Friday, May 31, 2013

Is Islamic terrorism over?

In his recent national speech Pres. Obama declared "the war on terrorism is over."  But, is Islamic terrorism over?  Certainly not!  Even in the past few days there have been individual "home grown" incidents of murderous terrorism in France and in the UK, while the Boston marathon bombing is only months behind us and still not resolved in a trial.
When he was speaking to an onlooker immediately after hacking Lee Rigby to death Michael Adebolajo said “I apologize that women had to witness this today but in our land our women have to see the same."  As Fuad Ajami pointed out in a recent article on the subject ("Hating the west and reaping its privileges"), the "land" Adebolajo was speaking about was, of course, the land of the Muslims.  But, he had never been to those lands, he was born in Britain of Nigerian parents.  'His lands" could conceivably be England or Nigeria, but not Arabia, not Syria, not Palestine!  His family who are devout Christians issued a statement disassociating themselves from his barbaric crime and his beliefs. 
This is something that all Islamists have in common, the cold-blooded justification of murder in the name of a land they often have never seen and a belief system they hardly understand.  This is how Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutchman, justified his cold-blooded stabbing of Theo van Gogh on a Dutch street in broad daylight in 2004.   This is the justification of the Tsarnayev brothers in bombing the Boston marathon and Richard Reed the shoe bomber and so many others.  Yet, it is enough for them to murder you or me or anyone without compunction.  Given the repetitions of such grisly murders throughout the West, it seems evident that the war of Islamic terrorism against us is not over by any means.  What planet is Obama living on?  To declare that our war against this terror is over is naieve and self-defeating in the extreme.  It is a political maneuver devoid of any relationship to reality.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Paradigm shift

Akbar Ahmed is a Pakistani author who has done some good work in trying to bring different sects in the Middle East together, particularly Jews and Muslims.  He wrote a critical book entitled "The thistle and the drone" and published an article in the Jerusalem Post on May 26 entitled "Center vs. periphery: roots of terror."  In this he exposes his inherent bias in the following quote: "It is clear that if Israel continues to work within the current paradigm, the violence will continue."
This puts all the blame on Israel.  But, it is the Arab States and the Palestinians who are responsible for the current paradigm.  Their basic policy is to destroy the State of Israel and all of its citizens.  This is certainly true of Hamas, Hizbollah and much of the Arab world.  Israel is essentially defending itself against the current Arab paradigm of delegitimization and destruction.   When this paradigm is changed and there is some concrete overlap between the two positions, i.e. one side not wanting to eliminate the other, then there might be a chance for peace.
As examples of the current Arab paradigm, the so-called moderate PA Pres. Abbas of Fatah has appointed as his advisor a terrorist, Hussein Fayyad, who carried out the 1978 coastal road massacre that killed 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children.  Fayyad was released in a  prisoner swap in 1985 and currently lives in Algiers.  Many place names of streets and schools in the PA are routinely named after "shahids," terrorist martyrs, by Abbas.  Also, the refusal of Abbas to even meet with PM Netanyahu to negotiate is evidence of his lack of moderation.  In the recent World Economic Forum held in Jordan, Abbas's spokesman Saeb Erekat said that his refusal to meet is not due to "precondtions" but to "obligations" that Israel must meet before Abbas can meet with Netanyahu.  This is another case of double-talk, any excuse to avoid giving Israel legitimacy.
US Secty. of State Kerry said at this Forum that the US will soon provide b$4 to the PA to help it overcome its economic problems and to help it meet its obligations so that Abbas can meet with Netanyahu.  This is the usual US approach of trying to buy Palestinian goodwill.  As a US taxpayer I object to my money being wasted on such constant failures.  Most of the money spent on the PA ends up in the pockets of the leaders of the PA, much as Arafat stole billions.  Also, the US supports the Palestinian people in a continuous welfare state thru payments to the UNRWA.  Now Kerry announced that soon the US will put forward a new initiative to bring the sides together, this after Obama and others have often stated that the conflict can only be resolved thru direct negotiations. When will they ever learn?

PS. An edited version of the first two paragraphs appeared as a letter in the J'sam Post on May 29, 2013.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Practical science 2

