling Second Amendment masks, and pop stars promoting masks with the cover of their latest album.

Public sentiment was so unified and clear that even libertarians grudgingly wore masks. Viral rates remained low enough that it was possible to re-open schools safely in the fall. The winter was challenging, with everyone sick of sheltering in place, but the president and his counterparts from the other party returned to TV to praise Americans’ commitment and urge everyone to stay the course. Pharmaceutical companies worked steadily to develop vaccines under supervision of non-partisan FDA regulators, and leaders of both parties stepped forward together—again on TV—to take the first doses and encourage others to be vaccinated.

Decades later, seniors who were children at the time would recall the Plague Year as a time of family togetherness and neighbors helping each other. Those who drove cross-country on family camping vacations would remember their parents exchanging elbow-bumps with other grown-ups, their eyes conveying smiles of greeting over AOC and Ted Cruz masks.

Fewer than 10,000 people in a population of 300 million died. Reporters from around the world flocked to this land to see how they did it. Proud of its success, the country shared its knowledge and worked with drug companies to provide vaccine at minimal cost to less wealthy parts of the world.

“It’s just the neighborly way to live,” said an Ohio machinist interviewed by a reporter for The Guardian. “Big city or small town, black or white, red or blue state, we’re all in this together.”

Okay, kids, that’s all for now! Time to sleep. I’ll tell you another fairy tale tomorrow night, after I finish writing my latest batch of Vote-for-Joe-Biden postcards.

Phone Banking: The Musical

September 9, 2020

There is the romance of political change, as broadcast in the sweeping, inspiring soundtracks of Hamilton and Les Miz:

Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away… Raise a glass to the four of us, tomorrow there’ll be more of us!

Red, the world about to dawn! Black, the night that’s gone at last!

Les Miz

And then there is sitting on the phone for hours leaving messages on people’s voicemails.

A year ago, I promised myself I would take the months of September and October and move to a swing state and walk door-to-door for whomever the Democratic presidential candidate would be. Instead the Covid pandemic arrived, door-to-door canvassing was cancelled by the party that listens to science, and we’re left with phone calling, texting, and writing postcards.

So I’m writing postcards. I’m phone banking. I don’t need to explain why: The New Yorker and The Atlantic and the New York Times document with eloquence and detail how our country is being goaded into hatred and division; racism is being legitimized; longstanding democratic institutions are being hollowed out; our environment is being wrecked; we have ceded the world stage to strongmen and bullies; self-interest and “winning” are lauded above all other values.

But get-out-the-vote (GOTV) volunteering is no fun, at least for me. None of it uses my skills or creativity. Phone calling combines the introvert’s anxiety at speaking to strangers with the frustration of getting mostly voicemails and disconnected numbers. Postcard writing takes advantage of my lovely elementary school penmanship (thank you, Mrs. Brodman and the Miss Tighes!) but makes me want to jump out of my skin. Sweep the patio, clean the kitchen sink, bother the cat—after neatly copying the same script ten or twelve times, I want to do anything other than write another postcard.

Perhaps I could cultivate a Zen-type meditative practice around it: Empty your mind, be here now, write the postcard. Perhaps.

Writing postcards to voters. Photo:Ilana DeBare


No matter, though. I need to do this. The stakes are so high: A few dozen hours of tedium now versus four more years of disaster—or 40+ years with the impact of judicial appointments—and all the regret and “could I have done more” that I’ll feel if Trump wins.

Those of us in the college-educated professional class are raised to feel that we are important, we are uniquely talented, we have skills honed over decades, we should be using those skills to make an Individual Mark. Yet national elections are an arena in which very few people can make an Individual Mark. Out of a nation of 328 million, maybe 1,000 people make a visible individual difference in a presidential race—candidates, campaign managers, leaders of broad grassroots movements, journalists at the biggest media, huge donors, or the rare CEO or celebrity.

The rest of us are foot soldiers, making phone calls and giving small amounts and writing postcards. The 60 phone calls I made on Monday evening are meaningless, except when they are combined with the 20 other people making calls in that particular Zoom event, and the hundreds of other local groups holding phone banks that same day, and then all the phone banks on other days of the week…

 Flip the West, which is doing GOTV for key Senate races, says its volunteers have done 2 million postcards, 1.5 million texts, and 400,000 phone calls in 2020. The Environmental Voter Project says it has spoken with one million non-voting environmentalists—many of them young, low-income, or people of color. And there are so many other organizations doing Democratic GOTV too, such as Indivisible, Swing Left, Black Voters Matter, Mi Familia Vota, Reclaim Our Vote, and more.

