Sunday, May 31, 2009

Obama Defends Sotomayor Racist Remark

Sonia Sotomayor has not yet retracted some of her more offensive remarks. Apparently she lacks the strength to pull her foot out of her mouth long enough to say what she "really" meant. Always a gentleman, Barack Obama has come to her defense.

Her most infamous remark is as follows.

"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Barack Obama has now stated that "I'm sure she would have restated it" in an interview with NBC News. The only problem is that Sotomayor made the highly prejudicial statement in 2001. She has had ample time since then to blame context, circumstances at the time or demon rum. Even if she had disavowed her remarks, eight years is a long time. As it is, President Obama has disavowed them for her. Somehow, it rings a bit hollow.

"I think that when she's appearing before the Senate committee, in her confirmation process, I think all this nonsense that is being spewed out will be revealed for what it is," Obama stated somewhat testily in the NBC interview.

I hope Obama is right. A confirmation hearing should define the qualifications, judicial philosophy and level of bias of a Supreme court nominee should air any evidence that gives a sense of a candidate's profile in these areas. The American people will live for decades with the consequences of any Supreme Court appointment. A Supreme Court decision can have an immediate impact on the lives of millions of Americans that rivals that of any legislator. If there is any item on the agenda of a Senator that demands cross examination and weighty deliberation, it is the approval of a Supreme Court Justice. Anyone who dmands a hurried rubber stamp on a candidate is nothing more than a judicial huckster.

Opinion of Judge Sotomayor is likely to be divided among partisan lines. Far too much emphasis has been put on her ethnicity and far too little on her judicial philosophy. No one has any right to complain about the treatment of Sotomayor by those who question her judicial philosophy. It should be noted that it was the Democrats who added the verb "bork" to the political lexicon after Robert Bork was subjected to withering interrogation about his political views during confirmation hearings in 1987 which culminated in his rejection.

The precedent of the Bork confirmation hearings as well as the raucous and infamous grilling to which Clarence Thomas was subejected before he was ultimately approved should extinguish any pangs of conscience that believers in the "original intent" school of constitutional interpretation might feel in subjecting Sotomayor to needed scrutiny.

Americans are belatedly waking up to the fact that an Senatorial and Presidential elections are really elections to the Supreme Court. those who take "original intent" seriously now face an uphill battle with a President and majority party that tend towards judicial activism. Defeating such a corrosive agenda will certainly be an uphill battle.

There are vast sections of the African American and Hispanic communities that are deeply conservative on a wide range of issues. The opponents of Proposition 8 in California in 2008, which legally defined marriage as consisting of a man and a woman got a rude awakening to this fact when African American voters who turned out in large numbers to vote for Barack Obama also defeated gay marriage. The New American Dimensions blog reported as follows on the voter breakdown.

"According to exit polls, African-Americans in California supported proposition 8, which repealed same-sex marriages that had been legal in the state since May by a 3-1 margin. Black support for 8 was larger than any other group, including Hispanics, who were essentially split on the issue. It’s not clear that blacks alone gave prop 8 it’s margin of victory (blacks represented only 10 percent of the electorate on November 4, and for all groups it was voters over 65 who strongly favored prop 8)."

The Democrats and those who believe in "legislating from the bench" are eager to use African American and Hispanic jurists as ethnic cover for their agenda. The only way to fight this is to build a coalition across ethnic lines to defend the constitution and traditional values as seen across the ethnic spectrum. Anyone who has seen African American and Hispanic parents who struggle to educate their children in church schools knows that there is a constituency that is begging for mobilisation and leadership.

The Sotomayor Supreme court nomination will be difficult to derail. But the coalition to oppose it could be a potent political force in future Supreme Court nomination battles. Even if the battle seems hopeless, we should not back down.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Happy Shavuot, The Festival of Weeks

The setting sun will usher in Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. After reading and learning Torah all night long, the Ten Commandments will be read during the morning prayers, marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai in the Jewish year 2248.

The Ten Commandments have had a powerful influence in the formation of Western values. Within Judaism, all of the 613 commandments have a connection to one of the commandments in the decalogue.

The greatest trait which distinguishes humans is the ability to measure one's own conduct against a system of values and to find it wanting. It is an act of great mercy of our Creator to have given us a revealed set of laws through which we might refine ourselves towards reaching our full potential.

When I read the books of the prophets, in many cases they resemble literature of protest. The inclusion of each book in the biblical canon is based not only on how it spoke to its generation but upon its eternal resonance in following generations.

The idea of a rebuking prophet like Hosea or Jeremiah is a powerful legacy for each and every individual and nation. The precedent of a relentlessly honest history with which a nation must live is a gold standard to which it is wise to adhere.

I feel great gratitude as a Jew in America for the freedom and opportunity it it offers to members of all faiths. Beyond this, the ability to criticise ourselves and to hold ourselves to higher standards evokes comparison to other peoples who are guided by rebuking prophets.

On this holiday, I thank G-d for his guidance through the giving of the Torah and the American people for the peace we enjoy as we await the messianic redemption and ingathering of exiles. A week that began with Memorial Day and ending with Shavuot evokes thoughts of gratitude to G-d and man. On this meaningful and joyous occasion I wish all of my readers peace and happiness in the manner that was meant for us.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

American Flag Banned From Workplace

Showing your patriotism at work might not sit right with upper management. Debbie McClucas had a rude awakening to this fact when she put up an American flag in her the office she shared with three other supervisors right before Memorial Day weekend.

When she came back to work after a three day weekend, she was told that some other employees, including a fellow supervisor (who had been in the U.S. for 14 years) found the flag to be offensive. The flag was then removed. Management at Kindred Hospital in Mansfield, Texas where Mrs. McLucas works claimed that there had been several complaints about the flag. When Mrs McLucas came to her office to put away the flag, she found it rolled around its accompanying pole and lying on the floor in what appeared to be a pointed act of desecration. Mrs. McLucas, whose husband, son and daughter have all served in the US military was stunned that the freedom of expression which her entire immediate family had defended in the armed forces was being denied to her. CBS 11 in Texas reported as follows concerning this disturbing incident.

"The flag and the pole had been placed on the floor," McLucas said. But McLucas also said hospital higher-ups had told her some patients' families and visitors had also complained.

"I was told it wouldn't matter if it was only one person," she said. "It would have to come down."

McLucas said hospital bosses told her as far as patriotism was concerned, the flag flying outside the hospital building would have to suffice.

"I find it very frightening because if I can't display my flag," McLucas asked, "what other freedoms will I lose before all is said and done?"

Kindred Healthcare's corporate headquarters are located in Kentucky. We called them for comment when we were first working on this story Tuesday, but they did not return our calls."

There are countries where one must be of the majority nationality to enjoy citizenship or civic equality. There are other countries where one is subject to the rule of a hereditary monarch. America has seen the expansion of civic equality to include all races and women as well as men. The government is bound to hold all citizens to one legal code. However we may fall from this high standard, it remains the standard by which we judge ourselves. Our constitution and our laws are the glue that holds our country together. Anyone who becomes a citizen can claim our collective history as their own.

The flag symbolises this system of laws and the history of its evolution to the present day. Once you knock our constitution and our history out of the picture, you have a recipe for either total chaos or a police state. compared to a lot of countries, we handle our racial, religious and ethnic diversity very well. Those who finds this inclusive, democratic charter of opportunity for the individual to be offensive should ask themselves if they really belong here. Anyone who immigrated, took citizenship and finds the flag and the system that it represents to be offensive probably swore falsely when they promised to uphold the constitution and obey our country's laws.

What other nation apologises for flying its own flag on its own soil? The right to criticise our government is a central characteristic of our way of life. But the self abasement that is inherent in taking down the flag prior to Memorial Day is simply revolting. Immigrants who come and voice objections to display of our flag are showing unspeakable arrogance.

