Monday, June 30, 2014

Iran poses challenges (and threats) beyond nuclear weapons

Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons has been a problem for some time now, but it has never been the only issue of concern when it comes to this nation’s conduct in the region and around the world. Since 1979 the leaders of Iran have pursued an agenda characterized by violence, disregard for human rights and unbridled support for terrorism, a fact which should not be ignored, despite recent enthusiasm around a possible deal to slow or halt Iran's nuclear program

Personally, I would love to see diplomacy triumph and for Tehran to end its nuclear program. However, this alone would not represent a complete triumph in terms of neutralizing the threat Iran poses to peace and stability. Although it would be an important step in that it would deny Tehran a nuclear trump card  which it could use to act aggressively in an even more overt manner, the regime has had no difficulty supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and harassing US ships up until now without a nuclear weapon in its back pocket.

If and when a deal is reached, Iran still needs to be held accountable for gross violations of human rights, both past and present, as well as for its role as a state sponsor of terrorism and regional aggressor. In addition to a number of commentators on the region examining the likelihood and potential details of a deal, there are also experts looking at what may happen following an agreement, including Alireza Nader of the Rand Corporation, who recently released a paper entitled "The Days After a Deal With Iran, Continuity and Change in Iranian ForeignPolicy." 

This paper is well worth reading, offering an accessible, erudite analysis of the foreign policy power structure within the Iranian government and what kind of changes we might see within that structure following a nuclear deal. In it, Nader looks not only at the implications for the United States, but also for Iran's regional actions and relationships, including its long-running low level conflict by proxy with the Saudis.

When it comes to Israel, Nader aptly notes that:

The Islamic Republic’s opposition toward Israel, especially among Iranian    conservatives, is not merely due to a sense of geopolitical competition;  rather, it is defined at the most basic level by an ideological and religious hostility toward the Jewish state. Iranian conservatives may tolerate a toning down of rhetoric on Israel, but they are unlikely to change Iran’s policies toward Israel after a final nuclear deal.  

Such analysis should serve as a reminder to those who think that a nuclear deal will end the threat that Iran poses to Israel. Even without a nuclear weapon, there is no reason to believe that Iran would not continue its assault, both rhetorical and real, on Israel. A long track record of anti-Israel, Anti-Semitic speeches at the United Nations and support for Hezbollah tell us that hatred for the Jewish State seems to be hard-wired into the ideology of the post- Revolution Iranian regime. Nader also notes in his paper that in a sense the Iranian leadership needs the United States as its enemy, and I think the same is true in the case of Israel, which has long served as a convenient bogeyman for dictators and Islamist governments in the Middle East that use fear as a chief tool of domestic internal control. I don't see how a nuclear deal would end this practice within Iran. 

With the exception of Israel and possibly some of the Gulf States, the Middle East today is perhaps one of the most unstable and least predictable regions in the world. While there are any number of major actors involved, from Russia and Syria to Hezbollah and Hamas, one of the most influential and disruptive has undoubtedly been Iran. Stopping Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons through diplomacy would be a significant step forward, but it would not end the larger threat this country poses to peace and stability both regionally and globally. To think otherwise would be naive at best and potentially catastrophic at worst. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The courage to trust, the courage to lead

President Shimon Peres of Israel was in Washington DC this week, where he received the annual Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize. Past recipients have included former Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
This week I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Washington DC, where I attended the annual presentation of the Lantos Human Rights Prize,  a prestigious award given each year to someone who has helped to advance the cause of human rights in a significant way. Previous recipients have included former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright. This year's recipient was the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, and I was delighted to receive an invitation from the Lantos Foundation to attend. The ceremony itself took place in the Cannon House Officer Building on Thursday morning, in a darkened caucus room filled with supporters of human rights from around the world.

