Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Banning the brit

I’ve been reading a lot in the past couple of days about a popularly proposed ban in San Francisco on circumcision entitled the Male Genital Mutilation Bill.  A couple of decades ago, circumcision was generally recommended by hospital physicians for what were stated as cleanliness and health reasons.  Jews and Muslims, of course, did it for religious reasons.  Anyone who, for whatever reason, chose not to circumcise was entitled to make that choice.

But the “intactivists” in that rabidly liberal paradise in northern California have decided that circumcision is torture, an act of violence against innocent children, and should be a criminal offense.  The ban’s proponents have collected more than enough signatures to put it on the upcoming ballot, and some have embraced as part of their publicity a cartoon series entitled “Foreskin Man” created by Matthew Hess, president of MGMbill.org.  The first in the series features evil hospital physicians who try to force a hot new mama-babe to give up her baby to a knife-wielding, blood-spattered ogre named Dr. Mutilator.  In the second, a sinister Jewish father goes behind his wife’s back and invites the black-hatted Monster Mohel and his haredi henchmen to come with their scissors to take back what is God’s.  At the last minute, the day is saved by buff, blond, lycra-clad superhero, Foreskin Man, who beats up the bad guys and either returns the baby to its grateful, weeping mother in the hospital or kidnaps the infant and gives it to the boy’s aunt, another intactivist, to raise as her own.

I’m all about freedom of choice and high safety and sanitation standards.  I’m also about not forcing your own choices on other people.  Children of atheists should not have to pray in public school.  Abortion should be safe, legal, and as rare as possible.  And brit milah, like kosher slaughter and alcohol (remember Prohibition?) should be legal and kept to high standards of cleanliness and ethical treatment of animals and humans.

But proponents of this bill are not about freedom of choice.  They’re about inaccuracy (comparing circumcision to female genital mutilation), unsupported claims (that uncircumcised men enjoy sex more—a claim that would be easier to prove if there were circumcised men who obtained foreskins and could compare the experience), non-science (ignoring the health benefits associated with circumcision), anti-Semitism (this ban will most universally affect Jews in the San Francisco area), and adolescent publicity and scare tactics (see the Foreskin Man comics).  As vocal as San Franciscans are about their pro-Palestinian agenda, it surprises me that they have overlooked the fact that Muslims will also be adversely affected by this ban.  Muslim boys are circumcised at age 13, in front of mixed audiences, with no anesthetic, and are expected to undergo the procedure without showing any signs of pain.  But perhaps this is just one more aspect of Arab Muslim culture Bay Area bleeding-hearts have chosen to overlook.  Will Foreskin Man #3 feature the Aryan superhero swooping in to save an adolescent Arab boy from hook-nosed, scimitar-wielding, kaffiyehed Muslim baddies?  I doubt it.

Daniel Gordis recently attacked the arrogance and bigotry of J Street and its statements about Israel.  I am here to attack the ignorance, arrogance, and bigotry of activists for “genital integrity.”  If they have information that is valuable for helping new parents make choices about whether or not to circumcise their baby boys, then by all means, get out there and disseminate it.  More (accurate) information is always better than less.  Teens should get as much accurate information as possible to help them choose when to become sexually active (and the more information they get, the more they should naturally learn about the benefits of waiting until they’re older, in committed relationships, or married).  Pregnant women should get as much helpful information as possible about abortion, including the emotional trauma that can result from getting them.  And parents who are undecided about circumcising should know the benefits that accompany circumcision as well as any (real) reasons not to circumcise.

This battle is just what America DOESN’T need: another hot-button issue.  Too often, the country seems to get wound up over the dilemma between freedom and regulation, and in circumstances like this one, freedom is interpreted to allow me to do what I want, and regulation is to make other people do what I want.  Anything that is a powerful, emotional issue gets turned into a moral issue rather than what Nichols and May would call a “real issue” and if, in the end, it prevents a small religious minority from doing what they normally do, which is usually seen as weird, fanatical, and unnecessary (including by a few renegade members of that religion), so much the better.

What I would find truly refreshing is if people, including those who personally choose not to circumcise their sons, would sit back, look at the big picture, see the infantile and fanatical tactics of these “intactivists” for the alarmist deception they are, and vote the whole ridiculous issue down.  It would be a shocking show of sanity from a part of the country one rarely looks to for moderation.  Nonetheless, I challenge San Franciscans to show signs of intelligent life—or return to the mother ship where they belong.


Read Full Post »

Last year, I committed the very great heresy of telling my father that I would discourage any of my children from attending American colleges or universities.  (This from the woman with a bachelor’s and three master’s degrees from American institutions.)  My reason at the time was the overtly hostile attitude toward Israel on many American university campuses, but on further reflection, it goes much deeper than that.  It really spreads to the American academic culture’s attitude toward the West in general.

I don’t think it’s either realistic or necessary for everyone in academia to be pro-Israel.  A country so different from America, in such an incomprehensibly hostile neighborhood, and full of such internal and external complexity, is difficult to fathom for the American mind, nurtured in safety and isolation from immediate threat.  Yet those who would advocate academic boycotts against Israel overlook the fact that Israeli academic institutions, like those outside Israel, are overwhelmingly liberal in bent, and are some of the places most critical of Israel inside this country.  Those who advocate an economic boycott would be loathe to part with their cellphones, instant messaging, computer chips, and life-saving medical advances (the latter of which are made available even to Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza, for free).  And those who criticize Israel’s politics seem astonishingly forgiving of the violently racist, sexist, and human rights-violating policies of the other nations in this region which don’t draw nearly the same fire from the West as Israel.

No, it’s really more the abandonment of intellectual honesty, search for truth, and acceptance of complexity in favor of one-sidedness, double standards, and oversimplification in the service of political bias that has really gotten my goat about American academia.  When I was in graduate school in English, my professor had us read the late Edward Said’s theories on “Orientalism” (basically an historically bankrupt accusation of imperialism by the West in its view of the rest of the world).  I told her I failed to see how this work bore any relation to reality, much less the literary theory we were supposed to be studying.  She asked if I had a text she could substitute for this one, and I said no.  How could I possibly justify replacing one profoundly flawed text for another?  A few months later, I sat in on a social studies class at Boston Latin school in which the teacher assigned the students an essay on capital punishment.  The students were given the choice at the beginning of class of which side to take, but then the teacher launched into a 30-minute tirade about the evils of capital punishment, its racial inequality, its brutality against the innocent, and the fact that Black men are disproportionately put to death because of it.  No information or perspective was provided about the views of those who support it, and by the end of the class period, there was little doubt in the students’ minds about which side they would be expected to take in their essays.  And when I neared the end of my teacher training and was applying for teaching jobs, I was grilled by a very irritable English department at a local public high school not about my teaching methods, my mastery of English and American poetry, prose, and drama, how I might implement the department’s curriculum, or how to deal with a class of students of different levels of ability, but which non-Western texts I would be prepared to teach in my classroom.

Not long ago, I read a very interesting article by Bernie Reeves (“Can Niall Ferguson Save Civilization?”) about the current state of higher education in America.  I was surprised at how sharply it homed in on exactly what has made me uncomfortable about so much of contemporary American educational culture.  The shift from being stuffy, stodgy places where the ancients (Greek and Latin) were read, memorized, translated, and sometimes even (gulp!) critiqued, to the current climate of anti-Western, anti-classical, anti-religion, anti-American, anti-anything-that-dead-white-men-would-have-done is documented, along with the accompanying abandonment of much of what used to constitute academic rigor and discipline.

I’m not saying that the good old days (long before I was ever in college) were the gold standard by which all education should be judged.  I recently read Yankee From Olympus, a delightful biography of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in which the author, Catherine Drinker Bowen, is positively withering in her description of Harvard College’s curriculum and teaching methods during Holmes’s era, which included rote memorization, discouraged debate, and shunned modern languages, sciences, and philosophy newer than the Romans.  In contemporary education, there must be a balance between the study of where we’ve been and the possible directions we may be going.  History must not hide the flaws of the past, but must focus on motivation and intention, not just misdeeds, and English must include the acquisition of skills such as close reading, vocabulary, structure and mechanics of prose and poetry, as well as a breadth of content which reflects the history, development of ideas, and experience of the English-speaking world.  I think non-Western works should not be avoided altogether, but must be chosen carefully and taught in appropriate context at the high school level, and explored in greater breadth and depth at the college level to show students with (by then) a strong background in Western civilization the ways in which non-Western though and experience differ.

One example of how not to teach non-Western experience was provided by a commenter on Reeves’s article, who reported how a child came home having studied a story about a Japanese child sick from nuclear poisoning following the US bombing of Hiroshima.  The teacher, it turned out, had not explained why America had dropped the bomb, or what would have happened if they had chosen not to.  Such incidents sow the seeds of anti-Americanism by erasing all context for the nation’s actions and focusing instead on the oppression of the powerless (civilians, children, foreigners, people of color) by the brutal, powerful West (America, Europe, and later on, perhaps Israel).  For people who teach this way (many of them, according to Reeves, 1960s campus radicals who later became college professors), history is about reading heart-rending accounts of racist atrocities, the evils of religion, the sins of the powerful against the weak, and the general revision of the way things have been taught in the past, as though everything our parents and grandparents learned were lies and whitewashes of the truth.  The belief seems to be that the side of the victors (i.e. those who write history) has already been told, and it’s time to hear the other side, but the fact is that the victors’ version has been pushed aside in recent decades, and the losers’ version is all too often the only version taught.  Those who teach this way seem more interested in dividing the world between good and bad, right and wrong, celebrated and vilified, than in understanding the sometimes complex truths behind what they see.  After all, it’s harder to feel strongly about one side or another if it’s gray rather than black or white.  It can be unsettling when things in the world don’t line up according to a binary system of good and bad.  It’s s embarrassing to discover that you know less than you thought on a subject.  It’s easier to discredit the side you don’t agree with than to suspend judgment pending understanding.  Reeves writes,

Since the new radical doctrine was incubated in socialist realism, the first objective was to manufacture equality via a perverse affirmative action initiative by elevating underdeveloped nations to equal status with the world’s greatest cultures. It was sold as ‘multiculturalism,’ and, consistent with leftist screeds, hid behind the skirts of a noble outcome – ‘inclusiveness’ – i.e. it is good to study and respect all cultures rather than emphasis on the big achievers. 

In this disguise, the real dirty work was undertaken: dismantling and de-emphasizing the achievements of the western world by dramatizing its sins in order to ‘apologize’ to the victims of imperialist exploitation and racism. To enforce the new credo on campus, the ‘politically correct’ police attacked and discredited those that dared defy the party line, labeling offenders as racist, chauvinistic, homophobic, or, of course, imperialistic. In the cloister of academic freedom, free speech was extinguished.

One need look no further than the intimidation of pro-Israel students in university classrooms, Israel Apartheid Week activities, and the booing offstage of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren (himself a historian with an illustrious academic career) at UC Irvine to see the evidence for Reeves’s assessment.

