Thursday, January 31, 2008

Jews: 'Voting as if our lives depend upon it'



Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein had barely slept in days.

A senior at Beverly Hills High School, he'd spent long hours rallying support for Barack Obama, and as the results from the Iowa caucuses poured in, as fellow Obama supporters packed the presidential candidate's California campaign office in Koreatown, Spitzer-Rubenstein turned jubilant, his enthusiasm mashing together with exhaustion into euphoria.

"Yeah!" he shouted, jumping up and down in a corner where he was hawking T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons for the Illinois senator. "Obama! Obama! Obama!" he chanted with the crowd. "Fired up! Ready to go! Fired up! Ready to go! Let's go change the world!"

Then his cell phone rang. It was one of the many high school volunteers he oversees as the L.A. teen director.

"Hi, Amy," Spitzer-Rubenstein, 17, said. "So it looks like we did it. It's awesome. You helped make this happen. Yeah, every little bit matters."

One down, 49 to go, which means many more hours of lost sleep for Spitzer-Rubenstein. Far from alone in volunteering for the candidate he thinks holds the key to a better America, Jews are planted throughout most of the presidential front-runners' campaigns, from top advisory levels to grassroots street teams.

So much excitement hasn't surrounded a presidential primary season in 40 years, not since Bobby Kennedy was in the race. And for the first time in at least as long, California's primary will matter. Until now, only six states have cast their votes for party nominations, with Florida's vote Tuesday terminating the campaigns of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Maine's residents will vote Friday and then on Feb. 5, 22 states, including California, Illinois and New York, will go to the polls on what has been dubbed "Super-Duper Tuesday" and "Tsunami Tuesday." Meanwhile, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an Independent and a Jew, continues to play presidential footsie, presumably waiting to see how the field thins.

With the contest still up for grabs -- three Republicans and two Democrats still with a realistic chance of getting their party's nod -- Tuesday's race is expected to determine the ballot for the general election. And already quite a few Jews have been writing checks, working phones or simply spreading their candidate's gospel in an effort to court the deciding votes.

Julie Shapiro, a young lawyer for Universal and volunteer for Hillary Clinton, last week started an effort to get other female lawyers fired up about the New York senator. David Slomovic, a father of three, spent recent Thursday evenings opening his commercial real estate office for phone banking for Giuliani. And Dr. Joel Geiderman, co-chair of the emergency medicine department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and vice chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, has spent his free time encouraging lifelong Democrats to switch sides.

"The two visions of America the parties offer could not be any more different," Geiderman said.

Jews in real estate and Hollywood were quick to get involved, too -- support had been strongest for Clinton and Obama, Giuliani and John McCain -- endorsing early, opening their homes for fundraisers and crisscrossing the country in support.

"We took our family holiday in Iowa this year," said Sony Pictures Chairman and CEO Michael Lynton, who hosted Obama at his home last summer and went with his wife and kids to the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Tonight, MGM chief Harry Sloan will host his second fundraiser for McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona. Obama will attend one at the Avalon. And Hillary Clinton will be at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for a fundraiser organized by the likes of Peter Lowy, Haim Saban, Barbra Streisand and Daphna and Richard Ziman.

"All of us believe this is an absolutely critical election," said Michael Berenbaum, an adjunct professor of theology at American Jewish University. "The last four years of the Bush administration have been disastrous. If we don't get ourselves squared away, it could be the end of the American Century and the end of the way the American Jewish community has been American in this era.

"We are voting as if our lives and futures depend upon it. Not because we fear someone is going to come out and kill us, but because we fear that if we don't get this right, our children and their children will not enjoy the privileges this generation has enjoyed as Americans -- the economic opportunity, the prosperity, the education, all of those elements that have characterized our existence and our flourishing. After Florida in 2000, everybody knows that every vote absolutely counts."
That is the opening section of my story for this week's Jewish Journal, which is a bit stale in print but was updated online. I'll blog more about Jews and the '08 election later.

Feline fuhrer


What do you see in the above photo? What you should see is an ad by Germany's Green Party attacking xenophobic right wingers. What does it say? "You can't always recognize Nazis at first glance."

The poster has, not surprisingly, unleashed some sort of public debate, though over what I'm not sure. Haaretz has the story. What I find most amusing is the identity of one of the aggrieved parties: CatsThatLookLikeHitler.com.
Happy New Year to everyone (belatedly). And in today's news, get this, the German Green Party have elected to use Kitlers in their latest electoral literature. (Click the picture for bigification!) It's a shame they had to use a Photoshopped Kitler - there are lots of resident furry Furhers on here who would have loved, I'm sure, to be a model for the Greens!
(Hat tip: Bintel Blog)

Correction of the year

This correction ran Tuesday in the San Antonio News-Express:
Nell and Wallace Crain, a couple who were featured in an Express-News Page 1A story and photo on "the secret to a happy marriage," died between the writing of the story last summer and its publication in the San Antonio Express-News on Monday. The deaths were not mentioned in the report.

The Express-News apologizes to family and friends of the couple, and to our readers, for the egregious omission.

J. Michael Parker, who wrote the story after spotting and interviewing the Crains at North Star Mall last June, said he learned of their deaths Monday via an e-mail from a Crain family friend. The friend put Parker in touch with Cheryl Crain Sanders, the couple's daughter, who was gracious in an e-mail to the reporter:

"Thank you for including my parents as an example of 'love until death.' The article was thoughtful and well written. ... Your article, while bittersweet to me, will be a great reminder to our family of their love and commitment."

The couple's daughter said Wallace Crain died the day before Thanksgiving last year and Nell Crain died Dec. 9. They had been married for 67 years.

Parker explained that he turned in his story to Express-News religion editor Arthur Santana late last summer. Santana said he edited the story, but essentially put it on hold until after the holidays. Two weeks ago, he gave the story back to Parker for updating. However, while he re-interviewed two other couples featured in the story, Parker did not seek new input from the Crains.

"I didn't feel like Mr. Crain's comments needed updating," Parker said. "... They were such a sweet couple. They were what really made the story a story."
It's fitting I would see this today because, due to production deadlines, I had a story published today that included some very old news. Most journalists know the frustration of watching an editor hold onto your story so long that you feel the reason for writing the article has passed and worry your subjects have too. But to have that actually occur ... Here's Parker's story, with grace and peace to Crain family.

'Politics sort of is the Jewish religion'

Flashback 14 months:
Blaming Judaism for his father's peculiarities, the first Jewish member of Congress converted to Christianity to hide his heritage and preserve his political career.

But with a name like David Levy Yulee, he was only fooling himself.

Times have changed since Yulee became Florida's junior senator in 1845 - more than a century before the southern state became a favorite destination for Jewish retirees from the northeast.

After a handful of victories in Tuesday's election, Jews are poised to have their largest congressional representation ever. This U.S. community of roughly 6 million people - about 2 percent of the nation's population - will contribute 30 members to the House. With 13 Jewish members of the Senate, the proportion in the upper chamber will be 6 1/2 times greater than that in the general population.

"Jews are just political animals," said Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"Politics sort of is the Jewish religion," he added. "There is just such a passion for being in the game, in the process. Jewish life thrives in societies where democracies work, and that is why there is such a heavy buy-in into the American political process."
I decided to resurrect this story, which I wrote in November 2006 for the LA Daily News, in light of my story for this week's Jewish Journal, which I will blog about later this afternoon when it goes online. You can read the rest of the above story here. You'll notice the same cheesy Roosevelt joke.

