Monday, December 26, 2005

Ayman Nour & Middle East democracy

We Westerners are desperate to see the political systems in the Middle East evolve from authoritarian theocratic or oligarchical models to some variation of representative government.

That desire suffered another setback on Saturday when former Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour, 41, was sentenced to five years in prison for (what outside observers insist are trumped-up charges of) forgery.

Up and down the region – Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority – the Western pluralist model of representative democracy has failed because broadminded, Western-oriented reformers have been driven away by the intimidation of autocratic rulers, leaving demagogic Islamists to reap the benefits.

Perhaps it is expecting too much for the Western concepts of political parties, elections and parliaments to take root in a so alien a social milieu. But there is no turning back the clock. In the modern age, tribalism is no solution; Arab (and Persian) nationalism has been tried and failed. Now the region flirts with fundamentalism which, even if it works as an organizing principle for society, poses a mortal threat to the outside world.

It is in this context that US President George Bush used his state of the union address last February to challenge Hosni Mubarak to open up Egypt’s political system: “The great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.”

This hoped for transition isn’t merely the mantra of neoconservatives or the Bush administration. Everyone understands that representative political regimes tend to be stable, less bellicose and centrist.

Under US pressure – Egypt receives $1.8 billion in annual aid – Mubarak did allow the country’s parliament to adopt a constitutional amendment which introduced a multi-party presidential election in September. The 77-year-old Mubarak, who first came to power with the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981, was reelected. And the now imprisoned Ayman Nour won 8 percent of the vote – a very distant second.

A subsequent series of votes for parliament, spread out over three rounds and five weeks, was marked by crookedness. Supporters of the previously banned Muslim Brotherhood (the political precursor to Hamas and other Isalmist-oriented groups) were allowed to run as independents. Many of their followers were beaten by plain-clothes thugs and riot police; at least 11 people were killed at the polls.

Yet the Brotherhood won some 90 mandates in the 454-seat parliament (and nearly 40% of all votes cast). The Brotherhood could have done even better but feared contesting more than 150 seats against Mubarak’s ruling party. Some 75% of eligible voters shunned the polls because they distrusted the entire enterprise. International monitors were barred.

So how far along is Egypt today – after both a presidential and a parliamentary election – on the road toward “democracy?” Not very.

The secular opposition has been decimated at the polls. Unable to campaign vigorously thanks to various legal and political constraints, the 15 non-Islamist and non-Mubarak parties garnered less than a dozen seats. Nour himself lost the parliamentary seat he had held for 10 years to Mubarak’s well-oiled political machine.

With the Muslim Brotherhood ascendant and a state-controlled media making it virtually impossible for alternative reformist voices to be heard, chances are good that Egypt’s next leader will be Mubarak’s son Gamal.

Like the Shah of Iran back in the 1970s, Mubarak’s express ultimatum is: my autocracy or the Islamist way – nothing in between.

Closer to home, the January 25 Palestinian parliamentary elections are also in turmoil largely because a failed Palestinian establishment fears the rise of Hamas.

As is the case with Egypt, friends of freedom are forced to choose between a nascent alliance of the politically bankrupt old-guard of Mahmoud Abbas coupled with the violent “reformers” led by Marwan Barghouti, or else find themselves saddled with the Islamists of Hamas.

But for genuine democracy to evolve, it needs to be nurtured. Until the West demands reformist policies throughout the region – including a truly free press, accountable government and the kind of political socialization that could contribute to democracy’s development – it will be left to wonder why it must continuously choose between the autocrats and the Islamists.

– A December 26 Jerusalem Post editorial

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas in the Holy Land

Will the most memorable Holy Land image of Christmas 2005 be the siege of Manger Square in Bethlehem last week by hundreds of gunmen from the Aksa Martyrs Brigades?

And if it is, what does this foreshadow for a Christian Arab minority destined to live under a sovereign Palestinian state?

The gunmen, underscoring the lawlessness to which Bethlehem and other places in the Palestinian Authority are subjected, held up the municipality demanding jobs with the PA’s security forces.

In light of the season and international attention focused on the nearby Church of the Nativity, revered as Christ’s birthplace, the PA moved to quickly find a solution to the standoff. A short while later Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh urged foreigners to visit his “peaceful city,” saying: "There’s no reason tourists shouldn’t come. Our great city depends on tourism for its economic survival.” Palestinian officials, though, need to start thinking about Christians – Palestinian Arabs as well as visiting pilgrims – not only as sources of tourist revenue, but as having a rightful connection to this shared and holy place.

The sad fact is that many Christians no longer feel at home in a city that was once over 90 percent theirs. Today Christians comprise less than a quarter of Bethlehem’s population. And their numbers are constantly dwindling. While it may be good public relations, it isn’t enough for PA officials to attend Christmas services once a year. Christians must be made to feel safe in a Palestinian political environment which is increasingly taking on Islamist overtones.

With (anticipated) Palestinian sovereignty also comes responsibility. Is the Palestinian leadership – which polls now suggest will include members of the Islamist Hamas movement – ready, as well as able, to protect minority Christian Arabs from discrimination and intimidation?

If history is any indication, there is plenty of room for concern. The Aksa Brigades who commandeered Manger Square last week had no qualms, a few years ago, about turning Beit Jala’s Christian residents into virtual human shields by firing from their homes into Jerusalem’s nearby Gilo neighborhood. In the spring of 2002, they also overran and occupied the Church of the Nativity for a month.

Paradoxically, many Christians outside the region worry that if they publicly criticize the powers that be in the Palestinian Authority, they will only be making things worse for their brethren who live there.

The situation is further complicated by those Palestinian Christians who associate themselves with fading Arab nationalism in general and the Palestinian national struggle in particular. Conveniently, key PA spokespeople such as Hanan Ashrawi are Christian. And it is in their obvious interest to spotlight Israel’s missteps vis-à-vis Arab Christians in the Holy Land even as they do their best to shield PA wrongdoing.

Yet it is not enough, particularly on this day, to point to PA transgressions. Inside Israel, Christian Arabs sometimes find themselves wedged between an indifferent Jewish majority and an increasingly assertive Muslim minority.

Though 80 percent of the approximately 150,000 Christians across the Holy Land are Arab, the community is heterogeneous. For instance, the Copt, Armenian, Ethiopian and Syrian denominations are non-Arab. And Israel’s failure to recognize Christian diversity and make affirmative efforts to reach out to non-Arab Christians remains an appalling failure.

On the bright side, Israel is one of the few countries in the region where Christian communities have grown and thrived in recent decades. Israel’s Arab Christians maintain among the highest matriculation scores of any population; proportionally, Arab Christians also produce very high numbers of university graduates.

On the other hand, across the denominational and ethnic divide, Christian leaders complain – some irately, others with understanding of our security dilemmas – that the Jewish state does not always treat them with respect or sensitivity.

Even as we express disquiet for the well-being of Christians under Palestinian jurisdiction, we must not lose sight of our own shortcomings. It is in Israel’s interest to foster the natural alliance with Christendom. But more importantly still, Judaism demands we respect the “stranger among us.”

We wish our Christian readers marking the festival of Christ’s birth (and those in the eastern tradition who observe the holiday on January 6) a Merry Christmas and a peaceful 2006.

– The Jerusalem Post Christmas Day Editorial, December 25, 2005

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ahmadinejad & Hate

Normal and abnormal hatred

The hater suffers from a pathological, obsessive, preoccupation with the object of disdain


Here’s what I hate (in no particular order): computer spam, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Jerusalem taxi drivers, a persistently annoying colleague, and the NIS 417,900 Hummer now being advertised in the newspapers.

I tried turning to the Bible for solace. But last week’s Torah portion had Simeon and Levi slaughtering every newly circumcised male in Shechem. And this week, Joseph’s brothers, seeing that Jacob loves him the most, hate him so passionately that – as the narrative begins – they can’t even bring themselves to greet him.

There’s no ignoring hate, but do we understand it?

Our sages were aware of the problem. They surmised that the uneducated riffraff hated the scholarly class even more than the gentiles hated the Jews. Just as the Eskimos have a nomenclature for snow, Jewish tradition categorizes all sorts of hatreds: hidden hate, hatred of justice, gratuitous hatred, and the particularly despised – self-hatred.

Maariv reported last week on a survey which found, not surprisingly after five gruesome years of Palestinian Arab belligerence, that topping the “most hated” list for nearly all Israelis were Palestinians. But 67 percent of leftists hated “settlers” even more than Palestinians.

Besides settlers, the Orthodox, haredim, leftists and Arab Israelis also scored high on being despised.

William Hazlitt, in an irreverent homage to the subject, The Pleasure of Hating (1826), says that “Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust; hatred alone is immortal.”
For Hazlitt the pleasure of hating eats into everything. “Nature seems made up of antipathies: Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.”

The contemporary Romanian-born French philosopher E.M. Cioram agrees: “You are done for – a living dead man – not when you stop loving, but stop hating. Hatred preserves; in it, in its chemistry, resides the ‘mystery’ of life. Not for nothing is hatred still the best tonic ever discovered, for which any organism, however feeble, has tolerance.”

And for the writer Minna Antrim “To be loved is to be fortunate, but to be hated is to achieve distinction.”

THEN THERE is hatred of an entirely different order. Psychiatrist Willard Gaylin, in Hatred: The Psychological Descent into Violence, posits that the truly hazardous variety is not “normal to the human condition.”

Laypeople often confuse rage, prejudice or bigotry with authentic hatred. A key criteria, Gaylin says, is whether the hater suffers from a pathological, obsessive, preoccupation with the object of disdain.

Hatred is more than an emotion. Gaylin believes that most of us have never really experienced genuine clinical hatred. “We are not one with the terrorists. We do not experience that which they feel, nor are we likely to do what they do. The hatred that requires a defined enemy – the hatred that seeks the humiliation and destruction of that enemy and takes joy in it – is blessedly a rare phenomenon.”

For Gaylin, genuine hatred is a quasi-delusional condition, a mental disease. It’s the sick flip-side of love in that it, too, requires an object of attachment. “Obsessive hatred is by definition irrational. The choice of the victim is more often dictated by the unconscious needs and personal history of the hater than by the nature, or even the actions, of the hated.”

