Monday, March 31, 2008

Woody Allen sues American Apparel for rabbi ad

Remember der heyliker rebe, Woody Allen, whose mug from "Annie Hall" was seen on this American Apparel billboard in Echo Park only to disappear a few days later?

Well, today Allen filed a $10-million suit against the L.A.-based clothier, claiming the notoriously edgy advertiser used his image without permission. Either that or he just didn't want to be "Jewish hustler" Dov Charney's spiritual guide.

Algeria orders 19 churches closed

Algerian police shut down three churches last week for being too Christian, the latest in a line of 19 since Novemeber.
The church closures come amid a flurry of antagonistic media articles warning of campaigns by Protestants to “Christianize” Algeria. Religious Affairs Minister Bu’Abdallah Ghoulamullah called on Christian groups in Algeria to re-register according to Algeria’s associations’ law, but Algerian Christians have claimed that the government has blocked them from carrying out the required re-registration. Columnist Mustapha Hammouche wrote in Liberte on Tuesday (March 25) that repression of evangelism “has turned into the harassment of Christians.” On March 21, police detained two Algerian Christians traveling by public bus from Tizi Ouzou to Bejaia for carrying 11 Bibles.
Saudi Arabia must be so proud.

Toilet talk about aliens and Jesus

I'm inclined to believe this guy is just joshing a credulous TV reporter, but he compares the case for aliens to the evidence that Jesus existed or that people actually made a poopie when they say they did. (Never could I have imagined putting those three subjects in the same sentence.)

Sam Harris, Santa Claus know if you don't believe

Was the earth created in six days? Do two and two make four? Is capital punishment wrong? New research by atheist spokesman Sam Harris can’t answer these questions. But it can determine whether subjects believe them to be true, untrue or ambiguous. After blogging about Harris' research in December, I wrote this piece for UCLA Magazine.
Shortly before Sam Harris became a New York Times best-selling author, he was a UCLA doctoral student in neuroscience, a mere dissertation away from his Ph.D.

But in 2004, Harris took some time off to write The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. The book sold wildly and Harris was anointed a leader of America's atheist awakening.

After writing another bestseller, Letter to a Christian Nation, and traveling the speaker circuit, Harris returned last fall to his doctoral research. His latest writings were published this January, not in a book but in the scholarly Annals of Neurology, and the subject wasn't faith but research into the physiological distinctions between belief and disbelief.

The study tested the hypothesis that belief "might have a functional localization in the brain and the design of the study was to isolate such regions," explains Mark S. Cohen, Harris' thesis adviser and professor of psychiatry at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, who co-authored the study with Harris and Sameer Sheth Ph.D. '03, M.D. '05 of Massachusetts General Hospital. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists found that a region of the brain involved in belief, disbelief and uncertainty acted differently depending on subjects' acceptance of statements they were given while inside the machine. A portion of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex appeared to be at least partly responsible for discerning belief of all kinds, whether it's "a personal God exists as described in the Bible" or "George Bush is president of the United States."

"It has no relevance to the question of whether or not there is a God," Harris says of the findings. "Even if we had a perfect belief detector, we still can't tell you what is true in the world. You put somebody in the scanner who believes Elvis is still alive, and all we will be able to tell you is, 'Yes, he does believe Elvis is still alive.' "
Don't confuse Harris' quest with that of the search for the "God particle," which would explain how massless particles create matter, or the "God gene," a controversial scientific field looking for God's latent imprint within humans, the immutable reason religious belief is manifest in the forms of spiritual devotion and ecstasy and servitude and fervency.

“All of that has a basis in the brain, as does smell and vision,” Harris told me. “But I don’t think there is a God spot in the brain in the same way there is not a love-your-mother spot.”

Friday, March 28, 2008

That anti-Islam film getting all the attention

Geert Wilders' new film, "Fitna," has been getting a lot of attention. A former Malaysian diplomat said the film, which is highly critical of Islam, would make the rioting and violence sparked by the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad look like a "picnic."

The film was originally posted at LiveLeak today but was taken down after 3 million views and a lot of threats.
In place of the video Friday afternoon, a brief and poignant message appears on-screen: "Following threats to our staff of a very serious nature.... LiveLeak has been left with no choice but to remove Fitna from our servers.

"This is a sad day for freedom of speech on the net.... We would like to thank the thousands of people from all backgrounds and religions who gave us their support."
GoogleVideo still has a 17-minute clip from "Fitna." Many images are very, very disturbing -- from the physical brutality of a beheading to the rhetorical venom of a 3-year-old girl who says Allah told her Jews are pigs and apes -- and some resemble segments of "The Path to the Final Solution." Fortunately, most Muslim Americans shy away from such extremist attitudes. Most.

(Hat tip: Bloggish)

Olmert: 'has no core, no Tablets of Stone'

I mentioned the masterful pen of Ari Shavit earlier this week, and now I provide you further evidence of his incisive stroke. His victim, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister with an approval rating lower than Isiah Thomas. From Ha'aretz, via the Bintel Blog:
Ehud Olmert has many good qualities. The prime minister is a good friend to his comrades, a devoted father to his children, and is loyal to his followers. He is not brilliant, but he is intelligent. He is not profound, but he is pragmatic. Energetic, diligent and levelheaded. Olmert has many of the traits required of a decision maker. He also has a virtuoso ability to create networks of power, reinforce them and activate them in times of need.

Olmert is a gifted and multifaceted politician. He knows how to be charming and how to be threatening, to play a man of the world but also to relate to ordinary people. It is doubtful if there is anyone in Israel with more connections. It is doubtful if there is anyone like him who knows how to woo the powerful and pal around with criminals.

And nevertheless, the prime minister has one shortcoming that overshadows all his good qualities: The man lacks substance. He has no worldview and no overall picture of reality. He has no ethical foundations and no structural principles. Olmert has no core. He has no Tablets of Stone. In the most profound sense, he does not know where he came from and where he is going. That is why today he can say the opposite of what he said yesterday, without batting an eyelash. Nor does he have any difficulty saying one thing and doing another. Since he is guided by litigation rather than the truth, the prime minister is capable of changing his skin and changing his policy like a chameleon. That is why he is a serial exploiter of opportunities and a brilliant survivor, but a hopeless shaper of reality.

As a captain without direction and without a compass, Olmert stretches his opportunism to the absurd and his pragmatism to the point of losing the way. He arouses passions and engages in sleight of hand and is occasionally hypnotic, but in his 40 years in politics he has not left any mark. Even in his two years as prime minister he has not done anything genuine.

The media battle for a denomination's soul

There is an interesting dust-up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a more theologically conservative version of its mainline Protestant brethren. It deals with the abrupt and unexplained cancellation of the synod's popular radio program, "Issues, Etc." And I was notified of it by M.Z. Hemingway, who blogs for GetReligion and wrote this article for the Wall Street Journal.
Usually radio hosts have to offend sacred moral sensibilities to be thrown off the air. Opie and Anthony were fired after they encouraged a couple to have sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Don Imus lost his job after using racist and sexist epithets against the Rutgers University women's basketball team.

