Archive for March, 2014

Report from France: Immigration is the Issue

March 29, 2014
A protest rally in Paris, France.

A protest rally in Paris, France.

By Robert Israel
A law that some say discriminates against immigrants is the source of ongoing protests in France. Those opposed insist the law successfully will keep immigrants apart from the mainstream; those in favor insist it’s only a measure to protect the rights of everyone.

This acrimonious debate over immigration continues and no holds are barred. Those on the right claim the new law doesn’t go far enough in addressing the problems of illegal immigration in France. Those on the left contend that the immigrants are being wrongly labeled as scapegoats and are not responsible for creating a host of ills, or, for that matter, the oft cited curse that they are taking jobs away from the native French who struggle with high unemployment.

Versions of the law have been bandied about for years. The original draft of the law was named after Jean-Louis Debre, the former French interior minister. It essentially called for police to eject immigrants living illegally in France while providing a framework for “social integration,” or multiculturalism, for those who choose to legally remain.

The Debre law has been heralded by the conservative majority, which maintains that France can no longer afford to be so generous without correcting the rampant abuses caused by continually supporting an estimated 1 million immigrants from the sub-Saharan countries in Africa, as well as the throngs of migrants from Eastern Europe and those from France’s former colonies living in France illegally.

“The new law is apolitical,” insists Jean Paul Faugere, a colleague of Debre who worked as director of public liberties and judicial affairs at the Ministry of the Interior. “Two-thirds of the French have indicated they support the new law. Only a small fraction has made it a political debate.”

But it has hardly been a “small fraction” that has voiced disapproval. The right-wing group, the National Front, continues to make immigration its rallying cry and has attracted numerous supporters. “In a country where a thousand neighborhoods are on the edge of social explosion,” said Jean Marie Le Pen, the National Front’s right-wing leader while speaking at a May Day rally at Place d’Opera here, “the policy of immigrant family reunification still continues.”

Le Pen advocates cutting aid to immigrant groups, firing social workers, hiring more police and “imposing civil peace, not trying to buy it.”

His angry speeches have caught the ear of lawmakers such as Mme. Suzanne Sauviago of the National Assembly, who represents the south of France, where the National Front has made gains in municipal elections in three cities. “France can no longer accept all the misery of the world,” she said. “And why should we? The strain on life in our cities due to an uncontrolled immigration is already too much for us to bear. They [the African immigrants] and their large families with so many wives and a warren of children should go back to living that way in the jungle, not in France.”

Remarks like this provoke a response from the left who feel the Debre law is an example of French xenophobia gone haywire. “The larger issue of what is being challenged,” said Mme. Monique Ben Guiga, who is aligned with the Socialists in the Senate, “is whether France wants to be a state or a union, whether it wants to stand up for its principles, which is to defend the rights of all humankind. We must be known as a cradle for human rights, not as a place that negates human rights.”

She has lobbied with her colleagues to remove what she calls “racist language” in the new Debre law. “Most immigrants are not freeloaders,” she said. “In addition to enriching the cultural dimensions of our society, they are an economic benefit for all of France.”

Even though she and other left-wing groups have staged massive protests against the law, there is a feeling that the new law is a necessity, coming when economic belt tightening is a matter of course. A prevalent attitude among the French is widespread fear – preyed on by Le Pen and others – that their way of life is threatened by outsiders.

Former interior Minister Debre himself declared that the new law is “against illegal immigration and for social integration.” France has long struggled with this concept of the blending of multi-ethnic people into French society, and there are many tensions.

As the political rhetoric increases, only time will tell if continued global changes in immigration – and harsh economic realities – will further challenge this nation’s ideological and political core.

Robert Israel,, was awarded a journalism grant to report on immigration in France for a series of newspaper reports. An earlier version of this report appeared in The Providence Journal.


Biotech’s Healthy Vital Signs

March 29, 2014


By Robert Israel

Put your fingers on the wrist of the biotech industry. Now start counting as you read the results of a report released by Merrill Lynch that showed 35 percent of publicly traded biotechnology companies have less than year’s worth of cash left.

Next consider the results of a survey, published in BioCentury, which shows that at least 45 biotechnology companies in the United States and Europe have announced layoffs or cutbacks.

The pulse might be irregular, but the biotechnology industry has not flatlined.

There are other vital signs worth noting. This was — issued by a research team of Richard Barry Joyce and Partners in Boston — states that Massachusetts biotechnology market is growing and will continue to flourish, as evidenced by the demand for commercial real estate in Cambridge and MetroWest.

While no region is immune to the vagaries of the economy, our region may show increased vitality due to our long history of serving as a mecca for medical research, much of it pioneered by leading colleges and universities in the area. Boston and Cambridge have always been favored targets for the National Institutes of Health when it comes to awarding grants for research and clinical studies.

Also, 20 of the nation’s top 100 biotech companies are based here. More than 250 biotech firms have chosen to make this state their headquarters, employing over 58,000 people.

So the prognosis should be a healthy one, once the industry grows stronger from a transfusion of better economic times, right?

The answer is a reserved yes. If one looks deeper into the Richards Barry report, it states that of the 281 biotech companies in the Commonwealth, 23 are testing drugs or therapies in clinical trials. The key to success is developing the compounds through all phases, leading up to and including approval for marketing the products from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Historically, the bottleneck to the development of these new products has been finding the right number — and the right kind — of patients to participate in clinical research trials. It can make or break a company.