It’s distressing to see so many intelligent, well-meaning people with their brains turned off.  Such people are unable to view the world the way it really is, and this leads to such far-fetched beliefs as Secretary of State Clinton’s that Bashar Assad is a reformer, that Muammar Qaddafi was a reformer (in between the Lockerbie plane bombing and the current civil war in Libya, long enough to put Libya in the chair of the UN Human Rights Council), and Israel is an apartheid state.  Reeves believes that “college graduates since the mid-80s are hopelessly clueless when it comes to comprehending current events . . .  see themselves as the cause of society’s and the world’s problems . . . and have no information or skills to frame or interpret, even as the information society serves up instantly accessible information.”  A year ago, I had an exchange with a reader following a post in which I commemorated the 90th anniversary of the San Remo Convention which established boundaries for a Jewish state to include all of what is today Israel, the West Bank, and the Kingdom of Jordan.  (Jordan and its British-fabricated monarchy was set aside for the Arabs at a later date, reneging on the internationally recognized San Remo agreement.)  This can be found in multiple histories, and the map I posted was an accurate reflection of the outcome of the conference, but the reader couldn’t accept these facts as true 1) because the map was published by the Israeli Foreign Ministry (an instrument of oppression and disinformation, it seems) and 2) the reader apparently couldn’t grasp that anyone would really offer the Jews that much territory (a fair assessment in light of Britain’s perfidy in reneging on this and all subsequent agreements with the Jews, and the world’s acceptance of Arab aggression and numerous attempts to annihilate the Jews).

I would like to think that Reeves’s article (like many on the American Thinker site) is alarmist and an overreaction.  While I don’t necessarily share his belief that current anti-Western thinking in American academia is the result of Soviet-era, KGB-implemented “active measures,” my own experience—as well as what I continue to read in the press about America—seems to support his bleak prognosis.  (And I’m not even counting here the kind of talkbacks one reads at the end of online articles.)  It can be discouraging to someone who enters college hoping at last to gain a handle on the world and its workings to discover that it’s far more complicated and slippery than he or she had ever imagined.  But what’s the alternative?

Read Full Post »

One of the highlights of having relations visiting us in Israel is having the excuse to go out and be tourists.  We live here, we know how blessed we are to live so close to so many amazing historical and archeological sites, yet as it does for most people, life usually gets in the way.

When my parents were here for a couple of weeks, I emailed work to say I was unavailable, and took my parents to the Sorek Caves, the Herodion, the Israel Museum, Mahanei Yehuda (the Jerusalem outdoor market) and the City of David.

The City of David had a particularly glaring moment in the sun a few months ago, when Lesley Stahl brought her  “60 Minutes” crew to do a spot on it for the show.  My blog post of that event highlights some of the more absurd things she said, being much more interested in the sensational political angle (real or imagined) of the site than what it had uncovered.  So after lots of hoopla, none of it substantial (except in the minds of those making it), I was glad at last to tour the site.

Back in 1997, when the Cap’n and I were in our salad days, we used to get shopped and cooked for Shabbat by Thursday night so we could go out Friday morning and see something new.  One Friday morning, we took a walking tour with Ziontours in the Old City of Mount Zion and Silwan, which took us as far as the stairs leading down to the gate which opens to Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a man-made tunnel dug to allow water to flow to the ancient, First Temple-era city of Jerusalem to enable it to hold out against siege.  Our guide at that time told us that it was believed that King David’s palace lay in ruins under the hill we passed on our right when descending to the gate, but that excavation had barely begun at the time.

Fast forward 14 years, and it’s a major archeological park with excavated ruins of what is believed to be either the Palace of Zion (the Jebusite palace where David probably initially took up residence while building his own palace farther up the hill) or David’s palace itself; a structurally intact private home located near the palace owned by one Achiel which represents the design of hillside homes of the day; seals which belonged to officials in the court of David who are mentioned in the Bible; excavated tunnels used first by Jebusites and later expanded by Israelites as part of their water collection and retrieval system; part of the Siloam Pool which was used as a communal mikvah; and part of an excavated road which is believed to lead from the Siloam Pool up to the Temple Mount.  The excavation site is across the Kidron Valley from an area that is currently crowded with Arab homes, but at one time was a Jewish burial ground (being part of the Mount of Olives, which is still the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world), and at one time housed Yemenite Jews who were driven out during the Arab riots of the 1930s.  (Check out the City of David’s website here.)  A 3-D film precedes the guided walking tour through the site, signage is fair (though one gets much more from the experience with a human tour guide), and on a sunny day, the lovely landscaping of the site is breathtaking.  Pottery shards date the site to well within David’s time, and among the odds and ends of implements uncovered in the dig was a lice comb.  (Some things never change.)

In other words, what Lesley Stahl and her crew missed by focusing on politics is the most intensively excavated archeological site in Israel (and perhaps the world), as well as the most important archeological find in Israeli history.  What has been uncovered there confirms that much of what is recorded in the Bible is based on historical fact (with new things being uncovered as the dig progresses), and that Jews have had a continuous presence in Jerusalem for over 3000 years, including sovereignty over it predating that of any other claimants.  These findings are accepted by all major, mainstream archeologists and undercut efforts by Arabs to dismiss claims of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem, so perhaps it’s no wonder that Lesley Stahl glossed over them in favor of listening to whinging Arabs instead.  (She also glossed over the fact that she and her camera crew were attacked by Arabs the minute they stepped out of their cars to film at the site and had to call City of David security to assist them.)  The fact that neighborhood leaders of both Jewish and Arab residents have complained in recent months about the rabble-rousers from outside the neighborhood entering it to cause problems and try to make it into a flashpoint is testament to the fact that the City of David is a barely-noticed example of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem.  Had she wanted to, Stahl could have made her piece about the fact that Jews and Arabs live together in harmony near this remarkable archeological site.  She could even have focused on the site itself, and what it has uncovered.  Instead, she chose to air, alongside her interviews with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, the site’s excavation head, and an angry Arab, the Pallywood video that hit YouTube a few months ago of a Jewish man and his son being stoned in their car in a meticulously choreographed and filmed incident which was intended to show how ruthless and evil Jews are when beset by innocent Arab children frustrated by the Occupation.  Her choice of angle, in other words, abandoned intellectual curiosity, science, history, human ingenuity, the thrill of discovery, and journalistic integrity, in favor of joining the ranks of the angry rabble.

But no amount of fact-fudging or petty politicking could change the fact that as I walked through both the wondrous ruins and the small, but stunningly beautiful street of Jewish homes and lovingly tended gardens, much of the sadness, anger, and angst I had been feeling for the previous few weeks melted away, and I was able for a morning to reconnect with our indisputably ancient Jewish roots in this land.  Regardless of what Lesley Stahl, the Western press, envious Arabs, or international “peace activists” may say, we have been here for countless generations, and will be here for countless more.

Ruins of private dwellings, City of David

Read Full Post »

It seems that history was made recently at the United Nations.  No, China was not kicked off the Human Rights Council (though, inexplicably, Libya was).  And no, Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has not been disinvited from his annual anti-Semitic tirade and raspberry-blowing fest.  And no new canapés have been introduced at UN receptions.

The history I refer to is the recent screening of the Julian Schnabel film “Miral” at the United Nations General Assembly.

The UN is not the usual venue for a feature film to debut.  That’s because it’s a policy-making body, and not Sundance, Cannes, or Toronto.  And while it seems that documentaries (i.e. based on fact) are occasionally screened, feature films (i.e. based on fiction, imagination, or anecdote) are not.

And as feature films go, this one would not seem the likeliest to be chosen.  It was panned by English and Italian critics who found it shallow, stilted, and just another hackneyed vehicle for demonizing of Israel.  Focusing as it does on a young Palestinian Arab girl who grows up in an orphanage, becomes a teacher in a refugee camp, and falls in love with a terrorist, it would not seem to be the most dispassionate tale one could imagine.

I’m not taking issue with a Jewish producer making a movie about a book he enjoyed by an Arab woman he’s romantically involved with.  I’m not even taking issue with the fact that it may or may not be bald-faced Palestinian propaganda.  Such a film, whether or not it has merit, should be allowed to be screened in appropriate venues and judged on its own merits.  I also support the rights of people who claim it is Palestinian propaganda to protest its screening, expose any lies in the film, and to call it a dog of a film if that’s what it is.

But what I do take issue with is the UN as an appropriate venue for this kind of film.  Films that are intended to educate, report facts, enlighten, and provide historical background, are all worthy of being screened to a body which should concern itself with reality rather than imagination.  On the other hand, films that are attempts to appeal to emotions, reinforce (dubious) conventional wisdom, or provide catharsis for the viewer, are inappropriate to be shown at the UN.

GA president Joseph Deiss was reported to like the film “and thought it could contribute to a useful and interesting discussion on a topic that has gone on for so long.”  This is revealing on a number of points.  First, the desire to spark discussion on a topic which has been discussed and discussed until the discussants are blue in the mouth seems to me more like beating a dead horse than contributing to any solutions.  And the fact that the issue “has gone on for so long” is also telling.  The UN itself, through the UNRWA, has administered the very refugee camps that are featured in the film, places where in reality, extremism, violence, and hatred of Jews fester and are indoctrinated into generations of young Arabs.  The UN itself has done more than any other body to prolong this conflict by perpetuating the refugee camps instead of doing what they were set up to do, which is to resettle the refugees and enable them to build whole lives for themselves.  Over 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands descended on Israel in the 1940s and 1950s, and sixty years (and no UN aid) later, they are fully integrated in Israeli society.  The UN High Commissioner on Refugees has operated many large-scale refugee resettlement programs, enabling an estimated 50 million refugees to restart their lives.  Yet under the UNRWA (created specially to administer the Palestinian Arab refugees), between 520,000 and 800,000 Arab refugees from the Arab-Israeli conflict have not been resettled in over 60 years, even on an annual operating budget of well over $500 million (source).  If anything, showing a film like this should embarrass the UN, and the discussion it sparks should be one which questions the UN mandate itself.

If the UN wants to make peace in the Middle East, it needs to stop perpetuating the conflict through its own neglect and bloated, protectionist bureaucracy.  If it wants to make peace, it needs to stop fomenting the political divisions that are so entrenched in its own structure (the automatic majority comes to mind).  If it wants to fix this problem and get it off its desk (which seems to be a high priority throughout the West), it would do well to look at what really exists here, and not at the “art” of a scruffy Jewish American who shows up to premieres in his pajamas and hobnobs with celebrity “activists” and self-promoting Hollywood executives.

I read recently that Canadian journalist Robert Fulford is credited with saying that conspiracy theories are “history for stupid people.”  Looking at the behavior of the UN General Assembly these days, it seems that Hollywood feature films are history for international diplomats.

Read Full Post »

The other day, Carl posted a short rant on his blog, IsraelMatzav, on the lack of widespread support among US Jewry of America’s veto of the “settlements are illegal” resolution vote at the UN.

One of Carl’s readers, a self-avowed Renewal Jew, commented that the Renewal movement’s spiritual leader, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, is not expected to state an opinion on the subject.  This person asserted that it is alienating to shul-goers (especially those not politically active) to hear about politics from the bima, and it got me thinking.