So, by Gaylin’s criteria, the intense dislike I have toward Jerusalem taxi drivers, or – I’d like to believe – the disdain some haredim feel toward Reform Jews, or the revulsion many American Reform Jews feel toward George W. Bush are unlikely to inspire real trouble. These “hatreds” are too mild, too ephemeral.

Ahmadinejad’s hatred, in contrast, is durable and relentless.

By claiming that the extermination of 6 million Jews during World War II was a “myth,” by urging European countries who “claim that they have killed Jews in World War II” to “provide the Zionist regime with a piece of Europe,” and by advocating that Israel be “wiped off the map” – I’d diagnose him a genuine malevolent, obsessive, quasi-delusional hater.

In Iran, as in the dysfunctional Palestinian territories, hatred appears to be the societal norm. Ahmadinejad’s hatred needs a self-reinforcing cultural milieu in which to incubate. Teheran’s ruling circle presumably provides that environment just as Palestinian society has long nurtured the pathological, self-defeating, hate manifested by the various Fatah groupings, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

It’s no accident that Ahmadinejad spent part of last week conferring with Hamas’s politburo chief, Khaled Mashal and heard that “The Palestinian nation, Hamas movement and the Islamic world appreciate the stands adopted by the Islamic Republic of Iran against the usurper regime of Israel.”

Nor does it surprise that left to their democratic druthers, Palestinians gave a landslide victory to Hamas in Thursday’s municipal elections, or that Farhat Abu Nidal, proud mother of two shahids (martyrs) is number 22 on the Hamas list for the Palestinian general elections.
Instances of profound hatred occurring among normal individuals or societies are regulated – by super-egos, parents and police. Civilized societies remove individuals whose pathological hatred can be certified as posing a danger.

But what do you do about entire polities mobilized by hate?

You start by recognizing their abnormality, and then you quarantine the madmen who rule them.

– From a December 19 Jerusalem Post column


Q&A with Historian David Berger

Veteran Brooklyn College History Professor David Berger has a reputation for being both a scholar and an outstanding lecturer. A kippa-wearing Orthodox Jew, Berger received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. Despite his soft-spoken scholarly demeanor, Berger is passionate about his expose of Chabad. It is, he says, of 'transcendent importance.'

Q) Does mainstream Chabad really believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is a Jesus-like diety?

A) Religious mentors in the major yeshivas of Chabad in both Israel and the United States, publications issued by mainstream Chabad, and influential, highly educated Lubavitch laymen, take the following assertions literally: The supremely righteous, of whom the Rebbe and Moses are the chief exemplars, annul their own essence to the point where their entire Essence is that of God. It is permissible to bow to them with this understanding. For this reason, the Rebbe is omniscient, omnipotent, and entirely without limits. He is 'indistinguishable' from God.

Q) Because he is a transparent window for pure divinity, a 'man-God,' 'when you speak to him, you speak to God.'

A) There are Chabad hasidim who reject such formulations but there is no question that these beliefs are well represented in the mainstream.

Q) Nevertheless, what about those who insist that Chabad's messianist camp is a minority faction? Regrettably, this assertion is pure propaganda. In Crown Heights, the main synagogue at Lubavitch headquarters is a messianist stronghold where the Rebbe's messiahship is proclaimed at every prayer service.

The Rabbinic court is messianist; the largest men's school (Oholei Torah/Oholei Menachem), the women's seminary Machon Chanah, and other educational institutions are shot through with messianism; the messianist slogan is on a banner posted on the headquarters of the Chabad Women's Organization; and much more.

In Israel, the rabbi of Kfar Chabad signed a rabbinic ruling that Jewish law requires belief in the Rebbe's Messiahship, and the major columnist of the journal Beis Moshiach is a mentor in Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim there.

The large Chabad school system in Safed teaches the Rebbe's Messiahship.

Over 60 Israeli rabbis, including chief rabbis of several towns, signed the messianist ruling.

The situation among emissaries is somewhat better, but that ruling was signed by many of them, including the Chief Rabbi of the former Soviet Union and 16 of the major emissaries there. There are indeed non-messianists in Chabad, but they are clearly outnumbered.

Q) People joke that 'Chabad is the religion closest to Judaism.' Why take their theology so seriously?

The inclination to joke about this development is one of many reasons for the failure of mainstream Orthodoxy to act. In fact, Chabad is a movement of monumental importance. Observant Jews are profoundly dependent on its emissaries all over the world, it plays a major role in kosher food preparation and supervision worldwide, its rabbis dominate or are poised to dominate Jewish communities in a startling number of countries.

While your question reflects a widely held perception, that perception is so off the mark as to be the near opposite of the truth.

It will be exceedingly difficult to save Judaism from this catastrophe precisely because of the central role of Chabad in Jewish life.

Q) If that's the case, why don't Orthodox authorities speak out? Have any disassociated themselves from Chabad?

A) I devote an entire chapter - 'Explaining the Inexplicable' - to this question, and the forthcoming issue of Modern Judaism will publish a somewhat elaborated version entitled 'The Fragility of Religious Doctrine: Accounting for Orthodox Acquiescence in the Belief in a Second Coming.'

Among the reasons for this acquiescence are: The 'good things' done by the movement, the desire for unity, the dependence on Chabad, the conviction that this is a transient insanity, a blinkered concern with one's own subgroup, and the instinct that people who look and behave like hassidim must be Orthodox Jews. Moreover, Orthodox education no longer focuses on polemical literature against messianic Christianity. There is a startling degree of theological relativism among even very Orthodox Jews.

'Judaism,' I write in the book 'which was once a great faith, is now an agglomeration of dress, deportment and ritual.' Add to all this the financial and political influence of Chabad, and the difficulty of waging this battle is thrown into even bolder relief.

Q) Nevertheless, don't you agree that bringing lost soul's to Chabad's brand of Judaism is better than having them lost to Judaism altogether?

A) A reasonable question. One of the major obstacles I face is the need to convince people that it's the wrong question.

The answer to this question is 'yes,' though the answer becomes less unequivocal if we are speaking about belief in the Rebbe as divine. In fact, we face a very different question.

Is it acceptable to smash the boundaries of the faith to pieces if doing this will attract thousands or even hundreds of thousands of irreligious Jews to the transformed religion?

Recognizing Chabad messianists as Orthodox rabbis in good standing abolishes Judaism's criteria for identifying the Messiah and awards victory to Christianity on a key issue in the historic Jewish-Christian debate.

One does not undermine Judaism in order to save it.

[Berger was my professor at Brooklyn College back in the 1970s]


Back to the ghetto


A recent visit to Venice tells me that, for many Jews, ritual and a sense of connection to Jewish civilization override theology.

I had heard that Venice was a place of romance; a magical city built on canals. But once there, we also discovered Venice's 'Jewish problem.' Two factions - one foreign, small and missionizing, the other indigenous, threatened and struggling - are engaged in a love-hate relationship.

Jews began to settle in the area in the 13th century. Venice's economic elite needed them; the Church despised them. Which is how it came to be that on March 29, 1516 the Venetian Council of Ten established the world's first ghetto for their 700 Jews:

'The Jews must all live together... in order to prevent their roaming about at night: Let there be built two Gates... which ...shall be opened in the morning... and closed at midnight by four Christian guards appointed and paid by the Jews....'

Predictably, it was to this ghetto to which we were drawn for our 'getaway' from the pressures of life in Israel. We checked into the Locanda del Ghetto Hotel. Outside our window was the ghetto courtyard where today the frailties of, and contending hopes for Jewish life in Venice play themselves out. Here is the center of the established community, whose religious life is led by Chief Rabbi Elia Richetti, as well as the power base of Chabad-Lubavitch's Rami Banin.

Both are sympathetic characters; both Italian-born, both Orthodox.

But Richetti is the conservative. He wants to preserve the local community and minister to its 300 faithful. The 300,000 Jewish tourists who visit the ghetto annually interest him only mildly.

For Banin those tourists are everything. The Chabad emissary has flawless Hebrew and American-accented English. He's singularly dedicated to spreading the rebbe's message.

The official community or kehilla 'shares' the courtyard and its environs with Lubavitch. Its Jewish museum daily draws scores of visitors - Jewish and non-Jewish alike - and is a gateway to the ghetto's five historic synagogues. There are also an old age home, art galleries, tourist shops and a kosher bakery/grocery. There's an eruv and even a mikve.

But it is Chabad's in-your-face presence that appropriates the limelight: A storefront yeshiva for a dozen American and Israeli rabbinical students, an outreach center, and the strategically located Lubavitch-run Gam-Gam restaurant.

I davened several mornings with Chabad, praying opposite a picture of the rebbe and a wall adorned with the messianic catchphrase: Yehi adoneinu moreinu v'rabbeinu melech ha'moshiah l'olam vaed! (Long live our master, teacher, and rabbi, the King Messiah, for ever and ever.)

The official community distances itself from Chabad, though Richetti sometimes turns to the yeshiva boys for a minyan and certifies Gam-Gam's kashrut. As both pulpit rabbi and neighborhood coordinator, he's proud that some 20 families order meat and other kosher provisions from Milan.

The kehilla stays afloat thanks to a combination of state aid, a communal tax, and property revenue - not to mention tourism.

MEANWHILE, SLOWLY, methodically, Chabad appears committed to usurping Judaism in Venice. But this is not Bangkok; there's an indigenous community that won't roll over and die.

Chabad appears to have deep pockets. It set up shop 12 years ago and now plans to open a kindergarten (to compete with the kehilla's kindergarten attended by 12 youngsters). Richetti notes that no Jewish child has been born in Venice in three years, and is suspicious of Chabad's intentions.

But to this outsider, the competition seems like a plus.

I came to Venice with grudging admiration for Chabad. Yes, I know it's a cult dependent on the charismatic 'presence' of the rebbe, but I'd rather see Jews hook up with Chabad than with Hare Krishna. If the alternative is nihilism and alienation, I can live with Chabad's remedy. At the same time, I'm intolerant of Chabad's ability to get away with promulgating the heresy that the rebbe, who died in 1994, is the Living Messiah.

But that's theology. Let's talk supper.

After Friday night prayers in one of the historic but melancholy-looking synagogues, we went off to Gam-Gam (with its Crown Heights decor), where we experienced an evening of charm, warmth, and song. Maybe you have to be a member of the tribe to appreciate how good it feels to be gazing at a Venetian canal while singing Friday-night zemirot in the company of 150 Jews of all stripes, lands, and levels of affiliation, enjoying a free, bountiful meal waited upon by rabbis-in-training.

