Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Beeb is a Boob on Israel

That's right, "the Beeb" is a boob, or more accurately, an incompetent bunch of boobs who have little to no understanding of the basic government structure in Israel, and are apparently too stupid or lazy to check. You may have heard that, within the past week or so, an Argentinian paper - the Parfil - published a story intimating that the country's government was willing to quietly bury its investigation into Iran's role in the bombings of Jewish and Israeli landmarks in 1992 and 1994 - attacks which resulted in the murder of 114 people - in exchange for improving trade relations between the two countries.

Naturally, Israel was outraged and threatened to cancel an upcoming visit of the Argentinian Foreign Minister to the Jewish State, pending clarification from Buenos Aires. Apparently, the visit will now go ahead as planned, though the Argentinians have still not publicly disclosed what discussions, if any, they had with Iran, and whether there is any basis to the report in the Parfil. However, this entire drama is not our focus here; the nitwits of the BBC are. Observe:
Israeli media reported that the foreign ministry was considering cancelling a planned visit by Mr Timerman to Israel if the reports proved to be reliable.

Mr Sharansky, head of Jewish Agency, which handles relations with other countries, said the visit was still on, after his meeting with the Argentine foreign minister in Buenos Aires.
Mr. Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, does not handle Israel's relations with other countries. This, my dear boobs at the Beeb, is the function of Israel's Foreign Ministry, and its head, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The Jewish Agency's mission, as is clearly posted on their website, is to "inspire Jews throughout the world to connect with their people, heritage and land, and empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel." JAFI is today a public-private partnership operating worldwide for the betterment of Jewish communities and Jewish identity, often in support of Israeli government efforts, but independent of them. That Sharansky, as a person of stature, could avert a diplomatic incident between the two countries is a personal credit to him, but has nothing directly to do with the responsibilities of his office, or the mandate of the Jewish Agency.

If the BBC cannot trouble itself to distinguish between Israel's Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Agency, which hasn't handled "relations with other countries" for the Jewish people since the 1940s, one wonders what else their correspondents are missing in covering the Middle East.

Update: Whether responding to me or some other observant chap, the BBC has now changed the offending paragraph. It now reads:
Mr Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency - a government-backed organisation that facilitates the immigration of Jewish people to Israel - said the visit was still on after his meeting with the Argentine foreign minister in Buenos Aires.
Cheerio! ol' boy. Carry on.

Netanyahu Averts a War, Andrew Sullivan Yawns

Over the last few weeks, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza have considerably raised the tempo of violating international law, launching hundreds of rockets and mortars, indiscriminately, at smaller Israeli communities and cities bordering Gaza, and at the larger metropolitan areas of Ashdod and Be'er Sheva. Despite the lodging of an Israeli complaint with the United Nations, the international body has not taken a single substantive action to demonstrate that anyone but Israel can ever be investigated for committing war crimes.

The Israeli response has been "proportional", targeting the members of terrorist organizations and empty Hamas offices. Thank G-d, no one in Israel has yet been killed during the recent barrages, but for this happy outcome, Palestinian terror groups do not take credit. They should. If the rocket attacks on Israel serve a mere symbolic, political purpose, Palestinian factions should pray to G-d that not a single life is ended by their actions, aim their flying bombs as far from populated areas as possible, and declare their unequivocal regret at the fear and suffering their campaign of terror achieves among human beings beyond the gates of Gaza. They should, but of course they don't, and no one expects them to.

No, the world expects and allows Palestinian terror groups to do what they do - to terrorize and murder as many human beings, preferably, as many Israeli Jews, as possible. Likewise, the world expects Israel to engage in the much bemoaned cycle of violence, to bleed and be bled, to entertain the very bored despondents of more peaceful lands, who with vicarious relish follow every useless exchange of violence in the hope, the dark and rabid yearning that Israel will do what it does, from time to time - to go to war.

Despite growing discomfort within the IDF, Netanyahu is right not to take the country to war against the terror groups of Gaza. A weaker Israeli Prime Minister, a more dovish, left-of-center Israeli leader, may not have been so wise. The Palestinian terror rockets are a political weapon, a tool of propaganda which rely on the quiet, building anguish of a people abandoned by the world, for years under relentless, savage bombardment, to achieve their full effect. It is only by drawing Israel back into Gaza, by leveraging the full might of the Jewish army at war, that Palestinian terror factions can make the Andrew Sullivans of the world pay attention and respond with shock and horror and embittered vitriol, spiced with a subtle hint of the eldest hatred, against the Jewish state. Like a martial artist who uses his opponent's strength against him, so have the Palestinians honed the propagandist value of war with Israel.

Netanyahu is right to hold back, to avert a war, to preserve the status quo, and to work on a timetable and methodology more suitable for striking back, in a way that works for Israel, and not against her. We should thank him for his strength and his wisdom. Netanyahu, a right-wing Israeli Prime Minister who the likes of that same Andrew Sullivan have proclaimed a warmongering fascist, if not in so many words, but close enough, has averted a war which no other leader in the world could avoid, given similar circumstances, saving countless innocent Palestinian children from the horrors of conflict, even as the attempted murder of human beings in Israel continues unabated.

Are you paying attention, Andrew Sullivan, ye great supporter of Israel? Tonight, Jewish children half a world away will interrupt their dreams in a mad rush to the bomb shelters, just so that you don't have to be troubled enough to pay attention. You're welcome.

Anat Kam Defends the Settlers

Anat Kam, the office clerk who leaked internal IDF directives regarding the targeting of Palestinian terrorists is due for sentencing, having been convicted in February. The young woman made a choice, a bad choice, an arrogant choice, without thinking it through. I can relate. She's no radical, however, and that's something.
My leftist views moderated in the army of all places, because I realized that nothing is the way it seems. It's easy to say that the occupation is corrupting and terrible, yet on the inside reality is very complex," she says. "The demonization of the settlers, which to a great extent I adopted like any good leftist, was watered down over there. There were violent hilltop youth, yet in the friction between Jews and Palestinians, I saw how much the moderate camp among the settlers despises it.

