Saturday, December 26, 2009


Once, when Nate and I were discussing the way I parented him, he said that he always thought of me as too self-centered to be a really good father. He seemed to think that often when I was around the house, around him, I wasn't really present. Except, maybe to get angry with him when he distracted me from the things I was focussed on.

I defended myself. I don't remember exactly what I said. Something about how much I thought about him all the time. I tried to make it sound like the way I thought about him was on an emotional level equal in some way to the power of my perceived absence. I don't think he bought it, but he had the mature grace to let me pretend that he was persuaded.

But--and this is why I'm actually blogging on the day after Christmas--Nate was right. I was quite self-centered (still am, I guess) and I wanted to get it written down here so that I couldn't take it back.

Still, let me try to extract something of value from this. Three things, really. I'm proud of Nate, of the adult he has become. I hope Nate knows that he is right in his understanding of how much more I could have done for him and with him. And, I hope all of us understand that every day is a chance to do better.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Guaranteed Upside of Down

Closing one’s eyes,
a key to revelations,
shocking moments,

Rest, as well,
but in this case,
facing mid-winter

Closing one’s eyes,
key to the déjà vu
experience of this

And to the never
before seen
experience of this

Closing one’s eyes,
ranging to remote
and to exotica and to
right here, right now

If you can withstand
the vibe, rhythm, shake,
rattle, roll, bangin’,
clangin’ and sweet singin’
of right here, right now

Long enough to be deep
in the remote, in the erotica
of this place, this right here,
right now

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bad Health Care Bill Is Better Than None

The hard road to a more perfect democracy

The health care bill that hopefully will pass in the Senate on Christmas Eve isn't final. The finalized legislation will be negotiated between House and Senate conferees early next year. But it seems safe at this point to make a few observations about what the Health Care Reform struggle 2009-2010 will do or has done.

• It has helped clarify just how dysfunctional Congress is (see Ruth Marcus' "The next decade from hell?" Washington Post, Dec. 23 here or Richard Cohen's "An imperfect ray of hope," Washington Post, Dec. 22 here).

• It exposed some members of the Senate, like Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) or Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) as particularly repellant (see Michael Gerson's "For sale: One senator (D-Neb.). No principles, low price." Washington Post, Dec. 23 here or Eugene Robinson's "Health-care hardball," Washington Post,Dec. 18 here).

• It created opportunity for Republican members of the Senate to raise the bar for hypocrisy. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority leader and his caucus did everything they could to keep health care reform in any form from passing, including forcing Democrats to get 92 year-old Sen. Byrd (D-W Va.) to haul himself and his wheelchair to the Senate for roll call votes three times in the last week. They relentlessly criticized every compromise Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) brokered in an effort to get something passed. Hearing Sen. Lindsay Graham (D-SC) on NPR denounce the admittedly repugnant deal with Ben Nelson, as though Graham was a disappointed advocate for a better bill, seemed somewhat like we had all fallen down a large rabbit hole. Other Republicans seemed to be wishing for fate in the form of, say, a sudden illness that would prevent Democrats from rounding up 60 votes. It boggles the mind that Republicans have seemingly decided their obstructionist behavior and petty cruelties improve their chances of success in the 2010 mid-term elections.

• It will result in a bill that will dismay virtually every Democratic voter (see Harold Meyerson's "For unions, a messy bargain," Washington Post, Dec. 23, here), but it is a start; that fact will prove to be more important than many disappointed advocates are likely to believe (see Eugene Robinson's "Carpe health reform," Washington Post, Dec. 22, here or Henry J. Aaron's "Health-reform legislation would accomplish more than critics admit," Washington Post, Dec. 18, here).

• It confirmed that there is a senator for the rest of us. Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont worked diligently to make a bad bill as promising as possible (see Katrina Vanden Heuvel's post on The Nation's website, Dec. 22, here).

