Friday, April 30, 2010

Power, faith and fantasy

Book Review by Jack Cohen: "Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the present," by Michael Oren (presented at AACI-Netanya, April 29, 2010)

This important book is the first comprehensive account of the history of American involvement in the Middle East, from the establishment of the United States to the Iraq war. After writing his excellent book on the Six-day War, entitled "Six days of war: June 1967 and the making of the modern Middle East" Oren tackled this mammoth task, and came out with this superb and engaging opus. It could be said to have earned him the position he now holds of Israeli Ambassador to the USA.

This is a long book, 700 pages, 100 of which are notes. Also, since the latter part of the history after WWII is well-known, he devotes only 100 pages to this, so I too will focus on the earlier period. Also, the history of Zionism will be well known to most people.

The three aspects of the title are intertwining strands that exemplify American involvement in the ME. The "faith" represents the early influx of Christian missionaries who sought to both convert the Muslims and to establish a Jewish presence. Americans were fascinated by the "fantasy" of the mysterious and dangerous region and actually tried to introduce Western methods into the region, for example in the founding of the American University in Beirut. Finally, the "power" represents the US intervention in Middle Eastern politics from its beginnings that propelled it to a central position both by the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia and the support for Israel.

There are some revelations in this book which I certainly found surprising and which I will focus on:

Barbary Wars: Many people are unaware that the first foreign war that the US was engaged in was with the North African Muslim area, known as the Barbary coast. Muslim pirates, who were really the navies of the N African rulers, preyed on ships in the Mediterranean. In order to protect their ships some countries paid tribute to the rulers, including France and Britain. When the US became independent it no longer had British protection, so for a period of twenty years after independence American ships were being captured and their crew and passengers were enslaved. Eventually, after ca. 20% of the US Treasury was being paid to these rulers and still boats were being taken, Congress voted in 1794 to found the US Navy "for the protection of the US against Algerian corsairs." In 1801 Tripoli declared war on the US and the US reciprocated in 1803 by declaring war on Tripoli. However, the first US naval engagement did not go well, since the USS Philadelphia and its 305 man crew was captured and towed into Tripoli harbor. In 1804 Stephen Decatur lead an attack that set fire to the Philadelphia. Also, a marine unit raided Darna, hence in the US Marine's anthem "to the shores of Tripoli." Finally, in 1815, Pres. James Madison said "weakness will invite insults," and sent a force of 20 ships that attacked N. Africa. Thus, the US established itself as a power to be reckoned with.

Restorationism: When William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower in 1620 he said “come let us declare in Zion the word of God.” The concept of Zion as the rightful place of the Puritans was derived from the idea of the rightful place of the Jews in the original Zion. The concept of "restorationism", of God's will being to restore the Jews to Zion became common in American Christianity. These ideas were not marginal but mainstream extending to all sects and commanding massive following in all classes. George Bush, a professor of divinity and an ancestor of the later George Bushes, wrote a pamphlet supporting the concept. Levi Parsons gave sermons all across New England in favor of restoring the Jews to Zion. In 1810 an American Board of Foreign Missions was established mainly to support missionaries going to the Middle East. The first missionaries in 1812 were Levi Parsons and Pliny Fisk. The fascination that many American Christians had towards the Jews did not stem from any extensive contact they had with them in America, for at that time there were only some 4,000 Jews corresponding to ca. 0.04%. During the early 1800’s hundreds of American missionaries followed, many of them with the intention of settling in Palestine in the Ottoman Empire, in order to prepare the way for the restoration of the Jews. These Christians, some of who did not like Jews when they actually met them in the flesh, nevertheless constituted the first wave of Zionists, even before the Jewish Zionists from Eastern Europe began to arrive in the 1860’s and later. When American Presidents supported Israel, including Truman, Reagan and Bush, we tended to discount their religious convictions.

Missionaries: While some Christian missionaries focused on restoration of the Jews, many other intended to convert the Muslims to an enlightened, modern and Christian way of life. But, they were notably unsuccessful and some of them were killed in the process. Maybe the British missionaries had previously had similar experiences because they tended to focus on the far east. So gradually the American missionaries reverted to setting up schools and clinics that were appreciated by the locals. These institutions became very influential in the Middle East and included the American Universities in Beirut and Cairo and Robert’s Schools in Damascus and Turkey. In these schools local Arabs learnt about nationalism and socialism and there is little doubt that the anti-Ottoman and anti-colonialist views taught by the American instructors lead to the radicalization of many young Arabs.

Fantasy: Many Americans learnt about the Middle East from the Chicago Great Exhibition of 1893 (set up for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America). On the Midway the most popular exhibits were those of the Middle East, set up by Sol Bloom a young Jewish man from California who made a lot of money on it, and later became an influential Congressman. It is reported that millions of Americans from the Mid-West came to see these exhibits. Another source of fantasy was developed by the journalist Lowell Thomas, who was chiefly responsible for promoting the myth of Lawrence of Arabia. He toured the US and the world giving lectures and lionizing both Lawrence and Prince Faisal, the model of the brave Arab desert dweller. Then of course there was Rudolph Valentino and "The Sheikh of Araby." Of course, in time, these fantasies gave way to the realities of Arab cruelty and political extremism.

Egypt: Egypt tended to be ignored by the missionaries, but the local ruler, the Khedive, wanted to be free of Ottoman rule. He was afraid of the British and French, who he feared had colonial designs on his country, so he decided to employ Americans to establish the first Egyptian army. In 1868 he invited Thaddeus Mott a former confederate officer to come to Egypt with a corps of other American former officers to carry out this task. In 1869 a group of some 20 officers under the command of former Confederate General Loring arrived and worked in Egypt of several years. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that they established the foundations of modern Egyptian independence. They also undertook two expeditions to the Sudan. A total of 48 Civil War officers worked for and fought for Egypt. However, in the end their efforts were in vain because the British occupied Egypt and the Sudan and remained there until after WWII.

Statue of Liberty: Many think that the iconic Statue of Liberty in NY harbor was designed to stand there. But, it was not! Originally it was conceived by its designer Frederic Bartholdi to stand at the entrance of the Suez canal and was to have been an Egyptian peasant woman holding a torch of enlightenment. But, funds ran out in 1871, so he sought an alternative site that would accommodate it, and happened to hit on NYC. The Statue was paid for by the French Govt. and the pedestal by the American people. Of course, he had to redesign the figure, since an Egyptian peasant woman was not considered appropriate.

