Tuesday, January 22, 2013

An Analysis of the Israeli Elections

Today, Israel held its parliamentary election, where voters decided which parties would have representation in the Knesset (Israeli congress), and how many seats in the Knesset each party would get. A new prime minister is often also chosen at this time. Election day in Israel is sort of a mini-holiday, where people go to the polls and get off from work. There are approximately 8 million people living in Israel today, and yet, its election is arguably as important as the American one, despite the population difference of well over 200 million people! Most Americans rightly wonder why the political goings on of a country 475 times smaller than the U.S. matter. Well, that’s an excellent question. Israel as a whole has been under a collective international microscope ever since it declared independence in 1948. This in itself is a slightly disturbing phenomenon that has especially increased recently, but its an issue that is far beyond the scope of this post. However, I can answer the general question.

The Israeli elections are incredibly important and have relevance to Americans today because as the year 2013 dawns on us, there are a host of looming domestic and international problems that Israel and the United States will have to solve creatively together, or else face the dire consequences of inaction and partisanship. A fanatical Iranian regime run by fundamentalist Shia Muslims could very well acquire and test nuclear weapons by as early as this coming summer. Their leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, is totally bent on the destruction of the ‘Great Satan,’ the United States, and the total annihilation of the ‘Zionist entity,’ Israel.

Moreover, the Palestinian people demand equal representation in the United Nations and around the world. They demand equal rights, fair government and good living conditions. The Palestinians deserve all of these things, but somehow, none of their governmental bodies, be they Hamas in Gaza (labeled a terrorist organization by the State Dep.) or the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank have been able to meet the needs of this growing people. And besides for these pressing concerns, Israel also has a whole host of domestic issues that need to be addressed. For one, the Ultra-Orthodox bloc in Israel, for the most part, refuses to serve in the Israeli army. Instead, the government gives stipends to Ultra-Orthodox students learning in yeshiva, and they are thus exempted from the army. This arrangement worked well in Israel’s early years when there was a tiny population of ultra-orthodox Jews. However, today, chareidim, or the ultra-orthodox, have exploded in population to nearly 800,000 people, and they are now Israel’s fastest growing sector. Because of this, the Israeli government spends millions of shekels every year paying students to learn in yeshivas, while secular universities.

In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of housing, food, and other living expenses. There has been sustained criticism ever since of the Israeli government by a segment of Israel’s population who feel that it is insensitive to the needs of the working and middle classes in Israel.

Enemies internal and external besiege Israel. Even though the United States government gives Israel billions of dollars ever year in foreign aid, the relationship right now is not what it could be. Obama and Netanyahu have each done their share to stall progress in their working relationships, and by extension, their two countries’ alliance. Whether they like it or not, Israel heavily relies on American aid and defense help in order to remain strong. For 60 years, the U.S. has understood that our only democratic partner in the Middle East that shares core values like freedom, democracy, and innovation is Israel.

However, in recent years, tensions have flared between these two nations. The U.S. has become impatient with Israeli building of settlements, and inability to negotiate effectively with the Palestinians. Israelis in turn are fed up with the constant U.S. involvement in their political state of affairs. Because of these concerns, both countries get weaker. As we enter a future that could potentially lead to much violence and bloodshed, the United States needs to reaffirm its commitment to remaining an ally with Israel, and Israel in turn needs to realize that without U.S. help, it will be extraordinarily difficult for Israelis to meet the challenges of tomorrow. The election today will be a major factor in answering some of these burning questions. Although all the votes have not been counted, it is almost guaranteed that Benjamin Netanyahu will serve a second term as Prime Minister.

