Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Being American

I've been meaning to speak out on Scott Brown's taking to task Elizabeth Warren because she's claimed to have Native American ancestry. That she never did it to gain special consideration doesn't matter to him. Because she doesn't "look" like what he thinks a native person should look like, he thinks she's to blame for something. That's outrageous. He doesn't "look" like what I'd imagine a jerk to look like but that doesn't mean he's not one.

Brown's rude tactic appeals to those content with racism in America. How easy it is for Teabaggers to devolve into hatchet chops and "war whoops." Is this how civil society conducts its business?

What Brown may not appreciate is the fact that many American families have some native heritage. They may not be "registered" or even know which tribe their ancestor(s) hailed from, but family stories and DNA testing carry weight. It is something to be appreciated not kept in a closet of shame.

Depending on when his family arrived on this continent, he may have a more diverse background as well. Then again it may not be easy for someone whose American roots go back only a couple generations to understand. As a substitute teacher in Northern Westchester County, New York, a while ago I witnessed a third grader from a family of means gleefully proclaim that "we killed all the Indians." Where did he learn such unabashed racism? His own European grandparents came to this country mid-20th century. I explained to him that all Indians had indeed not been killed, that in fact many still lived in the New England area.

I then segued into teaching the origin of his school's name meaning "high on a hill" in the local Native tongue, that I had native ancestry and didn't appreciate disparaging comments in class. Talk about a teaching moment.

As a kid I felt an affinity for Native American culture. I read voraciously in school libraries and consumed the books from my grandfather's bookshelves. When I was older I heard my grandfather speak of my grandmother's family having some Indian heritage, although as it turned out to be from a very distant time.

My agnostic grandfather, with Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony roots, orated Wordsworth by heart and lectured anyone within earshot on man's craven inhumanity to man in the name of religion. Racist genocide against Native Americans was a very real shame; he was no fan of George Armstrong Custer's mindset.

My grandmother couldn't confirm whether she had Native roots, but her freethinker father claimed that she did. Half of her flock of children had blond hair, the other dark...a typical American family.When I learned of this aspect of our family history I was already in college. Whenever filling out a form which asked for my race, I'd either check Caucasian (since that's the dominant group) or leave it blank.

It wasn't until I was a twenty-something auditioning for acting jobs in New York that I took offense for being asked to label myself from one distinct group. I am a part of the whole world, not just one subset. I may look white__and there's nothing wrong with being white__but I see the labeling as limiting. I appreciate it when I'm "allowed" to check more than one box or just write "human." Then again, how many people that like neat and tidy designations actually know whether they are of just one heritage?

In attacking Warren Brown is insinuating that she has misled people. I think that is an uncharitable view. It's offensive to say that she must not acknowledge her family's roots because someone might consider her trying to take advantage of what exactly? Should Brown cover up his own family's roots because he might have a heritage that isn't of all one background? I think not.

I admire Warren, not for her racial make up but for her guts in speaking truth to power; she stands up for ALL Americans. Is she perfect? Hardly, but do we want leaders who represent only the few and disparage families for being who they are...American?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

You Can't Always Get What You Want...

Election years always bring out the extremes it seems. Down in the South "mysteries" about President Obama's birth certificate and religion are obfuscating the real issues, the ongoing war on democracy and human rights.

Since September 11, 2001, we as Americans have given up more rights than were gained since the Civil War. I'm not exaggerating. With the new era of robber barons and widening income disparity between the Earth's people, civilization is at a crossroads.

Born in the '60s and having a decent middle class life in the suburbs, I never would've predicted that our future would be so fraught with division. Whatever happened to the "Age of Aquairius"? I was no hippie, although I would've wanted to dress like one; I was an idealistic kid who bought into "it's a small world," after all. I read my Nat. Geo magazine and planned on seeing the world. Never did I think in choosing that path, teaching abroad and elsewhere, that I would be giving up a future of stability or making a difference. In following my path I, too, would have something to contribute.

