Reb Arthur's Latest Thoughts

Thinking about the Goldstone Report: Our Misdeeds and Theirs

4 Tishrei 5770

One great theme of the fall cycle of holy days -- some say, stretching all the way to Hanukkah -- is that Jews are called on to reexamine our own actions -- our misdeeds. The emphasis is on OUR sins - not those of individuals alone, but of the community -- and the sins of ourselves, not of other people, even our enemies. We are also called on not only to confess our misdeeds but CHANGE what we do.

In that light, the Israeli government's recent behavior flies in the face of this profound Jewish wisdom. So Jews - and all others who care for peace - must act in new ways to turn toward compassion, truth, justice, and peace.

Against the consensus of almost all decent and democratic opinion in the world, the present Israeli government has:

  1. Continued the blockade of civilian goods from entering Gaza, imposing malnutrition, homelessness, abysmal poverty, and despair on its people;
  2. Denounced the Goldstone report on the commission of probable war crimes by BOTH Hamas and the Israeli government during and since the Gaza War.
  3. Continued to destroy Palestinian homes, disrupt Palestinian neighborhoods, and insert Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem.
  4. Continued sending more settlers into the Palestinian West Bank.

I want to say a bit more about the Goldstone report. Before Goldstone, it had smelly origins—commissioned by an anti-Israel corner of the UN. But through the workings of international politics in the direction of justice, the job was handed to an affirmative Jew with strong Zionist connections, a giant of international law, who insisted on studying the possibility of war crimes by both Hamas and the government of Israel.

The report finds high probability that on both sides there were war crimes, cites the evidence in great detail, and asserts the need for formal judicial investigation by both governments. It proposes giving both six months to do this, and if they fail, asking the Security Council to refer the evidence to the International Criminal Court.

Eminently sensible.

As the ancient rabbis said, the glory of human wisdom begins in a smelly drop (of semen). So what? The content of the report is the point. Its 600+ pages of evidence are the point. Its truth or falsity, not its smelly origins, are the point.

The US government's critique of the Goldstone Report, as voiced by Ambassador Susan Rice, is rooted in this fallacy of origins. It almost signals the silliness of this approach by then urging that all action on the report be confined to precisely this smelly corner of the UN, rather than to other places that are far more just. More likely, beneath this fallacious rhetoric was a policy evasion of the duty of all governments to make sure that if war crimes were committed, they are punished.

Goldstone himself is a distinguished South African Jew with very strong Zionist connections. He took an important role in the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa, and who served as chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda from 1994 to 1996. He was a member of the Commission of Inquiry into the Activities of Nazism in Argentina (CEANA) which was established in 1997 to identify Nazi war criminals who had emigrated to Argentina, and transferred victim assets (Nazi gold) there.

Goldstone defined his task as looking into possible war crimes by both sides in the Gaza War. He attempted to interview Israelis who had been attacked in Sderot, but his team was denied entry to Israel. So the commission paid to have Israeli witnesses travel to where their evidence could be heard.

The Israeli government's hostility from the git-go seems to me the behavior of a guilty party that did not want even-handed judgment, even if that meant its enemies as well as itself were adjudged.

The Goldstone Report indeed said there was serious evidence of specific war crimes by both sides, and called for judicial trials. President Shimon Peres of Israel attacked the report in the following terms:

War itself is a crime. The aggressor is the criminal. The side exercising self-defense has no other alternative...

The report legitimizes terrorist activity, the pursuit of murder and death. The report disregards the duty and right of self defense, held by every sovereign state as enshrined in the UN Charter.

There are two falsehoods in this statement. First, far from "legitimizing" terrorist activity, the report describes it as a war crime. Secondly, Mr. Peres ignored the truth of international law that even a war of "self-defense" has limits in how it can be fought. For example, white phosphorus cannot be used against civilians. The Palestinians, of course, claim that their war was one of self-defense. But even if it were, it was forbidden to fight it by attacking civilian neighborhoods.

