Wednesday, September 29, 2010

No Kudos to Castro

Castro's Conversion

I suppose for an entire generation, Fidel Castro is a harmless old baseball fan, and maybe a former principled Latin American revolutionary.

Forgotten is the fact that he tried to instigate a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States that would have cost millions of people their lives – though he's apologized for that, kind of.

And put aside that Castro deprived the people of Cuba of their liberty, tortured opponents and forced hundreds of thousands of Cubans into exile.

Realizing that his days on this earth are numbered and that he will soon go to meet Marx, he is in the process of rehabilitating his image.

And what better way to begin that process than by calling in a liberal Jewish American journalist (and an old Castro-hand, Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations) to have an extended conversation about Jews, Israel and Iran among other things.

The old dictator had read Goldberg's recent Atlantic article which argued – mistakenly in my view – that it was just a matter of time before Israel went to war against Iran to stop the mullahs from deploying atomic weapons.

Castro – now reinventing himself as some kind of humanist -- is all of a sudden worried about the danger of a nuclear conflagration.

So Castro drops Goldberg a couple of nuggets.

Does he think that Israel has a right to exist?

Uncle Fidel answers: "Si, sin ninguna duda" -- "Yes, without a doubt."

Gosh. I'm glad we got that out of the way.

And what about Jews, Goldberg asks? Does Uncle Fidel have a soft spot for Jews?

"I don't think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say much more than the Muslims. They have been slandered much more than the Muslims because they are blamed and slandered for everything. No one blames the Muslims for anything."

Not bad for a guy who kept equating Israelis with Nazis.

And what about Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial?

"The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust," Castro tells Goldberg.

Goldberg: "I asked him if he would tell Ahmadinejad what he was telling me."

Castro: "I am saying this so you can communicate it."

It gets better.

Now that Castro has dissented from Ahmadinejad, Goldberg reports that Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, has announced that he too, felt great "love and respect" for Jews."

Well, I suppose it's better than a slap in the face.

But let's get down to cases.

I do not like to see Castro air-brushing out the bad he has wrought. He's not getting a pass from me.

Castro is not an anti-Semite in the classical sense. Certainly, as a "dialectical materialist," he rejects Christian-rooted theological Jew-hatred. He admires Jews in history, most prominently Marx.

But his record of warfare – political, diplomatic, and military -- against the Jewish state is damning.

You can't want to snuff-out the Jewish state yet claim to love the Jews.

It would be like saying you love Muslims but want to destroy each and every one of the 57 Muslim states in the world because, maybe you think Islam is just a religion so Muslims don't deserve political states.

What follows is part of what Castro did against the Jewish state. And remember, he had no reason. Israel is on the other side of the world. We never did boo to him.

Castro began to train Palestinian Arab terrorists in Cuba in 1966. Keep in mind that there were no "occupied territories" in those days.

He did not break diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967 following the Six Day War along with the rest of the Soviet client states.

He did so only in the wake of 1973 Yom Kippur War at a solidarity with the Palestinians meeting of the so-called non-aligned nations in Algiers.

Cuban military instructors trained Palestinian Arabs gunmen in Middle East countries starting in the 1970s.

That's when the Palestinians patented airline hijacking, slaughtering Olympic athletes and leaving bombs in supermarkets.

You may think 9/11 was the start of the terror campaign against airports around the world. But it was the Palestinian terrorists who got that ball rolling.

Anyway, in 1973 and 1974, Cuban MiG and helicopter pilots were actually based in Syria. I think they even engaged in dogfights with Israeli planes.

Castro granted diplomatic relations to the Palestine Liberation Organization and in 1974 and allowed the PLO to establish an "embassy" in Havana.

Bear in mind that at this stage the PLO did not even claim to recognize Israel or to accept a two-state solution. Nowadays it at least makes believe it does.

But in those days it behaved like Hamas does today.

Still Castro extended his support to a movement dedicated to "liberating" Palestine from the Jews.

In 1974, he stationed a tank brigade on Golan Heights. That same year, as many as 3,000 Cuban soldiers were based in Syria working for Assad I.

