Sunday, April 28, 2013

When is a red line not a red line?

The trouble with issuing a threat that if a red line is crossed action will result, is that you have to keep your word or lose credibility.  Pres. Obama has stated several times, most recently during his trip to Israel, that if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons in Syria, then he will consider that a red line and a game changer.  Earlier this week the Head of IDF intelligence Gen Shlomo Bron stated publicly that a chemical weapon, namely Sarin gas, had been used by the Syrian regime against civilians.   At first Secty. of State Kerry was sceptical about Bron's claim, then Secty of Defense Chuck Hagel visiting the region also expressed doubts. 
But, a day later in light of video from Syria showing civilians clearly suffering from a gas attack, he changed his mind and said that US intelligence agreed that the regime had indeed used chemical weapons. There was also a report some time ago that British intelligence had detected Sarin gas in soil samples taken from Syria.  Also journalists in Syria have reported that they have seen and interviewed patients suffering from chemical gas and also have spoken to doctors who treated them and physiological samples have been tested positively for Sarin gas by US intelligence.  In light of the evidence it is fairly clear that the regime in Syria is using Sarin gas against Syrian civilians.  So what is Pres. Obama going to do?
As of now Pres. Obama has issued a statement saying that the US must receive definitive evidence before any action can be taken.  To many this seems like prevarication and worst it sends the Iranians a bad message, that red lines are not really red lines if the President doesn't want to take action.  Such a show of weakness puts the threats against the Iranian nuclear weapons program in doubt.  It may be that US public opinion is not in favor of US action in Syria.  Although the allies, Britain and France, are supporting the US in regard to action in Syria, PM Cameron said that action could be diplomatic rather than military, but that is really evading the issue. 
Republican Sen. John McCain is calling for a safe zone to be established inside Syria for the Free Syrian Army and Syrian civilians and the protection of that area by declaring it a "fly free" zone, in other words protecting it from Syrian air force attacks.  The White House is using caveats such as only a small amount of Sarin gas was used or they need to assess the overall situation, andfthe Russians are warning against any western intervention in Syria, but these seem like lame excuses considering the preponderance of the evidence.  So when is a red line not a red line?

Friday, April 26, 2013

What is life?

When I was a young chemistry student I bought an old organic chemistry textbook from the 1920's because it was cheap and I read the Introduction and I remember that it had a phrase in it that stuck with me, "Life is the mode of action of albuminous substances."  At the time I puzzled over this sentence, unexpected in a chemistry text.  Soon I realized that since albumin is a ubiquitous type of protein, for example in egg white and humans, that "albuminous substances" was an old-fashioned synonym for "proteins."  Since there are literally hundreds of different proteins in the human body, structural proteins such as collagen, functional proteins such as enzymes and transportation proteins such as hemoglobin, it was natural then to believe that they were the chemical basis of life.
Later work by Avery and his co-workers in 1944 at the Rockefeller Institute in NY (before Watson and Crick) showed that DNA, dexoyribose nucleic acid, is in fact the genetic substance.  So if we update the chemical definition of life we should say that "Life is the mode of action of DNA."  The genetic code of DNA is responsible for all aspects of life; all phenotypes, all development and all biological characteristics are a manifestation of the function of DNA.  It is DNA that as discrete genes expresses the proteins of the body, each of which has a specific and necessary physiological function.  You can really say "my genes made me do it."
To some this may seem overly simplistic and to others it may seem too deterministic.  After all, life is also a complex combination of human experiences.  There are some religions, notably Buddhism, that consider life to be a mere illusion.  Once I was driving my daughter home from an evening meeting of her youth group and she asked me "Daddy, how do we know that life is not an illusion?" (I assume there had been an earnest youthful discussion). I thought for a moment and said "see the lights of the car ahead of us, if I don't press the brakes right now we will both find out that life is not an illusion."  We experience life in all its glory and pettiness, reality is a harsh taskmaster.  Our organism has evolved a nervous system that enables us to experience the reality around us through our senses and through the interpretation of the sensory signals in our brains.  Our brains, hands and eyes have evolved so that we can function in a three dimensional universe.  I truly believe that it is real and that there is no other universe that we can experience.  So don't forget to press the brakes!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

INSS Meeting

The annual meeting of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University entitled "Security challenges of the 21st century," produced some sensational news.  Gen. Shlomo  Brom, former Director of Strategic Planning of the IDF, stated in his presentation that the Syrian Government has in fact used chemical weapons, Sarin gas, against its opponents, killing civilians. Since Pres. Obama has said that the use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons would be a "game changer" that would trigger US intervention in the Syrian civil war.  US Secty. of State Kerry, visiting Jordan, called PM Netanyahu and then went on record to say that since the PM could not himself confirm this finding, the US would hold off on any reaction.  While I think that Gen. Brom was correct, nevertheless it doesn't gain anything to embarrass our best ally, the US.  Better to consult with them first.
Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, former Head of Israel's Military Intelligence, stated in his talk that Iran has already passed the red line set by PM Netanyahu in his UN speech, that it has achieved enough highly enriched uranium to develop a nuclear weapon.  However, he then backtracked slightly to say that with the thousands of centrifuges that they have working, plus the recent addition of hundreds of super-efficient centrifuges, they could attain this status in about a month or two and certainly by this summer. He intimated that Iran is in fact holding back from crossing the red line in order not to trigger any military reaction either from Israel or the US.  He averred that an Israeli attack would be feasible, but not as comprehensive as one by the US.  Iran would much prefer an attack from Israel, since that would give them sympathy throughout the Muslim world and much of the West, whereas if the US strikes, the results would be more successful and the reaction not so sympathetic to Iran. 
Also, at the conference, a panel of experts that had investigated the Palestinian situation declared that there is little likelihood of any negotiations with Pres. Abbas and that it would be better for Israel to carry out a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.  This would be popular in the Western world and would reduce international pressure on Israel.  But, since the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was such a fiasco, resulting in the takeover by Hamas and thousands of missiles being fired from Gaza into Israel and resulting in major military confrontations, it is unlikely that any Israeli Government would follow such ill-considered advice. 
There was also a discussion on which outcome of the Syrian civil war would be preferable for Israel, a continuation of the war as it is now (a stalemate), a win for Assad or his overthrow and a win for the insurrection.  Given the crucial role that Assad's Syria has played as an ally of Iran and as the conduit of arms to Hizbollah and Hamas, the best outcome for Israel would be Assad's overthrow and the establishment of a moderate Sunni regime.  That would cut the connection between Iran and Hizbollah, stop further arms supplies and, as long as the Al Qaeda faction does not gain major influence, lead to a more stable situation, almost as with Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has not jeopardized the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Worldwide terrorist plots