(I am fortunate enough to be able to use my writing/social media skills for one of them—Auk the Vote, which several of my birding friends recently set up to mobilize birdwatchers to get out the environmental vote. :-) )



None of these GOTV efforts offers rousing music like Hamilton or Les Miz. You’ll have to supply your own inspirational soundtrack. But the cast is a lot larger. The stage is immense. And this is a show that, for better or worse, won’t end after three hours.

Please get involved. Add your five or ten or fifty hours of volunteer GOTV to the rest of ours: You can find opportunities through any of the groups linked in this post. Even when the big picture seems out of my control, I feel a surge of optimism at how many of my friends are also doing this. I invite you to join us!

“Tomorrow” is now today. Get involved!

President Ahab

July 10, 2020

I haven’t learned to make bagels or organized my 10,000 digital photos as a Covid quarantine project, but I did just re-read Moby Dick for the first time since college.

I didn’t go into it looking for this—politics was the last thing on my mind— but I couldn’t help reading it through the lens of Our Current Terrible Situation.

Trump is Ahab, the monomaniacal ship captain who is willing to destroy everything for a personal obsession. In Ahab’s case, that obsession is vengeance against the white whale that took his leg; in Trump’s case it is self-aggrandizement. 

Ahab rejects all warnings of disaster—from a passing whaling ship whose captain has lost an arm to the whale, then from another ship whose captain has lost his own son to the whale. 

He casts aside science, destroying the ship’s quadrant when it doesn’t give him the navigational information he wants to hear. “Curse thee, thou quadrant,” he calls as he smashes it on the deck. “No longer will I guide my earthly ways by thee…. I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on high; thus I split and destroy thee!”

He spurns human relationships and love, bluntly refusing to help that other bereft captain search the waters for his shipwrecked son. He rejects pleas by Starbuck, the first mate, to give up his obsessive quest and return home to his young wife and child. 

Of course his drive ends in utter disaster, with the ship destroyed and all 30 crewmembers drowned except for the narrator, Ishmael. 

Trump, Trump, Trump… both pre-Covid and even more so now during Covid.

Ahab: “All my means are sane; my motive and my object mad.”

But I was also struck by the parallels between the people enabling Ahab and the people enabling Trump.

There are the owners of the whaling ship—profit-minded businessmen who turn a blind eye to Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick and choose to believe they’re sending the Pequod off on a normal whaling voyage. (Republican Establishment figures and corporate funders who have gone along with his nomination and presidency.)

Starbuck, the moral and cautious first mate, who tries to persuade Ahab to turn back and even considers assassinating him but in the end doesn’t have the will to oppose him. (All the generals and politicians who joined the Trump Administration thinking, “I can stave off the worst excesses.”)

Stubb, the reckless and jolly second mate, who’ll go along with anything for excitement. (People who wanted to “shake up Washington” with a reality show star.)

And the crew. 

That comparison was the most unsettling. Why, indeed, did the 30 experienced whaling men of the Pequod accede to Ahab’s madness? They learned about Ahab’s obsession early in the voyage; they saw one dark omen after another; why didn’t they mutiny?

“ ‘This is what ye have shipped for, men!’ ” Ahab reveals to them. “ ‘To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.’”

“ ‘Aye, aye!’ shouted the harpooners and seamen, running closer to the excited old man. ‘A sharp eye for the White Whale, a sharp lance for Moby Dick!’ ”

I remain perplexed by the dynamic within the crew. None of them were set to benefit by chasing Moby Dick around the world; they’d have done better to stick to the lucrative business of killing whales for oil. Some were apparently intimidated by Ahab. Others coveted the gold doubloon he offered as a prize for the first man to spot the whale. But mostly they seemed caught up in the power of Ahab’s obsession.

“Whatever pale fears and forebodings some of them might have felt before,” says the narrator Ishmael, “these were not only now kept out of sight through the growing awe of Ahab, but they were broken up, and on all sides routed, as timid prairie hares that scatter before the bounding bison.”

Elsewhere Ishmael admits that he too is perplexed—not just by his crewmates’ endorsement of Ahab’s mission but by his own.

“How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man’s ire—by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at time his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be—what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he night have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life,—all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go…. 

“For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill.”