Why? The FDA requires companies to test drugs in many clinical research trial phases before a drug can be marketed. The FDA is not only requiring more testing but it is also requiring more participants to be part of that testing.

Recently, the biotech company Akzo Nobel in the Netherlands found out what happens when this process is suddenly truncated. According to a report, Akzo Nobel’s shares tumbled more than 9 percent in Amsterdam before they ended the day down 3.7 percent. The reason: the company could not find “clinical participants with the right profile.”

There is no denying that the process of bringing a product to market can take years. Yet biotechnology companies can remain healthy throughout this lengthy cycle if they better prepare for the challenges before them.

By developing a strong and dynamic business model and sticking to it — envisioning the role of patient recruitment from the onset rather than at the end of the process — the results will be more effective and efficient.

Companies should also view the challenges before them from the marketing side. Putting patients at the center of the equation will help them find a wide range of questions that marketing processional know how to answer. In short, looking at product, price, place and promotion provide a new level of insight to the process.

Biotechnology companies will continue to flourish because there are many more compounds to discover and many more products to market in a world that is clamoring for medical breakthroughs.

By learning from companies like Akzo Nobel, biotechs can avoid problems by enacting simple and effective planning and monitoring of the data every step of the way, until their products are proven safe and ready to release to patients.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. An earlier version of this report appeared in Mass High Tech.

Online writing tips: From authors to authors

March 28, 2014


By Robert Israel

Writing can be daunting, anxiety-provoking work. Seeking online writing tips or turning to books by writers who offer approaches to overcoming these barriers can be reassuring and boost your confidence. It can also help improve your work through tried-and-true lessons. By turning to online writing tips and tips from legendary authors, I have improved my own writing.

Donald Murray: A Writer Teaches Writing

“Each time I sit down to write, I don’t know if I can do it,” Donald Murray wrote just before he died. “The flow of writing is always a surprise and a challenge. Click the computer on and I am 17 again, wanting to write and not knowing if I can.”

Murray confesses something we all fear but rarely share: failing at writing. Yet in the face of his vexing doubts, he rallied. Before he died in 2006 at age 82, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, spent almost three decades as a writing professor at the University of New Hampshire, and penned (among other volumes) A Writer Teaches Writing, an indispensable book I often turn to for advice on how to strengthen my resolve to be a good writer.

When we met at the Boston Globe during his tenure as a columnist, I was impressed how accessible he was and that he never lost his awe (or trepidation) for writing. He taught me to believe in myself as a writer. He showed me how to take deliberate steps before, during, and after writing to make my work the best I could produce.

Written pieces must contain an element of surprise, Murray noted. Without a sense of discovery, a finished piece will fall flat. Readers who are not engaged from the first word will turn away.

Like Murray, I started writing as a teenager. And while I have exorcised most of the pabulum I was force-fed in school, I retained one morsel of wisdom: always use an outline. Today, as I did as a youngster, I outline assignments. I may abandon that outline, but I will always replace it with a revised one. It provides me with a path, a way to check my work, a key to ensure I haven’t omitted key details.

Murray recognized that outlining is a necessary ingredient of pre-writing. He advised first envisioning a goal before embarking on the writing journey. The next step is to open the floodgates and allow the “flow of writing” to gush forth, followed by strenuous rewriting.

“All effective writers know writing is rewriting,” Murray advised in A Writer Teaches Writing. “It is the way in which you fit ideas into language.”

Wisdom from the Greats

Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway was another writer who influenced me and legions of other writers.

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,” Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon. Good writers use well-crafted sentences the same way a carpenter uses tools to build solid structures, he said.

Toward that end, law professor and New York Times columnist Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One, is another indispensable guide.

“If you know sentences, you know everything,” Fish proclaims. “Good sentences promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world.”

Fish points to a sentence written by the late author John Updike, who was seated in the grandstand as Boston Red Sox ace Ted Williams hit a home run in his last at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.

“It was in the books while it was still in the sky,” Updike wrote.

Fish contends that an elegant, compact sentence like Updike’s—one that expresses history, action, and awe in just 12 words—can be written by any writer. His book offers useful exercises, first by breaking sentences down, then by instructing you how to write better ones.

Another writer who offers online writing tips and who has published a useful guide to writing is popular fiction author Stephen King, who penned On Writing.

“Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation,” King writes. Like Fish, King provides numerous examples of how to accomplish this purposeful denuding of ego and pretense in order to have greater impact.

The same message about steering clear of self-conscious pitfalls in writing can be found in an essay by the late novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard in The New York Times.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” Leonard note. “It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.” Write with this discipline in your arsenal and your best work will come through you.

Well-crafted words, sentences, and paragraphs form Hemingway’s “architecture” of prose, and they enable writers to produce successful, enduring works. Therein lies the challenge; therein lies the reward.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. This piece appeared in The Content Standard, published by Skyword, Inc.

Report from Tokyo: At Kabuki-za

March 27, 2014
The late Utaemon VI, Kabuki actor in costume, preparing to play a female role.

The late Utaemon VI, Kabuki actor in costume, preparing to play a female role.

