Archive for May, 2010

A floating circus

I got an email from my adoring mother earlier today urging me to write a piece for the Jerusalem Post or the New York Times or SOME newspaper, putting the latest Middle East circus—in this case, the Gaza-bound “freedom flotilla”—into perspective.

While I’m touched at her confidence in my erudition, and the fact that she thinks someone might actually publish a political piece by an unknown 40-something mom whose main qualification for the job is that she’s read lots of books, lives here, reads the paper, and has her head screwed on right, I probably won’t follow her suggestion.  There are plenty of people much better qualified than I to write for the Post (and already have, actually—there was a very good editorial called “Sailing for Hamas” in last Friday’s Post).  And besides, for now at least, my forum is really here at Shimshonit.com.

But if perspective is required in this situation, I will do my best to provide it.

To begin with, a number of questions should be asked about this incident:

  • Who organized and carried out the flotilla?
  • What goods were they attempting to deliver?
  • What was their purpose?
  • Why is there a blockade of Gaza?
  • Is the Israeli blockade of Gaza legal?
  • Are Gazans denied basic goods and services as a result of the blockade?

Once the facts are established about this incident, perspective should be easily arrived at.

The answers to the questions as I’ve been able to find them are the following:

It seems the organizers of the flotilla, rather than being peace activists and Western kumbaya-singers, are the IHH, a Turkish “humanitarian” organization that sometimes funnels humanitarian relief to “areas of war and conflict,” and in addition has close ties to Islamist terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Hamas.  (Support for this definition can be found here and here.)  In other words, Bono and Bianca Jagger are not on board.  Before the flotilla set sail, the family of Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped nearly four years ago and held by Hamas since, contacted the organizers and asked them to deliver packages from the family to their son.  The refusal of the organizers to accept anything meant for Schalit only reinforces the suspicions one should have of this group’s true “humanitarian” mission.

The Israeli Navy, on boarding the ships, discovered that the cargo these “humanitarians” were carrying included known arms smugglers and weapons.  Their outward purpose was to aid Gazans, but their true purpose was to carry out a violent confrontation with the Israeli Navy.  Hours before they were due to meet on the high seas, the Israelis contacted the ships’ crews, offering to deliver any humanitarian goods through normal channels, including regular land convoys into Gaza from Israel.  They were refused.  The “activists” were correct in guessing that arms and explosives do not count as “humanitarian” goods in Israel’s book.

The purpose of this circus?  To stage a dramatic but pointless exercise in order to garner attention as part of the media war being waged against Israel by Islamists and their sympathizers.  (Indeed, Ismail Haniyeh said before the mission set sail, “If the ships reach Gaza, it is a victory; if they are intercepted, it will be a victory too.”)  No friends of Hamas could seriously imagine successfully delivering a shipment of “supplies” (much less weapons) through the blockade without facing a showdown with the Israeli Navy.  Such a mission was totally unnecessary, except as a publicity stunt.  And I would say that it will probably prove successful as such, given that few who read the news are going to get the whole story or ask too many questions, and instead will walk away with the image in their minds of a bunch of GI Yossi’s being lowered from helicopters onto the ships with (if you believe the accounts of Al Jazeera and the Turks) guns blazing.  (What actually happened, according to the film footage and the accounts of the Israeli sailors who boarded the boats, was closer to what happened to the Israelis in Ramallah in 2000, with “activists” assaulting Israeli seamen with knives, metal pipes, firebombs, and other implements.  Attacks can be seen on film here and here.)

Why is there a blockade of Gaza in the first place?  Because Gaza is currently governed by a terrorist organization, Hamas, which is recognized as such by most of the civilized countries in the world, and whose charter states one of its primary goals as that of destroying Israel.  It orchestrated a bloody coup (meaning nearly 250 Hamas and Fatah party members were killed, and 98 civilians, including 7 children) to oust democratically elected Fatah representatives from Gaza and establish an Islamist, terrorist government against the will of its own electorate.  This led to an increase in the number of mortars fired across the border into Israel (almost daily, and sometimes several a day), terrorizing Israeli civilians in farms and cities located near Gaza.  Hamas has shown no interest in participating in the peace process, it has held an Israeli soldier for nearly four years without allowing the International Red Cross any access to him (in violation of international law), and has continued to arm itself in preparation for future conflicts with Israel.  While Israel does allow medical supplies and food into the Strip, it is sparing in the amount of construction materials it allows, since those can be used to build bunkers and explosives which are naturally intended for Hamas’s dedicated harassment and terror war against Israel.

Israel’s blockade of Gaza, isolating a terrorist organization openly bent on destroying it, is perfectly legal in every way.  The argument of collective punishment falls flat when coming from nations who accept the validity of sanctions against other rogue governments, especially when those governments were not elected through any democratic process whatsoever, and even more when those critics live next to other peaceable nations.  If Hamas and the people of Gaza were interested in building a nation for themselves, and were willing to renounce violence and terror, Israel would be the first nation to offer to give them assistance.  But alas, this seems unlikely at this time.

Gazans receive regular supplies from Israel necessary for their survival under the neglectful governance of Hamas.  This was provided even during Operation Cast Lead, when a cease-fire was called on a daily basis to allow convoys of trucks to enter the Strip to ease the suffering of the Arabs there.  It is true that Gazans are not thriving as well as they might be under the governance of a more civic-oriented government.  This is unfortunate, but it is not Israel’s fault.  By withdrawing all military presence and uprooting 8000 of its own citizens, Israel attempted to give the Arabs a fresh start in a (judenrein) state of their own.  Through their own ignorance and monomaniacal hatred of Israel, they chose to elect a ruthless cadre of despots whose violence toward those of the other political party, stranglehold of the press, servitude to the agenda of an sponsor state dedicated to worldwide terror (Iran), and appalling neglect of its own citizens make it one of the worst possible regimes to have taken hold of what might have been a free and independent Palestinian State.  The primary responsibility for the welfare of the citizens of Gaza lies with Hamas, not Israel.

I’m not sure what other perspective is needed here.  Those who will cry foul at the boarding and diverting of this flotilla of felons will either be those who have not bothered to ask the questions above, or to seek out the answers beyond the exciting images and scanty articles (with few facts and no background) put out by a similarly ignorant and hostile press.  Those who try hard to rally around Israel, especially in its defense, will—unless they inform themselves—find themselves backing into a corner and stammering rather than making a strong and simple case for Israel.  In a nutshell, those who organized this act of piracy and those who (ignorantly or with full knowledge of the group’s intentions) support them, are supporters of terrorism, are against peace between Israel and the Arabs, and care no more about the civilians of Gaza than its own government.  Those who view the fracas as a cheap media stunt and an unlawful act against a sovereign nation are the true humanitarians here—people who believe in the rule of law, in the right of nations to secure borders, and in peace.

"Humanitarian aid worker" brandishes the Dagger of Peace

Additional details about the day’s events can also be found on The Muqata blog.  And the Jewish Federation of North America has compiled a number of facts (reproduced below) relating to the incident and disseminated them via email.  (Perhaps they’ll even get around to putting them on their website.)  The facts themselves are informative (such as the fact that what was on the boats was only about 2/3 of what Israel itself sends the Gazans on a weekly basis; was it worth it?), but what I find particularly striking is the warning by the National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau to Israelis in Turkey to stay inside their hotel rooms and homes and avoid public places and areas where demonstrations are taking place.  While I’m sure this is sound advice, it does put me in mind of the practice of Jews in Europe in the Middle Ages to confine themselves to their houses on Christmas and Easter to avoid becoming the unfortunate victims of Yule- or Eastertide lynching parties.  (Ah, the bad old days.)


