Sunday, May 20, 2018


Oh brillig was the slithy tove,

All mum with crap that he had sold

So on he went, as we are told

A goal in mind, a windy road

A nematode, but I digress

Our subject still a wilderness,

Wherein such souls as look askance

At superficial happenstance,

To waddle in the cosmic dance

And ask the question, should the chance

Present itself, or even not-

For questions ask their own true selves

Forgiving answers to themselves.

And truth be told I need more rhymes

Not once not twice but three more times!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

My mom, 1923- 2008

Coincidentally, the anniversary of my mom's death falls near Mother's Day.  Ten years later, I am thinking of her.

My mom was born Benna Gerber in Syracuse, New York.  She attended the University of Minnesota, where my dad saw her play a rabbit in a sorority skit.  He was struck by her fourteen year old beauty (many were).  After that, he called her "Bunny," and the name stuck.

My parents were second generation Jewish Americans.

Bunny's family came from Lithuania on her mother's side, from Poland on her father's.  Like my dad's family, who were from the Ukraine (see "My dad, 1919-2012" on this blog), the families had fled for their lives over the course of turn-of-the-century pre-holocausts in Eastern Europe and Russia.  They were able to find new lives in America.  Thank you, America!

I am the eldest of three brothers.  My mom told me that she and my dad decided not to have children until Hitler was confirmed dead.  When she told me that, I looked up Hitler's death and found it was in fact nine months before my birth.  

Why didn't my parents want to have kids in a world where Hitler had won? Hitler laid out his pathology himself. Here's a quote from Hitler:

Hate is more lasting than dislike.

Like many of Hitler's statements, this one is true.  Hitler used bits of truth to decorate his most awful ideas.  The problem wasn't the truth or untruth of these bits (since the faithful don't care what's true anyway) but their intent.  In the quote above, the intent is to show that hate is wonderful because it lasts so long.  Here's another Hitler quote:

Mankind has grown strong in eternal struggles and it will only perish through eternal peace.

The first part is arguably true.  The human lot has been tough.  We lost our Eden- whatever savanna or jungle it was- and have struggled for a new one ever since.  Hitler's intent, however, is to claim that humanity is noble only when it struggles against nature and itself.  When and if there is some kind of peace or equilibrium for humankind, according to Hitler we will become useless and pathetic, not enlightened or happy or anything.  Hitler, you asshole.

My mom said she was devastated when the Nazis took over Germany and, in two years, expelled its entire intellectual class, because she had loved German culture.   I recall she liked Goethe. Here's something Goethe wrote:

Divide and rule, the politician cries;

unite and lead is the watchword of the wise.

She liked some German Jews, too, like Einstein and Freud.  We had books by Freud lying around the house.

My mom saw a male, Freudian shrink, and my dad saw another one, with opposite results.

My dad was a pharmacist and union activist trying to come to terms with his successful businessman father.  His shrink urged him to go into business, which he did.

My mom was a full-time homemaker who was frustrated that much of her mind was not required for the job.   In middle-school she took first place in the New York State Algebra Competition, but she did not pursue advanced math.  She read history, literature and psychology, but had limited society to discuss her reading.  She took a history class at a community college and became close to her professor.  He urged her to seek a Masters and PhD in history at UCLA.  

She dropped this idea after her shrink told her that her desire for advanced degrees was caused by "penis envy."  I heard this from my dad after she died.  I will never know how she succumbed to this idea.  

My mom could stand her ground.  

She did so on the question of where she would raise her children.  My dad's idea was that he would get his pharmacy degree and run the family drug and liquor store in Bismarck, North Dakota, where I was born.  That would have been a far cry, for me and my brothers, from being raised in Los Angeles.

Bismarck was a town of about 8,000, with eight Jewish families among a largely German demographic.  My dad's family (and my mom and I after I was born) lived over the store, in what is now designated the "historic Lasken building."  During the war, a clerk translated the conversations of German patrons discussing who would take title of the store after Hitler won.  When my dad was five years old, he watched from his second floor bedroom window as the local Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the street in front of the store.  He recognized the ringleader as Bismarck's police chief and the husband of his kindergarten teacher.

I was born in a German hospital.   My mom told me that people came into her room "to stare at the Jewish baby."  A German doctor performed my circumcision.  For abstruse reasons, the procedure had to be done a second time by a certified mohel (I have a strange scar and a periodic delusion that I’m Harry Potter).

My grandfather hung out with the gentile power-brokers of the town, who had promised him that his son and his new wife could join their country club (entry had been denied my grandparents).  When the time came, however, my parents were denied entry.  That was it for my mom.  She agreed with her father-in-law, who had already left Bismarck and retired in Los Angeles, where he was a founding member of the Brentwood Country Club.  With my mom voting to ditch Bismarck, my dad could no longer resits.  When I was one-and-a-half, we left my hometown (cue Anatevka).

My mom (like my grandfather) was right about moving to Los Angeles.  As the world collapses into the memories of feuds past, L.A. benefits from its relative lack of history.  There are ghosts of the Chumash and residuals of the Mexican-American War, but almost no imprint from the Civil War.  The city is contentious, but it lacks the East Coast's- and  much of the Midwest's- more intense memories of endlessly bloody Old World history, or memories of a painful European birth, which go back further on the East than on the West Coast.  Every political persuasion lives in Los Angeles, but without sufficient historical memory, nothing comes to a boil.  Good choice, Mom!

I know my mother's family mostly through her stories.  Her father, an itinerant photographer who died before I was born, was hounded for not being ambitious.  My grandmother's sisters (whom I met when I was fourteen on a trip to Syracuse) berated him for being a schlemiel with no moneybut my mom knew who he was.  She said he was good at cooperating, that in human situations he saw the cooperative routes.  

When I met my mom's aunts, I was taken aback.  They had been wild flappers in the '20's, and they still were in the '60's.  Lithuania must have been some place!  

My family on both sides had lost their cultures, extensive groups of families, now a few diminishing threads in America.  My paternal great-grandfather had fourteen children.  He was devout.  When the Cossacks attacked on the Sabbath, the family (including my grandfather, who was ten) hid in the fields and escaped harm, but my great-grandfather refused to interrupt Shabbat prayers and was cut down wearing his prayer shawls.

My grandfather's philosophical take-away, according to my dad, was that, When you're dead you're dead.

My dad told me and my brothers that there is no God and that when you die you are gone.  My mom seemed to go along with this, but sometimes I was not sure.  She told me that when she was a girl she saw God as a wise old man.  

After my mom died, my dad struggled to remain secular.  Two years into his grief, he told me that he simply could not accept a universe that did not include my mom in it.  He said that either my mom's spirit exists in some form, or he would have to reject the universe.  

My mom became ill in her 80's.  I don't know a lot about her illness, other than it involved her heart, because she never talked about it, never shared her tsuris.  On her 85th birthday,  I drove to Oceanside, where my parents had retired, to see her.  I picked up no clues that she was sick.  It was a warm and unexpectedly positive visit, assuaging painful memories of the jerk I had been to her in my clueless adolescence.  The night after my visit she called me.  She said that she knew about death, and that it was Ok...really.  The word really haunts me today.