Those in the USA who think that the terrorist attack against the Boston marathon was an isolated incident, one of a kind, should think again.  Here is a short list of countries where recent terrorist plots have been carried out or where they have been prevented by timely action:
  • Bulgaria, 5 Israelis and one Bulgarian killed in bombing at the Burgas airport attributed to Hizbollah, 2012;
  • Azerbaijan, security services arrested 22 people who were hired by Iran to carry out terrorist attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets, Mar 14, 2012;
  • Turkey, the US Embassy in Ankara was damaged by a suicide bomber, Feb, 2013;
  • Nepal, an Iranian acting suspiciously was arrested by guards at the Israeli Embassy and turned over to the Nepalese authorities, April 13, 2013;
  • USA, three killed and 170 injured by two bombs at the Boston marathon, April 15, 2013;
  • India, a bomb blast near the BJP party headquarters in Bangalore left 16 people injured, April 17, 2013;
  • Britain, Four men were jailed in Britain for planning terrorist attacks, including planning to blow up an army reserve center, April 18, 2013;
  • Canada, two arrested yesterday in plot to derail a train between Toronto and New York, April 22, 2013;
Does anyone have any doubt about this now, that there is a world-wide organized campaign of terrorism against US and Israeli targets, mostly perpetrated by Muslim extremists, some linked to al Qaeda and some to Iran, or both.  The successful ones recently were in Bulgaria and the USA.  Although the perpetrators in Boston were found, there was clear evidence of naievete and wishful thinking in dealing with this threat.  There was no positive vetting of the spectators, no attempt to check bulky backpacks such as worn by the two Tsarnaev brothers.  Of course, after the bombings, the US typically flooded the whole city with thousands of police, local, state and FBI, etc., and locked down the whole city, containing millions of people, somewhat overkill (an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure).  Even with that force they did not find the second killer lurking nearby for 3 days, it was only after they lifted the lockdown order that a local man found the tarpaulin on his parked boat was torn and there was blood around it and he saw someone lying inside.  Now if they had not ordered the lockdown, Dzhokar Tsarnaev would have been found at least a day earlier.

The Russians requested information about the older brother Tamarlan Tsarnaev from the US more than a year ago, yet the FBI found nothing suspicious and closed the case.  What an example of blissful incompetence.  Tamarlan travelled to Russia last year where he spent ca. 6 months in Dagestan.  Noone knows what he did there, but he could also have travelled elsewhere for training, indoctrination, etc.  Is it concern for his human rights that prevented the US from taking this kind of "homegrown" threat seriously.  Isn't the pattern clear enough by now, there have been British-born Pakistani men who have gone to Pakistan and received miltiary training for terrorism, Somali men from the US who have been trained in Somalia, and Yemenis who have gone back to Yemem for training, etc.  If any young man of Muslim background returns to his home country for an extended period, he must be put on a terrorist watch list.  Either the US gets serious about terrorism or more Americans will die.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Livia's story

I met one of my favorite people, Livia Bitton-Jackson, in the street the other day and we were chatting.  She told me that she was going to meeting someone and then told me a story that is quite amazing.  Livia is a historian and was a Professor of History and Judaic Studies at City University of New York.  She is also a Holocaust survivor, who has the distinction of having survived as a 13 year old when she and her family were taken in 1944 by the Germans in Czechoslovakia and transported to Auschwitz. 
In 1980 she wrote about her experiences in a  book entitled "Elli: coming of age in the Holocaust" (Elli Livia Friedmann was her original name).  It was well received and and widely distributed.  As a result she received many letters from all around the world, including Britain, Europe and Japan.  One letter she received was from an American boy in San Diego named Jim Bailes who is not Jewish and he told her that he knew nothing about the Holocaust until he had read her book and it had a tremendous impact on him.  He wanted to meet her, but she and her husband had moved to Israel in 1977 and she only went to NY to teach each year. 
In the meantime they lost contact and apparently Jim continued trying to locate her, not knowing she had moved to Israel.  By chance he met a Jewish couple, the Segals, who lived in the building where he was the custodian, and he asked their advice, but they could not trace her either (this was all before the internet).  They eventually also moved to Israel. Then she published her biographical work, "I have lived a thousand years: growing up in the Holocaust," in 1999 and Jim Bailes wrote to her again.  Fourteen years ago when Livia went to a demonstration with the Women in Green, someone called out her name.  The Segals happened to be sitting at the nearby bus stop ready to leave, but when they heard her name "Livia" called out they ran to her and asked, "are you Livia Bitton-Jackson?"  Soon they contacted Jim Bailes, and since then he comes to Israel to see her once every year.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Muslim terrorists in America

It seems that the Tsarnaev brothers from Chechnya are part of a Muslim terrorist wave that is lapping at America's shores.  They are the inheritors of the 9/11/01 Twin towers attack.  As terrorists they were spectacularly successful. 
They managed to detonate their bombs in a crowded and unexpected place, the Boston marathon, that received immediate and worldwide publicity.  They managed to kill 3 Americans and injure 170, and they initially evaded security and they had the whole of America's government and security apparatus searching for them.  They were identified thru clever computer analysis by the FBI of the many photos and videos taken of that scene in Boston.  It seems they had no escape plan, not expecting to be discovered so quickly.  They killed a cop in a shootout near MIT, carjacked an SUV from a store and were cornered in Watertown.  In another shootout the older brother Tamarlan (with the black hat) was killed while the younger brother Dzhokhar (white hat) managed to evade the police at night.  He was captured a few nights later hiding in a boat stored in a nearby backyard.  The whole of Boston and its suburbs was in lockdown.  I would say that they achieved what they had set out to do.  America has been put on notice that the time of quiet and calm is over.  Any Muslim of any origin in any city in America could be a potential terrorist.
Many questions arise, did the Tsarnaev brothers have other co-conspirators, when did they become radicalized, why did the FBI after interviewing the older brother conclude that he was not dangerous, are there other Chenchen terrorist cells in the USA? What are the implications of all this?  Nominally the Chechen's main enemy is Russia, since their homeland Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.  But, the distinction is that the central Asian states are Muslim, and although they were persecuted and suppressed under Communism, once the USSR collapsed and was divided into 15 distinct countries, then the smaller parts of the Russian Federation became restive.  There have been two Chechen wars and a great deal of terrorism in Russia.  The Beslan school massacre in which 780 people were killed, mostly children, was one of the worst terrorist incidents.  But, if the Chechens decide to play the Islamic card rather than the nationalist card, then the whole world is in trouble.  And this is what has been happening throughout the Muslim world, the nationalists have been losing out to the Islamists, including the Egyptians, the Tunisians, the Turks, and the Palestinians, where Fatah is on the defensive against Hamas.  That is in effect part of the reason for the Syrian conflict, and it could go either way.
It is difficult to distinguish between a peaceful Muslim living in the West, who is willing to live by western standards, and a secret Islamist who suddenly reverts to an anti-western philosophy that requires him or her to take up arms against the West and try to subvert or destroy its civilization in order to bring about the new Caliphate.  It's never gonna happen, but they can cause a great deal of carnage and suffering while they try, as the events in Boston show. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

