Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Peace With Syria? Are You Crazy?

So the news broke today that we are in Peace Talks with Syria. Let's assume that this is NOT a scam to draw attention from Olmert's criminal investigation. I still find this idea totally hallucinatory.

Why is Israel doing this? It is quite obvious. Israel is worried about Iran. Lebanon have - today - become a Hizbolla state. The new PM is a Hizbolla sympathiser, and Hizbolla have a govt. veto. So now we are surrounded by Gaza, Lebanon and Syria who are all Iran allies and militant to Israel.

That is bad to say the least.

So Olmert plans to draw Syria away from Iran. In truth by doing this, he is also trying to draw Syria towards the U.S. and away from the "axis of evil". If Syria make Peace with us then they will get all sorts of aid just like Egypt after Camp David and be rewelcomed in the world community. THAT is the Syrian interest here.

So there is the logic.

Why is this bad?

1. Syria cannot be trusted. A country who house Mashal (head of Hamas) and arm Hizbolla, and who are building a nuclear reactor to attack Israel are hardly a Peace partner. Assad is a cruel dictator. A Peace partner?

2. When will we realise that we cannot manipulate the Arabs internal politics. We tried to manipulate the PA and we got Hamas, to manipulate Lebanon and we got Hizbolla. Every time we say that "they will become moderate," it backfires. Syria sees eye to eye with Iran. we will not be able to break that bond of friendship and shared vision. Even a Peace agreement will not break the Syrian-Iran alliance. If they are not moderate, they will not change for us.

3. The Arabs see us as on the retreat. As Ben Gurion said, we can only make Peace from a position of strength. We cannot be seen as desperate and therefore withdrawing further. We did that in Lebanon and then in Gaza. It just invites more attacks. If we do this now, they will see that we are terrified of Iran. They will view the Golan as yet another victory, a 3rd feather in their hat after Lebanon and Gaza, and it is more of the slippery slope. Bad News.

We must not retreat or show fear. Now is NOT the time to offer concessions. Now is the time to show our resolve and strength.

I reiterate... Peace with the Arabs can only be from a position of strength and strategic superiority. If I can be crude, only when we beat them will it be a real Peace.

4. Government?- What Government!
Last of all, and this is very important... a question of procedure. Senior Government ministers had no idea that the talks were happening. Eli Yishai is a dep. PM and a cabinet member. Israel is NOT a Presidential system. The Government's official line is against this. How can Olmert go against his govt. behind their backs and negotiate against his own Governments position?

I hate to say this but I really feel that Olmert is a liability. The sooner he is ejected from the PM seat the safer I will feel.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Drama of Recognition

I was moved by this piece in NYTimes.

May 18, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor
The Birth of a Nation, 1948
IT was Friday, May 14, 1948. I was sitting in the press section of the United Nations General Assembly in its temporary quarters at Flushing Meadow in Queens. I felt my heart thumping. We journalists were waiting impatiently to see who would win a tug of war taking place in Washington.
On one side was President Harry S. Truman, who had told his aides that, with the last British troops leaving Palestine that day, he believed the Jews had a right to declare their own nation, and that he would make sure that the United States would be the first country to recognize it.
On the other side was the State Department, which wanted the land placed in a trusteeship under the United Nations. Secretary of State George Marshall was so passionate in his opposition to a Jewish state that he threatened to vote against the president in the November election. For Truman, who had come to office with the death of Franklin Roosevelt three years earlier, this was to be one of his first true tests of power.
As I sat waiting for the announcement of the decision in Washington, my mind wandered back to the spring and summer of the year before, which I had spent reporting for The New York Herald Tribune. I had traveled in Germany and Austria with the 11 members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. There had been many such committees studying the problems of the Holy Land since the Arab riots of the 1920s; this one was distinguished by having no representatives from Britain, which had been universally hostile to the Zionist cause.
With the members, I visited the camps for displaced persons in Germany and Austria and listened, dumbfounded, as the refugees described the horrors of the war. In particular, I remember visiting the Rothschild Hospital camp in Vienna. Some 100 refugees had just arrived from Romania, many of them children covered with sores and dirt. There was no place to put them but the street; they lay, exhausted, on the paving stones.
A young man approached us, his eyes bloodshot. “In Romania, they killed 30,000 Jews in two hours,” he said, his voice sounding as if it came straight from his guts. “They took Jews to the slaughterhouse and hung them alive the way they hang cows, and they put knives to their throats and split them. Underneath them, they put a sign: Kosher Beef.”
In camp after camp, the committee members asked, “Why do you want to go to Palestine? It’s such a poor country. The Arabs and Jews are always fighting. They don’t have enough food, they don’t have enough water. What is it about Palestine?”
A 16-year-old orphan — actually, we never used the word “orphan” because the term couldn’t convey the horrors these children had been through — gave the most poignant answer. “Everybody has a home,” he said. “The Americans. The British. The French. The Russians. Only we don’t have a home. Don’t ask us. Ask the world.”
A woman tugged the sleeve of my jacket. “You are the only woman with all these men,” she implored. “You will understand me. I saw my husband burned. I don’t want to burn. I want to go home — to Eretz Israel.” The Land of Israel.
“That’s why we’re here,” I told her. “To help solve the problem. But if, Heaven forbid, we fail to find a solution, where would you like to go?”
Her reply: “Back to the crematory.”
It was this committee’s report that led directly to the General Assembly vote of Nov. 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab entities. The Jews accepted this proposal, but the Arabs stormed out and threatened war.

