Jews must speak out against Islamophobia: Standing with our Muslim brothers and sisters is critical

Published: Salon (September 14, 2016)

When news first broke earlier this week that a mosque in Orlando had been set on fire, presumably because it had been attended by Omar Mateen, the man who in June shot 49 people to death at the nightclub Pulse, I immediately thought of Alaa Basatneh. Three weeks earlier I’d interviewed the Syrian-American journalist and activist and had been struck by her optimism.

“I do have faith that, down the road, just like the Jews faced a lot of negativity in the past in the U.S. — and the Irish, the Italians, the Japanese, you know the entire list— things are going to be the same for Muslims,” she had told me. “It’s going to take a lot of time and effort from the Muslim-American community.”

But the arson at the Orlando mosque served as a reminder to me that the Muslim-American community shouldn’t have to go through this alone. More than ever, Jews and other marginalized groups have a moral responsibility to stand with our nation’s Muslims as they continue to face bigotry and persecution.

The good news is that over the past year many Jews have taken steps to do precisely that. In December Jewish activists held demonstrations on each day of Hanukkah  in 15 U.S. cities to protest anti-Muslim hate speech and public policies. In May, nine Jewish groups joined more than 30 other organizations to support a bill that wouldforbid the government to turn away immigrants based on religion, a clear response to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration. Around the same time, the American Jewish Community called for The Citadel to let Muslim students wear hijabs, while in New Jersey the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists lent their support to Muslims who are trying to build a mosque in the town of Basking Ridge.

And in recent years some Muslims have clearly demonstrated their rejection of anti-Semitism. In 2013 11 prominent imams, sheiks and religious teachers traveled to Auschwitz from nine nations to counter Holocaust denial. Also that year President Barack Obama personally congratulated a young Swedish Muslim activist, Siavosh Derakhti, for having founded Young People Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia to combat prejudice in his country. In November 2015 hundreds of Norwegian Muslimsformed a human shield around a synagogue in Oslo to express solidarity with the Jewish community there after an attack on a synagogue in Denmark. And in the March Democratic primary in Dearborn, Michigan, a city with many Muslims and Arab-Americans, a majority of voters voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who happens to be the country’s first major Jewish presidential candidate.

Although both sides have laid the groundwork for building Jewish-Muslim solidarity piece by piece, those efforts must be redoubled whenever one group yet again experiences mistreatment.

With the poisonous influence of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, millions of individuals can be held accountable for the actions of another who happens to share their faith.

As Basatneh said when I asked for her reaction to the Orlando mosque attack, “What’s upsetting is that one person’s actions are taken out [and superimposed over] an entire religion. Had I been at that mosque, I would have been hurt, even though I stand firmly against terrorism.”

I think this holds true not just for other Muslims who have been attacked because of the actions of a violent few but when Jews are collectively blamed for Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians (as happened in 2014  during anti-Semitic riots in Paris).

Whether we like it or not, the spotlight is on both communities because Jews and Palestinians of Muslim and Christian faith as well as others are embroiled in a bloody, decades-long conflict in Israel. As a result, many have grown to expect that Jews and Muslims everywhere will inevitably become foes, and it behooves individuals in both groups to defy those assumptions. When we don’t speak out against hateful words and deeds directed against the other, our silence can (unfairly or otherwise) be read as indifference or even implicit approval.

Perhaps the key to avoiding this can be found in a theory Basatneh shared with me why Muslims supported Sanders. “They understood what he was talking about and what he was preaching in terms of rights for all,” she suggested, recalling when he took the hand of a Muslim student asking a question about Islamophobia at a Virginia town hall and hugged her, noting that his father’s family had died in concentration camps and adding that he will everything he can to rid the country of the ugly stain of racism.

That moment touched many Muslims because he simply showed that he was “a human being that understood the struggle of the Muslim-American,” Basatneh said.

When Jews tell Muslims that we, too, identify with their pain, and when they do likewise, our society is taking small but meaningful strides toward overcoming the hostilities groups express toward one another.

These individual steps may not seem like much, but they add up and ultimately do make a difference.

That’s why I call on my fellow Jews to be at the forefront of the call to condemn the arson attack against the Orlando mosque. Those of us who don’t do the right thing now may, I suspect, regret their silence in later years.

“It’s Always Sunny” gang goes to hell: The long-running “Seinfeld” heir skewers rape culture, homophobia and religious hypocrisy in two-part finale

Published: Salon (March 8, 2016)

If we live in the golden age of television, the FXX comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is one of the underappreciated gems. Often billed as “Seinfeld on crack,” the show has a distinct comic sensibility of its own, cynically reveling in the monstrosities of its five main characters, who have been described in-series as “the most horrible people alive.” Although it’s one of the longest running live-action comedies in history (its first season aired in 2005), “It’s Always Sunny” hasn’t received much critical recognition or won any awards (which the show itself has pointedly referenced). It also hasn’t lost any of its edge, mining dark comedy out of a twisted mythology that it has had more than a decade to develop.