(The pictured book, one every person involved with or interested in American Jewry should read, can be found at Google Books and, obviously, Amazon.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Romney says Mormons not Christians?

From the Unlikely About Face Department:
"Mitt Romney has acknowledged that Mormonism is not a Christian faith."
That comment was made by a policy expert from
Focus on the Family. But if you recall from his faith in America speech, Romney said:
I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history.
In other words: We're as Christian as Lutherans and Catholics. Romney's campaign has rebutted the Focus on the Family claim.

GetReligion has the backstory and a bit more explanation:

There’s quite a bit of buzz out there right now in evangelical circles about a series of informational videos that are up and running at CitizenLink.org — which is part of the wider kingdom linked to an activist by the name of James Dobson. The videos feature clips of recent webcasts with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Right now, everyone is asking — will Dobson endorse either (gasp) Mitt Romney or (gasp!) John McCain? It is in that context that the following blog item by Michael Scherer appears at Time, with the pushy headline: “A stealth Mitt Romney endorsement from the religious right’s powerbrokers?”

The clip on Rudy Giuliani is harsh (note that reference to dancing in drag). No surprise. The McCain video says voters have no way of knowing what the senator will do next. No surprise. Then the video on Mike Huckabee is surprisingly critical. No surprise?

After praising Huckabee’s social views, both Perkins and Tom Minnery, a policy expert at Focus on the Family, hammer the former Arkansas governor for his foreign policy views. Minnery suggests that Huckabee does not understand the cause for which American troops are dying in Iraq. Then Perkins suggests that Huckabee lacks the fiscal and national security credentials needed for a conservative presidential candidate. “The conservatives have been successful in electing candidates, and presidents in particular, when they have had a candidate that can address not only the social issues, [but] the fiscal issues and the defense issues,” says Perkins. “[Huckabee] has got to reach out to the fiscal conservatives and the security conservatives.” Ouch.

Now hang on, here comes the buried lede.

So what about Romney? He comes up roses. “He has staked out positions on all three of the areas that we have discussed,” says Perkins. “I think he continues to be solidly conservative.” Then Minnery defends Romney from criticism that he is too polished and smooth. “Mitt Romney has acknowledged that Mormonism is not a Christian faith,” Minnery adds. “But on the social issues we are so similar.”

So what's the reality here?

Fighting anti-Semitism online

Here's a boring story from the Jerusalem Post that includes a novel proposal from the Israeli president.
President Shimon Peres urged young students at Yad Vashem on Tuesday to use the social networking site Facebook to fight anti-Semitism. "You can make a collective effort," he told a student from Guatemala.

Peres was at Yad Vashem to address the 116 students from 62 countries who are participating in an international Youth Congress on the Holocaust. According to a Yad Vashem spokesperson, the group comprised more non-Jews than Jews.
In fact, a search on Facebook for "anti-Semitism" finds 313 groups, including this one. Hat tip to Bloggish, who e-mailed this story to me, saying, "I agree with Peres in theory, but I prefer YouTube in practice."

(Technorati Profile)

Lieberman riding McCain's coattails

Such hyperbole should not be a surprise; in November he compared John Hagee to Moses. And, yeah, Joe Lieberman is a fan of Republican leading man John McCain. But does he really think the Arizona senator is "part Maccabean?"
Lieberman is certainly a good judge, given his own history with unexpected success - including his decision to endorse McCain last December, before McCain’s campaign had fully rebounded from a near-collapse last summer.

Since then, Lieberman has been one of McCain’s most prominent promoters, lending help by soliciting donations from Connecticut contacts and actively stumping on the campaign trail. Now, after a stretch that has seen wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, McCain seems to have bounded to the top of the Republican field and, in the process, catapulted one of America’s most famous Jewish politicians back onto the national stage.

According to observers, Lieberman’s support has been unusually helpful to McCain, giving him a boost with independent voters who contributed to his wins in South Carolina and New Hampshire. In Florida, Lieberman helped give the Arizona senator an edge by turning out Jews, as well as Cuban Americans, in the southern part of the state.

But the real surprise may be yet to come. According to a Lieberman aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity, if McCain wins the nomination, Lieberman is also likely to play a growing role in shoring up what at first blush would not seem to be one of his core constituencies: Christian evangelicals.

“He’s one of those unique campaign surrogates who can travel both in the Jewish community and the Christian community, as well,” the aide said. “I would suspect that as the campaign goes further, Senator Lieberman will probably be active on that front, as well.”

So active, in fact, that speculation has already begun that Lieberman, possibly uninterested in running for a fifth Senate term in 2012, might be rewarded for his support with another shot at the vice presidency, or a Cabinet post in a future McCain administration.

In an interview with the Forward, Lieberman said his decision to support McCain was based on their longstanding relationship and on their history of cooperation on a range of issues, including intervention in Bosnia, action on global warming, the creation of the 9/11 Commission and continued military involvement in Iraq.

“Look, we have been drawn together because we have similar worldviews,” Lieberman told the Forward, adding that they both have the “feeling America has a unique role in the world, of taking the Declaration of Independence seriously. It’s a universal declaration of human rights, and our foreign policy is always better when it’s based on democratic values.”
With Rudy Giuliani planning on dropping out of the race and endorsing McCain, I expect Lieberman's man will consolidate the Republican Jewish vote, which, until now had been strongest for Giuliani. I don't, however, anticipate Lieberman being rewarded with this.

CleanFlicks founder accused of sex with minor

The co-founder of CleanFlicks, a video editing service once used by many Christians, has been arrested in Utah for allegedly paying a 14-year-old girl for sex.

Daniel Thompson, who ran CleanFlicks till the courts shut it down in 2006, had more recently operated Flix Club, a family-friendly edited-movie video business in Orem, Utah. He was arrested last Thursday on two charges of forcible sexual abuse and two charges of forcible sexual activity with a 14-year-old. Thompson is out on bail.

Thompson’s business partner at Flix Club, Isaac Lifferth, was also arrested on similar charges.

As soon as I saw the words "CleanFlicks founder arrested," my mind jumped to the story laid out above. Why? Because it's sadly unsurprising to find somebody accused of behavior that they publicly fought against. Ted Haggard and Sen. Larry Craig should sound familiar. For a little more backstory and an explanation of why CleanFlicks was put out, read the rest of this post here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rudy's campaign kaput

Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign appears all but formally dead tonight after he finished third in Florida -- the state for which he had skipped campaigning in the early primaries and focused most his energy, the state that on Monday he said would pick the Republican nominee.
Perhaps he was living an illusion all along.

Rudolph W. Giuliani’s campaign for the Republican nomination for president took impressive wing last year, as the former mayor wove the pain experienced by his city on Sept. 11, 2001, and his leadership that followed into national celebrity. Like a best-selling author, he basked in praise for his narrative and issued ominous and often-repeated warnings about the terrorist strike next time.

Voters seemed to embrace a man so comfortable wielding power, and his poll numbers edged higher to where he held a broad lead over his opponents last summer. Just three months ago, Anthony V. Carbonetti, Mr. Giuliani’s affable senior policy adviser, surveyed that field and told The New York Observer: “I don’t believe this can be taken from us. Now that I have that locked up, I can go do battle elsewhere.”