However, Netanyahu’s right-wing political party, a combination between Likud and Yisrael Beitenu faired relatively poorly compared to experts’ estimates. The party’s number of seats dropped from 42 to 31. It still remains the largest faction in the 120 member Knesset, but because of how Israel’s political system works, its power is greatly diminished, as I will explain later. A huge surprise of this election was the overall weakening of the right wing partys’ power in Israel. An upstart center-left party, Yesh Atid, garnered 19 seats. Its head Yair Lapid demands an end to the ultra-orthodox draft exemption, and the giving of stipends to yeshiva students. The centrist Labor party got 17 votes, which is significant, but representative of a great reduction in its power. A new hard line right wing aimed at Zionist religious Jews, Habayit Hayehudi, won 12 seats, according to exit polls. Shas, a party run by and for ultra-orthodox Jews of sefaradic heritage, won between 11-13 seats, and increased its power. The other ultra-orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, won 6 seats.

The strong showing of center-left and centrist parties was a huge shock to many pollsters and journalists. Israelis were thought to have shifted sociologically into more right wing frames of thinking, which should influence how they vote, but didn’t.

As I mentioned briefly earlier, Israel has a unique political system that demands the ruling party to form a majority coalition with other parties of similar ideologies. Netanyahu as the winner says he wants to form a broad-based coalition government, which will hope to include as many parties as possible to gain a majority. However, as of now, it is unclear who Netanyahu will try to persuade to join him. He will have to make concessions and compromises either way, whether he chooses to form a more centrist government with Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, or if he decides to head right and create a coalition with more hard line right wingers like Naftali Bennet of Habayit Hayehudi, or perhaps even the ultra-orthodox parties, Shas, and United Torah Judaism.

As of current exit polling, it appears that neither the right wing nor the left wing will be able to form any government without the help of the ultra-orthodox parties, who together make up 19 seats. Therefore, it is likely that the big winners of this election are the rapidly growing chareidim. If they join a coalition, they will ensure that the new government continues the de facto policies regarding stipends and army exemptions. However, Netanyahu is a secular Jew who really doesn’t have the same priorities as the religious parties. It is very likely that he will make some tough compromises, and try to bridge the right wing Habayit Hayehudi party with the centrist Yesh Atid, and thus avert having to deal with the ultra-orthodox parties.

In this hypothetical scenario, Israel will end up forcibly drafting the chareidim into the army, which could lead to rioting and even actual civil war. After all, a slew of ultra-orthodox widely respected Rabbis and heads of yeshivas have come out and told their students to go to jail rather than fight in the army. Some went as far as to invoke Jewish law, and claim that fighting for Israel is a case of “Yehareg Ve’al Ya’avor, which, loosely translated, means chareidim should die rather than serve in the army. This is not just talk. Naftali Bennet, the head of the Zionist national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party was verbally harassed and pushed by a mob of chareidim as he prayed at the Kotel in Jerusalem just this past week. Events like this show the uncertainty and volatile nature of Israel’s political situation.

I advise all the readers of this blog to stay informed regarding Israeli affairs and politics, because in the coming days and months, our shaky relationship with Israel will depend on mutual respect and level-headedness. Whichever parties end up sitting in the majority government will have to deal with issues and controversies that will need their immediate attention and total focus. I hope all parties involved understand the tremendous challenges at hand, and are prepared to compromise and negotiate in order to secure a better future for everyone.

On a side note, I am interested to know what you all think about the Israeli political system. To most Americans, it seems awfully strange to have as many as 5 political parties running in an election, as opposed to our two-party system. The whole idea of establishing a coalition is also foreign to the American political arena. Coalitions require negotiations, compromise, and mutual-respect. Those are all characteristics that are markedly absent from the U.S. congresses of recent memory. Do you think it would be possible to create coalitions between members of both parties that agree on more than they disagree in our current U.S. government? I’m not so sure.

On another side point, in the Israeli election, about 75% of all eligible voters exercised their right to vote and went to the polls. That has not happened in America in at least sixty years, if not longer. In the past few presidential election cycles, a little over half the eligible population voted. My question to you is, why do so many more Israelis percentage-wise vote than Americans? We have the greatest democracy in the world, and have been the prime example of fair elections and good government for years. With that in mind, why do so few Americans participate in the great dance of democracy and vote? 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hate Speech- Constitutional Right, or A License to Hurt Others?

