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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On Sunday evening, after most of the events of Nakba Day had occurred, the Cap’n and I drove to Beit Shemesh for a little R&R.  While prowling through old grocery store (stocking up on things we can’t find in Efrat or Jerusalem), we met up with an acquaintance from our old neighborhood.  After a brief discussion of the day’s news, she told us she’d once been to a talk given by someone who was an expert in positive thinking.  Among the things he said he did to pursue a glass-half-full attitude was the following: “I haven’t read a newspaper in 10 years.  You don’t have to go looking for the news; it will come find you.”

That’s certainly true enough.  And if it doesn’t come find you, maybe it wasn’t worth hearing about after all.  Reading Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz’s interview with President Shimon Peres in last Friday’s paper did little for me but confirm my astonishment at the willful self-delusion of the Israeli Left.  (Horovitz:  So you still see Abbas as a peace partner?  Peres:  Absolutely.)  I’d actually rather I hadn’t read that.

One of my favorite blogs is Jen Yates’s Cake Wrecks.  Jen shares photos of purportedly professionally baked and decorated cakes that shock, amuse, and appall the viewer, accompanied by Jen’s barbed, hilariously witty commentary.  But after a whole week of wrecks, Jen reserves Sunday for the really professional, eye-poppingly masterful cakes, called Sunday Sweets.  These are the weekly reminders that skill, creativity, and good taste still flourish (somewhere) in the professional cake-making world.

I’ve been wondering if it wouldn’t be a good idea to take a day each week and have some such thing on my blog to cleanse the psychological palate from some of the stuff that goes on in the world.  I’ll work out the details later, but to post something amusing, allow me to share the following video of one of Judaism’s premiere comedians (and fellow convert), Yisrael Campbell.  This is the second installment of a series called the Jews Report.  (You can check ’em all out on YouTube.)

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Nakba review

Well, another year, another Nakba Day celebrated, this one with a truck rampage in Tel Aviv (killing one and injuring tens), burning cars and dumpsters in Arab neighborhoods, clashes with IDF all over the country, and attempted border infiltrations from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza.  One Arab teen reportedly died from his injuries in a riot (and, as frequently happens, no one has produced a stiff to prove it), and there are several dead from border infiltration attempts, though whether those were killed by IDF or Southern Lebanese Army is also uncertain.  (The Syrian army at the border did nothing to stop infiltrators into Israel.)  By all measures, this year’s Great Pity Party of Bogus Narrative and Self-Inflicted Misery was a rousing success.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas says it’s a turning point in the Israeli-Arab conflict and proves that Arabs are committed to ending the occupation, and let’s be clear what “occupation” means: When Israel offers to swap land for peace, that won’t end the occupation.  The occupation is not Israel’s control over lands won from Jordan, Syria and Egypt in 1967.  It’s the existence of Israel on the land from the Green Line to the Mediterranean since 1948.  It’s why there’s a Nakba Day every year, it’s why the Arabs have refused every offer of a state made to them, and it’s why Abbas has said that no Jew will ever be allowed to live in a Palestinian state.  (He doesn’t comment on Arabs living in a Jewish state because to him, no Jewish state has a right to exist, and the Palestinian state he aspires to found will comprise all the land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, judenfrei.)  No, the occupation will end when Israel as a sovereign state comes to an end.  This is why pedestrians and motorists in Tel Aviv are targeted, Israel’s borders are disregarded by infiltrators from neighboring countries, and the dead dubbed “martyrs” instead of the rioters that they are.

Whether or not the day’s destruction actually reaps benefits for the Arabs long term, it has made their leadership happy to see their friends and constituents wreak havoc, make asses of themselves, and get killed, because no matter how they behave or how many laws they break, Israel will always get the blame.  (Remember when Israeli soldiers were fired upon from across the Lebanese border last August for simply pruning the bushes?  Israel is already accused of violating international law by firing at rioters trying to cross its borders.)

In the words of the inimitable 5-year-old Banana, “Ach!  When is the Moshiach going to come already?  The Arabs are so annoying!”  (She doesn’t know the half of it.)

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The other night, the Cap’n and I watched Timothy Spall in the 2005 film, “Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.”  Besides being a die-hard Spall fan (I loved him in “Chicken Run,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “All Or Nothing,” and “Shooting the Past”), I had heard a friend praise the film itself.

Based somewhat loosely on the story of Albert Pierrepoint, at one time Great Britain’s premiere executioner in the final days of capital punishment, the action of the film spans Pierrepoint’s application to the Prison Commissioners, his training and longstanding employment with them, including his commission by Field Marshal Montgomery to fly to Germany to preside over the executions of Nazi war criminals.

