Monthly Archives: January 2013

Fifty Years of Milestones for Minorities

The symbolism in President Obama’s use of bibles owned by slaves, by Abraham Lincoln and by Martin Luther King during his inauguration ceremonies offered clear and compelling testimony to a remarkable achievement over the past fifty years. We Americans can be proud. The fact that a black man was elected not once, but twice, only a generation after the civil rights movement took hold in this country is an amazing statement about what we are capable of. Watching Mr. Obama take the oath of office amidst throngs representative of America’s diversity was a moment that will long be remembered by historians and long be cherished by those of us who served as witnesses to our time.

The changing face of America is present as we consider other milestones representing progress over the last fifty years. Not the least of these momentous events relate to women’s struggle for equality. Fifty years ago, for example, a report issued by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women – a body established by John F. Kennedy two years earlier – documented substantial discrimination against women in the workplace and made specific recommendations for improvement. These included fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable child care – extraordinary ideas in their time. Congress passed the Equal Pay Act making it illegal for employers to pay a woman less than a man for the same job. We may not be there yet on all of these measures, but we are well on our way.


The year1963 also saw publication of Betty Friedan’s iconic book The Feminine Mystique, an examination of women’s lives after WWII that ignited the women’s movement known as second wave feminism. Friedan, a journalist who had researched what became of women in her graduating class from Smith College, set off a firestorm of feminist angst when she wrote about “the problem that has no name.” She was referring to the depression and sense of isolation college-educated women trapped in post-war American suburbs were experiencing. Friedan went on to co-found the National Organization for Women (NOW) which led to the formation of other feminist organizations that continue to fight for women’s equality and human rights.

In the prologue to her book In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution Susan Brownmiller wrote about the birth of the women’s movement. Her words now seem prescient within a wider context: “Although I can speak with confidence of a beginning, of certain documented rebellions sparked by a handful of visionaries with stubborn courage, there were antecedents to those rebellions … This is how things happen in movements for social change, in revolutions. They start small and curiously …a barely observable ripple that heralds a return to the unfinished business of prior generations [emerges]. If conditions are right, if the anger of enough people has reached the boiling point, the exploding passion can ignite a social transformation.”

The second inauguration of President Obama, it seems to me, is a beginning, a start to something as new and fragile as a newborn baby, but a baby that will thrive and grow so long as it is nourished, well cared for, loved, and guided toward healthy development as it matures into own identity. There was something in the air that sunny January day, something quietly powerful that began to take hold. It wasn’t the wild enthusiasm wrapped in impossible expectations we saw four years ago. Rather, it was an almost somber knowing that something positive and full of potential was afoot. We sensed ourselves on the verge of a finer America in the words Mr. Obama spoke. We saw the real possibility of the kind of change that is within our grasp.

In part that is because of rapidly changing demographics, a new sense of urgency about the earth we live on and the world we inhabit, a newly emerging set of priorities, and a Republican party that has become the architect of its own demise. But beyond that, I believe there is something we are poised to become, something that calls forth our better natures, something that the Mayans might have meant when they said the end of 2012 would bring forth a new era.

I know how hard it will be to achieve the kind of future I’m suggesting might be on the horizon. But I think there are visionaries with enough courage who can serve as the successors to previous rebellions that changed the course of history.

We can start small and begin that ripple “that heralds a return to the unfinished business of prior generations.” We don’t even have to reach the boiling point. Our “exploding passion” can carry us forward. The best part is we can all be counted among the visionaries. All we need is enough courage to ignite the social transformation that seems to have already begun.

Can Chuck Hagel Bring Some Sanity to the Middle East?

The brouhaha surrounding the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense seems, finally, to have abated following key endorsements from two Jewish senators, Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). He is likely now to be confirmed.

Oops! Should I have said two “pro-Israel senators?”

At the risk of being deluged with hate mail from friends, relatives and strangers, de-friended on Facebook, and Twitter-chastised, I confess that I have yet to grasp entirely why Mr. Hagel’s use of the term “Jewish lobby” set off quite the firestorm it did. (Calling that particular group “intimidating” wasn’t entirely off the mark either, although I’d counsel caution on that one.) After all, he didn’t say “Jew lobby.”

I understand, of course, that the pro-Israel lobby is comprised of both Jewish and non-Jewish folks and suggests a more politically palatable term. But c’mon – Chuck Hagel is no anti-Semite. He is a man of considerable judgment who speaks his mind, and apologizes when the words he uses could have been better chosen. In short, he is smart, seasoned, and sensitive to a number of issues about which some pro-Israel activists might rather put their heads in the sand. In my (Jewish) book, he is a mensch.

Sadly, I cannot claim the same sentiment when it comes to Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Anyone in political leadership who acts in such a way that six key western nations summon Israel’s ambassadors to explain their country’s actions is behaving badly. He is also raising serious questions about his motives and leadership skills.

The ambassadors were called to account in December when Netanyahu threw a temper tantrum because the United Nations upgraded the status of the Palestinians within its august chambers. Netanyahu reacted by immediately announcing plans for increased settlement construction in a contested area called E1, thereby fueling growing frustration internationally with Israeli policies that put at huge risk any hope of a two-state solution for peace in the Middle East.