Good afternoon. I hope all the readers of this blog have had a good weekend, and a wonderful start to the year 2013. As some of you might know, I recently wrote a guest post for a popular blog. You can read my post, along with the 70+ comments, here: http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2012/12/whos-judaism-is-it-anyway.html#disqus_thread

Anyway, today, I would like to talk about an issue which, similar to gun control, is underplayed in the media today, and not something that is ingrained in the public conscience of Americans. When compared to topics like taxes, creating jobs, health care, or foreign policy. the issue that I speak of is put on the back-burner, and the only coverage it gets is occasional legal battles. I am talking about hate speech.

Hate speech is a highly loaded term that really cannot be properly defined in all its contexts. However, I think a pretty fair definition of hate speech is "any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. The law may identify a protected individual or a protected group by disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, nationality, religion, race, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic. 

Most people would agree that hate speech is a negative phenomenon, because of its overall antagonistic and belligerent tone, and hyperbole. However, there are a number of others who claim that 'hate speech' is an intentionally vague term that is merely used to silence critics of any particular government, ethnicity, or policy that they disagree with, because these critics are being 'politically incorrect.' And herein lies the debate. 
The question is simple. In the United States, should hate speech be a form of expression that is completely tolerated legally, because it allows citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights? Or does permitting hate speech legitimize the opinions of those within our country who are racists, xenophobes, homophobes, sexists, or  simply narrow-minded? 

In the United States today, all forms of hate speech are fully legalized and protected under the First Amendment. Speech is a civil right in our country. This is often taken for granted, but because of the strength of our democracy, and the value we place on freedom of speech, change can be made in our government, and country. Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous "I Have a Dream Speech" at a time where thousands of schools in the Deep South where still desegregated. Had Dr. King given this speech in parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, or other southern states, he would have been heckled, and perhaps even lynched. Today, we realize that Dr. King was a brilliant visionary who simply wanted all Americans to join hands together as brothers and sisters in celebration of our democracy, and unite to solve our country's problems as equals. However, many Southerners at the time considered him to be a rabble-rouser who infringed state's rights by calling for school desegregation, and pressuring congress to sign into law the Civil Rights Act, which they did, in 1964. 
The only kinds of speech that are not protected under U.S. law are defamation, 'fighting words' and speech that can incite riot. Defamation is simply, the communication of a statement implied to be true that gives a race, ethnicity, country, religion, sexual orientation, or other group a negative or inferior image. Fighting words are written or spoken words said with the intent of inciting hatred or violence from their target. 

In 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court established a 'fighting words doctrine' in the court case Chaplinsky Vs. New Hampshire. This doctrine states that "insulting or 'fighting words,' those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of peace" are among the "well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of [which] ... have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem." Since this case, the Supreme Court has continued to uphold and value this doctrine. However, it's scope and power has been increasingly limited. In Street vs. New York, a case heard by the court in 1969, a state law banning flag burning was overturned. "Mere offensiveness." in the language of the Court's ruling, does not designate fighting words. 

During the 1960s and 70s, when America was in a state of national turmoil and reinvention, the Supreme Court, led by liberal justices like Earl Warren, made some landmark decisions regarding the boiling controversy that occurred when deciding how to apply free speech. The Court ruled in one case affirming the right of a man to wear a jacket that said "F--k the Draft" (referring to Vietnam). However, in another case in 1969, the Court handed down a decision that reversed the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan group leader, who was accused of inciting violence against minorities! The Klu Klux Klan has a long and infamous history of racial agendas and propaganda that led to full-on violence. For many years, African Americans in the South lived in constant fear of the Klan, because of their violence and hate. Nevertheless, the Court ruled that this KKK member because the man was merely teaching others about the inferiority of other racial groups in an 'abstract manner,' rather than actively telling his followers to resort to violence. 