This is what Castro said in 1975: "It is no secret to anyone that at any given moment of danger and threat to the Republic of Syria, our men were in Syria."

By 1976, the CIA estimated that 300 Arab fedayeen were training in Cuba.

In 1977, Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (an outfit set up to allow Christian-born Arabs who were Marxists to fight Israel alongside the Muslims) visited Cuba.

All along, mind you, Castro ostensibly claimed to support direct negotiations between parties.

In 1978, he hosted Yasser Arafat and George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Arafat's "state" visit to Havana was to discuss terror training not coexistence with Israel.

Fast forward to 1991: Cuba voted against a U.N. Resolution to revoke the infamous 1975 General Assembly Resolution that the Arabs pushed through besmirching Zionism (the national liberation movement of the Jewish people) as "racism."

In 2001, just as Arafat had launched his second intifada that would claim 1,000 Israeli lives, Castro called on the delegates attending the -- incongruously titled -- U.N. World Conference "Against Racism" in Durban, South Africa to "put an end to the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people."


Now, fast forward to …today.

Cuba's Communist Party newspaper still "reports" on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict purely in black and white terms. Hence the headline:

"Palestine Refuses to Negotiate If Israel Resumes Colonization."

Look, I am delighted that Castro is not a Holocaust-denier, these days you can't take anything for granted. But he's still a defamer of Israel.

What would it take for me to bury the hatchet?

I want to see him take responsibility for what he did to Israel all these years.

I want him to stop Cuba from automatically voting with the Arab and Muslim bloc at the UN.

I want him to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

Let him prove that his interview with Goldberg was the substantive beginning of a trend, not just an old commite trying to spin his image.

Monday, September 27, 2010


How should Jews think of Poland?

As Israel's best friend in the European Union, according to the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and the Polish Institute for International Affairs, organizers of a recent [September 19-20] Jerusalem conference which marked the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries twenty years ago.

It is time, they emphatically say, to take a more nuanced view of Poland; to obsess less about the killing fields implanted on Polish soil by Nazi Germany and reflect more broadly on the preceding 1,000 years of Jewish civilization.

It's not an easy sell. The image framed by Polish-born former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir of Poles imbibing anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk persists. The reasons are plain.

Before a single Nazi boot set foot in Poland, Jewish college students had been obliged to sit on segregated classroom benches. By 1937 a "cold pogrom" had systematically eliminated Jews from Polish economic life. There is Jedwabne, where in July 1941, 1,600 Jews were burned alive in a barn by local Poles before the Nazis could lay hands on them. There is the 1946 pogrom in Kielce which claimed the lives of 42 Jews who had survived the Holocaust.

Moreover, Communist Poland's post World War II record toward Jews and Israel is also spotty. To its credit, Poland allowed the Haganah to set up a military training camp and was among the first to recognize Israel's independence. On the other hand, when Stalin's policy shifted against Israel so did Poland's. By 1953 Israeli diplomats had been declared persona non grata.

The elevation of Wladyslaw Gomulka in 1956 improved matters. Relations remained muted, but Polish authorities permitted tens of thousands of Jews to make aliya. However, with the 1967 Six Day War, Gomulka not only broke diplomatic and trade relations with Israel, anti-Semitism again became an element of domestic propaganda. In the 1970s low level trade ties with Israel resumed. By 1986, as the party began having doubts about the permanence of the Soviet empire, Poland sought improved relations with Israel in the transparent hope of impressing the U.S. "Jewish lobby" and thereby swaying Washington.

Momentously, relations between democratic Poland and Israel were re-established shortly after the communists lost power. Since then Warsaw has gone to great lengths to rebrand its image among Jews. When the Soviets allowed indirect Jewish immigration to Israel, Poland in 1990 crucially provided a clandestine staging area enabling 100,000 souls to reach Zion. In 1995, Poland created the post of minister plenipotentiary for Polish-Jewish relations.

Over the years, President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were all welcomed in Poland. Jewish travelers describe a country whose elites genuinely want to turn over a new leaf. Israeli and Jewish authors are prominently featured in bookstores. Kletzmer music is all the rage. A renewal of Jewish life is underway. And a Jewish museum is under construction in Warsaw.