The Israeli government could have responded by saying it welcomed full judicial process. It could have responded by establishinng a formal State Commission of Inquiry as provided by Israeli law, with full powers of subpoena, headed by a Judge of the High Court -- like the Kahane Commission that in 1982 investigated Israeli involvement in the Sabra-Shatila massacre. It could have announced it would live by the results of that investigation, wherever they fell. Its actual response therefore compounds its original misdeeds.

Shalom, salaam, shantih—Peace!

P.S. Meanwhile, part of the American Jewish official leadership has urged all American rabbis to use the High Holy Days to emphasize the sins of the present government of Iran against its own people, against the history and legitimacy of the Jewish people, and against international comity and concern. This effort called for tougher sanctions against Iran. Those sins are real and glaring, and should be addressed not only by Jews but by everyone committed to peace.

But focusing only on them at this moment—when we are wisely taught to address our own misdeeds—encourages American Jews to turn away from acknowledging and addressing the sins of the two governments that might be considered "ours": the US and Israeli governments.

And when we do turn to the Iranian misdeeds, I think tougher sanctions are likely to unify the Iranian people to support even a government they loathe against what they will see as foreign "oppression," rather than encouraging them to strengthen their resistance to Ahmadinejad. We should discuss ways to do the second.


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The Crash 4: Thoughts, Rosh Hashanah 5770

Dear friends,

To welcome Rosh Hashanah with some ideas, hopes, and plans - not just the platitudes -- I have posted a video on YouTube.

You can see me, leg immobilizer, turquoise robe, rainbow yarmulke, long white beard, and all, in my rehab-center room. (The beard is even longer than usual because I haven't been able to get to my usual pre-Rosh Hashanah barbering.) I hope you'll watch. And write me whatever thoughts it stirs in you.

I keep asking myself: "Waskow, what are you learning? - about yourself, and about our community, our society, as a whole!"

It's like discovering geological strata—just when I think I've got it all, another layer!

So here's the newest unpeeling:

The rehab center has been pretty good—the physical therapists are wonderful—but there are glitches. For example, we are all given menu cards for a week at a time to choose what we want to eat from a list provided. I dutifully fill them out&mdashbut so far there have not been more than two days in a row when the choices I make actually show up on my tray. Somehow my lists keep getting lost, and a card shows up on my tray with my name , in somebody else's handwriting, listing choices I never would have made.

OK: Glitch happens. What is interesting, I realize, is my reactions. Three:

  1. Patient efforts at "political reform." Call the chief dietician, fill out a whole new set of blue cards. And another. And another. Doesn't help.
  2. Apathy. The system is bigger than I am, give up, just skip what you won't eat.
  3. Rage. So far I have not exploded, but I can feel the heat in my face.

The lesson: Bereft of the world I know and understand, I can easily fall into apathy and /or rage. Behaviors I don't want as part of me.

And then I watch the news, and begin to recognize what I am going through, only much much larger.

We—the whole human race, the whole planet—are living in the middle of a world-wide earthquake. Everything has come loose, is gyrating wildly like my car at the moment of the crash, and it won't stop. Whole countries, whole cultures, come apart. The family, sexuality itself, is shifting. "Permanent" jobs vanish. Getting healed from a sickness gets as weird and bureaucratic as it is for me to get the food I want. On and on.

So -- one result is apathy, deference to the Big Powers of the world: Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Business, Big Army, Big Pharma, Big Banks. I'll come back to that one.

Another is grabbing on to whatever can be remembered as rigid. Strong, unbending. Maybe a place like that can save us from the earthquake. The "family" the way it was a century ago, as if that were eternal and immutable. Women in their place. Other folks - Black, Brown, Muslim, -- in their place. Gay men and lesbians in no place. The old-time religion. Technology useful, but the science that gave it birth -- evolution, quantum physics - a fantasy.

And if it turns out the earthquake really has turned all those "solid" places into wobbly uncertainties -- rage. And violence.

