Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Rav and the Refugees

Most engaged Jews knew of Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, author of the seminal Zionist Idea. But I have a soft spot for his father Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Herzberg.

As a first-born son, I needed to be redeemed in a ceremony called a Pidyan Haben. According to Jewish Law first-born sons are to be given to the priests. But priests became a hereditary group (the Kohen), so parents offer the priests a silver coin to redeem their son. It's all very cute and ancient. (Just to be a 100% clear for any conspiracy minded anti-Semites, this is all symbolic - no one is taking anyone's children!) The ceremony is to be held 31 days after the birth. My mother wanted the ceremony on a certain day that was not the 31th day after my birth.

(Another aside, the priest who performed my pidyon aben was a cousin. One of his sons performed my son's pidyon aben, and one of his grandsons, the late Dr. Ami Cohen, established Save a Child's Heart. If you are inclined on this Thanksgiving - or any day, because that is what this post is really about after all - to help those in need, this is a terrific cause.)

So my father and my mother's father (Grandpa Bernie) went to the Rebbe, Rav Herzberg, to see what could be done. My father, a product of the classic Reform movement, relates:
We went into a room packed with beards. Bernie talked to them for a bit in Yiddish and we went further in. As we went deeper into the forest of beards got bigger and grayer. Finally we reached the biggest whitest beard of them all.
Bernie explained the situation and the Rav got his calendar and counted the days. The day my mother wanted wasn't the right day. The Rav invited everyone have some schnapps. Then they counted again. Still not the day my mother wanted. Schnapps! Counting and then some more schnapps. After a few rounds of this, my mother got the day she wanted.
Cute story about a clever, flexible Rabbi with a sense of humor. We could use more of those. But Rav Herzberg was also made of steel.

When an African-American man from Toronto came with documentation to prove he was a Jewish cantor came to the synagogue and asked to lead prayers, the congregation shuddered and refused him. It was segregated Baltimore, they had their reasons. But their Rabbi was ashamed of them, took the man by the arm and walked out the door with him, announcing that he would never return because, "they'd insulted a human being made in the image of G-d."

In his 1940 Yom Kippur sermon, Rav Herzberg delivered a blistering sermon, castigating President Roosevelt for not doing enough to rescue the Jews of Europe. 
Our brothers are being killed in Europe by the Nazis. If we had any Jewish dignity, we would, at the end of this fast, get into our cars and go from Baltimore to Washington. We would picket the White House and we would demand of the president that he use his influence on the Nazis, as the great neutral power, to stop the killings....
His synagogue, within an hour of the end of Yom Kippur, fired him. 

The American Jewish community did not have its present day confidence in its standing. It shrank from overt political activism. And American Jews loved FDR. I'm reading the Phillip Roth classic, Portnoy's Complaint, in which he mentions his community saying a blessing for FDR. And this was a true blessing, not like the old blessing for the czar: May Hashem bless the czar and the keep the czar far away from us!

Herzberg did march on Washington, with 400 other Orthodox rabbis on October 6, 1943. These were not the polished Westernized American Jewish leaders - these were Eastern European Orthodox rebbes with accents in fur hats, giant beards, and long black coats. The President avoided them, claiming a busy schedule. He had advisors (including Jewish leaders), who told him avoid the rebbes. Vice President Henry Wallace met them briefly and "squirmed through a diplomatically minimum answer."
Image from The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

(Vice presidents are kind of my thing - but Wallace was not a player under FDR, he was used here as a political punching bag.)

FDR was a great, great man. Was there someone else who could have pulled the U.S. out of the depression and mobilized its vast power to destroy the Nazis and Japanese Empire? But on this, he was wrong. How good for the Jewish people, for America, for the world would it have been to rescue a few hundred thousand more Jews - or even a million.

Food for thought as we count our blessings - and we consider the many many millions dreaming of the same.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Visit to the Postal Museum II: The National Nervous System

But focusing on this one exhibit is hardly fair to this fascinating museum.