Annual trade between Poland and Israel stands at $500 million. Polish entrepreneurs seek to invest in Israeli hi-tech; Israelis are active in Polish real estate. Israeli-owned companies are a presence in Poland. Teva ranks as the number two pharmaceutical firm there.

Israeli analysts assert that Poland has become an invaluable diplomatic asset to Israel within the EU -- siding with Jerusalem against the tainted Goldstone Report; refusing to participate in the Durban II conference; derailing a Swedish initiative on Jerusalem inimical to Israeli interests, and as Europe's leading voice against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's despicable Holocaust denial. Deepening Israel-Polish security cooperation has become a further element in the relationship. And in November relations are to be taken to an unprecedented level when Poland's top leadership echelon is expected to arrive in Israel for inter-ministerial meetings.

All Poland asks in return is for Israelis to see it with fresh eyes and to influence other Jews to do so as well. Not to ignore the ignoble aspects of Polish history, but to place them in the context of a very long, at times positive, and always complex relationship. For some Jews – influenced less by realpolitik than by painful memories – this may be asking too much.

September 2010

London's Jewish Museum

The next time you are in London, make it a point to visit the Jewish Museum .

I was there over the Rosh Hashana holidays. The museum is located near two Northern Line tube stations in Camden Town. It is new, open, sunny and not overwhelming.

I started out on the top floor which is showing a temporary exhibit of illuminated Hebrew manuscripts some of which were on loan from the Vatican -- which I know begs the questions: where did they get them from? And several others which came from various British universities.

Most are of Jewish interest though some are also of Christian interest.

The exhibit which ends on October 10 is modest in size -- as is the museum, but worthwhile.

Downstairs is a permanent installation on British Jewish History. Just the right amount of visual ... and artifacts.

Jews first came to England in 1066. I learned that the first blood libel took place in Norwich in 1144.
And that Jews were forced to wear distinctive badges.

In 1290 the Jews of England were expelled. That explains why Shakespeare who died in 1616 could not have come across many Jews.

The Jews were allowed to return to England in 1656.

By 1855 there was a Jewish Lord Sheriff.

In 1858 Rothschild was allowed to be sworn in on a Hebrew bible as a member of Parliament.

In the 1880s England experienced a great immigration. This coincided with the pogroms on Russia. The East End became a major Jewish neighborhood -- like New York's Lower East Side. So Jews were big in Whitechapel.

I learned further that Jewish women did piece work: making cigarettes and were paid 2 shillings and sixpence for 1,000. The tools they used were on display.

At their economic situation improved, the Jews moved to better neighborhoods like Stoke Newington.

Between the wars there was upward mobility and that is how it transpired that many Jews became cabbies in London. Yiddish was out and English was in.

In 1938-39 the community took in some 10,000 children from Europe ...rescued from Hitler's clutches.

On the main floor there is a general exhibit on Judaism which I thought was very well done. Plenty of good explanations for beginners. There is also a small Holocaust section anchored to a British Jewish citizens who found himself in Europe and survived the Holocaust.

Israel does not feature prominently -- but it does feature -- in the museum; this is not a museum about Israel. It is mostly aimed at British people including non-Jews.

There is a gift shop and a cafeteria which sells sandwiches (kosher + meat) and soups as well as hot drinks. A bit overpriced for my budget but pleasant.

The British Elections: Tory v. Labor - April 2010

Prime Minister Gordon Brown went to Buckingham Palace yesterday to ask Queen Elizabeth to dissolve parliament on April 12. New elections will take place on May 6. At the moment, the Conservative party under David Cameron is leading Brown's Labor party in the polls; the Liberal Democrats, headed by Nick Clegg, are in a strong third position.

The sun may have set on the British Empire, but the U.K. continues to exercise considerable influence in the international arena. Britain is a major force in the European Union and a permanent member of the UN Security Council; it plays a leading role in NATO and the 54-nation Commonwealth. It also remains a world financial center and, through the BBC, wields considerable "soft power" worldwide.
As for its relations with Israel, trade now stands at £2.3 billion annually. But politically the country has been an indifferent friend at best, funding a dozen advocacy organizations that press Jerusalem to soften its security policies.

