Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Filtering by Category: People Power

"Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community"

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(An opening note: Tis that time of the year when reading and editing clinical trials, lecturing and writing about the golden age of Hollywood and engaging in partisan politics must take a backseat to preparing for High Holiday services. And so, as is annually the case, I am turning one of my Rosh Hashana sermons into the basis of a weekly essay. Because I - for obvious reasons - despise the expression “killing two birds with one Stone” - let’s just say that this week’s post is serving a dual purpose . . .

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is the only Jewish holiday which begins on the first day of the month.  And unlike most calendars, the Jewish New Year does not begin on the first day of the first month.  Rather, the Jewish New Year begins on the first day of the  7th month, which is called Tishri.  The Jewish calendar is a monumentally complex document; while years (we are entering 5780) are reckoned on a strictly solar basis, months are strictly lunar - e.g., based on fluctuations of the moon. And unlike most New Year’s celebrations around the world, this one calls for far more contemplation than revelry; the “resolutions” it requires we make are far less fanciful or frivolous than most.  Year in, year out as I prepare for the new year, I reread and contemplate anew a handful of what I consider to be among the most important, the most crucial bits of wisdom coming from our literature.  Among them are:     

  • Lev. 19:14: לֹֽא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּֽאֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֹֽה (Neither curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind.”)

    Lev. 19:16” לֹֽא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַֽעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ (“Do not be a talebearer *[a perpetual or compulsive liar]; do not stand by and watch other human beings idly bleed.”

  • The Ethics of the Sages (2:1) הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בּוּר יְרֵא חֵטְא, וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד, וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, וְלֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים. ובִמְקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ: (“The Sage Hillel used to say: a A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious, nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach. He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. In a place where there few if any human beings  you strive to be a mentsch.”)

  • The Ethics of the Sages (4:1): :זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קיט), מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי (The sage Ben Zoma used to say ‘Who is truly wise? The one who can learn from any and everyone.  For as it is written (Psalms 119.99) “I have learned from all my teachers.”

  • The Ethics of the Sages (2:4) אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר (Do not separate yourself from your community.”)

In concluding 5779 and heading into the Jewish year 5780, these 4 lessons can and should be of paramount importance. For this past year (or two or three) has made most of us angry, cynical, lacking in trust, and has brought about intense feelings of powerlessness. Hillel’s insight into the nature of brutes, boors and ignoramuses is so on the money as to seem like it was written just yesterday.  With few exceptions among those we know and love, people have become stupefied over how easy it is for those supposedly occupying positions of authority to turn their back or remain silent in the face of gross authoritarianism, cupidity and outright inhumanity.  We wonder at the gross inconsistency of public people presenting and proclaiming their religious bona fides to anyone and everyone who will watch or listen, and then turning both a blind eye and a deaf ear on the poorest, most vulnerable among us.  So which of the rabbinic and Biblical aphorisms and laws is most important in this day and age?  Certainly being a menstch  (Yiddish for “a substantial human being”) when so many others are acting like proster mentschen (the antithesis of a mentsch) is of great importance.  I have to believe that Hillel’s dictum about not separating ourselves from the community (הציבור ha-Tzibor ) comes in first.  Originally,  in using the term הַצִּבּוּר (ha-Tzibur, the community) Hillel was referring specifically to the Jewish community.  Today, after centuries and generations, I think we can expand ha-tzibur to mean “humanity in general.” That which ties all of us together into a single community - whether European, Asian, African or Pacific Islander is planet earth. This is the community that binds us all together.

In a medieval Jewish story, a wealthy landowner asks a simple-minded peon who works on his vast estate “What is the biggest thing in the world?” Deathly afraid to give the wrong answer - and certain he is incapable of giving the correct one, he blurts out “The biggest thing in the world is the earth itself!” Thinking over what he had heard, the landowner smiled and said “How right you are! Indeed, that is the only answer possible.” Think about it: could there be anything in the world larger than the world itself? 