If before that I thought we should return to the 1967 borders and evacuate everything, there I realized that Ariel is not the hilltop youth…nonetheless, it was still clear to me like it is today that the occupation is not a proper thing," she says.
No, the occupation is not a proper thing. I don't think anyone would dispute this. Those of us who support Jewish communities in the territories do not do so out of a desire to punish the Arabs - and for those who do, I strongly urge therapy. The occupation is not a natural state of affairs; it isn't a normal or healthy way for people to live, but it may be the best of worse alternatives, at least for now. This is something that those who blindly rail against the occupation rarely consider. It can and should be made more humane, where possible, until a more permanent resolution to the conflict is found.

Many are hoping for a punishing verdict of many years in prison for Kam. I really don't see what point that would serve. She'll never work in a capacity with access to classified information again, either in the public or private sector. What will anyone gain by robbing her of ten years of life, at public expense? One would hope this ordeal has been a sobering experience, as she herself admits, and the consequences of her actions will stay with her, always. Which is not to say that six months to a year is not appropriate for leaking state secrets, but we need to draw a line between deterrence and vengeance. Prison is a place better reserved for those who are a permanent danger to themselves and others - murderers, rapists, child molesters; it should be an expression of social compassion for the irreparably broken, not an outlet for imposing social retribution.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Strategy for Settlements, Part I

In light of the recent murders at Itamar, and given the considerable coverage given to those murders within the pro-Israel blogosphere, now is as good a time as any to think more deeply about the present state and future of the settlement movement, to the extent it is a movement, and the fate of some one hundred Jewish communities and their hundreds of thousands of residents.

Most commentary and analysis being written about the settlements on the side of their proponents, whether responding to current events or discussing proposed policy solutions, is aimed at eliciting an emotional reaction, or at best, instructing a relatively small, politically active group of people to become ever more politically active, often in a general, directionless sense. Even among individuals (including bloggers) and organizations working to support and strengthen the settlements, there is a remarkable lack of thought given to an overarching "grand strategy" to guide tactical decision making. While emotion-laden faith has a certain rousing value, and has done much to rally support for the settlement movement, to the extend that such support exists, little has been done to translate the movement's aspirations into a viable political program which is sustainable over the medium and long term.

Rather, such a political program does exist in Israel, and possibly in the US, but it has not taken into account the necessity of broadening the appeal of the settlement project to non-faith communities, organized political groups and foreign governments. This inability to transcend traditional bases of support has resulted in a frustrating environment. As pro-settlement forces gather strength in Israel, and demand the wholesale implementation of the settlement program, Israeli governments elected with a mandate to implement that program are constrained, and in fact, forced to backtrack on their electoral pledges by external forces beyond the ideological, theological and emotional reach of the pro-settlement movement.

Before moving on, it is important to define, in a most inclusive fashion, the interests and objectives of the settlement movement, as such. These are, in practical terms, to populate with Jews the mass of land between the present State of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan - territory variously referred to as the West Bank or Shomron and Judea. In doing so, and in light of well known concerns relating to large numbers of Palestinian residents of these areas, advocates of settlements proffer to build now and deflect the consequences on some hypothetical construct which the current balance of forces, moral, legal and otherwise, will never permit - such as disenfranchising Palestinians of voting rights, transferring them to Jordan, etc. Worse (in my opinion), are those who suggest we leave the consequences in G-d's hands, absolving movement proponents of responsibility in formulating a strategy that resolves anticipated difficulties. (It must be said, on a personal note, that the second option is worse not because G-d is untrustworthy, G-d forbid, but because Jewish tradition clearly articulates that faith in G-d's grace must run parallel to, and not to the exclusion of expending all necessary human efforts.)

To bring the discussion back on track, forces favoring settlement expansion in Israel have already, or are in the process of reaching the zenith of their political power, and are, from now on, unable to exert greater pressure to implement their agenda, despite whatever further gains are made with the Israeli electorate. On the other hand, the anti-settlement movement, if it can be called that, has in recent years become more politically organized and policy-savvy. It is now leveraging the interests of increasing numbers of governments in supporting - financially and diplomatically - the implementation of the anti-settlement, or Palestinian national program.

The progress of the anti-settlement agenda has been real and substantial. Instead of relying on their traditional base of support, which likewise includes ideological, theological and emotional elements, the real success of the movement has been to creatively maneuver itself into the real-world, interest-based, policy priority planning of various governments and groups of governments. This approach, which came about from a serious, prolonged and ongoing effort to understand and exploit the fundamental interests of the governments in question, constitutes a powerful and, in my opinion, overwhelming counter to the emotional and theological arguments made by proponents of settlements. The incredibly durability of the argument for a Palestinian state, which has not been weakened in the least by the changes sweeping the region, but actually made more urgent, demonstrates how successfully Palestinian activists have merged their interests and those of foreign governments, to the redoubled frustration of settlement proponents.

Instead of understanding the basis of growing international support for Palestinian statehood, and the presumed necessity for an attendant freeze on settlement construction to facilitate that effort, with the removal of settlements in the terminal phase of that plan deemed likely, and even preferable, the response from the settlement community has been woefully inadequate. Advocates of settlement expansion have refined and recycled the emotional, ideological and theological arguments which gave impetus to early settlement, and which impart spirit into the movement to this day. The by now obvious failure of this approach in converting the unconverted is generally met with a mixture of helpless despair and externally-projected derision, with notable responses including an over-reliance on employing the charge of universal anti-semitism, an unhelpful withdrawal into like-minded social communities, disparaging Jewish or Zionist education and increasing spiritual fervor, a type of appeal to a higher power stemming from the belief in the ultimate righteousness of the cause. The effect is a compounding of failure, with the result that, for advocates of settlements and the settlement movement as a whole, "deep calls to deep".