One of the things the filmmakers sought to emphasize in the film was Pierrepoint’s ethos regarding the corpses of the hanged convicts.  He explains to his assistant that the reason he performs the task of preparing the corpses for burial himself, rather than letting the mortuary staff do it, is because he believes the mortuary staff would not treat the bodies with respect.  In a later scene, to his military assistant in Germany, he becomes indignant and irritable when they execute 13 Nazi war criminals in one day, but are only provided 12 coffins in which to bury the corpses.  (The thirteenth, he is told, is to be shrouded and dumped into a grave sans coffin.)  He vehemently asserts his belief that no matter who they were or what they did, they have paid the price and that once they are hanged, the body is innocent and should be treated with respect.  His insistence on this point convinces the assistant, who slinks off to find another coffin.

While the highly principled Pierrepoint (and I’m talking here about the film Pierrepoint, not the real one who appears to have been more self-serving and slippery) takes pride in his work, using planning and precision to effect the quickest, most instantaneous death, never concerning himself with the crimes his subjects had committed, and always showing compassion for his subjects’ fear of death (even in Germany), the job takes an increasing toll on him as time passes.  The stress he feels as a result of the unprecedented number of hangings he performs in Germany is further ramped up when he finds himself executing a man who maintains his innocence to the end (one of the historically accurate details in the film), and another, a longtime acquaintance of his, who murdered the woman who jilted him in a moment of passion.  When the film ends with a quotation from Pierrepoint’s 1974 autobiography, “I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people,” the filmmakers seek to show that Pierrepoint had become an opponent of the practice.

These two issues, respect for the corpse and capital punishment, make for an interesting paradox.  Is it possible to have both?  Are there some crimes (mass murder, for example) for which capital punishment is appropriate, and others (first degree murder) for which it is not?  Where does terrorism fall in this?  As premeditated murder, part of a genocidal movement, or something else?  Eichmann was exposed as a wholehearted supporter of the Final Solution and convicted on overwhelming evidence.  He was hanged and buried at sea.  Bin Laden was not tried, though his hand was clearly visible in the murders of 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, and after being killed in a raid in Pakistan, he too was buried at sea.  What if Khaled Mashaal or Hassan Nasrallah were to be apprehended alive?  What would they deserve?  Life imprisonment or swimming with the fishes?

And what about kavod hamet (respect for the corpse)?  Sea burial is respectable and prevents the grave site from becoming a shrine to the twisted faithful.  And publishing photographs of corpses?  The Fogel family chose to allow photographs of the bloodied family members (minus Ruth, the mother) to be posted on the Web.  The horror of reading what had happened to them was increased manifold by the photos of the corpses.  To anyone who questioned the humanity of settlers, or tried to explain away the murder of a family as “frustration” at the “occupation,” the photos bore witness to the naked savagery and boundless hatred of the murderers.  So what would publishing photos of a bullet-riddled bin Laden show?  Justice?  Closure?  Simple verification of the kill?  The comment section on a recent Westbankmama post debates the merits of this issue, and while I’m not impressed with the argument of it as a deterrent against crime or compromising the dignity of the corpse (that was buried at sea), I think perhaps its value in debunking conspiracy theories (before they fester into “facts”) is worth considering.

It’s highly unlikely that Israel will have the opportunity to repeat the capture and trial of a major actor like Eichmann again.  None of the high-profile, heavily-guarded figures who seek Israel’s destruction would have any interest in being captured alive, and while there are certainly opponents to targeted killings, I prefer them to drawn-out celebrity trials and orderly executions or imprisonment.  The German conviction of John Demjanjuk, a guard at Sobibor, the other day was suspended pending appeal, and the 91-year-old Nazi will now walk free, most likely for the rest of his days.  There’s also an honesty to simply killing one’s enemies when they’re self-professed combatants, use the language of war to describe their relationship to Israel (and everything else), and violate every law of war and humanity in working toward their ends.  The new face of war is no longer uniformed soldiers engaging a uniformed enemy and observing the Geneva Conventions.  As such, the targeting of masterminds and leaders seems appropriate, and the questions that arise in this context are no longer “whether” but “when” and “how.”

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With Naqba Day coming up (when Palestinian Arabs commemorate the catastrophe of the founding of Israel), Im Tirtzu has published a pamphlet exposing the lies and distortions which make up the Arab “Palestinian” narrative.  Westbankmama provides a brief summary in English of the 70-page Hebrew pamphlet, outlining the main ideas of the document.  In short, they are these:

1) The Arabs attacked the Jews.

2) The Arabs fled.

3) Who is really a refugee?

4) What about the Jewish refugees?

5) The Arabs sided with the Nazis.

Two points that might prove of greatest interest to those unfamiliar with the facts behind the rhetoric are #3 and #4.  In defining refugees, “for every other refugee the world over, the status is just for a person with a long past in a region, and the status is for the person actually displaced. But for the Arabs displaced by the War in 1948, the status has been extended to those residing in a place for just two years, and the status was granted to his children and grandchildren.”  And while the actual number of Arabs displaced (under the universal, and not the revised definition of “refugee”) in 1948 was 560,000, there were 900,000 Jews expelled or forced to flee Arab countries in the decade or so following the foundation of the State of Israel.  In other words, as Westbankmama writes, “for every Arab refugee there are 1.5 Jewish refugees. All of the Jewish refugees were absorbed, mostly by Israel.”

