Archive for September, 2010

My second cousin by marriage (it’s a long story), architect Henry Grosman, is one of a dozen winners of the Sukkah City NYC 2010 design competition.  On display in Union Square Park, each sukkah was created by an architect (or team of architects) in consultation with a rabbi to address issues of kashrut.  Henry’s design (created with Babak Bryan, and winner of the People’s Choice Award) is spherical in shape with three rounded walls.  It is constructed from plywood, marsh grass and twine.  Here is a photo of the finished product:

and another in this link.  Here is a video which includes comments from the various winners (including Henry, the last one):

Sukkah City is a fascinating competition challenging Jewish and non-Jewish architects to create sukkahs that expand the typical rectangular back-yard sukkah with three or four walls and tree-branch schach, thinking outside the box but still within the constraints of halachic sukkah design.  I think it’s cool that New York hosts this competition which is artistic, educational, highly entertaining, and inspires people to think about this holiday which goes largely unobserved in the greater American Jewish community.

Below are descriptions of each sukkah including issues of halachot sukkah by Dani Passow, the rabbinical consultant to the project (and rabbinical intern at our shul in America).

Sukkah of the signs

The original design was for a tower with slanted straight walls that then began to angle forming a slanted roof, all of which was made out of cardboards signs.  The cardboard signs would not have been kosher schach since although they are organic, their material has been processed so that it doesn’t closely resemble its original form.  Additionally, there was an oculus (gap) at the top which meant that most of the sukkah would not have been covered by schach. If this gap were large enough (7×7 handbreadths) and filled in with schach, then it would have become kosher.  That was my suggestion.

They ended up altering the design, basically turning it on its side.  Again, they wanted to use signs as the schach.  The architects and I talked about replacement material that would have been kosher but still resembled signs.  We chose Oriented Strand Board (OSB) which is made of small pieces of wood pressed together, but the wood is still quite visible as wood, thus it resembles its original form and is kosher. The designers decided, in the end, to use conventional greenery as schach.

Shim Sukkah

Though the shims here can twist, this isn’t a problem since in order to twist they require a significant force and a specific angle and won’t move in a standard wind.  As long as shims for the schach are oriented such that they provide more shade than sun, it’s kosher.

Blo Puff

A circular sukkah is kosher as long at it circumscribes a square of 7 x 7 handbreadths. The bubble needs to be fully inflated to withstand a standard wind, and maybe even tied down.  Additionally, the schach hangs directly from non-kosher scach material; this a machloket achronim of maamid – a gezaira that someone might come to think this material is kosher schach, and while the Mishnah Berurah says we should be machmir and we generally are quite careful about this, bebdiavad the MB says it’s kosher.


It is totally fine for the walls and schach to be made of the same material.  Here, since the kosher schach, the wood, is supported by metal screws, we again have an issue of maamid.

In Tension

A sukkah with 2.5 walls is kosher.  All of the walls, to be considered kosher, need to come within 3 handbreadths of the ground and be at least 7 handbreadths long unless the special, and somewhat complex, halachic device of tzurat hapetach is utilized.  Here, there are only two kosher walls since though there is half a wall, it doesn’t come within 3 handbreadths of the ground.  But, this third wall is only peeled back so observers can get a full view of the inside of the sukkah.  Unfolding that wall would make the sukkah kosher.  Additionally, the walls are not quite taut enough, thus they blow in the wind which is a problem, but if they are tied down more tautly , they would be fine. There is also an issue of maamid here as the kosher schach is supported by cotton lining.

Repetition Meets Difference

A circular sukkah is kosher .  This design needs some more schach so that the schach provides more shade than sun.  Additionally, though the walls may seem porous, since there is less than 3 handbreadths between solid material, the halachic concept of lavud is employed that views the empty space between solid material as filled as long as the gap is no greater than 3 handbreadths (about 10.5 inches).

Single Thread

This design is composed of one steel wire greater than 5 miles long coiled around itself.  It is perfectly okay for the walls to be composed of steel, but not the schach.  Hanging from the schach is a flower bed which is kosher schach.  The metal wire hovering above the flower bed is diffuse enough that more sun shines through than shade.  Thus, if the kosher schach, the flower bed, is dense enough to provide more shade than sun, this is kosher.  Some more schach needs to be added to this design.

Additionally, halacha allows for the spreading of a canopy of non-kosher schach above kosher schach as long as it is within 4 handbreadths of the kosher schach and is for an aesthetic purpose, not to provide shade or protection of any kind.  This metal material serves both to support the kosher schach and as decoration.  It might, therefore, be permitted to even have the metal provide more shade than sun.  Also, the designers worked hard to avoid maamid here.  They hung the flower bed from metal using organic leaves of some kind that are kosher for schach.  Maamid isn’t an issue if the kosher schach is supported by non-kosher schach indirectly, only if it is supported directly.

Star Cacoon

This material, called rattan, is similar to bamboo and is kosher schach.  Though the walls and schach are made from the same continuous material, this is fine as long as, at some point, the walls are vertically oriented or the roof is horizontally oriented as this distinguishes between the two.  There are only 2 walls here, the back and left side as seen in the picture.  The front could easily become a wall using the concept of lavud: placing parallel strips of material within 3 handbreadths of each other.  This was my suggestion, though it was never implemented by the designer.


Some material that was ordered for this design ended up not being what the designer anticipated.  There is supposed to be material covering the roof and hanging down to the ground creating a more cubic form.  As the design is presented, none of the walls meet to form a corner.  A kosher sukkah needs to have at least two walls meet to form one corner.  The original design would have satisfied this requirement.  Also, there is not enough schach, but the original design would have satisfied that as the missing material is kosher schach material.