In fact, Mr. Giuliani’s campaign was about to begin a free fall so precipitous as to be breathtaking. Mr. Giuliani finished third in the Florida primary on Tuesday night; only a few months earlier, he had talked about the state as his leaping-off point to winning the nomination.

As Mr. Giuliani ponders his political mortality, many advisers and political observers point to the hubris and strategic miscalculations that plagued his campaign.
(The presumed end of Giuliani for President unfortunately dates a cover story I wrote for this week's Jewish Journal. Our paper is sent to the printer on Tuesday afternoon, several hours before the Florida outcome was known, and won't hit the streets until Thursday. Still, I read back through my article, which takes a look at who Jews are excited about and how they are involved with the campaigns -- Rudy was a favorite of Republican Jews -- and it didn't seem stale. Just that it needs an explanation, which it was given in the form of an editor's note.)

Giuliani's fall from grace really is amazing. As readers of The God Blog know, I was never a fan of the former mayor, whom I met in New York two years ago. (He was giving one of those expensive 45-minute speeches on "leadership during crisis" at a bail-industry conference that I was writing about for some extra green.) But many Republicans loved Giuliani, and when he entered the race, it was clearly his to lose.

In the past month alone, Giuliani's support among California Republicans plummeted 14 percentage points from 25 percent.

I just hope he makes it another two days, though CBS News is reporting he won't.

Germany celebrates Hitler's rise -- sort of

Wednesday is the 75th anniversary of the day Hitler and the Nazi Party took power in Germany, and the occasion has prompted a new round of soul-searching.

“Where in the world has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalize its own shame?” asked Avi Primor, the former Israeli ambassador to Germany, at an event in Erfurt on Friday commemorating the Holocaust and the liberation of Auschwitz. “Only the Germans had the bravery and the humility.”

It is not just in edifices and exhibits that the effort to come to terms with this history marches on. The Federal Crime Office last year began investigating itself, trying to shine a light on the Nazi past of its founders after the end of the war. And this month Germany’s federal prosecutor overturned the guilty verdict of Marinus van der Lubbe, the Communist Dutchman executed on charges of setting the Reichstag fire; that event’s 75th anniversary is Feb. 27.

The experience of Nazism is alive in contemporary public debates over subjects as varied as German troops in Afghanistan, the nation’s low birthrate and the country’s dealings with foreigners.
Why Germany seems unendingly obsessed with Nazism is itself a subject of perpetual debate here, ranging from the nation’s philosophical temperament, to simple awe at the unprecedented combination of organization and brutality, to the sense that the crime was so great that it spread like a blot over the entire culture.

Whatever the reasons, as the events become more remote, less personal, this society is forced to confront the question of how it should enshrine its crimes and transgressions over the longer term.
Click here for the rest of this article from The New York Times. Others seem to be coming to poorer terms with Hitler's legacy.

Pat Robertson not popular with evangelicals

Pat Robertson gets mentioned here every now and then. And a recent poll by Beliefnet confirmed a sentiment I expressed in November when Rudy Giuliani garnered the endorsement of Pat Robertson: "Who cares?"

Only about 19.6 percent of evangelicals. That's the percentage that have a favorable impression of Robertson. That's the lowest popularity of the eight Christian leaders survey subjects were asked about. (Billy Graham led the list with 87.3 percent favorable reviews.)

Return of the Jedi religion

A Jedi "church" has been born in a galaxy far far away - North Wales.

The Holyhead chapter of the self-styled Jedi Church, which claims up to 400,000 members worldwide, has sprung up thanks to brothers Barney and Daniel Jones, both Star Wars obsessives.

The "church" is only one of a handful around the planet, said hairdresser Barney, 26, the Anglesey Order Minister, also known as Master Jonba Hehol.
This is a story in which the reporter takes tongue-in-cheek to the extreme. This is what happens when nearly 400,000 Britons claim in a census that their religion is Jedi. Like Voltaire said: If Yoda didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

But what does it mean?
"We will have teachings based on Yoda - the 900-year-old grand master - as well as readings, essays submitted, meditation and relaxation, visualisation and discuss healthy eating.

"The Jedi religion is about life improvement, inner peace and changing your lifestyle so you have a more fulfilling existence.

"It's based on the films but we have brought things into it because the films are a bit more sci-fi.

"But we have developed on the film's teachings, introducing teachings we believe the Jedi Knights would seek.

"We used to watch the films over and over again and it came about from that."
That seems to open the door to all kinds of "religions" based on specific movies. In fact, there's already a following of Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski. We could call them cults.

(Hat tip: GetReligion)

Murder Inc. and Jewish toughs

One of my favorite aspects of blogging is all the senseless surfing it allows me to do. On a daily basis, it seems, I come across an interesting old article or two like "Jews You Can Use," published on Slate in 1998, which I found after my copy of "Tough Jews" arrived in the mail today.
Men with names such as Kid Twist and Gyp the Blood and Pittsburgh Phil once roamed the Jewish ghettos. These gangsters were as tough as the Irish and as powerful as the Italian mob, and when I discovered this fact at age 12 or so, it thrilled me. This reaction is easy to understand: I was, at the time, facing the oppression of anti-Semitic schoolyard thugs, and in my revenge-fantasies, Bugsy Siegel and Gurrah Shapiro were lining up on my side, blackjacks in hand.

Of course, all this was happening when I was 12. By the time I hit 16, my understanding of Jewish gangsters had become substantially more nuanced. Great nicknames and fists aside, I began to recognize these Jewish gangsters as fools and thugs who preyed on their own communities, robbed the Jewish poor, and murdered their own people.

Rich Cohen, author of a new book titled Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams, doesn't get this fact. For Cohen, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, the Jewish gangsters are the purest expression of the Jewish spirit and the means through which he defines his own Jewishness.

There are two books here. One is a very bad book of social history, defined by Cohen's tendency to make up facts--"imagine" is his word--when he doesn't know something: "I do not know what [Yasha Katzenberg] looked like," he writes, "but I have tried to imagine him. I see his eyes as mirrors, reflecting not what he is looking at, but what he will see: mountains, rivers, wars. I imagine him tall and slender, wearing a hood, taking his time--something long prophesied, a nomad who has crossed wastes to get here."

The second book is his attempt to portray himself as a spiritual heir to the Jewish gangsters. He does this by striking a tough guy pose throughout, a pose that fails to hide his sense of physical inadequacy, which he blames on his Jewishness
Geez, I wish I had read Jeffrey Goldberg's review before I ordered the book. "Blood Relation," another book about Jewish gangsters that I mentioned here a few months ago, was, however, excellent.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Obama swears he's no anti-Semite


Barack Hussein Obama has been the subject of quite a few Internet smear campaigns. The lingering one has been that he is not a Christian but a closet Muslim (as if belief in Islam should preclude someone from being president), that his name is strange and suspicious, and, most recently that he is an anti-Semite.

He has vehemently denied the first and last attacks. Leaders in the Jewish community jumped behind him last week and then seven of the 13 Jewish senators joined in. But just to make sure the Jewish community didn't miss the point, Obama held a conference call this morning with reporters from a few Jewish publications. I was supposed to be on it, but the woman coordinating the call for Obama for America told me to call in tomorrow. Whoops.