For those who read Hebrew, the pamphlet can be found here.  I also echo Westbankmama’s sentiments that this pamphlet should be translated into Arabic and Farsi and disseminated on the Web.

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For those struggling with the long history and intricacies of Middle Eastern politics, Michael Totten (an independent journalist who appears in my blogroll and about whom I once blogged) appears on the show “Uncommon Knowledge” to break it down for you (in the embedded video below).  He also recently authored a book entitled The Road To Fatima Gate, his exploration of the current political state of Lebanon with the information and analysis of a journalist but written, critics have said, like a novel.    (You can read excerpts from it, as well as several reviews, on Michael’s blog.)

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Feminism on trial

A dedicated reader commented on my recent post about the flap caused by Natalie Portman thanking her fiance at the Oscars ceremony for giving her “the most important role in her life.”  His view of what he calls “modern” feminism in the US appears to be a composite of stereotypes of women who, the story goes, value wealth and career success above family, masculine appearance above femininity, and arrogance above God-fearing modesty.  The stereotypical modern feminist, in the picture painted by my reader, is a short-haired, artificially flat-chested, pro-abortion, plain-faced woman averse to commitment.  I have known and seen many radical feminists in my time, and have never seen one who embodies all of these characteristics. Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist credentials are unparalleled, but her hair has never been short.  The only women I know who make their bustlines smaller are those who undergo surgical reductions, which reduce their chance of breast cancer and chronic back problems.  Abortion is seen as a difficult choice for women, but a choice nonetheless, and one which is permissible in certain circumstances by halacha.  Make-up, too, is a choice.  And nearly every feminist I’ve known or known of has been in a committed relationship (granted, sometimes it’s been with another woman, but that didn’t make the short list of the stereotypical feminist.)  These stereotypes may have sprung from small grains of truth, but they are far from reflecting my experience of feminism in the US.  (I was a full-time American before I made aliyah, went to a women’s college, and took my share of women’s studies classes there.)  I understand that the impression this reader and probably many others have of this brand of feminism is negative, but since one of my little dreams in this blog is to get people to think and question, rather than just say, “Right on, Shimshonit!”, I’d like to spend a little time on this topic.

The way women are supposed to look in the modern world is worth examining in a historical and sociological context.  Anyone who pays any attention to the history of art knows that the image of the ideal woman has changed over time.  In the ancient world, fertility goddesses were  full-figured.  Egyptians created goddess images of lean, long-legged, small-breasted women, but the Greeks filled this image out a little more.  Once Western art caught up to the Greek (we’re skipping the Medieval era here), women filled out again, reaching the Rococo period when beautiful women were positively zaftig.   At the turn of the 20th century, Aubrey Beardsley starved his women back down to pencil-thin, and by the 1920s, the image of the short-haired, flat-chested, boyish-looking woman in low-cut, sleeveless, high-hemmed dresses was shocking at first, but nonetheless became an ideal, if not a norm.  Mae West and later, to a smaller degree, Marilyn Monroe (who was not as plump as some would claim, since sizing standards changed, making numbers smaller for the same size) gave women a slight reprieve, but then Twiggy came on the scene, and that was the end of the normally-proportioned  supermodel.  Whether slender and athletic, like Elle MacPherson or Brooke Shields, or half-starved and sleep-deprived, like Kate Moss, thin became the rule, and has been rigidly enforced by photo-altering software (which was once used to slim down magazine photos of a plump, peachy Kate Winslet, to her outrage).

Shape has undergone changes over the ages, as have other features.  In my college days, women with impeccable feminist cred would often refrain from shaving their legs.  When I traveled to Germany after college on a six-month world tour, this was how I looked, and with my reasonably well-accented German, I passed for native with more than one unsuspecting person.  (I was even told in a youth hostel that I couldn’t possibly be American, since I didn’t have smooth legs, lots of make-up, and big hair.  It turned out the extent of this person’s knowledge of America was from “Dynasty.”)  I heard once that in France at least, the only women who shaved their legs until recent decades were prostitutes.  Now, of course, smooth skin is expected of a well-groomed woman, regardless of profession.  If the women chosen as supermodels are anything to judge the ideal female by, even skin, large eyes, and full, colored lips are the marks of beauty.  So let’s tally it up for a moment; what sort of creature sports soft, smooth, perfect  skin, wide eyes, and bright red lips?  A baby.  (Isn’t that what they call women in rock ‘n’ roll and blues songs?  And ask her, “Who’s your daddy?”)  Take away the fat and add lots of long hair, and you have the ideal woman.  Don’t have those features?  Then Botox, collagen, make-up, plastic surgery, laser hair removal, diets, drugs, and pricey hair treatments await.  Personally, I like to keep people’s expectations of my daily appearance low, so I avoid that stuff and only take out the make-up (some of which is left over from my wedding 11 years ago) for weddings and bar mitzvahs.  I think people should look at a woman with eyes more interested in seeing what’s in her soul than what’s on the surface.

