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Archive for May, 2011

Daniel Gordis, author of Saving Israel (which I reviewed last year) and able spokesman for Israel (even if you don’t agree with everything he says) spoke to a recent delegation of J Street’s Leadership Mission to Israel.  Although he was encouraged by other advocates for Israel not to address them, he took the opportunity to make good on his principle of talking to people he doesn’t necessarily agree with, and to say to their faces exactly why he disagrees with them.  It was a smack-down of the highest order, and entirely worthy of Gordis and Israel’s cause.  (My, my.  Bibi and Danny kicking tushie for Israel in less than a week.  Be still, my beating heart.)  Here are a couple of highlights:

You believe that people who are not willing to make major territorial concessions to the Palestinians right now are not serious about a two-state solution. You think that those of us who claim that we favor a two-state solution but who are not willing to give up the store at this moment are bluffing. Or we’re liars. Or, at best, we’re well-intentioned but misguided. But bottom line, if we’re not willing now to make the concessions that you think are called for, then we’re not really pursuing peace.

But that is arrogance of the worst sort. Does your distance from the conflict give you some moral clarity that we don’t have? Are you smarter than we are? Are you less racist? Why do you assume with such certainty that you have a monopoly on the wisdom needed to get to the goal we both seek?

. . . . .

I still remember the first time I was struck by this tendency of yours to assail Israel when you’d been silent about what Israel’s enemies were doing. It was the first day of the Gaza war at the end of 2008. Sderot had been shelled intermittently for eight years, and relentlessly in the days prior to the beginning of the war. It was obvious that this couldn’t go on, for the first obligation of states to their citizens is to protect them.

For years, Israel had been failing the citizens of Sderot. But when Israel finally decided to do what any legitimate state would do, J Street immediately called for a cessation of hostilities. The war was only hours old, nothing had been accomplished and the citizens of Sderot were still no safer than they had been. But J Street had had enough.

Why? Why had you said almost nothing for all the years that Sderot was being shelled, but within hours of the war’s beginning were calling for it to end? What matters more to you – the safety of Israel’s citizens, or advancing your own moral agenda in our region of the world?

. . . . .

If the way that you’re framing the issues is no longer the way that Israelis and Palestinians are discussing them, is it possible that you are not even addressing the core issues that matter to the people actually in the conflict? Perhaps the time has come to ask yourselves what matters to you more: actually moving the policy needle, or assuaging your own discomfort with the undeniably painful complexities of this conflict. If what you want to do is affect policy, how effective would you say you’ve been thus far?

Read the rest for yourself.  You won’t be sorry.

(hat tip: Jeff W.)

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I mentioned in a recent post that I was thinking of instituting a feature on the blog that would be a departure from the frequent politics and angst one finds in my quadrant of the blogging universe.  After some thought, I have hit on Feel-good Friday (I actually accidentally typed “Feel-food Friday”; Freud said there are no such things as errors, and I have always agreed with that).  From now on, Friday at Shimshonit will be something upbeat, funny, or extremely tasty.  We should all have something jolly to take into Shabbat with us.

So for this auspicious occasion, I’ve decided to go for funny and share my family’s recent favorite short subject, “The Ultimate Dog-Tease.”  Dog-owners will howl with recognition, and those whose feelings about dogs range from indifferent to hostile will enjoy some sadistic pleasure.

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So here’s the video of Bibi’s speech for those (like me) who missed it live.  For those who want to see how a speech is made, have a watch.  Poise, careful wording, balance between stressing the hopes and the perils ahead — it’s all there.  I don’t agree with everything Bibi believes (or says he believes), but this was one of those times when I’m glad he’s our prime minister.

(The video is in four parts; I found a one-link video uploaded to YouTube, but it had simultaneous Hebrew translation that was a bit annoying.  Daniel Sass of Efrat has uploaded the speech in four parts and, unlike many who do this sort of thing, didn’t miss a word.  Kudos, Daniel.)

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Today, Bibi addresses the Congress of the United States.  But last night, Bibi addressed AIPAC.  Without showing too many of his cards, he did what Bibi does best: break down the issues into clear, understandable pieces and address them, one by one.  You can read a transcript of his address to AIPAC here in its entirety, but the part I wanted to note here is what he said in response to President Obama’s persistent belief in linkage, i.e. the direct connection between Israel and Islamism, terror, and Middle Eastern unrest:

For many of the peoples of the region, the 20th century skipped them by.  And now 21st century technology is telling them what they missed out on.  You remember that desperate food vendor in Tunis?  Why did he set himself on fire?  Not because of Israel.  He set himself on fire because of decades of indignity, decades of intolerable corruption.