It has also, incidentally, produced some truly memorable social commentary. That was especially evidenced in last week’s episode “The Gang Goes to Hell,” the first half in a two-part season finale that feels like a series closer (the show has been renewedthrough next season, though). Not only did it heavily suggest that the main characters have died and are now in the afterlife – which, for obvious reasons, will be a game-changer for the show if it proves true when the second part airs on Wednesday – but in the process it tackled sensitive issues like homophobia, rape culture and religious morality (spoilers follow).

The episode opens with the title card telling us that the gang is standing in an Unknown Location. They stand before an unseen judge against a white background wearing white robes while they try to talk themselves out of being damned for eternity … literally. We hear something about a cruise ship sinking (a plot thread that will presumably be picked up in Part 2), but Mac (Rob McElhenney) assures their captor that they are good people before the title credits roll and we cut to them on board the mysterious ocean vessel. Apparently Mac won free cruise tickets at a church raffle (which we never see), and the gang members will get to vacation in Suite H666 in an environment that seems specifically designed to test their moral vices. Dennis (Glenn Howerton) is lust, Dee (Kaitlin Olson) is wrath, and Frank and Charlie (Danny DeVito and Charlie Day) are gluttony. Mac remains intriguingly undesignated (more on that in a moment).

Dennis’ subplot in this series is that rare thing in American comedy – an effective joke on rape culture. The premise is that Denise, who has severe delusions of grandeur when it comes to his prowess with women, harbors a fantasy in which he physically isolates a woman on a boat in the middle of the ocean, coercing her into sleeping with him because of “the implication.” This joke is never told in a way that is crass or exploitative, and the punch line is never at the expense of the women. The joke is that, although Dennis gets off on his perceived power over the women in those scenarios, he loses power because other people see him as a transparent creep. “‘Cause if the girl said ‘no,’ then the answer obviously is ‘no,’” he unconvincingly reassures Mac in an earlier episode (“The Gang Buys a Boat”) with this theme. “But the thing is, is she’s not gonna say ‘no.’ She would never say ‘no,’ because of the implication.”

In “The Gang Goes to Hell,” Dennis finally gets to live out his fantasy, stalking a barely legal woman who he insists is tempting him, even though her behavior is completely innocuous. He confronts her, she politely allows him to make his coercive pitch, and then immediately gets him thrown into the boat’s jail. There is nothing cool or erotic about Dennis’ fantasy, as he has always envisioned it, and instead of being in control of the power dynamic, Dennis unexpectedly found that a greater moral force was presiding over affairs, one that would pluck him out of a scenario in which he was about to harm another person. Instead of indulging in its fantasies, it just throws him in the brig. Dennis, and by extension the misogynistic mentality he embodies, is oblivious to its own ominousness… but that doesn’t make it any less sinister. Rape is taken seriously in this universe, as shown when a bird literally defecates in Dee’s mouth when she brags to Dennis about psychologically coercing them into sleeping with her with “an insinuation” of what will happen if they don’t.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the episode is Mac. As the series progressed, a running gag emerged about the devoutly Catholic and virulently prejudiced Mac being a closeted homosexual. Unlike shows where the joke is at the expense of his homosexuality, though, “It’s Always Sunny” has made it clear that the punch line is Mac’s pointless sense of guilt. For example, in the episode “Mac Day,” when Mac meets a cousin who is in every way a cooler version of himself, the superior version of Mac is completely comfortable in his homosexuality, in contrast to the regular Mac’s deep denial and overcompensating. The humor stems from just how far Mac is willing to go to deny his homosexuality, in the process implicitly arguing that the intolerant behavior we see from people like Mac in real life is often just so much self-hatred externalized. In this episode, all of those threads are built to a climax in which Mac – having found a religion that truly fulfills him spiritually, only to discover that it accepts homosexuality –finally admits that he is, in fact, gay. This isn’t the payoff, though, but the setup: Since he is gay, he now no longer believes in God.

Interestingly, though, there are hints that there might be some sort of god in the “It’s Always Sunny” universe. Whenever Mac makes intolerant comments about homosexuals, a loud thunderclap goes off to suggest a divine being’s displeasure. This is a proactively progressive view on religious morality: There is a place for God in our universe, and for the metaphysical in general, but it doesn’t cast out homosexuals or objectify women. (Dennis, for what it’s worth, seems to be agnostic, but then again there are plenty of professional atheists with well-known sexist streaks.) As a result, when “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” creates humor on subjects like sexism or homophobia, it doesn’t do so by ridiculing the victims, but by deflating the delusions that fuel prejudices. Dennis thinks he’s cool because of how he treats women and Mac thinks he’s righteous because of how he scorns homosexuals; in fact, those traits merely make them creepy and lame, respectively.