Trump’s racism, bullying, and scapegoating—his verbal bonfires consuming immigrants, Muslims, the disabled, anyone concerned with their health during this epidemic—the barely-cloaked exhortations to vigilante violence….

Like the crew of the Pequod responding to Ahab’s vengeance, millions of Americans have found Trump’s darkness magnetic and exhilarating. 

And now with 3.1 million infected and over 133,000 dead, we are facing our own shipwreck. 

But the parallels between the Trump era and Moby Dick aren’t perfect. 

For one thing, Melville ascribes a grimly heroic core to Ahab—someone willing to sacrifice his own life for his mania, someone who challenges God’s justice—and there is nothing remotely heroic in draft-dodger, golf-playing Trump. 

For another, we are not 30 sailors on a lone ship in the boundless South Pacific. 

We’re a nation of more than 320 million. Some 66 million of us chose Clinton in 2016—3 million more than chose Trump. An estimated 15 to 26 million of us turned out over the past month for anti-racism protests, which have been called the biggest protest movement in American history.  It’s as if the Pequod had a second, larger crew who were ready to depose Ahab.

And—most important—we have another election coming up this November.

Get involved. Register to vote, by absentee ballot if it’s available in your state. Fight voter suppression. Connect with an organization like Flip the West, Swing Left, or Indivisible to mobilize voters in swing states: You can make phone calls, send text messages, write postcards, or donate from the Covid-safety of your own home. 

It’s time to change captains and get rid of President Ahab, before he takes even more of us down on his doomed ship.

Photo by Olga Shpak, Marine Mammal Council

The art of the canvass

November 5, 2018

For many years I was a newspaper reporter and didn’t allow myself even the teensiest involvement in electoral politics. No campaign buttons, no bumper stickers, no lawn signs. I didn’t go as far as former Washington Post editor Len Downie, who famously didn’t allow himself even to vote, but I made every effort to show no bias that could be held against my newspaper and its news coverage. This was and still is standard practice in daily newspapers in the U.S., and it’s part of what is so disgusting about Trump and the right wing’s attacks on “biased mainstream media.” Every reporter I worked with over the years made scrupulous efforts to set aside their personal biases – for we all have them – and report in a fair and factual manner, even about politicans they personally found awful.

I wish I could sit down one-to-one with Fox News viewers and explain this to them. We try really, really hard to be fair. This is not a joke or a smokescreen. Journalists are individual people – people like your family, friends, neighbors – working our butts off and taking our responsibility as information providers in a democracy very seriously.

Anyway.

In 2008, I left my last newspaper job in one of the waves of news industry downsizing. I put an Obama bumper sticker on my car. Hooray! Amidst the sadness of leaving my profession, I was a citizen with a public voice again!

In 2012, I did one short round of phone banking for Obama. It was not enjoyable. It was the end of the campaign, and either people weren’t home or they didn’t want to hear from the 432nd person calling them.

In 2016, I went to Las Vegas and did a weekend of door-to-door canvassing for Clinton. It was fascinating, educational, and fun.

This fall, I’ve done a bunch of canvassing for Democratic candidates in swing districts in California’s Central Valley – four days for Josh Harder in Congressional District 10 (near Modesto) and this past weekend for T.J. Cox in CD 21 (south of Fresno).

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Getting ready to canvass at Josh Harder’s campaign headquarters in Modesto

Door-to-door canvassing took a little bit of attitude adjustment for me. With a graduate degree and 30+ years of experience in newspapers and nonprofits, I didn’t want to just be a “worker bee.” It felt wasteful to not be using my writing skills or organizational knowledge. But I wasn’t prepared to put in the months of time required for a higher-level role in a campaign, and what these campaigns needed was worker bees. So… off I buzzed.

If you’ve never canvassed, it can seem scary – talking to strangers! What if they disagree with you? What if they yell at you? But the scariness quickly wears off. Maybe two or three out of every ten households are actually at home. You become so happy to get a live person at the door that it almost doesn’t matter if they support the other candidate. And by and large, people are civil if not friendly. The campaign doesn’t want you wasting time on fruitless arguments with diehards for the other side: Your job is to talk to the undecided, identify supporters, and make sure those supporters fill out their mail ballots or go to the polls.

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Sign at T.J. Cox’s campaign office in Hanford (CD21)

Canvassing is exhausting. Like going to a zoo or a museum, you may not be covering a lot of miles, but you are on your feet all day. There is also an up-and-down rhythm of stress. You approach a door and your adrenaline rises: Will there be anyone home? Will they want to talk with me? What will I say? No one answers, and your adrenaline level plummets. Then you walk thirty feet to the next house, and the process starts all over again.

