Saturday, November 21, 2015

November 21st: Strangers In A Foreign Land

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris last week, the issue of Syrian refugees has hit a critical boiling point. Many are worried that an influx of immigrants leaves a country open to threats, and that it is possible for dangerous people to enter posing as refugees fleeing persecution.

As many as 25 state governors have announced that they have shut their state’s borders and will not allow any immigration for those seeking asylum. And, just as much as they have closed their borders, they have closed their minds.

How arrogant can this nation get? How self-centered and cruel can we be to push those away that need help? We claim to hate ISIS and claim to be victims, and yet we are ignoring those who are fleeing their homes because of the civil war being inspired by Islamic extremists in their own country. We claim to believe in the American dream, and yet we only believe that if you were born here (and being white wouldn’t hurt your case.) So many claim to be embodying good Christian values, yet we are ignoring the vitally significant line: “You were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Of course we cannot open ourselves up to attacks from inside our own borders. We have to be thoughtful and organized about how we bring these people in. Yet, we can’t be so lazy as to say that, because that task is hard and time consuming, we might as well not do it at all. We have a moral obligation to open our arms and take in those who need our help. It is hard work to be able to enter America legally. Why would we make it impossible if we are already taking care of our concerns?

Even more glaringly, we are in a precarious position politically. We are shouting at one another about building a giant wall to stop illegal Mexican immigration. As a country, there are so many who are furious with the immense number of people in the country illegally. Now that we have a people begging to be let in according to the rules, we’re going to pitch a fit about that too? And many of them will almost certainly try to come legally or otherwise; why allow a problem to create itself through illegal immigration when we could save ourselves the trouble and control how and who gets in?

This country was built on a foundation of exiles. Did we think that the people coming to America from Britain were coming here on vacation? More than that, though, is that, as a world superpower, we have an obligation to use our influence to make the world a safer place. To refuse refugees of Syria’s civil war would be to refuse the moral obligation that comes with being the world’s strongest voice, if we do in fact wish to be the dominant world power.

In the wake of September 11th, the world mourned with the American people. So many offered support, both physically and emotionally, and stood by us in the face of great despair. Now, we have an opportunity to lend support to those who are suffering in today’s world. And while France is one example, the people of Syria who are fleeing their own persecution are just as much an opportunity to provide support.

I have never been more ashamed of the leaders of my country than I am now that the governors of so many states are allowing fear to rule. They are allowing their morality to be put aside because it is easy to just ignore the problem. Americans have never been scared of a fight. Now isn’t the time to start.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

November 12th: A Big Thing Badly

The University of Missouri is just 115 miles away from Ferguson, Missouri, and it seems like the racial tensions have spread down I-70. This past week, the entire university turned its attention to the issue of racism on campus.

The Mizzou football team brought national attention to the college when they threatened to boycott all football activities if school president Tim Wolfe continued to hold his position. Subsequently, teachers organized walk-outs, students planned protests, and university operations came to a screeching halt. Wolfe originally refused to resign, but gave up his job on Monday morning after it became clear that his presence would cause endless turmoil at the school.

What, though, put the student body so squarely against their administrator? What made Tim Wolfe enemy number 1 in a way that meant that he had to be removed?

Over the last few months, there have been three high-profile examples of racism and hostile prejudice that have plagued the university. Wolfe, according to many, did not act swiftly enough, nor take the issues seriously enough, and thus became part of the problem, rather than part of the much needed solution.

I love that the football team took a stance against something. I love that they used their high-profile, often celebrity status to call attention to an issue of public importance, and call for action by saying that this issue is bigger than football. That being said, this protest made a critical error that will dramatically handicap its ability to actually fix any kind of problem.

By setting Wolfe as the center of the issue and the condition upon the return to normal college life, the focus becomes his resignation, rather than the elimination of the racism that sparked the problem in the first place. As soon as Wolfe resigned on Monday, classes resumed, the football team went back to practice, and the public attention to the school and their movement turned their focus elsewhere. Nothing actually changed in terms of race relations. Nothing changed in terms of creating a more inclusive and educational community. Sure, there will continue to be some protests by student organizations and the particularly inspired, but, for the most part, nobody will be paying attention a week from now.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether Tim Wolfe was a bad guy in this situation, or simply a decent man who got caught up not doing enough to help the growing tensions at his university. In either condition, the football team and the student body would have been much better off focusing the national attention on the actual issue of racism itself, rather than on a member of the administration.

