Archive | July, 2014

Israel, Palestine, and Facebook…It’s Complicated

24 Jul


Months ago I wrote about the wonderful ways in which Facebook (and other forms of social media) could generate much appreciated support and sympathy for those, like me, who were going through a difficult time.  In that post, I happily observed that people could rise to the level of discourse in front of them and transform Facebook from a site dedicated to cat videos and clever comments about bacon, to one that created supportive, electronic communities of choice.  But if it is true that people can rise to the occasion on social media, it is similarly true that they (their comments, really) can also sink to the moment, as well.  Lately my Facebook page is awash in postings about the war between Israel and Hamas (is there any human experience lower and baser than war?). Sometimes these posts point to thoughtful articles, sometimes to foolish and callous works, and very often—too often—they are angry rants that either blame or defend Israel in nasty, snarky, or hate-filled commentary (it’s worth noting that I have yet to read any post or piece in my feed that defends Hamas).  All of it—the endless reposting of articles, the venting of spleen, and even the somewhat well-meaning postings of those who seek decency from belligerents who have no interest in being decent—has become maddening to me.  At first, I took part in these exchanges, reminding friends and colleagues of Israel’s right to defend itself and chastising others for their unwillingness to see the humanity in the Palestinian people, but I found the exercise painful and sad. I soon realized that, as one of our friends has noted, debating a hot-button issue on Facebook is like arguing via Post-It notes.  And so I opted out, refusing to “Like,” “Share,” or even discuss posts about the war—save for one brief and civil exchange with a former colleague from grad school.

Still, I am not willing to abandon my visits to the site. I use Facebook as a way of staying in touch with old friends.  I use it to watch my niece, my daughter, and others who are too young or too cool to hang out with me live their lives, to see picture of pets, to enjoy my friend’s vacation photos from around the world, and to learn of funny videos from John Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, John Oliver, and other comedians whose first names begin with the letter J.  And so I am loth to abstain from Facebook.  Still, to open up my newsfeed these days is to enter into the middle of an awful and angry war of words, an ugly, and in my opinion unhelpful, venting of anti-Semitism, anti-Arab hatred, and other forms of poisonous vitriol.

I am not particularly surprised by the racism and hatred that has been unleashed by this war. I get it.  People are angry, and so they lash out. I am angry about this war, too, but I am also quite angry about the social media discourse I have encountered these days.  In particular, I am angry (or maybe upset is a better word…I don’t know) because I find that many of my friends and colleagues have taken a complex human tragedy and boiled it down into simple bumper-sticker slogans, gotcha moments, and word games.  But I believe there is nothing simple about this war, nothing simple about the ongoing conflict that exists between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and politicians, and nothing simple about the world’s reactions to all of it.  I believe these issues are intensely complicated, and I believe we would all be better served to remind ourselves of that complexity.

Below I list just a fraction of those complications. I don’t pretend to be particularly well-versed in the complexity and nuance of the Middle East, and I recognize that in creating this list I have created my own set of slogans and bumper stickers.  I guess I would observe, though, that I don’t see my pronouncements as being definitive truth (unlike so many vitriolic posts I have read in the past few weeks). Nor do they pretend to offer answers or resolutions (like so many simplistic statements I have read of late).  Rather, they are mere observations about how difficult, challenging, and possibly intractable these issues have become.  I assume that some of you may be angered by my post and some may dismiss me as naïve, ridiculous, and ignorant.  That’s fine, but I firmly believe that all human experience is incredibly complex, and the Israel/Palestine conflict is no different.

It’s complicated because one of the proximate causes of this most recent war was the inexcusable and unforgivable kidnapping and murder of three, innocent Israeli teenagers AND because in response to those murders, Israeli thugs murdered an innocent Palestinian kid, another inexcusable and unforgiveable act.

It’s complicated because many Israelis and the Palestinians object to their respective government’s actions AND because, still, someone elected these people to lead.

It’s complicated because Jews have a deep historic tie to and presence in the land AND Palestinian Arabs have a deep historic tie and presence, as well.

It’s complicated because, despite prevailing sentiment, this conflict is not about religion.  It is about national aspirations, politics, and race, AND despite what I just observed, I suspect that this conflict is still very much about religion.

