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Can a New Form of Midrash Help Bridge our National Divides?

Dec7

by: Jeffrey Lubell on December 7th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

“What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” (Gen. 3:10).

Trump and Clinton. As the 2016 Presidential Election reminds us, we are a deeply divided country. Consider the razor thin margin of the election. A shift of fewer than 55,000 votes across three states (PA, MI, and WI) would have flipped the outcome, and a shift to Clinton of only one out of every 100 Trump voters would have given her an Electoral College victory similar in size to that experienced by Trump. As Nate Silver reminds us, these shifts would have led to a different narrative, but the deep divisions within this country would of course have remained fundamentally the same.

We saw these divisions over the summer when we mourned the heartbreaking deaths in July of African-American men, killed by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana, and police officers, killed by African-American men in Dallas and Baton Rouge. We’ve seen them in the competing narratives around Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Obamacare, abortion and so many other issues.

Many are viewing the election as a call to arms – to fight for what we believe to be right. This is consistent with the long and honorable history of Jewish activism in support of civil and economic rights and our fundamental commitment to making the world a better place. This is surely part of the solution.

But while activism may help address the symptoms of our divisions, it will not help us transcend them. So it is not a complete solution.

There is no magic elixir that can quickly heal our fault lines of race, ethnicity, class, and political party, and our urban/rural and north/south divides. But I do believe there are lessons we can we draw from our Jewish tradition and heritage that may help us make progress in improving our understanding of one another, which is a critical first step in bridging our many divides. My suggestion is to repurpose tools from the Jewish tradition of midrash to increase our understanding of the diverse perspectives held by Americans across the U.S.


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Eight Steps Obama Should Take Immediately

Dec7

by: Cat J. Zavis on December 7th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Pensive Obama. President Obama swept into office eight years ago on a promise of hope and change founded on the importance of empathy, i.e., understanding the experience of the Other. Many people were inspired and deeply moved by his vision of hope, stated desire for change, and his seeming care for the well-being of all. And now many are deeply disappointed. We believe he has lost his way and has failed to stand for the values he articulated eight years ago. This is my call to President Obama to return to his highest values, values that are hard to hold when the weight of the world is on your shoulders, but values that we need even more now than we did eight years ago.

If what I share below resonates with you, please do two things: (1) copy it and send it to President Obama; (2) sign the Move-On petition I started here.

Dear President Obama,

You have less than two months in office and the incoming President-elect has, both through his statements and appointments thus far, indicated that many of the rights and issues you and those that elected support will very likely be dismantled in the next four years. In fact, the prospects for the next four years look rather bleak, if not downright terrifying.

You have an opportunity to show strong leadership and take decisive and immediate action on a number of significant issues.

I call upon you to take the following actions in your last month in office:


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If Life Wins There Will Be No Losers

Dec5

by: Martin Winiecki on December 5th, 2016 | No Comments »

The Dakota Access Pipeline approaching the lake.

A message of solidarity from Tamera Peace Research Center to Standing Rock:

In the name of humaneness, we express our gratitude to the courageous water and land protectors at Standing Rock. This camp of Sioux and many other First Nation people, accompanied by activists from across all camps is a true light of hope in a world that has lost any prospect for the future. They are not fighting against anyone; they are defending the sacred. They are protecting what needs to be protected for us to live. We call out to say thank you for your perseverance in spite of the brutal attacks; thank you for taking such a clear stand for life in this worldwide struggle between the powers of life and those of capital. Thank you as well to the spirits of the buffaloes and eagles for their visible support and presence. Through Tamera and the global Healing Biotopes Project, we seek to support this stance by all means.


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Fidel Castro 1926-2016

Nov30

by: Martha Sonnenberg on November 30th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Castro in a green uniform, a flag in the background.There can be no doubt that Fidel Castro was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, whether one idolized or despised him.  For me, and many on the left, feelings toward Castro often left one dizzy with conflicting emotions of admiration, disappointment and frustration. Here is what he did: In 1959 he successfully challenged and struck a mortal blow to the social and economic remnants of slavery and colonialism in the tiny island of Cuba; he thrust off the iron grip of the United States’ control of the Cuban economy codified by the Platt Amendment, in place since 1904. Cuba, 89 times smaller than its northern neighbor, prevailed against the Goliath United States in establishing its sovereignty. In this regard, Castro continued the movement toward self-determination of a West Indian people that had begun with the Santo Domingo revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Castro was able to lead the Cuban revolution by galvanizing and articulating the desires for freedom on the part of the Cuban people, from rural peasant to urban worker, professional and intellectual. This was particularly evident in the peasant support of the guerilla fighters of the Sierra Maestra, as well as in the support of the urban trade union movement. That ability to engage the masses of Cubans did not diminish. In 1981, I visited Cuba with my mother—the day we arrived in Havana, we attended a speech by Castro in the Plaza de Revolution, a short walk from our hotel. There were hundreds of thousands of people in that square, and when Fidel spoke there was total silence and rapt attention. I had never witnessed anything quite like it, nor have I since.