To prevent the calamitous ruin of Jewish communities in Judea and Shomron, a drastic change in approach must be affected. The task before us is no less than to outline a Strategy for Settlements. To do this, we must first define the fundamental interests of the Jewish communities and their residents. We must then proceed to understand, intimately, the interests of all relevant parties- both which support and oppose settlements - to the extent that their interests are durable and knowable at any given time. Finally, we must identify points of congruence between the interests of the settlements and those of relevant parties, making these the basis for cooperation in advancing mutual interests.

My aim is to demonstrate, having given the subject considerable thought, that with sufficient creativity and effort, there need not stand a substantial obstacle to the growth of Jewish communities in Judea and Shomron, now and in the future. Indeed, the majority of actors currently engaged in opposing building in Jewish communities can and should be enlisted in reversing their opposition, and in helping to strengthen the settlements, not as a favor to Jewish residents of the communities, or to the State of Israel, but as a way of advancing their own fundamental interests.


As regular readers know, the fate of the Jewish communities in the West Bank is something of an interest and focus of mine. Disregarding the occasional lolcat post, or any thoughts I might find of value to share about the weekly parshah, chassidus, or yiddishkeit in general, this discussion concerning a Strategy for Settlements will constitute the bulk of my activity on this blog for the remainder of the week, at least, and perhaps much longer, until I've exhausted the considerable backlog of posts I've written on this subject, and those I have yet to write. To say that these articles are in a rough and tumble form is something of an understatement, and my intent is to refine them - in syntax and concept - as I go along, with your help. So, Silke, RRK, Michael W., those of you who read but don't often comment, help. Whether you agree with me or not, challenge any inconsistency or validity of ideas. Make suggestions to reword sentences where I am not being clear. You have my gratitude in advance.

All future posts on this subject will fall under the Settlement Strategy label. Part II: Settlement Interests, is now posted.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cracking the Fantasy of Settlements

Claire Berlinski, a journalist and academic, has been touring Israel on an Act for Israel trip, and visited the community of Itamar last Sunday, March 13, just a day after the grizzly murders. She is now one of a growing number of journalists who have begun to understand that residents of Jewish communities beyond the "Green Line" are more than mere strategic chess pieces, and might even be human beings. As with Jennifer Rubin, here we have not someone biased against Israel, but a lifelong supporter of the Jewish State, yet knowing practically nothing about life in the communities of Shomron and Judea, until now. Here's some of what Claire had to say:
One very quick point I'll make is that this was clearly not a family above all of "settlers"--some alien species that exists primarily as a political bargaining point--but of human beings. In the home next door to the one that was invaded, kids' clothing was hanging on the line next to a child's bicycle. You simply cannot look at that and think, "This story is above all about land and politics." This story is above all about murder. They were children and they were murdered. Two more children were orphaned. The children were targeted deliberately. This was a premeditated murder--not a crime of passion or self-defense--and it was a psychotically savage crime. Anyone who in any way tries to rationalize or minimize this or to suggest that this is a fitting punishment for anything needs to go out and look at a three-month-old baby and ask himself what it would take to climb over a fence, climb in a window, and cut off that child's head. If that act seems an "understandable" reaction to a political grievance to him, I don't think we can have much of a conversation. But I don't think it will, on reflection, seem that way to most people.
The settlers, an "alien species"? If only she were joking, but this is the prevalent narrative, first borne in a radical, dehumanizing fringe of Israeli media and now beheld as a battle standard by the global peace industry's legions. For those who haven't been following me that long on the settlement issue, here's something I wrote last September:
Even as Bradley Burston waxes triumphantly about the final whimpers of the settlement "revolution", his colleague Yossi Sarid is running defense to protect the left's sensitive centrist core from infiltration, indeed, conversion, by the winds of reality and sensibility finally penetrating the elitist bubble from the communities. In my discussions with settlers on public relations, I advise only one thing - embellish nothing, just tell the simple reality of your existence. The vilification and dehumanization of Jewish communities in Yesha is so complete - Sarid's piece is entitled, incredulously, "The settlers are human"! - that simply pointing out that these are normal human beings is a shock to the ideological framework the media, particularly the Israeli media, has built around the issue. It turns out the settlers are not all evil, bucktoothed monsters, murdering Arab children for sport and hellbent on dragging Israel into international isolation and opprobrium. Indeed, unlike much of Israel's hyperventilating left, the settlers are effectively working to undo the damage to Israel's international image first wrought by adherents to leftist institutions and ideologies.
Developing an understanding that residents of the communities are human beings won't resolve the issues of Israeli administrative control over lands claimed by Palestinian nationalism, or stop the pangs of violence emanating from its routine expression, punctuated by the savage beheading of a baby in her crib. Doing so, however, will begin a process of reconciling with the knot of the conflict, which is neither as simple, nor as obvious to resolve with any finality and with an eye on justice as it may seem.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

When Your Neighbors are Murdered

Rachel Gordon, a neighbor of the slain Fogel family in Itamar:
Unlike my heart, my faith is whole, as is the faith of our community and all those who build their homes in every part of the Land of Israel. We are aware that by living where we live we are protecting Jerusalem from more such vicious attacks; and Tel-Aviv, Haifa, Netanya, Ashdod . . . No matter how much we suffer, our faith grows ever stronger. We channel our pain into positive actions, standing solidly by our resolve never to succumb to the use of violence against the brutality that smacks us in the face again and again. For every Jew murdered, more orchards, more fields, more greenhouses will be planted; another house, another neighborhood, another village will be built, with the compassion and benevolence that we learn from the Torah and will continue to teach to our children.
If America will let them:

