Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Other Prejudices

March 10, 2019

Muslim representation in Congress is good for America. But with the racist demagoguery of the Trump Administration, it is important for Jews and Muslims to discuss intergroup rhetoric and prejudice. I’ve heard some nonsense about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s remarks about Jews. Let’s clear it up.

First, criticism of Israel, Hamas or the PLO are neither anti-Semitism nor Islamophobia. Lots of us are critical of the regimes in places sacred to us.  So are many who live there.

But charging disloyalty is a problem. Omar said “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Charging disloyalty because people care about what happens to a country or people abroad is over the top and fans prejudice. Omar is one of those who cares and should be concerned about the implications of her own rhetoric.

Americans have cared about foreign nations and peoples since the acrimony here over the French Revolution. America’s first political parties split over it, with successive presidents Adams and Jefferson on opposite sides. Other prominent examples include American support for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire early in the 19th century. More recently many Americans supported the IRA, the PLO, Hamas and Israel though all are controversial here and abroad. Sympathy isn’t disloyalty though we disagree about who’s right. Treating sympathy as disloyalty would make traitors of us all.

Democracy cannot survive loose generalizations about disloyalty. Plus, they block sensible responses, tying us up fighting each other instead of dealing with the issues. Dealing sensibly with the Middle East requires coming back from the brink. Obama had a point in saying that we need to disengage from the Middle East because it’s more difficult and takes more attention and energy than it’s worth. My view is that America should refuse to support either side that breaks agreements and creates serious problems for America – killing innocents, uprooting people from their homes, expanding settlements – both sides have committed plenty of atrocities. But amid loose charges of disloyalty, sensible policies are off the table.

With good reason, Jews are very sensitive to anti-Semitism and Muslims to Islamophobia. Prejudices are fanned by sloppily extending disagreement to attacks on peoples’ decency and legitimacy. In my course on comparative constitutional law we took up the troubles in Ireland. There was plenty of criticism to go around. But it didn’t and shouldn’t have made any of us anti-Irish. Americans once were viciously so. Before Trump, those days seemed over for the Jews, Irish, Poles, Italians and they should end for the Muslims, Blacks and others. And good riddance. Americans have been attacked and killed not only over race but over support for unions, and sloppy, unsubstantiated charges of disloyalty against Catholics, Germans, Italians, and Japanese, to name a few – in some cases just for knowing people’s languages. It was a sordid past that we should be doing our best to put behind us, for everyone’s sake.

I would make it a criteria of loyalty to back off generalizations about people and deal with our work, our ideas, our contributions and our mistakes on their own terms. The very idea that some of us are better than others because of our ancestry is un-American to the core. The very idea that our sympathies for the peoples from whom we came justify charges of disloyalty is a threat to us all, and to everything that did make America great. The very fact that Trump and others are now challenging that consensus is the biggest threat to the future of our country. Prejudice and hatred are a disease that can destroy America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 12, 2019.

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The Violence of Bigots; the Devil’s Pox on the Skin of America

November 6, 2018

October ended painfully: an anti-semitic attack in a Pittsburgh temple killed eleven; a racist attack at a Kentucky grocery store killed elderly African-Americans. Though hundreds of miles from here, friends and colleagues had losses. Close friends were married at that Pittsburgh Temple.

We missed the Sunday interfaith memorial in Albany but joined the Monday gathering at Temple Gates of Heaven in Schenectady. Approaching it, I saw friends who’d been Peace Corps Volunteers. Our job had been to extend this country’s hand of friendship to peoples abroad. Now we shared the pain from prejudice at home.

Schenectady Clergy Against Hate organized the memorial for a standing room only crowd, to share our grief for the dead, the injured, their families, and our country. The Clergy Against Hate consists of many denominations of Christian, Jewish, Islamic and eastern faiths, all of whom mourned the losses and stood for a world of love and concern. Minister Jonathan Vanderbeck, of Trinity Reform Church, told us “We stand against hate and oppression,” adding “that really carries throughout all our religious traditions.”