By Robert Israel

At Kabuki-za in Tokyo, an all male cast performs a tragedy of antiquity with modern implications. They are stoic performers, in whiteface, dark hair and mascara in stark contrast to the sheer starched brilliance of their costumes. Two musicians at stage right plunk away at discordant stringed instruments; during the interval, the stage actually swivels, like a Lazy Susan, when two other musicians are needed to replace them. The stage hands are dressed all in black; when they remove the minimalist props, it is like watching spiders streak across a web seizing their prey.

The play, a drama from the early 19th century, features the legendary Kubuki actor Nakamura Utaemon VI, who specializes in women’s roles, known in Japanese as an onnagata. When he appears onstage, the audience shouts out his stage name, a sign of reverence.

The story tells of a courtesan, now ensconced as a member of the royal family and living in the palace, who cannot acknowledge her past or her son who lives outside the palace walls. The boy is killed in the second act, and news of his death is brought to her from a messenger.

She learns of his death after we have watched him die–an arrow, shot by an unsuspecting hunter, pierces his breast while he is walking in the forest– and she reacts by showing us a glimpse of the internalization of her grief; externally, she must maintain calm, so as not to blow her cover, but inside, she is devastated.

Utaemon VI stands center stage. At stage left the palace frivolities continue uninterrupted. Slowly, from the depths of despair, a mournful spirit rises; an ear-piercing screech from the actor’s diaphragm is forced outward through unopened lips, the actor giving birth to agony, but only a drop, and only for us. And then, seconds later, it is spent. This sound, like the screech of a faraway hawk, fills the auditorium. It is as if the actor is wielding a scalpel to lay bare his anguish, while simultaneously suturing his wound.

The audience is stunned, shaken. Tears steam down my face. Utaemon VI never loses composure. The corpse of the boy is lifted and carried off to the wings. The music, the eerie plunking of the discordant strings, reaches a climax.

There is so much about this play that reminds me of the hibakusha, their years of forced silence, their repressed memories, their years of hiding and denial, and how they have learned to carefully vent their pain, the chorus of their voices a high-pitched air-raid warning for us all.

Utaemon VI’s performance is greeted by a thunder of applause. Still in character, he does not acknowledge the audience’s adulation. He exits. The play has ended.

Robert Israel can be reached at An earlier version of this report appeared in the Rhode Island Herald.

Report from India: From Mumbai to Kernala via Third Class Coach

March 27, 2014
Mumbai's Terminus

Mumbai’s Terminus

By Robert Israel

At Mumbai’s central railroad station, known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, I purchase a ticket for first class service to Kernala, a nearby suburb. But the place is awash in confusion. There are no signs, or at least not adequate signage, so, instead, I climb aboard third class coach.

There’s room enough for everyone, at first. But then just before the whistle blows thirty or forty men crowd in and I am pushed to the very edge of an open boxcar. The train jerks into motion. I watch the rails just below my feet. Everything that at first seems distinguishable becomes a blur as we pick up speed just outside the train yard.

I am sweating. I am carrying a backpack, a camera, I am the only white face among the throng. The men jockey for more room. I am at teetering at the edge of the open boxcar.

We are far beyond the city limits now. The trees and dung fires are blurring in a miasma of lime green and smoky gauze, other trains pass close by, I am losing hold of the edge of the open boxcar door. There is nowhere to lean, nowhere else to go except out. There are many that wind up on the tracks, dismembered, killed by falling from the open boxcar doors. I know this because I read it in the Times of India, just two days before my journey to Kernala. I am trying to rid my mind of this news story, but it won’t leave my thoughts. And then, out of the din of chattering voices, I disctinctly hear one voice above the others.

“Don’t worry, sahib,” a toothless man says to me.

“No need to worry, sahib,” says another man, grinning, who stands on the other side of me.

“We will take care of you, sahib,” says a third, unseen, his voice is in my ear, behind me.

They remove my backpack and rest it by my feet. The man on the left, the man on the right, the man from behind, they encircle me, their arms surround me, their hands gripping my belt, my shoulders, my waist.

When I finally arrive at Kernala, I am exhausted, but safe.

Robert Israel can be reached at A version of this story first appeared in the Rhode Island Herald.

Personal Computers Never Die — Not if Recyclers Get Ahold of Them

March 18, 2014
A bin of recycled computer circuit boards awaits recycling at Metech Recycling in Worcester, Mass.

A bin of recycled computer circuit boards awaits recycling at Metech Recycling in Worcester, Mass.

By Robert Israel

It may not yet be law in all fifty states, but increasingly, it is becoming so: computers that sit in landfills stay that way forever, so recycling, a better, cleaner and safer approach, is being mandated. Many states, 25 of them to be exact, are requiring citizens to recycle electronic items. In other parts of the world, rigorous legislation already exists.

Massachusetts is not one of the 25 states with a mandatory electronics recycling law in place. Each town in the Commonwealth has its own requirements for recycling. In Arlington, for example, a fee of $35.00 must be paid to the town, who then arranges for the electronic device to be collected. You can’t just leave your computer or old television set on the corner and expect it to be gone after the garbage truck rolls down the street. And if you fail to pay the fee or avoid affixing a green sticker to your electronic device, it will go uncollected and you can expect to pay a fine.

John Davis, editor of Product Stewardship Advisor, a newsletter that monitors environmental issues for electronics industries, says Taiwan, Japan and most European countries now have recycling laws on the books.