Turkey: US relations with Turkey were complex. Under the Ottoman Empire the US was generally hostile because of the mistreatment of minorities, including Armenians and Jews. In fact, the US was the leading country trying to help the Armenians during the genocide of 1917-23, but without much success. The US was also very careful not to antagonize the Porte because of the many missionaries and schools throughout the Empire that could be attacked by Muslims if they ordered it.

WWI: Although the US declared War on Germany in WWI it did not declare war on Turkey! This had enormous consequences. The reasons President Woodrow Wilson decided against this was first the large number of missionaries throughout the Ottoman Empire and second because Congress and the American people were not in favor of extending the war. As a result of this decision, when the Paris Peace Conference convened in 1919, the US was unable to influence the outcome in the ME. Pres. Wilson was strongly against the colonial plans of Britain and France to “carve-up” the ME. So there was a deadlock until a minor official suggested the idea of Mandates. At first this was rejected, but then became a compromise. It was suggested that the US have the Mandate for Palestine and Syria, but the British would not agree and they had the troops on the ground to prevent it. Finally Britain took the Mandate for Palestine and Iraq and France for Syria, and then carved out Lebanon. The US was supposed to get the Mandate for central Turkey and Armenia, but the Congress was afraid of foreign entanglements and so it was canceled. What would have happened if the US had declared war on Turkey and had taken the Mandate for Palestine? In effect these were the first peace negotiations of the ME and eventually they failed, since the British were forced to give up their Mandate principally by the Jewish insurgency.

Oren labels the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 as "the first ME peace process." Since then American Presidents have labored to find a formula or solution to the complex situation, and so far all have failed. Perhaps Pres. Obama should recognize this before he puts all his prestige into such an endeavor.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Proximity talks?

In order to cover his arse (or ass as they say in the US), Pres Abbas of the PA has applied to the Arab League for permission to engage in "proximity talks" with Israel mediated by Sen. George Mitchell, special envoy of US Pres Obama. This is an unusual move for two reasons, first the Arab League is usually ignored by individual Arab countries because it has no power and little influence. Second, the Palestinians in latter times have been noted by their rejection of any control by other Arab countries who were defeated by Israel in previous wars and who they regarded as oppressors. So the main reason why Abbas is doing this now is because he is so weak that he feels he needs Arab support so that the Arab countries will not attack him for dealing with Israel.

Before the Arab League met, the Syrian Government spokesman predicted that the Arab League will reject Abbas's request. He did that because, of course, Syria belongs to the rejectionist front and is an ally of Shia Iran, Lebanese Hizbollah and Gaza Hamas. They all oppose any negotiations with Israel and in fact oppose any peace with Israel. But, at the same time the US under Pres. Obama has sent a new Ambassador to Syria in order to improve bilateral relations. Talk about mixed messages.

It is true that direct talks between Israel and the PA have not produced any breakthroughs in the past 16 years, while now the PA places a precondition of a freeze on building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. While PM Netanyahu has not agreed to a freeze in East Jerusalem, the matter of building there has been curiously quiet in the past few weeks since the Biden visit to Jerulalem and the embarrassment of the announcment of building in Ramat Shlomo. There have been reports that this quiet is due to an unannounced agreement between Netanyahu and Obama that Israel will not initiate new building in Arab areas of East Jeruslaem and refrain from further new building beyond the "green line" the former border between Israel and the West Bank for the time being. But, several Government agencies, including the PMO and the Foreign Ministry have denied that any such "silent" agreement exists.

In effect, everyone realizes that Obama has squeezed as much out of the Netanyahu Government as he is going to get. Indeed, as a result of the pressure, Netanyahu has reevaluated previous agreements, made by PM Sharon, to remove all "hill-top" outposts in the West Bank. Since that agreement has now been superseded, such outposts will no longer be removed except as required by Israeli law. So finally, after squeezing Israel, Obama has put pressure on Abbas and the PA to return to negotiations, and so we can expect proximity talks to start soon, and the Arab League will approve them.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hung Parliament?

The current election campaign in the UK has produced a major surprise, namely the LIberal Democrats (LibDems) have gained significantly in popularity. This results from their young leader Nick Clegg doing well in the first (yes first!) televised election debate in British history. Clegg (43) gained because of his youthful appearance and his criticism of the "politics as usual" approach of the incumenbent Labour Party under Gordon Brown and the Conservatives under David Cameron.

Although the Conservatives have been expected to win and replace Labour as the largest party in Parliament, the sudden rise of the LibDems have put that anticipated outcome in jeopardy. The old-time Liberal Party held sway in England 100 years ago before the rise of the Labour-socialist movement that effectively replaced it. In recent years the reorganized LibDems have gradually gained ground, although they have usually been a minority party with only ca. 20 seats out of 650 in Parliament. But, current estimates are that they could win nearly 30% of the vote, replacing Labour as the second largest party, and could have between 90-120 seats. That would result in a "hung" Parliament, i.e. for the first time in British history there would be no party with enough seats to form a government alone, and then there would have to be a coalition government. This has happened before in the UK, in 1974 and 1929, but in each case it was because there was no clear majority between the two major parties. Such an outcome is unusual in constituency representation systems like the UK and US, but common in proportional representation systems like France and Israel.

Since the LibDems usually vote with Labour against the Conservatives, this situation might mean a Lab-LibDems coalition. Note that the LibDems tend to be more anti-war and anti-Israel than Labour. David Cameron, the vigorous new leader of the Conservatives has been warning that a vote for the LibDems is equivalent to a vote for Labour, but this of course infuriates the LIbDems. This trend could be seen in several ways, either as a historic rejection of the Labour Party, even in its incarnation as the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or of a preferance for simply a youthful candidate and image due to the growing youth culture in the UK. Whatever the reason, this three party system might throw up unusual results. Of course, there are other small parties, including the extreme left Communists and the extreme right British Union Party, as well as the anti-EU UK-First Party and the Scottish, Welsh and Irish parties. And their increased support might provide further surprises int eh election due on May 6.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Greece is the basket case of Europe. They are part of the Euro-zone which has strict economic requirements to join, but Greece has been a socialist country for many years under its PM George Papandraeou with enormous social benefits, and together with the economic downturn this has caused huge deficits in Greece. In order to help Greece, and because several other Euro-zone countries such as Portugal, Spain and Ireland have been having similar difficulties, the EU leadership met last month to see what they could do. But, unlike the US, the EU has no common economic system to subsidize each other. In fact, apart from agreeing to give Greece guaranteed low-interest loans, the other EU countries led by Germany did nothing. This left Greece to take major austerity measures that caused several nationwide strikes. Finally it now appears that Greece has a need for 60 billion Euros or the country will default, and they could not get these funds from private sources. So they went to the EU countries and asked for the loans that they had offered, but so far they are not forthcoming.