You'd have to be an ingrate not to appreciate Chabad's presence in Venice. I'm told that in the summer, tables are set up along the adjacent canal front to accommodate the hundreds of visiting Jews, some experiencing their first-ever Shabbat meal.

Yet I doubt Chabad is converting very many to their schismatic brand of Judaism. Eating with Lubavitch in Venice highlighted for me that what people are looking for is not theology, but ritual and Jewish camaraderie.

Travelers ready to embrace a Jewish experience don't want to think about the relationship between the Creator and the universe. What they want is an exotic synagogue service, a touch of history, and afterwards cholent, song, and companionship.

There's an outreach lesson here other streams of Judaism may want to emulate.

– From a November 15 Jerusalem Post column


Jabotinsky's hassid


Shmuel Katz is probably the last remaining link to Ze'ev Jabotinsky outside the prophet's own relations. Last week, on the occasion of his forthcoming 90th birthday on December 9, I went to Tel Aviv to see him.

It was the week in which the remnants of the Jabotinsky movement suffered yet another blow with Uzi Landau's defeat in the race for the Likud Central Committee chairmanship.

'Jabotinsky's photograph should be taken down from the wall of Likud headquarters. I don't want him to 'see' and 'hear' what goes on there,' says Katz.

The Johannesburg-born polemicist, slowed down physically by the infirmities of age - poor circulation in his legs and the after-effects of a stroke - now resides in an agreeable 'assisted living' facility. It's hard for Katz to get around, but his intellectual powers, and ideological steadfastness, remain strong.

A lapsed Jabotinskyte, I wonder aloud if the shifting facts on the ground - the past four years of war, Palestinian demographics, the polarization within Israeli society over the territories, and the constellation of international forces - should not lead us to rethink our stance.

Isn't Ariel Sharon right that a tactical withdrawal - 7,000 Jews from among 1 million Arabs - is militarily and diplomatically wise?

No sooner do I phrase the question than I realize how trifling my litany of contemporary challenges must sound to a man whom Jabotinsky himself sent to London in 1940 to propagate the cause.

Yet Katz isn't irritated. He simply outlines the unshakable truth: 'Leave Gaza, and Jews will be killed in Ashkelon.

'The Arabs have launched a war and we are responding as if it is some kind of squabble. When they say they want to get rid of Israel, that we have no right to exist, they mean it.'

A knock on the door. A nurse enters to administer eye drops and examine Katz's especially bothersome left leg.

When she leaves, the former member of the Irgun high command ('minister of foreign affairs, you might say') concludes his thought:

'Gaza won't be the end of our concessions. Watch.'

So what's the answer?

'There is nothing more left to do except to keep fighting them.

'We can win the war. We just have not won yet.'

WHILE MUCH of the secular Right has mellowed - in Sharon's case shifting to the center - those who have remained steadfast in their 'not one inch' worldview come largely from the theological, sometimes apocalyptic Right.

I ask Katz how this sits with him given that Jabotinsky was a 19th-century liberal, a rationalist and individualist.

Katz admits he has long been wary of Orthodox motivations. He has never forgotten that the religious - Zionist and non-Zionist - collaborated with Labor.

'Yes, they do cause me worry. I would have liked to put a number of questions to them.

'I can only hope Uzi Landau doesn't buckle,' and that, somehow, it is the secular Right that prevails within Likud.

Though he is not devout, Katz believes profoundly that the Land of Israel was given to the Jewish people. That unshakable faith comes not from scripture, but from the 1920 British Mandate.

'Read it.'

I do. The mandate system was established in international law by the Treaty of Versailles in 1922. It charged Britain with 'putting into effect' the 1917 Balfour Declaration; called for 'the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,' and recognized 'the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine' and 'reconstituting their national home in that country.'

Whatever history's twists and turns, Katz sees no point in ceding any of the rights bestowed by the Mandate.

Is such rock-solid ideology out of touch with today's realities? Maybe. But sitting opposite the man in his small sunny room cluttered with mugs, books, two telephones, newspapers, and writing pads - though remarkably few personal mementos - I reflect on his extraordinary career.

After the Irgun, he joined Menachem Begin's Herut Party, serving in Israel's first Knesset. Katz and Begin did not get on; each felt the other was laying (false) claim to be the true inheritor of Jabotinsky's mantle.

Disappointed with Begin's leadership Katz quit politics. From 1951 to 1977 he ran the Karni publishing house and brought out the Megiddo Hebrew & English Dictionary.

In 1977, when voters finally broke Labor's monopoly on power and elected Begin prime minister, the two rivals reconciled. But Begin rejected Katz's advice to create a powerful hasbara ministry and their brief rapprochement collapsed.

All the while Katz has been faithfully articulating the Jabotinsky line. Battleground is probably the finest Zionist polemical tract published; Days of Fire is the story of the Irgun; The Hollow Peace is a denunciation of Begin's concessions to Anwar Sadat. Lone Wolf, his latest book, is Katz's magnum opus, a two-volume biography of Jabotinsky.

Katz is nothing if not persevering. He's just sent off an op-ed warning that 'a Palestinian state will be the launching pad for the next phase of the campaign for all of Palestine.'

Till 120, Mr. Katz.

– From a November 29, 2004 Jerusalem Post column


Save my job - read a newspaper


The crumbling front page in my hand is from the October 7, 1973 Sunday New York Times. The headline - which runs across eight columns and two lines - reads: 'Arabs and Israelis Battle on Two Fronts; Egyptians Bridge Suez; Air Duels Intense.'

This is not a facsimile. It's the genuine newspaper saved all these years.

I am a newspaper junkie. In addition to thousands of clippings from the pre-Google era, there are about a dozen vintage newspapers in my archive: like the Times from Tuesday, June 9, 1981: 'Israeli Jets Destroy Atomic Reactor; Attack Condemned by US and Arab Nations;' and the one from Monday, February 12, 1979: 'A Khomeini Victory.'

Why this trip down memory lane? Because newspapers, with which I became enamored in high-school and through which I earn a living today, are supposedly going the way of black-and-white television and the eight-track cassette.

If true, this is a bad thing because traditional newspapers offer information in a format that cannot be duplicated by radio, television - or the Web.

As the Post's Yehezkel Laing reported on Friday, fewer and fewer Israelis are reading - forget about subscribing to - the Hebrew dailies. Only a handful of the people I know have any newspaper delivered.

It's a global phenomenon. Americans bought more newspapers in 1960 than they did in 2003. Only 6% of young Americans subscribe to a weekday newspaper; even among the over-45 crowd a paltry 30 percent read the dailies.

Still, newspapers everywhere claim to 'penetrate' the population. Sixty percent of Israelis, 57% of Americans, and 70% of Brits are said to be exposed to daily newspapers, perhaps at the office, barber shop or cafe.

The Friday weekend editions remain popular with Israelis - many petrol stations offer you a free paper when you gas up - though even weekend readership is dropping.

When I ask folks why they don't read a newspaper they say they don't have time, or the news is out of date by the time they get to the paper, or they'd rather not know what's going on.

Well, I'm trying to make a living here, folks, and this kind of thinking isn't helping.

TO THE people who don't want to know the news, all I can say is, please don't vote come election day. And to those who don't want a daily paper on their doorstep because it may contain views they disagree with: If you crave serenity, go live in a ashram.

On the other hand, I do sympathize with people who say they just don't have time for a daily newspaper. Anyone who lurches to work on a Dan or Egged bus could hardly be expected to read a paper as well, though heroically some try.

Still, organizing time is a matter of priorities. Previous generations didn't have the time-saving conveniences we enjoy; yet our parents and grandparents made time, not just for a morning paper, but often for an afternoon one as well.

True, news breaks between the time a paper goes to print and the time it's delivered to your door. Which is why the Web does serve a 'breaking news' function. It is also a great way to peruse out-of-town newspapers.

But neither radio, introduced in the 1920s, nor cable television news, which came on-stream in 1982 - or today's Wi-Fi Internet - can supplant newspapers. Because in an age of information overload, newspapers give you not only the 'who, what, where and when' but also the 'why-this-matters' context that is so necessary to be truly informed. By scanning the front page of a quality newspaper you also get a good sense about what's really important.

But why not read the newspaper for free - as most are - on the Web? Because people don't read articles on computer screens with the attention hard-copy newspapers demand and the comprehension they elicit.

The medium via which information is imparted influences how it will be comprehended. Reading a newspaper on the Web is like drinking skim milk. You can fool yourself into thinking you've had the real thing, but you haven't. And at many newspapers (though not this one), there's little connection between the Web site and the editorial side.

Moreover, the role of the media goes beyond reporting news to serving as a tool for political socialization. It is through the media that political values are inculcated. The media instruct citizens as to what events mean for them as individuals. And it is the media which seek to persuade, through editorials and coverage, what people should think.

For instance, the media in modern Germany promote zero-tolerance toward neo-Nazis - which some might call bias, but I call responsible journalism.

The question is, should we entrust such responsibilities to a bunch of geeks slapping the news on the Web at breakneck speed, or to journalists working under the checks and balances of seasoned editors? (The Post's Web site is actually run by the paper's editorial department.)

Enlightened readers know that newspapers provide the breadth and depth the electronic media alone can't duplicate. And advertisers know it too. The Newspaper Association of America reported that advertising expenditures for the fourth quarter of 2004 increased by 4.2% over the same period a year earlier. Savvy advertisers want to reach people who go beyond 'click and scroll.'

I'm not a Luddite. All I am saying is that when it comes to newspapers, technology can only take you so far. Perhaps the ideal way to read a paper that's not locally available is by subscribing to the page-by-page electronic facsimile.

Combining Wi-Fi and a facsimile allows you, at last, to take your digital newspaper into the toilet - just like the genuine article.

– From a March 7, 2005 Jerusalem Post column


For capitalism with a Jewish heart


I am not a communist, but something has gone terribly wrong lately with capitalism. Take the Carrefour supermarket chain in France, which earned $1.8 billion in 2004 but pays its employees so poorly that some of them can't afford to shop where they work. Take the fact that worldwide businesses are spending less and less of their revenues on wages, creating vast numbers of working poor and fostering 'jobless' economic recoveries.