As many of you may be aware, a major confrontation took place off Israel’s coast earlier today. We wanted to bring you the most up-to-date information from JFNA’s Israel office, for your background. We have summarized the major points below. This is followed by additional facts and links to other important materials on this incident.

  • Early this morning (May 31), Israel Defense Forces naval forces intercepted six ships attempting to break the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
  • The intercept took place after numerous warnings from Israel and the Israel Navy that were issued prior to the action. The Israel Navy requested the ships to redirect toward Ashdod, where they would be able to unload their cargo which would then be transferred to Gaza over land after undergoing security inspections. The IDF stressed that the passengers could then return to their point of departure on the same vessels.
  • During the interception of the ships, the demonstrators onboard attacked the IDF naval personnel with live gunfire as well as light weaponry including knives, crowbars and clubs. The demonstrators had clearly prepared weapons in advance for this specific purpose.
  • According to reports from sea, on board the flotilla that was seeking to break the maritime closure on the Gaza Strip, IDF forces apprehended two violent activists holding pistols. These militants apparently grabbed the pistols from IDF forces and opened fire on the soldiers.
  • The activists were carrying 10,000 tons of reported aid to Gaza. Israel provides 15,000 tons of aid weekly to Gaza.
  • As a result of this life-threatening activity, naval forces employed riot dispersal means, including, when they determined that their lives were in immediate danger, live fire. According to initial reports, these events resulted in over 10 deaths among the demonstrators and numerous injured.
  • A number of Israeli naval personnel were injured, some from gunfire and others from knives and crowbars. Two of the soldiers are moderately wounded and the remainder sustained light injuries.
  • All of the injured, Israelis and foreigners, are currently being evacuated by a fleet of IDF helicopters to hospitals in Israel.
  • Reports from IDF forces on the scene are that some of the participants onboard the ships had planned a lynch-mob attack, using lethal force on the boarding forces.
  • The events are still unfolding. Israeli Naval commander, Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom is overseeing the activities.
  • In the coming hours, the ships will be directed to the Ashdod port, while IDF naval forces will perform security checks in order to identify the people on board the ships and their equipment.
  • The IDF naval operation was carried out under orders from the political leadership to halt the flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip and breaching the naval blockade.

Other important facts:

  • The provocateurs were organized by an Islamist organization that has links to fundamentalist jihadi groups.
  • The extremists brought small children on board knowing that they intended to violate international maritime law.
  • The activists were carrying 10,000 tons of what they said was aid. Israel transfers about 15,000 tons of supplies and humanitarian aid every week to the people of Gaza.
  • “We fully intend to go to Gaza regardless of any intimidation or threats of violence against us, they are going to have to forcefully stop us,” said one of the flotilla’s organizers.
  • Using the Arabic term ‘intifada,’ Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said “We call on all Arabs and Muslims to rise up in front of Zionist embassies across the whole world.
  • Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said this week: “If the ships reach Gaza it is a victory; if they are intercepted, it will be a victory too.
  • Israel left Gaza in hopes of peace in 2005 and in return received more than 10,000 rockets and terrorist attacks.
  • Israel has said that it will deliver any humanitarian aid to Gaza, as it does daily.
  • No country would allow illegal entry of any vessel into their waters without a security check.
  • Earlier this week, Noam Shalit, father of Hamas-held Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, approached the flotilla’s organizers asking them to take supplies to Gilad. He was refused.

Here are additional resources for further background on this issue:

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Danny Ayalon’s press conference on the flotilla incident:


Israel Goes on High Alert in the Wake of Flotilla Incident:


IDF Met with Pre-Planned Violence When Boarding Ship:



Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s Statement: Activists Had Weapons:


Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement about the humanitarian situation in Gaza:


MFA legal expert Sarah Weiss Maudi explains why the flotilla was not allowed to dock at Gaza:


Legal Backgrounder on maritime law and other related issues, from MFA:


A fascinating Al-Jazeera report on the flotilla before they left that offers insight into who was on board. One says: “We are now waiting for one of two good things — either to achieve martyrdom or to reach Gaza:”


Video of a “peace activist” stabbing an Israeli soldier as he boards the boat:


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Expresses Full Backing for the IDF:

Prime Minister Netanyahu today spoke by telephone with the relevant security ministers and officials, and was updated on the action and subsequent developments.  In his discussions with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Minister Moshe Yaalon, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi and ISA Director Yuval Diskin, the Prime Minister issued security, diplomatic and information directives, reiterated his full backing for the IDF and inquired about the well-being of the wounded.

The National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau (NSCCTB) has released the following statement:

“In response to the events surrounding the protest flotilla, there are growing protests by the government and public in Turkey.  At this stage, relatively quiet demonstrations are taking place around the Israeli Consulate General in Istanbul and the Israeli Embassy in Ankara.  This delicate state of affairs is liable to deteriorate into violent outbreaks against Israelis in Turkey.

The NSCCTB’s recommendations are as follows:

Israelis due to leave for Turkey should – at this stage – refrain from travelling until the situation becomes clear.

Israelis currently in Turkey should remain in their places of residence, avoid city centers and sites in which demonstrations are being held, and monitor developments out of concern that the situation could worsen.

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Some months ago I posted on my thoughts about the origins of anti-Semitism.  Since then, though, in conversation with others and my own thinking, I have reached the conclusion that modern anti-Semitism is much broader-based.  Where once it was spawned by fanatical Christians and Muslims, nowadays it’s embraced by secular people.  Where it was once the province of fascists and ultra-conservatives, nowadays the Left spouts it as much as anyone.  I concede that my post was woefully inadequate to describe the full force and pervasiveness of it.

Recently, a friend of mine (thanks, Yair) posted a link to Christopher Hitchens’s speech at the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA on 3 March 2010.  I found it fascinating, and wanted to share some of it on the blog.  (The lecture can be found here, the Q & A session here, and a mostly accurate transcript here.)

Hitchens’s Wiki page labels him an “author, journalist, activist, [and] pundit.”  He’s been labeled a neo-conservative by some critics, while Forbes magazine listed him in 2009 as one of the “25 most influential liberals in the US media.”  Reading how comfortable he can be on either end of the spectrum (though rather than a conservative I might call him instead a non-politically correct libertarian, if that’s not already redundant), he seems to me to call things what they are, and to be more moved by facts than emotions or dogma.

Addressing the nature of anti-Semitism, and whether it ever really disappears, Hitchens says,

[N]o one who pays any attention to the news from the Muslim ghettoes in Europe to the proclamations in the Middle East to the pronouncements of the Russian Orthodox Church, now the black cowled bodyguard of Putin’s new Russian nationalist authoritarianism (Question: Is Russian nationalist authoritarianism ever good for the Jews?) to Ratzinger himself, now Pope, restoring to the ranks the formerly excommunicated members of the Society of Pope Pius—the anti-Semites, the Holocaust deniers, the people who believe that the Church should never have said that Jews were not collectively responsible for the murder of Christ—it’s all coming back and needs to be confronted.  … This plague is very Protean, and very durable and very volatile.  It occurs in all ages and in practically all societies; the only one I know where the Jewish people have not been persecuted is India.  [Although a friend just informed me that the Portuguese Inquisition followed the Jews to Goa, so there goes that exception.  —S]  Just when you think it’s been eradicated, up it pops again; it surges.  It’s exploded with or without the State of Israel, with or without Zionism, with or without finance—capitalism—for which Jews were blamed, and with or without communism, for which amazingly Jews were simultaneously blamed; and, of course, in parts of Poland and elsewhere, with or without any Jews at all, there were outbreaks of pernicious anti-Semitism.