There is a case to be made that, while not all of the series’ best episodes take place on boats, any episode on a boat is going to be one of the best (see “The Gang Buys a Boat” or “The Gang Misses the Boat”).  Here the boat could very well be a ferry across the river Styx, transporting them to the next realm; or, just as likely, a clever gimmick that will pay off in an unexpected and memorable punch line that allows the series to hit the reset button at the start of Season 12. All I know is that, if “The Gang Goes to Hell: Part Two” lives up to the promise of last week’s episode, the story arc could stand on its own as an example of satire done right.

Why Bernie Sanders’ Judaism is so important

Published: Salon (February 11, 2016)

With his New Hampshire primary victory now in the books, Bernie Sanders has done more than simply guarantee that Hillary Clinton won’t have a free ride to the Democratic nomination. Indeed, even if Clinton ultimately bests Sanders in the upcoming primaries, the Vermont senator has still achieved something of lasting significance:

He is the first Jewish American to win a presidential primary.

This isn’t to say that he is the first American of Jewish descent to win a presidential primary. That distinction belongs to Barry Goldwater, an arch-conservative Arizona senator who upset the GOP establishment by winning the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. Although his father was ethnically Jewish, however, Goldwater himself had been raised as an Episcopalian by a devoutly religious mother. Despite never denying or apologizing for his Jewish background, Goldwater didn’t identify with it either during his politically active days, prompting one journalist to quip, “Somehow I always knew that our first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian.” Regardless of whether or not one considers Goldwater to have been a Jew, though, it is clear that Jewish voters did not embrace his values or want them implemented in the White House: Goldwater pulled in only 10 percent of the Jewish vote against President Lyndon Johnson that year, a historic shellacking within that demographic that no major party candidate has matched in more than 50 years since.

When it comes to mainstream Jewish presidential candidates, the roster doesn’t go on much further after Goldwater. There was Milton Shapp, a respectable two-term governor of Pennsylvania whose milquetoast personality doomed him early in the 1976 Democratic primaries; Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut senator and Al Gore’s vice-presidential running mate in 2000 (a first in Jewish history), whose relatively conservative views rendered his 2004 presidential bid a non-starter — and that’s about it, really. There a few footnotes on the list – Larry Agran, the Jewish mayor of Irvine, California, ran a nearly invisible presidential campaign in 1992 and got a handful of votes at the Democratic Convention that year as a result, while John Kerry(then a senator from Massachusetts) didn’t learn that he had a Jewish grandfather until the start of his ultimately successful campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2004. Aside from that, the record is pretty sparse. For all of their contributions to American life, Jews have barely made a ripple in the realm of presidential politics.

In many ways, Sanders seems like an unexpected figure to change that, and the fact that he openly identifies as secular is the least of the problems here. (After all, a majority of American Jews today are also secular.) On a deeper level, the issue is that he doesn’t seem to own up to his Jewishness except when prompted to do so. A rabbi at a temple in South Burlington, Vermont, complained that although Sanders “knows he’s Jewish” and “has a good heart,” the community would benefit from him openly embracing his heritage. “We need a Jewish hug from him every once in a while,” the rabbi said.

An Orthodox Jew named Richard Sugarman, a professor of philosophy and one of Sanders’ closest friends, noted while he isn’t embarrassed about his faith, “he continues to be a universalist; he doesn’t focus on those issues.” Even as Clinton has taken open and justifiable pride in the prospect of becoming America’s first female president, Sanders only mentions his Jewishness when someone else broaches the subject.

When he is asked, however, his response illuminates the distinct influence of his Jewishness on his political ideology. When Anderson Cooper pointed out to Sanders during a town hall event that “you’re Jewish, but you’ve said that you’re not actively involved with organized religion,” and asked how he could appeal to religious voters, Sanders offered a revealing reply: “I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings,” adding that his spirituality moves him to believe “that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me.”

When Sanders uttered those words, he placed himself squarely in one of American Jewry’s oldest and proudest traditions — namely, disproportionately supporting left-wing causes. “In their voting behavior, political identity and attitudes, American Jews are disproportionately clustered on the liberal/Democratic side of the political spectrum,” explained political scientist Kenneth Wald in an interview with the Washington Post. “The pattern has held more or less steady since the late 1920s. But we expect most affluent people to favor the party of the right. As a group, even allowing for individual differences, American Jews rank at or near the top on most measures of social class — education, income, occupational prestige and such. That makes their commitment to the Democratic party and liberal values puzzling.”

