Thursday, December 31, 2009

Israeli condescension towards the Diaspora

The Forward is running a piece about an Orthodox school in New York sending some of its students to a religious Israeli school to experience Israeli realities and to improve their Hebrew.

Next year, the Israeli school is due to send four of its own students to the American school in a return visit:

In fact the school... has a blanket ban on overseas school trips, as it abides by a religious-Zionist view that it is prohibited, under normal circumstances, to leave the Land of Israel. But both West Bank institutions are making exceptions for this visit.

“Rabbi Eitan Eiseman, the head of the Tzvia-Noam school network... has said time and time again that for halachic reasons we should not allow our students to leave Israel,” Rachel Kaplan, principal of Ulpanat Tzvia, told the Forward. “But an exception was made for the exchange program with the Yeshiva University high schools because the students are leaving Israel as shlichim [emissaries] of the Jewish people, with the goal of enhancing the lives of their American counterparts with Israeli culture and the Israeli experience.”

I strongly object to this attitude to the diaspora, particularly condescending when we are talking about a school in one of the most heavily 'Jewish' areas of America, with exceptionally strong Jewish infrastructure and Jewish life. It never occurs to her that her students have something to learn from the American school and the American community - perhaps about community life or modern Orthodox values. They are simply there to teach the ignorant, quivering diaspora Jews.

Maybe Mrs Kaplan should join the students in their trip to America. She might be astounded by what she finds.

Calling Judge Goldstone

According to AP,

The latest figures released by the United Nations show that 2,021 civilians died during clashes [in Afghanistan] in the first 10 months of this year, up from 1,838 for the same period last year. International forces' stepped up efforts to protect the population has reduced civilian casualties. Taliban insurgents were blamed for 68 percent of the deaths this year — three times more than NATO forces, according to the U.N.

As Yaakov Lozowick notes, this means that NATO forces killed 646 civilians in Afghanistan by the end of October this year - "or 65 a month, or two a day. Afghanistan is mostly a rural place, not densely populated."

But no sign of an international inquiry as yet....

How Israelis keep their airport safe(r)

The attempted bombing of a flight heading to America last week has generated lots of discussion, in the US, about the Israeli method of airport security. I linked to a couple of pieces yesterday; today there is an interesting piece in the Toronto Star revealing many details I was not previously aware of:

At the check-in desk, your luggage is scanned immediately in a purpose-built area. [Security expert Rafi] Sela plays devil's advocate — what if you have escaped the attention of the first four layers of security, and now try to pass a bag with a bomb in it?

"I once put this question to Jacques Duchesneau (the former head of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority): say there is a bag with play-doh in it and two pens stuck in the play-doh. That is 'Bombs 101' to a screener. I asked Ducheneau, 'What would you do?' And he said, 'Evacuate the terminal.' And I said, 'Oh. My. God.'

"Take Pearson [Toronto's main airport - MS]. Do you know how many people are in the terminal at all times? Many thousands. Let's say I'm (doing an evacuation) without panic — which will never happen. But let's say this is the case. How long will it take? Nobody thought about it. I said, 'Two days.'"

A screener at Ben-Gurion has a pair of better options.

First, the screening area is surrounded by contoured, blast-proof glass that can contain the detonation of up to 100 kilos of plastic explosive. Only the few dozen people within the screening area need be removed, and only to a point a few metres away.

Second, all the screening areas contain 'bomb boxes'. If a screener spots a suspect bag, he/she is trained to pick it up and place it in the box, which is blast proof. A bomb squad arrives shortly and wheels the box away for further investigation.

"This is a very small simple example of how we can simply stop a problem that would cripple one of your airports," Sela said.

Read the whole piece here.

(h/t: Harry)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Room at the Limmud inn

Funny story from blogger David Bogner, an American-Israeli attending Limmud for the first time:

My flight landed well after 11:00 PM on Xmas eve at Heathrow. By the time I'd gotten my bag and made my way to the nearby hotel, it was well after midnight. Luckily I'd told them when making my reservation that I would need a late check in.

Or so I thought.

When I arrived at the front desk, the West Indian looking (and sounding) gentleman behind the counter seemed to have some trouble locating my reservation... and they were all booked up. I watched him poking around in his computer for a minute or two and then spoke up:

Me: "I hope there's no trouble with my reservation, I can't imagine trying to find a room at this hour.

Desk Clerk [after glancing meaningfully over the top of his glasses at my kippah]: "Don't worry sir, if there's one thing the hospitality industry has learned in the last 2000 years it is to never turn a Jew away on Xmas eve".

Israeli airline security - good for the Americans?

Megan McArdle asks whether American airports should take up Israeli-style security screening, and notes:

Maybe we could do it smarter, like the Israelis do. But the Israelis also armor the holds of their airliners, making it very difficult to blow them up--and impossible to fly at a profit.

I didn't know they armoured the holds. Yet another reason to fly El Al...

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg has an interesting interview with security expert Bruce Scheiener on American airline security, which is worth reading in full. He opens with the same question McArdle addresses:

Jeffrey Goldberg: Do you think that we are moving toward the Israelification of American airport security?

Bruce Schneier: I don't think it's possible. The Israelis rely on a system of individual attention -- interviews, background checks, and so on -- that simply can't be replicated on the scale required for America. If anything, we're moving in the opposite direction: layers of annoying, time consuming, ineffectual, static -- but automatic and scalable -- security systems. Although it seems that we're finally hitting the limit as to what the American business travel will put up with, and no security measure will survive wholesale rejection by the airlines' most profitable customers.

Seems to me that it would be possible if the Americans willed it. Isn't the main obstacle, which Scheiener, doesn't address, that the Israelis racially profile - and the American (and European) public are still not ready to do that?

Hamas rejecting the Shalit deal would play into Bibi's hands

The Israeli media, quoting Al Jazeera, is reporting that Hamas is rejecting the Shalit deal in its current form. A Hamas spokesman told the network that they will “continue the negotiations” – although Israel has already said that the offer currently on the table would be the last.

Ironically, the Hamas attempt to play hardball might be good for Bibi.

It is clear that, much as Netanyahu would like to save Gilad Shalit – no one doubts this – he does not really, truly want to do the deal. Netanyahu has spent his career preaching against giving in to terrorists. A deal with Hamas, particularly one involving releasing over 1,000 terrorists, including several responsible for major terror attacks, goes against everything Netanyahu has ever stood for.

He also knows that the deal is strategically disastrous for Israel, potentially undermining or even completely destroying PA President Mahmoud Abbas, strengthening and giving a moral boost to Hamas, and letting hundreds of terrorists who are likely to re-offend back into Palestinian society.

On the other hand, it is clear that a majority of Israelis are in favour of a deal and that Netanyahu is finding it very hard to resist the pressure.

Netanyahu and his ‘kitchen cabinet’ worked visibly hard last week to come to a realistic offer, one which was painful for Israel but which would nevertheless maintain some red lines, refusing to release the very worst terrorists. The entire country watched carefully as Bibi and his closest ministers and advisors conducted a 24-hour marathon of deliberations. They know that he really did try to close this deal.

A Hamas rejection would essentially let Bibi off the hook. He could argue – and I think people would accept -- that Israel did everything it can do free Gilad Shalit, but that in the end, the deal was impossible.

The price, sadly, would be Gilad Shalit, who would suddenly become dispensable to his captors. For the sake of this young soldier, let us hope that some kind of resolution is still found.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A dybbuk hits Brazil

The Charedi ban on the internet does not hold in all circumstances, apparently.

Just recently, a man in Brazil exhibiting strange behaviour was diagnosed as being posessed by a dybbuk. (Yes, in 2009.)

After referral to a couple of the world's leading rabbis, he was sent to the renowned master of Kabbalah, Rav Batzri, in Israel. Due to the distance, Rav Batzri attempted to remove the dybuk - via Skype!

You can watch the less-than-impressive ceremony here.

Not surprisingly, the attempted exorcism was unsuccessful - maybe there was a bad internet connection? - and the possessed man was last heard of on his way to Israel, to have the spirit removed in person.

I'd love to hear his interview with the El Al security people.....

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A fishy chanukiah

Strangest chanukiah I've ever seen, here. It looks like they're all smoking.

Monday, December 14, 2009

New 'virtual autopsies' - good for Jews

The Economist reports on a new 'virtual autopsy system':

The body needing to be examined is first scanned using a computed tomography (CT) machine, a process which takes about 20 seconds and creates up to 25,000 images, each one a slice through the body. Different tissues, bodily substances and foreign objects (such as bullets) absorb the scanner’s X-rays in varying amounts... Air pockets are shown as blue, soft tissues as beige, blood vessels as red and bone as white. A pathologist can then peel through layers of virtual skin and muscle with the click of a computer mouse.

To make the process easier, Dr Persson and his colleagues have also created a virtual autopsy table. This is a large touch-sensitive LCD screen which stands like a table in an operating room, displaying an image of the body. Up to six people can gather around the table and, with a swipe of a finger, remove layers of muscle, zoom in and out of organs and slice through tissue with a virtual knife.

