Who shall live and who shall die?

Today is Yom Kippur, Day of Awe, the Holiest of Holies.  I’m not fasting, for reasons my Muslim sisters will understand.  I’m not at synagogue, because this day is too sacred to me to spend with people I don’t trust.  And I’m writing, although I’d vowed to stay away from the computer except to read the news.

And oh, the news.  That is why I am now writing.

Yom Kippur is, in so many ways, an oddity and anachronism to the rest of my modern, community-centered, social-justice-focused, Judaism.  It is full of archaic language, mortal threats, and a thunderous, unknowing, and rather vengeful masculine God.  It is the culmination of the 10 days that begin the new year, when on Rosh Hashana the book of life is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Terrifying, ominous stuff.  We fast, dress in shroud-like clothing, beat our chests, and ponder fate.  We recite the most macabre of all prayers, the Unataneh Tokef.

The Unataneh Tokef literally asks, “Who shall live and who shall die?”  It does not stop there.  “Who shall live out their time, and who shall die young?  Who by water and who by fire?  Who by the sword and who by wild beast?  Who by hunger and who by thirst?  Who by earthquake and who by pestilence?  . . . Who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted?”  After these gory options, we are then thrown a small bone and told that repentance, prayer, and charity shall lessen the severity of the decree.

Meditating on the meaning of this prayer and its utility is a yearly past-time for Jews, clerical and lay alike.  A cursory internet search will turn up many sermons and essays more meaningful and better thought-out than my hastily-penned reflection.  But it is not the fate of the victims I want to discuss, the randomness that might take them down and their actions that might save them.  It’s the agency of the aggressors.

Judaism differs from Christianity in some critical ways beyond not having Jesus or Christmas trees.  One of the most important aspects to me is the notion that we cannot ask God for forgiveness until we have attempted to right the wrong ourselves.  Whatever your feelings on God (and I personally don’t buy into a monotheistic deity), this seems a good practice.  It disallows us from making mistakes or acting in intentionally harmful ways and then just praying our way out of it (I realize that most Christians also don’t subscribe to this, so forgive me the oversimplification of our differences).  The onus is on us.  We don’t get to come to the Day of Awe to get absolved having done no work ourselves, nor do we get to approach the randomness of fate as though we have no role.

So now to the news.  This morning, an airstrike in Aleppo killed 22 people.  An attack on worshipers in a mosque in Afghanistan killed 14.  Eight people were killed in a suicide bombing in Nigeria.  A Palestinian was killed in a demonstration in Silwan.  The death toll in Haiti has passed 1,000.  And that’s just the homepage of Al Jazeera.

Something is wrong with these headlines.  Not merely that these are human lives extinguished.  But that the headlines omit something critical — someone killed these people.  They did not go by the randomness of fate or the unknowable nature of God.  They were murdered — yes, even those in Haiti, although a hurricane is the proximate cause.  Syria is a proxy battleground for Russia and the U.S., and lives are expendable pawns as we haggle for dominance.  Afghanistan is hell – it had already been invaded and occupied numerous times before the U.S.’s undeclared war began in 2001, ostensibly to capture the al-Qaeda plotters (remember al-Qaeda? no one else does either) even though they were from Saudi Arabia, a country that continues to get our full diplomatic and financial support even as it flattens Yemen (know about Yemen?  neither does anyone else) in its own proxy struggle.  Silwan is being ethnically cleansed with full U.S. support, and an Israeli soldier killed that demonstrator.  And Haiti, meskeen Haiti — first black country to throw off its colonial oppressors, first independent colony in the Americas, has been punished for this ever since with crushing debt, harsh international policies, and aid experiments and incompetence that have increased its vulnerability to natural disasters a hundredfold.

And we, the U.S., we are all responsible.  Our putative future leadership has unflinchingly vowed continued support for these sins.  Hillary Clinton has cited Henry Kissinger, who is probably responsible for as many deaths as Hitler, as a foreign policy mentor.  Donald Trump has promised to keep “bombing and bombing and bombing” Daesh (ISIS), which really just means bombing and bombing and bombing various Middle Eastern countries, residents be damned.  We cannot excuse Hillary Clinton her willingness to act as a vengeful god because she is “the lesser evil.”  While fate does act in random and sometimes tragic ways, we are not Fate.  We cannot excuse our transgressions as the inexplicable hand of God or the unknowable ways of the universe.  It is not those in the paths of the bombs that need to engage in repentance, prayer, and charity to save themselves, it is those manufacturing, selling, and guiding those bombs.