Building 3,000 more housing units in E1, which is comprised of parts of East Jerusalem and land around the West Bank, would partially separate the northern and southern West Bank, thus harming prospects for a Palestinian state in that territory. Right-wingers in the Likud Party immediately defended the action while an Israeli watchdog group sounded an alarm.
In an AP story appearing in the Washington Post last month, the group Peace Now said, “a review of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies shows a clear intent to prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state by stepping up construction in strategic areas.” According to the report, the Israeli government has advanced plans for thousands of housing units to be built, which aerial photos, field visits and official reports seem to confirm.
These actions may have won Mr. Netanyahu the recent election, but his defiance and stubborn disregard for human rights and peace efforts have put Israel in an increasingly isolated position.

That will make the job of any Secretary of Defense (and Secretary of State) far more challenging in coming months. That’s one reason it’s important to have people in those positions who can operate from broad-based experience, who exercise both intelligence and compassion, and who can take a prospective approach to reconciliation rather than an ideologically-driven one grounded in fear, retribution, and hyperbolic alarms.

For that reason, I’m with J-Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace organization, in standing behind Chuck Hagel. I, too, see him as a “thoughtful voice in Washington for two decades on questions of American Mideast policy,” and as being someone committed to the State of Israel and its security while at the same time working toward a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ok, Facebook, phone lines, and Twitter, I’ve said it, so let the moaning and messaging begin – this Jewish lobby of one is ready.

So, I’m sure, is Chuck Hagel.

Ok, Can We Move On Now?

Ok, can we move on now?

Enough already with the banter over bangs and ball gowns and the focus on athletes who are either lying dopers or duped innocents, if not dupers themselves.

Now that we are into the president’s second term, can we turn our attention on some of the really important things going on in the world, like the crisis in Mali with its far-reaching and frightening implications? Like what’s going on in Egypt or the implications of Israel’s election and the party to the right of Netanyahu that is gaining a serious stronghold? Can we think about what to do with Iran or our deteriorating relationship with Pakistan? And what’s with North Korea’s new bobble-head leader?

Thank God for Aljazeera English (which is not the same Aljazeera that so terrifies Americans as a dangerous Muslim propaganda arm). It, and the BBC, are about the only sources of news I can find that actually seem to give a damn about what’s happening in the rest of the world.

C’mon mainstream media, get with the program. Dress designers, royal pregnancies, Hollywood romances, sex scandals, snowstorms, sports events and the like all have their place upon the page and the screen. But can we get real about what’s seriously important to know?

I get it that you and your sponsors are into what sells. It’s the American way. But, jeeze, I’d sure like to know what’s happening in other parts of the world, because events abroad have an impact on all our lives. The media should care about that too. After all, what happens elsewhere affects your bottom line.

So, can we move on now?

Sometimes Her Eyes Were Watchinjg God: Remembering Zora Neale Hurston

She was a complicated character, one that might have stepped off the pages of her own novels. Writer, folklorist and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston was a major force in the Harlem Renaissance, known among its artists for her wit, irreverence, and writing style. But she was also a thorn in the side of most black writers in that extraordinary movement because of her right-leaning political views and her ideology about the sanctity of isolated black culture.

A Barnard graduate and recipient of major fellowships, she was born in January 1891 and died in January 1960.

“I love myself when I am laughing … and then again when I am looking mean and impressive”

What is remembered most about Hurston, largely because writer Alice Walker resurrected her work during Second Wave feminism’s re-examination of women writers, is her lyrical prose about southern black culture. Perhaps her most famous novel, thanks to Walker, is

    Their Eyes Were Watching God,

the moving story of a black woman in the rural south and her three marriages. Set in Hurston’s home town of Eatonville, Fla. and published in 1937, it was praised for the beauty of the writing and the touching characters Hurston had created.

Eatonville was an idyllic place to Hurston. The fifth of eight children and the daughter of a Baptist preacher and tenant farmer who became the town’s mayor, Hurston loved the small enclave, the first incorporated black community in America. She saw it as a black utopia and in her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” she remembered the town of 125 people like this:

“The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando. The native whites rode dusty horses, the Northern tourists chugged down the sandy village road in automobiles. The town knew the Southerners and never stopped cane chewing when they passed. But the Northerners were something else again. They were peered at cautiously from behind curtains by the timid. … The front porch …was a gallery seat for me. I’d wave at [the passersby] and when they returned my salute, I would say something like this: ‘Howdy-do-well-I-thank-you-where-you-goin’?’ Usually [they] paused at this, and after a queer exchange of compliments, I would probably ‘go a piece of the way’ with them. … It is clear I was the first ‘welcome-to-our-state’ Floridian…”

Hurston’s mother died when she was thirteen and she was shunted off to various relatives until she was old enough to work as a domestic. In 1917, at the age of twenty-six, her Baltimore employer sent her to the high school that was to become Morgan State University. A year later she graduated and attended Howard University. In 1921 her first short story was published in the school’s literary magazine and soon she was recognized by leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. When she transferred to Barnard College she became a leading member of the movement.

