Posts Tagged ‘society’

They are not happy in Gaza.
They are not happy in the West Bank.
They are not happy in Jerusalem.
They are not happy in Israel.
They are not happy in Egypt.
They are not happy in Libya.
They are not happy in Algeria.
They are not happy in Tunis.
They are not happy in Morocco.
They are not happy in Yemen.
They are not happy in Iraq.
They are not happy in Afghanistan.
They are not happy in Pakistan.
They are not happy in Syria.
They are not happy in Lebanon.
They are not happy in Sudan.
They are not happy in Jordan.
They are not happy in Iran.
They are not happy in Chechnya.
And where are the Muslims happy?
They are happy in England.
They are happy in France.
They are happy in Italy.
They are happy in Germany.
They are happy in Sweden.
They are happy in the Netherlands.
They are happy in Switzerland.
They are happy in Norway.
They are happy in the US.
They are happy in Canada.
They are happy in Hungary.
They are happy in any other country in the world which is not ruled by Muslims.
And whom do they blame?
Not Islam.
Not their leadership.
Not themselves.
But the very countries they are happy to live in!


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Being unpopular

One of the things I find so challenging about being Jewish is that, at the same time that anti-Semitism has gotten a new lease on life (this time from the Left rather than the Right), Jews are told to sit down, shut up, and stop seeing every critique, assault, or massacre on them, their culture, and their institutions as anti-Semitism.  One of my favorite news blogs had a heated comment thread in which Rabbi Meir Kahane’s name came up, was predictably slandered, and the blogger’s rationale for practically banning discussion of his words and deeds was that Kahane was crazy (evidence: his belief that there could one day be a second Holocaust on American soil).  A high school classmate living in the Bay Area has hopped on the anti-circumcision bandwagon, and when I explained that this measure is a gross distortion of the procedure and a direct assault on the identity and practice of Jews and Muslims, she insisted that the measure, and the accompanying comics which portray mohels as evil, sinister, and fanatical, are not anti-Semitic.  And today I read that Yale University is shutting down its Initiative for the Inter-disciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA).  Its reason?  The university claims that the initiative “has not borne the kind of academic fruit to justify its continuation,” according to Phyllis Chesler.  Chesler, who argues that the Initiative bore far more academic fruit than most academic departments and scholarly fora these days, sees a direct correlation between the shutting down of YIISA and the rise in financial contributions from Arab states and influence at the university of voices that promote Arab/Islamist/terrorist agendas.  She also perceives that the focus at YIISA on contemporary anti-Semitism’s warm home in the Arab Muslim world is unpopular in the current academic climate, which increasingly marginalizes voices which critique the messages of hate and blame that frequently come out of the Arab world’s despotic and/or Islamist regimes.

Even the Shoah, a watershed in the last century proving what inhumane depths Western civilization can sink to and the urgency of defending Jewish identity, culture, and mere existence, is under attack.  Holocaust denial by politicians and “academics” is given credence as “the other side of the story,” and infamous Holocaust deniers like Mahmoud Abbas, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and Westerners like David Irving, are given the podium at universities and the UN to spout their “revisionist” history.  Those who vow “never again” are cheered and patted on the back, but if they support Israel’s right to defend its citizens against terror and mayhem, they are silenced as aiding and abetting “the Occupation.”

Those who claim to revere international law show a very vague understanding of it as it relates to Israel.  (The video below breaks down beautifully who the West Bank and Jerusalem really belong to.)

Here, too, ignorance seems to reign supreme.  Those who claim that Israel’s possession and settlement of the West Bank and Jerusalem are violations of the Geneva Conventions have either never read the Geneva Conventions, or have no knowledge of the history of this region (or both).  They are ignorant of the fact that there is no precedent, historical, diplomatic, or otherwise, for earmarking these lands for Arabs to create another Arab state.  Quite the contrary, in fact; these lands belong to Israel diplomatically, historically, and in every other way.

One of the rabbis on my beit din made a little speech on the day they agreed to convert me.  He said, “The Jews are not a popular people.”  I’ve known that ever since I saw the mini-series “Holocaust” (1978, with a young Meryl Streep) on television when I was ten.  I knew it when I was told I was going to hell by a Christian classmate in Georgia when I was eleven.  And everything I’ve learned about Jewish history, from its earliest days to the present, has corroborated that statement.  That suits me fine.  I have never looked for popularity.  I’ve always been geeky, enjoyed having a small cadre of close friends and my solitude, and wouldn’t know what to do if I were suddenly sought-after.  Over the years, Jews have become more accepted in America, and this newfound measure of popularity has proved a double-edged sword: Jewish women pursued by non-Jewish men who find them “exotic,” non-Jewish women discovering that Jewish men make excellent husbands and fathers, and non-Jewish couples getting married under a chuppah because it’s a beautiful custom.  I don’t know if one sees that kind of attitude toward Jews in other parts of the world.  But if one isn’t popular, isn’t it possible at least to be accepted?  Or is the necessary opposite of popular, a pariah?  Must we be reviled, boycotted, sanctioned, and divested against?  Is it subversive for Jews to be in positions of responsibility and influence beyond their proportion in society?  Does it discomfit the world to see a Jewish state established in its homeland and able to defend itself, by itself?  Is it really so easy to believe that the Middle East’s only democracy, with freedom of press, religion, speech and all the rest, ranks with North Korea as the greatest threat to world peace?

I know that the Ahmedinejads, the Helen Thomases, and the Vanessa Redgraves don’t speak for all of humanity.  I know there are a good number of staunch supporters of Israel and Jewish life on the streets as well as in the corridors of power.  But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that Israeli Apartheid Week enjoys an increasing presence on university campuses every year (which makes me wonder whether the university community has abandoned holding students to any level of serious scholarship, or whether they stand aside and let these circuses set up every year to allow the students to blow off steam and exercise their rights to freedom of speech, even if it’s full of lies and hatred).  It’s hard to ignore the fact that the UN General Assembly invites Ahmedinejad to spew forth his wrath every year, and doesn’t rise and file out as a body while he’s speaking.  It’s hard to ignore the traction the idea of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state has gotten in the international community, when it is clear (at least to those of us living here) that such a state will not create peace in the Middle East or anywhere else, and will very likely create more war and bloodshed than ever.

So what’s a Jew to do?  Pandering is distasteful, and never garners popularity anyway.  Keep explaining ourselves?  While I may be overly pessimistic about this, I think those inclined to understand us do so already, and the rest can’t be bothered with the facts.  I remember a (Jewish) professor of mine in graduate school telling me to stick to my own path of scholarship on an assignment, saying “Don’t look left, don’t look right.”  Looking it up, I see it’s paraphrased from Isaiah 30:21.  “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk in it, when you turn to the right, and when you turn to the left.”

What matters is that we keep to the Torah, to our faith, and our ethical principles.  After that, as they say, יהיה מה שיהיה.

(Thanks to Ruti Mizrahi and Westbankmama for the video tip.)

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feminism on trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?

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Beyond conversion

One of the great sources of chizuk (strength) I have found in my life as a converted Orthodox Jew has been meeting other families where one or both partners are converts to Judaism.  Sometimes they have a Jewish father, like I have, and sometimes they traveled the long and winding road to Judaism without the beacon of their own heritage to guide them.