My favorite part of the high holiday period is the turning towards communal repentance.  There is the Ashamnu, an alphabetical list of our sins, chanted together and in the “we” tense.  And there is Tashlich, the ritual casting away of sins on the water, which for the past decade or so I have done with like-minded social-justice Jews, owning our role in racism, neoconservatism and neoliberalism (neo-colonialism), environmental destruction, etc.  These serve to focus us on our sins, but that is not enough.  More than that, they highlight our agency, charting the path in front of us to ask forgiveness not through words, but through deeds.

May 5777 be a year of communal repentance and action for all of us so that when we approach our next new year, we do not have to ask for forgiveness for complacency.  The only non-option is doing nothing.  Shana tovah.





No one thought Germany would murder its Jews, either

In recent weeks, I have sounded like I am descending into paranoid madness. I hope I am paranoid, and I hope I am wrong, but I would rather take that risk than not sound the alarm.

I don’t know how to make this any clearer:

Almost no one — certainly not the well-assimilated German Jews — thought the Nazi Holocaust could happen. People urged moderate responses, dismissed more open calls for racist violence as fringe, and assumed their neighbors and institutions would right things.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  If you think that people knew what would happen and just didn’t react, or that good people had easy options for reacting but failed to, you are wrong.  Learn your history.  Now.

Islamophobic hysteria is not just fringe. It’s been cultivating for at least 14 years. Every time President Obama denied being a Muslim without saying “but if I were so what?” Every time someone makes a dismissive remark about hijab but fails to comment on other religious attire.  Every time Zionism is defended because of the irrational death wish ideology projected onto Palestinian Muslims.  Every time the white murderers are mentally ill and the Muslim murderers are terrorists.   Every time someone talks about how “moderate Muslims” are ok but fails to talk about moderate anyone-elses. Every time Southwest Airlines pulls an Arabic-speaker off the plane because they “have to take all security concerns seriously.”  Every time Sikhs, Arab Christians, Hindus stress their non-Muslim-ness.   Every time a poll can even be conducted on whether Islam should be legal in the U.S. (and nearly half of Iowan Republicans say “no”).

Islamophobic ideologies are no longer just held by grassroots good ole’ boys.  When 31 Governors — well over half of our states — call for excluding all Syrian refugees, their sheer ignorance and inhumanity only flies because they’re talking about Muslims (they think — and some have stated exemptions for Syrian Christians).  When leading Presidential candidates can openly state that Muslims should not be President (bye bye, 1st Amendment) or enter the country, and their poll numbers rise, we’re not witnessing David Duke’s short-lived and much-condemned Presidential run anymore.  We’re witnessing the mainstreaming of racial hatred.

Islamophobic violence is now acceptable by law.  It is legal for heavily armed white men to surround mosques.  America’s gun-insanity aside, it is not legal for Black children to play with toy guns — the fact that this particular law is unwritten doesn’t give it any less force, since we all know this crime carries the death penalty.  We all know that no one but white people can openly carry arms, and we all know that no religious institution but a mosque can be legally surrounded by armed “civilians.”  Creepy internet trolls can tell Muslim activist Linda Sarsour that they are going to behead her — yes, behead — and oh well, that’s just crazy internet trolls exercising their freedom of speech (that same 1st Amendment that no longer applies to Muslims).

This country has been so hell-bent on racist violence and insanity over the past few years that it’s been hard to tease out the particularly virulent strain of Islamophobia.  Police and vigilantes are openly murdering black youth and getting away with it, not only in courts of law, but even more disturbingly in courts of public opinion.  Anti-immigrant sentiment is rounding up and cracking down on desperate Latin Americans, enabling us to place checkpoints in interior U.S. communities and have people accept racial profiling as the cost of security.  This is all part and parcel of the rise of white supremacy, and it’s all terrifying.  I am not minimizing the violence against any of these communities, but I think it’s critical that we draw particular attention to the crusade against Muslims lest we miss what we’re marching up to: a call for internment, maybe a call for genocide.