It’s complicated because the conflict is asymmetrical, with Israel possessing far greater fire power and other resources AND because both belligerents have used that asymmetricality to their advantage in one way or another.

It’s complicated because criticism of Israel is often part of an awful and ancient anti-Semitic tradition AND because Israel, like all states, should be subject to critical scrutiny.

It’s complicated because so much of the criticism I have read about Palestinian Arabs is quite racist AND because many acts committed by Palestinian Arabs against Israelis are worthy of criticism and condemnation.

It’s complicated because I am Jewish, and as a Jew, I believe that Israel’s continued existence is of great importance AND because I am a human being and the suffering and death of Palestinian children and other bystanders, even in a time of war, is heartbreaking.

It’s complicated because Israel can and should defend itself from any and all attacks AND because Israel can and does make life incredibly difficult for the people of Gaza and the West Bank.

It’s complicated because Hamas has sworn to wipe Israel off of the map, because the PA actually does broadcast children’s television shows that encourage kids to kill all Jews, AND because respectable factions of the Israeli government have already signaled their unwillingness to cooperate in helping the Palestinian people create their own state. 

It’s complicated because the State of Israel is a reality.  It is a prosperous and powerful state, capable of defending itself from any and all enemies, which is as it should be.  AND the national aspirations of the Palestinian people will not go away.  They are a powerful, driving force that animates millions of people who will not rest until they are witness to the establishment of an independent Palestinian State, which is as it should be, as well.

There are countless other examples I could cite.  But why bother?  Too many people see this war and the broader conflict it represents as a simple fight between the forces of good and evil, between the legitimate and the illegitimate, between right and wrong.  I do not for one second believe they are correct, and I pray that one day the Palestinians and Israelis are led by politicians who understand the only simple truths I can think of at this moment, that life is sacred, and that all people should be given sufficient respect and space to live in peace and freedom.

As always, stay tuned.


On the Loss of Old Friends

12 Jul



Throughout my recent cancer scare, I have, quite naturally, been confronted by the idea of my untimely death.  Let’s face it, when you’re talking about cancer, people speak to you about survival averages, and those averages account for those who live through and those who die from the disease.  To be clear, though, pondering my premature passing was not some newly discovered habit of mine.  Indeed, it is a deeply entrenched, longstanding practice (some may call it a personality flaw).  Worrying is one of my most notable habits of mind, and to a professional worrier like me, premature death has always been a major cause for concern.  I wouldn’t say the thought of dying keeps me up at night, but it certainly finds ways to seep into my thinking throughout the day.  Recently, even before the current war with Gaza, I was confronted with news that would, to some extent, shake me out of my foolishness and remind me that while I navel gaze and contemplate my imaginary death, real people are dying every day.  And what is worse, some of those real people are friends and colleagues.  Worse still, some are the very same age as me, making their passing extraordinarily untimely, unexpected, and unfair.  Don’t get me wrong, I knew that the folks I went to high school with, those who graduated from, say, 1980-1985 would begin to die, but I assumed that process would begin later, as we entered our 70s or 80s.  Sadly, though, the process began just a few years after our graduation, and has continued sporadically over the past thirty-plus years.

Quite recently this cruel eventuality —the premature deaths of my schoolmates—once more became a painful reality when I learned of the sudden death of a onetime friend.  He was a nice guy.  He was one of a few neighborhood kids I hung out with in the 7th and 8th grades.  In high school we kind of went our separate ways, but he was always around and was always a nice person.  About two months ago he reached out to me on Facebook and I was delighted to see that he had a rich fulfilling life and a wonderful family.  All of that came to a screeching halt when he and his wife were involved in a terrible car accident, a crash that took his young life (he had just turned fifty a week or so before) and left his widow in ICU.  Although I had not spoken to him in years, and had not been close with him since our brief stint in a youth soccer league back in the late 1970s, I have found that his death has had an unexpected emotional impact on me.  I mean, sure, one can feel bad about this sudden and cruel loss of life, but for some reason I spent the weekend after his passing utterly devastated by the news.  My heart breaks over his death and for the loss and pain his family will have to endure.