So when you were in the shower, did you enjoy playing with the bubbles?  Bubbles are strange things, they prove that air exists, otherwise how could you explain them.  But they are such thin films of water and soap that they burst spontaneously or with a little help.  They form perfect spheres, but when they contact each other they do so according to the laws of 3d geometry.  They form perfect planes between connected bubbles because the air pressure on both sides is equal.  They can be manipulated to form incredibly complex geometric shapes, but always retaining some form of symmetry.
When you get dressed you take for granted the production of the cloth that makes up your clothing, all of it woven on looms.  But, whereas in the historic past the weaving was done mechanically, now of course it is all done with electronically controlled looms.   Not many people realize that the origin of the computer can be traced to the French inventor M. Jacquard, who invented a machine in 1801 that could produce a complex pattern over and over again in any kind of woven material, thus making mass production possible.  The pattern was controlled by a card or series of cards with a pattern of holes that were recycled through the machine to repeat the pattern.  The same kind of mechanical punched cards were used for music boxes and player pianos from the 1850s and census machines, actually the first real computers, were invented by Hollerith in 1890 for the US census.  I remember using packs of punched cards to enter data into large IBM computers even in the 1970s, but their use died out soon after that.
Now we have you dressed in your woven clothes, but what about breakfast?  The idea of a cereal product being good for your health was promoted by WK. Kellog who founded his company in 1897, based on his Seventh Day Adventist vegetarianism.  But, my dietician told me that corn flakes are actually useless for dietary fiber, so I use other kinds of fibrous cereal.  But, most of us believe that cereal for breakfast is healthful.  Have a nice day!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Extremists of the center

In London and around Britain there has been a swell of revulsion for the way in which Cpl. Lee Rigby was murdered by two Nigerian Muslim extremists on a street in Woolwich.  There has also been an upsurge of patriotic feeling, asking how such a thing could happen in Britain.  The problem of individual home-grown terrorists is a difficult one, requiring a balance between civil rights and freedom of speech for all and preventingt terrorism and protecting the public. 
At present, the authorities in the UK are grappling with this balance, as they are also in the USA following the Boston marathon bombing.  In both cases at least one of the perpetrators was known to the authorities and had been questioned by police regarding their activities and their trips abroad, in the case of Tsarnayev from Boston to Dagestan, and for Adebolajo from London to Kenya.  In the latter case it is known that Adebolajo tried to enter Somalia to join the Islamist Abu Shabab terrorists, but was arrested by the Kenyan authorities with four others and was subsequently deported back to the UK.  Russia had enquired about Tsarnayev, who had already exhibited extremist tendencies in Dagestan. The question is why, in both cases, when the views and activities of these individuals were well-known, were they not watched more carefully? 
If it is lack of funds that is understandable, but I doubt if it is that, after all many others are being watched carefully (we hope).  It was more of a case of judgement (or mis-judgement) by the relevant anti-terrorism officers, who adjudged these individuals to be no danger to the public.  What a mistake!  It is clear that the word has gone out from Islamist terrorist international, take individual action!  There was also a stabbing of a police officer in Paris yesterday.  If the western nations are going to effectively counteract these gruesome attacks, there needs to be a much more serious attempts to watch extremists who have this profile, i.e. extremist Islamist views and already known to foreign countries in relation to terrorism. 
In response to the killing in London, the English Defense League (EDL), a right-wing, fascist and patriotic front, organized several marches aspund Britain.  Now we Jews have a problem, we of course totally oppose Islamism and Islamist killings.  In fact, these western countries, UK, USA and France, are only now experiencing what has been going on in Israel for years, namely random individual killings of civilians.  But, we cannot also support the EDL and its campaign that expresses antagonism to all minorities, all Muslims and incidentally all Jews.  So once again, the classic Jewish/Israeli response is "a pox on both your houses."  We are the extremists of the center.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Sarkozy and Uris

This past Weds we went to Netanya Academic College to attend the ceremony for the conferring of an Honorary Degree on the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  It was quite a grand ceremony, carried out in their large, open-air but covered amphitheater, with a choir singing, flags flying and many well-known representatives, including the Mayor of Netanya Miriam Fierberg-Ikar.  There was a large friendly francophone audience, because Netanya has the largest concentration of French speakers in Israel.  Speeches were delivered, the degree was bestowed and then M. Sarkozy gave his acceptance speech.  Although we could not understand all of it, and there was only translation from French to Hebrew, it was clearly an impassioned and polished performance.  M. Sarkozy stated his strong support for the State of Israel and mentioned his own Jewish grandfather from Salonika, who had helped raise him. 
Not only did the ceremony start late and take much longer than expected, but the crush to leave at the end due to many cameramen and journalists caused further delay.  We rushed to get to our synagogue where Leslie Portnoy, a retired Barrister from the UK, was delivering a lecture on the famous libel trial against Leon Uris, entitled "Dering v. Uris - the real QB VII".  Although we missed the introduction and background we heard a detailed comparison of the differences between Uris's fictional account in his book "QB VII" and what actually happened in the trial in 1964.  The plaintiff was a Polish doctor named in Uris's book "Exodus" as having performed thousands of surgical experiments on Jews in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Wladislaw Dering denied this and hence sued Uris. This was the first trial in England in which victims of forced castrations and sterilizations testified about their experiences. 
The trial was made more complex because Dering had evidently done good work in Africa and claimed to be a dedicated humanitarian and asserted that he had no choice, but was compelled to operate by the Nazis.   However, the testimony of the victims, about a dozen of whom were found by the defense, was compelling.  Also, another doctor of French origin who was imprisoned there at the time, testified that she refused to carry out such operations and received no punishment for this, and there was another doctor who did the same and was not harmed.  So Dering's excuse was unacceptable, as the Judge pointed out.
In any trial for libel there is not only the verdict as to proven or not, but also the matter of the damages assessed.  Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the trial was the fact that the defense deposited a sum of 2 pounds into the court prior to the trial, and the fact that the jury awarded only a derisory halfpenny in damages, the smallest coin available, indicated that although they had not proven their case, the defense had shown that Dering's character was sufficiently depraved that it could not be damaged any further by Uris's revelation.  The entry of this prior sum into the court resulted in Dering being assessed for the costs of the defendants, a lot more than the actual damages and a major victory for Uris.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Both your houses...