Two weeks later she and my dad were sitting across from each other in the living room, reading.  My dad said that my mom looked up suddenly and said, Ouch!  She said Ouch! two more times, and then, according to my dad, her eyes opened wide in what appeared to be, not pain or fear, but amazement, as if she were seeing something impossible to describe.  Then she was gone.

My dad had the idea that my mom's spirit helped him find parking places.  I have the same idea, feeling her presence especially when a spot appears just when I'm about to give up and do valet parking.

When else do I feel my mom's spirit?  I feel it when I think about what she said about her father's feel for cooperation, or her sadness at Hitler's killing German culture.  I feel it now, in this political moment, when Pandora's box is being opened, yet again, by our history-obsessed chimp brains.  

Somewhere my mom is watching, telling me it will be ok, really. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Ten Commandments are boilerplate

"Boilerplate" refers to "standardized pieces of text for use as clauses in contracts" (Webster).   Between the standardized clauses are blank lines where the user adds information that gives meaning to the contract.  For example, the boilerplate rental contract available at Staples provides legal text about the renting process, but it is incomplete until someone fills in the renter's name, the rent amount, the landlord's obligations, etc.  Boilerplate is a convenience designed to deliver the necessary framework for legal transactions, but just as the boilerplate at Staples is incomplete, so are the Ten Commandments, with blank lines needing to be filled in.  

This is easy to demonstrate with commandments 5-10, which prohibit (in this order) mistreatment of parents, murder, adultery, stealing, lying about your neighbor or coveting his/her possessions or spouse.  Are there any major religions that might have doctrinal problems with any of that?  There don't appear to be.  Every religion or system for human behavior asserts these kinds of things, usually like the Ten Commandments do, in general terms without specific definitions or examples, making it boilerplate.

Commandments 1- 4 need some discussion.

1. I am the Lord thy God; thou shall not have any gods before me.

This is arguably a specifically Jewish (and by extension Christian and Muslim) commandment, as it applies only to the Judeo/Christian/Muslim god, commonly capitalized to suggest that "He" is the only such entity in the universe.  On the other hand, Hindus believe that there are millions of gods and that the chief god is Vishnu (who rules along with his feminine aspect, Parvathi).  The idea that your top god is the only top god is common among religions and thus is boilerplate.

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

The Judeo/Christian/Muslim god is invisible to "His" adherents, who know next to nothing about "His" thoughts, nature, ambitions, and certainly nothing of what "He" looks like.  Other religions might allow people to draw pictures and make statues of how they think their gods appear, but their doctrines do not assert that people are equal to gods, that they can understand what a god is "like."  We are ruled by gods, whatever the religion, and we cannot see them the way we see each other.  Therefore the intent of the restriction on artistic expression in the 2nd Commandment is common to all religions and is boilerplate.

3. Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord your God in vain.

The phrase "in vain" was translated from the Hebrew, shav, meaning "emptiness of speech, lying," and may have referred specifically to lying under oath.  In the modern conception, this commandment is taken to prohibit references to God in swearing or cussing, as I learned in middle-school when a friend punched me in the shoulder for saying "goddammit!," which my friend said was taking the Lord's name in vain.  Seriously, must one-tenth of humanity's foundational guidance be that you can't say "goddammit!"?  That's so silly it must be a human idea that God just puts up with.  Arbitrary human pretensions to divine knowledge of this sort are common to most religions, so Commandment 3 is boilerplate.

4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

Recently on a road trip to Reno my wife and I saw a billboard outside a small town that claimed that all Christians who observe Sunday as the Sabbath will go to hell and be tormented forever because the actual Sabbath is Saturday.  There was no mention of whether Jews, who also consider the Sabbath to be Saturday, will get any benefit from this (in terms of treatment after they're dead).  Since the day of the week ordained for worship is a blank line in the 4th Commandment, it is boilerplate.

As noted, there is nothing wrong with boilerplate.  We certainly need to be told not to kill or steal or otherwise hurt each other.  But we do all the prohibited things frequently and without concern because we define the terms used in the Commandments to suit our needs.  Is it murder to kill in war, or to terminate a newly fertilized human egg?  Can starving people steal to feed their children?  Are there abusive parents who should be disobeyed?  The answers are concealed in blank lines in the boilerplate of the Ten Commandments.  

Nor is there is anything to suggest how or if we should curb the human desires that lead to transgression of the Commandments.  Should we drug people who have such desires?  Or kill them?  Or give them therapy?  Such questions are not addressed.

Of course most people don't do critical studies of their religion's doctrine in the course of adopting it; they adopt it because their culture adopted it, and they disassociate themselves from other religious doctrines because other cultures adopted them.  Such people are susceptible to rhetoric leading to religious wars.

When it comes to war, we don't even have the boilerplate of a commandment.  War might be noble and divinely inspired; it might be stupid and a sign of our impending extinction.  We're given nothing on the question.

The Ten Commandments are important for providing general goals we can try to attain.  They are not very useful for immediate problems, unless you fill in the blanks yourself.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The view of the world from Keyes Toyota

I'm at Keyes Toyota in Van Nuys, waiting while my 2007 Camry is serviced.  I brought my laptop here, planning to write.  The goal was to loosen my tongue by viewing the world from a new perspective, that of Keyes Toyota.  It seems to be working.

It's ironic that, after two months of writing nothing, I am set free in this distracting venue.  Van Nuys was an early grab at the San Fernando Valley by Los Angeles.  Van Nuys Boulevard features the 70 year old art deco Valley Municipal Center and several miles of car dealerships, of which Keyes Toyota is one.  I'm in the waiting room, sitting at a high round table attended by two bar stools, perfect for writing. A counter nearby offers apples (uneaten) and donuts (going fast) and a luxurious coffee dispenser that produces a latte much sweeter than Starbucks'.  On the wall two feet to my right, looming over my head, is a flat screen TV tuned to CNN.  The volume is low, but I hear the murmur of the lawyer for the lawyer who is defending President Trump from charges he mistreated a porn star.  The dealership's sound system is louder than the TV; as I write it fills the room with a Taylor Swift song which I associate with my granddaughters, who sing the words and dance to it.  Now Taylor Swift has competition for my attention from a man in a baseball cap who has his cell on speaker and is listening to a comedian tell jokes to a laughing audience.  He continually chuckles and turns the volume too high, then lowers it, then turns it up again.  I should point out to him that some people might be trying to view the whole world from Keyes Toyota; I should ask the management to turn off all music and get rid of the flat screen whose scroll continually mesmerizes me- like right now with the story of how the Kentucky legislature pulled an end-run around state teachers by weakening their pensions in a bill about sewers.  I can hear people cheering: "Yay, stick it to the greedy teachers!"  That is a distracting thought.  A man two tables away just asked the lady next to me if she would watch his stuff while he went to the restroom.  As soon as he left she went to the donut counter.  I wondered if the ethics of the situation demanded that I watch his stuff while she was away.  Are ethics like theoretical physics, where if no one sees something happen, it may not have happened?  The man came back from the restroom at the moment the lady returned with her donut.  He observed her apparent indifference to his stuff, then my eyes and his locked briefly.  It was distracting for sure.