The system is already being used by Swedish police because it offers incredibe detail, is quick, and 'does not alter the evidence'.

Of course, there is a Jewish application too, for religious families who (generally) object to performing 'real' autopsies, which tamper with the body, for halachic reasons.

Worth a read

-- A touching story about the first soldier killed in Operation Cast Lead, via Daniel Gordis

-- Last week we ran a story about a new sexual education programme in religious schools in Israel. Now the NYT writes about the sex education programme in a leading New York Orthodox school - called 'Sex with the rabbi'.

-- Two interesting posts from Harry Maryles on the decline of rabbinic influence: here, here.

-- On the Main Line has the fascinating story of Lord George Gordon, an 18th century lord who converted to Judaism. He died in prison after defaming Marie Antoinette (he was previously acquitted of instigating riots in London in which 450 people died or were injured); while in prison he would only accept Jewish visitors (male) if they had beards and covered their heads. Follow the links on the blog or -- dare I say it -- check out his entry in Wikipedia...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The real reason for Chanuccah

The great DovBear brings the real reason for the very first Chanucah - which has nothing to do with a miracle of oil:

Chanuka is an 8-day celebration because the Hashmonaim [Hasmoneans] modeled their original holiday on Sukkos. This... is attested to in the Book of Maccabees II 1:8 where we find a quote from a letter sent by the Hashmonaim to other Jews in which they introduce a new holiday called "Sukot b'Kislev":

And now celebrate ye the days of Scenopegia [i.e. Sukos] in the month of Casleu [i.e. Kislev.]

In Maccabees II 10:6-9 an explanation for this designation is provided. After retaking Jerusalem and the temple...:

...they kept eight days with joy, after the manner of the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts. Therefore they now, carried boughs, and green branches, and palms [i.e. lulavim] for Him that had given them good success in cleansing his place. And they ordained by a common statute, and decree, that all the nation of the Jews should keep those days every year

In other words, they missed out the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to the Temple on Sukkot, because the revolt was in full swing and the Temple had been desecrated - and so decided to recreate the festival in the month of Kislev, during the winter.

The story of the miracle of oil comes from the Talmud, far later, and is not mentioned in the Book of the Maccabees.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Montana's Hebrew-speaking dog

Why - I wondered - is the NYT running a whole piece about the growing number of rabbis in Montana, of all places? There are, for the record, now three, but that's hardly unique.

All became clear towards the end of the article, when the action switches to an official chanukah candle lighting ceremony at the Capital last year - which was watched by an officer and his dog.

When the ceremony was over, the officer approached the Hasidic rabbi.

“I’m Officer John Fosket of the Helena Police,” he said. “This is Miky, our security dog. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

Miky, pronounced Mikey, is in a Diaspora of his own. He was born in an animal shelter in Holland and shipped as a puppy to Israel, where he was trained by the Israeli Defense Forces to sniff out explosives. Then one day, Miky got a plane ticket to America. Rather than spend the standard $20,000 on a bomb dog, the Helena Police Department had shopped around and discovered that it could import a surplus bomb dog from the Israeli forces for the price of the flight. So Miky came to his new home in
Helena, to join the police force.

The problem, the officer explained, was that Miky had been trained entirely in Hebrew.

When Officer Fosket got Miky, he was handed a list of a dozen Hebrew commands and expressions, like “Hi’ sha’ er” (stay!), Ch’pess (search!), and “Kelev tov” (good doggy). He made flashcards and tried practicing with Miky. But poor Miky didn’t respond.

Officer Fosket (who is not Jewish) suspected he wasn’t pronouncing the words properly. He tried a Hebrew instructional audio-book from the local
library, but no luck. The dog didn’t always understand what he was being ordered to do. Or maybe Miky was just using his owner’s bad pronunciation as an excuse to ignore him. Either way, the policeman needed a rabbi.

And now he had found one. They worked through a few pronunciations, and the rabbi, Chaim Bruk, is now on call to work with Miky and his owner as needed. Officer Fosket has since learned to pronounce the tricky Israeli “ch” sound, and Miky has become a new star on the police force. The two were even brought in by the Secret Service to work a recent presidential visit.

So all is well in the Jewish community here because the Hasidic rabbi is helping the Montana cop speak Hebrew to his dog. It is good news all around. The officer
keeps the Capitol safe, and the Hebrew pooch is feeling more at home hearing his native tongue.

But the big winner is the rabbi, a recent arrival from Brooklyn who is working hard (against tough odds) to bring his Lubavitch movement to Montana. He has been scouring the state for anyone who can speak Hebrew, and is elated to have found a German shepherd he can talk to.

Love it.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Why I wish I had said Kaddish

My column this week is on why I wish I had said kaddish for my mother:

Last week was my mother Judy’s first yahrzeit. She died, aged just
57, following a long illness and was buried, at her request, in her
beloved Israel. The family is — naturally — still reeling from our
loss, still getting used to a new reality. How we miss her grace and
good humour, her courage, her insights, her love for us all. It has
been a very long year.

And yet, in some ways, I wish it had been longer. Although my 12
months of mourning are officially over — and life, in theory, now goes
back to “normal” — I feel I have not yet had a real chance to grieve. I
thought that Jewish ritual would show me the way but it played a
smaller role than I had expected or wanted.

To read the rest click here.

Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the NY Jewish Week, also writes about saying kaddish this week, in a way which dovetails nicely with my piece.

Don't worry Bibi. You look good

Platon Antoniou, a staff photographer at the New Yorker, used the opening of the UN General Assembly a couple of months back to take a series of photographs of the world's leaders. The results are displayed here.

But better than any one of the pictures, to my mind, is the story he tells about Bibi Netanyahu:

“As I was doing this portrait,” Platon relates, [Netanyahu] leaned forward and said, ‘Platon, make me look good.’ And the bizarre thing is that once the shoot was over — we had a few chats here and there - every time he would pass me with his entourage over the next few days, he would always come, shake my hand again, have a chat, and whisper in my ear, ‘Platon, make me look good.’ So I was kind of brainwashed by Mr. Netanyahu, that when it came to the editing process, I found myself making him look good.”

Of course, this can be - and probably will be - read on so many different levels (although to me it sounds like Netanyahu was enjoying a running joke). Either way, I'm sure Platon didn't have to work too hard. Whatever else you can say about him, Bibi is a good-looking man. And the competition at the UN wasn't too heavy.

But if only he could whisper the same thing in Obama's ear, with the same result.....


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Jonathan Pollard: His own worst enemy?

Jonathan Pollard has lost his mind. According to the Jerusalem Post,

Speaking to Likud activists Moshe Feiglin and Shmuel Sackett at Butner Prison in North Carolina, Pollard said he wanted Schalit to come home, but the thought of terrorists being released "boiled him with anger."

"This is a horrible hilul Hashem [blasphemy]," Pollard said.

"Instead, [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu should take the list of prisoners Hamas requested and kill one of them every day until they release Gilad from prison. He should not free terrorists, no matter what."

Does he really think comments like this are going to help his cause? Prompt the American administration to free him? Gain support from the Israeli public - who largely support the Shalit deal (even if, in an ideal world, they do not want to release any terrorists either)? Does he really think that the association with Moshe Feiglin, despised by all but the extreme right, is going to do him any favours?

If he wants to be free, he should be quiet. He really is his own worst enemy.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Roger Cohen on growing up Jewish in London

NYT columnist Roger Cohen - who has experienced lots of friction this year with the US Jewish community over his attitude to Israel and to Iran - writes this week about growing up Jewish in London.

[Nick Hornby's] “An Education” put me back in my London complete with Dad’s old Rover model. But it wasn’t just the cars. It was that faint prejudice floating around with its power to generate I’m-not-quite-one-of-them feelings.

In the late 1960’s, I went to Westminster, one of Britain’s top private schools, an inspiring place hard by Westminster Abbey, and was occasionally taunted as a “Yid” — not a bad way to forge a proud Jewish identity in a nonreligious Jew.

The teasing soon ended. But something else happened that was related to the institution rather than adolescent minds. I won a scholarship to Westminster and would have entered College, the scholars’ house, but was told that a Jew could not attend College nor hold a Queen’s Scholarship. I got an Honorary Scholarship instead.

On balance, even recognising that the UK has changed, he prefers America. Read the whole thing here.

As a side note, I have long wondered whether Cohen's British background doesn't go some way towards explaining his writing about the Middle East. Anglo-Jewry has long been far more left-wing on Israel than American Jewry. It seems to me that some of his attitudes to Israel would not be that unusual in some sections of our British community, but - until recently at least - were the exception amongst affiliated, involved American Jews. As a result, they apparently simply cannot understand where he's coming from and his writing seems to make them apoplectic with rage. Were he writing in a British paper, many segments of our community might not like what he was saying, but I don't think they would have a hard time understanding that a Jew might hold such opinions.

A strike for the seventh commandment

Bad news for Orthodox cheating spouses. - the site that was set up last year for married frum people looking to have affairs - has closed down.

(Typical profile: Chassidish man looking for a threesome. Favorite music: Mordechai Ben David.)