Maybe it began in 2001 - when my attention was distracted by the Palestinian war against our buses and cafes - with the collapse of energy-trading giant Enron. Dirty accounting (and worse) threw 6,000 workers out on the street.

Or maybe capitalism's conceit goes back to the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1990. The disappearance of ideological competition from Marxism-Leninism may be one reason capitalism has become increasingly pitiless. If competition is inherently good - in the marketplace and in the marketplace of ideas - its absence has made capitalism a self-satisfied monopoly.

I'm not interested in economic dogma, which I don't understand anyway, but in the lives of ordinary people trying to make ends meet. Back in 1932, during the Great Depression, New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt summed up capitalist economics this way: 'The first theory is that if we make the rich richer, somehow they will let a part of their prosperity trickle down to the rest of us. The second theory [is that] if we make the average of mankind comfortable and secure, their prosperity will rise upward... through the ranks.'

Trickle up or trickle down.

Trouble is these days the trickle seems to have dried up at both ends. In Israel, productivity (and profit) has risen far higher than wages, while thousands of actual jobs formerly held by Israelis have been exported.

You need only read Larry Derfner's report in last Friday's UpFront magazine to grasp how many thousands of Israelis will be making Pessah this week thanks only to a network of charities; or to understand that working is no longer an answer for many people because almost a third of salaried Israelis earn NIS 1,900 a month or less.

From time immemorial there have been those who rule and those who are ruled. Similarly, in the economic realm there have always been people with money and poor folks. That's the harsh, inescapable reality of life. And the experiment called communism - to create an egalitarian world with the abolition of private property - was a colossal failure.

Yet it seems capitalism absent communist competition is getting meaner. We always knew selfishness could be an effective way to organize society - something the Reds never understood. But lately selfishness seems to know no bounds. Five thousand workers at the British carmaker MG Rover, for instance, will be out on the street - partly, they allege, because their bosses robbed the company blind.

If I do what's good for me, and you do what's good for you, and we both act rationally - the outcome, according to capitalist economists, should be good for both of us. Maybe globalization has thrown a wrench into the system. The ability to function beyond national boundaries, and thus communal ethical standards, seems to have warped the capitalist economic model. Capitalism run amok seems to encourages wealth accumulation while discouraging old-fashioned personal and corporate responsibility.

Yesterday's Post carried a business story about how 'Wall Street suffered its worst single day in nearly two years,' with the Dow dropping 191 points, its worst performance since May 2003. The AP dispatch continued: 'Bond investors were pleased with Friday's results, however, as the bond market continued to rally.' Huh?

Maybe capitalists get away with so much stealing from workers and stockholders because many of us have given up trying to understand the business and finance pages of our newspapers. But force yourself to read and you'll learn that last week 15 New York Stock Exchange traders were indicted for stealing; that Maurice 'Hank' Greenberg, the head of AIG ('the world's leading international insurance and financial services organization'), lied about AIG's earnings while sneaking $2 billion worth of company stock to his wife.

The Economist called him 'A crafty, patient executive.' Right.

I'M NOT out to overturn capitalism - there's nothing to replace it - but can't we make its application, at least in the Jewish state, less exploitative? For instance, Israeli law does not obligate a boss to pay a sick worker his full wages the first few days he's away from the workplace (even if he brings a doctor's note). But a compassionate Jewish capitalist could opt to pay a sick worker his full pay.

Sunday morning Israelis woke up to news that a threatened strike at the country's banks had been postponed by order of the National Labor Court. Now, I've never met a bank teller I liked, but the jobs of 4,000 bank workers are in jeopardy because 'free market reforms' will change the kind of business banks are permitted to do. Compassionate, Jewish, capitalists should worry about the fate of these men and women.

The average gross monthly salary is down NIS 309 to NIS 7,439 (about $1,695). The 'good news' is that the number of really low-paying service industry jobs has increased by 2.4 percent. At an April 10 news conference Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised Israel would soon be one of the 10 richest countries in the world. Nice. But will we still be the country with the greatest disparity between rich and poor, where 57 percent of Israeli households finish the month in overdraft?

I know it isn't fair, but over-exposure to Eretz Nehederet, the Thursday night television satire program in which a Netanyahu look-alike portrays the minister as a dissolute, smooth-talking, obfuscator, makes it hard for me to take the real character seriously.

So I asked economist Jonathan Lipow about Netanyahu's idea of, for instance, cutting entitlements to stimulate economic growth. 'There is NO evidence,' Lipow practically shouted in an e-mail exchange, 'that cutting entitlements per se stimulates economic growth. Period.'

Even where Netanyahu's strategy may be right, his implementation is wrong, said Lipow. 'There would have been far more gain, and far less pain, in child-allowance cuts had the government maintained funding levels for those children already benefiting.'

Lipow thinks a fairer approach to grow the economy while not penalizing the workers would be for the government to use redistributive taxation.

Like - I suspect - many people, I find economic theory impenetrable. But Lipow's approach strikes me as capitalism with a Jewish heart.

The specter I see haunting a capitalism unchallenged by communism is gluttonous take-no-prisoners greed. Call me na•ve, but I want Israeli politicians to design an economic strategy that doesn't offer us false choices: a government that either taxes and spends with abandon, or one that embraces pure laissez-faire rigidity.

I want a little less economic dogma and a little more Jewish heart.

– From an April 18, 2005 Jerusalem Post column


Chewing the fat


Blame it on Sidney Taubenfeld. Sidney and I were childhood pals in the early 1960s on New York's Lower East Side. I was a skinny runt who, especially at the table, made my mother's life miserable. One day, Mrs. Taubenfeld invited me for supper and put a bottle of ketchup on the table. Suddenly, foods I wouldn't touch became flavorful. That's when my addiction to sugar, and - with it, a life-long struggle with being fat - began.

Roger Cohen, who writes the always-worth-reading 'Globalist' column for the Herald Tribune, recently described returning to New York from an extended overseas journey. As his taxi made its way from JFK Airport, Cohen looked out the window and noticed that Americans had become fatter and fatter - something he attributes to dysfunctional American culture.

Cohen wrote that he always worried about being squashed up next to a fat person during a plane journey. Then the blubber-basher added: 'Let's face it: Nobody likes to be shapeless or gets that way without suffering. And let's face this: If you punish yourself by getting fat, you may also want to punish others. In obesity lurks anger.'

I'd always had a lot of anger in me, and I have always been fat, but I never put the two together. Maybe one day I'll find myself sitting next to Cohen on a plane and he can elucidate.

It may be hard for the skinny and smug to appreciate this, but grappling with obesity - like post-aliya absorption into Israeli society - is a-one-day-at-a-time struggle.

Some 39 percent of Israelis are overweight and 23% are grossly overweight, or obese. Men tend to be overweight; women, obese. Israeli Arabs are fatter than Israeli Jews. Partly, this reflects a preference for larger women in Arab society, but it's also the paradoxical result of poverty: In developed societies being fat is associated with being poor.

That may be changing. Obesity is America is growing fastest among those making more than $60,000 a year.

For many of us, the day after Pessah signaled the dawn of yet another Sisyphean effort to lose weight. Yet for all the chatter about obesity - blame it on metabolism, social class, emotions, genetics, lack of exercise - whatever, according to The Merck Manual its actual cause 'is unknown, [though] the mechanism is simple - consuming more calories than are expended.'

Some blame the financially gluttonous purveyors of addictive junk food for the fat epidemic. Take Hardee's, a McDonald's wannabe, which markets a 'Monster Thickburger' packing 1,420 calories. Critics label such processed meals 'food porn.' But by the time you realize how ghastly processed foods are for you, it's too late. You're hooked.

NOW, I could join a class-action suit against companies which produce addictive foods - maybe go after Heinz over my craving for their scrumptious, sugar-saturated, condiment. But that would be like saying I have no free will. And, whatever my weaknesses, I take personal responsibility over what goes into my mouth.

Then there's an outfit called the Center for Consumer Freedom, which has been placing full-page advertisements in major US newspapers warning that the common man is being 'force-fed a steady diet of obesity myths by the 'food police,' trial lawyers, and even the American government.' The campaign is being orchestrated by Richard Berman, a Washington lobbyist for Big Food, Big Restaurants and Big Tobacco. Berman recently told The Washington Post that 'junk science, intimidation tactics, and even threats of violence' are being used to push an 'extremist' food agenda.

Maybe Berman is a follower of economist Milton Friedman, who commented back in 1974: 'Do corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible? My answer to that is, no they do not.'

But it strikes me that there's a third way between 'junk science' and 'food porn.' People have a personal responsibility to resist Monster Thickburgers. And corporations have an ethical responsibility not to market damaging foods.

And whether out of altruism or pragmatism, the good news on the corporate front, at least in America, was Kraft's announcement back in January that it would stop advertising addictive snacks to children. And other US companies are promising to remove harmful trans fats, added in processing to promote shelf life, from their products. Unfortunately, Big Food in Israel has made no similar moves. Only now is there talk in government circles about listing trans fats on product ingredient labels.

Myself, I'm not waiting for government or industry to get off their fat asses. For the past six months I've been on Arthur Agatston's South Beach Diet, which emphasizes breaking sugar addiction. I've learned to pick foods low on the glycemic food index so my blood sugar level doesn't fall too rapidly (making me famished). Generally speaking, Agatston advocates keeping away from processed foods, white bread, white rice, potatoes, pasta and corn.

I'm not pushing South Beach - though I've lost 10 kilos. Anyone with a weight problem should do what works for them, such as checking out the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recently issued by the US government. These emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk, as well as the avoidance of trans fats and added sugars.

During Pessah, I cheated. It's almost impossible not to.

But I am back on the wagon, Sidney.

– From a May 2, 2005 Jerusalem Post column

Louis Farrakhan, the Jews & "Middlesex"

Unrepentant bigot


In his brilliant epic Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides tells the story of a white swindler, Jimmy Zizmo, who poses as the light-skinned black 'prophet' Fard Muhammad. It is during the Depression, and Zizmo has established a cult among Detroit's downtrodden Negroes. But after he dupes some of them into conducting a human sacrifice, and with the FBI on his tail, Fard/Zizmo mysteriously disappears, leaving Calliope, the novel's central character, to declare: 'My maternal grandfather returned to the nowhere from which he'd come.'