In answer to the question, Is monotheism anti-Semitic, he answers,

Yes, at least two-thirds of it is, more or less by definition.  In numbers, that means a lot of people.  The two that are plagiarized from Judaism—from the worst bits of Judaism, I would add.  Why do I say this?  Because any real Christian, any seriously believing Christian would give everything he owned to have a personal meeting with Jesus of Nazareth.  Nothing more could be desired than that moment.  They yearn for it; they thirst for it; they hunger for it.  No serious Muslim could want anything more than to have met himself the messenger of God, the prophet Mohammed.  But there were no Ukrainians around at that time; there were no Poles at the crucifixion; there were no Irish people in Mecca or Medina.  There’s only one people that’s still around that met both these imposters and said, “No.  No sale.  Don’t believe it.”  Do you think that’s ever going to be forgiven?  Of course it’s not.  Of course it’ll never be forgiven.  They saw Jesus of Nazareth and they spat in his face.  They saw the prophet Mohammed and they said, “This guy is just a warlord.”  Of Jesus they said, “He’s just a crackpot rabbi,” and also great blasphemer.  Maimonides says, in one of his sharper passages, “The sages never did a better thing than when they got rid of that rabble-rousing imposter.”  Well, it makes you proud, I hope.  You shouldn’t want to be forgiven for getting a thing like that right.

Answering a question from a member of the audience about whether Hitchens thinks the American Left views the Middle East as the host of the latest Civil Rights movement, Hitchens agrees that that plays a role in the Left’s anti-Zionism, but takes it a step further (and vindicates some of my irritation with underinformed commenters on this blog).

What’s happened with a lot of the Left is that they genuinely think that Islamic jihadism is a movement of brown-skinned disempowered people who’ve had a hard time.  If they’re against the United States empire, they must be doing something right.   And most of these people are fantastically ignorant; they know nothing about it; they’ve cared nothing at all to inform themselves.   So if you say to them, “Actually, Al-Qaeda begins in India-Pakistan as an attempt to destroy the brown-skinned, multi-ethnic democracy of India by wrenching Kashmir out of the Indian State and starting a civil war, that it makes war on the other Asian democracies of the Philippines, Indonesia, in all cases trying to build a separate, ultra-fundamentalist Muslim state,” they don’t know that at all.  They just feel it must be owed something and in several cases, including my old publisher, New Left Books, explicit texts have been produced, saying that since the world proletariat turned out to be a bit of a disappointment—it never did what we asked of it—at least now there is an alternative source of power, a mass disenfranchised movement of resentment against it.

Hitchens closes with an incisive observation about the role Jews play in the world, and the meaning of anti-Semitism for all societies:

Now, if I had to pick any one special trait of Judaism or the Jewish personality or character, I think I would pick irony. No other religion has a prophet like Maimonides who says, “Yes, the Messiah will come, but he may tarry.” Though no Woody Allen, theologians and Christianity say things like that. For all the fetishization in Judaism of unleavened bread, the Jewish people have in fact been the yeast in enormous number of societies and countries, the leaven in the lump. Benny Morris’s new book on the origins of the Israeli-Palestine crisis quotes one of the Mufti’s people writing from the Imam’s headquarters in Jerusalem to the British saying, “You can’t be bringing Jews to this country. They’re all subversives. It’s nothing but trouble.” Again, take compliments where you can get them. So natural disturbance of the natural order. Everything was fine, every peasant knew to expect only one meal a day, everyone knew who owned what and where, everyone obeyed the priests and the mullahs, but now look. These scrofulous trouble makers from Poland and Latvia.

Rabbi Tarfon was a great hater of Christians and had an even greater hatred of Jewish heretics, and I’ve always thought it’s wonderful that the Jewish word for heretic is Apikoros, follower of Epicurus and student of Greek. That’s a nice way to be called a heretic. Anyway, I’m not a great admirer of Rabbi Tarfon, but he had it right when he said… “You are not obliged to complete the task, but neither are you free to give it up or to evade it.” To be Jewish is to be involved in a continual struggle, a continual test, to be at continual risk, to be always aware of anxiety and danger and angst, just as there could be despite the best efforts of its enemies no Final Solution to the so-called Jewish problem, or Jewish question, in Europe. So one has to say there’s no ultimate security or salvation for the Jewish people or any other. More and more, for example, to me Israel begins to resemble a part of the Diaspora, not a solution to it or an alternative to it, just another place where a large number of Jewish people live in great insecurity and constant doubt. Jews will always continue to be identified as malcontents, doubters, unsound, cosmopolitan, and yes, if you like, ruthless.

And I’ll close by saying this. Because anti-Semitism is the godfather of racism and the gateway to tyranny and fascism and war, it is to be regarded not as the enemy of the Jewish people, but as the common enemy of humanity and of civilization and has to be fought against very tenaciously for that reason, most especially in its current, most virulent form of Islamic jihad. Daniel Pearl’s revolting murderer was educated at the London School of Economics. Our Christmas bomber over Detroit was from a neighboring London college, the chair of the Islamic Students’ Society. Many pogroms against Jewish people have been reported from all over Europe today as I’m talking, and we can only expect this to get worse, and we must make sure our own defenses are not neglected. Our task is to call this filthy thing, this plague, this pest, by its right name, to make unceasing resistance to it, knowing all the time that it’s probably ultimately ineradicable, and bearing in mind that its hatred towards us is a compliment and resolving some of the time at any rate to do a bit more to deserve it. Thank you.

There is much more good stuff in Hitchens’s lecture.  His identification with the Jews, despite not embracing its theology (he’s an atheist), is because of the Jews’ tradition of questioning, their opposition to fatalism and stubborn unwillingness to accept tyranny, poverty, ignorance, and injustice in the world, and their constant efforts to further the progress, knowledge, and condition of mankind.  I may not admire everything he has done in his career, but I’m with him on these points.

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The following is a guest post by my friend, B., another Orthodox convert who lives in the US and recently stopped covering her hair.  It’s something with which I’ve grappled for much of my married life, both in the US and in Israel (and posted on here).  But I asked B. to let me post her thoughts on my blog because she goes into the subject in much more detail, addressing every aspect of her life affected by the choice to cover or uncover her hair.  Thank you, B.

She sits with her chavrusa at Starbucks. He walks over, the father of a child in her son’s class. They’ve chatted any number of times in the last three years. But today he merely glances at her, starts up a conversation with the chavrusa, then turns to her and offers his hand. “Hi, I’m R—,” he says. “Uh, yeah,” she says. “Hi, R—.” Puzzled, he withdraws his hand, continues chatting with the chavrusa for a few more moments, throwing her sidelong glances. Still confused, he says goodbye and wanders off.

She realizes, and a few days later confirms — he hadn’t recognized her. “Holy crap,” she thinks. “He’s never seen me. He’s only ever seen my hat.”

I was somewhat surprised when a friend posted her thoughts about uncovering her hair [Not me, by the way.  —Shimshonit], since I myself had been thinking along the same lines for a while. Folks who know I usually get a crew cut (or a Chelsea ) for the summer will know that last summer, when I let my hair grow (and grow, and grow), it was different. It’s now back nearly to the length—and color—it was when I married. The length and color of my sheitel.

She pushes her carriage around the bakery section at Shop & Shop. T— from shul stops next to her, glances at her, and picks up a loaf of specialty bread. “Hi, T—,” she says. T— looks up, startled. “Um? Oh —“ her eyes widening. “B.! I — I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you. Um… new haircut? Oh wait, I don’t think I’ve ever seen your hair before…”

The first question was of course a halachic one. Or two. (1) Is it halachically required for a married woman to cover her hair? (2) Is it halachically permissible for a married woman to un-cover her hair?