But enough about me.

I am saddened to think how far to the right this country and the world have gone. Instead of making a better world for all, wars have taken their toll. Innocent people are killed daily in order for the few really bad actors to be stopped. There has got to be a better way.

Not being a religious person I have to admist that at times like these an appearance of the miraculous, nirvanic/messianic enlightenment is devoutly to be wished. Now, I'm not talking about fake stagings of the coming of the Messiah. I mean if people truly woke up and saw that we're all interconnected, that we don't have to spiral into destruction, we could tread water a bit and gain our bearings.

Growing spiritually doesn't require fanaticism or closed-mindedness. It's an individual path. Seeing yourself or the divine in the other is the first step. Resisting the urge to hurt another is another. Why become the thing you loathe? If you resist you find balance in the tension of ever-wakefulness. This world leads into the next, I believe. It's imperative that we act as healers and not destroyers. The choice is ours.

It may take a leap of faith to act in good faith, but the rewards could be immense. Imagine a world going in a different direction; instead of dismembering the Solomonic baby, we could preserve the whole and have a future. Our children and their children deserve it, not endless war and lies.

Who profits from war? Who can honestly choose that over another way, one that doesn't require slaughter and subterfuge. Speaking truth to power has always necessitated risking one's current level of comfort. I don't want to be comfortable with the state of our world. If each of us can make a difference then that's what I choose to do.

I start by welcoming dialogue.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Israel...Moving Away from Democracy

As someone who grew up proud of the ideals that a modern, democratic Israel stood for__an ingathering of nations__it is a sad to read how far it's moved from its foundation of democracy, plurality and freedom of speech. With the recent passing of the anti-boycott law by the Knesset, Israel has moved away from reconciliation and a two-state solution with the Palestinian people toward a de facto annexation of Judaea and Samaria but without equality for all. The law basically forbids distinguishing doing business within Israel proper and doing business with those profiting from within the Occupied Territories taken in 1967. Regardless of how people feel about the status of Jerusalem, there is a distinction to be made between the lands partitioned in 1948 and the lands occupied since the Six Day War. As Bradley Burston recently wrote in "A Special Place in Hell," Israel is moving away from democratic ideals. But why should it matter to Americans?

As a student on a one year program to Israel in 1984, I remember the topic coming up: should the United States give military aid to Israel? "Of course; Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East; it's an ally." What if Israel stopped being a democracy? "No way," I said. Preserving democracy, human rights, equality and justice were paramount in my opinion. Just the discussion of hypothetically cutting off aid to Israel caused a classmate to say, "Israel could go it alone if it had to. In fact that might be a good thing."

At the time the first Lebanon-Israeli war was coming to a close; the Labor party diplomat Shimon Peres was prime minister. No one seriously considered Israel turning toward monarchy or a dictatorship. That was absurd. At the time those living in settlements in the "Occupied Territories" were primarily transplanted, newly-religious Americans or devout followers of an extreme rabbi who shot at stone-throwers.

Those of us studying at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus were technically within the "West Bank" since it lay in Eastern Jerusalem. However, the Hadassah hospital and the university had withstood the blockade those many years to remain an island of sorts...one that continued to breach the divide. Palestinian or Arab-Israeli doctors worked side-by-side with Jewish Israelis. Students of all faiths attended the university. The mayor at the time, Teddy Kollek, was a pragmatic idealist who brought people together. That's not to say all was perfect. But the potential for connecting to something wonderful was almost palpable. Clouds seemed a little closer to the earth in this landscape. The sun's rays cast an aura over hillsides where stone facades glistened in late afternoon. And then a sonic boom from an invisible jet brought one back to reality.

Wanting to visit the historical burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, my roommate and I chose to ride the Arab bus to Hebron one Saturday morning. Wending its way south through the hills, the bus traversed Bethlehem and skirted a large refugee camp on our way to the tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. As American students we had no problems on the way there. Arriving at the city center, we walked the streets toward the Cave of the Machpelah; an Israeli soldier protecting a tiny Jewish barb-wired enclave chided us for our seeming recklessness. We made sure to speak to him in English, in this largely Arabic-speaking town, and walked on toward the historic site.