In a day of canvassing, there are usually one or two encounters that stand out and make it worthwhile. On one trip to Modesto, I managed to help a Latino voter sign up for an absentee ballot entirely in (my very poor) Spanish. On another trip, I met a single father of four who had volunteered on the Clinton campaign and who offered to volunteer on Josh Harder’s campaign. I met an elderly Filipina who gave me her absentee ballot to turn in – saving her a trip to the post office, and ensuring it wouldn’t get lost or forgotten – and who told me she was praying for Harder every day.

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My friends Monica and Lindsey canvassing in Modesto (CD10)

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Canvassing with my neighbor Leslie in Turlock (CD10)

In our trip this past weekend to CD21, my friend Beth had a string of luck meeting 18-year-olds who had never voted and weren’t yet registered. She let them know that in California, you can register all the way through election day if you go to the county elections office! They were thrilled to be able to vote – exchanged fist bumps with her – and she racked up another three or four votes for T.J. Cox.

One of the highlights for me of canvassing this year was doing it with various configurations of friends – one trip with the women in my writing group, another with my next-door neighbor, others with Jewish women friends, not all of whom knew each other before the canvass trip. Carpooling to the swing districts provided rare down-time to catch up, share life stories, and learn about each other. Navigating unfamiliar neighborhoods and working through our “turf” together was a bonding experience. On our CD21 trip, the five of us stayed at a wonderful Air B&B on an organic peach farm in Dinuba, and got a tour of the farm from owner Mike Naylor.

Consider election-season canvassing for your next “girls’ weekend” – less expensive than a getaway to a spa or to wine country, and better for the world!

Now we’re one day out from actual voting. I have no better idea than anyone else of what the outcome will be. I’m as wracked by fear and angst as any other liberal right now. But I feel less powerless than I otherwise would because of the “worker bee” canvassing I’ve done.

And I feel heartened by how many other people – both friends of mine and strangers — have been canvassing, phone banking, texting, and writing postcards as part of Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. They’re not just whining on Facebook – they’re putting in time and doing stuff.

Fingers crossed!

In 2020, I hope to take the next step — not just canvassing for individual days/weekends, but making a commitment of weeks or months to campaign in a swing area.

I’m running for Congress!

January 14, 2015

I’m running for Congress!

The World Zionist Congress, that is.

“Huh?” you may ask. “What World Zionist Congress? I never heard of such a thing. And how the heck is Ilana involved with it?” 

Patience. All will be explained.

The WZC, for starters.

The World Zionist Congress

Founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, the WZC started out as a global gathering of Jews devoted to creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It met every few years to elect officers of the World Zionist Organization, which functioned as a kind of state-in-formation during the years of the British Mandate.

21st Zionist Congress in 1939 / Photo from Wikipedia

21st Zionist Congress in 1939 / Photo from Wikipedia

After creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the WZO’s focus shifted to promoting immigration to Israel and connecting Jews around the world – particularly young people – with Israel. Today it oversees a budget of about $30 million, and has joint authority over the $475 million budget of the Jewish Agency.

Leadership and focus of the WZO is decided every few years at a World Zionist Congress, with the next Congress scheduled for Jerusalem in October 2015.

Participation in the Congress is divided up by country, based on the size of the Jewish population in each country. So Israel gets 38 percent of the seats, the U.S. gets 29 percent, and other Diaspora countries get 33 percent. We’re a Big Kahuna!

The U.S. delegation in turn is determined by elections, with different movements within American Judaism fielding slates of candidates.

American Slates in the WZC

The slate that won the most votes in the last WZC in 2008 was from ARZA, representing Reform Judaism. This makes sense since, numerically, more American Jews are affiliated with Reform synagogues than any other set of institutions.

The overall breakdown of the American delegation in 2006 was:

  • ARZA (Reform Judaism) – 55
  • Religious Zionist Slate (Orthodox Judaism) – 35
  • Mercaz (Conservative Judaism) – 32
  • Zionist Organization of America (right of center) – 5
  • Hatikvah (left-of-center coalition supporting the Israeli Labor and Meretz parties) – 5
  • Likud (right of center)– 3
  • Green Zionist Alliance – 2
  • Herut USA (right of center) – 2
  • Reconstructionist Judaism – 2
  • Other – 4

So what about Ilana?