It has the world's largest collection of stamps, harking back to the days when exotic stamps were items of wonder and mystery. They were also a significant organizational advance for governments, verifying payment of taxes and fees.

Stamps are neat, but the functioning of bureaucracies is what grabbed my attention. Now, the Post Office is generally seen as a relatively minor, and frankly dull (and earnest) government function. But, pre-electronic communications, organizing consistent large-scale communications to support commerce and the exchange of knowledge. I've also been interested in how large organizations function and the power of making them do so. It is incredible to think that the European powers, in the pre-electric era, with limited technology, managed to establish worldwide empires. Their technological advantages, while present, were insufficient. But their organizational abilities were essential.

Benjamin Franklin was a great American - a writer, inventor, and businessman and world-renowned scientist. His international fame helped make the American Revolution in France possible. He was a rock star in France, Monsieur Electricite. This status gave him access to elite Paris society in order to dun them for support for the Colonies. But he was also a postmaster. Establishing an orderly mail service through the colonies played an essential role in establishing an American identity (there was some self-interest involved since it allowed Franklin to better disseminate his writings and acquire information from around the Eastern seaboard and beyond.)

As the colonies moved towards independence, they established a postal system before anything else. Representatives needed to communicate and couldn't rely on the British system which they knew was monitored. In effect, the United States had a post office before it had an army, government, or anything else.

Side note, the British postal system had always been monitored. People knew if they wrote against the king, for example, it might very well be read and the writer would find themselves in big trouble. In contrast, the United States never really accepted a domestic intelligence agency. The FBI does the job in a pinch, but they'd prefer to catch criminals.

Now we live in the age of big data, instantaneous global communication, and innumerable complex bureaucracies. Yet for its time, the Post Office was a marvel of communication and a major technological innovator that made enormous contributions to the American economy.

It is fascinating to consider the postal system as a sort of rudimentary nervous system for a great nation, binding its vast spaced together. Ultimately it was superseded by telephones and now the Internet. It is easy to dismiss it as primitive compared to our present-day wonders. But just as scientists study and people wonder at less complex organisms like jellyfish, we can marvel at all the postal system achieved given the technology available and learn from it.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Visit to the Postal Museum I: Echoes of Anthrax

Not so long ago, I visited the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, it was very interesting - I recommend it highly - and I'll write more about it elsewhere, but something dramatic jumped out at me during my visit.

In the exhibit on the Postal Inspection Service however, something grabbed my attention.

The Postal Inspection Service is the law enforcement agency dedicated to protecting the mail. Lots of interesting stuff happens in and through the mail. Criminals mail illicit stuff to one another, fraud is carried out through the mail. There was the Unabomber.

And there was the Anthrax attack. For many this is a footnote in a truly mad period of time in our nation's history. Such a terrible thing had happened just before and so much awful has happened since. The anthrax attacks don't fit neatly in the narrative, carried out by a deeply disturbed individual for motives that appear - at best - obscure. But seeing the exhibit was a sharp reminder of what a big deal it was when it occurred.

As it happened, I was on Capitol Hill that day (trying to hand out resumes and schmooze.) Since I had friends there, I brought my wife and infant son (great move in retrospect) but he was quite a hit with many of the staffers. We were fine of course, bu
t when I got the flu a few days later it was terrifying. (I flew a United flight to LA just days before 911 and the DC sniper was all too close to my neighborhood.)

As a student of national security decision-making, the anthrax attack had a disproportionate effect on the worldview of U.S. leaders. 9/11 was - as much as anything that has ever happened - like a stunning moment out of a movie. Everyone's worldview changed very quickly and dramatically. Just weeks later, the shock remained, the wound was so very raw and open. Every conversation was still about 9/11 and suddenly yet another crazy thing - some thing out of Hollywood - happened.

AND we had NO idea who did it (it was years later, after false starts and a complex investigation, that the mystery was solved - and there are still questions.)