Hebron held its history close. Holy to three paternal monotheistic religions slaughters have occurred as recently as the 1994 attack on worshippers by a deranged Jewish gunman, but at this time the most memorable "recent" event was the 1929 massacre of 67 of Jewish residents by Arab attackers. What sometimes gets overlooked is the fact that 19 Arab families hid 435 Jews in their homes and saved them at great risk to themselves. Doing good in the midst of evil deserves remembrance.

My friend and I toured the tombs, had lunch at an outdoor cafe and visited a tourist shop where one could buy painted ceramic drums with sheepskin heads and other various trinkets. After purchasing a souvenir I explored another room where a tall, blonde tourist was speaking with the proprietor who was declaiming about "the Jews." The European nodded and the men paid no mind to this American eavesdropping on their conversation. The shop owner complaining about the occupation but didn't say "the Israelis." His gripe was with Jews in general.  There was no pretense in working out a peaceable solution. This man was looking for allies, and I noted with irony the German-accented tourist commiserating with him.

I didn't confront the men; my friend and I left to return to the bus station. I contemplated the drum I now carried and how it would always remind me of this moment and a few minutes later.

As my roommate and I boarded the bus back to Jerusalem, a young man took notice of us and started heckling my friend. He sat across from us and asked if she was a Jew. Because she looked "Jewish" to this Palestinian and I apparently didn't, she was verbally berated on the twenty minute ride from Hebron to the Dehaishe refugee camp outside of Bethlehem. My friend__who had chosen to learn Arabic, to meet Palestinians as equals and wished to make a peaceful life in the land where her mother was born__stoically withstood the contempt after our attempts at talking with him failed. Thankfully, other riders did not join in; he vented and left the bus as it stopped at the Deheishe camp. The refugee camp was created after the Israeli War of Independence after the Jordanians conquerors of the West Bank didn't accept the Palestinians onto their lands and so made them stay in the slum. Generations later they remained trapped in an open-air tenement of despair, eloquently described in David Grossman's, The Yellow Wind.

We were grateful to be rid of the bully, and I felt for my friend. She had borne the brunt of the abuse with strength and courage. Later, she would verbally defend me from xenophobic bigots as I dared to walk through their neighborhood. But that's another story.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Year in Jeruslaem

Everything changes; the trick is keeping the whole from breaking into fragments...people divided by fear and hatred.

Back in 1984 I left my midwestern college behind and headed abroad. After two years of isolating depression, I was ready to risk exploring the world. Jerusalem seemed an obvious choice.

I had grown up with National Geographic and a full bookshelf, worlds waiting to be explored. Like many I was naive about the Middle East/Near East--if you prefer, the "Holy Land." I remember a picture edition of the 1967 Six Day War. Israeli underdogs having captured the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians, they stood awestruck before the Western Wall of the Temple Mount; a bare-headed, young soldier surrounded by his helmeted brethren transported me to that moment.

Looking through Leon and Jill Uris' Jerusalem I imagined a modern people living in an ancient land. The massive stones in the photography were no longer called a wailing wall of a defeated people; they were liberated touchstones of our collective past, a symbolic gateway to the off-limits world above (the Temple Mount now hosting the "Dome of the Rock"--the site of Abraham's almost-sacrifice of his son and, as another story goes, the place from where Mohammed rode a horse to heaven. Maybe that site also had an earlier origin, like the kaaba stone in Mecca where once the female aspect of divinity was also acknowledged); they were now tangible to all. Poring over Yigal Yadin's Masada I gazed at Judaea's famous plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. I envisioned scenes out of Sunday School...Israelites battling Roman soldiers, and then committing suicide instead of being taken as slaves.