A major battle is under way for control of the Syrian town of al Qusayr near the Lebanese border between the forces of the Assad regime and the anti-regime forces.  This is a strategic town since it controls the road leading to the Syrian coastal strip that contains the majority of the population of Alawites in Syria, that support Assad who is also Alawite.  While the opposition forces took control of al Qasayr some while ago, the presence of thousands of Hizbollah troops on the Government side has turned the battle towards the regime.  Hizbollah no longer denies its forces are fighting in Syria for Assad, and they had a public funeral yesterday for ca. 36 of their fighters who were killed in the battle. 
This involvement of Hizbollah has several implications:  The EU is considering whether or not to classify Hizbollah as a terrorist organization, or at least its military wing.  Germany, Britain and France all consider Hizbollah a terrorist organization and have called for the EU to do likewise.  Given Hizbollah's Secty, Gen. Hassan Nasrallah's comments and their slogans in a terlevize speech and meeting yesterday, such as "we will raze Haifa and Tel Aviv to the ground," it would be surprising if the EU did not take this action.  It is forbidden under Lebanese law for any Lebanese force to fight outside Lebanon without the Lebanese Government's approval.  However, Hizbollah is in the Government, and is a law unto itself.  Its intervention in Syria has caused strains inside Lebanon, and in Tripoli the Sunni Muslims are fighting the local Alawites in parallel to the Syrian civil war.  The Lebanese army has been sent to restore order there, but at least 26 people were killed in the fighting.  We can expect a resumption of the tragic civil was in Lebanon, that has never overcome its sectarian divisions. 
Meanwhile the Syrian death toll mounts, now supposedly at 90,000, while the international community is deadlocked into inaction.  They will have another conference soon in Geneva to discuss the situation, but nothing can expected to come from it.  The fighting in Syria is close to the Israeli border and bullets and shells occasionally come over the border.  So far Israel has done little about this, although the IAF did strike a convoy and a storage facility for rockets in Syria.  The basic Israeli attitude is neutrality, we don't want an extreme Sunni government to replace the Assad regime, but we recognize that loss of Syria would be a severe blow to Hizbollah and its master Iran.  Its a bit like the Monatgus and the Capulets in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," "a pox on both your houses."

Friday, May 24, 2013

Death in London

England is reeling from the attack by two home-grown Muslim men who first ran down a British soldier with their car and then savagely attacked him and literally hacked him to pieces with machetes and knives and decapitated him, all on a suburban street in Woolwich in the afternoon, with dozens of on-lookers.  They even asked people to photograph them so that their grisly deed would be publicized. One of the killers is a Nigerian convert to Islam, Michael Adebolajo, who was known to the police as a radical Islamic preacher.  But, once again, as in Boston, they considered him as not dangerous.
Since this was classified as a terrorist attack, the Prime Minister David Cameron, who was at that time in France for an EU meeting returned to London for a meeting of the committee that deals with terrorist incidents.  He stated that British Government policy would not be influenced by terrorists.  Since the attack occured near an army barracks, security at all military facilities was increased.  The killers shouted "Alla'hu akhbar" (God is great) and one was recorded saying "We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day."  Apparently they did not care whether the individual they murdered was actually a killer of Muslims or not.  It so happens he was a drummer in the army band, named Lee Rigby.
Police who arrived on the scene (although it took 20 mins) engaged in a shoot-out with the killers and wounded both of them.  They are currently being held under guard in different hospitals.  Although this was a most primitive attack, it bears the hallmark of the Boston marathon attack, where young Muslim men are radicalized to kill western civilians randomly for some perceived sense of injustice, either the distant killing of Muslims or an insult to Islam.   What if Muslims blew up the Twin Towers and killed 3,000 people first, that started all this?  This is an open-ended conflict, where any young Muslim can kill any western people without any need for further provocation.  Its similar to anti-Semitism, nothing we Jews do or believe has any influence on their inherent right to kill us.  To hell with that!