What would a change in government mean for British-Israel relations? Probably not a great deal—all three parties are on record as favoring Israel's withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice lines. Still, significant differences are discernible in the parties' approach.

Labor: Brown has close personal ties to the Jewish community; his father, a Presbyterian minister, was chairman of the Church of Scotland's Israel Committee. Foreign Minister David Miliband is a non-practicing Jew who recently ordered an Israeli diplomat expelled in connection with Israel's alleged forging of British passports in the assassination of Hamas arms smuggler Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Justice Secretary Jack Straw has refused to modify the country's Universal Jurisdiction law, invoked to threaten visiting Israeli officials with arrest on "war crimes" charges. The Labor party essentially accepted the Goldstone Report on the 2009 Gaza war. Last week, Britain merely abstained in the UN Human Rights Council vote demanding that Israel pay reparations to Gaza.

Several Labor back benchers are notorious Israel-bashers. Gerald Kaufman has compared IDF soldiers to Nazis; Martin Linton warned that Israel's "long tentacles" could warp the outcome of the coming elections. A group with the name Labor Friends of Israel has called on the government to pressure both Israelis and Palestinians "evenhandedly."

Liberal Democrats: Clegg has urged Britain to stop selling weapons to Israel. MP Paul Rowen is one of parliament's most ardent supporters of the Palestinian cause. And former MP Jenny Tonge, now in the House of Lords, declared it was worth investigating whether IDF aide workers in Haiti were actually harvesting organs for transplant. On the plus side of the ledger, the party recently authorized a support group to foster better relations with the Jewish community.

Conservatives: The tone of party pronouncements on Israel are notably sympathetic. William Hague, a former party leader and now Shadow Foreign Secretary, criticized Labor for not voting against the Goldstone Report. There are promises to modify the Universal Jurisdiction law.

Britain's Jewish community of 300,000 souls holds sway in perhaps a half-dozen of the country's 646 constituencies. While there are just four Muslim MPs, politicians are mindful that the overall Muslim population stands at 2.4 million. Most Jews will likely vote their economic and social interests, though a vocal minority can be expected to support the Tories purely because of Labor's shabby treatment of the Jewish state.

Israel & India

Celebrating its Independence Day on August 15, the nation of India marked 63 years since the end of British rule in the sub-continent. In light of the two countries' more or less contemporaneous struggle for self-determination in the immediate aftermath of World War II, one might have thought that India would establish close ties with the newly born state of Israel straightaway. It did not happen

Under Jawaharlal Nehru, India saw itself as a leader of the "non-aligned" bloc, and Israel as part of the West. Notwithstanding its conflict with Pakistan, its overwhelmingly Muslim neighbor, New Delhi also sought to establish itself on good terms with the Arab and Islamic world. To that end, it wholeheartedly adopted the Arab line at the UN and mapped out third-world strategy with Egypt's Gamal Nasser.
When it came to Jewish history and Zionist aspirations, India's founding elites labored under profound misapprehensions. In late 1938, in the shadow of Kristallnacht, Mohandas Gandhi wrote that he had no sympathy for the idea of a Jewish return to Zion. His advice to desperate and despairing European Jews was to face the Nazis with passivity; to the Jews in Palestine, he counseled an effort to convert Arab pogromists into friends.

India did finally recognize Israel in 1950, allowing Jerusalem to maintain a consular presence in Mumbai (then Bombay). But not until 1992 were full diplomatic relations established. By then, the Soviet empire had collapsed; Pakistan's A.Q. Khan was working feverishly on an Islamic bomb; and Egypt had long since made its peace with Israel.

In the years since then, the two countries have gradually drawn closer. Israelis are unabashedly smitten with India: about 35,000 of them, including many youngsters just out of army service, visit the country each year. Annual trade, which started at $200 million, has by now reached $3.5 billion, and this year India surpassed Europe as Israel's number-two export market (after the U.S.). Israel sells India minerals, fertilizer, chemicals, electronics, and, most significantly, military equipmemt.