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Look Inside BDS

You may remember Jew Guevara for giving us a look inside the peace industry. He's back, writing again on Jewschool, this time with a focus on the BDS movement. What makes JG's perspective unique is that, besides devoting much of his life to achieving a peace with the Palestinians, his politics are about as left as one can get and still call oneself Zionist, except that he won't call himself a Zionist, but he is. Take my word for it, but if you won't, read his:
The Palestinian solidarity movement, especially as it has coalesced around the strategy of BDS, has two faces. One face is warm, friendly and intelligent. It says that BDS is a tactic not a preferred political solution. It doesn’t require B, D and S, and it can be directed at the occupation or at Israel in general - no coercion. It makes Gush Shalom feel right at home.

The other face is quite clear that the one state solution is preferred and the two state solution is dead - and good riddance. Anyone in support of an Israeli identity is a Zionist. Anyone seeking compromise with Zionists is a Zionist. Anti- or non-Zionists who refrain from calling for an end to Israel are ’soft-Zionists.’ Israelis are ‘butchers’ who commit ‘massacres’, their peace camp isn’t really for peace except for a handful, the Palestinian Authority is not only corrupt, it is ‘only corrupt’, lacking in any other attributes or identity. It’s everything awful about the 90s campus culture wars/identity politics madness, with the eager pleasure in despising whatever isn’t politically correct.

Everything I used to hate and fear about the Israeli right wing: the extremist language, the eagerness to demonize the other, the closing of ranks around a narrow set of ideas, the very harshness of the voice and tone. It’s the flattening of every nuance into a slogan or holy truth. It’s the utter impossibility of dialogue with people who feel differently.

I used to be part of that first group. Some days, I still am. But… I keep running into that second group and it turns my stomach. Sometimes it’s the same person displaying one face or the other, depending the audience. It’s as if all the experiences I have growing up in Israel and ‘putting myself out there’ as a refusenik, participant in militant demonstrations, getting arrested, working inside of majority Palestinian political organizations - count for nothing. Because I’m insisting on the slogans of my youth (Arab/Jewish unity, two states for two peoples, down with the occupation, negotiations yes/war no) somehow I’m excluded from the cool kids lunch table at the Palestinian solidarity middle school. Back in Israel, that’s who I sat with. Now they sneer at me.
My few regular readers know well how much I dislike copying and pasting large blockquotes of other people's writing into my blog. For Jew Guavara, I make exceptions. He may never love the settlers, he may campaign for the violent uprooting of settlements until pigs fly, but despite our differences, he's honest with himself, and with the rest of us. Sometimes, in the course of our comment exchanges on Jewschool, I don't know if I want to smack him or hug him, but that difficult, painful honesty, which is so missing from much of pro and anti Israel advocacy, ground in values, and not subject to the opportunism of victory, I respect.

Rejecting Faith as a Weapon

A friend recently emailed me an article, by Phil Zuckerman, entitled, "Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus". If the title isn't enough, it will perhaps give you a flavor of the article to know that it was published on the Huffington Post, an unapologetically liberal news, opinion and gossip site. The piece is not very long, but here is an extended quote, in case you don't feel like reading the whole thing:
Jesus unambiguously preached mercy and forgiveness. These are supposed to be cardinal virtues of the Christian faith. And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of the death penalty, draconian sentencing, punitive punishment over rehabilitation, and the governmental use of torture. Jesus exhorted humans to be loving, peaceful, and non-violent. And yet Evangelicals are the group of Americans most supportive of easy-access weaponry, little-to-no regulation of handgun and semi-automatic gun ownership, not to mention the violent military invasion of various countries around the world. Jesus was very clear that the pursuit of wealth was inimical to the Kingdom of God, that the rich are to be condemned, and that to be a follower of Him means to give one's money to the poor. And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of corporate greed and capitalistic excess, and they are the most opposed to institutional help for the nation's poor -- especially poor children. They hate anything that smacks of "socialism," even though that is essentially what their Savior preached. They despise food stamp programs, subsidies for schools, hospitals, job training -- anything that might dare to help out those in need. Even though helping out those in need was exactly what Jesus urged humans to do. In short, Evangelicals are that segment of America which is the most pro-militaristic, pro-gun, and pro-corporate, while simultaneously claiming to be most ardent lovers of the Prince of Peace.

What's the deal?
Unfortunately, from my perspective, this is the kind of rubbish that some left-leaning Jews get swept up by, eager as they may be to make common cause with elements of the liberal Christian community they feel more comfortable with, in opposition to elements of the conservative Christian community whose political and cultural influence they fear. Let me be clear, just so that there is no misunderstanding: I am a Jew, not a Christian, and as a Jew, I'm not particularly well versed in inter-Christian eschatological disputes, or eager to comment on them. I sent my friend the following reply, not because I love Evangelical Christians, though many that I know personally are wonderful people, but because I don't not love them either, and living in a society that unfairly disparages groups of people - be they "fundamentalist" Christians or flaming rainbow gays - is something I instinctively rebel against.
I don't see the constructive point of telling a community comprising tens of millions of people what they "really" believe. I mean, what's the argument, that Evangelicals don't mix faith and politics? Aren't they accused of the exact opposite also? That they aren't being true to their faith? As opposed to liberal Christians who promote or turn a blind eye to abortion? What would Jesus say to that? Do we really want to turn theological purity into a political weapon in 21st century America?