Increasingly, that is changing in the States, as more firms crop up devoted to recycling and consumers become aware of the dangers of having their dead electronics equipment sitting in landfills. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. generated 3.4 million tons of electronic waste such as televisions, cameras, and telephone, in 2011, diverting only about 25 percent of it to recyclers. This number is expected to increase as more awareness of the dangers of decaying electronics equipment becomes known. Computer components, when they break down, contain toxic chemicals that are known to cause cancer.

Metech International operates a computer recycling plant in Worcester, Massachusetts. Founded in 1980, it now employs 50 people who assist processing of electronic waste.

James Gardner, a Metech spokesperson, said each brand presents its own challenge. For the most part, the older PCs are tougher to dismantle. On the other hand, some older models were designed with easy disassembly as a consideration. He estimates that it takes between 15 to 30 minutes to completely strip the computer down to its components.

“Micron and some of the AT & T machines come to mind as easier to dismantle,” Gardner said.

Metech extracts steel (around 25% by weight), aluminum (around 2% by weight) and copper wire (between 6% and 8% by weight) from each personal computer it recycles. What remains of the stripped down computers are heaps of plastic.

“Plastic is a headache,” Gardner said. “The plastic from older computers doesn’t recycle with the plastic from newer computers.”

Stephen Skurnac, president of Micro Metallic Corp., a Canadian company with a recycling center in Roseville, Calif., agrees.

“There’s no good way to separate the different kinds of plastics. No one wants it,” he said. “We keep it out of landfills after we strip it down by mixing it in with the metals and using it as a fuel substitute at our smelting plant in Canada.”

Micro Metallic Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and other firms have lobbied to ease stringent plastic recycling requirements, an effort that is ongoing.

Metech harvest millions of pounds of copper per year from dead computers and peripherals. The company conducts a free collection of used electronics each year, sponsored by an anonymous donor. Otherwise, Metech charges a fee for their services. Micro Metallic, a larger company, estimates it garners over 3 million pounds of copper per month.

There are also a number of states where prisoners are taking part electronic components for recycling, according to newsletter editor John Davis.

“Prisons are increasingly looking at employing inmates to refurbish computers as another way to teach job skills to inmates and even to make money,” Davis said.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. He can be reached at An earlier version of this report appeared in Computerworld magazine.

Bill Cain: A Jesuit Priest Explores War and Redemption

March 18, 2014
Bill Cain

Bill Cain

By Robert Israel

In April 2010, Father Robert Ver Eecke welcomed fellow Jesuit priest and playwright Bill Cain to a public forum at Boston College (BC). Modeled on the famed “Inside the Actor’s Studio” with James Lipton, it was billed as “Inside the BC Studio with Bill Cain.” Ver Eecke, an artist-in-residence at the school, is an old friend and classmate of Cain’s. To listen to these two men in conversation was to experience how a lifelong friendship has been made deeper by a shared devotion to God, faith, and the healing power of the arts.

“I don’t remember a single class I took,” Cain said of his undergraduate days at his alma mater BC, “but I have strong memories of being involved in theater.” It was during one college production, which took place in the cancer ward of a hospital, that Cain discovered his calling. “In the face of this terrible disease, in the face of leukemia, our performance made people human. Something happened,” he said, noting he felt the presence of God. “I knew then that I needed to do this for a lifetime.”

In the 43 years since, Cain has made a career of the theater, working as an actor, director, and now writer of screen and stage plays. A recent work, 9 Circles, a one-act play about the Iraq war, has been produced in cities across California, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Colorado. In 2011, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/America Theatre Critics Association bestowed upon the playwright the $25,000 New Play Award, presented for the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City. It is the second time Cain has won that accolade, the first being for his 2009 work Equivocation, about the death of a Jesuit priest after the failed assassination of James I in 1605.

“I am a Jesuit priest who is supposed to find the presence of God everywhere and to celebrate it,” Cain said in an interview from his office at the Fordham Jesuit Community in New York City. “I had read a story about a soldier who tried not to be a killer, but he was unable to change. Indeed, he had become baptized during his basic training so he wouldn’t have to kill.”

Cain’s source for 9 Circles was the case of Private Steven Dale Green, formerly of the 101st Airborne Division, who was convicted in 2009 of raping and killing a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, murdering her family, and later setting them on fire. Green, who said he was following orders from the other soldiers also involved in the act, is now serving five consecutive life sentences for his crimes.

In creating a fictional work for the stage based on this horrific story, Cain constructed terse and tense scenes meant to emulate the nine “circles” of hell from Dante’s Divine Comedy. During the course of the play, the audience learns of Private Reeves, the character based on Green, and the atrocities he has committed, his subsequent punishment, and his execution by lethal injection. The turning point comes when the actor playing Reeves stands naked onstage, engaged in a ritual act of ablution that calls to mind his discussion about baptism with the priest in an earlier scene.

In the production I attended, the actor stood before a makeshift sink, rinsing his torso with a sponge. Many in the audience audibly gasped at the raw physicality of the scene, as the actor struggled to rid himself of his dark demons. Some minutes later, before the final curtain, the actor stood center stage and delivered a seven-minute monologue, spoken in snippets of previously heard speeches. His gnarled words sputtered forth to reveal a slowly dying mind. During this scene he was bathed in bright light. Cain, in a note on the 9 Circles script, wrote: “As the intensity of the light grew, the moment became a transfiguration.”