Fractured Bubble

A spherical shape is kosher as are rounded walls.  Here, there are 3 rounded walls.  The only question is that as the walls are split (the sphere looks like it is cracked) they may be too far apart from each other thus not forming a corner.  As long as at least two walls are within 3 handbreadths of each other at a height of 10 handbreadths (the minimum height of a sukkah), then this is kosher.  I believe it meets that requirement.


Schach cannot be made out of a wooden board that is greater than 4 handbreadths wide since it too closely resembles roof of a permanent home.  But a tree branch that is greater than 4 handbreadths wide is fine.  Additionally, to reinforce the difference between the impermanence of schach and the permanence of a standard home, four 1-inch diameter holes were bored through the log so that rain could enter.


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A couple of months ago, the Cap’n and I went to an event at the new, beautiful AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) offices in Talpiot.  Besides offices, event and conference rooms, and a small radio studio, the AACI has a very good English library.  They receive donations from patrons, and duplicates or books they don’t want end up on a 5 shekel shelf outside the library.  After attending our event, we browsed the shelf and among the books I selected was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

Published in 1978, The Women’s Room seems to be in the same class of feminist literature that gave rise to The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique.  French’s book is a novel, but full of lengthy musings and speeches about feminist theory and the power struggles and relationships (sometimes indistinguishable from one another) between men and women.  It begins with the bum rap women have when they enjoy themselves in public in the company of men, giving them a “reputation.”  It then moves on to the bum rap women get when they marry and become housewives, supporting their husbands in their careers, cooking and cleaning, and rearing children without any help.  (This IS the early 1960s, after all.)  Then it’s about suburban life where couples host parties, everyone drinks too much, dances in a skanky way with other people’s spouses, and watches each other’s marriages crumble.  The principal character in the novel, Mira, is at the center of all of this feminine travail and disappointment, and the second half of the novel follows her into her post-divorce life as a graduate student at Harvard.  Introducing her circle of women friends (with a few occasional male hangers-on), French charts Mira’s loneliness, eventual discovery of a wonderful man, his proposal that she put her career on hold, follow him to Africa (for HIS career), and have his baby, and return to loneliness when she refuses.  Meanwhile, her friends’ marriages (if they’re straight) and relationships (if they’re lesbian) crumble again, not because they’re bored, isolated housewives this time, but because they’re busy graduate students with close friendships outside their marriages and potentially budding careers which could further challenge their partners’ hegemony in the traditional marriages they’re in, or further unsettle their fragile relationships.

The thing that stands out most in this novel is the overwhelmingly unsatisfied need of these women to be regarded as equals in their relationships, and feel loved and fulfilled.  And while the cover of the book paraphrases a comment by critic Fay Weldon, that “this novel changes lives,” I’m not sure the women’s lives change so very much.  They enter marriage with high hopes of happiness, but leave them emptier than they were to begin.  Instead of feeling loved, honored, and cherished, they emerge after divorce poor, battered (sometimes physically), saddled with children they don’t always want and certainly cannot afford, and emotionally devastated.

I found it fascinating to read about this era in women’s history, and appreciated that one of French’s characters points out that the notion of a woman who stays at home, jobless, to take care of house and children began fairly recently in human history (in the Victorian era.  As an experiment, it clearly failed to give women the sense of contentment or fulfillment it was expected to.  It was also extremely depressing to see that no visible progress was made over the two decades or so covered in the novel between men and women in the novel.  There were a few good men, lots of mediocre, pathetic, or bad ones, and dozens of women who seemed deluded enough to depend on them for their own self esteem.  When the men loved them, they loved themselves; when the men became angry with them or lost interest, the women felt worthless.  French doesn’t directly present this as the point of her novel, but it’s the one I walk away with.

This is a radical feminist work.  That means that the women in it find themselves hoping to change the society around them, failing, and resolving to reject it or isolate themselves from it entirely.  Liberal feminism, which I find more palatable, works more slowly to change the system within its boundaries rather than advocating tearing the system down and starting over again—which is as impossible as it is dramatic.  (Feminists in Orthodox Judaism works in much the same way as liberal feminists, hoping for slow change that will endure over time.)  French’s characters see the world we live in as a man’s world, and watching how they constantly give power to men in their lives, and feel too numb, nervous, or helpless to resist that power, one can see how it got to be that way.  Men in their world are the source of support, justice (or injustice), order (or disorder), love (or apathy or hostility).  Of what are the women the source?  Not much.  They are the domestics, the brood mares, the not-quite-human beings who make it possible for men to go through their days completely focused on work, money, possessions, sports, and the fellowship of the ruling class, i.e. other men.  It’s a dance between women and men that never comes to an end, at least with the end of the novel.  Mira refuses to have more children, so her soulmate (who was never really her soulmate after all) goes to Africa without her, marries his secretary, and has a family.  She accepts a small-time teaching position in Maine, walks on the beach alone, and believes everyone else thinks she’s crazy.

Happily, at the end, not all of the women end up dead or in mental institutions (though a couple do).  Most find interesting jobs doing what they love, what they’re good at, and what they believe will help change the world for the better.  What is less obvious is whether they have learned to love themselves for who they are, or whether their jobs have just replaced their men (or women) as a source of love and regard for themselves.  Because it became clear to me that the love they got from others was the love they should have felt for themselves all along.