This brings us back to Rosh Hashana and all the anger, cynicism and feelings of powerlessness which consume us as we enter 5780. What can we do to shake all the negativity and use it as positive fuel for the New Year? Certainly complaining, kvetching and endlessly arguing with those who see the world through different eyes is not the answer. Nowadays, attempting to change people’s minds is as about as futile and frustrating as trying to convince an elephant how much more sense it makes to be a donkey. No, it seems to me that perhaps the most potent prescription for the New Year is the one ascribed to Hillel in Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Sages):

אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר (“Do not separate yourself from your community”)

In other words, don’t seat a back and merely curse the darkness; find a cause and do your part to repair a broken world. As I write these words, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg - the new face of a planet-wide climate change movement - has just finished an impassioned speech before the United Nations on the biggest thing on earth: the earth itself. In her “How dare you?” address, Ms. Thunberg told the nations of the world “You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school, on the other side of the ocean." Citing more than 30 years' worth of scientific studies and warnings that greenhouse gases and other factors were establishing a dangerous new environmental trend, Thunberg criticized politicians for not developing solutions and strategies to confront that threat. She repeatedly reminded the various delegates that her generation - not theirs - will be the ones who ultimately have to live with the consequences of global warming.

In order to make an even greater point, Ms. Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to New York - rather than flying in an immense polluting jet aircraft. For her efforts at rallying young people the world over to the cause of climate change, she was greeted with warmth and thunderous applause. Perhaps not surprisingly, she was also castigated, called a “Socialist who’s part of an international conspiracy,” and put down for not understanding reality. In a sarcastic Tweet, the president of the United States (who did not attend that part of the United Nations gathering) mocked Ms. Thunberg: "She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!" he Tweeted.

Shortly after the speech, Thunberg and other young people filed a legal complaint against five countries, saying their role in climate change has violated a widely ratified U.N. pact on children's human rights.

"I and 15 other children from around the world filed a legal complaint against 5 nations over the climate crisis through the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child," Thunberg said via Twitter. "These 5 nations are the largest emitters that have ratified the convention."

Those countries are France, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey; they are accused of not curbing emissions and promoting fossil fuels, despite being well aware of the risks of climate change. Unlike most other signatories to the convention, the five countries have also approved a procedure for receiving complaints about potential violations.

The U.S. has signed the U.N. treaty, but has never ratified it. When Somalia and South Sudan ratified the convention in 2015, that left the U.S. alone in not being a party to the human rights agreement.

The young activists announced their complaint at a press conference at UNICEF Headquarters in New York — right across the street from the U.N. building where Thunberg spoke earlier.

The movement among the young is catching on. Already, students around the globe are taking off Fridays from school in order to make their concerns known to adults in both the world of politics and business - stressing that time is running out and they must put the needs of the planet above profit. For their efforts, their movement is growing by the week . . . as are the negative comments. But still fueled by youthful idealism - that which less than 2 generations ago ended the military draft, caused the voting age to be lowered from 21 to 18, drove a president from seeking reelection and ultimately ended a war - these teeners and tweeners are the living, breathing embodiment of HIllel’s dictum about not separating ourselves from the community.

And so, on this, the first day of 5780, I urge one and all to commit themselves to a cause or a project larger than themselves;  causes which will help repair the world. The ribono shel olam (“Master of the Universe”) has placed it in our hands to act as beloved stewards and caretakers of the world he/she created. There is so much work to be done and so little time in which to do it. For anyone looking for a cause, a campaign or an action who is a bit in the dark, please contact me and I will provide you with a list of possibilities. God’s planet needs us - now, more than ever.

אני מאחל לכם שנה טובה ומתוקה Wishing you a Happy and Sweet New Year,

הר אשר איעזר בן ר' אליעזר סטון (KFS)

411 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

From Generation to Generation

                           May 9: 1970: The March on Washington

                           May 9: 1970: The March on Washington

 Many readers of this blog still have indelible memories of May 9, 1970, when America's incursion into Cambodia, the military draft and the killing of 4 unarmed college students by members of the Ohio National Guard at a mass anti-war protest at Kent State University, resulted in hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, veterans, moms, dads and grandparents from virtually every state in the union descending and marching upon the nation's capitol. It was a difficult, horrifically polarizing time. And even though this particular march - which got tons of publicity all over the world - did not immediately end the draft (that wouldn't  happen until January of 1973) nor bring our troops home from South East Asia (which officially occurred on April 30, 1975), it did energize and politicize an entire generation of young Americans. Indeed, many of those who marched on Washington on May 9, 1970  (myself included) were turned into lifelong political activists; people who ever since have been incapable of sitting idly by while injustice, insanity and gross insensitivity continue ruling the corridors of power.