As a result of these left-wing tendencies, Jews have been numerically conspicuous in forming and supporting labor unions, championing civil rights for racial minorities and other marginalized groups, and backing not only liberal Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson but also leftist third-party candidates like Socialist Eugene V. Debs (1920), Progressive Henry Wallace (1948), and Independent John Anderson (1980). As a long-oppressed minority with a strong sense of historical continuity, Jews have maintained their sympathy for the underdog even in a nation like America, where they have flourished.

If nothing else, this also makes Sanders an ideal foil to oppose the other winner in New Hampshire, the Republican Party’s reactionary racist Donald Trump. When it comes to narrative symmetry, the juxtaposition can hardly be beat: On the one side, you have an out-of-touch pampered billionaire who panders to simple-minded racism, misogyny and xenophobia; on the other, you have a wild-haired Jewish socialist from a lower-middle-class background who fought for civil rights as a youth before getting swept up in the countercultural politics of tiny, iconoclastic Vermont. The contrast practically writes itself — and in a Sanders-Trump election, the former’s Jewish identity would be an integral part of that narrative.

In the end, this is what makes Sanders such an ideal representative of the Jewish community in the presidential arena. Exactly one century after Louis Brandeis became America’s first Jewish Supreme Court judge (his confirmation was heatedly opposed due in equal parts to anti-Semitism and antipathy to his staunch left-wing views), Sanders has become America’s first viable Jewish presidential candidate, because, like his antecedents, he has distilled basic human compassion into a broader ideology. Given the chance to realize their potential in the land of opportunity, the majority of American Jews are like Sanders in feeling compassion for those who, like so many Jews in so many lands throughout the millennia, are oppressed or disadvantaged or suffering. Although Sanders’ ideology no doubt springs from many sources, his overwhelming sense of empathy for the downtrodden is as Jewish as the poem that graces the Statue of Liberty, written by the American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus. The final verses read:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas?

Published: The Good Men Project (December 24, 2015)

Much to my horror, I discovered earlier today that my favorite local Chinese restaurant isn’t open on Christmas Eve.

This may not seem like a big deal – heck, you could even say that I’m a bit of a scrooge for faulting the establishment – but it’s important to remember that, as an American Jew, being denied Chinese food on this holiday is a bit like a Christian hearing their family church has decided to close. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Tribe of Abraham has been enjoying Chinese food on this day for as long as human memory can record.

If you want to learn the real story, though, this piece from The Atlantic manages to explain things pretty nicely:

“The story begins during the halcyon days of the Lower East Side where, as Jennifer 8. Lee, the producer of The Search for General Tso, said, ‘Jews and Chinese were the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups’ at the turn of the century.

So while it’s true that Chinese restaurants were notably open on Sundays and during holidays when other restaurants would be closed, the two groups were linked not only by proximity, but by otherness. Jewish affinity for Chinese food ‘reveals a lot about immigration history and what it’s like to be outsiders,’ she explained.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper story about Jewish culture if there wasn’t at least one Jew out there who disagreed with it. This brings me to another theory, courtesy of Josh Ozersky from Time Magazine:

“The thing to remember about Chinese food is that, besides being cheap, it is eminently suited to take out; at least three-quarters of the Chinese food I ate growing up was at home. And Jews love eating at home. We are intensely familial, home-loving and nuclear; and given that our own food is both bad and laborious (endlessly braised brisket, spattering latkes), Chinese food — varied, fatty and festive — is a better alternative in part because it’s always at hand. It’s a cheap lift; you can think of it as Jewish Prozac. And, beyond this, there is an even greater power of Chinese food in our lives, a sentimental tradition in a secular world.

Personally, I think both versions here are correct. Although Jewish and Chinese immigrants to America hail from very different geographic and cultural backgrounds, they both find themselves regarded as “outsiders” during one of the most important holidays celebrated in this country. While this isn’t solely responsible for the Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas, it most likely accounts for its genesis; from there, the convenience, deliciousness, and family-friendly qualities of this particular fast food cuisine makes up for the rest.

Having mentioned all of this, I would like to add a third theory – namely, that Jews began eating Chinese food on Christmas because they realized just how funny this would appear to be. After all, comedy is just as much a Jewish tradition as gefilte fish, and Jews love nothing more than setting up a good-natured joke about cultural pluralism. This is why, in my mind, the most important event in the history of Jewish Christmas occurred less than five years ago. It occurred when President Barack Obama appointed Elena Kagan, a Jewish judge, to the Supreme Court:

“When [Senator Lindsey] Graham questioned her about the Christmas Day bomber, Kagan started to answer seriously until he cut her off, asking her instead what she was doing on Christmas Day.

