Bob Schwartz

Category: War

Christmas for Refugees

How could you say to me,
“Off to the hills like a bird!
For, look, the wicked bend back the bow,
they fix to the string their arrow
to shoot from the gloom at the upright.
The foundations destroyed,
what can a righteous man do?”
Psalms 11:1-2 (Robert Alter translation)

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,
Matthew 1:13-14 (NRSV)

The wicked bend back the bow. The innocent flee. Give this Christmas to the UNHCR.

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A Very Short Primer on Veterans

1. When we as people of a nation order or ask others to fight for any cause, we must treat them, their service, and their families with the highest practical lifelong honor and healing, that is, with more than just symbols or rhetoric.

2. As we order or ask for that service, from the first we must study the causes that we are fighting for, in light of all our truest values, not just the values that are convenient, expedient, self-serving or inadequately considered.

3. While we will likely never be a world without warriors, we owe it to the warriors—past, present and future—to be peacemakers.

​The UN Declares Nuclear Weapons Illegal 

Some think the United Nations is naive and childish at best, and at worst a way for small nations and idealistic dreamers to get in the way of superpowers doing the dirty and necessary grown up business of the world. 

That is the context of the vote (122 of 193 nations) to declare nuclear weapons illegal, a vote that was boycotted, derided and ignored by those superpowers. 

The UN is not naive and the vote is not ridiculous. From the start, the UN was meant to stand in the way of tragedy, or help fix it when it couldn’t be avoided. The UN is in part the collective conscience of the world, and like conscience, is set aside for the sake of pragmatism and convenience. 

The first and only time atomic bombs were used in war was 72 years ago. Since then, the power and quantity of those weapons has grown exponentially, as has the number of nations owning them. What is naive and childish is to think that the power and numbers won’t continue to grow. Thinking that keeping nations such as Iran and North Korea out of the club is a solution, while existing members continue to stockpile, is delusional. There will always be another nation, always more and more powerful weapons. 

Also delusional is the thought that having avoided the use of nuclear weapons for 72 years demonstrates a likelihood that it will never happen again. Looking back at millenia of brutal geopolitics, we would laugh if that thought isn’t so painfully ignorant. 

It’s true that the UN declaration, even with a majority of nations behind it, has no practical effect. But it should leave every citizen and every nation thinking about this all the time, from practical and philosophical perspectives. It seems that the concept of normal is eluding us more and more, but if every house in your town was filled with lots of highly dangerous explosives, how normal is that? How would you sleep? Do you trust your neighbors, all of them, any of them, that much? 

Be Peace

6 Long has my whole being dwelt
among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace, but when I speak,
they are for war.
Psalm 120, translated by
Robert Alter

Terror in Manchester is one more shattering note in a cacophony of mindless aggression. News of the nation and the world attests to it, from nasty tweets by so-called leaders to torturers and mass murderers. We dwell among those who hate peace.

In Psalm 120, Robert Alter translates the Hebrew ani shalom in verse 7 as “I am for peace”:

The Hebrew appears to say “I am peace,” but, without emending the text, the most plausible way to understand these two words, ani shalom, is that they function as though there were an elided “for” (in the Hebrew not a word but the particle l’).

I dare not take issue with Alter, the great modern translator of the Hebrew Bible, but merely want to extend a thought. If the Hebrew appears to say “I am peace”, maybe that is precisely what it means to say.

Being for peace is a start and an essential part. Being peace is one step beyond this, where there is no space between us and the peace we seek. One step toward that elusive peaceful world, in spite of those who hate peace.

China’s Big Long View: “Swords Drawn and Bows Bent”

In a story about current tensions between the United States and North Korea, this was reported:

“The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in Beijing, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.” (emphasis added)

It is hard to imagine the American President or Secretary of State using such poetic language to describe such a serious situation. But allusions to swords and bows is not just poetic. It reflects the thousands of years that China has had to deal with situations just like this.

In the world, few nations, and none so powerful, are as young as the United States. We tend to equate power with enlightened perspective, but that is silly. Even the European nations can’t compare their histories to the long and hard lessons that many Asian nations have learned.

It is no accident that in the years since the end of a series of modern Asian wars involving the West—World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War—Asian nations have to some degree risen and dominated in various ways. China in particular. These nations have had to ride the wave of history, going back to times when swords and bows were the tools of strategy and subjugation, of victory and defeat.

Many Americans think that the most significant global affairs began a couple of centuries or so ago, when this nation emerged in North America as the perfection of what our European ancestors tried but failed to accomplish. Like all precocious children, we think that it is all about us, especially because of our might and our ability to damage and destroy. Those who have seen it all before are careful not to provoke us, but know that no matter how big our weapons, they are only swords and bows, about which they have much more experience.

