Report from the first Rapid Responsa: Race, Resentment and the “Obama Moment”

Stephen Stern, Director of Dialogues and Public Affairs writes: 

Nine days after Presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered his “A More Perfect Union” speech, I had the privilege of facilitating a discussion on “race and resentment” at the Washington DCJCC.  Chief Program Officer Joshua Ford and I organized our first Rapid Responsa to address what seemed a rare cultural moment, to have meaningful personal dialogue about what had become a hot button public controversy, touching on very raw societal nerves.  We got the first word out Sunday night, and on Thursday we had gathered thirty some people in a circle of chairs in the Community Hall, a grand mixture of generations, men and women, perhaps 25% of African-American origin, and a large number of people (not all) from our Jewish community.  I was constantly astonished as participants spoke with restraint and depth; profound respect, but real passion about differences – and speaking about those differences as if they were gifts in which we all might share.  Our participants opened their hearts and minds to look at people forming themselves in the face of anger and resentment, but did so without speaking to each other with anger and resentment.  

We read aloud brief excerpts from Senator Obama’s speech, which Josh and I grouped under headings i) The Personal: Encountering “Cringe” Moments in Black and White Communities, and ii) The Societal: Anger and a Path to Progress?  We asked participants to look at this not as an opportunity for political advocacy or opposition, but for frank encounters on how we identified and connected as community.  We turned to our special guests to launch the conversation — Ira Forman, Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, not speaking for the NJDC or for any candidate, but as someone who had been responding to rumors and attacks on Senator Obama that were circulating in the Jewish community; and Jonetta Rose Barras, commentator on local politics for WAMU and newspaper columnist, who had written an Outlook front page commentary in the previous Sunday’s Washington Post on black churches, African-American identities and her path in life.  The following is from my notes taken while I participated in the discussion, as well as moderated with an eye to seeing that everyone was given an opportunity, and a prod, to speak.  Any distortions in my account are invitation for you to correct me in the comments section.

Ira started by reflecting on a formative time when race and rage were tearing America apart, April 4, 1968 and Robert Kennedy arriving in an Indianapolis black community to inform the gathering of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr..  RFK spoke of anger and division, the tragedies befalling his own family and country, and the seeking of community and rights across divisions.  The parallels to some of Obama’s themes were raised and Ira quoted from Obama’s passage on how our current age often sees race as spectacle, with cynicism and conflict.  He outlined Obama’s call to construct an alternative politics, which Ira deemed in many ways a response to a political problem for Obama.  There are real issues for Jews and others raised by what can be seen as Reverend Wright’s unacceptable fulminations, but Ira sees some currents within the Jewish community that to him often seem unfair and paranoid (though “even paranoids often have real enemies”).

Jonetta began with Obama’s singular experience of both white and African-American communities that he identified himself with (and against). She found his speech filled with the personal, and offering a special opportunity to look at what community and family mean for all Americans, and as context for our journeys encountering formative figures in our varied American lives.  She spoke of “kinships”, people in her life who were critical at some stage, and that after personal growth to another stage, there is no way you just “cut ties to them without cutting yourself”.  Jonetta expressed a vision in which race is too often a block (or obstacle) to looking at inherent realities, which for her are more importantly about class, economic disparity, and inequity in opportunity.  She sees a new stage, a fresh wind in African-American political leadership, growing from a newly-experienced  “grassroots”, in part from the “Alinsky School” of community organizing across racial lines – some exemplars being Senator Obama, Representative Artur Davis of Alabama, and Mayor Adrian Fenty of the District.

The roomful of participants jumped in, first with a concern that there is cynical and manipulative use of racial polarization to attack Obama and undermine community-building possibilities.  Continue reading