Debbie McClucas has every right to be proud of her family members who have served in our nation's armed forces. The polite thing to for her supervisors and coworkers would have been to thank her for the contributions of her family to the defense of our nation's freedoms. Instead, she was reprimanded. Instead of warm thanks, her flag was desecrated. Management at Kindred Hospital in Mansfield Texas owes Mrs. McLucas and our country a heartfelt apology to the insults she suffered when she displayed our flag. We have fallen very low in accepting such insults to our national heritage. Debbie McLucas has reminded us well not to suffer such insults in silence.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Plea to the Makers of Crocs

I like to let shopkeepers know what I think. If I want a particular brand of bread or cheese, I let them know how I feel. If other people feel like I do, maybe what I want will show up on the shelves. I'm pretty polite and most shop keepers hear me out, even if I don't get what I ask for.

It is in this spirit that I am sounding off about Crocs. I picked up some Croc knockoffs on clearance. They have the same design as regular crocs with the strap around the back. If I am in the house or taking out the garbage, they are just fine. But on the street, they flunk what I call the bus test. In my opinion, every shoe worn on the street should be suitable for running to catch a bus. A shoe with a strap on the back rather than a full back flunks this test.

The real strength of Crocs is the sole and the front portion. I can walk and stand for hours without foot or back aches. I liked the knockoff so much that I bought an upscale pair of real Crocs with a leather back portion like a shoe instead of a strap. It combines the great sole with a design that passes the bus test. Now for the bad news.

The shoe store salesman told me he was discontinuing the full shoe crocs. He said that they were not selling so well. This seems to be a shortcoming not of the product but of the promotion. My opinion is that the sole and top front of the Crocs are very comfortable. They are also way too expensive. I would like to see one piece rubber Crocs with the quarter (back portion) like a regular shoe instead of a strap. Both this design and the ones I am now wearing with leather uppers should also be offered. When I went to the web site for crocs I did find a few shoes that fit the description I have just given. I hope that they are going to be restocked and are not being sold on clearance. The prices on the web site were far more reasonable than what I paid in the store.

To me, Crocs are a serious addition to footwear. The full shoe and the comfortable sole are the most radical addition to American footwear since the sneaker. I don't want it to be a fad like Nehru jackets or Trolls. (I still miss Nehru jackets.) I ask the manufacturers of Crocs to promote more aggressively the comfort and durability of Crocs not just as a clog or sandal but as a shoe. I am not young. I have grown children. I see you have a wide variety of styles. I hope that you continue making full shoes. I hope you promote the comfort and durability of your product. It deserves to be promoted as a long term shoe rather than just the latest fashion. I'd like to be wearing Croc shoes (not clogs) for a long time. You have some great shoes. Give them a shout out. You've got a winning hand. I wish you luck in playing it well.

Monday, May 25, 2009

North Korea: Oddities and Horrors

What possible good could have come out of the Korean War? If you are a North Korean not living in a showcase city like Pyongyang, this might be a tough question. But if you are a Siberian tiger , an Amur leopard or an Asiatic black bear, this question is a no brainer. Since the Korean War, according to the DMZ, (demilitarised zone) has been almost untouched by human beings. In the total absence of any human presence, an ecosystem has developed that has supported a vastly diverse collection of wild animals and plants. The DMZ Forum describes the area as follows.

"The DMZ is 2.4 by 155 miles. It and the contiguous Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) in the Republic of Korea--3-12 miles across the peninsula--contain five rivers and many ecosystem types, including forests, mountains, wetlands, prairies, bogs and estuaries. There are over 1,100 plant species; 50 mammal species, including Asiatic Black Bear, leopard, lynx, sheep and possibly tiger; hundreds of bird species, many of which, according to IUCN, are endangered, including Black-faced Spoonbill, Red-crowned and White-napped Cranes and Black Vulture; and over 80 fish species, 18 being endemic. These species represent 67% of Korea’s fauna. Hundreds of bird species migrate through the DMZ going to and from Mongolia, China, Russia, Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines and Australia".

Now, even as North and South Korea are expanding contacts and inching towards greater unity, environmental activists and experts are trying to safeguard one of the few good things to come out of the three year "police action" in which an estimated three million people died. Since then, the North has known famine and brutal repression. At least the South Koreans have moved towards democracy and prosperity.

Korea has a multitude of problems. Despite its bloated military, North Korea is never far from starvation. The entire country is built upon worship of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung. The country is built on a caste system with the Communist party at the top and dissidents on the bottom. Entire regions of the country in which the politically unreliable live are closed to the outside world. Occasionally, brave individuals smuggle film out of North Korea showing scenes of starvation and squalor. They do so at the risk of their lives.

I can not live with myself if I call attention to the humanitarian crisis in North Korea and make no suggestions of how to help. There actually is an organisation working to help the refugees from North Korea who are spilling over into China. The organisation is called LINK which stands for Liberty In North Korea. They are well worth checking out.

North Korea has the world on edge as it brandishes its missiles and nuclear weapons. This is a security matter for the world to deal with. Bit we must not lose sight of the two to three million people who have died in Korea's man made famine. Whatever calm we may achieve through diplomacy or show of strength, there is no peace for the frightened and hungry millions in that country.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Taps" For Our War Dead

Memorial Day is the most deeply meaningful of all American holidays to me. It is impossible to celebrate Independence day without thinking of those who paid the ultimate price so that we might enjoy our way of life. To me, it is a time to thank the living who have served in our armed forces and to visit the graves of the fallen. Any celebration of Memorial Day should include reverent mention of those who have fallen.

In honour of our nation's war dead, I am presenting two videos. One is the playing of "Taps.' Taps is the hauntingly simple bugle that was composed during the Civil War first as a song to signal the end of the day and then as a song to be played at the funeral of a fallen soldier. So much did the song resonate that it was quickly adopted by the Confederate soldiers as well. In a sense, it became a symbol of the united grief of a weary nation at the end of the Civil War.

Those who remember John Kennedy's funeral remember "Taps" being played on that sad occasion. One single note was "broken." Rather than jarring the senses of a grieving nation, the "mistake" was quickly interpreted to be the instrumental equivalent of a human voice cracking in grief. To this day, when the solemn procession is recalled and replayed, that single misplaced note expressed the anguish of a nation.

For the benefit of my readers, I am including the words of "Taps". (From USmemorial

Day is done,
gone the sun,
From the hills,
from the lake,
From the skies.
All is well,
safely rest,
God is nigh.

Go to sleep,
peaceful sleep,
May the soldier
or sailor,
G-d keep.
On the land
or the deep,
Safe in sleep.

Love, good night,
Must thou go,
When the day,
And the night
Need thee so?
All is well.
Speedeth all
To their rest.

Fades the light;
And afar
Goeth day,
And the stars
Shineth bright,
Fare thee well;
Day has gone,
Night is on.

Thanks and praise,
For our days,
'Neath the sun,
Neath the stars,
'Neath the sky,
As we go,
This we know,
G-d is nigh. Taps History video Taps Melody

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Concerning Vaad HaKahal Elections

Tomorrow is election day in Crown Heights for the Vaad HaKahal. We have one Rabbi urging us to vote and another strictly forbidding it. There is a slate of candidates and a bloc of community residents who say that they will not recognise the elections. There has been a flurry of actions in civil courts to prohibit and to allow the elections. As of today, Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the vote is on.

I will not say whether I am voting or not, although I have made up my mind. But I am going to do the same thing that I did in the presidential election in 2008. During that election, I was passionately opposed to Barack Obama becoming President. Despite this, I went out of my way to maintain friendship and cordiality with friends who were in favour of Obama.

The election tomorrow will be during sefira. A major theme of sefira is that of doing away with baseless hatred. Aside from prohibitions on haircuts and live entertainment, there is a general focus on maintaining amity and mutual respect.

I will be handling this election the same way I handle every other dispute in our community, from Smira vs. Shomrim to Yechi vs. not to say yechi. I will make up my mind. I will voice my opinion at the appropriate time. And I will remind myself that others who are passionately opposed to my opinions are decent human beings with the good of our community, nation and world at the top of their concerns.