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Bravo Hamilton

Nov30

by: on November 30th, 2016 | No Comments »

I stand in solidarity with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton who made a statement to soon-to-be Electoral College-elect vice-president Mike Pence when he attended a performance of the play.

Bravo Hamilton.

The statement was respectful, and, all things considered, restrained. It was civil. According to the New York Times, the statement said:

“We-sir-are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

Full disclosure: I have not seen the play, but I am a fan. I ride around listening to the sound-track in my car.

The beauty of the production is that it uses Hip Hop, an art form invented by America’s non-white citizens, to present an interpretation of the early history of America with a multi-racial cast. It does what all good art ought to do, make us see the ordinary with extraordinary sight and thus help us know our own humanity better.

There is good reason for a diverse America to feel alarmed and anxious after a divisive campaign of fear and lies that Donald Trump and Mike Pence inflicted upon the nation to win the Electoral College and thus to win the presidency and the vice-presidency. Let us be clear: Trump and Pence are minority winners. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million votes. More than seven million people voted for a third-party candidate. Nearly half of Americans who could have voted did not. Most citizens of the United States do not want Donald Trump to be president, yet, he will take the oath of office in January, becoming both head of state and head of government, representing the United States in his person to history and to the world.

Since his campaign that emboldened white supremacists, violence against people of color, immigrants, and Muslims have risen. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 incidents of harassment in the first ten days after the election. (https://www.splcenter.org/) The Trump/Pence response to such hate has been tepid at best. Trump has made Stephen K. Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News Network, a news organization that caters to white supremacists, his chief White House strategist. His other choices for cabinet positions, including Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and his choice for the person to head the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that he will not protect voting rights or the planet.

Since we value a peaceful transition of power, what is the majority of citizens of the United States to do? We ought to resist in every peaceful way imaginable. We ought to stand up and boldly state what the shared values and beliefs of our society are.

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Witnessing Standing Rock: A Short Guide

Nov30

by: Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb on November 30th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Three women holding up a sign saying "water is life." I traveled to Standing Rock in order to help sustain the camp and be a witness. Here are some humble suggestions of what you might do if you travel to Standing Rock, and if you are in solidarity with indigenous struggles locally.

Work in the kitchen! Mounds of garlic are peeled daily to feed the thousands of people eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. There are five main kitchens throughout camp, so there are many opportunities to go into a nearby kitchen and ask when a good time to volunteer is. Working in a kitchen is a great way to contribute directly to the basic ongoing daily needs of the camp and to meet people!

Go to an early morning ceremony. Standing Rock is a prayer camp and attending an indigenous led ceremony is the best way to learn about the spirit of Standing Rock. Morning ceremonies start at 6 AM and may be led by women. The ceremony I attended by the sacred fires on Friday morning was led by a medicine woman named Blue Lightning, who I had the honor of getting to know while I was there. She asked me to be guardian of the east gate because she learned I was one of the first woman rabbis from young Jewish people from the Bay Area who contributed to building several tents for her family encampment. The morning ceremony was dedicated to “untangling” energies that need to come back into harmony. People were invited to dance in four concentric circles around a four directional altar created with crystals and shells. When the sun rose, about a hundred people walked down to the river for a pipe ceremony led by Lakota women who have greeted the dawn in this way by the shores of this river for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is their land.

Be in service. While I was at Standing Rock, I remained in service to Blue Lightning’s intergenerational family, which consisted of elders, parents, and children. I was able to serve in this way due to my relationships with Bay Area Jewish young people in their 20′s and 30′s who contributed funds for and built several winterized tents, each one complete with insulation, a wood stove, lots of heaters, a porch, chairs, cots, blankets, rugs, tables, and a complete kitchen with shelves, cooking utensils, a stove, storage bins, and wash station for Blue Lightning’s family encampment. The kitchen was dedicated by Blue Lightning to be a meeting place for elders. It’s warm and welcoming. I spent time setting up the kitchen and attending to immediate needs of the elders.