I was a secret Zionist

You may know that I have been involved with the study of the Secret Jews (Anusim or "marranos") of the Spanish/Portuguese world.  But, once upon a time I was a "secret Zionist."
When I was a child growing up in the East End of London during the 1950s, there weren't many chances to celebrate the birth of the State of Israel.  Our family, many of whom lived in strongly Jewish areas such as Golders Green and Edgware, were able to outwardly celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut.  But, then it was so new, that nobody knew whether or not Israel would survive.  And living in Britain, which had fought the Jews in Palestine, it was still raw to come out publicly in favor of the Jewish State.  I lived in a mixed area, where the non-Jews were mainly anti-Semitic.  So at school and even among my Jewish friends, Israel was talked about sotto voce, in whispers, as was everything Jewish.  The rule was (and is) in England, keep your voice down, don't be crass, don't rock the boat.
Even from among my close group of Jewish friends, I was and am the only one who was a strong Zionist, who came to Israel the first opportunity I got.  We came in 1963 in a mini-bus with 6 other students thru France, Switzerland, Italy and Greece, and by boat to Israel.  Then we came back again, myself and my wife and new baby in 1964 for 2 years.  I had applied for a NATO Fellowship for Israel, but I was told that since Israel was not a NATO country and was not on their list it was inappropriate; but nevertheless I got an interview and I confided to the board of Professors that I wanted the opportunity to live and study in Israel and they gave me a Fellowship for the Weizmann Institute, even though Israel was not on the list of approved countries. 
After our unforgettable stint in Israel we moved to the USA and it was not the same there as in Britain, we could openly express our support for Israel.  I remember buying the book "Swift Sword" after the 1967 Six Day war in NY City and reading it in a restaurant and having people looking over my shoulder at the photos.  Also, I was active in the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington and we had a well attended Yom Haatzmaut celebration every year. 
Then after I retired in the US we came back to Israel for good.  It would have been very difficult to come during my career, especially because of the limited resources in Israel and the lack of opportunities, and also the children were in the middle of their schooling.  We did come for a sabbatical year in 1976-7, and we saw how that disrupted their lives.  But, we finally made it in 1996 and we are very glad we did.  Having lived here for 17 years now we are very happy with our choice.  Israel, with all its problems, is a wonderful country to live in, and I am a secret Zionist no more.  But, those Jews who continue to live in the Diaspora must be very careful, many of them, especially on campus, must keep their Zionist views secret.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Iron Lady is dead

Yesterday was the official funeral of former British PM Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013).  Normally people refrain from criticizing the dead, but not in this case, Margaret Thatcher was a person of conflict and division in her time, and that was because she was anti-socialist and made an enemy of the Unions due to her actions when she was PM.  So that the song "ding-dong the witch is dead" from the "Wizard of Oz" has become popular and some demonstrations occured during her funeral.
Any movement can go from good to bad or vice versa if it becomes too powerful.  As an example, unbridled capitalism was bad because it exploited the workers and gave them no rights, they were treated as mere chattels and paid below minimum wages.  For example, the miners of S. Wales struck for better conditions in 1898-1902, they were dying from "black lung" disease, terrible work conditions with many accidents and malnutrition from inferior wages.  But, the colliery owners forced them out and replaced them with non-union workers and many died.  Similarly in the US, J.P Morgan employed a private army which gunned down miners in battles in West Virginia and Pennsylvania in the coal strike of 1902 and up to 1921 in the Battle of Blair Mountain.  But, eventually, the governments legislated and the courts ruled against trusts and cartels and the Unions became more powerful and were able to force management to pay living wages.  But, then the pendulum swung the other way and the Unions became too powerful and corrupt and controlled the industry and demanded excess wages by blackmail.  That was the situation when Maggie Thatcher came into power in 1980s Britain.
She was a breakthrough as a Conservative PM, she was the first woman and the first petite bourgeois Conservative PM in history.  She was a grocer's daughter, while most previous Conservative PMs had been landowners.  She was pro-Jewish and pro-Israel, while most previous Conservatives had been anti-Semitic.  When Arthur Scargill, the National Union of Miners (NUM) leader, who was a communist, declared that he would bring down her government, he did not know what he was getting into.  When he tried to expand the NUM strike in 1984 from the north of England to all mining areas, Thatcher brought out the police and the army and stopped his "flying pickets" and there was violence.  Several people were killed and many police were injured, but she stopped the strike and closed down the mines.  She was right to do so because they had been nationalized by former Labor governments and were notoriously uneconomical because of the high wages that the miners demanded and got, until coal produced in Britain was 4 times costlier than that available from Poland for example, where wages were of course much lower.  Whereas nationalization of key industries had seemed like a good idea at the time, their subsequent gross inefficiency required privatization and Maggie was the one to do that.  Her commitment to the free market was undeniable.
She was also tough in her defense of British interests abroad, as exemplified in the Falklands War of 1982 and in her cooperation with Pres. Reagan in helping to bring down Communism in the USSR.  There is no doubt that Margeret Thatcher was a strong leader who brought Britain from a socialist-induced backwater into a vibrant society in the 20th century.   Whatever one's opinion there is no doubt that Baroness Thatcher was a great British leader who deserves universal respect.  However, the pendulum swings again and things are never the same and now Britain, like many other countries, is facing economic difficulties.  What Britain needs is another "Iron Lady." 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fayyad resigns