There is nothing wrong with having strong convictions. In my own family, my parents were appalled at my repeated votes for conservative Republicans. Both they and I showed the depth of our commitment to each other by not letting political disagreements sour our relationship. My parent's views were shaped by life in Nazi Germany and during the Great Depression. By listening respectfully to their opinions, I learned a great deal about the events that shaped them.

The Jewish community of Crown Heights comes from around the world. Anyone who cares to can listen to history come alive if they know which questions to ask. Whatever your opinions about the Crown Heights elections, whoever you are voting for, whether or not you are voting, it is imperative that we respect each other and recognise each others good intentions. What is in our hearts will not show in the vote tallies or turnout percentages. But it will carry weight on the heavenly scales.

May G-d open our eyes and lead us out of galus. Shavua Tov. A good week to all.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Urine and Sweat Recycled as Drinking Water

Astronauts at the International Space Station have taken recycling to a new level. My Way News reported as follows on the use of purified urine and sweat as drinking water.

"Astronauts aboard the space station celebrated a space first on Wednesday by drinking water that had been recycled from their urine, sweat and water that condenses from exhaled air. They said "cheers," clicked drinking bags and toasted NASA workers on the ground who were sipping their own version of recycled drinking water.

"The taste is great," American astronaut Michael Barratt said. Then as Russian Gennady Padalka tried to catch little bubbles of the clear water floating in front of him, Barratt called the taste "worth chasing."

Although it is not really needed on earth, the use of recycled body wastes is a major cost efficiency breakthrough for any space program. The cost of shipping water out to a space ship is absolutely astronomical. (No pun intended) It is hard to imagine how interplanetary travel could seriously be contemplated without recycling urine and sweat.

Perhaps parts of the world with severe water shortages might find such technology useful. But in parts of the world with abundant rainfall, the market might be very limited. Only someone totally committed to recycling is likely to have a pipe line from their toilet to their water cooler. For most of us, the idea of recycled drinking water is a tad too exotic.

But if Madison Avenue ever decides to tale up the cause of recycled water, they might come up with some interesting slogans.

"Those of you who want to "go green" now have a choice of colours!" could be one slogan.

New York could name recycled bottled water after neighbourhoods and streets. Queens residents would probably like "Flushing" bottled water. (Triple filtered. We promise.) Brooklynites who want to name their recycled water after a local street might settle on Avenue P. French restaraunts in Manhattan would probably offer "Oui Oui" brand recycled water.

The Midwest will probably weigh in with its own brand of recycled water. "Gee Whizz". is one likely name that comes to mind.

Recycled sweat also offers opportunities for new brand names in the recycled water market. "Pittsburgh" would be a very good name for such recycled water. Before you know it, there will be flavoured versions of recycled water. Imagine the ads. "Royal Flush recycled water now comes in three flavours. Original, Ban and Right Guard."

Sooner or later, budget brands of recycled water would come up "STP" (Sewage Treatment Plant) might be a good name for vitamin enriched recycled water if the trademark infringement problems can be worked out.

On a more serious note, the space program will probably save a whole lot of money on supplying the space shuttle astronauts. As tempting as it might be to make a lot of tasteless jokes about their latest breakthrough, the technology will probably have a multitude of useful applications. As the space program opens new frontiers, it will probably solve a lot of problems on earth as well. And for this we should be grateful.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Minnesota Mom and Son Fleeing Chemo

There is a nationwide alert and an arrest warrant out for a Minnesota mother and her son who has Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer that is curable in a high percentage of cases with conventional treatment strategies such as chemotherapy. The parents belong to a religious group that advocates herbal treatment of human ailments and views with disfavour chemotherapy. Associated Press reports as follows.

"Colleen Hauser and her son, Daniel, were seen as recently as Tuesday morning in Southern California and might be headed to Mexico to seek treatment for Daniel's Hodgkin's lymphoma, authorities said Wednesday night. They would only say the pair's location was based on "reliable information."

A court-ordered X-ray on Monday showed a tumor growing in Daniel's chest, and doctors said it will probably kill him without conventional medical treatment.

Before she took off, Hauser told a judge that she wished to treat her son's cancer with natural healing methods advocated by an American Indian religious group known as the Nemenhah Band. But even that group's founder said Hauser made a mistake by running from the law."

It is interesting to note that the mother was not fleeing treatment for her son. She was in fact going to a clinic in Mexico for a treatment not approved by the US government. This actually takes the case out of the realm of simple neglect, which it would be if the parents were refusing treatment for the child.

I heard a story from a friend who served in the army with a man from a rural mountain area. The man got a severe infection in his hand and was told by army doctors that he would need to have the hand amputated. The man fled the army base as soon as he got the news. He was gone long enough to be officially AWOL. He eventually returned. His hand was free of any trace of infection. His commanding officer was in a quandary. Although he had violated orders, he was completely cured. His commanding officer asked him what happened. The man knew from family tradition which herbs to use in case of infection. He was with G-d's help able to treat himself not with antibiotics but with the knowledge of herbs that had been handed down through his family.

How much do we learn from medical traditions that are not politically dominant? My mother came down with a severe sore throat in China. She would have undoubtedly have been given an antibiotic in America. The doctor prescribes her chocolate coated pills that had the smell of black licorice. Her sore throat was with G-d's help gone in two days.

When my oldest child was born we were told that he should sleep on his stomach. Now conventional wisdom is that babies should sleep on their back. After thousands of years of raising infants, how many further changes of medical opinion await the public?

Religion and diet are not the only manifestations of our nation's diversity. There are different schools of medical thought as well. My mother and father used to argue about chiroprractic medicine. My mother placed a lot of confidence in it. My father did not. Handwriting analysis is highly respected in Europe and accorded legal recognition there. It is not accepted in America legally as a tool of psychological diagnosis.

Even doctors disagree. There have been fringe ideas adopted in mainstream medicine. I am reluctant to give official government recognition to one form of medicine over another. Mrs Hauser has been investing time, energy and money in treating her child. To say that she is neglecting her child is a distortion. This seems to be a test case since the cure rate for Hodgkin's disease is so high using conventional methods. There are people who die using alternative medicine. But people die in conventional treatment as well. News reports make passing mention of individuals who were cured of Hodgkin's disease and other cancers using alternative methods and treatment strategies.

The Minnesota case is troubling. In case of cancer, my personal preferences run towards conventional treatment. But that should be my choice. The government should step in in cases of neglect. But to condemn alternative forms of medicine as neglect is a politically loaded judgement. The Hausers should not be hunted for exercising their parental judgement in treating their child. They are caring parents. They should be able to stay in their own home without fear of arrest at this trying time.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Texas Parents Upset About Bibles in School

The Gideons, a Christian group that distributes Bibles all over the world is in hot water in Texas. It seems that they worked out an agreement with the public schools of Frisco, Texas to leave Christian Bibles (with the Old and New Testaments) on tables in Frisco public schools. Fox News reports as follows.

Some parents in Frisco, Texas, are fuming because their public school district allowed Christian evangelists to provide Bibles to students on school grounds, which administrators say was done to stop even more proselytizing outside the schools.

Frisco Independent Schools allowed Gideons International to display Bibles on tabletops in all 13 of the district's middle and high schools last week. Officials say it didn't violate the law, but some parents say school is not the place to be offering the Good Book.

I am trying to understand this dispute properly. even within Christianity there are different versions of Scripture. Catholics and Greek Orthodox each recognise books in their bibles which are not part of the King James Version. Jewish Scriptures do not, of course include what is referred to as the New Testament. Then there are Mormons and Muslims who have the book of Mormon and the Koran respectively. How do you create neutral common ground? It is important for members of religious minorities not to be bullied or marginalised for their faith. Catholic immigrants for instance had bad experiences in the nineteenth century when anti immigrant bigotry expressed itself as attacks on their faith. Anti Mormon sentiment came out in ugly ways as well over the years. Teachers are generally taught not to impose their faith upon members of religious minorities. We as a society are protective of those who are not of the religious mainstream.

