Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Dalai Lama in Israel

The welcome presence in Israel of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and leader of the Tibetan people, reminds Israelis that we are not, after all, at the center of the universe; that there are political struggles, philosophical approaches and spiritual roads that have nothing to do with Jews, Israel, or the clash between Islamist medievalism and Western modernity.

Faced with a newly installed and Hamas-led Palestinian parliament a stone’s throw from our capital and menacing taunts from a Teheran just over the ballistic horizon, we Israelis could, perhaps, be forgiven for focusing mostly on our own existential dilemma.

The Tibetan struggle is not for independence from China, but for cultural autonomy. A vast, mountainous territory almost six times Israel’s size, Tibet lies at the crossroads of India, Nepal and China.

It was briefly independent in 1911 as a Buddhist theocracy. But when a Tibetan uprising inside China spread to Tibet itself in 1956, Beijing began to reassert control over the region. By 1959 China had crushed the Buddhist rebellion and occupied Tibet, forcing the young Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of his followers to flee to refuge in India, where they now reside. Today, thanks to Chinese policies, Tibetans are a minority in their own land.

Jews know something about preserving a unique civilization in exile, and about facing down an enemy against overwhelming odds. And Israelis feel a special affinity to the Tibetan cause; some are helping to establish The Tibet Museum in India.

The mere presence of the cleric here (it was his third visit) made the Chinese Embassy in Tel Aviv uncomfortable. Consequently, neither Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert nor President Moshe Katsav met with the Dalai Lama. This sensitivity – though arguably diplomatically prudent – is misplaced given the disregard Beijing has shown for Israel’s concerns over Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons; not to mention the support that we, as a democracy and a Jewish state, should be showing for the cause of human rights.

Charismatic and self-effacing – followers believe he is the manifestation, or “reincarnate,” of the Buddha – the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for anchoring his cause in non-violence. He argues, pragmatically, that in politics reason must triumph over emotion; that there is a distinction between an evil act and the one who carries it out; that today’s enemy has the potential to be tomorrow’s friend.

“How do you dialogue with a Hitler or a Stalin?” an Israeli reporter asked.

Replied the sage after a lengthy pause: “It is difficult. But then violent methods are even more disastrous.”

Yesterday, speaking before a reverent audience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Dalai Lama instructed that compassion does not mean surrender; that the talmudic principle “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man” has parallels in all the great religions; and that at the end of the day, non-violence is the only way forward for humanity.

So beyond sympathizing with the decency of a man who abhors harm to his adversary, and the apparent justice of Tibet’s cause, what can Israelis take away from this encounter?

More ancient than Buddhism, the Judaic tradition is remarkably pragmatic. It places virtually no stricture above life itself. It is the civilization that aspires to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision that “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.”

Yet alluring as the Dalai Lama’s message is, his is not the Jewish way. Facing an enemy that invented the suicide bomber’s belt, the response of unilateral pacifism would result in our annihilation. In place of an imperfect Israel, a violently reactionary Islamist regime would arise.
Still, even though the message of non-violence resonates only as a faint hope vis-a-vis the Arab and Muslim world, perhaps the presence of this “simple Buddhist monk” will at least remind Israelis of the way we should treat each other.

No matter how acrimonious our schisms, no matter how profoundly felt the alienation or how painful the hurt after Gaza and Amona, we must abhor intra-communal violence. We must invoke the memory of another teacher of non-violence, the Rev. Martin Luther King, who, when urged by black militants in 1966 to abandon his peaceful path, brushed them off, declaring: “I’m not going to use violence, no matter who says it.”

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Thank you Amira Hass

Were you as intrigued as I was by Amira Hass’s piece on Haaretz’s front page today (Sunday, February 12)?

It’s an item that ought to be read – carefully.

Hass – perhaps the country’s foremost pro-Palestinian, Israeli-born journalist – describes a closed-door meeting of the Quartet (the UN, US, EU & Russia) which took place on January 30 in London.

Also attending was former US president Jimmy Carter, in his capacity as having been a “senior” monitor of the Palestinian elections.

A quick aside. Years ago, I interviewed the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler in connection with research I was doing on his tenure as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations during the Carter years.

Schindler, a Reform rabbi and liberal Democrat, told me in no uncertain terms that Carter was the only president he would classify as an out-and-out Jew-hater. I’ve never forgotten that.

Back to London.

Carter used his Quartet guest appearance, according to Hass, to denounce Israeli policies and to criticize the US for coddling the Jewish state.