‘Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,’ Kagan said, prompting the hearing room to erupt in laughter.”

If I could turn the Graham-Kagan exchange into a ringtone, I would do so in a heartbeat. That uproarious laughter at the end was, in its way, the perfect coda to a moment that captures so much about the American Jewish experience. Even though we don’t share the same religious traditions as most of our countrymen, we are overjoyed at the privilege of living in a nation as wonderfully diverse and accepting as this one. The mere thought of it warms my heart and fills my soul with joy… and if that isn’t the Christmas Spirit, I don’t know what is.

How America’s fears are letting the terrorists win

Published: The Daily Dot (December 22, 2015)

Forget about the terrorists. At his rate it seems like we’re determined through our own fear to allow the terrorists to win.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with the rash of school closings that have occurred over terrorist threats. The first (and without question most patently absurd) was the “clock boy” incident from earlier this year, when a 14-year-old Muslim boy in Texas was suspended and held by police for building an elaborate clock that one teacher believed was a bomb. Then, in the aftermath of the ISIS attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the city of Los Angeles shut down all of its schools after receiving an email that administrators believed constituted a credible terrorist threat.

Around the same time, New York City’s schools also received a terrorist threat, although they refused to close on the grounds that it seemed (correctly, it turned out) to be a hoax. Finally, a school district in New Hampshire closed on Monday because of a threat that its administrators also feared might lead to a terrorist attack.

While a certain degree of caution is obviously justified in the post-9/11 era–to say nothing of our current ISIS-plagued time–the problem with such excessive responses is that they empower the Islamic terrorists we wish to fight. After all, by definition, a terrorist’s greatest weapon is the psychological grip they hold over the society they hope to coerce into fulfilling their political agenda.

When anyone can simply build a clock or threaten an entire school district and receive national news coverage, it reveals that the terrorists’ panic-mongering tactics have successfully changed how we view ourselves. Even worse, when those threats are able to have real-world consequence, it demonstrates that any individual or group willing to scare thousands as a way of drawing attention to itself can do so successfully.

Unfortunately, the damage caused by our fear of terrorism isn’t limited to real and imagined threats. In a Virginia county last week, a high school geography teacher instructed her class to practice Arabic calligraphy… and was treated with such a hostile and threatening response from many parents in the area that the school district was, you guessed it, pressured into closing. While one might think the parents would feel embarrassed at having caused the same type of public safety measure normally reserved for the terrorists themselves, many conservatives are already denouncing her and defending the parents who threatened her. Not only does this violate the teacher’s basic civil liberties, but it teaches the students in that area to implicitly associate the entire religion of Islam with fear and violence.

When anyone can simply build a clock or threaten an entire school district and receive national news coverage, it reveals that the terrorists’ panic-mongering tactics have successfully changed how we view ourselves.

Of course, this isn’t to say that our civil liberties haven’t also been jeopardized by the culture of fear. As Edward Snowden exposed two years ago, the National Security Agency began conducting warrantless (and thus illegal) spying on ordinary American citizens in the name of protecting us from terrorism starting shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Before Snowden’s whistleblowing, Americans already had the PATRIOT Act, which was passed after 9/11 to fight terrorism by (according to the American Civil Liberties Union) “ expanding the authority to monitor phone and email communications, collect bank and credit reporting records, and track the activity of innocent Americans on the Internet.” In the process, it acclimated Americans to the assumption that infringements on their liberty which they previously would have never permitted could somehow be rendered acceptable in the face of a sufficiently ominous external threat.

To understand the tragic flaw in this thinking, it’s important to realize that our Constitution wasn’t created by the naïve. Our founding fathers may not have imagined the technological advances that would enable modern terrorism, but they certainly understood that hostile powers from outside a democratic society could theoretically convince its members to forfeit their own freedoms.

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin famously observed.

While the context of Franklin’s statement is very different from the milieu of early-21st century anti-terrorism politics, it’s hard to imagine that either he or his counterparts would have wanted federal surveillance of ordinary citizens to become a status quo. Their belief in the primacy of individual liberty was one of the cornerstones of the ideology that built the American republic–and when terrorists are able to effectively compromise it, they have indeed scored an impressive victory over our nation’s values.