“My goal in the play was to create a lead character, an anti-hero, who ultimately achieves understanding about what he’s done,” Cain said. “He finally feels the pain of the enemy. He doesn’t have to pretend he has to fight to see himself clearly. I have tremendous sympathy for Private Reeves. How does one say ‘no’ to war? It’s not in the language we use. We use words like ‘axis of evil,’ and ‘shock and awe.’ I am asking audiences to look at themselves, to ask how, individually and as a nation, we can seek an answer to this question.”

“It’s not so much a play about war, but about one man’s personal salvation,” said Eric C. Engel, who directed 9 Circles in Boston and nearby Gloucester, Massachusetts. “Bill’s work strips the character of Private Reeves bare. He’s a naked man, physically, psychologically, and psychically. Bill’s gift as a playwright is to give audiences this experience where you see, feel and hear people to their very core.”

9 Circles is a hard play to do,” said Kent Nicholson, who has directed several of Cain’s plays—including the West Coast premiere of 9 Circles. “But Bill believes that, despite this character having committed these horrible acts of murder and rape, he is able to find redemption, because belief in God is transformative.”

Of late, Jesuits are most known as the order of the current and newly elected Pope Francis. Cain follows in the tradition of other Jesuits who do not shy away from the public eye, whether it is in the theater, academia, or politics.

“The Jesuits have a long tradition to be involved not just in theology, but to be motivational in faith and justice,” Ver Eecke said in an interview. He said he and Bill were fortunate to come of age during the 1960s, when they had access to many Jesuit priests who were also artists and composers. As a teenager growing up in upstate New York, Cain said he met Father Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J., a published poet and playwright, now well into his ninth decade. “I was impressed with Daniel Berrigan’s outspoken views against the Vietnam War,” Cain said. “He greatly influenced me to become aware politically.”

After graduating from Boston College, Cain founded the Boston Shakespeare Company and stayed for seven seasons—from 1975-1982—first at a church in the Back Bay and later at Horticultural Hall, an ornate nineteenth-century edifice located across from Symphony Hall. Though the company closed in 1985 due to a lack of funds, it is credited for paving the way for many local troupes that have since transformed Boston into a hub for live stage events.

Cain then moved to the Lower East of Manhattan to teach, and he also kept writing. He wrote a play, Stand Up Tragedy, which was first produced in 1989 and was about the school where he taught and the violence he saw in the neighborhood.

He then landed contract work to be writer and producer of the ABC series, “Nothing Sacred,” about a questioning priest. It was boycotted by the Catholic League and later cancelled by the network, despite winning the Peabody Award and the 1998 Humanitas Prize.

Cain still writes for the small screen; one of his current projects includes writing an episode of House of Cards for Netflix. He’s also at work on a play on Robert Lincoln and the birth of the Republican Party, as well as a play on painter Thomas Eakins. “And I’m still working on a screenplay on the life and work of Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who was my roommate for 15 years, who ministers to young people in the Pico/Aliso District in East Los Angeles,” Cain said. “I originally wrote it under contract for Columbia TriStar, but it didn’t get made. So they turned it over to Greg, and I’ll get back to work on it someday soon.”

The process of creating a new work is an arduous one, he said. He workshops many of his plays at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, an arts enclave 65 miles north of Los Angeles, California; he credits the producers, directors, and fellow writers there with helping him shape his works, and said he is always learning, always re-working his scripts.

Cain said his priestly calling is writing, but he also regularly celebrates Mass in a parish in New York City. If he gave up writing, he said he would return to teaching.

“God wanted me to teach children, especially those children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in tough neighborhoods,” he said. “But for now, it’s all about the writing.”

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. He can be reached at A previous version of this profile appeared in Religion and Politics, a publication edited at Washington University in St. Louis.

Julian Zelizer’s scholarly & Judaic approach to political punditry

March 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer, professor, Princeton University

Julian Zelizer, professor, Princeton University

By Robert Israel

Brooke Baldwin, CNN’s news anchor, was chagrined. During the presidential election, despite a plethora of fact checking of candidates’ statements from both political parties and the media, it appeared that mendacity was triumphing over veracity. Why, she wondered aloud on an October 16th broadcast, aren’t more American voters swayed by the clear evidence supplied by fact checking? Where’s the voter outrage? Why aren’t voters demanding to know the truth?

She turned to Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor of history and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, for insight. “I want to tell you that I tweeted this beforehand,” she said. “I can almost hear people on Twitter yelling back at me saying: ‘Yes, Brooke, facts matter!’” she said, almost breathless. “But you write about how politicians are still stretching the truth … how are these politicians able to get away with it?”

Zelizer, whose opinion piece “Do facts matter?” had appeared earlier that day at, offered an explanation. “We have a proliferation of fact checkers and news outlets telling us all the data we need that analyze what the candidates say, but … candidates still stretch the truth,” Zelizer replied. “We are in an environment where there are facts out there, but people are having trouble distinguishing between partisan facts and independent facts.”

“But there’s little impact, and not enough outrage,” Baldwin insisted. “Why aren’t there consequences for people lying?”

“For thirty years now all the polls have shown that people don’t trust government and they don’t trust politicians,” Zelizer said. “Ever since Watergate … public esteem for government is very low. I think when it is revealed that someone is not telling the truth, for many voters, that’s what they’d expect. Fact checkers are going against that perception by trying to generate outrage in a culture that expects the worst from its leaders.”