To reestablish an old order takes much more coercion and violence than holding it together in the first place used to. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it takes great force to put it back in.

You don't want women to pray aloud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem? A century ago, women didn't try. Now you have to beat them up, to stop them.

You don't want doctors to provide abortions? You may have to kill them.

The earthquake leads to fear. In many, to frustration. To rage.

For some, this is a matter of gut reaction. And for some, a combination of gut reaction and cold calculations of how to build a pyramid of power out of the rage.

Let me come back to the response of Apathy. (I actually mistyped it for a moment: "Happathy.") The Great Powers are too big to resist.

I am afraid that President Obama has been convinced that those Biggies cannot be defeated - so they must be allowed to dictate the terms of "compromise":

  • To oversee the "recovery" from the Big Bank Barbecue, he chose exactly the same people who had been in charge of the Barbecue in the first place. (Three guesses as to who gets roasted and served up.)
  • He arranged secret meetings with Big Pharma in the White House to strike a private deal about now much they would reduce drug prices, rather than fight for the much bigger reductions a robust Public Option could have brought about.
  • By agreeing to abandon the Public Option and require everyone to buy health insurance, he is providing the private companies with 20 million captive customers and no competition.
  • He surrendered to Big Coal when it demanded many exemptions from controls over CO2 emissions set forth in the original Waxman-Markey climate bill.
  • He accepted that we must pour troops into Afghanistan, because the power of the military and its industrial allies is so great that even thinking about an alternative is too hard to try.
  • He dumped Van Jones without a murmur, though Jones represented the best possibility of pulling together three crucial communities of possible reform: grass-roots Black communities; white workers suddenly losing their jobs and houses; and middle-class folk deeply concerned by dangers to the earth. Van Jones was a hero of Green Jobs - a synthesis, not a compromise. But fighting for that coalition, defeating its enemies, demands hard work.

Actually, it is true that the Biggies cannot be defeated - without hard work. Not just a great charismatic speech twice a year, but meeting after meeting, speech after speech, truth after truth. As I wrote after Obama's great speech of outreach to the Muslim world in Cairo, that speech (and all of them) needed to be given again and again and again --- in Alabama and Los Angeles and Miami and Northeast Philadelphia.

When the rich resisted what Roosevelt knew the country needed, he called them "Malefactors of great wealth!" "Economic royalists!" When some Congressmen tried to block crucial New Deal legislation, he stumped the country against them, naming names: "Mahtin, Bahton, and Fish!" he cried out in his Hahvahd accent. "They hate me and my program, and I welcome their hate -because I am fighting for the people!" he shouted.

And people responded. Organized.

Where is the President who could be saying, "Grassley and Gingrich - they lied. Kill my grandma? Did Gingrich and Grassley sit in tears beside their cancer-ridden grandma as she was dying, fighting an insurance company every inch of her death?"

But that kind of speech requires heavy lifting.

The incredibly hard physical work I watched Martin Luther King exercise one sweaty night in Atlantic City as he urged, begged, warned, appealed to a bunch of hard-bitten machine Democrats to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. With a heavy cast on a broken leg, he labored. No great charismatic speeches.

For Obama, the tug of wonderful words is great, the strain of facing down Big Whatever is strong, and the wistful wish to make friends with everybody is seductive. The result: Happathy.

So - what am I learning from my own small earthquake, my life turned upside down? From my constant brushes with the kitchen here, do I have another pathway?

Yes, I do. Friends who brought me tomatoes from their garden, celery and carrots to crunch on, a fresh peach or two. Subversive networks to meet our needs, and as our networks get stronger, face down the Big Whatevers. Van Jones on the outside - maybe far more empowering than he could ever be on the inside. The Shalom Center and a myriad networks like us. Growing not bigger but stronger, more connected.

If the President won't do it, we need to. We the people.

And -- guess what? If we do, he will. He did tell us one crucial truth at a crucial moment: the night of his election, he said that his election was not the change we seek. It was only the opportunity for change.