I guess, for Orthodox cheating hearts, it's back to Craigslist then.

(Hat tip: Twitter @frumsatire)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Admitting non-Jewish kids to JFS: No halachic barrier

According to Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a modern Orthodox rabbi from Chicago, one of the most respected Orthodox figures of the 20th century, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, issued the following ruling about admitting non-Jewish children into Jewish schools:

when we set up our community, pluralistic school, (Chicago Jewish Day
School) I asked him if we could admit children of Jewish fathers,
non-Jewish mothers. He said yes! Then his grandson who was there said,
But Zayde, these are “goyim g’murim” [complete non-Jews]! His answer was, So what? You can
teach Torah to goyim as well! And he quoted the S’fornu.

Something for this country's Orthodox authorities to keep in mind, perhaps, re: the JFS case.


Friday, November 27, 2009

The Polish: Not antisemitic, just don't like Jews

A rather sad piece on the BBC website about a Polish woman who only recently discovered she is Jewish - and is still afraid to tell her own children, because her Cathlic husband's family "hates Jews".

So just how bad are attitudes to Jews in Poland?

"I wouldn't call it anti-semitism," says the President of the Union of Jewish communities of Poland Piotr Kadlcik. "It's more a broad dislike of Jews."

In other news, Barbra Streisand never had stage fright. It was more a broad dislike of getting on stage.....

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mumbai: 'Each Jew killed is worth 50 killed elsewhere'

American channel HBO is about to air a documentary on the Mumbai terror attacks last year, including almost 20 minutes of recordings of phone conversations between the terrorists in Mumbai and their controller in Pakistan, a man called “Brother Wasi”.

Tunku Varadarajan, in The Daily Beast, includes this chilling description of one of the phone calls:

This is not a documentary for the young to watch, or even for those adults who crumble easily. How to process the telephone conversation between Wasi and the gunman holed up in Mumbai’s Chabad House, where a few American Jews are held hostage? Wasi says: “As I told you, every person you kill where you are”—referring to the Jewish building—“is worth 50 of the ones killed elsewhere.” Later, as Indian army commandos close in on the building, Wasi, watching the scene on TV in Pakistan, fears that the last surviving gunman there will be taken alive. So he orders him to shoot the last two Jewish hostages forthwith: “Yes, sit them up and shoot them in the back of the head.” The gunman, now weak with hunger and thirst, obliges. We hear a shot. Wasi does, too — he is on the line. What about the second shot, he asks. “I got them both,” he is told, by the gunman.

At the time, many of the news reports did not even mention Chabad House by name, when explaining which buildings had been attacked; the significance of the target was ignored, downplayed, or perhaps not even understood. As Jeffrey Goldberg notes, this phone transcript illustrates the genocidal antisemitism of the Jihadist movement only too clearly.

Should Israel do the Shalit deal?

Should Israel go ahead with a deal to free Gilad Shalit, if it involves the release of hundreds or thousands of terrorists, some of them with ‘blood on their hands’?

The heart says yes, the head says no.

What Shalit is going through hardly bears thinking about. This young, physically awkward boy - who according to his own father is painfully shy - has been held by terrorists in isolation in an unknown location, unable to see properly, with no contact with the outside world, without even access to the Red Cross, for 1,250 days. Very little is known about his physical condition but no one imagines he is being handled with kid gloves. Birthday after birthday after birthday in a Gaza hellhole - it will be a miracle if he is still completely sane.

We all want to see this poor boy home.

But then there is the price.

Some of the issues are common to all prisoner exchanges. Morally, is it right to release men responsible for some of the worst terror attacks in Israeli history - letting them, quite literally, get away with murder? Won’t they simply go back to planning other attacks, to finding other ways of hurting Israel?

Won’t giving in to terrorists’ demands simply encourage them to kidnap other soldiers (or civilians)? Should Israel be negotiating with terrorists at all?

Other considerations are unique to this particular deal.

Hamas is currently in a weakened state, isolated by the West, incapable of negotiating a unity deal with Fatah, presiding over an increasingly poor area compared to the West Bank. Granting them the Shalit deal will infinitely strengthen their hand, allowing them to claim to their domestic audience that they are the true leaders of the Palestinians and bringing back to Hamas ranks senior commanders with sophisticated military knowledge - and plenty of motivation. It will also be difficult for Israel to continue pressing the West to boycott Hamas when it becomes clear that Israel itself has negotiated with them. Nor will Israel find it easy to resist international calls to break the siege on Gaza, once it no longer has a kidnapped soldier there.

Meanwhile, on the West Bank, a Shalit deal credited to Hamas could be the death knell of the PA, which is already close to collapse. Israel will be forced to release hundreds of Fatah-affiliated terrorists as a gesture to President Abbas in order to prop him up. If - as some reports claim - Marwan Barghouti is included in the deal, this would help counter Hamas's revival; but he would pretty certainly finish off Abbas politically (as I discussed in late August)

. And who knows, ultimately, if Israel is not better off with the devil it knows? Particularly as Barghouti is now considered close to the Hamas leadership.

Strategically, this is a very, very bad deal for Israel. And at what point does Gilad Shalit’s life become more important than the strategic interests of the rest of the country’s population (and possibly their lives too - if the deal results in freed terrorists becoming active again)?

I do not envy Mr Netanyahu - who spent much of his political life preaching the need to be tough on terror - his decision. My gut is that he will have no choice but to pass the deal. Essentially, he has an obligation to Gilad Shalit, who was captured at a time when soldiers did reasonably expect, on the basis of past precedent, the country to redeem them. He has entered the hearts of the Israeli people and this is probably the last chance to free him. If this deal does not go through, his parents should worry for his life.

However, Mr Netanyahu will have a battle on his hands. Reading the reactions to Ben-Dror Yemini's column in Ma'ariv, in which he calls on Mr Netanyahu to reject the deal so as not to give in to terrorists, it is really striking how many of the comments agree. For all they feel for Gilad Shalit, many, many Israelis are willing to put the national interest first.

One thing is for sure. If Mr Netanyahu does go ahead, he must quickly act to make sure that such a deal could never be considered ever again. A commission headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar recently recommended that Israel should only exchange one prisoner per captive Israeli soldier; only give up bodies for dead soldiers and only give body parts for body parts. This must be enshrined in law (possibly made part of the Basic Law?), so that Hamas and Hizbollah know that further kidnappings will no longer yield them a great bounty of prisoners, will no longer be worthwhile.

And then the Israeli government has to stick to it, come what may. The country cannot allow itself to be held to ransom like this, ever again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shidduch dates from hell

The religious dating scene is tough. How tough? Check out Holy Shidduch, a website devoted entirely to stories of shidduch-dates-from-hell. Some samplers:

-- I was dating a guy for four weeks and each erev Shabbat he would send me a beautiful bouquet of flowers with a wonderful card. Last Friday, I was excited once more to receive a bouquet that was almost three time bigger than the rest. Unfortunately, the card did not have my name on it, but some other girl.

-- He invited me to his house for dinner which he was making. A bit unorthodox for a Shidduch, but I agreed. The second date he convinced me to watch a baseball game with him, again at his house. This went on for a few more dates until I insisted we actually go out. That is when he told me he was on house arrest.

-- I went out this with this guy a few times, when he asked me if on our next date we wanted to meet his parents. I was hesitant, but said fine. He picked me up and said we would meet them at their work and we could take a tour. THEY OWN A SLAUGHTER HOUSE!

-- This guy just broke up with me by having his mother call me to tell me. Are you kidding me!

More - way more - here. And I don't care whether they're true or not... enjoy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why do Israelis love unisex names?

The trend of Israelis giving their children cross-gender/unisex names has been going on now for some years. I was still interested, however, to see that the list of the most popular baby names for 2008 was divided into girls' names, boys' names and unisex names; and that the most popular name of all, Noam, was given to some 2,000 boys and 500 girls.

I asked Dr Miri Rozmarin of Tel Aviv University's Gender Studies Programme and Philosophy Dept about the meaning of the trend.

She pointed out that almost every one of the most popular cross-gender names - Noam, Amit, Ariel, Daniel and Adi - moved from being a boys' name to being a boys' and a girls' name. (Adi was first a girl's name.)

"Israel is a society where there are very prominent differences between the genders and where manliness is idealised. If you notice, this list is all of boys' names which turned into girls' names, and not the other way round. Girls taking on a boy's name is part of the attempt of girls to gain equality. It's a very patriarchal society, and they are almost masquerading as boys through the name."

Girls' names which became boys' names - such as Adi, Neta and Ma'ayan - are gramatically masculine, she says.

"It might have been an initial way for parents to take something from the men to the women. Now the boys are taking them back. But mostly the name exchanges go in one direction - from boys to girls. The other direction is very peripheral."

Interestingly, she does not see the trend for unisex names as radical or particularly subversive - she notes that although the gender might be changing, these parents are sticking to classic or, in Israeli terms, relatively 'established' names.

She also said that in secular society, there is now a trend for parents to give their children very traditional names such as Ariel, David or Yonah - names which have been almost unheard of in recent years.