After 9/11 the administration vowed to not let this happen again. The term became the 1% doctrine. That is if there was a 1% chance a crazy terrorist plot could happen, we had to treat it as virtually certain. In retrospect this is a highly problematic worldview. But 9/11 itself was a 1% and it happened

On September 10, 2001 an intelligence analyst with a strong suspicion (but not certain evidence) that four planes were going to be hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center, and Pentagon and the White House would not have been taken seriously. On 9/12 his suspicion would have received an airing at the highest levels.

Everyone was pondering what al-Qaeda would do next, what else did they have in store?

Then, there were the anthrax attacks, using a biological agent, seemingly state sponsored. Did al-Qaeda have WMD capabilities? Was it in league with a state that had such capabilities? Was some other adversary taking advantage of American weakness and disorder? Was it an effort to test U.S. capabilities or undermine our resilience? Was it carefully planted "noise" to obscure the signal of a coming attack?

All of this seemed possible.

Prior to 9/11 Vice President Cheney had run a Homeland Security Task Force, directed by his chief of staff Scooter Libby to look at the biological terror threat. They found an effectively disseminated biological attack could quickly kill tens of millions. Cheney had spent a fair amount of his career thinking about 

In retrospect, the anthrax attack was noise - not signal. But it sure didn't feel that way in the White House. In retrospect, it would be great to have an independent advisor who could help parse this out. But distinguishing signal from noise is art, not science. It is always obvious in retrospect but rarely at the time when very busy people wrestle with hard problems - and after 9/11 - worry that a mistake will cost thousands of lives.

Hopefully, future students of national security decision-making will remember the anthrax attacks and draw lessons in how to intrepret events around them. But history suggests they won't. When future historians write about the early 21st century, hopefully they will remember this seemingly obscure event and consider how it moved decisions and maybe history itself.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Martian Chronicles: Good Reading for Columbus Day

I recently listened to Ray Bradbury's haunting, elegiac classic The Martian Chronicles. In the introduction, Bradbury explained he was trying to write Winesburg, Ohio on Mars. An apt description. I can see why I didn't appreciate Bradbury as a kid. I read a little of his stuff, but he didn't grab me like Heinlein, Asimov, Orson Scott Card and many others. Not enough politics or action, too mysterious. I can begin to appreciate him now.

There were dated bits of the The Martian Chronicles. Nearly everyone is white and American, Bradbury's beloved small-town middle America moves to Mars. There are some tired tropes of henpecked or ignored housewives. But these are mere quibbles. (The fact the Bradbury was not focused on technology did not mean he couldn't "get" it with the best. The house in "There Will Come Soft Rains" basically nails the coming smart home.)

In just a few lines, without any explicit or lengthy descriptions, Bradbury evokes a vast ancient civilization. Later, when the Martians are nearly gone and humans dominate, Bradbury describes the abandoned Martian civilization as "chessboard cities."

I love ruins, and vast mysterious still spaces. One of my favorite paintings is The Ideal City (which can be seen at the world renown Walters Art Museum in my beloved Baltimore and is also the source of the image on the right) and I love the metaphysical work of Giorgio de Chirico. The Martian Chronicles almost seemed like a literary accompaniment de Chirico. (I threw in an example of his work for good measure - on the left, as well as the header to the blog above).

And Columbus Day
So, it's a good book - what's The Martian Chronicles got to do with Columbus Day?

When Earthmen came to Mars, human diseases wrecked the Martians. But more than that, the Martians were telepaths. The read human thoughts which quickly those thoughts changed their world, leading to insanity for some and tearing their world apart. At the same time, once Earthmen were all over Mars, Martian ideas "infected" Earthmen as well. The telepathy was a double-edged sword.

The Europeans brought diseases for sure and a capacity for rapacity. That being said, I'm not convinced the Europeans were more bloodthirsty than anyone else, they just had a better away game. The Aztecs, to take one example were hardly pikers in the conquering business, and in some alternate history in which they acquired ships and gunpowder would they have been gentle to their European subjects? (And yet they didn't, why not?)

