Understanding the Iran Interim Deal in Seven Points

As negotiations closed last weekend in Geneva, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told reporters that he hoped this deal would “remove any doubts about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” John Kerry painted the negotiations in a different light, saying that the deal “impedes (Iran’s nuclear) progress in a very dramatic way.” Some have called the deal a tectonic shift in the region, while others have scoffed and written it off as just another cog in a machine that won’t work. So what’s really going on? I’ve broken down the implications of the deal into seven key points.

Why does Iran want nukes so badly?

Nuclear weapons make countries relevant. Nations enrich uranium and seek nuclear capability so that they can attain a certain level of both national security and prestige among world powers. For an Islamic country in the Middle East, that sort national security would signal a permanence amid severe volatility and an ongoing upheaval of the status quo. As the centrifuges spin, and Iran hurtles closer to that dreaded 90 percent enrichment mark, it becomes more of a viable force and louder voice on the global stage. As one White House official said this week, it’s a matter of national pride.

(Additionally, a majority of Iranians believe that the nation should have a nuclear power program as an alternative form of energy.)

Obviously, that’s a deeply flawed mentality given the realities of Iran’s current predicament. The problem, of course, is that no one else wants Iran to have that “security” – at least for now.

Why are all these countries – many of whom have nuclear weapons themselves – so devoted to stopping Iran from having them?

The argument goes something like this: nukes aren’t the coveted bargaining chip that Iran thinks they are, nor are their attainment the threshold Iran needs to cross to be taken seriously. Iranians celebrated in the streets Sunday as the first round of negotiations closed and officials announced an interim agreement that would relieve up to $7 billion in sanctions. There’s a sense that the waters of Iran’s economy will begin to flow after years of self- and externally-imposed drought.

Economically robust countries with a clear future, strong infrastructure, and room for growth (and, yes, with the money to build a strong military) get a voice. Iranians are poor. Oil revenues have been cut back by half as crippling sanctions have taken effect in the last half-decade. And because of past choices and priorities, Iran is stuck. That’s the goal of sanctions: to force hostile nations to decide between continuing to implement its antagonistic policies and allowing the well-being of its own economic sectors.

Would Iran really bomb Israel?

Beyond smoke and mirrors and rhetoric to inflame the radicals, Iran has no real rationale to bomb Israel. In a region with no shortage of problematic countries, Iran is far and away the most ostracized in the international community. With a 20 percent global approval rating, it is more politically isolated than Syria and treated as a greater threat than are its neighbors. Statements by government officials, state-employed scientists, and others in positions of authority brim with rhetoric that scare Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state and disturb those with a stake in the region’s stability. But Iran wants a bomb for the same reason the United States, Russia, Pakistan, and India wanted one: to have a bomb. Organizations like United Against a Nuclear Iran and the diplomats who met in Geneva last weekend know that Iran very likely has no intention of bombing Israel.

What should I know about this deal?

  1. The UN’s premier nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), now gets to inspect the assembly of centrifuges and uranium mines through surveillance cameras and on-the-ground visits at Iranian nuclear facilities. These inspections will be daily at Natanz and Fordow and more sporadic at Arak.
  2. All uranium that Iran has been enriched to 20 percent must now be either diluted to a lower percentage or converted to oxide form.
  3. Iran can keep the centrifuges that exist, but can’t install new ones. In other words, the centrifuges that have been set up, but are not operating, can’t start operating.
  4. Iran can’t enrich any new uranium beyond 5 percent.

Cool bullet-points, but what do they mean?

They mean that in a perfect hypothetical, Iran is deciding through this deal that the health and prosperity of its people are more important than its production of nuclear weapons. The costs of sanctions outweigh the benefits of highly-enriched uranium.

Okay, but do you really buy that?

No, not really. Many – including Israel, Saudi Arabia, any many top American lawmakers – are skeptical of the suddenly-cooperative Islamic Republic, which has a history of wanting it both ways and refusing to compromise. Yossi Klein-Halevi wrote Monday of Israel’s belief that Iranian officials “will persist in doing what they’ve done all along: lie and cheat, but this time under the cover of a deal.”