But when the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod canceled its popular, nationally syndicated radio program "Issues, Etc.," listeners were baffled. Billed as "talk radio for the thinking Christian," the show was known for its lively discussions analyzing cultural influences on the American church. It seemed like precisely the thing that the Missouri Synod, a 2.4-million-member denomination whose system of belief is firmly grounded in Scripture and an intellectually rigorous theology, would enthusiastically support.

Broadcast from the nation's oldest continuously run religious radio station, KFUO-AM in St. Louis, and syndicated throughout the country, "Issues, Etc." had an even larger audience world-wide, thanks to its podcast's devoted following. With 14 hours of fresh programming each week, the show was on the leading edge of what's happening in culture, politics and broader church life. The Rev. Todd Wilken interviewed the brightest lights from across the theological spectrum on news of the day. Guests included Oxford University's Dr. Alister McGrath, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's Albert Mohler and more postmodern types, like Tony Jones, national coordinator for a church network called Emergent Village.

On its last show, on March 17, listeners learned about the life and faith of St. Patrick; scientific and philosophical arguments in defense of the human embryo; the excommunication of two Roman Catholic women who claimed ordination; and the controversy surrounding the sermons of Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Despite the show's popularity, low cost and loyal donor base, Mr. Wilken and Jeff Schwarz, the producer of "Issues, Etc.," were dismissed without explanation on Tuesday of Holy Week. Within hours, the program's Web site -- which provided access to past episodes and issues of its magazine -- had disappeared. Indeed, all evidence that the show ever existed was removed.

So what happened? Initially, the bureaucrats in St. Louis kept a strict silence, claiming that the show had been canceled for "business and programmatic" reasons. Yesterday the synod cited low local ratings in the St. Louis area and the low number of listeners to the live audio stream on the Web site. But the last time the synod tracked the size of the audience was three years ago, and it did not take into account the show's syndicated or podcast following. The synod also claimed that the show lost $250,000 a year, an assertion that is at odds with those of others familiar with the operating budget of the station.

The Rev. Michael Kumm, who served on three management committees for the station, said that the explanation doesn't add up. " 'Issues, Etc.' is the most listened to, most popular and generates more income than any other program at the station and perhaps even the others combined. This decision is purely political," he said.

He may well be right. The program was in all likelihood a pawn in a larger battle for the soul of the Missouri Synod. The church is divided between, on the one hand, traditional Lutherans known for their emphasis on sacraments, liturgical worship and the church's historic confessions and, on the other, those who have embraced pop-culture Christianity and a market-driven approach to church growth. The divide is well known to all confessional Christian denominations struggling to retain their traditional identity.

The Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, the synod's current president, has pushed church marketing over the Lutherans' historic confession of faith by repeatedly telling the laity, "This is not your grandfather's church."

Cartoonist a catalyst for 'adaptation of Islam'

Kurt Westergaard made a life-changing decision when he penned the cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. He's been living on the run, hiding from those who have swore to his death. But he doesn't regret it.
"I would do it the same way (again) because I think that this cartoon crisis in a way is a catalyst which is intensifying the adaptation of Islam," he told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday, speaking in English.

"Without a cartoon that provoked the Muslims, it would have been something else; a novel a play, a movie, this situation would have occurred sooner or later anyway."

He said: "We are discussing the two cultures, the two religions as never before and that is important."


"I have no problems with Muslims. I made a cartoon which was aimed at the terrorists who use an interpretation of Islam as their spiritual dynamite," he said.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Jewish power in Long Beach

A few weeks ago, I was driving down the 710 and talking with an old colleague about the person I was en route to interview. My subject was Josh Lowenthal, the self-styled black sheep of his Long Beach family.

See, Josh has done well: he attended Cornell, lived in Israel and started and sold a few telecom businesses. But he remains the only member of the Lowenthal tribe to not hold elected office. His father, Alan, is a state senator; mother, Bonnie, is a Long Beach Councilwoman, as is his sister-in-law, Suja. And her husband, Josh's brother Dan, is a Superior Court Judge.

"What's the angle?" my friend asked.

"Well," I quipped, "I'm pitching the profile as a microcosm of Jewish world dominance."

This of course was not my approach, though I've written a lot about Jewish power and political involvement (never as insightfully as J.J. Goldberg) and about that century-old canard of a Jewish plan to takeover the world. Instead here I focused on the reasons Josh has yet to follow in his family's footsteps and why he eventually will.
Lowenthal, 38, grew up in a progressive Jewish family, the kind of home that sang Bob Dylan songs on Shabbat. His parents, now divorced, both taught psychology at Cal State Long Beach and were active in the community. On returning home in the afternoon from public school, he'd encounter community meetings in his living room, often organized by his mother to address homeless issues.

"There is a deeply felt sense of tikkun olam [heal the world] that is based in that family in ways that I wish all families would emulate," said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, whose then-L.A. City Council staff Josh Lowenthal joined after returning from Israel in the mid-'90s. "It may not be always exclusively stated, though it is evident in the way they live, but one mission in life is to reach out and help other people. It is more than a political imperative for that family. For the Lowenthals it is a moral imperative."

The clearest example of this in Josh Lowenthal's life can be found in a social service building with an industrial façade in the Port of Long Beach. The Long Beach Multi-Service Center is provided by the city to 14 agencies, including Goodwill, the Long Beach Rescue Shelter and Children Today. Here the homeless come to shower, do their laundry, check their voicemail, meet with social workers or, particularly in the case of children, simply get off the street.

Last month, Children Today served 762 children. Six weeks to 6 years old, they met from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with caregivers who help them cope with losses as seemingly trivial, though not insignificant, as their toys and as traumatic as a family member.

"It's day care with a therapeutic component," said Dora Jacildo, the charity's executive director.

Children Today started in 1997, and Lowenthal joined the board four years later. It provided a channel for Lowenthal, who by the end of the dot-com boom was doing quite well, to give back to the people he thought needed the most help.

"Bye Josh!"

"Bye Josh!"

"Bye Josh!"

The toddlers parrot their teacher as he walks in and out of their classroom on a recent visit. Lowenthal wears a gray pinstripe suit and light-blue shirt, his beard trim and his prematurely gray hair gelled and spiked. He speaks as proudly of Children Today -- the only homeless program accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children -- as he does of the telecommunication companies he started or his nightclub, Sachi.

"For him, it's a world of promise. And he looks for vehicles to bring that promise to fruition," said his mother. "He experienced so much support as a youngster growing up in Long Beach, and I think he is trying his hardest to give back."

And if Ellis isn't recalled, this certainly won't be the last time Josh Lowenthal is mentioned as a political candidate.

"I don't have to be an elected official," he hastened. "I really believe there are two types of elected officials: There are those who want to do something and those who want to be something. I really want to do something -- and will, whether elected of not."
(Image: The District Weekly)

'The Purim Hangover'

Purim is like the Jewish Mardi Gras, complete with altar-ego antics and binge drinking. My VideoJew colleague, Jay Firestone, who has proven quite the formidable Scrabulous opponent, brings you up to speed in this video on "The Purim Hangover."

The origin of the universe; the end of God?