And the change was up to us, not him.

Up to that throng gathered in Grant Park in Chicago, turning that turf from a place of police beatings and the defeat of decency just 40 years before, into a place of victory and vindication.

According to legend, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. Not just the anniversary of Creation long ago, but every year, all over again, the world is reborn.

Get to work!

With blessings of shalom, salaam, shantih ---


P. S. - Remember, we at The Shalom Center need your help for us to do the work that helps you do the work. Please click on our logo, in the right-hand margin. Or send us your support - at 6711 Lincoln Drive in Philadelphia. Thanks!

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The Crash 3: A Personal Appeal

Dear chevra,

My heart and soul have been lifted high by the wonderful blessings hundreds of you have sent me, and my mind lifted as well by dozens of thoughtful comments on the different kinds of healing I've been learning. Never have I felt so warmed and comforted by so many.

Now I need to ask your help at the body-level, too.

As I've written, everything I do takes longer than it did a month ago. Even writing, let alone walking.

But the need we have to heal and transform the Jewish people, all our religious and ethical communities, and America—has not slowed down.

It would be a great help to me at this moment to have an intern/ research assistant to do some of the things that take me longer.

To bring us an intern who is religiously and politically knowledgeable, can deftly find her /his way around the Web, and can – this is important to me – learn and grow from the creative approach I take to Judaism and the Spirit, we need to come up with about $20,000.

How does that fit into The Shalom Center's over-all budget and plan?

We work truly on a shoestring. We have a staff of two: myself and Nick Alpers, our Program Coordinator, who carries out everything from our bookkeeping to our events organizing, like our Prophetic Voices and similar programs, and who has done some video-filming for The Shalom Center's YouTube videos.

BOTH our salaries together add up to less than $70,000.

Our offices are donated space – no rent.

We are small -- and efficient, the way a tugboat is small and efficient as it nudges and noodges a great ocean liner in a new direction. We are small -- and efficient, the way a seed is small and efficient, as it sprouts into a great oak tree.

Small, efficient, so that your gifts go further and get more done. We have been able to do so much on so little—our program budget is less than $100,000—because we are willing to work hard and forgo extras.

What are our plans for the year ahead?

1. Following through on Climate Healing Shabbat , October 23-24, which we initiated – and persuaded a very wide spectrum of the Jewish world to join. So "Shabbat Noah" will focus on the danger our planet faces from global scorching and what we can do to heal our world. Following up with Green Menorah Covenant for Hanukkah, and aiming to get past the stranglehold of Big Coal and Big Oil at home and recalcitrant governments around the world.

2. Exploring the point I made in my recent letter to you on dealing with extreme levels of job loss by seeding a campaign for a 30-hour work week. Sharing the work and sharing time for renewal –-- so that Americans are not suffering from a perverse combination of disemployment and overwork. Healing from the Great Recession not by going backward to the old status quo but by going forward.

3. Completing a book I am writing called Freedom Journeys, which looks afresh at the biblical story of the Exodus and the Wilderness as an archetypal tale of liberation, teaching us new truths today. Unfolding the new implications of the story not only for Jews but for everyone facing planetary "plagues," facing global corporate "phaeaohs," facing transformations in the relationships of women and men, facing new kinds of foods and old kinds of starvation, new and old hatreds for "the other," the pariah, facing new questions about "church and state," about ritual and social justice.

4. Holding intensive training sessions for the next generation of activists for tikkun teyvel, "healing the planet," teaching them how to draw on the resources of ritual, meditation, political skill, and sacred text to move people into action.

For us to do this work in the service of the Jewish people, humanity, the earth, and God, and for me to be able to go forward with the same vigor as before, the help of an intern would be immeasurably valuable.

That's the plan. AND -- I have a lot stronger sense than I did four weeks ago of the need for the unplanned, unexpected. I have been learning a lot from my healing, and healing a lot from new learning. Just as I didn't plan to draw on my own personal life-experience of the profiteering of the health-insurance companies -- I expect the car crash to keep unfolding in my work and our clarity.