And the millions who poured into the streets of Tehran, Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa, Benghazi, Damascus, they’re not thinking about Israel.  They’re thinking of freedom.  They’re yearning for opportunity.  They’re yearning for hope for themselves and for their children.  So it’s time to stop blaming Israel for all the region’s problems.

Let me stress one thing.  Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a vital interest for us.  It would be the realization of a powerful and eternal dream.  But it is not a panacea for the endemic problems of the Middle East.  It will not give women in some Arab countries the right to drive a car.  It will not prevent churches from being bombed.  It will not keep journalists out of jail.

What will change this?  One word: Democracy – real, genuine democracy.  And by democracy, I don’t just mean elections.  I mean freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, the rights for women, for gays, for minorities, for everyone.  What the people of Israel want is for the people of the Middle East to have what you have in America, what we have in Israel — democracy.  So it’s time to recognize this basic truth.  Israel is not what’s wrong with the Middle East.  Israel is what’s right about the Middle East.

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There have been ample and immediate reactions to US President Barack Obama’s recent speech about the changes in the Middle East.  After surfacing from the festivities of Shabbat and Lag B’Omer, I’d like to share my own thoughts.

I appreciate that as the leader of the free world, Obama sees America’s fortunes intertwined with those of people elsewhere in the world.  America enjoys a comfortable distance from the countries in turmoil, but at least Obama has absorbed the lesson from 9/11 that even when you don’t got looking for trouble, sometimes trouble has a way of coming to find you.  His talk of looking for ways to shore up the economies of the Middle Eastern countries after their changes in government and encourage the expansion of individual liberties (without the delusion of establishing American-style democracies where that is neither conceivable nor the popular will) is appropriate.  Whether such investment of time and treasure will prove fruitful remains to be seen.

But Obama has certain blind spots that cannot be ignored.  He is very willing to see the evil in Al Qaeda terror, but less willing to recognize that same hate, bloodlust, and will to destroy in the Palestinian Authority.  When he said, “Bin Laden … was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate – an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change” and that Bin Laden “rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy – not what he could build,” he could easily have substituted Mahmoud Abbas’s name for Bin Laden’s.  Yes, Abbas makes a show of being a “peace partner,” but that has to be seen in context.  The PLO has been in the terror business longer than Al Qaeda, invented airline highjacking, and has traditionally responded to concrete offers of peace with refusal and more violence.  But since terrorism’s failure to make Israel go away, the PA has adopted new methods.  For Abbas, appealing to the international community and double-speak is the new terrorism, made easier by an eager willingness on the part of the West to sympathize with the Arabs based on racist double standards for behavior (dark-skinned people must follow their nature and commit violent acts to express their anger and frustration, while light-skinned people must observe every rule of restraint in handling theirs), belief in the Arabs’ false narrative of victimhood (which in fact is simply the Arabs’ failure to annihilate the Jews), and participation in a campaign intended to cripple Israel economically, politically, and intellectually.  And none of this rules out Abbas’s commitment to teaching hatred and inciting violence against Israel, or his willingness to allow terror attacks to resume at any time, claiming that he cannot control the rage of his people or curb their freedom to express themselves through bloodletting.  Obama adds that before Bin Laden’s assassination, “al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life.”  Why Obama believes that the PA is still relevant outside the territories inhabited by Palestinians, or that the PA answers the need of its constituents for a better life, is never explained.

Obama has also stubbornly refused to see the corruption and oppression in other Middle Eastern countries before the start of the “Arab Spring,” including that of Bashar Assad in Syria.  (Sidebar: See Barry Rubin’s discussion of the term “Arab Spring.”  It’s an eye-opener.)  After Assad quashed Lebanon’s government (only recently freed of the Syrian yoke after the Beirut Spring of 2005), installing Syrian-supported, Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah in the government and near the border with Israel and assassinating Lebanon’s own democratically elected prime minister, Obama recently reopened an American embassy in Damascus, normalizing relations between the two countries, and Hillary Clinton, just weeks before Assad’s forces opened fire on his own, unarmed civilians, called him “a reformer.”  This is not foreign policy, or Realpolitik.  It’s delusional.