In truth, the eased sanctions are only a small fraction of the billions in frozen assets and halted contracts that have piled up in recent years. But Bibi Netanyahu sees this deal as the world’s way of giving Iran a few months of carte blanche. Michael Doran, a Brookings Institution fellow who once ran the National Security Council, agreed on Sunday, writing that the agreement signals America’s implicit willingness to channel money to Iran’s terrorist proxies in the Middle East – Hezbollah and the henchmen of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Some commentators have also noted that the emergence of an Iran deal could very well be the point to the death of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Obama administration. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an advisor to Mahmoud Abbas, said publicly that the American decision to facilitate the agreement in spite of Israel’s strong opposition sent “an important message to Israel” on the United States’ priorities.

There’s plenty of justification for being suspicious of Iran’s intentions. In October 2003, representatives of France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, and Iran met in Paris and struck a deal that temporarily suspended Iran’s production of enriched uranium. This was intended to be something of an interim agreement, like the one announced Sunday – a liminal process that would eventually lead to the real accord.

There was no real accord. In early 2005, Iran’s parliament voted to resume the nation’s uranium enrichment program “for peaceful use” only. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president later that year, and nuclear facilities like Isfahan ratcheted up their production. That September, the IAEA condemned Iran and talks with the Paris group broke down.

In 2006, the UN Security Council’s permanent members and Germany (the so-called “P5+1”) reached out to Iran, offering to open new trade routes and allow for several light water reactors in exchange for the suspension, again, of reprocessing and enrichment. Iran turned down the offer and opened its heavy water facility at Arak later that year.

The P5+1 went through similar processes in 2009, 2011, and again earlier this year. Each time, talks broke down because Iran either failed to comply or reneged on a promise.

What’s different now?

Just the president of Iran, really. The only tangible difference I perceive is a newly open, non-hostile relationship between the Iranian leader – President Hassan Rouhani – and the leaders of the P5+1. Rouhani was involved in Iran’s earlier suspensions of enrichment and has generally been more of a mollifier and an appeaser of global interests than his direct predecessor, who advocated and embodied an outwardly antagonistic approach to the Western world.

Barack Obama is Not Anti-Israel

Written for the Emory Wheel:

I hear the conversation everywhere.

Well, I suppose it isn’t so much a conversation as it is a statement. My Jewish friends say it all the time: “I’m voting for Romney because Obama doesn’t support Israel.” More often, the statement comes in a blunter form: “Barack Obama hates Israel.”

Each time, I cringe. Each time, I’m perplexed.

There is no nation on earth that this country, under this administration, supports more comprehensively and more fervently than it supports the State of Israel. Barack Obama does not hate Israel.

At a meeting in February 2011, the month’s U.N. Security Council president entertained a resolution condemning Israeli construction in the West Bank.

When more than 115 nations moved to pass the condemnation, only one delegate from one country raised her hand: American Ambassador Susan Rice. Because America’s status as a permanent member affords it veto-power (and as per the policy of Rice’s boss), the vote failed and the draft-resolution vanished from the international docket.

Last November, President Obama was recorded having what was meant to be an off-the-record conversation with French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Obama told Sarkozy that the United States would “have to impose economic sanctions” if the September 2011 Palestinian bid for statehood went through. In a room bereft of TelePrompTers and absent of television cameras, the American president affirmed his support for policies of the Jewish state.

That same month, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro – a de-facto representative of and spokesperson for the Obama Administration– delivered a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In his remarks, he declared that “Israel is a long time democratic ally and we share a special bond.”

Shapiro went on to note that “some skeptics are questioning whether that’s enough of a reason to continue to spend hard earned American tax payer dollars on Israel’s security.” His rejoinder was frank: “We don’t just support Israel because of a long standing bond,” he said. “We support Israel because…ensuring Israel’s military strength and its superiority in the region is (critical) to regional stability and as a result is fundamentally a core interest of the United States.”

The cash sum that the United States spends on aid to Israel has increased steadily since Obama’s first year in office. According to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, in 2009, the administration spent about $2.81 billion on aid to Israel; in 2010, it spent about $3.04 billion; in 2011, about $3.49 billion. That’s an average eight percent increase in each of those three years – not to mention a 14 percent increase between the second and third years.

Israel is the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since the second world war.