Now, when I have a halachic question, I first think, “Ask a rabbi.” But this is not an ask-the-rabbi question, because I no longer have any faith in the rabbeim and their ability to provide real answers to questions like this. Is this stain a tamei color, so that I’m in niddah? No problem. Is my pot treif? No problem. But a question like this is so colored by politics, by considerations not only of what the halacha is or what is best for me as a Jew (i.e. pastoral considerations), but by what other rabbeim will think of this one, should he provide a lenient answer, that I cannot trust him, or any “him” I know of. I don’t need to suggest a cynical “afraid to buck his peers” attitude here — every one of these rabbis has signed a teudat gerut or a get. In the current Hareidi-dominated Orthodox Judaism, his liberal answer on my hair could jeopardize someone’s status as a Jew, could create mamzerim.

So I turn to the literature. Again, no Orthodox rabbi will give a definitive liberal opinion in print, but there are numerous survey papers discussing — academically, of course — the halachic status of women’s hair covering. From my reading — see here and here — it seems fair to say that women’s haircovering is daat Yehudit (Jewish customary law, which can flex with changing situations and customs) rather than daat Moshe (immutable Torah law). It may be that the Torah requires a woman to braid or gather her hair. There is considerable discussion about what exactly the language in the sotah passage means. There is also considerable discussion acknowledging that at this point in the history of civilization, anyone who argues that a woman must cover her hair because of lifnei ever — lest she tempt a man — has to know that he comes across like a total idiot. Tznius is likewise a weak concept here: bare hair is ervah only on a married woman. It is true that we have two established legal concepts — not swerving to the right or left of Torah authorities, and that custom has the force of law. As to the first concept, I cannot at this point name a trustworthy Torah authority currently living, alas for us. Our shul rabbi, responding to a different question, once told me that if a rabbi holds thus-and-such opinion (which in my mind was a reasonably arguable position) then he had misused his learning to reason inappropriately and was not to be considered Orthodox. Oh. OK. For the second legal concept, we can then say that the vanguard of custom-changers have then broken the law, but eventually enough folks follow the new behavior in spite of the law to create a new custom. I do not have even an inkling of how minhag and halacha interplay under those circumstances. I have heard the argument that the behavior of those Modern Orthodox and those to their left can’t count for changing custom because the women involved are not Torah-observant, but when push comes to shove, “not Torah-observant” seems to be defined as “they don’t cover their hair,” though in one instance I was told that so-and-so doesn’t count as someone who keeps kosher because she uses chalav stam.

It seems to me that a woman who marries and decides not to cover her hair is in a strong position to justify her behavior.  For a woman who has covered her hair and wishes no longer to do so, there are two additional issues: has she gone down in kedusha (not permitted!) by uncovering her hair? And if it is permitted, need she do hatarat nedarim?

In the first case, I can give only my personal answer, which is that I do not see sufficient value in covered hair as a marker of kedusha to say that uncovering it is a descent. If it is a descent, it’s for the sake of ascent: covering my hair has for a number of reasons made me increasingly uncomfortable as a Jew and as a person. Physically, my hot, itching head is unbearable, particularly if I don’t have full faith that it’s actually required by G-d, and psychologically, the thoughts of why it’s covered and what that means are disturbing.

As to the hatarat nedarim issue, I suspect that a woman deciding to stop covering her hair does need to do it. But practically speaking, I am not sure in what context I could pull together a bet din for this — see my above comment regarding my sense that I cannot get reliable advice from a rabbi on the issue of hair covering.

I covered my hair in the first place because it was presented to me as the halacha, though I was never taught it as such by the rabbi who handled my conversion, nor was it specifically mentioned by the woman who did my taharat hamishpacha “class.” It was just… expected. And the bet din, while it never put a hat on me as a formal requirement, asked about it so many times that I had to see it as part of the “contract,” as it were. That said, I have heard of two other and more recent converts through that same bet din who were explicitly excused from agreeing to cover their hair as a condition of conversion, and know two others who said that the bet din never asked about it.

As I learned more even before marriage I had serious doubts that it was the halacha that a woman must cover her hair — too many of my Orthodox friends insisted that it was not, too many observant older women didn’t, and in both cases some could even justify their behavior. (“That’s ridiculous,” one said to me. “The Rav’s wife didn’t cover her hair!”) But that’s the freedom of a born Jew. One reason I covered my hair was that I didn’t want anyone pointing to it and questioning my sincerity. Over the past few years that sense has changed as well, because I now realize that there will be some portion of the Jewish community that will point at anything, anything, to reject someone’s status as a Jew. My bare head is only one of many things that could be used against me — and yet, I insist that I am a Torah-observant Jew. Just not their “Torah.”

A final quasi-halachic issue is that because bareheadedness is a characteristic of a single woman, a married woman who bares her head is identifying herself as available, which is fraud and transgresses on the kedusha of her marriage. This is related to the argument that her hair is reserved for her husband alone, something special between them, as if the space from collarbone to knee weren’t enough. These all refer to an untrue social context. (As to the question of the kedusha of my marriage, I have discussed the matter with my husband, and he’s OK with it, does not feel that I’m advertising myself as available when I’m not.)

She heads into the shul building, suddenly conscious that she is bare-headed. Rummaging through her bag, she realizes that the black cotton beret that was more and more often in the bag rather than on her head is missing. She glances at the time, considers. This is really the only chance she’d have to jot down notes for the bathroom renovation project. There isn’t time to run home for a hat, as she needs to go be menachem avel this afternoon as well. She thinks of all the frum women she knows who wear a hat for services but enter the building bareheaded for other activities. “Oh, well,” she thinks. “It was going to happen eventually.”
Inside, the Torah Academy girls look her over. Long skirt, dull-colored sweater, bare head. Two sheiteled teachers glance her way. One is a friend: C. lent her wedding dress, C. has rebuked her for swimming at the same time as men, C. has suggested that she teach at the Bais Yaakov. Now C. glances up, and back down at her papers. The other teacher approaches, talks to her. Now C. looks up again, startled. “Oh! B.? B.! Um. Oh.” Staring. Looking away.

In the frum community a married woman’s wearing a hat indicates her belonging, her commitment to halacha and trustworthiness in areas as diverse as “Can I eat in her kitchen?”, “Should I give her the frum discount?” and “Is my kid OK with her?” Oh, and it indicates her married status. If I want to fit in with the frum community I have to cover my hair.

Beyond that, the current state of affairs in the right-wing Orthodox world that is increasingly the Jewish world is that some day my children may find their marriage prospects stymied by a negative answer to “Does your mom cover her hair?” It may even influence what yeshiva they can study at. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that a negative answer to that might lead to their being written out of the Jewish community entirely if the Hareidim have their way. (“Oh, your mom didn’t cover her hair, starting fourteen years after her conversion? Um, well, then you need gerus l’chumra.”)
As I thought about doffing my hat — and as I indicated above, I’ve been growing my hair back since last summer because of this thought process — I asked around. Friends who cover their hair, and those who don’t: Why (not)? The answers? “I never learned it as halacha; I only do it because of peer pressure.” “If I want people to eat in my house I have to cover my hair, otherwise they assume I don’t keep kosher or Shabbat.” Among those who don’t cover: “It’s not the halacha,” “It’s uncomfortable, and it’s not required,” “My mother didn’t, and she was frummer than most of the women who do!”

