Monthly Archives: January 2018

Old Jawbone

jawboneAt first glance, to the untrained eye, this find from a cave outside of Haifa looks a little suspect. Is it trash? A rind of an ancient fruit? But once you see that those are teeth, it becomes clear. Israeli archaeologists found the remains of a nearly 200,000-year-old human jawbone in a cave on Mount Carmel, a discovery they predict will change what we know about the evolution and spread of our species.

It’s been a commonly held belief that homo sapiens first appeared some 200,000 years ago in East Africa. These ancestral humans emerged from Africa around 70,000 to 60,000 years ago, occasionally interbreeding with Neanderthals and other hominids as they dispersed throughout the world.

The origin of anatomically modern Homo sapiens (AMHS) and the fate of the Neandertals have been fundamental questions in human evolutionary studies for over a century. A major obstacle to the resolution of these questions has been the lack of substantial and accurately dated hominid fossils from between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago.

Only now it seems that we have to completely revise our timeline. Physical anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz, the lucky man whose dig made the discovery, says the find suggests our ancestors arose far earlier than thought. “[If] our species was in Israel 200,000 years ago, it suggests our species is very old—not just 300,000 years old, but older.”

I am fascinated by paleoanthropology, the field of study that seeks to trace the origins of humanity. They look at bone fragments, textiles, fossils, tools, burned out, ancient campfires, whatever they can find, to figure out how we got here. It is a science that just keeps morphing as new finds continue to turn up.

I used to think that humanity arose along a very linear plane: from the ocean to the shore, from the shore to the jungle, from the jungle to Newton Center. However, the latest science indicates that there were all kinds of hominids walking around Africa before homo sapiens made the eventual migration northward and into the rest of the world.

The important point is that, as the timeline keeps changing, we do too. In other words, 300,000 years ago our ancestors were emerging into the world. They are ALL of our ancestors. All those hominids who look like apes, the Neanderthals with large middle part of the face; the Australopithecus who climbed in the trees; or the Sahelanthropus with the sloping face, very prominent brow ridges, and elongated skull.

We have the choice to keep evolving and thus make the world livable for the next generation. I assume most of us who are homo sapiens have a similar impulse to protect our young, to see to it that they will be safe and happy. So why is it that we seem to fail so miserably? Why do nations commit atrocities against their people? Why do people of one race think that they are somehow better when it is clear that we are all descended from the same hominids? I mean, I hate to let the alt-right know this, but 300, 000 years ago, there were no white people…

And here I am, once again at a theme close to my heart. We are charged with building bridges, not walls. We are challenged to be inclusive, to see the other as a relative, not an alien.

That jawbone discovery is a celebration of the complexity and mystery of human existence. We’ve come a long way to finally get here. It would be nice if we could work harder to keep the world in one piece rather than break it into a million pieces of lost potential.


We Were Strangers

Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a directive to his national security adviser earlier this month to draft a plan for the expulsion of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally over the last decade. Israel said recently that migrants would be given the choice of receiving a one-time payment of $3,500 to be deported to an African country or be sent to a detention facility for an indefinite period.

The asylum seekers who crossed Africa and entered Israel at its southern border were part of the wave of Africans who fled the continent, seeking better lives and in some cases refuge from wars and upheaval. Many of the migrants claim they are seeking refugee status, but of the some 60,000 who have come through Israel, only ten have ever been recognized by the state as refugees, according to UNHCR data – eight Eritreans and two Sudanese.

Israel started erecting a barrier on the Egyptian border in 2010, completing it in 2013, which has stopped the flow of migrants. The Israeli Defense Ministry said there were only 11 successful attempts to cross the border in 2016.

The forced deportation of these African refugees is a terrible idea for so many reasons. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of ADL, and Mark Hetfield, the CEO of HIAS, wrote a joint letter reacting to Netanyahu’s intention.

Our objections to the new Israeli government plan stem from numerous reports which indicate that those asylum seekers who previously left Israel have been unable to return safely to their home countries, and many have encountered violence and inhumane living conditions in countries they have sought refuge in, Greenblatt and Hetfield explained.

Testimonies of people who were relocated by Israel to third countries in Africa indicate that they did not find durable protection there and risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan, and Libya to seek protection elsewhere. Some have drowned at sea en route to Europe, while others were reportedly detained, tortured and extorted by human traffickers.

As American Jews, one of our greatest concerns is the well-being and security of Israel; we want to see it prosper and overcome all of the challenges its precarious location imposes on it. We also care about our shared Jewish values and refugee heritage—a very human concern that reaches across borders and distances—and unifies us as a people.