The resignation of Salam Fayyad as PM of the Palestine Authority represents another nail in the coffin of peace prospects in the Middle East.  Fayyad has been considered the architect of the transition by the PA towards a realistic capability of developing  an actual state.  Although he was a moderate and a respected economist and not a member of either Hamas or Fatah, Fayyad was chosen by Pres. Abbas to lead the modernization of the PA.  He introduced transparency into the workings of the PA Government, he opposed corruption and focused on development of infrastructure.  Under his leadership the PA progressed and there has been a moderate improvement in the economic situation of the PA and its inhabitants.
However, over many months there has been friction between Abbas and Fayyad that came to the fore when Finance Minister Nabil Qassis resigned, Fayyad accepted his resignation, but Abbas refused to do so.  The reasons for this resignation and the clash between the two leaders is unclear, but it probably has to do with the PA budget that has recently been proposed by Abbas for the PA.  In this budget, amounting to ca. b$3.6, ca. 30% is assigned to security and military costs. This for an Authority that does not have enough money to pay its employees, who rioted last month when they were not paid, and that depends almost entirely on international donations, notably from the US, Canada and the EU.
When he was here last week Secty of State Kerry and before him Pres. Obama pressed Abbas not to fire Fayyad, since most Western leaders regard him as someone who they can deal with.  But, even as Canada stopped payment on m$300, because they are dissatisfied with the economic and political priorities of Abbas and strongly opposed the move he took to seek unilateral recognition at the UN, they also asked Abbas to retain Fayyad as PM, so the same day Fayyad submitted his resignation in face of withdrawal of support by Abbas.
It should be mentioned that although Fayyad is a favorite Palestinian technocrat in the West, he has very little political support among Palestinians, and so it is easy for Abbas, who controls Fatah and the PLO as well as the PA, to remove him. Various replacements are being considered, but none will have the status of Fayyad and most international donors will look hard (or should) before they continue to support the PA to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, much of which is definitely siphoned off by the leadership.  It should be remarked that money is fungible, so money donated to the PA, or indeed to Gaza where Hamas rules, that goes to subsidize civilian activities also frees funds for weapons and missile purchases that are used against Israeli civilians.  In this way Western countries are subsidizing the military activities of Hamas and Fatah against Isael.  These same countries claim that they are in favor of peace, but in effect they are providing funds that oppose peace.  The forced resignation of Fayyad will make the development of a peaceful Palestinian entity that much less likely.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Boston bombings

The bombings in Boston, whoever caused them, are prime examples of terrorism, killing and maiming innocent people in order to terrorize the larger population and change government policy.  However, despite the casualties they won't succeed in doing anything like that.  It's true that 3 dead and 140 injured is a terrible toll, but really a small number compared to many other such incidents, including daily bombings in Iraq and former bus bombings in Israel that caused up to 30 dead.  It appears that at least one of the two bombs that went off was in a trash container and several bombs reportedly did not ignite, leaving possible important evidence for the FBI.
During the first intifada it was quite common to have trash container bombs here, either with timers or detonated remotely.  When I vounteered for the civil guard, one of our jobs was to check trash containers and especially those in buses, because Arabs liked to jump on a bus, drop a bomb in the trash and then hop off, leaving the bomb to detonate later.  But, then the security checks reduced the effectiveness of these bombs and so they graduated to suicide bombs that killed more people.  To stop the effectiveness of trash container bombs in the streets, Israel removed all the thin wire mesh or small metal cans attached to lampposts and introduced bomb proof trash containers.  This means having fewer trash bins, but having ones that are sturdily built and designed with two metal walls to contain the impact of a bomb.  Just one of these can reduce the toll of an explosion to almost nil.  I suggest that Boston and most other cities follow the Israeli example and by investing in bomb-proof trash bins can reduce the toll of any attempted bombings.  So much so that Israel has not had a trash container bomb for many years, its just not effective any more.
Luckily in Boston the medical facilities set-up for the marathon were right next to the first bomb site and ambulances were waiting right there, so that probably helped to reduce the casualties.  Also, Boston has a great series of hospitals that treated the many injured. 
The timing of the bombings was clearly intended for the end of the Boston Marathon and the Massachusetts holiday of Patriot's Day.  That it also occured on Israeli Independence Day, April 15, is probably a coincidence.  However, the fact that two bombs detonated nearly simultaneously indicates an organization rather than just one crazed individual.  Let's hope that they left enough evidence that they will soon be captured or killed and stopped.  The world is a dangerous place, but man has the ingenuity to overcome all dangers.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Israel, 65 and going strong!

When we look around Israel as it exists today the progress achieved in 65 years is nothing less than amazing.  Israel is seen as a thriving, affluent society, with multiple indicators of advancement.  And yet look where we came from, the most wretched and poorest of the earth, survivors of the Holocaust dragged themselves from Europe, from Displaced Persons camps, with absolutely nothing to their name.  Approximately 350,000 such survivors came to Israel in the years from 1949 onwards and they contributed immensely to the early development of the state.  Now only ca. half of them are still alive in advanced age. Some were not treated equitably by the State, but most were treated well, and many made major contributions, to the IDF, to politics and to industry. 
Then there were waves of immigrants, mostly forced out of their countries of origin in the 1950s, such as the hundreds of thousands of Jews from N. Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya).  There were the Yemenites, who were flown in with nothing, and the Ethiopians most of whom came as penniless refugees. And finally a million Russians, many of whom came with only the shirts on their backs.  Of course, there were also the immigrants from the Western countries, France and the English-speaking countries (UK, USA, Australia, S. Africa and so on) many of whom came with enough to live on and enough training to survive.  The joke was that in order to make a small fortune in Israel you had to come with a large fortune. From these diverse and persecuted people, Israel has become a great success story. 
Looking at the comparative economic situation, although Israel now has a large deficit, it is much better off than most of the euro zone countries.  During the calendar year 2012 Israel had a 3.3% GDP/capita increase, down from the previous two years when it was 5 and 4.4%.  But, although 3.3% is not so high, it is twice the average of the OECD group of European countries, and certainly much higher than such economic basket cases as Ireland, Greece and Portugal. The population of Israel reached almost 8 million at the end of 2012, according to the Israel Census Bureau.  Of these, 6 million are Jews (75%), the rest are Arabs (Muslims and Christians) (20%) and others (5%). Although terrorism is still an issue and rockets are fired continually from Gaza, the toll from terrorism is down significantly to 8 dead and13 injured in 2012 (compared to 450 killed and 2,500 injured in 2002), as a result of the security fence and excellent intelligence and IDF actions.  Israel also has the second greatest development of high tech start-ups in the world, only after the USA.  
If we look around at Netanya, as a typical city, we see many major developments, a new large stadium, the renovation of the city center (looks very nice), a new Mall and satellite city called Ir Yamim, that will have ca. 50 high rises (now about half built), a new satellite city across the main Haifa-Tel Aviv road called Amalia with the Netanya College, and many new hotels along the cliff top, including Ramada and Island Hotels.  Nothing the small minority of anti-Israel activists in the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement can do will reverse this consistent trend.   The Jewish people are an industrious and clever people, and we will survive and prosper, if we are left alone to do that.  And if any country or group of people try to stop us, beware, the gap between us and our enemies is growing all the time.  Yam Ha'atzmaut sameach!! 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Too busy!