It seems to be a general perception that if the US electorate were as sophisticated as the Western European demos, we would have a democracy that provided national healthcare, assumed international leadership on global warming and invaded fewer foreign countries, but that's probably not a helpful comparison. We should measure our democracy by the effort we put in to improving it, by the quality of our encounters with political opponents, and by the accumulated progress we make. As Eugene Robinson pointed out in "Carpe health reform," the US may continue for some time to come to use wealth and work as a means to ration health care, but with President Obama's signing of the health care reform bill early next year, we will, for the first time, "enshrine the principle that all Americans deserve access to medical care regardless of their ability to pay." We should celebrate that achievement while we are also working on the peace dividend, affordable housing, quality public education. and clean air and water.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Snowboarding in DC

Does climate change come with that?

DC's 14-inch Saturday snowstorm is history. And, in fact, four days later the snow is more than half gone. But it will live on in local lore--probably forever. It will certainly live on in Brendan's memory. He managed to snowboard three days in a row. He never did that in Chicago, which gets far more snow than DC residents could tolerate, because there are no boardable hills in Chicago.

All three days in DC, some combination of Brendan, Marrianne and I slogged half a mile through drifts and wound up at a hill. A similar slog to a hill in Chicago would probably end up somewhere in Wisconsin; though there is an artificial sledding hill on the lakefront just north of McCormick Place. Marrianne and Brendan did have to journey from there one time after the car battery died. They walked, broke fresh trail through snowdrifts, took bus and train, and made it home. They arrived pretty bedraggled. Based on that experience (and other facts known to me) I don't think any of us would survive a winter hike to Wisconsin.

Considering that snowboarding only developed as a sport in the last 20 years or so, and that it has been pretty much confined to places that actually have winter, Brendan might be the first person ever to snowboard in DC on three consecutive days. Though I put in good effort crafting the snowboard run, I didn't ride it.

Still, it was good winter sport for me, too. And, as any long-time Midwesterner could testify, winter weather sometimes presents painful challenges, but vigorous outdoor play in winter is both exhilarating and the stuff of fond memory. Brendan has some such memories from living in Chicago for eight winters, but now he will have a rare thing, a DC winter weather memory.

Anyway, I started wondering whether global warming would jeopardize our collective chances for winter experiences in the future that subsequently become fond memories. So, though you cannot google "will global warming jeopardize our collective chances for winter experiences in the future that subsequently become fond memories," I did a little checking up and, I'm happy to report that with global warming we will still have winters. And, more good news, our winters might be milder, but have worse storms. Doesn't that sound nice?

Of course, there's the usual bad news; we'll be breathing increasingly toxic mixes of air (more carbon dioxide, more methane, less oxygen), but maybe we'll have more hallucinations, too. You have to admit that would be a sort of silver-lining. Regardless, here is a selection of the "key messages" extracted from something called "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States" (you can find the paper posted on Scribd):
• Projections of future precipitation generally indicate that northern areas will become wetter, and southern areas, particularly in the West, will become drier.
• The amount of rain falling in the heaviest downpours has increased approximately 20 percent on average in the past century, and this trend is very likely to continue, with the largest increases in the wettest places.
• Many types of extreme weather events, such as heat waves and regional droughts, have become more frequent and intense during the past 40 to 50 years.
• Cold-season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent.

There are other messages we're getting about global warming, as well. These messages range widely, but we can ignore, for now, the ones about conspiracies of climate change scientists, and technology-will-fix-it, and twenty-years-ago-they-were-predicting-global-winter. Let's instead focus only on the notion that what happened at Copenhagen wasn't good enough. I know progressives are distressed that Obama has failed to push the envelope in so many ways. Banks and brokers still seem to be getting away with murder or, at least, most of the cash; there won't be another stimulus that focuses more closely on working people; and there won't be universal payer, or, even, a public option.

But Obama didn't keep the world from making good progress toward reducing carbon emissions, that clearly wasn't happening; he got to Copenhagen late in the process and talked to China, India and Brasil. That engagement should seem to everyone like a huge change in the US attitude toward the rest of the world. All by itself that change should be more than enough to keep everyone talking. Continued discussion means hope, hope that there really will be a climate change treaty that will reduce and reverse the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the next year or two. If that does happen, it won't be Obama who stands in the way of treaty ratification by the US Senate, it will be Republicans. If people really want to do something about climate change, then they ought to be working to elect Democrats and keep them focused on important things. Blaming Obama for lack of progress on all the things we want to change won't cut it.