The point of my post, which I hope didn’t get lost in the bit of ranting I did, is that feminism is a good thing, but only when it’s channeled toward healthy choices for each individual.  It’s decidedly NOT good if it’s used to make women feel guilty (either for staying home or for going back to work after having a child) or to condemn their choices.  It’s not a stick to beat women with who either try to make the most of their appearance, or don’t spend excessive amounts of money on cosmetics and time in front of a mirror.  It’s not the sole address of who’s responsible for unwanted pregnancy.  (There was someone else involved, remember, but he doesn’t have to face society’s scorn because it doesn’t show on him and he isn’t the one who has to choose the path his life will take, with or without a baby.)  It’s what’s responsible for relieving women’s honorifics of their tie to marital status (something that has never affected men).  If women hadn’t fought hard for the right to vote, it would never have been offered them willingly by men.  Without feminism, women would still be considered chattel in society.

I was grateful for Rav Averick’s support of women who choose motherhood.  I’ve been viewed as a wastrel and a shiftless layabout by dozens of people since choosing to be the primary caregiver in my children’s lives.  (Apparently, unless one is being paid to care for children, it doesn’t carry the same merit.)  But I also thought his criticism of Wildman’s piece was harsh in its condemnation of the inevitable questions that come up when women see other women hold up motherhood as the ideal state.  That hearkens back painfully to the 1950s (and later) when motherhood was considered by society to be the fulfillment of womanhood, and the only desired result of a woman’s higher education, marriage, and (temporary) career.  It’s inevitable that comments like Portman’s will provoke a response from feminists.  But I found the substance of the feminist buzz and reactions to Portman’s comments to be full of willful misunderstandings and overreactions to her words.  The whole thing, on both sides, was in bad taste, as is so much of what passes for news and commentary.

Feminism took women out of the private sphere and gave them the opportunity to become actors in the public sphere.  It gave them the vote, the chance to hold office, to influence policy, to own property and enjoy full rights as citizens.  One of the things women have attempted to do is to secure the right to keep others out of their personal decision-making.  When a public furor erupts over a woman’s stated preference for a public, professional life (as happened to Sarah Palin) or for motherhood, the public reaction seems to be the same, to excoriate the woman for doing what she’s doing, and not doing what she’s not.  When people finally look at a woman — as they would look at any man — and judge her based on the quality of what she’s doing rather than on what they think she supposed to be doing, then feminism will finally have succeeded.

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The Cap’n and I attended Peach’s second grade class’s ceremony marking Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror) and Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day) this morning.  To see the little girls reading Psalms, enacting a soldier’s leaving home and family and returning safe and sound (baruch Hashem), remembering each of the five members of the Fogel family who were murdered in Itamar, parading in costumes from dozens of countries from which Jews made aliyah in the last 63 years, and doing a dance with Israeli flags ending up in formation of the number “63” was a sight we did not even imagine when we made aliyah nearly five years ago.  Seeing Peach among other Israeli kids, seeing how Israel  is not an abstraction for her but her home, hearing her fluent Hebrew, seeing how she understands the Jewish people’s connection to this land, our history here, the Torah, and the injustice of those who would kill or expel us from here, is so much more than we ever bargained for.

I began to tell the kids at dinner last night, after we had stood for the 8:00 PM air raid siren ushering in Yom HaZikaron, the difference between the day here and Memorial Day in the US, but I just couldn’t.  When kids and their families here commemorate fallen soldiers and victims of terror, it’s Avraham David Moses, an Efrat teen who was murdered in the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva massacre a couple of years ago; Shmuel Gillis, the Efrat oncologist who was shot on the road (inside the Green Line) on his way to work at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital; Yosef Goodman, the son of the owners of our local pizza shop, whose parachute got tangled with his officer’s, and who cut the strings of his own chute to save his officer’s life, falling to his own death; and Daniel Mandel, whose mother works at the same company as the Cap’n, who was killed in the line of duty when searching for wanted terrorists in Nablus in 2003.  Soldiers are not boys from Kentucky and Nebraska who volunteer for an army career, but whom we’ll never see.  Soldiers are Tzvi, Honi, Natan and Doron, Re’ut and Miriam, the boys and girls who live on our street.  White sales, parades, and government commemorations on national television are far more removed (for better and for worse) than what our children experience now.