Obama has preserved and prolonged that commitment; his budget request for the 2013 fiscal year consists of $3.1 billion in aid to Israel, which includes $99.8 million specifically allocated to joint American-Israeli missile defense development.

President Obama has also sculpted American foreign policy to quell the existential threat posed to Israel by Iran. In his first appearance at the United Nations as president, Obama asserted that if Iran chose to “put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability…then they must be held accountable.”

He echoed such sentiments in comments during his 2010 and 2011 U.N. remarks. And just last month, he told delegates, “a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” and vowed that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

And if Obama’s words speak, his actions scream. During the summer of 2010, Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), which enacted severe penalties for companies who do business with the Iranian petroleum sector. And under the Iranian Transactions Regulations as amended by the Obama administration in March 2012, anyone involved in breaching said laws may be slapped with up to a $1 million fine or jailed for up to 20 years.

Last August, Obama signed yet another set of crippling sanctions against Iran. The law, according to the Wall Street Journal, “closes loopholes in existing sanctions law on Iran, and adds penalties…(and) broadens the list of available programs under which sanctions can be imposed on Iranian individuals and entities.”

A representative of AIPAC recently told me that these Obama administration policies are “the most severe sanctions the U.S. has imposed on any country – even the Third Reich.” Barack Obama does not empathize with the Iranian regime.

The Obama years have seen no adverse change in the way of American policy towards Israel; and yet, Obama’s stronghold on Jewish voters (who traditionally support Democrats overwhelmingly) slips from his grasp each day.

The president’s support among Jewish voters has dropped 19 percentage points since last election season, from 78 percent in 2008 to just 59 percent today.

Why is there a disparity between steps Obama has taken and the approval he’s gained? In truth, today’s underlying “tensions” between Israel and the United States amount to a handful of personal gripes between leaders, a series of ultimately trivial comments on West Bank settlements, and hyperbolic questions surrounding Obama’s ties to the Islamic religion.

These conditions have acted as a frustration in the realm of PR and messaging, but by no means have they given rise to a real shift in policy.

Every day, I hear it from close friends, in op-eds by billionaire Jewish donors, pervading the blogosphere: President Obama is anti-Israel; he exercises evasion in the face of the Iranian threat; his policies are crippling or harmful to Jews, Israelis, or Zionists. I respond to my Jewish friends in a voice that I hope will resound: Any such claim is a rash one, based on perceptions plagued by exaggerations and misreadings. We know anti-Israel; we have seen anti-semitism. President Obama embodies neither.

If you intend to support Governor Romney in this election because you believe that the top 2 percent of the American populace should see its taxes decrease, or that women should have their bodily decisions checked and regulated by wealthy men, or that immigration reform should begin by way of expulsion, I wish all the power to you. But if your allegiance to Israeli security is holding you back from casting your ballot for the Democratic ticket, it’s time to rethink your vote.

Wet and Quickly Drying – An Explanation of the Year’s Changes, A Proposal for Next Steps

As featured on the Huffington Post:

The life we know hasn’t changed much since December 27 of 2010. Murky smog still poisons the air I breathe in Los Angeles. A snapshot of the New York skyline taken today will match that taken last year. The streets of Vegas remain depraved and Capitol Hill remains democratic. This year, in this country, things have changed; but they have done so incrementally.

If the previous paragraph leaves you unconvinced, I ask that you put on a lens not of objectivity, but of relativity. Our country has changed only marginally. In Libya, a year’s change is far from marginal – it’s palpable: its cities look physically different than they did a year ago and its society has pushed through an iron grip – and feels more free. People who live in Egypt can feel the change just as forcefully: new rules govern individuals – but even those rules are actively shifting and evolving. The Tunisians and the Yemenis drove away their longtime presidents. The Syrians Bahrainis were unsuccessful in ousting their leaders, but brought to the forefront issues of rights for women and for Shia – issues that had been buried. Beyond the Western World, change is immense.

This was the year of shattered norms; of shifting variables; of fractured precedents. This was the year in which we – Americans – watched as they – million of others – decided to swiftly and continually forget everything they had been taught. This was the year the world collapsed into itself.