Sadly, this old friend was not the first of my former classmates to die.  Nor is the loss of Harrison Huskies from the 1980s a recent phenomenon.  Their passing began within just a few years of our graduation.  The recent loss of my old friend, and my upcoming birthday, I will turn 50 very soon (God willing), have got me thinking about those who have passed over the decades, and I feel compelled to write about them here in this public forum as some kind of memorial to them.  I realize that any words I can offer are insignificant, and that even my interest in sharing their stories is evidence of my colossal hubris, as if somehow my little blog is capable of providing a worthy memorial for the passing of these young men and women.  It can’t.  Still, they were good kids, good people who, to my knowledge, went on to be good (and possibly great) human beings.  The world is diminished for their passing, and we are all likely better for being reminded of them and their lives.  I suspect that others from my class have passed of whom I am not aware, and I may have even forgot some names (my memory is not what it used to be), but to my knowledge, below is a list of my former classmates (or the spouses of classmates) who have passed away over the past 30 some odd years.

The first classmates’ deaths I can recall came just a few years after graduation. One night two friends were driving home from a bar and were in a terrible car accident.  He was an eccentric, former military school student with a charismatic personality and a shock of dark hair. He smoked Phillip Morris unfiltered cigarettes and spoke like George C. Scott in his role as General Patton.  He was a hoot, and I liked him very much.  She was a lovely and talented young woman who sang in the chorus (we were good friends in 9th grade).  She married young and was taken from us young.  The other driver was apparently under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and as is so often the case, he lived while my classmates died.  I wish I could say that I still think about them all the time, but I don’t.  My brain is too filled with other memories (happy and sad) to recall too much from my childhood.  Still, I do think about them from time to time, and it breaks my heart to know that their lives and potential were cut so short.

I think the next person we lost too soon was the wife of a close friend.  Forced to deal with incredible physical pain, she took her own life.  My friend, her husband, has somehow carried on and has become a regional leader in the fight against suicide.  I cannot even imagine the magnitude of his loss, and I continue to marvel at his strength and conviction.  But, then, I always thought he was the bravest of all of my close friends.  He proved it too!  He served on numerous police forces across the country (as did his wife) before switching careers (another incredibly brave act). As for his wife, she was beautiful, loving, a wonderful mother, and from what I understand a damn fine cop.  Her family and the rest of the world are diminished by her passing.

Then there was the little red-haired girl who I sometimes sat next to in ninth grade humanities class.  Apparently she grew into a beautiful and brave red-haired woman who gracefully fought and with equal grace succumbed to lymphoma—the same disease doctors originally believed that I had.  Her passing gives the lie to so many physicians who told me that, “If you must have cancer, this is the cancer to have.  The tumors just melt away in chemotherapy.”  Apparently not.  Her friends and family have created a charitable foundation in her honor.

Then there was my close friend who died of AIDS. His is an unimaginably sad story.  Orphaned by the age of 15, he was raised by relatives (including his barely legal brothers) until he reached his majority.  Fortunately he was also cared for by a number of very fine and decent parents in town, including my own.  Indeed, my dad helped him with his college applications.  He was accepted to school out here in LA, and pretty much left without much of a trace.  In LA he came out of the closet and, regrettably, found himself part of the generation of gay men who became ill with AIDS long before people knew much about the disease or how to treat it.  And yet, he somehow survived for a decade with the disease.  About a year after I moved to LA, we got back in touch and became very close. My wife and I, and he and his partner (a wonderful, caring, older man who deserves a great deal of credit for his care and support) became good friends—spending time in each other’s homes, enjoying the holidays together, etc. Eventually, though, the good times came to an end, as my friend began to be squeezed between the symptoms of his disease and the side effects of the drugs used to treat him—this was just before the widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs.  The night before he died we said goodbye and promised to come back in the morning, but before we could make it there, he was already gone.  Dead at 31.  I still miss him very much.

I know that these are not the only people in the world to have died these past thirty-plus years.  I know that others have suffered greatly.  I know that there is a war in Gaza right now that has and will claim hundreds of people’s lives, many of them very young.  I know that my sense of loss may seem selfish.  But the loss of average, everyday people, people not caught up in war or some other kind of violence…their deaths matter, too.  And whether the sentiment is selfish or not, I miss these people, and am both saddened and angered by their premature departure from this world.  And above all, I hope that those of you who read this (including me, I guess) will stick around for a long time.


As always, stay tuned.