“That is really sad!” Baldwin shouted, off camera.

Zelizer, at first visibly surprised by her outburst, calmly restated his opinion.

“The public lives in a world where it seems impossible to know what is fact and what is partisan fiction,” he said.

Watching CNN’s Baldwin versus Zelizer was a study in opposites. She appeared to be over-caffeinated, jittery. His professorial demeanor seemed a tad aloof, not without boyish charm, but not about to be deterred, either. When questioned, he admits to a certain sangfroid, but insists he’s not dispassionate. On the contrary: as a weekly columnist, a Princeton professor and author of numerous books that examine U.S. political leaders, policies, and institutions since the New Deal, he claims to be truly passionate about all things political.

So, what’s up with the cool demeanor? He attributes this to his scholar’s approach to politics that is firmly melded to his background as a committed Jew. “I grew up with rabbis all over the place,” Zelizer, 43, says of his upbringing. He is the only child of Gerald L. Zelizer, a fourth generation rabbi and, since 1970, spiritual leader of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, New Jersey. His mother, Viviana A. Zelizer, is the Lloyd Cotsen ’50 Professor of Sociology at Princeton.

“Not only is my father a rabbi, but my grandfather was a rabbi, and there are rabbis on my mother’s side, too,” Zelizer says. “I went to Solomon Schechter School until high school. I grew up embracing Jewish traditions. I studied the Talmud which teaches you to question life—to probe, to engage in dialogue to find the answers, to argue back and forth with others—all in an effort to explore the deeper meaning of things.”

When he participates in public political discourse—that sometimes erupt into conflagrations—he draws deeply from both his academic and religious trainings. “I won’t be labeled as either Democrat or Republican,” Zelizer says. “I won’t be pulled into that. I was once on Glenn Beck’s show. It was me and three other guests on screen—four talking heads. They were all talking about whether President Obama was a socialist. In fact, they were saying that he was a socialist, and pressing me when I disagreed. I made the point that Obama is a rather mainstream Democrat, a party that is far from socialist. But Beck was in full mode. It was definitely the biggest test I had to keep a level head in the middle of an interview that was somewhat strange and very polemical. But I just kept on point, to show that I consider all sides.”

Zelizer’s choice of a career in academia does not surprise his parents. “Julian grew up in an egalitarian home,” his father, Rabbi Zelizer says. “In our home we are committed to thinking, writing, and speaking. And yes, he’s chosen to become an academic like his mother, but he is also fulfilling what I envisioned for him, namely that he become a lay leader in his community. The Conservative Jewish movement is often accused of having insufficient laity committed to its vision of Judaism and halachic practice. Julian, in addition to being a noted scholar and public intellectual in the secular political arena, is an academic whose commitment to Judaism reflects his being one of those laity that we rabbis aspire to inspire. As his father, it is doubly exciting.”

There was never pressure on Julian to join the rabbinate, says his mother, or, for that matter, to follow in her footsteps by seeking a career as an academic. “It was not something we ever talked about at home,” Viviana Zelizer says. “It evolved. I always thought he’d become a judge someday,” she adds. The fact that both mother and son teach at Princeton is “a happy accident,” she says.

Princeton recruited Julian while he was teaching at Boston University. “I certainly never lobbied for Julian to join the faculty at Princeton,” his mother says. “I’m in the sociology department, and he’s a professor of history, two entirely different departments. It’s wonderful, really, because we are close as a family, and I get to spend time with his children, my grandchildren, and a special treat for me.”

Julian is married to Meg Jacobs, an associate professor of history at MIT, with whom he co-authored Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years, 1981-1989. It’s a second marriage for both, and between them they have four children, ages 8 to 11.

Gerald Zelizer credits his own father, the late Rabbi Nathan Zelizer, with influencing Julian in his political endeavors. “My father was a rabbi of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, for 42 years,” Gerald Zelizer says. “He emigrated from Poland to the United States at age 18. He took great interest in state and local politics. He chatted with Julian over long hours about politics and encouraged Julian’s immersion into history and public affairs.”

Julian remembers his late grandfather fondly as a “politics junky,” who often spent long hours watching the political talk shows on television. “The media has changed so much since then,” he says, “I’m quite certain that my grandfather would hardly recognize the media if he were alive today.”

I first met Julian some years ago, at Brandeis University’s swimming pool in suburban Boston, and we’ve stayed in contact over the years. While I would flounder around in the water and congratulate myself for remaining buoyant after a 20-minute splash, he’d be in an adjacent lane, steadfastly swimming laps. He’d swim for an hour, plowing through the water like a workhorse. It is this ethic he displays today and applies to teaching, research, and writing.

“Both my parents are rigorous, methodical people,” he says. “They taught me you solve problems through careful analysis, and to seek solutions that way. That’s what was noticeable in my swimming. I learned that you work at solving puzzled doggedly, with patience. That’s how I am. I don’t do sprints. I work at it, slowly.”

Growing up in his father’s synagogue taught him other kinds of discipline. “My father, as a rabbi of a large congregation, is also a manager,” he says. “A synagogue is a complicated place to run. You have to learn how to navigate, how to develop a thick skin, how to listen to others, and how to offer counsel. Being in a shul also made me feel comfortable with public speaking. At my bar mitzvah, there had to be 600 people in attendance. And I couldn’t have cared less about the size of the crowd. I began to develop a public speaking style by attending and leading services at the synagogue.”