TIME magazine columnist Joel Stein dubbed 2011 “The Year of the Meltdown,” asserting that we’ve had no choice but to “idly watch things completely fall apart.” Indeed, we’ve borne witness to changes that have seemed unnatural and arbitrary: massive readjustments of economic structures, sociological organizations, and individual and communal systems of thought. They have appeared often to be precipitated by anomalies, like a merchant who set himself ablaze, a reporter kidnapped, or an Egyptian woman beaten unjustifiably. The shifts we’ve seen this year make us question the basis on which they have happened; they have seemed somewhat random and erratic. Why now? Why these changes? Why these people?

But the language of change is a universal one. From all angles, in all perspectives, there is an explanation for this year of global collapse and far-reaching transformation.

Those who speak the language of faith – who seek answers to the unanswerable through mechanisms of religion and belief – need look no further than the Book of Job, in which the author elucidates that idea of random destruction and seemingly groundless change in the first chapter. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return,” explains the book’s narrator. Cycles are a critical component of a pious life – and with them comes the faithful acknowledgement that, even ostensibly randomly, “the Lord gives and the Lord (takes) away.”

For many, an explanation that is based in religious doctrine equates to no explanation at all. Those who speak the language of science or “reason” – who understand the world as a series of systems and rules – will identify with a pervasive biological concept. In wildlife, a cataclysmic event causes destruction of biotic factors in a given area, leaving only a bare substrate. In layman’s terms, it literally wipes away all of the life somewhere and leaves a blank slate. Nature, too, works in cycles. The earth gives and takes. Change is built into the natural world.

A third, more simple and demonstrable explanation comes from my great-grandmother, who, by my father’s account, was a content woman. She repeated and repeated one particular adage. “If you don’t like the weather,”she would say, “just wait a minute.”

Change, we understand, just happens. It is destructive by nature; it has to be, in order to make way for something new or better. But what – I pose to the faithful, the academic, and the elderly – happens next?

When the Lord takes away, the Lord gives again; when a cataclysm leaves a bare substrate, pioneer species begin to settle and grow; when clouds finish raining, they make way for the sun.

Norms can be constructive; precedents are neutral. A process that been tested does, indeed, have a place in this world. There are good politicians just as there are helpful and useful laws. But right now, we have a few fleeting, precarious, and promising moments in which our era is nothing more than wet, quickly-drying concrete.

Let us usher out the year that crushed the world’s conventions; let us welcome the year in which we rebuild them. Let this be the year in which we – American observers of the sweeping changes – embrace our responsibility within our country, to ensure that we can do the work of reinvigorating outside of our country.

We, too, are at a crossroads: let this be the year in which we elect leaders who are interested not in gridlock, but in governing; interested not in exercising vicious imperialism, but in lending a voice to the Shia of Bahrain, the women of Yemen, and still-silent people across the ocean.

Let us elect leaders who will fund programs that send American volunteers to rebuild Tripoli; who will send diplomatic workers to negotiate for the rights whose absence brought on the Arab Spring; who will create domestic dialogue programs so that young Americans of varying faiths learn to understand one another.

The moment is volatile and we are still free. After this year of meltdown, let this be the one of responsibility.

Restraint – Gilad Shalit’s Return to Israel

As featured on the Huffington Post:

After five years in the custody of his Hamas captors, it seems that Gilad Shalit’s painful and much publicized saga is finally winding down. The Israeli government has struck a deal with Hamas: Israel will release upwards of a thousand terrorists (most of whom were serving life sentences for murderous crimes) in exchange for one honest young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On a trip to Israel in August 2010, I had the opportunity to spend a few fascinating moments with Gilad’s father, Noam Shalit. We exchanged pleasantries. He asked what my tour group was doing in Israel. I explained. He nodded. Then I asked him what people like me could do to help his son’s situation.

He shook his head, and almost in a whisper: “Nothing.”

Slightly over a year later, I, indeed, haven’t done anything to help his son’s situation. With the exception of keeping informed and posting sporadic “Gilad” Facebook status updates, I’ve done nothing particularly profound to help bring about Gilad Shalit’s homecoming. Few have. In the end, as Noam Shalit foresaw and foretold, it has had everything to do with political negotiation tactics and diplomatic deals that surpass the powers of ordinary Israelis – let alone high schoolers in California.