I went to Hebrew school twice a week from age 8 onward until my Bat Mitzvah in the eighth grade. I remember inviting my friends from my school to attend. I loved singing the songs and read a speech about Ahad Ha'am and his vision of a modern Israel rooted in justice for all people.

The one-year program at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, where Einstein's library was kept, attracted a polyglot of foreign students mixing with the Israelis, both Arab and Jewish. It would be a dream come true.

Arriving at the Givat Ram campus located in the Western half of Jerusalem, I enjoyed the exotic birds and eucalyptus trees. It truly was a blooming desert. In the evenings I listened to kids from California and Canada playing guitars and singing Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen songs. On one of my first city bus rides across town to Mount Scopus, I happened to sit next to woman in Arab dress. I spoke of my excitement of being there for a year, learning about the people of this land. Before she exited I said, "Salaam Aleikum;" she answered, "Shalom Aleichem."

Up on Mount Scopus in Eastern Jerusalem overlooking the Old City on the next hill, there was a different feel to the place. The University resembled a concrete fortress awaiting a siege. Across from the dorms stood Hadassah Hosptial (cut off during the War of Independence, many lives were lost bringing it supplies from Western Jerusalem). Behind it the hazy desert valleys leading down toward the Dead Sea, a Palestinian shepherd and his goats were the only sign of life.

Although the war with Lebanon was ongoing, Jerusalem seemed unaffected. The occasional sonic boom overhead reminded me I was no longer in Michigan. My ulpan teachers in Hebrew class were two young Israelis right out of the army of Iraqi and Yemeni descent. Moreh Yossi tossed a bit of chalk at me whenever I spoke English. Soon I was even dreaming in Hebrew. In my class were kids from around the globe including non-Jewish Germans who wished to make a difference and a Lutheran from Georgia whose father led a Jerusalem church. Slightly disturbing was her disappointment that extremists had recently failed to blow up the Dome of the Rock.

At the Mt. Scopus dorms my hallmates were mostly American and Canadian, although there was one from Morocco and even an Israeli Arab. A friend, who studied both Hebrew and Arabic, introduced me to a classmate with whom we debated.

One evening a young religious woman knocked on my door as I studied. She was going around inviting students to come to the Western Wall on Friday afternoon to be paired with a family for Shabbat. I told her my story and about my family. That's when she told me with sincerity that I wasn't a Jew. "Excuse me," I said. She went on that because my mother hadn't converted according to Orthodox standards, she and therefore I weren't Jews. Shock overtook me. What matter, I said, if she studied with rabbis of the Conservative tradition? She used the mikveh and won the approval of the beit din, the council of rabbis. It wasn't good enough, the young woman told me. Stunned and angered I declined her invitation to convert according to orthodoxy. I was already a Jew, I told her. I had no desire to become like her. Thus began an education.

[DRAFT...to be continued]