Participate in an action that feels right to you. There is nonviolent direct action training at camp. There is also an ongoing conversation about whether or not a particular action is sanctioned by elders. I chose to attend a Thanksgiving Day silent vigil by the river organized by indigenous youth with the sanction of the elders. The action had several components: some people remained in silence on the camp side of the river while others crossed over the river on a plank to get to Turtle Island, which is sacred ground to the Lakota. There were indigenous men protecting the nonviolent nature of the action by not allowing anyone to climb up the hill to the ridge where dozens of militarized police stood in wait threatening them with violence over a bull horn while telling people they didn’t want a confrontation at the same time. People were still traumatized by Sunday’s attack, which injured 166 people. While I was there, the police installed bright floodlights by the river. They also placed barbed wire along the ridge of Turtle Island and the river’s edge. If you are planning to be part of a direct action, please check in with the legal tent on Facebook Hill to be trained and find out about arrest procedures before you participate.

Listen to stories. Being in camp with an indigenous family allowed me to hear lots of stories such as Blue Lightning’s family stories; Lakota, Shoshone, and Ute histories; tribal origin tales, creation tales, and teachings about prayer; the story of this particular Pipe Line; eminent domain, broken treaties, and Native sovereignty rights; and stories about Standing Rock itself. Jane Fonda’s appearance at camp over Thanksgiving started some conversations. The threat of police violence sparks rumors, so don’t believe every story. Dallas Goldtooth is a good source for staying in touch with what is actually happening. Indigenous news sources are the best way to stay informed.


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At the Post Office in Donald Trump’s America, I Want the National Park Stamps — and a Passport

Nov23

by: Rabbi Michael Rothbaum on November 23rd, 2016 | 5 Comments »

Blue passport, United States of America.

Trump’s America, Wednesday morning, 9:03 AM.

I head in to my local post office. I’m out of stamps. I also need my passport renewed. It expires this month.

Rather than flee the country, I vowed that, if Trump won the election, I’d stay in the U.S. and fight along with the people who would be endangered by the new administration. I still feel that way – but I am not comfortable having an expired passport.


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A Choice of Planets, a Choice of Oceans: Congress Goes All Out for Outer Space, Ditches Mother Earth

Nov22

by: Jon Swan on November 22nd, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Curve of the earth as seen from outer space.

During his second term in office, Pres. George W. Bush designated four large Pacific island areas as national monuments, thus protecting them from energy extraction and commercial fishing. The last three were created on January 6, 2009, two weeks before Bush left office, and at a White House ceremony commemorating the signing, he explained that the sanctuaries would benefit sea birds and marine life, open up new territory for scientists to explore, while, “for the American people, they will be places that honor our duty to be good stewards of the Almighty’s creation.”

The creation of the first of these sanctuaries, to be managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, was the result of an informal seminar set up by James Greenwood, a former Republican Pennsylvania congressman, and attended by Elliot Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Institute, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau. A highlight of the evening was a screening of Cousteau’s documentary Voyage to Kure, which takes its name from a remote coral atoll at the extreme northwest end of the Hawaiian archipelago. The atoll is a nesting area for a wide species of birds, including nearly all of the world’s population of Laysan albatrosses. It also happens to lie in the path of a current that brings great tangles of fishing nets and tons of debris onto the beaches. Bush reportedly said over dinner that night that he got “a pretty good lecture about life” from Earle.

Fast forward to November 2014, when Republican Congressman John Culberson was named chair of the House Commerce, Justice, and Science spending panel, whose jurisdiction includes both NASA and NOAA. Culberson, like Bush, was a Texan, and, like Bush, he invoked the Almighty, albeit under another name, to justify his spending priorities. In a January 2015 Science magazine article about Culberson, Bill Nye (“the Science Guy” who heads the non-profit Planetary Society) is quoted as saying of the Texas congressman: “He quotes the Bible and says he believes that a higher power has put life on other worlds. He wants to find it on his watch.” The place in space Culberson was confident he would find evidence of life was under the frozen crust of Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, considered by many scientists to be the most likely place in the solar system, apart from Earth, to harbor some form of life.

In June 2015, the House of Representatives passed HR 2578, the spending bill for NASA, NOAA, and other agencies that had been drawn up by Culberson’s nine-member spending panel. It awarded NASA’s planetary science division $1.63 billion – an increase of 13.4 percent, with a stipulation that the agency must not only apply $175 million to a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, but that the mission must have a lander component. NOAA, for its part, received a mere $462 million for research related to both the atmosphere and the oceans, and $58 million for climate research, instead of the requested $89 million, and $10 million for ocean acidification research – a third of the requested amount. Furthermore, the spending bill cut funding for the oldest carbon dioxide observatories on the planet, thus disrupting the ability to track fossil fuel emissions in the U.S. Industry could hardly have asked for more.