Copenhagen turns out to be just one more stop on the way to making something earth-shaking happen. That's what it will take to reduce human contributions to global warming. But that's what it should take to save the planet--something earthshaking.

Monday, December 14, 2009

American Jews and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Jews are not the tail wagging the dog of American policy

"Support for Israel is another part of this worldview," writes Kevin Phillips. "In mid-2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, another survey taken for the Pew Center found 63 percent of white evangelical Protestants calling the state of Israel a fulfillment of the biblical policy of the second coming of Jesus, whereas only 21 percent of mainline Protestants did so. (pg. 364, Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century)"

Henry Herskovitz, a long-time friend from whom I am now estranged, leads a Saturday morning vigil at Temple Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, Mi., protesting Jewish support for Israel's theocratic state and illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. Years ago, Henry came to the conclusion that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was unjust and largely the result of scheming and manipulation by Jewish neo-cons in the Bush administration and Jewish organizations like AIPAC (the American-Israel Political Action Committee). Jewish communities in the United States were further implicated, in Henry's estimation, by the millions of dollars in annual aid to Israel raised by Jewish organizations around the country. Further, Henry saw analogies to the now defunct South African system of apartheid in Israel's denial of certain rights and privileges to its Arab citizens and its confinement of Palestinians behind roadblocks, checkpoints and walls. American Jews, Henry noted, were a significant presence in the American domestic opposition to apartheid. Why, Henry wondered were American Jews so absent from public opposition to the oppression of Palestinians?

After trips to Iraq and to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, Henry returned to the U.S. with photographs, stories and a fervent desire to speak to Jewish congregations about the injustices visited on Palestinians by the state of Israel, injustices occurring, at the very least, with the silent acquiescence of American Jews. His overtures to three Ann Arbor temples and synagogues were rebuffed, sometimes rudely, by the rabbis who maintained absolute control over access to their congregations. So Henry, supported by a few other reliable vigilers, began his Saturday morning silent protest (with signs), a protest that continues some four years later.

The vigil has provoked much debate in Ann Arbor. The City Council has condemned the vigils as an affront to religious freedom and Henry has found himself much reviled in a variety of forums, including the pages of the Ann Arbor News (RIP). Powerful disagreements over the vigil tactic and message have also divided the sizable peace community in town. From time to time, Henry and his allies extend the protests to major fundraising events within the Jewish community and to public events focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At every opportunity, Henry calls on high-profile visitors to Ann Arbor who support, or claim to support, Palestinian self-determination to express their support for a one-state solution in Palestine and their opposition to a Jewish theocratic state.

Henry seems to believe that his tactics work. Or, at the very least, believes that the dire state of the Palestinian people justifies his activism, even if he, himself, is demonized and neither he nor his colleagues seem able to engage local Jewish congregations in dialogue.

It seems to me that the basic problem with Henry's strategy is the assumption that without Jewish neo-cons and Jewish organizational support there would have been no invasion of Iraq and no significant and continuing American political support for Israel. But self-identified Jews make up only one percent of the population of the United States, while the evangelical Protestants cited in the Kevin Phillips quote that leads off this post make up as much as a third of the population--fifty times the Jewish population of the country. It may be an unhappy irony that American Christian fundamentalists, long indifferent to or unhappy with the presence of Jews in American society, are enthusiastic supporters of Jewish rule in Palestine, but only in places like Ann Arbor, where fundamentalists are less evident than Jews, could it look to an observer as though Jews are the whole problem.