Unfortunately, we seem to have gone too far in attempting to create a neutral environment. The argument in Frisco, Texas bespeaks a certain awkwardness in maintaining religious neutrality. I have proposals that might if adopted ease the tension.

First, I think there should be a moment of silent reflection in every public school. The time could be used for prayer, contemplation or short daydreams. This should not offend anyone who is not already determined to be offended.

My second proposal involves the weeks at the end of summer vacation in late August and early September. Every house of worship should offer its version of scripture to the children and young adults of the congregation before school starts. They should also offer a booklet with scriptural excerpts and inspirational thoughts that can be taken to school for use during the moment of silence. A weekly or monthly faith newsletter might also be a good idea. The themes of the campaign should be drawing upon one's faith tradition for the sake of proper participation in school life and bringing honour to whatever faith is being espoused. such books should also be offered on the internet to children who may not be affiliated with any house of worship.

Schools present challenges to believers of any faith. At all grade levels, there is the question of bullying. Then there are questions ranging from dating to cheating on tests. A special sermon prior to the start of school and periodic followups might have a proper effect within the schools. Children who are going through a rough time should be encouraged to turn to their clergy person for guidance.

There are special problems in an environment where different religious and ethnic groups share a common space. every child should be presented with the scriptures of his faith before the first day of school. Proper guidance should establish their relevance to his or her daily life and educational career. The Gideons raised interesting questions in their attempt to bring scriptures to school children. Local houses of worship have an indispensable role in making sure that every child has the guidance they need. The Gideons of Frisco Texas should be thanked for raising legitimate questions. Now the ball is in the court of local houses of worship. I hope they will run with it. Children get new clothes and school supplies before the start of every school year. Let's pay attention to spiritual preparations as well.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Drank", the New Chill Out Drink.

My caffeine days are almost completely behind me. Life used to be an alternation between caffeine buzz and that "comfortably numb" feeling from knocking back slivovitz or Czech Pilsner. Between high blood sugar and high blood pressure, I made the decision that life without so much chemical enhancements beats pushing daisies. So what if I feel out of place in Starbucks. Who cares about those longing stares at the beer section in my local bodega? I've still got rock and roll. And that's here to stay !

So now there seems to be good news on the horizon. There is a new relaxation drink out. It's called "Drank". It contains Valerian root", which has relaxing effects and the smell of really dirty socks, as well as melatonin. It is grape flavoured enhanced with rose hips, which raise its Vitamin C content.

Already it has encountered some controversy. According to the TIME magazine article that featured it, the Drank name "has its roots in Houston's hip-hop scene: "purple drank" is a slang term for an illegal concoction that mixes codeine syrup with soft drinks or alcohol. It should be noted that mixing codeine with alcohol or making any other combination of "downers" is very dangerous. It is in fact a good way to assume room temperature. The flirtation with controversy is a risk that has been gladly taken by the promoters of Drank who hope to make it as popular as Red Bull.

Melatonin and Valerian Root are not harmless little placebos. Excess consumption of Valerian root has sparked withdrawal symptoms when use is stopped suddenly. On the flip side, it should be noted that people have been sickened with energy drinks as well. Souping up or souping down your nervous system is not child's play. Herbal medication deserves to be taken seriously and responsibly, whether it is in a commercial soft drink or a home made herbal tincture.

I do want to be able to drink a relaxant that will not damage my health. I hope that Drank takes off. So I have a few suggestions for the manufacturers. I want to join in the fun and try some out. So please hear me out.

1) First, lose that high price tag. A reviewer for Consumer Reports complained of paying three dollars a can in New Orleans. That's real steep.

2) Come out with a diet flavour. There are a lot of diabetics, overweight people and overweight diabetics. Don't ignore them. It feels real good when you want a drink and there is something there for you that won't crank up your sugar.

3) Think about courting vegans, Jews and Muslims. A kosher certification will be acceptable to a lot of Muslims. If a product is "pareve", it means that it has no meat or dairy products in it. That automatically takes care of vegan concerns. Imagine a commercial that shows a Muslim in a dishdashah and a chassidic looking guy chilling out playing backgammon and drinking a beverage that is both kosher and halal. Even if Muslims can't drink alcohol, they still want to unwind. That alone is a huge market.

4) A couple of other flavours might be a good idea. But that can wait.

5) If there are health advisories to some consumers of your beverage, be straight up about it. People should have the information they need to take care of themselves.

I really wish you all success in launching this new beverage. You seem to have really identified a consumer need. A non alcoholic beverage intended to be relaxing and soporific really has a place in a keyed up urban market. With a little tinkering, this idea could really fly.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hindu Nationalists Set For Gains In India

The world's largest democracy, India is set to have elections for its Lokh Saba or parliament. Although the Congress Party is expected to show up in first place, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to register major gains and to make a first place showing in some regions.

For years the issue of free wheeling capitalism versus the heavily state regulated state economy that has prevailed since India's independence has been a dominant issue in Indian political discourse. On this issue, the BJP has been a proponent of less government regulation and encouraging investment. Such policies have been accompanied by an economic boom in India which boasts a large work force of highly trained individuals and more English speakers than the United States. (India is a polyglot country. English, the colonial language is the glue that holds the country together. Politically neutral, it is tied to no single region or ethnic group.)

"Communalism" or strife between members of different ethnic groups is a hot button issue in India. From Kashmiri separatists to Sikh extremists, from Hindu-Muslim tensions to inter-caste tensions, there is a multitude of socio-ethnic fault lines in Indian political life. Although a majority of Indians (80%) are Hindu, there is a 12% Muslim minority. India's calendar of national holidays includes all the major Muslim holidays. Since India is a secular democracy, any religious or caste discrimination is prohibited. The lowest caste Hindus (untouchables) have seats in university and civil service positions set aside for them. Although this opens some doors, it does not correct the attitudes that persist and thrive towards untouchables and lower caste Hindus. Disenchantment with the caste hierarchy has provided a socio economic incentive to convert from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam. This has fueled violence towards converts from Hinduism and towards the clergy of the Christian minority.

On the issue of religious conversion, BJP is opposed to missionary activity directed towards Hindus. They would like legal curbs on such activities. There are high caste people who are struggling economically to whom the Bharatiya Janata Party has strong appeal. They resent caste and ethnic set asides that they feel limit their economic opportunities. Tensions concerning the Ayodyha Mosque still fester.

The Ayodhya Mosque was built upon a site revered by Hindus as the birthplace of one of their gods. It was built during a time that the area of which it was a part was under the rule of a Muslim dynasty. Hindus have for centuries viewed the presence of a mosque on the site as an affront to their faith. In 1992 a Hindu religious procession at the site in which BJP was a participant spun out of control. The mosque was torn down in a frenzy of violence that claimed hundreds of lives as it morphed into violence against entire communities.

It should be remembered that the partition of India in 1947 did not totally separate Hindus and Muslims. There are more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan. Despite statutory equality, there have been numerous instances of inter communal violence in India since its founding in 1947. In America after 9/11, there was no significant anti Muslim violence. This contrasts markedly to India where public anger at Muslims can erupt into bloody pogroms.
The Milli Gazette, a Muslim newspaper in India details the demographics of such violence as follows.

"The history of 55 years of grievous anti-Muslim violence in India shows that in townships and villages, where Muslims are 20% or more of the population, not much harm happens to them in communal riots. In such townships all across India, Muslims were always able to defend their lives and properties and beat back the attacks of fascist Hindu marauders. In the horrible 1992/93 anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai, Muslims were safe in Muslim pocket localities like Mahim, Bandra, Mohammad Ali Road, Bhindi Bazaar, but over a thousand Muslims were killed in localities where their population was sparse. Similarly in the other cities in Maharashtra, UP and Bihar, where many anti-Muslim riots have occurred over the years, Muslims suffered losses of life and property in those localities where they were under 10% of the population, while they were safe in localities where their population was 20% or more.