"This is an attempt to re-establish the difference between men and women's names.... In the previous generation they wouldn't call a baby after its grandfather."

Actually, Yonah is both a man's name and a girls' name. I also think that the return to really classic names might say something about increasing self-confidence in Israeli society - there is less of a need to run away from 'shtetl' or biblical names, less of a need to make everything 'new' and 'different'.

The World's Strictest Parents: The fightback

Reader Sharon Kanon responds to my criticisms of the couple from World's Strictest Parents: Israel:

As a journalist who wrote about the story behind the shooting of the BBC show in Israel, I was dismayed to read Miriam Shaviv's totally negative piece.

True, her perception was based on an hour BBCTV presentation. She did not have access to the 79 additional hours of on-camera time, where the real relationships were formed and the meaningful message of Jewish values absorbed by the teens. They got it: self-respect, and respect for others; tzadaka; spirituality; responsibility (working on the kibbutz)and learning about the life of a Beduoin shepherd; family values. They loved the frank, open discussions with their hosts and their hosts children. Shabbat, off-camera, with its focus on family bonding time, as well as delicious food, was a welcome relief. They loved it, and the jam session at Havdala time.

You really can't pass judgment unless you see the scenes that were cut -- some were explosive -- the connective tissue of real life during the week -- the building of confidence and trust, and lasting friendship.

Does it seem that Tzippi is cast as the "bad guy"? Seems so, especially if you don't get to see the other 79 hours.

Tzippi and David Shaked are not narrow-minded Orthodox extremists. (Did the cameraman tell them to look stern for the photo?)....

The Shakeds obviously did more than the grossly edited BBC TV show aired. The kids got the message of the role of Jewish values in shaping human experiences. And, thanks to their hosts, they also learned anger control, dramatically changing their relations with their own families.

The problem is that when you agree to participate in a show like this, you know ahead of time that the "whole story" will not - cannot - be shown, not when you are reducing 80 hours of footage down to one. And it is clear, from the outset, that the final cut may not represent the story as the subjects wished to present it.

Anyone who expects anything else is incredibly naive. Since - according to Ms Kanon's report - Mrs Sha-ked has a BA in journalism, the family must have known that ultimately their portrayal was not under their full control, and that this was a risk they were willing to take.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Israel lobby? So what if there is one?

Last night's Dispatches, about the so-called Israel lobby, was repulsive on several different levels, not least because it heavily promoted the antisemitic stereotype of Jews with money manipulating the political system.

The main problem for me, however, was that it turned perfectly normal political activity into something sinister.

Lobbying is part and parcel of a healthy political system. There are thousands of different groups pushing for some agenda, or interest, or another. Israel supporters asking politicians to understand Israel's motivations better are no different to any other group pressing for their pet cause.

Any claims of 'Zionists' gaining power through contributions to political parties make no sense whatsoever unless compariative figures are given for pro-Arab contributions - and contributions by other lobby groups (such as unions). Any talk of Zionist 'influence' makes no sense without a proper discussion of the influence of pro-Palestinian groups etc - a far more important group in electoral terms.

When the BBC and Guardian complained about the unbearable pressure put upon them by Israel supporters, did Dispatches ask what kind of pressure was put upon them by Palestinian supporters? Different media organisations routinely complain that the reason reporting on the Middle East is so difficult is that they are attacked equally - by both sides.

In short, where was the context?

The sad truth is that Israel's supporters - a motley collection of groups and individuals with different purposes, politics and operations, not by any means one coordinated effort, as Dispatches would have you believe - have very little power or influence in this political system, and even less in the media. I wish they had more.

For effective deconstructions of the programme, check out Jonathan Hoffman on CiFwatch; Melanie Phillips; Robin Shepherd; and Tom Gross.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Goldstone critique, abridged

Can't be bothered to read Moshe Halbertal's outstanding, but seven-page-long piece on Goldstone? This shortish editorial in the Washington Post makes the main points....

World's strictest parents: Israel episode

I know I'm a few days late with this, but just before everyone starts talking about Dispatches, here are a few thoughts on The World's Strictest Parents: Israel, which I caught last week on BBC3.

Essentially, I disliked the Sha-ked (what's with the pretentious spelling?) parents, who were hosting rebellious British teens Gemma and Jack in their Nof Ayalon home.

The Sha-keds are religious, and live in a gated community near Modi'in, in which there are pretty strict communal norms, for example in the area of modest dress. Now, I have no problem with them asking the teenagers to dress appropriately while they are in their house - that's partially what they are there for. But what annoyed - even frightened - me was the Sha-keds' repeated insistance that Gemma, in particular, has to dress more modestly because that is what others expect. At one point, Mrs Sha-ked even told her that while she is in the Sha-ked household the family will be "watched closely" - so she better behave. Later, when Gemma sunbathed outside, Mrs Sha-ked complained to her husband that she was being publicly humiliated.

I found this unrelenting emphasis on conforming for conformity's sake highly suffocating - and I was watching from the safe distance of my London home. What is worse, it had nothing to teach the teenagers. Here was the perfect opportunity for the Sha-keds to explain to Gemma and Jack something about self-respect, about modesty. And all they got was: "But what will the neighbours say?"

Presumably, the Sha-keds conform to the communal norms because they believe in them. But the Sha-keds seemed incapable of explaining this (at least the way the programme was cut).

And while I give them full credit for their calm manner (they also seemed to have very aidel children - shame they got almost no screen time), I was not impressed by the way Mrs Sha-ked tried to kick Gemma out when the argument didn't go her way. Again, it seemed to be about conformity - not about teaching the kids a better way to live. They could have done so much better.

Young Ms Arafat

Arafat daughter.jpg

This, in case you were wondering, is a rare picture of Yassir Arafat's daughter Zahwa, with her mother Suha. The two have, for the past two years, been living in Malta, since being expelled from Tunisia.

Zahwa is now 14. According to Suha, who spoke last week to a Saudi Arabian paper (where this picture was originally published - it was republished in Yediot), "Zahwa is very similar to Abu Amar [Arafat]: stubborn, sensitive, loves music and in particular efficient, curious and interested in detail. Arafat required that she learn Arabic. She also follows the news the whole time. During the Gaza war she collected donations and sent them to the Palestinian children."

Asked when she will return to the PA, Suha adds, "There is no moment when I am not dreaming of returning to Palestine. First Zahwa will finish her high school studies, then she will go like me to university, and then she will think how she will enlist to serve our nation in Palestine. She very much wants to return home, but is afraid of the war in the territories."

No time soon, then.

Best critique of Goldstone?

Moshe Halbertal, a very highly regarded professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University who helped draft the IDF's code of ethics, has produced one of the finest critiques of the Goldstone Report I've seen so far.

He argues that Goldstone criticises a lot, but has no better suggestions how Israel should have conducted a war against terrorists who deliberately fight from civilian areas, wearing civilian clothes, and using civilians as human shields. Essentially, he accuses Goldstone of terrible intellectual laziness, of failing to engage on either a theoretical or practical level with the central question of how 'assymetical war' should be fought (as opposed to how it shouldn't).

For example:

The IDF code states that soldiers have to do their utmost to avoid
the harming of civilians. This principle states that it is not enough
not to intend to kill civilians while attacking legitimate targets. A
deliberate effort has to be made not to harm them. If such an active,
positive effort to avoid civilian harm is not taken, in what serious
way can the claim be made that the foreseeable death was unintended?
After all, the death occurred, and could have been expected to occur.
So the proper ammunition has to be chosen to minimize innocent deaths;
and, if another opportunity is expected to arise for eliminating the
target, the operation must be aborted or delayed. Civilians have to be
warned ahead of time to move from the area of operation if this is
possible, and units have to be well aware that they must operate with
caution, even after warning has been given, since not all civilians are
quick to move. A leaflet dropped from the sky warning of an attack does
not matter to the people--the sick, the old, the poor--who are not
immediately mobile.

In line with such principles, the Israeli Air Force developed the
following tactic. Since Hamas hides its headquarters and ammunition
storage facilities inside civilian residential areas, the Israeli army
calls the residents’ telephones or cell phones, asking them to move
immediately out of the house because an attack is imminent. But Hamas,
in reaction to such calls, brings the innocent residents up to the
roof, so as to protect the target from an attack, knowing that, as a
rule, the Israeli army films the target with an unmanned drone and will
avoid attacking the civilians on the roof. In response to this tactic,
Israel developed a missile that hits the roof without causing any
actual harm in order to show the seriousness of its intention. The
procedure, called “roof-knocking,” causes the civilians to move away
before the deadly attack.

It is rather a strange point in the Goldstone Report that this
practice, which goes a long way to protect civilians, is actually
criticized. Concerning such a practice, the report states that, “if
this was meant as a warning shot, it has to be deemed reckless in the
extreme.” The truth is that this is an admirable and costly effort to
avoid civilian collateral harm. As is true with many of its criticisms,
the report does not state what the alternative should be. What should
Israel do in such a case? Attack the house without calling on its
residents to move, or attack it while they are gathered on the roof? Or
maybe avoid attacks altogether, allowing the enemy to take effective
shelter among civilians?