My mind was drawn immediately back to the present of May 1948 as I noticed an American representative to the United Nations, Philip Jessup, hurrying toward the podium. I knew, after talking to his aides, that in his hand he had a speech supporting trusteeship, not statehood, for Israel. The State Department was about to betray the president.
Jessup was halfway up the stairs when an Associated Press reporter handed him a dispatch. Jessup read it, grew white-faced, descended the stairs and then disappeared. The reporter next to me said, “He’s gone to the bathroom.”
I shook my head. “He’s gone home.”
Then we were handed the A.P. report. In Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion had just read the world’s latest proclamation of independence. Eleven minutes later, Harry Truman had recognized Ben-Gurion’s government as the “de facto authority” of the new state.
Israel was born.
Ruth Gruber is the author of “Exodus 1947” and “Witness.”

Monday, May 12, 2008

Bribery, Finance and the Electoral System

The recent suspicions regarding Ehud Olmert raise an issue that has been bugging me for a while regarding the political system. I don't want to discuss Olmert's integrity. The courts can decide upon that. But it would appear to me that democratic electoral systems in an age of hyper-marketing and enormous media coverage are exceptionally problematic. Let me explain.

1. A politician or candidate must not take bribes. In other words, he cannot sell his decisions for money or have his judgment guided/clouded by money donations.

2. It is exceptionally expensive to run a campaign and to fund all the staff and commercials and the entire election machine. The average candidate does not have that money.

3. Politicians fund election campaigns from donations … from wealthy donors.

4. "There is no such thing as a free lunch" – in other words, not every donor is altruistic. They do expect a payback, a favour at times.

5. To be elected, candidates need to hobnob with the rich an famous, with market leaders and top business people, all of whom have multi million dollar interests

So to my point… we now see our 4th PM in Israel suspected of election fraud. Is it possible to get elected today without private money? And if private money doesn't come "for free", then where is the line between bribery and political support? The line is certainly fine indeed. I don't like it that leaders hang out with the rich and famous, but do they have a choice? I used to read how the Clinton's hosted celebs and business people all the time at the White House. Is that bribery or networking?

So does our modern electoral system support soft bribery? I suspect it does.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Israel @ 60 - Thoughts

So Israel is Sixty. My 3 yr old asked me today, "Is that big?" So of course, on the one hand, thinking about the fragile,fledgling State fighting for its life in 1948, the young country attacked in 1973, a country that has done so much in so short a time, sixty is really old. On the other hand in the span of time, we're just beginning!

What is there to say at this time? So much has been written on the topic. I would like to make two points.

1. There are always the pessimists and the optimists (see my last post!). I am sorry but I have to count myself in the latter group. I always see the cup half full when it comes to Israel.