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cowboys and Indians

Naming the ongoing attempt to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice as operation “Geronimo” is telling; this left-over legacy of the Bush administration ironically displays a false equivalency between a terrorist seeking to attack the Twin Towers and what they signified and a Native American chief defending his homeland and people.
Perhaps, it was a name to obfuscate; however, it has belied the intentions of some to rewrite history. Never before in my lifetime has the frantic rush to deny the truth of what is__or to demand one extreme version of what is perceived__been presented as the truth (unless you count fundamentalist religious leaders of all faiths presenting their point-of-view as fact).
Politically the neo-con point-of-view has shaped much of the past ten years. While I have always been against those who would kill, torture and bully others who disagree with them, the present propaganda seems to know no bounds. Or maybe it’s just racism.
For the sake of life on this planet, we each must examine our beliefs and prejudices. Were we taught as children to think of ourselves as superior to others or as part of a larger family of equals? As we grew did we take the lessons learned from meeting others as proof that our way of thinking was right? did we see the potential and peril in certain narrow paths, including our own? Do any of us know the whole story?
Why, you might say, am I focusing on the silly tag given an ultra-secret mission to kill or capture Osama bin Ladin? Because it blurs the line between the pursuit of the mastermind of the most-horrific attack on U.S. civilians and the misguided superiority of those set on vanquishing Native Americans.
It isn’t the first time that some people focused on the middle East have falsely compared the two hemispheric struggles. Simplistically, some have claimed the mantle of THE indigenous while denying the rights of their own extended family members who could claim the same. The patriarchal legacy of sibling struggle for dominance has ironically co-existed within the larger vision that all are worthy of an equal portion. Fervent disregard of women’s rights__as something that must wait until the foe is vanquished__and the fearful attack on the feminine as holy is a living legacy to this day. It is a shame that pits the most fervent of any of the patriarchal faiths against the rest of humanity and its worth. But I digress.
Muddying reality is the tendency of calling one thing another. Of saying this is just like that. It is not. Geronimo was no bin Laden. He stood up against the military might of an army set on making him and his people virtual slaves on the most worthless plots of land; for daring that he was made into a symbol of the broken, dominated savage. He was neither. When Chief Geronimo’s grave was robbed and skull purportedly stolen by scions of privilege to be used in unknown ritual at a secret society, it was not he who was diminished but the honor of each member of that club. That the former Republican president seated just prior Al Qaeda’s airplane attack is a member (son and grandson) of Skull & Bones is telling. Perhaps in giving his nemesis the Geronimo nickname, he contemplated a replacement for the secret rites of the so-called “cream of the crop,” one that would stir no pangs of remorse. Or maybe it was just randomly chosen. I think not.
Conflating the struggles of the Native American people with those of terrorists is wrong. It’s used to advantage by neo-conservatives and ignoramuses alike, seeking advantage in the moment while providing cover for their own shenanigans. In reality it is hiding the neo-cons’ own similarities with the bin Ladens of the world…those who would kill and maim their own people and others against an even “more evil” foe. There are many more unanswered questions about how we presently came to this moment.
The truth is that bad things can happen to good people and have time and again. Might does not necessarily make right. Childhood rivalries acted out on the world stage are ultimately impotent and shameful.
When we demand equality and respect for all people and combat injustice and slavery of all kinds, then maybe the world will have peace. Perhaps victors do get to write history, but that doesn’t prevent truth from surfacing…when the battle’s lost and won.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Messianic Era...Maybe It's Us

[DRAFT...links to come]

I grew up thinking people could affect the world. Learning about history it certainly seemed so...for good or for bad.

I remember at age 12 seeing a documentary of the Holocaust and being profoundly affected by the horror those images invoked. How could some people treat others so inhumanely? How could a uniform empower someone to choose who lives and who dies? How could one choose to live in a world if one's own family or loved ones were to be sacrificed? What was the purpose of being?

My hope for humanity was revived when I considered those that chose to risk it all to save others...or those who chose to remain with those about to be gassed, comforting others till the end. My mother taught me that remaining with the children was the only possible way. There ARE worse things than death.

Since then I've learned about other atrocities: Pol Pot's massacre of his people, the Armenian genocide, Stalin's purges, Bosnia, Rwanda, etc. The starvation in Africa. I backpacked through Europe when the first LIVE AID concert happened; I watched "We Are the World," from a television in Surrey. I had met Ethiopians lucky enough to escape the starvation during my year in Jerusalem. Operation Moses had plucked them from likely death and deposited them into another world.

Were the problems of the world to be remedied by only those in power or celebrity, or could each of us play a part? It was a narrow path to avoid each extreme__despair and hopefulness.

Acknowledging love and staying positive is a way toward wholeness.

By making conscious choices to do good by others, we can avoid perpetuating negativity. Instead of seeing the Other as an enemy to be destroyed, we see the Other in ourself. If they are negative we can avoid conflict by acknowledging the despair that we've felt ourselves.

Rabbi Hillel taught, "don't do unto others that which you find abhorrent to yourself." The golden rule actually preceded Jesus.