Community sets the standard. Who is my community? If “the Jewish women in my geographic area” — i.e. standard Shabbat-invitation distance — then the majority don’t cover their hair. How about “frum women in my geographic area”? Well, except that “frum” tends to get defined by clothing, so it’s circular. How about “women in my geographic area at whose houses I would eat”? Now we’re at about 60 covered / 40 uncovered. Refine it more: “women in my geographic area at whose house I would eat and who would eat at my house (removing the issue of haircovering).” Because community is defined by food exchange, at least in my book (and with the exception of chalav yisrael, which I think is evil — and I don’t mean that rhetorically — I’ll bend over backwards to make it possible for someone to eat in my house). Among those who participate in reciprocal social relations with me it’s 30 covered / 70 uncovered. That ratio doesn’t change much if I instead define my community as “women whose observance level over a broad range of mitzvot is similar to mine” (40 covered / 60 uncovered) or a more restrictive “women whom I admire qua Jews” (10 covered / 90 uncovered. Sadly). On that last, I do have to say that between the behavior and attitudes I’ve personally seen or heard expressed, and the neverending dishonor roll of Orthodox “leaders” in the news, I don’t want to be associated with the frum community. My favorite phrase this year is “tumat ha-goyyim.” But I digress.

She turns off the hair dryer. “Hi, S, you always seem to be arriving just as I’m leaving.” S. asks whether the pool was crowded when she left. She brushes her hair, ties up the ponytail, and heads out of the locker room. “No hat?” S calls after her. “No, I’ve stopped covering my head. Well, mostly,” she replies. “Yeah,” S responds. “I lasted about two years after I got married. It’s too uncomfortable, and it’s not the way I was brought up.”

Talking about my Shabbat community, though, is simplistic. I’m a member of many (Jewish) communities and I have to consider the impact a change in behavior will make on my standing in each community. In shul, the people I actually care about don’t cover their hair themselves, and won’t care if I stop. There are of course some busybodies, some of whom don’t themselves cover their hair, who will be nasty, but they’re nasty about everything. In the broader frum community, I expect that a few women I consider actual friends will be distressed by the change and will stop considering me a real (frum) Jew. The biggest concern is at my son’s school, not only because at least one man has never noticed me except as a hat moving along five feet from the ground for the last three years, but because in a school that touts its pluralism and that is one-third Orthodox, I’m one of the very few women who cover their hair. I don’t want to be anyone’s poster child, but if I have to be, I’d rather be the poster child for “See? We even have women who cover their hair here” than for “She sent her child here and now she’s frei’d out.” And regardless of the community in question, people get very uncomfortable when someone changes a behavior. If I am unreliable in this, what else has changed? What else may change?

The woman with the South African accent but who actually turns out to be from London sighs. “I wear a sheitel because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” the woman said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s halacha or not, it’s what Jewish women do. If they care about Torah.”
Later in the conversation she says, “You realize it’s a slippery slope. You send your kids to a public school, then you’re thinking it’s OK to be swimming co-ed, now you’re talking about your hair. Next it’ll be women reading from the Torah and after that, McDonalds.”
She shifts uncomfortably, feeling naked. Well, she is. It started as a quick, friendly question following a friendly compliment on the lost weight, on the long hair. It was an attempt for a bit of international perspective. Now she wonders if she’ll be shunned on the playground. More than she is already, with her plaid-shirted, colorful shrugie-kippahed boys, with her bare toes sticking out of her Tevas beneath her ankle-length skirt. She starts to answer, shrugs, heads down the stairs. “Kosher!” “Kosher!” “Kosher!” says the not-South African woman.

Moving inward, the next question is, what does my husband think about this. “It’s your head,” he says, but it’s more than that. Within certain contexts, my bare head suggests my availability for marriage. Even outside those contexts, we could turn the hat upside-down: while my bare head does not, in non-frum contexts, necessarily imply my availability, my hat makes me less attractive to men (and women). Do I have a positive obligation to my husband, to be specifically unattractive to other men?

Atop that, within a Jewish context, my bare head may be understood as diluting the “frum” branding of our family. It reflects not only on my observance but on his: it turns him into the type of Jew whose wife doesn’t cover her hair. For some fools, it implies things about our observance level. My husband says he isn’t concerned about that issue. And after all, two of our kids are in a *gasp* public school without having a good reason (i.e. severe learning disability) to be there, and one’s in a pluralistic one. And we drink regular milk, and dress the boys in colored shirts on Shabbat. So we’re already kind of beyond the pale. Still, this is a community that, alas, focuses on the outside: my validity as a Jew (and as a convert: “See, she’s abandoned observance, after a mere decade! This is why we need to be tough on potential converts”) depends on that hat.

Except that, frankly, I’m not part of that community. Not really, not anymore, probably not ever. And the more I see of them, in the streets, at the playground, on the news, the more disgusted I am by them. Them, not us.

For myself, covering my hair makes me physically uncomfortable. Outdoors in the winter is fine, but indoors it’s hot, never mind summers. My head itches: I have horrible dandruff (which has magically disappeared in the last few months hat I’ve been bareheaded, something no amount of Head & Shoulders shampoo could manage). The damn hat is why I’ve been getting buzz cuts every summer for over half my marriage. No one sees my hair anyhow, so who cares what it looks like to be a thirty-some-year-old woman with a crew cut?

The “ugly” reason is not small. Covering my hair was OK when I hated the way I looked anyhow. But there was a certain point in the last two or so years, as I’ve gotten further and further from my birth family and in particular from my mother, that I’ve actually looked at myself in a mirror. What I see is different from what I’ve been told is there. (“Homely. Ugly. Fat. Stupid Polack-face, just like your grandmother. Can’t believe you’re still a zit-face at your age.”) What I see is worth not uglifying with a hat. In a certain sense, then, one of the concerns of poskim is right: by taking off my hat I’d be making myself more attractive to other men. But that’s not my intent here: it’s to make myself more attractive to myself. I hate the way I look in a hat. Is that a small matter in halacha? Of course it is, at least in the post-Hareidi, post-Chassidim-infect-everything-with-barely-judaized-christian-paganism world: If it’s the body, it’s bad; if it’s female, it’s evil. But anyone who knows me knows that I reject Chassidism utterly. It’s what I came from, without the organ music.

She gathers the kids back into the car after ten minutes at homebathrooms and getting the groceries into the freezer and fridge. Time to pick up the oldest kid, zoom zoom! Halfway there she realizes that she is bareheaded. At a light she searches her bag, the car: no backup beret. In the rearview mirror she sees her friend’s car, pulling into the school lot after her. She gets out: “Do you have a hat I can borrow?” Nope. “Oh well, I guess it had to happen sooner or later.” She squares her shoulders and walks into the school.
By the time the fourth person comments, asks a question
this is a school with a weak sense of personal boundaries she blurts out, “OK, I’ve frei’d out, OK?” Her son’s chiloni Israeli teacher grins. “Now I know why your kids are so light,” she says. Actually, she thinks, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Wait till the summer sun bleaches it out, back to its pre-marriage color. A friend tells her later that someone has inquired quietly: Has there been a status change? “What do you want me to say?” the friend asks. “Well, you can point out I’m still wearing my ring,” she responds.
Two mornings later she makes a point of being seen close by her husband at the boy’s “milestone celebration.” Hopefully body language
Do we LOOK like a divorced couple? will answer anyone’s questions on the status point.

I had worried about the transition, but in the end it wasn’t so bad. The friend who had been asked about my marital status pointed out that showing up bareheaded mid-year is better than showing up, as I had planned, after the summer break. Still, where and in what contexts do I keep it covered still? In shul, obviously (what about times that aren’t services?). But where else? When I go to mikvah? At the local Jewish book store? (Whoops, there goes my frum discount!). The whole of Jewish Main Street? And what elements should go into the ten-second explanation, for those who actually ask (and aren’t close enough friends for a real answer)?

