Friday, December 26, 2008


See below link for Joel Stein's recent piece entitled


I don’t usually like Joel Stein, who, I find to be too cute and smarmy by half, but this is a wonderfully written piece. Wonderful, but dangerous as well.
In this article, Stein writes in a sometimes playful and ironic but ultimately self-critical mode; acknowledging that he and other liberals do not love America in the aggressive, flag waving ‘my country right or wrong’ way as does the Republican right. In fact, Stein affirms, he does love America, but he has a too nuanced view of reality to blather on about America being in the words of the atrocious Sean Hannity "the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth."

Obviously luxuriating in the false security of Obama’s victory, Stein is in an indulgent mood; ready to cede that kind of vulgar, blathering patriotism to the Right and good enough not to quote Samuel Johnson that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I wish he had taken a harder-edged stand, because in affirming rightly that liberals are too civilized and universalistic to “bleed red, white and blue”—another one of the idiotic maxims Hannity employs to express his supposedly boundless love of America, Stein overlooks the reality that the super-patriotism of the right is a false pretense.

If nothing else, the Republican right’s strident opposition in the past few weeks to the modest bailout of the Big Three automakers made clear that they are far less in love with America than they are with Darwinian capitalism. Faced with the prospect of providing a $15 billion lifeline to GM, Chrysler and Ford—a lifeline with strict conditions and a fraction of the hundreds of billions that had already been provided to the financial industry---the GOP, in the thrall of southern senators like Mitch McConnell, Bob Corker and Bob Shelby and Richard Shelby, said, “Let the U.S. auto industry go bankrupt.” Their own states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama are filled with auto plants owned by Japanese and German automakers who came there so they could employ non-unionized workers at much lower wages than paid the unionized auto workers in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. So they were happy to write off GM, Chrysler etc, which would obviously be just fine for the interests of Honda and V.W. The only way the Repubs would agree to help the Big Three is if the UAW gives up all the protections and higher wages it has fought for 100 years to obtain for the auto workers.

So here were the vast majority of the 40-plus remaining GOP senators, backed up by Hannity and his brother in hysterical patriotism, Rush Limbaugh, saying in effect ‘Screw the America auto industry with an historic pedigree going back to 1900 and screw the American worker as well'. All that matters to these suppsed super-patriots is lean, mean profitability ’ and getting rid of unions. If that means favoring Japanese automakers over American ones, then so be it.

It is dismaying that few commentators have seen fit to pick up on this episoide as clear evidence of the falseness of the right’s claim to be the upholders of American interests and values. I guess they have been laying claim to that title for so long that they have managed to brainwash the rest of us into accepting it. But it would seem to me self-evident that the side pressing to have the government extend itself to save American companies and workers (not to mention the millions of non-auto workers who depend on the auto industry for their own economic well-being) should per se be considered more patriotic than the side saying, ‘Let all these fellow Americans go under.’ Indeed, its inexplicable that these people continue to get away with wrapping themselves in red, white and blue (not to mention holier than thou) as they go out of their way to hurt real Americans.

Nor is this double game something that just surfaced with the auto bailout issue. Throughout the Bush years, the right-wing lustily waved the flag as it enthusiastically trashed the environment, trashed basic consumer protections, and skewed the U.S. system in the interests of the very rich. If these charlatans love America so much, why do they support policies that hurt the interests of so many poor, working class and middle class Americans? If they love America so much, why do they implement policies that pour dangerous chemicals into our streams and air, and make possible the actual blowing up of mountains in West Virginia; all so that we can keep burning more coal and rendering the planet, which includes America as well, rapidly uninhabitable? Leave aside for a moment the mind-boggling short-sightedness of these policies; the question is how they ever came to be seen as an expression of love for America?

And how did Bush and Cheney get away for 8 years with promoting the notion that trashing the Constitution to legalize torture, electronic surveillance and holding people indefinitely without access to a trail, was a manifestation of true-blue patriotism? The right screams till they are blue in the face how much they love freedom and democracy and then they go and institute Big Brother. Yet so successful have they been in selling the notion that this is the patriotic course that Obama looks less and less willing to deconstruct the authoritarian security state with an omnipotent President that Bush and Cheney created. Even in their moment of defeat, they have reason for satisfaction that they were successful in moving America towards a permanent presidential despotism.

So Joel Stein is generous in a big-hearted, quasi-ironic way in his readiness to cede super-patriotism to the right, but it turns out we cant afford to do that if we really love America enough to want her to survive as a genuine democracy committed to the well-being of all of her citizens. Their vociferous claims to the contrary, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh don’t really love the core values of America; indeed, they despise all that truly made America in the past—and might even do so again—the last best hope of mankind on Earth. Somehow the right has managed to get away for 40 years with brainwashing the public into believing the notion that the best way to love America is to despise the American government and strip away its power to ameliorate social injustice to the point where it becomes a supine appendage of Wall Street, even as Wall Street was dropping off a cliff.

Let us hope that as Obama begins the historic work of resurrecting the federal government as a force for shaping an America that accords basic protections to all Americans, that he, like FDR before him, employs his gift for oratory in making people understand that predatory 'tooth in claw capitalism’ that cheerfully throws millions of Americans under the bus or out on the street, is not the true expression of American patriotism. If our new president doesn’t succeed in making that case, he is not going to succeed in doing anything else. Now is not the time to be bashful in advocating on behalf of a compassionate and inclusive expression of American patriotism that will allow all of us--including disaffected liberals like me--truly revel in the unabashed love for America we feel deep in our guts.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

report on the Weekend of Twinning of Mosques and Synagogues Across North America

See below text of a speech I gave at Reform Congregation Kenesseth Israel in suburban Philadelphia on the recent Weekend of Twinning of Mosques And Synagogues Across North America, held November 21-23. The event was a great triumph for the premise that American Jews and Muslims can build an alliance based on friendship and trust that will be a win/win for both communities. It was also a great moment for me as the principle organizer of the twinnings around the continent. The speech gives a good précis of the impact on thousands of people around the country.

We have just came through a thrilling experience, part of an ongoing process which we believe we will fundamentally change Jewish-Muslim relations in North America for the better, During the weekend of November 21-23, 50 mosques and synagogues across North America twinned with each other….There were twinnings in 20 states and the province of Ontario—from New Haven, to New York City Long Island and Westchester, County, NY, north and central New Jersey to Pennsylvania; your own Reform Congregation Knesseth Israel twinning with the Islamic Society of South Jersey to Baltimore and suburban Washington to Charlotte, Atlanta, West Palm Beach, Dallas, Columbus, Ohio, Detroit, Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Denver, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay area and Greater LA.

The word ‘historic’ gets thrown around a lot, but the fact of the matter is that never before has there been such a large-scale event linking Jews and Muslims across North America, or for that matter anywhere in the world.

The Weekend of Twinning was sponsored by my agency, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, with the endorsement of the World Jewish Congress, Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims. The theme of the Weekend of Twinning was confronting ‘Islamophobia and anti-Semitism Together’ and most congregations dealt with that issue but with many others as well. In the past two weeks, I have been calling participants around the country to get their assessments and what has come through more than anything else has been the joy of mutual discovery. When Muslims came to the synagogue and had the chance to listen to a Jewish service or Jews to the mosque to listen to a Muslim one or in the discussions that ensued during the Weekend of Twinning, they have come away amazed by the similarities, by the sense of common themes, customs and beliefs.

Providentially, given the Torah portion of the week, a lot of the discussion focused on the beginning of our people’s troubled relationship, the story Abraham, Sarah and Hagar and of Isaac and Ishamel coming together to bury Abraham. In a number of cities, there were moving discussions of about the meaning of the story of Ishmael and Isaac coming together to bury Abraham, their father, and people reflected as to how Abraham would have felt knowing having two estranged sons and imagined what his hopes would have been for the future of his descendants. The common feeling was that he would have wanted our peoples to reconcile and that his descendants living today—Jews and Muslims right here in North America, in suburban Philadelphia and south Jersey—have a unique opportunity to begin that process.

I want to read you a statement by Samira Kanji of the Noor Cultural Center in Toronto that I believe gives voice to the sense of accomplishment, excitement and even euphoria felt in many mosques and synagogues across North America. Ms. Kanji wrote after the event;

I think we're all of a mind on the amazing reception that we've seen from our community members to our twinning programs. Clearly, the yearning for reaching out and finding amity is great, sitting so close under the surface that it needed just the tiniest little raindrop of facility to bring such a burst of enthusiasm. All of us marveled at the display of warmth on both sides at every level… There is no dearth of interfaith dialogues taking place all over, but I imagine very few of them bring about actual engagement where it matters - within members of communities. Our twinning with one another was felicitous, in that it produced a program that I believe yields great promise for a new kind of relationship within our estranged family.”

My fiancé Tatyana and I had the chance to have Shabbat dinner now with Rabbi Sussman, and I was delighted to hear how well your own program went. The idea of an exhibition of calligraphic art in the Jewish and Islamic traditions is an exciting one, showing again the commonality that Jews and Muslims are finding in so many areas, such as dietary laws, laws concerning burial and so many others.