Here is the link to the audio.
"As we celebrate Israel's 60th year, I'm reminded of not just of Israel's longstanding role as the democracy in the Middle East, and the steadfast friendships between our governments, but also the way in which the Jewish people have been able to transform themselves post World War II and the state of Israel's incredible resolve to face down the constant threats it has faced. ..."

"I have consistently and strongly pledged that as president we are going to ensure Israel's qualititative military support and superiority in this difficult neighborhood and stand with Israel's democracy. ...

"I have always stood steadfast against anti-Semitism in all it's forms. I have always stood with Israel in its quest for security. And I want to make sure that we continue to strengthen the enduring ties between our people and pledge to give real meaning to the words 'never again.'"
After that, he took four questions, the first of which from JTA's Ron Kampeas, who asked about Obama's church's connections with Louis Farrakhan. Again, you can listen to the rest here.

Bowing down for business


From the new issue of Portfolio:
Every week, the jumuah, or Friday prayer, is held in a large tent at the University of Tehran, with thousands of the faithful spilling out onto the surrounding campus. At each of these prayer meetings, the cleric on the platform clutches an AK-47 as he leads a chant of "Death to America! Death to Israel!"

Many of the chanters are not religious zealots. They're here because this weekly morning ritual is, in effect, a Washington cocktail party, a board meeting, and an audience with the pope all rolled into one.

For Tehran's leading politicians and businessmen, staying in favor with the ruling powers demands attendance, because in Iran, it's not just government that is fiercely theocratic; big business is too.

Drinking to Bush speak

Looks like at least one of my former colleagues is ready for the president's annual address:
WASHINGTON - The state of our union is strong.

I'll drink to that. And, come tonight, so will an entire subculture of young political wonks who have turned the hallowed annual presidential State of the Union address into one big excuse for a drinking game.

So while the pundits listen to President Bush's speech to Congress with pen and pad in hand, others will clutch shot glasses and pound whiskey every time the commander in chief utters familiar words and lines.

Phrases like "economic stimulus," "freedom is on the march," and "nuclear" will be accompanied with clinking shot glasses in common rooms and apartments across the country.

"It's an event that feels like it deserves attention. But you definitely don't want to be watching it alone," said Justin Krebs, who has hosted State of the Union drinking games for the past five years in New York City.

"It's definitely something that goes down better with a few drinks."

Luke Ford really left porn blogging

In October, Luke Ford supposedly sold his porn blog, LukeIsBack.com, but shortly thereafter an update appeared announcing that he could not, in fact, "leave his flock." Luke sent me an e-mail last night to clear things up.
I have not posted on lukeisback since Oct. 22, 2007, the day I sold it... Yes, there are now posters on there who ape my style but they are clearly not me.

Wikipedia has it right:

On October 23, 2007, Ford announced he had sold lukeisback.com and its contents for an undisclosed sum to an undisclosed party.[8] "Any writing I do on the porn industry from now on will be for publications with no porn advertising," Ford said. All entries since the sale have been by the site's new owners.
This happened once before and explains why Luke's personal blog is a dot net. LukeFord.com, his original porn blog, was sold to a pornographer who died in a most depressing manner.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mormon prophet and president dead at 97

Gordon B. Hinckley, the 97-year-old president and prophet of the Mormon church, died earlier today. From the NY Times:
“He’s been the face of the church, not only for church members, but more than any other president, to the world at large,” said Richard Lyman Bushman, professor of history emeritus at Columbia University, a member and scholar of the church. “He exposed himself to all these interviews and seemed to enjoy it. That has won the admiration of church members. We have been a little bit isolated and clannish, and it’s wonderful to see our church presented to the world.”

During his tenure, Mr. Hinckley faced tough questions about whether the church had muzzled critical scholars and about the role of Mormons in the Mountain Meadows massacre in 1857, when a wagon train of emigrants crossing the Utah territory was attacked. Under Mr. Hinckley, a church magazine published an article about the event, and a memorial was constructed at the massacre site.

He would often disarm interrogators with peppery humor, once welcoming a New Yorker magazine reporter to his office with the greeting, “All writers should be put in a box and thrown in the sea.”

In Mr. Hinckley’s term, the church grew to count more than 12 million members worldwide — more than the largest Lutheran denomination. It is now believed to be the fourth largest church in the United States. (But the Mormon church has acknowledged reports that a significant percentage of new converts, especially overseas, do not remain active members.)

Mormon presidents serve in office until their death, but Mr. Hinckley stood out for his enduring vigor. When his wife of 67 years, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, died in 2004, he told Larry King: “The best thing you can do is just keep busy, keep working hard, so you’re not dwelling on it all the time. Work is the best antidote for sorrow.”

President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.
Not surprisingly, the Salt Lake Tribune has all kinds of coverage.

The decaying urban church

The New York Times paints a familiar portrait of an ailing church that was once a Jewish center:
She and the other members worship on the Sabbath, filling the church each Saturday, where they are flanked by rich-hued stained glass windows depicting the Israelites’ flight from Egypt, the story of Esther and other scenes from the Hebrew Bible.

“We once talked about taking out these windows,” said Paul Gregory Graham, who was an associate pastor 10 years ago. “Talk about cultures changing, many of us are from a West Indian background, so what does this mean to us?”

A lot more than people thought. One Saturday, Mr. Graham preached an entire sermon on the history of the Jewish people using the windows as vivid illustrations. There were lessons to be learned, he said, from their respective journeys. “These windows are a history of a people and their worship,” he said. “They give us tradition.”

Throughout the city, houses of worship built in the last century for Jewish and Christian immigrants from Europe are now home to congregations with roots in Latin America, the Caribbean or the American South. Some are grand palaces that occupy a regal spot in a neighborhood, while others are modest halls nearly indistinguishable from bland storefronts. They sustain communities by helping slake spiritual and material thirsts.

Many of these buildings are under threat, crumbling from years of neglect and deferred maintenance in the case of impoverished congregations, or becoming targets for acquisition by developers in neighborhoods where choice real estate is scarce.

Preservationists have begun to sound alarms, warning that rich urban traditions of art, religion and community service are imperiled.

“You see in these buildings history and continuity, and the influence of new populations and new religions,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “The face of the city will change and an important part of our history will be lost if these buildings disappear.”

This is not a phenomenon unique to New York, but is in fact afflicting urban churches and religious centers throughout the country. As people have fled to the suburbs and exurbs, finding or creating megachurches there, beautiful, history-filled sanctuaries have been left behind, some to rot, others to struggle along.

The curse of context

Nathan Gibbs has a sad story on his blog about the death of his childhood friend, Benson Krause, and a remembrance of the music they made together. Their band, "The Third Half," included many of the guys I grew up a few years behind, and Nathan's post recalls an infamous moment at our church, though I was too young to remember it as much more than folklore.
One Sunday morning, his father Jim was preaching. He spoke about being corrupted by the world and used his youngest son Timothy’s innocence as an example. He said Tim was sitting in the pew making gestures with his hands and wound up being fascinated with his middle finger. Jim explained how it meant nothing outside the context of the world’s negative influence. What he did next is something no one in the audience that day will forget. He rested both wrists on the pulpit with two middle fingers extended upward. “Does this offend you?” he asked.
My childhood church was part of the Church of Christ denomination, which is, coincidentally, on the opposite end of the theological spectrum from the ultra-liberal United Church of Christ. No music with worship, no women in leadership, no heaven without baptism. And for many people the answer was obviously yes, and it led to the Krauses unceremonious return to Chicago.

