The Middle East, European Colonialism and the Result of Blank Checks

February 27, 2018

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, argued we’ve become less bloody over the centuries. But so many issues involve life and death. For two weeks this country has been discussing how to stop school shootings. This week let’s address life and death in the Middle East. Next week, events permitting, let’s discuss two issues that threaten life worldwide.

I can count on hate mail whenever I speak about the Middle East. But let’s put some things in perspective.

The world’s refugee problem swamps most countries’ willingness to take people in. Our government wants to restrict immigration and we fight over who and why. Reaction to flows of refugees threaten democratic governments across Europe and contributed to the vote for Brexit. In addition to their own disputes, the American military footprint has aggravated war and population displacement in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine among many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Stepping back historically and geographically, most countries are dominated by conquering populations. This country conquered and decimated Native Americans to create our bi-coastal America. A succession of warring populations, Huns, Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Vikings and more, fought for Europe long before the modern wars.

This has hardly been a good way of solving problems or competition for land. But even more harm lurks in the suggestion that we undo it.

The creation of Israel was plainly the result of European refusal to accept its Jewish population. Historically, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and the Moors in Spain, before Ferdinand and Isabella Christianized it, were much more hospitable to Jews. The twentieth century brought the fate of the Jews to a head. Europe could have solved its integration problem. But seeing the handwriting on many walls in the 1930s, people like Justice Brandeis, then on the U.S. Supreme Court, were telling friends in Europe to get out quickly. But where to? Franklin Roosevelt, despite close personal and professional relationships with many Jews, blocked boatloads of Jewish refugees from our shores for political reasons.

So the west solved its problem by exporting it – to Palestine. Everyone was a victim in this process. Jewish refugees were uprooted and they in turn uprooted Palestinians. What to do?

At about the same time, Britain was facilitating the breakup of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. It cost something like a million lives and uprooted many times that. The two countries still find it difficult to get along, but undoing 1948 is not on the table. It cannot be.

It is not true that whatever is, is just. That was proposed by the conservative philosopher Robert Nozick and I most emphatically reject it. But redressing all the wrongs of the past comes at a cost which will involve many who themselves were neither perpetrators nor victims and sometimes both. The argument about who was right and who was wrong in Palestine is not a soluble argument. No one was treated as they should have been. But even more important, fixing those wrongs implies a fight to the death of everyone there. That I cannot wish.

I cannot support complete and utter conquest for either side. We might once have insisted on an enforceable compromise. America once played a role as an honest broker and could have maximized the chance for peace. But we could not continue to play that role while giving Israel a blank check to violate its promises about settlements. The result, I fear, is going to be tragic. It may simply be too late to avert widespread disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 27, 2018.


The Innocence Project

December 26, 2017

I want to talk about people we are less used to talking about around Christmas.

Several times a year I am guaranteed to have a good cry – whenever I get the latest bulletin from the Innocence Project. Without fail they describe at length someone who spent decades in prison, sometimes on death row, for crimes they did not commit. As a human being I am always heartbroken. As an American who believes that we all have a right to liberty, I am both sick and outraged.

And once freed, what education, training or experience do they have? Did they have a chance to start a family and are any left to warm their hearts? The dislocation of freedom is immense. I’ve met men in prison afraid to come out. Those lost decades freeze the soul as they scar past, present and future. Freedom is precious. It also unravels.

I am outraged because there are too many in this country, too many with the power, to keep people in prison, even execute them, even after it has become clear that they were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Justice O’Connor, bless her heart, saw that as unacceptable, although we didn’t always agree on the facts. But the Supreme Court has not yet found the character or the will to conclude that it is unconstitutional to hold an innocent person once that becomes clear, or to sit tight and deny a hearing once evidence has been found that makes it improbable that the prisoner was guilty. The Court has refused to find a right to DNA evidence when that could prove innocence. And prosecutors repeatedly do everything they can to withhold evidence that could result in justice instead of in conviction. The Supreme Court has even said that there are no penalties for withholding evidence even when it is in clear violation of constitutional obligations.

As an American, it is an understatement to say that is no source of pride. As an attorney and a human being, it is a source of disgust – and fear. A legal process that ignores justice is a threat to us all. The purpose of the Bill of Rights and of the Fourteenth Amendment is to protect us all from the abuse of law to polish the prosecutor’s reputation or prejudices instead of serving the cause of justice. Unfortunately attorneys know that the criminal process is more like a canning factory than an effort to separate the innocent from the guilty, truth from lies, and fairness from abuse.

The ACLU and the CATO Institute, otherwise often on opposite sides, come together in support of truth and accurate decision-making. But when the issue is the rights of people accused of crime or the rights of people who have been imprisoned, too many eyes glaze over, not from tears but indifference. Yet those rights, if and when they are honored, are what differentiate us from a police state where people can be imprisoned because of their politics, their parentage or their refusal to kowtow to the unreasonable demands of authorities. These are part of the central meaning of being an American.