Nevertheless, in the days following the announcement of the deal, the emotional investment of Jews internationally is visibly coming through. Some advocates of the exchange – certainly many in the global Jewish community – see Shalit’s return as a form of justice. Many see it as an inevitability that completes an era and finishes a story.

But to approach the deal as a justice implies some sort of return to equilibrium; an evenness, a moral balance between loss and gain. In truth, no such balance exists, nor will one.

Yesterday I heard Sharon Brous, a prominent Los Angeles rabbi, frame the Shalit exchange by describing the extraordinary nature of a country who is “letting love dictate policy.”

Indeed, Israel is that country. The trade is a present-day embodiment of the pervasive Talmudic adage, “to save one life is to save the whole world.” It restores confidence in the hearts of soldiers that regardless of circumstance, they will come home. Indeed, this trade, in all its controversy, seeming paradox, and ardent instability, is a consequence of a deep and overwhelming love of life.

But among those being released is a woman who – over the internet – lured a heartbroken Israeli teenager to a Palestinian city, where he was promptly murdered; a man who planted explosives in a Tel Aviv nightclub and killed twenty-one young partygoers; a woman who escorted a suicide bomber into a jam-packed pizza parlor where he blew up sixteen people; a man who orchestrated a hotel bombing that killed thirty people who were celebrating the Passover holiday; a man who bombed a bus in Haifa that killed seventeen travelers; the men who founded Hamas’ armed wing; a man who, along with several others, pulled an Israeli man out of his car in Ramallah and – because he was Israeli – lynched him.

The Shalit exchange is hardly justice. The songwriter David Ford puts it more eloquently: When victory comes at too heavy a price, there’s honor in choosing defeat. Undoubtedly, the world needs Gilad Shalit to fall into his mother’s arms; but it doesn’t take a skeptic to wonder if the price of that reunion is exorbitant.

I urge the global Jewish community to exercise delicate restraint in its recognition of Gilad Shalit’s return to Israel. Jews and Israelis and champions of peace worldwide have attained a goal, though not a victory. It is a time for joy, though not a time for celebration. We have seen a deal, but we have certainly not seen justice. “Nothing” is not a response we want to have to hear again.

‘Remember Now Your Creator’ – The Challenging Dichotomy of Faith and Reason

Last night, at my school’s back-to-school-night for parents, I delivered my “senior sermon.” Each senior at Milken writes and delivers a sermon at some point during his or her final year at the school. Here is mine, on the challenge of balancing faith and reason at a religiously affiliated high school:

Last week, I took the SAT in Portland, Oregon. My family was visiting relatives for Rosh Hashana, and the test happened to be that weekend. So that Sunday I went to the only place in Portland that offers the SAT to people who are shomer Shabbat: a school for Seventh Day Adventists.

The test happened to be in a science classroom. In one corner I noticed a diorama of a DNA strand. In another was a stack of copies of the periodic table. And then I looked at the bulletin board: Several pictures of wildlife. A few snapshots of plants. And there, in middle of the board, in the middle of the science classroom: a painting of Jesus himself, and four words: “REMEMBER NOW YOUR CREATOR.”

Remember your creator? There I was, in a high school science classroom, about to take the world’s preeminent test of logic and reason. And all I could focus on was: remember your creator.

And through four hours of really difficult questions, I couldn’t get this one out of my mind: what’s Jesus doing on the wall of a science classroom? But the truth is, really, that question isn’t so different from the ones that Milken students grapple with every day. One moment we’re sitting, talking about Martin Buber and Rabbi Akiba in Jewish Thought class, and the next moment we’re in Physics, studying Newton’s First Law of Motion.

On this very campus, every day, we live with this challenging dichotomy: are reason and religion mutually exclusive? And what does one have to do with the other? Is that quotation on the walls of the science classroom in Portland that different from a mezuzah on the doorway of our chemistry lab, or even my orthodontist’s office? I’ve found three distinct answers from three distinct sources. One from the Jewish tradition, one from the era in which we live, and one from Cedars Sinai.