Please give life to our seed, strength to our tugboat, by making a tax-exempt contribution.

Many many thanks –-- from my own heart, mind, body, and soul –-- and from all of us who share The Shalom Center's vision.

And blessings for a peaceful, fruitful year in your own life!

n Shalom, salaam, shantih – Peace!
n Arthur

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The Crash 2: Healing Waskow? Healing America?

I have kept trying to learn from my car-crash wounding and healing.

First, the bare bones so to speak: Turns out I will need an operation on my broken tibia bone, and then more time for rehab. The operation is to happen the morning just before Rosh Hashanah welcomes the New Year, and just as Ramadan is about to end and Eid Ul-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, is just about to begin.

What an auspicious moment to rethink! (Rethink what? Rethink me! Rethink America! Rethink our planet!)

What has come to me is that I have treated my personal health as a "free good," for which I had to do nothing. Swimming might be nice, yoga might be nice, but I get my most fun from words - ancient words of wisdom, modern words of science, words of compassion and awe.

So I would fly to my pleasure and set aside the actual practice of health. For decades, it was enough. But now -- it is taking hard work to strengthen my arms and legs, serious time away from reading Isaiah and writing my hope. No free lunch.

And that is what America has done. We have treated the pleasures of coal, oil, a billion different foods cut to fit in a zillion shiny packages, as a free good. Free Lunch. (Free Lunch was what you got in a 19th-century saloon if you bought enough beer. Not so free. The dollars were the least of it -- the hangover, the beaten spouse and children - not so free.)

Now we are paying the price of the binge. Let the earth rhythmically rest, says Leviticus 25. If you don't, says Leviticus 26, it will rest anyway - on your head. Famine, drought, plague, exile. What we call a "depression." Or at least a "Great Recession."

And worse. Our fellow creatures start dying. The climate heats up. Polar ice and Himalayan snows melt. Water tables vanish. Hot grasslands turn to deserts.

The legs of society are broken. The ribs of society get broken, and it becomes a lot harder to breathe --- breathe YHWH, the Breath of Life.

What to do? The spiritual traditions teach us - surround every act with a pause, a breath, a reflection, a blessing. Let yourself rest. Let the earth rest.

Let me take what has become for me the clearest example: Going to the bathroom.

It used to take 30 seconds to leave my computer, go to the bathroom; 30 seconds to come back. Unthinking. Oblivious. A free good.

Now -it takes a whole complex plan. A wheelchair by my bed. The need of time to surround an urgency with time, wiggling my legs, ringing a bell, getting help. Minutes and minutes and minutes.

Jewish spiritual tradition had, has, a way to take that time seriously. To surround it with thought. An amazing prayer, Asher yatzar: "You Who shaped my body so that closed places might remain closed and open places remain open, I praise You and thank You, for I know that if one closing opened or one opening closed, I could not keep standing in gratitude before your Throne of Compassion."

Perhaps there is even a joke in there, a pun. "Kisei," the Hebrew for "throne," has become the semi-slang word for a toilet. Is the blessing saying, "For me to celebrate You, sitting on Your Glorious Throne, I must be able to sit calmly on my throne"?

Maybe not. But for me, that delicious sweet-and-sour dish to taste our world, a mixture of sunny+sardonic, is helping me through this process of unintended healing. Glorious blessing with a quirky grin -- my mirror for the world.

Now - what is the analog of "asher yatzar" and its cousin, the Grace over Meals, for a whole nation?

We take energy into our bodies: we say a blessing, it is a sacred process. We pour forth from our bodies what they do not need: we say a blessing, it is a sacred process. We and the earth are interwoven. The pause to celebrate is how we affirm the sacred interweaving.