In opening event in Los Angeles, which I attended, at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, there were Jewish and Muslim prayer services during the event and Jews were welcome to watch or even participate in the Muslim services and vice versa. I attended the Muslim services—honestly I was the only Jew who chose to take part—but there must have been as many as 50 watching—and the Muslims, who came from a somewhat conservative, Saudi-funded mosque called the King Fahd Mosque, told me afterwards how incredibly moved they were to be holding their service in a synagogue –to be so warmly welcomed and received—none that I spoke with had ever been in a synagogue before. For their part Jews said they were fascinated to observe Muslim prayer for the first time and how right it felt to them that it was happening in their home and how much they look forward to visiting and praying in the King Fahad Mosque. And scores of members of both mosque and synagogue have begun an ongoing discussion as to how to move forward.
Here are some of the practical results that came out of the Weekend of Twinning:

• In St. Louis, Congregation Brith Shalom Knesseth Israel and Dar-ul-Islam Mosque promised to work together in the future for vigorous prosecution of hate crimes and to explore other venues for joint participation in the political process.
• The Jam-e-Masjid Islamic Center of Boonton N,J. and Temple B’nai Or of Morristown said that based on sense of commonality coming out of discussion on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, they inted not only to work together in that field, but also to work together on county wide issues—poverty and better zoning
• At USC—The Jewish and Muslim students pledged to each other not to invite speakers by either community that would be hurtful to the other side. We will consult with each other before tendering such invitations. This is significant and hopefully can become a model for other campuses across the country, where invitations to controversial speakers by one side or the other often becomes flashpoints for confrontations.
• At NYU—Jewish and Muslim students dressed in each other’s clothing for several days and walked around campus disguised as the Other to see what kind of feelings that brought up. One Jewish young man of about 21 who said he plans to become a rabbi spent two days in full Islamic regalia, and told young Jews and Muslims gathered for a debriefing that he felt shame and hurt at the sarcastic comments he heard from his friends, who laughingly asked him how it felt to play ‘terrorist’ and other such remarks. I asked the young man whether he felt hurt as a Jew or a Muslim and he replied as some of both. He said he was hurt that Jews would commonly make bigoted comments seeing Muslims in such dress, and that until two years ago, when he took part in a spring break trip of Muslim and Jewish students to New Orleans to build houses together for Katrina victims and in the process came to know and like many Muslim students--he would have done so himself. And a Muslim girl, born and bred in Pakistan said something almost identical about her own experience dressed as a Jew.

So we had an inspiring breakthrough. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that all opposition to Muslim-Jewish rapprochement have disappeared. There are powerful people out there like Daniel Pipes and Steven Emerson who assert that we should treat all American Muslims as potentially dangerous. They portray the pro-peace, pro-engagement message being articulated by groups like ISNA, MPAC and the Fiqh Council of America as a kind of ‘soft jihad’ to lull America into complacency. And most outrageously they continue to insist that the American Muslim leader with whom we are working do not oppose Islamic terrorism and will not say so explicitly, although I personally have heard many of them say so openly and explicitly multiple times.

These people, who use McCarthyist smear tactics and guilt by association, essentially oppose treating American Muslims like full citizens who deserve all civil and human rights and to whom we as Jews should reach out, as we reach out to Catholics, Protestants, blacks, Hispanics and all other people. And they have been ferociously attacking Rabbi Schneier and the whole twinning process in op-eds and e-mail campaigns ever since.

Pipes and Emerson are hardly alone. There are many in the Jewish community, including people in powerful and influential communal positions who share this perspective. Others ridicule the effort by FFEU, the Union of Reform Judaism and other groups to American Muslims, saying what we are engaged in is meaningless ‘kumbaya’, which has little significance in the real world because we don’t focus on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians and don’t get the Muslims to declare themselves Zionists and sing ‘Hatikvah’. Now, it is true that we choose not to focus on the ‘800 pound elephant in the room’ as people have rightly referred to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, although it is not true to say that we are hiding from it or denying its existence. In the guidelines I sent to participating mosques and synagogues, I said it was totally appropriate to acknowledge the existence of the conflict and the pain we all feel about the violence and suffering endured by our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters, but that the conflict should not become the focus of the twinning because it would be a source of dissension and discord and it would prevent us from making progress on building ties of mutual respect and trust between Jews and Muslims in North America.

But let me directly address the ‘kumbaya’ issue. In truth, the blossoming Jewish-Muslim relationship in North America is not about kumbaya or about wooly headed liberalism on either side. I have been accused on occasion of being a wooly headed liberal myself and would plead more or less guilty as charged—although I’m less wooly headed than I used to be, but I can assure you that neither Rabbi Marc Schneier or Ronald Lauder fits that bill. No, this relationship is growing because, in a very tachlis sense, it is a ‘win win’ for both communities.

How so? For the Muslims, it is important because they need protection—proteksia—from efforts to strip them of their full rights as U.S. citizens, and the support of American Jews can be critical in blowing those attacks out of the water. But why, you may ask, is Muslim-Jewish raproachment good for the Jews? The answer should be obvious, but is lost on too many in our community. If you treat a whole community like potential criminals, some of them, particularly the young, may decide that since they are doomed to be treated as terrorists they might as well become terrorists. But if you treat them as full members of society with every prospect of advancement, they have every impetus to embrace America and its promise.

Depending on the estimate, there are 3-5 Muslims in this country. Since 9-11, tougher immigration regulations has no doubt slowed the inflow, but no one is suggesting that they be expelled. So they are here on a permanent basis. Therefore, we have a fateful choice; either help them to integrate like every other immigrant group that has come to America, to make sure they have a stake in the American dream, or risk happening here what has happened in Britain, Spain, France and other countries where large Muslim populations are not able to integrate with the ease they have here—horrific acts of terrorism committed by home grown terrorists, who became so embittered by the perceived lack of opportunity to become full Britons, Frenchmen and Spaniards, that they turned on their own countries. And for that to happen would NOT be good for the Jews—especially given the special animosity of Muslim extremists toward the Jews because of Israel-Palestine, which we saw exhibited with such horror by the terrorists in Mumbai.

Thankfully, survey after survey has shown that American Muslims want to be both American and Muslim. They do not see the two identities as incompatible at all; they do not see Islam as opposed to democracy. Our job should be to help them in that effort for their and for our own. I believe the two communities will be able to do a lot together with much more effectiveness on a host of issues than they can do on their own. Jews and Muslims making common cause has a ‘wow’ factor to it that can accrue to our benefit on many issues such as:
1. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. It is not news and has little impact when the ADL denounces anti-Semitism. It IS news when a mosque and synagogue do so together and denounce Islamophobia as well. Not the least of it is confronting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in our own communities; getting Jews to acknowledge that Islamophobia exists and is a real problem for American society and equally as important, getting Muslims to acknowledge the existence of anti-Semitism and pledge to combat it, instead of saying fliply, ‘We can’t be anti-Semites, because we are Semites ourselves.’ Getting Muslims to acknowledge and oppose anti-Semitism is a huge step forward and it happened repeatedly during the WOT in dozens of cities across North America.
There are so many other issues we can confront together; health care, immigration, housing---we all have stakes in fighting these. So, let us form alliances through a group like Habitat for Humanity to build houses together for the homeless and for victims of foreclosure. The students from NYU started their warm relationship two years ago by travelling together during spring break to New Orleans to work together building houses for those who lost their homes to Katrina. As a result they formed a bond that allowed them two years later to feel safe enough to don each others’ clothing, to share intimate thoughts and to relate to each other to the amazing extent they have come to do so.
Let’s repeat that all over North America…
I believe we North American Jews and Muslims have a moral obligation to come together as friends and allies and work together for the betterment of our two communities and for American society as a whole. And in the process we will be making a statement that will impact our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine—that Muslims and Jews can learn to like and trust each other. And if we can do it, in time, so can they. Despite 100 years of conflict, they don’t have to remain enemies forever; they don’t have to sacrifice the next generation and the one after that to death and violence. As Theodore Herzl said in another, but connected, context, ‘If we will it is no dream.’

It took 100 years and more for Jewish-Muslim relations to reach this level of hostility, and it may take 100 years to reverse the damage, but let us resolve to commence this long uplifting journey today. For the sake of our own children and of the children of Israel, we can do nothing less.