There.  I said it.

I’ve been reluctant to share the level of my fear on this because I have so many close Muslim friends, and I want you all to be able to sleep at night, and I want to be wrong, and I want to be able to stop this, and I don’t want you to be angry with me for suggesting that I think you are in grave danger.  With only one of you have I even uttered this out loud, and sadly, you didn’t correct me.  We both pledged our determination to stay here and fight, and I told you I wouldn’t let anything happen to you, and I am terrified for you every day.

Maybe I am crazy. But I have been raised to be crazy on this matter. I have been raised by paranoid children of Holocaust survivors and we’ve always kinda known that they could come for us, or someone else, again — even when we’ve convinced ourselves that’s in the past. My grandmother is still alive. I hope that her dementia is so advanced that she cannot see this march of fascism and racism gripping her new country.

Most of all, I hope I’m wrong.

Nightmares of Gaza

Last night I woke up shaking and crying to the brilliant flashes of light and booms.  It was a monsoon thunderstorm.  I thought I was in Gaza.  It was only desert summer rains.  I thought I was among the 500,000 internally displaced people, scrambling like mad to avoid adding their numbers to the over 1,500 murdered relatives friends neighbors, running from building to destroyed building to targeted hospital to flattened school, seeking shelter from the 86,000 armed soldiers and the 200 tons of bombs raining daily.  Like the monsoon thunderstorm, but deadly, evil, horrible.  I thought I was in Gaza.  I thought I will need therapy for the rest of my life for this one night.  I was not in Gaza.  I was safe in the U.S., safely inside the tanks, behind the scopes of the guns, directing the unmanned drones, flying the Apache helicopters.  Safely armored as I rained hellfire and destruction on the 1.8 million people of Gaza for over 24 nights and days.  And as I spent another sleepless night I thought I will never comprehend the horrors that the people of Gaza live every night.  And I will never forgive myself for not stopping them.  



“Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group, (b) causing serious mental or bodily harm, (c) deliberately inflicting upon the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Source: UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%2078/volume-78-I-1021-English.pdf

How much does it take?

How long do the borders need to be sealed to make it a ghetto?

How limited do the shipments of food and medical aid need to be to bring about physical destruction?

How many water sources and power supplies must be destroyed?

How many rounded up and imprisoned without charge, indefinitely?

How many protests, journalists, and human rights inquiries quelled?

How many government officials must call for murder or expulsion of an entire population?

How many denials that the group of people even exists, or have any claim to their homeland?

How long must the refugees be kept away from their homes?  

How many homes need to be destroyed?

How many children must go to bed to the lullabies of drone strikes?

How many innocent people must be killed?

For how long will we stand by and wait for the numbers to cross some magical threshold before we act?

For how long will we maintain that only ovens and gas chambers count?

For how long?

For how many?






I’ve visited the issue of grief’s visibility a lot on this blog.  I’ve also been drawn to the comparisons of grief to a physical loss or impediment.  The healing, or perhaps “coping” is really the word, process involves a subjugation of that visibility and a circumventing of the physical limitations.  It is a sign that I’m doing “better” that people don’t see the pain in my features anymore; it is a sign of improvement that I can interact with the world in a way that doesn’t reveal my amputations.

It is a sign of improvement, but it also feels like a betrayal and like a disguise.  And so, to honor that this loss is physical and keep it visible, I got a memorial tattoo for the 2 year anniversary of Alex’s death.  I wanted a visible, physical marker that I have lost, but I also wanted it to demonstrate the enduring Alex, his extremism and his humor.  When it came down to it, I wanted an image that would capture my loss without making me cry every time I looked at it.  Since I can’t draw for shit, an image that captured that spirit was a while in the making and largely entrusted to the tattoo artist.  I gave him some concepts, a story, and a glorified stick-figure drawing.

I’ve known I wanted a memorial tattoo for some time, but I didn’t realize how right it would be.  I just thought of it as something else to do; as someone told me this weekend, when you’re stuck, your only non-option is doing nothing.  It isn’t just that it serves as a prompt for me to talk about Alex with strangers, as I initially hoped; it also allows me to feel that I am carrying Alex with me at all times.