The nonfiction account of the Nation of Islam's founding is even wackier. It is the spring of 1931 and Elijah Poole is recovering from yet another drunken stupor. His long-suffering wife, Clara, brings home the 'real' Jimmy Zizmo, an inspirational 'Muslim' preacher who calls himself Master Wallace D. Fard. 'I know you think I'm white,' Fard tells Poole, 'but I'm not. I have come to save [black America].'

Fard explains that he's assumed the appearance of a Caucasian to spy on the white man, and instructs Poole on the fundamentals of NOI theology: Caucasians are 'human devils,' inferior to blacks. The white race is the result of a gene-manipulation experiment gone awry, conducted by a black scientist named Yakub 6,000 years ago. Everything the white man does is rooted in 'trickology' - deception.

In 1933, before the 'real' Fard disappears, he urges Poole to study Henry Ford's anti-Semitic diatribes and the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, as well as the Bible and Koran. Armed with this knowledge Poole, now known as Elijah Muhammad, reinvigorates the cult. He eventually converts Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Malcolm Little (Malcolm X) and the charismatic calypso balladeer, Louis 'the Charmer' Walcott.

When Muhammad died in 1975, Walcott - now known as Minister Louis Farrakhan - took charge of the cult. And over the past 30 years this talented demagogue has become black America's paramount leader.

No one but Farrakhan can bring a million African-Americans into the streets; no one but Farrakhan commands instant respect among the black masses; and no one but Farrakhan is held in such esteem that neither the inanity of his theology nor his long trail of xenophobic vitriol can scare away mainstream black politicians and pastors - or even, for that matter, Bill Clinton.

Forget the negatives, his defenders say; focus on Farrakhan's positive messages of black self-help. Indeed, a dysfunctional black America needs all the help it can get. As The New York Times's Brent Staples wrote last week: 'African-American teenagers are beset... by dangerous myths about race. The most poisonous one defines middle-class normalcy and achievement as 'white,' while embracing violence, illiteracy and drug dealing as 'authentically black.'

It is within this toxic environment that Farrakhan has been tirelessly preaching abstinence, family values and responsibility. Precisely, I think, because he laces these messages with chauvinism, racial supremacy and Jew-hatred, his movement has achieved an unheard-of level of legitimacy in black America - where 30 percent of the population is contaminated by classical anti-Semitism.

On May 2 Farrakhan was back in the limelight - he'd been sidelined by cancer and acute back pain - holding a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington to announce a 'Millions More Movement,' a march on Washington set for October 14-16 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first Million Man March.

Farrakhan grows increasingly savvy with age. But even with a cleaned-up act his attitude toward Jews comes across. He told a February gathering: 'Listen, Jewish people don't have no hands that are free of the blood of us. They owned slave ships, they bought and sold us. They raped and robbed us. If you can't face that, why you gonna condemn me for showing you your past, how then can you atone and repent if somebody don't open the book with courage - you don't have that - but I'll be damned, I got it.'

AMERICAN JEWRY faces a dilemma: Should Jewish organizations urge mainstream African-American leaders to dissociate themselves from the October march on the grounds that it is spearheaded by an unrepentant bigot, or should they keep shtum since black leaders won't be deterred anyway and Farrakhan will only feed off Jewish opposition?

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, a man whose thinking I respect, cautioned me not to get too worked up about Farrakhan - 'I detect a certain been-there-done-that flavor to this new event' he wrote in an email exchange. Page also challenged my assessment that Farrakhan is the paramount black leader: 'Black Americans are getting past their 'Black Moses syndrome,' in which we long for another Martin Luther King.' Farrakhan 'still has rap-star charisma among young black males,' Page says, but 'anti-Semitism has never been Farrakhan's major draw' and attacking him only wins him sympathy.

Among the black leaders who turned out for the Farrakhan news conference were: Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams and Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women. Not present, but reportedly backing the event, were Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's delegate in Congress and NAACP chairman Julian Bond, as well as Coretta Scott King, widow of Rev. Martin Luther King.

Referring obliquely to the Jewish community, Farrakhan told the gathering: 'There are those who... are threatened that we are all here together. And so, one by one, they will come to pick us off.'

But the presence of Farrakhan's co-organizer and, some suggest, heir-apparent, Malik Zulu Shabazz, sent an even more sinister message. At a July 2003 news conference, Shabazz declared: 'If 3,000 people perished in the World Trade Center attacks and the Jewish population is 10 percent, you show me records of 300 Jewish people dying in the World Trade Center... We're daring anyone to dispute this truth. They got their people out.'

In advance of the press club announcement, the ADL's Abe Foxman sent letters to black leaders, imploring: 'When will someone in the African-American community stand up and say the Million Man March has a positive message but the pied piper is a racist and anti-Semite?' Merely asking that question strikes rap impresario and black power broker Russell Simmons, who dialogues with liberal rabbis and does big business with Jewish and Israeli Hollywood, as 'disrespectful' and likely to 'spread anti-Semitism.'

'A few days ago,' Simmons announced, 'I personally witnessed [Farrakhan] affirm, 'A Muslim cannot hate a Jew. We are all members of the family of Abraham and all of us should maintain dialogue and mutual respect.''

It's not easy to find a Jewish macher willing to publicly address the Farrakhan dilemma - or criticize Foxman for his confrontational approach. But Rabbi David Saperstein, of Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center - who seems to reflect the dominant Jewish line - did tell me that public criticism of Farrakhan is counterproductive.

His is not a position easily dismissed. Let's face it: Protesting is unlikely to change any minds, and is certain to antagonize. So I went to see Foxman, who happened to be in Jerusalem last week. He has been in his current job for 18 years and with ADL since 1965. Foxman, who survived Hitler's war against the Jews, sheltered by a Polish Christian nursemaid, is not a man riddled with self-doubt.

He has zero tolerance for racism, calling it 'a sad, sad commentary that the only pied piper African-Americans have is somebody so infected with Jew-hatred.' And it is the Jews' decade-long failure to get this message across to the black leadership that has allowed anti-Semitism to fester.

Tactically, he realizes that speaking up gives Farrakhan more prominence, but for Foxman that's beside the point. He isn't telling blacks not to march or calling for a Jewish counter-demonstration, but he won't airbrush out Louis Farrakhan's racism.

It's a tough call. Our challenge is to decide whether Jews' experience with a fruitcake Austrian painter has anything to teach us about the rantings of a black American calypso performer.

–From a May 16 column in The Jerusalem Post

Ultra-Orthodox Jews

American haredi triumph


By May 1912 the idea that European Jewish life should be governed by Halacha had been under assault for some 200 years; first by the Enlightenment, then by Emancipation, next by the birth of Reform Judaism and finally by political Zionism. Modernity - defined by historian Paul Johnson as the end of absolute right and wrong and the birth of moral relativism - had dawned.

Still, I wonder what impelled a group of German, Hungarian and Polish-Lithuanian rabbis to gather in Kattowitz, a town east of Krakow near what is today the Czech border, precisely 93 years ago this month to establish Agudat Israel.

The holy men, both hassidim and mitnagdim, united by their opposition to the liberal Jewish response to modernity, put aside their own differences. They set up a supreme religious authority, the Council of Torah Sages, and hunkered down. Faced with undermining societal threats within Europe and the seductive allure of emigration to a 'Godless' America, the rabbis could not have been sanguine about the future prospects for ultra-Orthodox or haredi Judaism.

And then things got worse. The rise of Nazism left some haredi luminaries, such as rabbis Aaron Kotler and Abraham Kalmanowitz, no choice but to abandon the Old World for the goldene medina.

So in 1939, the year Joe DiMaggio led the American League with a .381 batting average and Manhattan's Sixth Avenue elevated subway was being torn down, the American branch of Aguda was established. The organization united hassidic tzadikim, the yekke Breuer community in Washington Heights and pious mitnagdim.

The American ultra-Orthodox establishment was up and running. But who would have imagined it would get very far? The societal threats faced by European Orthodoxy must have seemed trivial compared to what the Old World rabbis were up against now: a welcome mat to American decadence.

And, yet Aguda proved remarkably adaptive, establishing yeshivot for boys and girls as well as seminaries for rabbinical students. Politically, the Nazi menace caused the movement to shift from being singlemindedly anti-Zionist to pragmatically non-Zionist. While some fanatics rebelled to create the Neturei Karta sect, in Israel an Agudat Yisrael Party has competed (and won) seats in every Knesset; and American Agudath, only loosely affiliated with the movement in Israel, is staunchly supportive of Israeli security.

The Aguda world - here and in the US - has steadfastly adhered to roughly the same reactionary theological, societal and political worldview it first articulated 93 years ago. No to acculturation; no to non-halachic Reform Judaism; no to Masorti's efforts to harmonize Halacha with modernity; mostly no to a secular higher education, and no to political Zionism.

Of course changing times have brought new 'nos': no to homosexual unions; no to the Internet (you won't find an Aguda Web site, nor will the movement give an imprimatur to home use of the Internet); no to doctor-assisted suicide, and no to the egalitarian participation of women in Judaism.

While US Agudath is purely an advocacy group representing mitnaged, yeshivishe and hassidic movements (though not Chabad or Satmar) under the direction of an eight-member Council of Torah Sages chaired by the Novominsker Rebbe, Yaakov Perlow, in Israel Aguda is a political party with its own Council of Torah Sages. A schism with the mitnagdim led them to form a separate Degel Hatorah Party; however, together with Aguda's hassidim they campaign under the United Torah Judaism ticket and have five seats in the current Knesset.

Aguda's constituency tends not to serve in the IDF (because it would expose their boys and girls to alternative lifestyles); young males tend not to work, and families tend to be dependent on government subsidies and charity. Aguda haredim here are fragmented over ethnicity and ritual. They oppose the political messianism of national-religious extremists, but that does not win them any points with the country's secular majority.

AMERICAN HAREDIM are far better integrated into the Jewish mainstream. There's no love lost between them and the more liberal streams, but, on the bright side, there are no theological differences within American Orthodoxy. What most distinguishes Agudath types from the OU and Young Israel crowd is the haredi emphasis on living life - geographically, linguistically and culturally - as separately as possible from the majority; the more inward-looking, the more haredi.