Honestly, reading the language of that article, I was struck by it's tone of delegitimization and self-radicalization that I'm very familiar with in Israel-related advocacy. It's essentially saying that Evangelicals aren't real Christians, that they betray the teachings of Jesus. But it's not talking to Evangelicals, it's talking to those who already oppose them, politically. The argument is not meant to sway Evangelicals, but to provide an intellectual and theological base from which to reject their beliefs and perspectives outright, without actually understanding their self-narrative - that's self-radicalization.

Bottom line, and to paraphrase Pirkei Avot (4:5), don't use faith as an axe with which to cut.

Updates to the Blogroll

I've tried to keep my blogroll, which you can find by scrolling down, on the right side of the page, limited to the blogs I actually read regularly, or those which represent subjects I may peruse from time to time - Jewlicious and Chassidic Thought, which hasn't been updated in a while, are both on thin ice. However, despite my best efforts to keep the list concise, in revolt at the link farms featured on other sites, which seemingly lose utility in direct proportion to their bloated size, and much like Israel's settlements, the list is currently undergoing modest growth. After careful consideration spanning numerous seconds, perhaps even minutes, this week I've added a few new entries which you might want to check out.
1. First up is the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, a massive, scholarly archive of maps, documents, articles and images about the history of the Jewish experience in the Pale of Settlement.

For example, here is a view of, by the looks of it on the outside, a fairly spectacular Great Synagogue in the northern Moldovan city of Soroca, ca. 1920s (click on the image to enlarge). Soroca was a Jewish majority city from the mid to late 19th century, with 8783 families counted in 1897, but restrictive laws spurred immigration to the US and Argentina, leaving just under 5500 Jews by 1930. Surprisingly, some 200 Jews still live in the town.

YIVO is a welcome resource for those of us interested in Jewish history and life in Eastern Europe, which is far from over.

2. Next up is The Hummus Blog, or actually, an English language version of a Hebrew blog devoted to all things hummus. It so happens that the Hebrew site gets updated far more regularly than does the English one, but with online hummus-making resources and information scarce, I'll take what I can get. Besides the culinary aspects, the blog is very oriented around Israeli life, culture and perspectives, in case those interest you. And yes, if you're reading into this that I've been making my own hummus, or trying to (apparently my blender isn't powerful enough, but a food processor is on the way), you're right. In a word, hummus is awesome - tasty, nutritious, and just as important, for my snack-craving purposes, insanely cheap to make. So, check out the blog, in Hebrew or English and, not to damage Sabra's market share (the best store-bought brand, in my opinion), try making your own.

3. Finally, earlier today I was introduced to a young English language blog from the Jewish community of Itamar, the site of the recent grizzly murders of two Jewish parents and three of their six children by Palestinian members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a terrorist group associated with the ruling Fatah party. Bless Itamar is a simple, heartfelt and non-apologetic look at the community, as told by one of its members. Understandably, coverage is now exclusively devoted to the tragedy, but scroll back a few posts and you'll get a glimpse into the life of the residents, from their organic farming and start-up beekeeping to greeting visiting tour groups, from stories about the community's development to security issues that don't make headlines on Haaretz, such as this post from January 14, 2011:
Last night terrorists infiltrated one of our hilltop neighborhoods and opened fire on soldiers doing guard duty. Thank G-D nobody was hurt. Unfortunately, the terrorists got away. Recently there has been an escalation of attempts to steal from and harm our hilltop neighborhoods. Just last week a herd of sheep and some cows were stolen from this same hilltop. With the quick reaction of our response team the herd almost in its entirety was returned to its owners.
With Itamar's prominence as an area of recurring confrontation between local Jews and Arabs (the settlement is located in proximity to Nablus and its Balata refugee camp, regional centers of Palestinian militancy), the community has earned a special scorn from Israel's left wing activists, its residents routinely condemned in mainstream Israeli (and therefore international) news media as radical extremists (despite evidence to the contrary). This makes the task of learning more about the day-to-day experience and perspectives of such isolated Jewish communities all the more difficult. We'll see if the Bless Itamar blog can help.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Morning Links

Yes, I've become one of those people. You know, the ones who incessantly link out to relevant news and opinion pieces because they're too lazy to generate their own content. I'll try not to make a habit out of it.

For those who didn't notice, there have been a few surprisingly good articles about the settlements popping up in the last few weeks. The first was by uber-conservative Jennifer Rubin in WaPo. Surprisingly, the journalist most associated with the Israeli right had, prior to February of this year, never herself stepped foot in the West Bank, much less had a decent understanding of the settlements or their residents. Your can read the account of her travels - Part I, Part II - full of the now cliche, incredulous remarks like (and I'm paraphrasing) "wow, the settlements aren't temporary trailer parks" and "look at that, Jews and Arabs work and live together in relative harmony" - and that coming from a strong, lifelong supporter and defender of Israel (in the era of JStreet, the two are no longer interchangeable). In any case, she's worth reading. If Jennifer Rubin didn't know better, what's to say that someone like Andrew Sullivan (or even you) might not know very much about the settlements either?

I can't seem to find the second settlement story link I was referring to earlier, so instead, he's a year old review of wines from the Judean Hills. The history and context in which the wine is grown is of greater interest to me than the bottle labels themselves. Despite my Moldovan extraction - Bessarabia was once the second largest wine producing region in the world, second to France - I'm no wine aficionado, with a palate generally considered more the preserve of the fairer gender, that being sweet and semi-sweet reds. Nevertheless, it's always good to keep an article like this bookmarked, for the next time one is invited over for Shabbos to a household that appreciates good wine, which, as Tehillim (Psalms) 104:15 tells us, "gladden man's heart".