On the one hand, I like to feel like Israel is really the People United we like to think it is.  And it’s nice to feel like there is support for Israel and its interests expressed by Jews abroad, especially on issues which challenge Israel’s very existence, as those at the UN seem increasingly to do these days.

But then I think some more.  Not all American Jews feel connected to the State of Israel.  For many, just being Jewish is challenge enough when faced with the pull of non-Jewish culture and the ease of assimilation.  And about a third of younger American Jews said in a poll in the last couple of years that the loss of Israel (presumably through a second Holocaust) would not be a particularly emotional event for them.  It’s a lot to ask Jews who don’t feel connected to Israel at all to take an interest in the protection of the settlement enterprise, something that not all Israelis support, and which most people outside Israel don’t understand, much less give their backing.

And Carl’s Renewal reader also said something that resonated with me: there is nothing more irritating than hearing a rabbi rail from the bima about politics.  It took me back to my mid-teens, when we lived in a small town in California that had one Reform synagogue and a rabbi with an abrasive personality.  We rarely went to synagogue, and when we did, the rabbi would greet my family at the door with the comment, “Well, hello, strangers!”  If that wasn’t bad enough, he spent every Friday night ranting about the PLO (this was 1982 and he had a lot to say), to the point that I began to wonder if Hashem hadn’t made a covenant with the PLO rather than the Jews, and whether the rabbi actually knew any Torah at all.  At a time when I was desperate to learn something about Judaism and trying to figure out who I was as a Jew, my rabbi (the only Jewish authority I’d clapped eyes on in years) was no help.  He taught me no Torah at shul, and he taught me no Torah at the teen class he taught on Wednesday nights that my parents forced me to attend.  When I finally found out that only the Reform movement accepted me as Jewish, I was not encouraged.  (By the way, I have met more learned Reform rabbis since then, but this was a poor start to my acquaintance with Reform Judaism.)

So while I understand Carl’s discouragement at a lack of American support (which Israelis feel increasingly these days as the peace process seems to disappear over the horizon and is replaced by initiatives to invalidate Israel’s existence), I also understand why American Jews weren’t queuing up to protest the latest vote on the threadbare theme of “settlements are the Antichrist.”

Besides, a source of consolation for me in all this was that, unlike the current Secretary of State (who calls the settlements “illegitimate” and expansion of the settlements “illegal”), America’s Yidn didn’t take to the streets to support the Arab-backed resolution.

Read Full Post »

I followed with half a brain the brewing storm over a group of anti-Israel activists who call themselves Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign (awareness? of what?) who wanted to place “advertisements” on the sides of Seattle buses accusing Israel of war crimes.  The ads were to show Arab children looking at a demolished building and the legend, “Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars At Work,” and help spread the world about the aggressive, disproportionate policies of Israel’s government, coinciding with the second anniversary of the beginning of Operation Cast Lead.

I recently saw that a friend on Facebook posted a link to an article that states that Seattle and the King County Metro bus service have decided NOT to allow the libelous posters to be placed on the side of 12 public buses.  This is largely in response to a mobilized counter-campaign by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a pro-Israel group, which planned to take out ads on other Seattle buses showing victims of Arab bus attacks during the Palestinian Terror War (aka the Second Intifada) and the words, “Palestinian War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars At Work.”  Pictures of children and adults in Sderot and Negev kibbutzim running to shelters to escape missiles launched from Gaza were also slated for possible “advertisement.”

Seattle’s decision to ban all new non-commercial advertisements on the sides of public buses is not only wise, it’s necessary.  To allow a public service provider to get embroiled in the controversies surrounding the Middle East, and all the vitriol and ignorance that seems to accompany it, would at best be, as they feared, “disruptive” and at worst open a new forum for the insanity and stupidity that passes for public debate and discourse on the subject.

It’s also proof positive that an aggressive counter-attack against the forces of idiocy works.  If someone threatens to “expose” Israel’s “war crimes” (which have never been substantiated, proven, or otherwise dealt with in an official manner outside the court of public opinion), all pro-Israel people need to do is mobilize and offer a tit-for-tat exposure of Palestinian Arab violence.  (Canada also recently saw a counter-BSD event in Montreal with a pro-Israel “buy-cott”).  It’s a nuisance to have to deal with these stupid little attacks on Israel, but the more we care enough to make a few phone calls, donate a few dollars, and threaten to stir up the pot a little more, the less traction these nitwits who call themselves “activists” will have in getting their message out.

Well done, Seattle.

Read Full Post »

I’ve laid off politics for a while because frankly, it’s exhausting enough to live in a place where politics is served with your cornflakes at breakfast without writing about it all the time.

But I really can’t be silent about the recent dust raised over Israel’s naming of national heritage sites in the country for the purposes of preservation and renovation.

It started with Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem (Nablus), where Arabs accused the Jews of “fabricating” their connection to the site (you can thank Hanan Ashrawi for that little nugget) and after Arabs rioted there in 2000, then-PM Ehud Barak ordered the IDF to abandon it.  It was subsequently handed over to Palestinian police who, despite their commitment to protect the site, stood by and watched while it was ransacked and burned by an Arab mob.  After thousands of years of being venerated as Joseph’s burial place (including by Arab geographers), the PA suddenly claimed that the tomb is not that of Joseph the Jew, but of some Muslim named Joseph, serving as their excuse for making it into a mosque.  I don’t believe such ridiculous claims and I suspect, given the fact that these Arabs had no difficulty reducing the place to rubble, they don’t either.

Next we move on to the Cave of the Patriarchs.  Located in Hevron, this site is the burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah (none of whom Muslims can claim any connection with except possibly Abraham, according to tradition).  As a result of the Wye River Accords, the site has been divided, giving the Muslim Waqf control over 80% of the site and limiting the access of Jews to the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca to ten days a year.  To acknowledge the Cave of the Patriarchs as the second holiest site in Judaism, PM Binyamin Netanyahu officially added it to the list of national heritage sites.  This declaration has met with outrage from the UN, Arab governments, and the United States (which I have noticed are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from one another in their policies and attitudes), and UNESCO has called for this site to be removed from Israel’s list of national holy sites.

If the world wants to deny the Jews any connection to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, what of Rachel’s Tomb?  Well, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, so the little minds have been hard at work cooking up a cock-and-bull story about Rachel’s Tomb.  Here it is: As of 1996, the tomb, which has always has been acknowledged as Rachel’s burial place by everyone who has been here (British, Turks, Arabs, Jews), was renamed by Palestinian Arab spin doctors the Mosque of Bilal Ibn Rabah, after an Ethiopian slave in Mohammed’s household who was killed in the wars in Syria and is buried in Damascus.  Not only are Arabs reduced to making up stories to try to lay claim to Jewish holy sites in the Jewish State, they’re declaring a “holy war” to back up those new claims.

But wait—there’s more!  According to a recent statement by a PA official, the Western Wall is not Jewish!  That’s right.  A PA-backed “study” shows that the Western Wall is NOT part of the Temple Mount, but an integral part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (which is not contiguous with the wall, but never mind the facts).  This study claims that “the Temple Mount never stood in the area,” that the Western Wall is Waqf property and belongs to an Algerian-Moroccan Muslim family, that none of the stones in the current Temple Mount wall date from the time of King Solomon, and that the path next to the Wall was never a public road, but was established for Muslim use to access the mosques on the Mount.  The author of the “study” states, “No one has the right to claim ownership over it or change its features or original character. Also, no one has the right to agree with the occupation state’s racist and oppressive measures against history and holy sites.”  Which measures are those?  The ones that comply with the version of history accepted by educated, sane, objective, politically disinterested historians?  Or the ones that seek to explore through archeology the area’s use and workings in ancient times?  Or perhaps the ones that say that Jews have a right to live freely in their own land rather than be voted out of existence by a bunch of ragtag Muslim zealots bent on grabbing this land for themselves any way they can get it?  Anyone who makes the absurdly false claims these PA nutjobs are making, or believes them (as it’s only a matter of time before the UN and America will) is buying a story that says that the Dome of the Rock (dating from 691 CE) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the most recent building dating from 1035) have always been there, were built on bare ground (presumably under the personal direction of Mohammed), and on land the Jews never occupied.  Riiiiiiigggghhhhht.

I believe in freedom of speech.  I believe that people have the right to believe whatever they wish, and to speak about it freely.  If, despite Columbus’s successful voyage, satellite pictures, and man’s visit to the moon, someone wants to claim that the earth is flat, that’s their right.  If someone thinks the moon is made of cheese, let them.  (And don’t forget to bring me back some next time you go.)  If someone wants to cook up conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination, about UFOs, or about Hitler’s brain being kept alive in Paraguay, be my guest.  But just as people have the right to claim anything they like, it is the right of the rest of us to ridicule them, refute them, or simply ignore them.  In fact, it is the obligation of every responsible citizen (and more so those in positions of influence and decision-making) to examine the facts and ask questions rather than simply believe a tall tale because he or she doesn’t know any better.  To allow ignorance, conventional wisdom, and politics to play a role in policy-making at an international level is to delegitimize the very policy-making body to which they belong.  Given how the UN has behaved for the past several decades, how its conduct and voting record has gotten less and less rational, and now how UNESCO is rewriting history in the Jewish State, it is actually the UN that is being delegitimized.  (How long, after all, will it be before the UN building in New York itself gets voted an ancient Muslim holy site, is given an phony Arabic name and converted into a mosque?)  As far as I can see, the UN is the greatest purveyor of incitement, disinformation, political intrigue, and outright lies in the world, and as such, the greatest threat to world peace.

What are the takeaway messages to be gleaned from all this insanity?

  • The only people worse at history than Arabs are lazy Westerners.
  • Ignorant Christians are as dangerous as zealous Muslims.
  • If a Muslim says it, it must be true (contrary facts notwithstanding).
  • Israel has no holy sites.  Anything that has been claimed by them for thousands of years and is supported by texts (holy and secular), archeology, and tradition, becomes instantly invalid once Arabs come up with a story claiming that those sites are sacred to Muslims.
  • If we want to return places to their “original” names, then Nablus should be universally known as Shechem, London should be Londinium, New York should be New Amsterdam, Iraq should be Babylon, and Mecca should be Terok Nor.
  • Arab vandalism of Jewish planting on state lands has led to several clashes in the Gush.  Four settlers were shot dead by an Arab at point-blank range last August.  There have been several stonings of Jewish cars by Arabs on the road near the northern entrance to Efrat.  An Arab attempted to stab hitchhikers near the Gush Junction the other day.  Arabs have launched a full campaign to delegitimize the spiritual connection of Jews to this land.   And the West is buying it all, hook, line and sinker.

It’s time to push back, people.

Read Full Post »

A bit of gallows humor

The following is from an email that has made the rounds on the Internet.  I don’t necessarily agree with its socially conservative message (or its fast-and-loose play with the Biblical time line), but I love the gallows humor, especially in the punchline.

Why I’m so depressed

Over five thousand years ago, Moses said to the Children of Israel, “Pick up your shovels, mount your asses and camels, and I will lead you to the Promised Land.”

Nearly 75 years ago (when welfare was introduced) Roosevelt said, “Lay down your shovels, sit on your asses, and light up a Camel.  This is the Promised Land.”