Every now and then I like to mention our social activities to show how life can be busy and fun for Immigrants in Netanya.  Last week we went out 4 nights in a row, not typical, but not so uncommon. 
On Sun April 7, in the morning we drove to Jerusalem to meet with an MK in the Knesset and then on erev Yom Hashoah we went to the ceremony at the Conservative (Masorti) Beth Israel synagogue which was organized by Rabbi Birnbaum, himself a survivor from Slovakia, and as usual he arranged a thoughful and moving service, with selected readings related to the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the first organized civil rebellion against the Nazis anywhere in Europe. 
On Mon April 8, we drove to Tel Aviv to attend the opening of the art exhibition of our friend from Maryland, Zvi Porath, held in the lobby of the Israel Opera House.  Since Zvi grew up in Israel he has a large group of friends here and so it was a crowded occasion.  Zvi's paintings are very colorful and impressionistic with flowing strokes and highly personal feelings. 
On Tues April 9, we attended the opening of the annual Photography Exhibition at AACI in Netanya, where I had 4 photographs selected.  The show was entitled "My best shot" and was curated by Tom Langford, a well-known photography expert in Israel.  When I spoke about my photos I pointed out that they all captured an ephemeral moment in time, especially the shot of the torii gate off the island of Miyajima, a beauty spot near Hiroshima, Japan.  When I visited there it was shrouded in mist and I caught sight of this gate out in the sea, an unforgettable moment.  Also, when we were driving around the island of Hawaii we stopped at the City of Refuge just when the sun was setting and I caught its last rays behind two totems. 
On Weds April 10, we were invited to a reception for the Friends of Netanya Academic College in a magnificent mansion in Herzliya Pituach.  The house was filled with the scultures of the hostess, Tamar Fuzailov, and there were many lighted in the garden.  She has 7 statues in Netanya, some of which we were familiar with, but did not know the artist's name.   After some speeches she donated a large sculpture to Netanya College and then we had tasty appetizers.
Quite a busy week, with lots of driving (and help from my GPS).  This week we are mostly free so we can make up for last week and rest. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

The SINK threat

There are three countries left in the world that are causing great consternation and could potentially precipitate war.  They are Syria, Iran and North Korea.  Its easy to pick them out not only because of their threats and actions, but last week the UN General Assembly passed a resolution supporting an international arms control treaty covering conventional weapons, something that has never existed before. Only three countries voted against the treaty (although some abstained) and they were of course, SINK.
The use of an acronym is appropriate (like BRICS for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) because there are nefarious links between these three renegade countries.  NK has developed nuclear weapons and has given information and support to Iran that in turn is supplying the Assad regime in Syria with conventional weapons.  All three countries are against any limitation in the arms trade, while all other countries in the world are now required to control their arms exports to prevent their use for illegal means, such as human rights abuses of civilians.  Of course, this is precisely what the Assad regime is doing in Syria where ca. 60,000 people have been killed with Iranian support.  NK is the last Stalinist country in the world and is not only suppressing its own population, but is now threatening war against South Korea and the US.  This is variously interpreted as a show of force by the relatively new leader Kim Jong-un or an expression of madness by a self-deluded regime.  In either case, S. Korea has announced that any military attack will be resisted by force and the US has flown in stealth bombers that could be very effective against the newly activated nuclear program in N. Korea.  Iran is, of course, threatening to obliterate Israel with nuclear weapons. 
There was a time, remember it fondly, when there were many other rogue regimes.  Once the Soviet Union with Cuba and its European satellites, such as East Germany and Poland, were a communist threat to world peace.  But, that has all gone now.  There were also such maniacs as Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Idi Amin in Uganda who were unstable actors on the world stage.  They too are all gone.  Now we are left with SINK and such unknown entities as Egypt under the Moslem Brotherhood, and the terrorist groups of Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon.  Let's hope that we will gradually whittle them down to a few ineffectual entities and then they will be gone and we can all live in peace.  But, until then there may be more dangers on the horizon.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Israel's silent defenders

The Israeli intelligence agencies, Mossad and Shin Bet, are world famous and considered to be among the most effective in the world.  Much larger countries with terrorist threats now come to Israel for advice and training in order to deal with this ubiquitous problem.  Thus said Brigadier Gen. (res) Ephraim Lapid at his presentation at Netanya AACI on Thurs last week, entitled "Israel's silent defender," which is also the name of the book he co-authored with Brig. Gen. (res) Amos Gilboa. 
After sketching the outline of Israel's history, in which he delineated the changes that have taken place in Israel's security situation, Gen. Lapid discussed some specific examples of Israeli intelligence activities.  He described how the Israeli situation has changed drastically from the time when we were threatened by large armies, to the time now when cyber attacks are of grave concern.  We went from classic military intelligence (how many tanks are deployed and where are they located?), to anti-terrorist intelligence (where will the next terrorist attack come from and what organization is involved), to cyber defence and attack (where are the computers located that are being used to attack our systems and how can we disable them).  One major change has been the use of drones that can provide detailed pictures of the battleground and can also follow the movements of individual terrorists, allowing pin-point targeting of any terrorist who can be identified. Also, the IDF must develop weapons against the enemies drones, and with the US has developed laser guns that can target small objects in the sky or elsewhere. 
Finally, collecting intelligence on such topics as the locations of Iran's nuclear facilities and their progress towards developing nuclear enrichment requires many kinds of information, including humint (the use of spies).  For example, even though Syria tried to keep the location of the nuclear facility they were building in a remote desert region top secret, Israel was able to find out about it and then destroy it.  But, before it did it was necessary to obtain detailed specific information to confirm the function of the facility. Although Israel did this, Iran is a much different situation where there are ca. 70 facilities rather than just one!  Israel has established a cyber warfare unit within the IDF consisting of hundreds of soldiers that has its own command and training programs.  It may take a year of training to have a young draftee work for 2 years and so there is a tremendous turnover of staff, but this is also good for the country. 
Regarding the cases that one hears about, such as that of the Australian Ben Zygier, who commited suicide in his cell, they are the exception.  In contrast, there are hundreds of foreigners holding foreign passports who are willing to work for Israeli intelligence and one does not hear anything about the important job they do in providing information on foreign threats.  In most cases they are beyond suspicion.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Kerry's tour