I'm not apologizing for the Europeans, who did terrible things. But what interests me is how - not just in the Americas - but all over the world, advanced civilizations basically folded in the face of a European onslought. Sure, the Spanairds had some technology, but the Aztec and Incan Empires were vast and sophisticated in their own right. Surely a few hundred Spanairds weren't that terrifying to emperors commanding armies of thousands along with millions of subjects.

I am also reminded of Chinua Achebe's stunning When Things Fall Apartin which a sophisticated, pre-modern society collapses before the ideas brought by the British. (Note that Christianity quickly attracts those at the bottom of the social order, offering them a new and more expansive vision of life.)

And what of Asia, where enormous ancient empires fell before the Europeans. The European technological advantages in the 17th and 18th century (before steam power) were not great compared to the Indians and the Chinese. Yet the Brits - out of their back pocket, without really thinking it through - managed to take control of the vast Indian subcontinent.

In another time and place, long after Columbus, Saul Bellow paraphrased Elie Kedourie, "Political theory was the most devastating export of the West..."

Telepathy indeed. The Martian Chronicles are food for thought on Columbus Day.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Pakistan's Endangered Leopards: Time to Change Spots?

Another deadly attack in Pakistan, it's hardly news. What is there to say about this ongoing tragedy - is there a change in rhythm of operations by the Pakistani Taliban? Will Pakistan's government recognize that this violence is not peripheral, but instead central to the future existence and coherence of the state?

Instead, a story in Tuesday's Washington Post discussed the new terror of Abbotabad - not the next Osama bin Laden - but rather leopards, who are increasingly attacking people.

Now, your faithful blogger loves a big cat story. They are good copy. But of course the victims are impoverished Pakistanis. I've been very critical of the Pakistani government but I only wish the best for the long-suffering people of Pakistan. Whenever a news report discusses the radicalization of the Pakistani people (which is, sadly, happening) bear in mind that they've been ruled by venal elites (uniformed and civilian) for so long who have systematically filled their heads with propaganda while denying them basic services that it is a testament to their moderation that they did not radicalize long ago.

So the story of increased leopard attacks reflects several aspects of Pakistan. First is the exaggeration. Leopard attacks have increased but still are very rare. In Pakistan, like many places, stories quickly became exaggerated. A handful of leopard attacks over a decade quickly becomes a massive plague and mobs hunt down the leopards. (Leopards are however attacking livestock, and it was Machiavelli who noted that people never forget who robbed them of their property.)

In fairness, it also reflects a basic human tendency to exaggerate certain types of dangers (our current election campaign shows plenty of evidence of this phenomemon.) By any objective measure, the probability of being killed by a leopard in Pakistan is very low (even lower than being killed by a tiger in India or a lion in Africa.) It is also lower than the probability of being killed in a traffic accident or by the diseases that are resurfacing in Pakistan as the public health infrastructure declines. For that matter it is symbolic of Pakistan's obsession with India, while ignoring the vast domestic threats.

Pakistan's foresters and game wardens of course recognize the importance of the leopard as an apex predator. But, unsurprisingly, they lack the resources to do much about it. One can understand an impoverished country prioritizing things besides nature conservation. But what social good is Pakistan prioritizing - besides its insane rivalry with India? All too often, the state seems unable to address the real problems it faces.

But there is more than that. Pakistan's populated areas are expanding fast while their forests have shrunk to a tiny fraction. Forests play an essential role in ecological health and their rapid decline bodes ill for Pakistan's environment. Of course the forests are being devoured by rapid population growth. While birth rates worldwide have, overall fallen, Pakistan is an outlier. Pakistan's population is about 180 million, by 2050 it will be over 300 million.

At the same time economic growth and infrastructure construction have been inadequate to meet the growing needs of the population. Water and power systems are over-taxed. Agriculture remains land and labor intensive. Little wonder that Pakistan's forests have been devoured both for land and for fuel. Of course given an already fragile ecology, destroying the forests only makes things worse.