A friend of ours recently wrote a piece for The Jewish Week entitled “Beyond Conversion: Becoming a Jewish Family,” addressing interfaith marriage from the vantage point of someone who, with his non-Jewish wife, made the journey from an interfaith marriage to a marriage in which both partners are now Jewish, living traditional Jewish lives (in Israel) and rearing their children as fully identified Jews.  The jumping-off point of the article is the new interfaith haggaddah being promoted by high-profile intermarried couple John and Cokie Roberts (Cokie of National Public Radio fame), and their promotion of intermarriage as “the new normal.”  Our friend Harold Berman’s piece, which makes important points about what kind of Judaism is being offered to interfaith couples and the fact that interfaith marriages don’t always end up where they begin, especially when children come along, takes issue with the Roberts’ version of Judaism as a way of life that coexists naturally alongside other faiths in the same household.

When the piece was published, Harold contacted me and provided the link to the Jewish Week‘s page posting his article, but also gave me the “uncut” version, which contained a few points he’d wanted to make but which didn’t make the final edit for publication.  Here was a deleted portion that I found particularly meaningful:

Several years ago, before my wife became Jewish, she taught music to a Harvard undergraduate who had grown up in an interfaith family. One day, as they were talking about her background, the student said wistfully, “It would just be nice to know who I am, to have a clear religious identity.” Not every interfaith child feels this way. But as a community, we should have the confidence that if they immerse in Judaism, their lives will be better.

The times are changing, but not in the way many people think. Orthodox synagogues are burgeoning. Thousands upon thousands of Jews who grew up with little Jewish background have transformed themselves into observant Jews, as have increasing numbers of non-Jews. Intermarried-to-Orthodox families like mine are becoming more and more common, and can be found in virtually any Orthodox synagogue, and among our neighbors in Israel where we live.

And increasing numbers of intermarried families are searching for a substantive Judaism they don’t always find in their temples and JCCs. Just go into any Chabad and you will see them. It’s time for us, as a Jewish community, to expect more of ourselves. The way forward will not be found in a feel-good Judaism, but in a meaningful one.

I felt through much of my childhood and young adulthood the same way that Harvard undergraduate felt, uncertain of my religious identity.  At the age of nine, when I told my parents I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew, they scoffed and said, “You’d hate it.  They’re not allowed to do anything.  You wouldn’t last a week.”  I never spoke of it again, but I continued to think about it, and when I eventually decided to take the plunge and convert, my parents were surprised, but I wasn’t.  It was what I’d always wanted to be.  The interfaith household in which I grew up, which was never truly committed to either Judaism or Christianity, wasn’t enough for me.  I needed more, went out, and found it.

Harold’s point that while there is a strong trend toward assimilation in America, there is also a movement of secular Jews and interfaith couples toward more traditional Jewish practice, is an important one.  Brandeis sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman has noted that in interfaith relationships, the Jewish partners (especially male partners) tend to downplay the importance of their Jewish faith for fear of offending or pressuring their non-Jewish partners, giving rise to a belief by the non-Jewish partner that Judaism is less important to their partner than their own religion is to them.  By taking Judaism seriously, delving into its wisdom, practice, and ritual, families searching for meaning gain a greater appreciation of Judaism’s profound substance, rather than the notion among many non-religious Jews that since Judaism is part of the foundation on which democracy is based, it is nothing more than American liberalism.

I agree with Harold that it is essential that Jews of all stripes welcome interfaith couples into their midst.  By showing interfaith couples that Jews are a people rather than a band of “a few good men,” traditional Jews have the opportunity to provide a window on how Judaism is lived day-to-day, and offers as much learning, meaning, history, community, and spiritual connection to the Divine as anyone could need.  My acceptance by Reform Judaism allowed me to enter the Jewish world from non-halachic, secular Judaism, and the welcome I received by Orthodox Jews in Israel, and later in Newton, Massachusetts, was what allowed me to find my resting place at last.  Not everyone will necessarily gravitate toward Modern Orthodoxy as I did, but knowing that the world of tradition is fulfilling, accessible and welcoming may help other families not content to negotiate their identities to find one they can all share.

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As a tireless advocate for Israel, I often get bewildered, enraged, and depressed at the insanity, hostility, and sheer stupidity of much of the human race.  A Facebook friend recently posted yet another in the series of pathetic man-on-the-street polls taken about Israel (this one in my former hometown of Portland, Oregon).

To think that these are registered voters in the most powerful country in the world is astonishing.  (That there were only 13 ignoramuses in this small sampling is cold comfort when you realize that they probably represent a good chunk of the American population overall.)

And then, to preserve my sanity, I look for a glimmer of humor (hope is too much to look for here) and remember this priceless scene from Mel Brooks’s “Blazing Saddles” (1974):

Proof of Hashem’s love for the Jews: He inspires Mel Brooks to come up with the antidote before the rest of the world comes up with the disease.

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Several months ago, I read Raphael Patai’s book, The Arab Mind, in an attempt to understand better the historical, cultural and sociological underpinnings of Arab behavior, both here in Israel and elsewhere.  I found the book very instructive, if a bit dry and academic.  (My review in the following three posts: I, II, III.)

Then a month or two ago, my mother recommended reading Leon Uris’s The Haj.  I’d read Exodus and QBVII in the past, and found Uris to be a riveting storyteller, if a bad punctuator.  (I found the number of exclamation points in Exodus off-putting.)  Having always assumed The Haj to be about the traditional Muslim journey to Mecca, I was never intrigued enough to read it, but with a personal recommendation from my mother, I decided to give it a try.

To my intense interest, I discovered that the Haj of the title is actually an honorific applied to a Palestinian Arab muktar, or tribal chieftain, and head of a fictional hilltop village in the Ayalon region of Israel (near Latrun).  The story, narrated by the chieftain’s youngest son Ishmael, tells how Haj Ibrahim became muktar of his family, about his leadership of his village and family, his friendship with a Jewish Palestinian man from a nearby kibbutz (which shared its water and electricity with the village), and the chain of events during the course of the Israeli War of Independence that lead Haj Ibrahim’s family to end up in a refugee camp near Jericho.

Not only did I find the story compelling, I found the painstakingly researched novel to be a much richer, more colorful window on Arab life and culture than even The Arab Mind (which, judging from the first 25 pages or so, it was obvious to me that Uris had read).  The many plot lines touch a variety of issues in Arab life, from gender relations, shame culture, relations with non-Arabs, intra-Arab violence and manipulation, and the face the Arabs show one another versus the one they show the world.  Uris’s novel is refreshingly complex, and while it shows both the admirable and less admirable sides of the Arab psyche, it is overall a sympathetic portrait of the Palestinians.  This does not mean it condones the propaganda, violence, and frenzied hatred of the Arabs for Jews; in fact, it shows how these very things stand in the way of Arabs and Jews being able to reach a peaceful solution, and the betterment of Arab quality of life.

Here are some highlights of the novel on a variety of topics:

On choosing leadership

“We must meet.  We must agree to talk about things like fences and pestilence.  Things that concern us both,” Gideon [Haj Ibrahim’s Jewish kibbutznik friend] said.

“How can I meet when you select a woman as your muktar?”

“We choose our leaders.  Our leaders do not choose us,” Gideon said.