Obama also stressed in his speech the importance of ensuring freedom of religion and of women to enjoy equal status with men in these turbulent Arab societies.  While churches have been burned and Coptic Christians slaughtered in Egypt, and Christians everywhere concerned about their future in these revolutionary Arab states, Bethlehem is no longer a Christian city.  Because of Muslim harassment, Christians who have the means have fled the country.  And has the PA honored its commitment as part of the Oslo “peace” agreement to allow Jews access to their holy sites?  Well, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem is surrounded by a heavily secure bunker to protect worshipers and pilgrims from attack, there is a long list of Jewish worshipers denied access to Joseph’s Tomb in Ramallah, and just a couple of weeks ago a Palestinian policeman shot and murdered a Jewish worshiper at the tomb (yelling “Allahu akbar!” as he did so), so it’s apparent they haven’t.  As for equal rights for women – well, in Arab society, that’s as likely as a peaceful gay pride parade through the streets of Mecca.

And regarding Israel and the Arabs here, Obama repeats the same slogans he has always repeated: the need to cast off “the burdens of the past,” the unsustainability of the status quo, the need of Arabs to “recognize” Israel, and the need of Israel to take “bold” steps for peace.  These have been used in speeches so often, I’m not even sure what they mean anymore.  The “burdens of the past” seems to be a euphemism for history, and that cannot be changed or ignored by anyone, least of all Jews and Arabs with long memories.  (Americans, on the other hand, have a well-earned reputation for forgetting history.)  It is undesirable to continue things the way they are, but since they’ve been this way for 44 years (longer, if one’s memory or knowledge of history goes back before 1967), why is davka this year the year things much change, especially when none of the other factors have altered?  Arabs could save a huge amount of time by simply saying they recognize Israel, then reneging on that recognition and proceeding with their plans to destroy it.  (I’m surprised they haven’t thought of this, since reneging on promises is something they’ve elevated to a fine art.)  And Israel’s “bold steps” always involve more territorial concessions and lower security, which result in wars and increased terror attacks.

But when hope springs eternal, and the hopeful have been encouraged by what they believe will be positive changes across the Middle East, it’s hard to contain one’s enthusiasm.  When dictators are in peril, it can only mean one thing to hopeful people: the dawn of universal democracy and peace.  Simple regime change, from one corrupt, oppressive, power-hungry regime to another, is not part of Obama’s imagined outcome of the Arab Spring, but rather the belief that a “region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people – not just a few leaders – must believe peace is possible.”  “Must” believe it possible – the language of hope, not certainty (or even likelihood).

Where I think Obama nails reality is in a comment he makes about how the “international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome.”  That’s really it, isn’t it?  I’ve suspected for years that the occasional frenzies of American presidents to solve the problems of the Middle East (using the same language, tactics, demands every time) are really an attempt to get the problem off everyone’s desk.  The fact that none of them seems to understand the problems here, and that no one can be bothered to adhere to prior agreements (the San Remo Conference, UNSC Resolution 242, Oslo) is a damper and a side issue which is more comfortable to overlook than to overcome.  When talks break down over real issues, the international community chooses to take it as a personal affront, as though Arab incitement and Jewish settlement building take place for no other reason than to undo the international community’s hard work.

In trying to be seen as an impartial broker, Obama may see it as his job to overlook these issues, but from Israel’s perspective, this is irresponsible and flies in the face of his professed friendship for Israel.  An effective foreign policy necessitates knowing one’s enemy.  I’m sure America turned a cold, analytical eye on Bin Laden, his activities and his movements, and this eventually reaped the reward of finding and killing him.  But Israel, too, knows its enemies.  It lives next door (and sometimes among) us.  We have had long experience with them, some peaceful and fruitful, but much deadly and dangerous.  We know what they teach their kids.  We know from polls how they feel about suicide bombings (68% support them), Palestinian suffering (71% blame the Jews for Arab suffering after 1948), and Israelis in general (over 62% “believe Jews are a foreign imprint on the Middle East and are destined to be replaced by Palestinians,” with a similar percentage believing that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state).  We know how they feel about terrorism (the PA recently named a square in Ramallah for Dalal Mughrabi, a terrorist responsible for the deaths of 37 civilians inside the Green Line, and the PA has just passed a law granting convicted Palestinian and Israeli Arab terrorists in Israeli prisons monthly salaries, with those serving sentences of more than 20 years receiving higher salaries, to be paid from the day of arrest until release).  Obama’s call for Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders (including land swaps), which was already worked out in 2000 and again in 2008 and still rejected by the Arabs, is simply a return to the borders that led to the 1967 war.  With his own statement, that “technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself,” how many more of these wars does he think Israel can survive?  (See this video for a tutorial on why the 1949 Armistic lines, aka the June 4, 1967 borders are indefensible; hat tip: Westbankmama).  And how does Obama think a Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will be “contiguous” without some arrangement for travel between them through Israeli territory?