Our country included people of multiple faiths, origins, and languages from its founding. America’s revolutionary armies included free and enslaved Blacks, as well as Jews who had first settled in the colonies under the Dutch.

The Founders described America as a beacon shining a path from wicked, murderous hate elsewhere to an enlightened place of brother- and sisterhood. A “hundred years war” had scourged Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Thirty years of religious war devastated it in the seventeenth century. A global seven years’ war reached us as the French and Indian War. America’s Founders struggled to protect us from the killing, unifying us into one enlightened country, where we could learn to live with and benefit from each other.

Even before the First Amendment prohibited any establishment of religion or interference with each other’s freedom of religion, the Constitution made three references to religion, reading “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”[1] and providing for a secular affirmation as an alternative to each provision for an oath.[2]

The Founders welcomed and encouraged immigration in order to people the continent. Most understood freedom and human rights as universal. Prominent members of the Constitutional Convention led anti-slavery societies. Southern insistence on slavery postponed the extension of freedom to all until the Civil War, after which the opening words of the Fourteenth Amendment were “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Think about the importance to America of that commitment to universal human rights. By coming here, immigrants from all over the world not only shared the effort and ingenuity that built our country, they showed by their presence that others could see themselves in America. Feeling that bond, civilized countries repeatedly allied with us to protect their freedom and ours. America helped create the European Union in order to bury centuries of warfare among European countries, uniting historic adversaries lest they fight again, and pull us into yet another World War. America led in developing international institutions and alliances which project the power of American ideals to protect us and much of humanity.

Racists claiming to represent the real America, are instead ripping out the veins and arteries that power our country. They’re doing the devil’s work to destroy all that has been great about America.

So don’t forget to vote – we’ve got work to do.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 6, 2018.

[1] Par. 3 of Article VI.

[2] Art. I, §3; Art. II, §1; Art. VI, §3; and the 4th Amendment.


The Supremes Are Already a Partisan Court

October 30, 2018

The violence of this election season is heart-rending, outrageous and dangerous, but so many of us have been predicting and warning about I’m at a loss for words. So, instead, I’ll turn to what I had planned for today.

Chief Justice Roberts told people at the University of Minnesota that the Supreme Court will serve “one nation,” “not one party or interest.” The judicial branch, he said, “is, must be, very different” from the political branches. He commented that the justices have a century-old tradition of shaking each other’s hands before taking the bench to hear arguments. “It’s a small thing,” Roberts said, “but it is a repeated reminder that … we do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle, we do not caucus in separate rooms, we do not serve one party or one interest, we serve one nation.” In fact, this Court has already become very partisan, Roberts’ sugar-coating to the contrary notwithstanding.

The Constitution, by the way, calls them judges, not justices, perhaps because we don’t always get justice from judges. Judge Kavanaugh’s rant and assumption that the Clintons were at the base of Dr. Ford’s allegations reflected his deeply partisan career. Whatever happened between Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, assuming a Clinton conspiracy in the absence of facts is the very definition of prejudice. That’s become standard Republican behavior – if they don’t like the facts, they just claim a conspiracy. That alone makes it impossible to believe Democrats will get justice from Kavanaugh.

The problem goes much deeper. The Roberts Court has done everything possible to make sure that Republicans control government, regardless of the will of the people. Republican gerrymandering of legislative seats built large victories in the House of Representatives and many state legislatures while the voters were turning against them, thus reversing what the public voted for. That’s why they did it. But the Roberts Court protects their gerrymandering.

The Roberts Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. Witnesses testified about continued efforts to close or move polling places, put fewer polling booths in Democratic than Republican areas and strike large numbers of legitimate but likely opposition voters from the registration rolls. The enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act were actively blocking those efforts. The Roberts Court turned that on its head: because those provisions of the Act had been working, they weren’t necessary any more – a non sequitur any elementary school child would have understood.