Saturday, November 08, 2008


Dear All,
Consider this the re-launch of Rubyjewsday. I have been overwhelmed in recent months organizing the upcoming Weekend of Twinning of mosques and synagogues Across North America, which will bring together more than 40 synagogues and 40 mosques that weekend to hold one on one discussions on the theme of Confronting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. I’ll be posting more on the Weekend of Twinning during the days ahead. But I’ve missed doing the blog and my batteries feel re-charged, so without further ado---I’m back.
What can I say about the election victory of Barack Obama that hasn’t already been said? It’s an overwhelmingly powerful moment for me. I was there in Chicago in 1968 as an 18-year-old volunteer for Eugene McCarthy watching with horror as the Chicago police in Grant Park beat the shit out of young people who had turned out to protest Hubert Humphrey’s getting the nomination without winning one primary—and thus destroy the Democratic Party that year and help Richard Nixon to the presidency, the beginning of 40 years of Republican political domination—my entire adult life. Sure, there were breaks in the GOP control for Carter and Clinton, but they managed to win only because they were southerners who did not dare to challenge the basic Republican assumptions, mainly that government cannot do too much on behalf of people in need.
And suddenly, here were Barack and hundreds of thousands of jubilant supporters in the very same Grant Park celebrating the victory of an unabashed northern liberal who also happens to be a black man. 40 biblical years on the wilderness were at last over. Crosby, Stills and Nash wrote in their song Long Time Gone back in 1970 about the Nixonian conservatism/quasi-fascism of the time that it had been “A long time coming, and it will be a long time gone…a long, long time before the dawn. Unfortunately that turned out to be prophetic. And I feel deeply blessed that I was privileged to live long enough to see the dawn—and that night watching Grant Park with tears running down my cheeks, I found myself, a confirmed non-believer, reciting the Schechiyanu prayer, "Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion."
I remembered too being nine years old, having just arrived in Virginia on a family trip from our home in Pittsburgh to Tennessee, heading for the bathroom and being flabbergasted to see four bathrooms marked “white men”, “white women”, “colored men”, “colored women”. This was in 1959, not 1859. And then I recalled all the memories of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s, including a heaven-sent opportunity to hear Martin Luther King speak at an anti-Vietnam War rally in Chicago in 1966. To have lived through all of that and then witnessing something I never expected to see in my lifetime; a black man elected President of the United States. It is powerful and profound in ways I can’t begin to articulate. This event somehow validates the struggles of my entire generation—often seemingly in vain—to make this country a more just and kinder place. History works in amazing ways.
Not only do we have a young African-American president, but someone who is incredibly bright, disciplined and committed to all the ideals that have been trampled into the mud for 40 years. Obviously, he will be initially limited in the changes he can make because of the terrible economic crisis the country confronts. On the other hand, the very depth of that crisis and the need for results, may force him to choose a course that will be more New Deal than New Democrat a la Bill Clinton. He can rescue the auto industry by jump starting a massive effort to build green cars and get us off fossil fuels. Obama can’t afford to delay health care, because the absence of decent heath care for tens of millions of Americans deepens the economic crisis. Obama faces an enormously difficult set of challenges, but he can’t hope to succeed by following conservative council to slow down and take half steps. He has to go for it. Wed can only pray he and his team are up to the occasion.
On a local note, I was happy to witness recently the joint press conference of Alec Brook-Krasny and Ari Kagan announcing their reconciliation and new partnership. It was great to see this belated coming together two years after their bitter Democratic primary battle barely won by Alec, who subsequently went on to win the State Assembly seat. He has done a first rate job since then bringing money into the district and Ari was wise to see that there was no point challenging him further and perpetuating a bitter rift in the Russian community. Reconciling, as I urged them in a whole series of postings on rubyjewsday two years ago will likely give Ari a political future—although probably not next year because of the shabby deal Bloomberg and the City Council made to give each other another term in office.
The Russian community is blessed to have two such capable and fundamentally decent political leaders. What I would like to see the two of them do now is to ‘educate’ that section of the community that responded to Obama with horror—sometimes in openly racist language, more often in coded racist language—that he represented a death threat to Israel and that his victory would inspire young black thugs from Coney Island and elsewhere to launch violent attacks on elderly Russians in Coney Island and Brighton Beach.
Brook-Krasny was careful not to endorse Obama even though I understood from an interview with him a few weeks back that he was inclined to support him but could not say so because of the intense antipathy in the Russian community, whereas Ari told me he would likely vote for McCain out of fear for what Obama might mean for Israel. Still, neither Ari nor Alec are anti-black (They have both worked hard to form alliances with black political leaders and community activists in Coney Island) and they now need to step up efforts to educate the community to stop hunkering down fearfully in its Brighton-Manhattan Beach bunker and start reaching out to the communities around them, black and Pakistaniu Muslim among others.
A Russian Jewish friend said to me recently that he and his ancestors were not guilty of causing slavery in America and therefore he is not responsible for healing the racial divide that has existed in America for 400 years. My response is that healing the racial divide is a responsibility of all Americans, not only those whose ancestors were here in 1865. The Russian Jews living here chose to move to America and become American citizens (they could have stayed in the FSU or moved to Israel) and by doing so they and their children inherited not only all the good things about America, but also a responsibility for helping heal our country of its injustices. I very much hope Alec Brook-Krasny and Ari Kagan will use their soapboxes to challenge the Russian community to change attitudes that are frankly, bigoted and anti-American. One Russian Jewish man in his 60’s I interviewed on the Boardwalk in early October told me, “I am voting for McCain because the President should be nastiyashe Amerikanetz—a real American”. Ari, Alex, please tell the community that Barack Obama is nastayashe Amerikanetz, just as much as any white person, or any Jew. And make the same point to those who listen to you that Colin Powell made recently; that while Obama is not a Muslim, so what if he were? An American Muslim is every bit as much an American as an American Jew or Christian. And we have a moral imperative as Jews to reach out to them and build connections—just as we do to blacks.
Anyway, it’s a moment of great happiness for me to welcome Obama’s election. I only hope more of my Russian Jewish brothers and sisters will come to understand how wonderful a day it is to see a person of Obama’s intelligence and moral integrity win the presidency.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

King Abdullah's Perestroika Moment

See below my report on the recent Saudi sponsored World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid entitled King Abdullah's Perstroika Moment. I attended in the capacity of Muslim-Jewish Program Officer at the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

This is a slightly extended version of the story that runs in this week's New York Jewish Week.

the photo is of (l) Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, head of the Fiqh Council of North America (the highest body of Islamic jurisprudence in North America, and Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding presenting a print ad to King Abdullah showing six American rabbis and six American imams denouncing Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism.

By Walter Ruby

Attending the Saudi-sponsored World Conference On Dialogue which ended here July 18, and listening to a panoply of high level Saudi officials espouse mutual acceptance among religions and the necessity of opening their country up to the rest of the world, left me with the odd sensation of having been a bit player in this movie before.
Indeed, as a Moscow-based correspondent just under 20 years ago, I witnessed the dizzying changes wrought by perestroika; the historical process initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev and his fellow ‘inside the Kremlin revolutionaries’ that transformed, and eventually dissolved, the Soviet Union. Flash forward to Madrid, 2008 and I had the unmistakable sensation of encountering Perestroika 2.1; this time championed by an 84-year-old monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, who is the standard bearer of a political elite that clearly believes the hidebound Saudi system must reform itself from within if it is to survive the pressures of globalization.
The analogy between the two reform efforts is hardly exact; starting with the fact that Abdullah was careful to hold the conference, the first such Saudi-sponsored encounter with the world’s other major faiths, in Madrid, rather than at home in Riyadh, where opposition to his initiative by influential members of the ultra-conservative Wahabi religious establishment is reported to be intense. And yet the flavor of perestroika was manifest throughout Madrid proceedings as Saudi officials from Abdullah on down advocated a dialogue of equals among the world’s faiths, including with Jews, a people labeled only three years ago as “the brothers of apes and pigs,” by a prominent Muslim cleric on Saudi state television.
Abdullah is said to have decided to get involved personally in building bridges between religions after having being urged to do so by Pope Benedict XVI during a meeting in the Vatican last year. The king then signaled his determination to push forward by holding a conference of 700 top Muslim clerics and scholars in Mecca in early June, which ended with a proclamation urging dialogue among the world’s faiths.
Opening the conference alongside King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at a royal palace on the edge of Madrid, selected for its isolation by the security-conscious Spaniards, Abdullah, who appeared animated and vigorous despite his age, said he had come to proclaim a message that “Islam is a religion of moderation and tolerance; a message that calls for constructive dialogue among followers of religions; a message that promises to open a new page for humanity in which – God willing – concord will replace conflict.” The same message ran through all of the deliberations of the conference including a final communiqué issued by the Muslim World League (MWL), the Saudi-created and Mecca-based body that ran the conference, which called for “unified international efforts to combat terrorism” and urged Muslims and non-Muslims alike “to reject theories that call for the clash of civilizations."
Former British Prime Minister and International Middle East envoy Tony Blair told the Jewish Week, “This is hugely important event; the first time that Jews, as well as Christians and other religions, have been welcomed to a religious dialogue sponsored by the Saudis.”
Some 35 Jewish leaders, mostly from the U.S., running the gamut from impeccably establishment figures like Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the only Jewish leader who was given the privilege of offering an address from the podium, to more fringy types like Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine, were among the 200 delegates representing not only the three Abrahamic faiths, but also Eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism.
Dr. Abdullah Al-Turki, Secretary-General of the MWL, stressed to this reporter that “We hold Judaism as a religion in the highest regard,” adding, “This conference is not about politics but about accentuating the common human dimension shared by all religions…” True to his word, Al-Turki worked assiduously to keep all mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of the proceedings, a task made easier by the almost complete absence of Israeli and Palestinian representatives.
One of the few moments of discord came when Dr. Ezzeddin Ibrahim, religious adviser to the Emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed, and a top official in the MWL, asserted from the podium that, in contrast to years of discussions between Christian and Muslim theologians, “There is no dialogue between Jews and Muslims.” That bald assertion brought retorts from Rabbi Marc Schneier, chairman of the World Jewish Congress-American Section and Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi of Los Angeles, chairman of the leading body of Islamic Jurisprudence in North America, who pointed to the work that they and other groups, like the Union of Reform Judaism, have been doing in recent months to strengthen Jewish-Muslim relations in the U.S. and Canada. Ibrahim graciously acknowledged that he had misspoken and promised that Jews will be represented on a committee that will to be set up by the MWL to recommend steps to follow up the Madrid conference.
Dr.Saleh Al-Namlah, Deputy Minister of Culture and Information, observed in an interview; “Historically, Islam is a moderate religion and our King is reaffirming that tradition by opening a dialogue between decent people of faith from all the great religions. We are determined to prevent extremists from hijacking Islam.” Al-Namleh said the conference might not lead to immediate results, but added, “We are engaged in a process of reform, not one or two shots. We are educating ourselves and others on the importance of dialogue and understanding.”
Robert Lacey, author of The Kingdom (1981), who is now working on a new book on Saudi Arabia, told me that things have changed dramatically in that country since Abdullah took over in 2006, but there remains strong resistance to the King’s reform efforts from within the Wahabi religious establishment. Noting that only two out of the 24 members of the Ulema, the highest body of Saudi clerics, were in attendance in Madrid, a sure sign of disapproval of Abdullah’s initiative, Lacey said, “There is no question that this conference is a decisive break between the king and the religious conservatives and no one knows how that will play out back home.” Still, Lacey asserted, the King’s hand is strengthened by “the enormous popularity among the Saudi masses of his reform agenda,” including allowing elections to municipal councils and making it easier for women to work. Nevertheless, he emphasized, all bets are off as to whether the reform trend will continue after Abdullah dies because several of his would-be successors from within the royal family are far more conservative than he is.
No one articulated the spirit of Saudi perestroika better than the father and son team of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, vice president of the Jeddah-based International Union of Muslim Scholars and his thirty-something son, Cheikhna Bin Bayyah, who divides his time between business operations in ‘the Kingdom’ and his duties as executive director of the Global Center for Renewal and Guidance in London.
The elder Bin Bayyah, who, like Abdullah Al-Turki and other members of the older generation wore a long flowing robe and keffiyeh, remarked, “Without a doubt, there are a lot of influential people opposed to what the King is doing, but after participating in this historic event, I feel confident that there is no turning back.” Cheikhna Bin Bayyah, who was clad in a stylish business suit, looks forward to the day when he will enjoy the same freedom of expression in Jeddah as he does in London. “What is happening today in Saudi society is a badly needed paradigm shift related to the age of globalization”, he said. “People like my father understand the need to open things up, so let them get on with the task. If they don’t get the job done, my generation is going to step forward and do it for them.”