The real upshot of Obama’s talk of borders and security as preconditions to talks is more of what bothers me about the whole “peace process”: Arabs get land, and Jews get promises.  Land, once given, cannot be taken back.  Promises once made are easily broken and, like the San Remo Resolution, forgotten by the rest of the world.  Obama talks of “provisions … to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security,” and in the next sentence calls for the “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces … with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility.”  More promises, and more farfetched assumptions.  For Israel to trust that the people sworn to its destruction are to be handed control of the borders with Arab states that have so far (at least in Egypt, and weak Jordan could just as easily join in) proved highly cooperative in importing weapons and materiel to Palestinian terrorists to be used against Israel is wildly optimistic at best, mad at worst.  And the final two gut-wrenching issues, i.e. the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees (using the current UN revised definition which includes all descendents of those displaced by the war), involve, again, the Jews giving the Arabs stuff in exchange for – what?  More promises?

There have been alternative peace plans suggested by right-wing Israelis (to annex the West Bank and either make the Arabs there citizens or not) and, of course, there is the Arab longterm strategy, which is to challenge Israel’s legitimacy in international fora with a view toward chipping away at Israel’s territory, rights of self defense, and perhaps very existence.  (A body which, they believe, voted a noxious country into existence can just as easily vote it out of existence.)

I don’t have a solution that will please everyone.  I don’t necessarily know what would end the conflict forever (short of a major change in the Palestinian Arab narrative, or universal Israeli withdrawal to the Mediterranean).  What I do know is that the current peace plans represent concession of too much land for Israelis, and too much peace for the Arabs.  Exchanging land for hopes, promises, and “assurances,” as that done with Egypt, Gaza, and southern Lebanon, and their accompanying failures, should be remembered before Israel is pressured to accept any more such arrangements.

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I received the following message about Lag B’Omer via email from my rav in the US, Rabbi Benjamin Samuels:

This Sunday marks the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag Ba’Omer, the day on which the plague that took the lives of Rabbi Akiva’s students subsided so many years ago.  Lag Ba’Omer is treated as a semi-holiday, and according to Ashkenzic practice, the mourning practices of the Omer are suspended, and according to Ramo, are fully ended.  Haircuts and marriages may take place from here on out. 

Since Lag Ba’omer fall on Sunday this year, many authorities permit haircuts on the preceding Friday, i.e. tomorrow, in honor of the Shabbat.

 This Lag Ba’Omer find a way to celebrate with family and friends.

Traditional practices include bonfires; singing and dancing; studying the Zohar, as it is its inspirational author, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s yahrzeit; pilgrimages to Rabbi Shimon’s burial place atop Mt. Meiron near Tsfat in Israel; first haircuts of three year old boys; roasting whole lambs; and my own childhood favorite, kickball at the park.

Most importantly, we celebrate Lag Ba’Omer as an affirmation that the health and healing of our people relies on our unity and shared destiny and that we can only approach and stand at Sinai to receive the Torah, כאיש אחד בלב אחד – as a single body with a common heart.

Wishing all a good Shabbos and a happy Lag Ba’Omer.

Since making aliyah, we’ve learned the ropes about Lag B’Omer in the Zionist Paradise.  Here are the rules:

1) Start collecting wood well in advance.  Don’t let your kids dismantle park benches (I’ve seen it done), but scrounge around the edge of town to get fallen branches, or save up prunings and yard waste from the year.  (And when foraging, watch out for snakes; they wake up in the spring.)

2) Close all windows prior to sundown.  And keep them closed.

