Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Syrian shambles

The civil war in Syria has taken another turn towards the denouement of the Assad regime, with the clash in Aleppo between the insurgent Syrian Free Army and the regime's Syrian Army.  This emphasizes the fatal flaw of the regime, that it does not have enough forces to hold the whole country.  While it gathers its strength to try to hold onto Damascus and Aleppo, the FSA is able to hold large areas of the hinterland with only small forces because the majority of the Syrian people are against the regime.  The use of its airforce, helicopters and fighter jets is an indication of the extreme to which the regime will go to maintain its hold on the major cities, as Qaddafi did in Libya.
But, in Syria there is no intervention of international forces and no "no-fly zone" in order to protect civilian lives as there was in Libya.  The difference in Syria is that Russia is protecting its client Assad from such an intervention, with Chinese connivance, thus resulting in hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties.  US Secty. of State Clinton warned of massacres in Aleppo, but so far nothing has been done to stop it.  In Syria, as the civil war increasingly becomes a sectarian war, pitting Alawis against Sunnis and Kurds, the country is beginning to break up.  The Kurds have all but established their own enclave in the north east where the Syrian Army has lost control.  There is a rumor that in the north west area of Alawi control Assad will make his last stand and form a separate autonomy.  Israel will not cry if Syria breaks up. 
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are pouring into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon (Iraq closed its border). What will become of them?  They will probably change the balance of power in Jordan and Lebanon, leading to future clashes.  Israel remains an island of calm and stability in this sea of Arab turmoil.  Meanwhile the Syrian Army is pummeling Aleppo into submission, and destroying the city and noone seems to care.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Romney's visit

There is a clear distinction between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in respect to the degree to which they would support Israel.  Consider Obama's actual performance as President, 1. His visit to Cairo in 2009 to give a pro-Arab speech (Islam has made major contributions to American history??); 2. His opposition to Israeli settlements and his support for the Palestinians by calling for an Israeli building freeze on the West Bank (that led to the PA's refusal to negotiate); 3. His ill-treatment of Israeli PM Netanyahu in 2010 by making him enter the White House by the back door and making him wait; 4. An attempt to develop friendly relations with Iran (predictably a complete diplomatic failure); 5. His failure to visit Israel during his whole term; 6. His policy of always calling for Israeli concessions and gestures while never putting pressure on the Palestinians; 7. His policy of placating the new President of Egypt and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders, 8. His tendency to have aides who are linked to radical Muslim politics.  Perhaps the major failure of Barack Obama is allowing there to be diplomatic distance between the US and Israel in order to curry favor with Arab and other Muslim states.   If you think this pattern is perfectly acceptable for a US President then you are failing to acknowledge the fact that Obama is the least friendly President towards Israel in US history.
Mitt Romney is visiting Israel now and yesterday gave a major foreign policy address in Jerusalem.  His main theme was that Israel is a major ally of the US and if he is President he will support Israel diplomatically as well as with military and intelligence cooperation.  He will also support Israel if its Government finds it necessary to attack Iran's nuclear sites as a last resort, namely after diplomacy and sanctions have failed to work to deter Iran's nuclear weapons program.  This is music to Israeli ears, and unless you think this statement is purely designed to obtain Jewish votes and he is not sincere in his intentions, then you must admit that there is a clear distinction between Obama and Romney in the extent of their support for Israel. 
We in Israel face an existential threat from Iran, not only do they regularly declare their hatred for Israel and Jews and regularly threaten to "wipe Israel off the map," but they have made a mockery of the 10 year long diplomatic process trying to persuade them to stop their nuclear enrichment program.  We are fast approaching a time when a decision has to be made, whether to attack Iran and destroy its capability or live with a nuclear-armed Iran.  Such a nuclear-armed Iran is certainly not in US interests, but the question is whether or not the US will act, and/or support Israel if Israel acts.  The choice is clear, Obama will not act and will not support Israel if Israel acts, while Romney says that he will.  Those of you who read this and are American Jews should know that you face an ominous choice.  Please vote for Romney and give Israel a greater chance for survival.  If you make the wrong choice then there is no going back.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The opening ceremony

I enjoyed the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London, although at times it was a bit hard to follow what was going on.  As far as amazing effects and synchronization are concerned it did not compare to Beijing four years ago, but then China is a totalitarian state.  The contrast with Britain was absolute, with organizer Danny Boyle (who directed the award winning movie"Slumdog millionare") opting for color, action and outright chaos at times.
The beginning, with green fields and the appropriate song "Jerusalem" with the lyrics "England's green and pleasant land" was a good start, then turning into an industrial landscape with huge smoke stacks rising high out of the ground (how did they do that?), representing the industrial revolution that started in England.  But then it became somewhat unclear what was going on.  There was a tribute to the dead of the wars as well as dead athletes, and it was here that they could have included a reference to the 12 Israeli athletes killed in Munich 40 years ago, but they chose not to do so.  Then there was a big tribute to the National Health Service (to the Americans this is "socialized medicine" and they must have been bemused by the emotional attachment of Brits to the NHS) and also specifically to the Great Ormand Street Hospital (GOSH) for children.  I assume that Danny Boyle had a personal reason for picking this, because it would not be on most Brits select list.  The huge beds with children dressed in pyjamas and nurses and doctors (real ones) pushing them around with bright self-lighting mattresses and sheets was clever.  But, that section seemed to end in the presence of a huge scary baby doll that reminded me of "Toy Story III" more than anything else.  The bit about Mr. Bean, Rowan Atkinson, was an amusing distraction, with him inserted into the film of the athletes running in the sea from "Chariots of fire."
The storyline jumped through aspects of the 60s, with thousands of coloful dancers, as well as bits dedicated to "Harry Potter" and James Bond, with Daniel Craig and the Queen helicoptering and then parachuting down into the Stadium (of course, it really wasn't the Queen parachuting in).  I thought this bit about the Queen was really stupid, and when she got there she seemed totally bored. I could not for the life of me understand why they played the slow dirge "Abide with me."  Various music groups were commemorated, including the Beatles, with Sir Paul McCartney ending the ceremony with "Hey Jude," although why they chose that song, who knows?
In the middle of the cermony, the 204 delegations marched in in alphabetical order each behing their flag.  It was nice seeing the Israeli flag and delegation.  Note that "Palestine" was also represented there, but then the delegations don't have to be recognized sovereign  countries, for example, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa each had their own delegations, as well as several other "territories."  That's why there were 204 Olympic delegations while there are only 192 members of the UN which are recognized sovereign countries.
Finally there was the unfurling of the Olympic flag and the lighting of the Olympic flame.  Having it brought by boat along the Thames by David Beckham and then having the Olympic flame lit by a group of seven young athletes was a good idea.  And the way they lit the individual flames and then they were raised up to make a unified huge torch was very clever.  But, nothing can ever beat the lighting of the torch by an archer who shot the flame across the stadium at the Games in Sydney in 2000.  Nevertheless it was a great show that ended suitably with lots of fireworks. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Olympic fantasy

I have decided I could compete in the Olympic Games.  I could enter the events for jumping to conclusions or running in circles.  I am inclined to overcome any hurdle.  I wonder if the Poles vault or the equestrians horse around.  Is my analysis urinalysis.  I love tennis but am bad at badminton.  I confuse putting the shot and shooting the pot.  I can't tell the difference between the 100 meters and the parking meters.  The Cubans are best at boxing cigars, the Arabs prefer camel racing and the Lapps tend to be lapped.  The runners prefer fast food and the jumpers eat lots of beans.
Watching on TV makes me so tired, I don't need to exercise.  I have decided to visit London, but everything is booked, so I'm going next year.  By then even the longest races will be over.  Then we can stand where Usayn bolted and eat where Federer served.  We can ascend the Orbit or circle the Oval, rotate with the Eye or travel the Tube. Anything is possible.
The slogan of the Olympics is "faster, higher, stronger."  What about "slower, lower, weaker."  I remember seeing a Noh play in Tokyo.  My Japanese friend warned me against it, and he was right, it was excruciatingly slow, they applaud for the longest time that someone takes to make a step or utter a long drawn out syllable. This is definitely slower and they probably get gold medals for it.  I could compete, but I decided to leave in the interval, it was too slow for me. 
In the West Indies they have a dance called the Limbo, where dancers progress to rhythmic music underneath a bar held by two people at the ends, who keep lowering it.  The bar is supposed to represent the transition to death and the dance is competitive so that the person who passes underneath the lowest level of the bar wins.  Definitely gold medals for this.
In the Polynesian islands they have a competition for feather balancing.  The longer the feather the easier it is to balance, but it has been found that the stronger a person is the harder it is for them to balance the feather.  In fact, women are usually better at this sport than men, and in earlier times the woman who won was raped by the whole tribe.  Now that is frowned upon.
In the Maya culture long ago they played "The Ball Game" whereby two teams competed to pass a rubber ball through a vertical hoop high on the wall of a stone court, without touching it by hand.  You could use any other part of your anatomy, including your legs, hips and heads. Contrary to rumor, the winner who scored the goal was not killed, but was honored (gold medal?) while the losing team or its chief were sacrificed.  This would make a good Olympic sport.  Then there was gladiatorial combat as practised in Rome, but the Christians might object. 
Anyway, I'm away to my couch for a summer of watching, bring on the snacks and the soft drinks.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A minute of ambivalence

I am ambivalent about many things, it saves having to decide and actually act.  Maybe its a sign of age, I mean maturity, and wisdom.  But, I am especially ambivalent about this minute of silence at the Olympic Games opening ceremony.  Let's face it, the International Olympics Committee was anti-Semitic through most of its history and probably still is.  The originator of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertain, while espousing international cooperation, made no secret of his distaste for Jews.  It was the default fashionable belief then.
Certainly we should remember the 11 athletes who were killed as a result of a hostage situation at the Munich Olympics 40 years ago.  And we do that every time there is an Olympics, but it becomes too much.  It was the incompetence of the German security forces and the refusal of the German Government to allow IDF forces to participate that really led to the deaths of the Israeli athletes.  I don't like to stress our victimhood, let us rather remember our victories.  I doubt that many in the stadium, the competitors and those watching at home will appreciate a one-minute silence gesture, I think it only demeans the sacrifice and honor of those killed that we have to forcefully persuade them to allow it.  What do we really gain by shoving it down their throats when they aren't sympathetic?  I think the separate ceremony held by Jacques Rugge, the President of the IOC at the London Olympic Park would have been perfect had it been coordinated with Israeli and Jewish organizations beforehand, rather than being put on as a quick means to outflank the "one minute of silence" movement.  Its like the UN, to expect more is pointless. 
What would be more appropriate is if the IOC established a living memorial to the 11 murdered athletes, such as a scholarship program in athletics for underprivileged children in poorer countries that should include Israeli participation.  But, the IOC are dominated by Arab, Muslim and liberal views that want to have nothing to do with Israel.  The fact is that when the Israeli athletes went to compete in Munich they were there at the request of the IOC and were in effect under its jurisdiction.  The IOC should react as if their own members had been killed, not alien Israeli athletes.  But , that its the way the world is and emphasizing it does not do any good.  Let's get on with making sure that such a tragedy never occurs again, which means beefing up security, being concerned for the potential defense and escape routes of Israeli athletes and making sure that security forces are trained for all eventualities.That seems to be what the British are doing and we hope it produces a peaceful, safe and secure Games.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Two sides of the coin

The debate over universal national service that has consumed Israel these past weeks, and will continue even after a replacement for the Tal Law is passed, is a fundamental feature of Israel.  Since the enlightenment, that was started principally by non-Jews, there has been a strain within Judaism, as within Christendom, between those who seek to perpetuate traditional thinking and those who are "free thinkers," who are unbound by the chains of tradition. 
Yes, there is a lot to be said for tradition, and its place in Judaism is appropriately celebrated in song as well as in the intense debate that occurs in yeshivot over the meaning of the Torah and its rabbinical interpretations.  But, there is also a tendency among emancipated Jews for questioning tradition, for reaching for the new and the original.  That the latter tradition arises from the former does not diminish its significance.  The highest form of free thinking has become the pursuit of science, of new knowledge within a framework of rigorous experimentation and analysis. 
Originally science was the foundling of Christians who rejected the rigid teachings of the Church, that the world was 3,500 years old and was flat and that species were immutable.  They rather preferred to subject their opinions to testing and discovery and found that the world was in fact millions of years old and round and that species evolved.   People like Roger Bacon, Galileo, Newton and Darwin began the secular tradition that has its own scriptures, including "Principia Mathematica" and "The Origin of Species."  But, whereas the earliest foundations of science came out of the Christian experience, in the later stages, secular Jews predominated, such as Marx, Engels, Freud, and Einstein.  They have irretrievably left their mark on modern society.  It was not for nothing that Hitler dubbed it "Jewish science."   Whereas Jews are at the forefront of scientific discovery in the US and in the hothouse that is now Israel, they are also of course deeply embedded in Talmudic learning.  These two traditions are two sides of the same coin that is the modern embodiment of what it means to be Jewish.  These are two traditions that cannot be sundered.
The conclusion for a new draft law is that while we must have universal national service, the needs of the yeshivot must be protected.  Politics is the art of the possible, the art of compromise.  It may be impossible to satisfy all of the people all of the time, but as far as drafting all Israeli citizens, we must try.   

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Rachel's tale

Rachel has been our oseret (cleaning lady) for many years.  She is a nice friendly lady, short and rotund, who is prone to make such exclamations as "God willing," and "you're welcome."  The reason I'm writing about her is that this week she invited us to have lunch at her new home.  She has a beautiful new home in a place called Sha'ar Ephraim (Gate of Ephraim) about 20 mins drive inland from Netanya. I want to tell her story, to show that Israel is like every other country.
She came to Israel from Azerbaijan when she was a teenager, got married and settled in the nearby town of Kfar Yonah and had four children.  After some years an opportunity came along to buy some land on which to build a house in the neaby moshav (cooperative village) of Sha'ar Ephraim.  That was about 20 years ago. So she and her husband used all their savings to buy a plot.  A few years later they saw an article in the newspaper that said that people who had bought land there had been duped and had lost their money.  Fearing the worst, her husband, Andre, went to the Government office in Tel Aviv where they have the registration of land purchases, and was told that he did not own the plot he had paid for. It turned out that the man who had represented the moshav had taken money from many people had given them fraudulent registration papers (or tabu) and had absconded without actually buying their plots from the Government agency.  Since so many people, ca. 200 families, had been duped in this way, some being sold the same plot, they had meetings and retained attorneys and approached the Knesset, but that didn't help.  The guilty individual was caught and was imprisoned for a short time, but was then released.  It appears that he had bribed his way out. 
Finally a case was made and fought in the courts and the Government was ordered to make good on their plots.  This took ca. ten years.  Then they paid a deposit of NIS 40,000 (ca. $10,000) to the moshav to build there, but this money vanished too when the moshav declared bankruptcy.  Finally they were able to start building, and now after 20 years they have their house.  It is beautiful, large, open, airy and spacious, with shiny floor tiles, a white marble staircase, and a large white kitchen, with dark green windows and shutters and dark wooden doors. While all of this was happening Andre, while driving a truck, was hit from behind during a morning fog by another truck and his truck turned over three times.  He broke his back in several places and most of his ribs.  He was in hospital for months and could not work for several years.  Eventually he recovered enough to do light work.  Finally they are now happy in their new home.
A word about their location.  They are adjacent to and just east of the Arab village of Qalansawa.  We happened to visit this village in 1963 on our first visit to Israel (but that's another story), what a coincidence.  We have never been back there since, nearly 50 years, but although I was tempted we did not drive through it.  Rachel tells me that the Arabs are friendly and seem to have modernized a lot.  Their women are no longer treated as mere chattel, although that may only be superficial.  Anyway, we enjoyed our visit and the food, and we wish them good luck from now on.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Jewish Girona

Girona is a town situated 60 miles north of Barcelona in the region of Catalonia, Spain.  In the 1970s through the efforts of one man, Jose Tarres, the Jewish quarter of Girona was re-discovered after 500 years.  It had lain dormant as a very poor old district of Girona, often under plies of trash, with no one realizing its significance.  The Jewish Quarter or Call existed from ca. 900 CE to 1492 when all remaining Jews were expelled from Spain, a period of ca. 600 years.  During this time the Jewish presence in Girona, as in many other cities elsewhere in Spain, grew and prospered, then declined and was extinguished.  It was not until modern times that the history of the Jewish presence in Girona was researched and documented.

Libi Astaire, a scholar of Jewish Spain, spoke about the history of the Jews in Girona at the Netanya AACI.  Luckily the current non-Jewish leadership of Girona has taken an interest in restoring the former Jewish quarter there, unlike many other towns in Spain, and this has enabled much to be learnt.  The first documented presence of Jews in Girona was found in a manuscript dated 983 CE, which mentioned a group of Jewish families who had moved to Girona a century earlier. Often evidence of Jewish activity is found in real estate and other recorded transactions.  In 988 CE the existence of a synagogue is mentioned that was situated across from the Cathedral.  In a manuscript of 1040 CE, which details the sale of vineyard outside the city walls, can be found the earliest known signature in Hebrew.  The Jewish presence grew as the town grew and by the 13th century the area of Jewish habitation was distinct enough to call it a separate quarter, with at least another synagogue and perhaps 1,000 inhabitants.  It is important to note that even though there were recorded incidents of anti-Semitism, there is no evidence that the Jews were forced to live separately from the Christians and there appears to have been amicable relations for the most part.

In 1263 CE an important event occurred in the history of the Jews of Girona, King James I of Aragon, who ruled Catalonia, ordered the renowned Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, also known by the acronym the Ramban or Nachmanides, to go from Girona to the Royal Palace in Barcelona to participate in a disputation with eminent Churchmen.  King James declared the Ramban the "winner."  King James, who ruled for 63 years, was an ally of the Jews, being literally their owner and protector.  He realized that the prosperity of Girona and Barcelona depended to a large extent on the mercantile capabilities of his Jewish vassals.  However, the Church was very upset by the result of the disputation, and being poor losers within a few years Pope Clement IV managed to have the Ramban expelled from Catalonia, without his family and property. 
By the 14th century the Jewish community in Girona was established and prosperous; it had a famous school of Kabbalah and was known as a "mother city of Israel."  But then things changed for the worse: King James died and a period of chaos followed, which was made worse by the arrival of the black plague that wiped out many people.  The Jews were often blamed for the plague and many were attacked and killed.  In 1391 there were massacres, pogroms, throughout Spain that spread from the south.  In Girona the synagogue was destroyed and shops attacked (reminds one of the Nazis 600 years later).  Jews were forced to convert to Christianity (Catholicism), becoming conversos, and due to continuous persecution the number of Jews reached a low of ca. 200.  In the late 1400s laws were passed prohibiting Jews from owning stores with doors and windows that looked outside of the Jewish quarter, and the Jewish quarter was eventually walled up to make a Ghetto. 

In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition started. Although the Inquisition was not as popular in Catalonia as in other parts of Spain, some conversos who had remained faithful Jews (so-called "marranos" or in Hebrew anusim) were found out (often under torture) and burnt at the stake (auto-da-fe).  In 1492, the year of the edict of expulsion, there were only 20 Jewish families remaining in Girona. They sold everything (there are contracts describing this) and the Jewish presence in Girona ceased.
The Jewish quarter of Girona is now probably the best preserved medieval Jewish quarter of any city in Spain and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year.  It has a small Jewish museum and probably the best library of the early Jewish presence in Spain.  In her novel "Terra Incognita" Libi Astaire recounts the story of inhabitants of a small village in Catalonia who rediscover their converso, or Bnei Anusim, origins (see www.libiastaire.weebly.com).  By the way, Astaire is a variant spelling of the Sephardic name for “Esther,” but it has nothing to do with Fred Astaire, whose original surname was Austerlitz.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Iranian terrorism

The killing of five Israelis and a Bulgarian driver by a suicide bomber, who appeared to be an American and held a fake US passport, is the first "successful" terrorist action against Israelis in more than five years.  PM Netanyahu immediately blamed the incident on Iranian-sponsored terrorists, a reaction that was criticized by some as being premature, before the investigation has been carried out.  But, who is the likely culprit, it is of course, Hizbollah, the Shia Lebanese terrorist organization that is totally Iranian-sponsored and controlled. 
Look at the recent record, in the past year there have been terrorist attempts against Israelis as well as other western targets in the following six countries, Thailand, Georgia, India, Azerbaijan, Kenya and Cyprus.  None of them were successful in killing Israelis, but in all cases the suspects apprehended were connected either to Hizbollah in Lebanon or directly to Iran. 
  • On Monday Feb 13, 2012, in Bangkok, Thailand, a bomb blew up the car of an Israeli official outside the Israeli Embassy, wounding his wife who was driving.  The next day an Iranian citizen, Saeid Moradi, was surrounded by police and attempted to throw a bomb, but blew his own legs off.  An explosion also occured in a house he was renting in Bangkok where several other terrorists were found dead and injured.  A Swedish-Lebanese man, Atris Hussein, was also arrested for storing bomb-making materials. Thai police suspected him of being a member of Hizbollah.
  • On the same day the bombing of a car of an Israeli staffer in Tblisi, Georgia, was thwarted by local police based on an Israeli tip.
  • The same day there was an explosion in New Delhi, India in which four people were wounded, including the driver, the wife of an Israeli diplomat.  A motorcylist attached a magnetic bomb to the back of her car.  She was badly injured by shrapnel.  The coincidence of the timing of attacks in three countries on the same day indicates an international terrorist organization, namely Hizbollah, linked to Iran.  This was the fourth anniversary of the killing of the Hizbollah military leader Imad Mugniyeh in Damascus.
  • On Tuesday Feb 21, 2012, in Baku, Azerbaijan, police arrested a number of terrorists linked to a plot to carry out attacks against  Israeli targets.  The terrorists had maps of several sites as well as guns and explosives.  Azeri authorities linked the terrorists to Iran. 
  • On June 26, 2012, in Mombasa, Kenya, two Iranian citizens were arrested by Kenyan police while in possession of explosives, weapons and plans to blow up the Nairobi synagogue and Israeli institutions.  After a hearing the two men were released on bail. 
  • On July 14, 2012, in Limassol, Cyprus, authorites detained a Lebanese man travelling on a Saudi passport, who had detailed plans and photos of the locations of Israeli planes and buses carrying Israeli tourists. 
And let us not forget the terrible terrorist explosion in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1994 that destroyed the Jewish AMIA building and killed 85 and injured hundreds.  This was carried out by Hizbollah operatives, including Imad Mugniyeh, who was named by Argentine officials, but traced to the Iranian Government and Interpol issued an arrest warrant for six Iranian officials, including a Deputy Defense Minister.
Now, is it jumping to conclusions from there to presume that Hizbollah and Iran are behind the attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, that finally killed Israeli civilians, tourists simply going on vacation?  They were the victims of an Iranian backed campaign to kill Israelis that after six recent unsuccessful attempts was finally successful.  Bulgarian sources have now named the suicide bomber in Burgas as Mehdi Gezali, a Swedish-Algerian who was captured by the Americans in Afghanistan, transferred from Guantanamo under Swedish pressure, but then released by them.  He was known as a Muslim extremist and had been traveling in Pakistan and elsewhere. 
It is likely that Israel will react forcefully against this campaign of terrorism, although they are unlikely to attack Iran at this time, but more likely to attack Hizbollah.  However, note that it it estimated that Hizbollah has ca. 10,000 missiles of various ranges targeted against Israel (why?).  These missiles have been supplied by Iran through Syria.  Currently the Assad regime in Syria is unable to help its Lebanese ally.  So it remains to be seen whether Israel will mount a small attack or will try to destroy the missile capabilities of Hizbollah before they can be used. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Syrian civil war

The explosion that killed the Syrian Defense Minister, Pres. Assad's brother-in-law and a top General in the Armed Forces might be a turning point in the Syrian insurrection.  This has been going on since last March, when the Arab spring turned into winter, and thousands were killed when the Assad regime turned its artillery and tanks on its own people.  At that time, even when 10,000 were dead, many people said that Assad's forces could handle the uprising.  Commentators said that until the fighting rages in Damascus Assad could handle the periphery. 
But, now that time has come, and after 17,000 deaths, fighting is raging in Damascus.  The Army barracks that protects the Presidential Palace is in flames and the explosion at the Defense Ministry has been a huge blow to the top echelons of the Assad regime.  Even if it is only a psychological blow, one now sees that the insurrection has staying power and is highly popular among the majority of the Syrian people.  With extensive fighting going on in Damascus, where in street fighting heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery are quite useless, this favors the Free Syrian Army, and with roads in and out of Damscus cut, the uprising has entered a new phase.  At this moment Pres. Assad must decide whether he wants to run or fight.  If the latter it will be a fight to the death and in all likelihood, with defections rising, he is on a downward slope.  This might lead to a great deal of settling scores and a bloodbath of the minority Awalis, who have been lording it over trhe majority Sunnis for the past 40 years. 
At the UN, the British draft of a new resolution calling for greater UN intervention in Syria, although not yet military intervention as in Libya, has been vetoed by the Russian and Chinese.  It will not be forgotten that the Russians blocked all UN action while the regime was killing thousands of civilians.  While only true idealists expect anything but chaos to come from this situation, it is unlikely that a new dictator will rule Syria after Assad and the Baath Party are destroyed.  Probably a Muslim Brotherhood coalition is likely as in Tunisia and Egypt.  But, Syria is different from both of them, it has more ethnic tension, between the Sunnis, Awalis and the Kurds, as well as Christian minorities, and anything can happen. 
In Israel, the Defense Minister Ehud Barak called his top generals to meet to discuss the current situation of warfare raging close to Israel's border with Syria.  There are reports that Syrian chemical warfare agents have been moved from their storage sites, whether to be used against the Syrian people or to be transferred to Hizbollah in Lebanon is unclear.  A suicidal action by the regime in extremis against Israel must also be considered. Also, the bombing of an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria with five Israeli dead might result in IDF reaction against Hizbollah.  What is clear is that the downfall of Assad would be a major blow for the Iranian regime, that uses it as a conduit to Lebanon and the Palestinians, and a minor blow to the Russians, that have their only warm water port on the Syrian coast. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Social protests become violent

Moshe Silman is a name that jumped into the news here in Israel when he poured gasoline over himself and set himself alight a few nights ago at a social protest in Tel Aviv.  Apparently he had serious problems, having lost his job and was not given a rent subsidy because his wife's apartment was in his name.  He could not face the prospect of becoming homeless, so he set fire to himself.  His injuries are so bad that he is not expected to live.  His action has now galvanized the protest movement in Israel.  In fact since then six other men have tried the same thing and the welfare office in Ramat Gan was set on fire, with his name spray painted on it.  There was also fighting between demonstrators and police and some were arrested.
The welfare authorities in Israel have been accused of being callous.  Since PM Netanyahu has been in power there has been a move away from the all-encompassing welfare state that Israel was under successive Labor Governments and towards a more market driven economy.  This has had good results for Israel, the economy has been excellent and was one of the least affected in the world by the financial crisis now affecting Europe and the US.  But, you can't have it both ways, if you spend too much on welfare then the economy suffers and you could end up like Greece, where there is now even less welfare because of the need for austerity.  But, anyone who has dealt with the Israeli government knows that the pakedim (clerks) are often an unfeeling bunch of  bureaucrats.
There is reported to be a shortage of housing in Israel, yet there is building everywhere.  The problem is that the housing is unaffordable to many in the lower economic strata and there is almost no public housing in Israel.  Compared to most western European countries, public housing in Israel is about 100 times less.  Yet, here the determination was to allow the market to determine the cost of housing.  Clearly the Government has been remiss in not taking care of the less fortunate citizens, and has promised to increase public housing. Measures are being taken in response to the recommendations of the Trachtenberg Committee to ameliorate the situation.  In future, every building project above a certain size will have to include a percentage of low-income housing.  These policies need time to work, but since the demonstrations have become smaller and more violent, don't expect them to stop any time soon (but let's keep things in perspective, look what's going on in Syria).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kadima resigns from coalition

This morning it was announced that the Kadima faction in the Knesset voted by a large majority to resign from PM Netanyahu's so-called National Unity Coalition.  That leaves the Coalition at 66 members, as it was before Kadima joined after Shaul Mofaz took over from Tzipi Livni a scant 73 days ago.  They resigned over the terms of a new universal draft law to replace the Tal law that has governed conscription in Israel for the past 10 years and that included exemptions for Yeshiva students.
Israelis are made up essentially of two groups, the Zionists and the non- (or even anti)-Zionists, each of which can be further subdivided.  The Zionists consist of the secular (hiloni) and the national religious camp (dati leumi).  The secular may vote for Labor and centrist parties like Kadima and Israel Beitanu and the national religious faction would vote for the right wing Likud party.  The non-Zionists are the ultra-Orthodox (haredim) who probably wouldn't even vote or would vote for religous parties such as United Torah Judaism and the Arabs would vote for Arab parties. 
One key distinction is that the Zionists believe in defending the Jewish State while the ultra-Orthodox believe in leaving it all in God's hands.  In this sense they are passive, just as the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe were passive, they neither fought nor prepared themselves for self-defense against a growing threat to their existence, they simply prayed more.  This is what they prefer to do rather than participate in national service or in the IDF, that is the hallmark of Israeli independence and survival.  The Supreme Court of Israel has ruled that the current Tal Law that governs national service in Israel is inequitable and must be replaced by another Law that is equitable by Aug 1.  This has split the country and has split the National Unity Coalition.
But, there is a principle enshrined in democracy that minority rights must be protected.  Certainly Jews more than any other group should protect that principle.  PM Netanyahu is trying to replace the Tal Law with one that includes some form of gradual conscription of Yeshiva students and allows a certain amount of leeway in their being drafted, such as delaying the conscription of some of them who are studying.  This seems reasonable and will in the long run improve the chances of having them and the Arabs conscripted rather than a wholesale all in one deal, which is probably unworkable and would involve some form of coercion.  This is what Kadima bolted the coalition over, they want a purely totally equitable draft, and they say that in refusing this Netanyahu is choosing his religious coalition partners, Shas and UTJ, over them. 
Hopefully there will be a new draft law before the Knesset recesses on July 25, hopefully the Coalition will remain stable as it did before Kadima came along, and hopefully Shaul Mofaz will resign as Kadima's head and will retire from politics after such a miserable showing.  If anyone thinks this form of showmanship over practical compromise will win Kadima votes in the next election, think again.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Domestic issues

Gil Hoffman, the chief political correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, spoke at Netanya AACI on Sun night.  This is my summary of his presentation.  He explained that the reason for the current focus on domestic issues in Israel is partly due to the "news vacuum" in the area of war and peace.  Ever since Ehud Olmert offered a tremendous secret deal to Pres. Abbas of the PA, and Abbas refused it, there has been no progress in the so-called "peace process."  Abbas is now into the 7th year of a 4 year term, and as such is an illegal President.  He could not, even if he wanted to, make any deal with Israel.  Furthermore, he is biding his time to see what transpires in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world, including in relation to Iran. He is a man transfixed by events, like a deer caught in the headlights and cannot move either way.  Thus, he refuses to be brought to the table to negotiate, and hence all attempts to tempt him are useless.  Nevertheless, the chief policy of the Obama Administration and Secty of State Clinton, who is visiting Israel now, is to coerce Israel to make concessions. This idea fixee is a failed policy that the US cannot see beyond.  
So in Israel there is a focus on such topics as the cost of housing, the draft, immigration and other domestic issues that have long been neglected.  That there are idealistic youth in Israel is shown by the social welfare demonstrations that erupted last summer.  Unfortunately by this summer they have been taken over by a smaller number of extremists who are intent on causing trouble.  The top item on PM Netanyahu's list of domestic topics to deal with is the drafting of Yeshiva students.  Gil explained how he became an expert on this topic, ten years ago when he was a novice reporter at the J. Post, because the legal editor was ill, he was sent to Tel Aviv to cover the publication of the Report of the Tal Committee.  When he got there he was given a copy of the 800 or so page Report in Hebrew and then looked for someone who could help him to understand it, but it was impossible.  So he decided to return to Jerusalem, and saw a taxi draw up that was going there.  He asked the person who got in if he could share the taxi with him and the occupant said yes.  It turned out be none other than Justice Tzvi Tal himself, and so he had a 2 hour explanation of all aspects of the Report.  Now, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Tal Law is unconstitutional, so Netanyahu has to find a more equitable alternative, and this requires all his political skills to steer a course between the secularists of Kadima and the religious MKs of United Torah Judaism. In order to save his coalition Netanyahu must reconcile these irreconciliable parties. At present this looks impossible, but the deadline is Aug1 according to the Supreme court or July 25 according to the Knesset recess date, and in Israel nothing happens until the deadline. 
 Gil explained that he has good training for dealing with politicians because he is bringing up two small children and the skills needed for both are about the same.  He interacts with all politicians including the PM and all the MKs and often the results are surprising.  Recently the J. Post ran a poll that found that if Ehud Olmert is not found guilty in the upcoming "Holyland" trial, he could increase Kadima's number of seats by a factor of two, and could therefore challenge the Likud.  However, this is probably only a bubble after his recent acquittal on three of four counts of corruption.  But, he was found guilty of one charge, and it is unlikely that Shaul Mofaz, current leader of Kadima, would make way for Olmert.  The next election in Israel is on Oct 13, and it is unlikely that anything will happen to prevent that, although Gil warned that Kadima is serious about its demands for a new draft law and could leave the coalition any time.  Also, nothing serious will happen until after the US election in November.  So we will have more time to focus on domestic issues, including immigration, housing, electoral reform and the draft.  

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Extremists taking over?

Let's start with the example of Pakistan.  Pakistan was founded in 1947 by Muhammed Ali Jinnah, an Indian Muslim and lawyer who was sophisticated, anglicized and secular.  He was the head of the Muslim League of India, and pushed for a "two-state solution."  When the British agreed to the partition of India, he became the founder of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.  His address to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947 was a model of moderation, tolerance and democracy.  He wanted Pakistan to be a liberal democracy that would respect the rights of minorities, including Christians and Sikhs.  However, Pakistan has developed into a militant Islamic Republic, where the extreme rules.  Where terrorism is the norm, where attacks on India are planned and organized, where attacks on girl's schools, Shia mosques and churches are routine, and where women are murdered for wearing western dress. In Pakistan the assassination of political leaders, such as Benazir Bhutto, is common.  It was not meant to be that way, but the extremists took over once the country was founded.
Now look at Israel, which was founded by secular Zionists, looking for their rightful place in the world.  They were opposed for the most part by the Orthodox Jewish religious establishment in Europe, Britain and the US,  In Palestine it was mainly secular Jews who fought against the British and forced them to leave.  Yes, there were religious Zionists who played a role, but a minor one.  Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion, the founders of Israel, were secular.  An example of the similar situation to Pakistan was the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin by a religious fanatic Yigal Amir.
In order to placate the religious (haredi) elements, Ben Gurion, when he was the first PM, agreed to allow 400 yeshiva students to have exemptions from compulsory military service.  In time that grew to 40,000 and now is estimated at 60,000, so that any yeshiva student can be certain of avoiding military service.  Meanwhile the level of conscription of secular youths has gone down to ca. 50%.  Their attitude is why should we serve and carry the full burden of service for the State if the religious youth, for whom the State also exists as a protection, can avoid enlistment.  Hence they call their current demonstration "the sucker's camp."  The Tal law that formalized the exemptions for the religious has been declared unconstitutional (Israel has no written constitution, but the meaning is the same) by the Supreme Court, which set a deadline of Aug 1 for the current Netanyahu coalition government to come up with a viable alternative that is equitable.  If they fail to do so, then a completely equitable solution will be enforced, in other words all citizens at the age of 18, including haredim and Arabs, will be conscripted equally, although they need not serve in the military but could do equivalent national service. 
The current coalition crisis comes down to this, the secular parties Kadima, that only recently joined the national unity coalition under Shaul Mofaz, and Israel Beitanu under FM Lieberman, insist on an equitable draft.  The religious parties in the coalition, Shas and United Torah Judaism, insist on special rights for Yeshiva students.  Representatives of Kadima, MK Plesner, and of the Government, Dep PM Yaalon, met to hash out a compromise and failed.  Now Mofaz and Netanyahu are trying to reach a compromise.  If they don't give enough exemptions to the yeshiva students then the religious parties may bolt the coalition and the Government might fall.  If they can't arrive at a compromise then Kadima and IB might leave the coalition and the Government will fall.  Many think that they are all bluffing and that last minute compromises will be announced before the Government goes into recess at the end of July. 
Since Israel's founding, the minority religious parties have been blackmailing the Governments, that have all been coalitions due to the electoral system in Israel.  Now with a wide range coalition, the largest in Israel's history, Netanyahu has an historic chance of reversing that trend.  Let us return to full conscription, where haredim and Arabs will serve the country, but each in their own way.  To those who resent the pressure of the religious elements among the settlers in Judea and Samaria and regard that as another source of division within Israel, they should however remember that there is a huge difference between the haredim who do not support the state and refuse to serve in the military and the settlers who are militant Zionists.  However, once religious extremists try to determine the policies of the State then something is wrong, it was never meant to be that way.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Other planets

Several people have asked me if, when we returned from our vacation, were the aliens still here, were they still inhabiting the washing machine that had been signaling to them?  The answer is "no."  Don't be ridiculous, whoever heard of little green men living in a washing machine.  But, I must admit that I miss the little green guys.  Sometimes I think I see them scuttling around just outside my view, but then again that might be my imagination. 
Occasionally when I awake from my afternoon nap, I am not sure which planet I am on.  Of course, you rational mortals might scoff at that, but consider this.  In my impressionable waking state I sometimes imagine that I am a child, running around blissfully, hiding in dark places, laughing, giggling, without self-consciousness or responsibilities.  That is another planet.  When I see children I want to go and play with them and pretend that I am one of them, but then in our society that could be dangerous.  People might think that I am a Catholic priest.  I hate people who harm children. Then I think of the over a million Jewish children who were murdered by the German Nazis and their henchmen with cruelty and without pity, how was it possible?  That must have been on another planet, not one that corresponds to my experience or comprehension.
 Different planets don't all have to be inhabited by little green men.  There is a planet in which people hate each other, where those who believe in the Assad are killing those who hate the Assad.  On this planet those who hate Jews and non-believers want to blow them up and destroy them.  I can understand why they disagree, but why is it necessary to kill them. It must be a pretty bad planet.  I believe that somewhere there is a planet where the inhabitants don't kill each other because they disagree, but so far I have not found that planet.  I hope one day to wake up there. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Olmert acquitted!

The big news in Israel these days is that former PM Ehud Olmert, former head of the Kadima Party, has been acquitted on all the major charges against him that have so far been tried.  These include the "Rishon tours" case, in which his assistant Shula Zaken was accused of having charged duplicate times for his trips abroad, the "Talansky affair", in which US citizen Morris Talansky was said to have paid Olmert envelopes containing cash, and "misleading the State Comptroller" in relation to funds that he supposedly received.  Olmert was in fact found guilty of one lesser charge in the "Investment center affair," in which he was found to have breached public trust by helping friends to obtain Government funding. Shula Zaken was found guilty on several charges, but the cases against Olmert were judged to be unproven except for the one instance (note that Israel has a panel of judges, but no jury).  It is very unlikely that Olmert will spend any time in prison.
Of course, all along Olmert maintained his innocence, although most commentators and the media were sceptical.  It has been pointed out that as far as the media was concerned Olmert was judged to have been guilty on all counts, and this definitely skewed the public perception.  Since the media is predominantly liberal-leftist this bias cannot be blamed on PM Netanyahu, the Likud Party or the Government, but nevertheless Olmert did make such a charge.  However, the cases against Olmert are not over, since the major "Holyland project" case has not yet been brought to trial, in which Olmert and others in his administration as mayor of Jerusalem were supposed to have taken bribes from private developers in order to facilitate the planning permission and the tax payments required for the massive Holyland apartment complex.   
These aquittals are a setback for the Attorney General Moshe Lador, who brought the charges against Olmert.  Once again the charges brought against a high State official have been judged to be excessive and unproven.  This tends to indicate that the State prosecution service tends to go for political appointees as a matter of course, with less regard for the actual evidence.  Olmert of course has proclaimed himself innocent of all charges and there has even been talk of his returning to politics.  I hope that he does not do this, since his name is already tainted, and most people think that there is no smoke without fire.  There were so many cases against Olmert that it seems unlikely that he was not corrupt to some extent, even if the evidence was insufficient to convict him.  We should not give him the benefit of doubt, let him remain a private citizen and leave politics to others.  His party, Kadima, is already in a perilous state, with Shaul Mofaz trying to keep it afloat, and Olmert's return to Kadima would only ensure its demise.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Legality of settlements

Because of the controversial and complex nature of the Israeli settlement venture in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the Netanyahu Government established a small committee of three eminent lawyers to rule once and for all on the legality of all settlements.  The members of the Committee were Edmund Levy, former Supreme Court Justice, Alan Baker, former legal advisor to the Foreign Ministry, and Tchia Shapira, former Dep. Pres. of the Tel Aviv District Court.  This Report is intended to provide input into the deliberations of the new Ministerial Committee on Settlement Affairs taht wasd recently established by the PM. 
There are at least three views of the settlements:
1. All Jewish settlements on the West Bank are illegal, according to the UN and many other countries.  This is basically the Arab view and takes the position that the West Bank is "Palestinian Land."  However, that is wishful thinking, since there has never been Palestinian sovereignty over this territory. 
2.  Some settlements are legal and some are not.  This is the current view of the Government of Israel, namely that some settlements were established by Government decision and are legal according to international and Israeli law, but some, often called outposts, have been established without Government permission and consequently are considered illegal according to Israeli law. 
3. All Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria are legal, according to international law and the Israeli settler movement.  They basically argue that the land is Jewish from the time of the Bible and has been temporarily occupied by the Arabs. 
In 2005, a Committee headed by Talia Sasson was formed to look into the question of the "outposts." It issued a Report sharply critical of the Israeli Government for allowing "illegal" outposts to be built without Government permission.  The Israeli Government then promised the Obama Administration to remove all "illegal" outposts.  But, this policy has led to conflict and disputation within Israel.  This policy, of removing "illegal" outposts was implemented as a filip to Pres. Obama in order to facilitate the "two-state solution" without any real regard for Jewish rights in the territories.  Recently the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Israel cannot build settlements on privately owned Palestinian land, and the Israeli Government has honored that ruling, for example by moving the inhabitants of Ulpana to the nearby larger settlement of Beth El.
The 89 page Report of the current Committee argues that Israeli settlements on the West Bank are legal according to international law, since the Geneva Conventions, that are often quoted, do not apply.  The land in question, Judea and Samaria, termed the West Bank of the River Jordan, were never recognized legally as distinct from the rest of Palestine, that is now the Sovereign State of Israel.  These lands were integral parts of Mandatory Palestine, controlled by the British temporarily from 1922-1948 with the intention of establishing a homeland for the Jewish people.  No part of the Mandatory territory was intended to become an Arab State, even though Britain unilaterally and illegally separated Transjordan from the Mandate.  The occupation of the West Bank by Transjordan, later Jordan, from 1948-1967 was in fact illegal, and was not recognised by the UN or the US (although it was temporarily recognized by the UK and Pakistan).  Therefore the legal status of the West Bank never changed and is the same as that of the territories that constitute the State of Israel and therefore there is no actual "occupation" by Israel of these territories.  At the very most the West Bank can be considered a disputed territory between Israel and some non-State Palestinian actors (the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza). 
The Report argues that Israel should regularize the issue of settlements by removing the artificial distinction between "outposts" and other settlements.  Israel should act in a consistent manner with regard to its rights to be present in and build settlements and villages in the territories of Judea and Samaria, on at least an equal basis to the Arabs.  The issue of who should be recognized as sovereign in the territories must await a final negotiated agreement between the two sides.   

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Solar power

Sunday we heard a presentation on the "Deployment of Solar Power" by Daniel Minsky, an environmental engineer and owner of the company Dan Solar Engineering, Ltd. located in Jerusalem.  Israel is so blessed by plentiful sunshine, that it seems obvious that there should be a stong component of solar power in our energy portfolio.  But, still by far the largest component is fossil fuels, namely coal, oil and natural gas.  The co-called alternative or renewable fuels have mostly only recently been developed.  They include wind power, using large turbines that generate electricity directly, hydroelectric power, wave power and nuclear energy, each of these having their own advantages and disadvantages.  Solar power can be used in three main ways: 1. as direct heating, for example in the "dud shemesh" that are a feature of Israeli rooftops, that heat water but do not produce electricity ; 2. arrays of mirrors that focus the sun's rays on a heating tower, where water (or air) is used to generate electricity and 3. solar panels that have photovoltaic cells that generate electricity directly from the sun's rays.
Although wind power would seem to be a relatively advantageous renewable resource, there are problems in that these usually cannot be adapted for individual use.  Large "wind farms" of turbines can be found in the US, UK and around the world, but very few are used for individual houses.  They also make a significant noise and are not located near inhabited areas.  Arrays of mirrors, that turn with the sun's direction, have been set up in southern Israel, in the US, Spain and elsewhere, and are likely to grow in number.  One advantage of panels of photovoltaic cells is that they can be placed on almost any rooftop and can generate electricity that can be used in individual houses and buidlings to heat water and run a/c, lights and so on.  One great advantage of this is that it is economically viable since although the initial cost of set-up is high, excess electricity can be sold to the national grid at competitive rates, and so the system pays for itself in 5-7 years.  Also, no tax is paid (in Israel) on the income from the sale of electricity.   Note that the cost of photovoltaic cells is being reduced, for example by recent developments in China. The chief drawback of solar power is of course that the sun does not shine at night, and so an alternative energy source is also required.   Since it is very expensive currently to store the electricity in batteries, mostly the energy required at night (much less than during the day) is usually taken from the national grid. 
 Although these approaches seem attractive, they currently constitute only 1% of Israel's total electricity needs, and comparable amounts in other countries.  Nevertheless, Israel, like other countries, has committed itself in an agreement with the OECD to produce 5% of its total national needs by alternative means by 2014 and 10% by 2020.  This means that there are subsidies and economic inducements for the development of "green" energy sources.  However, the huge discoveries of oil and natural gas in the Mediterranean sea ca. 125 miles off Haifa, means that the Israeli Government might want to re-think its decision to provide subsidies for alternative sources of energy.  Nevertheless, the utilization of these finds do not come cheap, and includes laying pipelines, building huge storage facilities (such as liquefied natural gas containers), changing the source of energy in power stations (e.g. from coal to natural gas), and providing security for all of this.  Estimates for this are up to 40 billion shekels (or ca. b$10), and that's before any of the fuels are used.  So the need for cheaper, renewable and non-polluting energy sources is still very much a desirable alternative.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Arab fluidity

The fluid nature of the Arab world continues undiminished.  For example, in Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, that has been running the country since Mubarak's downfall, recently declared the elected parliament, where the Muslim Brotherhood and other Muslim parties have an absolute majority, to be unconstitutional.  Now, the newly elected President Mohammed Mursi, an MB leader, has called the Parliament to re-assemble and has declared it constitutional.  So it looks as if there is going to be a direct power struggle in Egypt between the Armed Forces and the MB.  Unless one of them blinks and steps back, it seems inevitable that there will be clashes between the supporters of the two sides, on the one side the Army and on the other the MB.  How this will play out in Egypt cannot be foreseen, but it seems unlikely that cool heads will prevail and a compromise will be reached. 
In Syria, where Pres. Assad's regime has murdered ca. 17,000 Syrians, another round of talks is being held with Kofi Annan, representative of the Arab League and the UN.  It can be readily predicted that these talks will result in no change, and unless the Russians and Chinese reduce their support for Assad, the killing will continue.  Where are the passionate supporters of human rights that are usually attacking Israel when they are really needed?  Meanwhile the conflict has spilled over into neighboring Lebanon, where clashes between pro- and anti-Assad forces have resulted in 90 deaths.  Also, the number of refugees reaching Turkey and Jordan has multiplied considerably and soon something will have to be done about this.  It is likely that after the downing of the Turkish plane, the increased influx of refugees and the defection of high level members of the Assad regime, such as Gen. Tlass, Turkey will soon find it necessary to act.
In Libya, despite all the difficulties, including the burning of ballots and armed clashes, the elections seem to have gone off without serious problems.  According to early and preliminary results they may have produced a surprising outcome, unlike those in Tunisia and Egypt, namely that the party that received a majority is not Islamist, but liberal.  This might bode well for Libya's return to the civilized world after being ruled by the dictator Qaddafi for 40 years.  Perhaps there is reason for hope after all.

Friday, July 06, 2012

WWII memorials

There seems to be a sudden inauguration of WWII memorials many years after the end of WWII.  Why did it take so long?  The new memorials have been opened in Washington DC, Moscow, London and Netanya.  That in Washington was delayed for years because of the difficulty in agreeing on a design and finding the funds to pay for it.  The Moscow "Memorial of fame:" was inaugurated to replace the original one that was destroyed in Kutaisi, Georgia.  The one in London is dedicated to Bomber Command, and it was delayed because many opposed the presence of a memorial to those who bombed and killed thousands of innocent German civilians.  And the one in Israel was decided upon only quite recently due to the influence of so many Russian Jewish immigrants who fought in the Red Army, and when it was approved PM Netanyahu agreed to locate it in Netanya where there are many FSU immigrants. 
The US National WWII Memorial was dedicated by Pres. George W. Bush in 2004 on a site located between the Lincoln and Washington monuments. It took from 1987 to 1993 for Rep. Marcy Kaptur to have the Congress pass joint resolutions to establish a WWII memorial in Washington DC.  It consists of an ellipse of 56 stone pillars, each inscribed with the name of a State or territory (including Washington DC) detailing the soldiers lost from each during WWII.  It also has two arches, one labelled "Atlantic" and one "Pacific" to denote the two major theaters of operations.  Only about 10% of the cost was funded by the US Government, the rest from private resources.  The question remains, why did it take 59 years from the end of WWII for such a memorial to be raised?
The memorial in Moscow was inaugurated in 2010 by Pres. Putin and was designed as a replacement in the same style as the original that was destroyed in Georgia in 2009 during the war between Russia and Georgia.   Of course, there are other monuments to WWII in Russia, notably including the 56 m tall monumental statue of "mother Russia" near Volgograd, what was then Stalingrad, where one of the wars fiercest and most murderous battles took place.  However, even 65 years after WWII it was thought necessary to dedicate a memorial in Moscow to the then Soviet fighters who fought the Nazis in the "great patriotic war."
The memorial to Bomber Command was dedicated last week by the Queen in London near Buckingham Palace and consists of a rectangular stone building open to the sky with a group of larger than life heroic figures standing under the opening.  They are dressed as a bomber crew just returned from a bombing mission over Germany. It is dedicated to the 55,573 members of Bomber Command who lost their lives mainly flying over Germany and to its Head, then known popularly as "Bomber Harris."  Their actions and sacrifices undoubtedly made a huge contribution to the allies winning the war.  Still, it took 67 years before this sacrifice was memorialized.
The "Victory" monument for the soldiers of the Red Army who lost their lives fighting Germany in WWII was dedicated by Pres. Putin in Netanya last week.  It consists of an impressive large pair of white marble dove wings rearing up close to the sea. It is estimated that 13 million Russian combatants lost their lives in WWII, including ca. 120,000 Jews.  Without their sacrifices Nazi Germany could not have been defeated.  Pres. Putin in his speech acknowledged that Israel and Russia share a common culture in relation to the war and this has fostered warm relations between the two countries and peoples.  The Mayor of Netanya Miriam Fierberg was very happy that PM Netanyahu agreed on Netanya as the site for the memorial.  This memorial also took 67 years to be erected from the time of their sacrifices. 
The question remains, why did it take so long after the terrible events they memorialize for these monuments to be erected?  Is there a common reluctance to grapple with the difficulty of remembering the terrible destruction that occured then?

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Doomsday scenarios

At a meeting in Istanbul the Iranian regime has once again not responded favorably to the pleadings of the international community, represented by the so-called "five plus one" powers (US, China, Russia, UK, France and Germany), to stop its development of nuclear weapons, committed as it is to Israel's destruction.  That leaves only a military solution, and although many experts suggest that Israel should not "go it alone," nevertheless there seems little or no appetite in the US or elsewhere for any other power to take military action against Iran, even though Pres. Obama still says all options are on the proverbial table.
Given that scenario, one must face a little-discussed problem.  If Israel, or indeed any other power or consortium, decide to actually attack and destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities, then there could in principle be the release of a radioactive cloud that could act as a "dirty bomb", in other words could release large quantities of nuclear materials into the atmosphere as a result of a conventional weapons' attack.  This should be taken into account by the Iranian regime as well as the Iranian people, that the continuing drive of the Shia-controlled Iranian regime to act out what they consider to be God's will, may in fact boomerang on them.  It might lead to the loss of life not only of leaders of the regime, including those in Iranian radar and command and control facilites and airfields, but also many Iranian civilians.  Israel or any other attacker could take precautions by estimating the direction and strength of the prevalent winds at the time of the attack, but given the spread of radioactivity throughout eastern Europe by the Chernobyl accident and by the Fukushima damage in Japan, mass civilian casualties may be unavoidable. 
Of course, time is of the essence, Israel, and many other countries, including the Sunni heartland, cannot live with an Iran that has nuclear capability.  So the time to act may be fast approaching.  But, it is very unlikely that anyone would act before the next President is elected in November and is installed in January, 2013.  If Obama is re-elected President then it is unlikely that the US would act, and this might be a signal for Israel to go ahead.  If Republican candidate Mitt Romney is elected, then there might be a delay while his policy towards Iran is decided, but a long delay cannot be expected.  Nevertheless, a lot depends on what the US leadership thinks it knows about what Iran is doing and planning.  Although the US intelligence community made a major blunder in 2003 when they predicted that Iran had stopped their nuclear program, they now have sophisticated listening posts in Afghanistan and Iraq,. on both borders of Iran, as well as in other places, and so they may be able to make a better informed decision.
The election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi as President of Egypt represents another potential doomsday scenario for Israel.  There is little doubt that whatever his conciliatory statements, he will have to adhere to MB doctrine that calls for full Sharia Law in Egypt and the eventual abrogation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.  A senior MB cleric was quoted as saying that under Mursi, Egypt’s capital will no longer be Cairo, but the new capital will be Jerusalem!  The race to conquer Jerusalem between the extremist forces of Shia and Sunni Islam, to form their new world Caliphate, will leave little Israel stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Each challenge will have to be faced in its time.  Let's hope the new US President sees these challenges for what they are, serious threats to America's dominant role in the world.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Israel's national service crisis

In Israel, the subject of national service has caused a major political crisis.  Until now the situation has been governed by the Tal Law that allows the ultra-orthodox (haredim) ca. 40,000 exemptions from national service as well as all Israeli Arabs being exempted (although some volunteer to serve).  For some time the secular Israelis (hilonim) have felt that this is unfair, that they shoulder the burden of defending the country while the others evade national service.  This led to the organization of a "sucker's camp" to highlight the unfairness of the situation and the activation of several political parties, such as Kadima and Israel Beitanu, that have been pushing politically for a new law.  The case was taken to the Supreme Court which ruled that the current law is unjust and must be replaced by a more equitable one by Aug 1. 
When Kadima joined the Netanyahu coalition government a month or so ago, this issue was one of the points negotiated by its leader Shaul Mofaz, that all young people should perfom some kind of national service, even though it need not be purely military service, such as medical or eduational services.  In order to accomplish this Netanyahu established a special committee, the Keshev Committee, to look into it and make recommendations.  This was chaired by MK Yohanan Plesner of Kadima and included members from all ethnic groups.  However, the proceedings of the committee were not acceptable to some of those members and several resigned.  This led Netanyahu to disband the Committee, leaving the matter up in the air.  To fill the gap created by this vacuum, Kadima and Israel Beiteinu have proposed a new Law that would make national service mandatory for all young people of the age of 18, including haredim and Arabs.  Now Netanyahu is between a rock and a hard place, because if he accepts this basic formualtion he will cause his religious coalition partners, Shas and United Torah Judaism, to leave the coalition, and if he does not he might lose Kadima and IB.  What's a PM to do?
It is rumored that Netanyahu is in the process of sweetening the pie for the religious parties, so that they can swallow an equitable draft law, where the haredim and Arabs will not be forced to do military service, but will be required to do some form of national service, otherwise they will lose certain financial incentives, such as low interest mortgages.  Meanwhile the hiloni parties will be satisfied with a law that includes all groups.  In principle, Netanyahu must obey the Supreme Court and so will take this opportunity to equalize national service, which will help to unify the country.  On the other hand, there are those who say that the inclusion of haredim and Arabs into the IDF will be its downfall.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The desperate plight of the Bnei Anusim

On Weds at the Netanya Academic College (NAC), members of the International Insititute for the Study of Secret Jews (Anusim) met with a charming couple of Spanish and English speaking Secret Jews who, while on a 2-week visit to Israel, took time to schedule a special visit to the Institute.  Present were Profs. Arad and Altman, Pres and VP of NAC, as well as other members of the Board of the Institute. They also visited the Mound Library and were fascinated by the amount of information collected there about Bnei Anusim (descendents of Anusim or "marranos").

They are both, for all intents and purposes, Orthodox Jews with a fascinating story. They are from South America, and while outwardly “Christian” due to the centuries long Inquisition (though not devout), their families had several traditions, including special dietary restrictions, Psalm readings and memorization, staying home for special dinners every Friday night, and the lighting of candles.  They had no idea that these were Jewish customs, but after their move to the USA, they gradually learned more about Judaism and felt a pull towards it.  They discovered that their families were both Bnei Anusim, descendents of Jews forced to convert to Christianity in Spain, who had fled to South America to escape the Inquisition that persecuted such conversos (or "New Christians").  Throughout 500 years they retained knowledge and practice of Jewish customs, even though they lost contact with Judaism itself. Many Bnei Anusim families practiced matchmaking similar to what happens in Judaism – thereby secretly assuring that they married with their Anusim bloodlines.  This couple discovered through recent DNA testing that in fact they are distant cousins and both have the Cohanim halogroup DNA markers.

This couple has traveled extensively throughout Latin America looking for and finding many communities of Bnei Anusim, groups of people who have rediscovered their Jewish roots and have formed communities and synagogues. He showed a video of some of them in small cities singing and praying fervently in Hebrew, with men wearing kippot and Talitot, and women with heads covered. Often they have only a rudimentary or incomplete idea of what the prayers and rituals should be.  Yet, although these people consider themselves to be Jews and are very pro-Israel, they are not considered halachically Jewish by the Rabbinate and are often ostracized by the local Jewish communities.  Their experience has been that the Ashkenazim tend to be more exclusive than the Sephardim, Jews of Spanish-Portuguese origin. However the problem lies in the fact that the officially recognized Jewish communities all across Latin America are mostly Ashkenazim, having emigrated mostly from Europe in the late 19th century and early to mid 20th century.

There are two routes to being recognized as Jewish, either conversion or acceptance by the Rabbinate as being Jewish according to Halacha, in other words someone who has a documented line of descent from Jewish mothers and who wishes to live according to Jewish precepts.  This couple has some limited documentation and hopes to be accepted.  A main hurdle is that presently there is NO approved orthodox conversion process anywhere in Latin America.  Also many Bnei Anusim do not want to go through a long drawn out and oppressive conversion process even if there were such processes available. It is because they consider themselves already Jewish now living a Torah-based Jewish lifestyle, having completely left aside the Christian label and wish to be accepted as brothers back into the Jewish community.

This is not a small problem.  It is known that there are millions of Bnei Anusim living around the world, for example in Portugal (where about half of the population may have Jewish roots) and in Spain (where about 20% of the population have Jewish roots), in the Balaeric Islands, in northern Brazil, in New Mexico and throughout Latin America.  Most Torah observant Bnei Anusim this couple have encountered in Latin America want to be accepted by their Jewish brothers and the majority of them also long for the day they can make aliyah to Israel

It is well known that the Orthodox Rabbinate controls the route to acceptance or conversion and are very conservative in their policies.  Without disrespecting them, their policies in place appear to prevent or dissuade Bnei Anusim from being accepted as Jews and therefore they are not able to make aliyah to Israel according to the Law of Return. Perhaps this is somewhat understandable considering the history of the Jewish people and the need to keep the right of return selectively for Jews.  Some Bnei Anusim have converted legally and some have come to live in Israel without conversion and have somehow managed to be accepted by the Ministry of the Interior, but that is very rare.  While the Reform and Conservative movements are much more sympathetic to the plight of the Bnei Anusim, they do not have the power that allows their converts to make aliyah automatically, only Orthodox converts are accepted. 

While this situation has not yet become a large problem numerically, it could.  It is ironic that Israel, that needs so much support and indeed more Jewish immigrants, has placed huge obstacles to accept these once lost and largely forgotten Jewish brothers. The door needs to be opened and the Bnei Anusim need to be treated with more sympathy and dignity, as before them the Ethiopian Jews, the Bnei Israel from Bombay, and the Mashadi Jews (from Mashad, Iran) have been.  If some action is not taken within a generation, the newly found freedom of the Bnei Anusim from the historic stranglehold of the Catholic Church and the various States, might again force them into hiding, and worse – persecution, torture and death. The fact is that recent initiatives of the Vatican and increases in anti-Semitism in Latin America make this plausible. The Bnei Anusim who have returned to Judaism will not go back to Christianity, no matter what the cost. Will Israel stand by and watch this happen? Why can’t we be proactive as a nation and reach out to these lost brothers right now while they are still free. There can be special programs and filters in place within the present nations of residence to screen them for their sincerity and legitimacy and to prepare them for successful lives as Jews in Israel.  

The Soviet Jewry movement was fostered by precisely this kind of need, to help the Jews of the Soviet Union escape from intolerance and oppression when the opportunity arose, even though they had no contact with Judaism for 70 years. Similarly, organizations such as Taglit (Birthright) or Nefesh b'Nefesh (Soul to soul) were developed to assist the aliyah of Jews from Western countries, USA, UK, France, etc.   We need a groundswell of support from Jews in the USA and around the world, a political movement, to come out in favor of saving the Bnei Anusim while there is still a chance, and let them be accepted as Jews and come to Israel as equal citizens.  If this is what they want, who are we to deny them their destiny. 

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Hatred and intolerance

The VP of Iran, Mohammed-Reza Rahimi, in a speech to a UN conference on drug-trafficking in Tehran, not only blamed the Jews for the global drug trade, but also claimed the proof was that "there are no addicts who are Zionists."  What rubbish!  He launched into a classic Hitlerian anti-Semitic diatribe when he blamed Jews and Zionists for such things as the Bolshevik revolution and for considering themselves a "superior race" destined to "destroy humanity" as supposedly taught in the Talmud.  He also added the standard canard that Jews control the USA.  In expressing these views, the VP only echoes PM Ahmedinejad and the religious establishment of Iran, including the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Israeli FM Liberman responded that "the Iranian regime is not composed of crazy people, but of anti-Semitic fanatics who have a detailed world-wide plan, part of which, as they admit openly, is the destruction of the State of Israel."  The fact that a UN conference is held in Tehran in the presence of numerous delegates from around the world is itself a great shame and gives these kind of views exposure and credence.  UN head Ban-ki Moon spoke out against these comments and slammed the Iranian VP for his anti-Semitic views and Catherine Ashton, EU Foreign Policy chief, also criticized these comments.  A UN statement said they "deeply regret such statements of hatred and religious intolerance."
The views and intentions of the Shia regime that controls Iran now so clearly parallels that of the Nazi regime that controlled Germany from 1933-45, that triggered WWII and murdered 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, that there seems no alternative but to kill them.  If we had had an opportunity then, a Jewish state and an army of our own, wouldn't we have wanted, indeed needed, to do this, to kill Hitler and his entire entourage.  Now that the Iranian regime is busy developing nuclear weapons, to use on "you know who," contrary to international law and opposed by the international community, although ineffectually, shouldn't we do that now.  We need to remove the leaders who control the Iranian regime and its military capability.  I refer to the movie "Inglorious basterds" for the inspiration for this effort.  It was a lousy movie, but its heart was in the right place.  The Iranian leadership are our mortal enemies! I hope our political leaders and the IDF have contingency plans ready to act.