PS. On behalf of Casa Shalom, the Inst. for Marrano-Anusim Studies, I am asking if you would be willing to donate any books or documents that are related to the history of the Secret Jews originating in the Iberian penisula to the Leslie (z"l) and Gloria Mound Library at Netanya Academic College.  Particularly personal papers, such as letters or agreements, that are related to the history of the Secret Jews of Spain, Portugal, Holland, Ireland, New Mexico, S. America, or anywhere else.  Thank you.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Practical science

Many people think of science as a remote and difficult subject.  But, actually science is all around us and part of our lives all the time.  I thought I would give some examples that might intrigue you.
When we get up in the morning we have a shower.  We use soap that is caustic so it removes the top layer of the skin.  But, then after the shower we dry ourselves using a towel.  How does a towel work?  It uses surface tension of the water.  Water has an intrinsic pressure that manifests itself at the surface.   If you put a small capillary, such as a straw, into water you will see that the water rises up inside the straw above the level of the water in the glass.  This is surface tension at work in the form of capillary action; the same effect happens in the towel, the surface tension of water causes the water to cling to the narrow spaces within the weave of the towel, and results in a drying effect.
Now you try to dry your hair, but it remains somehow lank and floppy.  This is because, believe it or not, the substance that makes up hair, a structural protein called keratin, has undergone a structural change, called a conformational change, in water.  This was first discovered in the 1930s by William Astbury working at the first research institute devoted to wool and other materials in Leeds, UK.  He took X-ray diffraction patterns of hair and other proteins, both dry and wet, and saw a difference, indicating different structures and he realized that the water was causing a conformational change in the protein. He speculated that the dry form was a bent or helical structure and the wet form was an extended one. Rosalind Franklin did the same experiment in a more sophisticated way in the early 1950s with DNA fibers and showed that there are two forms of DNA. 
So I've given some simple examples of science in everyday life and you are not even dressed yet.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

One in a thousand

When a young woman was found alive after 17 days in the collapsed building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last week there were shouts of "Allahu'akhbar" (God is great).  But, over 1,000 people were killed in this collapse.   If God was responsible for the saving of one individual life, then of course God must also be responsible for those deaths as well.  I didn't hear shouts of God is great when the building collapsed and people were killed.   Only the positive outcome is attributed to God. Actually it was chance, luck, the roll of the dice, that happened to save one life out of 1,000.
After the collapse it transpired that the day before large cracks had appeared in the building that housed several factories employing ca. 3,000 workers.  But, the employers and the building owner told the workers to go back to work.  As a result these people are now under arrest for negligence and manslaughter.   They are held responsible for their actions, it was their actions that caused the deaths.  But, even before that, the shoddy building and irresponsible inspections were what were responsible for the collapse.  It was no act of God but an act of man, or rather a lack of action of man.
When the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire occurred in New York City in 1911 and hundreds of girls were killed or jumped to their deaths, the tragedy was enough to cause the New York and US Governments to change the laws to ensure save working practices.  Maybe the tragedy in Bangladesh will result in serious changes to the building codes there too.  It is 100 years between these events, perhaps that is a measure of how far behind the third world is in relation to workers's safety.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Herb Keinon's take

Herb Keinon, the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, spoke at Netanya AACI on May 16.  In a brilliant and fluent analysis he covered almost all aspects of Israel's situation, including foreign and domestic subjects.
He started with the recent visit by Pres. Obama, which he described as a watershed.  On this visit Obama tried to undo much of the negative aspects of the relationship between himself and PM Bibi Netanyahu, that had bedeviled his first term, starting with his speech in Cairo.  Whereas in his earlier interactions with Bibi he had been businesslike and without sentiment, now he was the opposite.  Israelis don't just want to be liked by the US President, they want to be loved, and Obama this time round gave Israelis the equivalent of a bear hug.  
Perception in  diplomacy is almost as important as reality,  and we don't know what went on behind closed doors, all we know is what we saw, and if Obama wanted us to see a relationship back on track, it worked.  His positive ratings among the Israeli population shot up and the Arabs and Muslims were given to understand that there was no light between the two allies.  Whereas before the meeting it was rumored that Obama was restraining Bibi on Iran, after it, it he was saying that Israel had the right to defend itself against any threat.
Syria is the main current threat to peace in the region.  After 80,000 people have been killed in 2 years of civil war there is still no indication of any agreement in the international community. The main concern is that the Syrian conflict could spill over its borders, to Jordan, Turkey. Lebanon and Israel, which are are already involved in some ways.
Of the threats to Israel, the only one that threatens Israel's existence is Iran.  As a military threat the Egyptian and Syrian armies have self-destructed.  We have gone from tanks vs. tanks on the Golan and Sinai to missiles being fired at our kindergartens. But, the inexorable drive by Iran for nuclear capability is the most serious remaining threat.  Obama's visit can be summarized as the change from the US holding Israel back to agreeing that Israel has the right to act against Iran.  Everyone hopes that doesn't have to happen, but it is a different ballgame.
The Palestinians have been placed on the back burner by Obama.  He may be sending Secty of State Kerry over to carry out shuttle diplomacy, but we can expect motion without movement.  There is no sign that Pres. Abbas, now weak and with no clout, can make any accomodation with Israel.  Also, given the Arab mess swirling around Israel, Netanyahu will consider options without movement,  so the stalemate will continue.   Also, having lost their clout with Mubarak, Fatah is often slighted when Pres. Morsi of Egypt or Pres. Erdogan of Turkey give precedence to their sworn enemy Hamas.
Finally, it is important to note that for the first time in history the Israeli election was determined by domestic issues, and none of the above.  Certainly Finance Minister Lapid has a long row to hoe, and in trying to make an impact he is also making many enemies.  Netanyahu is an astute politician and was clever to give him this responsibility rather than Foreign Affairs, where he would have been on the international stage.  But, Lapid has many popular issues to deal with, including getting the haredim into national service and improving the economic situation of the young middle class.  Whether or not he can achieve this remains to be seen.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Saving Assad