All very interesting, but you are probably still wondering what I’m doing in the middle of this.

I was approached in late 2014 by by an old friend from Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth movement that was such a key part of my teenage years and formed the base for much of my Jewish and political identity.

At Hashomer Hatzair's Camp Shomria in the mid-70s. I am in the second row, third from right. Photo by Yonit Brownstein.

At Hashomer Hatzair’s Camp Shomria in the mid-70s. I am in the second row, second from right. Photo by Maria Kontos Barrett.

She asked if I would serve as a delegate for Hatikvah – the Progressive Zionist slate.

Hatikvah represents folks who support the left-of-center Labor and Meretz parties in Israel. It also includes alumni of Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim-Dror, the kibbutz-related youth movements. And this year it has added leaders of the New Israel Fund, J Street, and Americans for Peace Now.

In short, it’s the central gathering spot for American Jews who share a vision of Israel as a socially just, democratic Jewish state that is committed to a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The name “Hatikvah” (hope) is fitting. We carry on the founders’ hope that Israel will be a just and ethical light among the nations. We persist in our own hope – despite more setbacks than anyone can count — that Israel can reach a negotiated peace agreement with security for its own residents and self-determination for the Palestinians.

How could I say no?

Not quite like student council

I haven’t run in any kind of election since 6th grade student council, when I campaigned via “win with Wendy” posters in magic marker. And these days people spend tens of millions of dollars to get elected to the U.S. Congress.

Hatikvah

I was a little worried about what might be involved in being on the Hatikvah slate.

In reality, though, I don’t have to do much. (Except spread the word like I’m doing here!) The slate is headed by big names like folk singer Theodor Bikel, J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, New Israel Fund Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, Princeton political scientist Michael Walzer, and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers. There are about a hundred people on the slate in total. I am WAAAAY down at the bottom.

So unless the slate goes as viral as a stupid-cat-tricks video, there is no way it will win enough spots for me to be seated. It’s not likely I will have to go to Jerusalem to take part in the Congress next October.

My role is less like Hillary Clinton than like a neighborhood precinct captain trying to get out the vote.

So… I’m asking you to vote!

Why vote?

Yes, you can probably vote, even if you never heard of the WZC before this blog post. Here’s what’s required:

  • You need to be Jewish.
  • You need to pay $10 to cover the cost of the election, or $5 if you are under age 30.
  • You need to be at least 18 years old and a citizen or resident of the US.
  • You need to support the Jerusalem Program, a basic set of principles about Israel being the homeland of the Jewish people. You can read the principles here.

In the last set of elections, only 80,000 American Jews voted. So in fact, this is a situation where a relatively small number of votes can have a big impact. YOUR vote can have an impact.

American Jews – especially those of us on the left side of the spectrum – complain a lot about Israeli policies. We complain about the Israeli government not listening to us.

Here is a chance where we are being invited to make our opinions heard!

Granted, the WZC is not going to determine the future of the Middle East. The upcoming Israeli elections will determine who runs Israel for the next few years — much more important than the WZC. But the WZC does have a say over those $400-500 million that are spent on education and settlement.

And the composition of the WZC sends an important message to Israeli policymakers about what American Jews think.

Do you believe that funds for new housing should go to needy areas inside Israel proper, rather than to settlements on the West Bank? 

Peace Now demonstration in Israel

Peace Now demonstration in Israel

Do you believe that Israel should remain a democratic society that respects the civil rights of its minority populations? 

Do you believe that the Israeli government should provide equal status to all streams of religious Judaism, and not treat Orthodox Judaism as the one “official” Judaism? 

Do you believe that Israeli women should have equal rights to travel, dress, work, and pray as they want? 

Do you believe that Israeli should do more to provide economic opportunity and a safety net for its poorest citizens? 

Do you believe that Israel needs a two-state solution for its survival as a Jewish and democratic state? And that it desperately needs leaders with the courage to pursue that goal? 

The Hatikvah slate in the WZC election is a way to make your voice heard on all these points.

I’d love it if you choose to vote for Hatikvah – the slate representing the values of historic Labor Party leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, the legacy of the kibbutz movement, the energy of progressive American Jews.

But it’s also fine if, as a Reform Jew, you prefer to support the ARZA slate. (Our rabbi at Temple Sinai, Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, is a delegate with ARZA.)

