His Own Standard: Why We on the Left Must Hold Obama Accountable

Since September, the Obama administration has been under fire from a Republican weapon that seems to reload with aggravating perpetuity. Weathering attacks on the specific responses to the tragedy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, President Obama sought to mute a chorus of commentators in the presidential debate at Hofstra University last October. Speaking about the American diplomatic corps, Obama absolved others of ultimate wrongdoing:

“They’re my representatives. I send them there – oftentimes into harm’s way…Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible.”

The Obama of national security is accountable, responsible, and when necessary, culpable.

That approach is historically sound. When the Deepwater Horizon turned the Gulf of Mexico black in 2010, BP CEO Tony Hayward couldn’t shrug, hold up his palms, and point the rig’s mechanics. (We know this because that’s exactly what he tried to do.) In the wake of Benghazi, Obama expressed without reservation that – even in the minutia of these national security issues – he had been responsible for prevention and must be liable upon disaster.

But when last week told a tale of two scandals – both underscored by the Libya barrage that will not cease – that air of accountability emptied out of the Obama administration. It became evident that Obama’s feelings of direct responsibility were isolated to the realm of national security.

What happened in Libya was deplorable because that which could have been prevented wasn’t prevented. Where security personnel should have been proactive, they were shoved into a corner and forced to be rushed and reactive. It all happened more than five thousand miles from the White House, but Obama took the fall. He held himself to a higher standard.

But last week’s IRS case laid bare an imbalance in Obama’s priorities. Though his appointees – or bureaucrats hired by people who fit that bill – engaged in something steeped in moral and legal turpitude, their transgressions were minor in the scheme of things; the scandal concerned quotidian domestic financial issues. No death, no carnage – just taxes. The agency’s office is just five blocks from the White House. And what’s been the White House response?

Obama is “concerned by every report he sees on this,” Jay Carney told reporters last Tuesday, “and that is why he looks forward to finding out what the IG report says.” In short: the president will take no responsibility before someone of consequence pins it on him.

Not proactive, reactive. Not accountable, evasive. Obama shrugs, hold up his palms, and point to the rig’s mechanics. Suddenly, he’s Tony Hayward at the Resolute Desk. An incongruence in governing.

The virtually simultaneous revelation that the Department of Justice seized hundreds of phone records prompted a similarly aloof response from team Obama. AP White House reporter Jim Kuhnhenn asked the first question at the May 14 press conference, immediately following the disclosure. His query can be boiled down to its premise. “In every instance,” Kuhnhenn scolded Carney, “either the president or you have placed the burden of responsibility someplace else.” A far cry from the buck-stops-here Obama of October fame.

The first chunk of Carney’s response amounted to a surface defense of the president’s record on First Amendment issues. Then he shifted the scope of his answer to White House jurisdiction over Justice cases. “We are not involved…with any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations,” he said, adding that “those matters are handled, appropriately, by the Justice Department independently.”

Again, Obama is innocent until proven guilty. His head bobs above the waters of responsibility until he’s drowning in them. The question arises: who’s in charge during the perennial White House side-step?

Perhaps the answer is the president’s surrogates – the people who run the departments being investigated. But when Attorney General Eric Holder was initially asked about the seizure of AP phone records, he told a media pool at the DOJ that it was “getting into matters that are beyond my knowledge.” His recusal from the matter left him uninformed as to “what the circumstances were here…and I frankly don’t have knowledge of those facts.”

I’m a self-declared political liberal and voted for Barack Obama last November. That seemed a clear indication that I wanted him running the country, fully informed and profoundly engaged. The more than 51% of eligible voters that opted for him reflects a similar sentiment. The de facto administration policy can’t be precautionary ignorance and retrospective hand-wringing.

The political left mustn’t echo the absent-minded rhetorical gunfire of the right; but it should make President Obama the subject of real targeted criticism until his “buck-stops-here” mentality takes the form of a coherent, comprehensive policy that encompasses his administration’s involvement in tax and law questions as much as it does issues of national security.

We don’t yet know if the IRS and DOJ allegations will grow into convictions, but regardless of circumstance, Obama’s policy should be one of continuity in accountability, not of strategic ignorance that leaves him blindsided and irreproachable. “I’m always responsible,” he said in October. I voted for that Barack Obama.

Guns and Glaciers: Why the NRA is Wrong About Newtown

Remember what Kurt Vonnegut wrote about Sandy Hook Elementary School? It was tucked within the first few pages of Slaughterhouse-Five:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden. I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows as inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“You know what I say about people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers.