There are practical issues as well. I have to comb my hair now. I have to use a hair dryer now. I don’t remember how to braid behind my head anymore. I don’t even remember: How do I keep it from sticking up all over?

She walks into the library, sees the first little boy with the velvet kippah, knew which mom she’d see, would see her (hair). She thinks: “Grab the hat out of my bag? Is it even there?… Nah. It’s gotta happen eventually.” R, viciously right-wing, recognizes her, or maybe just recognizes the children and infers her identity. Greets her. She braces for the next comment, but it’s mild. “I’ve never seen your hair,” R says. “Yeah,” she says. “I’ve stopped covering it, mostly.” Braces herself again, but what follows is a respectful discussion. The woman accepts without argument that she doesn’t think it’s actually required in halacha. R—’s points: (1) She knows other Modern Orthodox women who do cover their hair, and (2) If you don’t do it what message are you giving the kids? What legacy of Jewish identity do they have if you don’t toe this line (and every other because once you step over one, where does it stop?). We went on to discuss where her kids are in school (learning disabilities that the local frum school can’t handle: in spite of severe language issues even in English, plus behavioral problems and mild retardation, they’re being forced along the learn-full-time track, the only acceptable one in her world). She wished me a good Shabbas as I left, no shunning, no shock.

The last issue I considered was spiritual (as distinct from halacha). Is this in fact a slippery slope, as the not-South African woman said? She has a point regarding trajectory. But the money question is this: Do I behave any differently because my hair is covered (or uncovered)? Is my behavior more modest when my hat’s on, am I more aware of my identifiable Jewishness (frum-ness) and thus less likely to do or say something inappropriate, either in the halachic or derech eretz categories?

Well, yes, I do behave differently, actually. I feel different. I’m no longer so keenly aware, because of the physical discomfort, of this thing sitting on my head all the time. I’m more comfortable therefore. I feel less ugly, less… marked. Less like I need somehow to try to express the notion that I’m a person, rather than a walking hat, like I need less to work against what everyone thinks they know about me and my life, simply because they see that I’m one of those women who cover their hair. I am no longer publicly identifiable as Jewish, it’s true — at least in those contexts where people knew what the deal was with the hat — but that also means that I’m no longer so sensitive to what everyone else is thinking, and therefore I’m no longer so outraged, when an identifiably frum person does something repulsive out of a who-cares-what-goyyim-think attitude. I’m even more comfortable changing the topic away from the inappropriate, since my hat is no longer declaring me to have a “frummer than thou” attitude.

Over my lifetime I have worn many hats, and will wear still more. For now, though, the literal ones are going into the closet. Maybe they’ll return in a few years: They’re in the closet, not the Goodwill box.

I was nervous as I pulled up. What was K., a Reform Jew of sorts, going to say when she saw I had stopped covering my hair? She said nothing. Finally I broached the subject: “So as you can see, I’ve stopped covering my hair.”
“It’s about time,” she responded. She paused. “So now, when are you going to stop keeping kosher?”
Same thing a frum woman asked me. Hmm.

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I usually look at the State of Israel as a modern wonder, something that in the history of humankind is unprecedented.  And other times, I look at Israel and find myself deeply disappointed by its failure to live up to its considerable potential.

There are lots of reasons for Israel’s many failings.  Widespread government corruption is one.  A lingering socialist ethic that views customer service as bourgeois and government protectionism (in the form of prohibitive tariffs on most imports) as necessary is another.  One, though, that profoundly disturbs me are the many conflicts within Israeli society created and perpetuated by haredi Judaism.

This is not a haredi-bashing post.  I have long had sympathy for the haredi movement (because it’s every bit as much a movement as Reform Judaism) with its goals of repopulating the world with Jews after the great losses in the Shoah and returning Torah study to the center of Jewish life.  However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that many of the stories in the Israeli news these days have as their source problems with the haredi sector of society.  Here are but a few:

  • Rioting in Meah Shearim over plans to move pagan graves (which haredim insist are Jewish graves) in order to build an emergency medical center as part of Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center;
  • Tight restrictions placed on those who wish to visit the newly completed Hurva Synagogue in the Old City to allow a handful of haredi Torah scholars to sit and learn during the non-prayer hours of the shul;
  • The continued problems encountered by non-Jews and non-halachic Jews in trying to live here and dealing with a haredi-controlled rabbinate which converts only a small percentage of those who seek halachic conversion and full participation in Israeli society;
  • An increasingly wide swathe of Jerusalem city employees (some of them haredim) being arrested for the corruption that allowed the Holyland housing monstrosity to be built, and the reaction of many in the haredi community that it’s all because the haredim arrested had spent too much time around secular Jews;
  • The alarming statistics which show a continued drain on Israel’s society, workforce, and coffers over the next generation or two if haredim continue to receive substandard educations (at state expense), evade military service and work, and live below the poverty line.

I could go on, but I think that’s enough.  In the dozens of interactions I’ve had with haredi Jews, the negative ones (perhaps 1 in 4 of my encounters with them) have been centered around strict sexual taboos (such as a man and woman sitting next to each other on a bus) and a belief that I’m barely even Jewish, much less religious.  Much of what drives religious Jews (and not just those in the haredi world) is fear: fear of God, fear of screwing up in their ritual practice, fear of being led astray.  These fears lead to the enforcement of sex-segregation on buses by violence, the rejection of potential converts because they might not keep all 613 commandments all the time (despite the fact that Jewish law itself does not require that), the refusal to teach subjects such as math, science, and English in haredi schools which lay the foundation for employability later because those subjects are seen as irrelevant to Torah study, and the strict code of conformity as to dress, behavior, and life prospects for young haredim.  Those who don’t fit the mold of the ideal haredi Jew in those communities—who aren’t gifted Torah scholars, who have talents in other areas, who try to venture into the non-haredi world—are cause for worry for their families.  Some are given tentative support; others are rejected by their family and community and forced to make their way in the outside world without useful skills or even an ability to function behaviorally in a normal environment with men and women together.

Some in the haredi community have made significant contributions to Israeli society.  Haredim were the first to create educational frameworks in Israel for autistic and Down’s syndrome children.  ZAKA, an organization whose 1000 volunteers perform many post-disaster functions, including identifying the victims, was founded by Yehudah Meshi-Zahav who, along with many of the volunteers, is haredi.  David Zilbershlag, another haredi Jew, is the founder of Meir Panim, a network of soup kitchens and relief centers across Israel whose goal is not only to feed and clothe the needy, but to bridge the gap between religious and secular Jews.  It seems that where the combination of communal conformity and intensive Torah study lead some Jews to retreat from greater society, others feel moved by what they learn to venture outside the walls of the study hall and bring Jews together to create something that benefits all of Israeli society.

But every bit as important as the accomplishments of these haredim is the fact that they have shown themselves able to work with haredi and non-haredi Jews alike, and not stray from the path of Torah.  Their contact with non-haredi Israelis, and embrace of ahavat Yisrael (love of fellow Jews), are not abstract concepts to be discussed and debated over a volume of Talmud; they are real and meant to be lived on a daily basis.  They are fully observant Torah Jews, and fully functioning members of Israeli society and the human race.  The anger, mistrust, and even hatred that exists between haredi and secular Jews (and the modern Orthodox in between, who seem to each extreme to be part of the other extreme) could be eradicated, or at least drastically reduced, if haredi Jews were to come out of their Torah cocoons and see the presence of Torah values outside their own communities, the caring Jews have for other Jews, and the spiritual and ethical commitment to Jewish ideals even among those who don’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat.