Shabbat Surfing: Leap Year Edition

  • Dr. Marion Usher, our interfaith guru, was interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More. According to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religious Life, 44 percent of adults change their religious affiliation from that of their childhood. A roundtable of spiritual counselors discusses how the challenges of intimate interfaith relationships might support the new findings.  It airs today on WAMU at 2pm but can be heard on their website as well.
  • The blogosphere has been buzzing with posts analyzing Barack Obama’s positions on Israel and Tim Russert’s injection of Louis Farrakhan as a campaign issue. The JTA has a decent round-up of all bloviators and a follow-up post with more reactions. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton’s Jewish supporters soldier-on in Ohio, and John McCain’s  campaign, in a weird manuever, suggests a tri-lateral debate between the candidates’ Jewish surrogates and then withdraws at the last moment.
  • Prince of Petworth asks a question that’s occurred to me every time I’ve walked out our Q Street entrance for the past 11 years.
  • Jehan Harney, a local filmmaker, gets selected for an online film festival for her documentary, Soul Mechanic that tells the story of a Muslim mechanic who creates artworks inspired by three religions in his garage.
  • The National Capital Memorials Advisory Commission rejected a sculpture as a memorial to victims of terrorism designed by New York sculptor Suse Lowenstein, whose son was killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The commissioners said they preferred something more abstract and timeless than Lowenstein’s 76 figures of women locked in the pose they were in when they learned their loved one had been killed. The figures in the work, Dark Elegy are nude, which the artist says reduces them all to the same level, but which the commission feared would offend some sensibilites and encourage distasteful vandalism. While I understand the commission’s decision, I was profoundly moved by Lowenstein’s work when it was displayed in my home town some years ago, and hope it can find a home somewhere in the DC-area.

Post-Presidents Day Salute: A.L. Levine

Barack Obama may very well become the first African American President, or alternately Hillary Clinton may become the first woman elected President. It is even possible that John McCain may become the first, well, really really seriously old white guy to be elected President (72 on inauguration day). It is safe to say however, that the first Jewish president is yet to be on the ballot.The Wanting of Levine

So for the time being Jewish Presidents belong to the realm of fiction, which brought to mind Michael Halberstam’s 1978 bestselling novel The Wanting of Levine. It is long out of print, though it appears in the catalog of the Montgomery County Public Library system. When I went seeking a copy this weekend, the librarian I consulted noted the book had not circulated in five years and was probably long-gone from the shelves. Lucky for me, she was wrong.

Set ten years in the future from its publication date (and twenty years before our current quadrennial contest), the novel presents a United States that is well on its way to being a second-rate power. Energy rationing is in effect, standards of living are declining, racial violence is increasing, individual states are involved in border wars over trade and tariffs — there’s a general sense that things are going to hell very quickly. To top it off, the Democrat’s front-runner for the nomination has just stabbed his wife to death in a drunken rage. Enter the mercurial figure of A.L. Levine, until now a back-room DNC committeeman after a fortune made in sales and real estate development. When circumstances thrust him into the spotlight, Levine begins his own unlikely candidacy.

The novel is one-part political insider fiction, one part-late seventies sex romp, one part liberal Jewish wish-fulfillment and one-part a canny take on the rhythms of political enthusiasm and what Americans want from a President. Written as it was in a pre-AIDS, pre-Reagan, pre-Internet and pre-collapse of the Soviet Union (just to mention a few epoch shaping “pre’s”) era, the novel obviously has limits when applied to today’s political landscape. Certainly, Levine, with a libido Bill Clinton could only envy, would not be electable, never mind even runnable in today’s climate. Continue reading

The Politics of Israel and the IDF

Both the Post and the Times have articles today on the release of the Winograd Commission’s report on the 2006 war in Ehud OlmertLebanon which is highly criticial of both the civilian and military Israeli leadership. Terming the war, “a big and serious failure” for Israel, the report backs away from some of the harsher criticism it had leveled directly at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in its interim report. In that earlier edition, the Commission had accussed the PM of “severe failure” for the rush to war — although now it states somewhat appeasingly that Olmert’s government acted, “acted out of a strong and sincere perception of what they thought at the time was Israel’s interest.” The conventional wisdom is that he will not have to resign…for now.

This will all surely be on the table for discussion next Wednesday at 7:30 pm when Hebrew University professor Dr. Meron Medzini comes to the 16th Street J to for a program entitled Israel 2008: The Political Landscape. Dr. Medzini teaches Israel Foreign Policy at Hebrew University and is the author of The Proud Jewess: A Political Biography of Golda Meir.  The event is free and presented in partnership with American Friends of the Hebrew University.

The following week, on February 14 you can also join us for Dialogue – What Makes an Army Jewish: Ethics, Tradition and the IDF. This discussion will examine more closely the practical impact political and policy decisions have on the responsibilities of soldiers tasked with carrying out the orders of the government. The dialogue will feature Yehuda Shaul, a young orthodox Israeli whose experience as a soldier in Hebron led to the 2002 founding of Breaking the Silence, a group of IDF veterans who give public witness to the impact of their service in the West Bank and Gaza; and  Adam Harmon, author of The Lonely Soldier and an American-Israeli who has served with elite IDF units for over 13 years and has helped capture leading organizers of terror and prevented suicide attacks. The program is subtitled, The IDF in an Age of Checkpoints, Village Sweeps and Targeted Killings, so expected a frank discussion.

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