Now I don't believe science will prove God doesn't exist, but the Higgs boson is a hypothetical particle that would help explain how massless elementary particles create matter. Dubbed the "God particle," scientists have been clamoring to discover it for the past few years.
"The Higgs boson is interesting because it is the only reasonable explanation we have for the origin of mass," says Dave Rainwater, a researcher at FermiLab. "Without the Higgs, all fundamental particles would be massless, and the universe would be very different. The weak nuclear forces wouldn't be weak at all, for instance, so the elemental composition of the cosmos would be radically different, stars would shine differently, and we probably wouldn't exist."

The best experimental data on the Higgs boson so far comes from experiments done with the LEP collider at CERN, near Geneva, in 2000. Results indicated that the Higgs particle was too heavy to be detected by the collider and that it probably had a mass of 114 billion electron-volts (GeV). The Tevatron is expected to be able to spot the Higgs in a couple of years, if it is not heavier than 170 GeV to 180 GeV.

If all else fails, the Large Hadron Collider being built at CERN, scheduled to go online in 2007, is designed to guarantee discovery of the Higgs. With a 27-kilometer-circumference tunnel, the LHC will collide protons at seven times the energy levels of the Tevatron.

And the payoff for whoever discovers the Higgs boson? Nothing less than a Nobel Prize. "Its discovery would be one of the crowning achievements of modern science, and validate decades of intense research," says John Conway, a professor at Rutgers University.

"We believe that the Higgs is the key to unlocking the mystery of the elementary particles: the quarks and the leptons. The standard model does not give us the answers to many questions: Why are there three 'generations' of matter particles? Why do they have the masses and electric charges that they do? The Higgs is believed to be related to the mechanism by which the matter particles get their mass, but there is no good theory yet as to why different particles have different masses."
In other words, scientists believe the Higgs holds the key to our existence and the answer to God's too. In anticipation of the Large Hadron Collider experiment, which did not occur last year but is planned for this summer, Newsweek spoke with theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, who has a skeptical view of the need for religion but assures that the discovery of the Higgs will not bring an end to faith.
After this experiment, will we have a final theory of how the universe was created?

It is possible that this experiment will give theoretical physicists a brilliant new idea that will explain all the particles and all the forces that we know and bring everything together in a beautiful mathematically consistent theory. But it is very unlikely that a final theory will come just from this experiment. If had to bet, I would bet it won't be that easy.

As we come closer to developing an ultimate theory of the universe, how will this impact religion?

As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death, all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn't contradict religion, but it does takes away one of the original motivations for religion.

You've said that Darwin's theory of natural selection was the biggest step in this direction. What about the possible findings in particle physics?

I don't think that discoveries in elementary particle physics in themselves are likely to have anything like the impact of Darwin's theory. After all, I don't know of any religious people who say that the breaking of the symmetry between the weak and the electromagnetic interactions requires divine intervention. Discovering the Higgs boson, confirming the theory of electroweak symmetry breaking, is not going to upset people's religion.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tennessee's Jewish Volunteer

We are now firmly into March Madness, with the Sweet Sixteen beginning tomorrow, and that means three things: decreased work productivity, a deep run by the Bruins and a lovable Jewish coach known best for his high-flying persona and his creamsicle-orange sports coat. I'm not a Tennessee fan, but I do like Bruce Pearl (pictured in less clothes than usual), even if he does have a penchant for hugging women my age. He received this favorable profile in The Washington Post:
He is the grandson of an Austrian Jew who came to America in the 1920s and lost scores of relatives in the Holocaust. He was reared conservatively by his parents, Barbara and Bernie Pearlmutter, a salesman who shortened the name to Pearl for convenience sake, in Boston in the racially charged 1970s. He learned to think hard about right and wrong on social issues such as forced busing, to appreciate the ethnic mix of Boston from Southie to the North End, and to defend his faith with his fists.

"I grew up watching kids swing at each other because their skin was a different color," he says.

Pearl was a three-sport star at Sharon High who consciously set out to counter stereotypes. "And of course there was something stereotypically not tough about being Jewish," he says. He resented it when the annual athletic banquets would begin with "In Christ's name we pray." It made him feel discounted, excluded. God was with him, too, he told himself. When his friends crossed themselves, he made the Star of David.

When he was a senior, he was playing first base one afternoon when a base runner called him a "Jew Boy." Pearl tapped his glove, signaling the pitcher to throw to first. When the ball slapped into Pearl's mitt, he whirled, smacked it into the runner's face and started swinging. "I went to dukes," he says. He was tossed from the game.

He had his choice of local colleges, but he specifically chose Boston College because it was the best sports school in town, and because he wanted to prove a Jewish student could make it at a Catholic university.

"I wanted kids to meet someone who was Jewish, and have them say, 'Gosh, you don't look Jewish, or act Jewish,' " he says. "I wanted to talk about religion, to have those discussions."


When Pearl took his team on tour of Europe last summer, he scheduled a stop at the Terezin concentration camp. As they toured the site, he told his players, "They killed 6 million of us 50 years ago 'cause of how we prayed."

Shortly before the team reconvened on campus this fall, Pearl's daughter Leah celebrated her bat mitzvah, and Pearl invited his players. He beams as he tells the story of how warm it made him feel to gaze through the crowd at the Heska Amuna synagogue and see his players towering over the heads of the guests, some of the Vols 6 feet 9 or taller.

"Here came these talk, dark, handsome men, all wearing yarmulkes," Pearl says delightedly. Then he adds his favorite detail: how he heard some of the players greeting the other well-wishers.

"They were going, 'Shalom, y'all.' "
(Hat tip: GetReligion)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Saban: 'You made it big, you jerk!'

I have an article in this week's Jewish Journal about the $10 million Cheryl and Haim Saban pledged this month to the Los Angeles Free Clinic, where Cheryl was a patient 25 years ago, a few years before she married the man behind "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." While writing that article, I came across this 15-month-old piece from Ari Shavit, one of Ha'aretz' great writers, about the family's Christmas tree and Haim's journey from Egyptian ghetto to Beverly Hills billionaire.
As the gaping guest walks by the neatly trimmed lawn and the wooden wheel of the imaginary water mill and the windows of the chateau, a heavy door opens for him, beyond which a gigantic Christmas tree sparkles and shines with its decorations. In the long stone corridors that lead to the wood-paneled guest room, the familiar songs of Naomi Shemer play softly: Whatever you wish, let it be. Whatever you wish, let it be.

Saban himself enters a few minutes later. He is somewhat excited. He didn't really want to be interviewed, but decided there was no choice. At the weekend he will convene the Saban Forum for the third time, and the gathering obliges public relations. Since he lost the hold he had in the White House through his good friends Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and the Saban Forum have become his levers of influence on political Washington and on Jerusalem. (For the sake of proper disclosure: The author of this article was invited to lecture at the Saban Forum.)

n recent years, the ability of the colorful Israeli-American billionaire to bring together Ariel Sharon and Bill Clinton, Shimon Peres and Henry Kissinger, Tzipi Livni and Condoleezza Rice has become one of the achievements of which he is proud. During the two years in which his personal fortune grew from $2.2 billion to $2.8 billion (according to Forbes), Saban succeeded in adding to the list of power centers he controls this prestigious annual gathering of senior Israeli and American figures for a joint dialogue.