Prof Halbertal - who does not, incidentally, reject all of Goldstone's criticisms - concludes that if the rate of civilian casualties in Gaza is compared to the rate of civilian casualties in other conflicts involving the West, Israel actually did brilliantly well. Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

'Was that my father standing behind the barbed wire?'

This is a powerful piece.

Are Holocaust survivors really at higher risk for cancer?

An interesting study claims to show that Holocaust survivors are at higher risk for all cancers:

Jewish survivors of World War II who were potentially exposed to the Holocaust are at a higher risk for cancer occurrence, according to a new study published online October 26 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Previous studies, in non-Jewish populations, investigating the relationship of cancer incidence rates to physical and psychological stress, such as famine and mental stress, have reached inclusive results.

Lital Keinan-Boker, M.D., Ph.D., MPH, of the School of Public Health, Faculty of Welfare and Health Sciences, at the University of Haifa in Israel, and colleagues compared the cancer rates in a cohort of over 300,000 Israeli Jews who were born in Europe and immigrated to Israel before or during World War II (the non-exposed group) with cancer rates in a cohort of European-born Israeli Jews who immigrated from Europe after World War II and up to 1989 (the exposed group, those potentially exposed to the Holocaust). Exposure was based on immigration dates because no individual data were available on actual Holocaust exposure.

Likely exposure, compared with non-exposure, was associated with statistically significantly increased risk for overall cancer risk (all cancers combined) for all birth cohorts, and for both sexes. The strongest associations were with breast and colorectal cancer. Earlier exposure, i.e., at a younger age, seemed to be particularly associated with increased risk of all-site cancer...

Essentially what the study seems to be claiming is that European Jews who lived through the Second World War are at higher risk than European Jews who were in Israel at the time.

This makes me a little nervous because we seem to be talking about a very wide group of people here: by 'Holocaust survivor', do they mean people who survived the death camps? Partisans in the forest? Or Jewish children living in disguise with non-Jewish families? In this study, they are all lumped together, though their experiences may have been very different.

Furthermore, many of the people in this study - in both groups - have lived through other very traumatic events: the war of 1948, the period of austerity during which food was rationed and diet affected, 1967 and the months leading up to the war, when many Israelis feared the actual destruction of their country, 1973, and the second intifadah. While none compare to the Holocaust, surely they cannot be discounted as factors affecting this kind of study, which deals with the effects of "physical and psychological stress".

Then there are the many millions of non-Jewish Europeans who lived through the Second World War, most of whom suffered severe mental stress, food deprivation etc as well (and some of whom went through the camps as well). Are the cancer statistics for the Jews who lived through the Second World War any different to the non-Jews? This highlights the problem of labelling these statistics "Holocaust-related" rather than "WWII related" - ie not knowing exactly who is included in the group "potentially exposed to the Holocaust".

In short, more investigation is needed.

British Jewry's self-inflicted wound

British Jewry's self-inflicted wound: My piece on the JFS court case, in the Forward.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Obama is a bully

It was humiliating. Even after his plane took off for Washington, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu was still not assured the customary meeting with the American president. The White House — which knew about the visit for weeks — delayed confirming the meeting until the last possible minute. Even then, they brought him to the meeting in a simple van, not a limo, and denied him the usual press briefing and official photographers.

Why was Mr Obama making Mr Netanyahu sweat? American officials said it was a tactic meant to pressure Mr Netanyahu into expressing "a more robust and public commitment to the peace process". Others believe it was a calculated expression of Mr Obama’s displeasure at Mr Netanyahu’s policies.

Perhaps. But there is another, more psychological explanation. Mr Obama is a bully, who responds aggressively to weakness.

There was simply no call for such behaviour. Even if Mr Obama dislikes Mr Netanyahu personally, and thinks he has not gone far enough to freeze settlements, Israel is an ally, with whom he is supposed to be working closely to advance the peace process. Mr Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which he accepted the two-state solution, was the only "robust and public commitment to the peace process" to emerge from the Middle East following Mr Obama’s own Cairo speech. By agreeing to even a partial settlement freeze, Mr Netanyahu became the only regional leader to offer any concessions whatsoever to help Mr Obama kick-start negotiations.

Alone of all the Middle East leaders, he has shown that he is "on side". Surely this earns him some respect — even grudging? And a modicum of civility?

Instead, he is publicly snubbed and badgered into making meaningless gestures.

This is not the first time Mr Obama has behaved this way. Gordon Brown may be unpopular at home, but Britain is the key ally supporting American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet who in this country can forget the ludicrous farce two months ago at the UN, when Mr Brown had to ask five times for a meeting with Mr Obama, and ended up spending 15 minutes with him in a kitchen?

That same week, Mr Obama did find time for official meetings — with Mr Putin and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, both rivals of the US.

Meanwhile, how does Mr Obama treat Mr Ahmadinejad? The Iranian president steals an election; rejects Mr Obama’s insanely forgiving offer for the West to enrich Iran’s uranium; smuggles weapons to Hizbollah; puts three American backpackers on trial for espionage; and explicitely rebuffs Mr Obama’s gestures of friendship. Just this week, he declared he is still waiting for "real change" from Mr Obama.

And yet, the US president — to the apparent disgust even of the French — reiterates again and again his desire for friendly relations, actively allowing the Iranians to play for time on the nuclear issue. The Americans met the Iranians last month without preconditions; they were not made to sweat.

So what puts Mr Netanyahu and Mr Brown on one side, and Ahmadinejad, Mr Putin and Mr Hu on the other?

Bad manners, for starters. Mr Obama appears to take his friends for granted.

But Mr Netanyahu and Mr Brown exacerbate the problem, by appearing too deferential and desperate. Both practically pleaded for meetings; they crave Mr Obama’s approval and attention, whether on a personal level (Mr Brown) or a national one (Mr Netanyahu, who knows his relationship with Washington is crucial for Israeli interests). During Mr Netanyahu’s first meeting with Mr Obama this summer, Mr Netanyahu, normally highly articulate, appeared so nervous he could barely string a sentence together.

The Israeli and British premiers exude weakness. Mr Obama responds by making them squirm.

The dictators are confrontational with Mr Obama, or else coolly indifferent. He treats them with respect.

Really, no better than a playground bully.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Sara Netanyahu's job

The Israeli papers have all been full of positive stories about the improvement in Sarah Netanyahu's dress sense over the past year. (Even Ha'aretz, normally above this kind of thing, succumbed - albeit with a very snooty piece concluding she dresses "okay").

In one such piece in Yediot this weekend, I learned something new (to me) about Mrs Netanyahu. Last time I checked, she was an air hostess - that is how she met Bibi, as I recall. During Bibi's first term as PM, she did voluntary work, interfered a lot in politics, and generally made herself unpopular.

Apparently she is now a child psychologist, specialising in the Charedi sector, and working for the Jerusalem Municipality - insisting on holding down the day job despite her return to the prime ministerial residence, which cannot be easy (and I don't think is that common for prime ministerial spouses).

I have a new respect for her.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

British kids' knowledge of the Holocaust - the bright side

Everyone seems surprised - and even indignant - at a new survey about British children's knowledge of the Second World War.

The survey of 2,000 children was published ahead of Remembrance Day on November 11...

Given a choice of answers, 77 percent of the children aged 9-15 recognised Hitler as leader of the Nazi party, but 13.5 percent thought he invented gravity in 1650 and seven percent thought he coached Germany's football team.

Likewise, 61 percent knew who Goebbels was but 21 percent thought he was a "well-known Jew who wrote a diary in the attic" -- and 14 percent thought he was Britain's defence secretary at the start of the World War II.

While 85 percent knew what the Holocaust was, six percent thought it was the celebration at the end of the war. Auschwitz was correctly identified by 70 percent -- but 15 percent thought it was a WWII based theme park...

"Some of the answers to this poll have shocked us," said Major Jim Panton, chief executive of charity Erskine.

Really? First of all, this is hardly new. Back in 2004, a poll showed that 45 per cent of British adults have never even heard of Auschwitz, and similar polls have followed only too often.

Second, poor knowledge is really only to be expected. It has been 65 years, awareness is simply not going to be what it was 50, 40 or even 20 years ago. We're living in an age when history is no longer an integral part of school curricula. Jews happen to be a people with a very strong tradition of 'remembering' (albeit selectively); others aren't, though naturally this is something we would prefer them to remember.

Third of all, however, the results of this particular poll are not even that bad (particularly compare to the adults' survey I cited above). 77 per cent of kids knew who Hitler was; 61 per cent knew who Goebbels was; 85 per cent knew what the Holocaust was.

In a country where one in three schoolchildren thinks Churchill flew to the moon, almost every child correctly identifying the Holocaust is actually rather impressive.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Barack Obama's Jewish half-brother

We've all heard about Michelle Obama's Jewish cousin, Rabbi Caspers Funnye.