Since the November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, security ties have also strengthened. Reportedly, the two countries are jointly developing a medium-range air-defense system. The Indian navy has visited Haifa port, and India has launched commercial satellites into orbit for Israel.

But then there is Iran, on which Delhi and Jerusalem are at cross-purposes. Iran is India's second biggest oil supplier, and India—competing with China in a race to dominate the world's economy—is heavily invested in Iran's energy sector. India-Iran trade has reportedly tripled in the past five years. Geopolitics plays a role as well: India imagines Iran can be persuaded to dampen Islamist extremism in the sub-continent and curb Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan.

And there are also the cold facts of demography. True, Israel's population of seven million includes 70,000 Indian Jews—but India is a vast, multiethnic country of a billion people, and its Muslim minority, 13 percent of the population, numbers 153 million, exceeding the combined populations of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Second only to Iran, India has the largest non-Arab Shi'ite population in the world. It is notable that Indian Muslims have no history of involvement in terrorism, and their religious authorities abjure political violence. Nor is India as a whole troubled by indigenous anti-Jewish sentiment. Still, the country's elites are thoroughly exposed to the prevailing global fault-finding of Israel and the concomitant rise in global anti-Semitism.

So the Israel-India relationship, while mutually vital, is delicate. Jerusalem would emphatically prefer New Delhi to stop enabling Iran, even as it must appreciate that India will calibrate its relationships according to its interests as it sees them. Under the circumstances, the question is what it would take to convince Indians that appeasing the imperialist mullahs in Tehran will in fact undermine India's long-term welfare and national interests.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Meeting Abigail Green

I understand that you are related to your subject Moses Montefiore?
Yes. He was my great great great great great uncle.
Tell us a bit about your own backgroun

I was born and bred in London, and since my father isn't Jewish and my mother's family have been here for 200 years that makes me a very English Jew. My mother was brought up in the Sephardi congregation, but she didn't feel she could stay after she married out, and so she joined West London Synagogue which, ironically, is the Reform synagogue Montefiore's brother Horatio helped to found. My husband's Sephardi too, so we got married in the Sephardi synagogue at Bevis Marks. The rabbi was delighted!

When did you decide to write this book?
About 10 years ago. Of course I had always known about Montefiore, but I became intrigued by him as a historical figure when working as a research assistant for Niall Ferguson's History of the House of Rothschild.

Where do you do most of your writing?
I wrote the first half of the book in my office at Brasenose [Oxford University], but when I became a mother I began working at home when my daughter napped.

Is this your first book?
No. My first book was Fatherlands: State-building and Nationhood in Nineteenth Century Germany about identity formation in non-Prussian Germany during the pre-unification period (to c. 1870). Jews did not feature at all, which may be one reason why I wrote this book.

What is your next project?
I'm still narrowing it down, but probably something to do with 19th century humanitarianism.

Let's talk a bit about Montefiore the man. Would he be someone you would enjoy having at your Shabbat dinner table? What was he like?

He was well known for his old-fashioned courtesy so I'm sure he would have been a great Shabbat guest. And of course he was striking -- well over 6 ft even in old age, [though] his dress sense remained stuck in the 1820s.

I always imagined him sounding a bit like my grandfather. I can tell from the way he transliterated Hebrew words in his diary that he pronounced them in exactly the same way.

As to what he was like, I suspect that changed over time. Judith [his wife] liked him, and since I never came across anyone with a bad word to say about her I think we have to take that seriously. He was probably much more fun in his 20s and 30s, when he made friends with some really interesting (if earnest) characters. But as he became older he inevitably became much more rigid. Perhaps he made up for it by having so many interesting stories to tell.

Was it religious fervor that drove his vehement opposition to the establishment of a Reform congregation in London?

No, it was also about keeping the Sephardi community together – I think in many ways that was more important. Almost all the reformers came from Bevis Marks and most of them were Montefiore's relatives, so it was a very bitter thing.

What would it have been like to travel with Montefiore?