The Court stripped voting rights from people who lacked government issued photo ids despite the costs to some voters, in wages and fees, to get the documents required. States could have eased those burdens except that the point was to prevent legitimate voters from voting, to make it harder for the disabled and the poor to vote, all in the absence of any evidence of relevant voter fraud. Election specialists have pointed out in vain that mailed and computer voting present much more serious problems. But state legislatures addressed neither of those problems. They were intent, instead, on stripping rights only from voters they expected to vote for the other party.

And the Court flaunted its political partisanship in cases like Citizens United, by freeing corporations to use their enormous resources in politics, while stripping political resources from unions who represent the factory workers and other regular people who are suffering now.

There’s nothing even-handed about all that. It’s a direct attempt to take the power away from the people and hand it to Republicans, who are otherwise losing the support of the public. There’s nothing legitimate about rigging elections.

Republicans warn that Democrats, if they win, might politicize the Court. That’s a joke. Republicans have already politicized the Court. If Democrats succeed in restoring the balance, that will be a big blow for a fair court. That’s why all our votes matter.

— A version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 30, 2018.


Threats to Democracy – The Shadow Knows How to Divide and Conquer

January 16, 2018

Right after Trump won, a cousin offered to send me some anti-Hillary literature that she thought I’d find convincing. I responded that if Hillary had won, she and I would be safe. But Trump’s victory emboldened those who would be perfectly happy exercising what Trump euphemistically called their Second Amendment rights, getting rid of people who don’t fit their racial and religious criteria. They were already on the streets. That left neither of us safe.

Nor is the problem just what some of his supporters believe and do. His campaign and rhetoric were about who should not be here. He continually appeals to his most extreme supporters, people who barely conceal their admiration for Hitler.

Many of us have been talking about how polarized our politics have become. Polarized politics is dangerous because it is a predicate for autocracy. If people become convinced that they can’t live with the other side’s victory, that life is too dangerous, democracy becomes unsustainable. When a live and let live attitude is gone, democracy can’t be trusted.

Trump can’t be trusted. Trump stands for exactly the kind of politics that makes democracy feel more dangerous than valuable. During the campaign, he told his supporters to express their “second Amendment rights” at the polls, sending chills down the spines of loyal Americans. When neo-Fascists showed up to demonstrate in Charlottesville fully armed to sow fear and intimidation, and one of their sympathizers murdered a peaceful and unarmed woman in the crowd, Trump blamed their opponents for the carnage. To Trump and his white supremacist supporters, evil is racial – Hispanic, immigrant, Puerto Rican, or Muslim, Blacks, Jews, minorities and women. When he tried to export his racist friends to the Brits, they told him to stay out of Britain. Bless the Brits. They get what this country used to stand for – we are [quote] “one nation … indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty and democracy are “indivisible”; they are and must be for ALL.

A descent into racism, Nazi or otherwise, would not make America great again. It would destroy our country. One of the things I found fascinating in the papers of the UN Commission on Human Rights which produced the UN Declaration of Human Rights, was that human rights was not an American idea foisted on the world. Hatred of the Nazis came from across the globe, all continents, all its peoples. What they saw, regardless of economic or political system or religious or ethnic heritage was that the Nazis were a threat to everyone. All countries worked with the single-minded goal that there should be no more Hitlers, no more Nazi control of any country. The world had defeated the Nazis and they weren’t about to have to do it again.

Trump doesn’t get or care that democracy depends on our agreement that all Americans are legitimate Americans, all Americans need to be respected and cared about, and all Americans need to feel safe here, or he is wielding the demonization of some of us precisely to end self-government.

When I was a kid, there was a radio program that some of you will remember. It’s tag line, voiced by actor Frank Readick Jr., was “what evil lurks in the hearts of men, the Shadow knows.” I make no claim to knowing what evil does or doesn’t lurk in the heart of Trump. But threatening America from the inside, he is the biggest threat to the survival of America since our Civil War.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 16, 2018.