It seems now that there are three possibilities, either Germany will agree to foot the bill for the loans, or Greece will default, and if it does it may be forced to leave the EU. This would be a disaster for the EU, not only because of the financial situation and the apparent weakness of the Euro, but there are several other countries waiting in the wings to see what happens. You can be sure that the financial powers that be (including George Soros) will be betting that that Greece will defalut and they will make enormous profits if it does.

Two further comments, first, the UK and the USA are both in financial difficulties, for different reasons. In the UK it is because they did not handle the economic downturn very well, but in the US it's because Obama paid enormous sums to the banks and also now has to foot the bill for the healthcare plan. We hope they both pull out of it. The other comment is that Israel is not in a similar situation to Greece, its economy is strong. There are several reasons for this, first when Netanyahu was Finance Minister in Sharon's Government he forced the financial system to reform to a more capitalist model. Also, the banking system in Israel is much stricter, so there were very few bad loans made. Also, Israel's system is based largely on technological exports to the world that gives it a cushion from local fluctuations. So whenever we complain remember that there are others worse off than us.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The false religion of Mideast peace

Aaron David Miller, an American Jewish expert on the Middle East and an advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State for the past 20 years, has finally seen the light! He has published an article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled "The false religion of Mideast peace: and why I am no longer a believer."

I used to see Dr. Miller hanging around in the background at Mideast peace conferences and I used to despise him. He was not alone, there are a whole coterie of such Jewish advisors, including Dennis Ross and former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and today we have Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. As an American Jew myself I regarded them as little better than traitors, clever ones of course, but "court Jews" able to argue that they knew what was best for the Jewish state and so could advise their bosses how to handle Israel and its leaders.

But, surprise, surprise, when they leave office they suddenly revert and become great supporters of Israel and then write books and articles on how wrong they were, unfortunately, when they had the ear of the US President. As an example, Dennis Ross admitted in his 2004 memoir "The Missing Peace:the inside story of the fight for Middle East peace," that he routinely paid Arafat bribe money in order to try to get him to make an agreement, but it didn't work. Now Miller has also come clean, and lo and behold he admits that all those years he was wrong, he was pushing a "peace process" that was illusory. Now I and many others could have told these gentlemen that they were wrong at the time, that Arafat would never make a deal, however much he was bribed, and that there never was any real peace process with the Palestinians because they are incapable of making peace as they are currently constituted. But, at the time they were the "experts" and I and my colleagues were merely "pro-Israel."

In his article Miller admits that Bibi Netanyahu once told him "You live in Chevy Chase (an affluent suburb of Washington), don't play with our future." That is the problem, these supposed expert American Jews thinking that they can pressure Israel in order to get the Arabs to make an agreement. And that is precisly what we have now, with Senator Mitchell fronting for Pres. Obama, Secty of State Clinton and their Jewish and non-Jewish advisors, including Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Zbigniew Brczynski and others. Indyk has recently excelled himself by warning Israel to accept Obama's dictates. Given that Miller now concludes after 20 years of experience that there is no hope for a so-called "peace process" he advises that "the last thing that Obama needs now is an on-going fight with the Israelis and their supporters, or worse a major foreign policy failure." Michael Oren in "Power, faith and fantasy," his comprehensive history of "America in the Middle East," concludes that "The attempts of every president, starting with Truman, to resolve the Arab-Israel dispute tended to tarnish, rather then burnish, America's image in the area." Obama take note!

(original article at: )

Friday, April 23, 2010

"Against the tide"

Wednesday night we saw the documentary "Against the tide" at the Macdonald shool in Netanya. It was made by Moriah Films, a division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, directed by Richard Trank and narrated by Dustin Hoffman. It is a scathing indictment of the passivity and even the deliberate indifference of the US Government and American Jewry to the plight of European Jews during the Holocaust. It is at the same time a stirring account of the activities of the young Palestinian immigrant to the US Peter Bergson and a heart-rending account of the continuing massacres that he was trying to prevent, carried out as a deliberate policy by the German Nazi Government.

The information about the massacres of the Jews began to be known in the US shortly after they began in earnest in 1941, about the time that the US entered the war against Nazi Germany. The official Jewish organizational leadership were very concerned that American Jews not be seen as both pushing the US towards war and selectively helping the Jews of Europe and not pressuring Pres. Roosevelt whom they supported. Rabbi Stephan Wise was the acknowledged leader of US Jewry and he typically took a passive, don't rock the boat, attitude. A friend of Roosevelt, he eschewed directly proposing any policy that might have saved Jewish lives while Roosevelt himself was personally unenthusiatic about such actions. Added to which a number of Roosevelt's advisors were themselves actively anti-Semitic, including Secty of State Stimson and the crucial head of State's Visa Section Breckenridge Long. How do we know about their bigoted opinions, from the documentary evidence that is the backbone of this film.

Into this sorry situation came Peter Bergson, real name Hillel Kook, grandson of the famous Rabbi Kook, Chief Rabbi of Palestine as it was then. He had been forced to take a pseudonym to avoid arrest by the British who had stopped all Jewish immigration into Palestine when it was most needed. Bergson, seeing that Jews in Europe were being decimated while the Jews of America were playing it safe, took an activist approach. He organized a public campaign for action to save Jewish lives, he put pressure on the Roosevelt Administration with ad campaigns in major newspapers, by organizing major rallies in cities around the US and by persuading about one third of the Congressmen to support action to save Jewish lives. The most despicable aspect of this situation was that the official Jewish communtiy leadership under Rabbi Wise did everything they could to undermine Bergson's rescue plans instead of trying to help him.

Eventually Roosevelt responded to the pressure and established the War Refugee Board, that sent emissaries into the cauldron of war in order to save Jewish lives. One of them was the notable Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. It is estimated that the WRB saved ca. 250,000 Jewish lives, but it was too little, too late. By the time the war ended in 1945 6 million Jews had been killed. They were being killed at a rate of ca. 4,000 a day, hoping vainly that the powerful American Jewish community was working to save them. Moral of this story, never depend on Jews in the Galut for anything.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Whose friend?