Does Haim Saban understand the suspicions that his large and well-connected fortune arouses in Israel? Does he see the problematic character of the relations between big capital and government? Even before he sits down in his armchair, Saban goes on the attack.
My favorite part is the headline, which seems to have no place in the text: "You made it big, you jerk."

As for the Christmas tree, Cheryl is Christian; they're raising their kids as Jews.

Bush's beginning as an evangelical favorite

You've probably noticed that blogging has been fairly weak the past week. There is a reason for that, and it's that I've been in and out of town and, it seems, too frenetically reporting or writing to thoughtfully blather.

Not that I am going to pick that up again quite yet, but here is an interesting excerpt from Slate of editor Jacob Weisberg's new book "The Bush Tragedy" that focuses on the religious politics of our 43rd president:
If Bush's theology is free of content, his application of it to politics is sophisticated and artful. Evangelical politics is a subject on which he has exercised his intellect, and perhaps the only one on which he qualifies as an expert. Bush began his study in 1985 on behalf of his father's effort to become president. George H.W. Bush regarded televangelists like Pat Robertson as snake handlers and swindlers. Reflecting his parents' attitude, Neil Bush referred to evangelical Christians in a speech for his father in Iowa as "cockroaches" issuing "from the baseboards of the Bible-belt." For their part, the evangelicals felt no affinity for Bush Sr. They found his patrician background off-putting and suspected the sincerity of his conversion to the pro-life cause.

To help him with this problem, Bush Sr. brought in Doug Wead as his evangelical adviser and liaison. Wead had been involved in a group called Mercy Corps International, doing missionary relief work in Ethiopia and Cambodia, and gave inspirational speeches at Amway meetings. He was also a prolific memo writer. The most important of his memos is a 161-page document he wrote in the summer of 1985 and a long follow-up to it known as "The Red Memo." Wead argued for "an effective, discreet evangelical strategy" to counter Jack Kemp, who had been courting the evangelicals for a decade, and Pat Robertson, whom he accurately predicted would run in the 1988 primaries. Wead compiled a long dossier on the evangelical "targets" he saw as most important for Bush. ("If Falwell is privately reassured from time to time of the Vice President's personal friendship, he will be less likely to demand the limelight," he wrote.) Wead made a chart rating nearly 200 leaders for various factors, including their influence within the movement, their influence outside of it, and their potential impact within early caucus and primary states. Billy Graham received the highest total score, 315, followed by Robert Schuller, 237; Jerry Falwell, 236; and Jim Bakker, 232.

Unbeknownst to Wead, Vice President Bush gave the Red memo to his oldest son. After George Jr. pronounced it sound, George Sr. closely followed much of its advice. For instance, Wead recommended that the vice president read the first chapter of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, a book that had become a popular evangelical device for winning converts. "Evangelicals believe that this book is so effective that they will automatically assume that if the Vice President has read it, he will agree with it," Wead wrote. Vice President Bush made sure that religious figures saw a well-worn copy on top of a stack of books in his office when they visited the White House and cited Lewis' condemnation of the sin of pride as one of the reasons "we haven't been inclined to go around proclaiming that we are Christians." He also took Wead's advice on how to answer the born-again question; in courting the National Religious Broadcasters with three speeches in three years; in inviting Falwell, James Dobson, and others to the White House; in cooperating with a cover story in the Christian Herald, the largest-circulation evangelical magazine at the time; and in producing a volume for the Christian book market.

George W. Bush became the campaign's semiofficial liaison to the evangelical community in March 1987. "Wead, I'm taking you over," he said at their first meeting, over Mexican food in Corpus Christi, telling him to ignore Lee Atwater, whom Wead had been reporting to. Wead recalls how anxious George W. was in political conversations with his dad. "He was a nervous wreck," Wead told me. "He wanted his father to be proud of him." Wead also recalled the son's expressions of his own political interest. The campaign had prepared state-by-state analysis of the primary electorate in advance of Super Tuesday in 1988. "When he got the one on Texas, his eyes just bugged out," Wead remembered. "This is just great! I can become governor of Texas just with the evangelical vote."

The crucible of the campaign forged a close relationship between the two men. Wead, whom George W. called "Weadie," says the candidate's son spent an inordinate amount of time talking about sex. But he was so anxious to avoid any whiff or rumor of infidelity that he asked Wead to stay in his hotel room one night when he thought a young woman working on the campaign might knock on his door. "I tried to read to him from the Bible, because by that time he was sending me these signals," Wead told me. "But he wasn't interested. He just rolled over and went to sleep."

Having Wead put him to bed was a way to advertise his marital fidelity, and to reinforce a distinction with his father, who was facing rumors about the Big A. Wead said Bush also liked having him around as an alternative to the company of drinking buddies from his pre-conversion period. But Bush resisted religious overtures as firmly as sexual ones. "He has absolutely zero interest in anything theological—nothing," Wead said. "We spent hours talking about sex … who on the campaign was doing what to whom—but nothing about God. And I tried many, many times."

Monday, March 24, 2008

The search for Hitler's gold

It's March Madness, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player in college basketball history. So check him out on "The Colbert Report," in search of Hitler's booty. (Warning: It's actually not that funny.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Pope baptizes pro-Israel Muslim

VATICAN CITY - Italy's most prominent Muslim, an iconoclastic writer who condemned Islamic extremism and defended Israel, converted to Catholicism Saturday in a baptism by the pope at a Vatican Easter service.

An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic, Magdi Allam infuriated some Muslims with his books and columns in the newspaper Corriere della Sera newspaper, where he is a deputy editor. He titled one book "Long Live Israel."

As a choir sang, Pope Benedict XVI poured holy water over Allam's head and said a brief prayer in Latin.

"We no longer stand alongside or in opposition to one another," Benedict said in a homily reflecting on the meaning of baptism. "Thus faith is a force for peace and reconciliation in the world: distances between people are overcome, in the Lord we have become close."


He did not speak to the press Saturday and his newspaper said it had no information about his conversion.

Allam said in the interview that he had made a pilgrimage to Mecca, as is required of all Muslims, with his deeply religious mother in 1991, although he was not otherwise observant.

"I was never practicing," he was quoted as saying. "I never prayed five times a day, facing Mecca. I never fasted during Ramadan."

Allam also explained his decision to title a recent book "Viva Israele" by saying he wrote it after he received death threats from Hamas.

"Having been condemned to death, I have reflected a long time on the value of life. And I discovered that behind the origin of the ideology of hatred, violence and death is the discrimination against Israel. Everyone has the right to exist except for the Jewish state and its inhabitants," he said. "Today, Israel is the paradigm of the right to life."
Read the rest here.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

And now, the fake news

The Jewish Journal's annual Purim cover is out now, and it's got a few gem jokes that reference news of note mentioned here in the last year. There's Eliot Spitzer and the whore of Babylon, the U.N.'s response to continued rocket attacks on Sderot and, of course, Ann Coulter and The Perfect Jew. My favorite "headline" though is about Israeli PM Olmert's ridiculously low approval rating. (Truth to be told, his approval rating spiked in July to, gulp, 8 percent.)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A March miracle for the Bruins

The most wonderful time of the year begins now, with the tip-off of the NCAA tournament. The last few years I have taken work off at the start of March Madness to soak in full days of pandemonium. This year is no different. I'm not sure what to expect, no one ever is. But I'm sure there'll be a moment or two as memorable as this one.