Despite the fact that the emotions and many of the events in the novel are true to life, I think the conclusions of most of the women are not true.  (This is where my liberal feminism clashes with their radical feminism.)  This world is NOT a man’s world, no matter how much it may feel like it.  As long as women allow it to be, it will operate as one, but it is women’s responsibility NOT to cede power to men that they do not earn or deserve.  Women must assert themselves in this world, entering whatever professions they choose, fighting back against male aggression, expecting and insisting on equality and fairness from bosses, partners, and children, and living as they think women should live to set an example and give inspiration to their own daughters and other women.  Fortunately, life in the 2000s looks different for women.  Women are better represented in government, business, academia, and other professions.  One corporate wife in the late 1990s actually sued her husband for the equivalent of “back wages” as part of their high-profile divorce settlement, walking away with tens of millions of dollars (something Mira in the novel tried, but was laughed at for attempting).  A young woman sued the Citadel for excluding qualified women, successfully challenging a federally funded institution for its sex discrimination.  Women’s basketball and soccer, while not given the air time men’s get, exist and attract increasingly interested fans, thanks to Title IX.  Rape is a crime, even when carried out against wives, prostitutes, and women the rapist knows.  Men in this generation cook, clean, do laundry, and care for children much more than they did in the past.  Women still do the bulk of the housework and delay or retard their careers to rear children, while men still make more money for similar work than women.  But women continue to push back and move forward, and slowly we are moving toward an era worthy of the best men and women, where everyone can show their quality and feel their worth.

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In my middle age I have become something I never imagined I would: a Trekkie.  I found the first series, which I watched with my entranced older brother, to be rather boring and sexist (even at the tender age of four).  But the subsequent series have been more interesting in my opinion, and after seeing the final season of “Star Trek: Voyager” during my pregnancy with Beans (and catching up on the other seasons through reruns), the Cap’n and I are now into the fifth season of “Star Trek: Deep Space 9.”

This may be my favorite series yet.  I watched a few “Next Generation” episodes with my (still entranced) brother, but never really got into it myself.  “Voyager” had some interesting characters, and it was refreshing to see a woman captain for a change (though Kate Mulgrew’s channeling of Katharine Hepburn was alternately fascinating and irritating).  “DS9” has me hooked for its well-meshed cast of principal characters, its humor, and an almost mind-boggling array of enemies: the alternate universe characters who keep kidnapping them to help out in their own nasty struggles; the Dominion (including wily shapeshifters and the killing machine Jem Hadar); the unpredictable Cardassians; and now the Klingons—that time-honored favorite enemy-ally-enemy-again that trumps even the Nazis for sheer staying power—are back.

It’s impossible to watch this show in Israel and not notice the similarities between the Klingons and Arabs.  Both peoples value poets nearly as much as warriors. Both societies have an all-consuming focus on honor (of self, of family, of the Empire), glorify battle, and yearn for a death that will bestow glory and a good name on their memory.  Klingons employ fratricide as a way to restore lost honor (as when Worf’s brother begged Worf to kill him after dishonoring the family name); Arabs still practice honor killings, with brothers killing sisters suspected of dishonoring the family through breaking strict social taboos.

In watching several episodes that concentrate on Klingon culture, I have been paying close attention to identify any differences between them and Arabs.  I’ve found one: Klingons don’t kill innocent civilians.  Where Arabs have gleefully slaughtered airline passengers, Olympic athletes, hotel patrons, bus passengers, mall-goers, and pizza eaters, and passed out candy to children on the streets following high-profile attacks like the 9/11 attacks, the recent roadside massacre of four Israelis near Hebron, and other terrorist assaults on civilians, Klingons confine their belligerence to recognized combatants.  In a recent episode where a group of civilians were killed and the Klingons were suspected of having carried out the attack, Worf indignantly points out that to attack innocent civilians is not an acceptable tactic.  Why?  It would be dishonorable to kill civilians.

Le’mi yesh yoter kavod? In the world of honor, the Klingons—one of the bloodiest, most violent, intractable, death-worshipping species in the universe—have it over the Arabs.

How sad.

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There has been a petition (click here to see and/or sign it) circulating on the Web asking Tony Blair, UK representative of the Quartet, to apply as much pressure as he can muster to allow Magen David Adom (the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross) to visit Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas in captivity for over four years with no contact with the outside world.

I don’t really believe Internet petitions carry much weight.  I don’t think the Taliban was much affected by one circulating a decade or so ago asking it to grant women basic human rights.  And I don’t imagine Hamas (first-cousin to the Taliban) will be moved to clemency by the moral outrage of a few thousand infidels.  I thought about not signing it myself, despite having read about it on a blog and receiving a direct appeal via email.

And then I thought again.

Perhaps this petition will remind the Quartet that Gilad Shalit is still in people’s minds.  Perhaps it will remind the international community that for all the flak Israel gets about being inhumane and violating people’s rights, there is actually an Israeli who was seized in a cross-border raid (international law, anyone?) who has been held captive by those poor helpless souls in Gaza, and has been denied contact with his family or with MDA (also in violation of international law).  Perhaps it will rattle the consciences of those who purport to be stalwart champions of human rights, reminding them that there is one prisoner whose rights have been violated, whom they have willfully ignored for four long years.  Perhaps it will remind the world that his captors are terrorists who live outside international and every other kind of law, and that perhaps it is a mistake to treat them as though they are normalized national leaders and rational actors on the world stage.