Recently I have been inundated by articles critical of Pres. Obama's policies towards Israel, often by died-in-the-wool Democrats, that represent a turning point in American Jewish support for Obama. Typical are the critical statement issued by the Head of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder ( ) and an article ("A dangerous silence") by former NY Mayor Ed Koch ( ). Also, the NY Times published an important front-page story that is indicative of this change of US policy:
"It was just a phrase at the end of Pres Obama's news conference on Tuesday, but it was a stark reminder of a far-reaching shift in how the United States views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how aggressively it might push for a peace agreement. When Mr. Obama declared that resolving the long-running Middle East dispute was a “vital national security interest of the United States,” he was highlighting a change that has resulted from a lengthy debate among his top officials over how best to balance support for Israel against other American interests. This shift, described by administration officials who did not want to be quoted by name when discussing internal discussions, is driving the White House’s urgency to help broker a Middle East peace deal. It increases the likelihood that Mr. Obama, frustrated by the inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to terms, will offer his own proposed parameters for an eventual Palestinian state. Mr. Obama said conflicts like the one in the Middle East ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure” — drawing an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere."
( )

The demands made by Pres. Obama on PM Netanyahu at their difficult last meeting in the White House have become clear during the past few weeks:
Israel should extend the building freeze on the West Bank beyond the 10 month period.
Israel should extend the freeze on building to East Jerusalem.
Israel should withdraw IDF forces from around the PA cities to the positions held before the last intifada.
Israel should release all Palestinian prisoners.
Israel should remove roadblocks within the West Bank to allow greater movement of Palestinian people.
Israel should remove the blockade of Gaza.

Note that all these demands apply to Israel; as far as we know the Obama Administration has made no direct demands on Pres. Abbas and the PA. In fact these demands are exactly what the Palestinians want. With this one-sided attitude, notwithstanding the fine sentiments expressed by Secty of State Clinton on Israel's Independence Day, we must be very worried. Another straw in the wind, Israel has released information that Syria has smuggled Scud cruise missiles to Hizbullah in Lebanon, contrary to UN resolution SC1701 that ended the Secdon Lebanon War. Hizbullah have confirmed that they have received Scud missiles, although they claim they are "old" versions. But, the US refuses to confirm this, only saying that there are "reports" of this smuggling. Meanwhile, at the same time Obama has sent a new US Ambassador to Syria to improve bilateral relations. It is this cozying up to Islamic extremist States that should make every freedom-loving American worried and suspicious. During Obama's watch Lebanon has lost its sovereignty, Hizbollah has re-armed to an incredible extent (they now have 40,000 rockets and can hit any part of Israel), Iran is fast approaching achieving nuclear weapons, and Obama continues to talk about sanctions and to put pressure on Israel. With friends like these who needs enemies!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Burma Road

On Yom Haatzmaut we went on a hike with some of our daughter's friends to one of the most important sites related to the 1948 War of Independence. The trip leader was Ken Quinn who is an experienced guide. We drove past the area of Latrun, where there were several major battles, unfortunately won by the British-trained Jordanian Legion, the best Arab fighting force at that time. The British had built a huge Taggart fortress there, named after the architect who designed them, to "pacify" the populace. But, when the British withdrew they transferred it to the Jordanians (who incidentally had illegally invaded the country). So there was a bulge into what became Israel that was part of the West Bank controlled by the Jordanians. When the IDF defeated these forces in 1967, the Fortress was captured. Since it no longer had any strategic significance it was taken over by the Armoured Corps as their museum and is visited by tens of thousands of people on Yom Haatzmaut, particularly kids who love to climb on the tanks. Since it was so crowded, we did not stop there but went further down Rte. 3 to the road to Neve Shalom, where there was little traffic.

Neve Shalom is a village where both Jews and Arabs live together. Although they often don't agree they still manage to maintain their community. Off to the side is a dirt road that leads through the countryside to another dirt road that is both rocky and steep. This is the so-called "Burma Road," named after the road built in Burma in 1938 by the Allies using local peasants, who labored for months in extreme conditions to build the road that enabled the Allies to supply the Chinese through Burma. The Israeli version was built by the Jews through the hills of the Jerusalem forest in 1947 in order to supply Jerusalem, which was cut off, besieged and bombarded by the Jordanian Arab Legion. The main road to Jerusalem goes through narrow canyons and many convoys of hastily armored trucks were shot at on the road and many Jews were killed.

In order to break the siege, the Israeli higher command ordered an alternate and parallel road be built that was secret so that the Arab maurauders could not ambush them. This was done successfully under the command of Col. Mickey Marcus, an American officer, who was unfortunately killed by accident (as seen in the film "Cast a Giant Shadow"). We hiked part of that road, still in a relatively inaccessible part of the country, in the blistering heat. The gradients were indeed steep and it is a wonder how they managed to get trucks through there.

Then we returned to Modi'in where we enjoyed a traditional barbecue at the home of one of the friends and had a very nice time. Of this group of friends, mainly from the University of Maryland, there were 6 couples present of 8 who made aliyah and in the apartment there were 17 children. This is how our little country grows.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Israel is 62!

These days are special days in Israel. Sunday night was the beginning of Yom Hazikaron, Memorial day for Israel's fallen (not to be confused with Yom Hashoah, the Memorial day held last week for the martyrs and fighters of the Holocaust). Immediately following Yom Hazikaron this evening ushers in Yom Ha'atzmaut, Independence Day, celebrated according to the Hebrew Calendar.

On Yom Hazikaron we participated once again in the official commemoration ceremony at Yad Labanim, the Memorial Center that is found in every city that contains the records of its citizens who were killed either in the wars while serving in the IDF or by terrorism. To date there have been 22,684 men and women killed in the service of the country or as a result of terrorist attacks. If anyone asks how do we know exactly the number, it is because we regard each life as precious and everyone killed is recorded and listed. Of course, other countries do this too, such as the names of ca. 50,000 American soldiers killed on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. The ceremony in Netanya started with the sounding of a siren at 8 pm and then there was the lighting of the torches by bereaved families and speeches, music and poems. Then there was the wreath laying ceremony, where we (undeservedly) laid the wreath on behalf of Americans and Canadians in Israel living in Netanya.

During the following Day there was another siren at 11 am and then a national ceremony held in Jerusalem. Finally at 8 pm on Monday the mood changed from sombre to celebration, and crowds gathered in each city for the event. We walked downtown at 9 pm, and saw huge crowds, almost at a standstill. There were stages in several places and bands were pumping out loud music at ear-splitting levels. There were kids running all over the place squirting each other with liquids and parents pushing toddlers in carriages. We decided that was enough for us so we turned around and came home. When the fireworks started at 10.15 pm we went up on our roof and saw some of it. Not like July 4 on the Mall in Washington, but very nice nonetheless.

We take pride in the existence and accomplishments of our little, beleaguered state after 62 years. This is Herzl's 150th birthday and Herzl stated "if you will it, it is no dream." He also said that the State will not be handed to us on a silver platter and the cost is the price we pay in blood. But, nothing can deter us, not the continued intransigence of the Arab people, not the do-good liberals who think that the poor Palestinians are more deserving than we are, not the antagonistic Jews who feel that a Jewish State undermines their security in the Galut, not the anti-Semites who use Israel as an excuse for their venomous bias, and not the American politicians, including Pres. Obama, who talk out of both sides of their mouths. Let me state categorically, our capital city Jerusalem will not be divided! If you want to divide a city go and divide your own, we will not let it happen here. Yom ha'atzmaut samech!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Helping Chile

Last Wednesday evening we went to a concert at Beth Israel Conservative Congregation organized by Rabbi Birnbaum that was one of the best concerts we have ever seen/heard here in Netanya. The level of artistry was superb and the performers were excellent. But that wasn't what was unusual about this concert, what was is that it was given as a fund-raiser for the Jews of Conception, Chile. The recent earthquake there demolished their synagogue and they have no funds to rebuild it. So in a reverse of the former pattern, we Jews in Israel were collecting money to help Jews in the Diaspora. Although the North American Jewish community is very wealthy, that is not true of others dotted around the world, and as I have argued elsewhere, the center of gravity of Jewish life has now transferred from the Diaspora to Israel.

About the performers, there was our great favorite, violinist Adrian Justus, who immigrated from Mexico, and who plays the violin divinely. He played Mendelsohn's violin concerto on his Stradivarius with only piano accompaniment. What a virtuoso, certainly world class. Then my personal favorite Yulia Masti sang, she is as gorgeous as her voice is beautiful. She was striking in a red silk dress, she is about 6 ft 2 in tall, very curvy, with long brunette hair and a bewitching smile and she has a great pair of lungs too! The baritone, Michael Gaysinsky, has a powerful voice and he is quite short, a full head shorter than Yulia, and very playful. So they had great fun in duets, with her looking down on him. They sang in English, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish. There was also a world class Dombra (small balalaika) player Teddy Shushenkov, originally from Russia, whose instrument is like a mandolin and he made it sing. Then there were several piano accompanists, most particularly Nadia Fridkovsky, who organized the concert. What a show!

I must say that we are incredibly lucky to have this level of performance artists so close by at such low cost that I have to say if anyone wants to retire, this is the place! Where could you get such entertainment, not in a retirement village in Florida or living alone in a large city. As well as helping fellow Jews in the Diaspora the audience was rapturous for this concert,

Friday, April 16, 2010


Recently there has been a spate of apologizing, for example,

1. The Pope apologized to victims of pedophilia at the hands of Catholic priests and for the cover-up by higher Church authorities (excluding himself of course).

2. The Pope's personal priest (aren't his own prayers good enough?) Raniero Cantalamessa, in a sermon at the Vatican, compared the campaign against the Church due to the pedophilia scandal to anti-Semitism. What Catholic chutzpah, especially since the Church was responsible for both anti-Semitism and the cover-up of priestly pedophilia. After a brief delay the priest apologized to the Jewish community.

3. US President Obama has apologized to the world's Muslims on behalf of the USA in case they think that they have been improperly implicated in terrorism. He is having terms like "jihad" and "Muslim terrorism" removed from all US government documents. As if it never happened. By the way, who did those nasty deeds?

4. An Oxford student yelled "Kill the Jews" at Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, when he spoke at the Oxford Union in February. The President of the Oxford Union debating society apologized without real regret.

5. UC President Mark Yudof and campus Chancellor Michael Drake apologized for the students' behavior when Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren was shouted down and 11 were arrested at UC Irvine in February.

6. A few of the British MPs who took expenses for houses they didn't own and for private work that they should have paid for, have apologized. No need to know their names since you won't be hearing from them again for a long time.

7. Of course, Tiger Woods apologized to his fans and his wife for having had affairs with supposedly 11 gorgeous women. Was he apologizing because the women were gorgeous, because there were so many of them or because he was caught. Anyway, not to trivialize the trivial, but who cares.

8. Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, apologized for once predicting that Barack Obama could become the country’s first black president because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect.” “I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words,” Mr. Reid said in a statement. “I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans, for my improper comments.”

9. Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning apologized Monday to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for saying he believes she could die within a year from pancreatic cancer. "I apologize if my comments offended Justice Ginsberg," the two-term Kentucky junior senator said in a statement which misspelled Ginsburg's name.

10. It was reported from Gaza by most of the media that a teenager, Muhammad Ismail Al-Farmawi, 15, was shot dead near the Gaza border by Israeli forces. However, a few days later the boy turned up alive! He had infiltrated Egypt thru a tunnel under the Gaza border, had been imprisoned and tortured and then released. This is another example of the gullible western press accepting an uncorroborated Palestinian story. Will they never learn? However, in this case the media did not apologize!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Slaying the dragon

When something goes wrong or life does not fit into the neat pattern that I like, I saddle up my trusty steed Entropy and gallop off into the nearest forest, where I slay the first dragon that I see (it would be best to slay the dragon of chaos, but he is always distant). It doesn't necessarily resolve the offending problem, but it does make me feel better.

After I have returned and taken off my armour, I then focus on the problem at hand. In this case a niggling little problem, very trivial. Our new TV in the bedroom and the new electronic box require extra electrical plugs. The problem is that the plug on the TV has a hard plastic connection from the electrical cable that makes the direction of the prongs at right angles to the cable. There is an electrical socket conveniently at the back of the chest of drawers, but while plugs with soft or linear connections go into it, the TV plug will not, there is not enough clearance. So I used a multi-point adaptor plugged in, but this is especially a problem since the end of the TV plug forces the whole adapter upwards and causes a bad connection and sometimes a short and everything goes off. What a miserable trivial problem.