On the vacuum of decent Arab leadership

“If the Germans reach Palestine, at least you won’t have to worry about the Jews anymore,” Gideon said.

“I am not for the Germans just because of how they are treating the Jews,” Haj Ibrahim said, “but I am not for the Jews.  There are no Arab leaders left in Palestine and I don’t trust the ones over the border.”

“That covers just about everyone.”

“Why is it that the only men we follow are the ones who hold a knife to our throats?” Ibrahim cried suddenly.  “We learn we must submit.  That is what the Koran tells us.  Submit!  Submit!  But the men we submit to never carry out the Prophet’s will, only their own.”

On the Arab conception of biblical history

Jericho, I have learned, is as old as any city in the world—nearly ten thousand years.  The walled city itself dates back almost nine thousand years.  Jericho was almost always an Arab city.  In those ancient days, we were called Canaanites.  The entire land of Canaan was stolen from us for the first time when Joshua conquered it over three thousand years ago.

I am grateful that Mohammed and the Koran corrected all the early misinformation the Jews gave about Jericho when they wrote their so-called Bible, a proven forgery.  King David, whom the Jews turned on because they did not believe him, wrote his famous “Psalm 23” about the Wadi of Jericho, calling it “the valley of the shadow of death.”  David became a Moslem saint and prophet.  With the gift of prophecy, he must have had visions of Aqbat Jabar and the other camps around Jericho and that’s why he called it by such a name.

On conditions for peace between Jews and Arabs

“If it had been up to you and me, Gideon, we would have made peace, wouldn’t we?”

Gideon shook his head no.  “Only if you didn’t have your hands on our water valve.”

On the life of Arab girls

Nada [Ishmael’s sister] was extremely sure of herself.  “You who weep for yourself, now weep for me.  I have never been allowed to draw a free breath in my entire life.  My mind, my voice, my desires have always been locked inside a prison cell.  I cannot walk into the gathering room of our house and speak.  I can never, in my entire life, eat a meal there.  I cannot walk any farther than the water well alone.  I will never be able to read a real book.  I am not permitted to sing or laugh when a male is near, not even my own brothers.  I cannot touch a boy, even slightly.  I am not permitted to argue.  I cannot disobey, even when I am right.  I must not be allowed to learn.  I can only do and say what other people allow me.

“I remember once in Tabah I saw a little Jewish girl waiting for the bus on the highway with her parents.  She carried a doll and she showed it to me.  It was very pretty, but it could do nothing but open and shut its eyes and cry when it was hit on the back.  I am that doll.”

On Arab-Arab relations

[An Arab archeologist and friend of Haj Ibrahim’s:] “Islam is unable to live at peace with anyone.  We Arabs are the worst.  We can’t live with the world, and even more terrible, we can’t live with each other.  In the end it will not be Arab against Jew but Arab against Arab.  One day our oil will be gone, along with our ability to blackmail.  We have contributed nothing to human betterment in centuries, unless you consider the assassin and the terrorist as human gifts.  The world will tell us to go to hell.  We, who tried to humiliate the Jews, will find ourselves humiliated as the scum of the earth.”

“We do not have leave to love one another and we have long ago lost the ability.  It was so written twelve hundred years earlier.  Hate is our overpowering legacy and we have regenerated ourselves by hatred from decade to decade, generation to generation., century to century.  The return of the Jews had unleashed that hatred, exploding wildly, aimlessly, into a massive force of self-destruction.  In ten, twenty, thirty years the world of Islam will begin to consume itself in madness.  We cannot live with ourselves . . . we never have.  We cannot live with or accommodate the outside world . . . we never have.  We are incapable of change.  The devil who makes us crazy is now devouring us.  We cannot stop ourselves.  And if we are not stopped we will march, with the rest of the world, to the Day of the Burning.  What we are now witnessing, Ishmael, now, is the beginning of Armageddon.”

Uris’s novel was published in 1984, so he had the benefit of hindsight on many of the events that would come to pass years after the events in his story come to a close.  He saw Anwar Sadat cut down after making peace with Israel.  He saw the decades of neglect by the Arab nations of the refugees, and the perpetuation of the refugee camps by a bloated UNRWA.  He witnessed the mounting hostility toward Israel in the UN.  He saw Israel go to war time and time again to defend itself from its hostile Arab neighbors.

Some will no doubt see his examination of the Arab psyche as the work of a rabid, anti-Arab Zionist.  Uris was a Zionist, but the words he puts in the mouths of his Arab characters reflect real confusion, paradox, and occasional self-criticism which a handful of Arabs (much better educated than a muktar) have articulated in writing.  The ability of tribal culture to overpower reason and necessity and keep the Arab down both in the Arab world and in the world at large is something that has been examined by much greater minds than Uris’s.  The envy Arabs have for Israeli society, with its freedom of speech, its rule of law, and the ability of the citizenry to see corrupt leaders subjected to investigation, trial, punishment, and public shame is very real.  The story, a portrait of Arabs who chose to trust their Arab brethren and were betrayed, used as a political stick to beat the Jews with, and whose children and grandchildren have grown up in a society which indoctrinates them in obsessive hatred and vengeance, is the story of the Palestinians.  It’s the portrait anyone who truly cares about them should see, and recognize that their plight is the work of their own leaders, their culture, their religion, and their ignorance.

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Part of getting used to living in Israel is getting used to the feelings of shock, horror, sadness, rage, and helplessness that follow the all-too-frequent terror attacks that happen here.  Since making aliyah, we have met families whose sons were killed in the IDF while fighting terrorists, families who have lost members in terror attacks, as well as families who were saved when terror attacks failed.  How the families of the murdered bury their loved ones and carry on eludes me, and I stand amazed at their strength.  As I watch helplessly, knowing there is nothing I can do to heal their wounds, the stories that comfort me most are those of love, support, and generosity from unlikely quarters.

As I saw on the Efrat chat list, and JoeSettler on the Muqata blog confirms, Israeli supermarket chain mogul Rami Levy (who recently opened a store in Gush Etzion to mixed reviews) has been delivering food to the Fogel shiva, and has promised to continue to provision the family with weekly food and supplies until the youngest orphan (now two) turns 18.

There are more than enough evil people in the world to commit the kinds of atrocities that were visited upon the Fogels, and even more people who are eager to explain them away, make excuses for the killers, blame the victims, and stomp on the memories of the fallen.  It only makes those whose acts of chesed help to wash away a little of the stain of human iniquity all the more blessed.

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Clockwise from upper left: Ruth, Udi, Hadas, Yoav, and Elad Fogel

The massacre of the Fogel family (parents, 11-year-old son, four-year-old son, and four-month-old daughter) in Itamar has utterly preoccupied my thoughts in the last few days.  I have had so many thoughts churning in my head about what happened, how it came about, and where it’s taking us next, that I’ve had difficulty functioning normally.  I suppose that in itself is normal.  Here are some of the things that have been brewing in my mind.