Vice President Joe Biden adresses a packed room in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington DC before presenting President Shimon Peres of Israel with the Lantos Human Rights Prize. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Vice President Biden was there to present President Peres with the human rights prize, and in his remarks he offered high praise for the Israeli President, but he also reminisced about his late friend Congressman Tom Lantos, a tireless fighter for human rights and human dignity, and the only Holocaust Survivor ever to serve in the United States Congress. One of the things that really caught my attention in Vice President Biden's remarks was when he marveled at how Congressman Lantos, whom he noted would have been more than justified in living a quiet, private life after what he went through in the Shoah, had chosen instead to build a remarkable career in public service. Later, when President Peres took the stage to accept the award he also remarked on the amazing life that Congressman Lantos had led, saying that he was someone who had somehow seen the darkest side of life, the incarnation of evil in the Nazi regime, and yet was an unerring optimist, always positive and full of energy.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC has unveiled a new exhibit which looks at the complicity of of ordinary citizens in carrying out the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson.
On their own these laudatory comments from VIce President Biden and President Peres would have stood as testimony to the remarkable legacy of the late congressman and all that he and his family have achieved, but that morning they had a particular resonance for me.  The previous day I had gone to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for a meeting and then spent half an hour looking at their latest exhibit, "Some were neighbors," which focuses on the extensive betrayal that many Jews across Eastern Europe suffered at the hands of people they had previously considered friends. The exhibition chronicles, with a startling sense of nearness, the degree to which latent antisemitism was given license and legitimacy as the Nazis spread across the continent. The acts of betrayal ranged from wholesale theft to mass murder. For me, the chance to see all of this laid out in photos and to hear audio and video testimony on the ways in which this break down of civil society had actively aided and abetted the Nazi regime in its inhuman criminal enterprise, was chilling. To think that someone who had lived through not just the horror and fear of the Shoah, but the total tearing apart of the fabric of civil society would want to go on and dedicate their own life to public service, is amazing to contemplate.

In her remarks, Lantos Foundation President Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett also drew a parallel between  the breakdown of societies across Europe in the 1930's and 40's and the rise of Nazism. It's a connection that not only Holocaust museums and professionals in the Jewish community or human rights organizations should be paying attention to, but everyone from small-town mayors to presidents and prime ministers, as well as regular citizens everywhere. We should all be keenly aware that we not only have a stake in the health and well-being of civil society, but a role to play in preserving it. I was reminded of that this week by any number of people - Katrina Lantos Swett, Vice President Biden, President Peres - and of course by the faces of Holocaust survivors looking out at me from old photographs in the museum.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Terrorist kidnappings in Israel: A personal tragedy for 3 families, a major setback for peace

In June of 2006, a day before I arrived in Israel to spend the summer, a young Israeli soldier by the name of Gilad Shalit was kidnapped near Gaza and three other soldiers were killed and two kidnapped by Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon. What followed was a war that sent Israelis fleeing the previously  peaceful north of the country, and many years of captivity for Shalit, whose plight preoccupied a nation intent on bringing him home. 2006 was also the year that Israel withdrew from Gaza, an action that was supposed to further the cause of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In the eight years since that turbulent summer Israelis have been the victims of rocket attacks, terrorist acts ranging from a bus bombing in Tel Aviv to knife attacks in the West Bank and reportedly many attempts by terrorists to kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Five days ago terrorists succeeded again kidnapping Israelis, only this time the victim was not an Israeli soldier, but three teenagers on their way home. The deal which freed Gilad Shalit was not without controversy in Israel since it resulted in the release of terrorists who had blood on their hands. When I lived in Jerusalem in 2009 I actually had a chance to meet and speak with some of the families who had relatives murdered by some of the people Israel was considering releasing at the time, and their pain and suffering was very real. Ultimately the deal was made, and Gilad Shalit came home.

Now Israel, and the world are eagerly watching for any clue as to the whereabouts of Eyal Yifrach,  Naftali Frankel and Gil-ad Shaar. This kidnapping is not only a personal tragedy for the families involved and a security threat to the State of Israel, but I would argue, a disaster for the Palestinians. Despite stories about ordinary Palestinian citizens  handing out candy and celebrating the kidnappings, I find it hard to believe that there are not some on the Pakestinian side, perhaps among the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which has no great love for Hamas, who don't realize that this terrorist act will not only lead to more friction with Israeli security forces but could also cause irreparable harm to their stated goal of achieving a viable, independent state of their own. And I'm guessing that these might be the same people in the Palestinian Authority who might now seriously question the decision to form a "unity" government with Hamas, if they ever thought it would would work in the first place.

While the outpouring of support for the three missing teenagers from world leaders sends an important positive message, and Jewish communities around the world are rallying to show support, the fact that there has been no word from the kidnappers is deeply troubling. Israel will surely do whatever it can to bring them home, but those of us who care about peace have a job to do as well.