The congregation's response does not surprise me years later -- many Americans, regardless of religion, would be bothered by such a display -- but it makes me wonder why we find certain words, or more aptly, certain gestures, offensive? Who decided that pointing at someone with your middle finger was a greater curse than wagging your index at them?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Muslim piety and race policy collide *

Juashaunna Kelly, a Theodore Roosevelt High School senior who has the fastest mile and two-mile times of any girls' runner in the District this winter, was disqualified from Saturday's Montgomery Invitational indoor track and field meet after officials said her Muslim clothing violated national competition rules.

Kelly was wearing the same uniform she has worn for the past three seasons while running for Theodore Roosevelt's cross-country and track teams: a custom-made, one-piece blue and orange unitard that covers her head, arms, torso and legs. On top of the unitard, Kelly wore the same orange and blue T-shirt and shorts as her teammates.

The outfit allows her to compete while complying with her Muslim faith, which forbids displaying any skin other than her face and hands.

As one of the other heats was held, two meet officials signaled to Kelly and asked her about her uniform. Meet director Tom Rogers said Kelly's uniform violated rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which sanctioned the event, by not being "a single-solid color and unadorned, except for a single school name or insignia no more than 2 1/4 inches."

Rogers then told Kelly she was disqualified. Kelly dropped to her knees and began sobbing.
This story from last week's Washington Post reminds me of those stories we see every now and then about a Christian teen who won't spell on Sunday or a baseball superstar who won't play on Yom Kippur (or Walter Sobchak who doesn't roll on Shabbos).

But this, plainly, is ridiculous. Kelly did not make a conscious decision to sit out a specific game that conflicted with, say, Eid al-Adha. Still, she was disqualified because of a conflict between her religious beliefs and cultural practices and a silly set of rules likely in place to keep high school races looking more like the NFL and less like the NBA.

For a story about how a Muslim football player makes it through the daytime fasting of Ramadan, check out this story I wrote a few years ago for The Sun.

*Check the comments for a little discussion about how I got this story wrong.
She was disqualified because the unitard was multi-colored instead of one color, not because she is Muslim and not because she wore a unitard. It should have been one color

'Hitler Suite' a popular pick in Belgrade

That's not the Westin LAX. It's the Mr. President in Belgrade. And it's sickening.
As a member of the Design Hotel chain, Mr. President boasts many luxurious suites. The most luxurious, on the seventh floor, comes complete with a portrait of former communist leader Josip Broz Tito, who ruled Yugoslavia for more than 35 years. You can enjoy his picture while soaking in your Jacuzzi.

In addition to the Bushes, Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro and Joseph Stalin, there is also a junior suite named after the infamous Adolf Hitler.

The Hitler or room 501, occupied mainly by German, Croat and Slovenian guests, sees the highest demand, according to Zabunovic. ...

Like all Serbs — who were persecuted alongside Jews and gypsies during the Nazi occupation — Zabunovic does not have any kind of admiration for Hitler. But sitting in the lobby of his new hotel surrounded by statues of former U.S. Presidents Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and Madison, he says he refuses to exclude him.

"It is wrong not to have Hitler in Madame Tussaud and other museums," he told ABC News. "All his victims would turn in their graves if nowhere it is reminded what a monstrous criminal he was."
Indeed that would be true if all Hitler's victims were given the dignity of graves. But by capitalizing on Nazi nostalgia, Mr. President is not offering a form of remembrance. It is exhibiting old-fashioned avarice.

Coincidentally, this weekend marks the 63rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

(Hat tip: DMN)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

He may be no philo-Semite, but he's not Hamas

Rob Eshman, in this week's column, argues that it is better to deal with the bad -- i.e. those who don't agree with Jews on a reasonable peace plan -- than the ugly -- i.e. those who don't even recognize Israel. I've got to say I agree.
For the past couple of weeks, the Boston-based pro-Israel media watchdog group CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) has been riling up rabbis, congregants and any Jew with an e-mail address to pressure the All-Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena to cancel the appearance of a prominent Palestinian activist, the Rev. Naim Ateek.

Ateek, an Israeli Arab who lives in Jerusalem, is scheduled to speak at the liberal church Feb. 15-16. As founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and its sister organization in the United States, Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), Ateek has championed the cause of nonviolent resistance to Israel in the West Bank. His writings are numerous and explicit: Ateek wants an end to occupation according to U.N. Resolution 242, and reconciliation between Israel and a Palestinian state.

"We want Israel to live in peace and security within its pre-1967 borders," he said in a sermon at Boston's Old South Church last year. "At the same time we want justice for the Palestinians in accordance with international law and the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside the state of Israel. There is no other way."

CAMERA and other Jewish organizations vehemently protested Ateek's appearance in Boston and elsewhere. Their critique focuses less on his vision of a future settlement than on his language and methods. In his sermons and writings, Ateek uses imagery that portrays Palestinians as suffering under Israel as Jesus and the early Christians suffered -- raising disturbing images of the ancient anti-Semitic canard of deicide. He has also championed comparisons of Israel to apartheid South Africa and has promoted divestment as a nonviolent tool to bring pressure upon Israel.

These are disturbing tactics and unsettling words. But, man, it sure beats Hamas. It beats Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the armed wing of Fatah by a mile. I'll take a man who writes that the occupation is the equivalent of the stone blocking "Christ's tomb" and that "The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily," over a suicide bomber any day. This is an opponent you can debate, propogandize and educate.

This is the Palestinian resistance that, had it taken root in the Palestinian body politic 45 years ago instead of that cancer called Arafat, the history of that region would have been much different, much better.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hillary and evangelicals: 'The Antichrist is here'


As you know, Hillary Clinton has been talking a lot about her lifelong commitment to the Methodist church, a part of the Godtalk game that I spoke with Georgetown associate professor Jacques Berlinerblau about today. (He's got a knew book out called "Thumpin' It.")

"In Hillary's case, it's not so much that she wants to project herself as a religious virtuoso, it is that she wants to avoids the stigma of a label that was unfairly applied to her in the early '90s of being a radical, godless feminist," Berlinerblau told me. "And she gives off the impression of being a solid religious citizen, of being steeped in her church since childhood. It's defensive. She is not letting people accuse her of being some godless, feminist, blue state politician.

"What's the prize? The prize is evangelical voters."

Still, the perspective in this cartoon is one many evangelicals have of Clinton. It's hard to know if she'll be able to overcome it.

(Hat tip: CT Liveblog)

Film would make Muhammad cartoon controversy look like 'a picnic'

From the world of faith, AKA FaithWorld:
Concern is mounting in the Netherlands as the country prepares for a film about the Koran by a far-right populist known for his hostility to Islam. It reached the point last Friday that Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende publicly appealed for restraint. A former Malaysian ambassador in The Hague has said the reaction could make the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy look like “a picnic.”