Make no mistake, the attitudes of a sizable number of American Jews are an obstacle to a workable Middle East peace. And American military support for Israel has helped to build a garrison state in Israel that would have otherwise been bankrupted by its own military spending. That same support has allowed Israel to divert funding from other domestic needs to the construction, in violation of international law, of housing and settlements on Palestinian territory. The settlements, in turn, have become both the passion of increasingly fundamentalist Jews who see all of biblical Israel as territory promised to the Jews by God, and the anguish of Palestinians who see them as an obstacle to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

It is a further irony that the polarization in Ann Arbor has come to resemble the deadlock in Palestine. But both situations seem a symptom of a larger problem in the politics of the US. Our inability to move toward reasonable and just outcomes in virtually all policy areas, health care, climate change, quality public education, market regulation, reliable public transit and reduced dependence on fossil fuels to name just a few, seems endemic. And ultimately traceable to the politically expedient marriage of religious fundamentalism and corporate interests. When oil companies, weapons manufacturers, Big Pharma, insurance interests, hospital corporations and the Southern Baptist Convention find themselves working together against broader social interests, we are all in trouble.

Under the circumstances, doing nothing seems profoundly dysfunctional. Doing something, even vigiling at a single Jewish temple in Ann Arbor must seem better than acquiescence. Certainly, relying on a Democratic president and a Democratic congress seems risky. So far, we have a possible shot at health care reform without a public option, a possible withdrawal from Afghanistan after a Bush-like surge, a near-trillion dollar bailout of unregulated banks, and a continuing and appallingly large military budget. But I continue to believe that in the Obama administration, at least, there is hope. Activism aimed at being heard, at repeating essential truths, at calling for less militarism and more justice, and at insisting on dialogue, is essential. I believe that through such activism we can reach this administration and slowly change policy. But activism that polarizes communities and eliminates any chance for dialogue is hopeless, and part of the problem. It is not enough to speak out. The will to dialogue must be present and powerful.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Water Sport

With every thing to lose,
we should be sure to test
all prescriptions we endorse.
So, run ourselves a nice, warm bath,

the sort where we linger and lounge
until the water cools. Step in,
sit down, ease back, ears underwater
listening to our life pulsing, waves rolling in.

Nice, warm, wet to sopping washcloth
over nose and mouth, inhale, exhale,
head further back, inhale, water trickles in,
breathing harder now, fighting panic, inhaling,

fighting to breathe, sitting up abruptly,
breathe hard, breathe grateful, repeat,
head back, nice, warm, wet to sopping washcloth,
say “ve vant names, giff us names, you must

tell us of ze evil plots against us,”
inhale through water invading nose,
mouth, lungs, fight rising panic, fight to breathe,
to breathe, to breathe and up. Breathing gratefully deeply.

Now chuckle audibly and say this:
The United States of America does not torture and
repeat nice, warm, wet to sopping washcloth over
nose and mouth, fight to breathe, feel the anger and

fear invading nose, mouth, lungs and panic,
panic, panic. Think we 300 million witnesses
to trauma, we Chuck and Larry, Carlos and Jamal,
Sandra and Casandra, we Amina and Judith,
we who stood by, silent witnesses to torture.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Flowing to the Sea

At an address slid gracefully from memory,
the welcoming light, a tiny bulb nestled in
a frosted glass bowl, a glowing egg cradled
in a translucent hand, filtered upward
through a black, steel disc
poked about with tiny holes,
slouching like some flattened hat.
The distant ceiling, in focus, then out,
circled lazily, the arrangement of lights
a wheeling constellation across a firmament
hovering above the wayfarer moving on
to a portal opening on a lowering sky
dripping rain backlit by stars
speaking radiantly through a skylight
recently installed for the person
long forgotten, size, face and gender
unrecalled, oblivious to me passing by
to further spaces, growing in simplicity,
caressed by warm nocturnals, gentle as rose petals,
where I stood in some flowing garment
soon shed for nakedness on the silent sand,
toes drinking the lap of the primordial sea,
awaiting what will come.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Humanity, Flawed and Faithful

Warrior religions fail the spirit

The creative moment loses its uplifting, transcendent power the instant one becomes aware of its occurrence. In that moment we are human and flawed, again. But in so far as we are capable of another flash of creativity and another, we may continue the hunt.

