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Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion, and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational.



Belonging Cuts Like A Knife

Feb16

by: on February 16th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

I’ve heard it said that belonging sounds kind of soft, but to me, it’s a knife that cuts straight to the heart of our collective challenge. How do we cultivate a society that embodies the right to belong, that offers full cultural citizenship: justice and love, equity and compassion, the right to feel at home in one’s community, to feel safe in one’s school? To belong.

It’s not clear whether school shooter Nikolas Cruz actually trained with the white nationalist militia Republic of Florida (the group’s leader claimed Cruz, then said he’d mistaken him for someone else. But Cruz had been aligned for years with white supremacist views, according to a high school classmate and others: “He would always talk about how he felt whites were a bit higher than everyone,” Charo said. “He’d be like, ‘My people are over here industrializing the world and starting new things, while your people [meaning blacks and Latinos] are just taking up space.’”

When we debate who belongs—about how belonging must be earned and which categories of people are entitled to a say—we had better be ready to tussle with history.Consider a few scenes from the annals of belonging.


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Fearless Truths, Ruthless Awareness: Into The New Year

Dec31

by: on December 31st, 2017 | No Comments »

At our Hanukkah party a couple of weeks ago, we asked our guests to each share a way in which they want to bring light into the world in the coming year. Like other festivals that kindle a blaze as the sun’s light wanes—Diwali, Christmas—Hanukkah can be understood as a collective refusal to surrender to darkness, a collective invitation to remember the light even in the darkest times.

My wish was for a pervading awareness, the kind that sees past the conventional categories that constrain thinking. I haven’t been blogging much because I’ve been giving my writing attention to a new book which treats this question as a central theme: why have we fallen so much into treating people and issues as toggle switches—#MeToo, for or against?—and what can we do to open the gates of awareness to multiple truths? My wish was for ruthless awareness, the kind that penetrates the surface of what is, allowing layer after layer to emerge and be explored, side-by-side, not always resolving to either/or.

I thought of this again yesterday. It was my task to offer the kavannot (intentions) for aliyot (Torah readings) in services yesterday morning, drawing out underlying teachings of the Torah portion assigned to this past week and inviting all who wished to connect to those energies to come take part in the blessings before each reading.

It felt like a really auspicious occasion: the last reading in the book of Genesis/Beresheit, the last Shabbat of the secular year. In the reading, Jacob prepares to die, offering parting messages to his offspring and blessings to Joseph’s sons, his grandsons. As the reading comes to a close, Joseph dies too. The Hebrew calendar only occasionally matches up with the secular year in this way. But because this is an annual cycle, because many of us have read it countless times, we know the book of Exodus/Shemot is coming next, the story of the long journey out of slavery. Everything ends, yet every ending is also a beginning.

For the second aliyah, I drew attention to the moment that Jacob offers parting words to his sons in Genesis 49:1-29. He speaks fearlessly, telling it as it he sees it, both what has been and the foundation the past has laid for what may come to pass. The passage is quite remarkable as he speaks very hard truths and very great blessings, equally without hesitation. This same capacity is my new year’s blessing for all of you, dear readers, fearless seekers after truth and wisdom, beauty and meaning, love and justice: that all may be able to see truth despite those who seek to obscure it; and speak truth despite those seeking to silence it.

Today we have new names for lies. The sleep of reason breeds monsters such as “fake news,” a club brandished by the Present Occupant of the White House to beat his critics into submission; and also by his opponents to discredit those who reprint his lies without reservation.

Eighty-three years ago, in 1935, the German writer Bertolt Brecht published his essay, “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties.” To urge you on in the spirit of fearless truth, ruthless awareness, I offer a few of his words:

Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons. These are formidable problems for writers living under Fascism, but they exist also for those writers who have fled or been exiled; they exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails.

Here’s a live 1974 recording of Link Wray’s groundbreaking “Rumble,” first released in 1958. An essential part of living into truth these days is unearthing what has been suppressed, resurrecting buried truths. You must see Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a remarkable documentary on the Indigenous roots of rock’n'roll, released this year and now available for streaming.

