Archive for April, 2011

April 10th, 2011

Freedom Train

Passover is almost here. This holiday that celebrates the Biblical exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Pharaonic Egypt to freedom in the land of Israel has long been more than just a central narrative of Jewish existence. The Exodus story has been used by numerous groups of people to define their relationship to the world in circumstances of oppression, from African-Americans both pre- and post-slavery, to the Irish departure from a famished Ireland and their search for a better life in America.

In 2011, the Exodus story takes on a whole new meaning, as we have cause to celebrate not only the historical freedom of the Israelites. but the modern freedom of Egyptians after Mubarak. To carry the analogy forward, one might say that the Egyptians (and Tunisians, too) are currently wandering the in the desert, trying to figure out how to restore order amidst their new-found freedom, much as the ancient Israelites did. We will surely see “Golden Calf” manifestations, in the form of putative leaders and potential governments, before these great nations find their surest footing forward.

Yet 2011 also feels like a moment for reflection, if not outright sadness: as we clean our homes, plan our Seders, and prepare to celebrate Jewish freedom, one cannot help but observe that many Jews have enslaved themselves all over again. In Israel, the Jewish state is (rather ironically) enslaved by its own oppression of Palestinians: it cannot figure out how to achieve true freedom, nor cannot it bear to free the Palestinians whom it has kept ensnared for more than 40 years. (Longer than the Israelites were wandering in the desert.) Nor, sadly, has official Israel been able to embrace freedom for neighboring Egypt. Israel instead preferred the sacred safety offered by the oppressive Mubarak to finding a way to extend an olive branch of hope to those who, like Jews themselves, yearned to be free.

American Jews are no more free. We too are sadly enslaved by a super-structure of Jewish officialdom that works diligently to maintain $3 billion a year in military aid to Israel from the United States, and, wherever possible, to guarantee that the so-called “peace process” won’t demand too much of Israel. Every piece of bad news is embraced by this super-structure as an opportunity to assert its dominance and reinforce the rightness of its perspective.

But: in insistently asserting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a nuanced approach; in choosing to believe that Israeli freedom can only be maintained at the expense of Palestinian and Egyptian oppression (and the oppression of other Arabs); in consciously choosing to de-universalize the Jewish message of freedom that has been a bedrock of Western thought … we lose something of ourselves. We lose the clarity of the message: Let my people go. And by “my people,” we mean any peoples oppressed anywhere.

All should not be lost. Here are a selection of short statements—all less than 140 characters, designed for easy circulation on Twitter and text message. Join me in making a statement this season, that freedom from oppression is not a right reserved for the few, and should not come at the expense of the lives of other people. Here we go:

  • 5000 years of oppression of Jews doesn’t justify Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
  • Ancient Egyptian oppression of Israelites doesn’t justify modern Israeli support for an oppressive Egyptian government
  • “Let my people go!” Wherever they be, remember the bitterness of slavery and support freedom.
  • “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises?!?” (Talmud Tractate Megillah 10b)
  • “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
  • Freedom comes in many forms: freedom of movement & action, of thought, of expression. Celebrate each, hope for all.
  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” courageous words in 1776 to which we should all aspire.
  • For Ai WeiWei, & every other person like him, held against their will for the “crime” of independent thought, we must demand freedom.

We cannot sustain our own humanity by choosing to degrade someone else’s. That is not a Passover-specific message, but it is a very Jewish one, and it’s time we started trying to live up to that ideal. When we proclaim, at the end of the Seder, “Next year in Jerusalem!” we must ask ourselves: at what price?

April 3rd, 2011

Flights of Fancy

Time Magazine recently ran an article encouraging readers to think of airports as small cities. From Beijing to Dubai, the last decade or two has seen mammoth new airports built in expectant hotspots. (Although the US has generally lagged in building new airports or rehabilitating older ones, part of our multi-generational failure to invest in our own infrastructure.) Airplane orders are sometimes looked at as a sign of economic health, given the average cost per passenger jet (upwards of $300 million for a Boeing 747) and the broad supply chain of manufacturing needs and services that go into building each one. Orders are up so recent indicators suggest that, indeed, things are improving in our economy.

All of this was on my mind a couple weeks ago as I sat with a colleague at the airport in Buffalo, New York, waiting for my flight back to JFK. Before you jump to the wrong conclusions, the fault this time was not with the airline (JetBlue, which was generally strong on service and on its communication around the delays) or with weather in Buffalo. It was raining and windy in New York, and JFK was suffering from a range of unspecified delays, which meant that my 6:30pm flight didn’t leave until 11pm, and didn’t land until 1:30am. The only good thing about the situation was that flying into JFK meant we were able to get home: the flights into LaGuardia airport were all canceled.

If you live virtually anywhere in the United States, you will know that 2010-2011 has been an especially rough winter. The eastern states, from north to south, were hammered with snow, causing numerous kinds of shutdowns. So was the Midwest. There was even snow in San Francisco, definitely not the norm there. While “winter” is technically over, and temperatures in New York are a bit warmer, this only means that what would be snow has been replaced by a lot of rain. Much of this can be attributed to global warming, and specifically to the environmental impact of having a few percentage points more moisture in the air than we did a decade ago. More moisture in the air means more moisture that’s likely to come down in the form of rain or snow. And if the pattern of more rain or snow—more in frequency and more in volume—continues, it means we won’t be flying as much as we think we will in the future.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics provides a database of flights, including those that were canceled. As you can see from these two charts, cancellations in January 2011 from two airlines at two airports were significantly higher than in the previous four Januaries: for USAirways, a high of 140 in 2011, compared with only 68 canceled flights the year before; for American Airlines, 95 cancellations in 2011, compared with a previous high of 30 in 2008. (I chose USAirways and American Airlines based on an awareness of their frequency of flights from LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports respectively. I selected LGA and JFK because they are my two local airports.) Sorry, you’ll have to click to see the charts at full size.

Sure, it’s possible January 2011 was an anomaly, the weather-and-airline-traffic equivalent of an earthquake. Only time will tell. But if this past winter’s weather continues as the norm, we may need to reevaluate our expectations about the role of air travel in the global economy, not to mention as a means of getting around. Perhaps there will be some environmental benefits as a result, though one gets the sense sometimes that it may be too late to reverse the damage.