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.

An Afterthought No More – How the Occupy Movement Can Become Politically Effective


Just after arriving at Union Station this afternoon, on a return trip from San Diego, I was driving through downtown Los Angeles. My parents, younger brother and I sped away from the train stop. Past Disney Hall. Past the Colburn Music School. Past Olvera Street. Then past City Hall ––

“Wait, what is that?” my brother asks.

The polychrome slew of grimy tents, crumpled signs, and piled sleeping bags is Occupy LA.

“They’re still there?” he asks.

Indeed, they’re still there, but my brother’s response is indicative of a pervasive, perhaps nationwide impression of the movement: Occupy isn’t so much a wakeup call anymore as it is a nuisance – or, at best, an afterthought. It hasn’t been three months, but the Occupy movement is slowly emerging a footnote on history, a “remember when…” for old friends reminiscing on incidents they’d thought each other had forgotten.

Its causes are hardly an afterthought. Almost a tenth of Americans remain without work – thus, without an income. Even more have become impoverished. Income and wealth disparity hasn’t disappeared. The sundry and eclectic issues that the Occupy movement calls attention to haven’t diminished. Protesters have endured evictions, condemnations, and a good deal of mace, but the movement is dwindling in the public eye.

Why is it dwindling? The movement has yet to attain any sort of conscious or meaningful focus. Its powers of organization barely extend beyond the microcosms of protesters’ individual urban settlements and 130-character Twitter messages.

The following is a proposal: a means of transforming the Occupiers from seemingly parasitic complainers into a cohesive and effective mechanism of policy change. Mine is far from an original concept; only a reiteration of a tried and proven process. It could, perhaps, create real, large scale, lasting change.

Most are familiar with the Occupy movement, but few know about the beckon-call that triggered it. Adbusters is Canadian advocacy group that portrays and publicizes its undertakings through graphic art. In September, the Adbusters blog published a piece of art – emblazoned with a black-and-white image of a dancer atop Wall Street’s Charging Bull sculpture – that implored its readers to “Occupy Wall Street” on September 17th. The call was picked up by several other online groups, and a few days later a cluster of mostly twenty-somethings organized, found its way to Zuccotti Park, and “occupied” it.

“Occupy” protests have, of course, swept the nation and the world in the same vein. That original art piece – that call to “occupy” – pervaded indirectly from the homepage of a blog to the humid streets of Greece, the withered plains of Texas – even the manicured lawns of the campuses of some of the nation’s most selective universities. The movement is a feat of human spontaneity and an illustration of a deep and resonant yearning for equity.

To ensure the clout and efficacy of the Occupy movement, a new call must be issued: a time to convene. A national convention – an assembly – of all who dub themselves “Occupiers” is a organizational necessity. Under the same laws and procedures that currently govern the urban settlements, convention participants should put forward proposals that can comprise a platform. The convention should vote on the issues, and those that win by a majority should be added to the Occupy platform.

It may take hours – even days or weeks – but the result will be invaluable and constructive toward the future of the movement at the issues on which it has grown: an effective, explicitly defined political platform.

From a platform – as we have learned from the Democratic party, the GOP, the woman’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, and even the Tea Party – come candidates, policies, political action committees, and palpable, thorough change. As results of the above mentioned assemblies and solidified platforms, women now share equal electoral influence with men, black Americans study in the same school libraries as white Americans, a pre-existing condition can’t bar you from health insurance, and that precise health insurance law is under tremendous judicial scrutiny.

“They’re still there?” my brother asks. We’re still here, will answer the representatives of the movement who are running against governors, assemblymen, presidents, offering legislation aimed at building infrastructure, creating jobs, and reforming trade and big business. We’re still here, will answer a country bereft of a nauseating financial disparity. We’re still here, will answer the ninety-nine percent.

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.

Camaraderie Out of Extremity – Gratitude in the Wake of the bin Laden Assassination


Last night, I was flying with my family back from Portland to Los Angeles. As we strapped ourselves into our seats and powered down our cell phones, a muffled voice came over the plane’s speaker system.

“This is your captain speaking,” said the voice. “Just wanted to let you all know that President Obama is speaking right now at the White House and they killed Osama bin Laden.” Cheers and applause erupted from the elated passengers – among them, a businessman dressed to the nines, a mom traveling with her young son and daughter, and an elderly bearded man dressed in traditional Sikh garb.

When I got home, I had several text messages and voice mail messages waiting on my phone. “GOD BLESS AMERICA,” said one. “Got ‘em!” said another. The social networks (Twitter and Facebook) flared up with similarly nationalistic sentiments: photos of American flags, videos of military marches, assertions of American exceptionalism. Then, at school today, students greeted the news with marked astonishment and awe and – though some were hesitant – many expressed euphoria at the assassination. The last time Americans acted in such patriotic accord was, in fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001.

On September 12, 2001, in the wake of national tragedy, I went with my father to buy an American flag at a local banner store. When we got to the store, we were surprised to find ourselves at the back of a line that stretched around the block. Everyone wanted to buy a flag. Everyone wanted to prove that he or she was a piece of the American puzzle.

And today, as the dust finally settles, camaraderie has returned. Even in the heat of the most vitriolic and polarizing climate in modern political history, Americans seem to be united again around one cause – one ideal. It is evident to me that in times of extremity – and, all too often, only in such times – people collaborate. When two students feel helpless before their history test, they may come together to study. When two companies are faltering on the brink of collapse, they may merge. So too, when Americans feel overcome by mourning, or overjoyed with pride, something magnificent happens.