To begin with Montefiore and Judith only took a couple of servants with them, and they weren't particular about keeping kosher (although they seem to have avoided bacon). That changed as they became more religious, and after 1846 Montefiore never travelled anywhere without his own shochet. A lot depended on where he was travelling. When he visited Morocco in 1864, he took the train most of the way through France and Spain so he didn't need a lot of people with him, but it was very unusual for Europeans to travel in the Moroccan interior and he crossed the desert from Essaouira to Marrakesh with an entourage of well over a hundred.

Was there a pattern to the type of women Montefiore sought out for his dalliances?

We only have names for two of them, so it's hard to generalize. But neither were Jewish, which I think is not surprising. One was married and the other was a servant. Family legend has it that there were lots of Montefiore "by-blows" [offspring of unmarried parents] wandering round Ramsgate and its surroundings, so I tend to think he dallied with the lower orders -- which would have been very Victorian.

Could you explain why the bulk of the records of this obsessively organized man -- his logs, his meticulous files -- came to be burned upon his demise by a rabbi acting under instructions of Montefiore's nephew Sir Joseph Sebag-Montefiore?

No one really knows, but I find it hard to believe that Montefiore himself ordered it after taking so much trouble over his paperwork.

Was someone trying to protect his reputation?

George Collard, who claims to be an illegitimate descendant of Montefiore’s, likes to think that there was material relating to illegitimate offspring among the papers that were destroyed. Perhaps, but the surviving Montefiore diaries do not contain any kind of intimate information and it is by no means clear that he would have kept a record of any affaires of the heart.

On the other hand, Montefiore’s correspondence would have contained a great many very mundane letters of little interest to anyone. I find it more probable that Montefiore’s nephew simply couldn’t see the point of most of it – especially since so much would have been in languages he could not understand. He certainly made sure that those documents that did survive were those of most interest to him -- his own letters to Montefiore, a diary entry relating to his marriage, material relating to the Damascus Affair, correspondence with the great and good of the non-Jewish world.

How did Montefiore become a Jewish celebrity on a global scale?

That's a big question. People like Dona Gracia and Moses Mendelssohn had big reputations in the parts of the Jewish world, and Shabbatai Zevi managed to bridge the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide. But I think Montefiore was the first global Jewish celebrity because this was a more global age and because he was also a celebrity in the non-Jewish world. Imperialism and the communications revolution (press,
telegraph, steam and rail) were probably the most important underlying factors.

What distinguished him from the "court Jews" of an earlier era?

The key difference was that he was out in the open. In 1846 a Russian Hassid suggested he should just have bribed the government to improve the situation of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, which would have been the traditional way of doing things; Montefiore was appalled because his whole approach was about honorable publicity.

What was his biggest miscalculation as a Jewish leader?

Travelling to St. Petersburg to congratulate Alexander II on the bicentenary of Peter the Great in the aftermath of the Odessa pogrom of 1872.

And his biggest achievement?

The firman of 1840 [decree issued by the Sultan decrying the false blood libels] was his single greatest achievement, but his achievements as a mobilizer -- of money and public opinion -- were more significant in the long run.

How would you characterize his answer to the perennial "Jewish question"?

I think it changed over time. To begin with, he looked to gradual emancipation and social integration which is why he tried to get Jews in Russia and Turkey to learn Russian and Ottoman, but by the 1880s this was looking increasingly unrealistic in places like Russia and Romania, and even in Western Europe the situation was coming unstuck. That's why he supported the early Zionists and put his faith in the messiah.

Is it remotely conceivable that a leader of his stature and style could arise and wield comparable influence today?

No. The Jewish world is much, much more divided now than it ever was in Montefiore's time -- then it was still possible for one man to speak to a multitude of different religious and cultural constituencies in the same voice.

Violent Diversions

Time and again troubles in the Arab world have increased the chances of violence against Israel. Case in point: Hezbollah's assassination of Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, the country's chief Sunni figure, on February 14, 2005, resulted in a period of severe political pressure on the Shi'ite movement. Its Syrian ally, presumed complicit in the murder, was compelled to withdraw its forces from the country. Only when the Islamist group sent its gunmen across the border into Israel on July 12, 2006 seizing two Israeli soldiers and sparking a 34-day conflagration was attention diverted from the crime. Hezbollah bought the time it needed to solidify its position as the ultimate domestic arbiter of Lebanese politics.