To live in pockets where Muslims are 20% or more of the population, does not mean that those localities become ghettos. For instance in New Delhi such Muslim pockets exist in localities like Okhla, Jamia Nagar, Zakir Bagh. These are nice areas with clean residential and business operations. In such localities in New Delhi, Mumbai and other cities, Muslims have built high quality educational, medical, civic institutions and business enterprises. And all of them have remained safe in the many large-scale anti-Muslim riots in these cities."

From these demographics it can be inferred that whatever one's ethnicity, it is safer to be in an area where one belongs to the local majority.

For millions of Indians, freedom from fear of inter communal violence is a genuine concern. In addition to Muslims, the Christian minority in India has suffered considerable violence, including murder of clergy and believers, rape and destruction of churches.

Spero News gives some idea of the scope anti Christian violence can take in a recent article on such outbreaks in Orissa State. Spero News reports as follows.

"Hundreds of people affected by anti-Christian violence in Orissa are continuing their legal battles for compensation with Church support. Father Dibya Parichha, spokesperson for the archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said they were fighting for justice and human rights. "We don't know when it will end but we will continue it until each victim receives justice," he said. The archdiocese covers Orissa's Kandhamal district that was the focus of four-month long anti-Christian violence starting on Aug. 24, 2008. According to the Church's latest list, about 90 people were killed and 50,000 others, mostly Christians, displaced in the riots. The state government, however, says only 42 were killed and lists the rest as "missing" because their bodies are not yet found, Father Parichha told UCA News May 14. The violence broke out a day after Maoists killed a Hindu leader in Kandhamal. Hindu radicals, blaming Christians for the murder, orchestrated the attacks."

It is chilling to note the word "only" being used in connection with 42 deaths. Additionally, it is hard to imagine the social turmoil that would have created 50,000 homeless in one wave of violence.

India's election should be watched with interest and concern in the west. Whether one is a Christian, Muslim or simply concerned with human rights, India's complex ethnic balance must not tilt into bloody anarchy. Whether it is "Hindutva" (pride in Hindu culture) Muslim pride or and other forms of religio ethnic pride, the tranquility of the world's largest (1.2 billion people) democracy is a matter of great concern. Mohandas Gandhi, the founder and first Prime Minister of India had a multi ethnic vision for India. It would be a pity for that to unravel.

Rabindranath Tagore, (1861-1941) Is India's national poet and a 1914 Nobel Prize winner. In his famous poem for India "Let My Country Awake" he writes as follows.

"Where the mind is without fear and the head held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Where words come out from the depth of truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action; Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake."

India stands at the threshhold of a possible economic boom. It is critical for it to rise to the challenges of its own diversity. India's government and people have their work cut out for them. I hope and pray for their success .

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Jamaica's Maroons: Rebels Against Slavery

The legacy of slavery has shaped American society until today.The desire of African American historians to reconstruct ties to specific parts of Africa is a daunting one. Documentary evidence that would provide conclusive answers is often fragmentary at best.

One of the most stirring chapters in the history of the struggle against slavery is that of the Maroons. The Maroons today are descendants of passengers on slave ships that docked in Jamaica. Some of their ancestors took to the hills as soon as they could in the 1600's when they were brought to Jamaica by the Spanish. Others fled when the Spanish left the Island to the English in 1655. The Maroons intermarried with indigenous Indians known as Taino. They lived in a self governing manner, supporting themselves through subsistence farming and through raiding plantations. This actually led to war. The Maroons were a power to be reckoned with. The British were not able to subjugate them.

Eventually in 1739 and 1740, the British Governor on Jamaica established a peace treaty with the Maroons. The agreement gave them five towns split between two locations. They had their own chief but accepted the appointment of a British supervisor. The most unfortunate concession made by the Maroons was a treaty pledge to return slaves who had escaped from plantations. A bounty was paid to the Maroons of two dollars per escaped slave. At that time, a dollar was a very substantial amount of money.

Despite the treaty, tensions continued to build between the Maroons and the plantation owners. In 1795 there was a second Maroon war. The Maroons suffered an unfortunate defeat. This time about 600 Maroons were deported to Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was hoped that they would take to a life of farming in their new surroundings. They were not happy in their new surroundings. It was eventually decided to resettle them in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone, like Liberia was a country in West Africa that was established as a homeland for repatriated slaves. It was a deeply flawed idea, kind of like taking someone from Texas and repatriating them to Montana. Not all the deported Maroons took to life in Sierra Leone. Some returned to Jamaica to work on plantations there.

Although depleted by the deportations, the Maroons were by no means wiped out. They live today in the same region where they started out on Jamaican soil. They remain autonomous and separate from the rest of Jamaican society. Their largest town, Accompong remains a focal point of Maroon culture and celebrations. The Maroons still maintain religious traditions of ancestor worship and other rituals that can be tied to their distant past back in Ghana. Their religious orientation differs markedly from other Jamaicans who are mostly fervent in their practice of Christianity..

The Maroons and their inspiring history make their community a subject of fascination to Jamaicans and to visitors from abroad, some of whom make it to the regions in which the Maroons live today.

Jamaica as an independent country has accorded proper respect to the Maroons. Their leader "Queen Nanny" appears on the 500 dollar bill that is in circulation in Jamaica today. Nanny was herself an escapee from slavery along with her brother Cudjoe, who led raids against plantations to free slaves. Although her birth date is not known, it is inferred from historical records that she was born in the 1600's. Queen Nanny, who reputed to be a practitioner of magic somewhat comparable to Voudun or Santeria. She never returned escaped slaves and is in fact credited with aiding in the escape of about 800 slaves during her lifetime. Nanny's tragic death and betrayal is documented as follows in the "Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica."

"In the Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica, 29–30 March 1733, we find a citation for "resolution, bravery and fidelity" awarded to "loyal slaves . . . under the command of Captain Sambo," namely William Cuffee, who was rewarded for having fought the Maroons in the First Maroon War and who is called "a very good party Negro, having killed Nanny, the rebels (sic) old obeah woman" (quoted in Campbell 177). These hired soldiers were known as "Black Shots" (Campbell 37). Some scholars raise the possibility that more than one leader named Nanny existed, along with the possibility that Cuffee was lying to get a reward, this gives us an approximate death date for Nanny of the Maroons. Considering the use of the word "old," we can only assume that Nanny was born in the seventeenth century."

The story of the Maroons is an inspiring one. Like Harriet Tubman, Queen Nanny would make a good subject of study. I hope that more information will come to light about the Maroons and their fascinating history.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Concerning Israel and Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XIV has been visiting Israel, meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and with leaders from the Palestine Authority. He has made conciliatory gestures that would have been unthinkable not long ago in the history of the Catholic church's troubled relationship with Jews. At the same time, he called for the establishment of a "Palestinian homeland." almost as soon as he touched down on Israeli soil. The territory conceded thus far to the Palestine Authority has been used as a springboard for attacks deeper into Israeli territory. Rather than reciprocate with conciliatory actions, the concessions have emboldened the Palestine Authority, whose people have elected leadership that is both adamant and violent in their rejection of the State of Israel.

Had the Pope not called for establishment of a Palestinian State, it is quite likely that the already dwindling population of Christian Arabs in Israel and in territory under the Palestine Authority would be subject to anti Christian violence by Muslims. Under the Islamic oriented government of Hamas, Christians are second class citizens at best, enduring civic liabilities, violence and sometimes attacks on their religious sites. Despite the stellar Israeli record in protecting Arab Christians and their religious sites, it would not have been politically correct for the Pope to point the contrast of Israel's record towards Christian Arabs and that of Arab governments. In modern times, Christian Arabs are in a sense hostages to the Muslim majority.