Thought No. 1: Photos of the massacre

The extended family opted to release photos (faces blurred; stab wounds, blood, disarray of bodies visible) of the carnage.  Normally, I can’t bear to look at such things; I usually feel as though the knowledge of the atrocity is enough.  But because the Internet is covered with pictures of dead Arabs (some real, others undoubtedly fake or misrepresented), I believed it was my duty to honor the family’s decision by viewing them myself.  If you are prepared to be hit by an anvil of emotion, I advise you to view them.  This is not voyeurism; it’s what the Fogels’ own surviving children saw, and it acknowledges the reality of what we face as Jews in the form of ecstatic hatred by our Arab neighbors.  No doubt some Arabs are equally horrified by what happened, but they will remain silent and do nothing to hold their own society accountable for it.  The rest of us must witness this crime and call it what it is: a manifestation of the most barbaric form of war.  A Mother in Israel has links to the photos from her post here, and Jameel at the Muqata uploaded a video about the massacre on his blog, which includes the chain of events, family photos, the names and ages of the victims,  and photos of the crime scene.  (These links will take you to the blogs, not directly to the photos; proceed to the links and video at your own discretion, but please do NOT view them with children in the room.)

Thought No. 2: The Israeli government’s response to the massacre

In response to the massacre of the Fogel family, the Israeli government has decided to approve building plans for hundreds of new apartments in major settlement blocs.

Forgive me if I don’t fall all over myself in gratitude.

Why the bilious response to this show of generosity on the part of Netanyahu’s government?  Because building should have been resumed throughout Yehuda and Shomron months ago, as soon as the one-time, 10-month building freeze expired.  Instead, Ehud Barak has refused to issue new building tenders to the main settlement blocs (although Westbankmama informs me that building in the smaller settlements resumed normally), effectively extending the freeze in the stupidest possible way, i.e. so that housing and rental prices in the settlements were driven sky-high artificially, but on the Q.T. so Israel wasn’t getting credit for any “confidence-building” gestures towards the PA.

So now the government shows that only the spilling of Jewish blood can override Barak’s personal Leftie politics in the government.  Why?  Has Netanyahu suddenly lost respect for his former IDF commander?  Is it in response to a new stain on Barak’s character, with the opening of an investigation of Mrs. Ehud Barak for hiring an illegal worker as a housekeeper?  Or is it because the scales suddenly fell from Netanyahu’s eyes and he realized that Israel has no peace partner, and it’s absurd to pretend that he does?

I hope it’s the last of these.  While the press and the Left (Jewish and non-) lie in wait to decry any form of incitement on the part of Israelis, and pounces if a group of rabbis announces

Arabs pass out candy to celebrate the massacre of the Fogel family

that Jews shouldn’t rent or sell homes to Arabs, it has said nothing about the decades-long incitement to murder (not just refusal to rent; murder) spewed forth from mosques and drilled into children’s heads in Arab schools.  Even when it bears its bitter fruit, as it did in Itamar (and has in a past slaughter of an Itamar family; their edginess doesn’t come from nowhere), no one on the Left seems interested in where it came from.  When Palestinians kill (which is frequently), it’s from frustration.  When Jews kill (which is almost never), it’s extremism.  (Just read the comments following online articles about the massacre: when it’s about the family, people are sympathetic; when it’s about the IDF being called out to prevent revenge attacks, the “illegal” settlers are thugs, extremists, animals, and deserve everything they get, including the murders.)

The world’s collective moral compass needs recalibrating.  Settlement in Yehuda and Shomron has been declared legal by many international law experts, and those who repeat ad nauseum that they are illegal (or illegitimate; what IS the difference, Hillary?) stand on shaky, highly selective legal ground, at best.  Because what this delusion leads to is a double-standard which says that Arabs killing Jews is understandable, but Jews killing Arabs is criminal; that Jewish families who are murdered in their beds only got what was coming to them (just as women who are raped while jogging at night only get what’s coming to them); and that Arabs need not obey the law, but Jews always must.

Thought No. 3: Condemnation

I have one further thought on this for today, and that is the condemnations that have been issued from various quarters.  Condemnations are meaningless words, not actions.  Carefully worded condemnations have been issued from PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas.  Those are hollow words, considering everything those two have done to nurture bloodlust and Jew-hatred among the people they pretend to represent.  Here is an article that examines just a few of the activities under the aegis of the Palestinian Authority in recent days that encourage and glorify the slaughter of Israelis.  Some highlights:

  • Two months ago, Abbas awarded $2000 to the family of an Arab who attacked and tried to kill Israeli soldiers.
  • The day before the Fogel massacre, an adviser to Abbas delivered a speech saying that weapons must be turned toward the main enemy and that internal differences must be set aside.  He criticized the paltry allowances awarded to families of terrorist “martyrs” and praised the PA’s honoring of female terrorist Dalal Mughrabi by naming a square after her in the town of El-Bireh.
  • A PA newspaper recently announced the creation of a football tournament in Ramallah named in honor of another female terrorist, Wafa Idris, who used her position as a Palestinian Red Crescent volunteer to bypass Israeli security, enter Jerusalem, and blow herself up, killing one and injuring over 150 on January 27, 2002.
  • The PA recently commemorated some of the terrorists who came from the Dahaishe refugee camp (located right next to Efrat) and murdered Israelis in March of 2002 with a march through the camp, ending at the family home of a suicide bomber who killed nine Israelis.
  • At a recent gathering to celebrate 46 years since the founding of Fatah, the group restated its aim to achieve the goals for which it was established, read aloud its call for “self-sacrifice” (i.e. terror attacks against Israel), watched some military and scout demonstrations, and blew up a model of Israeli settlements.

If good people really want to condemn this kind of violence and celebration of murder of innocents, the way to do it is to investigate where your country’s, your church’s, and your own money is going.  Does your country support the Palestinian Authority?  Chances are, it does.  Perhaps you and other concerned citizens should call on your governments to reevaluate whether the PA shares your country’s values in areas such as human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, rule of law, a real justice system, and hate-free education.  Are they funding NGOs that seek to delegitimize the state of Israel, providing fodder for Arab attacks (with words, bombs, and sometimes, knives) against innocent civilians?  Does your church give to organizations that fund youth centers which indoctrinate Arab children in violence, like this one funded by an Australian church?  Are they, directly or indirectly, funding terror and jihad on your own country’s soil?  If you find your money is being funneled into activities (and crimes) you don’t approve of, stop giving, and tell others.

Terror costs money; is it being paid for with yours?

Funeral for Fogel family in Jerusalem

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Smokers’ lounge

Take a gander at this painted ceiling in a smokers’ lounge.  Just goes to show you human beings can ignore absolutely anything.

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Saving time

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been exhausted after a day of working, housekeeping, and child rearing, and just wanted to get into bed to sleep.  But before I would drag my weary self upstairs, I would think, “Oh, I’ll just check my email first.”  And then, before I know it, the owl on my Audubon bird clock in the kitchen is hooting midnight, and I’m still at the computer.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the computer is just another addiction.  I’ve never been into smoking, or alcohol, or drugs, or even caffeine.  I don’t have what I’ve heard called an “addictive personality,” which relies on outside substances to wake me up in the morning, keep me going, or get me to relax.  But the computer has become something entirely different.