Secty of State John Kerry toured the Middle East again in the wake of Pres. Obama's recent visit in order to take advantage of the coat-tails effect.  But, so far all he has managed to do is worsen the situation.
In Turkey, Kerry visited with FM Davutoglu and in a joint press conference stated that he was impressed by how "sensitive" the Turkish response had been to the apology by PM Netanyahu over the Mavi Marmara affair, when nine Turkish terrorists were killed by IDF commandos.  By saying this Kerry was ignoring the hostile statements by both Turkish PM Erdogan and Davutoglu in which they continued to castigate Israel even though they had received the apology they demanded.  They insisted that the apology gives Turkey the right to be involved as an intermediary between Israel and the Palestinians, they interpreted the apology as meaning that Israel will lift the blockade on Gaza, which was not included in the apology, and they demand m$1 for each victim of the Mavi Marmara shooting before the negotiation has started.  These can hardly be regarded as "sensitive" comments and they are certainly not diplomatic.  Since Pres. Obama "persuaded" PM Netanyahu to issue the apology, it is up to the US to make sure that the Turks do not take the apology but continue as before.  However, given PM Erdogan's strident and continuous criticism of Israel there is not much chance of that happening.
Then Kerry visited Ramallah to meet with PA Pres. Abbas to try to persuade him to reopen negotiations with Israel.  In doing so he took a series of new Israel concessions to Abbas, namely that some Palestinian prisoners will be released and that the tax revenues that Israel collects for the PA will no longer be held up.  But, what Kerry got was a poke in the eye.  Instead of reducing or removing the preconditions that he has set for restarting negotiations with Israel, Abbas increased them.  Now, as well as an Israeli building freeze in the West Bank, and a return to the pre-1967 ceasefire lines, Abbas also demands the release of all Palestinian prisoners before any negotiations can take place!  What would be the point in having negotiations if some of the main points would be conceded by one side in advance.  These issues are prime examples of what needs to be discussed and decided between the two sides.  There can be no such preconditions and Abbas knows that, so he is deliberately torpedoing talks before they can start.  His reasons for doing this are evident, first, he is weak and seeks to gain points over his more extreme rival Hamas, second, he is illegal, his term of office ran out at least 3 years ago, and third, he does not want to be the Palestinian leader who negotiates a peace deal with Israel.  So with a hopeless situation, Kerry has naievely wandered into a minefield and is in danger of blowing it all up.
There are two assumptions of the Obama Administration that are questionable: first that economic development of the PA will change Abbas' mind about negotiating with Israel, and second the basic assumption that the Palestinian issue is the core issue determining war and pece in the Middle East.  Looking at Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran that assumptrion certainly looks out-dated.
Meanwhile a group of American Jewish liberals, including some Rabbis, have issued a sanctimonious letter addressed to PM Netanyahu asking him to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to obtain peace.  They are so clueless that it doesn't bear bothering to take them seriously, were it not for the anti-Israel PR that they generate.  Why don't they take a realistic look at the situation before committing themselves to such a sophomoric, one-sided, self-deluded anti-Israel position?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

An unknown American hero of the Holocaust

Beyond the famous individuals who saved thousands of Jewish lives in the Holocaust (Shoah), such as Raoul Wallenberg and Oscar Schindler, there are the less famous heroes, some of whom were overlooked and forgotten.  Among these were the British Major Frank Foley, the Portuguese Consul in Hungary Sousa Mendes (who may have been of Bnei Anusim origin), the Japanese Vice-Consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, and a Chinese diplomat in Berlin, Feng-Shan Ho, each of whom saved many Jewish lives by providing visas, against the wishes of their Governments.  Another, who worked for the US Government in Washington DC and who deserves to be included among them, was Josiah E. DuBois Jr.  By his actions he may have saved more Jewish lives than any other righteous gentile. We were informed about the story of Josiah DuBois in advance of the upcoming Yom Hashoah by Leslie Portnoy, a regular lecturer at AACI who always gives a meticulous and enlightening talk. 
DuBois was born in Camden, NJ, in 1913 and went on to study law at Penn U.  In 1941, at the start of the Holocaust, DuBois was working in the Foreign Funds Control Board of the US Treasury.  A request for $170,000 to pay a bribe to rescue 70,000 Jews came to his desk and he immediately approved it and passed it on to the State Dept.  He was later horrified to find that State had deliberately delayed dealing with the request, and despite his efforts he was not able to get them to act for five and a half months, by which time the Jews had already been murdered!  This was a shock to him and he started collecting information on the apparently deliberate and systematic actions (and inaction) of the State Department under Asst. Secty. Breckenridge Long, whose policy was later expounded in an intra-department memo of June 1940: "We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants (i.e. Jews) into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.". Thus, 90% of the US quota places available to immigrants from countries under German control were never filled. (Later Long was caught lying to Congress about the number of visas authorized and was forced to resign in 1944.  But, he and other anti-Semites had done irreparable damage to the Jewish people.
In response to this systematic policy, that was never opposed by Secty. of State Cordell Hull or Pres. Roosevelt, Du Bois began to collect information and on 25 December 1943 he wrote a Report to his boss, Treasury Secty. Henry Morgenthau, who happened to be Jewish but who had deliberately avoided taking up the case of the European Jews with Roosevelt.  This now famous case of whistle-blowing was entitled "Report to the Secretary of the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews."  To avoid the same kind of bureaucratic silencing that had been going on for those crucial years DuBois told Morgenthau that if the Secretary did not pass his report on to the President he would resign and present the report to a press conference.  To avoid problems in the election then due in onlly 10 months, Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board, in which DuBois was General Counsel, with his colleague John W. Pehle as its Director.  
Very quickly the WRB began to take actions to rescue the lives of Jews in Europe by various means, including bribery.  (This usually required sending money, but they also arranged for Raoul Wallenberg as an emissary under Swedish auspices to help rescue the Jews of Budapest)  They also established havens for Jewish refugees in N. Africa, Sweden and elsewhere, but only one in the USA, at Fort Ontario, New York, that housed a mere 982 Jews.  After the war ended in 1945 it was estimated that the WRB's direct actions had saved ca. 200,000 Jews, and many more had been rescued, ca. 48,000 in Transnistria alone, as well as the 120,000 saved in Budapest.  All of this could not have happened if DuBois had not acted on his principles.  He ended his crucial Report with these words: "If men of the temperment and philosophy of Long continue in control of immigration administration, we may as well take down that plaque from the Statue of Liberty and block out the 'lamp beside the golden door.'"  However, WRB director Pehle described the work as "too little, too late".
Later DuBois was part of the legal team as part of the Nuremberg Trials that prosecuted those who ran I.G. Farben, the chemical company that used slave-labor under the Nazis.  He wrote a memoir about this trial entitled "the Devil's Chemists." After that he played no further role in these events and his crucial role was almost entirely forgotten until Arthur Morse in his 1968 book mentioned him.
PS. This is my summary of Leslie Portnoy's lecture that was based largely on Rafael Medoff's book "Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E. DuBois and the struggle for an American response to the Holocaust," Purdue Univ. Press, 2008.  