Harrison Starr seems to be speaking frankly and directly to a fractured American public, spawned by a fractured Newtown. He is insisting that a race whose end is out of sight isn’t worth running; that an epidemic that can’t be cured overnight is nothing short of a lost cause; that gun violence is better left to hollow prayer and band-aid solutions than to sensible long-term remedies. But Harrison Starr is wrong.

Last Friday, Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association stood behind a mahogany podium and delivered the his organization’s official response to the Newtown massacre. In a sing-song timbre, LaPierre began. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Before he could deliver his next sentence, that statement sank into sea of punditry and antagonism.

On Sunday, LaPierre appeared on MSNBC’s Meet the Press. During the program, host David Gregory offered him – albeit forcefully – an opportunity to clarify his Friday remarks. No clarification was necessary. LaPierre proved unrelenting in his conviction that the principal problem is the person, not the weapon. The mentally ill, he said – or “lunatics,” as he tastefully called them – are the dominant players in the debate over guns in the United States.

Mental illness is surely a factor in the debate. Liza Long’s now-famous Blue Review piece “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” gave voice to a desire to shift the debate from gun control to aid for families of kids who are mentally ill. Long’s son, Michael, is violent, erratic, and – disturbingly, more problematic – undiagnosed. He needs help. And so does his mother. She describes a bleak conversation with her son’s social worker, who advised that the family’s best bet in finding treatment and therapy for her young son was “to get Michael charged with a crime.”

Few deny that the American penal establishment – entangled with the nation’s mental health establishment – is afflicted by deep-seated systemic failures. No one – neither President Obama, nor the vocal families of Newtown’s victims, nor the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (which has more than a million mental health records on file) – professes that the mental health issue should not play a significant role in our national conversation.

Yes, Jared Lee Loughner, who carried out the January 2011 rampage in Tucson, suffered from mental illness. As did James Holmes, who killed 12 people in July at a movie theater in Aurora. As did Ian Stawicki, who made headlines last May when he murdered five in a Seattle coffee house. And it is presumed – though not confirmed – that Adam Lanza did, too. But as Sen. Chuck Schumer said on Sunday, “trying to prevent shootings in schools without talking about guns is like trying to prevent lung cancer without talking about cigarettes.” Yes, many mass shooters are mentally ill. But in want of proper treatment, they kill people – and they do it with guns. So let’s talk about guns.

During the course of their exchange, David Gregory uncovered (and his guest confirmed) that the NRA’s criteria for supporting congressional legislation was straightforward: if an idea may reduce loss of life, it’s worth trying. Gregory followed up by asking LaPierre if the NRA would support any form of reduction of high capacity magazines. LaPierre sang a tune of evasion for a few minutes before conceding that it wouldn’t. Then Gregory asked if there was any gun regulation that LaPierre would support. There wasn’t. Not even one.

It seems to me alarming that the nation’s chief gun advocates can’t – nay, won’t – acknowledge inherent dangers in weaponry, even as a mechanism of mitigating those dangers. Hazard, they say, lurks only in its operators. A December 16 piece in The Atlantic noted that the Second Amendment, while safeguarding Americans’ rights to guns, “doesn’t say a single thing about the right to own bullets.” The same notion was central to an old Chris Rock comedy routine. “I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars,” Rock would say. “Five thousand dollars per bullet…and people would think before they killed somebody.” You remember the old adage about truth in humor.

Taxing or regulating bullets could prove effective in reducing loss of life, thus the proposal fits snugly in LaPierre’s criteria. James Holmes bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet. Had anyone been watching, one might assume that such a purchase would have been a red flag of sorts. High capacity magazines in assault weapons allow a gunman to shoot off thirty or more rounds without having to reload his weapon. But LaPierre and the NRA are adamant: “A gun is a tool; the problem is the criminal.”

They are fatally mistaken. If last year we had borne witness to 8,583 murders caused by rocks, I would likely be an advocate of rock control. And had those deaths been caused by umbrellas, I would be in favor of umbrella control. But nearly 70 percent of murders last year were caused by guns. Firearms act as subservient accomplices in homicide. Yes, people kill people. But they kill people with guns.

Gun violence in this country will not end in full until there emerges a new lethal instrument that usurps the gun in efficacy and vogue. With anticipation, we dread that day. Harrison Starr couldn’t have predicted the melting of the glaciers.