He has taken this style to the public arena and to the Princeton classroom. “When I speak to students,” he says, “I feel I am very rabbinical in my approach. I do not deliver sermons, but I organize my lectures so that the information is balanced, the subject is explained, so students understand the give and take about the issues involved.”

What do his students think about his subject matter, about history and politics? “They attend my classes looking to understand the issues—what the deficit means, what’s the role of the president, how to understand healthcare vs. Obamacare,” he says. “They want to learn about government policies, how it affects people’s lives.”

For Eugene Hillsman, who completed his undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis and has been studying history at Princeton for the last three years, Julian is “incredibly supportive as a mentor and as a professor.”

“What makes Julian stand out,” Hillsman says, “is not only his grasp of history but his ability to weave it into the present. Princeton has a reputation of existing in an academic bubble. People think of it as an isolated place. Julian helps students to make a connection with the present and the past so that you feel that the lessons of history can be learned and given context within today’s world.”

Currently, Zelizer is at work on two books, one on the Great Society and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in spearheading the legislation. It will examine how Congress and the media functioned in the 1960s, enabling LBJ to make progress with his agenda. His other book is a history of American politics since the 1970s. He expects both to be published next year. And he continues a vigorous schedule of media appearances and writes weekly online commentary for CNN.

One of Zelizer’s colleagues at Princeton, Kevin Kruse, a professor of history, says he is astonished by Zelizer’s indefatigable work ethic. “I’m convinced Julian is not one man but several identical octuplets joined together in one body,” Kruse quips. “I’m not surprised to receive emails from him that he wrote at four in the morning. His mind is going all the time.” Kruse adds, “He’s emerged as a leader in American political history. … And he’s devoted to his students. He has attracted an impressive corps of graduate students to study here.”

Zelizer has found his métier as a scholar and teacher. But as a political commentator, he feels he’s bringing to the fray a calm and reasoned voice.

“When I meet people at airports during my travels,” he says, “they congratulate me for my approach to these televised talk show panels. I provide a perspective on history that brings with it a balanced approach to the issues. This is a voice that the media, which is very often noisy and distracting, really needs.”

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. He can be reached at This profile originally appeared in Religion and Politics, an online publication edited at Washington University in St. Louis.

Vistagy: Tech company that bootstrapped success

March 17, 2014
Steven Luby: "We started by solving a difficult problem no one else had tackled."

Steven Luby: “We started by solving a difficult problem no one else had tackled.”

By Robert Israel

When I interviewed Steven Luby, CEO of Vistagy, a Waltham, Massachusetts-based software development company a couple years ago, he used the word “bootstrapping” to describe the firm’s origins and slow and steady rise to success.

“Bootstrapping” is when a business is launched without the help of outside investors. It’s a risky undertaking. Many similar technology companies rely on venture capital funding. Vistagy did not. Luby started the company with his own savings and funded the company with the growth of the software. Over the years, that investment paid off — handsomely.

Initially, Luby called the company Composite Design Technologies. He soon changed the name to Vistagy, focusing on the fast-growing information needs of design engineers. The Vistagy product assists those who require specialized data that had heretofore been difficult to capture or access, effectively expanding the capacity of a computer-aided design (CAD) system.

“We started by solving a difficult problem that no one else had tackled,” Luby told me. “We also studied the barriers in composite design that might keep engineers from using our software and then designed it to be easy to use. Finally, we focused on supporting our customers and helping them to succeed.”

The company’s first application, FiberSIM, focused on the notoriously complex specialty of composite design. Composites are strong, lightweight, corrosion-resistant materials used to make highly engineered products in the aerospace, automotive, consumer products and marine industries. FiberSIM captures highly specialized design information about these composite materials, and offers engineers simulation and automation tools.

Initially working out of a cramped office in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the company very slowly, very purposefully, took on the challenges its felt it could handle, and found solutions that worked. They researched software licensing agreements. They ordered their own equipment. They acquired one customer at a time. They “bootstrapped” their way to success.

“Our customers kept coming back and making major commitment to our software,” Luby said. “And we started to grow bigger and bigger, exceeding our expectations. We’ve had many order in the half-million to one-million dollar range.”

Vistagy grew to include hundreds of installation sites of FiberSIM, with an impressive list of clients that include Sikorsky Aircraft, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Eurocopter, General Motors, Ferrari, and Porche.

“FiberSIM is so accepted now,” Luby said, “it’s like the Microsoft Office for composite engineers.”

A large percentage of Vistagy’s customer base is located outside the United States, in the Far East and Europe. It was this growth overseas that attracted the eye of Siemens AG, in Germany. Three years ago, Vistagy was sold to Siemens for an undisclosed amount.

FiberSIM is not the only product in the company’s repertoire. Vistagy has also licensed EnCapta software, which, like FiberSIM, tackles a difficult problem and breaks barriers for its customers, but this time for a broader market.

“A lot of emphasis in software development is placed on enterprise information sharing,” Luby said. “But these solutions tend to leave out the most important contributors, namely, the engineers, who have a huge information burden to communicate. Our software connect engineers to the enterprise so they can make better decisions and share information widely and more efficiently.”