Billed as a “time-saver,” it’s true that the computer, with email, word processing, and the Internet, enables me to keep in touch with my family and friends on the other side of the world, look up obscure facts in a trice, work from home, and write posts like this one to be read by anyone else who has time to kill.  Until computers came along, I was content with the occasional phone call or letter, ignorance about all kinds of subjects, and working from home and blogging were virtually unknown to me.  But what I really find is that with the convenience comes a hankering to spend even more time on the computer, taking me away from my kids, my other responsibilities, and my sleep.  In the end, what I have found is that to a large degree, the computer is an even bigger time-waster.  Last Friday, I knew that my work had been buttoned up for the week, there was nothing in the news that I felt a strong urge to follow, and anything else could wait until Sunday.  We were having guests for dinner that night and I had to bake for a neighborhood seudah shlishit, so intent as I was on cooking with no distractions, I left the computer turned off all day.  The result?  Except for one stovetop dish, I was finished cooking by 12:30, filled the hot water urn, dusted the shelves in the dining room where my Shabbat candles and the kids’ artwork is displayed, checked my kids’ heads for lice (zero for four, thank God), took a leisurely bath, and read the paper for a little while.  No rushing at the last minute before candle-lighting, no writing emails until I smell something burning in the oven that I forgot about, no showering in the dark after the Cap’n has gone to shul.  It was luxurious.  The computer may save me time for some things, but on Friday, NOT using it is the real time-saver.

I realize some parents severely limit their children’s daily screen time (TV and computer).  I think this is a great idea—so great, in fact, that I think I should probably exercise it on myself, too.

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Writing whoredom

I’ve done a spot of freelance editing for an agency that has tried to throw all kinds of strange projects my way.  Among the offers I’ve turned down are two to write undergraduate (i.e. college student) papers.  Besides my hesitance to write anything depending only on the Internet as a source (and the fact that, while the Efrat library has a good English fiction section, it probably lacks anything valuable in terms of  research except, perhaps, on the history of Zionism), I object on other grounds.

I remember college almost as though it were yesterday.  I spent a good portion of my time there engrossed in my studies, but certainly not all of it.  I spent time with friends, toured the cities of Boston and Cambridge, sang in the college choir, trayed down the snowy hill on which my dorm was perched, and was a coxswain in intramural crew.  I can only remember a half-dozen facts I may have learned in college, though I’m sure the academic discipline and methods of inquiry instilled in me are so ingrained by now as to be indiscernible from the rest of my education.

Looking back, I could have spent more or less time with friends, more or less time off campus, and choir, traying, and crew were strictly optional.  The one thing that was expected of me was that I produce the work products (a sterile educational term for tests, papers, and other grading instruments) necessary to earn decent grades.  (This became all the more important once a woman on my floor figured out that it cost $50 an hour for us to be there.)  That meant that if I didn’t hand in papers that were mine, then there was very little of my education that I could legitimately call my own, and my purpose for being at an academic institution could be called into serious question.

There was a recent debate on the CIWI chat list (Connecting Independent Writers in Israel) over “a standard per-page rate for upgrading the English of a 100-page MA thesis in Israel.”  The chatters were divided between those who have compassion for non-native speakers of English and people with great ideas but poor writing ability, and those who expressed their disgust with deteriorating skill and professionalism in a world where someone without the English or the writing chops can just hire someone to make them look good.  I could see both sides of the story when it comes to getting help to bring an important document up to high academic standards.

I have more difficulty with the notion of being a pen-for-hire for undergraduates whose only reason for being in college—besides discovering how much beer they can hold without passing out—is to study and to produce something of worth.

I never moralized about this to the agency that sent me the offers.  In fact, I was flattered that they thought I’d be good at it.  (See, kids?  Practice makes perfect.)  But I always politely declined.  I could never live with myself if I thought I’d helped a kid through college by doing his work for him.  The fact that in this competitive writer’s market, someone else is probably willing to turn those tricks without the pricked conscience, only makes it sadder.  (No wonder I can’t get any writing work.)

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A couple of days ago, I posted a few comments about the recent Egyptian revolution and a video of a song by Sandy Cash on the topic.

One of my commenters, Rivki @ Life in the Married Lane…, made the following observations: “While listening to the media coverage, it was pretty frustrating how certain news sources (mainly NPR) continually downplayed the M[uslim] B[rotherhood]’s opinions on terrorism, martyrdom, connection to Hamas, etc. It was a big love-fest for revolution with few references to a potentially bleak future.  I hope that the Egyptian people get a democracy which will serve them (and us) well.”

Rivki’s comment about NPR could go for many other Western media outlets (and Facebook) as well.  I have shared many people’s hope for the country and for a smooth transition to a more representative government dedicated to elevating the status and economic situation of the country’s population.  But the attitude of many Americans, and several media sources, has been much less moderate and guarded, and I’m forced to conclude that the emotional needs of the West drive its media coverage of the world’s events.  It helps explain the absurd distortions and total certainty Westerners feel (even when there is no legitimate certainty to be felt) about the outcome of tumultuous events like those in Egypt.  Americans love nothing more than watching the huddled masses struggling to be free, and want to see everyone end up with the same outcome America got.  Their ignorance of Arab culture makes it hard for them to accept the guarded optimism or outright pessimism people feel who actually live among Arabs and are directly affected by what happens in the Arab world.  Thomas Friedman’s harsh criticism of Israel‘s muted response to the revolution and concern about the toppling of a government that maintained the 30-year peace between Egypt and Israel shows Friedman (usually a fairly responsible journalist) to be out of touch with the realities of the region (both for Israel and for Egypt) and just as guilty as NPR of being swept along by the tsunami of revolution euphoria. (Here are two utterly rational responses to Friedman’s detour into Israel-bashing madness from Ynet, by Eddie Yair Fraiman and Martin Sherman.)

The downplaying of the Muslim Brotherhood’s designs on the government is probably due to the MB’s astuteness in keeping to the sidelines (for now) and the West’s inability to accept the very real possibility that Egypt will fall to anti-Israel, anti-Western Islamist forces.  The fact that Iran’s revolution resulted in a “balanced” cabinet between Islamists and moderates, but after 8 months (when the world was no longer so focused on Iran) Khomeini forced out the moderates and replaced them with like-minded Islamists, is a historical tidbit most people don’t know about or can’t bear to face happening again.

Countries have the right to govern themselves, and while Israel may have its peace with Egypt in its best interests, it does not mean that we would dream of interfering in another country’s politics.  The last country that should accuse others of meddling in other countries’ politics is the United States, and the twentieth century in southeast Asia and Latin America is all the support I need to say that.  It seems unwise to me to abandon reason for unchecked emotion, to ignore history in favor of wild hope, to adopt an attitude of absolute certainty at the expense of a cautious, wait-and-see attitude, and to lash out viciously against people who harbor legitimate fears that the outcome may not be as rosy and wonderful as you are convinced it will be.

Just a thought.

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My family had just moved to southern Georgia (a few miles north of the Florida border), when I entered junior high school.  If junior high wasn’t bad enough in itself, I was in a new state, new school, with kids who had been together since pre-first (that’s Southern for kindergarten).  Add to that the fact that I was a Yankee, had a Jewish father, and no fashion sense.  It was about as dooming a combination as anyone could muster to be—and stay—an outsider.  We didn’t play golf or tennis, didn’t join the country club or go to any of their churches, and didn’t hunt quail or duck.  Had my father not been a doctor (a breed worshiped in that part of the world), we would have been lost for sure.  As it was, I walked into seventh grade having no idea it was the most infamous viper’s nest the school had seen, maybe ever.  The kids in the class had somehow managed to be dominated, manipulated, and terrorized since pre-first by a homely, freckled, conniving girl named Ivey, who dictated who was “in” and who was “out.”  I gave her a wide berth that year, saying as little as possible to her and her inner circle, and sticking closely to the only girl in the class who would talk to me (who, incidentally, was the only girl from a state north of where I was from—Alaska).  Then, somehow something must have happened over the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and when we came back after the summer, Ivey had been dethroned as Queen Bee.  What transpired at church, or the country club, or whatever gentrified haunts these people had for themselves, I never found out.  All I knew was that I was no longer considered an outsider to be shunned.  (Until my family gave up living in the South as a Lost Cause in itself and prepared to move to California.  Then I was right back where I started.  But that’s another story.)