Trump Van Winkle

The U.S. just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever on an ISIS target in Afghanistan.

The president apparently believes he can “defeat” ISIS and “win” the war in Afghanistan by dropping really big bombs. The biggest. Sad that no one thought of that before.

A number of times in world situations (and in domestic situations too) it appears that Trump has been completely absent from any discussion, debate or learning for decades. It doesn’t matter, since his opinion, at least until recently, has been based mostly on what he sees and hears on the news and on his emotional gut reaction. And as with most uninformed gut reactions, subject to change at a moment’s notice

Or maybe he’s been asleep. Like Rip Van Winkle, who slept for at least 20 years, only to wake up and discover a strange but more satisfactory world. Maybe one in which he is suddenly president.

Syria: Things Fall Apart

I just checked to see how many posts I’ve published about or mentioning Syria. Twenty in the last four years.

Just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does. When you think that nobody has “the answer” you are proven right. Again.

The oldest of the posts is Can Israel Stop the Syrian Genocide? (“Can Israel stop the Syrian genocide? On its face, the question seems practically preposterous and crazy….But in a world and region that continues to exhibit madness, maybe moments of crazy wisdom are what we need to break through. Because whatever we are doing isn’t working.”)

Of course, Israel wasn’t about to stop the Syrian madness, and hasn’t. Neither have we or any other nation, and neither are we or any other nation sure what to do—not only to stop the madness but to relieve the ongoing dismal and heartbreaking aftermath.

So we watch. It’s not the first time in our lifetimes, or in history, that good people have stood by uncertainly at the sight of spiraling tragedy and could not act or figure out what to do.

William Butler Yeats wrote The Second Coming in 1919, as the madness of World War I was just ended and the madness of the Irish War of Independence was just beginning. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” As Yeats saw it, one cycle was ending in utter darkness, but there was the possibility of light appearing again in history, as it had before.

This is a season of light for many people, but in Syria it is getting darker every day. We will do what we can, but if we and our leaders can do nothing, we can at least keep Syria in our hearts, right next to a burning light.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Veterans Day and Operation Unite America

veterans-day

Friday, November 11 is Veterans Day, which this year arrives during the same week as Election Day (you remember that day, don’t you?)

The great Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) has organized Operation Unite America:

Veterans Day 2016 is just 3 days after Election Day. Join IAVA’s campaign to do the impossible: bring together all Americans.

After a long, brutal and disgusting election season, everyone’s had it. It hasn’t been a good look for America. Everyone is exhausted–many are outright embarrassed. But Republican, Democrat, Independent, Other…we’re ALL sick of the bickering, the commercials, the debates, the politics, the fighting.

Here is your mission (if you choose to accept it!), JOIN US:

Tag your Veterans Day activities on social media with #veteransday

Donate $11 to IAVA to help us support veterans

Attend a #veteransday #VetTogether

 

tammy-duckworth

In the wake of Election Day, it is happy news to report that Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois won a seat in the U.S. Senate. She is an Iraq War veteran, awarded the Purple Heart after losing both her legs. She joins a number of women warriors in Congress, which needs more women and more experienced warriors who know how to choose our wars carefully. And who will take good care of other warriors when they come home.

Another Cool Way to Show Support for Our Veterans

IAVA Lifeline Flex

I’ve written a number of times before about veterans issues and about the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which last month sponsored a televised Commander-in-Chief Forum featuring the presidential candidates.

It is an old song, but worth repeating. Our treatment of those we have asked to fight is a national shame. If we don’t want to fight and defend, and don’t ask others to do the job for us, fine. Peace is wonderful. But once we ask, we have to provide virtually infinite support for those who answer. This should be at the top of any policy priority list, because it is a moral test, not a partisan talking point. For a grade, I’d consider giving us an E for Effort, but really, it’s more like an F.

If you want to show your support, IAVA has a very cool and inexpensive wearable. It’s the IAVA Lifeline Flex:

IAVA Lifeline Flex
$14.99

Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) Lifeline Flex in Night Vision Yellow and Black with engraved logo on a metal toggle clasp. Hand-wound from the same 550 lb tested parachute chord used in WWII to attach men to their chutes, these cuffs give you up to 15ft of usable paracord when unwound. Not just an all purpose survival tool, the 550 cord also looks killer on your wrist. Don’t leave home without one of these killer bracelets.