Last week, both Galei Tzahal and Channel 1 did contests to find the song that epitomised sixty years of Israel. With Galei Tzahal the top song was Shir HaReut - a beautiful song about loss and friendship in war (written by Haim Guri in 1948.) Second came Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. In fact Yerushalayim Shel Zahav was the top song on Channel 1. (The second was "Children of '73 which we can discuss in a minute.)

Israelis did not choose some wild pop song. Israelis are rooted in Jerusalem, in their past and in their heritage. Despite a great amount of desperation with our leadership which is seen as corrupt or lacking vision and depth, Israelis know that there is much to celebrate at 60. They also appreciate what the true values are, and why we are here.

Today the Guardian (link) has an interesting article about the eclipse of the promise of Peace. The song that came in second - Children of '73 - is precisely about that idea (link). But as opposed to one other blogger (link) I would like to suggest that that song is actually very much where Israel is at present.

The song expresses the reality that at one point in time Israelis felt that peace would be around the corner. Nowadays, we realise it is much more complicated, far more elusive. (Even Peres said today that he never expected Kasaams from Gaza after the Hitnatkut! (link)) And yet the kids in the song still serve in the Army and still live in Israel and still build their future here! To my mind the song expresses the frustrations of reality and the complexities of living here. (The song isn't perfect... it has much arrogance, but that is for another time.)

So what do we do when Peace seems elusive? What do we do when a woman sees her father, and then her husband, and now her son, go to war?

Here is the point I think needs making. In fact Olmert made this point at the Yom Hazikaron ceremony today (Give credit where it is due!). We will succeed here ONLY if we know WHY we are here. We cannot succeed if we fail to believe that we belong here. We cannot become an ordinary country. This is a place that for the foreseeable future we shall have to fight over. If you are looking for a comfortable calm ride, this is not happening so soon. (Although, we are, many of us, living at very comfortable living standards!)

But this is the best place in the world for a Jew. Why? Because it is ours. Because here we all care about each other. Because here we fight over OUR issues. Because here we live in our holy land, promised to us by God, because here I tread in the footsteps of my History, because here we turn on the radio and hear Hebrew... Because we belong here! It is right.

Every Israeli needs to know this. Every Israeli must be imbued with Jewish Pride and Zionism. Israel needs to invest heavily in education, Judaism and Zionism to fight against cynicism and PostZionism, to revive some of that old-school Zionism, so that every Israeli believes that this is the correct place to be and understands why it is worthy to be here. To reconnect with Judaism, to love the country. And then BeEzrat Hashem, we will be OK for another 60. This is paramount.

we have so much good. But the National Spirit is crucial, critical.

2. But here is a second point. I wrote about it also in last years post here.

Israel at 60. Wow! We have so much to thank God for. So much to be appreciative! For simply our survival! For the pleasure of over 6 million Jews who can live in their land, for a booming economy, for Israel being able to be a refuge for Russian Jews and Ethiopian Jews. For Israel being the education centre for World Jewry, whether in Mir or Ponovezh or Brisk, Gush or Shaalvim, Hebrew University or Hartman Institute, or Schechter - they are all here! For Israel giving pride and confidence to the Jewish People around the world. For the Kotel, and the Golan and the Negev and the Kinneret.

Hodu Lashem ki Tov, Ki LeOlam Hasdo!

Yom Atzmaut Sameach!

Posters at Sixty

Different organisations have been busy designing posters for the sixtieth anniversary. The news reported of Michlelet Ort in Kfar Saba with their very pessimistic portraits of Israel:

These highlight either Israel as a littering nation or as wishing to erase our victory of the Six Day War as if it were a mistake, or as a nation who have so many poor people surviving on Welfare. Other posters spoke about the fatalities of road accidents or even suggesting Israel as a rascist country. ALL the posters were negative!

But then along comes the Religious Michlelet Emuna with more positive portraits like this:

The common factor with these portraits is that they emphasise Israel as a plant to be nurtured, as a work in progress, as still growing and unfinished. They are more Zionist and hopeful.

Which image do you prefer?