There are several ways to fix this problem, one is cutting off the TV plug and replacing it with another convenient one. But, that is too easy and also is somewhat destructive (remember the handyman's oath, first do no harm). Another is to use a multi-point extension cord. But, unfortunately the exension cord that I have, with four sockets, also has an identical hard plastic connector which is at right angles to the prongs, so that doesn't go in and the problem remains. After studying the problem for a short time (I have been known to exaggerate) and after sleeping on it, I came up with an ideal solution. First, I turned off the electricity to that room and I checked by making sure the light plugged into that socket went out (this part is best done in the absence of the wife). Then I unscrewed the cover off the wall socket, unscrewed the two side screws that tighten the socket into its hole, and then turned the socket manually upside down! Then I simply retightened the side screws and replaced the cover and viola! (is that Spanish?) I could then plug the extension cord (or the TV plug) into the socket and then attach the four items (TV, box, light, fan) into the extension cord. When I turned the electricity back on everything worked fine. Problem solved! Who says that a bit of collateral damage isn't good for the system.

This could have been an entry in my putative book "Husbandry" where everything practical would be explained.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Always there

On Holocaust Memorial Day it was reported that anti-Semitic attacks against property and people doubled around the world in 2009. This is attributed to the IDF Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in January, 2009.

One of the worst indicators is that the far-right anti-Semitic, anti-Roma Jobbik party in Hungary won 16% of the votes in the recent election. Also, the BNP in Britain is expected to gain further votes in the general election in May and the same is true in France with Le Pen's party. Given the history of Europe and the tendency to make protest votes by voting against the incumbents and the established parties, it can be expected that the far right will receive about 5-20% of the vote in any election in any European country. So we shouldn't be surprised when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, it has been there all the time and will continue to be a feature of European politics and society.

But, the main concern of the Euopean far right parties is currently not with the Jews (they got rid of most of them) but the Muslims. The irony is that the far right is anti-immigration and the large numbers of Muslim immigrants has stoked a right wing reaction. This is especially true in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders Party is strongly anti-Muslim, after the murder of Theo van Gogh and other actions, but is also pro-Israel. They see Israel as the bastion fighting Muslim-based terrorism and wish to emulate it. Although the Muslims are strongly anti-Semitic they don't vote with the far right they vote with the far left that also tends to be anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. But, the left-wing parties have tended to not do so well in recent eletions, even though they make the most noise in demonstrations and anti-Israel actions. It is in reaction to them that many Europeans have tended to go to the right.

So European Jews are squeezed between the rising Muslim tide and the rising right-wing reaction. Truly the best place for them is Israel, that's why we are here. Certainly in modern, multi-cultural, liberal Europe, the Jews should have a place. In Germany this is certainly true where the State, for obvious historical reasons, is making every effort to attract Jews and support and defend Jewish communities. But, I for one cannot understand how Jews could go and live there. Now it seems more European Jews are coming to Israel, many visiting and some buying apartments and some staying. Israel was not hit badly by the economic depression, and has recovered well, and the housing market here has remained strong. There is widespread building of apartments in Israel, so there is a lot of choice available. Come and see!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Obama's intifada

There appear to be few prospects of renewed peace discussions between Israel and the PA under the present circumstances. Abu Rodeinah, spokesman for PA Pres. Abbas was interviewed on the BBC's Hardtalk program, and was asked why the Palestinians could not give up their precondition that all Israeli building be frozen, including East Jerusalem, so that talks could restart and his answer was in effect, if Pres. Obama requires a building freeze in East Jerusalem we can't ask for less.

Meanwhile Palestinian violence in East Jerusalem, that reached a climax last week when rumors that Israel was going to "attack" the Mosques on the Temple Mount (Har Habayit, Haram al Sharif) proved of course to be completely untrue. Even though Palestinian leaders called for Arabs to "defend" the Temple Mount, it was soon clear that there was nothing in effect to defend against. In the past these rumors were enough to result in anti-Jewish progroms, but now the security forces quashed the riots and the violence has died down. However, all commentators agree that there is an air of frustration and violence in the air and a full-fledged uprising, an intifada, is possible. This would be an insurrection against the Israeli "occupation" rather than a war, since the PA is not capable of fighting a war with the IDF, even though Hamas would like them to.

If there is another intifada, although having had three before and not having achieved anything you'd think that the Palestinians might have learned a lesson, it would result from and be directly attributable to Pres. Obama. It should be called Obama's intifada! It was clear that he was twisting PM Netanyahu's arm by meeting him in the White House without any photographers or journalists present, and trying to force him to accept a freeze on all building in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu made it abundantly clear before he left that he could not do this, and still retain his coalition and remain PM. Perhaps Obama wanted to deliberately destroy his coalition in order to get a more cooperative PM, such as Tzipi Livni of Kadima, but if so he didn't succeed. So now he has contented himself with currying favor with the Muslims while trying to isolate Israel within the international community. No wonder the Palestinians want to "test" Israel's resolve and no wonder Obama's policies have brought us to this unfortunate state of affairs.

There are two ways out. Either Israel caves, or Israel stands firm, and in due course once again defeats the Palestinian uprising. Also, if Obama continues to defer any actual action on Iran (talk is cheap) then Israel might be forced to take action. That might further isolate Israel within the international community, but many countries, not least the Arab States, would heave a sigh of relief if Israel were successful.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Holocaust Day

On Holocaust Martyrs and Fighters Memorial Day (Yom Hashoah) I reflect on the terrible things that were done to our people during WWII and ask why. From the hindsight of history and the safety of the Israeli State, it is hard to understand and explain some human behavior. I do not and cannot say that I would have acted any differently.

This evening we went to a Memorial service at the Conservative Synagogue Beth Israel. Rabbi Birnbaum, who is himself a survivor, organized a very meaningful program. This year they focussed on the Ghetto in Vilna. To summarize, at the beginning of the war there were 75,000 Jews in Vilna, and at the end barely 500 survived. Two days after capturing Vilna the Germans took a labor battalion of 5,000 Jewish men and marched them out of town and they were never seen again. This continued regularly for two years, and eventually the Jews discovered that these people were being murdered in the nearby forest of Ponar. A resistance movement sprang up, but it was very difficult and dangerous. The head of the resistance was Itzhak Wittenberg. He was betrayed to the Germans and they issued an ultimatum, either WIttenberg gives himself up or the Ghetto will be attacked. The Judenrat under Yaakov Gens which had been set up by the Germans in order to collaborate with them, demanded that he do so, although the fighters were against it. In the end, to avoid internal conflict, Wittenberg gave himself up on July 13, 1943, and died a hero's death. His name should be remembered forever as a blessing.