3) Learn the safety rules of bonfires.  The week preceding Lag B’Omer is National Fire Safety Week in Israel, and fire stations all over the country host school groups (I accompanied Banana’s two-year-old gan to the one in Beit Shemesh) and teach the kids how a proper bonfire should be constructed, lit, and extinguished.

4) Find a good spot away from buildings with minimal vegetation near it.

5) Stock up on campfire foods (hot dogs, baked potatoes wrapped in foil, and marshmallows)

6) Bring instruments (guitar, accordion, your voice)

7) Nap the afternoon before.  Especially the kids.  (This should be easy, since this year Shabbat precedes Lag B’Omer.)  Teenagers often stay out all night, and when our kids were out shrieking at nine o’clock in the morning on Lag B’Omer, a neighbor gently informed us that the sanctity of a quiet morning is observed on Lag B’Omer just as it is on Shavuot (when many have the custom of staying up all night studying Torah).

We used to have a lovely (makeshift) bonfire pit near our shul which has since been paved over.  But sabra neighbors (who apparently have firm ideas about bonfires) have found a new spot a little farther away, and the mom and I have coordinated wood, a mangal (portable charcoal grill), and food to make this possibly our most festive Lag B’Omer ever.  Beans asked if we could take a table to eat our food on.  No, honey, with smoke in our hair and soot under our fingernails, this is a dirty-butt venture.

Have a happy, safe Lag B’Omer.

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A tale of aliyah

Westbankmama is celebrating her family’s 20th anniversary of aliyah this year.  (Chazak chazak!)  In honor of the occasion (and, I suppose, the Crunch family’s upcoming fifth aliyah anniversary), here is an account of our family’s aliyah.

The Cap’n and I met at a one-year program in Israel in our late 20s (what used to be WUJS-Arad).  He had come to continue his Jewish studies and involvement that had begun in graduate school a few years before.  I had come, after a lifetime in a mixed-married household with little or no Judaism, to begin mine.  It was my first visit to the country and his second.  Although neither of us had grown up in Zionist homes, we both found ourselves deeply affected by the country, and our time here solidified our Jewish identities and observance.

But it was not yet time to think about aliyah.  We were not ready to put that much physical distance between ourselves and our families, nor to contend with the realities of the language, culture shock, the rabbinate (both for my necessary halachic conversion and for our marriage), and finding a community into which to integrate.  We were still new to Orthodox Judaism and chose to marry and settle in the much more familiar U.S. for the foreseeable future.

And yet throughout the early years of our marriage, we found ourselves having The Conversation every six months to a year.  What about Israel?  Is it time yet?  Should we think about it?  In the first year of our marriage, we took a trip to Israel to visit friends and the country again.  The night we were due to leave, we were both in tears—I while packing, and he while prowling the aisles of the grocery store buying nosh for the plane trip back.  This visit, while a great delight to us, drove home the reality that once we began a family and were paying for day school and college tuition, it was unlikely that we would be able to visit Israel again until the children were out of the house and financially independent.

Finally, after the birth of our third child, we heard a bat kol (voice from heaven).  It wasn’t the supernatural kind one imagines from the Torah; it was disguised in a d’var Torah given by a friend at Kol Nidrei.  In his discussion of the expression timhon levav (confusion of the heart) our friend interpreted the phrase to mean “refraining from doing that which you know is right because it’s easier to stick with the status quo.”  On our walk home that night, we had The Conversation again, and this time decided that it was time to do a little research.  (To our relief, Nefesh B’Nefesh had been invented, which made the preliminary searches, quests for information, and paperwork much easier.)

Within a year, we were on a plane to Israel (plus three kids, three car seats, three carry-ons, and ten boxes of our stuff).  A year after that, the girls were speaking Hebrew, we’d sold our condo in Newton, bought a car here, and were looking for a place to buy.  Two years after aliyah, we moved into our own home in Efrat and a few months later, I gave birth to Bill (at home).

And here we are, five years later.  The Cap’n works for an Israeli company now, the girls can all read Hebrew and leyn (chant) Torah, and we feel with every passing year more and more like Israelis.  Our name is in the phone book, we have Israeli driver’s licenses, I’m a dab hand at head lice removal, our kids know more about Judaism before the age of 10 than we knew at 25, and while we are excited when we travel to America for a visit, we’re even more excited to come back to Israel and our lives here.

I guess we’re home.

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