Now Obama has stolen your shovel, taxed your asses, raised the price of Camels and mortgaged the Promised Land!

I was so depressed last night thinking about health care plans, the economy, the wars, lost jobs, savings, social security, retirement funds, etc….  I called Lifeline and got a call center in Pakistan.  When I told them I was suicidal, they got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.

Read Full Post »

My father recently forwarded an email of quotations purportedly by Thomas Jefferson, warning of the threats to democracy by banks and financial institutions, big government, taxation, and an unarmed citizenry.

It is clear from this email that some Americans are fed up with what they view as out-of-control government spending, Wall Street shenanigans followed by  federal bailouts, and high taxes.  To express this disgruntlement, someone has compiled a group of quotations (some provably Jeffersonian, others not) to show that one of America’s sages, and perhaps its greatest champion of liberty, foresaw the current economic crisis over 200 years ago.

Thomas Jefferson had plenty of pithy things to say, and at one point in my life (before I read very much American history) I really admired him.  But as I began to read American history in earnest, I discovered that the more I read about him, the less I liked him.  He wrote a magnificent Declaration of Independence, purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon for a smoke and a pancake, and had the vision to sponsor the Lewis and Clark expedition (which, if nothing else, led the Americans to Oregon).  But he reveled in the indiscriminate bloodiness of the French revolution; he vociferously opposed the creation of a national bank to help pay the debts incurred in the course of the American revolution (preferring, perhaps, to let the states duke out who should pay what and start the new nation on an acrimonious foot); and he hired yellow journalist James Callender on the sly to smear President John Adams in the press, helping to bring down the presidency of one of the most honest, sensible, rational men of that time.  As a politician, he was less than admirable.  As a man, he was frivolous and irresponsible, spending his considerable fortune on expensive book and wine collections, remodeling Monticello constantly, and racking up enormous debts (that would go unpaid until his death) while preaching economy to anyone who would listen.  Some also find it disturbing that he fathered several children by his slave, Sally Hemings.  (Assuming it was consensual, I am less disturbed by that than by the fact that he promised his dying wife never to remarry, and then kept his promise.  What a fool.)

The following are the “quotations” by Jefferson in the email I received, followed by my comments:

“When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.”
This has been correctly attributed to Jefferson, and perhaps there’s something to it.  Jefferson was enamored of the rural farming economy of his native South, and had little love for the growing cities in the North.  Whether it is true that the South enjoyed more honesty in politics and governing than the North, I can’t say.  These days, the least corrupt countries are those with the most women participating in them.  Like Iceland.  Or Finland.  The more women (and, by extension, fewer men) serve in politics, the less corrupt the country is likely to be.  (Read Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic—and my review of it—for more commentary on this subject.)  Israel is woefully dominated by men in government, and the PA has no women at all that I know of.  It’s about more than rural versus urban life.

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”
As it happens, this quotation has not been proven to be from Jefferson (according to this website, which draws from the 1900 Jeffersonian Cyclopedia.)  And if it were?  Fine words from a wealthy slave owner.

“It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes.  A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.”
Poor Jefferson couldn’t hold on to a dollar bill to save his life, and died with staggering outstanding debts.  Jefferson’s opposition to the creation of a national bank (invented by Alexander Hamilton, an illegitimate child from the West Indies with no fortune, no pedigree, and no slaves) in order to pay the country’s debts after the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War gives the lie to this observation of Jefferson’s.

“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”
This is a common sentiment among Americans nowadays.  But it should be noted that until the Civil War, there was no income tax in America.  On the other hand, slave holders claimed that their “darkies” wouldn’t be able to take care of themselves without their white masters to “protect” them.  Nonsense.  It was their slaves who did the labor that filled their coffers, nursed them when they were ill, cooked their meals, cleaned their homes, and ironed their shirts.  I know he wasn’t talking about slaves here, but if you substitute slaveholders for “government” and slaves for “Americans,” it reads very differently.  And lest anyone accuse me of applying modern ethics and sensibilities to pillory the ancients, it should be noted that Civil War historian Shelby Foote (a Southerner) has observed that the single greatest mistake made by the Founding Fathers was to create the United States and its Constitution with slavery intact.  It was ALWAYS a source of tension and discomfort.  The North had outlawed slavery in its states, while the South awarded part-human status to its slaves by insisting that it be awarded additional seats in Congress in the Three-Fifths Compromise.  Things only got worse as the country expanded westward and talked of admitting new states to the Union.  Slavery, while accepted by some individuals in some parts of the country, was not universally accepted in America.

“My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”
This quotation has not been proven to be by Jefferson, though I’m sure many would like it to be.  I believe there are plenty of examples of very bad big government.  But where there is less government, there is also a greater reliance on one’s own fortunes (which can sometimes be poor through no one’s fault) and charity (which is not always a compelling motivator to help one’s fellow man).  Socialized governmental systems are not all bad (see the Netherlands, Finland, etc.) and minimal government should not by definition be much better.

“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
This is one of the rare statements I agree with.  Yitzhak Imes, one of the four Jewish settlers gunned down on the road here in Judea in August by an Arab, was once a licensed gun owner.  But after being arrested for praying on the Temple Mount (everyone but Jews is allowed to pray there), his license was revoked as a result of his acquiring a “criminal” record.  Had he had his gun in the car and been able to shoot back, it is possible that he and/or the other passengers in the car that day (including his wife who was pregnant with their seventh child, a special education kindergarten teacher here in Efrat, and a young newlywed) might have been able to defend themselves before being shot at point-blank range, and lived.

“The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
This quotation has not been proven to be from Jefferson.  Nevertheless, in extreme circumstances it may be true, and a few more arms for the Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s would not have been amiss (or the Jews in Mandatory Palestine, for that matter).  In America, I think the right to vote and a government with America’s checks and balances system is a greater safeguard against all but the most extreme forms of governmental tyranny.  (Wish Israel had checks and balances; they’re almost absent here and we feel it keenly.)

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
I’m happy to see that since the Civil War, this has not been borne out in the US.  Thank God.

“To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”
This is misquoted, the correct quotation being the following: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical” (my italics).  One is voluntary, the other obligatory.  The net effect is the same.  As for the message, I would argue that slaves didn’t pay taxes, but their labor more than subsidized the planters’ way of life and gave the Southern states extra representation in Congress through the Three-Fifths Compromise.  Are we supposed to believe that practice was not “sinful and tyrannical”?  The safeguards against this are the vote and the Bill of Rights which allow people to challenge their government through words and lawful actions.  It works surprisingly well in the long term, though there is plenty of short term frustration.  And ironically, it is the American conservatives who have dug the huge hole of debt the Americans find themselves in these days, those who would agree with most of what Jefferson (sometimes) says here.

“I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.  If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.”
This quotation is false according to Snopes.  Nonetheless, anyone can see why it is so popular now.  Before I knew it was false, I could imagine why Jefferson might have said it—he had a personal loathing of financiers since he was perpetually indebted to them, and Virginia didn’t want to pay its share of the national debt after the war.  In the end, the nation’s capital ended up in a malaria-infested swamp between Virginia and Maryland as a sop to Jefferson and the other Virginians in the government in order to found a national bank (in New York, under New Yorker Hamilton’s direction) to begin the country’s history with a precedent of fiscal responsibility.  Had Jefferson actually said this, his words would have been prophetic: After his death, Jefferson’s children were homeless on the continent their father had helped to conquer.

The Snopes discussion makes some important points about circulating emails like this one:

One of the “Rules of Misquotation” outlined by Ralph Keyes in his 1992 book on that subject is that axiom that “Famous dead people make excellent commentators on current events.”  Given the fear and uncertainty engendered by the current economic situation, and the disgruntlement expressed by many Americans at the thought of providing taxpayer-funded government bailouts to financial institutions and other large corporate entities (such as the auto industry), it was only a matter of time until someone trotted out a quotation (apocryphal or otherwise) from a respected, long-dead figure demonstrating that this whole economic mess was both predictable and inevitable.  And one could hardly find a more hallowed figure in U.S. history than Thomas Jefferson to deliver this message, warning us from across the centuries that predatory banks and corporations would eventually impoverish us all.

I’m sure I am considered a heretic for my feelings about Jefferson.  But if the people who admire him most nowadays are the kind of people who disregard history and fabricate (or believe) quotations like these to salve their own wounds, poor Jefferson’s legacy can suffer no greater harm from my dislike of him.

Read Full Post »

I’m not sure there’s a soul in the Jewish world who doesn’t know who Alan Dershowitz is.  Made a full professor at Harvard Law School at age 28, one of America’s premier defense attorneys, a stalwart defender of Israel (though not of the settlements), and prolific author of books about the American legal system, Judaism, and Israel, Dershowitz was recently offered (and turned down) the job of Israel’s ambassador to the UN.

I’ve had The Best Defense on my bookshelf for ages.  After spending years accumulating books, I’ve given myself the task, in recent months, of eschewing bookstores, book sales, and the library, and instead pulling out books that have been gathering dust on my shelves and reading them.  (In the course of this exercise, I am evaluating which books I like enough to replace on my bookshelf to reread, lend, or recommend to the Cap’n, and which get tossed onto the pile for my next book swap.  This, of course, makes more room for new books when I go back to collecting them.)  I’ve been on a nonfiction reading streak, and The Best Defense appealed.

I have always found Dershowitz very readable.  His intelligence and sense of humor come through no matter what he writes, and this book shows not only his great legal acuity but also a larger degree of humility than I’ve seen in many of his other books.  (Published in 1982, it is one of his earlier books; perhaps the humility wore off over time as fame and fortune accompanied his career success.)  This book is Dershowitz’s examination of some of the problems that exist in “American blind justice,” i.e. its lack of blindness.  While he observes that the American judicial system is one of the better ones in the world, he has often come up against police perjury, prosecutors who withhold evidence and collaborate with witnesses who lie on the stand, and judges who are either activist or have a personal stake in the outcome of a trial which influences their decisions.  The limitations of defense attorneys are not ignored, but Dershowitz makes a case for their necessity in our society, despite how their clients’ crimes and sleaziness are often projected onto them by the media and the public.

To illustrate his observations about the court system, Dershowitz draws on his colorful experiences as a trial lawyer defending JDL terrorists, a man tried for murder for shooting a corpse, First Amendment issues including pornography and a nude beach on Cape Cod, providing legal defense for Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet court system, and the case of the Tison brothers who were tried for murders their father committed, and among a few other cases.  Some of the cases are more gripping than others (the Tison case had me riveted), and some were still unresolved at the time of publication, but all of them served as excellent examples of some of the flaws in the American judicial system.

