Thursday, July 31, 2008

Obama has embraced a myth about Israel

I am reluctant to criticize Barack Obama, for whom I will enthusiastically vote in November. He's already taking a beating from the same sleazy Republican attack machine that defeated John Kerry four years ago.

But Obama's recent remarks about the Middle East show that he has foolishly bought into the myth that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is the key to solving all the Middle East's problems.

Obama is not alone, of course, in embracing the simplistic idea that if only Israel and the Palestinians would settle their decades-long dispute, the violence and political ferment that characterize the Muslim world would cease.

For generations, both left-wingers and arch-conservatives hostile to Israel's very existence have been perpetuating the myth of the linkage between the Palestine issue and peace in the Middle East. Such luminaries as Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, and Zbigniew Brzezinski have given the argument some respectability.

Obama's belief in the centrality of the Israel-Palestine dispute was evidently reinforced during his recent Middle East tour when he met Jordan's King Abdullah. Obama said that the king, who he called a "savvy analyst of the region," told him that "we've got to have an overarching strategy recognizing that [all the Middle East issues] are connected."

King Abdullah is the same "savvy analyst" who, when asked in a CNN interview the day after 9/11, whether the attacks would have happened if the Israelis and Palestinians had reached a peace agreement at Camp David two years before, had this to say:

"I don't believe so, because I think that if you had solved the problems of the Middle East, and obviously the core issue is that between the Israelis and Palestinians, I doubt whether [the attacks]would have taken place."

The king conveniently disregarded the factors that probably provoked the 9/11 attacks: Osama bin-Laden's hysteria about the presence of U.S. troops in his native Saudi Arabia, his grievances against the Saudi regime, and his disgust with what he regards as the corruption of Western culture. Israel did not appear on his agenda until two years after 9/11, apparently to gain more widespread support in the Muslim world for his al-Qaeda organization.

The current violence and political turbulence in the Muslim world demonstrate how absurd the linkage myth is.

Sunni and Shiite Muslims are slaughtering each other in Iraq. Arab Muslims are killing black Muslims in Sudan. Anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon--who are as anti-Israel as the pro-Syrian politicians--are being assassinated by Syria. Muslim Arabs and Muslim Turks are killing Muslim Kurds. Taliban Muslims are battling non-Taliban Muslims in Afghanistan. Somalia, a Muslim country, is in chaos.

How is the Israel-Palestine issue connected to this horrific scene?

It may be impolitic to note, but the root cause of all these conflicts, including the one between Israelis and Palestinians, may reflect a streak in Muslim culture that considers violence and threats of violence as a legitimate means to resolve disputes.

I hope that Barack Obama who, ironically, has been falsely called a Muslim himself, will consider the validity of this theory and that he will recognize that it is a myth that Israel is linked to all the violence and political ferment that besets the Middle East.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Reflections on the Presidential election

I've become more optimistic lately about a Democratic takeover of the White House in November. I've always been a bit of a pessimist, and have been fearful until recently that Barack Obama didn't have a chance to defeat the Republican candidate, John McCain.

But McCain is coming across like a doddering old man far removed from the realities of the nation's serious problems. It takes one to know one, since I am a doddering old man myself. And I'm a decade older than the Arizona senator. But I do hesitate to disparage McCain because I had once admired him as an amiable politician with integrity.

McCain evidently doesn't know the difference between Muslim Sunnis and Shiites--an issue that is basic to an understanding of the Iraqi situation. Nor does he appear to know that Iraq and Pakistan are not neighboring countries, and that that the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan--and not Iraq--is the primary battleground in the war against Islamist terrorism.

He also seems to be unaware that Czechoslovakia, a subject that recently came up in a discussion, has not existed as a separate country for about a decade. So much for the superior foreign policy expertise he was supposed to possess.

I am bored that McCain, like the Bush Administration, is obsessed with what he calls "the success of the surge" in reducing violence in Iraq. To the "surge" promoters, the temporary deployment of about 25,000 fresh troops to Iraq has taken on the aura of a historic new military tactic worthy of a Robert E. Lee or Field Marshall Rommel.

They seem to forget that Gen. Eric Shinseki, who was ousted as the Army's chief of staff, warned that the U.S. was invading and planning to occupy Iraq with an inadequate number of troops. Indeed, there is evidence that he and other Pentagon generals were unenthusiastic about the Iraq adventure from the start.

According to knowledgeable observers, the insurgency in Iraq was already declining before the arrival of the additional U.S. troops. One primary reason, they claim, was the decision to put several powerful Sunni Arab tribes on the American payroll to fight other Sunni insurgents and the local al-Qaeda forces.

Another factor in the decline in violence has been the loss of popular support for the corrupt Shiite Sadr movement, which had battled U.S. troops and opposed the rival Shiite parties that dominate the Maliki government.