The people whose title is Justice of the United States Supreme Court who vote most consistently to protect the right to life of fetuses are the least likely to protect life in any other context. That is hypocrisy under black robes. The behavior of callous prosecutors and unqualified Supreme Court justices is an American disgrace.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 26, 2017.

Dealing with Hate

October 24, 2017

Dealing with Hate

Steve Gottlieb


Group epithets darken our world. It is particularly dangerous because the president encourages it. Trying to revive the language and practice of hate is shameful regardless of whom it comes from. How can we deal with it?


Somehow I grew up curious and sought out people who seemed different. I deliberately left New York City for college and law school to mix with people from other places. Students here come from distant parts of the country for the same reason. We discover our new companions have no horns and deal decently with us, although there are always exceptions.


I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for it but brotherhood makes sense. And it’s a survival strategy. Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps. He wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

His words urge us to stick together as a survival tactic – we can be selfish and altruistic at the same time and should be because brotherhood is valuable to us all.

Most of us learned not to generalize – branding people en masse makes little sense and lots of damage. Our language is full of ethnic slurs like welching on deals, Indian-givers, patty-wagons, not to mention all the ethnic slurs which most of us now regard as unmentionable but to which all our ancestors were subject. In other words, it’s too easy to break down into mutual distrust.

I’ve broken bread, worked and played with people around this country and across the globe, as an attorney, a Peace Corps Volunteer, tourist and student. It’s an education. Decent, caring people come in all colors, speak all languages, and worship in all kinds of places. That was as true in Iran as it was at college – I was a religious minority in both places but gained by both experiences as I learned to understand the needs, fears, desires and beliefs of others.

Unfortunately it’s too easy to fear what one hasn’t explored. We usually notice what goes wrong first, while what goes right seems too ordinary to notice. But that leaves lots of dangerous misimpressions. I grew up in an era when violence spewed out of white ghettos, from gangs in Black jackets but white skin. Should I fear every white American or every cleric because some went wrong? I’ve known a large number of wonderful African-Americans as well as people of other faiths and nationalities – some as clients, friends, colleagues and I’ve worked for several. The goodness of different peoples obviously doesn’t prove that none ever make mistakes but equally the mistakes of some don’t imply the absence of other wonderful people.

More significant than arguments, we need to condemn, resist and speak out. Hatred reveals the hater’s weakness. Our joint condemnations reveal how hatred destroys those who do the hating, costs them respect and other social and economic rewards. We must stand together.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 24, 2017.

What Happened at the Supreme Court Gerrymandering Argument

October 13, 2017

Based on the U.S. Supreme Court argument in the Wisconsin Gerrymandering case, I am optimistic that we may get some very much needed reform. To see why, click here for my commentary on

I’m an Affirmative Action Baby

September 20, 2017

I went out for an early walk recently. One of the things I like about taking a walk is the way it clears the mind. This morning, the fog lifted and I realized with great clarity that I was an affirmative action baby. About a decade before I applied, Princeton had made the decision, not just to eliminate the quota that limited the number of Jews admitted, but to actively encourage Jews to come.

When my high school college advisor suggested I apply to Princeton I was surprised. Princeton was not on my radar. But all the top students at Midwood wanted to go to Harvard, so I figured it was worth a try. I will never forget the day my parents drove me to campus for an interview. I expected to be grilled on whether I was good enough. The admissions office was on Cannon Green, cattycorner from Nassau Hall where the 1783 Treaty of Peace ending the Revolutionary War was signed. I don’t remember the man’s name, but I think he was an assistant Dean. And the whole interview was about trying to convince me to come.

I walked out and told my parents, in a tone that must have revealed both my joy and surprise, that they want me to come. Is it ever great to feel wanted. After that, there was never any question in my mind where I was going. I remember trying to conceal my sense of joy from fellow students at Midwood High – I didn’t want to be taken as bragging. And by the way, Yale Law School treated me much the same way four years later. This was not the education I expected. But I would have had to be dumb to turn it down.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to challenge my credentials because Princeton decided to encourage Jews to apply and come. I think it was a good bargain for everyone. As a group we were hungry for knowledge, opportunity and a chance to make the world better. And Princeton designed its program so that we students got to know our professors. Some of them invited us to their homes; some of us invited them to dinner with our friends.

Only one African-American graduated with our class. So I was proud of the school when it made the same decision to bring African-Americans to campus and then did it again with women. That’s quite a transformation between about 1944 and 1969. And it didn’t hurt a bit. Princeton is still at the top of everybody’s chart of the best schools to go to 55 years after yours truly graduated.