Now, with the Special Tribunal For Lebanon reportedly poised to finger senior Hezbollah operative Mustafa Badr al-Din for carrying out the Hariri murder, will Hassan Nasrallah again seek to draw attention away from his movement's culpability with a diversionary attack against Israel? This time there is less incentive to do so. He has already preempted the panel by predicting that his men were about to be traduced. Syria, like Hezbollah a client of Iran, has brazenly demanded that the Hariri investigation be shut down because identifying Hariri's killers would threaten Lebanon's stability. Sunni powers are capitulating to the Syrian and Hezbollah intimidation.

Saudi King Abdullah, patron to the slain Hariri as well as his son, current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, travelled to Beirut on the same plane as Syrian President Bashar Assad in a symbolic push for Lebanese unity during an hours-long "summit." An Arab analyst close to the Hariri camp intuited that Syria had offered to "protect" the surviving Hariri in return for quashing the indictment against his Hezbollah killer. The son, who once openly blamed Assad for murdering his father, has sensibly concluded the neither Washington, Europe nor the Sunni Arab powers are prepared to stand up to Hezbollah, Damascus or Tehran. Consequently, the younger Hariri has pledged homage to Assad.

With Sunnis and Shi'ites working in tandem to cover-up the Hariri assassination in a bid to calm Lebanese tensions, Israeli analysts rate the prospect of a "diversionary" attack from the north as low.

Turning to the south, divisions among the Palestinians have been contributing to a heating up the Gaza front. The Palestinian Authority has come under intense pressure from Washington to enter into direct negotiations with the Netanyahu government. In interviews with the Israeli media, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat has taken to lobbying the Israeli public to justify the Palestinian refusal to talk. Erekat explained that Mahmoud Abbas has submitted "far-reaching" proposals on final-status issues -- borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water and security -- to U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell and is waiting to hear a positive response from Israel. Washington, however, has apparently advised the PA that it will not be able to further assist the Palestinians in establishing a state if they continue to reject talking directly to Israel.

Against this background, over the weekend a Grad missile fired from Gaza slammed into Ashkelon, and Kassam rockets smashed into Sapir College in the western Negev. Fortunately, no one was hurt in either attack.

By striking across the border – or looking the other way as global jihadist launch their rockets on Eilat – Hamas may be trying to instigate an Israeli retaliation that it can portray as an "atrocity" or "war crime" thereby inhibiting an anyway hesitant Ramallah from participating in genuine give-and-take bargaining with Israel. Past experience is worth recalling: Hamas first gained infamy with a bus bombing in April 1993 intended to thwart the Oslo Accords signed anyway five months later. In the course of 1995 and 1996 Hamas's cold-blooded bombing campaigns were aimed at torpedoing Oslo's implementation.

Hezbollah has acknowledged miscalculating the force of Israel’s reaction to previous Islamist aggression. Hamas has been less publicly self-critical about the repercussions of its violent adventurism. What would happen if the next rocket from Gaza were to strike a crowded shopping mall or playground? The risks notwithstanding, chances are Hamas's will continue its noxious efforts to foil an anyway hobbled peace process.

-- August 2010

Waiting for a Political Messiah

Israelis are not scheduled to go to the polls until October 2013 though no one would be astonished if some political upheaval forced new elections to be held earlier.

Several high profile contenders are already letting it be known that they could be enticed to provide the political deliverance Israelis habitually crave – either by starting new parties or taking leadership roles in existing ones. The saviors waiting in the wings include the photogenic television personality Yair Lapid, who is promising to stand up to the "settlers" and "ultra-Orthodox." His late father, Tommy Lapid, trail blazed a similar path.

Then there is the magnetic Aryeh Deri, once the top vote-getter of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party and now staking out a politically centrist position. Lastly, though this hardly exhausts the list, is Dan Halutz. Feeling unappreciated, he belatedly resigned as IDF Chief of General Staff in 2007 in the wake of official criticism over his handling of the Second Lebanon War.