First, an answer from the Talmud. There’s a famous story: The rabbis were trying to decide if a particular oven was ritually pure (a debate I’m sure goes on in all of your households). All the rabbis agreed that the oven wasn’t pure – all except for one rabbi – Rabbi Eliezer. He was positive that his view was correct. Rabbi Eliezer kept offering proof by bringing about various supernatural phenomena. Still, the other rabbis weren’t convinced. Finally, a voice from the heavens resounded through the chamber and said: “Rabbi Eliezer is correct.” But the majority was outraged. Another rabbi looked up from where the voice was coming from and shouted: “It’s not for heaven to decide!” And the voice of God answered back: “My sons have defeated me.” Meaning that the rabbis were right: Just as we have faith in God, God has faith in us – to use the intellect God gave us.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in his most recent book Why Faith Matters, puts it eloquently. He writes that “faith honors those who discover truth. For people of faith to turn their back on truth, whatever its source, is a reaction of fear, not an assertion of faith.” In other words: True faith sees the hand of God in the capacity for human discovery.

But that doesn’t mean that we rely only on our own intellect. Our belief in an almighty God, a God who created the universe, a God who spoke and the world appeared – a belief in that God grounds us. A belief, or even an acknowledgement of a force beyond forces – beyond the human intellect, beyond MD’s, beyond even iPads – is a blanket of humility over our pervasive human arrogance. And that acknowledgment alone carries with it another humbling truth: we are limited.

But often we can forget that humility. And that’s where I found my second answer. Almost exactly a month ago, we marked the tenth anniversary of a calamity executed by people who were convinced they were doing God’s work. Fundamentalists are people who have profound faith that’s unchecked by reason. Religion that’s deprived of the voice of modernity, that’s stuck in antiquity, breeds arrogance. It breeds the people who demand that you must agree theologically, that you must see eye to eye – And it’s not just in other religions; we sometimes see it in Judaism, too – a stringency that defies reason. As someone who reads and writes about the news, I hear almost daily about the damage wrought – whether in Israel or here in California – by those who use faith as a rationale to carry out a radicalized approach. Our faith needs to be accompanied by reason and progress – which leads me to the third – and perhaps most powerful – place where I saw faith and reason interact.

A few years ago, a family friend was diagnosed with Leukemia. Some of you may have known Joel Shickman. He was a rabbinical student at the American Jewish University. And his situation would have justified complaining, crying, even grieving. But instead, Joel built a holy community.

We’d gather in his hospital room, a group of adults and a few kids, and put our arms around each other. And to the rhythm of Joel’s guitar, we’d sing. We’d sing the Beatles, and American Pie, and whatever anyone wanted to hear. We’d chant the prayer for healing and create harmonies that I’m pretty sure touched God’s own angels. And as I pounded on the drums and prayed and prayed, I watched the IV-tubes pump through Joel, the nurses coming in and out of the room, the heart monitor beeping – each one keeping Joel alive.

And when Joel left his wife and his three young sons, and met God at heaven’s gates, he also left what so many of us strive to build: a community uplifted by his faith, enlightened by God’s presence, blessed by the miracles of science, and humbled by its very real limitations. When science couldn’t keep Joel’s body alive, his faith, and God’s own presence in the hospital room kept his neshama alive, and raised ours.

On Wednesday night, we’ll begin the sukkot holiday – a period that implores us to reflect on life’s fragility. And during sukkot, we’ll read the Book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, a book about the fleeting nature of life. And in that book, we’ll read this verse in hebrew: U’zechor et borecha. In English: “remember your creator.” The same verse from the wall of the science classroom in Portland.  And when we’re sitting in synagogue, or under the fragile canopy of the sukkah, that very verse should remind us of the potential of our intellects, of the greatness of the divine, and of our imperative to live our lives aware of and challenged by both.

Thank you.

A Rickety House – Why a Science Museum in Oregon Matters in Tomorrow’s UN Vote

On the east bank of Portland, Oregon’s Willamette River sits an expansive complex of buildings. The mostly-brick complex, which welcomes about a million visitors each year, is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, or “OMSI.” As a child, I made many a trip to OMSI, spending hours exploring the cracks and crevices of center every time I visited my family in Portland. I have vivid memories of ducking my head to gain entry into the submarine exhibit and sending foam balls flying into the air in a giant room full of experimental wind turbines. To an inquisitive youngster, the place seemed like playground with something new around each corner.