ITEM DETAILS:
Hand-wound from military grade 550 cord
One size fits all “Flex” interior with IAVA closure clasp

Four Freedoms Passover

Four Freedoms - Norman Rockwell

Passover is coming. The first seder meal will be held on the evening of Friday, April 22. Even for non-observant Jews, this holiday is frequently a time for participation. One estimate says that 80% of Jews attend some sort of seder.

This year I suggest we go way back for a Passover theme. Back to FDR’s Four Freedoms from 1941.

The overall order of the seder (“seder” actually means order) has been standardized for centuries—the blessings, the rituals, the symbolic food and drink, the songs, and most of all, the recitation of the events of the exodus from Egypt. But the text and the form and the meaning have been subject to remixing, some of it pretty adventurous.

In the modern era, the freedom embedded in Passover has been extended to all sorts of concerns. During the time of the civil rights movement, the obvious connection was made between ancient and modern oppression, and the struggle to end that oppression.

In 1969 Rabbi Arthur Waskow created a Freedom Seder, making this connection more direct. He explains:

One of my earliest and warmest memories is that of my father reciting the Dayenu, the chant of rebellion, liberation, travail, and the creation of a new law that is the story of Passover. One of my latest and warmest memories is that of working with my wife and children to make of our own Passover Seder something that would speak to our deep concerns about our selves and our world.

Our efforts became sharper and more urgent in 1968, when the Passover came one bare week after the murder of Martin Luther King, the April uprising of black Washington against the blank-eyed pyramid-builders of our own time, and the military occupation of our city. Who in
those days could forget that the prophet King had remembered Moses?– had spoken of how he had been to the mountain-top, had seen the promised land, but might never enter. … And then we realized that in 1969, the third night of Passover, April 4, would be the first anniversary of King’s death.

Since then, Passover has become the platform for seders centered around all kinds of affliction, oppression, aspiration and freedom. Women. LGBT. Poverty. Peace. The Earth. And so on.

One example of this concerns a new tradition that is widely practiced. The seder plate contains a number of foods symbolizing the story of the Egyptian captivity and the fight for freedom. Susannah Heschel conceived of one more thing to add:

So how was it that the orange found its place on the seder plate as a Passover symbol of feminism and women’s rights?

Susannah Heschel, daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel and a scholar in her own right, says that at the height of the Jewish feminist movement of the 1980s, she was inspired by the abundant new customs expressing women’s viewpoints and experiences and started placing an orange on the seder plate.

At an early point in the seder, she asked each person to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in the Jewish community. She encouraged each guest to spit out the seeds in their orange segment to reject homophobia and hatred. The orange suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when everyone in our community is a contributing and active member of Jewish life. (From The Wandering Is Over Haggadah, JewishBoston.com)

On January 6, 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered an historic State of the Union Address. The world was increasingly gripped by brutal tyranny. On top of that, America was still recovering from the effects of the Great Depression. And it seemed almost impossible for the U.S. to stay out of the global fight for freedom.

In the address, FDR summarized what freedom meant—and why we would fight for it, here and abroad. That statement became known as the Four Freedoms–Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

Some will point out the hypocrisies and ironies of the statement. At that point in American history, millions were not free and were under attack because of their race, religion, and economic circumstances. Maybe the biggest irony of all is that the final call for disarmament and the final phrase “crash of a bomb” ultimately faced the reality of a horrific war and an unthinkable bomb to end it.

But as a goal and aspiration, the Four Freedoms still ring out. Maybe we can ring them this Passover.

The posters above are by Norman Rockwell. Maybe more famous than FDR’s speech are the propaganda posters that Rockwell painted based on the Four Freedoms. As with the speech, some complain that Rockwell’s America was over-idealized and far too white. Probably so, and the images themselves may look quaint and, from today’s perspective, backward looking.

To counter that, following are a couple of works from Ben Shahn, an illustrator who was contemporary with Rockwell, artistically his equal, culturally his opposite:

Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Russia on September 12, 1898 to Joshua Hessel and Gittel (Lieberman) Shahn and died on March 14, 1969. A Jewish-born artist, muralist, social activist, photographer and teacher, he is best known for his works of Social realism…From May to June of 1933, Shahn served as an assistant to Diego Rivera while the artist executed the infamous Rockefeller Center mural. By circulating a petition among the workers to keep the mural on display, Shahn played an important role in fanning the controversy.

Among his many famous works, in 1930 Shahn created a series of watercolor drawings for a Passover Haggadah. In 1965 these drawings were incorporated into a complete haggadah. Here, in an illustration called The Bread of Affliction, the hand of God leads the people out Egypt:

Bread of Affliction 2 - Ben Shahn

And here is a bit of Shahn’s later work, part of a series of union posters urging people to register and vote:

M25958-1 001
Happy Passover! Let freedom ring!