The answers to the increasing divide between the haredi world and the rest of the world need to come both from outside and from inside.  The Israeli government needs to take a stand about the quality of education it is willing to support for all Israeli students.  Paying 80% of the cost of haredi education that only teaches 80% of the government’s require curriculum is not a solution to the certain brain drain that is to result.  Haredi children can and should be brought up with the values of Torah and family.  But they should also be given the opportunity to work as well as learn Torah all day.  They should be given an education that leaves them with choices.  Their military service, like that of non-haredi Jews, should entitle them to tuition assistance at either a university or yeshiva, based on their qualifications and aptitudes.  If haredi Jews believe their interpretation of the Torah is true and valid, there should be no need for them to fear being led astray by secular society.  Their adherence to haredi values should be based on knowledge by comparison that they are the ideal, and not by fear, isolation, and ignorance.

The accomplishments of many haredi Jews have improved life for Israelis and people around the world.  But still, the rest of the haredi world is a vast, untapped resource.  It is to their benefit, and that of all of Israeli society, to have them participate fully in it.

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Jewish histories seem to have a theme to them.  I remember reading Solomon Grayzel’s History of the Jews and his beautiful introduction in which he states clearly his thesis, that whenever a door was closed on the Jews somewhere in the world, another was opened.

Abba Eban too has a theme in My People—that no matter where the Jewish people found themselves, no matter how well or how ill things were going for them, deep down their spiritual life was still rooted in Eretz Yisrael.  This is not surprising given Eban’s contribution to the founding of the State of Israel and his service in many capacities, including as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ambassador to the US while simultaneously serving as a liaison officer to UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine).  He was a master of the English language (and nine others besides), a fact which becomes clear in this fluid, incisively written history.  It also accounts for the facts he chooses to include in his uncluttered, well-digested narrative.  He stresses the dignity, ethical foundations, flexibility, work ethic, diplomatic skill, and worldwide network of fellow Hebrew-speakers that allowed Jews to move from place to place and re-establish themselves, create successful business ventures, and act as diplomatic and economic liaisons between countries and societies (e.g. European Christians and Arab Muslims).  He also makes clear the Jewish claims to return to the land of Israel and the evolution of Arab attitudes toward this claim, from a willingness to compromise (Palestine only having been in Arab hands for 400 of the past 4000 years of historical record) to a rejection of their former support for a Jewish National Home and insistence on being awarded Palestine to compensate for the lands Britain and France refused to give them after World War I, and an attitude that persists to this day “that sovereignty belonged to Arabs wherever they were and to Jews nowhere at all.”  He also spells out in detail the chipping away of Britain’s post-Balfour promises to the Jews, including “the exclusion of Transjordan from those provisions of the Mandate which referred to the establishment of the Jewish National Home,” the closing off of Palestine to Jewish immigration in the Jews’ greatest hour of need (the Shoah), and its refusal to protect the Jews during Arab riots and massacres, or even to let the Jews protect themselves.

Jewish histories are often hard to read because of the necessary exploration of the destruction of Jewish life in the Holy Land, the expulsions, the Inquisition, the Shoah, and the seeds of the current conflict over Israel’s existence.  To live as a Jew in the 21st century is to study the alternately glorious and horrific past, and to hope tentatively for a glorious, more secure future.  It’s to be told to quit whining over the Shoah, that it never happened, that it wasn’t as bad as it’s made out to be, or that an even bigger, better one is on the way, so get ready.  Eban writes something about the Shoah that I think describes well how it fits into the modern Jewish psyche:

Jewish history and consciousness will be dominated for many generations by the traumatic memories of the Holocaust.  No people in history has undergone an experience of such violence and depth.  Israel’s obsession with physical security; the sharp Jewish reaction to movements of discrimination and prejudice; an intoxicated awareness of life, not as something to be taken for granted but as a treasure to be fostered and nourished with eager vitality, a residual distrust of what lies beyond the Jewish wall, a mystic belief in the undying forces of Jewish history, which ensure survival when all appears lost, all these together with the intimacy of more personal pains and agonies, are the legacy which the Holocaust transmits to the generation of Jews grown up under its shadow.

Much has been written about the possibility of creating a single state here, democratic, with Arabs and Jews participating fully in the political process.  I think it is easy to imagine that from a distance.  Doesn’t that happen, and with Christians and others besides, in the US?  Isn’t that happening (albeit with some serious problems) in Europe as we speak?  Why not in the Middle East?  Eban writes of the Jewish and Arab nationalist movements following in the steps of the nationalist movements that created much of the European landscape in the 19th century, and as the Middle East was redrawn following World War I and the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire.  Neither the Arabs nor the Jews envisioned the other as full participants in their own society: the Arabs because the Jews would once again be relegated to dhimmi status as infidels (if indeed they were allowed to remain, which is not part of the current Arab Palestinian dream), and the Jews because after living for nearly 2000 years as guests in other countries, being tolerated when they were needed and either expelled or killed when they were not, it was time to return Home, to have a small—but to them significant—piece of land on which to build a state where they were welcome, not tolerated; in which immigration quotas which had spelled the doom of millions in Europe were lifted forever; where they could build a society centered around their language, their religious roots, their history, their ethical values.  Addressing the impression given by Arabs that this land is rightfully Arab, Eban writes, “[T]o be Middle Eastern does not involve being Arab or Moslem.  It is not an offense against the Middle Eastern tradition for a non-Arab and non-Moslem sovereignty to live and flourish in the original home of Hebrew memory and thought.  The question is not whether Israel will change its special nature, but whether the Arabs will come to terms with Israel as it is.”

It sometimes seems, especially from an Israeli vantage point, that the discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict is really a way of voting, populating, or recognizing Israel out of existence.  (All this because open war and terrorism have not succeeded in eradicating it.)  And yet, UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted unanimously on 22 November 1967, made clear that “[w]ithdrawal from occupied territories was made conditional on the establishment of peace, the total abolition of belligerency, and the establishment of secure and recognized boundaries.”   Absenting the conditions laid down—i.e. establishment of peace, cessation of violence, and creation of secure borders—withdrawal is not an expectation.  Nowadays, as then, Israel’s friends and not-so-friendly acquaintances have pushed it to take “risks” for peace (many of which Israel has taken, and gotten bloodshed instead of peace).  Indeed, Eban’s following words could have been written as easily today as decades ago: “[A]dvice tendered to [Israel] from safe distances on how to be secure without resisting Arab assaults was received with robust skepticism.  Popularity was important; but it was more important to be alive than to be popular.  A weakened, vulnerable Israel attracted more affection than a strong and resistant Israel.”

Eban’s telling of the story of the Jews follows their fortunes as they were forged as a people, established themselves in their own land, dealt with the tensions of their location as powers rose up and jockeyed for position around them on all sides, the loss of their land, their sojourns in other countries among other peoples, and their eventual return to their homeland.  Given what the Jewish people endured, achieved, and—uniquely among dispersed peoples—survived, their return to the Land of Israel is a great gift—a miracle, a mitzvah to perform, and a tremendous relief.  Never again to have to depend on the whimsy of governments and hostile majorities, and to be reunited with the land of our birth, are not something the Jews should be expected to give up.  Part way through the War of Independence in 1948, Eban writes, “While Arab armies invaded Palestine, the Security Council met to debate whether a breach of peace had taken place, as the Americans charged.  The Americans demanded sanctions and a cease-fire; Britain opposed.  Arab delegates promised peace only if Israel’s independence were rescinded.  The Israeli answer was brief.  ‘If the Arab states want peace they can have it.  If they want war they can have that too.  But whether they want peace or war, they can only have it with the State of Israel.’”  Later, he states, “Israel would have preferred to flourish in peace with her neighbors.  But she was also capable of flourishing without it.  Behind the shield of strong military defenses, with an eye vigilantly fixed on hostile frontiers, Israel went on with its work.”