Most often, I do this only half-heartedly. But I am occasionally moved to try harder by the thought passed on to me a couple of years ago by a child who quoted Picasso: “Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.”

Uninspired and unheroic struggle with my own very human flaws has become, very nearly, my home address. When I leave home, and return there, I generally travel secular pathways, but it’s clear that there are myriad ways to and from the hard truth that each of us can find the roots of our individual undoing in our own selves.

The Catholic Church, for instance, calls that understanding ‘original sin’—a suitable, if also fraught, metaphor. The church teaches believers to respond to this incompleteness with prayer, communion and a variety of other ritual practices, which can and do move some believers to an ecstatic experience of the presence of god, or wholeness. But the church has long gone wrong in creating, developing and maintaining the institutionalization of a set of responses that are, in practice, anything but metaphorical (e.g., confession, priestly dispensations, withholding of communion).

Writer Karen Armstrong, once a Catholic nun, regards theology as a creative art, on a par with, say, poetry. Without Armstrong’s help this comparison would never occur to me, but when I read her book, The History of God, I grasp, incompletely and perhaps incoherently, the joy that others have found in contemplating god. In her memoir, The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong describes her intellectual and spiritual development from the time she left the convent to the period, about 15 years later, in which she researched and wrote The History of God.

In The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong writes about the delight she extracts from the wisdom of prophets, mystics and theologians working in the Islamic, Christian and Jewish faith traditions. Her experience may seem unremarkable, but the way she writes about the spiritual inquiries of these Muslim, Christian and Jewish thinkers is so compelling and illuminating that I can feel what she means.

“The myth of the Holy Grail was a watershed in the spiritual development of the West. It turned the crusading ethos on its head. Instead of marching to their adventure in the huge, massed armies of the Crusades, the Grail knights embarked on a solitary quest, riding into the forest alone,” she writes.

“The destination of the Grail knights is not the earthly city of Jerusalem but the heavenly city of Saras, which has no place in this world. The forest represents the interior realm of the psyche, and the Grail itself becomes a symbol of a mystical encounter with God. By the thirteenth century, when the Grail legend began to take root in Europe, the people of the West were finally ready to develop a more spiritualized form of Christianity. And when I started work on A History of God, I too began to focus on my inner life (pg. 269).”

It’s probably stating the obvious for me to observe that I couldn’t arrive at the understanding of the Grail legend that Armstrong does without her help. Further, it wouldn’t occur to me to leap from that understanding to the far more mystical perception that all wanderers are seeking something, frequently a something that makes individual humans into unique beings. That, she says, is one of the goals of every religion.

But she also writes, later on, that the highest goal of “all the great faiths” is to teach compassion because “it dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace of selfishness that holds us back from an experience of the sacred.” (pg. 296)

Any approach to life that tries to teach us how to achieve an understanding of ourselves that becomes complete when we can let go of that self is wrestling with some very basic human contradictions. It seems reasonable to think a theology so open to such a journey is a form of art, and to believe that the seers and theologians engaged in such faith practices are artists. It therefore makes practical sense to think that the great faith traditions offer effective ways to deal with the moments in the lives of individuals when hope, optimism and confidence have given way to apathy, defeatism and despair.

But for many this option does not exist, precisely because organized religions of all sorts have sometimes positioned themselves on the side of power, exclusivity and harsh judgment. Ultimately, the great faiths, all of them, probably, but the three Abrahamic faiths, certainly, have histories and institutional realities that are anything but poetic, and far from compassionate. Though the histories of the three, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, vary greatly in their details, their core ethical traditions have sometimes been undermined by the political roles they have played in the world.

The Catholic Church has been a political power dating back to the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312 CE, on the eve of the battle that would make him emperor in Rome. The date marks the historical moment “when the power of the empire became joined to the ideology of the Church,” wrote James Carroll in Constantine’s Sword. In the 1,700 years since, the Church has done some very bad things—the Crusades, forced conversions of nonbelievers, the Inquisition, periodic calls for holy war, a near blind eye to the Holocaust, the subordination of women, to name just a few.