The solution doesn’t eliminate the problem, but renders its victims fewer. Wayne LaPierre’s soapbox is wearing thin, and while it would be naïve to think or to claim that we can wholly eliminate gun violence, it would be a deadly crime not to try.

An Endorsement With an Asterisk

Written for the Huffington Post, published October 31, 2012:

It felt almost as surreal as it did cold.

I was a shivering, wonderstruck ninth grader. He was just minutes into his turn at the helm of the world’s most powerful engine. Between us were a cement barrier, a military guard, and an armored limousine wall. As the sirens whined, I waved, then he waved back. And then he was gone.

Minutes earlier, I had been on my tip toes, trying to steal a glimpse of the man himself, but my eyesight was too weak, and the podium was obscured among clusters of naked trees. I had laid my feet flat and settled for the megatron.

Now, as the inauguration parade began, I stood on Pennsylvania Avenue and made eye contact with the President of the United States. My innumerable thoughts were drowned out by the cheering thousands behind me and beside me. I had just seen Barack Obama take the oath of office. Now he was looking at me.

I was blissfully unaware. He knew that the celebration would be short.

Nearly four years later, his critics’ words are a thunderclap: “He hasn’t done enough.”

They’re right. It would be irresponsible to claim that President Obama should be reelected exclusively on the merits of what he has accomplished. It seems without doubt that he has not achieved nearly enough; so speak the fractured limbs of a nation still in pain.

But on issue after issue, the Obama administration has moved in the direction of progress, even if it hasn’t yet attained exhaustive success. It is the collection of alternatives — the terrifying nature of what could have been, and what could still be — that amount to a ringing endorsement of President Obama for another term.

Under the belief that Obama should have treaded further on the issues he has undertaken — that he hasn’t done “enough” — it would be counterintuitive for us to veer sharply toward a radical alternative. Progress unfinished is but a puddle of futile hope. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.

Some issues on which Obama has made real headway seem only spoken about in hushed murmurs, eclipsed by Washington’s hyperbole-prone discussion of the favored children of the media — the issues that take up airtime. We are best served not by shouting about how the president has spent money (indeed, he has — and lots of it), but by assessing where and on what he has spent it.

Take, for example, the environmental realm. Experts across the board agree that the president’s deepest failure in the area took the form of a cap-and-trade bill that, had it passed, would have cut the nation’s carbon footprint by 80 percent by 2050. The bill ultimately disappeared in the congressional inferno.

Scarred by legislative burn-marks, President Obama felt the sting of his mistakes. He swiftly issued (by executive order) what the Washington Post recently called “the most sweeping attack on air pollution in U.S. history,” placing severe limitations on the production of toxic gasses. Some have grumbled that these regulations immobilize the coal industry. For those in the sustainability sector, such a truth is a far cry from tragedy.

Perhaps this administration’s pinnacle environmental accomplishment is its groundbreaking fuel-efficiency rule: by 2016, all new cars will be required to average 35.5 miles to the gallon. The rule will cut back on 1.3 million barrels of oil each day and reduce carbon emissions by hundreds of millions of tons.

Bill Maher — comedian by name and social commentator by practice — noted last week a paradigmatic shift from the fantasyland of the Bush years to a sobering new reality. “Before Obama got in (to office) the Smithsonian couldn’t mention global warming as a possible reason the glaciers were shrinking.” By merely acknowledging certain truths, President Obama has restored the nation’s standing as the world’s top investor renewable energy.

Despite his reforms, however, President Obama’s work isn’t yet adequate. And now, the House Republican budget — supported in full by its proud architect, Paul Ryan — outlines cuts topping $897 billion, many of which will uproot the seeds of sustainability that Obama has planted and spoil the fruit that his constituents have borne. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.

The thirst for more doesn’t end at the ozone layer. Examine the changes in the classroom that the last three and a half years have seen.

The stimulus package took effect at the recession’s apex. Most of its funds appropriated toward education were spent on ensuring that teachers kept their jobs. Since that initial groundwork legislation, however, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been met with exceptional success in driving the translation of their own policies into state ones.

In the process, the president has taken a page from the Republican playbook and painted his education initiatives in a laissez-faire glaze. The Race to the Top initiative has invited states to compete for a limited sum of money, which has been awarded to the legislatures who most thoroughly employ administration education policies — implementing merit pay for teachers, building data systems to track student progress, and the like.