Finally, and this may be at the crux of things, are Pakistan's women.

Many of the leopard attack victims have been women because women go into the forests before dawn for water, food, and fuel. Pakistan has long underinvested in education and women in particular have suffered. The overall literacy rate in Pakistan is about 60% and for women it is about 40%.

Women's literacy is linked to better family situations overall - better health, nutrition and education - and most significantly lower birth rates. This, even more than terrorism, is Pakistan's greatest challenge and need. A better educated population overall and better educated women in particular could begin to reverse the frightening trends engulfing Pakistan. As an international affairs analyst, these trends - in which Pakistan begins to fall apart - is the true nightmare.

Of course building a decent education system and educating women in a society that has traditionally restricted the woman's role is an enormous challenge. It's easier to talk about the leopards.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Wizards

I wrote about magic recently, then I saw this question on Quora: Who is the greatest wizard: Gandalf, Merlin or Dumbledore?

It intrigued me. I don't know the Arthurian legends well, so let's leave Merlin aside. Dumbledore vs Gandalf.

I recently read a book by Robert Sawyer (a terrific science fiction writer) which clarified - at least for me - how scientists are like wizards. In trying to understand a phenomenon they immediately come up with a concept to test it and a method, based on their deep familiarity with mathematical structures.

This Doonesbury cartoon kind of gets it as well. Working with computer scientists, I've occasionally seen them dissect a seemingly difficult problem. I'd like to think they occasionally see me do sort of the same thing in my space. That being said, they are accomplished because they see and comprehend an underlying structure. Because they know it they can manipulate it in ways the rest of us cannot.

So Dumbledore is sort of a Dungeons & Dragons style wizard, just tossing thunderbolts and miracles around. In terms of sheer firepower he is pretty impressive. But it's a world of magic, so everyone can do that, Dumbledore is just better at it than everyone else. So it's like a book about baseball in which one character is just a better hitter. Fair enough.

What Gandalf does is more mysterious. We see him intervene personally on occasion. He fights a balrog, tussles with Saruman, rallies the troops at Gondor. clearly he can make things happen. But he isn't just running around tossing fireballs. He is choosing carefully where to intervene, he is following deep patterns and trends and identifying critical points - and that's where he shows up. It isn't clear who he is working for and the exact nature of his power (where it's from and what he can do) is vague.

But I think that is closer to the definition of wizard, in which the root word is wise - that is the ability to see more deeply and clearly than others, to make connections that others can't.

It would be cool to be Dumbledore, who can fly and repair buildings and all this other cool stuff with the swipe of his wand. But we live in an age of miracles. We can in fact fly (not as easily as Dumbledore) and communicate instantaneously and a zillion other things.

But I kind of like Gandalf. He certainly has powers, but he sees deeply - the profound underlying patterns and where and how they can be re-shaped. Gandalf is both more mysterious and wise, which is what a wizard should be. Dumbledore is pure fantasy, but I can almost imagine a real-life Gandalf - a brilliant strategist one move ahead of everyone who seems to make things go his way - like (since I'm all about Presidents) Lincoln or Eisenhower or even Reagan. (The closest president to Dumbledore would probably be TR.)

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Balaam and the Power of Words

Yesterday was July 4th, the birthday of the United States of America. It was also Shabbat and on this particular Shabbat the Torah portion read was Balak (which is better known as the story of Balaam. It was the portion I read for my bar mitzvah land I like to re-visit it because it has many lessons. Yesterday I delivered the dvar Torah (the Torah lesson) at my synagogue, and this is what I said:

A rabbi, a priest, and a minister were - no they weren’t at a bar - they were having coffee and talking shop. They were discussing their failing, their weaknesses. The minister admitted that he chased women. The priest admitted he liked to drink. They turned to the last member of the trio, “And you Rabbi, what is your great weakness?”
The Rabbi answered, “Sometimes I get an unbearable urge to gossip.”
I LOVE rabbi, priest, minister jokes. But they are best when they are true and this joke has the virtue of having truth to it. Evil speech, loshon hora, is a great sin in Judaism and it is because we take words so seriously. We are the people of the Book and a book is just a big pile of words.