The American ideal has been totally different: No time to pause, ever-higher productivity, ever- longer work hours, ever-bigger Gross Domestic Product. If that meant in the Great Recession more and more people without jobs, the cure must be more production. But even the mass media are talking about a "jobless recovery" -- meaning recovery for stocks and bonds, machines and products -- but not for workers. As the poet Carl Sandburg wrote,

"Jobs are property, yes.
Stocks are property, yes.
Jobs are property?
No, nix, nah, nah."

Something is wrong. Suppose we were to turn all this on its head, and said: "Jobs for all. A thirty-hour work week if that makes jobs available for everyone, at no pay reductions."

What goes down? Profits.

And what goes up? Time to pause. Time to praise. Time for family. Time to be neighborly. Time to grow a tree, and not to cut it down. Time to play touch football. Time to walk. Time for a block party. Time to paint a collective mural in every neighborhood. Time to "bless," in whatever form each person likes. Time to say, "Wow!"

What goes down? Profits. And that's no minor matter. As I keep living through my healing, I will ask what teaching points toward wisdom about profits.

I welcome you into this journey with me. Not the wounding - most of us are wounded enough already. But the healing and the exploration.

With blessings of shalom, salaam, shantih - Peace:

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Crash #1: How I Became a Poster Boy for Lousy Health Insurance

Dear friends, co-workers, readers, co-learners --

For 25 years I have been a member of a private health insurance plan that seemed to be meeting my needs. My problems were routine, and so were their responses.

No longer.

Last Friday (Aug 21, 2009), I was involved in an auto accident, driving on I-95 south of Philadelphia. My first resting place after the accident was a hospital bed in Chester PA where I was diagnosed with a fracture of the "Tibia plateau" in my left leg where my leg hit the lower part of the dashboard, and four broken ribs and a broken breastbone where my chest hit the seat belt.

My leg was put in an "immobilizer," with the expectation it would take about 8 weeks to heal. The broken ribs make it very hard to use crutches or a walker (because putting weight on my chest HURTS). So my own primary doc and the hospital docs agreed I should go to a rehabilitation center that would focus on physical and occupational therapy to get me quickly strengthened and trained to function well. The rehab people came, looked, and agreed I was the Perfect candidate.

But not the health insurance company.

Rehab is too good. Services higher-level that I needed. Costs them more than "skilled nursing," which does PT only one hour a day -- rehab does three. Rehab costs more, reduces insurance-company profits. If I had broken both legs, yes. "BUT," we said, appealing the decision, "remember the ribs? This is hard and painful work. The more intensive time and energy I can put in, the quicker it will be over!"


Now this kind of decision, remember, was what the companies charged would result from a "government-sponsored public option." The government would interfere between me and my doctors. But in tens of thousands of cases, the companies do exactly what they say the government would do. They are insuring not good medicine but high profits. The Public option would be able to say, "It's good medicine, and we don't seek a profit. Rehab, quick." They would compete with the private insurers, and keep them honest.

When I told the hospital doc what had happened, he muttered, "What is wrong with us?" Then he said, "Universal health care is what we need." Then he was quiet for a while and muttered again, "There's too much power in too few hands."

"See," I said. "You knew all along what was wrong with us."

Ted Kennedy, the one Senator who had so many sick siblings and sick kids that he really understood, died yesterday. The old saying, "Don't mourn; organize," is wrong. DO mourn - and 0rganize. Make every moment of your mourning for him a time of organizing, and every moment you spend organizing a time to mourn. Your Senators are home this week. Call. Ask them whether, like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, they are willing to give up their own fancy public health-insurance until a public option exists for everybody in our country.

I'm awake at 3 a. m. because my ribs are hurting. I would be grateful if you would pray for my healing. I would be many times more grateful if you would set aside seven sacred minutes to call your senators to urge them to put a "Public Option" in the health-care bill. If you can't find their home offices, call the US Capitol at 202/224-3121 in Washington, and ask for the Senators from your state.

That's the healing we ALL need.

Shalom, salaam, shantih -- Peace!

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