Hillel was inclusive; Hillel saw the bigger picture. Evidently, he was a wise sage who could see the repercussions both spiritually and physically in the world. And then there was Shammai. Evidently, he was for narrowing, for exclusion. And that has been the pull within communities till today. Us vs. them.

What we have today in the world is a movement toward a more equitable sharing of our planet's resources and a fear of want. People are waking to the idea that hierarchy is not the way. Superiority, castes and exploitation are a trap. They were never the  real deal. The transformation to this new, messianic era exists within each of us. It's consciousness. Enlightenment. The examined mind, if you will.

Whence comes evil? It comes from the misunderstanding of this. It comes from the misinterpretation of stories told for other purposes. The emotive, vivid examples of fighting and killing take on lives of their own instead of remaining dark cautionary tales of what to avoid while on this Earth walk.

Recently Richard Dreyfuss, the actor, spoke of his plan for American schools to teach critical thinking, logic and civics. He relayed the story of his father behind enemy lines having tortured captured German SS officers during WWII. He spoke with abhorrence the casual slide into the use of torture by the former Bush/Cheney administration since the attacks on 9/11/2001. (Attacks that leave a lot of unanswered questions and about which Bush/Cheney declined to speak on record).

Our country's then leader gave banal advice to the people: "go shopping." Meanwhile, new military complexes were being built around Washington.

What really matters? What can heal? Retail therapy, perhaps, but that is a temporary fix; deep down we know that isn't the real answer. How we treat one another matters. If you assume you are enemies, then it's hard to act like a friend. Or at least a neighbor:

When Einstein, who declined the honor of being the second president of Israel, recommended a "privy council" of equal numbers of wise Jews and Arabs to settle disputes.
"Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs, then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering....The two great Semitic peoples have a great common future." If the Jews did not assure that both sides lived in harmony, he warned friends in the Zionist movement, the struggle would haunt them in decades to come. Once again, he was labeled naive.                                                         --from Einstein: His Life & Universe, by Walter Isaacson
It wasn't naive as we are learning today.

In time Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem, tried implementing this type of consensus leadership; in 1984 he spoke of it to a group of American students on Mt. Scopus. I was struck by the wisdom in this.

Unfortunately, now with people being evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem and elsewhere, this lesson has not been learned. What is wrong with sharing? We are all connected.

What if, for those who consider the concept of rebirth, we are born again not as a member of our same 'tribe' but as the other. Talk about irony. How sad then when we have power we propagate a future of hatred by treating others poorly.

All of us must constantly remind ourselves of the two different paths and why the one is more worthwhile for everyone's sake.

The great Jewish scholar, Martin Buber, saw the value of our connectedness in his seminal work,  I and Thou. How hopeful I am that as a student of his student I may live to see the beginning of this so-called messianic era where each of us recognizes our roles in the healing the world.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Egypt (1985)

Wow. Revolution. I remember that January twenty-six years ago. A ten day trip to Egypt...Misr. I'm hoping that people stay safe in this transitional time.

Egypt is an amazing place. I'm hoping a more just future awaits the people there. I hope the peace process continues with bullies pushed aside.

The Sphinx at Giza, just outside of Cairo

Kufu's (Cheop's) pyramid and dromedary

Life along the Upper Nile, facing West

Near Kitchener's Island and Aga Khan Mausoleum (facing NE)

Entrance to the Valley of the Kings, across the Nile from Luxor
(reminds me of Shelley's "Ozymandius")

School girls of Luxor, Upper Eqypt

Karnak Temple (it's HUGE!)

Karnak Temple, Luxor
(there's a hall w/@ 200 of these pillars)

Abu Simbel (the Temple of Rameses II was moved to Southern Egypt by UNESCO to save it from the Aswan Dam project).
Gate Keeper (notice the Ankh)

Inside Abu Simbel

Tomb painting

Visiting Cairo's oldest university, Al-Azhar