For my birthday, would you be so kind….

emily-and-daddy-cropped-13September 21 is my birthday.

It is also the second anniversary of the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia, and also day #921 in the Syrian civil war, which has forced about six and a half million people to run from their homes into an unknowable and deeply frightening future.

Every year on his birthday, actor Nathan Fillion (Buffy, Waitress, Castle, and most importantly: Firefly) asks people to give to his favorite water charity; it’s a lovely thing, and some years, I’ve even done as he asked. And so, inspired by Mr. Fillion, I’ve decided to do a similar thing, if on a much smaller scale (I mean – I know you love me as much as you love Nathan Fillion. There are just a few million fewer of you. Is all).

If you enjoy this blog, or my writing over at The Daily Beast, or the piece I just ran on xoJane (of which, by the way, there will be more in the future), or if you like my Tweets, or, heck, maybe you know me personally and maybe I make you laugh every now and then — and if you have a little spare dosh to pass around — please consider celebrating my birthday in one of the two following ways:

  1. troy davis suitIn Troy’s memory, please purchase I Am Troy Davis, published this week and written by my good friend Jen Marlowe and Troy’s sister, Martina Correia-Davis, who died of breast cancer soon after her brother was killed. It’s the story of Troy, his remarkable family, and the on-going struggle to end the death penalty. (And not for nothing, but Jen is a hell of a writer). Can’t say it better than Susan Sarandon: “I Am Troy Davis is a painful yet very important book” — unless it’s Maya Angelou: “Here is a shout for human rights and for the abolition of the death penalty. This book, I Am Troy Davis, should be read and cherished.” If you make your purchase through the non-profit publisher, Haymarket Books, it’ll cost you $18.
  2. There are more than six million Syrians who have run from their homes in fear. About two million of them have crossed international borders; more than four million remain within their war-torn country, trying desperately to get by. There is so little that we can do to reach out and help the Syrian people — but we can reach out to support the folks working night and day to support them: Please donate to the UN Refugee effort. This is how I’ll be honoring my own birthday, and all who have raised and loved me so far.

    Syrian refugees filling their buckets at Atmeh refugee camp, in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, Syria, Apr. 5, 2013 source

    Syrian refugees filling their buckets at Atmeh refugee camp, in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, Syria, Apr. 5, 2013 source

And hey, if you happen to be Nathan Fillion? Thanks for everything, man. And please celebrate my birthday with me.

Syrian refugees – actually a lot more than two million.

Last week the world reeled as we learned that the number of Syrian refugees had passed the two million mark.

Which is to say: Two million people—the equivalent of the combined populations of Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco—have fled their homes and country to what can only be called an uncertain fate in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa, with no idea whatsoever when or if they might ever return. Many refugees actually depend on the kindness of family and friends and never register with humanitarian aid organizations, so it’s likely that “two million” is, in fact, a low estimate.

Yet as horrifying as that is, as heartbreaking as the needs of the people fleeing and the people receiving them are, we must remember that those two million actually represent less than a third of all who have run for their lives in the course of this war.

The European Commission Humanitarian Office reports that an estimated 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced persons—people forced out of their homes and communities by the violence, but who haven’t yet made it across a border. Thus, a total of 6.25 million Syrians—fully one third of the country’s population of 21 million—are, in fact, wandering.

The implications of this are staggering. As the region’s nations face historic internal turmoil and grapple with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of strangers—sometimes at a rate of thousands a day—the social and cultural fabric of Syrian life has been shredded beyond recognition beneath bombs and chemical weapons.

Consider a life: Parents, grandparents, growing children. Income is earned, homes are built, marriages celebrated and babies welcomed. You shop for your daily needs, come home along familiar paths, make holiday plans and hope your aunt makes enough of her signature dish. Your father falls ill, your daughter outgrows her shoes, you bring a present to the neighbors. At every turn, your life is woven tightly into the garment of the lives around you, and whether any given day brings sorrow or joy, you know where to find solace, support, or someone with whom to share your good fortune.

Now it’s gone.

It’s gone, and you don’t know if you’ll ever get it back. It’s gone, not just for you and your family and your community, and not even “just” for the two million people who have (at the very least) found a way out of the country and away from the killing. It’s true for six and a quarter million people—the equivalent of nearly the entire population of Israel.

The Jewish people knows what this chaos looks like. We see it in the eyes of survivors; many can still feel it in their flesh. We are a people that until very recently knew little but the hurriedly packed bag, the abandoned home, the loved one lost forever. Whatever Jews and Arabs may have done to or said about each other in the 20th and 21st centuries, surely when we see a father gather a dead child in his arms, our arms must ache, too.