My wife and I were cheering so loudly during the Gonzaga-UCLA game two years ago, banging the walls and jumping around like apes for a good 20 minutes, that I seriously expected the cops to show up. They never did, and two days later I was in Oakland watching UCLA eek by Memphis en route to another Final Four.

(Last fall I played poker with Adam Morrison, who was peeling off $100 bills like he was feeding quarters into a pinball machine. I was mature enough not to mention the last game of his college career. Coincidentally, the next morning his season ended when he busted his knee in a game against the Clippers.)

Anyway, enjoy the madness and thank God -- seriously because the tournament starts this year on Maundy Thursday -- that it's March. I'll be back this weekend to wish The God Blog a belated happy birthday.

Why Jews should vote for Obama

I first learned of Saigon Bob one day while putting off deadline at the Daily News and refreshing the home page of LAObserved. Bob Kholos had been press secretary for legendary Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and on his blog, which LAObserved linked me to, Kholos alleged that while running for mayor, Bradley's campaign had discovered that then-Mayor Sam Yorty once paid for a back-alley abortion that left the young woman dead.
Instead of blasting it in the news media, we decided to use it about 10 seconds prior to a live debate in the San Fernando Valley just a couple of days before the election.

Aide, and future Bradley Press Secretary, Tom Sullivan volunteered to run past Yorty just as the debate started and whisper a name.

Sullivan whispered the name of the person, and Yorty responded, “So, your going to play that game.”
Six months later, Bob contacted me after reading an article I'd written about an eruv dividing Oak Park and its expensive neighbors, Agoura Hills and Westlake Village. I last talked with Bob, whom I believe now lives in Oregon, shortly after I joined The Journal. But yesterday he shot me this note -- "This Obama 'guilt by association' has the definite feel of the old Tom Bradley 1969 campaign ... in which he lost as Mayor" -- with a link to his thoughts on why the Jewish community should support Barack Obama.
Social justice is a four thousand year old tradition in Jewish history(some would say five thousand years..give or take a thousand years)

Of course, that does not mean that every person practices such an ideal, but this strength among the Jewish population has lead to the end of child labor, a movement of Unions, better treatment of animals, and a joining together with other minorities in bringing about the civil rights revolution in America (That's the short list)

Certainly, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, have also enjoyed wide Jewish support, and deservedly so.

Senator Barack Obama, is a special case.

He is trying to bring about a "post racial" attitude among all Americans.


As far as Obama's support for Israel, one Israeli newspaper said that, "Barack Obama is pro-Israel. Period."

Also, guilt by association, has been the unfortunate hallmark which has been used to destroy many Jewish communities throughout Jewish history.

An angry preacher, and a Black separatist, have supported Senator Obama. But, nothing could be further from the truth, as to the mind set and political practice of the junior Senator from Illinois.

To blame him for the small mindedness of others is about as "un-Jewish" as you can get.

Barack Obama is his own man, a great candidate, and someone who can bring a nation together.

That is the best reason to support him.
I sense Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein would agree with that logic.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Just simply: Why?

The Press-Telegram has an unbelievably powerful op-ed by the surgeon who tried to save the life of an 11-year-old boy gunned down Sunday. The story is awful in its evocativeness and it fully sapped the energy out of me, bit by bit as I read on.
I just finished sewing up a dead boy.

I pronounced him dead at 10:34 p.m. Sunday. It's now 11:27 p.m. I know I won't be able to get to sleep for a long time. I feel like I shouldn't.

I'm a trauma surgeon at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach. I was sulking in my call room on Palm Sunday because I missed yet another important moment in my 5-year-old son's life. A tarantula crawled all over him at his best friend's birthday party, and my wife had e-mailed me a glorious photo of this big, hairy arachnid on my son's face. The phone rings, and I am summoned to the ER for a "gunshot wound to the chest." That's bad, but around these parts, sadly not a surprise. Then the ER secretary adds, "... in a 12-year-old." That changes things a bit. As I hurry down to the Emergency Department, I play out several horrific scenarios in my head - a mental exercise in preparation for what certainly was to be a difficult situation.

I arrive to a room filled to capacity with doctors, nurses, techs, volunteers, firemen, policemen and paramedics. The strictly medical people are swarming around an impossibly small figure, in a flurry of needle sticks in search of a vein, monitor-pad placement in search of a vital sign, stethoscopes vainly searching for a breath sound or a heartbeat. The non-medical personnel had formed a concerned and curious peanut gallery. One ER doctor blurts out the important points, "GSW to the chest, pulses in the field but ... ," while another ER doctor is prepping this small chest for an ER thoracotomy. In English, an "ER thoracotomy" is where you flay open a chest in a soon-to-be-dead patient, in the hopes of finding a hole you can quickly but temporarily fix. Once that is done, it gives you a chance to give the patient necessary things like blood and IV fluids (where they now will not simply flow out of those repaired holes), and get him to the OR so you can fix him properly. It is the trauma surgery equivalent of a Hail Mary football pass. This is not a "difficult situation"; this is a nightmare.

The ER doctor hands me the knife, as if to say, "Here. It's yours." I think the kid is dead, or if not dead, then he certainly is "unsalvageable," which is a horrible word to use for a human being. I don't think he's fixable. However, if he is to have any hope of survival, the only way to save him is to crack him open and try to plug up the holes. Cracking open an 11-year-old boy (he was two months shy of his 12th birthday) is going to tear my own heart in half, I think to myself, but this is part of what I do, so I slip the gloves on and take the knife.

There is precious little skin to cut through, and I'm in the chest in a few seconds. His chest cavity is filled with blood, which spills out of his chest like a macabre waterfall to the floor. There's a shredded tear in his lung, and a big, ragged hole in his heart. All the IV fluids that my associates are pouring into the patient are flowing out this hole and on to my shoes. I put my finger in this hole - such a big hole in such a small heart - but blood and fluids still flow unfettered. My other hand finds another, larger hole on the other side of his heart. My fingers touch. His heart is empty. Mine breaks.
I've read C.S. Lewis' "The Problem of Pain," and I know that God is wise beyond ways and endlessly merciful and just. But could somebody please explain to me again the mysteries of theodicy?

'Why Shariah?'

Noah Feldman had an article in this weekend's New York Times Magazine that hasn't generated nearly the blowback that his now notorious "Orthodox Paradox" essay did. The recent article was titled "Why Shariah?" and it began with an equally notorious rhetorical outburst by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, last month.
The archbishop noted that “the law of the Church of England is the law of the land” there; indeed, ecclesiastical courts that once handled marriage and divorce are still integrated into the British legal system, deciding matters of church property and doctrine. His tentative suggestion was that, subject to the agreement of all parties and the strict requirement of protecting equal rights for women, it might be a good idea to consider allowing Islamic and Orthodox Jewish courts to handle marriage and divorce.
Then all hell broke loose. From politicians across the spectrum to senior church figures and the ubiquitous British tabloids came calls for the leader of the world’s second largest Christian denomination to issue a retraction or even resign. Williams has spent the last couple of years trying to hold together the global Anglican Communion in the face of continuing controversies about ordaining gay priests and recognizing same-sex marriages. Yet little in that contentious battle subjected him to the kind of outcry that his reference to religious courts unleashed. Needless to say, the outrage was not occasioned by Williams’s mention of Orthodox Jewish law. For the purposes of public discussion, it was the word “Shariah” that was radioactive.