When Agudath's Rabbi Avi Safran recently denounced the biased portrayal of Orthodoxy on the popular American television program Grey's Anatomy, his arguments were based not on personal observation - he doesn't own a television - but on the complaints of non-haredim.

Yet not only have American haredim not gone the way of the dodo, their lifestyle is thriving. Haredi rabbis easily fill Madison Square Garden for religious revivals; their scholarship dominates Orthodoxy; their Artscroll publications set Orthodoxy's liturgical direction; and the stringent haredi approach to ritual has largely become the Orthodox norm.

What's more, American haredim have managed to thrive with minimal government aid to their yeshivot, with only a handful of elected politicians, and with most of their young men in the workforce. Because they pay their taxes and go to work no one but the most closed-minded or self-hating bigot can call US haredim 'parasites.'

It is a healthy haredi lifestyle that has taken root in America, one that balances steadfast commitment to religious ultra-conservatism with dutiful responsibility to the wider society. Haredi America is raising a future generation of accountants, lawyers, physicians and businesspeople - many of them also Torah scholars.

Paradoxically, and by contrast, 'our' haredim here, operating in a Jewish political and social milieu, have failed to calibrate the May 1912 Aguda platform to meet the needs of modernity. Why? Because Israel's political system fosters a partisan rigidity, where splinter groups vie for a piece of the loser-takes-something pie.

That haredim here operate in an environment of secular nihilism further complicates matters. A cute Puerto Rican girl wearing a provocative outfit on the F train is no great peril to haredi values. A cute secular Jewess similarly clad on Jerusalem's No. 4 Egged bus is an entirely different matter. When Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman warned back in 1937 that 'The Jewish state is our greatest woe' my hunch is that's what he meant.

American Agudath is a success story. With government support it operates a network of social service centers and a lobbying office on Capitol Hill. It has achieved entree to the White House. American haredim have earned the respect of even those who reject their theological worldview.

Those rabbis gathered in Kattowitz could not have been unaware that, as they were meeting, the first investigatory reports on the April 15 sinking of the Titanic were being issued. I'd like to believe that today's Torah sages are not unaware of the disaster that awaits haredi Israel if it does not rethink its response to modernity. I'd recommend along American haredi lines.

– From a May 30, 2005 Jerusalem Post column


India is the interest


Last Tuesday North Korea supposedly agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. The headline writers were all upbeat: 'North Korea signs pact on nuclear arms' (The Age, Australia), 'North Korea agrees to scrap nuclear weapons program,' (Bloomberg). And, from Reuters, a change of pace: 'Reclusive North Korea opens door to US tourists.'

The only dark cloud was an AP report the next day out of Seoul headlined: 'N. Korea accuses US of plotting attack' and warning that Pyongyang is 'fully ready' to respond with a 'strong retaliatory blow.'

That's the thing about headline writers - they cannot help focusing on big-picture breakthroughs, trusting the reader to plough through the fine print for a more comprehensive account.

Then there was the hoopla surrounding the Israel-Pakistan rapprochement, which culminated with President Pervez Musharraf's widely-heralded September 15 speech before a Jewish audience in New York City: 'A historic event,' (The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles), 'Pakistan pledges Israel ties,' (Totally and 'Pakistan may open Israel embassies' (The New York Sun).

But The Jerusalem Post got the tone just right: 'Musharraf: Israel must leave West Bank soon - Pakistan president tells 'Post' he has no timetable for ties with Israel.'

Over the weekend many analysts had sufficiently deconstructed Musharraf's speech to point out that there would be no embassies, diplomatic relations or exchange of tourists anytime soon.

Indeed, as the ADL's feisty Abraham Foxman put it, bluntly: 'What have we achieved? In [Musharraf's] world, in his culture, this is a major step. From our perspective it isn't.'

Still, Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress and a key player in helping to make the Musharraf connection, told The New York Jewish Week: 'We couldn't have expected him to become a Zionist Saturday night. It takes time.'

Well, while Jack Rosen waits for Musharraf's Zionist tendencies to bloom, we should pray this ephemeral infatuation of ours does not derail the relationship Israel has already established - with India.

I'M DUBIOUS of the claim by Khursheed Kasuri, Pakistan's foreign minister, that his country attached such 'great importance' to disengagement that it 'decided to engage Israel.' Everyone knows there have been on-and-off back-channel talks between Israel and Pakistan. Disengagement is a convenient peg, but something else had to explain Musharraf's willingness to go public just now and allow his foreign minister to publicly meet with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, shake hands with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in an orchestrated 'chance meeting' at the UN and make the Big Speech before the AJCongress audience.

Here's my suspicion: The object of Islamabad's affection is not Jerusalem, but Washington. Pakistan has come under increasing criticism for its handling of the American-led war against Islamist terrorism inside Afghanistan. People in Washington are wondering just how on-board Pakistan really is.

While the Pakistani leadership continues to maintain ties with the Taliban insurgency, it seems genuinely committed to fighting al-Qaida. Still, there are suspicions that the last thing Islamabad wants is to actually capture Osama bin Laden. He's probably hiding in Pakistan's mountainous border region with Afghanistan. Were OBL captured, there would be less justification for continued US economic aid (to the tune of $3 billion a year) to the military regime in Islamabad.

So in this context, a public flirtation with Israel is good for Pakistan's image. It buys Musharraf time with an impatient Congress and administration.

Secondly, with India and the US growing increasingly closer - including joint military exercises - Pakistan hopes to play its American Jewish card to hinder ties between Washington and New Delhi.

Can Israel's friends in Washington be so easily co-opted? In a word, yes.

India and America have already had a row over Iran. Congressman Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to have served in Congress, says he's infuriated by a recent visit to Teheran by Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and the possibility that New Delhi and the mullahs are cooperating on nuclear weapons.

But analysts of India-Iran relations insist there is no nuclear cooperation. They say that India simply needs to get on with Iran, if for no other reason than because 80 percent of India's oil comes from Iran. And India has the largest non-Arab Shi'ite population outside Iran, so there is a good domestic reason for keeping relations with Teheran on an even keel. Finally, Iran is an important transit country for Indian goods (which can't pass through Pakistan).

And then there's this minor detail: Pakistan, not India, helped boost Iran's nuclear ambitions. It was A.Q. Khan, father of Islamabad's nuclear program, who supplied deadly technology to the regime in Teheran.

I'M NOT arguing that good ties with Pakistan are undesirable; of course they're a good thing. In fact, I doubt the Indians themselves would be bothered if Israel and Pakistan had normal diplomatic relations; many countries have ties with both states. But as we cozy up to Pakistan we have every reason to be mindful of India's sensitivities.

New Delhi granted Israel recognition in 1950; we've had a consular presence in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, since 1952 (and a visit by Moshe Dayan back in 1978 broke the ice a bit more).

Relations took off in 1992 when Israel and India established full diplomatic relations. And boy, did they take off. The total turnover in trade between our two countries stands at a staggering $2.8 billion a year. I'm told Israel's annual 'trade' with Pakistan stands at about $6,000. India is Israel's ninth largest trading partner (and second largest in Asia). In the first six months of 2005, India-Israel trade increased by 23.5%.

Both countries have put up $1 million each to foster bilateral economic development. India goes out of its way to attract Israeli business. And our connection with India goes beyond a buy-sell relationship. Joint R&D projects are flourishing.

There is also a robust, and mutually beneficial, defense relationship. And as the Post's diplomatic correspondent, Herb Keinon, pointed out in a September 1 analysis piece, Israel is a key arms supplier to New Delhi.

Then there is the cultural connection: 70,000 Jews of Indian ancestry live in Israel and tens of thousands of young Israelis trek to India after army service to decompress and broaden their horizons.

THE MORE you compare India and Pakistan, the more obvious it becomes that we must not jeopardize our valuable relationship with the former out of ineptitude or arrogance.

India is a genuine multicultural democracy: Its president, and father of its nuclear program, is a Muslim. To date, not a single Indian Muslim has been implicated in Islamist violence.

Pakistan, in contrast, is completely controlled by its military junta. Not much - not even 'spontaneous' burnings of Israeli flags - happens without the army's acquiescence.

India is home to more than a billion people; Pakistan's population is 162 million. India's GDP is something like $3.319 trillion; Pakistan's $347.3 million.

With all that, a cultural gulf separates our two ancient peoples, Jews and Indians. I wish, for example, that India more fully appreciated the genuinely non-colonial nature of the Jewish national liberation struggle. But the relationship is on the right track.

IN MARCH 1848 Lord Palmerston told the British House of Commons: 'We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.'

That's the way nation-states operate. But it's an approach that requires wisdom in accurately identifying the national interest, and diplomatic skill in calibrating between competing ones.

So while headline writers can get away with a degree of hyperbole, those who conduct Israeli foreign policy need to cautiously weigh their actions and make sure, among other things, that India knows how much we prize our bilateral connection.

– From a September 26, 2005 column in The Jerusalem Post


No way out? America in Iraq


While the attention of Iraq-watchers was focused on the opening day of Saddam Hussein's trial, at about the same time, 10,000 kilometers away, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill. She was outlining, perhaps for the first time, the Bush administration's strategy for 'victory' there.

The strategy is to clear out 'the toughest places' so the enemy finds no sanctuary, and 'to disrupt foreign support for the insurgents.' Continued Rice: 'We are working to hold and steadily enlarge the secure areas, integrating political and economic outreach with our military operations... to build truly national institutions by working with more capable provincial and local authorities.'

There's nothing wrong with this strategy; but with a mere 150,000 troops on the ground to control a violent, 432,000-sq. km. country of 26 million people, you don't have to be Sun Tzu to figure out that this approach probably comes too late.

To understand just how bad things are, listen to the good news. Rice told the senators that compared to last year, 'security along the once-notorious airport road in Baghdad has measurably improved.'

Measurably, noch. You also don't have to be a Saddam-loving, antiwar-marching, Israel-bashing anarchist to recognize that 'victory' is not an option.

The idea of attacking Iraq in the wake of 9/11 (2001) was hardly a bright one from the get-go. Saddam Hussein wasn't behind Osama bin Laden, and thus attacking Iraq was a mindless, unforgivable distraction, one that made it possible for the Islamist menace to metastasize further.

Iraq is – always was – the wrong war in the wrong place, led by a man who does not read papers or watch TV news.

Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, despite the fact that the administration had 'no doubt' he did. Nor will America bring democracy to Iraq, because Western notions of representative government, pluralism and respect for minorities are culturally alien to the Middle East.

IN THE onslaught of Iraqi-datelined news it's useful to step back and gain perspective. The war was launched in March 2003. On April 9, Saddam's 20-foot statue in Baghdad was brought down. The next day, Ken Adelman, one of the neoconservative advocates of the war, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post gloating that prognostications about Iraq being a 'cakewalk' had proved accurate after all. On May 1, wearing a flight suit, Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to declare: 'Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.'

That month the US also made what is now widely recognized as the biggest mistake of the war. Rather than co-opt or rehabilitate them, the occupation authorities disbanded the Iraqi army and dismissed Ba'athist civil servants. Many are today the backbone of the 'insurgency.'

On December 13, 2003 US forces captured Saddam. The Iraqi Interim Government was formed in June 2004. In January 2005, Iraqis voted to elect a 275-member Transitional National Assembly. Last Saturday Iraqis held a referendum to approve a new constitution crafted by that assembly. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December.

The day after a new Iraqi government is formed, and without fanfare, US forces should be withdrawn over a period of, say, 12 months.

Granted, it's possible that without US troops Iraq might disintegrate. It could become a haven for Islamic fundamentalism; a bloodbath could ensue, pitting the Shi'ite majority against the Sunni minority. And if all that happened, America would lose face - what's left of it - in the Arab world.

Which is why Rice warned the senators: 'The terrorists want us to get discouraged and quit. They believe we do not have the will to see this through.' But her boss never prepared the American people 'to see this through.' And he no longer has the credibility to do so.

Most Americans have given up on the war. In the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll, 61 percent said they disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq. Only belatedly has Bush even begun to describe the foe for what it is: a warped civilization, as opposed to a tactic ('terrorism').

IF IRAQ disintegrates into Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni statelets, so be it. America (and Israel) owe only the Kurds, in the north, a second thought. They can be adequately protected (as they were) by a US-enforced 'no-fly zone' and by other Western military and diplomatic backing. There is nothing wrong with helping people who want to be helped and have demonstrated a capacity for helping themselves.

And if the Shi'ite and Sunni parts explode, wake me up when it's over. Expect the tactical alliance between the Sunni (secular) Saddamites and the Sunni (Islamist) Zarqawites to unravel. The rival - and majority - Shi'ite factions led by Moqtada al-Sadr, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim may have their own intramural scores to settle, when they're not busy fighting the minority Sunnis. All this internecine conflict just might complicate life for the mullahs in Persian Iran.

So rather than become a haven for Islamic fundamentalism, Iraq could well become a quagmire for the various Muslim factions: one big Islamist Roach Motel. Call me pitiless, but if Muslim Arabs want to murder each other, that's a problem for the Arab League and the Islamic Conference, not the West.

And if we are pleasantly surprised - if modernizing elites inside Iraq pull together, prevail over the Saddamite and Islamist beasts and, using newly created institutions and structures (parliament, elections, constitution), develop a workable federalist Iraq - no one will be happier than I.

Meanwhile, Israelis who wish America well should not want to see it bogged down in an Iraqi quagmire.

Perhaps the larger lesson of the Iraqi boondoggle is that the war against Islamist fascism was much too serious to be left in the hands of this administration. The next one will have to do better.

– From an October 24, 2005 column in "The Jerusalem Post"

Vikram Seth & the Jews

Dear Vikram Seth


Years ago, following the advice of a mentor, I stopped feeling guilty about all the books I wasn't reading. 'Life is short,' he told me. 'At best you can read a book every two weeks – 26 books a year, maybe. And that's it – for your entire life, so you have to make tough choices.'

Since I can't even manage one book every two weeks, I've had to make some extremely harsh choices. Of course, once you've read the complete works of demised authors Fletcher Knebel and Ben Hecht, for instance, you don't have to worry about keeping up. As for those writers still living, I make sure to read anything new by favorites such as Tom Wolfe, Robert D. Kaplan, John LeCarre, Robert Littell and Caleb Carr.

Over the years, however, I've discovered that some of my favorites have fatal flaws. Most upsetting is when a much-loved writer turns out to be an anti-Semite, anti- Zionist or self-hating Jew.

You, dear Vikram Seth, are none of those.

I got immense pleasure from reading your latest, most personal and pensive book, "Two Lives," which I bought in London over Rosh Hashana. I've now read three of your works: "Two Lives," "A Suitable Boy " and "An Equal Music." You are the least predictable or formulaic of my favorites. Much of the little that I know about India - as well as my eagerness to visit there - comes from "A Suitable Boy." I so raved about "An Equal Music" that a friend bought me the soundtrack (to the book!) for my birthday. And I am giving "Two Lives" to my father-in-law for his 81st birthday.

Telling this touching, extraordinary story - of your great uncle Shanti Seth and your great aunt, the love of his life, the assimilated German Jewess Henny Caro - affords you the occasion to ruminate about the Big Issues of the 20th century: the Holocaust, Nazism, communism, and Zionism/the creation of the State of Israel.

Disappointingly, "Two Lives" adheres to the faddish views that are all the rage on the Euro-Left. You don't seem to question your British, upper-crust Indian, cosmopolitan upbringing - one which offers no frame of reference for, and therefore misunderstands, Jewish civilization.

Writing from the vantage point of a non-practicing, Hindu-born, British-educated, German-speaking Renaissance man, you are naturally influenced by the post-modernist, relativist ambiance of your background.

You have much to teach me about India, and even about pre-WWII German Jewish life, as well as postwar Britain and Germany. Your portrayal of Henny and Shanti's relationship is engrossing, and I was greatly impressed by their courage as individuals - and by yours in portraying them as fully rounded, complex personalities.

However, I respectfully suggest that you still have much to learn about the complexity of Jewish civilization.

YOU WRITE: 'Partly as a result of writing this book, so much of which deals with the question of Jewishness, I have tried to work out my own views on that most salient manifestation of postwar history, the Jewish state.'

Like many a Guardian or Independent reader, you are uneasy about the Jews having carved out their state at Palestinian-Arab expense. 'The eviction over the decades since 1948 of yet more Palestinians from their land, the building of Jewish settlements in the West BankÉ the massacres in the refugee camps under Israeli military control during the Lebanon operations of 1982, the construction of the boundary fence and wall incorporating still more Palestinian land, the assassination of Palestinian leaders, the repeated siege of cities, the razing of entire streets and colonies of houses and the regular humiliation of Palestinian civilians by Israeli troops paint a picture of terror, injustice and arbitrariness either sanctioned or not greatly opposed by the state.'

That's some Bill of Particulars. It reflects so deep, so profound a misreading of existential Jewish reality, so all-embracing an acceptance of the Arab narrative, that its annihilationist conclusions are implicit: We subjugated Jews became Zionists because of European oppression. We then usurped Arab land; oppressed Palestinian-Arabs to retain it, ergo we must go.

YOUR SANCTIMONIOUS analysis reminds me of Richard Grenier's angry and infinitely memorable movie review of the Ben Kingsley film Gandhi in the March 1983 Commentary. 'ÉI feel all Jews sitting emotionally at the movie Gandhi should be apprised of the advice that the Mahatma offered their coreligionists when faced with the Nazi peril: they should commit collective suicideÉ Gandhi was convincedÉ their moral triumph would be remembered for 'ages to come.''

Just as the movie was no place to learn about the real Ghandi, so too "Two Lives" offers a painfully distorted view of the Arab-Israel conflict.

Like you, Gandhi sympathizes with the Jews but stands with the Muslims. In a letter entitled 'The Jews in Palestine 1938,' he expresses understanding for the Jews but, in doing so, exposes his total inability to grasp the very essence of Jewish civilization when he concludes: 'Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.'

He goes on to argue: 'The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. ... Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?'

IN RESPONSE to that, and to your own tunnel-vision perceptions about Israel and Jewish civilization, let me quote Two Lives back at you: 'Once, at the dining-table when Uncle, Aunty and I were together and they had a heated argument about something or other, I even heard Uncle say, astonishingly, 'Hitler had the right idea,' in order to irk her. And that is what it did: it irked, rather than infuriated her, and her reaction had been to click her tongue and say dismissively, 'Ach, Shanti, don't talk nonsense.''

Ach, Vikram Seth, don't write nonsense about Israel. What good is your sympathy for our Holocaust dead if you have so little empathy for those of us struggling not to join them?


When your guru has feet of clay


The death on September 25 of M. Scott Peck, the psychiatrist who wrote "The Road Less Traveled," barely registered with most Anglo-Israelis. Maybe it was because he died just before the hectic Rosh Hashana period; or possibly no one remembered that Peck essentially created the self-help genre back in 1978.

I belatedly stumbled upon "The Road Less Traveled" in late 1997, at a Jerusalem used-book shop, at a time when my own life was in upheaval. The irony was that I had previously pooh-poohed the self-help 'movement' as being largely shallow and self-indulgent. Still, just as there are no atheists in foxholes, the need to confront spirituality and grow up (regardless of age) can intrude in our lives, uninvited.

Besides, Peck's work was inimitable. His teachings can be summed up in his opening line: 'Life is difficult.' This may sound banal but, as Peck explains, it's because we invest ourselves in escaping from life's intrinsic sufferings – in all the wrong ways – that we end up weighed down by layers of neurosis. And because Peck made no distinction between the mind and the spirit, 'between the process of achieving spiritual growth and achieving mental growth' he concluded that refusing to engage God was just another form of counterproductive pain avoidance.

It was only after he died that I read how Peck's secular father (with whom he had a difficult relationship) had been in denial about being half-Jewish.

The precocious Morgan Scott Peck attended a Quaker school in New York, became a Zen Buddhist at 18, and wound up as a US army psychiatrist during the Vietnam War. He began working as a private psychiatrist in Connecticut and, in 1976, was stirred to start writing "The Road Less Traveled."

Though the book dabbles in Buddhist and Christian theology it is essentially a non-sectarian work which propagates values essentially in harmony with mainstream Judaism. How far, after all, is 'Life is difficult' from 'Es is schwer tsu zein a Yid'?

The book argues for delaying gratification, for accepting responsibility, for dedication to truth, and for 'balancing' (knowing when to compromise). It calls for a distinction between 'genuine' and romantic love, and teaches that discipline is the road to spiritual growth.