One exhibit in particular always caught my attention. On the second floor there was a display that covered the natural sciences. But being little and easily distracted, I would often abandon the tiny writing on the information panels and instead turn quickly to the earthquake simulator. (Now they were speaking my language.)

My brothers and I would hop up onto the platform and underneath the wooden house frame that also rested on it. We would click the red button and a radio would being to omit static, we would hear the sound of shattered glass, and the platform would start shaking vehemently. Just sixty seconds on the platform, and my brothers and I would learn the basic consequence of building a structure on quivering ground: things fall apart.

Perhaps UN delegates never visited OMSI.

Tomorrow, if it so chooses, the United Nations will ignore the basic principle represented by the simulator: a rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

Any basis for political communication or – for that matter – national existence is lacking. There are no guidelines in place for economic interaction between Israel and a Palestinian state. There are no guidelines in place for trade between the two nations. There are no diplomatic agreements. There are no military agreements. There are no parliamentary rules. There are no conditions, no concessions. The Palestinian Authority has agreed to nothing, nor has the Israeli government. A rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

The Palestinian Authority has continually received substantive and effectual aid packages from the United States. President Obama has remained staunch in his approach to the Middle Eastern conflict. Just yesterday, he told the General Assembly that “a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves,” and that he will not grant the Palestinians the United States’ support on this latest undertaking. A rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

Settlement issues remain wholly unresolved. Israelis have built lives throughout the West Bank in regions that have been in question for years, but that still technically lie within the lines of the Jewish State. Violence, even only in past months, is an innate, knee-jerk impulse. Last March, politically motivated Palestinian terrorists broke into the home of a family in Itamar, a West Bank settlement. The terrorists stabbed to death the mother, the father, two children who were asleep, and one who was reading with a lamp on. Whether the land belongs to the Israelis or the Palestinians is inconsequential. If the Palestinians are granted a state tomorrow, it will become debilitatingly harder to make this incident an isolated one. A rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

The world has been touched by an upswing of the human spirit that has caused millions to escape the tight grip of oppression. The Israeli government – while it has indeed pondered, if not grazed unjust policy – holds no such grip. A Palestinian state tomorrow runs the risk of both appearing to equate to other upstarts of the Arab Spring and, on the flip side, itself waging a ‘revolution’ against that which it has just been relinquished from. A rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

Yes, this is an issue of Zionist significance: in Israel (and in the Diaspora) there exists a religious contingent who believes that Palestinians should not have a sovereign state – ever – because of an age-old doctrine. It is also an issue of diplomatic imperative: many others would contend that Palestinians don’t deserve a state; they have, the argument goes, been offered deal after deal by the Israeli government, but have always failed to bite on comprehensive, workable peace agreements.

They do deserve a state.

In truth, Palestinians need a state. Bibi Netanyahu has said it, just as AIPAC has said it, just as Abbas has insisted upon it. They have the right to declare themselves sovereign. Israel needs Palestinians to have a state. But Palestinians cannot have a unilaterally declared state at the risk or expense of Israel, the United States, or general international accord. Not without concessions, not without agreements, not without Israeli assent, and not in the midst of an earthquake.

Israelis need Palestinians to have a state. But a rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

Leaving God at the Door – Why Michele Bachmann Needs to Reaffirm Kennedy’s Promise

As featured on the Huffington Post:

With Elai Shine

First, she said it was a joke. Now, she’s saying it was a metaphor. One thing is clear: Michele Bachmann thinks that hurricanes happen because of welfare.

Last week, shortly after a strong earthquake shook the East Coast and Hurricane Irene left millions without power, Michele Bachmann spoke at a campaign rally. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians,” she said. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’…(He) know(s) government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

Those of us who were born during the Clinton years. We’ve never known a political landscape not shaped by religious influence and the impact of political guidelines brought on by the “Moral Majority.” In fact, for as long as we can remember, Church has often been mistaken for State (or vice-versa).