Art, Politics, Spirit: Braided Activism for Culture Shift

Oct23

by: on October 23rd, 2017 | Comments Off

This is the text of a talk I gave on 21 October at Bioneers. It was followed by presentations by Cynthia Tom, a Bay Area-based visual artist, cultural curator, founder of A Place of Her Own, and Board President of the Asian American Women Artists Association and Lulani Arquette, President/CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (and Catalyst for Native Creative Potential on the National Cabinet of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture). As people entered the workshop, they heard a song called Familia, written by Cris and Israel Matos and performed by their band, Manicato, which Cynthia Tom manages. The message of the chorus sums it up: “Hey family, united we march without flags without borders but one voice.”


Let us begin.

Every community owes its existence and vitality to generations from around the world who contributed their hopes, dreams, and energy to making the history that led to this moment. Some were brought here against their will, some were drawn to leave their distant homes in hope of a better life, and some have lived on this land for more generations than can be counted. Truth and acknowledgment are critical to building mutual respect and connection across all barriers of heritage and difference. We begin this effort to acknowledge what has been buried by honoring the truth. We are standing on the ancestral lands of the Coastal Miwok people. We pay respects to their elders past and present. Please take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that bring us together here today. And please join us in uncovering such truths at any and all public events.

The statement I just offered is just one way to acknowledge the people who lived on the land we are occupying today, and who were displaced by colonial and corporate powers. It is just one way to remember the legacy it is our responsibility to heal with just and loving words and actions. You can find Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgment and more at the website of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.


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The Waters of Remembering and Gratitude

Sep29

by: on September 29th, 2017 | Comments Off

Our well line broke this week. We live far from city water—or gas, or waste collection. We compost scraps, haul our own recycling, burn paper instead of flushing it to some unknown but surely polluted location. The issue coincided with days of heavy rain, welcome in New Mexico but also saturating the ground and thus postponing repairs. We haven’t had running water since Tuesday, especially inconvenient as we planned to host beloved friends coming here to lead Yom Kippur services.

Every hour has brought a reminder of how dependent I am on the conveniences of modern life (even our boondocks version). My body turns on the tap over and over before my mind remembers that no water will be forthcoming. I think of the people in Puerto Rico suffering from the pernicious neglect of a government that purports to watch over them. Those with homes still standing, how often do their bodies flip a light switch before their minds turn to wondering how they will survive in cities and towns without electricity?


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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again: Part Four, The Renewal of Spirit

Sep20

by: on September 20th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

I started this blog series exactly a month ago, saying I “borrowed the title of this series from a shrink who offered it as a way to call in the awareness and acknowledgement that start to diffuse reactivity. You know what I mean by reactivity? I’m talking about that rush of terror or fury or both that overwhelms brain and body when something pokes its finger into an old wound, flooding the inner world with elicited memory, elicited pain.”

Recently several friends have asked for my assessment of the general state of people as I observe them. I travel a good deal for speaking and consulting gigs and spend a lot of time connecting across distance in other ways, so responding to that query entails a quick mental survey of all I’ve seen in recent weeks.

So far, my replies have begun with my own state of mind. “I’m easily irritated and frustrated,” I say. “I hear something and I put the worst spin on it, making up the worst story to explain it. Then I have to dial back to remind myself there are other equally possible stories. It takes effort to relax into not-knowing.”

Then I say this: “But I’m definitely not the only one: polarizing rhetoric, hardcore posturing, the resistance to empathizing with another’s challenges because that might take attention away from your own—it seems like everyone is a full glass of water, poised to spill over at the next drop. I can think of lots of reasons, mostly things not in our immediate control. If I don’t want to feel this way, the territory I’ve got to explore is the landscape of my own emotions: where are they anchored in false narratives and ungrounded assumptions? What is in my control that can help to shift them?”