Living in Gush Etzion is an amazing experience.  We are near where King David was born, and possibly where he herded sheep in his boyhood.  We are near the path that Avraham likely followed when traveling to Jerusalem with his son Yitzhak in the akeida (binding) story.  We are across the road from one of the battlegrounds of the Chanukah story, where the Jews fought Assyrian Greeks riding war elephants, and where Elazar, brother of Yehudah Maccabbee, was killed.  And Gush Etzion was the scene of fighting in May 1948, when the Jordanians overran the land Jews had purchased and farmed for years, and massacred the remaining fighters.  Visitors to Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz which has a field school and a heritage center, can learn more about the foundation of the kibbutzim here and their destruction in the War of Independence in a video presentation which takes place right over the bunker which sheltered Gush Etzion’s last fighters.  The following video tells a similar story:

May the memories of the fallen be blessed, and may we live to see the end of the need for such sacrifice.

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I pay little attention to Natalie Portman on the average day.  Her all-out neurotic performance in “Black Swan” left my stomach churning, and I had to put the window down in the car on the way home to battle the nausea.  I guess that means she did a good job.

It was after seeing the movie that I discovered she was pregnant, the father being the choreographer from the film.  I have no strong feelings about this; it’s someone else’s life, and I have no comment on her intended intermarriage (they are reportedly affianced) or premarital parenthood, except to my own children.

However, I recently saw an article in the online Jewish newspaper, the Algemeiner, by an Orthodox rabbi who was reacting to some media turbulence caused by Portman’s thanking of her fiance for giving her “the most important role in her life,” i.e. that of impending motherhood.  My tendency would be to hear that speech with an “Awww, isn’t that sweet?” and move on.  But not surprisingly, there are others who can’t let something like that pass without debating it down to the last letter.

Rabbi Moshe Averick’s piece, entitled “The Natalie Portman ‘Motherhood-gate’ scandal; should we laugh or cry?”, takes to task the author of an article critical of Portman, Sarah Wildman (whose  “A Woman’s Greatest Role?” appears in the online Forward).   A career writer, Wildman shares her struggle to work through her pregnancy, through her labor even, and resume writing post-partum as soon as possible to prove to her sexist twit of a boss that women can do everything men can, AND have babies.  The reactions to Portman’s comment quoted in Wildman’s article descend into the feline, with one writer suggesting her garbage man would also have made a suitable stud for Ms. Portman’s greatest role, and another asking, “But is motherhood really a greater role than being secretary of state or a justice on the Supreme Court? Is reproduction automatically the greatest thing Natalie Portman will do with her life?”

Rabbi Averick objects to Waldman’s “wearisome (albeit sincerely written) example of what has become a cliché in feminist literature: agonizing, hand-wringing, and occasional breast-beating regarding the motherhood vs. career conflict.”  Hokey though it sounds to some people, parenthood does take over one’s life, for good and ill, and because women’s biology often forces them to choose (at least temporarily) between motherhood and career, I think the debate about those choices is inevitable and, much of the time, consciousness-raising.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again:  I think far too much attention is paid to the private lives of entertainers and athletes.  Their wealth, fame, and the scrutiny they’re under by the press make their lives anything but normal, and such people should not be held up as examples of anything to anyone, except wealth, fame, and subjection to press scrutiny.  It is also worth noting what Rabbi Averick says, that “While some dramatic presentations may very well contain meaningful messages, films and plays essentially convey distracting and entertaining illusions. Pregnancy, motherhood, and child-rearing are not entertaining illusions. They are as real as it gets.”

I fear what has happened in the wake of Portman’s speech is the same thing that happened when my alma mater (a women’s college) asked alumnae for stories about full-time mothering for a feature in the college’s alumnae magazine.  There, too, a storm broke out between women who had chosen career over family, who had continued to work and put their children in day care, and women who had chosen to shelve their careers in favor of full-time motherhood.  Never mind that those at-home moms had had their experiences and stories ignored by the magazine for decades in favor of features about career, awards, travel, and public service.  At the same time that my college’s magazine tries to stay in step with prestigious co-ed colleges (where mention of family probably makes the editor grumble, “We’re an alumni magazine, not Good Housekeeping!”), it does bother me a little that making a women’s college magazine so much like that of a co-ed’s implies that family life is un-feminist, that women don’t care any more about talking about their families or hearing about others’ families than men do (although it may be true), and that staying home and having children is dull and a shameful squandering of professional opportunities opened up by the women’s movement.  It all comes down to what we choose and how we feel about it.  My mother chose to stay home rather than pursue a career in nursing and never looked back.  Now when she and my father meet a dual-physician couple, these ignorant young women turn to my mother, assume she’s also a physician (not realizing how rare it was to find a woman in medical school back then), and ask her what her specialty is.  (I tell her to say rug-braiding, book-mending, and grandmothering, which really ARE her specialties.)  On the other hand, my mother-in-law continued to practice medicine and hired nannies to take care of the Cap’n and his brother.  (That was the right decision for all concerned, by the way.)  Thanks to the more strident elements in the anti-feminist movement, she is still haunted by her guilt for having worked outside the home all those years.