The tactic has worked: Upwards of thirty states have actually altered their education platforms to heighten their grant prospects.

But Obama’s most assertive push has been his fight against Bush-era education policies. The administration has exempted 33 states from the laws of No Child Left Behind. The states who qualified for exemptions did so by proactively seeking out ways to sidestep NCLB’s über-idealistic requirement that every student perform at least grade-level work in English and math studies by 2014.

Again, a noble effort. Again, insufficient. The vast majority of Obama education policies are blueprints — semi-complete plans for full implementation in the coming years. In a February GOP primary debate, Mitt Romney was emphatic in declaring that “we need get the federal government out of education.” He has echoed such sentiments deep into the general election season. But the only avenue through which states can legally forgo unhealthy NCLB practices is federal government action — precisely the kind that the President Obama has begun to take. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.

Was my optimism on that frigid inauguration day for naught? The morning had begun as my dad and I sprinted through the streets of Arlington to catch the 4:30 am subway car that would take us — at a bumpy, rhythmic adagio — to Capitol Hill. We had stood in line for five hours, watching the sun rise over the Mall, wondering if perhaps our president-elect was doing the same. The symbolism didn’t escape us.

Indeed, we have been awakened to the limitations of “hope and change.” The environmental and education issues I present are simply a case study representative of the phases of forward movement. But the progress we’ve made rings hollow if we halt it abruptly. President Obama hasn’t yet done enough; I’m opting to let him finish what he’s started.

The sun is peaking out. Let it rise.

Four Thoughts on the First Presidential Debate

Written for the Emory Wheel:

Though they shared a stage at the University of Denver on Wednesday evening, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seemed in different worlds. Their tones presented an eerie, almost disconcerting dichotomy: Where Romney contested, Obama conversed; where Romney insisted, Obama dismissed; Where Romney had just finished his sprint up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, Obama was on a coffee break between lectures at the University of Chicago. The candidates were entirely incongruous.

Why did Obama seem so much less prepared than Romney did?

What was it that gave Romney such a definitive debate victory? Did the Commission for Presidential Debates make a mistake in choosing Jim Lehrer? The following is my take on some of these questions that have pervaded American minds and airwaves since Wednesday night.

A Thought on the Downfalls of Passivity

For several weeks, the Romney-Ryan ticket has been the subject of intense media scrutiny. News personalities and journalists alike have pushed the ever-evasive pair to provide specifics on its tax and healthcare plans (e.g. Paul Ryan’s recent interview with Chris Wallace). If Romney felt that he could afford to shirk the electorate’s pleas for specifics thus far, he certainly must have believed that he would be pressed on such details during the first nationally-televised debate.

Romney came prepared: he marched on-stage Wednesday night with a heaping arsenal of statistics and figures. But the “specifics” Romney spewed didn’t quench the nation’s thirst for details. His supposed plans, proposals and numbers rang hollow in the ears of several venerated commentators. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo noted that Romney’s arguments were laden with glaring miscalculations. “The numbers simply don’t add up,” Marshall wrote. “It really is simple math. The studies Romney cited aren’t even studies. A couple are just (op-eds) by his advisors.”

New York Times columnist Gail Collins echoed Marshall’s point. According to Romney’s emphatic debate proclamations, she noted that, “taxes will go down, but not revenues. The health care reform plan will go away, except for all the popular parts, which will magically remain intact.” Romney’s words were glazed in opportunism and in want of coherence.

To the chagrin of many on the left, President Obama employed a crippling passivity. His subtle nods, reverberating silences and almost patronizing smirks propagated a general air of concession. Pinned against Romney’s feigned charisma, Obama’s efforts were futile; his submissive energy fell flat.

The president’s passivity didn’t afford him room to hit forcefully on either of Marshall’s or Collins’ points. Can you imagine if Obama had asked Romney to add up the numbers he had presented or to cite even one of his “studies?” Mitt Romney didn’t win on the coattails of substance. He won in the absence of an opponent on the offensive.

A Thought on Benefits of Passivity

On Wednesday night, Obama didn’t mention Romney’s “47 percent” comments. He didn’t mention Bain Capital. He didn’t mention Romney’s offshore bank accounts. Romney’s advisors may have equipped him with a quick and potent retort for each issue, but the candidate was scarcely handed the opportunity to use one.