There are three main potential outcomes to the Syrian morass, either it will continue as now, a protracted stalemate, or there will be Turkish and/or US intervention in support of the Sunni insurrection, or there will be Iranian/Hizbollah intervention in support of the Alawite regime.  Actually, option three is already occuring, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) is actively engaged in military action in Syria in support of the Assad regime, and Hizbollah, which is a fully owned proxy of Iran is also engaged militarily.  That is why the insurrection, supported by Turkey and Qatar, has been brought back to a stalemate.  In the past few days the Assad forces with Hizbollah military support have mounted an offensive on the town of el-Qusayr near the Israeli border and are making progress.  Neither side has the military muscle to obtain a knock-out punch.  The civil war has gone on for 2 years with ca. 70,000 casualties, why not 8 years like the Iran-Iraq war, that was an earlier phase of the Sunni-Shia conflict. 
The Israeli air strikes on the arms/missile depot run by the IRG near Damascus was a shock for Iran and Hizbollah.  Not only was it a secret depot, but it contained some of the most advanced weapons available to the Assad regime, that were destined to be shipped to Lebanon for the use of Hizbollah.  Although Hizbollah and Iran have warned of retaliation, so far they have not attempted any.  They probably fear giving Israel an excuse to really go in and flush them out, now knowing the accuracy of Israeli intelligence.  Some might think that in the kind of war sitation prevailing in Syria that this would make the task of gathering intelligence more difficult, but actually it's the opposite,  During the fog of war, it is easier to slip into Syria and observe what is going on, and the discrete use of drones would be hardly noticed during the daily bombardments.
Russia is playing a double game, supplying the Assad regime with weapons in order to retain its warm water port in Latakia, Syria, and at the same time giving hope to US and western initiatives to somehow stop the carnage.  But, at present there is no chance of that, notwithstanding wishful thinking and good intentions that the war will be stopped.  More thousands of Syrians will die until there is a victor.  But, as far as Israel is concerned, a pox on both their houses.  The Assad regime has been a key ally of Iran and Hizbollah, and one of the most militant enemies of Israel, and the extremist Sunni opponents of Assad are fanatical al Qaeda type enemies of Israel and the West.  It would be nice if a responsible pro-Western regime would emerge from the chaos of the Syrian civil war, as the US seems to project, but that would be expecting too much.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Jews of Ireland

A mini-seminar entitled "The Secret Jews of Ireland" was held at the Netanya Academic College on May 13, sponsored by Casa Shalom, the Institute for Marrano-Anusim Studies, and the Intl. Inst. for the Study of Secret Jews at NAC.  The guest of honor was the Irish Ambassador to Israel HE Breifne O'Reilly and the speakers were Gloria Mound, Exec. Dir. of Casa Shalom and Senior Advisor to the Intl. Inst., Malcolm Gafson, Chairman of the Israel-Ireland Friendship League, and Rabbi Eddie Jackson, who was born and grew up in Cork.
Neil Davis, VP of Casa Shalom, acted as the Moderator and introduced the speakers.  Ambassador O'Reilly made some introductory remarks, starting in Hebrew, which drew a round of applause from the large audience.  He emphasised how the Jews in Ireland had been welcomed and had lived there almost without disturbance for hundreds of years.  He mentioned that three of the leaders of Ireland, including the great Daniel O'Connell, had welcomed Jews as citizens in Ireland.  However, the Ambassador, like many others, confessed to not knowing the history of any Secret Jews in Ireland.
This is my summary of the presentations.  Gloria Mound addressed this subject, pointing out that there is evidence that Secret Jews, those who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal starting in the 15th century, had moved to Ireland, as to elsewhere in Europe and the Americas, as a haven to escape persecution.  Even though there was no overt persecution in Ireland, they nevertheless retained their secret adherence to Judaism.  Some came to Ireland with other Spanish or Portuguese refugees and others came among Protestant Huguenots who settled in Ireland as early as the 1500s.  She quoted Jewish names that appear on gravestones in the Huguenot cemetery in Cork, and quoted verbatim evidence from three descendents of former Secret Jews (Bnei Anusim).  One of these, living in Colorado, USA, described a whole clan of hundreds of people living off the land and dealing in horses and livestock, while maintaining their Jewish identity and practices.  However, it was forbidden to speak of this to anyone, and a family member who researched this history was ostracized.  Many of these earlier Secret Jews inter-married and died out during the later influx of European Ashkenazi Jews mainly from Lithuania. 
Malcolm Gafson spoke extemporaneously and amusingly about the experiences of Jews in Ireland.  He pointed out that Sephardic Jews, with for example the name Pereira, were regarded as "foreign Protestants" by most of the Irish.  He attributed the so-called "Black Irish" to inter-marriages between these Jews and indigenous Irish. Also, he gave examples of individuals such as a man named Aaron De Hibernia, whose name was clearly adopted to indicate his false origin in Ireland, who was a goldsmith and diamond merchant who lived in Crane Lane, near the docks in Dublin.  Marriages between Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews in Ireland led to the combined term "Ashkenfardi."  Malcolm also speculated that a Jewish jeweler who settled in Connaught was responsible for the so-called Claddagh Rings, that retain typical Jewish symbols, such as the hands with open fingers (the sign of the Cohanim), the crown (the sign of the Torah) and the heart (the sign of love).  He explained that these rings were first given only to Jewish girls who were betrothed to be married, but then spread to the general community and were a source of income.  The influence of the small mostly secret Jewish community in Ireland was far beyond their numbers.
Finally, Rabbi Jackson spoke affectionately of his home country, Ireland.  He reminded us that the Jews in Ireland were sympathetic supporters of Irish independence from England.  He also spoke about Cork and his growing up there and the small Jewish community.  He described how the Jewish community lived in the poorer section of Cork near the gasometers.  Most of the community has left now and since the gasometers had been dismantled, the municipality accepted a proposal to name the park that replaced them as "Shalom Park" in memory of the Jewish community that was.  They also have a series of streetlamps that turn on and off like a menorah as a perpetual reminder of the former Jewish presence.
Altogether a unique and fascinating insight into the history of the Jewish presence in Ireland.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Coimbra and back to Lisbon

Today we drove west to Coimbra, stopping on the way.  We had lunch in a forest reserve named Bussaco where the convent and palace had been turned into a magnificent hotel, with beautiful grounds.  Coimbra is not the third largest city in Portugal, but it is one of the most important culturally. It was the original capital when the Portuguese state was founded in 1180.  When the capital passed to Lisbon, Coimbra eventually retained the university, which is one of the oldest in Europe.  It was based on the Palace of the King in Coimbra, but has been greatly enlarged.
We were driven around the city with a guide and then visited the famous university.  We went to the university archive where the deputy director showed us the only mss they retain from the Inquisition.  It was surprising that they only had 6 mss from that period, but he explained that all the Inquisition trial transcripts from around the country are collected in Lisbon.
From there we visited the magnificent baroque library dating from the mid 17th century.  It was very highly decorated in gold leaf and has 30,000 books on view all dating before 1750.  We were very lucky that Michael managed to arrange for the Director of the library to actually bring their most valuable book over for us to see, the so called “Abrabanel Bible.”   This has the complete Torah written on parchment by hand and dates from the 15th century.  He said it was by far their most valuable book, particularly since all Hebrew books in Spain and Portugal were ordered to be destroyed and very few survived.  We were impressed by Coimbra and the university and the cooperation of the archivist, who said that he might be of Jewish origin. 
We stayed overnight in the huge magnificent old Curia Palace hotel outside Coimbra.  We left the Curia Palace hotel next morning and drove for about an hour to Tomar, a small city of ca. 20,000 inhabitants.  There the main attraction for us was the synagogue, the oldest one surviving in Portugal.  It was built before the edict of expulsion in Portugal in 1496 and survived, none were built after that until modern times.   
It was rediscovered in the 1920s by the Polish Jewish engineer Shmuel Schwartz who pioneered studies of the Marranos (Bnei Anusim) in Portugal.  He cleared up the place after it had been used as a store room and bought it.  Then he restored it and donated it to the Portuguese State on condition that it be kept open as a museum or working synagogue. They estimate that there were perhaps 150 Jews living in the town when it was built, but now there are only a few Jewish families left in Tomar.  The Synagogue, which originally had a secret door, now has a front door and is open to the public.  It has four high stone columns and a vaulted ceiling.  We were given an explanation by a member of the tourism office in Tomar and the lady who looks after the synagogue, who wore a large gold Magen David and has Jewish ancestry.

We then had our lunch in a nearby park and drove to Obeidos, a beautiful medieval town surrounded by a castle that has nothing Jewish about it, but was lovely to visit and had many shops for tourists. 