Finally, it’s worthwhile to examine GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent proposal to ban Muslim immigration. Despite the wave of criticism that it triggered, Trump’s policy actually has a considerable amount of support, with 50 percent of voters backing it when Trump’s name is attached and 55 percent doing so when it isn’t. For better or worse, this type of xenophobia is hardly new to the United States; groups from Germans to the Japanese have experienced immigration quotas and persecution during periods when their nations of origin were at war with our country. At the same time, the various social justice movements that have emerged over the past few decades had presumably put this type of knee-jerk prejudice to rest. When the menace of Islamic terrorism is able to spark a regression in our pluralistic ethos, this too is a major victory for the bad guys we’re supposed to fight.

Ironically enough, the best way to combat all of this fear-mongering is with the tool that keeps getting shut down–namely, education.

Ironically enough, the best way to combat all of this fear-mongering is with the tool that keeps getting shut down–namely, education.

It is through education that our children can learn to view Islam as a complicated religion with over a billion followers, and that while some of them do indeed wish us harm, the vast majority are ordinary people like ourselves. Similarly, it is through education that we can understand that danger has always lurked around the corner in free societies, and that while complacency is foolish because it imperils our physical security, curbing our freedoms and drastically altering our lifestyles to accommodate fear defeats the very goals for which we are fighting. So long as we keep these two lessons in mind, we can continue to strive toward a safer America without destroying America itself.

Of course, for that to happen, we’ll first need the courage to actually keep our schools open.


Democratic candidates blast Trump’s Muslim ban at debate

Published: MSNBC (December 20, 2015)

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley were unified on one topic during the last Democratic presidential debate of the year Saturday night: The toxicity of Donald Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. Each candidate seized on the opportunity to decry racial and religious bigotry — and encouraged the rest of America to follow their example.

O’Malley set the tone in his opening statement when he discussed a recent visit to a mosque in Northern Virginia and talked about “the danger that democracies find themselves susceptible to when unscrupulous leaders try to turn us upon each other.”

Clinton picked up on the theme of anti-Muslim discrimination, stating that “we must work more closely with Muslim-American communities.” The former secretary of state repeatedly warned against “the rhetoric coming from the Republicans, particularly Donald Trump, [that] is sending a message to Muslims here in the United States and literally around the world that there is a ‘clash of civilizations,’ that there is some kind of Western plot or even ‘war against Islam.’”

At one point the Democratic front-runner even praised George W. Bush over his contemporary Republican counterparts, pointing out that “one of the best things that was done, and George W. Bush did this and I give him credit, was to reach out to Muslim Americans and say, we’re in this together. You are not our adversary, you are our partner.” Jeb Bush was the only GOP candidate to attack Trump on his ban during the Republican debate last week — and he denounced the Republican front-runner as “a chaos candidate” who would be “a chaos president.”

Sanders urged Americans to ignore candidates like Trump who “divide us by race or where we come from,” by saying “the answer is that all of the Mexicans, they’re criminals and rapists, we’ve got to hate the Mexicans, those are your enemies” or “we hate all the Muslims, because all of the Muslims are terrorists. We’ve got to hate the Muslims.”

The Vermont senator returned to this subject again near the end of the debate, responding to a voter’s question about the lack of trust between law enforcement and citizens by emphasizing the need to “come together as a country and end institutional racism,” especially “police officers shooting unarmed people, predominantly African-Americans” and the United States putting “more people in jail than any other country on earth, 2.2 million people, predominantly African-American and Hispanic.” Clinton touched on these themes as well, likewise speaking out against “systemic racism and injustice and inequities in our country.”

There are sound political reasons why the Democratic candidates have been so outspoken about the importance of pluralism and tolerance. Since the days when the Democratic Party was rebranded by Franklin Roosevelt, the Democrats have depended on appealing to the diverse range of marginalized groups who have turned to political institutions for protection against discrimination. During the twentieth century, this took the form of fighting the Great Depression or racist Jim Crow laws in the South; today it involves protecting Muslims from Islamophobia, Mexican immigrants from xenophobia, and African-Americans and Hispanics from law enforcement excesses.

Regardless of the time period, however, the strategic advantage of this approach is that the number of affluent white voters (i.e., the GOP’s base) has continued to shrink while the number of non-white and working class voters (i.e., the Democrats’ base) continues to grow. As a result, appeals to bigotry that helped Republicans win general elections in the past – from Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about “welfare queens” – are now statistically imprudent. The minorities, after all, are now the majority.

That said, the Democrats did more to advance the cause of civility than simply advocate that it be displayed toward minority groups; they also did so by displaying it toward each other throughout the course of the debate. The most notable instance of this occurred in the very beginning, when Sanders apologized to Clinton for several staffers from his campaign who illegally accessed data from her electronic voter registry. In addition to accepting his apology, Clinton echoed Sanders’ famous declaration from the first Democratic debate that he was “sick and tired” of hearing about her “damn emails,” calling for the party to “move on” because the American people are “more interested in what we have to say about all the big issues facing us.”

Clinton and Sanders struck a stark contrast between themselves and the most recent Republican debate, one that was dominated by bickering between Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and virtually every other major candidate on that stage in Las Vegas.

Perhaps the most telling quote of the night came from the Democrat least likely to win the nomination, former Gov. O’Malley himself. “My friend Kashif, who is a doctor in Maryland… was putting his 10 and 12-year-old boys to bed the other night – and he is a proud American Muslim – and one of his little boys said to him, ‘Dad, what happens if Donald Trump wins and we have to move out of our homes?’”

Even as Trump and other Republicans promote a message that can so easily be interpreted as deliberately excluding marginalized racial and religious groups, the Democrats have used their mistakes to place themselves in the best possible light for the upcoming presidential election.

The problem with comparing Trump to Hitler

Published: MSNBC (November 30, 2015)

Pundits and candidates alike are now accusing Donald Trump of being a fascist or neo-Nazi. Some are even comparing him to Adolf Hitler. This is a serious problem – not for Trump, mind you, but for our collective intelligence as Americans. When we imply that the sinister Trump phenomenon represents something new on the American scene, we gloss over the ugliest parts of our political history, and in the process make it more likely that those mistakes will be repeated.

There are three qualities to Trump’s presidential campaign that invoke parallels to Nazism. The first is his intense cult of personality, which, for Trump supporters, is particularly driven by his reputation as a successful businessman who can “fix things,” and by his willingness to brazenly defy the taboos of political correctness. In addition, there is his blatant racist demagoguery, from his spurious and offensive claims that undocumented Mexican immigrants are largely criminals and rapists to his recent proposal that Muslims carry ID cards identifying their religion. Finally, there are the undertones of violence, both inspired by his rhetoric (e.g. the two Bostonians who savagely assaulted a homeless man while invoking Trump’s name) and directly advocated by Trump himself (e.g. his open agreement with supporters who beat up a #BlackLivesMatter protester).

While these characteristics range from the merely unsettling to the downright reprehensible, none of them are novelties to American political life. Indeed, the campaign that saw the first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, elected, contained all of these qualities – the former general was revered as a bona fide American hero by his supporters, widely admired for his role in committing genocide against indigenous peoples, and proud of his violent past with dueling, a practice that was enthusiastically emulated by his followers.

And it doesn’t end with Jackson: Cults of personality have elected presidents from William Henry Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama; overt racism has been not only preached but practiced from the White House, from the eight men who owned slaves while serving as president to progressives like Woodrow Wilson, whose promotion of segregation and open sympathy with the KKK recently inspired student protests at Princeton University; and when it comes to violence, nothing beats the supporters of the Southern Democrats’ presidential nominee in the election of 1860, Vice President John C. Breckinridge, who made good on their threats to start a Civil War in the event that Republican Abraham Lincoln was victorious.

In short, by comparing Trump’s presidential campaign to distinctly foreign, extreme right-wing ideologies, we overlook the homegrown antecedents from which he has drawn. Consequently, we deny ourselves one of the chief tools necessary for effectively combating him – namely, historical perspective.

Take the apocalyptic rhetoric that Trump uses to discuss issues like undocumented immigration and the Syrian refugee crisis. Because Trump has presented himself as an opponent of so-called “total political correctness,” his offensive comments about Hispanics and Muslims (to say nothing of women, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups) have been characterized as a bold willingness to slay sacred cows. Yet during the 19th century, similarly erroneous concerns about the criminality and inherent “otherness” of immigrants have been directed against groups ranging from Germans (e.g. Benjamin Franklin notoriously referred to them as “stupid” and “swarthy”) to Irish Catholics (e.g. when former president Millard Fillmore waged the second most successful third-party presidential campaign of all time on a platform devoted to keeping “un-American” Catholics out of the country). Likewise, when Trump argues that Muslims carry ID cards and Syrian refugees be monitored in a federal database, he is following in the footsteps of presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, who established internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II after first considering similar proposals.

This brings us to the twofold advantages of confronting the Trump movement with a well-informed historical perspective. First, it demystifies the rhetoric itself, allowing Americans to recognize that Trump isn’t some sort of trailblazer but rather a cheap imitator of political traditions so shameful that we’ve shuffled them away from our collective memory. More importantly, it helps bring the menace posed by Trump’s campaign into sharper relief.

When Trump supporters and swing voters are told that the Republican candidate is a fascist or latter-day Hitler, it’s easy for them to dismiss those concerns as partisan hyperbole, if for no other reason that they can’t really conceive of them – after all, America has never elected an outright Nazi to the presidency, so that particular threat seems more hypothetical than actual. Not so when talking about patterns of institutional discrimination that, though often overlooked by the media, were demonstrably all-too-real chapters of American history.

Trump’s political power – as well as the power of the right-wing reactionaries who will follow in his footsteps – comes from his ability to create a cult of personality for himself while effectively capitalizing off of America’s latent racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice. Just because these things don’t make him a neo-Nazi doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be devastating for America.

That’s why we must resist the urge to characterize Trump’s racial demagoguery, cult of personality, and authoritarian policy proposals as fascist or in any other way Hitleresque. By doing this, we deny and potentially empower the brutality, oppression, and violence that has marked so much of America’s political history. Trump is certainly pandering to our nation’s worst instincts, but the sentiments into which he has tapped have been with this country for a long, long time.

An aggressive military response is precisely what ISIS wants

Published: Salon (November 20, 2015), The Daily Dot (November 18, 2015)

As the world reels from the last Friday’s terrorist attack in Paris, millions of people have taken to Twitter to share their grief and outrage… and many echoed Donald Trump’s call to “bomb the shit” out of them.

The desire to immediately strike back at ISIS with overwhelming force is understandable. It took under 48 hours for the French military to retaliate for the attack with air strikes against targets in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. However, it’s important to remember why groups like ISIS mount large-scale spectacle terrorist attacks against Western targets in the first place: to provoke a dramatic military reaction that brings moderate Muslims around the world into agreeing with its worldview. Retaliatory strikes against ISIS will certainly weaken the group, maybe even destroy it, but that type of response is precisely what ISIS is hoping to elicit.

“There can be no compromise in a cosmic war. There can be no negotiation, no settlement, no surrender.”

In his book Beyond Fundamentalism, religious scholar explains that the chief goal of radical Islamist groups like ISIS is to create a “cosmic war” in which human beings act out a religious war they believe is simultaneously occurring in heaven: Fundamentalist Islam on one side and that Western Christianity on the other.

“There can be no compromise in a cosmic war. There can be no negotiation, no settlement, no surrender,” writes Aslan, arguing that fundamentalists successfully framing their grievances as a black-and-white existential struggle allows groups like ISIS to set the philosophical terms of the fight. “In the end, there is only one way to win a cosmic war: to refuse to fight it.”

President George W. Bush reacted to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by engaging in a large-scale military campaign first against Afghanistan and then Iraq. The total cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to the American government has grown to a mind-boggling $6 trillion over the past dozen years. There is little doubt that similar military campaigns from Europe would carry a comparably staggering price tag.

“[Bush] responded with precisely the cosmic dualism that those who carried out the attacks had intended to provoke,” Aslan writes.

As thousands of Muslim civilians died in military campaigns led by America and its allies, Islamic extremists fed off the resulting anger and hopelessness felt by those directly impacted or  outraged by the war. Instead of spreading democracy and stifling radicalism in the Middle East, the bombings and other high-casualty military actions wound up having precisely the opposite effect.

America’s intensive military response to Osama bin Laden’s attack also played a large role in creating ISIS today. “Over the years, bin Laden … never made it a secret what he was up to: trying to bait the U.S. into a ground war in his backyard, so that he could defeat us, just as he’d defeated the USSR, in large part by bleeding us dry financially,” writes columnist Paul Rosenberg in Salon.

Not only did Bush’s military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq lend credence to the radical Islamist argument about a holy war between the Muslim world and the secular West, but deposing Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum in the Iraq that ISIS was willing and able to fill.

ISIS didn’t attack Paris at random. They did so with the goal of provoking a specific response.

Furthermore, the Islamophobia spurred by attacks in Paris reinforces the notion that the West poses an existential threat to the Muslim faith. While all of the Paris attackers identified so far have been European nationals, right-wing parties throughout continental Europe are indulging in anti-refugee rhetoric. It’s arguably worse in the U.S., where 25 Republican governors have announced they will attempt to block Muslim Syrian refugees from settling in their states. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have already been reported in both Europe and the U.S.

“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for–to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who specializes in terrorism, said in an interview with theWashington Post. “ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.”

The crisis with ISIS is complex; charting an ideal of course of action has flummoxed many of the world’s best foreign policy thinkers. But as the West continues to process the Paris attacks, its main psychological challenge will be to avoid the reflexively overblown military response that will play right into ISIS’s hands. It feels gratifying to talk like Donald Trump about “bombing the shit out of them,” but just because we have awesome military power doesn’t mean the right thing to do is use it awesomely. ISIS didn’t attack Paris at random. They did so with the goal of provoking a specific response.

The West needs to think long and hard if it’s best course of action is giving ISIS exactly what it wants.