Islam has also been at times, a triumphal, warrior religion, the nearly exact opposite of a compassionate faith, but as an American taught about Islam through the casual use of myth and insult, I must assume that most anything I have to say about the history of Islam has a very good chance of adding to the insults. Regardless, Islam has also, in many places become an institutionalized partner of and collaborator with the wealthy and powerful, though in most instances, the excesses of the institutionalized faith have been orders of magnitude lower than the excesses of Christianity. Nevertheless, in many places Islam has been a tool for concentrating power in authoritarian hands, persecuting nonbelievers, subordinating women and rationalizing terrorist attacks on civilian targets.

As the faith of a scattered and powerless people for most of the last two millennia, Judaism has less to apologize for. But over the last half of the 20th century through to the present, Judaism, and the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, in particular, has provided rationale and cover for the institutionalization and expansion of Israel, a colonial, apartheid and garrison state that has dispossessed the Palestinian people and appropriated their land in clear and constant violation of international law.

That Judaism, like the other Abrahamic religions, has become in some way a mere nationalist ideology matters greatly to Palestinians, Israelis, American Jews and a good portion of the rest of the world, especially those people and groups who feel strongly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though I was raised in an at least minimally observant Jewish family, I reached adulthood with a pronounced disinterest in Judaism. But Jewishness was something different; I believed that being raised in a Jewish family living in a largely Jewish neighborhood had defined me, marked me in some ways as an outsider in a Christian country, but also given me the tools and attitudes with which to make my way in that space. In my mid-30s, I made my way to a staff position with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

At the time, I considered myself an entirely secular peace and justice activist, but one who had encountered and admired other activists whose moral concerns were rooted in the ethical concepts of their faith. These were largely Christian activists, whose Christian beliefs were frequently evident, but never oppressive to me.

But with AFSC, I encountered many more people whose activism was rooted in their Quaker background. These Quakers, also called Friends, were the inheritors of their coreligionists who founded AFSC in 1917 as a way for Quaker youth in the United States to perform alternative service during World War I. The experience of working with so many activists at AFSC whose motivation grew out of their Christian beliefs moved me greatly, encouraging me to seek in Jewish beliefs one of the ethical wellsprings of my own activism.

Of course, one never knows how much self-deception or self-congratulation is involved in defining the shape of one’s own conscience. But allowing for ego and for my failures as a peace and justice activist, there seems to be quite a lot in the history of Judaism that might motivate activism. Such Jewish understandings as the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt or the rabbinic teaching from the time of Jesus, himself, that to save or preserve a single life is to save an entire universe seem a quite sufficient foundation for standing for peace and justice in the modern world.

But the late-20th century history of mainstream American Judaism, following Israel’s victory in the June 1967 war against Syria and Egypt is largely the story of a transformed faith. Synagogue-based Judaism became Zionist, became a religion with a political focus on Israel. Writer Norman Finkelstein, a child of Holocaust survivors, observes that after the ’67 war, “American Jewish elites suddenly discovered Israel…for American Jewry, as well as the United States, Israel became a strategic asset (Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, pg. 21).”

In his book, Finkelstein describes the sudden conversion of faith experienced by prominent American Jews after Israel’s stunning military victory. “Lucy Dawidowicz, the doyenne of Holocaust literature, had once been a ‘sharp critic of Israel.’ Israel could not demand reparations from Germany, she railed in 1953, while evading responsibility for displaced Palestinians: ‘Morality cannot be that flexible.’ Yet almost immediately after the June war, Dawidowicz became a ‘fervent supporter of Israel,’ acclaiming it as ‘the corporate paradigm for the ideal image of the Jew in the modern world’ (pg. 22).”