When the Maliki regime embraced the idea of a timetable for the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq--which Obama proposed--the absurdity of both McCain's and President Bush's fierce resistance to a withdrawal plan was vividly exposed.

As I have written before on this blog, I have not been an ardent Obama supporter. I would have preferred a more seasoned Democratic candidate like Senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd or Governor Bill Richardson.

I have been troubled by Obama's limited experience and political achievements. Perhaps because I am a a grouchy old man, I have also been put off by his boyish persona and the adoring, charismatic movement that has developed around his Presidential campaign.

Nevertheless, I recognize that he is man of exceptional intelligence. More important, we are essentially on the same ideological wave length. I will therefore enthusiastically vote for him, hoping that his coat tails will bring in overwhelming Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

I was delighted to see Europeans and others waving the American flag during Obama's recent foreign tour. It was more gratifying than seeing the foreigners who burn the American flag whenever President George W. Bush arrives on an overseas visit.

I am scared by the prospect of John McCain, my doddering old compatriot, moving into the White House and repeating and even reinforcing the blunders of the most incompetent Presidential administration in my lifetime.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

MEMOIR: Grammar school days

I recently received an e-mail message day from a stranger, who I will call Stanley P., asking whether I would be interested in attending a reunion of students who had ever attended P.S. 64, a Bronx, N.Y. grammar school. I attended this school from kindergarten through the 8th grade and graduated in January 1938.

Stanley had obtained my name and e-mail address from the younger sister of the only one of my boyhood friends with whom I am still in contact. Stanley was evidently a friend of hers, and she had identified me as a P.S. 64 alumnus.

The only school reunion that I have ever attended was in 1992 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my DeWitt Clinton High School graduating class. The P.S. 64 reunion, Stanley explained, would be open to all former students whether they had graduated or not.

As I recall, only about 200 men and their spouses attended my high school class reunion. It was held in a Manhattan hotel ballroom. The turnout was exceedingly unimpressive, for there must have been at least 2,000 boys in the 1942 graduating class. (DeWitt Clinton High School, which was in the Bronx, was not coed, and it was considered to have the largest enrollment of any of the nation's high schools.)

But the idea of a grammar school reunion intrigued me, and I told Stanley that I would attend. He said that he and a group of other alumni plan to hold the reunion next winter in south Florida, where they felt many former P.S. 64 students would be located. I know of at least five of them myself living or wintering in Florida. As some one who graduated 70 years ago, I assume that I will be among the oldest attendees at the reunion.

P.S. 64 is located on a square block bounded by East 170th and 171st streets and Walton and Townsend Avenues. It is a densely populated neighborhood that was once predominantly Jewish and is now predominantly Hispanic. Long after my graduation, the school began to run only through the 6th grade.

My memory is slowly fading about many important matters. Strangely, however, I still remember that the school's principle was named Jacob J. Shifro and that my first-grade teacher was a Miss Bayer.

I entered kindergarten there on the same day as my cousin Herbert. One of us was so nervous on the first day of school that he threw up. For decades Herb and I argued whether he or I was the culprit. The argument was resolved three years ago at my 80th birthday party when Herb, who was the party's master of ceremonies, announced to the guests that we had both thrown up on our first day in school.

One of my most memorable experiences at P.S. 64 occurred in the second grade, when we learned how to write with the old-fashioned, sharp-pointed pens that had to be dipped into an ink well.

A fellow classmate and I decided to demonstrate that the pen could function as a dueling instrument as well as a writing instrument. I obviously had no talent as a fencer. In less than a minute, my opponent, whose name I still recall (Jerome Stahl), broke through my feeble defense and thrust the pen into the bridge of my nose, close to my right eye.

Red blood, blended with the blue ink from Jerome's pen point, began pouring down my face. The school nurse rushed into the classroom and immediately called for an ambulance. With its siren blaring and its emergency light flashing, the ambulance delivered me to the hospital in minutes.

I was quickly patched up and sent home, where my mother nearly collapsed from shock as she saw my heavily bandaged face. The wound healed rapidly. I remember that Jerome and I remained friends, but I never engaged him again as a dueling opponent.

About 35 years ago,when I was living in Parsippany, N.J., I drove my pre-teen age son and two of his friends to see a baseball game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

The traffic was unusually light that day, and it became apparent that we would get to the ball park very early. I decided to take a detour to show my son and his friends my old neighborhood. Our first stop was the P.S. 64 school yard, which I had colorfully described as an athletic paradise during my boyhood.

We were shocked to find an empty school yard surrounded by a tall, barbed wire fence. The yard was littered with broken beer bottles. Several tough-looking teen-agers lounged outside the fence, closely inspecting us as if we might be members of a rival gang.