Hamas has successfully kept Shalit’s location a secret.  For a time, there were rumors he had been spirited to Egypt, though now it is believed that he is somewhere in the Gaza Strip.  It was hoped that Operation Cast Lead would turn him up, or that a cease-fire would include provisions for his return.  The demands for the release of thousands of Arab prisoners from Israeli prisons, including those responsible for masterminding or carrying out terror attacks that murdered Israeli citizens, is a travesty.  Not only do such demands (or the satisfaction of them) make a mockery of the rule of law in Israel; they ensure that such criminals and terrorists will be back to work Sunday morning at 9:00 AM to do what they do best: kill innocent people.

While most people in Israel don’t necessarily agree that Shalit should be freed at any cost, no one can deny the agony Shalit’s family have lived in for the past four years, wondering where their son is, if he is whole, or even alive.  Their public presence and pleas to any and every world leader, dignitary, or person likely to have contact with Hamas add to the nation’s pain.  Several of Israel’s soldiers have disappeared without a trace and have been missing for decades: Zecharya Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz have been missing since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in Lebanon in 1982; Ron Arad was captured after his plane was shot down in Lebanon in 1986; Guy Hever was last seen at his army base in the Golan Heights in 1997; Majdy Halabi was last seen at a hitchhiking stop in Daryat El Karmel in 2005; and Gilad Shalit was abducted in the area of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom in 2006.

Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu must weigh the various factors of military morale, the government’s duty to redeem its soldiers, the understandable anguish of the boy’s parents, the current, (at best) shaky peace prospects, the safety of the Israeli populace, and his reelection prospects.  Tony Blair has none of these concerns.  Perhaps this may increase the likelihood of the petition’s success, at least in encouraging him to apply pressure.  Whether that pressure would ever result in any positive results is considerably less likely.  (Blair is, after all, a soft Western infidel.)

When I pray, I don’t necessarily expect an answer.  I pray to articulate and make my thoughts and wishes known.  What the Hearer does with that is up to Him.

In that same spirit, perhaps keying one’s name to this petition does not so much ensure results as make our wishes known.  Since all else that has been tried (short of handing explosive belts to Arab terrorists as they file out of prison) has failed, who knows?  Perhaps it may, down the road, as part of some mysterious sequence of events, do some good.

It can’t hurt.

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Back to work

Nine years ago I made the complicated, difficult decision to leave my cushy teaching job in order to stay home with my newborn (first) child.  There were so many factors that figured into that decision: economics (it was cheaper than working and having all my salary—and then some—go to childcare), my desire to be with my baby (breastfeeding, witnessing her milestones, attachment-style parenting), and the very simply-put observation a friend made to me, that I could go out every day and teach other people’s children while paying someone else to teach my child, or I could stay home and teach my own child.

The decision was not an easy one.  First-time parenting was nerve-wracking, worrisome, exhausting, and it took months for my feminist ego to get used to being supported by my husband while being at home.  I knew in my heart that I was making a valuable contribution to the family, both financially and parentally, but it was still difficult.  Through that long first winter, in my sleep-deprived stupor, I would pray for Beans to wet her cloth diaper to give me something to do to kill five minutes.

I’ve been home for many years now.  At various times, I have taken on things that resembled work such as tutoring high school kids in English, and editing a book or divrei Torah for Web publication.  But primarily, I have been at home with my children (and busy enough not to wish for extra diaper changes).  And with each successive child, I have been able to let go a little more of my own responsibilities, leaving them for an entire day with my husband to attend a funeral in Maine, putting Banana in daycare to attend ulpan, and Bill in same to preserve my sanity and enable me to do errands and home improvement projects (like ripping up carpet or painting a rusting iron fence) during the morning.  The children have all adjusted to whatever I threw their way, and I’ve enjoyed the many different phases motherhood has gone through.

And now I’m embarking on yet another new phase.  The Cap’n recently started a new job with an Israeli company.  By Israeli standards, he’s making a pretty decent salary.  By American standards, he’s panhandling at the Kenmore T stop.  This means that in order to “clear the housekeeping” I need to look for some work.  After considering a few possibilities, I’ve settled on returning to English teaching.  Israel’s education system is, if possible, worse than the American one, and the salaries are even lower.  The only thing that pays less and has as little prestige is—you guessed it—stay-at-home motherhood.  But it’s what I love, it’s what I trained to do (and am still paying off) and it’s the best option to allow me to be at home with my kids in the afternoons and over the summer.  I’ll probably have to cover my hair to teach or substitute.  (Blah.)  I’ll probably need more coursework to get my certification in Israel.  (Double blah.)  But it will provide steady work, a steady trickle of income, and I think I’ll be a much better teacher now, nine years and four kids later than I was before—mellower, more aware of students’ different learning styles and difficulties, and take myself less seriously.

All I need now is a hat that says LIONTAMER on it…

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Why America isn’t #1

I’ve long been a fan of Bill Maher, political commentator and ranter extraordinaire.  I don’t agree with everything he says, and as a frum Jew I would qualify in his book as a superstitious lunatic.  But I still think he identifies many of the cracks in America’s façade that point to its failure to live up to its enormous potential, and delivers a speech about them that makes this sometime American want to weep and laugh at the same time.  (Israel should have an equivalent to Maher; one could make many of the same observations about Israel’s woefully untapped potential.)

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English rant #18: Lay v. lie

Bless me, reader, for I have sinned.  It’s been over a year since my last English rant.  Does that mean that in the past year I have not encountered any new distortions of the English language to annoy me?  If only.