Yet in spite of the continual distractions, or because of them, I sit here and write.  How does the world look from Keyes Toyota?  It looks like a fantasy, like a science fiction novel about a society of engineers that is engineering itself out of existence, embracing its replacement and waging wars to keep from thinking too much about it.

Keyes Toyota is not part of the fantasy.  This place is sane.  The peaceable customers; the efficient, friendly service; the donuts- it's all sane, none of it part of the sci-fi horror outside.  

But I'm the writer here, I remind myself, which gives me pretend god-like powers over make-believe things.  I wonder if, to enhance its palatability, I should insert an idea about sensible people into the sci-fi story unfolding outside, and suggest that, even in a human world run largely by emotion, the right mix of sensible people might handle the politics of animal dominance and turn that politics, in the case of the United States, into something that, if not a true democracy, at least would not be a true kleptocracy, plutocracy, oligarchy or military coup.

"But how would the sensible people accomplish that?" I ask myself.  "Would they form a new political party, the Sensible People's Party?  Would only sensible people join?  How many people would that be?  Would the party have any money?"

I retract the idea.  The view from Keyes Toyota is that even in a sci-fi horror fantasy, the Sensible People's Party would fall on its ass, too much a fantasy even for fantasy.  People are just not that sensible.

Real new parties may be coming, I ponder, but they are not here yet.  There was a tentative gesture in a full page ad last week in the Los Angeles Times, announcing a new party as an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, called by the acronym "SAM," for "Sure Aggravates Me!" or something, which seems to have fallen into the void the day it was posted. 

Minus real-world new parties or the hope of a Sensible Peoples' Party, what can a sci-fi horror story bring us? 

Keye's Toyota's large east facing windows are allowing in the glare of the rising sun; it's getting warm in here.  I'm going to write an anti-war party into my sci-fi horror story- plausible or not- because hopeful stories get better ratings.  This party will not be called an "Anti-War Party"; it won't oppose war per se, only war that is mediated through profit motive and/or designed to manipulate our side rather than win.  We can think of this party as an informed assessment of likely reaction to the coming elimination of almost all human jobs due to automation. The party platform will assert that when the world's managers realized the difficulties inherent in virtual total human unemployment, they determined that the best way to control the restless unemployed would be to set all definable groups against each other, leading to a multiplicity of wars of such complex and convoluted origins that no anti-war movement could keep up with the process.  War, in its backers' estimation, will serve to occupy the unemployed and drastically reduce their numbers, while making vast fortunes for the war industry, fortunes that will then be used to further war politics.  

The new anti-war party will sound the alarm about how painful and deadly war is- for those who might not know- and will suggest alternative emotional therapies to group hatred of the "other."  

The new party will be able to keep up with the war parties because it will be backed by visionary billionaires who are outside the war profit network, and it will have some sense of what the electorate sees, feels and understands, a sense that only Trump and his operatives had in the 2016 presidential campaign.  

In my story the new party will be ready by the 2020 campaign.  It will reflect not just a wish to conduct foreign and domestic policy outside the dictates of the military-industrial complex (which will no longer be a jokey term) but a desire to make the transition from traditional human civilization to the new engineered civilization as peaceful and trauma-free as possible.  The sci-fi story unfolding in the world around Keyes Toyota will feature a new American party that at least tries to be sensible, because hopeful stories do get better ratings.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Political winds of high school debate

The California High School Speech and Debate Association (CHSSA) held its annual state championship last weekend.  As a high school debate coach I've been attending state tournaments (when students qualify) for about 13 years, and I've noticed a shift in the political expression of students.  This tournament in particular was different.

California is, numerically, a blue state, but CHSSA includes many school districts in red regions: in suburbs, non-urban coastal areas, and inland.  Through the W. Bush years the political commentary from debate competitors at state tournaments, and even at local tournaments in Southern California, tended to be conservative and relatively kind to Republican presidents.  There were frequent references to the wisdom of President Ronald Reagan.  I recall little criticism of W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Young people's views appear to have changed over the last few years. At this year's states, I judged a round of Extemporaneous Speech (Extemp) in which students have thirty minutes to prepare a five to seven minute speech on political topics that often involve foreign policy. In the round I judged the speeches on foreign policy were eye-opening. Below is a list of three topics from the round, followed by a summary of students' points.

Topic: Trump's strike on the Syrian military 

Student's points:          

The strike made no strategic sense beyond enhancing the President's image and was counterproductive by generating bad PR for the U.S.

The North Korean "crisis" 

Student's points:                  

The North has been firing missiles into the ocean for years without any crisis. Trump is manufacturing the crisis for his own political benefit.

The Mother of All Bombs (MOAB)     

Student's points:  

Trump continues Obama's policy of drone strikes in Afghanistan and the Middle East that has killed hundreds of civilians and turned people in those regions against us.  On top of this, Trump dropped the MOAB, the strategic purpose of which does not appear to extend beyond the political needs of the President.

Granted this is a small sampling of students, but they are representative of a high achieving group that is sensitive to the relative persuasiveness of various arguments.  For them, the prevailing wind is skeptical.

What makes this seeming shift in students' political views especially interesting is that high school debate is often prep school for future politicians. Many presidents and other political leaders competed in high school debate (former Secretary of State John Kerry is said to have had a formidable "kill shot").  This batch of kids, whom we call Millennials (or, since 2011, IGens) has apparently either noticed on its own or picked up from its parents the idea that, even in the case of national security, or maybe especially in that case, the government's actions and claims should be viewed skeptically.

Could this trend in young people be part of an overall, bipartisan trend? Listening to NPR's Wait wait don't tell me on my way to the tournament Saturday morning, I heard a harsh assessment of former President Obama's hands-off posture towards Trumpism, with a fair amount of outrage that instead of helping a troubled nation figure itself out, Obama allocated time to earn $400,000 for speaking to an investment group.  I don't recall the Clintons being reviled by NPR for the millions they squeezed from the 1%.  Is American political thought waking up?

It's an exhilarating idea, but I'm not sure that people who fear our military industrial complex as much as they fear North Korea should take much heart in this partial awakening.  Bear in mind that it won't be represented in the media.  None of the student positions detailed above has been promoted on CBS, NBC or ABC network news, the organs of our state. Quite the reverse: the North Korean crisis is presented as a real thing, requiring breathless presentation of fast breaking events; the attack on Syria, we were told, made Trump look "presidential," not crazy; the MOAB was necessary because of a North Korean threat 3,000 miles from its target.

More hopefully, in Florida, after students at Stoneman Douglas High School were traumatized by a shooter who killed 17 of their classmates, several Stoneman debate team members appeared on the national media stage and pre-empted the gun control discussion.  Unlike matters of foreign policy, which are theoretical to most people, gun control in this case is personal, and the Stoneman debate students used this to maximum effect to move the Florida legislature to enact gun control measures that no lobbying group or single politician could have done. 

We need these high school debaters in office as soon as possible! 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why I quit politics

"Why I quit politics" is reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse:

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it. I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, the year I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board. I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V. I talked to the newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent was the incumbent, well connected in Democratic circles through his political family, fast with facts and figures, thinner and younger than I.