Yet another article contemplating Israel's entry into becoming a serious energy exporter. One of my relatives in Israel, a citizen of the country for twenty five years, once told me that he's been hearing stories since his arrival, at least once a year, that here or there in the Negev desert someone found a billion barrels of oil, but nothing ever comes of it. If you add all those billions of barrels up, he said, we should be like Saudi Arabia by now. Still, the recently discovered, substantial gas reserves off Israel's coast are no fantasy, and the entire Levantine basin, largely within Israeli jurisdiction, may hold five times as much gas as recently discovered, according the US Geological Survey. In addition, the high price of oil and new extraction technologies are creating the potential to tap Israel's oil shale deposits, with optimistic projections of up to 250 Billion barrels. Getting bullish on Israel's future won't hurt anyone.

For those interested in the inner workings of the Conservative movement, there have been a rash of posts on Jewschool associated with the USCJ's recently released and much anticipated strategic plan. I don't have time or interest to be going through a long, dry policy paper put out by a Jewish movement with which I am not affiliated. However, I did read the synopses provided on Jewschool, and found them interesting, in that I learned more about the organization and the Conservative movement, perhaps still the largest denomination among American Jews, and the current challenges faced by both. So, for those so inclined, here are the links to the multiple Jewschool posts that deal with the subject:

The USCJ Strategic Plan Part 1: USCJ as it is
The USCJ Strategic Plan Part 2: Critique of the strategic plan
The USCJ Strategic Plan, Part 3a: Some thoughts on what USCJ could be... 3b... 3c
The USCJ Strategic Plan Part 4: Comments on the final plan

Lastly, here is some incredible footage of the terrible moment the tsunami burst over the containing walls and flooded the Japanese fishing port of Miyako. As the camera pans to the left, you can see cars still on the roads of the city, the rushing waves of water and sludge soon to meet them head on. What a horrendous tragedy for the people of Japan. Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to them.

Some thoughts on Jews in Moldova

My mother's family is thought to have arrived in the vicinity of Bessarabia from Austria, for reasons that are as yet unclear to me, sometime in the mid 19th century. Perhaps it was one of the German speaking merchant families regularly enticed by Russian Tzars to settle the nearby Volga region with promises of free land and religious freedom in exchange for commercial development - privileges withdrawn decades later. By contrast, the history of my father's family in Bessarabia traces back some three hundred years, and perhaps another fifty on top of that, as he would have learned this from his father and grandfather growing up in the 1950s.

Three hundred years is a long time to set roots in a land. I wonder if we would have ever left had the Germans and the Russians not pried and trimmed those roots until there was nothing left to anchor us down, besides graves. As for the Moldovans, my uncle recently recalled a conversation he once had with a Moldovan friend, perhaps in the mid-1980s, as Soviet control weakened and ethnic nationalism surged.

"I like the Jews," my uncle now, recalling his Moldovan friend's words. "Everyone wants something from the Moldovans. The Ukrainians want Transdniester [in the east], the Gagauz [a Turkic people] want the south, the Romanians want the west, the Russians want it all, but the Jews, the Jews just want to be left alone."

I related this to my father, who had marched in solidarity with Moldovans on the streets of Chisinau in the late 1980s, back when no one knew how the Soviet regime would react. It was reckless, for a family man and a Jew, and he didn't tell his parents. "Too late. Too late did they realize it," he said. In the crowds that marched were more than a few who chanted, from the anonymity of a mob, "Russians across the Dniester [river, pictured on the map], but the Jews [Zhidov] in Dniester."

With all this talk of history, it's easy to forget that there are still Jews in Moldova, between 10-20,000, mostly centered in the capital, down from about 100,000 in the republic as a whole two decades ago and nearly 300,000 in the Bessarabia region before WWII. The community actually appears to be in the midst of a revival, of sorts, at least in Chisinau, with a number of Jewish organizations and movements serving the population, including a strong Chabad presence, a yeshiva with a rabbinic ordination program, a primary school for several hundred Jewish students and an Israeli aliyah preparatory program.

Thinning out the Settler Herd

Today, somewhere in the West Bank, perhaps the city of Nablus, members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a Palestinian terrorist organization closely linked with the ruling Fatah party, are watching a television set in disbelief. Just hours earlier, members of the group, building on months of pre-operational surveillance, infiltrated the Jewish settlement of Itamar and, having chosen to invade a private home, proceeded to murder a father, mother and three children by stabbing them to death while they slept, leaving three orphans behind to scream into the night.

By all accounts, on a tactical and political level, the operation was a glorious success for the Palestinian cause, or at least it should have been. When all was said and done, five Jewish settlers, their homes and communities repeatedly and variously condemned as illegal, illegitimate and an obstacle to peace by the PA, EU, UN, and the US, no less, lay dead. The murderers, having arrived back home from their night's mission without a scratch, washed a family's blood from their hands before tucking their own into bed. All according to plan.

What the organizers of a family's massacre did not anticipate was the swift, global condemnation of their act of resistance against Israeli occupation, and especially the portrayal of their military operation as a crime. After all, it was mere weeks ago that the international community came within a hair's breadth of adopting a UN Security Council Resolution adjudicating Israeli settlement activity to be illegal under international law. To the exclusion of the United States, which could not approve such a resolution for obvious reasons of Zionist influence, but which did everything to condition its veto through tacit approval of the resolution's essential point, the world collectively labeled Jewish settlements illegal, and more so, immoral for presenting an obstacle to resolving a decade long conflict. How then, reasoned the Palestinian freedom fighters, could their activity, which merely enforced the collective will of the international community through "direct action", be considered anything but a victory for international law, and certainly not a crime.

Indeed, Palestinian terror groups could be forgiven for taking global opprobrium of the settlements and their stubborn residents as a license to murder a Jewish family in their sleep. After all, no international outcry followed a myriad prior acts of daily violence, sabotage, boycott and incitement against the inhabitants of the Jewish communities and their property. Instead, support streamed in from all corners, particularly the Western world, encouraging and emboldening the resistance. In the consciousness of peoples everywhere, residents of Jewish settlements have assumed the role of global untermenschen, conceptually denied the most basic rights and privileges afforded to human beings, including to their very lives and property. So why should it not be so in reality? Why should the elimination of a few illegal settlers, in line with international demands, warrant rebuke from the very international community which now leads the charge against them?