I was reminded of all this social in-and-outness and slippery madness when reading Kathryn Stockett’s recently published novel, The Help.  Narrated from the point of view of three women—a wealthy young white woman who was raised by a black maid, and two other black maids—it tells the story of early 1960s, pre-integration Jackson, Mississippi.   Stockett, who was herself raised by a black maid, has bitten off a huge mouthful, attempting to represent three distinct women’s voices (two of them black women’s), and in my opinion, pulls it off in style.  Skeeter Phelan is a young white woman who lives at home with her parents, has just finished college at Ole Miss, attends weekly Junior League meetings with her high school friends (now married and having children), and dreams of being a journalist.  Aibileen is an unmarried maid in her 50s who has raised 17 white children during her career as a maid, and does all she can to give her latest charge the love, confidence, and colorblind compassion she sees missing in the child’s mother.  Minny is a 30-something mother of five, married to a drunkard, and has a reputation for a sharp tongue and fabulous cooking.  Together, these three women conspire to publish a book detailing the personal experiences of a dozen Jackson maids—good and bad—with their employers.  The stakes are high, and range from ostracism for Skeeter to firing, bludgeoning, and possible jail time for the maids if they’re successfully framed by vengeful employers.

For me one of the book’s chief strengths is the distinctiveness of each protagonist’s voice.  Each of the women is very much part of a system that is in place, throwing black and white women together in close intimacy, yet separating them through social conventions that contradict that intimacy.  When Miss Hilly, the Junior League president, author of a local initiative to install separate bathrooms for black servants, and Jackson’s own Ivey, confronts Skeeter for possessing a printed copy of Jim Crow “laws,” she says, “You know as well as I do, people won’t buy so much as a slice of pound cake from an organization that harbors racial integrationists!”  Skeeter replies, “Hilly … Just who is all that pound cake money being raised for, anyway?”  To which Hilly responds, with a roll of the eyes, “The Poor Starving Children of Africa?”  Skeeter’s moral clarity, despite being a product of the same society as Hilly, at times feels almost unbelievable.  Stockett carefully balances Skeeter’s desire to see change in her society by a very believable delicacy and awkwardness around the maids she meets with to take down their stories.

Perhaps surprising, since Stockett herself does not claim to possess any special knowledge of what it was like to be a black woman working as a maid in the early 1960s, are the true-sounding voices of Aibileen and Minny.  Aibileen’s is mature, sensitive, loving to the children she cares for.  She tells “secret stories” to her young charge, teaching her in subtle ways about the superficiality of skin color.  “I take the brown wrapping from my Piggly Wiggly grocery bag and wrap up a little something, like a piece a candy, inside.  Then I use the white paper from my Cole’s Drug Store bag and wrap another one just like it.  She take it real serious, the unwrapping, letting me tell the story bout how it ain’t the color a the wrapping that count, it’s what we is inside.”  Minny’s crankiness, though, was what won me over most.  Too smart for her own good, she has lost many a job through letting herself say what she thinks.  The greatest luxury for the reader is being allowed inside her head to hear her unbridled inner monologue.   “The thermometer by Miss Celia’s kitchen window sinks down from seventy-nine to sixty to fifty-five in less than an hour.  At last, a cold front’s moving in, bringing cool air from Canada or Chicago or somewhere.  I’m picking the lady peas for stones, thinking about how we’re breathing the same air those Chicago people breathed two days ago.  Wondering if, for no good reason I started thinking about Sears and Roebuck or Shake ’n Bake, would it be because some Illinoian had thought about it two days ago.  It gets my mind off my troubles for about five seconds.”  To Minny’s disgruntlement, her employer, Miss Celia, keeps her a secret, trying to make her husband think she herself is the woman behind the sparkling bathrooms, the fried pork chops and butter beans done just so, and the vacuumed stuffed grizzly bear.  However, Minny’s ultimatum that Celia tell her husband, Johnny, about having a maid is set for December.  “I walk into work with one thing on my mind.  Today is the first day of December and while the rest of the United States is dusting off their manger scenes and pulling out their old stinky stockings, I’ve got another man I’m waiting on.  And it’s not Santy Claus and it’s not the Baby Jesus.  It’s Mister Johnny Foote, Jr., who will learn that Minny Jackson is his maid on Christmas Eve.”

Stockett plants a few fascinating mysteries in the plot that slowly unfold, such as what happened to Constantine, the beloved black maid who raised Skeeter, why Minny’s boss lady lies in bed all day every day and refuses to get up, and what the Terrible Awful Thing was that Minny did to her former employer.  All is eventually revealed, and the ending is neither sunshiny perfect, nor as bleak as it might have been.  Although the publication of the maids’ accounts does come at a price, it was still satisfying for me to see Miss Hilly, who heretofore always thought herself invincible, also share in the outcome of the book’s publication.

Living in the South for a short time, I observed some of the strange, paradoxical relationships that existed there (at least around 1980), where whites entrusted the running of their homes and the care of their children to people they often considered helpless, naturally inferior, and destined for nothing but a life of servitude.  My private day school always proclaimed it was not a white school, but I could only imagine, seeing the harassment a white, Catholic girl with short, “Brillo-pad” hair got from our classmates, what would be in store for the first black student who tried to enroll.  I can still remember the look of shock on the faces of the kids in my 7th grade American history class (most of whom called black people “niggers”) when our teacher got up and told us a horrifying story of being taken by her white-robed daddy to a KKK meeting and announced, at the beginning of the chapter on the Civil War, that slavery was wrong.  Having taken abuse while working in the service industry for several summers, including being accused of stealing (something that overshadows every maid’s work), I had no trouble identifying with the maids in the novel.  Add to that the fact that with no one to protect them at the civic level—no black politicians or policemen—and the constant threat of “summary justice” by whites, in official or unofficial capacities, they weren’t much better off than the Jews in Nazi Germany.

But like anything else involving human beings, things are complicated.  Those who think that it is the natural order of things can read how unnatural, tense, demoralizing it is, with maids raped, beaten, threatened with termination for speaking to people of whom their employers disapprove, or cheated out of earned wages with no recourse.  And for those who think that the system of whites employing blacks to feed them, clean up after them, and raise their children is filled with unremitting evil, there are stories of deep love, of employers giving their maids paid leave to take care of family members maimed by white hooligans, of maids wearing colicky white babies for a year as they went about their duties (and getting chronic back trouble into the bargain), of an elderly maid who recalls “hiding in a steamer trunk with a little white girl while Yankee soldiers stomped through the house.  Twenty years ago, she held that same white girl, by then an old woman, in her arms while she died.  Each proclaimed their love as best friends.  Swore that death could not change this.  That color meant nothing.  The white woman’s grandson still pays Faye Belle’s rent.  When she’s feeling strong, Faye Belle sometimes goes over and cleans up his kitchen.”