ARZA and Hatikvah share a commitment to religious pluralism and women’s rights in Israel, and to a two-state solution. In fact, Hatikvah formed a working coalition with the Reform and Conservative slates during the 2006 Congress.

Here’s how I personally might decide between those two slates: If my primary concern were religious pluralism within Israel, I would vote for ARZA. If my primary concern were reaching a secure two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, I would vote for Hatikvah.

How to vote

Voting takes place online. It starts on January 14, 2014 and goes through April 30.

Still not convinced? Here’s a column by Sue Fishkoff, editor of the J newspaper, talking about why you should vote in the WZC election. It’s got the great title, “Time to stop whining and start voting.”

Click here to register, view a list of the various slates, and then vote.

Click here to learn about the Hatikvah slate and its platform.

Click here to read about ARZA, the Reform Zionist slate.

I know, our lives our very busy. Take five minutes and vote right now before you forget!

Then please share this post – or the slate of your choice – with your friends.

Losing a magical lagoon

February 11, 2014

Three years ago we joined my brother’s and sister’s families for a weeklong vacation in Puerto Rico. We rented a house near the beach together and did all the usual touristy stuff – a day in Old San Juan, a hike in the El Yunque rain forest, a boat trip to a snorkeling reef.

The outing I remember most vividly was a nighttime kayak trip into the bioluminescent Grand Lagoon in Fajardo, on the northest corner of the island.

Photos of Pure Adventure, Fajardo

The bioluminescent bay at sunset / Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

Here’s what bioluminescence is, scientifically:

Millions of tiny, invisible single-celled organisms that light up as a self-defense mechanism when disturbed.

Here’s what it is, experientially:

Magic.

You paddle at dusk through a narrow, mangrove-lined channel into the open lagoon. Night falls. Sweeping your paddle through the black water, you create a Milky Way of light. The wake behind your paddle glows, it swirls as you swirl, then it dims as you move on.

You run your hand in the water and create more trails of light. A million little lights switching on, shining against the dark, at just a touch.  It’s like being God at the Creation. It’s like being Harry Potter – no, it’s better than Harry Potter, because you don’t even need a wand.

biobay

Bioluminescence as a foot touches the water in Fajardo

Waving hands through the water produces light -- b8t these photos don't do it justice / Photo by Thomas Wiewandt, wild horizons.com

Waving hands through the water produces light — b8t these photos don’t do it justice / Photo by Thomas Wiewandt, wild horizons.com

Then I learned last week on NPR’s Science Friday that the Fajardo lagoon had gone dark.

This happened back in November. Suddenly there was no more bioluminescence.

No one was able to identify the specific reason. It could have been any one of a number of things – toxic runoff from construction of a nearby wastewater treatment plant, removal of too many mangroves around the bay, changes in temperature or wave action or ????

This made me deeply sad. We are living at a time when large numbers of creatures are on the edge of extinction, due to loss of habitat and climate change. Many of these threatened creatures are bigger and better known than the invisible Fajardo micro-organisms – leopards, polar bears, Monarch butterflies, coral reefs. But these in the Fajardo lagoon were ones that I’d personally experienced.

It’s one thing to know that polar bears – which I’ve only ever seen behind the walls of zoos — may go extinct.

It’s another to lose something that I have seen in its wild home. That I have actually touched. And that is so stunningly magical.

What kind of legacy are we leaving for future generations? Is my generation going to be the dividing line – will history say that in our time, there were snow leopards and Monarch butterflies and bioluminescent bays, but forever after they were limited to  pictures in natural history books?

Will my daughter tell her children, “When I was ten, I snorkeled in a coral reef – back when there were coral reefs?”

I circled around and around in this depressing line of thinking all weekend. Then today I did a little Googling, and it turns out the story of the Fajardo bay may not be as dismal as I thought:  The biophosphorescent lights went dark just temporarily in November. They are apparently back now, at least somewhat.

So I breathed a sigh of relief.

But how relieved should I be?

Just this month, another bio-bay on the nearby island of Vieques went dark, according to Science Friday.

And we are only beginning to see the effects of climate change on our world…. the subtle changes in water temperature, rainfall, or length of a season that can mean the difference between survival and extinction for a species.

The Fajardo biobay is back for now. But for how long?

And what other magical parts of our natural world are we going to lose because our “leaders,” in thrall to the petrochemical industry, continue to quibble and deny?