When creating any social movement for change, it is impossible to be truly effective if the issue centers around any one individual. When that one individual goes away, whether a leader or a villain, the movement crumbles altogether, and prevents any ability for future action. In this case, we were so focused on whether or not the school president resigned that we failed to make any kind of substantive change to the racial climate of the university.

There is so much work to be done in terms of racial issues in our country. The experience of minorities in America just isn’t acceptable anymore, and we need to be doing more to be able to eliminate racism, both in the inter-personal form of racism, as well as institutional racism.

The University of Missouri did a big thing in saying that they will not accept Tim Wolfe’s handling of the situation over the last few months. In doing so, though, the focus was put on the wrong issue, and now we all have to figure out what to do when, in a day or two, the national attention will be gone, and we won’t have been able to do anything to substantively change the experience for African American students, frankly, any students, on campus.

We need to do something to fix the problem of racial tension that exists in this country. In many ways, it is good to see that the public is working to make something happen. The next step is to begin to be more thoughtful about the ways we bring attention to the important issues, and how to motivate the greatest and most effective form of change.

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

October 17th: Fly The W

My alarm goes off at 7:30 AM, signaling the end of my second night in a row with fewer than four hours of sleep. The night before, the Cubs and Cardinals clashed in a first-round playoff game. I wasn’t going to miss a single pitch, even from the other side of the globe.

It has been seven seasons since the Cubs last made the playoffs, and that one didn’t have nearly the energy and engagement that this one has. For the first time in recent memory, the Cubs are exciting and actually good. All summer long, fans and sportswriters have been buzzing with the idea that, after years of suffering, Chicago fans are finally going to have something to cheer about during the month of October.

Of course, this comes when I am out of the country for a year. My city is bonding together in support of the team I love, and I am missing it.

I am an incredibly proud Chicagoan. Chicago is my home, the source of my sports fandom, my cultural identity, and so much more. Yet, over the last five years, I’ve spent almost 75% of my time away from my hometown, from sumers at camp to years at school. That is what makes my relationship with the Cubs so much more than just a baseball fan watching some games. I am a resident in exile, longing for home in any way that I can.

So I stay up to watch. At three in the morning, my room feels like the only light in Jerusalem, my silent cheers sprinting their way across the globe to spur on my boys in blue. I live-tweet my way through the games, joining the fan bases as they attempt to get in on the action in any way possible. I haven’t left the house without my Cubs hat on since the playoffs began, and my sports superstitions are reaching a point of borderline lunacy. Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to stay tuned in much better than I could have years ago. I watch the games on my computer live, with only a moment or two of delay. I’m right there for every pitch, watching with all of those fans in America and abroad.

Better yet, I know I’m not the only believer living in the Cubs-Diaspora. Walking down the streets in Jerusalem, I have been high-fived and cheered on several occasions, fans far away from home sharing in the glory of a late autumn “Go Cubs Go!”

I know that, as my life goes on in the direction it’s going, I will spend much of my time away from the city I call home. No matter where I live, though, I’ll alway have my Cubs to celebrate, to struggle with, and to give me that little piece of where I belong. This season, the Cubs have been my tether, and I am going to be glued to the screen for every pitch. Let’s fly the W.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

October 6th: The Day Joy Turns to Rage

Some days, peace in the Middle East seems like a fantasy. We tell ourselves it’s possible, hope for it, pray for it, and yet we look around and don’t see anything that resembles coexistence in harmony.

Living in Israel for a year, I was excited to learn more about the complications of this region, and to learn more about what kinds of peace are possible. Unfortunately, I’m learning more and more about how easy it is for animosity and hatred to fester, and how hard it is to have anything that resembles lasting calm within the walls of the city.

This week, Jewish Israelis continued to enjoy the season of celebration that is this time of year. As Sukkot was wrapping up and preparations for Simchat Torah were coming to an end, horror struck. Two separate stabbings occurred in or near the Old City of Jerusalem, leaving two dead. In both cases, Israelis were killed at the hands of Palestinian extremists, adding to a mountain of tension that has come boiling up in recent weeks, seemingly culminating at a time that is supposed to be reserved for joy and celebration.

To make matters worse, a few days ago, a Jewish couple was killed in front of their four young children by Palestinians. A few hours after the incident, Hamas spokesman Husam Badran tweeted “Congratulations heroic operation carried out by elements in the West Bank, killing two settlers and wounding others…” The anger burns inside me as I read this. A man and woman were murdered in front of their own children, and leaders are praising the action? That is the lowest form of humanity. The fact that Palestinians choose to allow Hamas to represent them in any way is indicative of the willingness to find peace.

I know that Israel is not blameless. I know that there are injustices and oppression going on all over the country, and that hatred is flowing in overwhelming quantities in both directions. But we can’t keep track of the score anymore. We can’t keep trying to figure out who started it, who’s turn it is to be angry, who is the one responsible for breaking the stalemate. Peace is only possible if two different parties are willing to come together and invest just a little bit of trust in one another in the hopes of bringing one another toward a better future together. That trust simply doesn’t exist right now, as much as we may want it to, and any hopes for peace in the future is contingent not on one side but BOTH sides being willing to come to the table.

The saddest part of all this is that the Jews and Palestinians are both faith-based communities. These are people who identify so strongly with their beliefs, who have foundations in God and scripture, who create communities and cultures based on a love and respect for what is in someone’s heart. How can we live in a world where faith brings some together but drives us to hate others? How can our faith be genuine when we use it as an excuse for why we persecute, the way we justify killing one another?

I live in Jerusalem. I learn about my people and my faith in Jerusalem only a few miles away from the Old City. I can feel the tension going on around me, and can see the way the entire city walks around with heavy hearts and heavy minds. How can we allow this to continue? How can we have such little faith in one another, and continuously allow the country we all work so hard to create be consumed by it’s own hatred?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I don’t know what the future holds for these two peoples, struggling so hard to share this space. All I know is that what currently exists is not acceptable. I know that something has to change. I continue to search for the day that we find a way to change it without continuing to kill one another.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

September 29th: A World Of Better

Over the last two weeks, including the ten Days of Awe, I have spent a lot of time thinking about my place in the world. I want to better myself, to correct my sins and be a more well-rounded, thoughtful, and present person.

As I look around the world, it is difficult to see perfection. It is far easier to find hate, poverty, strife. Entire peoples are fleeing their homes, only to find doors slammed in their faces. The problems of both of my countries are laid bare in front of both the population and our leaders, and yet nothing is done to fix them. Brothers and sisters fight against one another, seeing their differences far more vividly than they see their bonds of love. Most troublingly, we feel helpless to actually do much of anything to make the world a better place.

I refuse to participate in that, though. I can’t turn a blind eye. I can’t stay silent while so much needs to be done to help the world move forward. I can’t let politics and a fear of rocking the boat get in the way of my ability to feel like I can actually make the changes to the world that I think it needs.

In the next year, I hope to be able to bring fresh passion and enthusiasm to my work to repair the world. I want to be able to bring my commitment to social action forward, yet not buy into the pettiness and narrow-mindedness that is so prevalent in active debate today. Most importantly, I need to be in control of my emotions. I can’t effectively make the world better if I am getting angry or frustrated. I need to see the world as it is, accept it, and do what it takes to move it in the direction that I believe does the most good. This is my primary goal as we move into a new Jewish year, and one I hope can have a profound impact not only on my own disposition, but on the way that I can effectively inspire change.

I am constantly reminded of the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work of perfecting the world, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This is the time in the Jewish calendar where we have an opportunity to take stock of our own lives, sure, but also to take stock of what is going on in the world around us. We can see the areas that need perfecting, the places where we can do better, where we need to do better. We need to look out for one another. We need to hold one another accountable. We need to keep each other safe. And we need to make sure that we are constantly evaluating the work we are doing to make those things happen.

More than at any point in our history, we have the power to quickly and efficiently change the world. We have ways to communicate across the globe in fractions of a section, ways to mobilize enormous communities for a common cause, ways to engage in meaningful and thoughtful debate. Let’s use these tools to drive us forward as a global community, rather than backward.

I pray for patience. I pray for thoughtfulness and kindness. And I pray that we can all work together to bring a little bit of holiness into the world.

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Monday, September 7, 2015

September 7th: The Threat of "Awkward"

I graduated high school with close to 1,200 other students. I have about that many friends on Facebook, and only about 300 of them are from my graduating class. To be honest, that’s because I wasn’t all that close with very many people during my time in high school. I was incredibly involved in youth group, which meant my friends were spread out across the Chicago area and the country as a whole, so I didn’t feel the need to connect to the people with whom I shared the halls of Stevenson High School.

High school was, for me, a lot of what it is for so many people. High school was stressful. We weren’t all that nice to one another. We didn’t really care about the personal struggles of another person; we were still trying to figure out what kind of people we wanted to be, let alone who someone else was trying to be.