In 2011, the Supreme Court heard a case from Albert Snyder, the father of Lance Snyder, who was a corporal that got killed in Iraq in a non-combat vehicle accident in March of 2006. Like they have done at thousands of other military funerals, members of the Westboro Baptist Church decided to picket the funeral of Lance Snyder. Dozens of their members held up disgusting signs that said such things as "Thank God for 9/11," "God Hates Fags," "You're Going to Hell," and other hideous epithets. Albert Snyder promptly sued the Westboro Baptist Church for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation. 

Before I continue briefly outlining brief aspects of this monumental (and highly controversial!!) legal case, I would like to first shortly describe what the Westboro Baptist Church is, and what it does. In brief, the Westboro Baptist Church is an independent Baptist church that was started by a man named Fred Phelps (yimach sh'mo), and members of his family in 1955. Even though the 'church' only has about 40 members, this organization makes headlines for its picketing of funerals, public press conferences and releases, and recent legal battles. Fred Phelps preaches his own brand of Baptist gospel. He and his followers believe that soldiers that die in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in any other conflict, are being punished for the United States' increasingly permissive and lenient attitude toward homosexuality and homosexuals. 

Phelp's also decries Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Atheists, Muslims, Australians, Swedes, Irish people, American soldiers in Iraq, Bill O'Reilly, Comedy Central, and even Jerry Falwell. While it is tempting to brush aside the Westboro Baptist Church as a group of raving lunatics (which they are), they end up causing quite a bit of legal trouble, as is evident from the Snyder v. Phelps case. In this case, the Supreme Court momentously upheld Westboro's right to picket a funeral, as a legitimate exercise of their First Amendment rights. It was a victory for First Amendment right fundamentalists. It was loss for  people sympathetic to the cause of Snyder, and who felt like the Court valued cold technicalities in law over basic human decency and morality. For the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that "the fact that Westboro spoke in connection with a funeral ... cannot by itself trump the nature of Westboro's speech." "Westboro's signs, displayed on public land next to a public street, reflect the fact that the church finds much to condemn in modern society."

Because the church had applied for a permit, stayed at least 1,000 feet away from the funeral, and did not intrude, it was totally legal. But was it right? To the Supreme Court, which, after all, deals chiefly with legal issues, that does not matter. 

However, it does matter to others. An online petition sent to the white house seeking to legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group has over 300,000 signatures in just 3 weeks. Just a few weeks ago, the church picketed the funerals of the children who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. To combat the church, various groups have been formed to counter-protest the church when they picket funerals and other events. Last summer, when a student was killed at Texas A&M, hundreds of students from a human chain around the funeral, to prevent the church from gaining any access. So while the Court may rule one way, many people feel another way. This is the fascinating tension that occurs when one has to follow and uphold the law, even in situations where it seems unfair, or where others are even getting hurt. This leads to a tricky situation. In the Jewish community, a comparison might be drawn to the issue of Agunot, or women who are 'chained' to their husbands since they refuse to give them a get. Because of legal ingenuity, Rabbis created a prenuptial agreement that will from here and onwards will make sure that this terrible situation never occurs. In the case of the Supreme Court though, it's a little more tricky. 

To all the readers: What are your thoughts? Should legal action be taken against groups like the Westboro Baptist Church? What constitutes hate speech? Should all hate speech be illegal? If not, when, if ever, should it? Is holding up a sign that says "God Hates Fags" an incitement to riot, or defamation, or is merely stating a religious belief? Use these questions as a guide to discuss this interesting issue in the comments below. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My First Guest Post

Hi everyone! Although this is not entirely related to the general theme of the blog, I successfully submitted a guest post to a popular Jewish blog, run by Rabbi Harry Maryles of Chicago. You can check it out here: http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2012/12/whos-judaism-is-it-anyway.html, and read the 60+ comments!