The next day, Romney appeared on a cable television program to concede that his comments on the 47 percent had been “just completely wrong.” As a result of Obama’s passivity, Romney’s rejoinder and attempt to shift the national conversation was reduced to a small subtext in the blogosphere, in place of reaching nearly 38 million attentive pairs of ears.

A Thought on Priorities

Beyond strides to shroud his tax returns in a mist of evasion, Mitt Romney’s mind is presently one-track, ingrained with a single abiding goal: become the president of the United States. Obama’s is more complex: be the president of the United States.

In a recent Rolling Stone feature piece, Michael Lewis profiles a Barack Obama whose approach to governing has been stripped of any tangible concern for public opinion. Lewis draws a rough sketch of the issues that sat atop President Obama’s psyche when he was awoken from his sleep and informed that the nuclear fallout in Japan may have placed the United States in the worldwide path of a radiation cloud.

Lewis writes: “At that very moment (if you were the president), you were deciding on whether to approve a ridiculously audacious plan to assassinate Osama bin Laden in his house in Pakistan. You were arguing, as ever, with Republican leaders in Congress about the budget. And you were receiving daily briefings on various revolutions in various Arab countries.”

Obama has made a practice of limiting his presidential wardrobe exclusively to navy or gray suits. The president’s rationale? His existence is plagued by a tiny margin for error; he simply can’t afford to allocate brainpower for decisions and exercises whose implications are trivial. It’s safe to assume that the debate was just another (less weighty) issue on his heavy plate.

A Thought on the Moderator

Jim Lehrer was the victim of an off-night. The Los Angeles Times synopsized most major criticisms of his performance, noting that Lehrer “didn’t enforce time limits, gave Obama four more minutes to speak than he gave Romney and didn’t clarify some of the arcane terms tossed about by the two combatants.”

But it’s important to remember that this debate, by Lehrer terms, was a fluke. After the 2008 election season, the news anchor announced that the McCain-Obama contest would be his last. Only the tenacity of the Commission for Presidential Debates would persuade him to return for one final rodeo.

Lehrer is widely regarded as the most skilled and adept moderator of the era of televised debates. He has successfully steered debates in during election year since 1988, each performance lauded success by standards of objectivity and direction. A recent Pew Center poll ranked the show he spearheaded and long anchored, PBS NewsHour, “one of the most trusted news sources in the country.” This week’s widely-proliferated notion of Lehrer as the debate’s “loser” may bear relevance on Wednesday’s event in Denver, but should count as only a blemish on an otherwise distinguished and prolific career.

Spurts of Political Contemplation – TBT Politics on Twitter

I am often asked what moves me to write any given piece for Truth Be Told. Generally, my response is that I write full-length articles “when I have something to say.”

Often, however, I find myself inundated with shorter thoughts about the day’s events – thoughts that may not be grounds for a full 750-word piece. If you’re at all interested in those spurts of political contemplation, which come in packages of 140 characters or fewer, I’d love for you to join me on Twitter.

Follow TBT Politics’ tweets here.

When Jews Criticize Israel – Why Cautious Rebuke is a Mechanism of Defense

Earlier this month, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles ran an article entitled “Wolpe vs. Beinart.” The piece was Rabbi David Wolpe’s passionate and compelling response to an email Peter Beinart recently sent to supporters of J-Street.

Beinart’s e-mail scolds the American Jewish community for failing to develop a link with West Bank Palestinians similar to that which it maintained with the freedom fighters of the 1960s. In the email, Beinart asserts that “the great Jewish question of our age is whether a people who for millennia lived as strangers—and spun visions of justice that inspired the world—will act justly now that we wield power.” Rabbi Wolpe denounces and questions the categorical nature of Beinart’s words, painting them as arrogant and presumptuous. Feigning the knowledge of the steps Israel must take toward peace, he writes, displays “a strutting lack of humility.”

The following is my response to that exchange:

There may, in fact, be no single “great Jewish question of our age.” Many observers of the Jewish state argue that the preeminent “question” is that of a nuclear Iran. Others assert that Jewish survival depends on a peoples’ capacity to renew its tradition and re-contextualize it in the modern era. Still others view remedying the Israeli government’s relationship with its ultra-orthodox population as a burning necessity. A claim like Beinart’s, which labels one challenge as “the great Jewish question,” and offers definitive answers to any of these questions, is irresponsible and does, as Rabbi Wolpe suggests, reflect a degree of arrogance.