How should the Israelis deal with the Pope? He was treated with unfailing civility and respect by the Israeli government. Israel is in some ways a raucous democracy. Some statements made during his visit by some Israelis reflected the deep distrust of the Pope that have well founded historical reasons. Only recently, the pope had readmitted Bishop William Richardson, a Holocaust denier back into the Catholic church. He made it clear with subsequent sanctions against Richardson that he did not approve of his theology or attitudes towards Jews. The question remains why it took a media outcry to bring the depth and range of Richardson's antipathy towards Jews to the Pope's attention.

The Pope has been criticised for his youthful membership in the Hitler Youth. I feel that this criticism is absurd and unwarranted. It would have been exceptional for him not to have been an HJ member. There were strong expectations of all German young people that they join that organisation. The Boy Scouts were not an alternative either. The Nazis did not like ideological competition. The Hitler Youth was the only show in town.

This situation can be compared to citizens of the former Soviet Union. I have only met a few people who refused to join the Young Pioneers. The pressure to join this communist youth group was very high. It affected one's social standing in school. The Komsomol, which was for high school students was also a common denominator for millions of Soviet youth.

My choice of the Young Pioneers and the Komsomol as a way of shedding light on the experiences of the Pope's youth is not accidental. Nazism and communism are both atheistic ideologies with body counts higher than that of Christianity or Islam throughout their entire history. The experience of those who came of age under these regimes as citizens rather than victims is a vast underdeveloped area of study.

I feel that some changes are in order for Israeli relations not only with the Pope but with the governments of the world as well. The Jewish people lost one out of every three Jews alive at the time during World War Two. The facts related to this are well documented. If anyone should be involved in researching details of this chapter in our history, it should be the State of Israel. Despite this, I feel that foreign visitors to Israel should have a change of itinerary from what is currently accepted practice.

I do not like the obligatory "photo op" at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial that seems to be a part of every foreign visit. I do not even like the apologies of foreign heads of state that visit Israel. Anyone who wishes to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial or the Western Wall should have the opportunity to do so. But such visits should be private, personal apolitical affairs. There should be no photographs taken or press releases of what was written by a leader and put into the crevices of the Western Wall. It is unbecoming for Judaism's holiest site to be turned into a location for a political infomercial. Any foreign visitors should be able to immerse themselves in Israel's rich history and avail themselves of the prolific scholarship that surrounds it in the Holy Land that is under Israeli rule without undignified fanfare at sacred sites.

But the part of a state visit that is on camera should be practical and unremarkable. Israel is a country of seven million people. There is no reason to apologise for whatever the government does to safeguard the integrity of its borders and the well being of its citizens. It should be explained in practical terms to foreign visitors what Israel does to keep from being wiped off the map. Every other nation in the region gives statutory primacy to Islam. Even within Islam, each country in the region gives primacy to one sect over another. In Saudi Arabia, Sunni Islam is dominant. In Iran, which is Muslim but not Arab, Arabs are an impoverished minority and Shia Islam is politically dominant. The lofty goal of a secular, democratic and non denominational state has not existed anywhere in the region. If Israel were to take such a step, it have no precedent in the region and no sequel among its neighbours.

Israel was built in good part by refugees from neighbouring Arab countries. It had what was in effect a population exchange with its neighbours that was never ratified by law. These same neighbouring countries no seek to chase those who were driven from their homes from their land of refuge. If there is any piece of recent history that should be stressed it is this.

There were attempts to establish a Jewish homeland in Uganda and Argentina as well as Birobidzhan in Soviet Asia. The only attempt that ever reached critical mass in modern times is the State of Israel. Even those who are avowed secularists can not divorce themselves from the biblical roots of Israel's existence.

A central motif of Vatican policy towards Israel has been for calls to internationalise Jerusalem. This is redundant. For the first time in centuries, visitors of all faiths have access to their religious landmarks. Unlike other countries such as Egypt and Turkey that enforce decrepitude upon Christian religious sites by refusing permission to maintain and renovate, churches and mosques are well maintained in Israel, whether they are famous landmarks or local places of worship. This practical reality needs to be stressed over legal technicalities. Under Jordanian rule, urinals were set up by the Western Wall. Garbage was dumped there. Under British rule, a Jew who sounded shofar by the Western Wall was subject to instant arrest.

Unfortunately, it is Jewish antiquities that are poorly guarded by the Israelis. The Muslim religious authorities on the Temple Mount have engaged in the use of heavy earth moving machinery that has pulverised Jewish antiquities buried at the site. The Israeli government is too interested in jumping through hoops to satisfy its critics to put a stop to this outrage.

Jerusalem is more international than it has ever been before. The world should recognise and applaud this.

When Charles De Gaulle visited Quebec in 1967, he created outrage with a speech in which he shouted "Vive le Quebec libre !" Long live free Quebec !" Canadians were outraged. De Gaulle's visit ended two days later without a visit to Ottawa, Canada's capitol. His statement was seen as inflammatory interference in Canada's internal affairs. For years afterward, relations between Canada and France were strained as a result.

Israel is a strange place. Almost every foreign leader who visits Israel does the same thing as De Gaulle did in Canada in 1967. No one bats an eyelid. Everyone wants to solve Israel's problems with its neighbours, employing a moral standard never applied before and will probably never be applied again. The death toll in all of Israel's wars on all sides, both military and civilian since 1948 has been about 120,000. In the Congo alone since 1994, over six million Congolese have died. If you go back to 1948 and look at all of Africa's wars, the death toll compared to that of Israel is astronomical on an absolute and per capita basis. There is no logical reason for the inordinate media attention focused on the Middle Eastern conflict. It is not natural. Black Africans could be excused for imputing the indifference to their suffering to racism in United Nations.

By Israeli standards, the Pope's visit to Israel went well. Despite the similarity of his visit to that of Charles De Gaulle to Canada, it was judged to be a success. But Israel is unlike like any other place on the planet. By absolute standards, the Pope's visit was rather odd. And that what I expected.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hell Bank Notes: Not What You Think

My favourite piece of paper money is worth nothing. I was in a flea market and stopped by a table with stamps and coins. There was Japanese occupation money. There was German inflation money. For sentimental reasons I bought a beat up coin from Newfoundland with no numismatic value. I love Newfoundland. I am sad that they gave up their independence in 1949. I like lots of little countries with their own stamps and money. If I could turn my garage into an independent country, I would probably do it.

The one piece that caught my eye was a piece of money printed on cheap paper. It had Chinese writing and a picture of Josef Stalin. I turned it over and it said "Hell Bank Note". I laughed so hard that I almost cried. I bought a couple of the pieces. At work I showed them off to Russian co workers. One older lady had lived under Stalin as a child. She hated him almost as much as Hitler. Like many Jews from the former USSR, she believes that Stalin would have tried to wipe out Soviet Jews had he lived longer.

I assumed that the "bank note" was an odd piece of political satire produced by anti communist Kuomintang. (Chinese nationalists) I kept one of the banknotes in my wallet as a joke and forgot all about it.

One day, I had a meeting with my son's guidance counselor, who was from Taiwan. As the meeting drew to a close, I took out the "funny money" and asked him about it.

He told me that it was not meant to insult Stalin at all. I was disappointed, but I asked him what he meant.

"It's ghost money". he told me. When Chinese people visit the graves of their ancestors, they bring special paper money and burn it on an altar so their ancestors will have money in the next world. When the Christian missionaries came to sell Christianity to the Chinese, they told them that Chinese who didn't accept Jesus would go to hell. Because of the language barrier, the Chinese took this not as a threat of damnation but as a simple reference to the after world to which departed souls go. In their understanding, "hell" is not a place of torment but simply a name for the next world."

Hell Bank notes are a modern adaptation of an old Chinese custom of burning money for the use of the dead. The custom is still widespread The site explains the customs surrounding them as follows.