Feel free to respond, and thanks again for your collective continued support! As I am currently on winter vacation, I am enjoying a break from being online. After the new year, I will be committed to posting more regularly.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Guest Post

Hey everyone! Following up on the discussion here regarding gun control, I decided to contact representatives of the widely-respected U.K. group, called the Gun Control Network (GCN). You can access their website here: http://www.gun-control-network.org/GCN02.htm

From the GCN website: "All our activities and objectives are predicated on the belief that the interests of public safety demand a reduction in the availability and attractiveness of firearms of all kinds.  No reasonable person doubts the fundamental connection between the number of guns there are in a society and the prevalence of gun homicide, suicide and accident.

Almost all guns start out legal and there is no clear demarcation between legal and illegal weapons.  Therefore what is needed is legislation to control the availability of legal weapons and law enforcement to control the illegal ones." 

GCN representatives very kindly responded to my email, where I asked them to consider posting on the blog. We both decided it was incredibly important for all the readers of this blog to hear a U.K perspective on this issue, and what we can do to prevent gun violence. The GCN is at the forefront of the battle to reduce injuries, accidents, and deaths by firearms. Some of their objectives involve tightening gun licensing, increasing the license fee to cover the cost of making a more rigorous gun control system, establishing a National Gun Hotline, so people can contact authorities immediately if they feel they are concerned about someone the know with a gun, as well as myriads of other creative solutions to end this problem. 

In the wake of the tragedy in Newton, Connecticut, many politicians have been saying that we cannot politicize this horrific event, and that now is not the time for dialogue. I too said this in the days following the shooting. However, now, I realize that it is of utmost importance that we act to tighten gun laws, so that this doesn't happen again. Below is a post written by GCN representative Chrissie. Much thanks is to do Mr. Peter Squires and Georgina of the GCN, for kindly responding to my queries and agreeing to post. Below are Chrissie's comments completely unedited:

"We have been following this blog on the subject of firearms with interest, and would like to offer our comments and UK perspective to this debate. The UK has one of the lowest gun homicide rates in the world, making it one of the safest places in the world to live, and members of the UK organisation www.gun-control-network.org send their sympathy and support to those affected by the tragic shooting in Newton. 

GCN was formed in 1996 following a school gun massacre in Dunblane, Scotland when a gunman entered a school and shot dead sixteen 5 and 6 year old's and their teacher. As a result of our campaign, and with overwhelming support from the public, the media, and Members of UK Parliament, handguns were banned from private ownership in the UK in 1997.

The population of the United States is approximately five times that of the UK. Therefore, it would be expected that the firearms deaths in the United States would be five times greater than in the UK. There were 42 recorded firearms related deaths in the UK in the first half of 2012, and less than half of those were homicides. There are approximately 11,000 gun homicides in the United States every year.

National comparisons show a clear correlation between the number of guns in society and the number of related incidents seehttp://www.infertrust.org/gun_misuse.asp.

The United States is suffering from an appalling number of gun massacres, but given the number of firearms in private ownership these frequent gun tragedies are not surprising, they are to be expected. This national sickness will not be remedied by endless speculation about the motives of perpetrators, or by arming more teachers, nurses, or shopping mall workers, because every armed individual is a potential perpetrator. Those familiar ill thought out flawed arguments regarding road traffic accidents and swimming pool drownings divert attention from the real issue - guns are designed to kill, cars and swimming pools are not.
The evidence is clear, there is hope of an improvement in the condition of the patient, but only if the patient is willing to try."

Monday, December 17, 2012

Good Evening. I'm sure all the readers of this blog are aware of the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut this past Friday. Using a semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle and a couple handguns, Adam Lanza was able to force his way into the school, and kill 20 children as well as 6 adults, before ending his bloody rampage by pulling the gun on himself. It is a horror that such an event took place in the United States of America. This kind of disgusting massacre cannot happen again.

In the wake of the catastrophic shooting, which was the 2nd deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, many have been determined to re-open the controversial issue of gun control for discussion around America. Ironically, we just had this debate, with great arguments from both sides, a mere few days ago! Many have argued that this kind of shooting clearly demonstrates why there need to be stricter regulations, and more control on guns. Others have responded by saying this is a rare case, and that most law-abiding citizens would never use guns in this despicable manner. But is the death of 20 children, whose lives were cruelly cut drastically short, a fair price to pay for the right to own a gun? These are all good questions, and most have of them have complex, multi-faceted answers.