Geert Wilders, who wants to ban the Koran as a “fascist” book and has warned of a “tsunami of Islamisation” in the Netherlands, has proceeded with the film despite warnings from the Dutch justice and foreign ministers. (We blogged on this last November when the warnings came). It’s not clear when it will be broadcast, but it is expected soon. Wilders has denied reports that it will be shown on Friday Jan. 25. There is already a spoof on YouTube.

We all remember what happened when Theo van Gogh made a film critical of Islam, (he was killed), and when a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (other people were killed). I don't think any ill befell Bill Keller.

But this brouhaha, which embodies a cultural clash in Europe, is certainly worth watching.


The anti-abortion generation

Stephanie Simon at the LA Times is always worth reading. And her article yesterday about the anti-abortion generation was no exception.
Looking specifically at teens, a Gallup survey in 2003 found that 72% called abortion morally wrong, and 32% believed it should be illegal in all circumstances. Among adults surveyed that year, only 17% backed a total ban.

These statistics should not obscure the fact -- made clear in poll after poll over decades -- that a substantial majority of Americans want abortion to remain legal in at least some circumstances. And millions of young people continue to choose abortion when faced with unplanned pregnancy; every year, 600,000 women under age 25 abort.

But among those fighting to criminalize the procedure, the young -- trained in antiabortion summer camps and political internships -- are increasingly out front.

"You look at pictures of marches [over the years] and the crowds just keep getting younger and younger and younger," said Derrick Jones, an advisor to National Teens for Life.

In Colorado, a teenager last year decided the state constitution should define a fertilized egg as a person. Kristi Burton, now 20, won a court fight about her proposed amendment and leads the campaign to put it on the ballot this fall.

In California, a 17-year-old girl last week filed a lawsuit in federal court for the right to start a "pro-life club" at her San Jose-area high school. A Virginia teen recently took similar legal action, and her school promptly dropped its objection to the club.

Here in greater Philadelphia, the antiabortion group Generation Life enlists teens to hand out literature on beaches and guides them through role-playing to hone their powers of persuasion.

At a recent workshop, Claire Levis, 17, played the part of an abortion-rights supporter. "My friend got raped and you want her to have the baby? How can you ask a 15-year-old to go through a pregnancy? That's nine months of ridicule and pain," she shouted.

Liz Coyle, 16, responded: "It's not the baby's fault. He's never done anything wrong."

Liz then added: "There are plenty of teachers willing to home-school your friend if she doesn't want to go to class when she's pregnant. Or she could go to school, and stand up for herself."

The dozen teens watching burst into applause.

"I feel like we're all survivors of abortion," Claire said.
Last week, Simon reported that abortions were down 25 percent from their peak.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

LA Archdiocese sells headquarters

We knew this day was coming, and sadly, here it is.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has sold its 12-story administrative headquarters building to help pay last year's $660 million settlement with people alleging sex abuse by clergy, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The Archdiocesan Catholic Center was sold to Jamison Properties of Los Angeles for $31 million, archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said.

Staffers who oversee the archdiocese's cemeteries will move to office space on the grounds of a cemetery, Tamberg said. Others will consolidate in four of the building's floors that church officials will lease from the new owner, Tamberg said.

Tamberg did not know what would be on the building's other eight floors.

Huckabee's southern sympathies

You don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag. In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell 'em what to do with the pole; that's what we'd do.
Mike Huckabee, who's been saying a lot of controversial things lately, said that to a South Carolina crowd last week, and the flag he was alluding to was the stars and bars rebel flag of the Confederacy. In an article on Slate, Christopher Hitchens ponders why the media hasn't much mentioned the racist root of Huckabee's statement.
But when real political racism rears its head, our easily upset media fall oddly silent. Can you guess why? Of course you can. Gov. Huckabee is the self-anointed candidate of the simple and traditional Christian folk who hate smart-ass, educated, big-city types, and if you dare to attack him for his vulgarity and stupidity and bigotry, he will accuse you of prejudice in return. What he hopes is that his neo-Confederate sickness will become subsumed into easy chatter about his recipes for fried squirrel and his other folksy populist themes. (By the way, you owe it to yourselves to watch the exciting revelations about his squirrel-grilling past; and do examine his family Christmas card while you're at it.) But this drivel, it turns out, is all a slick cover for racist incitement, and it ought not to be given a free pass.
After paying tribute to MLK Monday, it seemed all was quickly forgiven when Huckabee was endorsed by three dozen African Americans, most connected to conservative religious groups.

In other Huck news, one of my colleagues at the CT Liveblog has a post today explaining what the man from Hope not named Bill Clinton means when he calls himself a "cosmopolitan evangelical." (I didn't realize Arkansas had such a big-city mentality.)
Huckabee, though quite comfortable with speaking publicly about his personal relationship with Christ, his conservative views on religious hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion, and even God's providential role in his Iowa win, nonetheless differs from many conservative evangelicals before him, especially those in the Religious Right.

"I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at anybody," Huckabee often says, and when once asked whether the Christian life was the best way of life, he answered, "Well it is for me..." but that he didn't want to come off as "judgmental, caustic or pushy." As David Brooks of The New York Times recently noted, "Huckabee is the first ironic evangelical on the national stage. He's funny, campy (see his Chuck Norris fixation) and he's not at war with modern culture." In other words, you won't hear Huckabee talking about his push to "take back America" anytime soon.
Frankly, I'll be surprised if he survives Super Duper Tuesday, which is two weeks away. Then again, this presidential campaign has been nothing if not full of surprises.

(Photo: El Nuko)

'Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?'

Is there a separate elegy to be written for that generation of newspapermen and women who came of age after Vietnam, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? For us starry-eyed acolytes of a glorious new church, all of us secular and cynical and dedicated to the notion that though we would still be stained with ink, we were no longer quite wretches? Where is our special requiem?

Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of "All the President's Men" and "The Powers That Be" atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree -- we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches. Immortality lay in a five-part series with sidebars in the Tribune, the Sun, the Register, the Post, the Express.

What the hell happened?
Those words, the beginning of a powerful op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post about the state of American journalism, caused much soul-searching for me yesterday. I don't remember these better days, and I know that if journalists are great at one thing, it is seeing the negative in any situation. But I also know that such nostalgia is not just bitter and certainly not sweet, and it's sad to wonder what the future holds for news ink journos.

The column is written by David Simon, executive producer of "The Wire," and it only gets more depressing from that point, particularly when he talks about the thinning of his former employer, The Baltimore Sun, and compares the attempt to repackage newspapers more efficiently and engagingly to the Chevy Vega.

Snapshot of a parted Red Sea


Clearly those biblical archaeologists were wrong. Google Earth seems to offer pretty definitive proof that Moses not only led the Israelites out of Egypt but that he parted the Red Sea in the process. (Also pictured, the Garden of Eden, Noah's ark and a sparsely attended Crucifixion of Jesus.)

Islam, Indy and Da Vinci

A real whopper from GetReligion:
Every now and then, I read a really interesting story and I think to myself, “You know, the minute someone covers that story in the New York Times or it shows up on National Public Radio, then all heckfire is going to break loose.”

That’s what I thought when people started sending me links to the following Asia Times essay by the famous reporter known simply as Spengler. The headline provides only a hint of the content: “Indiana Jones meets the Da Vinci Code.”