The saddest thing about reading history?  One might just as well be reading a newspaper.

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Conspicuous consumption

A few months ago, the Cap’n and I were sitting and talking to friends on a Shabbat afternoon.  We and they had mutual acquaintances, a young family in a well-to-do coastal city in Israel, where the husband/father is a successful businessman with a palatial house, company car, and a nanny for the children.

We were alternately intrigued and horrified when we considered what it would be like to live like that.  Intrigued because—let’s face it—who doesn’t dream of having a large house, servants, full-time childcare, and all the rest?  But on some level, we were also horrified.  The expense of such a house in Israel where land is so costly, even modest housing is becoming difficult to afford, and the cost of heating, cleaning, and maintaining a large house is considerable, made us wonder at anyone “needing” to live like that.

McMansions are available almost everywhere now.  I remember a few years ago when a McMansion in Ramat Beit Shemesh (surrounded closely on three sides by the houses around it, and a view of the road going by and a weed-covered bank on the other) sold to a Canadian businessman for $2 million.  Pricey, large houses overlooking the smog and dirt of Bethlehem in Efrat (in a neighborhood I fondly refer to as Ramat Beit Lechem) are also available for purchase.  The people who buy them are those headed by high-powered, single- or dual-career couples, families who sold their house in Teaneck for a fortune, or perhaps heirs to wealthy deceased parents.  They were accustomed, no doubt, to having a large house before making aliyah, and were not keen to downsize when they came to Israel.  A large house and garden, even if they may not have quite the square footage and acreage that they had in the Goldene Medina, is their expected standard now.

I don’t feel much resentment toward people who live in such circumstances.  First of all, while it would seem that people who live in a small house in the country leave less of a carbon footprint on the earth compared to city-dwellers in larger houses, that’s untrue; cities are by far less of an infringement on Nature than those who live on farms or in small settlements outside the cities.  And McMansions, while their architecture may lack originality and the houses appear indistinct from one another, are usually in cities.  And in countries like the US, where rainfall is plentiful and other resources not lacking, such apparent waste is even less reprehensible.  Where Israel is concerned, however—a desert country with little rainfall, little land, and an extremely hot climate (against which most people have air conditioning installed)—McMansions make me less comfortable.  The government is ginger about instituting penalties for excessive water use, and the water needed to clean the house, water the garden, and the fact that many people who live in posh circumstances are less disciplined about their personal water use (taking baths or long showers, for example) drain the country’s limited resources.  (And even if the penalties for water overuse are assessed, those in McMansions can easily afford the penalties.)  The strain on the power grid in the summer with everyone’s air conditioning running day and night necessitates rolling blackouts in the country, and the environmental impact of air conditioning a large house is greater than that of an apartment.

I don’t deign to tell anyone else how to live.  On the other hand, our choices about how we live speak volumes about us.  In America, the cultural norm is to have one’s life very self-contained: every family with its own house, garden, and swing set.  In Israel, it is much more common for people to live in close quarters and take their children to the local park or playground to play on shared equipment.  To choose to live in a larger house than we need shows an lack of awareness, or insensitivity, to a country’s limited resources.  To choose to live in a house or apartment with the minimum amount of space needed for a family (with children sharing bedrooms, multi-use common space, a garden planned with low water needs) is more economical and environmentally friendly, and is an admission that perhaps what we want and what we need are not one and the same.

I traveled through Asia and Europe for six months after college graduation (here’s a little description of what I learned) and after seeing how people in other parts of the world live, I realized that to have running water, indoor plumbing, a roof over one’s head, and all the other stuff that we have in the West, gives us a standard of living not even dreamt of by most of the world’s population.  In A Night To Remember: A Haggadah of Contemporary Voices, Mishael Zion and Noam Zion include a sidebar to the text which includes some of the findings of the 2000 Statistics on the Distribution of Wealth.  The Zions write, “If we could reduce the world’s population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would look something like this: 80 live in substandard housing; 24 don’t have any electricity; 50 [are] malnourished and 1 dying of starvation and 1 with HIV; 1 with a college education and 7 with internet access; 5 control 32% of the entire world’s wealth, all are US citizens. …If there is food in your refrigerator, if you have shoes, a bed and a roof above your head, you are better off than 75% of people in this world.”

The difference in quality of life between what I enjoy and what someone in a McMansion enjoys is minimal.  But the difference between what someone CAN live with elsewhere in the world (e.g. in a bamboo hut, outdoor latrine, shared well rather than running water) should give the rest of us—either in apartments or in McMansions—pause.

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I read a recent op-ed by Rav Shmuely Boteach in which he shares his thoughts regarding the proposed plans to build a $100 million, 13-story Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City.  Not surprisingly, the families of the dead from the mass murder of 9/11 are displeased.

Ever an optimist, however, Rav Shmuely thinks it could work.  His suggestion is to allow the construction to proceed, but to require that the cultural center include a museum charting the rise of militant, extremist Islam, its “hate-based agenda,” and how it is an evil perversion of Islam.  This, he believes, would be a “simple, elegant, and deeply moral solution” to the question of whether or not to build a monument to Islam next to the graves of 3000 people who died because of it.

I cannot quibble with his argument that America is a land where people are allowed to worship freely and—by extension—that it is well nigh impossible to legislate good taste.  Had the events of 9/11 not taken place a mere few blocks from the proposed site of the center, there would probably be no discussion of this matter at all.

But the fact is, Ground Zero and its environs are inextricable from what happened there nearly 10 years ago (the 10th anniversary of which is the chosen date to inaugurate the new Islamic center—in yet another gesture of dubious taste).  One may request or insist that Muslims build a museum that is sharply critical of Islamist terrorism, but even if they were to agree to comply (and there’s nothing to suggest that a Saudi-funded Muslim group is anything approaching critical of the events of 9/11), one man’s extremism is another’s glorified martyrdom.  Muslims may attend such an exhibition and indeed feel horror and anger at the way their religion has been hijacked by hate-mongers and blood-thirsty fanatics; others, however, either overtly or covertly, will view a detailed, gruesome account of their religion’s death-cult and its campaign of murder and mayhem with approval and satisfaction.  Because the truth is, Islam does lend itself easily to those who interpret it violently.  Their dichotomy of the world is the “House of Islam” and the “House of War” (i.e. everyone else).  Those who are not Muslims are to be despised as inferior beings, or dhimmis (unless, of course, they embrace Islam).  For a Muslim, the only time to negotiate with the Infidel is when the Muslim is weak; when the Muslim gains in strength, all bets are off and the Muslim is entitled to renege on his agreements with the Infidel.  For particularly crazed, farbrennter Muslims like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who entertain violent eschatological fantasies, anticipating the 12th imam (the Mahdi, whose arrival marks their End of Days) can be shortened by creating havoc and destruction in the world.  The mentality described here is not concerned with creating peace in the world, with introspection, or with honoring the wishes or feelings of non-Muslims.  The reports from around the world in cities where the Muslim population is growing and gaining in influence tell of a people whose own feelings and sensitivities must be respected, but who have little regard for the feelings or sensitivities of others.

Unlike Rav Shmuely, I don’t think there is any “simple, elegant, [or] deeply moral solution” to this proposal, except perhaps to divvy up the money raised for the center and distribute it to the families of the victims.  Let’s have less submission (“Islam”) and more contrition.

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