The leadership of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is left to ponder such questions, feelings of betrayal wiping out the exuberance at their glorious victory the night before. Those of us in the West are likewise left to consider how this murder did not come by the hands of the irreconcilable religious radicals of Hamas, it's leadership under siege and publicly sworn to Israel's destruction, but by a long-thought dormant offshoot of the very party with which Israel is being forced to make peace, at a time of Israeli concessions, security cooperation and unprecedented Palestinian West Bank prosperity and self-government.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Queen you Thought you Knew

Rawr! Amazon is now stocked (was sold out a few days ago); Artscroll also has it in stock, and a bit cheaper.

Friday, March 4, 2011

I Have Two Fingers

As some of you know, I am a regular commentator on a few blogs that deal with issues of interest and importance to Jews - all sorts of Jews, from Chassidic to Reform and unaffiliated. Occasionally, the topic of discussion revolves around Israel, and related issues, but more often the conversation concerns (often divergent) currents in Jewish thought, learning, divine service and so forth. It is a matter of discomfort for me to witness Jews of more observant upbringing debating Jews from less observant or unaffiliated backgrounds. Rather, the irritant is not so much witnessing such conversations, or participating in them, but in observing the participants summarily dig their respective trenches, self-radicalize and budge not an inch, with all the predictable outcomes one can imagine from dogma standing up to dogma.

To be clear, my expectations for who must bear the burden of meaningful, sensitive discourse are much higher for those who have had a Jewish education than for those who have not, and for reasons that should be obvious. Thus, and often despite myself, I almost routinely come out on the side of less observant Jews, picking apart the argument of the more observant where I think or know they've strayed from the texts and commentaries they're quoting. Alternately, I might step in if I feel they are doing more damage in falsely presenting a concept they themselves may not fully understand, or if they do understand it, in presenting it in a manner that won't be well received, than were they to simply disengage. It doesn't hurt that the competition of debate often spurs my own interest and passions in learning more, and more thoroughly, than I otherwise would have.

It was in the midst of observing such a heated discussion just recently, that I could not restrain myself from intervening. However, instead of challenging the person directly, I asked that they contact me privately. We've now exchanged a few thoughtful emails, one of which I'm posting below. It is a fair summation of a few things I've been thinking about over the past month or two, and may be of interest to others.

To set this up, if I haven't already, in the course of a discussion of the type I've explained above, I felt that a more observant Jew, increasingly besieged by multiple parties - in hostile territory, so to speak, that being a blog belonging to a community of  less observant Jews - was speaking very forcefully in an effort to defend what he felt were the spirit of Torah and mitzvot, and the honor of G-d Himself. The goal is laudable indeed, but the method he chose, by bracing his back to the wall and drawing clear borders between those who stand with G-d, and those who don't, was backfiring horribly by alienating others from his substantive views, as it usually does. I call this the path of rhetorical martyrdom, as in, "I'm going down, but I'm taking all of you down with me." You lose the argument, in that your original intent was to inform and transform the hearts and minds of others, and you failed in doing so, but before you go, you lob one last hand grenade and make sure to let your opponent know that G-d hates them, and that G-d loves you, and that you really won in the end. You've just compounded your failure, but at least you feel better about it. Ok, great.

Let's call my friend Andrew. You won't hear much from Andrew, frankly because I wrote much more than he did, and also because I'm more focused on a singular idea he expressed, than his remarks in total. So, without further delay, I asked Andrew to write me privately, and he did. The following are select, edited excerpts of that conversation.

Me: To fight for G-d is good, but one can’t fight for G-d but against Jews. That’s nonsensical. To fight for G-d means to fight for Jews, even the ones who drive on Shabbos, even those with same-sex partners, even those who do nothing but have kids and study Gemara in Itamar.

Andrew: There are examples in Torah where the fight for G-d did indeed go against Jews. Read about Korach and what happened to his rebellious supporters. Read about Pinchas and how he saved the Jews from G-d’s wrath. Read about the plagues that happened to the Jews during their journey in the desert.

Me: Indeed, let's read them together.

The plagues in the desert were introduced by G-d, not by men. So, too, with Korah, the earth opened up and swallowed them. These don't quite make your point, because G-d doesn't fight for Himself, for His honor. Of what value is that to him, to kill people in vengeance? What He wants is a broken spirit and a contrite heart that returns to Him, as we read in Tehillim, and throughout the texts. And, in Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah, Rambam explains that death is a form of penitence for the body. We Jews don't punish people for their behavior. Even when a Jewish court sentences a Jew to death, it is not bloodlust or retribution - there is no place for vengeance in Jewish law - but in order that the experience cleanse their body and soul. Our absolute concern, even in disagreement, remains the spiritual health of other Jews.

The incident with Pinchas demonstrates my point fully, and is the one I had hoped you'd bring up. Pinchas was a zealot. Do you know what a zealot is? You can't want to be a zealot, or train for it, or plan for it. Any mental inclination towards zealotous behavior immediately disqualifies an individual from being a zealot. A zealot is a spontaneous instrument of purity, not of scheme or vengeance. The Torah goes to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the Pinchas was a true zealot by tracing his lineage, showing him of a good nature, and not of cruel, wicked stock. Even in this one instant of a zealot in the entire Torah it is necessary to defend him against suspicion that he acted against a fellow Jew. Pinchas acted, without even thinking, to enforce a Torah law - a public and wanton desecration of G-d's name - for all Jews, including those who strayed, not against them.