Now it turns out the Jewish people have an even closer link to the First Couple. Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo is Barack Obama's halachically Jewish half-brother, son of Barack Obama Sr. and his third wife, a Jewish kindergarten teacher named Ruth Nidesand. (There was also another son, David, who was killed in a motorbike accident.) He has written a "loosely autobiographical" novel about his father's abuse of his mother:

Ndesandjo said his memories of his father were so bitter that he stopped using the name Obama and adopted the last name of his stepfather, a man Ruth Nidesand married after divorcing Barack Obama Sr. But then, Mark Ndesandjo said, he watched the televised scenes of joy in Chicago's Grant Park the night a man with that hated last name was elected president of the United States.

"There was this remarkable movement from fear towards hope," Ndesandjo said. "I was so proud of my brother Barack."

The election "peeled away some of that hardness," he said. "I became proud of being an Obama." He added Obama back to his name and found the drive to complete the book.

...which probably would not have sold quite as many copies had it not had the name "Obama" on its front cover. Call me cynical, but....

Either way, the Obamas are slowly inching towards a minyan. The first black president, with both Muslim and Jewish first-degree relatives - that really is something.

Bamboo charcoal challah

A few weeks ago I blogged about a Morrocan-style Challah with whole eggs baked into the top.

Here's another even more exotic - perhaps not very traditional (unless you're Chinese?), but intriguing nonetheless.

Behold, the Bamboo Charcoal Challah, made with ground, jet-black charcoal.

How intermarriage stats are misleading... and it's not good news

A frightening op-ed in The Forward explains that the intermarriage stats, bad as they already sound, might actually disguise the extent of the intermarriage problem:

Imagine there are only four Jews in America, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Let’s say that Bob and Carol intermarry and Ted and Alice in-marry. Since two of the four Jews intermarried, the “individual” intermarriage rate is 50%. But how many couples were created? Bob and Carol both married non-Jews, creating two households. But Ted and Alice married each other, because an in-marriage requires two Jews,
which creates just one household. The result is three households total, with two intermarried and one in-married, or an intermarried couples proportion of two-thirds.

When intermarriage is explained as “almost half the Jews are intermarrying” — in other words, just offering the individual rate for what’s been happening in the United States for the past quarter-century — the word “half,” as huge as that may seem, actually serves to mask the results. The reality on the ground is that nearly double the number of intermarried households has been created compared to in-married households.

Even if the official 'intermarriage rate' is below 50 per cent, then, you might have a situation where the majority of children being born to Jewish parents are being born into intermarried households.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Declining shul etiquette

Following on from my colleague Simon Rocker's complaint about his congregation clapping after the barmitzvah boy finished leining, blogger 'Daddy Day' has added an entire list of complaints about the decline in etiquette in his own shul, Borehamwood and Elstree (by coincidence, my shul as well):

Perhaps the worst is the appearance of mobile phones in synagogue. Not content to merely be without their precious mobiles / blackberries / iphones for 2-3 hours of shul, people - 99.9% of time guests to simchas - keep them on, so that they ring during the service. On one occasion in our own shul, the grandfather of the Bar Mitzvah boy even took his phone out to capture his grandson's special moment on camera!

The problem is so horrendous in Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue that guests are now asked to deposit their phones into plastic pouches, and then given a raffle ticket to be able collect their phone once they leave the shul's premises! We've been known to collect more than 50 phones on particularly bad weeks!!

Equally appalling was the response of another shul-goer on Yom Kippur, who felt there was absolutely nothing wrong with his child playing on his games console in shul, during the service, and who responded by saying "well, at least he's not making any noise"! Not making any noise?!?!?! Hello!! This is a synagogue...we are here to pray, thank G-d, celebrate being Jewish (and have a bit of a natter with our friends)!

This, of course, reminds me of a true story told to me by the former president of a congregation that shall remain unnamed. He was standing at the entrance to his shul, asking guests as they came in whether they had a mobile phone in order to prevent precisely the kind of scenario described above. "No," answered one worried lady. "I didn't know I needed one."

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

America kills hundreds of civilians - where's Judge Goldstone?

An assessment of President Obama's first year in office by Lexington, the Economist's American-affairs column, includes the following revelation:

In his inauguration speech, he declared: “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Yet roughly once a week since that day, he has ordered the assassination of suspected terrorists. These assassinations, carried out with Hellfire missiles fired from hovering drones, are often messy. According to the New America Foundation, a think-tank, it took 15 attempts to kill Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader in Pakistan who was finally blown to scraps in August. Hundreds of people, some of them children have died in these drone attacks. Mr Obama would presumably include “not killing children” among his ideals. Sometimes, however, he sets aside this ideal in the interests of safety.

But who, other than Lexington, has noticed? Or cares?

Let's imagine, for a moment, that Israel was ordering the targeted assassination - for that's what we're talking about - of its terrorist enemies, once a week (!), killing "hundreds of people, some of them children", in the process. Can you imagine the uproar? The media coverage? The 'experts' opining about Israel's lack of morals?

It has happened many times.

Now, don't get me wrong here. While every civilian death is a tragedy, and should be avoided where possible, I am not inherently against targeted assassinations, which are sometimes the only way to deal with very dangerous men. Civilians are sometimes killed in the process - war is "messy". (In the Israeli case, in particular, most of the men targeted have been directly responsible for attacks on Israeli civilians, by the way, which is not necessarily the case for the American targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And Israel has often given up good opportunities to assassinate terrorist leaders because of the potential civilian toll).

I hold many things against Mr Obama, this isn't one of them.

But it is funny how the world is able to understand or ignore the fact that sometimes American safety must result in civilian casualties. When Israel makes the same calculation, it is turned into a monster.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Are MPs the new Jews?

Poor David Wilshire - a Tory MP who was forced to resign after it emerged that he paid £100,000 in expenses to a company he owned with his girlfriend - is feeling persecuted.

How persecuted? Like the Jewish victims of the Nazis, he claims.

In a letter to his constituents (naturally sent to them at the taxpayers' expense, on Commons notepaper), he wrote:

“The witch hunt against MPs in general will undermine democracy.
It will weaken parliament - handing yet more power to governments. Branding
a whole group of people as undesirables led to Hitler's gas chambers.”

Dear Mr Wilshire: the Jews were persecuted and killed for their ethnicity and religion, not because of anything they actually did. MPs are being held to account for essentially stealing.

Start taking responsibility for your own actions. Please learn the difference.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My father, Osama bin Laden

Get your hankies ready. Osama bin Laden's son Omar - the one who married a publicity-hungry British grandmother 24 years his senior in 2007 - is busy hawking his autobiography.

In an excerpt run by Vanity Fair, we learn that poor Osama had an unhappy childhood!

Despite the fact that his stepfather was one of the finest men in Saudi Arabia, my father’s life did not evolve as he wished. Like most children of divorced parents, he felt a loss, for he was no longer as intimately involved with his father’s family. Although my father was never one to complain, it is believed that he keenly felt his lack of status, genuinely suffering from his father’s lack of personal love and

That's 9/11 explained then.

We are also treated to the details of Osama's "musklike scent", mathematical genius, love of football, and worst of all, the fact that

when I was very small, there were times that he and my mother secluded themselves in their bedroom, not to be seen by the family for several days, so I know that my father enjoyed my mother’s company.


But then there's this:

You might have guessed by now that my father was not an affectionate man. He never cuddled with me or my brothers. I tried to force him to show affection, and was told that I made a pest of myself. When he was home, I remained near, pulling attention-gaining pranks as frequently as I dared. Nothing sparked his fatherly warmth. In fact, my annoying behavior encouraged him to start carrying his signature cane. As time passed, he began caning me and my brothers for the slightest infraction.

Oh dear. Just when I was beginning to warm to him....

Israel: a surprisingly happy face

Some interesting results in the 2009 Legatum Prosperity Index - "the world’s only global assessment of wealth and wellbeing".

Israel came 27th/104 - well below almost every Western European country, the US and Canada (Britain came 12th), but really quite good considering it was ranked 140th on the "Vision of humanity global peace index".

For a permanently stressed country, it scored an impressive 12th/104 in the "average life satisfaction" category. That's pretty happy, all things considered. The UK, incidentally, ranked 17.

For those who complain that Israel is somehow 'undemocratic', please note that it was ranked 17th. "Israelis have unrestricted political rights, and very high levels of civil liberties. Israel has a large number of democratic institutions and organisations, and there are many constraints on the power of the executive, ranking the country in the top 10 worldwide on this variable."

It has a strong economy (22nd overall): "inflation rates at, just over 0.5% per year, are the second lowest worldwide."

On the sad side, tolerance of ethnic minorities, and levels of trust between citizens are low; in addition, the report notes, "Israel is not very religious, with less than half of its citizens considering religion to be an important part of their daily lives, ranking the country 71st, internationally, and suggesting limited access to religious support networks." An interesting finding considering the large number of Orthodox Jewish citizens, as well as religious Muslims, in the country, indicating just how sharp the divide is between religious and secular.