The Holocaust destroyed any belief I might have had in God. For centuries Jews prayed for God's intercession to help them, and what did they get, untold suffering and persecution. It seems profoundly stupid to keep praying for something that does not happen. To accept that God punishes people for their actions or lack thereof seems simply primitive. So either God does not exist or if he does he did not care. I agree with Einstein, who did not believe in the idea of a "personal" God. How would he/she/it keep track of the billions of humans (and animals?) and all their thoughts and actions? He would indeed need a big computer to do that, and if so where does it exist?

The alternative is a God who is remote from human behavior, who plays no moral role in what happens, who leaves us to our free will. If such a God exists he would be concerned only with the bigger events, the earthquakes, the eclipses, the tornadoes. But, most of these events can be explained by purely physical factors. Earthquakes occur because of movements of tectonic plates that make up the earth. If thousands of children were killed in China during an earthquake because of the collapse of shoddily built schools, can that be ascribed to God? I think not. We know that eclipses occur with great accuracy, we don't need God to explain them. Tornadoes occur with regularity in an area of the Gulf of Mexico and can be followed with radar with great detail. Does anyone nowadays believe that thunder represents God's anger, and lightning his retribution.

So if there is neither a personal nor a remote God, so why do we need God at all. Some might think that we need him to keep the laws of the universe operating smoothly, as we try to understand them. But, it seems fair to say that the laws of the universe operate smoothly without any intervention of any external power, be that of God or not. In any case this is a long way from the excessively pleading and complimentary platitudes that fill many prayer books.

Here we can digress to note that Western religions (Christianity) are activist religions in which man is expected to exercise free will and to act in the world, that is why Christian-based cultures conquered the globe. Meanwhile Eastern religons (Islam, Hinduism) are more passive, since they believe that God has already determined our fate, action by man is pointless. Judaism is somewhere between these two, balanced on a fine edge. Through the centuries of oppression and persecution Judaism became a passive religion, with excessive pleading to God and demanding less self-action by its adherents. Zionism not only gave Jews an active goal of self-determination, but freed Jews from the yoke of passivity.

Most experts agree that the majority of Germans who participated in massacres of Jews during the Holocaust were not themselves pathological or psychotic. Perhaps some of the leaders were, but few of the perpetrators. Most people agree that the majority of Jewish victims were not excessively passive or self-destructive. Studies of several cases of genocide, of Armenians in Turkey, of Tutsi in Rwanda, of Muslims in Bosnia, tend to show that the circumstances leave the victims defenseless and the perpetrators motivated by murderous group psychology. The terrible truth is that both sides were just ordinary people.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


There are two huge scandals rocking Israel these days:

1. The Anat Kamm spying case: Anat Kamm was the model of an Israeli, she was a scout and passed her security clearance and did national service as a secretary in military intelligence. During the course of her service in 2005-2007 she copied ca. 2,000 top secret documents and illegally removed them from her office copied on a CD. According to the reports she did this for "ideological" reasons, i.e. she was either a leftist or was against the existence of the State, because the documents she copied are of incredible importance to the safety of the people and the State of Israel, including plans for mobilization should there be a military emergency. This information could be of great value to any enemy of Israel, such as the Palestinians and Iran. Kamm then leaked some of these papers to a reporter, Uri Blau of Ha'aretz, a left leaning newspaper. Blau wrote several articles startign in 2008 based on these documents, although the articles were cleared for publication by the military censor (this also raises some questions). Eventually the Shin-bet (Israeli counter-intelligence agency) caught up with Blau. They made an agreement with him to return the papers he held and give up his laptop. But, later they caught Kamm, and she confessed to stealing far more documents than Blau acknowledged. Blau by this time had been allowed to leave the country on vacation. It is a serious question why the two of them were not immediately arrested. Kamm was put under house arrest where she continues her activites, and Blau is in London probably with top secret Israeli documents. By being sensitive to the fact that Blau is a reporter and in order to get their cooperation the Shin-bet has made mistakes that make the case much more difficult to prosecute. For some time the Judge placed the case under a gag order here in Israel at the request of the prosecution, although the details were published in the international press. This allowed the Shin- bet to cover up their incompetence. No doubt we will be hearing much more about this case.

2. The Holyland Affair: The Holyland project is one of the most monstrous, ugly building projects anyone has ever seen. It is enormous and covers the entire top of a hill in the middle of west Jerusalem. The area is called "Holyland" after the hotel of that name that has been there for many years. The case came to light after the trial of former PM Ehud Olmert was suspended for a month while his possible involvement in this additional case is investigated. Eight men were arrested, including Olmert's former attorney Uri Messer, and the builders and owners of the Holyland project. It is alleged that they paid millions of dollars in bribes to get fast planning permission for this huge project, that would have been rejected by any reasonably conscious citizen. Not only is the place a colossal eyesore, but it raises the density of population in that area so much that it required the building of new roads and sewers at public expense, and other such developments are planned in the Tel Aviv area and in the north. It is a terrible reflection on the construction business in Israel that such people were able to get away with this for so long and that the corruption reached to the level of the Prime Minister!

There have been other scandals like these before in Israel and no doubt they occur in other countries. But, one wonders how many such scandals little Israel can take.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Church failures

The Pope recently issued a letter castigating the Irish Church hierarchy for their laxness in preventing sexual and physical abuse against children by Priests and Nuns and also for covering up the crimes. He also made a kind of lame apology, but he fell short of telling the Bishops to report the crimes to the police. One Irish Bishop was forced to retire. It is now clear that for centuries the Catholic Church has been a cesspool of immoral and illegal mistreatment of children in many countries, including Ireland, Germany, France, Canada and the USA.

What are we to make of this fact? Especially since Christ is held up as a figure of ideal values in Christianity. It shows, as Judaism knows, that celibacy is unnatural and humans are imperfect. Simply giving a report of their "sins" to a confessor in no way absolves these criminal-priests of their guilt. They should be arrested and tried in a criminal court as anyone else would be. Already there have been successful indictments against priests in Canada, Ireland and Germany. The accusers have also won millions of dollars from the Church in various law suits. Although the Church is immensely rich, it is being bled by these cases and the Church in Ireland is said to be going bankrupt. And so far relatively few of those who were abused as youngsters have come forward. What is most disturbing is the way the Church hierarchy, including the Pope when he was a Cardinal in Germany, covered up the abuse and allowed the priests to continue their activities in other parishes.