Then Carter urged the Quartet to open negotiations with Hamas. Hass does not tell us how Condoleezza Rice reacted.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavorov, Hass reports, also said a few nice words about Hamas.

One thing that emerges out of Hass’s description of the meeting is that the Quartet was (all along) far from united in backing Washington’s “no talk” stance on Hamas. Not just Russia, but Kofi Annan and the EU’s Javier Solana also wanted to go soft on Hamas.

What this illuminates for me is that all the anger at Putin because of his plans to invite Hamas to Moscow is wasted.

Pundits were asking why Russia was “breaking” with the Quartet, and speculating that Moscow wanted to re-establish the foothold in the region that the USSR once enjoyed. There’s something to that, perhaps.

But if Hass is right – Russia’s actions are in essential harmony with the Quartet’s view of Hamas.

If anyone is out of step with the “international community” it is Washington.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Prophet’s honor

The cartoon was disgracefully insensitive. It depicted a barbed wire Star of David in which innocent Palestinian men, women and children were trapped. By the time it appeared in the "Seattle Times" in July 2003, hundreds of Israeli civilians had been mercilessly slaughtered by Palestinian terrorists in what they call the “second intifada.”

But compared to what is typically found in the Arab press, cartoonist Tony Auth’s effrontery was fairly bland.

Arab political “humor” knows no bounds.

A cartoon in Qatar’s Al-Watan depicted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drinking from a goblet of Palestinian children’s blood. Another, in the Egyptian Al-Ahram al-Arabi showed him jackbooted, bloody-handed and crushing peace.

Arab cartoonists routinely demonize Jews as global conspirators, corrupters of society and blood-suckers. Just this Saturday, Britain’s Muslim Weekly published a caricature of a hooked-nose Jew – Ehud Olmert.

And it’s not just cartoons. During Ramadan 2002, an Egyptian satellite television channel broadcasted the multi-episode "Horseman Without a Horse" series based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion canard.

How did Israel and world Jewry respond? The Israeli embassy in Cairo filed a protest. A US student group held an orderly demonstration outside an Egyptian consulate, and Jewish leaders sent a strongly-worded letter to the Mubarak government.

Contrast this with the frenzied Muslim reaction to 12 cartoons, including one depicting the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban which appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten five months ago and was recently widely disseminated. It was intended, paradoxically, to satirize Muslim intolerance.

The cartoon “blasphemy” has generated bomb threats, armed takeovers and widespread desecration of the Danish flag. A Western cultural center was vandalized; Catholic aid workers were threatened. European observers at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai wisely stayed away from their posts.

Several Muslim states have recalled their ambassadors. There is talk of a Muslim trade boycott of Danish (and European) products. Mass protests are being held throughout the world. In London, marchers carried placards reading: “Massacre those who insult Islam” and “Freedom go to hell.” Protesters denounced the BBC for airing the cartoons during news broadcasts.

Things continue to deteriorate. In Damascus on Saturday rioters set fire to the building that houses the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish embassies. In Beirut yesterday the Danish embassy was set ablaze.

Official Western reaction has generally been to meet intolerance with remarkable sensitivity and understanding. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, while apologizing for the offense caused, sought to explain that his government doesn’t actually control what newspapers publish.

The Vatican condemned the cartoons as offensive; so did the US State Department (though the White House denounced subsequent anti-Western violence as “outrageous”).
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw counseled self-censorship: “There is freedom of speech... but... not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory.”

There are those who would argue that the controversy does not reflect a clash of civilizations. Yet it is precisely this persistent refusal to acknowledge the obvious that weakens the cause of tolerance and liberty. Must “understanding” invariably result in the abdication of Western values?

If anyone wants to appreciate why the West views with such suspicion the weapons programs of Muslim states such as Iran, they need look no further than the intolerance Muslim regimes exhibit to these cartoons, and what this portends.

No one wants to add fuel to the fire. Mobs are more easily placated than reasoned with. But once this controversy passes it will be valuable to determine just who exploited the flap to foment anti-Western outrage, and to inquire what “moderate” Muslim voices said.

One such voice, Jihad al-Momani, editor-in-chief of the Jordanian weekly Shihan, was arrested for republishing the cartoons (to show Arabs what they were protesting). In an accompanying editorial – which his staff subsequently repudiated – Momani wrote: “Who offends Islam more? A foreigner who draws the prophet... or a Muslim with an explosive belt who commits suicide in Amman or anywhere else?”

Globalism demands that points of contact between Islam and the West be multi-cultural havens, not flashpoints. For that to happen, tolerance must be a two-way street.

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