From the start I had dumb luck. Most importantly, the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, declined to make an endorsement in our race, although they had supported the incumbent in his first campaign. I would have been dead in the water against them.

I also had luck in packaging. I was a classroom teacher, and this turned out to be a greatly saleable ballot label against my opponent's "Board member" (Political operatives have learned about this, and will scrounge deeply to find any past connection between the classroom and their candidates).

I stumbled into a lucky situation with a political sign company. The first company I approached, a major one in L.A., had been stiffed by a series of candidates and was reluctant to commit to me. My father had loaned me two thousand dollars for my campaign, and I blurted out that I would pay this up front in the form of a cashier's check. Within two days hundreds of signs saying "Keep Askin' for Lasken" were all over the turf in contention (so called Region 5, the western edge of the city running north from Westchester to Chatsworth). Compounding this beginner's luck was what I found to be a striking naivety in seemingly sophisticated people. For instance, a school administrator, a follower of news and an activist in neighborhood politics, told me, in reference to the signs, that she had no idea I had so much "support."

My timing with the issues was lucky. The opinion in the San Fernando Valley was almost entirely for breaking up the giant L.A. school district (second largest in the country after New York's), and the west San Fernando Valley, the part in Region 5, was the most intensely pro-breakup. The incumbent was not in a position to support breakup, and I had supported it for years.

The issue of bilingual education worked in my favor. Though I supported California's efforts to help non-English speaking children with native language support, I was opposed to the withholding of English language instruction until higher grades. This played well with voters, anticipating the landslide passage five years later of Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support. Newspaper editors, most particularly Jack Miles at the L.A. Times, liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of articles on bilingual education; several appeared during the campaign.

One week before the election I got a call from a pro-choice organization. They had been planning to send thousands of mailers in support of the incumbent because he had paid them a sizable fee and, of course, was pro-choice. I had only evinced the latter virtue. It happened that someone in the incumbent's campaign had angered them, and they had decided to support me in the mailer for free.

Topping off my luck, I won a raffle that placed my name first among the seven candidates. The effect of "1. Doug Lasken-Teacher" was hard to beat as product placement.

The result of my luck: I received 36,000 votes, coming in second behind the incumbent's 50,000 ( turnout was large in this election because of the Riordan-Wu mayoral race). Had I taken 1% more of his vote, we would have been in a run-off. The day after the election the L.A. Times referred to "...newcomer Doug Lasken's surprising showing."

I remember standing at a newsstand off Hollywood Boulevard at 6:00a.m. reading, with trembling hands, the Times' hopeful obituary of me. Something sank inside me. The Doors '"This is the End" comes to mind. I knew I would not "capitalize" on my dumb luck, but I did not know why. I did not know why I had, at that moment, quit politics.

Well, perhaps what I didn't know was how to say it. I'm going to try to say it now: Politicians can't say "I don't know."

Politicians, in fact, can't say much at all of what they think. Well "Duh",you say. Yes, but when you're in a political situation where you're setting yourself up as the person who knows what's best, who has an answer to complex problems, there's a certain poignancy that comes with the knowledge that you're constructing a facade, a veil of words that sounds right, while the much vaunted human cortex watches as from the end of a long tunnel.

The above mental state was produced by certain types of questions, such as, "How would you increase test scores?" There is familiar boilerplate to deal with such questions: "Every student must receive quality instruction...We must have accountability and standards... Education must be our number one priority...", etc. Not that there is anything incorrect in such sentiments, but if they contained any important policy ideas we would be experiencing a much larger number of high scoring children. I did my best to sling a few slogans, and I used the English language instruction and breakup issues with some effect, but my brain was uncomfortable, my speech somewhat hesitant, and this perhaps cost me the 1% and the runoff.

Delving deeper into my uncooperative mind, I found something truly scary. It's not just that I wasn't in a position to say what I really thought about raising test scores. My hands hover now above the keyboard, waiting for a sign. No sign comes. Some muse has got me this far, but at the crucial moment she stands silent.

What the hell, here goes. Well you see, the thing is... I didn't really know how to raise test scores. I did believe that breaking up the district might improve efficiency, and that teaching English would improve English skills, but I wasn't completely sure test scores would go up significantly as a result. After all, when we talk about raising test scores we're not just talking about a few numbers going up; we're talking about real improvement in children's intellectual abilities. How do you get fifth graders in large numbers to know their times-tables, and remember them into secondary school? How do you get secondary students in large numbers to read books, really read them, from beginning to end? Why would a few corrective policy changes produce such profound educational outcomes?

Hindsight has justified the hesitation I felt during my campaign. Proposition 227 reinstated English instruction. A well funded "Standards" movement took hold in California and in much of the rest of the country, accompanied by millions of dollars in new textbooks and teacher training. There has been math reform, with renewed emphasis on basics. These reforms have helped a lot of kids, but they have not "raised test scores" in the real sense. In other words, although there have been small jumps in scores, there is no systemic, widespread change in our students. If you walk into a California classroom at random you are unlikely to find kids who can read well, or want to read, or who do math with the facility you find in Asia. Nor will you find this two years from now, or four years from now. It's not happening and it's not going to happen.

Why not? Because the discussion is political, and therefore incomplete. Standards are important, and logical instruction is important. But those are the easy parts.

Back to the reporter asking me how I would raise test scores. Let's say a cosmic force had ordered me to tell the truth. What would I have said? I might have stammered, "Well... I'm not sure." The reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it. If he was polite, though, there would be a pause, and then I would begin to think. This in itself, the sight of a politician lost in thought while the world waits, is anathema to a successful image. But if the cosmic force could get everyone to wait a bit, I could have given a decent answer. The discussion might have gone something like this:

Me: Well, we have a fundamental disconnect between our media based culture and the school setting. Virtually every kid is taught by the media to gaze at colored images which ridicule schools and teachers. We have nothing effective to counter this. We have not figured out a modern motivation for students. The one of the few countries in the world that has ruled out physical pain as an educational tool (Singapore, much admired by math reformers, achieves the highest secondary math scores in the world partly by beating underachievers with bamboo canes). We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in the report card grade, but because of grade inflation, rampant from kindergarten through graduate school, and the glorification in the media of school failure, grades alone have become a weak motivator for all but a few students.

Reporter: So you advocate beating our students?

Me: Of course not.

Reporter: Then what do you advocate?

Me: We've forgotten economic incentive.

Reporter: For teenagers?

Me: Yes. Our surplus based society has extended childhood, resulting in dependence on parents at later ages, but teenagers are in their physical and intellectual prime, and will remain so into their twenties. They are designed to create and work, but the automation that gave us our surplus has resulted in a more seriously underemployed society than we like to admit. There are over 100,000 gang members in L.A., but there are not 100,000 jobs for them, not even menial ones. The standard curriculum in high school does not relate directly to visible jobs. Perhaps shop and computer classes do, but the thousands of jobs it would take to rationalize that curriculum do not exist. Honors students, the handful of clever kids who know how they will work the system, put up with non job-related curricula because they see a path to employment based on grades and general literacy, but they too have to wait. It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market. The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: would propose.....?