Whether this employer-maid institution is what binds these Southern blacks and whites together, or what keeps them separate, is explored without necessarily being resolved.  The fact that most people are aware of the social barriers cannot be denied, but whether they are really there or not is another matter Stockett has Minny and Aibileen debate.

Complaining about Miss Celia, Minny complains, “She just don’t see em.  The lines.  Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly.”

Aibileen responds, “I used to believe in em.  I don’t anymore.  They in our heads.  People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there.  But they ain’t.  … Some folks just made those up, long time ago.  And that go for the white trash and the so-ciety ladies too.”

Minny asks, “So you saying they ain’t no line between the help and the boss either?”

Aibileen says, “They’s just positions, like on a checkerboard.  Who work for who don’t mean nothing.”

Minny says, “So I ain’t crossing no line if I tell Miss Celia the truth, that she ain’t good enough for Hilly?  … But wait, if I tell her Miss Hilly’s out a her league…then ain’t I saying they is a line?”

Aibileen answers, “All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”

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In my correspondence with my mother, I often hear complaints about how greedy people are nowadays, how rude, how ruthless in politicking, how violent or irresponsible.

I have to chuckle.  I remember a class of seniors I once had for English saying that people nowadays aren’t as polite or well-mannered as they were hundreds of years ago.  It’s such a beguiling thing, but is it true?  Let’s examine some of the facts.


Yes, Henry VIII had his reasons for departing from the Church of Rome in the 16th century.  But those reasons did NOT exclude the benefit to be derived from dissolving the Catholic monasteries and confiscating their property and assets for the Crown.  Why were the Jews shuffled off from one location in Europe after another in the Middle Ages, slowly pushing them eastward?  For their wealth, of course.  This precedent was in place long before the Nazis confiscated their houses and looted their art collections in the Second World War, or the Arabs did the same with their homes and possessions in the 1950s (which led to the house of Suzy Eban’s family becoming the Saudi Arabian embassy in the 1970s).  Hawkeye Pierce (of the TV show “M*A*S*H”) claimed that the three basic human emotions are “greed, fear, and greed.”  Nothing new in that.


In the eighteenth century, the authors Alexander Pope and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu were fast friends and admirers of one another’s writing.  Until one day they weren’t.  Then began the public sniping, rude caricatures drawn about each other, and generally public animosity they harbored for the other.  Pope was particularly bad to cross, since booksellers, publishers, and critics ended up portrayed in his long poem, The Dunciad, as competing in a race where they met the most appalling misfortunes, not least that of slipping on human waste and falling into it afterwards.  And remember that Pope wasn’t the first to go after his enemies in his writing, sentencing them to the most appalling tortures; the greatest literary executioner of all time was Dante.

Ruthless politicians

Thomas Jefferson hired James Callender, a Scottish-born pamphleteer and one of America’s first yellow journalists, to defame President John Adams.  According to David McCullough (in his 2001 biography of John Adams), during the presidential campaign of 1800, when Adams and Jefferson were running against one another (the first and last time a President ran against a Vice President), “Callender … was now working as a Republican propagandist in Richmond, Virginia, with the encouragement and financial support of Jefferson, who, at the same time, was actively distributing a variety of campaign propaganda throughout the country, always careful to conceal his involvement. …That Adams was never known to be involved in such activity struck some as a sign of how naïve and behind the times he was.”  Active campaigning was considered beneath a gentleman’s dignity in those days, but it seems that behind-the-scenes campaigning, mud-slinging, and character assassination were not, as long as the gentleman’s name was never “connected with the business” (Jefferson’s words).

Then, to put our current crop of Western politicians into some kind of global perspective, there are the antics of Ukrainian politicians who poison their enemies, Palestinian politicians who murder their fellow parliamentarians, and Iranian politicians who simply ignore election results, hire gangs of thugs to bludgeon and shoot those who demonstrate against them, and thumb their noses at the rest of the world as a daily ritual.  Kind of makes American politicians look tame, don’t it?


There is too much violence in society today, we often hear.  (To which I’ve also heard the response, “Well, how much is just enough?)  In raw numbers, it can be shocking to see the number of murders that occur in a given year.  But let’s look for a moment at the recorded homicide rates for the last several centuries in Europe (considered by many to be the cradle of über-civilization):


(per 100,000 People)

.                        England      Neth/Belgium      Scandinavia       Ger/Switz       Italy

13th and 14th c.   23.0               47.0                    n.a.                 37.0            56.0

15th c.                   n.a.              45.0                  46.0                  16.0            73.0

16th c.                   7.0               25.0                  21.0                  11.0            47.0

17th c.                   5.0                 7.5                  18.0                    7.0            32.0

18th c.                   1.5                 5.5                    1.9                    7.5            10.5

19th c.                   1.7                 1.6                    1.1                    2.8            12.6

1900-1949             0.8                 1.5                    0.7                    1.7            3.2

1950-1994             0.9                 0.9                    0.9                    1.0            1.5

*not including wars

(source: Freakonomics)

So you see, England’s murder rate, which at its worst was less than half that of the Dutch for the same time period, has dropped to almost nothing.  Even Italians, with their fiery tempers, have dropped to only one-and-a-half murders for every 100,000 people.  Considering the rise in the population of these countries, it’s worth noting that crowded conditions, economic downturns, and industrialization haven’t significantly slowed the tapering homicide rate.  More recent statistics (found online here) show slightly higher figures for the new millennium, with the US showing a higher rate than most of the above countries.  While Germany shows a homicide rate 0.9 per 100,000 souls, the Netherlands 1.0, Norway 1.2, and the United Kingdom 1.4, the US has 5.4 homicides per 100,000 people.  (There have been plenty of explanations for this which I don’t want to get into right now, though I did find the explanation in Levitt and Dubner’s 2005 book Freakonomics compelling.)  The US makes a sorry showing here, but hey—at least they’re still ahead of Russia (20.15), Jamaica (32.41), Colombia (33.9), and Venezuela (49.2).

Poor manners

Confused by the number of forks fanned out at the side of your plate when you sit down to a fancy dinner?  Don’t know which glass to use for what kind of beverage?  Think all this is the result of hundreds of years of high-class frippery?  Not on your life.  What did Henry VIII eat with?  A knife.  That’s it.  Oh, and his fingers.  Three hundred years later, they’d got as far as a two-pronged fork (or, if they were fancier, a three-pronged one).  How did they eat their peas?  From a knife, of course.  In the 17th century, while forks were common in Italy, they were considered by the English to be an “unmanly Italian affectation.”  The Catholic Church opposed fork usage as “excessive delicacy”:  “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks — his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating.”  Fork use only became common in Britain in the 18th century.  The curved fork design used today was developed in Germany in the 18th century, and the four-tine fork in the 19th century.  (source)

So rather than claim that the greater delicacy in eating belonged to the ages, one should rather argue that modern cutlery is gone off the deep end of gentility.  The greatest advance in cutlery to my children’s minds?  The spork.  It allows them to stab their chicken in their favorite kebab restaurant AND eat their beans and rice without it falling off the fork.  Now THAT’s progress.