It is ironic, but while I found myself very left-leaning in my youth (college and for many years after), I—as much as anyone else—criticized defense attorneys like Dershowitz for defending slimy characters like Leona Helmsley and O.J. Simpson: flashy, loud, aggressive defenders who seemed to revel in the limelight they themselves enjoyed while the media followed every motion and witness in the course of the trials.  I say “ironic” because it should be the liberal thinkers in a society who should be the greatest proponents of the right of even the shadiest, most unsavory—and yes, guiltiest—characters in society to a quality defense.  It is only since I’ve backed off from my unquestioningly liberal views that I have begun to see things differently, and Dershowitz’s critique of the seamier side of the judicial system, his vivid descriptions of the ways in which people accused of crimes are not dealt with fairly (or legally), and the reasons why a defense attorney must focus all his or her energy on providing a forceful, even aggressive, defense resonated with me.  Dershowitz does not spare trial lawyers from his critique; he takes to task trial lawyers who compromise their clients’ interests through serving their own desire for fame, for a cozy relationship with prosecutors and judges, for laziness, for activism (when dedication to a cause is greater than that to a client), or for excessive integrity (when a “general reputation may be built on the imprisoned lives of those defendants whose short-term interest in freedom may have been sacrificed to the lawyer’s own long-term interest in developing a reputation for integrity”).

I’ve often wondered how defense attorneys sleep at night, having as they do the job of trying to get their clients (who are almost always guilty of the crimes they’re accused of) freed.  Dershowitz answers this by writing, “I do not apologize for (or feel guilty about) helping to let a murderer go free—even though I realize that someday one of my clients may go out and kill again.  Since nothing like this has ever happened, I cannot know for sure how I would react.  I know that I would feel terrible for the victim.  But I hope I would not regret what I had done—any more than a surgeon should regret saving the life of a patient who recovers and later kills an innocent victim.”  This is an interesting analogy.  The difference of course is that the surgeon who saves a life is keeping someone from dying, not from doing jail time (which is what most murderers get).  And in this scenario, Dershowitz also doesn’t mention the surgeon knowing that his patient is a murderer, whereas the defense attorney seeks to keep a known murderer from being punished.  In my view this is not a fair comparison.  But I digress.  I take Dershowitz’s point about a defense attorney’s job being that of helping his client go free.  If I were accused of a crime (one that I’d done, or one that I’d not done), a zealous, savvy, highly skilled lawyer dedicated to nothing but securing my freedom would be exactly what I would want.  In each of the cases he discusses having taken on, Dershowitz describes the tactics and strategies he and his legal team employed, from drawing on precedent-setting cases to prevent his clients from being sent to the electric chair, to rushing out to a barber for a conservative shave and haircut before defending clients before a court known to scorn “bearded, long-haired-hippies.”

Dershowitz is most persuasive when he discusses the freedoms that underlie even the very imperfect justice system in America.  He writes, “Part of the reason why we are as free as we are, and why our criminal justice system retains a modicum of rough justice despite its corruption and unfairness, is our adversary process: the process by which every defendant may challenge the government. …I believe that defending the guilty and the despised—even freeing some of them—is a small price to pay for our liberties.”  This is a compelling point: when justice systems are dismantled, or have no appeals process (the Cap’n reminded me of the Cardassian justice system, where the verdict is decided before the trial begins, and the trial is held merely to stir up the public and serve the government’s ends), then freedom is seriously compromised.  Defense attorneys are “the final barrier between an overreaching government and its citizens,” words which would seem more predictable coming out of the mouth of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican than an active member of the ACLU.  When Dershowitz traveled to China in 1980 to advise the People’s Republic on its criminal justice system, he was asked, “Why should our government pay someone to stand in the way of socialist justice?”  His response is that “[s]ince not all defendants are created equal in their ability to speak effectively, think logically, and argue forcefully, the role of a defense attorney—trained in these and other skills—is to perform those functions for the defendant.  The process of determining whether a defendant should be deemed guilty and punished requires that the government be put to its proof and that the accused have a fair opportunity to defend.”

Over the years I have become more suspicious of government power.  It’s not because of any run-ins with the law, and it’s not because I’ve become rich.  Rather, I believe I understand human nature better, and all of its temptations to stray from the proper path.  (Sadly, this book confirms some of my darkest suspicions of human nature.)  And as a Jew and an Israeli, I have also seen, both in history and in the present, the zealousness of the media, governments, and public opinion to convict a people and a nation of unspeakable crimes without proof or even a proper hearing.  The court of world opinion is strikingly similar to the Cardassian courts, where nowadays Israel is guaranteed to lose its case, no matter what it is, before the trial even opens.  Justice can, at times, seem to be as elusive as, well, peace in the Middle East.

In the end, I don’t know whether my liberal credentials have been enhanced or diminished by my views, which have been further shaped by reading Dershowitz’s book.  On the one hand, my belief that everyone deserves a spirited defense in the court system would seem to argue in favor of my liberalism.  On the other hand, my belief in that creed stems from a conviction that people are NOT basically good or trustworthy, and must be checked and balanced in an adversarial court system, which suggests a more cynical, conservative view.  At the end of the day, I don’t suppose a label on my political views much matters.  What matters is one of the statements Dershowitz closes the book with: “To me the most persuasive argument for defending the guilty and the despised is to consider the alternative.  Those governments that forbid or discourage such representation have little to teach us about justice.  Their systems are far more corrupt, less fair, and generally even less efficient than ours..”

Hear, hear.

Read Full Post »

Why America isn’t #1

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

Read Full Post »

A bad business

As a former schoolmarm, I have a retirement account managed by TIAA-CREF.  The Cap’n recently called out from the laptop in his office in our basement to tell me that there is a divest-from-Israel campaign afoot, and perhaps I would like to write a letter?

He sent me a link to a report about a recent TIAA-CREF shareholders’ meeting in which they garnered 15,300 signatures from teachers and professors demanding that TIAA-CREF divest from companies that do business with Israel, benefiting from “repression,” “land theft,” “death,” and “The Occupation.”  It’s always sad to me to see purportedly intelligent Jews making asses of themselves on camera, parading their heartfelt ignorance before the world, and enlisting as Useful Fools in the cause of Israel’s destruction.  Watch and weep.

I simply cannot see that sort of thing without running to the computer (or, since I’m already here, opening up Word) and writing a letter.  The letter to other shareholders about the “breakthrough” meeting in which “[n]ot a single person spoke to defend Israel’s occupation” continues,  “But we all know that will change, which is why we need you now to join our call and help us grow the 15,300 to 25,000 and then 50,000.”  Not THIS shareholder.

Here’s my letter to TIAA-CREF:

Dear Madam or Sir:

It has come to my attention that an organization calling itself Jewish Voice For Peace has been collecting signatures for a petition calling TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that do business with Israel.

As a TIAA-CREF shareholder, I would like to offer a different perspective.

I actually live in Israel.  Furthermore, I live in the West Bank.  And unlike the American Jewish Voice For Peace, I see every day the civility, courtesy, and cooperation that exist between Israelis and Arabs.  We share the roads, and we share an economy.  And while there are frequent demonstrations calling for an end to Israeli “occupation” of this area, they are nearly always planned and attended by non-Israeli, non-Arab activists (political tourists, if you like).

The people who spoke on behalf of Jewish Voice For Peace on the video posted online seem like intelligent people.  But unfortunately, even intelligent people can sometimes have a poor understanding of history and current events.  The West Bank and Gaza were left in Israel’s hands after Israel successfully fought off an unprovoked attack by Jordan and Egypt in 1967, who hoped for the second time to destroy Israel and divide its land.  Israel has tried numerous times to trade these lands for peace, first to Jordan and Egypt (who refused after the Khartoum Conference) and many times to PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and PA President Mahmoud Abbas (who refused to accept them and end the conflict once and for all).  The settlements are legal according to international law, there is nothing approaching apartheid either in Israel or in the disputed territories, and Israel gave Gaza to the Arabs in 2005, painfully uprooting its own citizens, in order to give the Arabs a head start on building a state.  In return, not only has Hamas refused to engage in any of the necessary tasks of state-building, it has continued its war against the Jewish State, firing thousands of rockets and mortars across the border into Israel, terrorizing the Israeli population, killing and maiming people, and causing millions of dollars of damage to property, meanwhile taking refuge behind its own civilian population for whose safety and well-being it feels no responsibility.

The individuals who call themselves Jewish Voice For Peace appear well-meaning, but in calling for boycotts and divestment in order to weaken Israel’s economy (which also serves Israeli Arabs, Beduins, and Druze), they are no friends of peace.  Were they really interested in peace, they would be encouraging TIAA-CREF to help strengthen the Palestinian Arabs by supporting through investments Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s efforts to build a viable Palestinian economy as one of the necessary steps toward a lasting regional peace.

I too would like to see peace come to the Middle East.  But I also recognize that activism against Israel, without an understanding of the complex relationship between Israel’s economy and the peace process, is ignorant, short-sighted, and bad for business.

I urge you at TIAA-CREF not to give in to pressure by ill-informed political activists who want to weaken Israel.  We have a thriving democracy, a liberal justice system which serves the needs of all of its citizens, and a population of people of all colors from all over the world who have come together to create not only a haven and home for all Jews, but who also act as custodians for some of the world’s holiest sites, where everyone—Jewish and Gentile—is welcome.  To attempt to hurt Israel will not help anyone—Jew, Arab, or American—and will not bring peace.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Yours truly,

Shimshonit Schnitzengruben

And on a slightly different note: Review, please, the wording regarding the overwhelming support for divestment at the meeting.  Aaron Levitt writes, “Not a single person spoke to defend Israel’s occupation. Not one. …  So many inspiring and courageous JVP activists stood up to say how TIAA-CREF was fueling death and destruction by literally investing in it. To implore TIAA-CREF to find a new way.”  Let’s overlook the sentence fragment for now and focus on the rest, particularly the glee expressed by Levitt at the unanimity in the room and admiration for those “courageous” souls who, unassailed by conflicting opinions, stood up one after another and repeatedly hammered home the same message to the CFO and other officers of TIAA-CREF who, he writes, “listened attentively, respectfully.”  If this is what academia has come to, i.e. ecstasy at conformity and trepidation at debate, then these are sad times, indeed.

Read Full Post »

When I posted about the proposed $100 million mosque and Islamic “cultural” center to be built near Ground Zero in New York, I expressed my concerns about the tastefulness (or lack thereof) of the project, as well as about the political outlook of the Muslims lobbying for it.

Since then, I have done some more thinking, reading, and watching on the subject.  Here are some things I’ve found out.

Who is behind the funding of the center, and whose teachings will be disseminated there?  The following video features Brigitte Gabriel, president of American Congress for Truth, and a Lebanese Christian who fled the massacres of Christians by Muslims in her homeland and learned that the hatred of and lies about Israel she had been taught as a child in Lebanon were untrue.  She masterfully dominates the “discussion,” effectively overpowering a Saruman-like spokesman for the Arab side (“Do not let him speak; he will put a spell on us”) and repeating her message of the dangers of allowing extremist Muslims to build a monument to Islam next to Ground Zero.  (She may come across as rude in the interview, but when the few words that come out of the pro-mosque Arab’s mouth are clearly buzzwords chosen to shame Americans into extending “freedom” and “tolerance” to those who would destroy that same freedom and tolerance for others, I think it’s justified.)

Why that site in particular for a mosque?  What is the bigger picture?  These questions are addressed by a speaker for Acts 17, a Christian group which seeks to expose and confront anti-American Islam.  He discusses the responses he observed of “normative” Muslims to the atrocities of 9/11 and the wider view they have of New York.  A mere coincidence, the property to be converted to the Islamic center?  The big picture may not be so benign.