But my favourite entry concerns the country's health. Israel evidently has an excellent health system:

Israel has the sixth highest proportion of doctors and nurses worldwide, and ranks in the top 20 with respect to the number of hospital beds per person. Health-adjusted life expectancy, at 71, is very high, and both the proportion of undernourished citizens and the infant mortality rate are low, at roughly 4% and four per 1,000 live births, respectively.... but just four-fifths are happy with their general level of health, ranking the country below the global average.

In other words, were the Jewish state not full of hypochondriacs who take particular delight in moaning about their health, it could have been ranked even higher....

Friday, October 23, 2009

BNP leader Nick Griffin, friend of Israel?

For supporters of Israel, it was the shot heard around the UK.

Last night, BNP leader Nick Griffin told the entire country on Question Time that the BNP was the only party to support Israel in its war "against the terrorists" during Operation Cast Lead.

This was possibly the worst public relations blow to Israel in this country since Operation Cast Lead itself - or possibly longer. Mr Griffin has just ensured that anyone who supports Israel, or its right to defend itself, will be immediately associated with the BNP. It will take 10 years to shake off.

Clearly, a man who at one point was a Holocaust denier (and has now - he claims - changed his mind, although he refused to explain why because he said he would be prosecuted in France), cannot also be a true friend of Israel.

So why did he do it? Asserting that he is a friend to Israel has two immediate benefits. First, it allows him to argue that he is not antisemitic or racist (the context in which he brought it up last night) - ie it provides him with a convenient cover for other vile views. Second, it makes him appear, to his supporters, anti-Muslim (which in today's UK political climate carried far more benefit than being antisemitic).

For those who have been following the story of Polish MEP Michal Kaminski, the Tory European ally who is accused of holding antisemitic views, Griffin's position last night had particular resonance. Kaminski, after all, is also a staunch public supporter of Israel and its right to defend itself. Last month, he even visited the Jewish state, and paid a visit to the Kotel.

Now, Israel itself has had nothing to do with Griffin (as far as I know), but it has embraced Kaminski. During his visit, he was welcomed by deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon. He was also guest of honour at the Conservative Friends of Israel lunch at the Tory party conference earlier this month.

How genuine are his views on Israel? Do they come from similar places to Griffin's? And does it really matter?

At the end of the day, the fact remains that this ally of Israel is seen as borderline antisemitic, if not more than that, by many Jews - and by many non-Jews as well, who find the Conservative alliance with him deeply troubling.

Israel's alliance with him is a deep problem for local Jews and indeed anyone fighting racism, because it provides him with just the cover he needs to claim that he cannot possibly be a racist.

Israel might argue that it needs to take its friends where it can find them - and over the years, out of a position of isolation, it has cooperated with and even endorsed many dubious, objectionable and even racist individuals and regimes, such as apartheid South Africa. But this is an extremely short-sighted view. As Griffin's poison embrace last night showed only too clearly, with friends like these, who needs enemies?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

'How I escaped from the Taliban'

David Rohde, the NYT reporter who spent seven months in Taliban captivity, tells the story of his remarkable escape, with his translator:

Tahir and I had decided that I would get up first that night and go to the bathroom without asking the guards for permission. If the guards remained asleep, Tahir would follow. Twenty feet away, on a shelf outside the kitchen, was a car towrope we planned to use to lower ourselves down a 15-foot wall ringing the compound. I had found it two weeks earlier and hidden it beneath a pile of old clothes.

Several minutes went by, but Tahir did not come out of the room. I stared intently at the entrance to the living room where we slept side by side with the guards — roughly 15 feet away and directly across the courtyard from the bathroom — and waited for Tahir to emerge. I had pulled his foot to rouse him before I crept out of the room. He had groaned and, I assumed, awakened.

As the minutes passed, I wasn’t sure what to do. I stood in the darkened bathroom and wondered if Tahir had changed his mind. If the guards caught us, they might kill me, but they would definitely kill Tahir. Part of me thought it was wrong even to have agreed to do this. After seven months in captivity, I wondered if we were capable of making rational decisions.

Read the whole thing here. The other four parts of his story are here, and are mesmerising from start to finish.

Ariel Sharon: the update

Almost four years after his stroke, Lynn Sherr visits Ariel Sharon, former prime minister of Israel, in hospital:

The old soldier’s eyes are open. Sometimes he’s propped up in front of a TV, where images of nature and animals, especially cows, flicker across the screen. His family tells him the day’s news, the goings on at his beloved farm. They read to him, alternating between two books at a time, just as he used to do for himself. They play classical music. When his white hair grows long, they trim it. And once in a while, when someone tells him to move a toe, he does.

It is a desperately sad image, and a bit petrifying, as well - because no one knows just how aware he is:

“There is a feeling of communication, of realization—I mean, the eyes are open and there is kind of, like, you feel that he feels your presence,” says Dr. Shlomo Segev, Sharon’s longtime personal physician and the head of the Institute of Medical Screening at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, just outside Tel Aviv, where Sharon has been hospitalized since May 2006. “So it’s not completely what we call a coma. Not a deep coma, for sure. But if you asked me to quantify that, I cannot.”

Although this does sound like wishful thinking. Especially when you read what else Dr Segev has to say about Mr Sharon:

“He looks about the same. You would recognize him... He is a very, very healthy fat man.”

If Ariel Sharon, who has had two strokes and is in a long-term coma (deep or otherwise), is his idea of of a "very, very healthy" man, I'd hate to hear his definition of a sick man.

Where's the love for Israel?

A few weeks ago, Forward columnist Jay Michaelson wrote a piece about how he was losing his love for Israel.

This week, four writers ponder the issues he raised - including me:

The end of the Diaspora’s love affair with Israel has been blamed on a variety of internal Jewish factors, including the increasing assimilation of Diaspora Jewry, its disillusionment with the reality of Israeli life, and a turning inward now that Israel is perceived to be strong and self-sufficient.
External factors, however, may be far more important.

In the past 20 years, the political climate in the West has changed radically, in ways that do not flatter Israel. Much of Europe is dominated by a post-colonial, almost pacifist, attitude, in which occupation, under any circumstances, is considered immoral, military action is almost always undesirable and the very idea of a modern nation-state is questioned. The range of “acceptable” political opinion in the United States is far broader, but these sorts of views are also gaining traction among many American liberals.

The reality is that throughout history, Diaspora Jews have, to some extent, always absorbed (and at times also led) the political reality in their countries. Zionism itself grew out of the nationalist movements in 19th-century Europe, combined with a Tolstoyan ennobling of land and physical labor.
 More than a century later, Jews still do not live in a vaccum.

Is it really realistic to expect that Diaspora Jewry remain completely detached from the political zeitgeist, seeing Israel solely through Jewish eyes? Can Jews who grew up in London or Washington really be expected to understand Israel the way it understands itself, when their basic political, cultural and even religious frames of reference differ so radically?

The drift between the two communities is to an extent inevitable, at least as long as current Western attitudes toward warfare prevail — or as long as Israel remains embroiled in conflict. 
So can a complete breakdown of the relationship be prevented? So far, Israel’s approach has been to try to better explain the realities it faces to the Diaspora, mainly by bringing young Diaspora Jews to spend time in the Jewish state. But perhaps Israelis need to take a step back, and first try to improve their own understanding of the realities that prevail in the Diaspora.

Read the rest of the debate here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Madoff's new friend

According to AP, one of Bernie Madoff's closest friends in prison is none other than Jonathan Pollard (the others are apparently "a reputed Colombo crime family boss"; and Madoff's cellmate, a convicted drug offender).

He presumably isn't on such intimate terms with Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who masterminded the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and who is also in the same facility.

But here's an idea. Stick them all in a room together, and I guarantee it will be the most-watched edition, ever, of Celebrity Big Brother....

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A reporter's seven months in Taliban captivity

If you read one thing today, make it this account of a New York Times reporter's seven months being held captive by the Taliban. It comes in three parts; two more parts are to follow tomorrow and on Friday.

Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.

Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.

I had written about the ties between Pakistan’s intelligence services and the Taliban while covering the region for The New York Times. I knew Pakistan turned a blind eye to many of their activities. But I was astonished by what I encountered firsthand: a Taliban mini-state that flourished openly and with impunity.

The Taliban government that had supposedly been eliminated by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was alive and thriving.

All along the main roads in North and South Waziristan, Pakistani government outposts had been abandoned, replaced by Taliban checkpoints where young militants detained anyone lacking a Kalashnikov rifle and the right Taliban password. We heard explosions echo across North Waziristan as my guards and other Taliban fighters learned how to make roadside bombs that killed American and NATO troops.

And I found the tribal areas — widely perceived as impoverished and isolated — to have superior roads, electricity and infrastructure compared with what exists in much of Afghanistan.

Not only do the Taliban have international ambitions - it emerges from David Rohde's account - they also seemed surprisingly focused on Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians.

Read the whole thing here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Judge Goldstone's dangerous emphasis on international courts

Judge Richard Goldstone attempts to explain today, in The Jerusalem Post, why he agreed to head the UN investigation into Operation Cast Lead.