But there is one thing I do know. I do not want to argue about gun control for a few more days, or perhaps even a week. Days after such a tragedy, we as Americans should be united in our care, prayers, and hopes for the families that lost their children. We should stand together and do all that is in our power to make sure that they are able to continue living, and we must make sure that these grieving parents know we care.

To politicize such a tragedy is, in my opinion, tasteless. The debate about gun control will definitely be had across American dinner tables, and on the Senate floor. However, now is simply not the time.

I just wanted to let you all know that I made a conscious and deliberate choice not to post about gun control right on Friday, after the tragedy. Many are using this tragedy to show why guns have to be regulated. I decided not to do so, in the spirit of American unity and brotherhood. Make what you want of my decision, but as a blogger who pursues truth, and intellectual honesty, I nevertheless could not find myself able to write so soon after this tragedy about the issue, and especially not to promote my own views. While this disaster can arguably be used as a case in point by gun control activists, I am sure that Americans everywhere, regardless of their political affiliations, will be hoping that we make sure this doesn't happen again. What is will take to make sure this doesn't happen again is the gargantuan question facing us tomorrow. Because today is for remembering the victims, and standing in solidarity and care with their anguished families.

May the souls of the victims of this tragedy be bound up in the bond of eternal life, and forever rest in peace.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Gun Debate

Hello again everyone! I apologize for my long absence from blogging. After the holiday season is finished, I will be able to concentrate on this enterprise more fully, so come January 2nd, expect at least tri-weekly posts! 

Anyway, today, I would like to talk about a very pressing issue in our country that has not been given the media attention it deserves, especially in the past year or two. As the title of this post suggests, the topic that I am referring to is the ongoing discussion in our country about what role guns should play in our society. Recently, I had a very lively debate with a classmate of mine about the right of individual Americans to bear arms. The debate was multi-faceted and cannot be transcribed here. However, our disagreement boiled down to a few, salient points. The first point was how to read and interpret the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Beyond the legal technicalities, we argued over the effectiveness of guns at preventing robberies, murders, and other violent crime. And lastly, in a more general sense, if gun ownership should be controlled, to what extent? Are automatic weapons an 'automatic' (no clever wordplay intended) no-no? How about high caliber ammunition? Perhaps you should only be allowed to own a gun if you go through a training course. Perhaps not. 

All of these questions have been grappled with for decades. Our Founding Fathers thought a great deal before writing the Second Amendment, and paid incredibly close attention to detail regarding the exact wording. The American revolutionaries of yore desired to have a unified, powerful government, but at the same time recognized the right of the people to rebel, and to rebel violently if need be, if this government began to behave corruptly, unjustly, or unconstitutionally. Nevertheless, constitutional legal scholars and experts have debated the this issue for years and years, regarding how to interpret this illusive amendment. 

Before we go any further, we must understand what the Second Amendment actually says. Here it is, in its pure, unadulterated form: 
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." 

There it is. In 2008, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in the case District of Columbia v. Heller.

Prior to the Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the courts had not yet definitively stated what specific right the Second Amendment protects. There have been many opposing theories, however the court clarified the Second Amendment and now hold that it protects an individual's right to possess a firearm regardless of service in a militia, and to use that weapon for self-defense within the home, or other safety concerns. This right applies not just to the federal government, but to states and municipalities as well.

In this case, the Court ruled that the District of Columbia's proposed ban on handguns was a violation of every Americans' right to 'keep and bear arms.' The District of Columbia was also not allowed to force citizen's to lock their gun when not in use. 