I am not surprised by these reports, since I have had a jaundiced view of the Church since I learnt of the lack of any response to Hitler's actions by the Pope of the time, Pius XII, who was called "Hitler's Pope" in an excellent book by Anthony Cornwell. It shows that although the Pope acted in a political way (closing down the anti-Nazi German Christian Democratic Party that was largely Catholic as part of the Concordat with Hitler) he failed to act in a moral way. So much for Christ's representative on Earth. There have also been several scandals of the Vatican Bank, some years ago the Director of the Bank went missing and was found hanged under London Bridge in London! The case was never solved.

If I were a Catholic I would certainly be reconsidering the basis of my faith around now.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Palestinian sex scandal

There is a sex scandal in the PA, showing that the Palestinians are not perfect, as many leftists seem to think they are. The leftist doctrine that Palestinians "can do no wrong" and that it's all the fault of the Israelis is severely tested by this scandal.

Two months ago the Jerusalem Post published an interview with Fahmi Shabaneh, a former PA intelligence chief, who claimed that Rafik Husseini, Head of Pres. Abbas' bureau, had had illicit sex with a Palestinian woman, and that the woman had complained that she was being exploited by him. As head of the Intelligence Bureau's anti-corruption unit, Shabaneh was in a position to know about this corruption. Also, he gave Channel 10 a video showing Husseini naked in bed with the woman and saying that Pres Abbas is "weak" and has no charisma and that Arafat had been "one of the biggest swindlers." The initial reaction of the PA to this scandal, dubbed "Fatahgate," was to deny it, to order all material related to it to be destroyed and to label Shabaneh as an "Israeli collaborator."

However, now an official Commission of Enquiry in the PA has found that Shabaneh was telling the truth, and Abbas has now fired Husseini and also his boss Tawfik Tarawi, who currently heads the PA's Military Academy. In his comments Shabaneh, who resigned from his position, gave examples of other "corruption" including misuse of large sums of PA funding. Although this has been known for some time, Shabaneh gave specific examples. Shabaneh was also summoned to give testimony before the Commission in Ramallah but declined to go, fearing for his life. He lives in an Israeli suburb of Jerusalem.

Although the economic situation in the West Bank (PA) has improved over the past few years, this scandal once again shows that Fatah is run by entrenched corrupt bureaucrats. If there is ever another election (Abbas is currently illegally holding office) it is likely that Fatah will be replaced by Hamas, as they were in Gaza, and this could be even worse for Israel. Hamas may not be as corrupt as Fatah, but they are far more dangerous.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Golden calf

This is not a sermon, although it might seem like one. One of the chief differences between Judaism on the one hand and Christianity and Islam on the other, is that the daughter religions worship exemplars of human behavior who are deemed "perfect." Although Judaism has its share of heroes, none of them are "perfect," they all have flaws. For example, Moses, one of the greatest individuals recorded in the Bible, supposedly struck a rock in order to produce water for the thirsty children of Israel wandering in the desert, and God accordingly punished him. The punishment seems out of proportion to the crime, since Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, but only saw it from afar. Nevertheless the message was that Moses was a fallible human being and was not perfect. Similarly King Solomon, although very wise, was jealous of David, and David, when King, coveted the wife of his officer Uriah and so had him sent to the front line where he would likely be killed so he could "acquire" his wife.

By contrast, Jesus Christ and Mohammed were supposedly perfect. They never sinned and their lives are held up as exemplars to their followers. They were if you like "golden" in all their characteristics. The Rabbis of Judaism warned the people against accepting such a perfect human as their leader. All humans are flawed and Judaism recognizes this, and that is why no human being has ever been elevated to the level of God in Judaism. Now some might argue that Jesus is considered to be "the son of God" in Christianity, and Mohammed is definitely not to be confused with Allah, he is his messenger. But, the bowing down to statues of Christ on the Cross and the general adulation of Mohammed (to the extent that drawing a likeness of him merits the death penalty) in these religions is forbidden in Judaism.

The Rabbis like to draw examples from the Bible, and it was made clear that worshipping the Golden Calf in Sinai was unacceptable to the new religion being born there. Worshipping any idol or human was forbidden, since no human can be perfect. Throughout history there have been humans who have sought to be considered as Gods, Hitler and Stalin come to mind. Another person vying for the position is Pres. Obama. He appears to consider himself above the fray of everyday life, but approaches everything from a high-minded attitude. He is prepared to deal with Iran even when the leader of that regime spouts offensive opinions and threatens destruction. He has changed the US policy on nuclear weapons, and he thinks this will affect the Iranian regime. Pres. Wilson and PM Chamberlain in an earlier period made the same kind of mistake. No one is perfect!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Passover is the story of a journey. It is the journey of the children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, a journey from slavery to freedom, and from being a tribe to becoming the Jewish nation.

This journey is unique, but many journeys are at the heart of world literature. One of the first examples was the journey of Odysseus from Troy to his home in Greece that took ten years and was beset by many trials and temptations as described in "The Odyssey." Dante's "Inferno" describes a journey through the nine circles of hell. Cervantes "Don Quixote" describes the journeys of a man from illusion to reality. The Icelandic sagas tell of journeys that are the foundations of a nation, and there are Polynesian myths about their great seafaring journeys and Hungarian myths about the journeys of the Huns and Magyars from central Asia to central Europe. But all of these and many other journeys are not merely travels, but they also have a moral or a didactic element, from a time long before there was universal literacy and mass communications.

Yet, many of these classic tales have been resurrected in modern times, for example the modern versions of "The Odyssey" in Joyce's "Ulysses", from "The Inferno" to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "First Circle," from Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness" to the movie "Apocalypse Now." In each of these modern versions the journey also has a destination, not necessarily a physical one, but a metaphorical goal, a quest.

Literary stories such as "Moby Dick," that tells of a quest with great metaphorical significance, have been fashioned from real life events. And "Heart of Darkness," that was once thought to be purely imaginary, is now known to have been based on Conrad's year as a pilot of ferries on the Congo River. Other more fantastical examples are Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," and C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia," which are both designed for children, but with a strong ethical message. Then there are Charles Dodgson's "Alice's adventures in Wonderland" and Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz" that tell of imagined journeys from danger to the safety of home.

There are many examples of stirring journeys, such as "The man who would be King" by Rudyard Kipling about British India, or Patrick White's "Voss" a journey of discovery in Australia, and Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's mines," a journey into the heart of Africa. In the end all these quests are metaphors for our life's journey.

This article is based on a talk given by Debbie Steinberger, Head of the Literature Department at Touro College, Jerusalem.