Frankly, I’m surprised at myself for taking this long to address the pervasive misuse of lay and lie.  It’s a rare writer (or speaker) these days who can use them correctly.  Their main difference?  Lay is a transitive verb (i.e. takes an object, as in you lay something else down), where lie is intransitive, meaning something lies on the table inert, or reflexive, as in “I’m so tired after that foxhunt that I simply MUST lie down.”  The children’s bedtime prayer that begins “Now I lay me down to sleep,” while not conventional in style, is grammatically correct since lay is used with me as an object.  “Now I lie down to sleep” doesn’t scan in the rest of the prayer (which, aside from the trochaic first line, is in iambic tetrameter) and “Now I lay down to sleep” would fail either to scan or to impress the HolyOneBlessedBeHe.  The first line of the closing song in Peter Jackson’s film “The Return of the King” is grammatically correct: “Lay down your sweet and weary head.”  (Whatever I might think of Annie Lennox’s politics, she and Fran Walsh did write a beautiful song, and in proper English.)

What suddenly brought the topic of lay v. lie to mind?  I recently received a forward of some amusing cat pictures from my father which included some witty captions.  As one who detests cats (with only a few notable exceptions), I nonetheless found the captions to complement the photos nicely.  My main complaint?  The spelling was atrocious.  Deliberately atrocious, mind, in the way teenagers and other illiterates use shorthand in written communication, e.g. “THE ART OF DISGUISE: not wurkin so gud,” “YOUR MAMA LOVES U: even if the other kids calls u fat, she knows uz jes fluffy,” and my least favorite, “u lookin 4 trubble? heer we are!”  In the two photos I’ve included in this post, you can see that the individual who compiled this album of kitty kitsch, who seems bilingual in English and Webhand, is seriously challenged by the distinction described in this rant.

Readers, please teach your children the difference between lay and lie, and don’t let them grow up to be people who have too much time on their hands and spend it by displaying their ignorance of the English language aside some pictures of fluffy kitties.

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Afghan village

The following photos of a village in Afghanistan were in an email forwarded to me by my mother.  Village or Habitrail®?  You be the judge.

And you wonder why they can’t find Osama bin Laden.

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I recently finished reading Abba Eban’s Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes (published 1992).  From his childhood to his service in World War II, and into his career as a statesman for the newborn State of Israel, his account is filled with the insights and observations of a scholarly, well-mannered, intelligent thinker and actor.  I admired his work showing other UN ambassadors the layout of the country and the nature of the dispute between Jews and Arabs before the Partition vote, taking part in the  struggles over the ensuing decades in the UN which was marked by increasingly alliance-driven politics, and  I couldn’t help but feel pride at Israel’s many (alas, unsuccessful) attempts to avoid war, especially in light of the current climate which accuses Israel of aggression no matter how it behaves.

There were many passages in which Eban illustrated in a brief encounter the nature of the actors with whom Israel found itself on the world stage.  His meeting with Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, in summer 1947 shows the mentality operating in the Arab world then (and now):

I said that I had a simple suggestion.  If there is a war, there will have to be a negotiation after it.  Why not negotiate before and instead of the war?

Azzam’s reply was indignant but shatteringly candid.  “If you win the war, you will get your state.  If you do not win the war, then you will not get it.  We Arabs once ruled Iran and once ruled Spain.  We no longer have Iran or Spain.  If you establish your state the Arabs might one day have to accept it, although even that is not certain.  But do you really think we have the option of not trying to prevent you from achieving something that violates our emotion and our interest?  It is a question of historic pride.  There is no shame in being compelled by force to accept an unjust and unwanted situation.  What would be shameful would be to accept this without attempting to prevent it.  No, there will have to be a decision, and the decision will have to be by force.”

His wit and chutzpah are also reflected in tales of his encounters with unsympathetic powers such as the Soviet Union in the form of Ambassador Andrei Vyshinski:

A vice presidency of the General Assembly of the United Nations is not an onerous function, but it did bring me into frequent proximity with the heads of the major powers at dinner parties and consultations.  At one of these functions, having watched Vyshinski’s lavish absorption of vodka, I decided to take advantage of his amiability to pose a question: “Tell me, Andrei Andreyevitch, why don’t you let the Soviet Jews emigrate?  What does it really matter to the Soviet Union?”

His reply: “What are you talking about?  If the Jews leave, everybody will want to leave!”

The next morning, in the cold light of sobriety, he sought contact with me very early and said anxiously: “I hope you understand that yesterday was joke.”  Then with great formality, “Since was only joke I assume Your Excellency did not send telegram…”  I left him in suspense for a castigatory moment and assured him that My Excellency had not cabled his heretical words.  Siberia receded from his horizon.

Above all, Personal Witness at many points was a lesson in the political dictum, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Some examples include when Israel was accused of exacerbating the violence of Jordanian cross-border attacks by retaliating (recall the international response to Operation Cast Lead); Egypt’s belief in 1967 in its right to “exercise ‘rights of war’ against Israel, while claiming immunity from any Israeli ‘acts of war’ against themselves” (reference the Palestinian Terror War, when the world’s indifference to terror attacks on Israeli civilians contrasted with its loud condemnation of IDF incursions into terror cells in Jenin and Bethlehem and construction of the security fence); and the PLO’s shift from terrorist tactics to the political arena where they made enormous gains by repackaging the conflict from an Israeli-Arab one to an Israeli-Palestinian one, where “Israel was now portrayed as powerful, sated, established, and recognized, while the Palestinians were by contrast dispossessed, bitter, dissatisfied, and implacable.  The current of world opinion flowed away from the embattled victor toward the defeated aggressor.”  I have also heard many times in the past 15 years Israelis discounting the importance of Israel’s alliance with the United States.  Whether because they find themselves frequently exasperated with the U.S.’s pressure on Israel to act in American interests at the expense of Israeli interests, or for pettier reasons (puffed-up pride, anti-Western feelings, etc.), I appreciated a thought experiment proposed by Eban in this context: “Imagine that some natural disaster were to cut America and Israel off from contact with each other; there would be no telephones or postal services, no commerce or tourism, no monetary transactions between the two countries.  Who would notice it first?”