In some sense, the outrage about according a degree of official status to Shariah in a Western country should come as no surprise. No legal system has ever had worse press. To many, the word “Shariah” conjures horrors of hands cut off, adulterers stoned and women oppressed. By contrast, who today remembers that the much-loved English common law called for execution as punishment for hundreds of crimes, including theft of any object worth five shillings or more? How many know that until the 18th century, the laws of most European countries authorized torture as an official component of the criminal-justice system? As for sexism, the common law long denied married women any property rights or indeed legal personality apart from their husbands. When the British applied their law to Muslims in place of Shariah, as they did in some colonies, the result was to strip married women of the property that Islamic law had always granted them — hardly progress toward equality of the sexes.
In fact, for most of its history, Islamic law offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world.
Feldman goes on to argue that we are too quick to associate Shariah with punishment for rape victims and stonings of adulterers and homosexuals.

'Ha! Ha! Your medium is dying!'

"The Simpsons" seem a bit late on this joke, which is so sad because it's so true.

(Hat tip: The old boss.)

McCain in Israel

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, is making the rounds, arriving today in Jerusalem to a "celebrity welcome."
McCain began a two-day visit with a stop at Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. As his motorcade pulled up, dozens of tourists greeted him and chanted "Mac is back," while he shook their hands and posed for photographs.

McCain is on a weeklong trip to Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Britain and France. He has said the tour is a fact-finding, mission, not a campaign photo opportunity.

During his 90-minute visit at the memorial and museum, McCain was visibly moved, his eyes welling with tears as he viewed photographs from Nazi death camps.

He laid a wreath in memory of the 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims and lit a memorial flame, wearing a skullcap placed on his head by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who accompanied him along with Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina.
It never hurts to work on those pro-Israel creds, especially when you've got Joe Lieberman, and not John Hagee, by your side.

Obama's speech on race in America

Sen. Barack Obama gave a much-anticipated speech this morning on race in America and the preachings of his former pastor (you know, that guy who praised Farrakhan). I'll hopefully come back to this later today when I am off deadline, but for now here's a link to the New York Times' coverage.
11:14 a.m. Mr. Obama has been describing what he calls “a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.” Here are some key passages:

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely.

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor.

Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

Dalai Lama threatens to resign if violence continues

From exile in India this morning, the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, threatened to step down if violent protests continued.
He said he remained committed to only nonviolent agitation and greater autonomy for Tibetans, not independence. He condemned the burning of Chinese flags and attacks on Chinese property and called violence “suicidal” for the Tibetan cause.

In a clear effort to quickly seize the higher moral ground and at the same time poke at China’s important aspirations, he complimented Beijing for having met three out of four conditions to be a “superpower” — he acknowledged it has the world’s largest population, military prowess, and a fast-developing economy.

“Fourth, moral authority, that’s lacking,” he said, and for the second time in two days he accused Chinese officials of a “rule of terror” in Tibet, the formerly Himalayan kingdom he fled for exile in India 49 years ago.

The Dalai Lama’s remarks to reporters on Tuesday, here in the seat of the Tibetan exile movement, also revealed thathe has been unnerved by the violence across the border in Tibet and by the increasingly radical calls from Tibetan exiles in this country.

The 72-year-old spiritual leader of Lama Buddhism said he would step down from his political post if things “get out of control.”

Monday, March 17, 2008

Israel working on PR and marketing

Remember that Holy Land hotties spread from last June? Well, AdWeek reports that those women of the Israel Defense Forces was "part of a larger effort to give a new face to the nation" as the Jewish state prepares to celebrate it's 60th anniversary this May. Visiting Israel has long been the charge given to all good Zionists. But places like Tel Aviv also cater to Mediterranean and European tourists. I guess Israel is looking to capitalize on that.
Interestingly, tourist numbers in Israel were already improving before some of the ministries' latest efforts were put into place. Since a near-decimation of its tourism industry earlier this decade, a result of ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip and stalled peace processes with its Palestinian neighbors, the country has been attracting an increasing number of tourists. Last year, a record 542,000 Americans visited the country -- more than double the figure in 2002 during the height of the last intifada. But Israeli government agencies are keen to grow these numbers -- and public favor -- even further. ...

Israel's Ministry of Tourism has been ramping up the PR, as well. It worked with Sports Illustrated to have the magazine's 2008 annual swimsuit issue photographed in the Mediterranean resort town of Ceseara and on the Dead Sea coast, and worked as well with French Vogue, which dedicated two articles to Israel as a lifestyle and culture destinations in its February 2008 issue.

The tourism ministry also has been investing in more traditional marketing efforts, mostly in Europe and the U.S. For TV, Communications Plus re-cut a 30-second spot from its "Israel -- you'll love us" campaign, which ran in December. The spot, "60th Anniversary," features a new logo -- a boy flying the Israeli flag as a kite -- and contrasts the youth of the nation against the country's ancient history.

Such ads, says the Media Kitchen's Lowenthal, "help redirect the conversation, while reaching specific target groups."

Reaching new target groups was certainly the intent behind the most ambitious project undertaken by Israel this spring: a special 40-page supplement in British Conde Nast Traveller's April 2008 issue dedicated solely to Israel and its 60th anniversary. Produced in conjunction with the London office of Israel's Ministry of Tourism and poly-bagged to 85,000 magazines, the one-off supplement is "intended to expose Israel as a normal country to travelers beyond the 'ethnic markets' of Jews and Christian pilgrims," explains Uzi Gafni, director of the Israel Tourist Board in London.

Adds Roberto D'Andria, cd of Bear Design in London, which develops all of Israel's U.K. TV, print and shelter advertising: "It also provides Israel with a sense of credibility through brand association. Being linked with Conde Nast automatically gives Israel a sense of fashionability and exclusivity."

Luther still not on pope's good side

Was it rumor, innuendo, fabrication or simply sloppy journalism that laid the groundwork for the apparently erroneous article last week that reported Pope Benedict XVI was about to make nice with the long-dead troublemaker Martin Luther? Here's what seems to have happened.
It all appears to have started on March 2, when ApCom, an Italian news agency, ran a three paragraph article, here in Italian , merely saying that the pope and some of his former PhD students (the so-called Ratzinger- Schlerkreis), would discuss Luther during their yearly summer encounter in August at the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

APcom, said the seminar would discuss whether Luther “wanted a rupture … or intended to reform the Church but without traumas”.

On March 5, two days after the APcom report, the Turin newspaper La Stampa ran a story with the headline “Ratzinger reforms Luther. ‘He had many Catholic ideas. The theologian pope summons his students for a seminar of study on the heretic.”The article, seen here in Italian,Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, as saying the choice of topics was meant “to favour a climate of encounter with Protestants.”
The only problem? It's a minor one in journalism, but the story's not true.
The day after the article in La Stampa, the Times of London reported that “Pope BenedictXVI is set to rehabilitate Martin Luther, arguing that he did not intend to split Christianity, but only to purge the church of corrupt practices.”