Back in those days - as many will recall - we were tagged with every name in the book: long-haired-hippie-drug-addled-free-love-Communist-conspirators, unwashed-traitorous vermin, etc. Many had their phones tapped by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and had places of "honor" on President Richard Nixon's infamous "enemies list." It was, to say the least, a trying time. But it was also a time when many of us found our political voice and first came to understand how much "We the People" can accomplish when speaking (and shouting) with a single voice.

  We were, of course by no means the first - and by no means the last - group of protesters to descend on Washington, D.C. by the hundreds of thousands:

  • On March 3, 1913, thousands of women - with upwards of half-a-million spectators watching - marched up Pennsylvania Avenue demanding suffrage rights.  On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, thus guaranteeing women the right to vote.
  • On August 8, 1925, spurred by hatred of European Catholics, Jewish immigrants and African-Americans, and inspired by the silent film Birth of a Nation (in which Klansmen were portrayed as heroes), some 50-60,000 Klansman marched down Pennsylvania Avenue (all clad in Klan regalia) demanding a tightening of American immigration laws.
  • On June 17, 1932, some 20,000 veterans of "The Great War" (WWI) assembled in Washington for the so-called "bonus march," in which they demanded that the $1,000.00 "bonus" promised them at the end of the war, be paid immediately.  They were met with armed opposition from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his adjutant, Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
  •  Best remembered for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, this enormous demonstration, held on August 28, 1963 called for fighting injustice and inequality against African-Americans. The march united an assembly of 160,000 black people and 60,000 white people, who gave a list of “10 Demands”, including everything from desegregation of school districts to fair employment policies. The march and the many other forms of protest that fell under the Civil Rights Movement led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968—though the struggle for equality continues in different forms today.
  • January 20, 2017: the day of '45's inauguration, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators - mostly women -  gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and lined the frozen-over Reflecting Pool to rally for women’s rights, urge women to run for public office and call on citizens to fully engage on issues from sexual assault and racial equality to immigrant protections and gun violence. Largely unnoticed by the press, the marchers in Washington were joined by an estimated total of 2.6 million women who came out to protest across the United States.
  • And finally, this coming March 24, will be the "March for Our Lives," a gathering of who knows how many hundreds of thousands of American school children (members of "Generation Z"), their friends and families who will descend upon the nation's capitol protesting in favor of serious, meaningful gun safety legislation.

Historically, the effect these mass gatherings have had on their target issues have been a mixed bag: the 1913 suffragette, 1932 Bonus and 1963 civil rights and 1970 anti-war marches were largely successful.  (In the case of the Bonus Army's demand to be paid for their service in WWI, Congress passed (over FDR's veto) the 1936 Adjusted Compensation Payment Act, which guaranteed the veterans nearly $2.5 billion in payments.)  Then too, some marches, like the 1925 KKK rally had little, if any effect (President Coolidge had already signed the highly  restrictive, xenophobic Johnson Reed Immigration Act in 1924, nearly a year before their gathering).

Precisely what immediate effect the upcoming march for gun safety legislation will have is anyone's guess.  A clear majority of the members of Congress and the White House are so closely aligned with the demands and wishes of the National Rifle Association that even such common-sense measures as reinstituting the ban on Assault Weapons, severely limiting the amount of rounds of ammunition in a single magazine, denying weapons to those on terror watch lists or simply raising the age at which a young person can purchase a gun seem, at this point in time, far out of reach.  