My impression from reading the book is that Eban was happiest, and most in his element, in the foreign service.  That milieu seemed best suited to his cosmopolitan sensibilities, gave ample voice for his considerable rhetorical skills, and kept him far away from the rough-and-tumble of Israeli domestic politics.  This stint as Foreign Minister took him through the UN vote for the Partition Plan, its recognition of the State of Israel, the War of Independence, the 1956 Suez-Sinai War, the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War.

It came to a disappointing end for him in 1974 with Golda Meir’s resignation, after which he resumed his Labor Party duties as a member of the Knesset.  In this period, his narrative leaves the lofty world of international diplomacy and enters the viper pit of Israeli domestic politics.  Not only are his descriptions of his rivals and enemies in the Israeli government withering, but his relative discontent in his new inferior role is palpable to the reader.  After Likud’s meteoric rise to the government in 1977, the greatest obstacles to peace in Eban’s mind were no longer the Arabs (who, no matter what proposals are put to them to make peace, always refuse) but Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and the Israeli people who voted for them.  Eban describes Begin as a phony and an am ha’aretz (a rube), with “courtly Polish manners,” a deft hand at flipping a kippah on and off his head depending on his audience, and a pathetic ignorance of protocol.  Likud’s disinterest in giving away the territories acquired in the Six Day War earned it his scorn and disapproval, and the settlement movement is described as a diplomatic mistake indistinguishable from insanity and national suicide.  In describing the 1978 Camp David Accords as having language built in which call for negotiations with Jordan and the Palestinians toward establishing a Palestinian state alongside peace with Egypt, he bitterly assigns blame for the lack of implementation of this part of the accords to Begin, and only mentions many pages later that the Palestinians had no interest in participating in the requisite negotiations either.  Early in the book, he rejects the pat labels of “hawk” and “dove” to describe political leaders, explaining that “To be invariably in favor of military solutions is just as absurd as to be unrealistically opposed to any use of force in situations of conflict.”  One of the more disappointing turns he takes is constantly applying those very labels to describe the Likud and Labor parties’ platforms and leaders in later years.

His descriptions of the abuses of the Palestinian Arabs by the Israeli government and army draw from the most extreme examples.  His indignation at the absence of equal rights for Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza ignores the fact that in order to provide them with full rights, those lands would have to be annexed by Israel, something he strongly opposed.  To leave the lands in a suspended state indefinitely, with no clear governance, no clear status as to borders, as an effective “hot potato” which neither Egypt nor Jordan would take back even in exchange for peace, is impossible to understand.  While Realpolitik demands that the Arabs here have SOMEWHERE to live, the fact that 242 does not call for a retreat to June 4, 1967 lines, the fact that the Arabs have refused every offer of land made to them from these territories (and show every sign of walking away soon from Obama’s Washington talks with nothing but a show of pouting obstinacy and threats of self-destruction), and the fact that—hard though it may be for people like Eban to recognize—given the state of unremitting war we’ve been at with these particular Arabs, the presence of the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza are Israel’s only guarantee of safety from the increasingly well-armed, fundamentalist Muslim, Iran-sponsored terrorists who infest them.  Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s vice PM and Minister of Strategic Affairs, recently observed that when discussing territorial compromise with the Palestinian Arabs, if we’re talking about peace, the West Bank has plenty of room.  If we’re talking about a continuation of the conflict, it’s more complicated.

Overall I enjoyed this book (particularly the first two-thirds or so).  Eban’s mastery of the English language was a rare pleasure to read.  His accomplishments in academia, history and diplomacy were impressive.  His accounts of meetings with high-level government officials from all over the world (in which he clearly reveled) were fascinating, and the collegiality he shared with his equals and staff in the Israeli foreign service was heartening to read.

I recently reviewed Eban’s My People: The Story the Jews, which I found well-paced, uncluttered, inspiring (without being too adulatory), and beautifully written.  But in Personal Witness, the reader gets to know Eban better as an individual, and sees that while Eban was motivated in his career by his care and concern for the Jewish people and Israel, his secular Jewish beliefs and inflexible attitude toward the more academic, high falutin world of diplomacy made it difficult—if not impossible—for him to understand the beliefs and behavior of disenfranchised Sefardi and Mizrachi Jews, settlers, and Orthodox or haredi Jews.  Yet despite his distaste for these sectors of the Israeli population, he himself descends into imbecilic rapture in describing the Labor victory in 1992: “It was the end of the Likud era for years, perhaps a decade.  The Zionism of the founders had returned.  It would be pragmatic, visionary, terse in expression, concrete in affairs and alive to the movement and the impulse of the modern age.  Rejoice, beloved country!  Israel had come home to itself.”