Before 1967, Diaspora Jews would sometimes pray to return to Jerusalem and the land of Israel. But such prayers were far from universal among Jews and frequently reflected a longing to be anywhere but where they lived, most particularly in the 19th Century Jewish settlements of eastern Europe and western Russia. But if one accepts that the history of the Jewish people began some 3800 years ago with Abraham, Jerusalem plays only a small part, and frequently a merely symbolic part, in overall Jewish history. Jewish faith practices, religious beliefs and rituals, and intellectual history developed fully and completely outside of Jerusalem and, for the most part, in homes and synagogues, with no need for a temple or a holy city. In point of fact, Jerusalem’s evolved status as a holy city was far more dependent on Christian theology and Christian warriors, like the Crusaders, whose triumphant entry into Jerusalem in the summer of 1099 included a massacre of Jewish and Muslim residents of the city.

In the same spirit, these Christian warriors had begun their crusade “by slaughtering the Jewish communities along the Rhine valley (Armstrong, A History of God, pg. 197).” Jewish residents of the Holy Roman Empire might well have longed to be somewhere other than the Rhine alley, but knowing where the crusaders were headed, it’s highly unlikely that they would have wished to be in Jerusalem.

But after 1967, “next year in Jerusalem,” became a central concept in the order of Jewish Passover seders in the United States, superseding the more empathic stance of remembering when we were slaves in Egypt. And the universal moral lesson of the experience of the Holocaust, “never again,” morphed to the more particular understanding that Jews, themselves, would never be safe without the security of a nation-state. That state, frequently celebrated by Jews and (primarily apocalyptic) Christians as the only democratic state in the Middle East is more precisely the only Jewish theocratic state in the world.

Perhaps none of this should matter to a nonobservant Jew, but somehow it does. I am, despite everything a Jew. But I cannot embrace the mainstream version of Zionist Judaism, which refuses to identify with the suffering of the displaced Palestinian people. In establishing a theocratic Jewish state in Palestine and asserting an exclusive right to portions of that land, Judaism has become a warrior faith in exactly the same way that Christianity became a warrior faith so long ago. If I embrace such a Judaism, I cannot comfort myself or others with the compassion and empathy that marked rabbinic Judaism for two millennia. I’ve tried many times to define the Judaism that I can embrace. I do not feel particularly successful in that effort, but my poem, “Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian,” tries to outline a Jewishness that is not triumphalist.

Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian

I am Jewish because the love of others made me so.
I am Jewish because I grew up on the south side of Chicago; there even my public school was Jewish.
I am Jewish because my grandfather was oh, so Jewish, and I felt it then and feel it now.
I am Jewish because angry Irish boys felt my Jewish nose at the end of their Catholic fist.
I am Jewish because we are commanded to remember when we were slaves in Egypt and I do.
I am Jewish because dissent is my faith and my chosen fate.
I am Jewish because in my grandmother's kitchen nothing would rise, but of everything there was plenty.
I am Jewish because the South Shore Country Club was founded by people who would not let us in.
I am Jewish because my Dad once slugged a guy at Comiskey Park who cussed a Jewish pitcher for the White Sox.
I am Jewish because the Jewish god is not diminished by my disbelief.
I am Jewish because Emma Goldman was Jewish, and so was Karl Marx and so was Groucho Marx and Jesus, too, for that matter.
I am Jewish because of the Maccabees and Masada and crusader violence and Spanish inquisitors and Cossack pogroms and the ghetto and the death camps and because I also planted trees in Israel.
I am Jewish because Jewish workers fight in labor struggles and because Jewish people resist racism and because, like all the world’s poor, poor Jews endure.
I am Jewish because being Jewish means never using violence against another except when life, itself, is directly threatened, and that principle must never be compromised.

With these declarations I begin a path to other truths:
I am Palestinian because we are all children of Abraham.
I am Palestinian because I, too, have been homeless.
I am Palestinian because we have a future together or none, at all.
I am Palestinian because Palestinian yearning is so like Jewish yearning.
I am Palestinian because I have been uplifted by the love of Palestinians.
I am Palestinian because peace in Arabic and in Hebrew bestows the same gift.
Although Sarah and Hagar are our separate birth mothers, I am Palestinian because we all live in the embrace of one mother, and will return to her.

If you summon one of us for cruel judgment, there will be no telling us apart.

November 13, 2009