That the state of Israel would send away people who came to Israel seeking safety and freedom contradicts so many essential aspects of Jewish tradition and values. Why do I have to bring up the adage from the Torah, the one that appears 36 times, that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and that therefore we must have compassion for all strangers… to the Israeli government?

What a disaster! For the Africans who face deportation and their families, it is a nightmare. And for the state of Israel, could there be any more Jewishly inconsistent and alienating act? Do you think Millennials have a problem relating to Israel now? This will create a mess no Birthright trip can salvage.

If this expulsion goes through, I fear that it will be a terrible blow to the heart and soul of the Jewish State. We Jews have come too far and seen far too much not to be horrified by the prospect of Israeli troops and police rounding up Africans and putting them in chains.

We must stand for and with others, particularly the downtrodden and the vulnerable of the world. I’d like to believe that Elie Wiesel would be among those leading the moral opposition to this action by the Netanyahu government. In fact, there is a new nonprofit in Israel called the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement. Hundreds of Israeli rabbis have pledged to provide sanctuary to as many African asylum seekers as they can accommodate, evoking Anne Frank’s memory as an emotional bridge.

I don’t want to descend into melancholy over this political and moral crisis. I don’t want to be a cynic, shaking my head and succumbing to this morose slow-motion train wreck. I will do my best to reach out to the positive, to support the work of the rabbis and activists in Israel to protect the lives of our African brothers and sisters. There is no other option. This is life and death. We cannot stand idly by as our neighbor bleeds.


Fifty years ago, I was just a high school kid worrying about things like girls and popularity and Clearasil. But the truth is, as typical and boringly predictable as my life was, 1968 was not an average year to be an American teen.
Death and destruction were the backdrop for 1968. Not just for me, but for my entire generation. The insanity that was Vietnam continued to intensify with each passing week. More and more young men were being drafted and shipped overseas to die in a war that the generals and the White House knew was not winnable. The civil rights movement was riven by serious differences over nonviolence and demonstrations and alliances with white organizations. The generation gap was cleaving families and classrooms and communities. It felt more than a little like we were living in an apocalyptic time because we were.
Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered in 1968. Their deaths tore the fabric of my life like a black keriyah mourning ribbon. I speculated on how it was possible to live in a country so poisoned by hatred and racism. Could it get any worse than this, I wondered?
 I did want to hope for something back then. I wanted to believe that there could be peace in Vietnam. I wanted to believe that black folk and white folk could live in relative harmony. I wanted to believe that there was a way forward. Martin and Bobby both spoke about just that, and I loved them for that. I even wrote a letter to the Kennedy campaign, offering my services to help elect Bobby to become president. The letter was posted a week or so before he won California… just before he was murdered.
Thinking back to those days, I am aware of many things Bobby and Martin shared. Obviously, their politics were very much aligned. They both opposed the war. They both acknowledged the fundamental disparities of American life. They both decried racism in all of its forms. Most of all, they both agreed that compassion and understanding were necessary to heal our sick country. They spoke with eloquence and openheartedness. It was often thrilling to hear them rallying their supporters. But it was also thrilling to hear them offer olive branches to those of disparate opinions. Bobby and Martin believed in hope, that somehow, we could make it happen. They were dreamers, and we were lucky enough to be wrapped up in their dream.
Fifty years later I am old enough to have been Martin’s father – MLK was 39 when he was shot; Bobby was 42. The “if-onlys” are stacked like unread, rejected manuscripts. To imagine a Martin Luther King stewarding us through the 60s, to contemplate a Bobby Kennedy presidency, it’s almost too much. Yes, I know their back stories, their peccadillos, their transgressions, their shortcomings. They were mortal, and not messianic.
I read the news every day. I look at the current level of engagement and the language used in public discourse, the lack of esteem for facts, the malodorous stink of racism and misogyny and the all-around lack of respect for divergent opinions and lifestyles. And I miss Bobby and Martin. I miss what could’ve been. So much lost and squandered.
The night Martin died, Bobby was in Indianapolis. He wanted to go to the heart of the black community there, but the chief of police of Indianapolis said no, he could not guarantee Bobby’s safety. If Kennedy went, he said, he would not send any escorts or bodyguards.
But Bobby went anyway. He spoke to the crowd and urged them to go home, to pray for Martin’s children and his wife. He told them he knew they were angry that a white man had killed Martin. Bobby said that he understood their wrath, because he, too, lost a loved one at the hands of a murderous white man. The crowd did go home, and there were no riots that night in Indianapolis as there were in so many other black city centers.
Bobby concluded his remarks with the following words, words that speak of loss and also future hope for consolation. They are words that, sadly, remind us of the past and also point towards the cloudy present. He said, “My favorite poem was by Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
Even in our sleep, 
pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.”
Amen, Bobby.
Rest in peace, Martin.