Sunday, June 22, 2008

responses to my readers, including Locke and Greg

Here are some recent responses to my "Obama: The Audacity of Racism" piece. (the postings I am responding to are below what I am writing here). I promise that the next time I write it will be on another subject but want to pick up on some of this stuff.

Locke wrote:
Anonymous said...
C'mon, guys, Wright is a non-issue; if we were judged on our clergy's pronouncements, none should 'scape whipping.

The concerns, as I see them, fall into a number of categories:

(1) "Is a black man smart enough to run this country" -- is possibly an issue far in the babushka land (either meaning of the word 'babushka' being aceptable), but not in the real world where we have all had persons of color operate on us, fix our cars, get us out of jail, etc. Johnny Cochrane, Colin Powell and Condi Rice are the most conspicuous examples of African-Americans who are clearly more competent than most of their white competitors.

(2) "Is he going to bring back affirmative action with a vengeance" (or skew immigration policies in favor of persons of color, or otherwise out-Johnson Johnson and out-Carter Carter) -- is a valid concern but we are told by knowledgeable Illini that he showed no evidence of having ever moved in that direction.

(3) "Is he going to shake hands with Chavez and Nasralla and Ahmadinejad?" -- I hope he does, as he tells them with that winsome smile of his just how far up their butts he will shove the bull we have been putting up with all these years.

(4) "Is he going to wreck the economy?" -- sorry, can't do that any better than the current administration;

(5) "Is he going to allow our allies to fall?" (again, out-Johnson Johnson and out-Carter Carter) -- tough call, I'm willing to trust him so far.

I really think Obama will do well in our community, especially if he bothers to speak to us -- not that he will need our vote to swing the state, New York is his unless tsunami wipes out all but Adirondacks...


Locke, our enlightened capitalist is much more reasoned in his posting. As Locke poins out, Obama is constrained in many ways in terms of the changes he can make--not the least by the Republicans stripping all the money in the Federal Treasury for taxc cuts for the rich and the War in Iraq, and he will probably end up disappointing those of us thirsty for fundamental change. I was glad to hear Locke's opinion that Obama could end up doing relatively well in the Russian community and will urge his people to make an effort at outreach. Certain, there seems to be a dividing line between generations here--in the Russian community as well as elsewhere, and on the issue of how 'Americanized' members of the community have become. But take it from Locke, friends, Obama in the White House is not going to unleash the barbarians at the gate into the cozy confines of Brighton.

Greg said...
Walter, Hi from the Jewish Russian Telegraph (
Here is what I posted in response to your post:
Our friend Walter Ruby, of Ruby's Jewsday is writing about Obama, Israel and Russian Jews. Walter is our true friend, please be polite if you decide to comment on his post. This said his writing is very typical of an American Jewish liberal who approaches world conflicts as a fight between the boys in a seventh grade of a public school in a good neighborhood. You see, Palestinians and Israelis are having problems. Probably because they did not receive proper sensitivity training. Now, this is not good! They have to make up right away! American diplomats have to play a role of a wise teacher -- walking into a room, stopping a fight and making bad boys to behave. His friends, Russian Jews, are warm, intelligent people but they are SOO entrenched in their antiquated cold war attitudes. Definitely not nuanced and sophisticated. Walter, mon ami! chaver sheli! amigo! These people want us DEAD! Don't take our word for it -- just pay attention to what they are saying themselves.
Nobody is planning to leave you to visit Maale Adumim. As a matter of fact, nobody is planning to leave you alone in NYC either. American Jews are such nice people. If only they could grow up beyond middle school.
Best regards!

-- Greg
Greetings to my friend Greg, the editor of the Jewish Russian Telegraph in Boston. I wrote a piece a couple of years ago tweaking the Boston Jewish establishment for ignoring the opinions of Russian Jews, including Greg and others involved in the Jewish Russian Telegraph. I have long tradition of criticizing the American Jewish establishment for imposing its writ and will on Russian Jews going back to the 1980's when the heads of American Jewish establishment groups used to decide policy on Soviet Jewry in consultation with Washington and Jerusalem (and sometimes after negotiations in the Kremlin) without consulting the brave refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion whose asses were literally on the line. That same kind of arrogance and paternalism by both the government of Israel and the American Jewish establishment continued after hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews emigrated here, and over a million to Israel and has had the unfortunate but predictable impact of confirming many Russian Jews in hard line positions vis a vis Israeli-Palestinian peace and on domestic issues in this country.

Greg, who is a mensch of a human being and puts out Jewish Russian Telegraph as a labor of love, takes the usual tact that us American Jews live in dreamland and dont understand that "These people want us dead." Who are 'these people" Greg? All Arabs? All Muslims? And how many Arabs and Muslims do you know well enough to have come to a sweeping conclusion like that?

Last month I spent a week in Jordan at an interfaith conference including some prominent American and Israeli rabbis, Not only did nobody try to kill us, but they wined and dined us at fancy clubs where wine was discreetly present. Also, they are signing on to a new Israeli-Jordanian-American plan to get hearing aids to poor Jordanian children whose parents would not otherwise be able to afford them. Jordaina-Israeli trade blossoms and grows despite a not very good political situation.

In my other kippah, as Muslim-Jewish Relations Program Officer for the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (, I am involved in the implementation of a "Weekend of Twinning of Mosques and Synagogues Across America on November 21-23. The subject that will be discussed in as many as 50 mosques and 50 synagogues across the U.S. and Canada that day will be "Confronting Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism Together." And I can say that in over 100 phone and face to face conversations I have had with American imams and mosque leaders over the past month in planning this event, I have not had one person reject this idea and tell me that he wants to kill me or that the Jew is the eternal enemy and the Muslims should have no contact with us. Na'abarot, on the contrary, I have received a very warm reception and over 20 mosques have already signed on to participate (many others are in the process of signing on). Sure there are small groups of radicals out there, but the vast majority of American Muslims are anxious to join the mainstream of American society and they see that mainstream Jews can be allies in this regard.

Aha, I hear Greg snorting, that is because you American are such "useful idiots" in Lenin's term. We Russian Jews are so much more aware of how hard the real workd really is. Except, Greg, with due respect, I know many many more Arabs and Muslims than you do and maybe some of that experience has some relevance to the question as to who better understands the Arabs and Muslim, you or I. I would submit that the world of the Jewish Russian Telegraph is NOT the real world, but some cartoon variant thereof, a black and white pastiche of good guys and bad guys based on outdated perceptions formed in Soviet times that have little relationship to the real world of the 21st Century.

In the real world, you cant beat 1.2 billion Muslims into submission; you have to reach out to the moderates who reject the medieval visions of Bin-Laden and his ilk, and who dont want to live under the morals police of Al-Queda, Hamas or Hazbollah. Israel is belatedly waking up to the reality that trying to destroy Hamas by sealing off Gaza and punishing its people has had exactly the opposite impact, just as the American project of colonizing Iraq created aradical upsurge in that country and across the Islamic world. But I doubt Greg and the Jewish Russian Telegraph team has woken up to these realities yet. For them, there can only be one policy; silnaya ruka, force and more force. The policy posiitons he is proposing represent an absolute dead end for Israel and the Jews.



6:17 PM


Sunday, June 08, 2008

Obama and other matters

Sorry over long silence after writing such an inflamatory piece last time. After that, I left for a fascinating interfaith conference in Amman, Jordan which I will write about tomorrow. But as to my last piece, I wrote it and felt it was an important and timely message for the Russian Jewish community to ponder, but am sorry in retrospect that I started with the anecdote about my friend, because she was deeply hurt by what I wrote. Making a political point doesn't feel worth screwing up a friendship of several years. I feel very sad about that.

But now that Obama has won the nomination and millions of Americans are feeling inspired by the possibility of transformative politics in America for the first time since 1968 (Talk about 40 years in the wilderness!), it really makes me sad to think of so many Russian Jews being fearful that Obama represents a grave threat to their security or to Israel's security. Nothing can be further from the truth, as should have been made clear by Obama's AIPAC speech, which to my mind went too far into pandering, as all candidates do every four years when trying to cater to the Jewish community and other powerful constituencies. The bottom line is that Obama is committed to Israel's security, but yes, he would likely pick up where Bill Clinton left off eight years ago and push and prod Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peace agreement(something Mc Cain would undoubtedly do as well). Why? Because the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bad for America, a spur to Islamic fundamentalism and therefore bad for Israel as well).