Hope in a cookbook

December 24, 2012

There is not a lot of hope floating around the world of Israeli-Palestinian relations these days. We’ve got Hamas still in charge in Gaza, as dead-set against coexistence with Israel as ever. We’ve got Netanyahu in charge in Israel, forming ever more hawkish coalitions and sticking his finger in the eye of a two-state solution by moving ahead with massive new settlements in and near East Jerusalem.

But here is hope… in a cookbook.

My daughter had a job providing holiday retail help this past week at Rockridge Home, a hip, friendly gift store in our neighborhood. Yesterday she pointed me to a cookbook they sell called Jerusalem.

Jerusalem cover

Jerusalem is a beautifully-produced hardcover recipe book with gorgeous photos of food and people from Jerusalem. No big deal, right? There are lots of beautiful cookbooks around. But Jerusalem is co-written by an Israeli and a Palestinian — who are warmly willing to credit the cuisines and cultures of the many peoples living in that disputed city.

This is in distinct contrast to the more common approach, which is to fight over who invented hummus and falafel. Jews invented it! No, Arabs! No, Jews! As if it’s not enough to fight over land, water and sovereignty, people even have to fight over sandwich fixings.

In any case, co-authors Yotam Ottolenghi (Jewish from West Jerusalem) and Sami Tamimi (Palestinian from East Jerusalem) work together as chefs and restaurants owners in London. They’ve both lived abroad for longer than they lived in Jerusalem, which perhaps accounts for their ability to collaborate like this.

The book has plenty of wonderful-sounding recipes from Jerusalem. Stuffed artichokes with peas & dill. Stuffed eggplant with lamb & pine nuts. Butternut squash & tahini spread.  But more importantly, it acknowledges the central role that Jerusalem — its tastes, its smells — plays in the deepest hearts of both Jewish and Arab residents.

The flavors and smells of this city are our mother tongue. We imagine them and dream in them, even though we’ve adopted some new, perhaps more sophisticated languages. They define comfort for us, excitement, joy, serene bliss. Everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences; food our mothers fed us, wild herbs picked on school trips, days spent in markets, the smell of the dry soil on a summer’s day, goat and sheep roaming the hills, fresh pitas withy ground lamb, chopped parsley, chopped liver, black figs, smoky chops, syrupy cakes, crumbly cookies….

Jerusalem market, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / photo by Adam Hinton

Jerusalem market, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / photo by Adam Hinton

In a recipe for Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs, the authors describe how Sami as a boy used to sneak onto a neighbor’s roof and steal the sweet figs she was drying there. In a section on seafood, they describe ten-year-old Yotam’s first disgusted taste of gefilte fish — “sweet, gray and smeared with gelatinous gunk, it was perceived as a typical remnant of the old Ashkenazic world that was best left behind in eastern Europe.”

Hummus, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Jonathan Lovekin

Hummus, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Jonathan Lovekin

This is a book that acknowledges and cherishes those childhood memories. It doesn’t ignore the political conflict. But it seeks common ground — even where Jewish and Arab foods may be different, their emotional resonance is shared.

Jerusalem-style bagels, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Adam Hinton

Jerusalem-style bagels, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Adam Hinton

It also pays homage to cultural traditions in Jerusalem such as Russian, Greek, Armenian, Lithuanian, Bukharan, Yemeni and Ethiopian that are often overlooked in broad-brush discussions of Israeli versus Palestinian claims.

In this soup of a city it is completely impossible to find out who invented this delicacy and who brought that one with them. The food cultures are mashed and fused together in a way that is impossible to unravel. They interact all the time and influence one another  other constantly, so nothing is pure any more. In facet, nothing ever was. Jerusalem was never an isolated bastion. Over millennia it has seen countless immigrants, occupiers, visitors and merchants — all bringing foodsand recipes from the four corners of the earth.

So why does this mean hope to me?

Certainly there is the inspirational image of the Palestinian and Israeli chefs as partners, collaborators and friends.

But it is also their philosophical approach — acknowledge the “other,” acknowledge the other’s deep emotional connection to this place, and use that common connection to build a partnership.

(Rather than continually trying to trump the other: We came first. We’re more oppressed. We’re more righteous. You don’t really count. In fact, you don’t really exist.)

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

This is what we will need in order to achieve a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians — enough people who accept the other’s deep ties to the land, who respect the other’s culture, who can perhaps even celebrate the commonalities.

Maybe it requires living in diaspora for this to happen, away from the daily body-blows of checkpoints and missile strikes, in a place with a melting-pot tradition like London or America, in a country where the damp, cold winters make a common longing for sunny olive-studded hillsides and fresh tomato-cucumber salads so much more apparent.