Two presidents, most notably, have had to pass a religion test during the campaigns that preceded their elections (albeit for disparate reasons): John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

Before 1960, no Catholic had ever ascended to the country’s highest office. Accordingly, Kennedy was subjected to a nationwide loyalty oath of sorts. At rally after rally, press conference after press conference, reporters would ask him the same questions: Would his religion influence or impair his political judgement as president?

In Obama’s case, the questions were a bit different – and fueled more by steadfast intolerance than legitimate uncertainty. Was he a Muslim? Or was he a Christian? If he was a Muslim, did his presence in an Indonesian Madrassa during his early youth affect his current views on the American dream? And if he was a Christian, had he been indoctrinated by an “anti-American” preacher? The questions were sharp and pervasive.

Kennedy had to prove that he was the right flavor of Christian. (“Whatever issue may come before me as president,” he said in 1960, “I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”) Obama had to prove that he was Christian period. (“I’m a Christian by choice,” he’s said during his term in office.) Both had to prove that their faith in the country outweighed any other faiths they may have held. Both were held to a standard that defied and ignored any preordained ideas of an acceptable relationship between religion and policy in presidential duties. As a consequence, both gave into media pressures and testified publicly and unequivocally that their faith in God was an indication of that alone.

Michele Bachmann’s faith in God is an indication of her political mindset. She made clear last week that she thinks two episodes that have put FEMA on high alert are the Almighty’s mechanisms of conveying his disappointment with the current administration’s policies.

Had Kennedy ever stood before a rally and made a radical religious statement – or one that openly turned a blind eye to the religious impartiality that is meant to accompany a Commander in Chief – his campaign would have been over in a matter of hours. And still today (and into the next several months) if Barack Obama dares to use a term, or even makes use of “suspicious” body language, media outlets and demagogues on both sides of the political spectrum will call his actions into doubt, cast aspersions upon his allegiances, and openly question his fitness to lead.

Michelle Bachmann – in the company of other right-wing presidential contenders like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas – has created an illusion: Some of the necessary drawbacks of government, she presumes, can be solved by the infusion of religion. That principle enraptures and exhilarates her ever-growing base. Almost 80 percent of the country is Christian. Bachmann suggests that such a populace can unite under the banner of Christianity.

But Bachmann’s logic is flawed. No denomination of Christianity can boast more than 30 percent of the American population. Baptists approach around 26 percent and Catholics 23 percent. These denominations certainly don’t agree on everything, and typically clash on key issues – particularly those of social significance. While those who support her delight when she implies that there should be a divine hand in life on Pennsylvania Avenue, Christianity itself shouldn’t be a political force.

Often, the unique will and prerogative of the individual mixes with what should be populist civics. No politician comes to power without some preconceived notions or personal biases. People act in their self interest and seek to advance the causes that resonate with them. That’s just how the world works.

For that reason, it isn’t problematic that politicians have religious beliefs; it is the fervor with which those on the Right allow those beliefs to sway their political judgement that is troublesome.

Bachmann isn’t the first ambitious politician who has crossed the line in invoking religion. Our last President – a man of true faith – also exploited and abused publicly his relationship with the divine. “I am driven with a mission from God,” George W. Bush said in 2003, “God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”

Candidate after candidate on the Right – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin (they keep emerging) – claim that President Obama defies the Founding Fathers’ intentions by offering a solution for people who don’t have access to affordable health insurance. These candidates, who continually call on God and religion to justify their opinion on public policy, forget Thomas Jefferson’s guidelines – which have been upheld time and again by the Supreme Court – “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” 

This same group of candidates and candidates-to-be are the driving force of several fabricated notions of conflict: war between Islam and the rest of the world; war between China and the American Dream; war between Obama and “family values.” What Michele Bachmann and her ilk fail to realize in the heat of hyperbole is that they are instigating another war altogether: the war between Church and State – and it is turning the main-stage of American politics into a circus.

Modern politics is shaped by a rapidly decreasing degree of religious impartiality. Forget  “joke” or “metaphor.” If John F. Kennedy had to prove that his religion would not conflict with his civic duty in 1960, Michele Bachmann has even more obligation to do so in our current political landscape.

Our contemporaries are the movers of the next generation. We will be voting for the first time in November 2012. We need each of the current crop of candidates to echo what President Kennedy told a cluster of cameras in 1960:

“Whatever issue may come before me as president…I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”