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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again: Part Three, Monumental Mosh Pit and Cheshbon HaNefesh

Sep14

by: on September 14th, 2017 | Comments Off

I had a friend who in her youth acquired an elaborate multicolored tattoo spanning her stomach, a symmetrical image in which her navel served as a focal point. An eye? I no longer recall. She gave birth by Caesarean operation, and when the doctors stitched her back together, the two halves of the tattoo didn’t match up. As the years passed, the skew and pucker escalated. Her skin was an ever-present reminder of the gap between intention and execution, of innocence and error.

I think of her every time I see a body bearing a significant acreage of ink, especially the tattoos with quotations or aphorisms likely to grow less legible as flesh wrinkles and sags—but perhaps not before the sentiments they convey become stale or tiresome or embarrassing. A time-lapse effect goes off in my brain, fast-forwarding each decorated body fifty or sixty years into the future. Everything changes, I know. What were they thinking? Don’t they know the perils of anchoring tomorrow too firmly in today? The law of unintended consequences is the only one that is never broken.

Just so with the monuments to conquerors, Confederates, and criminals. These bronze-and-stone memorials are tattoos on the body politic. What were they thinking? Surely that whatever seemed worthy or urgent on the day they decided public space needed a tattoo would—should—remain so always.


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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again, Part Two: Free Speech Slamdance

Aug28

by: on August 28th, 2017 | Comments Off

In my last essay, I wrote about the hair-trigger in my mind activated by recent events in Charlottesville and beyond. Something happens, sparks fly, and centuries of inherited trauma catch fire, fueled by the pain my young self suffered as a first-generation Jewish-American growing up in a community that made us unambiguously other.

Obviously, I’m not the only one being overtaken by reactivity these days.

We’re in a time of heightened susceptibility. This moment is throwing into high relief essential questions of value and meaning, of harm and healing. People fling them at each other like weapons: if you don’t agree with me on X, you are aiding the enemies of justice. If you aren’t with me on Y, that’s because you can never understand my pain: we may be talking about Z, but you are the real problem.

Today’s case-in-point: freedom of expression. I invite you to think along with me. Perhaps we will be able to reconcile freedom and justice without triggering the flesh-and-blood equivalent of one of those scenes in the original “Star Trek” where Captain Kirk talks a computer into a meltdown.

I have been a First Amendment fundamentalist my entire life. Now I am thinking again.

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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again, Part One

Aug20

by: on August 20th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Holding steady when the ground is moving is normally part of my stock-in-trade.People often ask me for something to help put their own fears into perspective. Usually I am willing and able to oblige. Mostly I try my best to see the bigger picture, and mostly that effort pays off.

But not now. I was staying more or less centered until a few days ago when something caught me off-guard. In the middle of a conference call, I got a text message carrying information that turned out not to be true, that the Barcelona terrorist who mowed down 13 lives like grass had been heading for a kosher restaurant on Las Ramblas, hard by the assassin’s abandoned car. It was an intense activation, hard to control despite my wish to hold to decorum, despite the fact that everyone on the call had been talking about their fears for their own communities’ and others, their responses to the nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville and the havoc they wreaked. When I rang off, a bit of research led me to conclude that the location of the car was likely a coincidence, that even though ISIS hates Jews, the attack did not target us directly.

Ashamed, I apologized to my colleagues for spreading false information, then gave myself a talking-to. Oh, crap! I’m triggered again, and not only that, but right now I am super-susceptible to recurrence.

I borrowed the title of this series from a shrink who offered it as a way to call in the awareness and acknowledgement that start to diffuse reactivity. You know what I mean by reactivity? I’m talking about that rush of terror or fury or both that overwhelms brain and body when something pokes its finger into an old wound, flooding the inner world with elicited memory, elicited pain.

Do you want to know why I was so easily and massively triggered by a stray rumor?Let me suggest four readings. First: Eric Ward’s important essay “Skin In The Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism.” This piece was written by a non-Jewish African American who has studied and worked against white supremacist movements for many years. He exposes in detail how “antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism,” how it is the cornerstone of their racist ideology, and how this is often neither understood nor believed despite ample evidence.

I read Ward’s piece when it was first posted to Political Research Associates’ site at the end of June, six weeks before white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, VA, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” inspiring one of their number to use his automobile as a weapon, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring others,.