And as the heart cries out, the mind must also be honest about the horror’s further ramifications. It might be possible to imagine that the strife in Egypt won’t spread beyond its borders; it might be possible to hope that Jordan’s King will work with his opposition toward democracy and stability. It’s possible. But there’s simply no way to see the massive, violent movement of 6.25 million people just beyond and all around Israel’s borders as an event that might leave anyone in the region untouched. At a certain point, likely at many points, chaos tips over in ways that cannot be predicted and whoever is within shouting distance finds themselves in the path of the consequences.

This is the time in the Jewish year in which we straddle the universal and the personal at once: Last week we celebrated harat olam, the world’s creation; this week, we stand before the Divine and weigh our most intimate behavior. We do each while surrounded by our community and all we hold dear. We are reminded, at every holiday table and with every blow of the shofar, that our destiny as individuals and as a community is bound in a spiral of mutuality that turns and returns, endlessly.

The Syrian people are not my people. Some of them have killed some of mine; some of mine have killed some of theirs.

And yet they are my people, because they, too, were created b’tselem Elohim, in God’s image. They are my people because they suffer untold terrors. They are my people because wherever their calamity leads, it will brush against or crash into my people and my home. We cannot yet begin to guess the outcome of the shattering of Syria and its people, but lines drawn on maps will not keep the disaster neat and tidy.

I stand before my Creator this week devastated by what humanity has wrought, and not a little frightened of what is to come—frightened for Israel, frightened for everyone in the region, but mostly frightened for the mothers and fathers grasping little hands in the night, and trembling.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast

Apparently, it’s bad to condemn Holocaust denial.

Writing for the Council on Foreign Relations today, neocon Elliott Abrams wrote an astonishing thing.

Taking issue with President Obama’s speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Abrams was particularly unhappy with the Obama’s statement that those who condemn slandering the Prophet Muhammad must also “condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated… or the Holocaust is denied.”

Abrams’s response was as follows:

Islam has a prophet; Christianity has a savior, but Judaism has…. the Holocaust. The problem Jews and especially Israelis face, with apologies for having to spell it out, is not so much Holocaust denial as it the slander of the Jewish religion as a whole and the desire to eliminate the Jewish state.

Mr. Obama and his speechwriters should get over their equation of Judaism and Israel with the Holocaust.

Has Elliott Abrams, in fact, never met an Israeli? Never heard an Israeli speech? Never seen those pictures of Israeli high school groups and soldiers touring the death camps, holding Israeli flags and swearing “never again”?

As it happens, I agree with the underlying notion that we need to find a way to stop equating Israel and the Jewish People with the Holocaust, first and foremost to better honor the six million. Israel is forever trotting them out for fear mongering purposes, and the notion that the most powerful state in the Middle East (a nuclear power, no less) is somehow the 21st century equivalent of the slaughtered, abandoned masses of our forebears is not only grossly wrong, it is grossly offensive.

Moreover, Israel was not established, as we so often hear, “because of” the Holocaust. Zionism is a nationalist movement born in the same 19th century European coffee houses that gave birth to nationalism across the globe. The city of Tel Aviv was established in 1909—well before the First World War, much less the Second—and the cornerstone of Hebrew University laid in Jerusalem in 1918. Jewish nationalists were not sitting around waiting for the world to take pity, and neither did they accept the State of Israel as some kind of consolation prize for watching their people rise in smoke into the European sky.

And finally, it bears mentioning that, contra the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ, the Holocaust is not the cornerstone of the Jewish faith. While we surely must remember and honor our dead in our prayers, our hearts, and our lives, too much of Judaism has been reduced to fear and the words “never again.” The study of Torah may be foregone, Shabbat forgotten, ham consumed on Yom Kippur and baguettes during Passover, but stop hounding Congress to support Israel against whoever Israel is calling the new Nazis (Nasser, Arafat, Ahmadinejad, etc.)? Then you’re in trouble.

Yet Elliott Abrams wants to suggest that President Obama is the one with the problem.

Not, of course, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said last Holocaust Day that “people who make light of the Iranian threat have learned nothing from the Holocaust,” adding that while on a recent visit around the country, “for a moment I replaced Tel Aviv with Vilna; Haifa with Białystock; Degania, Nahalal, [and] Be’er Sheva with Plonsk, Riga, and Odessa.”

Not legendary Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, who rejected a return to the 1967 borderssaying “I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz.” (A view shared, not incidentally, by the Simon Wiesenthal Center andIsrael’s West Bank settlers).

Not the many American Jewish leaders who make Holocaust education a centerpiece of Jewish education, or, say, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, for whom “launch Jewish Heritage Week” and “educate President Regan about the Holocaust” were largely one and the same, and, in 2010, gave a speech to AIPAC entitled “Is It 1939?”

Sure, Mr. Abrams, I’ll agree. Let’s all get over our equation of Judaism and Israel with the Holocaust.

But I’d suggest that the State of Israel and our own Jewish community might give it a try, first. Then American politicians might be able to, as well.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.