One of the most telling parts of Wildman’s article is where she asks, “If motherhood is the most important role, have we negated everything else we do? Does a woman who does not become a mother never reach an apex? What if motherhood isn’t happening — because a woman has decided to skip it or because she can’t have children? What then? Is there no important role?”  The answers, of course, are no, no, other things, up to her, and of course there is, dummy.  Done.  If Natalie Portman thinks motherhood is the most important role she’ll ever play, it is, so live with it.  She wasn’t talking about anyone else when she was up making her speech; she was talking about herself.  (I’m sometimes tempted to create an ad campaign aimed at catty chatterers, cranky feminists and other disgruntled people: It’s not always about YOU.)

I’ve been a feminist since I was a child, and will be one until the day I die.  But my feminism is about having choices, about doing as much as we can (though not always at the same time), and about confining our criticism to those who would keep us down, not to women who make different choices, or have more luck or talent or opportunity.  Women, unlike men, have been given (by God, not by men) the biology and the brains to have both children and a career.  Those who choose one or the other, or both, are to be commended, not criticized.  By the end of Wildman’s article, her words and tone seem to be more that of a woman who has already embarked on motherhood saying, “Just wait; she’ll see what it’s really like.”  Why, yes, she will, as mothers always do.  It’s exhausting and exhilarating, difficult and profoundly life-changing.  The best of luck to her.

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While I don’t condone watching The Daily Show or Stephen Colbert in lieu of reading real news sources, they often take grains of truth or news and grow them into excellent entertainment.

One of the truths many traditional Jews are aware of is the contempt and distrust with which we’re viewed by our less religious brothers.  This segment of the Daily Show shows how that contempt and distrust surface when the frummies try to erect an eruv in the Hamptons.  Enjoy.

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Upon sitting down to my computer this morning, I was besieged by news stories, Facebook entries, and blog posts reporting and commenting on the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination by the United States Special Forces.  While I refrained from singing, dancing in the streets, and passing out candy (like some people I could name), I did permit myself a smile and a warm, fuzzy feeling all day thinking that the world had one less malignant fanatic in it.

While I concur with some people who have said that this will make no difference, that it will in no way stop the momentum of Islamic genocidal designs on the world, Michael Totten points out that it in no way hurts us, and in no way benefits Al Qaeda.  True enough.

But one of the more incisive comments I saw was put out by my rav in Newton, who wrote the following in a post to the shul’s list:

While I would not deny a victory song and dance to the families of the victims of 9/11 or to our armed forces and to our Commander-in-Chief, my own prayer of thanksgiving was not of celebration but of somber relief and satisfaction that no matter how dark the times, no matter how dastardly and destructive the crimes, in the end good will prevail and justice will be served.

It is this same sentiment that I gleaned from having read Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt’s extraordinary new book on The Eichmann Trial, whose 50th anniversary is being commemorated this year.  I had the great privilege of travelling to Poland and Budapest on a heritage tour with the ever amazing Prof. Lipstadt just a few years ago.  Adolf Eichmann was a transportation specialist who applied and honed his expertise in commercial shipping to the mass transportation of the human chattel of Jews to concentration camps during the Shoah.  I was not yet born in 1961 (I was born in 1968) and have no experience or memory of the trial.  Upon reading Lipstadt’s riveting account, I was, at first, but then not really, surprised to learn that Israel was attacked in the news media for its own strike against one of the masterminds of the Holocaust.   As opposed to a strategic assassination as in the case of Bin Laden, Israel apprehended Eichmann from his safe haven in Argentina and then brought him to justice through a comprehensive trial in Jerusalem.   While many celebrated Israel’s bold capture of one of the worst war criminals, Israel was also, at least at first, excoriated by significant media outlets in the US and world press, for example, the Washington Post and Time Magazine, for “animal vengeance” and the administration of “jungle law” (p. 24 ff).   Bin Laden and Eichmann alike were buried at sea to prevent their burial sites from becoming sites of pilgrimage and veneration (p. 147).  Lipstadt’s book is worth reading for her gripping narrative of Eichmann’s capture and trial, as well as her trenchant analysis and critique of Hannah Arendt’s legacy.  Lipstadt’s thesis and contribution to Holocaust studies, however, is that the Eichmann trial empowered, encouraged and validated survivor testimony ultimately enabling the survivors themselves to shape the ongoing memory and memorialization of the Shoah.

It is worth noting that while NATO in Libya and the US in Pakistan can get away with summary execution and collateral damage (i.e. the deaths of non-dangerous civilians), Israel gets broadsided at the UN for doing just that with Hamas terrorists.  Yom HaShoah v’HaGvurah is as good a time as any to renew our determination to defend ourselves, no matter what anyone else says.