In the end, there is going to be a peace settlement in which Israel gives up most of the West Bank and allows some Palestinian sovereignity in East Jerusalem in exchange for a Palestinian committment to demilitarization and an ongoing international security presence in its territory. Israel will keep the larger settlements blocs like Ma'ale Adumim, Gush Etzion and perhaps Ariel and give up land adjoining the West Bank in return. The rest of the settlments will have to be evacuated. Everyone knows that will be the final settlement; the question is whether we move in that direction expeditiously or drag it out over another decade or two of violence, as Bush allowed to happen. Which is better for Israel and the Jews? The hard line perscription favored by many in the Russian Jewish community will only result in several generations more of violence and killing. It is easy to sit in NY and insist that Israelis should be uncompromising, because it is they and not us who will have to pay the price.

As to the domestic front, Obama will embark on an effort to return our politics to the work of tikkun olam (healing the world), by providing increased funding for the weakest in society (including elderly Russian Jews now barely surviving on small monthly SSI payments that dont even cover the cost of rent, let along incidentials like electrity, airconditioning and food). He will try to bring us something approaching universal health care and do something about the soaring cost of college, home foreclosures and rising interest rates. Mc Cain's perscription is the same as Republicans always give us--leave it to the magic of the market, the wonders of private enterprise--and everything will be fine and dandy. Right! That perfect perspcription must be why the economy is doing so well at the moment after 8 years of unregulated capitalism, with all protections for consumers and the environment stripped away. With all of his militaristic bravado and throwing alway hundreds of billions of dollars in the sands of Iraq, all Bush has accomplished is to spur Islamic fundamentalism, turn the U.S. into a debtor nation with a devalued currency that now has to kiss up to China, Saudi Arabia, Putin's Russia and other assorted petrorich thuggish states. But, hey, If you are happy with the state of America after eight years of Bush, if you think those policies really protect yourself and your loved ones, including aging parenets, then vote for another four years of the same. I doubt too many Russian Jews really feel that way.

So why are so many Russian Jews allergic to Obama? Because he feels to them as 'the Other'; a biracial guy with African roots, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, exposed to Islam along the other words, not a representative of the white-bread Reaganesque America they thought they were emigrating to (actually, that white bread America hasnt really existed since the 1950's, Reagan was an actor evoking mass nostalgia for an illusion). Obama is a 'world' candiate, evoking a 21st century reality of 'We are all in this together' and only the kind of compassionate inclusive politics he represents has a chance of salvaging America and the world, to take on the enormous challenge of global warming which is imperilling the very survival of our planet.

Do Russian Jews really want to go into the bunker with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and crazy, evolution-denying right wing evangelicals like Rev. Hagee who believe God commissioned Hitler to kill six million so that Jews would move to Israel? Mc Cain is not as bad as many Republicans, but the reality is that he is the captive of the right-wingers who dominate his party,and, if elected, would not be able to break with the main contours of their politics even if he wanted to. So his election would mean a locking in of Bush's tax cuts for the rich, which pushed this coubtry into debt and destroyed the ability of the government to raise the funds needed to help the struggling poor and middle class. That means more ultra-right Supreme Court justices, who will outlaw abortion, take away all consumer protections and protections for the rights of minorities, including immigrants.

Are there risks for the Jews in Obama's call to transform our society in a direction of social justice and more equal distribution of resources. Sure, change is always risky. Mistakes will be made along the way. But the alternative, four more years of catastrophic policies that have run this country into a ditch, is much, much riskier and much more dangerous for the Jews and for all of us. It is time for us as Jews to again join hands with our fellow Americans who are black, Hispanic, Asian and white to create an America and a world based on the values of cooperation and kindness rather than unbridled competition and definitely crouching in separate ethnic enclaves. And lets stop being so fearful of the idea of change. As Franklin Roosevelt said so many years ago, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Nu, davai, lets join forces with Americans of all backgrounds and contribute to building a healthier society, where people may have less material goods, but are compensated by a sense of common purpose.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Russians and Obama--The Audacity of Racism

Several weeks ago, I had a conversation with a dear Russian Jewish friend, a charming businesswoman, who told me that she happened to discuss Barack Obama during a business conference with a man from Kenya, who told her how proud Kenyans are that a man whose father was from Kenya has a good chance to become President of the United States. I'm not sure how my friend responded to the man from Kenya, but in relating the ancdote to me some days later, she said, "Look, Walter, I didn't emigrate from Russia to America to have a Kenyan as president of the United States."

Let me acknowledge that, to my shame, I didn't respond to my friend's comment, because she happens to be one of my favorite people and I didn't want to damage our relationship at that moment by self-righteously upbraiding her for racism. But of course, I ought to have said something in response, not hectoring or patronizing, but with kindess and affection, to address a comment that was clearly racist, even if she is a delightful person, who I am sure, would never consciously do a mean thing to any person of any color. But after all, why not someone with Kenyan roots as President of the United States as opposed to someone with English or German roots? Because a Kenyan or a half-Kenyan (as in Obama's case) is someone with dark skin.

It s not like my friend's comment was the only remark I have heard from Russian Jews about Obama over the past few months that betrayed racist sentiments. Sometimes , it has been even more overt. When I covered the Democratic primary in a polling station in Brighton Beach on Super Tuesday last February, the Russian Jewish voters I spoke with were voting en masse for Hillary Clinton, and several of them were quite open as to why they were doing so. "Write this down," one middle aged woman told me, "We are all voting for Hillary because she's not black." Another woman told me that Russians fear that if Obama wins, all of America will become like New York under David Dinkins; the blacks will get all arrogant and full of themselves and the police won't do anything about black-on-white crime, such as crime by black teenagers in Coney Island preying on elderly Russians living in the area.

Fear of crime is understandable; crime by blacks against Russian-speakers in Coney Island is a real problem, but the way to deal with it is to work with the police and with the black community leadership in Coney Island that is also committed to fighting crime and is trying to improve conditions in the area for all residents. To his credit, Alec Brook-Krasny, the Russian-speaking State Assemblyman for Brighton Beach and Coney Island, has taken that approach and built strong relationships with black leaders in Coney Island; in the process modelling for his Russian-speaking constituents what a non-racist community outreach approach looks like. But Brook-Krasny and other Russian Jewish community leaders should also speak out at community forums about the wrongness of racism, which runs counter to the ethical values of Judaism and to everything that the Jewish experience in America has been about. Do even one in one hundred Russian Jews know that in the 1960's Jews, in large numbers, left their schools and jobs in the North and went to Alabama and Mississippi; marching and sitting in at lunch counters to end segregation and to win black people the right to vote? Many Jews were beaten by the racist Southern police, and a few, including New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, were murdered by a posse of Ku Klux Klansmen, along with a black colleague, James Chaney. Russian Jews need to learn more about that history and ponder its meaning.

In the last few months, I have heard repeatedly from Russian Jewish friends, including in discussions on this forum, about how terrible Rev. Wright is and how the fact that he was Obama's pastor is good enough reason to oppose Obama. Yes, Rev. Wright is angry at white America, and in truth, he has every right to be angry. This country kept black people in slavery for 250 years and as second class citizens--really fourth class citizens--for another 100 years after that. So we have a total of 350 years plus of servitude, severe dsicrimination and exploitation, nearly equal to the 400 years the Jews were slaves in Egypt. All I can say to that is that if I was a heir to that tradition, if I were a black American, I wouldn't be shouting, "God Bless America"--I might say, as Rev. Wright did in a moment of righteous anger, "God Damn America" for treating my people with such terrible, implacable cruelty; for perpetrating on African-Americans a horrific experience that can be compared to the Holocaust. A question to my Russian-Jewish friends who remember the bitter experience of living as Jews in the Soviet Union; "Did you shout 'Slava CCCP' when you gathered with friends for honest discussions over tea in the kitchen? Did you feel love in your hearts for Russians and Ukrainians for calling you 'zhid' on the tramvei, or to the wonderful Soviet government for preventing you from attending MGU or some other top university or institute simply because you were Jewish despite the fact that you had the best grades in the class? If not, why do you expect that Rev. Wright or any other black person of his generation who lived through the bad old (and not-so-old) days, to shout 'God Bless America'?

And yet, despite that terrible history, here we have Obama, a member of a new generation of middle-class blacks who have been able to move past the bitterness of the black experience in America, leading a black-white coalition dedicated to opening a new and more hopeful page in American history. The Obama phenonomon and the readiness of millions of white people, especially young people, to support him, is one of the most inspiring moments in recent American history, an important sign that this country is finally starting to move past the horrors of its past and finally, finally beginning to live up to the immortal words of our founding document, the Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Do you hear that, my dear Russian-speaking friends; my wonderful friends with whom I personally have shared so much life experience? The Declaration of Independence says that ALL men are created equal," including men whose skin color is darker than yours and mine. Since 1776, we've stretched the definition of those who are created equal so that it doesn't just include 'all men', but 'all human beings'. All human beings, male and female, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, rich, poor, gay and straight, all of us are created equal and deserve to be treated and related to as such. We are all brothers and sisters with the same measure of human dignity and human worth. That is what America was supposed to be about from the beginning, and now 232 years too late, but slowly and haltingly with baby steps, American is finally learning to live up to her promise. It is that bedrock belief in human equality and the right of all people to experience the fruits of liberty and justice that ultimately redeems America, that ultimately makes America a good and decent place.