Thanks to a reader, here is the link to the Wall Street Journal article that sparked the Spengler piece. And here is some of Spengler’s take on this mysterious stash of Koran manuscripts that may actually exist in Europe:
The Da Vinci Code offered a silly fantasy in which Opus Dei, homicidal monks and twisted billionaires chased after proof that Christianity is a hoax. But the story of the photographic archive of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, now ensconced in a Berlin vault, is a case of life imitating truly dreadful art. It even has Nazis. “I hate those guys!” as Indiana Jones said.

No one is going to produce proof that Jesus Christ did not rise from the grave three days after the Crucifixion, of course. Humankind will choose to believe or not that God revealed Himself in this fashion. But Islam stands at risk of a Da Vinci Code effect, for in Islam, God’s self-revelation took the form not of the Exodus, nor the revelation at Mount Sinai, nor the Resurrection, but rather a book, namely the Koran. The Encyclopaedia of Islam (1982) observes, “The closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Koran in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” The Koran alone is the revelatory event in Islam.

What if scholars can prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Koran was not dictated by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammad during the 7th century, but rather was redacted by later writers drawing on a variety of extant Christian and Jewish sources? That would be the precise equivalent of proving that the Jesus Christ of the Gospels really was a composite of several individuals.
There are, in fact, “variant copies” of the text of the Koran, evidence that the text evolved over time. If this story is accurate then what the press is sitting on is a bombshell, a giant chance that modern methods of “textual criticism” may be applied to the holy book of Islam (echoing several generations of similiar work on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament).

Monday, January 21, 2008

The search for biblical history

I read "Walking the Bible" on my flight to and from Israel last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it, and on my short blogroll I link to David Plotz' Blogging the Bible. Last week, I found on Slate that Plotz has returned with "Digging the Bible."
So, it's not exactly the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, it's not exactly much of anything—just a dirty shard of pottery the size of my big toe. But I found it. I had been scraping the floor of this Israeli cave when I spotted its sharp edge. I fished the piece out of the dirt and pushed on it, as instructed, to see if it crumbled. If it did, it was probably just the local limestone, which is as soft as a bar of soap. But my piece firmly resisted, so I brushed off the dirt until I could see smooth pottery, one side black, the other brick red. I'm the raider of the lost pot.

I hand it to my digging partner Ian Stern, the archaeologist in charge of this site. He glances at it and says, "Cooking pot. See the black part? That's where it carbonized. Probably 2,200 years old, time of the Maccabees"—the Jewish heroes of the Hanukkah story. He tosses my shard into a plastic collection bucket. "That's why this place is so great. It has instant gratification. There's a biblical connection. There's a Hanukkah connection. It takes it out of the realm of the abstract and makes it tangible. You can come here and dig up pottery from the time of Judah Maccabee. He fought a battle near here. Now, I'm not saying he ate out of that pot, but you see and hold this pottery, and he is not a fairytale figure anymore. He is real."

I've spent much of the last year blogging the Bible for Slate, writing about reading the Good Book for the first time. Now I've come to Israel to see the Bible, to dig it. I've read the stories. Now I want to see where they happened and to learn if they happened—to experience the Bible through archaeology, history, politics, and faith.
This is a similar premise to "Walking the Bible," which contains quite a few passages where Bruce Feiler is wrestling with the lack of historical evidence for major events like the Flood and the Exodus or whether Moses really existed:
The unusual circumstances of this story -- the fact that Moses gets his name from an Egyptian and is raised in the pharaonic court, the fact that he claims not to speak well -- have led many to speculate that Moses wasn't an Israelite at all. Sigmund Freud, in his influential book "Moses and Monotheism," says that Moses was an Egyptian who learned monotheism from Akhenaten and was inspired to lead a revolt of foreign slaves out of a desire to overthrow his symbolic father. Freud says Moses gave the slaves the idea that they were a chosen people, which in turn led to anti-Semitism. "It was one man, the man Moses who created the Jews. To him his people owes its tenacity in supporting life; to him, however, it also owes much of the hostility which it has met and is meeting still.

Leaving aside Freud's psychological interpretation, many scholars agree with his underlying thesis, that Moses might have been an Egyptian.
First off, lots of scholars have lots of contradictory theories. This is the academic process. But after reading this, I jumped onto my computer and ordered Jonathan Kirsch's book, "Moses: A Life," which I anticipate will add to the discussion (though in half a year I have yet to crack).

The passage reminded me of Rabbi David Wolpe's famous Passover sermon a few years ago, when he let members of Sinai Temple know that most scholars don't believe the Exodus actually occurred. The declaration dropped on LA Jewry like an A-bomb (little hyperbole intended), thanks to the LA Times, which played the story as a Column One:
Wolpe's startling sermon may have seemed blasphemy to some. In fact, however, the rabbi was merely telling his flock what scholars have known for more than a decade. Slowly and often outside wide public purview, archeologists are radically reshaping modern understanding of the Bible. It was time for his people to know about it, Wolpe decided. After a century of excavations trying to prove the ancient accounts true, archeologists say there is no conclusive evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt, were ever enslaved, ever wandered in the Sinai wilderness for 40 years or ever conquered the land of Canaan under Joshua's leadership. To the contrary, the prevailing view is that most of Joshua's fabled military campaigns never occurred--archeologists have uncovered ash layers and other signs of destruction at the relevant time at only one of the many battlegrounds mentioned in the Bible.

Today, the prevailing theory is that Israel probably emerged peacefully out of Canaan--modern-day Lebanon, southern Syria, Jordan and the West Bank of Israel--whose people are portrayed in the Bible as wicked idolators. Under this theory, the Canaanites took on a new identity as Israelites were perhaps joined or led by a small group of Semites from Egypt--explaining a possible source of the Exodus story, scholars say. As they expanded their settlement, they may have begun to clash with neighbors, perhaps providing the historical nuggets for the conflicts recorded in Joshua and Judges.

"Scholars have known these things for a long time, but we've broken the news very gently," said William Dever, a professor of Near Eastern archeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona and one of America's preeminent archeologists. Dever's view is emblematic of a fundamental shift in archeology. Three decades ago as a Christian seminary student, he wrote a paper defending the Exodus and got an A, but "no one would do that today," he says.
The Jewish Journal followed the next week with a cover package dedicated to Exodus-doubting fallout, including conservative columnist Dennis Prager arguing that no Exodus = no Judaism, just as Christians would say that without the resurrection, Christianity is dead. But if Christianity is built upon the Torah, upon the stories of Jewish history, does it also need a literal, factual, historical Exodus?

And if we the faithful are willing to dismiss some historical findings, what is the value of biblical archeology?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Hamas fires rockets; Gaza City goes dark

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Gaza City was plunged into darkness Sunday after Israel blocked the shipment of fuel that powers its only electrical plant in retaliation for persistent rocket attacks by Gaza militants.

The power cut sent already beleaguered Gazans to stock up on food and batteries in anticipation of dark, cold days ahead. Gaza officials warned the move would cause a health catastrophe while a U.N. agency and human rights groups condemned Israel.

"We have the choice to either cut electricity on babies in the maternity ward or heart surgery patients or stop operating rooms," Gaza Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said.