While this ruling may seem like it permits everyone to own any gun at any time, it's not so simple. In 1994, under President Bill Clinton, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was passed. This made the buying or possession of assault (semi-automatic or automatic) weapons illegal. This law expired in 2004. A study done by the United States Department of Justice showed that this bill was not effective in halting crime because in cases of violent crime, people are not likely to be using bulky assault rifles. However, there have been several other very important bills regulating gun possession and usage in America. In 1990, the Gun Free School Zone Act was passed, prohibiting anyone from carrying a gun 1,000 feet of any elementary, middle, or high school. In 31 states today, you are allowed to carry a gun in public without a permit. The Brady Bill, passed in 1993, instituted federal background checks on all those want to purchase a firearm. 

Bottom Line: If you are over the age of 21, are not a convicted felon, have no past criminal history, are mentally stable, and buy from a federally licensed dealer, you can own a gun! At informal gun shows, it is notoriously easy to walk away with a piece of metal that can instantaneously kill a human being. 

While yes, most people keep guns for protection, and in cases of emergency, much of the time, gun ownership results in tragedy. In 2010, there were 8,775 murders from gun violence. Firearms were one of the top ten causes of death in the United States in 2010. Every year, over 200,000 people are hospitalized for non-fatal gun injuries.

Shocking Fact: In a paper done by Dr. Kellerman and published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1986, a homeowner's gun is 43 times more likely to kill a family member, friend, or acquaintance than it is to kill a malicious intruder. 

Over the years, school shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, as well as the recent attempted assassination of Rep. Gabby Giffords by a mentally deranged man have reignited this controversy. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two high school students, were able to two 9 mm guns and 2 twelve-gauge shotguns, as well as a rifle and a semi-automatic handgun. With these tools of destruction, they killed 12 and injured 21 in this disaster. 

How can we make sure this kind of disaster never happens again? Some say the answer is to control guns and gun possession. Others say that gun control advocates often ignore the Second Amendment. 

I have raised the issue. Now it's time for you, as a microcosm of the American people, to respond. What do you think should be the right approach? Are guns dangerous weapons that should be kept out of the hands of all except the military? Or are they a God-given right that government should leave alone? Or somewhere in the middle... Respond in the comments. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Commercialization of Thanksgiving

November 25, 2012

The Commercialization of Thanksgiving 

Good afternoon everyone! I hope you have all had great Thanksgivings, and have enjoyed the awesome long weekend! I know I certainly did.

I would like to use this time to talk (really rant) about what I see as the degradation of American holidays, and their authentic meanings in favor of commercializing them, and turning days of reflection, giving, and thankfulness into mere sales events, 'door buster deals,' and shopping trips. Only in America do we have a day where we are thankful for what we have, and then turn the following day, Black Friday, into a time where we literally trample other people in order to get what we think we need, at a lower price. This is the absolute height of irony, and something that could only happen in our country, the United States of America. Given this trend, I am honestly a bit sad to call myself an American, and to associate myself with millions of naive, shopping-obsessed fools who allow themselves to be duped by clever advertising and the '10% off' signs. So duped in fact, that they wake up in the middle of the night to go get deals on things like TVs, video games, other consumer electronics, and more stuff we really don't need. It’s all just about keeping up with the Joneses’.

It would be fine if people were buying things that they actually needed, but to wake up at 3 a.m. to go buy an Xbox 360, which just ends up wasting your time and money, is embarrassing, especially the day after we gather as families to eat a meal where we talk about how grateful we are for having food, and the presence of our loving parents, spouses, and children. It is a time where we ideally should be reflecting on the sacrifices of the pilgrims to build a new land. They fled from religious persecution, and did not worship money or gadgets as idols, but actually led purposeful lives, through worship, charity, and kind acts.

Not that I am one to whitewash history. The early pilgrims, and their later colonial friends, ended up wreaking havoc on the peaceful lives of the indigenous Native Americans. They used brute force to subjugate the native peoples, and stole many acres of their land. They looked down on the Native Americans as primitive and sub-human.