This is only a cookbook. And I haven’t even tried making any of the recipes yet.

But it’s also a tiny spark of hope.

Thank you Ten Speed Press/Random House for publishing this! At $35, it’s pretty pricey. But the production values are high, the pictures are beautiful, you can learn a lot about the cultures and foods of Jerusalem, and yes, your $35 buys you a little bit of hope.

—————

Click here to order Jerusalem from an independent bookstore. Or click here to order it (at a discount) from Barnes & Noble. 

Conflicted over the (Israel-Iran) Conflict

February 26, 2012

The New York Times had a front-page story last week about how, exactly, Israel would carry out a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Reporter Elizabeth Bumiller interviewed all sorts of military experts about the logistical challenges of such a strike, even including a map of three possible air routes that Israeli fighter planes could use to reach Iran.

This felt surreal. Such a strike would be a a de facto act of war. Normally it would be planned in deepest secrecy with a goal of utter surprise. But here we were — millions of New York Times readers, to say nothing of the diplomats and pundits — discussing it as casually as we would discuss Jeremy Lin’s basketball prowess or Mitt Romney’s strategy for winning Michigan or Florida.

Possible flight routes for Israeli attack on Iran / Map by New York Times

What kind of  “surprise attack” is this when the entire diplomatic world has been debating it for months, and the New York Times has  printed maps of the flight routes on its front page?

Even with all the public discussion, no one knows what the outcome will be:

  • Maybe it would be a quick surgical strike that slows down (doesn’t stop) Iran’s nuclear production. There would be an explosion of news stories, lots of denunciations and finger-pointing, and then life in the Middle East will go on as usual.
  • On the other hand, maybe this is the equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a “surgical strike” that in fact  launched World War I. Maybe Iran retaliates and wipes out half of Tel Aviv. Maybe other countries like Syria or Pakistan decide to intervene on behalf of Iran. Maybe things escalate further and we end up with some kind of huge international conflagration….

When we read the history leading up to World War I these days, it’s easy to scratch our heads and feel, “What were they thinking with all those alliances? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”

Fifty years from now, will history students scratch their heads and say, “How could the world just have let this confrontation between Israel and Iran happen? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”

I feel conflicted about this whole scenario. I believe strongly in the rule of law, international diplomacy and trying to work things out non-violently. Thirty years ago, I would probably have come down squarely against an Israeli attack.

But thirty years ago, the “enemies” that America and Israel were dealing with were different. We hadn’t seen the emergence of the totalitarian, anti-Semitic, fundamentalist Islamic state that is Iran.

I don’t doubt that Iran’s current government would be willing to use a nuclear weapon against Israel if it had one. Unlike Latin American leftist movements, for instance, the Iranian mullahs don’t differentiate between governments and people — they’d be willing to kill a million civilian Israelis to punish the Israeli government.

So one question is — is Iran in fact close to having nuclear weapons? I have no good way to evaluate this. Most experts seem to think so; but then there are some who disagree. We rushed to judgment on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and later found out we were wrong, so there is good reason to be skeptical. Yet people tend to fight the last battle rather than the current one. Just because Iraq didn’t have WMD doesn’t mean that Iran doesn’t have nuclear capability.

So then there is the second question: Is there a non-violent way to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons?

So far, non-violent approaches like economic sanctions don’t seem to be working. If the pessimists among the experts are right, we don’t have the luxury of five or ten years to wait for sanctions to bear fruit. I see only two non-violent approaches that could defuse an Iranian nuclear threat:

  • A revolution within Iran that brings to power a more moderate government that wants to ally with the West.
  • Complete resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so there is no longer any pretext for Iran to attack Israel.

Neither of those are what you might, in the short run, call “likely.”

So where does that leave me? Conflicted.

I hate the idea of Israel acting outside the law, attacking another country, assigning itself the role of international vigilante, and killing civilians as will inevitably happen in any large-scale military action. It’s so completely counter to the idea of Israel as a light unto the nations, a country built on Jewish ethics.

At the same time, I don’t see an effective alternative.

And so I sit here, reading stories like that Feb. 20 New York Times piece with a combination of surreal fascination and angst. I feel like we are watching two trains head toward each other in slow motion. Everyone sees it; no one can stop it.

Is this how people felt in the run-up to the Franz Ferdinand assassination?