".....there are considerations concerning the use of Hell Bank Notes that some Chinese people take seriously. It is not advised to give a hell bank note to a living person as a gift (even as a joke); it is often considered as wishing the person's death, which is a grave insult. Hell bank notes are usually kept in places nobody can see (e.g. cupboards), as having these notes around in the house is considered bad luck. When burning the notes, the notes are treated as real money: they are not casually tossed into the fire, but instead placed respectfully in a loose bundle. Alternatively in some customs, each bank note may be folded in a specific way before being tossed into the fire. This practice is an extension of the belief that burning real money brings bad luck."


The custom goes beyond money. At Chinese funerals, it is not unusual to see papier mache cars, houses and other amenities burned for the benefit of those in the after life. Absoluteastronomy gives an idea of the extent of this custom by reporting on communist Chinese efforts to put limits on the custom as follows.

"In 2006, China's deputy minister for civil affairs, Dou Yupei, said he intended to ban at least the more extreme forms of joss paper, such as MP3 players, planes, boats and even paper condoms, paper prostitutes and Viagra."

I was thankful for the new information, although a bit disappointed. To me, Stalin's picture belongs in Hell, just like he does. My adapted use for the joss money I found in the flea market was a lot like the women of Bolivia. When an Englishman came to Bolivia in the 19th century, he tried to sell the men bowler hats such as the kind made famous by Charlie Chaplin. The men had no interest in the hats, but the women were crazy about them. So the dry goods salesman unloaded all of his hats not on the men but on the women.

I detected the same amusement in the eyes of my son's guidance counselor as must have been seen in the face of the English hat salesman of many years ago. We were looking at the same object and seeing completely different things.

It has been a while since I have been back to the flea market. When I pick up an old book, an obsolete banknote or a toy from my childhood, it is like touching hands with the past. When I buy such things as a Newfoundland coin or Chinese ghost money, it is not an object that I am buying but the dreams that go with them. With the the right questions, every place you walk is a museum and every friend a teacher.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Concerning Islamophobia

In response to an article I wrote about the survival of Coptic as a spoken language, a reader responded on to the article. I had asserted that Coptic had been suppressed. The reader maintained that it had died a natural death over several centuries. A reader named Alexno commented as follows.

"Another wild error, after Shalab's quite correct remarks. Coptic was never suppressed. It died out naturally, after many centuries. Copts were a majority in Egypt until the 10th century, maybe later. Coptic was an everyday language until the 13th century. Arabic was simply a more convenient language, so people took up speaking it.

Repeating Islamophobic slanders is not useful to anyone, Mr. Stettner. "

I was frankly disappointed by Alexno's remarks, which contained no references or links. I answered him in the comments as follows.

Before you label my assertions as false, please consider the following quotation from a Coptic language history site.

"By the middle of the seventh century, Egypt came under the dominance of Arab rulers that eventually tried to force the Copts to learn Arabic to keep their government jobs. This policy slowly eroded the number of Coptic lay readers who were mostly from the ranks of these government workers and their families. In other words the pressure put on such families to learn Arabic to ensure their continuing service in the government and the inheritance of such work by their offspring, made them slowly neglect educating their children in literary Coptic. Within a few hundred years Bishop Severus of Al-Ashmunain found it necessary to write his 'History of the Patriarchs' in Arabic to address such a drastic decline. "
I include the link for your consideration

Consider also the following quote which vindicates my assertion that Coptic was pushed as opposed to having fallen.

The Fatimid period of Islamic rule in Egypt was tolerant with the exception of the violent persecutions of caliph Al-Hakim. The Fatimid rulers employed Copts in the government and participated in Coptic and local Egyptian feasts. Major renovation and reconstruction of churches and monasteries were also undertaken. Coptic arts flourished, reaching new heights in Middle and Upper Egypt. [36] Persecution of Egyptian Christians, however, reached a peak in the early Mamluk period following the Crusader wars. Many forced conversions of Christians took place. Monasteries were occasionally raided and destroyed by marauding Bedouin, but were rebuilt and reopened.

There is considerable scholarship coming from the Islamic world, a growing portion of which has thankfully been translated into English and other western languages. I would have welcomed Alexno's answer if it had been seasoned with references and links. It is through such exchanges that opinions shift in the debate and discussion now possible on the internet.

But the adjective "Islamophobic" requires a separate answer completely. There are indeed individuals who lump all Muslims together, from Bosnian beer drinking Muslims to Afghan women clad in burqas. There are Shiite Muslims in Pakistan who have been victims of suicide bombings by Sunnis and a Sunni minority in Shiite Iran that is not so happy with conditions there. To gloss over the vast array of differences in the Islamic world would be like lumping Roman Catholics with Baptists and Methodists. There are spirited differences between them in theology and lifestyle.

I take a historical view of the Jew hatred that is prevalent in a considerable segment of the Islamic world. There was a time when Turkey and Egypt were places of refuge from Christian intolerance. When Islamic fundamentalists rail against "crusaders", they seem unaware that the crusaders are viewed with extreme negativity in the Jewish historical narrative. Today, the pendulum has swung. The most lethal forms of Jew hatred are found in the Islamic world, in good part due to the influence of Nazism in Arab politics of the 1940's.

I dislike dismissive labels. "Liberal", "Islamophobe" and "Communist" are among many hot button labels that seem to shut down rational discussion. What is preferable in my opinion is to describe why an idea is unworkable, or why a political judgement is somehow flawed. It is for this reason that I try to never use the term "anti-semitic" in discussing political opposition to Israel. It is far more effective to cite precedents in which situations similar to those faced by Israel were dealt with in different historical contexts. By making proper historical comparisons, it is possible for the phrase "double standard" to leap to the mind of the reader without appearing on the page.

There is a cardinal rule in marriage and family counseling. Describe behavior ! Do not label it ! I feel that this should apply to politics. If a country has political prisoners and torture, then spotlight the behavior. Name the country. If a terrorist group claims credit for a suicide bombing, then name the group. Quote their proud claim of responsibility and their stated reasons. And having done so, fight them without remorse as a threat to the nation. But to lump the nationality or faith in whose name they claim to act together with them is a tactical error. If someone wants to applaud terrorism, then they too are the enemy. But if you are forceful and ruthless with someone who is sworn to destroy you, then it is quite likely that those sitting on the fence will distance themselves from the terrorists, be they Hamas, be they the Lord's Resistance Army or the Taliban.

So Alexno, says I am an Islamophobe. I am against anyone who wants to kill me. I am against anyone who takes steps to do so. And I consider anyone who tries to rationalise the actions of Jew killers to be their accomplices. In the military sphere, fight physical enemies with physical force. And in the political sphere, fight them with words, with persuasion and without apology. When Daniel Pearl's head was hacked off in Pakistan, his killers shouted "Allahu Akbar!" In doing so, it is they and not I who put an Islamic label on an act intended to create fear.

One must pray for peace. One must strive for peace. But when there is no choice, there is a duty of self defense. For this, there is no apology. From this is no deferment.

Off The Derech : Thoughts of Approaching Summer

Every summer, my friend Yudl and I have the same conversation. Summer is coming up. Kids have more time on their hands than they know what to do with. What will happen over the summer? You go out to Avenue J, Kingston Avenue or 13th Avenue. Sometimes you see kids you knew back when they were little ones in yeshiva. Sometimes you hardly recognise them. Punk outfits, weird piercings. What happened?

Sometimes a kid is having trouble in class. He discovers he can be a star at recess. He can run a business in yeshiva selling danishes and Laffy Taffy. He gets busted once, twice. At least he has recognition. If the kid is lucky, the parents will look at his business acumen and his lack of academic achievement. Maybe they will move him to a more suitable yeshiva. I've seen it happen. A kid goes where Torah is taught in English because that is what he hears at home. Suddenly he or she starts to blossom, all because the parents faced the situation honestly.