Beinart’s comments, however, propagate another important question, or line of them: Is it acceptable for Jews not to glorify the core tenets of Israeli society? Can one be a Zionist – learn about, teach about, or love Israel – through a non-idealistic and sobering lens? Does “criticism” carry an unconditionally detrimental connotation?

I find few moments more fulfilling than standing atop Mount Arbel as the sun peaks over the Sea of Galilee. My Jewish soul overflows with pride when Israel is the first to respond to a natural disaster in a country who condemns its very existence. I feel profound spiritual connection among the ancient, towering walls of the Old City. I am an ohev tzion – a lover of Israel.

Even so, Israel is a political entity, and, like all other political entities, its government makes mistakes – militarily, economically, religiously, and politically. Rabbi Wolpe, in his admonition of Beinart, writes that “honest dissent” is necessary, and acknowledges that “Israel has sometimes done bad, misguided, even terrible things.” Challenges pervade the contemporary  discussion: Israel may have the right to build settlements, but does that make the settlements unequivocally moral? Is every military maneuver in the state’s best interest? Should the Haredi population always have such an overwhelming say in decisions of governance?

It was at a pro-Israel conference last Spring that I brought up some of these questions with the Jewish father of a friend.

His response was vitriolic. “You think your views are valid?” he yelled, with more rebuke than wonder. “You’re just a naïve kid who’s read a few articles. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I was taken aback, but hardly surprised. It wasn’t the first time that a conversation of this sort had taken a turn for the worse. In many circles within the American Jewish community, much that verges on criticism of Israel is considered taboo. Those who call Netanyahu or Lieberman policies into question are often scolded with a vengeance.

There is a distinct and often forgotten line between self-loathing and self-serving.

Henry Kissinger may fall under the former category, while Israel supporters who dare to point out, with prudence, the state’s ill-considered decisions qualify as the latter. If Zionism is engrained in our collective identity, we carry a weighty responsibility to be our own watchdogs.

When we chide the Obama administration for one of its policies that we perceive as being contrary to American interest, we aren’t renouncing our American citizenship. Rather, we are exercising our democratic prerogative. Yet, for whatever reason, when the conversation moves to the Middle East, constructive criticism becomes synonymous with betrayal.

In truth, the American Jewish community’s criticism of Israel is not fully comparable to that of most other groups in most other countries. Examine Israel’s disparate function within the community of nations: The constituency of the United States or France, for most practical purposes, ends at the borders of Canada and Mexico. The constituency of a state founded on religious doctrine extends far beyond any geographical border.

But Israel is often labeled the only “true democracy” in its very unstable region. Democracy functions through constituent response; if constituents support the policies, they support the candidates. If they don’t, they do the reverse. Israeli citizens take advantage of democracy by voting. We make the best of a free and open Israel by voicing our opinions of which policies Netanyahu should keep, and which ones he should change. The American Jewish community, collectively, is a constituent of the State of Israel.

Peter Beinart’s public anxiety that ours may be “the generation that watches the dream of a democratic Jewish state die” seems not to be – at least linguistically – the sort of cautious rebuke that can elicit any sort of tangible response.

Daniel Gordis, the prominent commentator on Israel, compares Jews closed to criticizing Israel to parents who never critique their children: They’re in an unproductive covenant. Loving Israel, he recently wrote, “means loving unconditionally but knowing that love does not mean overlooking serious flaws.” Like effective parenting, our criticism needs to be present, but it must also be constructive and intentional.

Followers of the American Jewish relationship with Israel often argue that criticism of the Israeli government’s decisions should, for the most part, take place behind closed doors – outside the eye of public scrutiny. I agree; the Jewish State has no shortage of bad luck with the media. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who has been called “Israel’s single most visible defender,” has written that this criticism must be proportional and contextual, asserting that “what is missing (from the equation of diplomatic criticism) is the comparable criticism of equal or greater violations by other countries and other groups.” The American Jewish community is safe in deciding to publicize its positive interactions with Israel and shroud its denunciations of the state. But the quiet steps we do take toward improving Israel (by way of expressions of dissatisfaction) must be real and palpable.

There is, as Rabbi Wolpe contends, “room for honest dissent.” When the Israeli government is wrong, we have a holy imperative to criticize it. Our criticism must be deliberate, constructive, specific, and concise, not categorical, nor arrogant, nor presumptuous; it must provide a foundation from which to build stronger policy, not tools with which to dismantle a nation. Our Jewish responsibility is to defend our only homeland. To criticize is to clarify, and clarification is – without doubt – a mechanism of defense.