Israel justified the cutoff because of continuous rocket attacks by Gaza militants. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Meckel said the Gaza Strip continues to receive 70 percent of its electricity supply directly from Israel, which would not be affected, and another 5 percent from Egypt.

The blackout "is a Hamas ploy to pretend there is some kind of crisis to attract international sympathy," he told The Associated Press.
To read the rest of the story, click here. And for more about those rocket attacks and the havoc they reek on life in the Western Negev, read my report from Sderot and also this and this and this.

Friday, January 18, 2008

'I am Jewish'

In his criticism of Arun Gandhi's comments that Jews and Israel are to blame for a "culture of violence," Judea Pearl mentioned some of the last words of his son, Daniel, who was beheaded by Islamic radicals six years ago. Last February, Daniel's parents talked about what it meant for Daniel to be a Jew in this video, which opens with his voice.



Daniel Pearl's most memorable words, "I am Jewish," gave life to a book by that name that carries reflections of some of the world's most recognizable Jews.

Jews with swords: 'Gentleman of the Road'

Let’s face it: we Jews were never really the sword-carrying type. And that’s a good thing because you know what they say about those who live by the sword.

But, it’s amusing to read about Jews with swords in Michael Chabon’s latest novel, “Gentlemen of the Road.”

Originally published earlier this year in serial installments in the New York Times Magazine, the book follows the exploits of a pair of 10th century Jews — Amram and Zelikman — who pursue adventure throughout the Caucasus Mountains. They fight with swords and battle-axes, swindle tavern dwellers, perform daring acts of thievery and ultimately help raise a rebel army to overthrow the man who usurped the throne of the Khazar Empire from its rightful owner.

That’s a lot to get through in 196 pages but with Chabon’s fine storytelling abilities, our heroes make it from beginning to end without leaving the reader feeling rushed.
That's from Jewish Literary Review. Such fond phrases come as no surprise. Chabon is, quite simply, a master. I finished last week "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which reminded me poignantly of his ability with a pen. (Coupled with "swords," mentioning "pen" reminds me of a couple of Sean Connery SNL sketches.)

As for Jews with swords, sometimes they've wielded them well. Other times not so much.

Gandhi's grandson resigns after accusing Jews of 'culture of violence'

In a recent commentary for the blog On Faith, Arun Gandhi, a grandson of the great pacifist, accused Jews of using the Holocaust to promote of "culture of violence":
"The holocaust was the result of the warped mind of an individual who was able to influence his followers into doing something dreadful. But, it seems to me the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews," Gandhi wrote. "The world did feel sorry for the episode but when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on the regret turns into anger. The Jewish identity in the future appears bleak."
Outcry regarding Gandhi's comment led to his resignation yesterday from the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester and an apology from the On Faith editors. I've got a short story up about it, with lots of links, at JewishJournal.com. The protest wasn't led, but was certainly helped, by Judea Pearl.
Pearl, an op-ed columnist for The Jewish Journal whose son was killed by Islamic extremists at least in part because he was Jewish, directed his protest to Donald Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co., the text of which is reprinted on the blog.

"In his final moments," Pearl wrote, "Danny told his captors on camera: 'My father is Jewish, My mother is Jewish, I am Jewish,' and, as President Bush said in the White House last month: 'These words have become a source of inspiration to Americans of all faiths.'

"My son Daniel died mighty proud of his Jewish identity. He, like the millions of decent and peace-seeking Israelis, and Americans who proudly carry on their Jewish heritage, did not see his identity as 'dependent on violence' as the title of Gandhi's article implies.

"Mr. Graham, the article your editors have allowed to be posted is a painful insult to everything Daniel stood for, to everything America stands for, and to every decent person inspired by Daniel's words.

"Too many people were killed, abused or dispossessed in the past century by words of irresponsible authors, often disguised as scholars or humanitarians, who pointed fingers at, and blamed one segment of society for the ills and maladies in the world.

"Arun Gandhi did just that."
Sometimes, I think statements get blown out of proportion as being anti-Semitic. There was a great case of that in Thousand Oaks last summer. But it seemed to me from reading Gandhi's three-paragraph commentary, and his subsequent "apology," that he holds deeply negative views about Jews and Israel.

I'm from the school of thought that says criticism is OK. Even if it's not entirely constructive. But broad-brushing an entire people with stereotypes, that's not so useful.

No longer searching for Bobby Fischer

He was probably the greatest chess player the world has ever seen. He also was virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic, odd because he was born in Chicago to a Jewish woman. Bobby Fischer, who had been living for years in exile, died Thursday.
He had emerged briefly in 1992 from a mysterious seclusion that had lasted two decades and defied an American ban on conducting business in wartorn Yugoslavia to play a $5 million match against his old nemesis, the Russian-born grandmaster Boris Spassky.

After he won handily, he dropped out of sight again, living alone. He avoided arrest on American charges over his Yugoslavia appearance and stayed in touch with his few friends in the United States by telephone, compelling them to keep his secrets or risk his rejection.

He lived in Budapest -- and possibly the Philippines and Switzerland -- and emerged now and then on radio stations in Iceland, Hungary and the Philippines to rant in increasingly belligerent terms against the United States and against Jews.
Genius was certainly too much pressure for Fischer, whose appearance, when he made it, was constantly on the wane and prone to outburst. Often on the radio, the most telling of these was his Sept. 11, 2001 reaction to the terrorist attacks:
"This is all wonderful news," he announced. "I applaud the act. The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians, just slaughtering them for years. Robbing them and slaughtering them. Nobody gave a sh--. Now it's coming back to the U.S. F--- the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out."

Fischer added that the events of September 11 provided the ideal opportunity to stage a long-overdue coup d'├ętat. He envisioned, he said, a "Seven Days in May scenario," with the country taken over by the military; he also hoped to see all its synagogues closed, and hundreds of thousands of Jews executed. "Ultimately the white man should leave the United States and the black people should go back to Africa," he said. "The white people should go back to Europe, and the country should be returned to the American Indians. This is the future I would like to see for the so-called United States." Before signing off Fischer cried out, "Death to the U.S.!"
When Fischer was released from detention in Japan two years ago, he was confronted at a press conference by Jeremy Schaap, the ESPN broadcaster whose father had befriended a young Fischer.
"I knew your father," he drawls to the young, dark-haired Schaap. "He rapped me very hard. He said I didn't have a sane bone in my body. I don't forget that."

I ask about chess; a Russian TV crew asks about Kasparov; the Icelanders ask whether Fischer likes herring, but the Schaap affair won't go away. Fischer insists on returning to it, and things suddenly turn ugly. "Let me get back to this guy," says Fischer, pointing at the young, dark-haired Schaap. "I hate to rap people personally, but his father many years ago befriended me, took me to see Knicks games, acted kind of like a father figure, and then later like a typical Jewish snake he had the most vicious things to say about me."

Schaap snaps at that, says "I don't know that you've done much here today really to disprove anything he said," and walks out. All on camera. Maybe it's a made-for-TV set-up, maybe not, but it certainly chills the air: Fischer groans and there is a half-minute silence before the woman from Icelandic radio can can things back on track with another question about herring. The human being starts to emerge from under the baseball cap, then bang, he's off again with another lengthy exposition of his intricately wrought, completely bonkers theories, usually rounded off with: "It's all on the internet! Why don't you go look it up?"