Of course, it is easy to criticize Eban nearly 20 years after this book was written.  I have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  There was no way for him to know that Rabin’s administration wouldn’t last more than four years, that Oslo would end such a colossal failure, and that Labor would find itself marginalized by the creation of Kadima and the nation’s disgust with the worn-out formula of “land for peace.”  Or was there?  I can’t help asking myself whether despite Eban’s careful study of Arabic, Arab history, and the Koran, he had a poor understanding of the Arabs’ attitude toward Israel’s presence in the Middle East.  As far as wishing it gone, he understood that.  But reading the Israeli side of the decades-long conflict feels like only half the story, and I couldn’t help but feel that the whole time Israel debated what to do with the territories and the Arabs living on them, there seemed little insight on the part of Eban and the Labor Party into what the concurrent debates were in the Palestinian Arab camp.  It’s as though each decision was made in a vacuum, in a state of communication blackout, where the only contacts that ever surfaced between the two sides were offers made and rejected.  (I wonder if there is an honest, polemic-free account of the inside of the PLO/PA during that time.  Anyone?)

And too there is the temptation to wonder what Eban would have said after Camp David in 2000, when Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat nearly everything he asked, and was turned down?  What would he have said in 2007, when Israel marked the 40th anniversary of its possession of Hebron, Shilo, Jericho, Gush Etzion, Beit El, and Shechem, which also marked 40 years of unsuccessful peace negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs?  He was very good at reckoning the numbers of lives lost in war and the number saved by peace; what would he think of the number of Israeli civilian lives lost in “peace” since Oslo?

There is one passage that I will remember well, not only because it comes at the end of the book, but because of its saliency.  Eban writes,

When I asked Anwar Sadat why he made the astonishing transition from the denial of Israel’s existence to the conclusion of a peace treaty, he said simply: “Because you had my land.  I tried every way to recover it without the hazard of making peace: I tried UN action, four-power, three-power, two-power pressure.  I tried war, armistice, international condemnation.  I reached the answer that only by peace could I recover my land.”

If only Arafat, or now Abbas, could reach the same conclusion.  The calculus of how many Israeli lives could have been saved by giving away land to the Palestinians at any time since 1967 is impossible to figure.  Could it have prevented the first Lebanon War?  The Intifada?  The brutal attacks in the 1990s (the Oslo War)?  The Palestinian Terror War of the early 2000s?  Or would giving away the West Bank have resulted in the same sort of non-peace Israel got for unilaterally withdrawing from southern Lebanon and Gaza?  The Left would have us believe the former; the Right, the latter.

Eban’s book sheds intriguing light on the events in the first half of Israel’s existence, while his commentary on the later years seems shadowed by doubt and uncertainty.  Whether this is because he wrote the book chronologically and was beginning to feel his age when writing the latter part of the book, or because he simply couldn’t see well enough what currents were running through Israeli and Arab society, is unclear.  In the end, his honesty in titling the book “Israel Through My Eyes,” thereby acknowledging his own limitations as an actor and reporter, is one of its chief strengths.

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The challenge of recognition

For some weeks, I have been making my plodding, gradual way through Abba Eban’s Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes (published 1992).  In addition to being one of the chief architects of the newborn State of Israel (chiefly in the area of diplomacy, at one time serving simultaneously as Ambassador to the U.S. and Ambassador to the U.N.), and perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for the Left I’ve ever read, he was a master of the English language, the bon mot, and the quotable quip.  (Some may have heard one of his more famous expressions, that “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”)  I have read his positions on international and domestic issues with interest, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, but always learning more about the complexity of each difficult choice Israel has had to make in its history.

One passage in the book caught my eye in particular, since it is an issue that comes up repeatedly as Israel and the PA dance the two-step around even the thought of sitting down to negotiate peace: the demand of Israel that the PA formally recognize Israel’s “right to exist.”  I have written about this in the past, disparagingly, and Eban seems to have thought along similar lines:

In articles in the world press, I took sharp issue with the Israeli and American demand for PLO “recognition of Israel’s right to exist.”  I considered this to be demeaning for Israel.  Under the UN General Assembly Resolution 273 admitting Israel to membership in the United Nations, we were a peace-loving state equal in sovereignty to the United States, the Soviet Union and all the other Charter signatories.  How could we solicit an organization of vastly inferior international standing to recognize our right to exist?  Our government was asking the Palestinians for what was the hardest thing for them to do and the least useful thing for us to receive.  I wrote that Israel’s right to exist was independent of anyone’s recognition of it and that no self-respecting nation had ever put its own legitimacy to challenge long after the world community had recognized its sovereignty.  Later, when Menachem Begin announced his cabinet to the Knesset in June 1977, I had the satisfaction of hearing him support the view that Israel should never ask anyone to “recognize its right to exist.”

And yet when I read this passage aloud to the Cap’n, the following conversation ensued:

Cap’n:   Hmmmm.

Me:   Don’t you think that makes sense?  Who are the Palestinian Arabs to recognize or not recognize us?  Why do we need their recognition?

Cap’n:   We don’t.

Me:   Then why do you think Israel is so stuck on this idea?

Cap’n:   Because formal recognition of Israel by the PA would mean the end of the conflict.

The Cap’n is right, of course.  It’s not about “recognition” at all, at least in the sense of their admitting that we are here and that they’ve thus far failed to drive us away.  But to recognize Israel in the political sense, aloud, formally, and for all the world to hear, would amount to a renunciation of their goal to stamp us out—something they agreed to do in 1993 by altering the PLO Charter, but have never done.

A reader asked me recently whether Abbas might not prove to be a pragmatist after all, and see peace as within the interests of the Palestinian people.  I replied that Abbas has not officially renounced violence against Israel, even calling last week’s Hamas-claimed murder of four Israelis (including the much-loved special ed. gan teacher whom I sometimes used to see when dropping Banana off at her gan next door last year) an “operation” rather than an “attack.”  As long as violence is judged to be either in or not in the Palestinian people’s interests, and not morally wrong, I see little chance of an end to the conflict.  To give away land for a nation of people sworn to our destruction without receiving any confirmation of their intention to respect our sovereignty, borders, and right to security, would be suicidal for Israel.  Because once we do so, there is no going back for Israel, either.  If we don’t get all the assurances of security up front, we can’t ask for them later.  Eban also writes, “Whenever agreements are discussed between Israel and an Arab state, the question ‘Can they be trusted?’ always arises on our side.  In such agreements Israel renounces concrete possession in return for behavioral assurances.”  And those assurances have all too often been violated.