Me: Well, somehow we need to have an economy that can absorb many more teenagers and people in their early twenties, and a school system that clearly feeds into this economy. But our technology, automation, may have made this impossible.

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

Me ( after very long pause): I don't know.

End of dialogue, and career. Even an answer like, " We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over three hundred years of industrial revolution, with a completely new, rationally organized economy", impractical as it might be as a campaign position, would be better than "I don't know." Anything is better than "I don't know."

It might seem strange to an extraterrestrial visitor from an advanced civilization that we have no place in our public discourse for "I don't know", since we so often, clearly, don't know, but it's basic human psychology at work. Management theorists have shown that leaders get approval for making decisions, for being decisive, regardless of the results (advice routinely followed by politicians). This is understandable given the human condition. We really don't know what we are supposed to do on this earth, or even if we are supposed to do something. If our leaders admitted this in public, society at large might collapse in terror. Still though, it can be something of a hindrance to problem solving to maintain at all times that soothing platitudes are solutions.

So after a refreshing brush with the fast lane, I returned, sober but wiser, to the classroom, where I find I can say "I don't know" a lot, to students, to parents, to my colleagues, and they don't seem to mind. Hey wait a minute, these people vote, or will vote...Hmmm.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

My Meretz tour of Israel

This account, slightly updated, of my first trip to Israel in 1995, contains a surprising share of the same names, parties, positions and arguments that we hear today.  Our basic vocabulary has not changed since 1995.

In early January, 1995, my father, a member of Peace Now, a left-leaning pro-Israel organization, was invited on a tour of Israel sponsored by the Israeli Meretz party, but he could not go.  He asked me if I would like to take his place. He explained that Meretz is a left of center party which, after years out in the cold during Likud governments, had progressed to become a minority member of a Labor coalition.  I had never been to Israel and was interested, so I agreed to take my dad's place on the tour.

On January 12th, my parents' friend, Yitzhak, a tour guide by profession, picked me up at Ben-Gurion airport. He took me directly to the Western Wall, a relic of the Second Temple of ancient Israel and thus a symbol of historic Jewish presence. 

At the Wall an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) ceremony was under way. Hundreds of 18 years olds stood at attention, each carrying an automatic weapon.  In fact throughout the Old City of Jerusalem, and throughout Israel, IDF teenagers carry automatic weapons.  It occurred to me that this is perhaps an enlightened system.  In L.A. we have around 70,000 armed teenagers, totally unregulated and uncontrolled. In Israel, all boys and girls join the IDF at 18, and every boy (at least from what I saw) is issued an automatic weapon, with the proviso that he shoot it only in self-defense, or defense of others, or when ordered, so at least there is adult supervision. Nevertheless the guns made me nervous, and I asked Yitzhak if they had good safety mechanisms.  He said the M-16's were safe, but that the Uzi's were subject to accidents.

I had arrived several days before the Meretz tour in order to accompany two couples on a side trip to Jordan that had been prearranged with my father.  The morning after my arrival, Friday the 13th, I met my fellow travelers in a hotel lobby in Tel Aviv and we took the two hour taxi ride to the Allenby bridge, a major crossing point to Jordan.  I noticed that our driver, when stopped in traffic for a red light ahead, would beep his horn as soon as the light turned orange.  Many drivers around us did the same thing, so that there were never ending waves of horns honking, to no purpose. Out on the highways, where speed is considered an absolute good above all others, our taxi driver defied the laws of physics by getting us to the Allenby Bridge alive.

After a two hour bureaucratic ordeal at the bridge, we entered Jordan and met our young Jordanian guide, Abdullah. We drove non-stop to the ancient ruins of Petra, arriving at near sundown as the last tourists were leaving.  Hurrying to catch the light, our party fairly bolted from the car and into the vertiginous Siq, a narrow winding path with sheer rock walls that shoot straight up hundreds of feet, said to be created from a tap of Moses' staff.  The Siq helped the builders, a people called the Nabataeans, conceal their stunning city from the Romans, who would have envied it to death.

I lost track of my companions and found myself alone in the Siq, disturbed only by the occasional returning rent-a-camel. After about twenty minutes- suddenly and without any signs- I turned the last corner and beheld the "Treasury," a fantastic palace carved directly into the sandstone mountain.  I had seen engaging photos of the Treasury, but the reality, at twilight, without another person in sight, was powerful. This structure was built to engender hallucinations of what human existence might be, with the right gods on your side.  The Nabataean civilization was one of the last gasps of polytheism before the Judeo-Christain-Moslem dominion, and the power of its monuments is unnerving.  It was all I could do not to have visions as I wandered into the increasingly dark and ambiguous inner chambers of the Treasury.  I even had an impulse to commune with the Nabataean mountain god Dushara, but for this I was punished with two days severe need of lomotil.

We stayed one night in Amman, at the Grand Hyatt, whose lobby was bombed in 2005.  That evening we walked around the city, under the care of Abdullah, and saw some Roman ruins.  I noticed that all the men had dark mustaches, and that their facial expressions were serious.  Amman is probably the only Arab capital where a group of Jews can walk around without fear.  I wanted to know why that was, but that secret was not revealed by the serious faces in the city.  We met even more serious, and armed Jordanian men at a series of checkpoints on our way back to Israel, where we faced lengthy periods of silence while uniformed men slowly inspected our papers, turning to study our faces in between pages.  Each time we were approved for passage, I wondered again what force within Jordanian culture produced this acceptance, or at least tolerance.  

Abdullah took us past the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. It stretched for miles, rows of tents and small buildings. The inhabitants were clearly not incorporated into Jordanian society, quite the reverse.  I wondered why there was relative peace around this arrangement, compared to the strife in Israel.

On Sunday evening we entered Israel at the Sheik Hussein crossing.  During the two hour taxi ride through the West Bank, one of my companions, Judy, explained that Meretz was actually a coalition of three parties: Ratz, a civil-rights party, Shinoui, a capitalist party, and Mapam, a formerly Marxist party.  I commented that these were strange bedfellows, and Judy said this was characteristic of Israeli coalitions.  She added that Americans demonize our adversaries to the extent that crucial coalitions are impossible.

It turned out that all the members of my tour were Ratz supporters. Above the entrance to our hotel in Jerusalem was a banner reading, "Welcome, friends of Ratz!"

We were in time for the opening dinner, and Member of the Knesset (MK) Naomi Chazan's remarks about the settlements in the territories, which she said needed to be "totally dismantled and dispossessed."  The other members of my tour were in alignment with this, as was my dad, but I was new to the subject and not sure.  
That evening I read the texts of recent agreements, the "Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements," and the "Agreement on Preparatory Transfer of Powers and Responsibilities," signed in 1994, the year before my trip, pursuant to the 1993 Oslo Accords between the Palestinian Authority (PA), which then governed the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israeli Government.  To my puzzlement I found no references in the documents to the settlements and their future.