The past few weeks, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about my high school classmates. This is the year that we graduated from college. We’re going to grad school, starting jobs, starting careers. We have a pretty good idea about who we are, at least for now, and, I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t have time for the pettiness of my high school years. My “friends” are posting their life moments on Facebook and I’m realizing that they are more strangers than anything else.

One moment from the last few weeks stood out to me. A Facebook friend who I had very little interaction with in high school and none at all since got a job working for a company I’m fairly familiar with. It was a really cool job, and I happen to know someone in that industry who might be a good name for that person to know. I thought long and hard about sending the person a message, congratulating them on their success and offering to help in any way that I could. But I didn’t. I let my silly high school mentality get the best of me, letting me pass up an opportunity to be kind to someone for fear that it may be awkward, or make me look ridiculous.

But why do I need to feel awkward? Why do I need to worry about what someone will think that I haven’t spoken to in five years and who, if things went badly, I wouldn’t miss for the next five? I want to be able to celebrate the successes of those around me, to be there to offer support for those who are going through a hard time, to listen to the amazing story of classmates who have gone out into the world and turned into some pretty decent human beings.

I am a very different person than I was at 16 years old at Adlai E. Stevenson High School. I don’t want to be judged for the person I was back then; I want to be judged for the person I’ve become, by the values I have discovered for myself, and the accomplishments I have worked so hard to attain. I’m going to assume that my classmates have done the same.

The world is full of some pretty nasty stuff. We have an opportunity to be kind to one another, to look out for one another, and to make things just a little bit easier. Let’s not let that dreaded threat of “awkwardness” get in the way of being the person we want to be.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

August 26th: Grossly Overly Politicized

Watching the 2016 Presidential race heat up from outside of the country has been a fascinating cultural experience. As a general rule, the information is mostly volunteer access, meaning that I have to go find the information, rather than the more standard American access, which is less of a choice and more of an overwhelming avalanche. That being said, it puts the burden on the consumer of the information to look for a balance of opinions and to see a variety of perspectives.

Take, for example, the recent GOP debate that took place in Cleveland earlier this month. I was unable to watch the debate first-hand live; it was taking place at 3 AM local time. Waking up the next morning, every news source and social medium had an influx of information, not only breaking down the content of each candidate’s platform, but also dissecting every detail of HOW that information was presented.

I started on social media (my favorite and most biased outlet), which primarily consisted of reactions from non-professionals. These were everyday Americans, the voters, commenting and critiquing the candidates that they would one day see on a ballot. The opinions generally skewed to the left, as most of my digital community share my liberal ideals.

Next, I moved to my news outlets of choice. Primarily, I like the coverage of USA Today, because it is one of the few newspapers in the country that has done the best work to transition into digital and online formats, making it easy to access traditional journalism styles in a modern format. I explored what the journalistic community had to share about the event. Again, USA Today tends to sit on the left side of the aisle, and even more so CNN. Much of what I found on these pages were breakdowns of the ways that candidates presented themselves, the politicking between individuals on the podium, and collections of soundbites that had Republicans digging at each other and looking to crack holes in their opponents.

So far, I had found almost no actual issue-based coverage so I gritted my teeth and headed to Fox News. I generally don’t enjoy Fox’s coverage, as they are way too far to the right for me, and their bias is far too easily identified, but in this case, when looking at a GOP debate that was, in fact, hosted by Fox, I was intrigued to see how they would cover it. Better than any other news source, there were details about what exactly each candidate stood for, and how well they got that point across.

After almost 2 hours of research, I felt like I had a decent understanding of what happened and where each candidate stood on various issues. Considering how easy it is to find SOME information, I was very surprised to learn how hard I had to work to find ALL of the information.

It is easy to blame my absence from the country for the difficulty. In reality, though, it is just as hard in America to see through all of the biases and angles to get to the real issue: the issues. We can find easy information about the feud between Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell (ok, his feud with women in general), but what will he actually do to create greater stability in the Middle East? We know that Rand Paul is being a child in criticizing Chris Christie for hugging President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, but where does Paul stand when it comes to disaster relief?

Our gathering of information has turned into a full time job. We are bombarded with so much information about the political world that we now need to distinguish between what is real and what is crap. As hard is it might be, we need to do it, for fear that we will be unwitting bystanders in a system that encourages our politicians to belittle us, condescend us, and avoid us, for fear that we may actually demand that they lead.

The major theme of the Zoot Perspective’s evaluation of the next 15 months of the Presidential race is that we need to elevate the level of debate. We need to be asking the right questions and demanding that our politicians give us real, honest answers. I only get one vote, but I am going to make you earn it, Mr(s). Soon-To-Be-President.

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