Just as Gilad Shalit was not forgotten outside of Israel, we have a responsibility to make sure that the plight of these three does not disappear from the minds of world leaders or drop out of the news cycle. The more the world sees this act for what it is - a terrible crime that has victimized three teenagers and their families, a cynical ploy by terrorists to exploit Israel's commitment to protect its citizens and an action that harms, not helps, Palestinian national aspirations - the more we can help to legitimize kidnapping as a political tool. It's the least we can do for the cause of peace and for Eyal, Naftali and Gil-ad.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How strong is the link between rhetoric and hate crime in the US?

Last month I wrote a post in this blog in which I explored some of the disturbing similarities between conditions for African-Americans in the southern US before the civil rights movement and modern day Europe, specifically when it comes to tolerance for a climate of racism and hate which contributed to the normalization if violence against a perceived "other." In that piece I noted that while there are important differences between the two, that in each, the perception that violence against a particular racial, ethnic or religious group is tolerated if not overtly condoned.

There are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about hate crimes in Europe, fueled both by Muslim extremists and ultra right-wing nationalist movements. I would point out the irony here, that there is ideologically no love lost between these two groups, but then again this is hardly the first time that neo nazis and Arab terrorists have put aside mutual contempt as they persecuted Jews - after all, the story of cooperation between the Nazis and Arab rulers in pre-state Israel is well known.

In that post my focus was on the idea that a bid for political legitimacy by far right groups in Europe (and their subsequent limited success) has contributed to an atmosphere of hate, intolerance and violence. But what about here in America ? Should we also be asking ourselves to what extent hate speech is emboldening those who may be on the edge of acting out  violently ?

As I was thinking about this recent horrific shooting in Las Vegas I came across an opinion piece by Paul Waldman on the Washington Post website, in which he raises this very question. I would highly recommend reading it - whether or not you agree with Mr. Waldman, in light of recent events it's hard to argue with his premise that this an issue worth paying attention to, and a conversation worth having.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Introducing a new section: In the Bet Midrash


One of the great traditions in Judaism is the study and discussion of our writings and history. Often these discussion takes place in a setting called a "Bet Midrash," which translates as "house of learning/explanation/discussion." If one were to go into a Bet Midrash one would likely see many people sitting at tables with books open in front of them, engaged in excited debate, discussion and even argument and regardless of the time or place their conversations would likely be sprinkled with Hebrew ranging from Biblical to Rabbinic to modern, Aramaic, Old French and others as they explore the foundational ideas of Judaism.

This particular mode of learning is known as studying in "Chevrutah" and it involves going through a text with a partner and trying to tease out the meanings, the subtleties and the connections to ideas both ancient and contemporary that the text contains. One of the brilliant things about this mode of learning is that the people in the Bet Midrash, from beginners to great scholars, are not just reading the words and ideas of great thinkers, but they are engaging with ideas in the very same way - the Talmud itself is a rich tapestry not just of wisdom, but of argument and debate, surrounded literally and figuratively by the commentary of other great thinkers.

For me, engaging with texts this way has been the best way to learn about the traditions, history and philosophy of the Jewish people. One of the best things about this mode of learning is that it also encourages the student to think about how the ideas and wisdom embodied in texts hundreds or even thousands of years old, apply to life today.  So in this spirit I am adding a new section to my 36 Voices blog called "In the Bet Midrash" where I will explore, argue with and attempt to apply the ideas expressed in Jewish texts, from ancient to modern, to problems and situations in the world today.

Much like my occasional series “Words and the World,” meditations on literature and civil society, “In the Bet Midrash” will serve as an occasional series on Jewish texts and ideas. I hope that readers will check back from time to time to read the latest installments in this series and of course I welcome your reactions, questions and comments in the comment section below.

Honi and the Carob Tree: Thoughts on Different Modes of Communal Leadership

June 6, 2014

For people who like to engage the study of Jewish text, the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, is perhaps the Super Bowl of learning - on the first night of Shavuot all around the world in Jewish communities large and small, gather together for a marathon session of all night learning. Often different members of a community will take turns teaching on a particular topic they have prepared, creating space for everyone in the room to share their reactions and ideas. Shavuot also happens to be one of my favorite holidays, and this year I was honored to be invited to take part in the Tikkun (all night learning session) at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire.