From there, the story took off,was repeatedby some news organisations around the world, was the buzz on the blogs, and even prompted an editorial critical of the pope by the Financial Times, called “Papal Indulgence - Cosmetic changes cannot hide Benedict’s dogmatism”.

The Vatican itself finally weighed in on March 8, when Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, told the Italian news agency Ansa, that the Financial Times editorial was “totally without foundation because no rehabilitation of Luther is foreseen.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Yes, that really is J.K. Simmons. No, this is not as funny as the actual "Juno." And, man, am I glad they cast Ellen Page over this girl.

State: Global anti-Semitism rising

Rising global anti-Semitism has been an ongoing issue. Seriously. I could link to much more. Yesterday the State Department gave Congress a report on the matter.
It says that although Nazism and fascism are rejected by the West "and beyond," blatant forms of anti-Semitism are "embraced and employed by the extreme fringe."

"Traditional forms of anti-Semitism persist and can be found across the globe. Classic anti-Semitic screeds, such as 'The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion' and 'Mein Kampf' remain commonplace.

"Jews continue to be accused of blood libel, dual loyalty, and undue influence on government policy and the media, and the symbols and images associated with age-old forms of anti-Semitism endure."

New forms of anti-Semitism are reflected in rhetoric that compares Israel to the Nazis and attributes "Israel's perceived faults to its Jewish character."

This kind of anti-Semitism, the report says, "is common throughout the Middle East and in Muslim communities in Europe, but it is not confined to these populations."
In fact, such vitriolic rhetoric can be found at UC Irvine, on LA college campuses and even outside the Israeli consulate.

McCain supporter draws more bad press

A megachurch pastor and supporter of John McCain has called on Christians to wage "war" against the "false religion" of Islam. Liberals are calling on the presidential candidate to distance himself from an important ally. And guess what: It's not John Hagee.

Mother Jones takes on the Rev. Rod Parsley.
Parsley is not shy about his desire to obliterate Islam. In Silent No More, he notes—approvingly—that Christopher Columbus shared the same goal: "It was to defeat Islam, among other dreams, that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World in 1492…Columbus dreamed of defeating the armies of Islam with the armies of Europe made mighty by the wealth of the New World. It was this dream that, in part, began America." He urges his readers to realize that a confrontation between Christianity and Islam is unavoidable: "We find now we have no choice. The time has come." And he has bad news: "We may already be losing the battle. As I scan the world, I find that Islam is responsible for more pain, more bloodshed, and more devastation than nearly any other force on earth at this moment."

Parsley claims that Islam is an "anti-Christ religion" predicated on "deception." The Muslim prophet Muhammad, he writes, "received revelations from demons and not from the true God." And he emphasizes this point: "Allah was a demon spirit." Parsley does not differentiate between violent Islamic extremists and other followers of the religion:

There are some, of course, who will say that the violence I cite is the exception and not the rule. I beg to differ. I will counter, respectfully, that what some call "extremists" are instead mainstream believers who are drawing from the well at the very heart of Islam.

The spirit of Islam, he maintains, is one of hostility. He asserts that the religion "inspired" the 9/11 attacks. He bemoans the fact that in the years after 9/11, 34,000 Americans "have become Muslim" and that there are "some 1,209 mosques" in America. Islam, he declares, is a "faith that fully intends to conquer the world" through violence. The United States, he insists, "has historically understood herself as a bastion against Islam," but "history is crashing in upon us."

He doesn't believe in atheists

In light of his new book, "I Don't Believe in Atheists," Salon spoke with journalist Chris Hedges, who shares a common frustration with The New Atheists.
While speaking out against the Christian fundamentalist movement and its political agenda, Hedges noticed another group -- this one on the left -- conspicuously allied with the neocons on the subject of America's role in world politics. The New Atheists, as they have been called, include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and bestselling author and journalist Christopher Hitchens -- outspoken secularists who depict religious structures and the belief in God as backward and anti-democratic.

Though Hedges, a Harvard seminary graduate and the son of a Presbyterian minister, considers himself a religious man, his quarrel with the New Atheists goes beyond theological concerns. In "I Don't Believe in Atheists," he accuses Hitchens and the others of preaching a fundamentalism as dangerous as the religious fundamentalist belief systems they attack. Strange bedfellows indeed -- according to Hedges, the New Atheists and the Christian right pose the greatest threat facing American democratic society today.

Hedges spoke to Salon by phone from his home in New Jersey.

You say that "I Don't Believe in Atheists" is a product of confrontations you had with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. How did those debates inspire the book?

In May of 2007 I went to L.A. to debate Sam Harris, and then two days later I went to San Francisco to debate Christopher Hitchens. Up until that point, I hadn't paid much attention to the work of the New Atheists. After reading what they had written and walking away from these debates, I was appalled at how what they had done for the secular left was to embrace the same kind of bigotry and chauvinism and intolerance that marks the radical Christian right. I found that in many ways they were little more than secular fundamentalists.
In December, I interviewed Sam Harris for UCLA Magazine about some graduate research he had done on belief and the brain. He said his hope was that eventually belief in God will carry the same social stigma as, say, being a racist, that it will "be embarrassing for somebody to know something he obviously does not know."

"You can be called a fundamentalist atheist. When you unpack the statments, they are entirely vacuous," he told me. "You don't have to presume anything on insufficient evidence to reject somebody''s claims about magic books. We cannot prove the absence of Zeus from this universe. And the burden has never been on us to prove the absence of Zeus.

"We have done that with 1,000s and 1,000s of "dead gods" who are no longer a part of religious mythology. We don't apply the same scrutiny to the God of Abraham, even though he has exactly the same status, which is not to say he doesn't have value as literature or philosophical thought."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

'The Gaza Bombshell'

Americans are, by now, well aware of the foreign-policy failings of President George W. Bush. But now he's getting ready to leave office and finally he seems awake to Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wants to leave a legacy, we've been told about his impetus for the Annapolis conference and his interest in seeing peace achieved in the next 10 months. (There hasn't been peace regarding Jerusalem in 2,000 years and he's going to fix it in a year?)

Well, Vanity Fair's David Rose reports that there is a more layered context to Bush's interest in the conflict and, believe it or not, his previous diddling only made the situation worse.
In recent months, President Bush has repeatedly stated that the last great ambition of his presidency is to broker a deal that would create a viable Palestinian state and bring peace to the Holy Land. “People say, ‘Do you think it’s possible, during your presidency?’ ” he told an audience in Jerusalem on January 9. “And the answer is: I’m very hopeful.”

The next day, in the West Bank capital of Ramallah, Bush acknowledged that there was a rather large obstacle standing in the way of this goal: Hamas’s complete control of Gaza, home to some 1.5 million Palestinians, where it seized power in a bloody coup d’état in June 2007. Almost every day, militants fire rockets from Gaza into neighboring Israeli towns, and President Abbas is powerless to stop them. His authority is limited to the West Bank.