For Russian Jews to experience decades of oppression in the USSR, to struggle to win their freedom and to come to live in a land of liberty, only to tell a reporter, "Write this down, I'm voting for Hillary because she's not black", is a betrayal of the Soviet Jewish fight for freedom. It is a betrayal of the Jewish fight for freedom from the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus. It is a betrayal of basic Jewish values, American values and human values. It makes us no better than the drunken bigot on the tramvei in Moscow or Minsk who sneered, "zhid" at us. If we want freedom and justice for ourselves, we should also want it for all Americans, including our black neighbors in Coney Island.

Sadly, racism is a common human emotion; it can be found among all nations throughout the world. People tend to fear and distrust those with different skin color, different religions, different ethnicities. But racism is an emotion that degrades and banalizes the worth of the person who expresses it, who feels it. To the extent that racism exists in the Russian Jewish community--and I believe any honest person will acknowledge that it exists at an unacceptable level--then we must confront it and fight it. Everything that is wonderful about the Russian-Jewish mindset and ethos--all of the attributes of spontaneity and kindness that I have come to love over the years, is devalued and made worthless by the comment, "I didn't come here to have a Kenyan as president of the United States." Well, sorry, my dear friend, but that is exactly what makes America great, that finally we Americans may be fortunate enough to get a person whose father was a Kenyan and mother was white as President of the United States. To paraphrase the Jewish liturgy, "Thank God that we have survived everything we have been through and lived to see this day."


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

pogrom in Jabal Mukhaber

Please read the editorial in today's Haaretz that narrates how the Jerusalem police allowed a group of extreme-right wing youth to break into the Arab neighborhood of Jabal Mukhater, smash windows and damage cars. The residents of the neighborhood sensibly chose to stay in their homes, thereby preventing massive bloodletting between the two groups. The attackers were enraged that the murderer of eight Jewish students at the Mercaz Harav recently came from the enighborhood and that fliers had been pasted up in the area extolling the killing. So because of that, thugs should be given free run of a neighborhood, to threaten terrified men, women and children who had nothing to do with the killing or putting up the leaflets? So that is Jewish justice circa 2008; collective punishment carried out by a mob while the police shamefully look the other way?

As Haaretz notes, how laughable the claim that Arab residents of Jerusalem receive equal protection under the law. Their very lives can be put at risk by young Jewish thugs blowing off steam and the keystone cops of Jerusalem somehow cannot manage to prevent these people from reaching their targets.

As Haaretz notes, if a Jewish neighborhood anywhere in the world had suffered such an attack, Israel and Jewish organizations everywhere would rightfully be shouting that this is intolerable; that an attack on one Jew anywhere is an attack on all Jews everywhere. Yet a pogrom carried out by Jews meets largely with silence with the exception of a few brave voices like Haaretz. Question: What have we as a people come to that we would find such behavior by our own compatriots to be understandable and quasi-acceptable; so understandable and quasi acceptable that the police allow it to happen--just as they have allowed settler hooligans to beat and even kill West Bank Arabs for decades? Where is the Jewish conscience?


Friday, March 14, 2008

Rev. Wright and America's Amnesia

The radio talk show hosts are up in arms about Rev. Jeremiah's Wright's assorted sermons over the years and poor Barack Obama has to deliver a strong denounciation of his pastor in order to maintain his credibility with the voters in the middle. Some of Wright's gestures have indeed been injudicious--such as his lifetime achievement award to Louis Farrakhan--although most mainstream blacks credit the Nation of Islam for getitng untold thousands of black men off drugs and their lives straightened out.

But, here is what Wright said that forced Barack to pull the plug on him:

"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people," he said in a 2003 sermon. "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

You know what, a lot of that is true (though I don't know what he meant by 'Its in the Bible.' I guess he means that the Ten Commandments say: 'Thou Shalt Not Kill" and white America has been killing and enslaving and persecuting black people since the first slave ship pulled into Jamestown harbor in 1619). And yes, as Wright said, America does keep building bigher and bigger prisons and has locked up one young black man in 8. Yes indeed America has treated black people as less than human for almost its entire history. It held black people as slaves for 250 years (1619-1865) and then another 100 years of eighth class citizenship with segregation, disenfranchisement and lynchings. Thats 350 years of being treated like shit and only the last 40 years or so trending toward toward equality, that is if you overlook de- facto segreegation, redlining, 'driving while black', the imprisonment of much black youth and so much more.

Indeed, on what basis should a black person say, 'God Bless America'? Should he bless this country for enslaving African-Americans for generations and rendering the lives of countless generations a living hell? Yes, thank God, America is finally, finally beginning to come around, beginning to atone for 350 years of brutal oppression, but it has a very long way to go. And it is very sad and telling that in all the expressions of outrage at Wright and insistence that Obama distance himself, not one commentator I have seen has acknowledged that yes, America enslaved and brutalized black people. Maybe, just maybe, we are about to do something enormously important as a nation and elect a black president. But even if it happens, half of black America will continue to subsist in poverty, despair and isolation from the rest of the country.

So, it is a shame that Barack Obama cant express his real feelings at this moment and say, "I may not agree with everything my pastor has said, but he uttered some powerful truths." The truth is that America still has to pay some heavy debts to its black citizens to the point where many of them will finally be able to say 'God Bless America' and really mean it.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Voted for Obama, My Head Triumphant over my Heart

I literally decided on the way to the booth, having more or less made up my mind last night to go with Hillary because I dont like being part of trends (in this case the surge for Obama with Caroline Kennedy, Maria et al)and because I found myself emotionally torn up and in acute sympathy with Hillary every time I turned on the TV and heard about polls showing Obama surging. Screw it, I said, I may not be able to rationally justify a Hillary vote, but, for whatever reason, I feel great affection for her and thats good enough. So I was 99 percent of the way to a Hillary vote, but it turned out that I had plenty of time to re-think everything because when I arrived at my usual voting place at South Mountain School, I was informed that they had stopped holding elections there a couple of years ago. So I called Millburn Township and was told I was supposed to vote at St. Stephen's Church on Main Street, but when I got there, the volunteers couldnt locate my name and said my polling place was actually the town library.

So the whole riggamarole took almost an hour, and by the time I arrived at the library, I had plenty of time to reconsider and was suddenly grabbed by the consideration that, at least right now, Barack looks more electible against McCain. If the GOPers were about to nominate Romney or some other ultra-righty, then I could afford to vote my heart with Hillary, but given McCain's appeal to independents, Barack's even stronger appeal to same and Hillary being such a catalytic agent in firing up the Republicans, Obama suddenly appeared the only responsible vote. Plus, I totally bought his argument during the last debate that his 'right from the start' stance on the war puts him in a stronger position to push back against McCain's "white flag" demagoguery, while Hillary, having already voted to authorize the war and being afraid of looking soft, might try again to split the difference on the issue and end up prey to the 'flip flopper' charge. So sentimentality out the window and one vote for Obama. But somehow, if she pulls off an upset tonight and wins NJ and other states, I'll actually end up feeling releived. My head says Obama and my heart Hillary, but unlike my feelings concerning Israel, where I give primacy to my heart over my head, on this one I went with what Russians call 'kapilka', i.e. brain cells.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

Undecided to the end

Its less than 48 hours before the NJ primary and I still cant make up my mind between Barack and Hillary. I keep thinking I've decided to go with Obama, and then something pulls me back. Just now it was the thought that Obama has the momentum and the fashionable endorsements, which immediately pushed my thought process in a pro-Hillary direction. The Wolf Blitzer debate in Hollywood confirmed me in the conviction that Hillary has a superb command of the issues--but Obama appeared to be equally strong. I've never seen such two clearly superior candidates debate; nor, for that matter can I remeber an occasion when I found myself unable to make up my mond--meaning I am likely to go into the voting booth undecided. OK--at this point I'm leaning toward Obama, but could well flip at the moment it comes time to flip the lever.

Obama does seem to me to have a slightly better chance to win, although that may simply be because the Republican attack machine has already done its work of trashing her over so many years, whereas they've barely started on Obama yet. I liked very much how he laid out during his debate with Hillary his response to the anticipated (actually already articulated McCain charges of 'waving the white flag' and 'tax and spend liberal'. Hillary has shown to her discredit, especially with her Iraq vote, that she cast votes to look tough so as to be able to fight the GOP in '08. Barrack will stand up for the liberal position and not bend--and believes that will work better politically. We will see, but certainly that unapologetic quality, even as he reaches across the aisle for millions of independents and a few Republicans disenchanted with the Republicans' divide and rule games, is inspiring.

So why am I still undecided if, in general, I think Obama holds the better hand? I suppose it is great sympathy for Hillary going back to 1992--wishing she had been running the show instead of her feckless husband. Her heart remains profoundly prgressive even if she has made 1000 compromises along the way to get to this point. And now after all of that to have it all pulled away from her by this brash young guy out of nowhere--an African-American no less, thereby equalling, or even trumping, her 'first' (woman) quality. Well, it just aint fair, and I guess my loyalty to her stems primarily from that feeling. Also, that she may be made of tougher human stuff and will be less likely to compromise core Democratic priorities, as her husband clearly did and Obama might. But again---who knows? If Obama has a chance at being a 'transformative' candidate--much more so than Hillary, who am I to say 'no' to that inspiring tableau? Well, maybe 40 plus years of mostly grim political experience, maninly, of course, as an observer. The American people rarely fail to validate my worst fears, lapping up the GOP poison now for 40 years like so many Pavlov's dogs and blighting the millenial dreams of my generation. And now comes another guy evoking milleanial dreams. Yeah, right! Except at this time, if we dont go milleanial in a serious way, the world is likely to be destroyed within 50 years or so by global warming. In short, its now or never. So Go OBAMA,...I guess.