Then we drove back a few hours to Lisbon. We had our last supper in the Jewish community hall and there were speeches and mock awards, some jokes and some singing.  We all had a great time, and it was very informative and educational. Michael and Miriam did an excellent job in organizing and running the tour and the driver was also excellent.  We are returning home to Israel with a lot to remember and think about.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Belmonte and Trancoso

The visit to Trancoso and Belmonte represented the core of our reason to be in Portugal and our interest in the Secret Jews.  We drove about an hour from Trancoso to Belmonte, where we were met by Yosef.  He took us on a walking tour of the extensive Jewish quarter (Juderia) and pointed out specific items of interest.  For example, it was always known where the Juderia started and now there is a magen David in the pavement to indicate the location.  He showed us crosses carved into the stone door posts to show where the Inquisition had confiscated Jewish houses.  Then he took us to the impressive new synagogue Beit Eliahu that he was involved in planning and building in 1996.  It has 32 families (300 members) that have returned to Judaism, and there are many more who retain their secret Jewish status even today.
It is estimated that ca. 40,000 New Christians (Secret Jews) were murdered by the Inquisition from 1536 – 1821, when it was finally abolished.  Of those, about 1,200 were burnt in autos da fe, mostly in Lisbon and Evora.  But, even after the Inquisition the Secret Jews were not safe.  During the 48 years of the Salazar dictatorship no Jewish practices were allowed in Portugal.  It was only after the 1974 revolution that religious practises other than Catholicism were allowed.  Still even today many Bnei Anusim will not openly declare that they are Jewish, but many will confess this confidentially. It is impossible to estimate the actual number of Secret Jews.
Returning to Trancoso we were taken on a tour of the extensive Juderia.  Here the houses are made of stone and all are grey.  The Jews, to show that they were conversos, carved crosses on the door posts, but they modified the crosses with the letter shin at the ends and also added menorot.  It was required that conversos move out of the Juderia and be replaced by Old Christians, so that the conversos would be removed from Judaic influences.  It was a capital offense to “Judaize”, i.e. say or do anything about Judaism, including having Hebrew books.  Since the practice of Judaism was publicly banned and there were no Jewish institutions, the secret practise of Judaism continued underground, in the home.  This explains why so many of the victims of the Inquisition were women.

Yosef took us to the new modern Jewish Center that they have built there that is not yet officially opened.  It is called the Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation, named after a physiciain born in Trancoso in 1603 who was a converso, and is funded entirely by the Trancoso municipality.  He told us that although they have support from the local municipality, a priest complained to him that the JC was built too close to a church.  He replied that they had built the Church on land confiscated from Jews, who they killed.  But, in general there is strong support for the return of Jewish worship and symbols as well as the open return of the Jews themselves.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Castelo de Vida

Sunday we drove north-east from Lisbon, arriving at the small town of Castelo de Vida (Castle of vines) around noon.  The main reason for visiting this town is that it has a recognized and partially restored synagogue.  We were met by the former Mayor Mr, Carolino, who was the Mayor during the revolution of 1974.
He was able to trace his family origins back to 1320 from Toledo in Spain. The family business was metal working and they continued that in Castelo de Vida, and he showed us their working shop with some original tools. Because he was the Mayor and because he was a Bnei Anusim he bought and renovated a small partly hidden synagogue in the Juderia, which he took us to see.  Where the Juderia starts there are Magen David in the stone pavements.  The synagogue is a small museum and has a memorial wall with the names of 400 Converso Jews who were taken from there and murdered by the Inquisition in Lisbon. 
After lunch we drove further towards the Spanish border and at a place called Portagem there is an intact Roman bridge over the river Sever that separated Portugal from Spain. Next to it is a Roman tower that used to be the customs post in the 15th century.  It was here that a large portion of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 paid to cross into Portugal.  Altogether there were ca 100 - 200,000 Jews who entered Portugal and because there were so many of them they were distributed around all the towns and villages in the region.  The total population of Portugal was then only ca. 1 million so the Jews were a large and influential group. On the wall of the tower is a plaque commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Jews expulsion from Spain.
We then drove to the highest point locally at Marvao where there is a small village adjacent to a huge Moorish castle.  The name of the Moorish General was Marwan, so it is named after him, and he had his headquarters there with a magnificent view over this area of Portugal.

From there we drove to Trancoso where we are staying while we visit the Jewish areas there and in nearby Belmonte.  At dinner we were addressed by Jose (Yosef) Levy Domingos, a journalist by profession, but a leader of the Jewish community in Belmonte and by the local Rabbi Elisha Salas, who originally came from Chile and is now an emissary of Shavei Israel to the Crypto-Jews. 

Monday, May 13, 2013


Day 2 in Portugal and we drove to Evora about an hour’s drive from Lisbon.  On the way there we saw cork trees growing, for which Portugal is famous.  Evora is a beautiful old town that had an important role in Jewish history in Portugal.  In the 15th century it had the largest Jewish population in Portugal (ca. 4,000) and had a large Juderia.  Since the King liked to vacation in the town he was glad to have his many Jewish assistants live there. That was until he decided to force the Jews to give up Judaism and convert to Christianity.