Concurrent with the nascent black liberation movement in South Africa, the Harlem Renaissance sought to explore black culture and to exhibit pride in the black race in a variety of artistic forms. Hurston’s stories about Eatonville were a major force influencing the movement. However, she fell out of favor because critics thought she had failed to address racism adequately. Taking umbrage with her idealized portraits of black life in Eatonville, which they feared fostered segregation, many of her contemporaries felt she didn’t grasp the significance of the emerging civil rights movement.

Indeed, Hurston attacked the rights of blacks to vote in the south because she thought votes were being bought, and she argued against Brown vs. the Board of Education believing that black children didn’t need to attend school with whites in order to learn.

In the end, Zora Neale Hurston’s life was a reprise of the poverty and obscurity that had marked her childhood. Back in Florida, alone and sick, she died of heart failure in a county welfare home and was buried without fanfare in a public cemetery.

Despite her foibles and failures, Hurston’s early literary works deserve to be remembered and honored. Considered brilliant and illuminating by many of the great writers of our time, they paint a portrait of black culture that we might have otherwise been denied. Perhaps Hurston herself clarified the meaning of her contribution most clearly. “There is nothing to make you like other human beings,” she said, “so much as doing things for them.”

Remembering a Rape Victim and the Meaning of Her Death

It was a summer night in Florence, Italy. I was returning to my hotel after attending a concert at the Pitti Palace. Suddenly, five young men encircled me, hurling sexual innuendos. One of them smacked his lips and pointed to my crotch. I was sure they were going to gang rape me. The terror I felt was so intense I thought I would pass out. No one who has not experienced that kind of fear can understand what it feels like.

I was lucky. A passerby appeared and I was rescued. I was 23-years old, like Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was not rescued in India even though she was with her boyfriend. She was so brutally raped that what was done to her does not bear repeating. Suffice to say that she died of her injuries. Until her father released her name and picture we didn’t have a sense of her but as one blogger wrote, “I don’t need to see a photograph to cry for her.”

Violence against women in India has increased dramatically over the past two decades as women have become more autonomous. More than 600 rapes were reported in New Delhi alone last year and that number is small compared to those that don’t get reported. Even reporting rape can be dangerous. Recently an 18-year-old woman in Punjab State killed herself after police humiliated and then raped her themselves, admonishing her to marry one of her rapists, a remedy for the shame of rape often proposed by family members. Even as I write this, another gang rape on a bus has been reported.

But India isn’t alone in its murderous attempts to control women and to use them sexually as political pawns. The Women’s Media Center’s project Women Under Siege recently documented the horrific rapes of women in Syria, “usually by government forces.” Again, what has allegedly been done to young girls to sexually mutilate them doesn’t bear repeating. Congo is another case in point. In fact, there isn’t a country in conflict that doesn’t use rape and sexual assault as a form of intimidation and humiliation. And there isn’t a country in the world in which violence against women does not occur on a regular basis.

Here in America someone (overwhelmingly female) is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Mostly we don’t know about these incidents unless they are as heinous as the recent multiple rapes of an unconscious young woman in Steubenville, Ohio. Every year we average over 208,000 victims of reported sexual assault. Eighty percent of these victims are under age 30, 54 percent of assaults are never reported, and 97 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail.

No wonder most women are afraid, at some level of consciousness, to leave home, to travel alone, to dress the wrong way, to make eye contact with or to smile at someone they don’t know.

And what is our own government doing about it? Not much, thanks to the right wing of the wrong party. While the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in the Senate last year, some House Republicans failed to advance the Senate’s re-authorization because they didn’t think immigrant, Native America or gay women were worthy of being included in the Act. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has vowed to re-introduce the legislation this year.

What is it in individuals and cultures that fosters, overlooks and perpetrates such heinous gender-based violence? How can such violations of women’s bodies, such physical and psychological cruelty, continue unabated? The answers are complex and go beyond theories that include the threat posed to patriarchies by self-determined women.

But Sandip Roy, a blogger who wrote about the Indian woman’s rape, offered some food for thought. There were lessons to be learned, he said, by the tragedy in India. (Many of them relate to the lessons of gun violence as well.)We learned, Roy said, that “it’s an exercise in futility to assign a hierarchy of rape as if one rape is more deserving of attention than the other.” We learned that “it is possible to shake a country out of its apathy” and that “if enough people raise their voices a government cannot ignore them.” We learned that “safety is not about what women do, wear or when they go out. It’s about what men around them do.”

“That girl could have been any one of us,” an Indian mother cried at a candlelight vigil for Jyoti Singh Pandey. “We can only tackle this by becoming Durga,” the Hindu god who slays demons, she said.

Let’s hope we can discover the Durga in all our countries and cultures, and that whatever gods we pray to give us the courage to confront the scourge of rape and other violence against women. Until we do, none of us can claim to be safe, or to assume we live in a civilized world.