When you’re done with “Skin in The Game,” read “Jewish Fear, Love, & Solidarity in the Wake of Charlottesville” by Jonah S. Boyarin, published on the Jewschool site a few days after the events in Charlottesville. Among many other closely observed depictions of fear, love, and solidarity, Boyarin writes:

Jewish fear is the recurring silence from non-Jews about the explicitly, particularly antisemitic language and behavior of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. It is seeing, with rare exceptions, only Jewish friends of mine posting on social media when Jewish cemeteries are vandalized or when the Boston Holocaust memorial was destroyed this week for the second time this summer.

Jewish fear is if we bring up our struggle to non-Jewish comrades, we will be gaslighted and shamed into silence, because structural antisemitism functions by portraying us as conspiratorially, greedily powerful despite our repeated vulnerability to structural, white Christian male violence.

Third, read Michael Chabon’s and Ayelet Waldman’s “Open Letter to our Fellow Jews,” enacting our tradition and imperative to rebuke injustice within our community:

Among all the bleak and violent truths that found confirmation or came slouching into view amid the torchlight of Charlottesville is this: Any Jew, anywhere, who does not act to oppose President Donald Trump and his administration acts in favor of anti-Semitism; any Jew who does not condemn the President, directly and by name, for his racism, white supremacism, intolerance and Jew hatred, condones all of those things.

Finally, if you have the bandwidth for one more, read Danica Bornstein’s account of struggling to reconcile two identities, the provisional social category of whiteness and her lived experience as a Jew:

What I’m trying to say here is that the privilege that accrues during the good times is very much real, and I am not denying or hiding that. It is also true that the privilege is provisional, and can be revoked, and becomes the very thing that is used against us when the shoe finally drops.

It overwhelms me trying to explain this history and how both of these things live inside my body: the very real privilege but also the very real and repeated experiences of expulsion, scapegoating, genocide, and terror. I talk about the part that is easier, but then I end up feeling very alone.

None of these writers is identical to each other in approach, style, content, or the way they position themselves in the story, but they are all telling parts of a meta-story that has shaped my experience.

In the context of this big story of Jews in the USA, when I tell myself, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” I am reminding myself that despite the intense feelings I’m experiencing, I’m not truly in it alone. I’m reminding myself that I’m not alone despite the fact that so many of my colleagues on the U.S. left are quite happy to hang a label reading “white” around my neck and never hear another word about why that might not sum up the experience of disbelonging for a first-generation American whose earliest memories were explanations in halting English of why I had so few living ancestors and so little knowledge of those who had survived, and of being chased home by Catholic kids when they got to the part in catechism about Jews killing Jesus, and whose recent memories are crowded with experiences of being an acceptable target, a handy “buffer group” for multiple racial categories.

I’m reminding myself that even if I am once again attacked from both right and left for having the audacity to take the space to tell this story and the willingness to risk this self-exposure, I am not alone.

And why must I remind myself so insistently of this truth? The trajectory of all traumatic activation is the same. The person who is triggered is propelled toward extreme isolation, often into an intolerable loneliness that obscures or precludes the actual antidote to white nationalism: connection, reciprocity, collaboration, respect, generosity across lines of difference.

From what I see, my story rhymes with much of the current state of things. The white nationalists gathering in Charlottesville, Boston, and many other places overwhelmingly share certain characteristics: pale skin, male gender, Christian heritage. None of these is intrinsically the generator of evil, but the giant chickens of power and domination their possessors have birthed have been marching home to roost for a long time, lusting to punish the rest of us for daring to live our freedom. In the face of this long march, so many people I know are displaying the signs of extreme reactivity grounded in trauma: believing the inner voice that says no one else can know my suffering, no one is truly on my side, I can’t trust anyone who fits different categories of race, religion, gender, orientation, even generation. So many are locked in just this combat with would-be allies: whose perspective matters? Who has earned the right to have a say? Who understands the urgency and seriousness of the threats? Who has the capacity or right to glimpse what it is to live inside my skin?