The King's brother became the Head of the Inquisition in Evora and was especially cruel in mistreating the conversos, Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. Passing the Roman remains we went to the main town square, Giraldo Square, where the headquarters of the Inquisition had been and where they burned the Jews at the auto-da-fe, where Jews were given the last chance to recant before being burnt alive. We sat there and ate our lunch, strange feeling, everything around was normal.  Both the Jewish victims and the hateful perpetrators would not have believed this outcome.

We then visited the town library that had been a private scholarly library founded several hundred years ago.  In their vault they had an original volume of a book published in 1496 by Abraham Zacuto who was an advisor to the King and a famous mathematician.  He compiled tables of data that enabled many navigators to successfully expand the Portuguese empire.  But, even he had to flee to avoid forced conversion.  He escaped to N. Africa and then to Holland.  It was a privilege for us to see this original book, usually kept in a safe. 

We returned to Lisbon and that night we went out to hear Fado music, the authentic voice of Portuguese culture, in an area known as the Bairro Alto.

Day 3 and we drove west from Lisbon to the farthest western point in continental Europe.  En route we stopped in the beautiful little city of Sintra, where we toured the former Royal Palace that was a vacation home to many Portuguese Kings.  On the very top of the hill, which we didn't visit, was the Moorish Castle from which the Arabs controlled the area for 300 years. 

Then we drove to Cabo Roca (Rocky Cape) where many of the adventurous sailors went to pray as they stared across the Atlantic Ocean into the unknown.  It is a very remote and wild area with very high cliffs.  But driving a little along the coast from there we came to the wonderful little holiday resort of Cascais (pronounced Cashcaish), where we stopped to have lunch and sat in the sun by the beach.  By the way the weather has been perfect for touring, except the wind was very strong at Cabo Roca.

We continued along the coast to Estoril, past the famous casino, and along the Tegus River back to Lisbon.  Tonite is Shabbat, so we are walking to the kosher restaurant to have our Shabbat meal.  The synagogue Shaare Tikvah is just around the corner from there.  It is quite large but very discrete and has good security.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Trip to Portugal

This was an AACI-sponsored trip to Portugal to visit places of Jewish heritage, with the AACI representative Miriam Green (our daughter). The first day on the trip to Portugal was exhausting.  We flew overnight with a stop-over in Brussels, since there is no direct flight from Israel to Lisbon.  In the early morning we took a coach tour of Brussels and we saw some of the many grandiose buildings that King Leopold II had built. He had a huge personal fortune because he personally owned the Belgian Congo in Africa, and exploited the natives to produce rubber (for details see "King Leopold's Ghost" by Adam Hochschild).  Then we hopped back aboard a plane and flew 2.5 hrs to Lisbon.

Our intrepid guide Michael Tuchfeld met us at the airport and we went off in our shiny coach.  We had a tour of Lisbon with our Portuguese guide and it is very beautiful, quite hilly and varied.  Although Lisbon had been settled by the Romans, who called it Lusitania, most of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 1775, so very little remains that is earlier.  We saw the medieval monument called the Belem Tower (Belem is derived from Bethlehem) and the relatively modern monument to the Portuguese discoveries of the world (from Brazil to Japan).  We went to the district of Alfama that used to include a Jewish quarter and we saw the street still called the Juderia.  There had been three Jewish quarters in Lisbon but nothing remains.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, about one third of those who left went to Portugal.  After King Manual I ascended to the throne he decided to keep the Jews but get rid of their Jewish identity, so he forbade the practise of Judaism and had the Jews forcibly converted, but he gave them a grace period of 20 years during which they would not be investigated.  In 1496 he wished his son to marry the daughter of the Catholic King of Spain, but they made a requirement that all Jews be expelled from Portugal.   Even though he issued an edict of expulsion, instead he forcibly converted those who remained practising Jews.  However, in 1506 there was a massacre of Jews in Russio Square in Lisbon, about 2,500 were murdered in the square outside one of the main Churches.  According to the history books, King Manuel did not intend this to happen so he arrested the perpetrators. We went to see the memorial stone with a Magen David carved into it that commemorates the massacre and nearby an inscribed apology from the Church.  

While we were there, Michael told us that we were not ordinary tourists, like Japanese or Italians, but as Jews we had a particular connection to that spot and that history.  While we were gathered around this memorial some passers-by stopped to hear what was being said.  One man afterwards spoke to us and told us that his father had been Jewish but his mother was Catholic and although he was brought up Christian he thought of himself as partly Jewish and he said he liked Israel and said "shalom" to us when he left.   This was a very nice gesture.

On several occasions we were told that there is no anti-Semitism in Portugal.  There are no anti-Semitic parties like in Hungary or Greece and there are no groups of fascist thugs as there are in Britain and Germany. Indeed estimates of the proportion of Portuguese with Jewish antecedents vary from 20% to 50%.  We then climbed back aboard the bus and went to the venue where the Jewish community had arranged kosher meals for us during our stay in Lisbon and then finally after eating to the hotel Altis and a much needed rest.