Monday, September 29, 2003

A Morning with El Greco

It's a beautiful crisp clear Fall day in New York and I walked across the Park this morning to a private members preview of the large El Greco show that is to open at the Metropolitan Museum in a few days. I had special reasons. On this day fifteen years ago my father, Joachim Prinz, died. Two days later I would officiate at his funeral and deliver both the easiest and most difficult eulogy of my life. Like most people I have had a small number of best friends, but none better than he. Which brings me to El Greco.

Some people honor their loved ones with trips to the cemetery. I have never been so inclined. I'm not discounting visits to the grave, just saying they don't work for me. Those who really meant something in my life are embodied in how I function, ever present. Boy is that true in his case, so I went to see El Greco.

It was my father who instilled in me a passionate love for art, and it was during a summer we spent together in Europe that I got hooked on El Greco. It was a wonderful and eventful trip beginning on the Island of Ibiza off the Spanish coast on to the mountains of Switzerland and ending with about 12 hours spent in Berlin (my first and only visit to Germany). It was the summer that the Wall was being constructed and a shaken Jewish Community feeling uncertain once again about its future wanted him to preach in their synagogue.

The Spain portion included Madrid and from there that wonderful drive to the old city of Toledo. If you've made it, and are familiar El Greco's powerful painting of the walled city set against an angry sky which echoes your experience, you know how moving the approach can be. I made a similar trip with one of my own sons and had an identical reaction. Once in Toledo, we entered the world of El Greco.  Paintings were everywhere, the best hanging on the walls of the Cathedral's sacristy. Those narrow figures, that unforgettable vivid color, often sparsely used, often contrasting with the grayness of skin. I was astounded and to this day whenever I visit a new museum and encounter an El Greco in its collection, I get excited. I don't have a single favorite painter, but certainly none more favorite than this man from Greece.

I don't know how you remember. My remembrance on this day was, as always, thrilling. I could have experienced a similar connection with Rembrandt, with Van Gogh, with any of the Impressionists, with Matisse or Picasso. Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close and their crowd are in my realm, definitely not his but that's what next generations are all about. The point is, the relationship continues and even if you didn't know him, go see El Greco at the Met.  Perhaps not the paintings themselves, but the sheer experience of human creativity, the wonder of it all, is his rich legacy. Share it with me. You won't be sorry.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Best Friends

I'm sure you've heard it.  Israel has never had better friends in Washington than the Bush Administration.  Really.  If being with you at the start when very few would stand at your side has any meaning, then it would seem Harry Truman was a pretty good friend.  And wouldn't you think Menahem Begin felt the same about Jimmy Carter and Yitzhak Rabin about Bill Clinton, both of whom used Camp David, not to mention their personal capital, to broker peace, albeit with mixed results?  So let's translate.  The far right administration in our country is in tune with the ultra right government in Jerusalem.  So, too, the Administration's fundamentalist Christian friends with Ariel Sharon's fundamentalist Jewish friends on the West Bank.  I only hope this kind of friendship doesn't ultimately kill the Jewish State, not to mention the dreams of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians.

To be sure, the conflict between Israel and its neighbors is rooted in the days of the founding, but I would think my father's friends David Ben Gurion, Moshe Sharret and Golda Meir would be horrified at the sharp right turn, politically and religiously, taken by their successors.  After all, it was large a group of Jewish secularists and religious modernists who made Israel a reality.  Many of the Orthodox, aside of imposing their will on religious practice – liberal rabbis couldn't function – were on the fringes, and the ultra-Orthodox, unlike Truman, didn't much recognize the State's validity or authority.  The West Bank emerged as their key to taking hold of the conversation and, as of today, of Israel's destiny.

George Bush and company are hell-bent on establishing a Moslem stronghold for democracy in the region.  And, of course, they want to obliterate terrorism.  And now they've spent our considerable capital in seeking that transformation in Iraq.  Imagine if you will, that they had opted to make only a fraction of that investment in transforming the West Bank into a Palestinian State, a parallel democracy to its Israeli neighbor?  What if troops, minus the devastating bombs, had been landed right where that self-defeating wall is being erected?  The fact is that no peace in the Holy Land is likely to come without proactive and sustained intervention by a third party or parties.  Talking of road maps is all well and good, but it's clear that someone has to patrol the path, a truly honest broker with force behind the words.  Just as I am dubious about our ability to achieve a democratic Iraq, I am convinced that with a similar effort we could achieve it in Palestine.  And the dividends would be huge and immediate for the parties on the ground, for ourselves and for the world at large.  Settling this dispute addresses one of the core causes of global terrorism.  To do so would be to bypass symptomatic relief of a malignancy in favor of producing remission and ultimate cure.