The success the company has experienced has enabled the company in 2011 to donate ten FiberSIM composites engineering software licenses to the UMass Amherst College of Engineering.

“FiberSIM is clearly the number one composites engineering software so this donation by Vistagy an industry pioneer and leader, enhances our ability to conduct cutting edge research in composites manufacturing and will provide new knowledge in the research and educational programs for our students,” said Ted Djaferis, dean of the College of Engineering. “It will also enable our faculty and students to gain a greater understanding of the design process for highly complex engineering products, such as wind turbine blades, medical devices, and aerospace parts.”

Robert Israel can be reached at This report was updated from an earlier version that appeared in the Daily News Tribune.

Snowden and EFF: civil liberties or civil disobedience?

March 17, 2014
Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Alex Fowler: "We see the internet based on principles of democracy, human rights, and patriotic goals."

Alex Fowler: “We see the internet based on principles of democracy, human rights, and patriotic goals.”

By Robert Israel

While Russia’s aggressive militarism continues to dominate global headlines, there has been no news from that part of the world about the fate of Edward Snowden, a former U. S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who leaked large amounts of classified information about the NSA’s electronic surveillance programs. Since he has been granted asylum in Russia, we have to assume Snowden is continuing his efforts to release vital security information via the internet. The ongoing military conflicts in Russia presently overshadow his story which once dominated the headlines.

Some have labeled Snowden a hero for leaking the information, others a traitor. And there are still others who, whether they agree with his tactics or not, are championing what they affirm are civil liberties issues, namely the release of classified information into the public domain.

One such group is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), based in San Francisco.

EFF states its mission is “defending civil liberties in the digital world.” They made headlines long before Edward Snowden. In the 1990s, they applied their resources to “crack,” or decipher, an encryption code employed by the U.S. government and other public and private agencies meant to protect unclassified communications and data. EFF seeks to “defend free speech online, fight illegal surveillance, advocate for users and innovators, and support freedom-enhancing technologies.”

Deciphering codes dates back to Roman times. Julius Caesar used secret codes relayed to his troops during military campaigns. Messages were delivered to the troops, a corresponding “key” was used, and the message was translated. During World War II, a pioneering British cryptographer Alan Turing — one of the inventors of the digital computer — cracked the famous “Enigma” code used by the Nazis to send secret orders to their army and navy. Only recently did the British government acknowledge Turing’s historic efforts that hastened the war’s end; they issued an apology for having persecuted him for being a homosexual. He committed suicide during the aftermath of WWII.

In 1998, EFF “cracked” an encryption code by developing the “EFF Cracker,” a machine, much like the one Alan Turing used, to break the Data Encryption Standard (DES). EFF later published a book on their efforts, Cracking DES: Secrets of Encryption Research, Wiretap Politics and Chip Design.

“Producing a workable policy for encryption has proven a very hard political challenge,” said John Gilmore, one of EFF’s founders, at the time. “We believe that it will only be possible to craft good policies if all the players are honest with one another and the public. When the government won’t reveal relevant facts, the private sector must independently conduct the research and publish the results so we can all see the social trade-offs in policy choices.”

In 1998, however, the U.S. Justice Department downplayed the EFF “Cracker,” stating that the organization’s call for a stronger encryption law would only be supported if it were proven there was evidence of a machine that could decrypt secret messages sent by government enemies.

Had the U.S. government had the foresight to see what might ensue many years later when Edward Snowden did just that with highly classified documents, they might have changed their tune — and policies.

“We are not a cyber-militia, and we do not see ourselves as subversive,” declared Alex Fowler, who, at the time, was employed by EFF as their director of public affairs. When I interviewed him several years ago, Fowler insisted EFF was as American as cherry pie.

“We see the internet based on principles of democracy, human rights and patriotic goals,” Fowler told me. “We believe in the online environment. But the fact of the matter is the DES encryption is not secure. If EFF is able to expose this by using a machine that costs $220,000 to build, what about can an enemy who has unlimited resources accomplish?”

The Data Encryption Standard was first adopted as a federal standard in 1977 by IBM and modified by the National Security Agency, the very agency that employed Edward Snowden as a contractor. It used 56-bit keys. A user must employ precisely the right combination of 56 1s and 0s to decode information correctly.

The EFF “Cracker” read encrypted messages by finding the key that was used to encrypt the data. The design, Fowler told me, consists of an ordinary personal computer connected to a large array of custom chips.

“By using the ‘Cracker,'” Fowler said, “we are placing a wake-up call to the federal government that agencies using the 56-bit encryption code are running a risk of having that information compromised.”

That’s exactly what Edward Snowden did when he sat down in front of his own computer and released information via the information highway. He has claimed to possess additional documents that he may release soon. Snowden, like EFF, call themselves “Net-izens,” or pioneering internet citizens who use the World Wide Web to access and to release freedom of information.

Alex Fowler, who has since left EFF for a career with the ACLU, said in the late 1990s that he was bursting with high ideals and that by “cracking” the code he had hoped the U.S. government would engage in discussions so that they and watchdog agencies like EFF could work together to achieve more transparency.

We need only to look at the Snowden affair, still cloaked in secrecy and high intrigue, to realize that the dialog Fowler and others envisaged seems to be on hold — indefinitely.

Robert Israel can be reached at This report was updated from an earlier version that was published in AltaVista MarketSpace magazine (Maynard, Mass.)