The next day we went to the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem to meet with Hanan Ashrawi, a familiar spokesperson for Palestinians in world media.  She is the one media-survivor of the people I met, recently identified by the Los Angeles Times as "a prominent attorney on the PLO's executive committee," and quoted in opposition to President Trump's Jerusalem policy  ("PLO reconsiders recognition of Israel," L.A. Times, 1/12/18).  I asked Ashrawi if she believed the settlements would have to be totally dismantled in the course of a final phase of the agreements.  She replied that the settlements were built on "stolen, confiscated property."  I mentioned the lack of reference in the 1994 documents and she said the settlements would be dealt with in 1996 [that of course did not occur].

From the American Colony we went to the Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-Violence.  A Swedish man named Anton talked to us about non-violent principles of Palestinian resistance to Israel. A British woman extolled the Intifada, telling us that "Intifada" means a "shaking out," as of a carpet, and that rock throwing was the least of it.  A Palestinian named Jibril told a moving story about difficulties encountered in trying to get his ill father across Israeli checkpoints to the nearest hospital.  Afterward I asked Jibril if his non-violent principles prevented him from supporting the rock throwing of the Intifada.  He said he supported the rock throwing.

That evening we met at the hotel with settlement spokesman Yisrael Harel.  He told us that Jews had a biblical and archaeological claim to all of Israel, that Jews were, in fact, there first.  I asked Harel if he thought the entire United States should dismantle itself and leave the North American continent because the Indians were there first.  I meant this as a serious question, but Harel laughed and I got no answer.

Later we dined with MK Benny Temkin.  I asked him my question about the settlements.  He answered as Ashwari had, that settlements will be decided in '96.

Tuesday, January 17, my birthday, we toured the Gaza Strip.  A few miles from the entrance, we stopped at a busy restaurant for lunch. I used the restroom, which was filled with IDF soldiers.  I was the only person at the urinals without an automatic weapon.  

In the parking lot I encountered Sylvia, from the tour of Jordan, who had been very kind to me during my post-Petra intestinal distress. Sylvia was in a thoughtful mood.  She told me that she had been a lifetime supporter of the State of Israel, but that if things didn't change she would have to reassess her position.  She said she had visited Gaza two years earlier, and that I was going to see unspeakable conditions in the Gazan camps.

We left the restaurant and entered Gaza City.  This is a bustling town, with signs of construction everywhere.  The people on the street walked purposefully, and were dressed fairly well, sometimes in designer clothes.  At the south end of Gaza City we saw a large lot with hundreds of parked cars, and hundreds of people walking around.  Our guide told us it was a car auction.

We went first to Fatah headquarters, which then governed Gaza (a conflict in 2007 split Fatah from the Palestinian Authority).  Fatah's leader, Yasser Arafat, was in Morocco, so we were greeted by Freih abu Medein, Minister of Justice for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).  Medein went through a long list of grievances against the Israeli government, from the settlements to Palestinian prisoners.  He did not have anything particular to say about Gaza.

We traveled next to the Red Crescent Society where we met Haider Abdel Shafi, who had been in the news earlier that week after calling for a hard line alternative to Arafat.  Members of our group asked Shafi if it was true that as an original member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace talks he had resisted removing the call for destruction of Israel from the PLO charter. He said he had, and that he continued to support this provision as an important card against Israel.  My group was split on this (Sylvia was incensed).

We moved on to the PNA police headquarters, formerly Israeli headquarters.  A man named Ahmed Oreia showed us a large map of Gaza.  He particularly wanted us to see sections of beach which at that time were still controlled by Israel.  He found this to be an outrage.  He said that leaving and entering Gaza was more difficult now than before Oslo [Gaza became legally autonomous in 2005, when Israeli forces and settlements were removed].  When asked about concerns in Israel about dangerous Gazans, he said that when Israelis walk around inside of Gaza, they do not feel threatened. He talked about unemployment in Gaza, and complained that, unlike the Egyptians after their stay, the Israelis had left the infrastructure of Gaza destroyed, even taking out the phones from the PNA building.

Back on the bus, we were told not to eat the food we had picked up at the restaurant because we were going to the best fish restaurant in Gaza.  After a few minutes ride, we arrived at a pleasant building on the beach.  Walking around for a minute, I was struck by the beauty of the ocean and the long sandy beach.  The fish was excellent.  If ever there was a resort town waiting to be born, Gaza is it.

After eating we were told to get on the bus for the trip back to Israel. Sylvia and others expressed concern that we had only heard political statements and had not seen any of Gaza's notorious camps. After some negotiations, it was agreed that we would drive through the Jubalya camp, with 50,000 residents, the largest in Gaza.  A Palestinian named Samid would accompany us.  Sylvia said I was going to see the true misery of Gaza.  

As our bus entered the outskirts of Jubalya, our guide pointed out an intersection where the Intifada had begun over an incident with Israeli police.  Jubalya is a criss-cross of unpaved streets and alleyways.  The homes are makeshift one story shelters of corrugated steel, plywood and whatever material is at hand. The first thing that struck me was the huge numbers of young children. They ran around in groups of twenty to thirty everywhere we went, and children were visible  as far as we could see down the alleys.  My impression was of driving across a crowded elementary school playground (I taught elementary school at the time).  The children seemed occupied with their games.  They were adequately dressed.  I saw no signs of malnutrition.  I was puzzled by the absence of teenagers.  I asked Samid about his.  He said the teenagers were "at jobs."

Sylvia had told me of raw sewage in the streets.  There was water running in narrow ditches, but it seemed clear and there was no stench.  Syvia said the camp had improved considerably since her visit two years earlier.

As we left Gaza, buses of Palestinian workers were unloading.  The men seemed upbeat, many smiling, happy to be back from work.  They streamed through a hole in a chain link fence to a large parking lot.  Apparently many owned cars.

The next morning we headed for an infamous hill near the settlement of Efrat, which had been in the international media recently after Efrat settlers had tried to grade a section for expansion and faced resistance from the nearby town of El Khader. In Bethlehem, we picked up Anton from the non-violent group. Ten minutes south of Bethlehem we entered El Khader, where we picked up a man named Hassan.  Anton acted as Hassan's interpreter.  Hassan directed our bus south, up the windswept, rocky hill in contention.  Near the top we parked and got out, in a freezing wind.  Hassan told us that his great grandfather had given his grandfather this land.  He said that it was holy land, where 7,000 martyrs had fallen, and that no one was supposed to wear shoes here (Hassan wore shoes).  Next to where we parked were some olive trees, which Hassan said were cultivated to prove ownership of the area by El Khader.  South of the trees was an extensive garbage dump, which included an entire stripped bus. I asked Hassan why the dump was there.  He said "entrepreneurs" put it there.  When pressed to explain, he said car thieves used the area.

On top of the hill was a bulldozer which the settlers had left.  One IDF soldier stood guard.  Hassan pointed south to the next hill, about a mile away, where we could see the settlement of Efrat.  It seemed pretty clear that the bulldozing was a provocative act.  A typical extension would have been close to the settlement.

We boarded the bus and headed down the hill, into a small valley filled with plots cultivated by villagers from El Khader.  Moving up the next hill, we paused at the entrance to Efrat.  There was some discussion about the safety of driving through the settlement of 12,000.  There were no guards; no one seemed to be paying attention to our bus, so we entered.  The first thing I saw was an elementary school.  A couple of hundred children ran around the playground.  The school and all the buildings were white Jerusalem stone.  The settlement was attractive.  It could have been a community of upscale townhouses in Chatsworth.  There were some modest lawns, reinforcing our group's contention that the settlements appropriate too much water, but at least no swimming pools.  We left Efrat without getting off the bus and talking to anyone.  I found it ironic that the only group we shied from encountering was from our own tribe.

Passing out of the southern entrance of Efrat, we went down the hill into the next village of Wadi-Nis. Samid knew people here.  We parked next to a large handsome mosque, in the village center, and got out.  The villagers crowded around us.  The children stared at us without smiles.  Soon we were greeted by the Mukhta, the head of the largest family.  He welcomed us to the village and asked if we would like tea.  Everyone said yes, as we were quite cold. Charles from our group, a conservative rabbi from New York, asked the Mukhta what kind of relations Wadi-Nis had with Rabbi Riskin, spiritual leader and spokesman for Efrat.  The Mukhta said Rabbi Riskin was an honorable man who was a moderating influence on Efrat.  At this Hassan burst into a rage at the Mukhta, shouting and gesticulating until the Mukhta offered him a cigarette. The next moment we found ourselves boarding the bus, the tea forgotten.  Smiles and handshakes all around.

Back at El Khader, Hassan pointed out Highway 16, then under construction, which Israel was building to connect the settlements. Hassan said this highway proved that Israel will not remove the settlements.  The highway went right along the city wall of El Khader, but there would be no off-ramps for the village.

After dropping off Hassan, we headed for the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, in Jerusalem.  Anton stayed with us for part of the way. He told us of a big demonstration coming up at a checkpoint outside Jerusalem.  He warned "there might be violence."  I asked Anton what his specialty was.  He said, "conflict resolution."  It turned out there was no demonstration.

Visitors to the Knesset are intensely screened.  Young men with automatic weapons scrutinized each of us, asked if we were armed, took our cameras, and let us in.  We spent a few minutes in the gallery watching the proceedings.  By a coincidence, the whole of the Israeli government was in attendance.  Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir chuckled together, seeming relaxed and happy to be in the opposition. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who was assassinated ten months later) and cabinet member Shimon Peres looked harassed and defensive.

We were led to a small conference room near the cafeteria and were endlessly fed while a succession of Meretz MK's visited us.  The first was the Minister of Environment, Yossi Sarik. Several of our group, inflamed after our visit to Efrat, demanded to know if the government was going to halt settlement expansion.  Sarik, like many Israeli politicians, is a master of the irritated shrug.  He said, "We are trying; we will see what happens," as one might say, "Excuse me for living!"

Next we met Haim Ramon, Secretary-General of the trade union organization, the Histadrut.  Ramon had been in the news for opposing Labor entrenchment and corruption in the Histadrut. When asked if he had made progress weakening corruption, he shrugged: "It's gone."

We met with the mayor of the settlement of Ariel, Ron Nachman (Nachman is also a Likud MK, a legal double duty in Israel).  Nachman told us that Ariel has excellent relations with the surrounding Arab communities, and that they have no problems sharing water.  He also said the settlements are important in ensuring that there will never be a Palestinian state.

That evening at the hotel, we hosted Minister of Science, Technology and Arts, Shulamit Aloni.  She was introduced to us as Mrs. Ratz, because she had formed the Ratz party in 1973 [Ratz merged with Meretz in 1997].  Aloni invited each of us to speak of one concern.  When it was my turn, I said that I had been troubled by the lack of understanding between the parties over the settlements, and that my reading of the situation was that the settlements would not be dismantled, at least not entirely, and that it was perhaps time to talk of compromise.  I half expected the whole room to start yelling at me, but no one seemed troubled.  Aloni said my suggestion was a good one, and I remained on good terms with the friends of Ratz.

Thursday morning we traveled to Tel Aviv.  The headline of the Jerusalem Post that morning read, "Government Bends to Meretz Pressure- Promises Settlement Freeze." The article quoted a furious Shaas (religious party) MK saying that Meretz members were "spies and traitors" who brought "sympathizers from America to sneak into settlements and spread lies abroad." It was diverting to be part of a perceived conspiracy, and to note the irony of my total lack of influence on the politics around me.

We went to a bank in Tel Aviv where we had lunch with IDF Colonel Shalom Harari, in charge of Army Intelligence for Arab Affairs.  Harari's presentation depicted Palestinians as bunglers and/or crooks.  He said the reason that international money is not forthcoming for the Palestinians is that they are notorious for diverting money into the wrong pockets and will not account for the funds they receive.  He said the PNA in Gaza had made monopoly agreements with companies that supply Gaza in return for a 15% cut.  As an example he cited an agreement with an Israeli cement company.  Gazans must purchase cement from this company even though they could get it cheaper from Jordan. When our group pressed him about the destroyed infrastructure of Gaza, he said that some phones were taken, against orders, from the PNA building, but that three months of supplies were left in Gaza's main hospital, including three months worth of vaccinations.  The Israelis did this, the Colonel said, because "we knew what they were like, what they would say."  Concerning the difficult checkpoints, he said Israelis are afraid of the hostile Gazans, and are going to foreign workers, like Romanians, to replace Gazan labor.

After lunch, we drove to the Maccabee Center for a meeting with the Minister of Education, Amnon Rubinstein.  I told Rubinstein that I had read an article in the Los Angeles Times about his "peace curriculum," which is supposed to acquaint Israeli children with "the concept of living peacefully with Arabs under the new agreements."  I asked him how this program was going.  He said it was going very well, and that even when he had visited "famous Efrat" he had seen the curriculum presented, with flags of Arab nations adorning the classroom (presumably this was the elementary school I had seen).  It's fair to say that all of our party assumed the "peace curriculum" agreement applied to the Palestinian side as well, so that they would teach their children positive things about Israel and Jews.  That of course did not happen, so one does have to wonder what it means in the Middle East to "agree" on something.

Friday morning we headed towards Jericho, one of the world's oldest cities.  On the way we passed the huge settlement of Ma'ale Adumin, with 20,000 residents one of the hot spots in the debate over "greater Jerusalem."  Inclusion of Ma'ale Adumin in a greater Jerusalem would remove it from the territory of a Palestinian state. Critics charge that Ma'ale Adumin is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention's article 49, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory.  The Israeli counter argument is that such conventions relating to occupied land do not apply to the West Bank because the region was not under the legitimate sovereignty of any state at the time of the occupation.  These opposing legal arguments have not changed in 2017.  Anyone who chooses one of them over the other is vilified by the other side.  In hindsight, I feel I made the right decision in 1995 to never use the legal arguments in discussing the settlements.  I might as well try to prove that my house in Los Angeles should not be reverted to Chumash ownership. Arguments of this nature are designed to defy resolution and last forever.

Moving down into the Jordan Valley we entered Jericho, a sleepy Arab town, no sign of trumpets blaring and walls falling, chosen by the government for autonomy, we were told, because of its apolitical, resort atmosphere.  A Mr. Erakat, Minister of Local Affairs, was with his ill father, so for twenty minutes we listened to a spokesman excoriate Israel.  I asked if he could speak about Jericho itself, and he said the economy was in bad shape because of Israel.  I asked if tourism was important to Jericho, and he said tourism was down since autonomy, because of Israel.