With only minor changes, the bill became the law that was bundled into the $1.1 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act designed to keep the federal government running until October 1 of this year, and then, to prevent a shutdown of Congress during an election year, extended to December and then, in all likelihood, punted into the new year for a new Congress to consider the implications of the discrepancy in funding for NASA and NOAA. Does the discrepancy mean that the United States is more interested in finding some sign of life in planetary space than in preserving life on planet Earth? Does it mean that America’s elected representatives have concluded that Earth’s problems are intractable and it is time to move on, letting the rest of the world fend for itself? Or is the explanation simpler: space research and development have a constituency – and a Hollywood-enhanced glamour – which research related to the atmosphere and the oceans’ depths lacks?

Meanwhile, it may be pertinent to point out that the Gulf of Mexico, which laps the south Texas shore, vies with the Baltic Sea for hosting the world’s largest “dead zones” – areas that cannot support marine life due to depleted oxygen levels. It also seems worth noting that three Texas congressmen who helped to assure the passage of the 2016-17 funding bill – John Culberson, of Houston; Bruce Babin, who served as chair of the House Space Subcommittee of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee during the 113th and 114th Congresses and whose Houston congressional district is dominated by the Johnson Space Center; and Lamar Smith, who has twice chaired the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology – are all dismissive of claims that whatever warming there may be is caused by human activity (Smith’s position on the subject was summed up in a Washington Post headline last year: “Meet the House science chairman who’s trying to put global warming on ice”).

In a press release announcing his appointment as chair of the spending panel, Culberson said, “It will … be a source of great joy for me to help lift up NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to ensure that America will always lead the world in space exploration and scientific discoveries.” Culberson’s failure to mention NOAA would seem to be indicative of the congressman’s lack of interest in an agency that deals with merely earthly matters – a lack notable in Congress as a whole since 2012.

In that year, NOAA’s budget for its Undersea Research Program was cut to zero for the next fiscal year, beginning October 1. Thus, it was left to millionaire Canadian filmmaker James Cameron, of Avatar and Titanic fame, to explore the deepest place on earth, the Mariana Trench, in the Marianas Trench Marine Monument created by George Bush three years earlier. Cameron made his solo descent on March 26, 2012, in a custom-designed submersible called Deepsea Challenger. According to New York Times science reporter William J. Broad, the submersible cost Cameron “roughly $10 million of his own money,” apart from whatever Rolex paid (A Rolex watch attached to an arm of the submersible functioned normally throughout the expedition). Ten million dollars is more than twice the amount NOAA’s Undersea Research Program received annually until October 1, 2012, when its funding dropped to zero.

The much-publicized descent into the abyss did not yield much in the way of scientific discovery. As Cameron said, “I didn’t feel like I got to a place where I could take interesting geology samples or found [sic] anything interesting biologically.” He also said, “I just sat there looking out the window, looking at this barren, desolate lunar plain, appreciating.” And, “I really feel like in one day I’ve been to another planet and come back.”

Not another planet, of course. Our planet. An as-yet-unexplored part – the deepest – of our planet. According to the text of a special National Geographic issue devoted to Cameron’s expedition, “Scientists are particularly interested in microorganisms living in the trenches, which they say could lead to breakthroughs in biomedicine and biotechnology. The Mariana Trench’s microscopic inhabitants might even shed light on the emergence of life on Earth. Some researchers, such as Patricia Fryer et al at University of Hawaii, have speculated that serpentine mud volcanoes located near ocean trenches might have provided the right conditions for our planet’s first life-forms.”

It is undeniably more thrilling to imagine finding life – even if it is only a speck of bacteria – deep within the frozen ocean of a distant planet, which Congress has directed NASA to do in its Europa mission, the centerpiece of its Ocean Worlds Exploration Program, than to look for the origins of life in the depths of the Earth’s ocean. Easier, too, than trying to heal a wounded planet, whose oceans are steadily rising and becoming increasingly acidic, and thus hostile to marine life. And it is more thrilling yet to imagine establishing human colonies in space, as billionaire Elon Musk plans to do on Mars, as do even such respected scientists as Freeman Dyson and Stephen Hawking, who, in his latest book, writes, “I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go to space.”

There can be little doubt that the human race will have no future on the planet that gave birth to us if we turn away from the reality within which we live and focus our hopes and dreams – and spend our treasure – on starting a new life in outer space. Before year’s end, Congress must decide, in the form of its appropriations, which comes first – the preservation of Earth and its oceans or exploring other planets for signs of life and with an eye to relocation of our self-destructive species. Given the results of the recent election, it is not hard to predict what the choice will be.