 

 


Sticking with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear agreement

December 5, 2017

JOPAC was the multi-national 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear agreement. I’m happy to say that I’ve never been closer to nuclear weapons than listening to my chemistry professor, himself part of the Manhattan Project that created the first A-bomb, talking about them. My cousin Mimi worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory but all she could tell me was that she was there. Happily she lived into her 90s. But I have had some experience in Iran.

I was teaching at Pahlavi University, now called something else. Someone was sent to oversee the University. We were all warned to stay away from him. He wasn’t trustworthy. But this brash yours truly thought he knew better so I called on him. He was an economist. I had an article about the difference between Iranian and Turkish economic success to show him. He was of course interested.

Suddenly no one would talk with me. Not a word. I finally cornered someone and insisted he tell me why. He accused me of having called all Iranians liars. I remembered that on the first page of the article, Harvard Prof. David McClelland, with whom I had corresponded, criticized vague and unscientific statements about Iran like “All Iranians are liars.” McClelland set out to study Iran much more precisely. The young man I had cornered had good enough English that he understood exactly what had happened. All of a sudden people talked to me again – as if nothing had ever happened.

Would it have been better if I’d followed orders? Probably but it didn’t hurt that I had exposed the distortion of what I had said. Just as clearly, lots of people there took truth seriously.

Iran is a negotiating culture. You negotiate over everything, from carpets to the seams in a coat you’re having made. When I was getting ready to leave, I sat down with a Persian friend to sell him some of my record collection. He assumed I wouldn’t negotiate but would name fixed prices. I assumed he would negotiate so I asked for more than I wanted. When I realized what had happened, I reverted and gave him the records for much less than we’d agreed. Neither of us wanted to take advantage of the other. But if he’d negotiated as expected, I would never have thought him a liar. It’s just about conforming to culture and how things are done.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, or PCIA, composed of people like myself who served over there, has taken the position that “the Iran nuclear agreement [was a] historic and … excellent example of the success of diplomacy to resolve a major, contentious issue that threatened regional and world peace. As has been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency … tasked … in the agreement to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance … Iran is abiding by the agreement. United States security agencies have confirmed the IAEA assessment.”

PCIA “urges the United States and Iran, along with the other parties to the agreement, to continue to uphold and abide by the agreement and to take no action that would violate the agreement.” PCIA concluded that both the United States and Iran should keep their word. Incidentally, Ambassador John Limbert, who was one of the U.S. Embassy hostages held for a year and a half, instead of being filled with bitterness and reaching cavalier conclusions about the country, told us at a recent conference of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served there, that he too, urges that we stay the course.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 2017.

 

 


Religion Chautauqua Style

August 1, 2017

Instead of the mess in Washington, let’s talk about something positive. We just got back from a brief vacation in Chautauqua. I’ve been going there whenever possible since 1955 and I think it is valuable to talk about what it has meant to me, especially in this time when discussion of religion is so fraught.

Chautauqua had been founded in 1874 as an ecumenical summer school for protestant Sunday School teachers. Before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, ownership of property was still restricted to Protestants, although lots of us learned to love the place regardless of religious commitments. I’ve always felt welcome, no matter whom I’m talking with, who’s running things or whose chapel I’m in. Neighbor or stranger, I’ve been included and welcomed. That welcome was important to me; it influenced me to move beyond the familiar terrain of where I grew up in my choice of college, law school and subsequent career decisions.

The spirit of Chautauqua has always taken the sermon on the mount seriously. As Ben Franklin wrote in his Autobiography, “the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.”[1] For Franklin that service to mankind was by no means limited to people of one’s own faith.

This summer I took a seat in the amphitheater at the Sunday evening Sacred Song Service. For some years, religious gatherings in the amphitheater included material from across the Abrahamic tradition, the three great religions which all trace themselves back to the patriarch Abraham. I have heard this religious and primarily Christian congregation recite from the Qu’ran along with Christian and Jewish liturgical prayers, poetry and song. This year I was particularly struck by the inclusion of a gorgeous Native American chant.