What do you do when elicited trauma pushes you into a dark corner? For me, many things can help in the moment. Music, a walk, or a distraction—anything that disrupts reactivity long enough to allow the fear chemicals to dissipate.

But you know what helps me the most? When compassion opens a door between my heart and another person’s; when neither of us needs to slot the other’s story into a hierarchy of oppressions, judging if it deserves equal dignity or goes on the dismissible pile. When we hear each others’ stories without turning away, when we open our arms to each other. When we join together to rebuke injustice and call in the beloved community.

I’ve been thinking about trauma a great deal over the past year because it is one of the subjects of my current book-in-progress. Even if it weren’t, I’d still be thinking about trauma today because laying fresh damage on the site of old wounds seems to be our national pastime. Every day, I have to remind myself to stay aware enough to say, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” because without that awareness, the past prevails.

When I am triggered, my capacity for rational thought is greatly diminished. This is bad news not only because of the immediate suffering it catalyzes, but because the thing that helps me most to release trauma-induced reactivity is staying aware that I am activated. Keeping part of my thinking mind free to be an observer allows me to begin distinguishing past from present. I begin to remember that the loud voice in my head—the one telling me I’m all alone in an uncaring world and they want to kill me—is not the voice of reality, the objective truth, but the over-amped voice of old pain.

My grip on my composure remains tenuous. In Shabbat services yesterday morning, we talked about the Torah portion for this week, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). A short way into the text, we read this exhortation about how to treat the conquered who worshipped false gods: “Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.”

Aha, I thought, the Confederate statues! You get to a fresh start by wiping out the symbols of an abhorrent belief system. My mind reeled into the slam dance that’s been playing over and over on my inner soundtrack. But wait, that’s what ISIS leaders thought they were doing when they demolished the Bamyan Buddhas! (See this compendium of pictures and links for images of that and many more examples of monuments toppled). On the one hand crashes headlong into on the other hand. Both tumble into the mosh pit of my brain. I try to blink back the tears and steady my breathing, knowing that unless I can resolve this state of hyper-susceptibility, I will be cycling through that dance every day, perhaps every hour.

Coming next in the “Oh Crap! I’m Triggered” series: Free Speech Slamdance.

Odetta and Dr. John, “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”

Machiavelli Nailed It!

Jan27

by: on January 27th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Some are furiously galvanized and organizing like mad. Some feel trapped in a surrealist movie, overwhelmed by confusion. Some have subsided into defeat and demoralization. The clash of paradigms is titanic, a tidal wave of protest crashing against the colossal ego of a uniquely unhinged and malevolent executive.

We have not been here before.

Tons of insightful analysis and practical advice are issuing from progressive groups. Every hour brings new petitions, talking points, and strategic propositions to counter the noxious river of cruelty, self-regard, and cynical bloviation gushing out of the White House. I have no doubt that people will be more active and better-organized this year than ever before: desperate to stanch the flow, they are pouring heart, soul, and muscle into the work of defending democracy. No one can know the outcome, but scenarios are flying, from early impeachment to a trumped-up coup d’etat to a terrorist attack from within (or as someone put it, a Reichstag moment).

We have been in some very tough places, but we have not been precisely here before.

Throughout the week since the inauguration, the ideas of Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian Renaissance politician and writer, have been streaming through my mind. 

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Indifference to Evil: Please Act Now!

Dec14

by: on December 14th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

If a few years down the road a young person who knows and respects you were to rise from the shambles of democracy and heaped-up havoc wreaked by the Monkey King in the White House and ask what you did to stop him, would you be ashamed to answer?

I’ll let Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel say it:

There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.

“Where is the outrage?” is the question of the year. President-Elect Donald Trump benefited from a carefully orchestrated campaign by Russia to skew the election in his favor. He has rushed to appoint a entire crew of villains to his cabinet, foxes guarding henhouses, arsonists in charge of the firehouse. (As Trump met with Kanye West yesterday, someone tweeted that Kanye would be the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts; I think it’s a joke, but as Lily Tomlin once said, “No matter how cynical you are, you can’t keep up.)


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