The takeaway message?  The good ol’ days may not have been so good.  Or they may have seemed that way when the nostalgic were too young to know what they were really like.  Or the bar for what is considered “good” is set too high.  All I know is, things are rarely as bad as they seem.

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Facing the oldest hatred

The Cap’n and I were chatting the other day and, as we often do, surveying the world stage and Israel’s role on it.  I was marveling at how credulous the world is when it comes to nonsense spoken and carried out by Palestinian Arabs engaged in an active campaign to destroy Israel (something that most people a) don’t care about, b) don’t believe is really happening, or c) wholeheartedly support).  It’s mind-boggling, the stuff people will believe (e.g. that the Mavi Marmara was on a mission of peace, that Israeli soldiers harvested organs from Arab civilians during Operation Cast Lead, and that those Palestinian Arabs I see driving Mercedes Benzes and Volkswagens on Route 60 are poor and oppressed), and the stuff they won’t believe.

For example, a friend recently posted on Facebook a December 17 article written by Alan Dershowitz which states that a Hamas leader admits that Israel killed mostly combatants during Operation Cast Lead two years ago.  My friend is concerned that Dershowitz’s support for Israel (and lack of external links from the article) may compromise the willingness of the public to believe in its content.  A commenter observes wryly that even if the content were verifiable, no one would believe it.

Just to clear up any doubt as to the veracity of what Dershowitz writes, the remarks were made by Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hammad to the London-based newspaper al-Hayat.  The Interior Minister’s comments and an analysis of them in greater context are available on the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center website; link here).  In short, the Minister’s comments included the following:

It has been said that the people were harmed by the war, but is Hamas not part of the people? It is a fact that on the first day of the war Israel struck police headquarters and killed 250 members of Hamas and the various factions, in addition to the 200-300 operatives from the [Izz al-Din] al-Qassam Brigades. In addition, 150 security personnel were killed, and the rest were from people.

I was both amused and puzzled by this exchange between my friend and his commenter.  Of course Israel targeted Hamas militants in Gaza—they’re the ones lobbing missiles into Sderot and the Negev, holding Gilad Shalit hostage indefinitely, and keeping Gaza under the heading of a terrorist state instead of a normal state.  The fact that Hamas is an enemy that embeds itself in a thickly-settled civilian population with no regard for the safety of the people they’re supposed to protect and serve, instead making it as difficult as possible for Israel to fight them without some collateral casualties, is a fact that many people either don’t know or don’t care about, and are content instead to believe whatever lies Hamas and others put out about Gaza.  I was reminded of the observation Abba Eban once made about the UN General Assembly’s pro-Arab automatic majority back in the 1970s, that “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”  If the Arabs say it, I mused to the Cap’n, it must be true.

The Cap’n disagreed.  It’s not that everything the Arabs say is taken as the truth, he claimed.  Rather, it’s that anything bad about the Jews is eminently believable.  I hate looking at things that way (after all, we’re not supposed to believe that anti-Semitism is so widespread, are we?) and challenged the Cap’n to prove it.  It turned out to be chillingly easy.  Here are some of the lies, fabrications, and baseless accusations leveled at Jews by the non-Jewish world, accepted by the majority and used to persecute, expel, and murder Jews:

  • Jews were responsible for spreading the Plague by poisoning wells in Europe
  • Jews kill Christians and use their blood to make Passover matzo (aka The Blood Libel, raised dozens of times, including as recently as 1946 in Kielce, Poland)
  • The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the minutes of a nonexistent secret meeting of Jews planning to take over the world
  • Jews control the banks/press/government’s foreign policy
  • Jews are responsible for 9/11, and all the Jewish employees were telephoned and told not to report to work at the World Trade Center that day

No one seemed to notice that Jews died of the Plague just like everyone else.  Anyone who wanted to kill a child could just blame it on a Jew and be believed.  (And who cares that Jews are forbidden by the dietary laws to eat ANY blood, even animal blood, much less human blood?)  The Protocols continue to excite anger and alarm, even from those who seem to believe that Jews already dominate the world.  Those who accuse the Jewish lobby of undue influence should read Mitchell Bard’s new book, The Arab Lobby, which describes the influence (backed by money, and not popular support as the Jewish lobby is) that Arabs—many of them not Americans—have on the US government and use to destabilize the Middle East.  And among the thousands of bereaved families from 9/11 can be found hundreds of Jewish households.

None of these time-honored libels is verifiable, yet they have all been accepted as true by a plurality, if not a majority, of the general populace.  There are other libels which are too absurd even to mention on this blog (but which some of my Muslim readers have been kind enough to inform me of).  The point is that in these situations, someone is able to make an accusation, provide no evidence, and the story will be believed, put about, spread, and acted upon.  Racism, religious hatred, and economic hardship only provide leaven for the dough.

At my final meeting with the Beit Din (rabbinical court) prior to my conversion, one of the rabbis, himself a Holocaust survivor, told me that “The Jews are not a popular people.”  And yet joining this religion (which belongs to half of my ancestors), making aliyah, and even becoming a settler, are all things I was born to do.  I don’t believe in the morality of the majority.  I don’t believe in twisting the truth to serve a political purpose.  I don’t believe in accepting a story without some provision of proof.  And I don’t believe that a small minority religion that has miraculously survived attempt after attempt to destroy it should just be allowed to die out because the majority of the world doesn’t like it.  And the only way I as one person can do anything to save it is to take part in it, to speak out, and to persevere.

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Banana came home the other day and announced that her rav at mechina (preparatory kindergarten) had told the girls that in the home, the husband makes the decisions and the wife obeys the husband.

I’ll give you a minute.

Okay?  Good.

Once the Cap’n and I had picked our jaws up off the floor, I remembered that Banana’s rav is Sephardi.  (He also tells the girls it’s assur to eat fish with dairy and who knows what all else.)  I don’t mean to impugn Sephardim, but many—especially those who came to Israel from Arabic-speaking countries—have not encountered anything like a women’s movement in their communities.  So after a giggle and a snort, I pointed out to my five-year-old that in the Crunch household, Ima and Abba are partners and work together as a team.  There are things that Abba does better and takes responsibility for, and things that Ima does better and sees to.  But our strength comes from acting as equals, not from having one person in charge and another subservient (though by assuming the traditional stay-at-home mom role and doing most of the chores, it probably looks that way).

A friend of mine once told me that her four-year-old son told her that “Mans [sic] work and mommies stay home.”  My friend had a Ph.D. but had chosen (for the time being) to be at home with her young children, as I did.  It’s galling sometimes to feel like we have to give up our image as educated, intelligent beings in order to provide our children with parental care in their early years.  But perhaps at the same time it affords the opportunity to explain the complexities of feminism and modern life to tell them about our choices, and point out the choices other mothers make to go out and work, or fathers to stay home, or parents to have their children cared for by others while both parents work.

I sometimes think we’re going down a weird road by sending our kids to the frummier schools in Efrat.  But then again, we have plenty of  interesting conversations at home as a result, and our kids don’t take for granted what we do in our house when they know that other people do things differently.  We explain to them in neutral ways why other families do what they do, and why we do what we do.

Given that some Jewish families—both those who do a lot and those who do almost nothing—often don’t discuss why, perhaps in the end my kids are getting a better education after all.

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