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.