I had written these words before setting out to attend an event for Howard Dean.  I'll confess, as anyone who reads these blogs will know, that Dean has increasingly been at the top of my list of Democratic candidates.  But I went wanting that gut feeling to be sustained by some substance, and not entirely sure it would be.  Howard Dean, it turns out, is a very much what I had hoped and sensed.  Unlike what the press and neo-Cons would have you believe, he is not a George McGovern but a result oriented fiscal conservative with a down-to-earth rather that pie-in-the-sky agenda, economic, social and foreign policy.  He's a liberal – "if that means balancing a budget rather than running up record deficits, I'm proud of the designation."  He was, and is, opposed to the current Iraq war brought on by dubious arguments about non-existent WMD's and unproved terrorist links.  Conversely, he supported the first Gulf War pushing back an illegal invasion and that of Afghanistan which retaliated for 9/11.  He is not opposed to being strong or using force, simply using it unjustly.  He thinks we're in real trouble, trouble that can be addressed, but real trouble.  I agree.  And, in answer to a question on Israel, he said more or less what I stated here.  How could I not like the guy?  But in a less flippant context, his words were heartening because obviously there are others who are beginning to think out-of-the-box on a subject mired in truisms a cliché "patriotism".  Perhaps there is some hope in these terrible times.  By the way, he wasn't wearing one of those American Flag pins.  I guess, like me, he must think his words and deeds are enough to prove that he is loyal to and loves his country.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

9/11 Thoughts

I was in Miss Fischer's classroom when the news of FDR's death arrived, preparing a Friday night sermon when JFK was shot and running in Central Park on the crystal clear morning when those planes hit the Towers.  We all have our own "where I was" for these kinds of days after which we're solemnly told, "nothing will ever be the same."  Perhaps, only time and history will tell.  In the meantime, George Bush and company have adopted 9/11 as a catchall for everything they are doing.  Forget WMD's, evil regimes and all that stuff.  9/11 terrorism is "it" and the "why" we're in Iraq.  Oh, that explains all, finally.   As a New Yorker, where more than 3,000 individuals and their families, not to mention our city as a whole, were direct victims of this horrendous tragedy, I resent it being used as an excuse for hiding incompetence, for subverting civil liberties and for furthering partisan/ideological political agendas.

A poll taken last week shows that one out of seven Americans firmly believe Saddam played a significant role in 9/11.  Now that's marketing.  The Bush Administration entered Iraq with two contentions: weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorism.  Neither substantiated at the time, neither substantiated to this day.  WMD's have yet to appear and the only terrorist connection, if there is one, seems to be a result of the war not a precursor to it.  In fact, it's no stretch to suggest that only the demise of Saddam's regime gave license for the entry of terrorist groups which heretofore didn't dare show their faces in his authoritarian state.  There is no connection between Saddam and 9/11 except as planted in the minds of consumers who have been led to that dog food by the propagandists on Pennsylvania Avenue and at the Pentagon.  Wow!

George Bush wants us to connect 9/11 and Iraq calling that beleaguered country "the central front" in the war on terrorism.  It's an audacious statement playing on our worst fears and shifting attention from the reality of the situation.  The United States' total lack of preparation for other than a fantasy the "after" script and what is happening now both reflects that.  It should also be no surprise since throughout history locals have resisted foreigners calling the shots in their country.  Our founding fathers did it in 1776 and the Iraqis seem to be doing it today, much as they and their fellow Arabs resisted both the English and French occupiers in the last Century.  And even if they are grateful (which some of them probably are) that Saddam is gone (sort of), it's hard to stand and applaud when the most immediate result of conflict is lawlessness, a lack of clean running water and no electricity.  How do you think the average Iraqi would respond to Ronald Reagan's famous question "are you better off today then you were one year ago?" 

Perhaps the most striking and most unproved "truism" in Bush's recent TV address was his contention that military force is the best way to counter terrorism.  While all of us understand what motivates a tough response in the face of attack, history does not suggest that it works.  Quite the contrary.  Look at Northern Ireland and look at the tragic drama we witness daily between Israel and the Palestinians.  Ariel Sharon's aggressive retaliation and assassination program has done nothing to reduce, much less eliminate, suicide bombings.  I would argue that violence is probably the least effective way to counter terrorism.  It may work as a band-aid, but ultimately the underlying wounds that provoked the terrorism in the first place have to be addressed.  No one can excuse what happened on 9/11 or when a bus explodes in Jerusalem – targeting the innocent is a despicable tactic, but we seem to be destined for more of the same if we don't address the fundamental issues that drive Street people into the hands of fanatics around the globe.  Perhaps we should spend less time making sanctimonious patriotic speeches about 9/11 and start looking for solutions, even ones that might be hard to swallow.  The cycle has to stop somewhere, and a little honesty in our rhetoric might be a good place to start.