 

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Jon Swan is a poet, translator, and freelance journalist whose reporting on environmental issues has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, OnEarth, and World Rivers Review. He lives in Yarmouth, Maine.

From Apartheid to Trump

Nov21

by: Marisa Handler on November 21st, 2016 | No Comments »

Botha and Mandela holding each other's hands high in the air.

Photo by Damien du Toit: Creative Commons

In October of 1988, my family emigrated from apartheid South Africa to the U.S. It had taken my parents four years to secure sponsors and visas for us. At the time, P.W. Botha was President of South Africa; the man was an inveterate racist and leader of the National Party, which constructed the apartheid system. Botha was not budging in response to either sanctions or the anti-apartheid movement, and it looked like the country was headed for a bloody civil war. We considered ourselves fortunate to get out. I remember entering junior high school in the San Fernando Valley, stunned and delighted by the diversity that filled the hallways, by the fact that there were black teachers, counselors, and even politicians. In comparison to the society I grew up in, this country appeared a bastion of freedom and justice.

Trump is giving a speech with his daughter and American flags behind him.

Photo by Michael Vadon: Creative Commons

Twenty-eight years later, I am profoundly grateful for the life and opportunities this country has afforded me. So, on the Tuesday night of the election, I watched with shock as a man who is undeniably racist – not to mention misogynist and xenophobic – was democratically elected to the highest office in the country. No, he didn’t win the popular vote; and yes, the Electoral College is an obsolete system. Nonetheless, half the country voted for this man. Indeed, we are more divided than we knew.

And so like many of us, I am struggling to integrate what feels like dystopian fiction. For now, I am grieving and letting myself be stunned. I am caring for myself and those I love the best I can. And, I am reminding myself what I know in my bones to be true: that in order for genuine healing to come, the darkness must emerge. It must be seen, recognized, and understood before it can transform and deliver its gifts.

I know this from personal experience, and I know this also because I come from a country where the darkness was not hidden. The racism was overt, and grotesque. My eleven-year-old peers in Cape Town actually believed black people were less intelligent than white people. They thought it entirely appropriate that a black adult should address a white child as “little madam” or “little master.” In a sense, for the African National Congress and its allies, there was a clear enemy, and an obvious goal: apartheid was wrong, and it needed to end. And when it did in 1994, there was a collective process to hold perpetrators accountable and to work through the grief, anger, and guilt. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission wasn’t perfect, but it allowed the country to come together, to begin to forgive and move on. Things are far from rosy right now in the land of my birth – “Ha, you have your own Zuma now!” a South African commented on Facebook in the wake of Trump’s victory – but it is a thriving democracy, with a free press and a black government, which is worlds better than what it was.

Things haven’t been quite so clear here as they were in apartheid South Africa. For many, many years the darkness has been hidden, brushed aside, or denied altogether. After coming to the U.S., it took a few months for me to even see there was racism in this society; it took a few years to begin to understand that it was equally corrosive, perhaps actually more so for being hidden or denied.


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In Memory of Gwen Ifill

Nov16

by: on November 16th, 2016 | 4 Comments »

There is so much bad journalism running helter-skelter through the land that when the world loses one of its premier journalists, it is a moment to pause and to grieve.

Gwen Ifill, co-anchor of the “PBS Newshour” and host of “Washington Week”, died November 14th from cancer. She was 61-years-old. Many journalists who were her colleagues and friends have spoken and written about her as a person. They have commented on her excellence as a journalist, about her no nonsense approach to the work of giving the public solid information with which to understand the world around us. They have shared their memories of her faith, of her smile, laughter, singing, and hospitality.

I did not know Gwen Ifill personally, so I can only write about her from the perspective of someone who invited her into my home nearly every week-day evening for seventeen years. I quit network news decades ago, deciding that bad journalism is a waste of my precious time. I watched the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” in the late 1970s and continued watching when it became “The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour” in 1983. My children were reared on this program because I wanted them to be aware of the world around them beyond our street and city.

When Gwen Ifill joined the program, I welcomed the presence of a more than competent journalist. Over the years, I have found little to complain about in her work. She was always respectful and friendly with the guests on the program. She moderated difficult discussion with aplomb, with an even-handed fairness that, in the end, left me with a better understanding of both sides of an issue.

 

I especially appreciated the respect she gave to ordinary people when conducting focus group discussions or town hall meetings. She never made anyone feel small, uninformed or illogical when she could have. For example, in a town hall meeting in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, one young man complained that he had voted for President Obama twice, but that he was still facing police harassment in his community. She did not ask the young man whether or not he had voted in local elections. She resisted the urge to tell him that President Obama does not appoint the police officials in his town.

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