A Weapon of Distraction and Numbness – Fighting Computers in Classrooms

As featured in the Huffington Post, adapted from the original version on The Roar.

I had never seen anything like it. I’d only left class for a few minutes, but as I was about to turn the corner, something caught my eye. I stared, stalled in my tracks, into the classroom window in front of me. Through the half-drawn shades, I could just make out the History teacher and a few of my friends in the class. It wasn’t the people in the room that had given me pause, though; it was the luminous patches of glowing light that lined the desks, almost uniformly.

Computers are killing classrooms.

Without question, online data sharing programs are efficient and both environmentally and financially sustainable. Communication servers like FirstClass keep school communities connected. The notion of “one laptop per student” ushers high schoolers into the same era of globalization that has caused such drastic shifts in self-sovereignty throughout much of the rest of the world.

But there’s a caveat to those advances: Technology is neutral, but its uses and users are not. My independent high school — by its very nature — is frenzied, adrenalized, and consistently active. We may be advancing technologically, but our engagement and education are in retreat. It’s time for teachers and students to begin thinking beyond the laptop’s use as a tool, and realize its quickly solidifying potential as a weapon of distraction and numbness.

Cut back to the classroom: The students may, indeed, be looking at a pertinent document on a school webpage, but the problem lies therein — they are looking, not reading; skimming, not absorbing; hearing, not listening, and certainly not engaging.

A teacher approached me after class a few weeks ago. “Did everyone seem a little bit distant today?” he asked. Yes, we had been distant. Earlier in the year, my classmates and I had been quick to respond to a point that seemed off-color, or to wrestle with the material presented. Now, we’re transfixed. Those glowing arcs of MacBooks in my school’s classrooms are causing a steep and rushed decline in engagement, counterargument, expression, and even interest.

In another one of my discussion-based classes, the teacher often begins with a provocative question as a jumping-off point for active debate. But when I look around the room, almost every student who isn’t responding verbally is faced-down, eyes — and attentions — mesmerized by Tetris, QuickMeme.com, and the beckon-call of the Facebook news feed. I, too, find the screen an enticing prospect, and (often unknowingly) dive deep within a sea of articles and Internet phenomena that my AP Government teacher would be quick to label “non-germane.”

My evidence is purely anecdotal; I have limited knowledge of statistics or empirical data to support my assertion. But my experiences as a student in classes that range from the standard to AP levels testify to the notion that the digital approach — categorical in its nature, far-reaching in its effects — is hindering my education and undermining the dynamic and participatory environment that student and faculty leaders work so hard to build.

It’s not that we students have a malicious intent. We spend Saturday nights thinking up ways to further distract our ever-distracted psyches. Few of us have a strong-willed desire not to learn. The problem? The modern classroom — an environment that requires us to be present — is simply no longer conducive to being present.

The iPhone has taken my school by storm. The BlackBerry still permeates campus. We use them during class — a shock to neither students nor faculty. In fact, most schools like mine have their fair share of teachers whose phones make all sorts of noises mid-lesson. But the glow of the laptop and the buzz of our phones are denigrating the very basis upon which we learn; they are pulling us closer to the virtual world of profile pictures and pushing us further from the pragmatic and illuminating realms of derivatives, Federalism, Punnett squares, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The following is my proposal to begin alleviating the consequences of the transfixing glow. Some will call it radical, I call it practical: Students should stop using their laptops to take notes and revert to the pen and paper. Each student should put his or her shut-off phone on his or her desk before class. Teachers should do the same. Google Docs, Schoology, Evernote, FirstClass, and other digital means of data sharing should be used for reading and submitting; when the primary function of the technology has been accomplished, we should shut our laptop covers and discuss.

I haven’t yet been able to follow the above rules — but I try to. If I did, I would be both a better student and a more engaged member of my school community. Students don’t need to be convinced that we’re distracted, we just need help becoming less so. These rules shouldn’t be imposed from above, but, rather, should be a community-wide exercise in self-control.

I believe firmly that a transcendentalist strategy or an attitude that lures us to return to antiquity would be better left to Thoreau and his kin. But laptops are moving us further from enlightenment. One biblical prophet’s vision foretold that, in the messianic age, the lion would lay down with the lamb. I’m no prophet, but in my vision, during class, the smartphone would stay out of the hand.