It’s a good feeling, affirming our mutual respect and appreciation. No one is diminished as we celebrate the best in ourselves and in each other. We walk out feeling stronger, wiser, more confident. Bridges among us are also bilateral entree, enlarging our options, prospects and opportunities as well as our understanding. They amplify both the good we can do in this world as well as our own security.

We shared embraces with friends from many traditions and from all over the country, shared a home cooked dinner with a pair of old friends, both of whom are Lutheran ministers, and went out for dinner with a former student of mine here in Albany who has become a Methodist minister. There is of course nothing unusual about this. But it is worth noticing that this is one of the strengths of our country and of Chautauqua in particular.

Nor, at my recent college reunions, was I diminished by reciting a Muslim prayer at a memorial service for deceased members of my college class along with prayers from the Christian and my own Jewish tradition. We are and were all human, with the strengths and frailties common to mankind. We find a common end in death as we shared the world in life. We remember each other fondly without regard to where they prayed.

Part of what made this country a beacon for the world was that we left our prejudices behind in the old world our ancestors left. Our First Amendment is, after all, a cry for brotherhood as much as it is a restraint on government. We keep government out of the religious tent because we celebrate both the rights of all faiths and our common humanity in brother- and sisterhood.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 1, 2017.

[1] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin With Introduction And Notes (P F Collier & Son Company, ed. Charles W Eliot, New York (1909) [available online at The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Release Date: May 22, 2008 [EBook #148] [Last updated: November 10, 2011]]


Political Correctness

December 15, 2015

I want to address one of the issues coming out of recent events on college campuses, not to mention the rhetoric of Mr. Trump.

Frankly, I’m fed up with the attack on what the right wing calls political correctness. Apparently some think the condemnation of racism in our social interactions is merely political correctness. It should be open season on everyone. Of course that’s a two-way street. I can think of all sorts of epithets and insulting language to hurl at people who would protect nothing but their own right to trash everyone they dislike. That of course describes Congress – the wraps are off all forms of battle. There are no rules in a knife fight as a legal scholar once titled an article. Apparently civility is the enemy.

I think of politeness as normal and proper behavior in a democratic or any society. People were civil to me in Iran regardless of their reactions to my nationality or religion. But some denounce the very idea of civility, of being polite. Civility and politeness are essential to democracy because we have to live together. They are essential to democracy because we have to work across disagreements to get even the things we all agree on done. They are essential to democracy because if we make each other the enemy we are headed toward the breakdown of all democratic institutions, starting, as the Rehnquist Court made clear, with vote counting. Polite behavior toward each other is essential because without it we are headed toward violence.

I did not grow up with prejudice against Blacks but I did grow up with plenty of other instinctive prejudices that I did not investigate because they seemed so ordinary. Nevertheless I did not go around hurling epithets at people. I eventually learned to bury those prejudices, at least those of which I am aware, and to fight against the mistreatment of those selfsame people by our government and society. But being polite was always a different issue. It was about the respect that we are bound to show all people in a democratic society.

As you all know, I teach law. And I have often taught practice skills, interviewing, litigation, trial practice. I do not teach people to walk up to the jury box and ask a juror why we should want an ethnic, racial, or religious so-and-so like you to sit in the jury box. I do teach my students that talking with people or interviewing witnesses or clients requires respectful listening and showing some understanding of what they are trying to tell you regardless of what you may think of them. That’s necessary to get the job done.

When the people become the issue instead of their behavior, politics becomes particularly dangerous. When politics is no longer about issues but about people, it’s not just whether they lose a political debate; it’s that people stand to lose everything, to lose the protection of the laws. And by the same token the oppressors become the proper subject of the laws.

From the behavior of the right, or wrong, wing, I question whether they believe in democracy, and therefore whether, by their defense of political incorrectness they, the wrong wing, are entitled to respect. Makes me want to solve our political problems by just giving Texas back to Mexico.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 15, 2015.

 


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