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Palestinians riot

Palestinians have been rioting in the West Bank, mainly because of the deaths of two of their number who tried to attack an IDF post with Molotov cocktails and were shot.  Also, one of the Palestinian terrorists Maisarah Abu Hamdiyah (63) held for many years in Israeli prisons died from cancer.  Apparently, he was due to be released, but the prison service did not manage to process his papers until he was already dead.  Naturally, Pres. Abbas of the PA publicly blamed the Israeli authorities for his death, calling it deliberate.  There is no doubt that this kind of political violence serves the aims of the Palestinian leaders in their competition with Hamas and in their need to avoid any negotiations with the Israeli Government. 
At the same time, Palestinians are rioting in Gaza, but for an entirely different reason.  They are upset because UNRWA, which is the main source of income and work in Gaza, stopped paying them their welfare allowances because of budget shortfalls.  In protest a mob attacked the UNRWA offices and put the lives of those working there in danger.  This forced UNRWA to shut down altogether, leading to larger demonstrations.  The fact is that most of the Palestinians live in an eternal welfare state, in which most of their food, education, work and income is supplied by this special UN agency that is in effect a cradle to grave support system.  No wonder the Palestinians have no incentive to move on, but are perpetually maintained in a state of permanent dependence on this UN agency that exists to preserve the status quo. 
Some people complain that Israel gets a lot of funds from the US, but few know that Israel receives NO civilian aid from the US.  Israel receives only military aid from the US, totaling ca. b$3.  But, most of this goes to pay for work, materiel and arms from the US military industries, including the purchase of sophisticated planes and missiles.  However, every year for the past 65 years the US has been paying welfare to the Palestinians thru UNRWA to the extent of 25% or more of its total budget, amounting to m$5 in the past year.  I am sure many Americans would like to be given this largesse.  However, because the money given to UNRWA in Gaza allows Hamas, a terrorist organization, to spend its own funds on arms and missiles to fire into Israel, rather than having to cloth, feed and support their own population.  This indirect US support for Hamas perpetuates the Palestine conflict and it has to stop.  Join with others to protest the US payments to Palestinians in Gaza thru UNRWA by writing to your Congressmen and Senators.

Friday, April 05, 2013


"Curveball" was the name given by the CIA to an Iraqi defector to Germany in 1999.  He was a chemical engineer named Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi and was picked up by German intelligence and interrogated.  What he told the Germans was extremely sensational and so they shared this information with their counterparts in Britain and the US. He told them that while he worked for 9 months at a specific chemical production plant in Iraq, which they were able to locate on satellite photos, chemical fermentors were being produced on large mobile trucks that when finished were driven out of the plant.  From his drawings and descriptions of these mobile fermentors it was concluded that they were probably mobile chemical weapons plants that could produce poison gas or so-called "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) anywhere in Iraq.  When this intelligence was received by the British MI5 and American CIA it was taken as proof that Saddam Hussein was preparing to produce WMD.  After the al Qaeda attack on the WTC on 9/11/2001 and the invasion of Afghanistan in Oct. 2001 to destroy al Qaeda capability, Pres. Bush was planning to invade Iraq, and this report of WMD was used as prima facie evidence of Saddam Hussein's intentions.
However, after further investigations German intelligence concluded that Curveball was a "fabricator."  Detailed examination of the plant where he had worked showed that it was impossible for trucks of the size he had described to be driven out of that plant, in fact there was a 6 ft wall across the plant that would have prevented this.  Although the German intelligence chief  warned the other services not to believe this report, nevertheless the CIA ignored this follow-up and the British political establishment, including PM Blair, ignored the warnings of MI5. This information was included in the so-called "dodgy Dossier" that PM Blair published in Sept 2002 to justify invading Iraq and this report was one of the main pieces of evidence that US Chief of Staff Colin Powell quoted in his evidence to the UN Security Council in Feb, 2003, showing detailed imaginary drawings of such WMD trucks to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.  Subsequent investigations by the UN at the site in question and painstaking attempts by specialized British and US teams tasked with finding these trucks and other WMDs concluded that they never existed and the whole story was a fabrication.
Unfortunately, there were other Iraqi defectors who also apparently lied.  An Iraqi Major in Amman told a similar story to that of Curveball, but without any direct evidence and another defector told the Iraqi National Committee, the opposition to Saddam, that he was still developing nuclear weapons.  Added to that the reports that Saddam Hussein had preliminary contacts with al Qaeda, all this evidence was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and the war that ensued. 
Subsequently Curveball admitted that he had lied and that the story of mobile WMD trucks was a fabrication of his own imagination in order to obtain money from the various intelligence services.  In other words, tell them what they want to hear and you will be rewarded for it.  Information from the highest sources in the Iraqi Government that there were no WMDs was disbelieved as self-serving.  The lesson from this event is that even the most believable story given by any defector must be treated with extreme caution and subjected to thorough analysis before being considered reliable.  So now it is clear that the US and British Governments used faulty intelligence to justify their invasion of Iraq.  But, in my opinion the overthrow of Saddam Hussein justified the war.  Iraq is still far from a real democracy and may yet fall apart into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish cantons.  But, then again Iraq was a colonial invention anyway.  The removal of Saddam's Iraq as a threat to Israel and the West and the subsequent breakdown of Syria are among the most positive outcomes of recent Middle Eastern history. 