Then you have a kid who was no trouble, who suddenly starts acting strange. The kid is making trouble in school. You start to shake every time the phone rings, fearing it will be the school calling you down again. Try to go down a checklist. Is it academic problems? Maybe school bullies. That can be serious. Kids commit suicide over that. Don't dismiss a child's feelings. His or her emotions are as serious as yours or mine, and maybe more, because they are at a formative time in life.

It's maddeningly difficult to ask the right questions, to read between the line. You need siyata d'shmaya, G-d's help. Is the kid having problems with a teacher? I had a third grade teacher who would bang kids heads against the blackboard like a door knocker. My brother had a kid in his class in Catholic school who got punched in the face. It happens in Jewish schools and in Christian schools. I'm only mentioning it so we won't be ashamed to sort out our dirty laundry and clear things up.

What about a kid who is acting out sexually? Where are they picking that up?Who has access to them. Whose house do they go to? Do you rent out a room or a basement? Do they go there? It's a tough balance between asking the right questions and asking leading questions. But a child should have a sense that along with the duties of respect to elders and to the community, that they have rights. They have a right to be spoken to in a dignified way and to be disciplined in a measured way, and that there are boundaries. They should know that they have self worth that is not compromised by their youth.

I just read about a so called" chassidic" father who got thirty years for incestuous child abuse. Although thankfully, the mother blew the whistle, it took way too long . We have a tradition of rabbinical courts to handle business disputes. They are not equipped to handle felony sex abuse.And the abusers know it. Victims and their families worry about problems with shidduchim if the truth is known. Meanwhile, abusers get a free pass and cut a swath of destruction. To make matters worse, when the victim starts acting out, hanging out with a rough crowd that accepts them with the rough edges and the drugs they take to deaden the pain, everyone starts talking about the kid. That drives them further away. First there is the abuse. Then comes the rejection by school and community. And if the parents want to sign the kid up in a school that has patience and resources, that is a large expense borne by the family alone. Sometimes the family can absorb the expense. It is a lot more frequent that they have to wipe out their savings and then go to family and friends.

What can we do as a community? First, there should be a Jewish school for everyone. Just because a kid isn't a top learner, doesn't mean he's damaged goods. Schools need to work together so kids can be placed in an environment where they can thrive. This also means that parents must be cheerfully honest about their children. Do we want Bnei and Bnos Torah or do we want obedience trophies?

There should be a safety net so that when a child needs to be sent to a different yeshiva, that it doesn't wipe the family out financially. Some sort of loose affiliation or organisation might be able to correct this imbalance.

When there are instances of molestation, the police should be called. That type of abuse is like throwing a hand grenade into a family's living room. Abusers are making a calculation that they will not have to pay. Too often they have been right. We need to change that as a community by putting such perpetrators through the legal system.

Our community is like a boat with a leak. We are bringing in and welcoming Baalei Teshuva, or returnees to Judaism. We are learning how to reach out to different sorts of people, from Russian immigrants to college students to young professionals. At the same time we are losing children. There are some people working on this. But it should be a top priority in our community. These are some of our finest children that are leaving the fold. It should trouble us. We should all take it personally. Moshe Rabeinu (Moses) passed a test in which he was judged by G-d to be worthy of leading the Jewish people. He was a shepherd. And when one sheep wandered into the brush, he went out and got it. He displayed a mentality that even as a leader of many, he was concerned about the smallest individual. This is what G-d needed in a leader. Such a person could be worthy of leading the Jewish people. We are awaiting Moshiach, (the Messiah) with greater urgency in our troubled times. We must internalise this value system that each individual matters, that the loss of one person is a tragedy. If people get the leadership that they deserve, we should strive to be deserving of a leader like Moshe Rabeinu and reach out to those who stray.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Boy Scouts Hurt Lesbian's Feelings, Lesbians Sue

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is at it again. According to World Net Daily, the Boy Scouts of America faces the prospect of being banned from facilities in which it had invested millions of dollars in funds. World Net Daily summarises the case as follows.

"At issue in the case are leases from the city of San Diego allowing the San Diego Boy Scouts to build and operate campgrounds and an aquatic center on city property for their use and that of the public.

"Lesbian and agnostic couples who had never visited the facilities sued the Scouts on a claim that they felt offended by the fact that the city leases the public property to a 'morally straight' organization such as the Boy Scouts," the public interest legal groups said. "There were no religious symbols at the facilities."

I am trying very hard to understand this. First, the Boy Scouts have leased 16 acres of land from the city of San Diego. Many other groups have done so. The Boy Scouts had leased 16 acres since 1957. They leased another half acre parcel since 1987 for use as an aquatic centre. They invested 1.7 million dollars in improvements on the campground and 2,5 million dollars in the aquatic centre. Now a group of lesbian and agnostic couples is suing because their feelings were hurt, not as a result of a specific act or experience but because they are offended by the stated beliefs of the Boy Scouts. The oath of a Boy Scout is apparently offensive to both agnostics and homosexuals with it s pledge to "do my duty to G-d and country," as well as pledges to keep "morally straight." Some people have trouble with that.

What is the legal doctrine that is propelling this dubious law suit? According to WND, it is the "permission legal standing rule" which permits an uninvolved party to take offense through litigation because of their displeasure with a group's beliefs. It is now possible to pick up your Yellow Pages and look for an organisation whose beliefs offend you. You can then google the organisation, find out what charitable works they perform and take offense through litigation. It used to be that you had to cite a specific incident which constituted an abridgement of your civil rights. Now, you need only say that your feelings were hurt by the organisation in question. That is what the outraged agnostics and lesbians of San Diego have done. in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fortunately, The Thomas More Legal Defense fund and the Alliance Defense fund have joined forces with the Boy Scouts to safeguard a minimum of judicial sanity in this strategic legal battle. The "permission ideological standing" rule is a double edged sword. It can be used by anyone who claims offense, even if they have observed nothing. ADF legal counsel Dale Schowengerdt summarises the constitutional perils as follows

"Groups such as the Boy Scouts shouldn't be penalized for their beliefs, and neither should the communities that benefit from their selfless work," said ADF Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt. "The Boy Scouts of America spent millions of dollars to improve portions of two public parks that it leased from the city for a nominal fee. The Scouts allowed the public to have full access to the parks, yet two couples filed suit simply because they didn’t like the beliefs of the Scouts organization. These types of ridiculous 'offended observer' types of lawsuits should no longer be tolerated."

It is especially critical in a time of economic crisis that frivolous lawsuits should not hamper the good works of private organisations. The United States has been built by a diverse assortment of individuals and groups with beliefs that are often mutually exclusive. Part of the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans is waged by those who do good works in the name of their faith or cause. Universities, hospitals and recreational facilities are enriched by this healthy competition in which gays and lesbians have also taken part. The public is enriched by this healthy competition, in which all win. This entire process which spurs individuals and groups to more extravagant acts of altruism is threatened by the case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

There is no shortage of opportunities to be offended.

Jews do not recognise the divinity of Jesus. Shall Christians take legal offense?

Some Christians believe that you must be baptised to be saved. Should they be sued by Jewish organisations?

Shall Muslims take offense to stores that sell pork products for offending them with the sight of that which is forbidden to them?

What about Hindus? Will they sue someone who says "Holy Cow?"

Homosexuals refer to heterosexuals as "breeders". Should I sue someone because I allege offense at this "epithet?"

Shall I sue the National Basketball Association? I am a short, overweight white guy. I feel excluded. Instead of dribbling a basketball I am dribbling the keyboard on my laptop. As I hit the "SEND" button at the bottom of the page, I pretend that I am shooting a basket. But instead of millions of fans watching me from coast to coast, I have to satisfy myself with a couple hundred hits a day. I dream of doing product endorsements for sweat pants, beer and smoked almonds. But no one calls. I think I will sue the NBA. They've hurt my self esteem. I deserve a chance. I know I could make the grade. I could shoot lots of baskets. I might need a rifle to do it but I could still shoot plenty of baskets. So please. Do something. The NBA hurt my feelings. Someone's gotta pay. And I wanna collect.