When I got to law school, I really got to experience and appreciate the value of diversity. Students came from literally all over the world to study with a couple of my teachers. I learned a great deal. Some of it was comic, like the student who wanted to work for Pakistan in order to promote the independence of Kashmir, directly contrary to Pakistani policy. One of my fellow students nearly burned my stomach with Indian spices. And I was terrified to introduce my dates to him because they all thought he was gorgeous. But they all enriched my life, my understanding and my appreciation of different peoples.

So yes, I’m an affirmative action baby. I’m not the least bit embarrassed about it. I hope I’ve justified their confidence in me – I’ve certainly spent my life trying.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 19, 2017.



I Have a Dream

August 22, 2017

The North was segregated after Brown outlawed segregation in 1954. It didn’t happen by private individual choices but by government decisions that blocked banks from lending to African-Americans in both the suburbs and inner cities. Those now well documented decisions created many of the inner cities’ problems and the struggle to make equality real. But who cares?

Who cares because all the proposals to fix a huge injustice, not in the distant years of slavery but now, mean paying to help “them.” It’s fine if someone else pays. But not us, not the wealthy, the middle class or the poor.

So are there answers society could adopt?

We nibble: the Fresh Air Fund, scholarships for the African-American elite, the people who overcame all the potholes and roadblocks in their way.

In 1938, years before Brown, the Supreme Court understood that the inescapable sin of segregation was the barrier to networking. Missouri was prepared to send African-Americans to any law school in neighboring states so that they would get what Missouri called an “equal” education, but not to Missouri schools. Presaging Brown, the Court said it wasn’t equal to deny African-Americans the chance to get to know future colleagues, adversaries, judges and legislators. As Brown would say 16 years later, segregation is inherently unequal.

There lies the real problem of race – any real solution involves us all. Would we put the resources into “their” schools that we put into “ours”? Would we share some classrooms? Would we allow willing parents to send their kids to our schools or would a modest program be too much for us or the racist majority on the court in Washington?

I think there will be success for African-Americans too. Fresh out of slavery, their ancestors created a system of higher education,  fine colleges and universities which survive and thrive. Then they started the climb toward the middle class familiar to many of us. Many African-Americans joined the ranks of civil servants in the federal government. Government service had been a route out of poverty for many of our ancestors. But beginning in 1913, after years of progress, President Wilson excluded African-Americans from all but menial federal jobs, pushing educated and successful African-Americans out of the federal bureaucracy.

That story was repeated after World War II, after Brown v. Board, when federal officials denied that African-Americans had any rights the capitalist system need honor and instead used the federal agencies they controlled to block African-Americans from getting loans to build businesses or join the march to the suburbs. It wasn’t anything African-Americans did, but that deliberate undermining of their efforts and successes laid the seeds of contemporary inner city problems.

There are many more chapters to the story of the ways that the financial and political rugs were pulled from under potentially successful African-Americans and their businesses. The road of our African-American brothers and sisters has been longer, harder, more unjust than the ancestors of most of the rest of us because America made it so.

I was there in front of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. Martin Luther King shared his glorious dream. That dream of equality belongs to all of us. All of us depend on the crucial American realization that all mankind is created equal. So, like most Americans, I thrilled to King’s words. And I admire the principled courage and dedication of Charlottesville’s counter-protestors. Their presence was an indication of the progress America has made, and their struggle reflects the distance still to travel.  King’s dream, our dream, is still a dream.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 22, 2017.

Shots Fired – The Tragedy of Police Shootings

August 15, 2017

Last night I heard an episode of Radio Lab, which they call “Shots Fired,” that is far and away the best presentation I have heard about the persistent tragedy of police shootings.

They were very blunt about the part that racial prejudice plays in leading cops to make all the wrong assumptions with tragic results, as well as the disasters brought about by those cops who use positions in the police force to act out their aggressions, who are, in a word, bullies. It was also realistic in analyzing steps that a few departments have taken to break or attenuate the chains of events that lead to tragedy.

I’ve known, written and spoken about police shootings for decades and am well acquainted with the outlines of what has been going on. This program was a very well-rounded, well-done piece. It had me in tears for a full hour, but it was by no means all “touchy-feelie;” the program explored stories, facts, statistics, a support group, conversation with police administrators and some real understanding and sleuthing by some very dedicated, thorough and persistent reporters.

This is a podcast everyone should see and hear, including the police – the reporting is done in a way which can even reach police administrators who are looking for why these events happen and how they can deal with it.

Radiolab did us a service; now we need to get the story out.

For the podcast, click here.

You will see mention of a very different follow up which was not aired and is for podcast only. It examines the miscommunications which led to the killing of a white woman. The point they try to make in this second podcast is that there are multiple opportunities for miscommunications which can and did have tragic results. In this case the woman, thinking the police were intruders, came out holding a shotgun, the last trigger to the barrage of shots which killed her.



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