And what were the rest of the congregation doing when "Pinchas arose and executed judgment"? What were Moses and Aaron and the rest of the leaders doing? They were weeping, sobbing. Why? Because they knew that any attempt to restrain those engaged in illicit activity would only embolden them further, as is the nature of things, and the zealot clause in the law was hidden from them. The Torah is making a very important point here, a timeless lesson.

When an observant Jew goes on [this blog] and starts rebuking what he thinks are wayward Jews left and right, there can only be one outcome, and it is not repentance, but rebellion. Furthermore, this is not a proper approach to rebuking a fellow. The first condition for a rebuke of a Jew is that you identify with him and love him unconditionally, that the rebuke is not to satisfy your vanity but because their activity is hurting them, that you can feel the pain they are inflicting on themselves and you want to help them. How can you act against a Jew who you love unconditionally, the way you love your own self? It's nonsensical. The second condition is that a Jew can only rebuke someone of equal or greater stature than him. Tzadikim or prophets can do as they wish, because there is no blemish in them, or they are fulfilling G-d's exact will, but for those of us who are blemished and imperfect, this is not the case. A third condition is that you do not cause unnecessary embarrassment by rebuking in public, unless it is a deliberate public rebuke.

All of this has been borne out by my experience on [this blog], which is reaching into it's third year. Whenever a newcomer appears and sets to work "fighting for G-d", he tends to do so by distancing the very Jews who are the battleground which needs to be won over. To rebuke may feel very satisfying, but in this audience, that satisfaction is nothing more than self-indulgence, it contributes nothing, and may actually do damage. Purely from a practical perspective, such action doesn't work. Which is not to say that no one on [this blog] needs rebuking, but it may be that you or I are not the right instrument, at the right time, to be doing so.

There are two paths to connecting with G-d - fear and love. For many centuries, fear was enough - fear of sin, fear of social ostracism, fear of punishment. For many Jews, this is no longer sufficient. The alternative to fear is love, to draw a Jew closer with affection, sincerity and kindness, to reach them at a level where their finely honed cynicism cannot mount a defense. And when it is necessary to stand firm on a point of Torah and mitzvot, and on [this blog] it often is, this has to be done with scholarship and sensitivity, with clear understanding that the goal is not to hurt or insult, but to reach out and educate, the way you wish that someone would have done it to you, with patience and affection. To distance another Jew through false zealousness for G-d is a betrayal of them and G-d, who wants the Jewish people unified with and in service of Him. As my father would say, "I have two fingers (sons). It only takes one to hurt for me to feel pain, and it doesn't matter which one."

Our weekly Parshah is Vayakhel, which, among many other lessons, teaches the value of each individual Jew's unique contribution within the context of Jewish community. It tells how each individual was tasked with contributing to building the Mishkan and its various components. Some built the menorah, others constructed the wash-basin, while others still contributed animal skins, or spun wool. But each of these individual acts, even though they had intrinsic value, had no independent value. A menorah or a wash-basin without a Mishkan or Temple in which to employ them are useless. Even if everything were ready and proper but the priestly garments were not completed, or not constructed properly, the entire services of the Temple could not proceed. This is the dual importance of every Jew - their individual contribution is vital to our divine service as a community. And at the same time, their individual contribution alone, even though it might have intrinsic value, is useless without being part of the group effort.

This is all the more important when we consider that the purpose in the construction of the Mishkan, and the Temple after it, was to repent for the sin of the golden calf - avodah zarah, a form of idolatry. Because the entire Jewish community participated in the sin of idolatry, which negates that G-d is One and the Only Master of all the Earth, the entire Jewish community had to atone through individual acts of contribution towards the building of the Mishkan. And what is the Mishkan? A dwelling place for G-d in the physical world - the firm rooting of the spiritual concept of the One G-d within the material, the exact opposite of idolatry - which attributes supernatural power to physical objects which have no power of their own - and also the reason for the creation of the world.

But as we already discussed, the Mishkan, necessarily, is the sum of its individual parts, and while those individual parts may have intrinsic value, they have no value as individual objects, but only within their role in the Mishkan. Similarly, the teshuvah for the sin of idolatry, of which the entire people were guilty, must the sum of its individual parts - the contributions of individual Jews to the teshuvah of our entire people. And just as with the Mishkan, our teshuvah as a people is not complete while the teshuvah of individual Jews is not complete. Similarly, an individual Jew's teshuvah, while having intrinsic value, is only able to be fully expressed and realized within the context of the teshuvah of the community.

To distance a fellow Jew from Torah and mitzvot is to distance yourself from Torah and mitzvot. We are not spiritually complete, either as individuals or as a people, until every Jew is spiritually complete. This is why building Jewish unity is so vital, and so desired by G-d, especially when doing so is difficult and even painful. As we learn in Gemara, and as is taught by Chofetz Chaim in support of Shmiras Haloshon (the laws of proper speech), that when Jews were good to one another, even when they were all performing avodah zarah, the Accuser was silenced. Such is the power of Jewish unity, of having sensitivity and love for one's fellow, especially when it is difficult and inconvenient, that even occasional transgressions are treated as if they never took place.

Many speak of drawing Jews closer. Many launch campaigns to do so, and some are successful. In my experience, those who are successful are those who understand that our goal is not to draw another Jew closer to G-d. The relationship between a Jew and G-d is not in our hands. If we can't draw a Jew closer to G-d, at least we can draw close to a Jew. Some conceptualize throwing a lasso around a Jew and pulling, or dragging their struggling bodies closer to us. This is the very opposite of what is needed. We need to throw a lasso around ourselves and throw the rope to our fellow, and let them pull us towards them. If they're not doing the pulling they'll be doing the struggling, so let them pull, and let us not struggle.
 Good Shabbos.

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