Is America making a mistake by extending freedom and tolerance in this context?  Pat Condell seems to think so.  (He thinks a whole lot of other things on the subject too.)

And where in all this insanity are the true Muslim moderates?  An interesting piece of uncertain authorship (but readable on this blog), comparing moderates to extremists in political movements throughout the 20th century, claims that while political correctness and tolerance requires us to write off acts of violence and hatred as the work of “extremists,” the truth is that when all the activities of a particular group are undertaken by the venom-spewing, club-wielding extremists, then the “moderates” who choose to sit quietly at home become irrelevant.  It was the Communists in Russia and China who were the Angels of Death in their societies, not the average peace-loving Russian or Chinese.  Same with the Japanese and the Germans in World War II.  And so it is now in the Islamic world where acts of terror and butchery are carried out by some, and those who oppose them are silent.  Where Jews are laughed at (and laugh at themselves) for having three opinions for every two Jews, there is merit to that.  If some Jews are settlers, other Jews are out protesting the settlements.  If some Jews advocate for unilateral withdrawal from land, other Jews are out there protesting and getting arrested.  If one Jew shoots dozens of innocent people at a historic shrine, thousands of Jews condemn the act.

So where are the Muslims with moderate, democratic sensibilities?  What are their views on the proposed mosque near Ground Zero?  What are their views on Gilad Schalit, and the fact that he was kidnapped in a cross-border raid (against international law) and has spent four years in an undisclosed location with no access to visits from the Red Cross (also against international law)?  What do they think about the preaching in mosques and teaching in schools that label Jews as descendants of pigs and monkeys, and the world as divided between the House of Islam and the House of War?  What do they think of West-bashing in the Arab world?  Of Iran’s race for nuclear weapons and its promise to wipe Israel off the map with them?  Of the oppression of Christians in the Palestinian Authority and elsewhere?  Of the increasing climate of hatred that is poisoning and further isolating the Arab/Muslim world?  A few Arab critics have abandoned Islam altogether, including Nonie Darwish and Walid Shoebat, and others who continue to point fingers at the violence and collective insanity in Islam have sizable retinues for their personal security (or run the risk of a sticky end like that of Theo Van Gogh).

There are plenty of things in this world that I’ve never seen (the Congo, Salman Rushdie, blancmange) which I’m still prepared to believe exist.  And so with moderate Muslims.  But if they want to stand up and be counted, then they should do so.  If not, they don’t count at all.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been following the news about Obama and his plans for the Middle East for months.  With every passing week, I get more and more discouraged.

I was a good Massachusetts voter for years (read: loyal Democrat), and before that, a true Oregonian (also usually a Democrat).  I preferred the tax-and-spend mentality to the spend-and-let-the-next-guy-worry-about-how-to-pay-for-it plan.  I preferred the Democrats’ concern for the poor, the working class, the environment, women, racial minorities, education, health care, and pretty much everything else.

I did not vote in the last election.  As an Israeli, I no longer feel like I have the right to vote in American elections since I don’t live there anymore; that’s for US residents to do.  (I feel the same way about Israelis abroad not being allowed to vote absentee in Israeli elections.)

I am also not a one-issue voter.  Some American Jews care so passionately about Israel (despite choosing not to live here) that they cast their votes based on who they think will be better for Israel.  When I lived in America, I would weigh all of the issues in my decision-making process.  Who can create a stronger America?  Who has a sound economic policy?  Who has a better plan for weaning the US off of its oil dependency?  Who can balance good relations with the rest of the world’s nations while maintaining a strong identity as an American?  The question of who is a greater supporter of Israel’s right to its own sovereignty and defense is only one of many questions I would consider.

I hoped Obama would be as practical as he was reported to be brainy.  I hoped he would continue the support of Israel in the world-wide war on terror that his predecessors generally (though not exclusively) pursued.  I hoped he would cast a cold, clear eye on the state of the world, stack the priorities, and pursue a foreign policy based on how the world actually is rather than on how he would like to believe the world is.  Instead, he’s shown himself to be a poor judge of national character, a bad student of history, and a leader who would rather dream than face reality.  His belief that making peace (or forcing it, it would seem) between Israel and the Arabs will put Hamas and Hizbullah out of business is entirely unfounded.  His view that once he has successfully made peace between Israel and the Arabs, he will have greater traction in his attempt to arrest Iran’s nuclear ambitions is similarly absurd.  The man who ran such a brilliant campaign can’t seem to grasp the simplest economic reality: that by halting Iran’s nuclear plans and crippling it financially, he can cut off the monetary flow to world-wide terror cells and organizations like Hamas and Hizbullah, and once those have been crippled, peace becomes just a little bit more possible.  His administration’s desperation to find even the faintest glimmer of progress toward peace in the Arab Palestinian world is also sad: PM Salaam Fayyad’s aim to improve the Arab economy is notable, but his refusal to discuss making peace with Israel should be cause for concern.  PA President Mahmoud Abbass’s intransigence in the last few years, despite being offered nearly everything he asked for, should also raise red flags.  And the PA’s recent naming of a square in memory of a woman terrorist who killed 37 civilians (falsely identified by Hillary Clinton as the work of Hamas) should indicate about how inclined toward peace with Israel the Arabs really are.

My being Israeli was the main reason I didn’t vote in the last election.  The other one was that I just couldn’t bring myself to back either candidate.  I hoped that Obama would prove promising; I couldn’t deceive even myself that a ticket with a Republican veteran with an appalling voting record in the Senate and heart disease, paired with an ignorant, fundamentalist Christian Barbie doll would be successful.

I have considered myself to be party-less in American politics for some time.  The last election did nothing to change that.  And with the mid-term election coming up in November in which the Republicans seem poised to retake the House, I can’t say I’m disappointed.  A plague on both their houses, I say, but especially on the party I thought represented human rights, fairness, and the struggle to do what’s right.

Read Full Post »

Although I haven’t had much chance to blog in the last few weeks, I have seen some very interesting stuff in the news that has provoked thought.  Below are some of the items I’ve come across.

I wasn’t sure if or how to respond to Israel Apartheid Week elsewhere in the world.  I would foam at the mouth, but then stop and remember that there are some people you can’t convince of anything, who have decided that Israel is a reincarnation of South Africa.  Or something.  When I remember what South Africa was like, and I look at Israel, I’m inclined to channel Inígo Montoya from “The Princess Bride” and say, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  But then Dore Gold, one of my favorite people in Israeli public affairs, came along with an article that exposes the “hidden agenda” behind Israel Apartheid Week.  In short, “what underlies the Israel Apartheid Week campaign is not international law, but rather a highly politicized interpretation of Israel’s history in which the Jewish people are viewed as a colonialist movement that recently came from Europe to usurp lands from the indigenous Palestinian population, rather than the authentic claimants to sovereignty in their historical homeland.”  He also rightfully points out that “[t]he resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict will not be reached by just waging historical debates, but by mutual recognition and accommodation. Israel Apartheid Week is not about respect for human rights; it is an incredibly hypocritical initiative that ignores the apartheid practiced by the Palestinians themselves, who make the sale of land to Jews punishable by death. It is also not a movement dedicated to making peace, but rather to denying the historical rights of the Jewish people. The answer to the challenge is to expose the true intentions of its backers, who clearly seek to dismantle the State of Israel and deny its people their inherent right of self-determination.”  Go, Dore, go!

I was pleased to hear (on the AP wire) of the release of British journalist Paul Martin after 25 days in the clutches of Hamas.  His “crime”?  He “was working on defaming the image of the Palestinian people by saying that they smuggle weapons through tunnels,” says a Hamas spokesman who styles himself “foreign minister.”  In other words, Martin was planning to print the truth.  Martin was also working on a story about Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields.  Tsk, tsk.  A journalist print the truth about Hamas?  What can he have been thinking?

The Irish have arrested seven Muslims allegedly linked to an assassination plot to kill Swedish artist Lars Vilks, whose 2007 sketch of Muhammad depicts the prophet’s head sitting atop the body of a dog.  This, of course, resulted in al-Qaeda putting a $100,000 price on Vilks’s head.  Of course, there isn’t enough money in the world to slap a price tag on the head of every Muslim who claims that Jews are descended from pigs and monkeys.

I nearly fainted dead away when David J. Forman, whose opinion pieces I nearly always disagree with, took both Israelis abroad (whom he insists should NOT be extended the right to vote remotely in Israeli elections) and liberal American Jews (who blame Israel for not meeting their wishes, expectations, and dreams of what a Jewish State should be) to task in the last two weeks.  While Forman does his share of complaining about Israel, at least he lives here.

It must be difficult enough to be a stand-up comic, but Canadian Jewish comedienne Judy Batalion had it particularly rough in her story of how she was booed offstage in a cabaret show in London’s West End when, gearing up for an identity joke, she began by saying, “I’m a Jew.”  Batalion writes, “It wasn’t the first time my tribal identity had been an issue with stand-up in Britain.  I had been told by industry-folk to ‘go back to New York,’ ‘change your style’ and even ‘marry a non-Jew so your kids will be better looking’…  [But] it was producers who had suggested I add this joke acknowledging my race, because that’s what audiences would be wondering about when they saw me.  But never before had I been responded to in public by a visceral, unabashed syllable.  This was a place where it was all right to boo a Jew.”  She observes that “in a country obsessed with identity politics, I had the wrong one.”  Nothing funny about that.

Israel’s Channel 2 has a new series called “Hahatufim (The Kidnapped) about three soldiers taken prisoner in Lebanon who are returned after 17 years (two alive, one dead) in a prisoner exchange.  The drama begins at the point when the media in REAL kidnappings and prisoner exchanges leaves off—when the prisoners (if they’re alive) and their families and begin to rebuild their lives.  The creators of the series interviewed former Israeli prisoners of war, and the families of soldiers whose fates are still unknown in an effort to capture their experiences as honestly as possible.  Needless to say, this subject hits a raw nerve in Israeli society, and while some families (including the Shalits, whose son Gilad is still in a basement in Gaza somewhere) are hopeful that it will raise awareness and activism to get the soldiers back at any cost, others doubt the power of art (if television can be called “art”) to move a society to action.

VP Biden’s response to Israel’s plans to build in Jewish Jerusalem was not only a dramatic and overblown performance; he also put all of the onus for “trust-building” on Israel.  What is he encouraging the Arabs to do to build trust with Israel?  Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza have restrictions put on importation of building materials that could help them build their economy.  Why?  Because they have a nasty habit of using building materials to build explosives and rocket launchers.  They have poor access to water and water treatment methods which could be alleviated by the building of proper treatment facilities, but Israel won’t let those materials into Arab territory.  Why?  See previous response.  Arabs could go far in building trust with Israel by 1) accepting that Israel is here to stay and isn’t going anywhere, and that genocide (which they keep promising in Arabic, even as they accuse Israel in English of stalling the peace process) is a big no-no; 2) stopping the teaching of Jew-hatred in their schools and the incitement of violence against Jews—and I’m talking about “moderates” like Abbas and Fayyad here, not just Hamas; and by 3) showing a willingness to partner with Israel in developing their own society to make them ready for a state of their own, if that is ever to come to pass.  It’s time to show some willingness to drag themselves out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world where they say they want to take their rightful place, and to do this, THEY need to take measures to build trust with Israel.  Stand With Us has a very good response to the US’s behavior since Israel’s announcement to build more housing IN ISRAEL.