PS. This information was taken from a recent BBC TV Panorama Report, based on Bob Drogin's 2007 book "Curveball" and  the recent public British Chilcot Enquiry into the origins of the Iraq war.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Another day in Africa

The French armed forces have almost attained their goal in Mali.  The Islamist insurgents have been defeated and forced to retreat from Bamako and Timbuktu into the hinterland between Mali and Algeria.  But, in this wild desert country they are able to hold out for long periods, just as the Taliban did in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, until they were able to make a comeback in the past few years. The Taliban are again a force to be reckoned with, so much so that Pres. Karzai is now negotiating with them.
So in Mali, it's not the end of the war, but only a respite, until the French withdraw later this year, just as the US and other allies withdrew from Afghanistan.  So this is the pattern, that a group of Islamist insurgents takes control of a Muslim country and control it by terror.  Clearly in Mali the Black Muslim population did not want to be dominated by "white" Arab and Tuareg Muslims and now there is a wave of counter-attacks against "white" Muslims in Mali.  But, the uprising is never fully defeated, and the insurgents will stand by and await their chance to return and gain revenge when the powerful outsiders withdraw, as they must.  As far as they are concerned God is on their side.  The Malian armed forces are inadequate to deal with the consequences, they are ill-trained and very poorly equipped, they lack radios and binoculars.  That is why an intense training program is beginning under the French.  Whether or not the Malian army can ever be effective remains to be seen.
In the Central African Republic (nearly 2,000 miles from Mali) there are very few Muslims, and so the situation is entirely different.  It comes down to a simple issue of who will retain power in a very poor, desolate, but mineral rich country.  France used to control these areas, but one feels that their act in Mali is the last gasp of a former colonial power trying to stave off chaos and anarchy.  The CAR Government in Bangui was weak and repressive and Pres. Bouzizi has been overthrown in a military coup by the Seleka rebels. Now the S. African armed forces went in, for reasons undisclosed, and 13 of their soldiers were killed in an ambush.  Bodies litter the streets, just another day in Africa. 

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Israeli energy independence

What might be a watershed in Israeli history started Tuesday when the Tamar gas-field situated 90 miles due west of Haifa came on-line and started pumping liquefied natural gas (LNG) into the reservoirs at Ashdod.   It has taken 3 years to build the Tamar platform and lay the pipeline.  Although there are locations closer in Israel than Ashdod, that was the most convenient place for the terminal from the industrial and environmental aspects.  What this does, more than electric cars and any other alternative source of energy, is make Israel independent of the gasoline-producing Arab States and OPEC.  LNG is the least polluting of all the fossil fuels.
It has been estimated that in its first 5 years of operation the Tamar gas-field will save the Israeli state 30 billion dollars and will last at least 30 years. The deal that had been signed with Egypt to deliver natural gas was disrupted 5 times by the pipeline being blown up in the northern Sinai desert since the overthrow of Pres. Mubarak.  This and the rise in gasoline prices world-wide has raised prices of gasoline in Israel.  But, for the first time in recent memory the prices are actually going down 2.5% tonite, and this is attributed to the Tamar field going on-line and the prospects for energy independence in Israel.  The gas from theTamar field will not be exported but will be used domestically mainly for electricity generation.
Soon the much larger (5-10 times) gas field known as Leviathan will go on-line and this is expected to have so much LNG that Israel can start exporting it.  The recipients of this gas are not yet determined, but Turkey may be one of the beneficiaries.  Actually exporting gas will not only add huge income to the Israeli Government coffers, but will also undermine other countries dependence on Arab oil.  For the next twenty years the face of the Middle East will be changed by these gas fields, by Israeli affluence and energy independence. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Exodus decoded?

Having just gone through the festival of Passover celebrating the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, we have asked many questions, here's another.  What has the Greek island of Santorini got to do with the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt?  There are certain elements of the Exodus story that are possibly explained by natural phenomena. 
The islands that make up Santorini (also known as Thira) are in the shape of a circle, all that is left of what was originally a huge volcano that around ca. 1600 bce caused one of the biggest eruptions ever recorded in history.  Anyone who visits the island of Santorini and the museum there will see evidence of the Minoan civilization from Crete found at Akrotiri, the ancient city that has been excavated on Santorini.  The center of the Minoan civilization was in Crete at Iraklion (Heraklion) some 75 milies due south.  There is much evidence that points to this civilization being destroyed in a cataclysmic event that is generally accepted to have been the eruption of the Santorini volcano and the subsequent tsunami that swept across the Mediterranean and destroyed the coastal cities of the Minoans.  The volcanic eruption would have buried large areas of land, as found at Akrotiri and as the volcano of Vesuvius did at the Roman city of Pompeii, and the volcanic ash would have blotted out the sun causing a long term darkness, leading to the destruction of crops and the raining down of hail and ash from high in the atmosphere over a huge area.  These events would in turn have resulted in human death and injuries as well as abnormal results such as plagues of insects.
A very characteristic phenomenon associated with a tsunami is the lowering of the sea level before the huge tsunami wave crashes in.  This phenomenon has been described many times, including the tsunami that caused havoc around the Pacific rim in 2004 starting from an earthquake in Indonesia.  Such tsunami waves travel at great speeds (500 mph) over huge distances. The coast of Egypt is 400 miles from Santorini.  This is very similar to the description of the Exodus, when the sea level was lowered, allowing the Israelites to walk across the Reed Sea (Yam Suf in Hebrew) and then the sea came back as a huge wave drowning the Egyptians pursuing them.  Note that "Red Sea" is a mistranslation of the Hebrew and the Reed Sea probably refers to the area of what is now the Suez Canal, namely what was the shallow Lake Ballah.
In 1986 Lake Nyos in Cameroon turned overnight from a deep blue to a bright red color, that was explained by gas deposits trapped in the bottom of the lake escaping and bringing iron oxide to the surface.  Not only that, but the gaseous eruption was carbon dioxide (CO2) gas that formed a cloud that swept over the local area and silently killed ca. 1,700 people living in nearby villages because it replaced all the oxygen.  But, not everyone was killed, people sleeping on high ground and roof-tops escaped because the CO2 gas is heavier than air and so it remains close to the ground.  There are many geological faults in the area of Egypt, including the Syrian-African rift that includes the Red Sea and one that includes the Nile valley.  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a similar effect could have occured in Egypt and become included in the Exodus tale.
In Egypt from 1800-1600 bce a nomadic Semitic people named the Hyksos (the Greek form of the Egyptian meaning "foreign rulers") settled in the Nile Delta area and had their capital at Avaris, the name of which is retained in the Egyptian town of Hawara.  Excavations at Avaris have discovered Minoan artifacts, pottery and jewelry. Avaris was destroyed by the Egyptian Pharoah in around 1600 bce, and his name was Ahmose I, in Hebrew "Ahmose" means "brother of Moses," although there are of course other interpretations. It is possible that the Hyksos and the Hebrews were one and the same people and the tale of the Exodus describes their travails as they were expelled from Avaris in 1600 bce coincidentally as the terrible eruption occured in Santorini. 

Note: some of this information comes from an Israeli-Canadian documentary entitled "The Exodus decoded" produced by archaeologist Simcha Yakubovich (Jacobovici) and James Cameron (see shown on Israel TV Ch 1 on 31/3/13.