Geopolitics and “New PhD Disease”

My father-in-law, a very wise man, often used to say with some amusement, “So-and-so is suffering from ‘New PhD disease.'”  New PhD disease had one major symptom: the person suffering from it had the delusion that because he had become a bona fide expert in one field, he had magically become an expert in every field. A New PhD in mechanical engineering might lecture at length on a question of theology. His cousin, the New PhD in Physics, might consider herself an expert on finance. And of course, their friend the New PhD in History knows everything there is to know about child development!

(Jim holds a doctorate in metallurgical engineering and had a long career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since his PhD is no longer new, he claims expertise only on matters of metallurgy, fishing, and the vagaries of new PhD’s.)

I’ve been watching the debates about the Iran treaty, thinking that there certainly are a lot of New PhD’s in the world lately.

I am not going to tell you what to think about that treaty. I have some private opinions, but they are not of a quality that provides merit to my opinions. There are some subjects on which I feel I can say more than a bit: I have both academic and practical experience with economics and finance, and I know a thing or two about Jewish ethics, Biblical and rabbinic literature. What I know about geopolitics, nuclear weapons, and treaty compliance verification wouldn’t get me out of a wet paper bag.

The same is true for a lot of the people holding forth about this treaty. Even the people who might count as experts were spouting opinions long before they had a copy of the document in hand to read, which worries me. Personally, I like to check out the data before I offer an educated opinion on anything.

Here’s what I’m doing about this treaty: I’m praying. I’m praying that all those who vote on it will remember that the stakes are very high, far too high for this to be about personal likes or dislikes, or any petty consideration. I’m praying that however it comes out, the result in the long run will be peace. If there is some way to bring Iran back into the fold of respectable nations, to step back from bankrolling terrorism, that would be very good.

Mostly, I’m praying that whatever is decided, it does not lead to an escalation of woe in the region, because all the regular people there (Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Syrian, etc.) are suffering too much already. Sim shalom, Hashem – bring peace, God, and let it begin soon.

And please, God, help the New PhD’s stick to their dissertation topics!

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Remembering Kennedy

Serious Steps

This is a re-post of my remembrance of President Kennedy from last year, slightly updated. I reread it earlier this week and decided that these words were still the right words, given the state of the news and the nation right now.

It’s 51 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. Like everyone else alive that day, I remember it and the following days in Technicolor.

I started to write a different post today, but in researching a detail, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination:

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

In those days, the big worry was nuclear war: that “WWIII” would start, and we’d nuke ourselves to death. That never happened, but the underlying problem – the problem of people using violence when words would better serve – is with us still. What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now (and believe me, they come in both genders, then and now) like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or mentally unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

For Beginners: Israel in Conflict

The situation in the Middle East grows more and more grim as Shabbat approaches. A couple of thoughts, especially for those readers who are beginners in Judaism:

1. Those of you who are feeling upset and disturbed, this is a time to reach out to your teachers and your community. Go to services this Shabbat. Contact your rabbi, or your teacher, and let them know what’s going on with you. Simply be in Jewish space; it will help.

2. One way to feel less helpless is to do something to help innocents who are suffering.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has an an “Israel and Gaza Appeal Fund” to assist those who are suffering in the current conflict. It coordinates and assists both Magen David Adom (The Red Star, in Israel) and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The International Rescue Committee also works in this area. Every gift of tzedakah, no matter how small, will help sufferers and will also help the giver feel less helpless.

3. If you are just beginning to study about Judaism, let this be a time to learn, not a time to attempt to teach others. Some may approach you and ask you to explain the conflict, knowing that you are interested in Judaism. If you don’t want to engage on the topic, say so. All you need do is say, “The situation in Israel and Gaza breaks my heart. Can we talk about something else?”

4. Another things you can do is study. A popular recent book on the subject is My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit. Another excellent book is Israel is Real, by Rich Cohen. He is not a scholar, and I have some quibbles with details, but it’s readable and honest. Or ask your rabbi for a recommendation!

5. Do not believe everything you see on the Internet.  Again, if something disturbs you, contact your teacher or rabbi. Also, be careful what words and images you spread. Unsubstantiated rumors do not help the situation, no matter whom they allegedly favor.

I wish you a Shabbat of peace and learning, of goodness and grace, of light and love. Shabbat shalom.

Reflections on Israel, July 2014

My heart is in the east, and I am at the farthest west.

How can I taste food? How shall it be sweet to me?

How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while

Zion lies beneath the fetters of Edom, and I in Arab chains?

It seems to me a small thing to leave all the good things of Spain,

Seeing how precious in my eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

                                              – Yehuda HaLevi, 12th c.

This 12th century poem is the best way I know to communicate the relationship of Jews to Israel. The poet who wrote it was a Jew who spent much of his life as a refugee from various regimes that were unfriendly to Jews. He was born in Spain, but he was never able to put down roots anywhere. If you asked him, he would tell you that Israel was his home, even though he had never seen it.

He disappeared en route to Israel. We hear the last of him in Cairo, where he could have stayed. He was a celebrity in the Jewish world of his time, a superstar poet and philosopher, but he wanted to go home. He insisted on going, despite the fact that Jerusalem was in the hands of Christian armies who slaughtered every Jew they found. We don’t know if the old man was on a boat that sank at sea, or was taken by pirates, or whether he did indeed reach the holy city and was (as legend has it) trampled to death by a Crusader’s horse.

My heart is in the east right now. I have heard from friends and colleagues who have scrambled to bomb shelters again and again over the past week. I am worried about friends from whom I haven’t heard. It has also stirred my memories of being in Israel during another difficult time, 12 years ago. I moved to Israel to learn Torah, and wound up learning more about bomb shelters and gas masks than I ever wanted to know.

I am angry at the handling of this story by the news media. The rockets and bombs hitting Israel for ten days were not deemed newsworthy. Only when Israel at last began to defend herself again the bombing did anyone take notice, and then it was to talk about “escalation.” What escalation? What other country on earth would be asked to sit quietly and accept bombardment? One million Israelis will sleep in or near bomb shelters tonight.

And yes, I am aware that there have been a terrible number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Their leadership has chosen to shelter their rocket launchers and military facilities in civilian settings, using their own people as human shields. That’s why Israel held off for so long. But I do not apologize for the fact that my people have chosen to keep military targets away from civilians. I do not apologize for the fact that Israel does not use old people and children for human shields. I wish that Hamas would do the same.

Not all the “photos of Gaza” published in social media right now are actually photos of Gaza, or of the current conflict. For more information about that, go to Grasswire.com or follow them at @grasswirefacts.  I am angry at the lies, at the manipulation of public perception.

I cannot imagine where this will end, because I know Israelis, and I know how the Jewish heart feels about the Land. No bombardment, no kidnapping, no murder, no harassment, no threat, no propaganda will change the fact that for thousands of years, Israel has been the home of the Jews, the home of our hearts. I wish that the world would not encourage Hamas in its murderous deception, and its use of innocents for military purposes. I wish that there could be two states, and that we could find some way to agree that Israel can exist, and a Palestinian state can exist.

My heart is in the East, and I am at the limits of the West, praying for peace.