The Post ran a lengthy interview with a Lebanese-born Arab who spent several years of his childhood in a house his family built in the German Colony of Jerusalem.  Interested in what this Arab had to say about living in British Mandatory Palestine and how, according to the headline, he “speaks pragmatically about the future,” I read it carefully.  The Lebanese-born Arab who calls himself a “displaced Palestinian” thinks in much the way I would expect him to.  He believes he has been unjustly denied the right to return to the house his family left in 1948 before the Arabs attacked the Jews in an attempt to annihilate them and take over all of former British mandatory Palestine.  He sees Jews in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood, who are just now reclaiming properties that were Jewish before 1948, as given an unfair privilege by the State, one he believes Arabs should be extended as well.  When reminded that the Arabs themselves created their own displacement by declarations of war, he responds, “Does that mean that if the Nazis won World War II the stealing and destruction of Jewish property was justified?”  He compares Israel with Nazis elsewhere in the article, ignoring the fact that the Jews did nothing to threaten the stability (much less the existence) of Germany, and that the Nazis were the unprovoked aggressors, thieves, and genocidal maniacs—none of which describes the Jews in 1948.  This Arab is just as single-mindedly bent on recovering his property, for whose loss be blames Israel, as any other Arab in the same situation.  Where he is a little more pragmatic is when he admits that repatriation of Arabs is not practical, and that the real solution lies in compensation.  But he is still blinded by Arab propaganda, his emotions, and a severely impaired ability to keep the historical facts straight (something I’ll blog on soon) when he says that “The establishment of the State of Israel by force which caused the displacement of Palestinians and the destruction of pre-1948 Palestine was a moral outrage, but it’s history.”  Well, almost.  And this is a pragmatic Arab.  Just think what the not-so-pragmatic ones are like, and you have Israel’s “peace partner.”

Robert S. Wistrich’s new book, A Lethal Obsession, attacks anti-Semitism through his analysis of “how patterns and themes repeat themselves with depressing regularity,” and a well-documented claim that “anti-Semitism is not, as is conventionally believed, the sole preserve of the European nationalist Right.”  Ben Cohen, who reviews the book, writes, “Actually, anti-Semitism is politically and theologically promiscuous, at home among Christians and Muslims as well as socialists, royalists, anarchists and fascists.  In that regard, one of the book’s most compelling chapters concerns the anti-Semitism that prevailed in the Soviet Union, involving the domestic persecution of the Jewish community alongside a global campaign, at the UN and other forums, against what was euphemistically called ‘international Zionism.’”  And while contemporary Leftists may shrink from many of the vile epithets used by unabashed Jew-haters of the past, and “insist that their opposition to Zionism and Israel is based instead on anti-racism … Wistrich debunks these semantic games.  Whether they like it or not, what the advocates of an Israel boycott share with Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the belief that Israel is singularly, as Wistrich puts it, ‘an organic obstacle to peace and progress.’”  I’m fascinated when a book like this comes out that seems to hit the nail on the head about the nature of anti-Semitism.  I just wish the “educated,” “progressive” people who embrace that obsession would read these books (and be shocked at their own hypocrisy) rather than the Jews themselves—who are not the problem.

And finally, as the slow, steady destruction of the antiquities underneath the Temple Mount continues at the hands of Jerusalem’s Muslim Wakf, and Jewish building in Ramat Shilo gets international condemnation, one small ray of light shines through: the rededication of the Hurva synagogue in the Old City.  Destroyed by the Jordanians when they bombed the entire Jewish quarter after securing the Old City in the 1948 war, the jagged, hollow shell stood for over 60 years.  Now, literally from the ashes, it is completely rebuilt.  The first time I saw the Hurva under re-construction two years ago, I got chills down my spine.  So many antiquities and holy places have been left in ruins, and with the restored Jewish quarter surrounding it, I had assumed that it would be left as a monument to a gone-by Jewish presence in the city, like the remnants of the Cardo and the First Temple Era city wall that were excavated after 1967.  It would be hard to imagine a more life- and land-affirming endeavor than this one, and the Post has a very nice editorial discussing the synagogue’s history and the meaning of its rededication this week.  It should be noted, too, that the building that went into restoring this shul has garnered no opposition 0r condemnation from the world despite the fact that it is just as much on the other side of the Green Line as Ramat Shlomo where the much ballyhooed 1,600 housing units will be built.  Just thought I’d mention that. Here are a couple of pictures to put the project into perspective.  The Hurva before reconstruction:

And with the facade complete:

Takes my breath away.

Read Full Post »

My parents often forward me things that get passed on to them via email.  Some of the sillier things are things that have 18-point font and lots of all-caps, bold, and exclamation marks (a little like a Leon Uris novel).  Most of these things get a cursory read before I either check Snopes and find them to be frauds, or are just too silly to pass on and I click “delete.”  But once in a while, they’re fun to contemplate, just as the movie “Dave” was fun for seeing an average guy (who happened to be a dead ringer for the president) with the ability to balance his own checkbook taking over a budgetary meeting at the White House.

It seems the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times Business Section that asked readers for ideas on how to fix the American economy.  One respondent answered as follows (with my edits for hyperbolic font, etc.):

Dear Mr. President,

Please find below my suggestion for fixing America’s economy.  Instead of giving billions of dollars to companies that will squander the money on lavish parties and unearned bonuses, use the following plan. You can call it the “Patriotic Retirement Plan.”

There are about 40 million people over 50 in the work force. Pay them $1 million apiece severance for early retirement with the following stipulations:

1) They must retire.  Forty million job openings.  Unemployment fixed.

2) They must buy a new American Car.  Forty million cars ordered.  Auto industry fixed.

3) They must either buy a house or pay off their mortgage.  Housing crisis fixed.

It’s that simple.  And if more money is needed, have all members in Congress pay their taxes.  And while you’re at it, Mr. President, make Congress retire on Social Security and Medicare. I’ll bet both programs would be fixed pronto!

It’s a bewitching notion, solving three major problems for a scant $40 million, but what are the holes in this argument?  I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to economics, but a million dollars doesn’t go as far these days as it once did.  To find oneself suddenly out of work and forced to buy a car and a house could use up a good chunk of that (especially if one lives inside an eruv).  I can imagine many of those working people suddenly out of a job would be without health insurance (unless Medicare goes down to age 50), in need of Social Security, and who knows what else.  If they’re used to frittering their money away, they’ll keep doing it, and soon be a burden on the economy, just in a different way.

People smarter than me (and there are plenty of you), what else do you see wrong with this rosy picture?

Read Full Post »

A little rhyme popped into my head when I read the headline in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post which quoted Obama as saying, “I misjudged the will for peace.”  (Read with a broad Boston accent.)

Look at Obama sitting in his cawnuh

Eating his humble pie.

“Had they not been intractible

Or I so impractical

Peace mightn’t be pie in the sky.”

Read Full Post »

National identity

Ilana-Davita recently had a discussion on her blog of the recent controversy in France (sparked by Switzerland’s ban on minarets) over what constitutes national identity.  This got me thinking about the dozens of discussions I’ve had on this subject, and inspired this post.  (Thanks, Ilana-Davita!)

I know the US has struggled with this for decades, trying to reconcile whether it sees itself as a melting pot (which takes a few generations post-immigration to effect) or as a smörgåsbord, where everyone lives side by side but maintains their own distinct cultural affiliation.

I think one can see both.  Catholics marry Protestants, Jews marry Koreans, and everyone eats pasta.  On the other hand, regional accents and culture often outlast that culture’s hegemony in a given part of the country, giving California a distinctly Hispanic and Italian flavor, the Northeast a cuisine and city names that mirror those of Great Britain, and the Midwest an obvious Germanic influence which has led to the custom of having cookie tables at weddings—besides the meal and the wedding cake—and not only for people with Germanic-sounding last names.

I know the fears that underlie some people’s asking what has happened to America’s national identity.  Some are afraid that the influx of immigrants from countries that do not share the American values of freedom, civil rights, and sense of fair play will erode the nation’s safety, unity, and standing in the world.  Certainly the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, were a slap in the face of freedom, since the attackers  availed themselves of many of the freedoms that America offers that their home countries do not, and used those freedoms to slaughter innocent Americans (as well as foreign nationals).  There is also a sense that attempts at cultural inclusiveness, particularly in public schools, are compromising the quality of education by sidelining Western history and literature, and including subjects and texts which may lack the educational value of the older curriculum.

I don’t really like this argument, and I don’t find I agree with either side wholeheartedly.  I agree that texts by Charles Dickens are much richer sources of English vocabulary than nearly anything else out there, but I also found Chinua Achebe’s simply but beautifully written Things Fall Apart to be as valuable in addressing human themes as anything Camus may have written.  If education is about acquiring cultural knowledge, then the bulk of the texts used in schools should reflect that attitude and introduce all children, no matter their background, to the sources of the values Westerners hold dear.  If, on the other hand, education is about acquiring skills first, and cultural knowledge second, then teachers should feel free to use non-Western texts that foster the teaching of those skills.  It’s a difficult choice to make for educators and curriculum directors, and one that I think has not been addressed successfully at a national level.

I am familiar with some of the arguments in favor of “multi-cultural” education.  The argument that children cannot relate to stories, pictures, and math problems that don’t reflect who they are is one of the main ones.  I’m afraid I’m less sympathetic to these arguments than most, and some of that stems from being Jewish.  Jewish kids don’t go to public school expecting to read Roth, Bellow, and Doctorow.  They don’t expect to encounter word problems in math about doing comparative shopping for tefillin or a set of the Babylonian Talmud.  They go to read Jefferson, Scott Fitzgerald, and learn about the Civil War.  They learn how to be Jewish at home, at synagogue, and—if their families have the desire and the means—at day school.  I think the same should go for kids of other ethnic and religious backgrounds.  (And I definitely think people who want to teach their children Creationism—or, more politically correctly, “intelligent design”—should do so at home and at church.)  Their native languages can be learned at home or privately, their religions from their families, and their own culture’s literature at home or at the library.  No public school is going to be able to take on the mammoth task of teaching every child every other child’s culture, nor should it have to.  Where a non-Western text reflects universal human themes, or a novel or story addresses the question, “What is an American?” it is clearly relevant to the curriculum.

It is true that children growing up in America, Britain, France, China, and the Congo are all going to be citizens of the world.  But it is also true that without a firm foundation in what it means to be a citizen of a country, or of a community, I am not convinced that being a citizen of the world naturally follows.  This too comes from being Jewish.  We had friends in the US who insisted, while living in our largely Jewish Boston suburb, on shlepping their kids to a more culturally diverse neighborhood to go to nursery school.  Their rationale was that while they may be Jewish, they wanted their children to grow up knowing kids from other, non-Jewish backgrounds.  While I understand their desire for their children to know people from other cultural affiliations, I wasn’t sure that that was an essential goal for pre-school-aged children, or justified the gas or time in the car to achieve it.  My attitude is that young children should first be taught who they are, and afterward (from 5th grade or so on) be taught about other people.