Does one represent a secular Kfar Saba mentality and the others, a Religious Jerusalem perspective?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Parashat Emor - Displaced Persons

"The son of an Israelite woman, being also the son of an Egyptian man, went out among Benei Yisrael. And the son of the Israelite woman quarreled with an Israelite man in the camp. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced God's Name, and cursed. They brought him to Moshe. His mother's name was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, from the tribe of Dan." (24:10-11)

An argument in the camp; The name of God being publicly blasphemed. What was the cause of this rage on the part of the Blasphemer? Was it a deliberate provocation or a desperate outburst? What leads this man to curse God's name?

The text itself indicates a series of details that give us clues as to the source of the distress of the blasphemer leading to his outrageous act:
1. His problematic lineage, being of a mixed marriage (as opposed to the "Israelite man" with whom he quarrels.)
2. They quarrel "in the Camp."
3. The mention of the fact that his mother was from the Tribe of Dan.

Rashi puts it together for us.

"He (the blasphemer) had come to pitch his tent in the midst of the tribe of Dan. They asked him, 'What right have you to be here?' He said to them: 'I am of the descendants of Dan.' They said to him, 'Each man (shall camp) by his own flag, (that bears) the signs of their father's house.'"

Here we have a young man who wishes to find a place to pitch his tent in the Israelite camp. He goes to his mother's tribe - Dan - and is ejected. According to the Midrash, the case is taken to (moses') Court. The law is pronounced that Tribal lineage follows the father rather than the mother. And hence he has to go elsewhere. He is evicted. But he has nowhere to go! In his rage, or frustration, he curses God.

This parsha brings a problem into focus. I have thought about this for a while and failed to find an answer. Let me explain.

What should the Mekallel have done? Where should he pitch his tent? Where does a man from a mixed marriage live? Or is he doomed to wander between the tribes homeless, displaced?

And let us expand the question. The verse in Shemot 12:38 tells us that a "mixed multitude" - a collection of different ethnic populations - Erev Rav - tagged along with Bnei Yisrael as they left Egypt. What ever happened to these people? Where did they live? Did they have a place in the Israelite camp? Did they go their own way and depart from Bnei Yisrael [1]? Traditional sources insist that they remained with Am Yisrael, however they became a major problem as the developed as an insurgent group, instigating rebellion and sin. [2]

And so, I return to the problem. Where did the "Erev Rav" encamp?

In Sefer Bamidbar ch.1 the Israelite camp is organised into 12 marching divisions, twelve army units. There is no mention of the Erev Rav! Now it is possible that until Sefer Bamidbar, encampment arrangements were informal and random. But from the second year in the wilderness, the camp was certainly ordered.

Did the Erev Rav encamp at the outskirts of the camp? When I think about the notion of a different ethnic group, a minority grouping amongst Israel being ejected from the mainstream, relegated to the fringes of the camp, I cannot see this but as a recipe for problems. We should not be at all surprised when this group cause trouble.

In Israel today there are ongoing discussions about the center as opposed to the "periphery", the outlying regional areas in Israel. The periphery is remote, lacking access to services, and frequently weaker economically. The common wisdom is that special attention must be paid to weaker groups so that they not fester in the periphery but rather to draw them to the center, strengthened, reinforced in their sense of belonging , their identity, their education. If immigrants from problematic backgrounds are placed at the periphery, they remain apart, alienated, and then become delinquent, disgruntled, and the problems escalate.

In today's world if you had a kid from a problematic home situation, a complicated ethnic background (it could not have been simple for an Egyptian and Jew to parent a child... See the Midrashim who suggest fascinating scenarios here) and who could not even find a home, a place to pitch his tent - just like the mekallel -we would seek to include him, to embrace him. we would send the social workers out and help this guy! We could certainly see the writing on the wall simply by reading this kid's file! One can palpably sense the alienation and potential displacement in this person's mind.

(And ask Educators... A kid's rejection of Judaism is more often than not a product of his home environment and whether his Jewish-religious peers and the community welcome him and make him feel respected and as if he belongs. Frequently the social factor seriously outweighs any theological factor!)