BUT PECK also made pantheistic and Christological claims that are not in harmony with rabbinic Judaism - about the immanent nature of God; about our unconscious being God; that each person is born in order that God might be a new life form; and about participating in God's 'agony.'

Yet the thing to remember about Peck is that by the time he died at age 69, his book had spent more than eight years on The New York Times bestseller list, so there was probably something there for seekers of all hues. Even if the book is theologically problematic it is still written in a voice one can only describe as saintly.

Not only did Peck's work offer individual lessons; there are also commonsense applications to the political realm. In Further Along the Road Less Traveled he argued: 'Virtually all of the evil in this world is committed by people who are absolutely certain they know what they're doing. It is not committed by people who think of themselves as confused. It is not committed by the poor in spirit.'

PECK WAS a spiritual thinker of the highest order - even for those, like me, who rejected huge chunks of his philosophy. And what a seeming breath of fresh air he was compared to the shabby holy men whose improprieties make news in Israel as they despoil Judaism for politics and profit.

Alas, the flesh-and-blood Peck was - in his own words - more prophet than saint. He was a womanizer - par for the course in the modern age, but striking for the fact that he dedicated his magnum opus to his wife, Lily, with: 'She has been so giving that it is hardly possible to distinguish her wisdom as a spouse, parent, psychotherapist, and person from my own.'

He also acknowledged being a poor father. Though he sermonized about discipline, he was a heavy gin drinker and a chain-smoker.

In an interview with Andrew Billen for the London "Times," Peck recalled: "A fellow who was thinking of doing my biography once asked me: 'God, man, have you ever denied yourself anything?' And I said: 'Well, I've never smoked or drunk as much as I would like to.' That's about as close as I could come.'"

His ecumenical offerings dwindled as, toward the end of his life, Peck became preoccupied with Satan and The Revelation. Death came from Parkinson's disease and cancer.

Peck's saga spotlights the age-old dilemma about whether seekers can and should separate the sermon from the sermonizer. Can we look beyond the bad things our spiritual pastors and political leaders do while embracing their work in the public sphere?

Adolescents can afford the luxury of dismissing hypocrisy in both the message and the messenger, but the more the rest of us travel along the difficult road of life, the more the world appears full of nuance and complexity.

– First published in the November 21, 2005 Jerusalem Post

Monday, December 12, 2005

Jerusalem Post Editorial, December 12

Unsafe passage

By signing -- under intense pressure from the Quartet -- the post-disengagement Rafah agreement on November 15 with the Palestinian Authority, Israel committed itself not only to an international crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border, but to facilitating the movement of goods and people between the Palestinian territories.

Specifically, Jerusalem promised that by December 15 it would allow bus convoys to transit Gaza and the West Bank. This is not the first time Israel has promised such “safe passage” to the PA. And it’s not the first time the PA has made it impossible to implement the arrangement.

Sure enough, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is having second thoughts about the Thursday deadline -- and for good reason. The daily prospect of some 1,800 Palestinians traversing between Gaza and the West Bank is worrisome in the context of the grim security situation and Israel’s sense that the PA is not living up to the spirit of Rafah.

Israel entered into the Rafah agreement with trepidation. But Washington’s arm-twisting convinced Jerusalem that cameras and computer data streams would give Israeli security personnel capability to monitor what was happening at the Gaza-Sinai crossing.

While the issue is disputed, Israel is convinced that the PA is foot-dragging by not providing the promised real-time flow, and that members of al-Qaida and other Islamist terror groups have been allowed to enter Gaza.

The agreement also requires the PA to prevent the movement of weapons and explosives into Gaza. Yet large amounts of these have flowed in from Sinai, at least before the crossing was formally opened. On Saturday, the IDF uncovered a tunnel near the northern Strip apparently intended for a terrorist infiltration. On Friday a navy patrol boat intercepted the third infiltration attempt by sea, in just 10 days, from Egypt to Gaza.

Part of the problem is the agreement itself -- which does not actually require the PA to stop any terrorist just because Israel insists it do so.

Then there is the overall environment. Can Israel abide by a paradoxical situation in which bus convoys of Palestinians traverse the country even as Palestinian missiles are being launched from Gaza, or as Palestinian attackers stab soldiers at checkpoints outside Jerusalem, or as suicide bombers slaughter shoppers lining up to enter a Netanya mall?

Sharon told US envoy David Welch that if the Palestinians persisted in their violent ways, Israel would not permit the bus convoys and would even cease tariff cooperation at the Karni and Erez crossings, forcing the PA to pay for goods shipped via Israel.

The US is having none of this. Having pressured Israel into a bad agreement in the first place, Washington now insists Jerusalem stick to it. It says Jerusalem is exaggerating Palestinian non-compliance; that the video and data issues are merely technical and anyway on the way to being solved.

The backdrop to the bus convoy issue is the Quartet’s creditable desire to improve the Palestinian economy. The thinking of the US, UN, EU and Russia is that popular frustration, and with it the appeal of Islamist terrorism, could be reduced by improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians.
The World Bank complains that Israel’s repeated closures have made it difficult for Palestinians to do business among themselves and with the outside world. The Bank argues that the Palestinian economy has not bounced back to its 1999 pre-intifada levels, and blames Israel. (In fact, according to its own data prepared in advance of a donors’ conference set for London in the coming days, unemployment in the Palestinian areas is down, to 22 percent in 2005, the gross national product is up and average income rose in 2005 by some 12%.)

But the Bank’s complaint is misdirected. Had the PA fulfilled its road map obligations and dismantled the terrorist infrastructure, the Palestinian economy and population would not be hampered by closures. Like the security fence and checkpoints, closures are self-inflicted by Palestinian violence.

Clearly, the Rafah agreement alone will not stop terrorists from entering Gaza. Israel is depending on its own and European moral suasion to do that. But the Palestinians must understand that the full implementation of the Rafah deal cannot occur in a vacuum, and the US ought to appreciate this, too. Convoys and Kassams cannot flow at the same time.

– December 12, 2005 (The Jerusalem Post)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Without my yarmulke

Caught Bareheaded

A kipa wearer since childhood makes the decision to go without


The thump to my skull came quick and hard. My Manhattan-bound “D” train had been idling in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park station waiting for the Franklin Avenue Shuttle to pull in, when a black youth snatched my yarmulke through an open window behind me just as the train doors closed.

That was the first time I found myself bareheaded – in public.

This mid-1970s memory came back to me a few months ago after I decided to stop being a full-time kipa wearer.

Frum from birth, I wore a yarmulke on the tough streets of the Lower East Side – mostly without thought, or choice, though sometimes defiantly in the face of nasty remarks from my Puerto Rican neighbors.

I continued to wear a kipa for the 23 years I worked in New York City government. I attended meetings on behalf of my agency in some of New York’s worst neighborhoods, wearing my yarmulke.

Only when I began adjunct teaching in New York area colleges, a part-time job I did after work, did I occasionally remove the yarmulke. I told myself that I wanted my students to concentrate on my lectures not my headgear.

It used to be you could fudge matters.

Prior to the 1960s, most men sported hats, like in old Humphrey Bogart movies. Now hats are passé. Still, plenty of Diaspora Jews wear caps of different kinds to enjoy a small degree of anonymity.

Granted there is also a trend in the opposite direction.

Never before – in New York and London – has ultra-Orthodox garb been more ubiquitous. And increasing numbers of non-haredi Orthodox Diaspora Jews are choosing to wear yarmulkes in public. Chalk that up to multiculturalism – acculturation is out, ethnic pride is in.

Had I remained in New York, especially if I had stayed in my old neighborhood, in my old job, inertia would have kept me from goings sans kipa.

Paradoxically, moving to Jerusalem liberated me from my kipa.

Still, it was awkward to go bareheaded the first few days. At work several people asked me what was going on? None got a straight answer. Mostly I made a joke and changed the subject.

SO WHY? “This above all: to thine own self be true,” wrote Shakespeare.

In my spiritual self, I am no longer Orthodox. So wearing a kipa is misleading. I don a kipa when I daven or have a significant meal and on Shabbat. That’s it. Not a perfect solution, but a solution of sorts.

Dropping the kipa is foremost a statement. I often feel God has hidden His face from me and keeping my kipa in my pocket is a form of jejune protest.

It is also belated rebellion against my spiritually wasted yeshiva years. And it is a silent protest against those in my orbit who defame God’s holy name by behaving badly with little thought to the yarmulkes on their heads.

My decision leaves me uneasy. In the Diaspora, yarmulkes are partly intended to identify Jews among gentiles. Here, they are more like bumper stickers. Israelis are defined by whether they wear a head covering or not, and by the style of their kipa – velvet and large for the ultra-Orthodox; knitted for the national-religious; endless variations for the in-between.

IN POST-BIBLICAL times, Jewish custom demanded men and women cover their hair: women for the sake of modesty, both sexes as a sign of God above. The Kizur Shulchan Aruch codified that “a man ought not walk four cubits” bareheaded because doing so “suggests overbearing pride, ignoring God’s omnipresence.”

By the 17th century, Jews made it a point of covering their heads in contradistinction to Christians, who even prayed bareheaded.

Rabbi Isaac Klein’s Guide to Jewish Religious Practice opens with the warning that “The theoretical approach to the regulations regarding the covering of the head will lead us to a controversial field.”

Klein instructs: “Thereare sources that make covering the head by a Jewish male a special practice of the pious, and there are sources indicating that it is mandatory for all.”

While he doesn’t say that going bareheaded is halachically acceptable, he also doesn’t explicitly forbid it.

Klein’s conservative Conservative position – the approach I now embrace – is to wear a kipa in shul, when davening or learning, when performing a ritual and when eating.

Losing the kipa has its complications. Does it seem I am aligning myself with those who don’t give the spiritual sphere a second thought – with Israel’s secular majority? It must seem so to some.

And what about the “D” train Jew-hater? Have I given him a post-facto victory?

I don’t think so.

I’ve cast my fate as solidly as I can with Jewish civilization by living in Eretz Ysiroel.

But what about God?

My hunch is – and it’s just that, because I don’t know God’s truth – the Creator isn’t bothered.

As Carl Jung pointed out, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”

(Originally published in Inside: Jewish Life & Style in Greater Philadelphia, Summer 2004)

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