For my part of the evening I decided to look at texts that each have a connection to ideas about "Community."  The first thing we looked at was a section of the story about Honi the Circle drawer, a somewhat mysterious figure who shows up in the Babylonian Talmud and is perhaps best remembered for being able to bring rain during droughts by drawing a circle, standing inside it and praying to Gd in a particularly earnest and powerful way. But there is more to Honi than just his, ability to make it rain - he also stands at the center of an important lesson about community and inter-generational connections. While many people might have some familiarity with Honi, I would guess that fewer people know about the interaction that Honi has later in the narrative, with a man he encounters on the road who is planting a Carob tree.

In this part of the story Honi stops and marvels at the man's decision to plant a Carob tree - a tree, which he notes, that will not provide fruit for another 70 years, long after the man planting it has died. Honi seems baffled by this act, but the man explains that when he was born he himself found Carob trees planted by earlier generations that provided him with  sustenance, and now he is doing the same for future generations. Honi then falls asleep and wakes up some 70 years later to see a boy standing in front of him, he asks who planted the tree and the boy tells him that his grandfather did.

On the surface this would seem to be a simple narrative with Honi as a kind of foil or everyman, who exists within the confines of the story so that the Talmud can remind us that just as we those who have come before us were kind and selfless enough to provide for us, we too have an obligation to provide something for future generations. And as a simple tale of Tzeakkah (charity) and Chesed (kindness) this is useful, but there is also much more going on here below the surface.

During the discussion at Temple Beth Abraham I was lucky enough to learn with a group of people who spanned the generations and brought with them a range of life experiences from different Jewish communities. One idea that was raised which I have been thinking about now for a couple of days, is the notion that perhaps Honi, by virtue of his unique way of connecting to the Almighty - drawing a circle and effectively creating his own sacred space – is also placing a barrier between himself and the community that he serves. Unlike the man planting the Carob tree, whose contribution does not have limit ( as someone in the room pointed out, each Carob tree will drop thousands of seeds, which in turn can create thousands of trees and perpetuate the cycle without end), what Honi does is much more finite, controlled and bounded. He is someone who can draw his own boundaries, and whose assistance to the community, while vital, is also circumscribed (pun intended) and limited to the time and place in which he chooses to beseech the divine. 

This doesn't negate Honi's contribution - the people still needed and were grateful for, the rain - but it does draw a sharp distinction between how Honi and the planter see the communities of which they are a part.

For me, this text points to two different attitudes toward community and two different ways of serving a community. In the case of Honi we see a man who has particular talents that address a specific need, but he has become so focused on this unique ability, that he fails to see the limits of his ability – more than that, he fails to see how more than one way of serving the community or giving back, is even possible.  In this sense, the story of Honi becomes a cautionary tale for leaders, reminding them that however important their own contributions may be, that they need to see beyond what they can accomplish on their own. The man planting the tree also has own perspective, but it is a much wider one – he knows that someone who came before him planted Carob trees so that he would have food, and so he feels a duty to do the same for future generations. He has no way of knowing exactly who planted the trees that he uses, and no way to know who may come along after he has died and benefit from the trees he is planting today. Both Honi and the man planting the tree represent the importance of fulfilling the needs of communities in different, and complementary ways. Honi is the right person at the right time – as RabbiHyim Shafner writes in his essay The Dream of Exile: A Rereading of Honi the Circle-Drawer:

What each of us contributes to the universe is not just the sum of what we have to offer but a unique structure only we can bring to a certain time, place and state of the world. We are not just the substance of our knowledge, emotion and personality, but a specific form, woven into a certain historical time, generation and zeitgeist.

Without Honi to bring rain to the land in winter, people in his generation might have died of thirst and starvation, without the planter looking ahead (and behind) there would be no one to continue the legacy and provide for future generations. This is true not only to Carob trees and rain, but to all of the resources that a Jewish community needs. Perhaps our sages are trying to remind us that a successful community, one which continues from one generation to the next, is made up of a mix of people, some who have the right answer for the moment and others who are cognizant of their place in the chain of memory, culture and community, those who look to both the past and the future.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.