The Cap’n and I learned from a talk given recently by Col. (res.) Dany Tirza that the peace offer made by Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Yasser Arafat in 2000 was turned down not because it was insufficiently generous, but because Barak insisted that with this offer had to come an end to the conflict.  Who makes peace with the understanding that the war will continue indefinitely?

If that is what recognition of Israel really means, then I begin to understand its centrality in any discussion of peace.

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One thing I’ve learned about the Jewish world (especially in Israel) is the power of memory.  Jews aren’t supposed to forget things: the exodus from Egypt, that we were once strangers in a strange land, the widow and the orphan.  And we keep days in the calendar on which we remember events such as the destruction of the Temples (Tisha B’Av), the Shoah, the soldiers and victims of terror who have fallen in Israel, the trees (Tu B’Shvat), our deliverance from destruction in Persia (Purim).

Memory is collective, but also more personal.  I remember the bumper crop of Chabad kindergartners named Menachem Mendel about 5 years after the Lubavitcher Rebbe died.  And last night at dinner Beans told us there is a new girl in her class.  Her name is Shalhevet, and she lives in…  I knew before the word was out of Beans’s mouth.  Hevron.  Because in the spring of 2001 (when the Cap’n and I were visiting Israel and I was pregnant with Beans) an Arab terrorist shot Shalhevet Pass, age 10 months, in her stroller as she was out with her family in their hometown of Hevron.  She was one of the early victims of the Palestinian Terror War that stretched from Arafat’s refusal to end the conflict at Camp David in 2000 until 2006.

There is a feeling where I live that things are heating up again.  There is a new solid wall going up next to the Tunnel Road into Jerusalem.  Three Israeli policemen were killed in their vehicle near Hevron a couple of months ago.  Four Israelis were murdered on the road to their village two nights ago, including a couple with six children (the mother was pregnant with their seventh); a newly wedded husband; and a wife and mother of a young daughter.  And now, I read that two more Israelis have been wounded on the road.  To remember the more than 1000 Israelis killed since the “peace process” began, the Efrat chat list has been carrying a conversation about establishing a memorial to the victims of terror, many of whom lived in Efrat.

I sometimes try to remember what it was like to forget.  The daily reminders that there are no borders, no security, no peace, make living here a fatiguing experience.  And yet I remember hearing about Sigmund Freud’s battle with cancer of the jaw.  His doctor prescribed opiates for the pain (sort of like what living in America was for me), but when he tried to take them, it made his mind go fuzzy and numb.  In the end, he chose to go without the drugs, preferring to remain clear-headed and to feel the full joy of life, dealing with the pain as best he could.  I know if I were to go back to America to try to escape the sadness, the anxiety, the anger, I wouldn’t stay.  I might enjoy a break of a few days, a week or two, and then want to be back on a plane again.  The joy of living here, even with all of the sorrow, is too great.  So we live with the memories, and the present, as best we can.

Perhaps some good will come of Netanyahu’s meeting with Abbas, though we all doubt it here.  What matters most is that we’re here.

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A picture tells…

1000 words.  But are those words always true?

Some may remember the Mohammed Al-Dura photo that appeared during the Palestinian Terror War (known more popularly–and less accurately–as the Second Intifada).  Here it is:

While the story originally told about it was that the boy and his father, cowering in terror, were being fired upon by the IDF in a gunfight with Arab terrorists, an investigation later showed that the Al-Duras, who were ultimately shot and killed, were actually shot by Arabs.

Pictures tell a story, but pictures like this one, taken out of any context at all, don’t always tell an accurate one.  Such a picture can be easily staged; just take a couple of friends out to a culvert by a wall, have them sit down and look scared, and snap the photo.  As it happens, this photo was real, though it doesn’t say anything about why they were cowering, or what happened in the end, and who did it.  The story behind it that was originally published?  A fabrication, a distortion.

Here is another picture:

It even has a caption to help the reader understand what he or she is looking at.  The only problem is that the caption is a lie.  The “Palestinian” in the foreground, dazed and bleeding after a beating, was not beaten by the Israeli policeman in the background.  And he’s not Palestinian.  He is Tuvia Grossman, a Jewish student from Chicago who was visiting Israel in 2000 when he found himself face to face with an Arab mob who beat him to within an inch of his life.  The policeman in the background, Gidon Tzefadi, actually saved his life.  Here is a video explaining what happened both from Grossman’s point of view and from Tzefadi’s:

Rosh Hashana is nearly upon us.  This is a time when we are judged for our actions, and when we pray to be judged fairly.  As we look ahead to the new year beginning, we also pray for the wisdom and compassion to judge others fairly.  One way to achieve this laudable goal is to shut our ears to rumors, and await credible evidence before believing slanderous tales.  As it happens, these actions should be applied to the media as much as to our friends and neighbors.  The Israeli government, its army, and its citizens sometimes do things that don’t make us proud.  These things have a way of appearing in the press early, and in the worst possible light.  However, I have found that it is worth reserving judgment until more of the facts are available, because a picture can tell a story.  It’s just sometimes the wrong one.

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