Perhaps these - and a host of other measures - won't even get a full airing out on the floor of Congress . . . which would be a sin.  One thing, however, which will likely occur as a result of this march is precisely what occurred to those generations which marched on Washington in 1913, 1963, 1970, and 2017: a lifelong passion for political involvement, and the certain knowledge that together, we the people, can often be the ultimate stimulus for meaningful change.

There is an old saw which goes "The more things change, the more they remain the same."  Well, in this case, just as the protesters of my/our generation endured the jibes and catcalls of the hawks and the deaf ears of many members of the entrenched political elites, so too are the members of the Stoneman Douglas generation (the "Millenials") catching grief and tone deafness from both the Trumpeteers and today's entrenched political class. But this younger generation, like that of the '60s and '70s - now mostly receiving Social Security - shall succeed . . . perhaps not tomorrow or next week for soon and perhaps forever. For they - like we - shall soon be casting their first votes, propelled by the fuel of activism and unwilling to sit on the sidelines letting others bolster the status quo.

From one generation to another, we say:

  • We are with you - we shall join hands with you;
  • We will march with you - whether in Washington, Chicago, L.A. or Parkland;
  • We all have skin in the game;
  • And as has been sung at every march across the generations,

"WE SHALL OVERCOME!"

400 days down, 1,157 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

Cache and Carry

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According to Mark Twain, it was British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli - the self-proclaimed "blank page between the Old and New Testament" - who first said "There are lies, damn lies and statistics." It just may be that, Disraeli  - who lived from 1804 to 1881 and served as Queen Victoria's P.M. from 1874 to 1880 - was the first person to understand the difference between news and "fake news," which he chose to call "statistics."  Well, here's a frightful statistic (in its true sense): since 2013, there have been 290 school shootings in America.  Moreover, in the first 45 days of 2018, there have been 17 school shootings, which works out to one every 63.5 hours.  

 As numbing as this latter statistic is, it becomes even more stupefying when one of the shootings takes place in in one's own backyard. Our son Ilan graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School many years ago (he has now been a practicing attorney for more than a dozen years), and our daughter Nurit, her husband Scott (also an attorney) and their daughter Claire, live within jogging distance of Stoneman Douglas. Just about any and everyone who lives in or next door to Parkland knows children who died or were injured in the Parkland massacre.

Sadly, there are all sorts of predictable responses from those who actually could make a difference - or else have a specific political ax to grind:

  • The "our thoughts and prayers are with you" crowd of public officials who issue these 7 words and then do next to nothing else. 
  • The right-wing conspiracy theorists who blame the attack on an ISIS affiliate, or see the Parkland  massacre as being the inevitable result of ethnic gang violence.  (Believe it or not this one comes from '45's A.G. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who seems to have had no idea that Parkland is a largely upper-middle class Jewish town) and just last year was named "Florida's Safest City" by the Washington-based National Council for Home Safety and Security.
  • Calls ranging from more metal detectors in schools, greater scrutiny of - and treatment for - people with mental health issues, and the arming every teacher in America (despite the fact that the current administration has drastically cut funding for all three) to reinstating the absolute ban on assault weapons, drastically curbing the number of  ammo rounds per  magazine and making it legally impossible for anyone on a "terrorist watch list" to purchase a weapon.
  • Lastly, there are many who place blame squarely on the FBI, which was reportedly given information about the alleged shooter but failed to act upon it.  Even as I write this last bullet point, the POTUS has Tweeted: "Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign - there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!" (Needless to say, this Tweet drew an immediate negative response on social media.  One Stoneman Douglas survivor Tweeted: "17 of my classmates are gone. That's 17 futures, 17 children, and 17 friends stolen. But you're right, it always has to be about you. How silly of me to forget. #neveragain"

Of course, for each and every one of the above-mentioned actions (and there are a lot of others which could be added) there are people who will tell you that "Guns don't kill people; people kill people," shout out "We've got the Second Amendment!"  or urge that what we really need are more people locked and loaded . . . have cache, will carry.  