OK, to my readers, I recommend Obama but may still change my mind, myself, which may becme the first time in history that an endorser turns on his own candidate. Forunately, this election is not waiting with baited breath for my decision. So as John Edwards said in dropping out, I'll get out of the way and let history take its course. As Hillary said, this is a good choice to have--maybe the best choice we've ever had--but its still a choice that has to be made. In the end, I'll probably vote Barack. but tune in Tuesday for confirmation.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

see below my paen in Jewish Week to the most stimualting Russian rock group that has come along in quite awhile. Well OK, I dont hear all that many Russian rock groups, but Drozdy has got it going in terms of threnchant Dylanesque lyrics, originality and biting wit. Check out the article by clicking "continued"

by Walter Ruby
Special To The Jewish Week

Call it dialectical rock — a new musical form with roots in the psyche of the Soviet past that gives voice to all the contradictions of the present-day Russian Jewish immigrant experience.
Drozdy (Blackbirds), a musical group formed six months ago by five close friends in their early 50’s — most of whom have been part of the tight-knit Russian literary, artistic and counter-cultural scene since arriving here 30 years ago — have been winning raves since they cut their self-titled CD last month (many of the songs are available on YouTube).
On Dec. 27, Drozdy gave a rousing maiden performance before a packed house of Russian intellectual types and a few American-born admirers at the Bowery Poetry Club in the East Village.

A million miles in sensibility both from the “light as air and half as profound” Abba-like pop that dominates the musical scene in Moscow these days and the schmaltzy variant of the same performed nightly in the music halls and restaurants of Brighton Beach, the music of Drozdy is dense, multi-textured and laced with irony.
After the lead singer and writer of most of the group’s lyrics, Vadim Moldovan, introduced the group in English by saying that a Drozdy concert “is not about songs, but about drama,” the group performed a set of 11 songs in Russian. (“Our entire repertoire at this point,” Moldovan acknowledged.) Behind the stage was a movie screen showing Soviet-era films with scenes of bedraggled proletarians being persecuted by brutish exploiters and of Peter the Great leading his armies into battle.
The music was replete with obscure literary allusions that evinced a deep immersion in Russian history and culture. Several songs express the musicians’ nostalgia for their youth in long-ago and far-away Soviet times. One rhapsodizes about hanging out on Lenin Street as “my little piece of happiness.” Another contrasts the heroism of the World War II generation with the humdrum present upon the assertion that it is better to “Die as a heroic tankist [tank commander] than as a sorry [computer] programist.” Yet another stirring balled, “Burning Down the Homeland,” appeared to extol a distinct Russian-American identity:
“Our ancestral home is on fire ... while over here we are stuck in a four-hour traffic jam. ... But America at least is not Sodom. And I swear that I will never set foot again in my ancestral home because I don’t want any more contact with evil. ... Even if my fate is to sail children’s boats in puddles and even if I have to eat macaroni for dinner. ... Here I am free and proud.”
After the show, audience members said that the music of Drozdy transmits a vitality and genuineness they haven’t heard in Russian music in a long time.
Inga Kotlovskaya, 43, a marketing professional who moved to the U.S. from Kiev at the age of 12, said she finds the music of Drozdy “quirky and intellectually exciting” adding, “The song lyrics are so good that they can stand alone as poetry even without the music.” Kotlovskaya said that even though Drozdy performs in Russian and its songs contain specific references that only someone who grew up in the Soviet Union would “get,” nevertheless she finds their music “less parochial than most American rock I listen to. Drozdy has a different take on reality; one that opens you up to a broader vision.”
Yulia Belomlinskaya, 48, a poet and writer who splits her time between New York and St. Petersburg, said, “Vadim [Moldovan] has accomplished something with Drozdy that is immediately understandable to our parents, our own generation and our kids. I hope this music will inspire young people to cherish their Russian identity and investigate the culture we left behind. Russian Jewish immigrants in America have no roots. We are walking trees.”
Moldovan, 50, is a professor of social work at York College who lives with his wife Vassa, a classical musician, and their two daughters in a two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights crammed with Moldovan’s distinctive sculptures and bric-a-brac from the family’s travels. He noted proudly that Drozdy’s songs have received 2,500 hits in the two weeks they have been up on YouTube.
“The word ‘wildfire’ comes to mind,” he said with an ironic smile, adding that he doesn’t actually expect Drozdy to become an overnight commercial success and that he and the other members are keeping their day jobs, at least for now. Yet why did the members of Drozdy, who have known each other for more than 20 years, wait until they were 50 to form a rock band?
Moldovan replied, “Look, this isn’t a middle-aged cry for attention. All of us were raised on Soviet music and symbolism, but then we came to New York between the ages of 17 and 20 and it took quite a while to put all of that together and to acquire sufficient wisdom and understanding to make this artistic statement, which wrestles with the contradictions of Soviet reality, post-Soviet reality and America.”
Moldovan said that while there are no specifically Jewish references in Drozdy songs, the group’s sensibility is profoundly Jewish. “Look at Bob Dylan,” Molodovan said. “His Jewish background screams at you, but he writes cowboy ballads. In the same way, we go deeply into Russian music. I believe that the strongest Jewish quality is being able to synthesize, to take a piece of another culture and transform it. That is what Jewish artists have always done, whether in Russia, America, and many other countries.”
Moldovan clearly has a practical side. He managed to convince his cousin, Russian-American billionaire oligarch Len Blavatnik to cover the cost of the production of the group’s first CD. “We consider ourselves the Blavatnik house band,” Moldovan said, without the usually evident tongue in cheek. “Len doesn’t quite get our music, as his own taste is toward gypsy and Romanian music, but we are grateful that he put up the money and let us produce the music we wanted.”
Asked about specific songs, Moldovan said emphatically that “Burning Down the Homeland” is not meant as a condemnation of modern-day Russia, and that another song about the Soviet era with the refrain “Good night children...smoke more marijuana” is not an endorsement of drug use, but rather, in an ironic twist on Karl Marx’s condemnation of religion as ‘the opiate of the masses,’ a description of the narcotic effect of revolutionary ardor on the masses at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.
“The main thing about our music is that we never preach or moralize,” Moldovan said. “Rather our message is ironic and subversive. This is post-modernist, post-moralist, deconstructionist music. We take pieces of the old Soviet world and of our modern life in New York and rearrange them. We draw together cultural pieces that would never be connectable in any other way.”
Naum Khromov, a Drozdy guitarist who works as a computer programmer to make a living, said the group’s music “is a surrealistic mix of our good and bad dreams. We have come to a certain point in our lives when we all have wives, kids, mortgages, so we try to jump out of that reality into the kind of therapeutic effect one gets from creative expression. It’s a wonderful form of intellectual and emotional release.”
Back to top


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Hillary's comeback

Well, we have just witnessed an incredible, stunning revival for Hillary Clinton in the face of ten polls and just about every commentator around who had already written her off as dead. I am personally happy about the result, even though my last posting on the forum was an awed response to Barracks’ powerful speech after he won Iowa. In the days before New Hampshire, though, I found myself moving back toward Hillary for several reasons:

1. I didn’t feel the race should be over if Obama won in two small and unrepresentative states. The race should, and now will certainly, continue at least through Super Tuesday February 5 which will give us a chance to thoroughly vet Hillary and Barrack and make an informed decision as to who is the best change agent and has the best chance to defeat the GOP’s candidate. As much as I remain impressed by Obama, he needs to put more meat on the bones of his “change” message. What are his priorities and is he willing to go toe to toe with the insurance, oil and pharmaceutical companies and with the Republican right to get health care and a sane energy policy that really fights global warming/ All this stuff about uniting the whole body politic and no red states and blue states is lovely, but only goes so far. And Hillary needs to prove to me that she is not too much of a centrist and a militarist, but will instead resist the impulse to go to war with Iran, will find a way to withdraw from Iraq and will follow policies that isolate Islamic fundamentalism, not fan its flames as Bush-Cheney have done.

2. I disliked the media’s nasty treatment of Hillary during the lead up to New Hampshire, as well as the ‘ganging up’ on her manifested by Edwards and Obama during the New Hampshire debate. Edwards, in particular, behaved in a slimy way with his servile kissing up to Obama and deriding Hillary as the status quo. Bullshit. She was right on target to get angry and make clear that she has been fighting for progressive change in this country with 1969—has dedicated her whole life to it. Any chance that I would back Edwards went by the board at that moment. I also didn’t like Obama’s sardonic “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” And then the media going crazy when she teared up the following day—the sheer meanness of the NY Post and jerks like Dick Morris. Yes, I am sure all of that won her great sympathy, including my own.

3. Both Hillary and Barrack will need to draw distinctions with each other, but the one who goes too negative will lost my vote for sure. They need to argue over the next month about who would be a better Democratic candidate in a way that doesn’t pull the party apart; does not, for example, pit women against blacks—for that way will lead to certain destruction and likely throw the election to the Republicans. These are both fine candidates and decent human beings and good leaders, so please, Hillary and Barrack, give it your best shot, but do things in such a way that the winner of the primaries over the next month will then be able to move forward and take us to victory. And leave open the option of a Hillary-Barrack or Barrack-Hillary presidential/vice presidential ticket; since that would likely be our ticket for victory.

I’ll write on the Republicans and the Jewish angle in all of this in my next posting…


Thursday, January 03, 2008


Wow. I must admit I had not been aboard the Obama bandwagon, that I was torn between him, Hillary and Edwards and unable to decide which to vote for if there is still a contest in NJ February 5, but still more sympathetic to Hillary--until I heard Obama's Iowa victory speech last night. Now I 'get' Obama; that he is the most inspirational politician to come along since Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the one who may finally slay the rightist demon which has dominated our body politic since that fateful year 1968--40 years ago. Hillary's speech was fine and earnest--she really cares about change and social justice and has devoted her life to it, but there is simply no comparison between her homely, prosaic, incrementalist language and Obama's ability to soar rhetorically; to give voice to the long stymied, almost forgotten hopes for a humane America based on cooperation not competition; a country that will finally provide its people with decent health care, a sane energy policy that seriously tries to deal with global warming and that treats the rest of the world with respect. Amazing...I honestly think the race on the Democratic side is all but over and Hillary and Edwards will drop out before February 5--that Barrack will treat them with the honor they deserve and give them places at the table and that we will get down to the business of finally bringing to fruition the politics of hope. What an amazing thing to be contemplating a black president to heal America's 400 year legacy of racism. God protect Barrack and keep him safe and let us strive to recreate the energy and hope that seemed dead for so long. What a night...


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Back with a vengeance as the Grinch of Penn Station

Sorry for long disappearance, folks. I'll give you a report on my various sordid activities during the layoff in my next posting. Meanwhile, let me share a bit of Christmas cheer--namely, my recent public battle against Chrsitmas music in Penn Station, whoich may surprise a few of you out there who have me pegged as an anti-Semitic lefty who coddles the Palestinianb enemy and never fights for Jewish issues. It turns out that on some issues--Christmas music in Penn Station, for example, I'm the one on the barricades while the ADL is taking a pass. Anyway see below the full text of my story. A shorter version has just run in the Jewish Week
but I wanted to regale with the full version the faithful readers of this blog by a faithless blogger who disappears for months.

By Walter Ruby
Now that the interminable Christmas season is finally over, let me share a cautionary tale about how I became the Grinch of Penn Station, intent on stealing Christmas from the children of New York and New Jersey.
It all began on the evening of December 12 after I arrived at Penn Station with my partner Tatyana from a reception in Manhattan to catch a train to our home in New Jersey and ended up going ballistic over the piped-in Christmas music.
Already for several weeks, I had been cringing every time I entered the station, passing from New Jersey Transit to subway and vice versa, in anticipation of the inescapable flood of Christmas songs constantly pouring out of the station’s industrial-sized PA system in all of their (at least for me) near-nauseating saccharine sweetness; all-AmericanYuletide chestnuts like the God-awful Chestnut(s) Roasting On An Open Fire, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Hark The Herald, and Silver Bells.
Why do these songs bother me so much? I figured out in therapy a few years back that hearing them triggers unsettling memories of my childhood and adolescence in the 1950’s and 60’s, when I was a lonely Jewish kid growing up in all-gentile suburbs of Pittsburgh and Chicago and groping with some king-sized identity issues. My guilty little secret is that in those days I actually loved Silver Bells; a song that evoked images of an idealized WASPY social order I could never quite be part of, and of an idealized WASPY girl I adored in high school named Sandy who rejected my romantic advances because, it seemed to me, she was too much of an obedient daughter to upset her Episcopalian parents by doing something as outré as dating a Jew. So, for me, Silver Bells comes with a lot of baggage.
Nevertheless, as I have reminded myself more than once during more recent holiday seasons; ‘Being assaulted with Yuletide shlock in public spaces is an unchangeable part of December in America. Why get myself worked up about something I manifestly cannot control?’
Or so I felt until December 12, when Tatyana and I rushed into the station avid to catch New Jersey Transit’s 9:25 to Millburn, only to find out that we had missed the train by about a minute. That meant that unless we wanted to go back outside into the freezing rain, we had little choice but to sit in a Christmas-wreath bedecked waiting room and endure Chestnuts Roasting and Hark the Herald for almost an hour until the next train came along. And with the effect of several drinks from the reception still coursing through my bloodstream, that suddenly seemed to me more punishment than I should be expected to bear.
So I walked a few feet to an information desk with a stout middle aged woman behind it and asked who I could talk to about getting the Christmas carols turned off. She looked startled and asked in an incredulous voice why I would possibly want to deprive the travelling public of the joyous sounds of the holiday season. I replied that I was Jewish and since there didn’t seem to be any Chanukah songs in evidence, I could not see why travelers like me should have to endure a constant diet of songs celebrating someone else’s heritage.
The attendant gave me as sour a look as I can remember receiving in some time and told me I should walk across the floor and speak to a representative of Amtrak, the agency that owns the building. There I was told by another clerk that the person who makes the decision about what music to play at Penn Station is the stationmaster, Michael Gallagher. He naturally wasn’t in at 10 PM, but I was given to believe I could reach him the following day by calling Amtrak’s public relations office.
I did as requested the next morning, and soon found myself in extended phone conversation with Cliff Cole, a very personable Amtrak spokesperson who was quick to tell me that despite the mainstream sound of his name, he is Jewish himself and could sympathize with where I was coming from. After specifying that Amtrak is subsidized but not owed by the U.S. government and is not following any particular government policy in relation to Christmas, Cole sought artfully to distance Amtrak from the controversy by saying, “Whether or not to play the (Christmas) music is up to the station manager, Mr. Gallagher, and is not an Amtrak company decision. Each station manager decides what music to play, based on passenger response.” Yet when I requested Gallagher’s phone number, Cole refused to provide it, saying the station manager is covered by an Amtrak policy forbidding its employees to speak to the media.
“Aha” I said, “So Gallagher is, after all, a representative of Amtrak, rather than an independent actor? “Well, yes, Cole acknowledged after some prodding, “Mr. Gallagher is an employee of Amtrak, and ultimately responds to Amtrak.” So why then does Amtrak sanction such a heavy diet of Christmas music in the most Jewish city in America, with no Chanukah music or displays whatsoever at Penn Station to counterbalance the barrage of Christmas carols, or the wreaths decorating the waiting room and the large Christmas tree alongside the main ticket window? Cole responded, “The Christian population is our largest client base and we entertain for that group. Many passengers tell us they find the Christmas music enjoyable and want us to continue it…Why aren’t the Jewish holidays represented? I don’t know. Maybe in the future we could mix it up a little bit.”
Cole called back later to say he had checked into the situation and the official Amtrak line was that the company “considers the music to be secular and seasonal, rather than religious in nature.” What about Hark the Herald, Angels Sing? Cole allowed that some might consider that song to have religious content, but then blandly repeated that overall the music was clearly seasonal in nature. He added, “Amtrak is satisfied that the music is not offensive. If we had been getting complaints from the public, that might be a consideration, but this is the first such complaint I have ever received.”
Could that really be possible? As Cole himself had informed me, over half a million people pass through Penn Station every day. Could it really be that amidst that mind-boggling mass of humanity, which surely included many thousands of Jews, not one person except me had ever complained about the Christmas music? That seemed to me unlikely; at least until I called the Jewish community’s top defense agencies, the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, to get their reaction to Amtrak’s defense of its policy. It turned out that the two agencies were decidedly lukewarm to my complaint. I left several messages with the ADL’s national director Abraham Foxman, America’s supreme arbiter of all things anti-Semitic, but the usually accommodating Foxman never called me back. The same week I was pestering him, Foxman released a statement upbraiding presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee for injecting too much religiosity into the campaign, contending that, “There is also a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate, and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours,,” It struck me as passably strange that the same Foxman had nothing whatsoever to say about whether the overt emphasis on Christianity at Penn Station might not be unsettling to members of the religiously diverse public that frequents the facility.
The AJC’s premiere spokesman on church-state issues, legislative director Richard Foltin, at least returned my call, but he too seemed unperturbed about the situation at Penn Station. “Yes, this is a pluralistic society, but one that is largely Christian,” Foltin said. “The courts have recognized that a secular recognition of the holiday season is appropriate and will not be totally absent of (content) showing the religious roots of (American) culture.” But has not the AJC been active in recent years making legal challenges to the display of creches and menorahs in front of public buildings across America? Sure, Foltin said equably, but the agency sees such displays as an overt government endorsement of religion, whereas it does not consider the canned music, wreaths and Christmas tree at Penn Station to be “overtly religious symbols.”
Foltin then threw me a sop, remarking, “I can’t see AJC going to court to stop the Christmas music at Penn Station, but to the extent that Amtrak recognizes pluralistic nature of society, it would be appropriate to recognize Chanukkah as well.”
Foltin’s last comment left me with the modest hope that if a few people who read this article take the time to call Cliff Cole to complain, the unreachable Mr. Gallagher might next year condescend to play I Have a Little Dreidel once in a while amidst all the Hark the Heralds, or perhaps display a menorah among the Christmas wreaths. Would I take that as progress? Definitely, though it wouldn’t go to the heart of my existential angst, which is that I will continue to feel personally violated by the barrage of Christmas music and imagery deluging me from all sides at Penn Station, at shopping malls and my local bank.
But as a professional at a Jewish organization said to me; “Walter, it is high time you figured out that you are living in America, not Mea She’arim. I mean, get a life. Do you know how many Orthodox Jews pass through Penn Station every day and don’t get all bent out of shape by the PA system playing Silver Bells? They just tune it out. Why can’t you”?
Indeed, why can’t I? Well, I seem to have some unresolved issues that better adjusted and more observant Jews don’t. So in lieu of moving to Mea She’arim, I plan to keep pushing Amtrak to make sure we get a dreidel or two at Penn Station next December.