It is impossible for historians today to tally how many native Americans were killed through disease or warfare by European settlers. To give but one example: the Indian Removal Act of 1830 led to the Trail of Tears, in which about 20,000 Cherokee Indians were forcibly removed from their homes, and forced to walk over 2,000 from their reservation in Oklahoma. Read more about this tragedy here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trail_of_Tears#Trail_of_Tears_National_Historic_Trail

Getting back on my original train of thought, yes, there is no question that Europeans mistreated the Native Americans. However, that does not mean that we should totally write Thanksgiving off as irrelevant, or meaningless. We can still learn valuable lessons today in 2012 from these first pilgrims. We can learn about the importance of racial, and religious tolerance. Taking a leaf out of the Quakers' book would be a great start. William Penn, the founder of the great state of Pennsylvania, established this state as a region where anyone and everyone could live and thrive together peacefully, regardless of religion. His great experiment turned out to be a smashing success. However, we have not learned enough from the legacy of Mr. Penn.

According to a report from Pew's Forum on Religion and Public Life, "In the year ending in mid-2010, there was an increase in the number of incidents in the U.S. at the state and local level in which members of some religious groups faced restrictions on their ability to practice their faith. This included incidents in which individuals were prevented from wearing certain religious attire or symbols, including beards, in some judicial settings or in prisons, penitentiaries or other correctional facilities. Some religious groups in the U.S. also faced difficulties in obtaining zoning permits to build or expand houses of worship, religious schools or other religious institutions."

The United States of America has, according to this report, "moved from the low category of government restrictions on religion to the moderate category for the first time."

This is a problem that is perhaps even more important than our obsession with shopping, and our ridiculously easy ability to be misled by corporations that want our money. We need to step up our tolerance game, and regain our rightful place as a world superpower. That cannot happen without tolerance.

Europe has also become far more xenophobic, and intolerant, especially of Muslims, during the past few years. According to a U.S. State Department report, Europe has "growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered ‘the other.’”

In the past few years, Belgium and France passed laws restricting dress that “adversely affected Muslims,” while Hungary passed laws that make it so difficult to register religious organizations that the number of religious groups has fallen from 300 to 32. In 2009, Switzerland added a constitutional amendment banning the construction of minarets.

This is a serious problem. In Egypt, Coptic Christians get murdered, and their churches burned on a daily basis. In the U.S., we all remember the maddening hysteria surround the Park 51 Muslim community center.

An extremely important idea that we need to take to heart, as Americans, and as citizens of the world, is that of religious tolerance, and acceptance.

In my eyes, it is tragic that people fight over the new iphone 5, while over 30,000 innocent civilians have died in Syria due to government-sanctioned genocide, without us doing anything about it.

Commercialization is not only limited to Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, July 4th, New Years, and Valentine's Day. It has also seeped into what used to be religious holidays. Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, etc, are now known as mere holiday shopping seasons, devoid of their religious significance.

I am deeply sympathetic to Christians that wish to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, and discuss its religious events and messages, rather than focusing on turning it into a time to merely buy gifts. I wish more Americans would do that, rather than get sucked into the commercial bubble.

While there is definitely value in buying gifts for those that are in your life, including family and friends, we Americans take it to a whole 'nother level. According to the National Retail Federation, in 2011, 55.2 billion dollars was spent on Black Friday shopping during the Thanksgiving weekend. That’s a whole lot of money!

Perhaps instead of using our money to buy more electronics and purses, we could focus on spending at least some of it to organizations that are currently helping victims of Hurricane Sandy. Many of these people are now homeless and carless. Holiday gifts are the last of their worries- try buying a new house! Let's take the spirit of gratitude that Thanksgiving is infused with, and apply it to our own lives.

We are grateful for what we have, and therefore, we have an obligation to give.  Because of the gifts that we have been given, some natural, some from others, we have been able to succeed, and live happily. Now, it’s up to us to give of ourselves and our talents to others, be they friends, family or strangers. Because ultimately, giving of ourselves is what really provides us with meaning and satisfaction in life.