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Sermon to the choir

In a recent postTreppenwitz shared his conviction that Islam “is a modern, made up religion that flies in the face of all historical evidence, not to mention is incapable of coexisting with other faiths.”

Not surprisingly, there were some ruffled feathers in the wake of Trep’s disclosure.  The ruffled individual asked for clarification about what makes Islam “made-up” and Judaism “authentic.”  No one else responded, so I wrote out my own thoughts on the matter in a comment:

My rule of thumb regarding religion is as follows: 1) beware any religion whose main revelatory experiences were by lone individuals; 2) beware any religion that views everyone else as the enemy, the Infidel, or says everyone else must convert or die/burn in hell; 3) beware any religion that encourages suffering, poverty, fatalism, or martyrdom; 4) beware any religion that has two standards of justice, one for believers and another for everyone else; and 5) beware any religion where belief is more important than behavior, scholarship, personal responsibility, and the sanctity of life.  (Kind of narrows it down, don’t it?)

While I vigorously defend anyone’s right to follow the religion of their choice, I have personally never understood the appeal of Christianity or Islam.  Without getting into hair-splitting detail, they have seemed to me to be punitive in nature, unforgiving of dissent, war-mongering, and theologically insubstantial.  The image of Christians torturing Jews to get them to convert or burning one another for heresy, of Muslims slaughtering Jews for sport, and Christians and Muslims clashing over possession of Jerusalem, killed any interest I could have had in them long ago.  I know there’s much more to each of them than these sordid chapters of their histories, but I’m just not that into it.

When I decided to give Judaism a serious crack, I couldn’t help but be impressed.  Don’t have to be Jewish to have a portion in the world to come?  Check.  Value of human life same for non-Jews as for Jews?  Check.  Primary importance on behavior rather than faith?  Check.  Belief that poverty, disease, unhappiness and suffering are bad?  Check.  Belief that we are responsible for our own behavior, and have the power to change ourselves and the world for good?  Check.

Guess I’m set.

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Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) begins tonight.  This year, I’ve collected a selection of oddments – thoughts, articles, and a new book – to share.

First the thoughts, in no particular order:

1) Discomfort over the Shoah haunted the Israeli psyche for decades after the end of World War II.  The inability to comprehend the scope and savagery of the Shoah made the Eichmann trial a pivotal event for young Sabras, who came to understand two things: that Jews did not willingly queue up to die; and that the monomaniacal pursuit of their end was a higher priority for some Nazis (like Eichmann) even than winning the war.

2) Isn’t it strange that at the same time that the Arab world blames European guilt for the Shoah for the creation of the State of Israel, they deny it ever happened?  (PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s “doctoral dissertation” contended that the Shoah was wildly exaggerated and that Zionists worked with the Nazis to murder Jews, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad denies the Shoah ever happened, but promises to finish the job himself.)

3) Had there been an Israel, the impact of the Shoah on the Jewish population (then and now) could have been dramatically reduced.  Had the British not reneged on every promise made to the Jews in Mandatory Palestine, there would have been an Israel much earlier.  Had the Jews actually been given the promised territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean for the establishment of the “Jewish home,” Israel might still have had to fight its defensive wars against hostile Arab countries, but the homegrown Palestinian Arab terrorism would likely have been lessened rather than allowed to fester in now-disputed territory.

Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein, Portrait of a Young Woman Drawing

Now on to more substantial things.  There have been two articles in the past month in the Jerusalem Post (8 April and 22 April) about Nazi-looted paintings being returned to their rightful heirs.  Two paintings have been returned to the heirs of the Rosauer family in Vienna, one by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein (1788-1868) and the other by Johann Baptist Lampi the Elder (1751-1830), both having been in German museum or government custody.  In addition, a landscape painting by Gustav Klimt is being returned to the grandson of its former Jewish owner by the Austrian Museum of Modern Arts.  (The heir to the Klimt painting has offered to help fund an expansion of the museum as a gesture of gratitude.)

In other news, a Toronto couple was recently featured on the Regis and Kelly Show.  Husband and wife met at Bergen-Belsen as teens when the 16-year-old girl saw the half-dead 18-year-old boy moving underneath a pile of dead corpses, extracted him, and nursed him for weeks.  They became separated when he woke up one day, saw no one around, and crawled to the nearest road where he was picked up by the British.  They met up later in Toronto, where each had gone to live, and the rest is history.  The couple, married over 60 years, are the parents of four, grandparents of 11, and great-grandparents of one.  It’s definitely not everyone who, when asked where they met their spouse, can answer, “Under a pile of corpses.”