It’s “a tough situation,” Bush admitted. “I don’t know whether you can solve it in a year or not.” What Bush neglected to mention was his own role in creating this mess.

According to [Fatah strongman Muhammad] Dahlan, it was Bush who had pushed legislative elections in the Palestinian territories in January 2006, despite warnings that Fatah was not ready. After Hamas—whose 1988 charter committed it to the goal of driving Israel into the sea—won control of the parliament, Bush made another, deadlier miscalculation.

Vanity Fair has obtained confidential documents, since corroborated by sources in the U.S. and Palestine, which lay bare a covert initiative, approved by Bush and implemented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, to provoke a Palestinian civil war. The plan was for forces led by Dahlan, and armed with new weapons supplied at America’s behest, to give Fatah the muscle it needed to remove the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power. (The State Department declined to comment.)

But the secret plan backfired, resulting in a further setback for American foreign policy under Bush. Instead of driving its enemies out of power, the U.S.-backed Fatah fighters inadvertently provoked Hamas to seize total control of Gaza.

Some sources call the scheme “Iran-contra 2.0,” recalling that Abrams was convicted (and later pardoned) for withholding information from Congress during the original Iran-contra scandal under President Reagan. There are echoes of other past misadventures as well: the C.I.A.’s 1953 ouster of an elected prime minister in Iran, which set the stage for the 1979 Islamic revolution there; the aborted 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which gave Fidel Castro an excuse to solidify his hold on Cuba; and the contemporary tragedy in Iraq.

Within the Bush administration, the Palestinian policy set off a furious debate. One of its critics is David Wurmser, the avowed neoconservative, who resigned as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief Middle East adviser in July 2007, a month after the Gaza coup.

Wurmser accuses the Bush administration of “engaging in a dirty war in an effort to provide a corrupt dictatorship [led by Abbas] with victory.” He believes that Hamas had no intention of taking Gaza until Fatah forced its hand. “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen,” Wurmser says.

The botched plan has rendered the dream of Middle East peace more remote than ever, but what really galls neocons such as Wurmser is the hypocrisy it exposed. “There is a stunning disconnect between the president’s call for Middle East democracy and this policy,” he says. “It directly contradicts it.”

March Madness began in January

I'm skipping work today for the Pac-10 tournament. So, to remind you how awesome college basketball is, enjoy this display of unreal athleticism, also known as The Dunk of the Year by UCLA's Clutch Westbrook.

On a religious note, there is a short story about UCLA assistant Scott Garson in this week's Jewish Journal and Coach Ben Howland attends my church.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hagee came, he didn't conquer, but he wasn't booed

John Hagee spoke in Los Angeles last night, and my colleague, Danielle Berrin, reports that, as far as controversial speakers go, he was no Karl Rove. Despite receiving a lot of press during the past few weeks for his history of incendiary comments, Hagee, Danielle writes, "was quite boring."
Here are the verbal highlights from a night that sounded more like a bible recitation than a discussion:
"I'd rather talk to G-d for 30 seconds than to George [W.] Bush all night."

"Granting forgiveness without demanding a change in conduct is to make the grace of G-d an accomplice to evil."

"Jesus, who was a reform rabbi..."

On Jews bringing the bible to the world:
"We, as Christians have a bible mandate to help you. If we have benefited from Jewish spiritual things, than we have an obligation to help Jews with material things."

On he and his rabbi friend:
"When we're standing in the streets of Jerusalem together and the Messiah comes, one of us has a great theological adjustment to make."

On the Crusaders:
"They were thieves, liars, robbers and rapists."

'A man called Lemkin'

Well, Samantha Power flamed out last week when she was asked to resign as an adviser to Barack Obama. Turned out her views of Hillary Clinton were similar to the worst held by some evangelicals. That wasn't the problem; the problem was that she was a bit too candid in sharing it.

Still, I'm enjoying the Pulitzer Prize-winning book she wrote a few years back, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." A central character of this story is Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish lawyer who fled Poland for the United States, losing most his family in the process, and dedicated his life to fighting "genocide," a word that he created.

History has remembered Lemkin well, even if his contemporaries found him an obsessive annoyance. But of the Lemkin remembrances, I like Abe Rosenthal's best.
The story in the paper reported that after 40 years of consideration the U.S. Senate voted last Friday to make it a Federal offense to commit genocide. That is the crime of acting with intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

The story did not mention a man called Lemkin.

Raphael Lemkin pokes his head into a newspaper office in the headquarters of the United Nations in the village of Lake Success on Long Island.

''Here is that pest, that Lemkin,'' he says. ''I have a genocide story for you.''

Everybody groans; Oh, Lemkin again? He makes a funny face, folds his hands in begging gestures. The reporters gather around for a few minutes. He gets his little story about the genocide convention, usually tucked away in the paper on a Sunday.

Raphael Lemkin was a Polish professor of law, a distinguished academician who spoke nine languages. He was a Jew. During the Holocaust the Germans murdered 49 members of his family; see how few words it takes to tell the whole story.

He escaped to Sweden, reached the United States, found good positions at Duke and Yale. He left them and gave himself over to his life's work.

His work was to convince the nations of the world that they must make it a crime to plan or carry out another Holocaust of any people. He coined ''genocide'' from the Greek word for race and the Latin for killing. He wrote a convention, a treaty for the nations to sign.

Then he walked the corridors of the U.N. He stopped journalists, took junior delegates by the arm and hung on until they listened, at least a moment. To see an ambassador, he would plan and plot for weeks and sit for days in reception rooms.

He had no money, no office, no assistants. He had no U.N. status or papers, but the guards always let him pass. He carried a black briefcase stuffed with documents and his daily sandwich.

He knew that when he opened the door people would say: What, Lemkin, you here again? Sometimes it was said affectionately, sometimes with distaste. Then he would pretend he did not care. But there were many days when he sat slumped in the cafeteria over a cup of coffee, barely able to lift it for the weariness in him and the rebuff.

But if he had to wheedle and plead he did. If he met an arrogant delegate who had influence, he made himself small and fawned. Then he would turn away and make the small smacking noises of a man trying to get a bad taste out of his mouth.

He would bluff a little sometimes about pulling political levers, but he had none. All he had was himself, his briefcase and the conviction burning in him. We would say to him: Lemkin, what good will it do to write mass murder down as a crime; will a piece of paper stop a new Hitler or Stalin?

Then he put aside cajolery and his face stiffened.

''Only man has law. Law must be built, do you understand me? You must build the law!''

He walked the halls every day from the spring of 1946 until Dec. 9, 1948, when the General Assembly, in Paris, adopted a resolution approving his convention. That day reporters went looking for him to rejoice in his triumph. But we could not find him until, hours later, we thought to look into the darkened Assembly hall. He sat there weeping as if his heart would break. He asked please to be left in solitude. Then this Lemkin came back to the corridors for years, pleading with delegation after delegation to follow through on the U.N. resolution by getting their countries to sign the treaty. There was a time when he was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize; Winston Churchill backed him.

But he died alone on Aug. 28, 1959, without medals or prizes, in a hotel in New York. There were seven people at the graveside when Raphael Lemkin was buried.