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.