And along with all this, Speaker Ryan, (who just this past Friday was at a fund raiser in Key Biscayne, less than an hour's drive from Parkland) has announced that Hell will freeze over before he'll bring any form of gun safety (a.k.a. "gun control) legislation to the House floor.  To say that his stance is predictable is not surprising; to say that it will likely cause a mass national response is hopeful.  With each passing school shooting, an increasing number of American students, parents and neighbors are demanding that Congress show both the guts the sanity and humanity to enact legislation with teeth that will stem the tide of this horrific "one school massacre every 45 days" reality.  Without question, we feel powerless; we scream out into the night "what in the Hell can we do?" We fear that there is next to nothing we can do to change the direction of an administration and a Congress that cannot (strike that, will not) listen to us.  Our frustration, our anger, is both palpable and perhaps - just perhaps - about to burst forth as the fuel for meaningful action.

So what can we do?

These are the first, most obvious steps:

  • Do a little research: find out how much funding your senators, congressional representative, governor or state legislators have received from the National Rifle Association and how the NRA's political action committee (PAC) rates them. (Note to Floridians: Senator Marco Rubio is the sixth largest recipient of NRA funding: $3.3 million.)
  • Write, call or email your senators, congressional representative, governor or state legislators demanding that they pass specific pieces of legislation - such as those mentioned above. If your senator(s), congressional representative, governor or state legislator is a Democrat, it is reasonable to assume that they are just as frustrated as you are.  Nonetheless, write, call or email them and express your thanks.  If they are Republican, the response (if any) will be what we call the "All due consideration" letter . . . i.e. "Thank you for writing . . . I will certainly give all due consideration to your point of view . . ."
  • Contact your local Democratic Party and find out how to become a deputy registrar of voters.  It's easy; it's rewarding, and can go a long way toward voting out members of congress who consistently stand in opposition to passing sensible gun safety legislation.
  • Add your name to an ever-growing list of people demanding that members of congress immediately return all campaign contributions from the NRA or other gun lobbying groups.  Make them put up - or explain themselves.

The first rule in the politician's playbook is "Get thyself reelected."  In order to do this, one must first raise tons of money.  When you or I donate to a candidate (whether incumbent or challenger), we generally expect nothing in return except an elected official who will agree with us most of the time.  Not so when it comes to accepting unlimited contributions from billionaire- and corporate-created PACs. They expect something in return for their "investments."  You don't vote the way they want, you'll find yourself challenged by a well- heeled opponent during the next election cycle. These funding entities (which, "thanks to" the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case were declared to possess the same the rights and protections as individuals) is one of the central reasons why it is next to impossible to pass rational gun safety legislation.  Overturn Citizen' United and the NRA - plus all the other pro-gun PACs - will be neutered, defanged and declawed.  

Overturning a decision of the Supreme Court is certainly not easy.  But neither is it impossible.  There are nearly three dozen groups collecting signatures, organizing events, marching and educating citizens on how to successfully drain this fetid swamp. Neutering, defanging and declawing the NRA (a lot of whose members actually favor gun safety legislation) is absolutely essential.  Channeling our grief, anger and disbelief into positive action such as this can go a long, long way.  It's been done before . . . and can be done once again.

89 years to the day (February 14, 1929) before the Parkland horror, there was another mass murder . . . the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre," in which four of Al Capone's goons, armed with two Thompson submachine guns and two shotguns, murdered 5 members of the "North Side Gang" as well as two bystanders in a Chicago garage.  Unlike today's media, newspapers across the country published photos of the seven bloody bodies. The nation was both horrified and outraged - at gangsters, at bootleggers and at the deadly violence created by Prohibition.  Eventually, the shock and emotional nausea - not to mention the leadership of Presidents Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, congress and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI - led to both the repeal of Prohibition and the "Tommy" gun's demise.  Eventually, this rapid-fire weapon would accompany GI.s onto the battlefields of Europe.  But it wasn't only national shock and horror which led to the removal of Tommy guns; it was a concerted effort on the part of the people, the White House and Capitol Hill.

Gun safety can happen.  Together, we can take the tools of mass murder out of the hands of deranged killers and haters of humanity.  Together, we can place the lives, the safety and the sanity of our children above the "rights" of the merchants of death.

393 days down, 1,164 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone