Last Tuesday night, I went out for dinner and drinks with my friend/music teacher Bob. Although he’s a few years younger than I am, our ages are within hailing distance. After talking about the state of the Red Sox we began to reminisce about Brooklyn. He grew up there and it’s where I went to a Hasidic yeshiva during my high-school years. Surprisingly, we both had experiences with the Jewish Defense League (JDL) and the transformations of what had been primarily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.

It was those transformations (in plain speak, Blacks moving into those neighborhoods) that sparked the creation of the JDL. For reasons I honestly can’t explain, one of the rabbis at my yeshiva took me to a couple of the early meetings led by Meir Kahane, the rabbi who formed the JDL. This sense of encroachment into what they considered “their” space enraged the Hasidic and Orthodox communities. So Kahane was organizing neighborhood “watch” groups to communicate with each other and follow every Black male who rode a bike and wore sneakers. It was made clear that violence was not off the table.

I lasted two meetings before I told my rabbi I had no interest in Kahane’s mission (which included applying for gun licenses) and suggested that he shouldn’t have anything to do with the group either. I can’t remember what he said, but I quickly lost his support at the yeshiva where he had often protected me from beatings by other rabbis.

So be it. I hadn’t learned much growing up in my nuclear family, but I’d been taught in no uncertain terms that racism was evil, pure and simple, and not to be tolerated. Kahane represented everything I detested even at that early age. I believed Jews were supposed to be on the side of the oppressed. Never Again was never meant to be an expression of hostility, but rather one of defense.

That’s why Passover has become, for me, a major league conundrum. The holiday expresses the belief in freedom, the sin of slavery, at the same time it praises the lord for slaughtering anyone who stood in the way of the Jewish exodus—and anyone included innocent firstborn babies to boot. The older I’ve become, the more deeply I believe in non-violence. And believe it to be the only real salvation for our species. Yet here we have a story where, without remorse, god used horrific violence to set my people free. How is it possible to embrace my history when the beginning of our own freedom was born from the blood and death of people who our own bible calls half-brothers?

That Old Testament god really knew how to wield a sword and didn’t stop after the parting of the seas. Nor has his “Chosen.” Why does the Israeli government use the honorable idea of Never Again to rationalize keeping Palestinians under their thumb, using incomprehensible, reprehensible violence to do so? I’ve written about Israeli atrocities and US support of them before so there’s no reason to rehash the same ugly facts. But knowing those facts and watching Israel become an apartheid country without any interest in a fair two-state solution just makes it harder to celebrate my own peoples’ liberation.

Despite all those years in yeshivas, I’m not at all religious, but I do think of myself as Jewish. And I continue to tell myself that being Jewish still means taking the side of the oppressed, fighting for those in need. I grasp at the straw hoping somehow Jews will actually see what’s in front of their eyes and reject the violence against the Palestinians and even reject the violence of that Old Testament god who vengefully set us free.

I look for other ways, nonviolent organizations like Jewish Voice For Peace that back boycotts, disinvestments, and sanctions as major tools for Israeli political change. I tell myself that this was the way apartheid in South Africa was finally (and relatively peacefully) abolished. But although I support the JVP, I’m not particularly hopeful. Given the amount of money our politicians receive from American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Since 1998, AIPAC has spent $20,269,436 lobbying on the Hill, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to tracking money in politics.) and the blind willingness of our government to dump more and more aid to Israel (After World War II the United States has provided Israel at least $121 billion [current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars] in bilateral assistance.) with most going to their military. So what is there to hope for?

Now, I’m not a historian but I imagine most, if not all, nations have been created from blood and violence of one type or another. And I assume this has been true from the start of our species. But I am also growing to accept the disheartening reality that any people born from bloodletting will eventually use violence against others. Sad to say, I guess that’s what it means to be human.

I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.
Martin Luther King Jr.


When reviewing last week’s post, I noticed part of a sentence that read “the dystopian violence depicted in movies and television, either a reflection of what is or a harbinger of what’s to come” and began to think about art and the media.  It also made me think about the large number of people I know who believe that violence in movies, television, and video games (they rarely talk about it in regard to books or plays, which I find curious) reflects and adds to the violence in our country.

Yet according to the New York Times, it turns out that the number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year to what appears to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years.  (

And Time Magazine reports that,from 1993 to 2010, the violent crime victimization rate decreased 70 percent. “This means the human dimension of this turnaround is extraordinary: had the rate remained unchanged, an additional 170,000 Americans would have been murdered in the years since 1992. That’s more U.S. lives than were lost in combat in World War I, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq—combined. In a single year, 2008, lower crime rates meant 40,000 fewer rapes, 380,000 fewer robberies, half a million fewer aggravated assaults and 1.6 million fewer burglaries than we would have seen if rates had remained at peak levels.” (,9171,1963761,00.html).

Both articles say that the reasons for this plunge are unclear and suggest a number of possible explanations.  But bottom line is bottom line.  Violent crime is down not up during a period of time when the reverse should be true according to those who believe current movies, TV, and video games lead to more a more violent culture.  It just ain’t so.

I grew up with cartoons that were not at all shy about violence.  Tom and Jerry, The Roadrunner, Mighty Mouse and all those episodes where Porky Pig tried to blow away the wabbit.  Grew up with comic books that had no qualms about blood and gore either–Superman, Batman and a whole lot more.  Try Zap Comics on for size.

Our culture has never been lacking in the media’s artistic expression of violence.  Dime store pulp books with hacked female bodies, True Crime magazines with bloody, bodacious blondes on the cover, black and white movies that stirred the same emotional fear and repulsion as do today’s “slice and dice” like Psycho, 13 Women (1932), and Peeping Tom (1960). Some of those “classics” were even able to engender some serious ugly without spilling a drop of blood. Think Cagney mashing a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face in The Public Enemy.  Different presentations than today’s cinema, but the same feelings provoked in those who watched them.

Or consider detective fiction, a wonderfully American genre of writing. (I’m biased. Duh.)  Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett is regarded as one of best.  That book leaves dead bodies all over the place.

Or think literary fiction.  Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.  Not for those with gentle stomachs.

Violence is everywhere we look. Genre fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, graphic novels, and, of course, movies.

I’m not a horror movie fan.  Never saw any of the Texas Chainsaw Massacres and never will.  But Raging Bull is often listed in “best of the generation” lists.  As are a couple of The Godfathers, Taxi Driver, Casino, and, of course, Pulp Fiction.  Certainly the spaghetti westerns and all the great westerns were locked and loaded.  And while it’s true that there’s a distinction between a single shot to the heart rather than a spray from an automatic rifle, I’m not sure I could pick the more chilling.  Or the more “realistic.”

The list of great books and great movies is filled with those that contain bone-chilling violence. And while I can’t say much about video games because I don’t know anything about them, the inescapable fact is that we are living in a country with the lowest violent crime rate in the past forty years.  Not exactly a ringing condemnation of those who do play them—at least as far as violence is concerned.

So I’ll say it again: I don’t believe that today’s media and art forms generate more violence within our population despite its increasingly graphic detail.

In fact, it’s my speculation that violence exhibited in all our different media probably helps reduce it in the “real world.”  We live in a nation born of violence, a nation whose history has spilled blood by the barrelful.  Against Native Americans, Blacks, Irish, Italians (who suffered biggest mass lynching in U.S. history) and I’m just skimming the surface of domestic.  We go international and it’s off the charts.

Violence is simply sewn into the fabric and nature of our culture.  I wish it weren’t so, but we are who we are.  The only question is how and where that violence manifests itself.  And if it can live within us without our acting it out.  This, I think, is the way that violence in media and art ameliorates rather than promulgates.  It is, and has always been, a way for that part of our cultural identity to express itself without inflicting any actual harm.  Violence in the media and in art is the pressure cooker’s release valve.

I’m not denigrating those who recoil at what they might read or see, or make decisions about where to draw their personal lines.  Those individual decisions are healthy.  Hell, I spend a fair amount of time in the movie theater covering my own eyes.  But they are individual decisions, and to argue that we are a more violent society because of our books, movies, games, and art is flat out wrong.


When Guns Go Down?

I received a number of public and private comments in response to my Wisconsin post about how badly anti-war protestors treated returning Vietnam vets.  My first impulse was to compare the activists’ behavior  with that of the U.S. government’s refusal to acknowledge the effects of Agent Orange and PTSD therefore denying treatment.

But the issue got me thinking about if an individual soldier has the ethical and moral responsibility to lay down arms when he/she realizes the war they are fighting is unjust, irresponsible, or flat-out wrong.  How much information does an individual soldier need to realize that napalm incinerated more than enemy soldiers?  That the killing of civilians in Panama was simply to rid the country of a leader we no longer needed?  That “shock and awe” was slaughtering noncombatant Iraqis by the tens of thousands?

In an award-winning documentary about Robert McNamara called The Fog of War, he talks about his part in the military planning of destroying Dresden and later Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Almost offhandedly McN comments (and I paraphrase): Had the “other” side won, he and the rest of the Brass would have been tried as war criminals.

To the victor go the spoils and the opportunity.  In this case to convict upper echelon Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials.  But what about the soldiers who herded people into trains they knew were bound for extermination camps?  Is “just following orders” really enough of a justification for sending innocent people to certain death?  Of course, that Nazi soldier would be trading his life in protest for boxcars of lives.  Is it even imaginable to ask anyone to make that choice?

One glance at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict raises the same sad question.  A suicide bomber kills ten Israelis (which I don’t in any way condone) and Israel responds by bombing hundreds of Palestinians.  When did “collateral damage” become something to simply ignore?  I suppose it happens during any war, every war.  But it sure don’t make it right.

And so we have modern precedent for trying leadership for “giving orders” but nowhere do we grapple with the responsibility of those who carry them out.  In our culture, one that prides itself on touting “individual responsibility,” there’s something wrong with this picture.

Of course the notion of individual soldiers laying down their weapons is a daunting thought.  But is it any more daunting than those who burned their draft cards during the Vietnam era, or for those who refused to serve?  Or the memories I have of visiting friends in prison because they wouldn’t step forward when ordered to board the Army bus.  Or other friends who were forced to expatriate because of their beliefs?

I understand the military is based upon an individual relinquishing his or her self to a chain of command.  But perhaps it’s time for those individuals to hold onto their selves and decide if those commands are, in fact, ethical, moral, or not.  And then decide whether to “just follow orders.”

Could be the world might have fewer wars and, more significantly, a much lower body count.