We quickly departed. For me, the experience had been exceedingly sad. What I had remembered as a boyhood paradise turned out to be like a depressing scene from "The Blackboard Jungle." To my son's two friends, however, my personal image was significantly enhanced by the experience.

To have played and survived as a boy in the P.S. 64 school yard, they figured, I must have been one tough kid.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

What Republican reactionaries believe in


To be a Republican reactionary, you have to believe that...

1. Jesus loves you, and shares your hatred of homosexuals and Hillary Clinton.

2. Saddam was a good guy when Reagan armed him; a bad guy when Bush's Daddy made war on him; a good guy when Cheney's Halliburton did business with him; and a bad guy when Bush needed a "we can't find a Bin Laden" diversion.

3. Trade with Cuba is wrong because the country is Communist, but trade with China and Vietnam is vital to a spirit of international harmony.

4. The United States should get out of the United Nations, and our highest national priority is enforcing U.N. resolutions against Iraq.

5. A woman can't be trusted with decisions about her own body, but multinational drug corporations can make decisions affecting all mankind without regulation.

6. The best way to improve military morale is to praise the troops in speeches, while slashing veterans' benefits and combat pay.

7. If condoms are kept out of schools, adolescents won't have sex.

8. A good way to fight terrorism is to belittle our longtime allies, then demand their cooperation and money.

9. Providing health care to all Iraqis is sound policy, but providing health care to all Americans is socialism. Moreover, HMO's and insurance companies have the best interests of the public at heart.

10. Global warming and tobacco's link to cancer are junk science, but creationism should be taught in schools.

11. A President lying about an extramarital affair is an impeachable offense, but a President lying to enlist support for a war in which thousands die is solid defense policy.

12. Government should limit itself to the powers named in the Constitution, which include banning gay marriages and censoring the Internet.

13. The public has a right to know about Hillary's commodity trades, but George Bush's driving record is none of our business.

14. Being a drug addict is a moral failing and a crime, unless you're a conservative radio host like Rush Limbough. Then it's an illness and you need our prayers for your recovery.

15. Supporting "executive privilege" for every Republican ever born, who will be born, or who might be born (in perpetuity).

16. What Bill Clinton did in the 1960's is of vital national interest, but what Bush did in the 1980s is irrelevant.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

MEMOIR: My grievance against my father

When I was a boy I used to envy my friends whose fathers shared with them a love of sports. Their fathers took them to baseball games, played ball with them, listened to radio broadcasts of the ball games with them and, like their sons, kept up with the news of the sports world.

In contrast, my father regarded athletic activities as a meaningless waste of time. To my father, who nevertheless was a loving parent, the hours I spent playing ball could have been more constructively spent reading a book.

My father's view of sports was more a matter of indifference rather than of fierce opposition. He tolerated my passion for sports as an innocent boyhood aberration that would pass as I matured.(He didn't live long enough, of course, to see me still playing tennis in my early 70s.)

Dad's disinterest in sports reflected his background as a boy raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His family, immigrants from Poland, were Hasidim, an insular community that valued learning and intellectual endeavors far more than physicality.

I used to joke that my father didn't know a baseball bat from a tennis racket. He never received a secular education. He attended a yeshiva, a Jewish religious school, until he was about 18. In his day, at least, athletic activities were considered an alien activity in such schools.

In more recent generations, however, the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas have evidently become more Americanized and have apparently added sports to their basic programs of Biblical and Talmudic studies.

In reading Chaim Potok's classic 1982 novel, The Chosen, which deals with a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, I was astonished that the author describes the main character, a teenager, playing baseball.

My father's disinterest in sports was displayed even in his relations with his own friends. As a boy, I recall seeing him once chatting with a group of men who were discussing baseball. He looked bored and frustrated as the other men talked about "the National League and the American League."

With an exasperated look on his face, my father suddenly exclaimed: "National League, American League, lieg in drerd!" In Yiddish, the expression literally means "lay in the earth," or, in effect,"go to hell!" My father's remark, of course, was simply a harmless effort to make his friends change the subject.

Fortunately, I had an Uncle George, my mother's brother,who had a passion for baseball. My mother's family, also immigrants from Eastern Europe, was religiously observant. But my uncle, who was roughly my father's age, never attended a yeshiva. He graduated from a public high school and played baseball as a youth.

He enjoyed attending games at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, then the home of the now-defunct New York Giants baseball team. But to his regret, his son, my cousin Herbert, who was my own age, was disinterested in baseball. He showed no enthusiasm about accompanying his father to the ball games.

So Uncle George turned to me for companionship there. Despite my father's bleak view of sports, I thus had an adult who took me to the ball park with him to share his enjoyment of the national pastime.

I don't know whether my own son has grievances against me, but he definitely cannot complain that I did not share his love of sports.

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