I still talk about Alex frequently, since our lives were constantly intertwined for some 15 years and only slightly less tightly woven for the next 14, so many of my stories feature him.  Sometimes I talk about him in the present tense, which occasionally leads new people to ask where he is, a question I have answered variously with “that’s a bit of an existential question,” or “dead,” or “his body is buried in a suburban cemetery,” depending on whether I’m feeling snarky, or kind, or curt. None of those answers feels good.  They don’t even feel honest — “dead” is not a where, and his body is not him.

I don’t get much cheesier than this, so grab a cracker and some wine and hang on: this tattoo has allowed me to answer the question of where Alex is with, “Here.  He’s here, with me, and with everyone who knew and loves him.”  (Those mismatched tenses are intentional.)  And that feels honest, and, in the way that we make do with loss, good.

The point of this road trip was to change my narrative, the story of who I am and how I ended up here, wherever here is.  I have suffered, I have lost, and I will not be made whole again.  I won’t pretend otherwise.  But I did not want to lead with my self-pity.  Now, through distance, friends, and the unlikely aids of needles and ink, I’m at least beginning to change my lead, edit out the minor villains, and spend more chapters building my co-protagonist’s character rather than focusing on his cataclysmic demise.


Let’s talk about tunnels.

Since the latest excuse for the current Israeli assault on Gaza is the tunnels, let’s talk about the tunnels.  Let’s talk about a population of 1.8 million people in a 140 square mile zone who cannot leave via land, air, or sea.  Let’s talk about a place where outsiders are not allowed in.  Let’s talk about a place where farmers and fisherfolk cannot get their wares outside the perimeters for sale, and strawberries and watermelons rot awaiting passage.  Let’s talk about a place where basic goods cannot be brought in; sometimes cloth, sometimes concrete, sometimes medication.  Where fuel is (over)priced and allocated by the very same force that controls the entrances and exits to the territory, allocated at such small amounts that electricity is never available all the time, and during times of acute crisis is only available a few hours a day.  Where my friend, now an American citizen, couldn’t enter for his brothers’ weddings.  Where the unemployment rate is at 60%, and even government employees have their pay frozen by foreign powers who don’t like the current ruling party.  

Let’s talk about people with sumud (steadfastness), who have lived in this situation for over 60 years, increasingly awful for the last 7.  These people can die, or they can dig.  Tunnels represent a literal underground lifeline for Palestinians.  The light at the end of the tunnel has been used to smuggle goods, livestock, people; my friend did get to the weddings, because he entered through the tunnels.  

If you lived in Gaza, would you wither or would you build tunnels?  And when the screws were tightened even further, elevating the usual mostly starvation style of violence into epic bursts of bombing flattening whole neighborhoods and their inhabitants, would the idea of using those tunnels for weaponry cross your mind?  We ask amazing feats of sacrifice from Palestinians, and amazingly, most deliver: we ask that they bear their wrongful imprisonment in silence and peace.  The tunnels are still primarily used for civilian purposes, or would be, if they aren’t all destroyed.  So let’s talk about tunnels, and why they are there in the first place; then let’s talk about destroying the tunnels by opening the fences.    


Update on the Khalils in Jabaliya Refugee Camp

Many people have asked me how Basel’s family is doing.  I wasn’t sure if an update alert would be sent if I edited the original post (“Your home is about to be destroyed”), so I’m just adding a quick one now:

The Khalils of Jabaliya Refugee Camp are still alive as of now.  They have a new baby, Basel’s niece Taleen; she is healthy.  They have not left their home; there is nowhere to go.  Others in Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya have fled to UN shelters, but as we know from 2008-2009, UN shelters are not safe.  Nowhere in Gaza is safe.  

Israel is using white phosphorus gas again.  The magnificent, firework-spectacle screaming streaks through the night sky, the ones that burn flesh off on contact, melt babies alive, keep wounds open even on the survivors for years with nerve damage and bleeding reminders of the world’s abandonment.  That stuff that was declared a war crime when Israel used it on Gaza in 2008-2009.  Where do they get it?  

Israel is also using another unidentified poison gas.

Basel’s family is trying to shield part of their home with plastic sheeting and put the children there, so they don’t breath the poisoned gasses.  Please tell your local media and elected officials about the Khalils.