How much is too much to spend on a wedding gown?  Some brides spend hundreds, others thousands.  (Mine was given me by a friend, but I still had to fork out the dough for alterations and a veil.)  So how does two pounds of coffee beans and a packet of cigs sound, in exchange for enough white silk to make a wedding gown and a white shirt for the chattan?  That’s what it cost Lilly Friedman’s fiancé, Ludwig, when the two of them decided to get married while living in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp.  The gown was later worn by Lilly’s sister at her wedding, then by a cousin.  Friedman says she lost count of how many brides wore the gown after 17.  It now hangs in the Bergen-Belsen Museum.

Alice Herz-Sommer, 107, and the oldest survivor of the Shoah, credits music with saving her life.  Although she lost her husband, family, and friends, she and her son (one of only 130 children to survive Terezin) survived and later made their lives in Israel and London.  Here is a trailer for a film entitled, “They Played For Their Lives,” in which Herz-Sommer and others attest to the power of music to lift spirits, to restore dignity, and to preserve life.

Deborah Lipstadt’s new book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, entitled The Eichmann Trial, is being published at the 50th anniversary of the trial’s beginning.  Since the most prominent book published on the subject to date is Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann In Jerusalem, comparisons are both inevitable and instructive.  Arendt is reported as having had her mind made up about the trial before arriving (e.g. that Eichmann was not a vicious anti-Semite, that the Judenrate, Jewish councils, bore much of the responsibility for sending Jews to their deaths, and that the purpose of the trial should have been to administer justice, nothing else), while Lipstadt (perhaps because of her own day in court against an anti-Semite) sees the trial as having more than a simple juridical purpose.  Its impact on Israeli society, the effect of having survivors not directly connected with Eichmann testify about what happened to and around them, cannot be underestimated, she says.  Both Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecuting attorney, set out to teach young Israelis about their people’s history through the trial.  With her decades of additional perspective, access to certain documents made available only in the last decade (including a memboir written by Eichmann in prison), and a more compassionate understanding of the uneven playing field between Nazis and Jews, Lipstadt offers a very different account of events.  Her book also focuses more on the mechanics of the trial, a step-by-step unfolding of events, where Arendt (who did not attend every session of the trial) focused much less on the process of the trial, and acted more as commentator than reporter.  For those unfamiliar with how the trial unfolded, Lipstadt’s is undoubtedly the more informative of the two books.  (I found Arendt’s background on each European country’s attitude and behavior toward the Jews to be instructive and interesting to compare, contrasting Denmark’s effort to save every Jew to the unrestrained violence in Romania, which exceeded in hysteria even the Nazi’s.)  Here is a Jerusalem Post editorial about the book and below, a video of Lipstadt talking about the trial.

I read recently that there is a movement afoot to recognize the righteousness of Jews who worked to save other Jews in the Shoah.  Until recently, Yad Vashem has declined to do this, reasoning that while the risk to non-Jewish rescuers makes for a simple criterion to recognize them, the same criterion cannot apply to Jewish rescuers, since they were all slated for extermination.  Alas, I cannot locate the article on the Jerusalem Post’s totally unhelpful website, but gleaned that that policy will soon come to an end, and a way has been found to identify and recognize Jewish rescuers officially.  Since Jews helped one another survive, resist, and escape in thousands of ways, large and small, from sharing a crust of bread, to stealing prayerbooks from the kapo’s private rooms, to assassinating Nazis and their collaborators, it will be interesting to see what criteria are formulated for this new (and much belated) form of special distinction.

On the road to becoming a traditional Jew, I read stacks of books about the Shoah.  While I learned something new from nearly every one of them, the ones which still stand out in my mind are Alfons Heck’s A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days when God Wore a Swastika and The Burden of Hitler’s Legacy, autobiographical works about his boyhood in Germany when he was inducted into the Hitler Youth and became part of the machinery of Nazi Germany.  As an adult, Heck met Helen Waterman, a Jewish survivor of the Shoah, and together they traveled the lecture circuit, providing perspective from both sides of the barbed wire fence about life in the Third Reich.  The second book is Rena Kornreich Gelissen’s Rena’s Promise, a firsthand account of a Jewish teen’s survival with her sister.  Details which have stayed with me since reading it 14 years ago include her description of her peaceful, religious home, in which she would lovingly shave her mother’s head (her mother was a sheitl-wearer); her and her sister’s separation from their family at Auschwitz and assignment to “Kanada,” the clothing sorting detail, during which they found themselves one day sorting clothes belonging to their aunt, uncle, and cousins (by which they learned that they had been gassed); their selection as subjects for Mengele’s experiments on women, which they escaped by simply marching out of line to a building where they changed clothes, then got themselves reassigned to another work detail; and throughout the tale, the reinforcement of the observation made by a guide from Yad Vashem on our own tour of Poland, that people who had someone to live for had much greater odds of survival than people who went through the Shoah alone.

No single post can possibly contain all there is to say on this subject.  If anyone has come across links to helpful websites or blogs, or has any books or resources to share, please feel free.

May our enemies continue to be thwarted.

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