At this point in the journey I had become a bit fatigued by the inability of any sides in the region to say something nice about each other.  Arafat, Rabin and American Secretary of State Warren Christopher are the only people in the arena who see any good in the "peace process."  At lower levels, political credibility is gained only by proving you hate the other side.

Saturday morning we toured the citadel in the old City of Jerusalem. Our guide showed us how the city had originated with David's visions from God concerning the site for the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments.  Later visions, described on nearby plaques, included Mohammed's trip to heaven via the exact spot shown to David for the Ark, so that now, depending which side has jurisdiction, the story of Jerusalem's holy sites will be an affront to at least one of the world's three major religions.  I had to wonder, is this spiritual turf-war God's idea, or was it dreamed up by contentious humans?

I left our party to wander in the shuk,  a maze of hundreds of retail stalls.  Our guide told me to stay in the Jewish quarter, not to turn left or right (lest I be stabbed, Sylvia warned), but mesmerized by the seeming infinite corridors and bright colors, I did turn left and found myself in the Muslim quarter.  The butcher stalls showed a lurid red.  In front of one stall blood had splashed all over the paving stones and I had to step through it.  I found myself walking behind a man in civilian clothes, sweater and jeans, carrying an automatic weapon.  I was told later that when people from the settlements come to the Old City they take private security guards with them, and that these guards are subsidized by the government.  I walked on and on, and came finally to a great wall with one door.  It was an entrance to the Dome of the Rock, a church built by the Ottomans to encompass holy sites related to Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac (which is supposed to have happened on a "rock" within), the Ark of the Covenant (in the "Holy of Holies" spot, which my father-in-law warned me is not to be looked at by any but a high priest, lest God strike you dead for defiling the site, as He was reported in the Torah to have done to the disrespectful when the Ark travelled through the desert).  An Arab guard sat in a folding chair by the door of the Dome of the Rock.  I asked him if I could go in.  He said no, that visiting hours, which were not posted, were over.  [Back again years later for my son's bar mitzvah, I returned to the Temple Mount and was again told visiting hours, still not posted, were over]

Saturday evening we met with Meretz MK Ran Cohen.  The group questioned him about the settlement freeze, about Efrat, about greater Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumin.  Cohen sighed, then said that things looked difficult.  Mirroring my thoughts, he said that the time had come to consider a compromise on the settlements.  He speculated that such a suggestion could create controversy within Meretz, but no one in our group expressed a problem with the idea. 

Concerning an upcoming vote of no confidence in the Knesset, Cohen had a comment that turned out to be prophetic: "I pray to God there will be no terrorist attack in the next two days."

After Cohen left we went to a restaurant for a farewell party with many Knesset MK's and aides. Toasts were made, and we each received a gift from Meretz of candle holders in the shape of doves.

Sunday morning I took a taxi to Jerusalem's Central Bus Station, planning to take a bus to Tel Aviv to stay two days with my wife's aunt.  The bus station was crowded with soldiers returning from the weekend furlough.  I waited behind a crowd of soldiers shoving their backpacks into the hold of the bus.  As they bent over, their weapons often pointed at me, sometimes poking into my body.  I wondered which were M-16's and which were Uzis.  On the bus I was the only civilian.  Automatic weapons bristled the length of the aisle.  I was not sure whether to feel protected or threatened.

Arriving at her flat, I found my aunt-in-law engrossed in the TV news.  She explained that two bombs had gone off that afternoon at a bus stop near Netanya.  The bus had been crowded with IDF soldiers. Sixteen had died.  I thought of the bus I had been on, and of Ran Cohen's words.

The next morning's news showed a jubilant rally in Gaza in support of the suicide bus bombers. What if this rally had taken place on the day we toured Gaza?  What questions might we have asked, and what answers received?

The news featured a woman at the bomb scene who said that the aftermath of the bombing was like a meat market, with "our boys thrown around like fresh meat."  This woman's statement was shown repeatedly on all the news shows.

My aunt took me to the shuk in south Tel Aviv.  While she bought fruit I wandered into an area of butcher stalls.  I saw a plastic tub filled with chicken heads.  On the floor in back of one stall I saw a flayed cow's head on a table.  A woman shopper eyed a barrel of slow moving fish.  She pointed to one and the shopkeeper grabbed it by the tail and shoved it into a plastic bag, head first.  Still holding the tail, he grabbed a short wooden club and whacked the fish hard on the head twice.  The bag was still.  The lady nodded in approval.  I mention these things only because I had never seen any of them before.  Such foundational elements of carnivorism are hidden from urban Americans.

That afternoon I took a train to Haifa to visit more of my wife's family.  The train was full of young soldiers.  They looked tired and apprehensive, no doubt thinking of the recent bombings.  The relatives took me to a mall north of Haifa, art deco style though it was built in the 80's.  They showed me an area that had been destroyed during the Persian Gulf War by an Iraqi Scud missile that had been intended for a nearby refinery.  No sign of damage remained, but framed photos showed cracked columns and the ruptured ceiling of the original rotunda.  The rebuilt rotunda enshrined the Scud rocket itself, retrieved from the rubble.

At home we watched a press conference by Rabin about the bus bombers.  My fourteen year old cousin translated for me, emphasizing the part where Rabin said, of the bombers, "We will keep fighting you!  We will chase you down!  No border will stop us.  We will liquidate you, and emerge victorious!"

The next morning, on the train back to Tel Aviv,  I read the Jerusalem Post: "Prime Minister: Goal of Peace is to separate Israelis, Palestinians."  There were various attacks on Meretz.  Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud [and current prime minister] charged that the government had become a
"greater Meretz."

I arrived that evening at Ben Gurion Airport for the long flight home.  The girl at one security check asked me why I had been to Jordan.  I said I had gone to see Petra.  She asked what I had done in Israel.  I said I had been part of a tour.

What kind of tour? 

A tour sponsored by the Meretz party.  

Whom did you speak to on the tour?  

MK's and Palestinian spokespeople.  

Did you become friendly with any Palestinians?  Were you invited to any of their homes?  


Did you receive any gifts or packages from anyone?  

Just my present from the tour organizers.  

Show me the present.  

She took the candlesticks, my passport and my plane tickets and left for about fifteen minutes.  She returned, handed me my stuff, and wished me a pleasant journey.  I felt that the international praise of Israeli airport security is well deserved.

At home, the L.A. Times was overwhelmed with O.J. Simpson stories.  On a back page I read that Israel's Labor government had approved a Greater Jerusalem, and that Palestinian leaders say the peace process is doomed.

The Middle East is a history factory.  We like to paraphrase historian George Santayana: Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.  It's an optimistic sentiment.  We may be condemned to repeat history whether we remember it or not.  Or more perversely, maybe the more history we remember, the more prone we are to repeat it.

Anyway, I had a great trip, and can look at Los Angeles in a new way: We may have earthquakes, floods, fires and riots, but at least we don't have a "peace process."

For more Lasken's Log, click on "Older Posts" below right.