Now of course, other readings are possible. Possibly the mekallel instigated all this and was looking for trouble, bent upon rebellion against God. Other readings in this parsha are certainly viable. And yet, beyond the story of the Blasphemer, the "Erev Rav" question still niggles me. How can we let this group, who are anyhow unintegrated into Israelite culture and society, how can we allow them to reside apart, alienated, at the outskirts of the camp? It certainly seems to be inviting serious problems.

I think that somebody once suggested that Moshe Rabbeinu himself took the Erev Rav under his wing [3] and that they encamped with him in the epicenter of the camp. I have such a vague recollection of this idea that I think I might have invented it (!). Anyhow, I have never found a source for this.

Any ideas on this topic are more than welcome!

{1} See Ramban on Shemot 19:1 and Bamidbar 1:18 in which theer is an impression that Bnei Yisrael are deliberately seperated from teh Erev Rav. Was this an attempt to eject them??

{2} See Rashi Shemot 32:4; Rashi Bamidbar 11:1,4

{3} See Rashi to Shemot 32:7 and 34:1. Here Moshe is connected personally with the Erev Rav as if they are his responsibility. According to Rashi, Moshe personally accepted them and converted them and he is seen a their patron in some way. (See also Shemot Rabba 42:6)

Friday, May 02, 2008

Parashat Kedoshim: The Ramban, Kilayim and Genetic Engineering

The Torah in this week's parsha forbids the mixing of species - Kilayim. This applies to mixing wool and linen in clothes, to crossbreeding livestock, or even to growing many types of crop in the same field.

In a celebrated passage, the Ramban explains the mitzva in the following manner:

And the reason for kilayim is that God created the different species in the world for all the different kinds of souls, in plants and in those that have the animative soul, and he gave them the power of reproduction, that the species should exist for eternity, for as long as He should desire the existence of the world, and He ordered that that power should reproduce the species and never ever change, as is written (in Bereishit) concerning each (species), "l'mineihu" (for its species). And this is the reason that we breed animals in order to preserve the species, just as men come unto women for (the purpose of) reproduction. But one who intermixes two species changes and negates the act of creation, as though he thinks that God did not complete His world sufficiently, and he wishes to assist creation by adding creatures to it.

Amongst animals, different species do not reproduce when mixed, and even those that are naturally close, when they do reproduce, the offspring are unable to reproduce and hence, that line of animals is lost, destroyed. And for these two reasons, the act of mixing species is loathsome and nullified. And plants as well, when they are interbred, their fruit does not grow afterwards, and these two reasons explain their prohibition. (19,19)

It sounds like the Ramban is telling us that creating new combinations and species is, in some manner, destroying God's creation. Our role is to preserve God's creation and teh kinds contained therein. We are not to create new hybrids, new species.

This Ramban has always bothered me. How should we relate to this regarding technological advances? Should we abandon genetic engineering of plants? What about grapefruits, nectarines etc.? Are they not a product of crossbreeding? If we leave creation as it is, then where does it end? Where are the limits of human ingenuity? We know that the Torah allows human involvement i.e. healing or even the manufacture process of food, textiles, household items. But as for Kilayim, do these hybrids not enrich contemporary man?! Or is the Torah warning us that our genetic engineering might undermine and tamper with the very fabric of our world, altering nature to the point of endangering the very foundations of our civilisation?

In today's world we have heard how sometimes, by engineering a plant to become more robust and sturdy to certain bugs or weather conditions, that same crop then dominates over other crops thereby altering and destroying existing ecosystems. Is the Torah already warning us of this problem? The spectre of cloning, of human engineering that is become more and more real in today's scientific landscape is frightening. The warning lights of Huxley's Brave New World and the moral questions of life and death, of man as Creator, these questions go to the very roots of our humanity, our morality.

(In this post, I am of course ignoring the Ramban's Kabbalistic and spiritual overtones regarding the "soul" of plants ... see his comments later in the passge.)

So is new DNA research legitimate development, or is it a reckless foray into the unknown? In this manner, this Ramban raises precisely the conservationist vs. technology debate.

Where is room for growth and change, and where is the room for stability, constancy?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Sefer Torah From Auschwitz

For Yom Hashoah

NYTimes has a great story (link) about a Sefer Torah from Auschwitz.