Tomorrow, of course, we’ll all return to our bickering; Democrats will be Democrats, Republicans will be Republicans, we will be we, and they will be they. But today, as we witness the power of mutual loyalty, I am grateful to live in a country whose citizens sometimes – everyone once in a while – find allies in one another.

This is Truth Be Told’s 100th post.

Lessons from a Little Old Lady – How Kinship Can Eclipse Polarization


Sunday night at dinner, as I was poking and prodding at the final remnants of my butternut squash ravioli, my grandfather turned to me and — in that matter-of-fact tone that only a family patriarch can pull off — said, “Ami, here’s a story for you.”

He and my grandmother had flown from Los Angeles to Portland on Friday morning. When they took their seats on the plane, my grandfather became engaged in a conversation with — as he put it — “a little old white lady.” As their conversation progressed, the woman shared with him that she was on her way home from Tucson where she had traveled to listen to President Obama’s speech at AU.

My grandfather was taken aback. He wondered why she hadn’t just watched it on television like the rest of the world, why she’d cared so much about something so distant, why someone so frail would expend so much energy to fly to an unfamiliar place. The woman smiled at my grandfather. “Because,” she said — as though the answer were obvious — “he’s our President.”

Two years ago, Barack Obama was elected on camaraderie’s coattails. The “hope and change” mantra of his campaign was a point of cynical contention from the right, but the desire that it represented was very real and deeply rooted in the contemporary American psyche. The country had a profound thirst for something new and fresh.

But even in the wake of such an overwhelming mandate of optimism, polarization has triumphed over brotherhood, gridlock has transcended compromise — and history has repeated itself. We’re stuck again in that vicious cycle: as political vitriol morphs into physical brutality, the country takes a brief step back to self-assess. The shooting in Tucson has momentarily united us — but it’s only a matter of time until that harmony will wear off and we’ll be back to our usual, comfortable division.

How do we know that? Because nine years ago, when the towers fell, stars and stripes blanketed our nation and the American populace took on a patriotic, altruistic flair. But when the dust settled, what emerged was that pervasive with-us-or-against-us mindset (which consequently paved the way for a streak of impulsive choices and continual polarization). It wasn’t long before “kinship” and “unity” had been erased entirely from the American lexicon.

And forty-three years ago, a significant portion of our nation rallied around a preacher whose stated goal was to end the madness, end the division, end the segregation. But the recurring segmentalist nature of our country made sure that he didn’t make it to the promised land. Even then, malevolence overturned any sort of mutual allegiance we had to one another.

We need more little old ladies.

If we all did away with blind cynicism and acrimony and instead maintained a state of mind that promoted communal dependence and patriotic loyalty to one another, Washington’s gridlock would disappear in a heartbeat — and so would the nation’s. Hostility casts a shadow on our world. But in darkness, all it takes is one flicker of light to see our path.

In memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., I aspire to live in a country where civility outshines anger, where camaraderie outshines discrimination, and where little old ladies are the lights that guide us on our way to getting there.

The High Road


Tonight, Israel faces a life-or-death decision.

Throughout the past few weeks, representatives of several parties (including Israel, “Palestine,” and the United States) have met in an attempt to “get the ball rolling” on fresh Middle East peace talks. These talks, regardless of their ultimate effect, have set the stage for a calm conversation about a subject that usually amounts to a screaming match.

Perhaps you believe that peace is possible. Perhaps you are a cautious skeptic. Maybe you are certain that comprehensive peace in the Middle East is out of the question. But most people will acknowledge that these talks are shaping up to be the closest thing to a “step” that the world has seen in a long time.

So, what is Israel’s life-or-death decision? Tonight at midnight, the disputed moratorium on Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank ends. Palestinian negotiators have stated in unequivocal terms that the current peace dialogue will quickly become a hopeless monologue if Israel allows further construction in the West Bank. Peace Now– which dubs itself a “left-wing non-governmental organization”– claims that Israel has thousands of building projects set and ready to go. This leaves Israel with a quandary: muffle the dialogue, or take another “step.”

I’ve been to the West Bank.

One of the most sublime, peaceful weekends of my life was spent in the Gush Etzion settlement of Efrat. It’s not scary to live there or to spend time there. Walking around Efrat is a pleasure. It’s serene, almost like being in a suburb of Los Angeles. What’s scary is driving out of Jerusalem and into the West Bank (or vice versa). As you drive into the West Bank, gargantuan walls overwhelm you. “Why do I see giant stone dividers driving into your neighborhood?” I asked my host. Because during the Intifadeh, Arabs shot at Israeli drivers. They threw rocks and explosives. My host told me about an occasion when she had been driving with her children (who were very young at the time), and a bullet grazed her windshield. They were lucky. Other bullets, upon other cars, didn’t graze. It’s a reality that Israelis living in these neighborhoods must endure.

To me, one expression pops out in my mind. “Take the high road,” my mom has always said to me. Sure, in second grade, that Crayola marker was rightfully mine. But when Danny stole it from me, should I have let it go, or should I have fought and screamed until both of us were hostile and acrimonious? For those of you who missed out on your kindergarten teacher’s lesson on sharing, the correct answer is the former. Swallow your pride and take the high road.

Israel, you have the right to build your settlements in the most controversial spot on earth. But you could also build your apartments in Be’er Sheva, Eilat, Haifa, Sde Boker, Dimona, Karmiel, Hertzeliya, or anywhere else. Anywhere. To use economic terms, the ultimate cost to the peace process outweighs the immediate benefit to Israel; the utility Israel derives from pissing off the Palestinians. Continuing to build settlements in the West Bank is not a good idea.

Tonight, be the bigger man and swallow your pride.

Tonight, take the high road.