Consider in how many cultures adulthood is established by going on a hunt, or a quest, or some other physical task? In Judaism the rite of passage is proving, in public, that you can read. We are an outlier, but it seems to work. We are still here 5000 years later, but I haven’t run into any Hittites lately.

This is on my mind a bit since we just read the parsha Balak and it was my bar mitzvah portion sometime last century. One of the great themes of parsha Balak is about words and language. Balak is a king in Moab. He sees the Israelites coming and knows he cannot resist them (these aren’t the  frightened slaves fleeing Egypt, this a new generation, hardened and prepared to do battle.) So Balak hires Balaam to place a curse on the Israelites. Balaam asks for Hashem’s permission. Hashem tells Balaam not to do it, but Balaam keeps asking and finally Hashem tells him he can go. On the way to the mountain where Balaam will make the sacrifices and deliver his curse, an angel appears. Balaam is so intent on doing delivering this curse that he doesn’t notice the angel. However, his donkey does. When the donkey refuses to go forward Balaam begins beating it. The donkey, then miraculously, is given the power of speech and rebukes Balaam. Finally Balaam makes it to the mountaintop and where, instead of a curse, Hashem places a blessing on his lips.

Clearly this is a story where the power of words and language is a theme. But one thing bugged me, who cares about Balaam’s curse. Why did it matter? Later scholars said Balaam was a sorcerer so his words had real power. But we are modern people, do we really believe this?

Then I had an epiphany.

Spoken words can make you laugh, or cry. They can provide comfort, they can change your life.

We are modern people. We live in an age where we know our bodies are made of chemicals and our thoughts and feelings really just come down to chemical reactions - complex and remarkable though they may be. We know we can take pills, cause these chemical reactions, and change our mood.

Now consider, an organ in our throat can vibrate air molecules which then vibrate small organ inside someone’s ear and are then turned into these complex chemical reactions that can have these incredible effects that can cause these chemical reactions.

Pic is from LOTR, but it's sort of how I imagine Balaam

What’s more, we’ve gone even a step farther. We can now transmit these things via little marks on wood pulp. Earlier in the service we read the Declaration of Independence. A bunch of marks on a paper established a great nation. Behind us sits the Torah, a bunch of marks on a parchment has been the spiritual sustenance, that has held us together, for thousands of years.

We’ve taken the magic to a whole new level, we can now transmit these vibrations and marks instantaneously and share thoughts and ideas around the world.

We are all magicians of the highest order. We are all going to Hogwarts! The only question is Hufflepuff of Slytherin.

Will we use our powers for good, or evil? Because, as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, in a recent opinion citing that noted legal scholar, Spiderman, reminds us, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The Torah serves as a framework to think about this crucial question. It does not always provide clear or direct answers. But it gives us ways to think about it, not only with commandments but with stories. Balaam was a case of man gifted with great power who chose to use it for evil, despite being warned.

As it happens, today’s Haftorah, from the Book of Micah, eloquently addresses this question ending, with those inspiring words:
He has told you o man what is goodAnd what the Lord wants of youTo do justice, love mercyAnd walk humbly with your G-d.
Talk about the power of words.

On the whole humility is a virtue. But occasionally, it is good to step back from it and consider the awesome powers we all possess.

And that’s the final lesson of this weeks Torah portion, the story of Balaam.

Sometimes, to see the obvious, you need a good kick from your ass.

Coda: My secular and religious lives bump into one another and are intertwined in odd ways. Yesterday was a Shabbat and July 4th, two celebrations in one. Two celebrations of freedom - personal and political. Today, as I write this, it is the Fast of Tammuz (commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem), which  begins a three week period of morning which ends on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, remembering the destruction of the Temple. It is said that Jersualem ultimately fell due to evil speech.