At the Crunch family dinner table, we discuss the children’s days, the holidays, the weekly parashah, Jewish history, and Torah values in general.  We also discuss the children’s secular and non-Jewish family, and how they are spending their holiday season.  We talk about Arabs, and their complex society and different religion.  We talk about what it was like to live in a predominantly Christian country as minority Jews.  We are confident that while our children will grow up with a firm identity as Jews, and while they may not see Christians or secular Jews or Japanese on a regular basis, they will not faint dead away when they do see them.

Besides being an issue of national identity, I believe it’s an issue of social cohesion.  America has a culture all its own (just ask the British), and immigrants who make their way there—as well as native-borns—should see that culture reflected in the country’s educational system.  As Daniel Gordis writes in Does the World Need the Jews?, the shared cultural values that Americans have are the glue that holds them together as a nation.  Not only does it establish an understanding of what America is about to its children, it creates a sense of unity and—potentially—peace among the adults who participate in it.  This does not mean that everyone must share the same political ideas, religious beliefs, or Thanksgiving menu.  It should mean, however, that everyone is agreed on what the country’s foundations should be.  In other words (to paraphrase a fascinating discussion in Gordis’s most recent book, Saving Israel), Americans need to decide whether America is diverse, or whether America is about diversity.  The former merely describes America’s cultural make-up; the latter indicates a mission to pursue diversity and make that part of the national agenda.

This is a complicated debate, and I have only given my two cents’ worth here.  What are your thoughts, readers?

Read Full Post »

The Goldstone Report

I don’t know what it’s been like in the rest of the world for the past few weeks, but it seems like every day here in Israel there is talk about the Goldstone Report, a 575-page report submitted to the UN Council for Human Rights by a committee headed by Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist (who also happens to be Jewish), in which Israel is accused of war crimes in Operation Cast Lead, aka the Gaza War of December 2008-January 2009.

The remarks about the report include the fact that Goldstone, in choosing to chair this committee and sign his name to the scurrilous report they produced, has given it weight and credence because of his stature as a prominent member of South Africa’s Jewish community.  They include the fact that he could have recused himself from that particularly onerous job, but didn’t.  (Although Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and nowadays an international political player with no great love of Israel, could smell a stinky job a mile away and turned it down.)  They include the fact that he’ll never eat lunch in the South African Jewish community again.  And they include the fact that in an international landscape in which Israel is routinely vilified, represented most publicly by the UN, this report is another assault not only on the Jews, but on the truth.

Recent articles about Goldstone include observations that he’s backpedaling to the Jewish world about the report, softening his criticisms of Israel to Jewish audiences, while standing staunchly by the report in front of international listeners.  In a conference call with US rabbis last week, Goldstone is said to have urged Israel to carry out an independent investigation of its military prosecution of the war, saying “If the Israeli government set up an appropriate, open investigation, that would really be the end of the matter,” as far as Israel is concerned.

Perhaps I’m jaded, but I’m not terribly shocked to see a Jew signing off on such a report against Israel.  While his daughter claims that Goldstone “is a Zionist and loves Israel,” there are many Diaspora Jews like him out there who say they feel an attachment to Israel, but who nonetheless find it irresistible, expedient, or therapeutic to accuse Israel of atrocities while overlooking the violent, civilian-targeting behavior of Israel’s terrorist enemies.  Many Jews are uncomfortable with the power that Israel possesses to defend itself, embarrassed to see it in conflict with poor, oppressed-looking dark-skinned people, preferring instead to see the Jewish people (and Israel as the international, public face of the Jewish people) as pacifists, victims of others’ violent attacks, and committed to turning the other cheek (a Christian notion).  Many Jews find themselves exhausted emotionally and unable to maintain a front of support for Israel, in effect “losing their love for Israel.”  (See also Daniel Gordis’s response to the author of the previous article.)

Many such Jews in the world have lost their feeling of the Jews as a people.  (Daniel Gordis’s piece in Friday’s Jerusalem Post describes this well.)  Such Jews have come to see Judaism as a Western, liberal, democratic tradition.  Such Jews labor under the impression that Judaism is a religion of individuals in a multi-cultural society.  Such Jews have apparently lost the sense of Jews as a community and a nation which is not only permitted, but obligated, to defend itself from enemies who seek to destroy it.  Such Jews are half-blind to their own tradition.

They are right that Judaism values the life of each and every person, regardless of whether that person is Jewish or not.  This is why the IDF in Operation Cast Lead did everything within its power to limit the damage to life and property of non-combatants in Gaza.  They are right that abuses of power are wrong on the part of a military force.  This is why the IDF investigates each individual complaint of abuse on the part of its soldiers, even in combat situations.  They are right to believe that when the IDF or the Jewish State commit errors or abuses, those errors or abuses should be pointed out, investigated, and dealt with.

Where they are wrong, however, is to think that jumping on the bandwagon of Israel-bashing (i.e. calling Israel a “fascist” or “racist” state, or accusing the IDF of “disproportionate force” or “collective punishment”) is an appropriate response.  There may be very smart people doing this—academics in the UK, Swedish journalists and newspapers, European diplomats, not to mention the many smart Arabs who claim to care about the Palestinian Arab “refugees”—but this does not make it right.  Were these intelligent entities to apply the same standard of behavior to Hamas and other terrorists, they would be quoting the Geneva Conventions, criticizing Hamas for using the Gazan population as human shields, dressing combatants in street clothes to make them indistinguishable from civilians, using ambulances to transport weapons and mosques to stash explosives, and firing rockets from the basements of office buildings and hospitals.

By the same token, it would praise Israel for voluntarily ceasing hostilities for hours every day to allow humanitarian supplies into the enemy zone.  It would laud the IDF for dropping countless fliers and sending thousands of text messages to Gaza residents urging them to flee the area before sorties were carried out.  It would acknowledge that Israel’s military did its best to execute surgical strikes, to avoid harming civilians, and to heal the hurts of those hit by building a hospital at the Erez border crossing to provide free medical care to Gaza residents.

But we don’t live in a world where those who decide what’s moral and ethical can see such things.  We live in a world where such people have selective hearing, see what they want to see, and have their minds made up before the facts are ever presented.  I don’t like to raise the nasty issue of anti-Semitism, but if someone can provide me with a different explanation for why Israel is subjected to standards not applied to any other country in any other situation at any other time in history, I’d be glad to hear it.  Goldstone’s report is a juicy steak thrown to slavering hellhounds hungry for fresh meat.  His may not be the only offering, but it’s definitely one the dogs will find hard to resist.

In the meantime, Goldstone urges Israel to conduct an open investigation of its own into its behavior during Operation Cast Lead, claiming that were it to do so, “That would be the end of the matter.”

If only.

Read Full Post »

Obama, Prince of Peace

On Friday, the Cap’n came into the kitchen where I was preparing my last festive meals for the 5770 holiday season and said, “They’ve announced the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.”  Then he fell silent.

Nu?” I asked, taking my French apple pie out of the oven.  “Who’d they give it to?”

“The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner is Barack Obama.”


My response here was the same as when he called me from his office on the morning of September 11, 2001 and told me that a plane had flown into one of the buildings at the World Trade Center.

And quite honestly, I’m still scratching my head over this.

Let me think this through, now.  I have been under the impression for much of my adult life that Nobel Prizes are awarded for achievement.  Economists and scientists get them for discoveries they’ve already made and theories on which they’ve expounded at length.  Authors get them for bodies of work—sometimes decades’ worth of writing—that has stood the test of time and made a significant cultural contribution to the world.  And in most cases, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a person or persons viewed as having accomplished great things in the service of world peace.

But something has obviously shifted in the world.  This year’s Nobel laureate for peace has been in office for nine months, and made one significant speech of international interest in that time.  The Israelis and Palestinians are no nearer to hammering out an agreement.  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s reputation (and that of Fatah, his political and sometimes-terrorist party) has nosedived since he was pressured by Obama to attend a summit in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, delighting their openly-terrorist enemies in Hamas and making Palestinian Arab unity even further from being achieved.  The Arab world has no more interest in recognizing the Jewish State than they had before the famous Cairo University speech.  And the questionably-elected Iranian Islamic Republic is full-steam ahead on its nuclear program while Obama continues to entertain the illusion that at this stage in Ahmedinejad’s nuclear enrichment program, diplomacy still has a role to play.  (This brief assessment does not, of course, explore the status quo in North Korea, China, the Sudan, Liberia, or any other hot spot on the conflict-ridden political world map.)

I don’t dislike Obama as a person, and I still think he may do good things for America domestically speaking.  But I think it’s significant that rather than award the prize to someone who has been getting his or her hands dirty saving people in developing countries from starvation, disease, and political collapse, it was given to an inexperienced former senator from Illinois whose only significant international accomplishment was to make a speech minimizing the Jewish right to live in Israel and making nice to the Arab world.

I’m not saying that the next person to earn a Nobel for peace has to have overseen the signing of a final status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs.  The Great Handshake on the White House lawn between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin (who shared their prize with the current President of Israel, Shimon Peres) was something people thought impossible.  Although their clandestine agreement, the Oslo Accords, was doomed to failure (and in fact brought years of war with over 1000 Israeli civilian casualties), the photo-op of what everyone thought was little more than a fantasy wasn’t insignificant.

In other words, the Handshake was tangible.  It was the product of painful concessions, eating of words, and temporary shelving of aspirations in the name of peace.  It represented a concrete commitment (at least on the part of Rabin and Peres; Arafat was just playing along for the international attention) and was a visible meeting of enemy, disparate minds.  It was something.

So what does it mean that this year’s Peace Prize winner is Barack Obama?  Is it because there were no other promising candidates?  The Cap’n said there was a short list with some very worthy people and activities on it.  Is it a gesture by the Committee to put pressure on the Leader of the Free World not to get involved in a military conflict in Iran?  I don’t think there’s any need for that; Obama has made clear his intentions to recall American servicepeople from Afghanistan and Iraq in the near future, and that he has no interest in getting Americans involved in any further military activities.  (Editor David Horovitz wrote in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post that if Obama’s plan for diplomacy and economic sanctions against Iran fails, his approach will most likely be “assuring the American people that the US security establishment will protect them from a nuclear Iran, but that he was not prepared to authorize the use of military force to prevent a nuclear Iran.  And it is certainly possible to envisage much of the American public applauding him for such a stance.”)  Is it an advance bonus for someone the Committee thinks might actually be able to make peace in the world, but needs the pressure of the award to make him follow through?  Perhaps that’s the most likely theory of all.

I don’t believe for a minute that Obama’s Cairo Speech merited this prize.  Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute didn’t get her chemistry prize this year for making a speech about chemistry; she was awarded it after decades of brilliant thinking and hard work.

The hard work for President Obama has hardly begun.  Let’s hope he does it by actually bringing about peace.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »