Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Political Science at BGU

The Political Science Department at Ben Gurion University of the Negev is the subject of a unique event in Israeli history.  For the first time the Council for Higher Education (CHE) in Israel, that is tasked by the Ministry of Education with ensuring high standards in Israel's educational system, has censored a university department for not maintaining the highest standards and for being biased in its teaching. 
The Dept. is headed by David Newman, who is a well known left-wing critic of Israeli Governments and policies.  Some label him pro-Palestinian.  His appointee Neve Gordon has gone so far as to call for a boycott of his own university, BGU, for supporting Israeli "occupation" of the "Palestinian territories." But, he is not unique, it seems that as Dean of the Faculty of Political Science he has filled the Dept. with like-minded leftists, whose teaching of Israeli history is biased and where students who disagree with these views are both taunted and given low marks.  A right-wing student group Im Tirtzu has taken the lead in exposing this pattern of bias at BGU's political science dept.  It is well-known that most political science departments in the western world are staffed by anti-Israel faculty, but to have this situation at one of Israel's own premier universities is intolerable.
Because of the controversy over this Dept. the President of BGU accepted an international Committee headed by German Prof Risse to evaluate the Dept. and render judgement on its standards and degree of balance.  This Committee, after interviewing many people and studying the matter, came to the conclusion that indeed the Dept. was a hive of leftist propaganda and that the subject matter was not treated in a fair and balanced manner and that its academic standards were lacking.  As a result the CHE ruled reasonably that the Dept. must take on additional staff to balance its political bias.  What did David Newman do, he took on three young academics noted for their leftist views and opposition to the "establishment."   The CHE considered this move to be inconsistent with its ruling, and ordered  BGU to close down this Dept.
This, the President of BGU, Rivka Carmi, refused to do.  She had inherited this "mess" from the former left-wing President Braverman (who became a Labor Party MK) and she has maintained that the professors in this Dept. have academic freedom and can teach as they see fit.  Also, to close the Dept. would mean law suits from faculty who have tenure as well as affecting the lives of the students studying for degrees in that Dept. 
As a consequence the CHE gave BGU a last chance to present its case at a meeting this week, and has now given BGU three weeks to "show commitment to changing the curriculum," or it will issue a final closure order on the Dept.  Of course, David Newman and his "gang" with support from predominantly leftist colleagues around the country, oppose such a  move as being a right-wing Government inspired attempt at political censorship.  But, this ignores the fact that it was a neutral international investigatory committee that the university accepted that found that the depatrtment was not up to the required standards and was teaching a biased view of Israeli political history that blames Israel, not the Palestinians, for all problems.  All that is required is a balanced approach to the teaching of political science.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mr. Daillou offers m$1

I keep receiving letters from my friend, at least he says he is my friend, Mr. Odingo Daillou, from Lagos, Nigeria.  He offers me one million dollars from an inheritance he has received from an uncle who died recently.  The problem is that he has no banking facilities of his own and although he is sure that he will receive a minimum of 10 million dollars, he would rather make use of a valid account in another country.  So he is promising to ship the funds to me if I send him a deposit of a mere $20,000 to prove my seriousness and to give him my bank account details.  This seems very reasonable to me, and would represent a huge profit.  Except that Miss Ernestine Fromage from Ghana is offering me not only more money (m$1.5) but she is also promising to have sex with me and to marry me.  This leaves me with a terrible dilemma.  But, I came to an excellent solution, I put them in contact with each other.  Now as far as I can tell Mr. Daillou will make an extra m$0.5 and will have some free sex, while Miss Fromage will solve her banking problems overnight. 
It seems to me that this can be a solution to the so-called third world's problem of poverty.  If all these people from West Africa (and there seem to be hundreds of them) who are getting inheritances or deposits from unused bank accounts or have found (legally) huge sums of money, but don't know what to do with them, if they could consult with each other, then they might soon be able to solve the problem of poverty in their whole region.  After all, how many people in Nigeria could be fed for m$10.  So I suggest that instead of contacting us middle class people in the West, who have never seen a million dollars in our life, they should help each other.
I must also reject the offer of the Penis Expansion Company of Nairobi, Kenya, who have assured me that if I send them a mere $1,000 they will send me a potion that they guarantee will make my penis grow by at least 3 inches.  Since I am penile-challenged I have thought seriously about their offer.  But, I have found a cheaper alternative, I can buy a constant supply of a penile enhancement drug (based on Viagra) that will ensure sexual satisfaction for only $100 per month for a year from the Penile Enhancement Company of Shanghai, China.  The problem I have is that the postage is too expensive to these distant places and I am a bit worried about the side effects. And actually I am quite happy with my penis the size it is, but I might be interested in the attractive offers for breast enhancement.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The great betrothal

PM Netanyahu and FM Lieberman have unexpectedly announced their betrothal.  They are joining their parties together into one party to run in the upcoming elections.  This will enhance the right-wing coalition of Likud and Yisrael Beitanu to form an unnamed party.  I can suggest a name for the new party, what about "Likud Beitanu."  At present these parties together have 27 (Likud) and 15 seats (YB) in the current Knesset.  However, it has been suggested that the combined party would yield only ca. 35 seats in the next election, i.e. less, not more, than their current collective aggregate.  
The idea is to halt the trend of many small parties and coalitions towards forming two blocs, the center right and the center left.  However, the left is so split that such a merger seems very unlikely.  Kadima, although it was the largest party in the current Knesset (28 seats), is in the process of splintering apart, with members jumping ship and joining (or rejoining) Likud or Labor.  Its current Head, Shaul Mofaz, is not considered suitably able by many of its members. The Head of Labor, Shelli Yacimovich, is intent on maintaining her socialist purity and has stated that she doesn't want to combine with any other parties.  The new Party Yesh Atid (there is a future) of Yair Lapid is trying to emerge as an independent center party, and the Independence Party of Ehud Barak is basically only him.  The extreme left party Meretz has only 3 seats and is not expected to do any better.  From this ferment may arise a stable center-right Government. 
The bethrothal, not yet a marriage, would leave only the religious parties on the right, including Shas (11) and United Torah Judaism (5).  This marriage of convenience may cause a further split in Likud, although that might be avoided by Netanyahu's machinations.  The traditional right of Likud look askance at the inclusion of YB because they regard Avigdor Lieberman as a upstart Russian interloper.  He is both more right-wing than them and less so, in that he supports the right of Israel to build settlements on the West Bank, but he opposes the strict religious definition of who is a Jew.  In that respect he is a characteristic leader of the Russian-Israelis, and his inclusion as a leader into Likud represents the coming of age of the Russian olim.  Sharansky could not manage that, because he was not a sufficiently skilled politician.  This move by both Netanyahu and Lieberman recognizes that the Russian olim (ca. 1 million) have become integrated into Israel and are now a part of the fabric of the center-right.  If it is successful, Netanyahu may obtain the largest number of seats for a single party ever, and might even obtain an absolute majority (51 seats or more) together with the religious parties.  That would be a major success and would provide him with the necessary mandate in case there is a need to attack Iran over its nuclear weapons program.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Wallace and Darwin

Everyone knows the name of Darwin, Charles Darwin, that chap who went on a trip to the Galapagos Islands and discovered evolution.  But, hardly anyone has heard of Wallace, not Wallace of "Wallace and Gromit" fame, but Alfred Russel Wallace.  Too bad, because he also discovered evolution, and he did it in a much more hands on way.  He really was an adventurer and explorer, in the mould of Indiana Jones.  He tramped for years through tropical forests, collecting rare species, and then arrived at the same conclusions as Darwin.  But, Darwin went on only one trip and he was taken there by boat, "The Beagle," and when he got back he wrote a description of his five year voyage, entitled "Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle," but in that description published in 1839 he never mentioned evolution once.  Then he sat at home in his village in England and thought and wrote, but was so cautious that he sat on his momentous discovery for altogether 23 years.  Then Wallace came along and wrote to him from the jungle in 1858 and quickly Darwin saw that he might be scooped, so he published his theory in 1859 to acclaim and fame and Wallace was all but forgotten.  What a story, but who really should be given the credit for being the first to discover evolution or more correctly discovering the mechanism of evolution?  Therein lies a tale.
I have been reading a wonderful book, "The song of the Dodo: Island biogeography in an age of extinction" by David Quammen (Touchstone Press).  It delves into these questions by describing in stimulating detail the work of Wallace and Darwin and their few wary interactions.  In this exchange, Darwin was the established gentleman investigator and Wallace was the lower class upstart.  Wallace published his first article on the subject of evolution of species entitled "On the law that has regulated the introduction of new species," sent from the jungles of Sarawak and published in the The Annals and Magazine of Natural History in London in 1855.  This obscure paper could be considered the first actual publication describing biological evolution, however, Wallace did not mention "natural selection" a key phrase in Darwin's theory of evolution.  Knowing of Darwin's book on his voyage and his reputation for scientific delving, Wallace wrote to Darwin and others asking for their comments on his paper.  Darwin delayed replying for 10 months.  Although Wallace kept Darwin's replies, Darwin, a careful collector of letters, seems to have lost all of Wallace's letters to him. 
Then Wallace made the supreme mistake, of trusting Darwin with his next and more direct paper describing the mechanism of evolution of species.  In 1858 instead of sending his article for publication directly to a journal he sent Darwin his paper entitled "On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type" for his comments.  Darwin not knowing what to do (or how to delay this?) sent it on to Charles Lyell, a well-known naturalist, who suggested to Darwin's relief that their two papers should be presented together at a meeting of the Linnaean Society in London later that year.  Darwin had resisted suggestions by Lyell and others to finally publish something short, a summary paper on this theories.  Now he feverishly put together a short paper, entitled "Extract from an unpublished work on species ...derived from a Chapter entitled 'on the variation of organic beings in a state of nature; on the natural means of selection'."  The compromise was that both papers were presented together at the meeting on July 1, 1858.  But, then Darwin quickly finished his whole magnum opus and published "The Origins of Species" the following year, and blew Wallace out of the water.  Darwin became the house-hold name, but never forget Wallace, he had the "right stuff"! 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Emir of Qatar visits Gaza

The visit of the Emir of Qatar to the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, the first visit of a Head of State in 5 years of Hamas control, is a minor event but a major indicator.  It represents a nail in the coffin of the Iranian controlled Shia axis in Gaza and a reversion by Hamas, which is really the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, back into the Sunni fold.  The Emir brought with him reportedly some m$250 in investment money and promised more.  What he is doing is representing the Sunni axis in weaning Hamas away from the Shia enemy.  In the future you can expect greater cooperation and coordination between Hamas, the MB-led Egyptian Government of Mohammed Morsi and other Sunni countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. 
But, this move leaves Pres. Abbas and the Palestine Authority out on a  limb.  Not only did Abbas oppose this visit, as did Israel, but the Emir of Qatar ignored completely the so-called moderate force of Fatah in the PA.  This tends to indicate that for all his so-called being the sole representative of the Palestinian people, and his drive for some kind of recognition at the UN, the mainstream Sunni Arab world is putting their money on the Hamas MB horse.  This implies greater opposition to Israel and less concern for international legalities.
Perhaps that is why, as if to celebrate this visit and its implications of greater Sunni support, on Weds the terrorist organizations in Gaza fired ca. 80 missiles and mortars over the border into Israel.  Noone was killed but two foreign workers were badly injured and several houses were hit while their occupants were in shelters.  If Hamas feels empowered, its natural tendency is to strike out at Israel.  Today Israel struck back and hit several missile firing teams, and killed two terrorists and injured some others. The Min. of Defense Ehud Barak met with the Commander-in-Chief of the IDF Benny Gantz and they issed a statement that Israel is prepared to mount a ground operation in Gaza if the shelling does not stop.  Israel is ready and primed to react. 
Coincidentally on the same day Israel and the US started their largest joint military exercise that was delayed for some months. This exercise is intended to test and improve the interface between Israel's missile batteries and the US world-wide anti-missile detection capability.  No doubt its timing is good for both Pres. Obama and PM Netanyahu in their bids to be re-elected.  However, a ground attack against Gaza might be problematic in the context of the elections and Hamas might be taking a chance that it can hit Israel with relative impunity at this time.  On the other hand the situation vis-a-vis Gaza is inherently unstable and at some time an Israeli response seems inevitable.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The USSR and Iran

On Sunday we had a visit from Philip Spiegel, an electrical engineer from the San Francisco bay area, who was not only an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement back in the 1980s, but decided to write a book about it and produced his magnum opus, "Triumph Over Tyranny: the heroic campaign that saved 2,000,000 Soviet Jews," in 2008.  He came to AACI Netanya while on a visit to Israel and spoke about the campaign to save the Soviet Jews and the relevance of that campaign to the current situation viv-a-vis Iran.
First, he described how he managed to enter the Soviet Union in 1984 as part of a team to run in the Moscow marathon.  This gave him the excuse to visit Jewish refuseniks.  While meeting one family he told them that he was running in the marathon and they introduced him to their relative Alexzander Joffe who had been refused permission to run.  So when the time came, he and his wife and several others managed to sneak Alexander into the race, and now he lives in Haifa and he came down to meet Phil after many years. 
Phil described the origins and activities of the Soviet Jewry movement in the US and elsewhere and explained some of the reasons for its success.  First, the USSR was a crumbling giant, although noone seemed to realize this at the time, they were economically bankrupt.  They needed to earn dollars and so they were eager to trade and improve relations with the West.  The campaign to free the Soviet Jews used this fact without realizing its true significance for the Soviets.  Second, the American Jewish community had a guilt complex about not having done enough to save the Jews of Europe during WWII, in fact the whole community had been self-conscious and passive.  Now in a freer time, they felt that they had to make sure this did not happen again, and this applied from the street activists to the highest levels of the establishment. 
But, in fact, there was a schism between the grassroots activist groups, combined in the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry (UCSJ) that wanted to push the Soviets to the max, and the Jewish establishment, represented by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) that wanted to use quiet diplomacy and apply the brakes on public demonstrations.  In effect this combination worked well, playing the 'good cop-bad cop' routine to the hilt.  Whenever the Soviets claimed that the established Jewish community was pressing them too hard, all they had to do was threaten to unleash the grassroots activists on them, and that often worked.
Phil described the Reagen-Gorbachev summit of 1987 as the tipping point, when 250,000 demonstrators from all over the country descended on Washington to press for freedom for Soviet Jews.  Although this was not a specific agenda issue at the summit, Pres. Reagen used the Jackson-Vanik amendment, that limited trade with the USSR subject to freedom of emigration for its Jews, that was passed in 1975 and the Helsinki accords agreed that year, as levers to pressure Gorbachev, who had to give way if he wanted trade and good relations with the West. It is no0w the 25th anniversary of that event.
Phil listed the lessons learned from the success of the Soviet Jewry movement: 1. Negotiate with whoever is prepared to talk; 2. Maintain coinfidentiality rather than open discourse; 3. If you have a success, don't crow openly about it to the media; 4. Be patient.  He proposed that these same lessons could be applied in dealing with the Iranian regime over the current nuclear crisis. But, there are problems with this comparison, first the Soviets were deemed to have been sane, while the sanity of such leaders as Pres. Ahmedinejad and the Ayatollahs is in doubt; second, the movement to free Soviet Jews was a widespread popular movement, while the basis of the Iranian conflict is largely in diplomacy; third, the sanctions that are being applied against Iran are beginning to work; finally the Iranian regime, like most dictatorial regimes, is mainly interested in its survival, and so if military threats are considered to be serious and credible, they may decide to back-off, just like the Soviets did in the Cuban missile crisis.  
Nevertheless, one of the chief lessons learned from the success of the Soviet Jewry movement is that being timid in face of apparent overwhelming force does not work, only facing and opposing the enemy and its interests on all levels can succeed, and it did.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Israeli politics

Now that the current Knesset has dissolved itself, the elections are due on Jan 22. But, Israeli politics is a complex game.  Since there is no local representation in our electoral system, the parties rule the roost, and where you are on the party list is an indicator of how important a politician you are.  Also, the parties break up and reform like a series of streams rushing towards the sea. 
Of course, Likud under Bibi Netanyahu is expected to win again, because the projected center right bloc is expected to outnumber the projected center left bloc.  But, a degree of uncertainty has been injected into the race by the sudden appearance of formerly disgraced politicians, namely former PM Ehud Olmert, who has seemingly overcome several corruption charges against him (not all resolved yet), Aryeh Deri, the former leader of Shas, who recently came out of prison after serving time for embezzlement of government funds, and Haim Ramon, who was a leading Center politician who was found guilty of forcefully kissing a girl soldier. 
Also, in the wings are the former leader of Kadima Tzipi Livni, as well as the current leader of Kadima Shaul Mofaz, Ehud Barak, leader of the new, small Atzmaut (Independence) Party and Yair Lapid who has formed his new liberal Yesh Atid (There is a future) Party.  A poll published by the Jerusalem Post indicates that if all these miscellaneous center-left leaders and parties ran together they could get more mandates than Likud, but not only is that extremely unlikely to happen, it also leaves out other right wing parties, such as Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitanu (Israel our home) Party and Shas.  The right wing religious party, United Torah Judaism is in fact disunited and has split into two factions that announced their reunification, but it hasn't happened so far. 
Given the complex jigsaw-like nature of the Israeli political system and the formation of coalitions, the Israeli election is in principle more difficult to predict than the comparatively simple US election, where there is a choice between two candidates.  But, in fact it is more likely that PM Netanyahu will regain the premiership than that either of the two Presidential candidates will be elected. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Syria sends a message!

Once again Syria has sent a message to Lebanon, in the usual way.  Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was the anti-Syrian Lebanese intelligence chief, responsible for recently arresting a pro-Syrian politician, was assassinated by a large bomb explosion in a narrow street adjacent to his car convoy in a Christian area of Beirut.  Others were killed (at least 7) and many others were injured (at least 80), but that is just collateral damage.  To those of us who consider slaughter of innocent women and children unacceptable, one must remember that to Shia Muslims, Christians and women are completely expendable in pursuit of their God-ordained goals.  It is highly likely that the pro-Syrian Lebanese Shia militia Hizbollah was involved in planning and executing this despicable act on behalf of the Syrian Government.  At the funeral of al-Hassan held yesterday there was violence and a call for the Government that contains Hizbollah ministers to resign.
This is the first large bombing in Beirut for 4 years, and represents the first major attack related to the civil war now raging in Syria.  It has been estimated that in over a year some 30,000 Syrians have been killed and some 22,000 have "disappeared," arrested by Syrian forces.  The Assad regime is sending a message to the Lebanese people, we will not allow any anti-Syrian acts in Lebanon.  And they have the power to do this, through the Iranian proxy Hizbollah.  This is how they killed the former Christian Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel in 1982, thus preventing a strong anti-Syrian Lebanon, and similarly how they killed the Christian former PM Rafik Hariri, that led to the expulsion of Syrian forces from Lebanon, and how they have killed some 20 others.  While all other Lebanese militias were disarmed at the end of the Civil War, Hizbollah became even stronger under the pretext of being the resistance force fighting Israel.  But, actually, what they have done is attempt to take over Lebanon as Syria's and Iran's proxy.  They are now showing that they will stop at nothing to prevent any anti-Syrian forces from gaining control of Lebanon.
I heard a Palestinian spokesman telling the media that if only Palestine were recognized as a State, as a result of unilateral recognition by the UN, and if only then Israel would accept the conditions set by Pres. Abbas for negotiations (stopping all building on the West Bank and recognizing the pre-1967 borders) then the violence in the Middle East would cease.  What absolute nonsense!  No wonder the world and the other Arabs don't take the Palestinians seriously.  Only Pres. Obama seems to accept this pablum.  Israel is not involved whatsoever in the civil war that is proceeding in Syria and has nothing to do with the extension of that violence to Lebanon, just as Israel had nothing to do directly with the whole range of violent uprisings that constitute the so-called Arab Spring (the overthrow of long-standing Arab dictators).  However, I do believe that Israel had an effect indirectly on this process, by being strong and withstanding all attacks, this shows the Arabs that they are incompetent relative to Israel militarily and therefore in order to succeed they had to overthrow those long-standing regimes.  And the fact that Israel is a modern, technological and democratic country, shows the Arabs that they also need to modernize and be more open.  However, the contradictory turn towards Islam in the Arab world counters that trend.  They are going back to what they think will sustain them, but it won't! 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Presidential debates

I have avoided commenting on the Presidential debates so far, since they take place in the middle of the night here and they are not so consequential to lose sleep over.  But, a few comments nevertheless.
I was glad that Republican candidate Mitt Romney won the first debate by all accounts, since until then he had not been treated as a real contender and was not considered "Presidential."  I think now he is on both counts.  It made up my mind to support him.  In the second debate the candidates were declared more or less equal, which was considered a plus for Pres. Obama, since he regained stature as it were.  But, I dispute that, because of the exchange over the issue of what transpired at the US Consulate in Benghazi, where four Americans were murdered, including Ambassador Stevens.
In the debate, reprising his original report on the subject, Pres. Obama did say that what had happened was "an act of terror."  But, subsequently for two weeks his team, including the leading players, Secty. of State Clinton,  UN Ambassador Rice and his Press Spokesman, reiterated that the attack occured during the demonstration against the so-called video "Innocence of Muslims" that had been shown in the US and that was considered by Muslims to be insulting to Mohammed.  However, it was subsequently revealed that 1. There had been direct threats to the Consulate that had been ignored by the White House; 2. Several requests for increased security were rejected by the State Dept.; 3. There was in fact no demonstration at the consulate; and 4. The nature of the attack, including heavy machine guns and many armed men, clearly indicated an organized attack by a terrorist group. 
Together with the fact that the attack occurred on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US, this indicates that the Obama Adminstration was engaging in a cover-up.  When the Pres. spoke at the White House immediately after the attack he could not but term it a "terror attack," but neither he nor any of his Administration termed it a "terrorist attack" nor did they acknowledge that it had been planned and that the US was completely unprepared for such an attack.  And why were they unprepared, because of the failure of the Obama foreign policy towards the Middle East.  They preferred to leave the lives of US diplomats and personnel in the hands of the (unstable) Libyan Government.  In other words, if we show that we are not aggressive nor threatening in any way then the Arabs will like us.  This strategy doesn't work, as shown in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt in the anti-American demonstrations and now in Libya.  Only a show of force can demonstrate to Arabs to leave well alone.  So Obama's "act" in his second debate with Romney was dissembling and disingenuous.  Don't let this influence your comparison of the two candidates in their thrid and last debate, even if Obama is an incompetent leader and a liar.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Secret Jews of the Balearic Islands

On Mon Oct 15 a conference was held at Netanya Academic College on the topic, "The Struggle for Identity of the Secret Jews of the Balearic Islands of Spain."  It was co-sponsored by Casa Shalom - The Inst. for Marrano/Anusim Studies, the Intl. Inst. for the Study of Secret Jews (Anusim) at NAC, the Embassy of Spain in Israel and the Centro-Sefarad in Madrid, Spain.  It was opened with remarks by Dr. David Altman, Sen. VP of NAC, HE Fernando Carderera,  Ambassador of Spain in Israel, Prof. Michael Corinaldi, Chairman of IISSJ and Justice Meir Shamgar, Pres. (ret.) of the Israeli Supreme Court.
The presentations were divided into three sessions:  1. The phenomenon of the Anusim: social, political and cultural aspects; 2. Expression of the Anusim experience in the Balearic Islands; and 3. The Anusim of Majorca: a strategy of Jewish existence.  Certainly there was overlap in the presentations in these sections, but they provided a coherent picture of the amazing phenomenon of the existence of Secret Jews (Anusim or chuetas) in the Balearic Islands of Spain 500 years after the expulsion of 1492.
I do not propose in the space available to describe each speaker or presentation, I can only summarize my overall impressions.  I found  the introductory lecture by Dr. Schulamith HaLevy of Hebrew University on "the geographic and historic background of the diaspora of the Anusim" to be a very useful summary of the origins and current status of the phenomenon of the Secret Jews, also known as "Marranos"  (in Spanish), Chuetas (in Catalan) and Anusim (in Hebrew).  Mrs. Gloria Mound, a pioneer in the field of Anusim studies in the Balearic Islands, expanded on this background by emphasizing the complexity of the history of the Secret Jews of the Balearic Islands, where not all of them were actually converted forcibly, where only 15 specific families were forcibly converted (as conversos) in the Cathedral of Palma (and their descendents then constituted the original chuetas) and where each Island had its own history. 
For example, Minorca was ruled by the British for over 100 years and this influenced the treatment of the formerly Jewish minority, and the Inquisition centered largely on Majorca.  The inhabitants of the Islands speak a dialect of Catalan and regarded any incursion of Spanish Castilian authority with suspicion, leading to the acceptance of the Secret Jews, especially on Ibiza.  What remains clear though is that it was a mutual repulsion that kept the New Christians and the Old Christians from inter-marrying, leading to the phenomenon of intramarriage between the Secret Jewish families that preserved their identity to a large extent over the centuries.  Prof. Goncal Lopez-Nadal of the Unviersity of Majorca described the large role that Chuetas played in the development of the maritime trade of Majorca in the 17th and 18th centuries. 
Several personal reminiscences provided a fascinating corollary to the historical and geographic analyses.  Ladd Ehlinger, architect and historian from New Orleans, described his genealogical researches to find his familiy origins that led him to discover his Minorcan Sephardi roots in Louisiana centuries ago.  Two speakers who identify themselves as Bnei Anusim, descendents of the Secret Jews, described their own histories, Miquel Segura, a well-known journalist and historian related his own version in his talk entitled "Chuetas of Majorca, we are the history," and Pere Bonnin described "the influence of the Torah on Hispanic place names and personal names."  He pointed out that the river Ebro probably came from a rendering of Hebrew, and the very name Balearic may derive from the name of the God Ba'al referring to the Phoenicians who also settled the Islands.  There is dispute as to the origin of the term chueta, some, such as Prof. Corinaldi referring to its origin in the Catalan for "pig," while Pere Bonnin preferred the origin in the term jueta from Jeues or Jew.    In describing the situation of the Secret Jews of the Balearic Islands he said "the persecuton was relentless, detailed and cruel."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Whose narrative?

On Weds I went to a meeting at Netanya Academic College entitled "Culture, education and intellectuals in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," presented by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialog and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (Fund).  Since I did not attend all of the conference I cannot comment on all of it, but the two sessions I did attend gave me pause.
First, one should note that this was not a well-attended program, only about 40 people showed up (compared to over 300 for the conf. held two days before on the Anusim of the Balearic Islands in the same hall) indicating low interest in this topic (both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of intellectuals in it?).  I attended a session entitled "Learning the Narrative of the Other" which had a chair and four discussants.  I was particularly disturbed by the intellectual discourse in which the term "narrative" was used very often.  It seemed to me that this was a catch-all for all sorts of historical, ethical and other differences between the two sides and the term "other" was a way of avoiding saying "Arab" or "Palestinian" or "Jew" or "Israeli."  Why not call a spade a spade, or is that what intellectuals assiduously avoid.
In the use of the term "narrative" there was an implied assumption that all narratives are equal, and that this allows the user to be polite about the "other's" narrative and to give it equal footing, thus everybody is equivalent and happy.  For example, the American Indians had a nice "narrative" but it didn't help them.  For example, the Egyptians still believe that that they won the Yom Kippur War of 1973, but by any rational standard they lost.  There has to be a rational test of the value of any narrative.  It was also evident that the term "narrative" is always self-serving. My narrative is what I think is right, and he thinks his narrative is right, but this prevents dialog, since it is virtually impossible to have a "narrative" in between.  You either accept my narrative or I accept yours.  And since many Israeli intellectuals seem to accept the Palestinian narrative but not vice-versa, that is an "asymmetric" outcome.  As one of the participants stated, the use of 'narratives" reduces the tendency to dialog, which is what the intellectuals seem to really want.
In the next session "The role of intellectuals and media in forging dialog between the two societies," there was a lot of talk, but not much substance.  One of the few Israeli Arabs participating was Yehia Kassem, Chief Correspondent of Ahurra TV in Israel.  I had never heard of Ahurra TV, but apparently it is widely watched throughout the Arab world and is bought to them by the munificence of the US tax-payer.  In answer to the question, why is the media not more effective in promoting dialog between Israelis and Palestinians, he said that with everything going on in the Arab world, the Arab Spring uprisings, the war in Syria, the problem with Iran, people in the Arab world today are just not that interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Jerusalem in maps

On Sunday at AACI Netanya I was witness to an extraordinary presentation by Benji Tal-or, who comes originally from NW London and who is a talented and enthusiastic speaker, a cartographer and lecturer.  His title of "Jerusalem in maps: from Madaba to 2020" was a kind of introduction for what was to follow. 
Benji set up a semi-circle of beautifully reproduced maps of Jerusalem on 12 screens about 6 foot high by 3 foot wide.  Each of them had at least two maps, including plenty of text and photos.  Then the audience sat around in a  semi-circle in front of the maps while he talked about them and described some of the most famous historic maps.  He claimed that the mosaic map of Madaba, that constitutes only a small portion of an extensive mosaic on the floor of the Church in Madaba, Jordan, is the oldest actual map in the Holy Land, dating from around 550 ce.  It shows a view of Jerusalem as it was in Roman times, with the prominent north-west feature of the Cardo, the main axis that was present in most Roman cities.  The map is annotated in Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire.  The Cardo has been excavated in modern Jerusalem and you can see a small portion of it adjacent to the Jewish quarter, the main part of it having been destroyed to make way for the Arab souk.  He also showed the first aerial map of Jerusalem taken by a German pilot in 1905 for military purposes and also the first accurate maps of Jerusalem prepared by the British Palestine Exploration Society in the early 20th century.
He described several extant medieval maps of Jerusalem that have imaginary features, often representing the Temple of Solomon that was of course destroyed by the Romans.  Many of these maps have a common feature that they are circular and show Jerusalem as the center of the world.  One famous map of 1585 shows Jerusalem at the center of a three-lobed clover leaf map of the world, representing the three then known continents, Europe, Africa and Asia.  Taking off from this theme of Jerusalem as the center of the geographical world (later of course shown to be false by accurate map-making) Benji then went off at a deliberate tangent to describe his dream of creating an actual physical center for all geographical knowledge that could be a cross between a Disneyland and a hitech data collection and referral point. He showed a graphic mock-up of his planned center, to be named "Planeta" that will be located on the highest point in the Jerusalem area, namely Nebi Samuel.  One reason why he chose this location is not only its topographical features, but also the presence of ancient buildings that are sacred to all three monotheistic religions. 
His plan includes a geodesic dome (just like the Epcot Center in Disneyland) and a computer center, where all geographic data will be housed that will be available on the internet.  He gave as an example, if someone wanted to know the layout of the sewers of Melbourne, they could find it quickly there.  He has set up an Amuta (an Israeli non-profit organization) but he realizes that to reach his dream he is going to have to transform this into a money-making scheme and he has an impressive list of academics, educators and others who are interested in this ambitous project.  Now he needs investors and Government permission to bring his dream to realization by 2020. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

St. Matthew Passion

Last Thurs evening we went to the first concert of our subscription to the Kibbutz Orchestra that performs at the Netanya Cultural Center (Hechal Hatarbut) and elsewhere in Israel.  I was surprised that the first performance was Johan Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion.  Why was I surprised, because one does not often expect to hear Christian liturgical music in Israel.  For about ten years we attended the monthly concerts of the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra (that has now been disbanded because of the retirment of its founder Harvey Bordowitz) and I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Christian liturgical performances we heard there.  There is such a vast repertoire of music available, why perform such a piece in Israel?  There can be only two reasons, first is that it is a work of musical genius and deserves to be performed and second that there was a visiting choir from Potsdam, Germany, and this piece was their particular preferance.  I should point out that there are annual performances of such Christian liturgical music at the festival at Abu Ghosh, a Christian Arab village outside Jerusalem, that attracts a largely Jewish audience. 
Let me clarify, I don't agree with musical censorship in general, although I have no fondness for the works of Wagner or overtly Christian music.  I prefer more modern classical music, the English masters (Elgar, Delius), French (Debussy, Ravel), Russian (Shostakovitch, Prokofiev) and others (Bartok, Smetana).  Of course, I love Mozart and Beethoven, but there is so much to choose from, why play overtly Christian liturgical music for a Jewish Israeli audience?  It smacks of liberal Jewish triumphilism, we'll show you Germans that we're a lot more tolerant than you were.  I noted that there were very few kippot (yarmulkes) being worn among the audience, that is very few religious (Orthodox) Jews, a smattering.  But, then again this was the Kibbutz Orchestra, the kibbutzim are known for their liberal/leftist bias, perhaps they don't want religious Jews to attend their concerts.
The St. Matthew Passion written by Bach in 1727 describes in musical and choral form the "Passion" of Jesus Christ when he was (supposedly) crucified. As such it cannot avoid being in some ways anti-Semitic, with the appropriate treatments of Caiaphas the High Priest and of course Judas Iscariot.  The words of the Gospel of St Matthew describing the events surrounding the crucifixion are sung in recitative, with Bach's musical and choral interpolations.  I must admit that these thoughts about appropriateness and the dislike of hearing the German language distracted me throughout the performance.
I have heard this work before, most notably when I was a student in Cambridge we went to a performance in the King's College Chapel.  This was a great experience, but what I remember most after so many years is the intense cold in the huge medieval stone building.  We were forewarned and wore our coats and scarves and sat over one of the hot air vents, although it hardly affected the ambient temperature.  I have also heard other Christian liturgical music, such as Mozart's "requiem."  But, I have to admit that I found the Bach, apart from a few highlights, quite tedious.  It is long (3 hours) and the air-conditioning was too cold (most of the men wore short sleeved shirts due to the balmy outside temperature).  Notwithstanding the excellent performances it was a bit of an ordeal and I came out of with a temporary cold.  The next concert is Vivaldi and Mussourgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" adapted for jazz trio and orchestra.  It should be more enjoyable. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Who trusts the BBC now?

Jimmy Savile, the erstwhile comedian, has been found to have sexually molested hundreds of children over a period of many years, and the BBC didn't know about it!  Even when these crimes were commited in the BBC premises in his office and studio.  And even when the BBC program Newsnight carried out an investigation into these allegations, it was shelved.  Noone yet knows exactly why, but it was certainly a BBC cover-up.  So what has this got to do with Israel?
I'll tell you.  When I was a child living in England, the BBC was considered to be totally trustworthy, with an impeccable reputation for truth.  But, that was long ago.  Since then it has been taken over by a cabal of leftists and Muslims who run the show.  They are ingrained anti-Israel activists, who use all means at their disposal to slant the news against Israel.  If there is an attack on Israel by Palestinian terrorists or if missiles are fired into Israel from Gaza, the BBC never reports these attacks, but always reports the Israeli retaliation. They repeatedly call the Israeli PM "right wing" or "hard-line" while, exempting the Pres. of the Palestine Authority from any critical appelation such as "illegal" or "terrorist" or "criminal," when he is all three. According to them the Palestinians can do no wrong, they are never criticised, it is always the "occupation" or the IDF that is at fault. 
Don't accept my word for this, the BBC's evident bias has been exposed by the web-site "BBC Watch" and the lawyer Trevor Asserson who authored two reports, one in 2004 and the other in 2010, documenting many examples of institutional BBC bias against Israel and in favor of the Palestinians in its supposedly neutral news reports.  BBC reporter Barabra Plett, who supposedly reported impartially from the Middle East, reported that she wept when Yasir Arafat died.  In 2004 the BBC commisioned a Report on its Middle East coverage by a senior broadcast journalist Malcom Balen, but then refused to release the Balen Report, another cover-up.  The BBC is far from being the only network that has been infiltrated by pro-Arab leftists.  CNN has had continuous problems, for example Octavia Nasr who was the editor in charge of Middle Eastern affairs was fired for expressing admiration for a Hizbollah Sheikh.  Whether this is a natural bias of reporters or a biased editorial process, or a more specific organized group, it exists. 
Now we find that not only was the BBC guilty of continuous bias against Israel, but at the same time they were covering up severe cases of child abuse.  The BBC should be closed down or their current personnel rooted out.  They need a complete house-clean, so that a new staff can be established without blemish, which will not accept news bias and will not allow child abuse or other criminal activities that are probably going on that we as yet don't know about. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Noble Savage

An edited version of this letter appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine 12/10/12:
At first sight the message seems incontrovertible: "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man."  But on second thought, maybe this slogan, that is being placed as ads by the American Freedom Institute in the New York City subway system, needs further scrutiny. 
When at the end the ad says "Support Israel, Defeat Jihad" I can find no fault.  As far as I am concerned the Jews were another minority group that was decimated by European civilization, to which they made major contributions, and so we should support Israel.  Further "Jihad" has been shown by Andrew Bostom in his encyclopedic compilation, "The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic holy war and the fate of non-Muslims," to be a destructive war against all other civilizations but the Muslims.   
But, who is to say who is in fact "civilized."  After all, weren't the so-called American Indians (native Americans or "first people" in Canada) civilized, didn't they have their own civilization, that was no match for the power of the European civilization, that overwhelmed them and destroyed their culture? The British led the imperial charge in the 1800s, taking over and destroying the civilizations of the Aborigines of Australia, the Maori of New Zealand, the tribes of Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. The Aborigines of Tasmania put up minimal resistance and they were virtually wiped out by 1879 only ca. 70 years after contact with European white civilization.  In these wars between the "civilized" man and the "savage" perhaps the distinction was not so clear.
The theme of "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley is precisely that - technological civilization with all its advances is not necessarily morally superior to the savage, perhaps even less so.  Let us defeat jihad, but let us spare a thought for the "noble savage."
Yours etc.
Jack Cohen

Friday, October 12, 2012

Muslim culture

No doubt you've heard in the news about the assassination attempt in Pakistan on the 14 year old girl Malala Yousufzai, who was a leader of the movement for the education of women and girls in Pakistan.  She was shot in the head by the Taliban, who consider all education of girls and women to be so morally wrong that they tried to kill her.  Further, when it was found that she was not dead, but badly wounded, the Taliban issued a statement that they will try again to kill her.  What kind of perverted movement is it that kills 14 year old girls, and opposes education of women.  It is an Islamist movement that seeks to prevent all Western influence in their area and to keep it out of their culture.  I heard a discussion on the BBC about this and one speaker said in effect "you Westerners don't understand, in the deeply ingrained Muslim areas, they are afraid that if they allow girls to be educated and then women, they will lose their control of them.  The Islamic men are afraid that their culture, that is based on their "sacred" domination of women, will collapse.
A visiting American asked me, on behalf of his group of friends, about the Palestinians, why doesn't Israel support a two-state solution?  I pointed out that a two-state solution is official Israeli Government policy, but the Palestinians are unwilling to negotiate with Israel, they are afraid of making peace with Israel.  He asked why are they so against making peace with Israel, why doesn't Israel, knowing this, simply make concessions to them to show them that they should accept peace (in other word turn the other cheek - a very Christian solution, but not often practised by Christians).  I pointed out that Westerners don't understand Arab Muslim Palestinian culture.  The Palestinian people did not exist in antiquity, they came into being basically only in 1967, when the other Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria) gave up fighting "for" them (after being defeated by the IDF; of course neither Egypt nor Syria would have established a Palestinian State, but that's another story).  Palestinian culture is totally bound up in "the struggle" against the Jews.  They do not accept that Jews have any claims on their land, they believe that Jews are an inferior people ("dhimmi") and they cannot give up the struggle, it would be the end of Palestinian culture as they know it. 
No leader of the Palestinians will accept any deal with Israel, as long as that deal means formally acknowledging the existence of Israel as a Jewish State and giving up "the struggle, it has become a "sacred" or "holy" aim of their culture (he would risk sure assassination).  In fact, when Israel did do what is asked, give up Gaza completely, withdraw all settlers and the IDF from land that was legitimately owned by Jews, what happened?  The Palestinians trashed all Jewish remains, including hothouses and synagogues, and started lobbing shells over the border into Israel and this has continued to the present day (by the way they completely destroyed all Jewish farms and buildings they captured in the 1948 war, for example Kfar Etzion).  This is a sign of blind hatred, that cannot be reasoned with.
Why is Pres. Abbas of the PA (that was set up by Israel under the Oslo Accords) trying to achieve unilateral Palestinian recognition through the UN, because he is trying at all costs to avoid negotiating with Israel on equal terms.  He cannot, as the leader of the Palestinians, like Arafat before him, come to terms with the existence of a Jewish State in what he considers to be Arab land.  Of course, we could discuss seriously the legal basis of the Jewish State at great length, but to the Palestinians this is a fairy story.  They don't recognise any such basis.  If they ever get near being pushed into negotiations their response is to react violently, as Arafat did with the second intifada of 2000.  They see their very culture at stake if Western values infiltrate their lands.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Early Israeli elections

PM Netanyahu has called for new elections "as soon as possible" probably by Jan-Feb 2013, instead of the full term that would end in Oct 2013, so ca. 8 months early.  In doing so he stated that he was doing this in the national interest, but everyone knows that it is politics that has determined his about-face.  Apparently the PM was having difficulty convincing his coalition partners to accept cuts in the State Budget for 2013 that he regards as necessary for the economic health of the nation. 
As you may remember we narrowly missed having early elections twice before, in May 2012  when the Tal Law governing Army induction of the haredi population was about to expire.  But this was narrowly averted when Kadima under Shaul Mofaz joined the coalition, and then again in August when Kadima left the coalition.   However, this time is seems to be for real. 
What are the reasons governing this decision? 1. The ostensible reason is the inability of Netanyahu to persuade his coalition partners to accept his 2013 budget, that means that he cannot pass it and prefers to call elections to avoid a coalition fight; 2. The US elections are looming in a month and whoever is chosen President, Netanyahu would like to negotiate with him holding a new mandate, for 3. The possibility of a fateful clash with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program. 
No PM orders an election unless he expects to gain a larger majority for his Party than he already has.  The current polls give Likud an extra seat in the Knesset, not much, but maybe more.  The main prediction of the polls is that the Left is so fragmented and lacks strong and charismatic leadership that is is likely to lose many votes.  Labor under Shelli Yachimovitch is expected to do reasonably well, but the far left is already weakened and Kadima, the center left party, is expected to lose big.  Mofaz has failed to gain traction as the party leader and is not considered a threat to Netanyahu.  Similarly Ehud Barak, the Defense Minister, and his Independence Party are not expected to do well.  One unknown is the new Yesh Atid (There is a future) Party of Yair Lapid, which is predicted to win 9-10 seats.  Also, Avigdor Lieberman with his Yisrael Beitanu Party on the right is likely to retain his current level of support.   Similarly Shas might be the same.
However, lurking on the sidleines is Netanyahu's old nemesis, Ehud Olmert.  After managing to avoid several charges of corruption and coming out of his mess not smelling like roses, but still surviving, Olmert fancies his chances anew.  Many have warned him not to try, beceause the public are unlikely to forgive him, but politics is a strange game and who knows what will transpire.  So we, the Israeli public, face a welter of choices, but the likely outcome is that Likud will win again, and Netanyahu will form a new but similar coalition, and once again will have to compromise in order to pass his 2013 budget. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Two-state what?

Five mortar shells fall on Turkey over a  few days and it's international news.  Fifty mortars and missiles fall on southern Israel over the weekend and there's -- nothing!  OK, there are differences, mortars falling in Turkey from Syria is something new, while missiles falling in  Israel from Gaza is common, there have been thousands of them.  Also, while five people were killed in Turkey, three of them children, in Israel noone has been killed currently.  Apart from the bad aim of the terrorists, there are two other reasons why the casualties are low in Israel, first the whole area of southern Israel is dotted with concrete structures where people can take refuge and all schools are reinforced.  Also, the Iron Dome anti-missile system activates only when a missile is calculated to be landing in a populated area.  In fact most of them fall in agricultural areas causing no damage or casualties. 
But, there is a difference in the perception of the importance and the newsworthiness of these two similar events.  If Turkey is activated to counter-attack Syrian forces and become engaged in the civil war in Syria on the side of the rebels, then that would really be news.  More missiles falling on southern Israel is boring, except for the million or so inhabitants who live there.  PM Erdogan of Turkey has vowed that Turkey will not be drawn into a war and yet is ready to defend itself.  They have lobbed several shells back over the border.  But, if you were a Syrian rebel and you knew that a few morter shells landing in Turkey might get you more Turkish support, what would you do?  I doubt that Turkey can distinguish between Syrian Army and Free Syrian Army shells. 
Meanwhile the situation in southern Israel continues as before, the Gaza terrorists led by Hamas continue to keep the situation at a low boil by constant shooting of missiles over the border.  Israel also retaliates by IAF attacks into Gaza and downed the first drone (UAV) flying over Israel, probably sent from Gaza.  Recently the leaders of Fatah, the so-called moderate faction, re-stated that they see the only solution to the Palestine problem is through the use of violence against Israel.  So much for a peaceful solution to the problem.  When un-President Abbas is busy undermining Israel's legitimacy, denying Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem and taking unilateral action for recognition at the UN, what are we to do. I think Bibi's accomodationist tactics of providing funds to the PA to keep it solvent is a bad idea.  Let it die from its own corruption and incompetence.  So much for a two-state solution. 

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Iranian spring?

PM Netanyahu has narrowed the window for Iran to achieve enough highly enriched uranium that could be used to make a nuclear bomb to 6-7 months.  That takes us well beyond the US election which is in Nov and also beyond the inauguration of the next President which is in Jan, to next spring (March, April, 2013).  Unless something unexpected happens and under crippling sanctions Iran decides to abort its nuclear weapons program or there is an "Iranian Spring" uprising, then at that point we will have reached Israel's red line, as demontrated so convincingly by PM Netanyahu in his UN speech. 
As a result of severe sanctions placed on Iran by the international community for its continued development of nuclear capability, the value of the Iranian currency, the rial, tumbled 40% last week relative to the dollar. This caused a mini-riot in the bazaar in Tehran, where the money changers work.  So far the riots have not spread, but the economic pressure on ordinary Iranians is severe, prices of all standard products like bread and meat have increased significantly, and the price of gasoline has sky-rocketed.  Note that while Iran produces crude oil, it does not have its own refining capacity, and so must import most of its gasoline/petrol.  The main factor that caused the latest financial crisis is the sanctions against buying Iranian crude oil.  This is hitting them where it counts.
Unfortunately, it does not seem that the riots at this point are spreading.  Don't forget that that the regime crushed the demonstrations three years ago when Ahmedinejad lost the election, but retained his position.  Also, even with the severe economic situation, the regime has not halted its race to develop weapons grade enriched uranium.  It is unlikely that anything will change this momentum.  So while the Iranian people are suffering and the economy is in rapid decline, the Iranian Government of Pres. Ahmedinejad spends millions on developing nuclear capability.  Is this enough to cause an Iranian Spring, like the uprisings that consituted the Arab Spring and removed the Arab dictators from power and initiated the civil war in Syria?  Will there be an Iranian Spring?
So there are two potential mitigating circumstances, either the US President, Obama or Romney, in the spring will take decisive action against Iran and warn them at the eleventh hour that the US will act militarily if they do not stop their development of nuclear weapons, or when Ahmedinejad finally leaves office, the Iranian people will rise up and remove the oppressive regime from power.  If neither of these events happen we can expect Israel to act to destroy the development of Iran's nuclear capability in the spring. Nice!

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Terra Incognita

"Terra Incognita" by Libi Astaire ( is a remarkable book.  It was written after she stayed in Girona, the only city with a restored Juderia (Jewish Quarter) in Spain.  Based upon her research there she has constructed a novel about the descendents of Secret Jews that is both realistic and informative.   
The story revolves around the inhabitants of a small, obscure, isolated village called Sant Joan Janusz, near Girona in Catalonia. The  name of the village is ficticious (there was no such saint) and the village has no Church, which is unusual. Of course we realize that the families that live in this village are descendents of Secret Jews, known in Hebrew as Bnei Anusim, but many of them, especially the younger ones, have not been inducted into this secret, presumably because it was very dangerous to do so in the time of the Inquisition, and this fear persists.  They only know that there are certain unusual family customs, such as having a formal family dinner on Friday night, where they light a candle and raise it up inside the chimney where it can't be seen, and sitting on low chairs if someone dies and covering the mirrors, etc.  But, having had no contact with real Jews for hundreds of years they no longer realize that these are Jewish customs and believe they they are simply local traditions. 
The main protagonists in the story are two young men. Vidal Bonet, a local boy who went to New York and received a degree in Business Management and has returned to the village for the funeral of his grandmother.  He wants to build a resort called "Peaceland" adjacent to the village.  He is not at first worried that this will destroy the isolation of the village and lead to a loss of its peculiar customs. He is strongly opposed in this by his own grandfather, who wants to retain the isolation and all the traditions.
Chaim Greenberg is an American Jew doing his thesis project on the Secret Jews of Catalonia, principally motivated by a diary discovered in his Aunt's house that relates the story of how his family originated in Spain and were Conversos, Jews forced to convert to Christianity.  Later in the novel we learn the contents of this diary, written in old Spanish, how the Jews of Girona were forced to convert and how a son went to Saragossa to live as a Christian, but married the daughter of a wealthy New Christian family who secretly practised Judaism.  Then a new brutal Inquisitor is appointed there, who starts a reign of terror against all New Christians, former Jews, whether they were sincere or not, in order to enrich the Church and the State.  And how a group of young men of these formerly Jewish families plot together to assassinate this Inquisitor, but are unsuccessful and are forced to flee.  They flee to Girona (intending to cross the Pyrenees Mountains), but by endangering their own family they are all forced to flee into the interior, where they settle in an isolated and obscure place and found the village of Sant Joan Janusz. 
Some of them manage to escape by sea and via a circuitous route, spending many years in Salonica, they eventually end up in Kansas, where Chaim Greenberg finds the diary written by his ancestor.  As described in the diary and as a result of various events, a hidden syanagogue is indeed found in the village and then an old Torah scroll .  This and other events destroy Vidal's ambition, but leads him and Chaim, who realize that they are distant relations, to decide to visit Israel together.   

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Year of the Rooster

One day a few years ago I was walking on the street and someone called my name from a cafe.  He introduced himself as Joe and he said he knew of me and he wanted to ask me a favor.  He had heard that I write and he had written a draft of a novel and would I be prepared to review it for him and give him my opinion. When he described the story I readily agreed.
Joe Moritz was born in the USA and as a young Jewish boy, stirred by stories of derring-do and adventure, in a weak moment, he had abjured college and had volunteered for the Marine Corps to fight in Vietnam.  One of his motivations was to show that a Jewish boy could fight with the best of them.  He was accepted and trained and shipped out to Vietnam in 1969, the year of the rooster, hence the title of his book "The Year of the Rooster." 
In his book he describes his family's shock at his decision, and in the present he expresses his distraction from real life due to flashbacks.  Then he tells the tale of his induction into the Marines, his entry into Vietnam, his shock at the living conditions in holes in the ground on the edge of an impenetrable jungle.  His interactions with his fellow marines, their officers and with the Vietnamese civilians.  He describes fire-fights and retreats and sudden death, and then his own terrible injury, shot though the shoulder by a large piece of shell.  What is different about this memoir from many others of that period is that Joe dwells on the time after his injury, the treatment and the nurses and orderlies who attended him, the kindess and the fear and overwhelming pain.  He was shipped out of Nam to a Naval Hospital in South Philadelphia where the conditions were dreadful, where men lay in sweat and vomit and there weren't enough staff to attend to all the wounded.  Where the walls were peeling and the toilets were filthy, but the medical treatment was good.  After some time he recovered, although his left arm is permanently disabled. 
I'm glad that Joe got his book published and it is available on Amazon.  I have a copy before me and I'm glad that I helped him, even if only a little, to bring it to a conclusion.  His writing is gritty and authentic and I highly recommend it.  Joe is now writing another novel, and I'm pleased that he got his visceral experience in Vietnam out of his sytem and can move on with his life in Israel.