He says that he felt obligated to accept the mission "as a Jew", which comes across as more than a little arrogant - the (possibly unintended) implication is that he's the only good Jew out there, unlike the Israelis and their Jewish supporters across the world, who opposed his investigation from the start.

He says that "as a condition of my participation I insisted upon and received an evenhanded mandate to investigate all sides and that is what we sought to do." Israel, however, sabotaged his attempts to fulfil his mission because it refused to cooperate.

With hindsight, it is a good question whether Israel made a mistake here; it argued that the report was always going to be biased and unfair, but could it have softened the blow and improved its position in the aftermath? Still, this does not excuse Judge Goldstone for relying so heavily on Hamas testimony and apparantly accepting it at face value.

The most interesting part of his piece, however, are the following (initially stale-sounding) paragraphs:

Over the past 20 years, I have investigated serious violations of international law in my own country, South Africa, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda and the alleged fraud and theft by governments and political leaders in a number of countries in connection with the United Nations Iraq Oil for Food program. In all of these, allegations reached the highest political echelons. In every instance, I spoke out strongly in favor of full investigations and, where appropriate, criminal prosecutions. I have spoken out over the years on behalf of the International Bar Association against human rights violations in many countries, including Sri Lanka, China, Russia, Iran, Zimbabwe and Pakistan...

Israel and its courts have always recognized that they are bound by norms of international law that it has formally ratified or that have become binding as customary international law upon all nations. The fact that the United Nations and too many members of the international community have unfairly singled out Israel for condemnation and failed to investigate horrible human rights violations in other countries cannot make Israel immune from the very standards it has accepted as binding upon it.

Israel, by the way, has argued that these laws, drawn up decades ago, are utterly out of date when it comes to modern warfare, which is often carried out in urban areas, and has asked to have them re-drafted (this is also relevant to other armies fighting at the moment, eg America and Britain in Afghanistan and Iraq).

In any case, Judge Goldstone's almost blind belief in the role of international courts backs up one of the most incisive commentaries I've read, by South African historian and journalist RW Johnson, in the Sunday Times this week:

Goldstone is keen to play a judicial or prosecutorial role on a world stage. Thus he has argued that the Darfur crisis should go before an international court, as should Robert Mugabe for crimes against humanity. He also argued that Saddam Hussein should have been handed to an international court since Iraqi courts weren’t good enough and even that the 9/11 masterminds should be sent before an international court because US courts would be perceived as biased. No doubt the lawyer who judges Osama Bin Laden will become a world celebrity.

Similarly, he has recommended any cases of Israeli crimes against humanity in Gaza go before an international court.

Throughout his career, Goldstone has been accused of cutting corners because of ambition, and critics say his Gaza commission has set a new low. That a Jewish judge, barred from entering Israel for accepting a commission biased against the state, should write a report based largely on interviews with Hamas which panders to anti-Zionist (even anti-Semitic) opinion seems unbeatable.

With this longstanding agenda of sending local matters to international courts, did Israel ever stand a chance?

How the Electric Company nearly ruined, then saved, an Israeli wedding

I recently came across a cute website, Only In Israel, about - naturally - things that could only happen in Israel.

It included this heart-warming story about a mother-of-a-bride who was told there would be an electricity black-out in her neighbourhood on the day of her wedding.

My husband David called me up a week before my daughter Ruchama's wedding to Moshe Stein and said : “We have a wrinkle…”

The electric company had posted a notice on our apartment building announcing that there was going to be a power outage in our neighborhood to allow for a major repair.

The problem was that it fell out exactly on the day of the wedding... I called the electric company to ask (read: beg) them to postpone the repair work, since we really, really needed the use of the apt. to prepare for the wedding (you know – makeup, hair, etc.).

I was immediately transferred to a manager named Zion. He understood the problem and explained that they absolutely couldn’t reschedule the power outage but he would see what he could do.

Two days later we spoke again and he said that he had sent some people out to look at the site and that they were having trouble isolating our building from the rest of the area. But – not to worry- if he couldn’t resolve the problem – we could have a room in the electric company's building to use as we wish! I was flabbergasted – I asked him if he’d ever see a bride leave from the Electric Company. He said: “actually, it’s happened before”.

The next day he called and in a happy voice conveyed his best wishes for the upcoming wedding. He asked me to tell the bride Mazel Tov [congratulations] and that she would have electricity because he personally went to look at the location and he found a solution.

So we get up bright and early on Sunday, and lo and behold, there is a generator parked right outside of our building. That’s right – our building was hooked up to electricity all day from our own private generator while the rest of the neighborhood had a blackout!

Unusually, the story included a name and photos, so it's not an urban myth.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Is Khamenei really dead?

Iran analyst Meir Javedanfar seems sceptical about the news that Ayatollah Khamenei may be dead (or in a coma), which originated - he said - with Michael Ledeen:

Should Mr Ledeen's story turn out to be true, the CIA should seriously consider giving him a senior post. Anyone who has access to sources in Iran who know Khamenei's exact whereabouts and the timing of his movement is to be taken very seriously. They should also ask Mr Ledeen if his sources have any friends/relatives who work near or at a giant construction site in Qom, which glows at night. And while they are at it, if they manage to find Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's secret Bar Mitzvah pictures at The Western Wall, then they would make a lot of people at The Daily Telegraph very happy.

Meanwhile, Khamenei can join Kim Jong Il and Fidel Castro in the select club of world leaders whom no one is ever quite sure whether they are alive or dead.

Auschwitz joins facebook

I have just received a message from a PR asking whether we are planning to do "an article on Auschwitz's new facebook page".

I can already imagine the news feed:

Miriam Shaviv is friends with Auschwitz

Miriam Shaviv is a fan of Auschwitz

Miriam Shaviv has poked Auschwitz

Auschwitz has poked Miriam Shaviv

Really, I could do without it.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama, turn the peace prize down

The Telegraph has it right:

What this does is accelerate the elevation of President Obama to a comedy confection, which he does not deserve, and gives his critics yet another bat to whack him with. Shame on the Norwegians. He should turn it down, even if he does look great in white tie and tails.

Seriously, if he had an iota of humility (which I'm not sure he does), he would turn it down. It would be the first really brave thing he's done (as opposed to said) in quite a while. And frankly, the credit he would earn from turning it down would be far, far greater than from accepting it.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Will the UN teach the Holocaust to Gaza's children?

An interesting conflict is shaping up in Gaza between Hamas and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

A few months after originally floating the idea - and having his own staff shoot it down - John Ging, UNRWA director of operations, told The Independent that he was "confident and determined" that the Holocaust would be featured in a new curriculum being drafter for the UNWRA schools. The Agency runs about 200 of the 600 local schools.

What exactly does "Holocaust education" mean in this context? Certainly nothing resembling what we are familiar with from Jewish, Israeli or Western schools; I daresay there will be no trips to Auschwitz. In a population which has been systematically educated to deny the Holocaust, it will be taught carefully (and, I am guessing, in no more than a lesson or two), as part of a string of other massacres and inustices such as (the distinctly different issue of) apartheid:

Mr Ging said the new curriculum would also include "tangible examples"
of other "blights and stains in human history". He added: "We want to
succeed with the active support of the civilian population who want
their children to be part of the civilised world and who have no
interest in challenging globally accepted facts; no more than ... they
start challenging whether the earth goes round the sun, or Hiroshima or
Nagasaki, or the killing fields of Cambodia, or the ethnic cleansing of
the Balkans, or the genocide in Rwanda, or apartheid in South Africa;
or, for that matter, the Nakba."

As one commentator to the Jerusalem Post story on the interview says, when it gets to the section on the Holocaust, it might be hard to stop the students applauding.

But Mr Ging cannot be criticised for not going far enough; this is a small step for UNRWA, a giant leap for the population of Gaza, and he has to operate realistically. I give him full credit for trying to broaden the Gazan horizons, although - let's be clear - he is no friend of Israel, wholly accepting the Nakba narrative and advancing Palestinian claims against Israel on the world stage.

The problem is, it is still unlikely that even this modest proposal will ever come to fruition in Gaza.

UNRWA is widely perceived as a Palestinian/Hamas tool - more than 95 per cent of its staff are Palestinians and in elections earlier this year to the UNRWA trade union in Gaza, Hamas swept the board.

In reality, there have been increasing clashes between UNRWA, under Ging's leadership, and Hamas, which has noticed the UNRWA does not always toe the party line - and sees it as a rival to its own power base.

There were particular objections over the past year to Mr Ging's attempts to promote mixed-gender education, particularly in summer camps, and rows over the distribution of aid during and after Operation Cast Lead; he has also threatened to fire employees with open affiliation to Fatah or Hamas. In an editorial in April in Gazan paper Filastin called him an American and Israeli puppet with an agenda "opposed to that of the resistance".

Mr Ging seemed to have survived all that. But it seems extraordinary that he will stake so much of his reputation on teaching of the Holocaust, an issue which to Hamas is a real red line. I am willing to bet that either Holocaust education will go, or he will. Either way, don't expect to see Anne Frank's diary on the literature curriculum in Gaza any time soon.