Perhaps more than voters in other Western democracies Israelis go to the polls with a smorgasbord of choices. The country's proportional representation system encourages new parties to crop up all the time. Why? Because "winning" a parliamentary seat requires crossing an electoral threshold set at a mere 1.5 percent of the total vote (1% until 1992). The proliferation of parties means that all Israeli governments have been based on coalitions; no single party has ever achieved an outright majority in the 120-member Knesset.

In the country's early years, elections were essentially competitions among left-wing parties for supremacy, and mostly won by Mapai (a precursor to today's Labor). Only in 1977, with the victory of the right-wing Likud party did power become more diffuse – though the basic rules of the political game remained the same. Minor parties continued to come and go impelled by personality clashes within existing parties, ethnic or religious grievances, or demands for ideological rigidity. Two with an atypical shelf-life were Ratz which broke away from Labor in 1973 to champion a more dovish security line and eventually morphed into today's Meretz, and Shas which quit the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox amalgamation in 1984 to become a Sephardi powerbase.

As early as 1976, however, voters were looking for a viable major party alternative to Labor and Likud. Liberal voters in particular were dejected over Labor's often corrupt stranglehold on power, yet were uncomfortable with Likud's perceived stridency about the West Bank. The Democratic Movement for Change, founded by archeologist and soldier Yigael Yadin met their yen for a "third-way" that backed a pragmatic middle ground. But Yadin's party fragmented and by 1981 he had retired from politics.

Still other third way aspirants appeared: The Centre party, founded by general Yitzhak Mordechai (1996), and Avigdor Kahalani's Third Way Party (1996), actually mostly a single-issue movement committed to retaining the Golan Heights. In 1999, columnist Tommy Lapid – Yair's father -- captured the third way mantle in a big way with his Shinui ("Change") party, that presented itself as secular and centrist, but which achieved most of its traction by lambasting (sometimes tastelessly) perceived ultra-Orthodox religious coercion in the public square. By 2006, this party, too, had devoured itself in internecine power struggles.

Then came Kadima founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon – ostensibly as a third way movement – and bringing together politicians from both Labor and Likud. In reality, the party was a necessary vehicle for Sharon who had repeatedly failed to obtain Likud support for his determination to disengage from the Gaza Strip. In any case, Israeli third way movements have been closely tied to the personalities of their leaders whether Yadin, Lapid or a rebranded Sharon.

This fixation with new personalities and parties promising change continues. Political scientists have called for, and politicians have even paid lip-service to, restructuring the current hyper-pluralist political system beginning with electoral reform. This would weaken the power of parties whose commitments are to ethnic, religious or single-issue causes rather than to broader societal interests. Alas, the present system is designed to perpetuate itself. Even David Ben-Gurion could not pull off electoral reform back in the 1950s – which goes a long way toward explaining Israelis' fascination with ephemeral political saviors.

-- July 2010

Israel's Mossad

Israel's successful deployment last week of its fourth orbiting spy satellite, Ofek 9, is being lauded by the country's intelligence community for delivering better than expected surveillance images of "areas of interest." At the same time, Israel's human intelligence apparatus, as essential as ever to the Jewish state's survival, has come under mounting criticism for the blow-back of two of its recent missions: the presumed liquidation of senior Hamas operative Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai, and the Israel navy's unpreparedness in the interdiction of the Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla. Meantime, Lebanon continues to sweep-up reputed Israeli assets spying on Hezbollah. Over the weekend, came reports that the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was looking to replace Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad foreign intelligence agency, rather than extend his term after eight years.

David Ben-Gurion established the Israel Secret Intelligence Service (its current name) in 1951 and made it directly accountable to the Prime Minister's Office. The Mossad solidified its international reputation for spycraft when in 1956 it obtained Khrushchev's Secret Speech signaling a repudiation of Stalinism. In 1961 the Mossad alerted French president Charles de Gaulle of a plot against his life thereby crucially strengthening Franco-Israeli relations.

Until recently admiration for Dagan, in the afterglow of the elimination of Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mughniyeh and the purported stalling of Iran's dash for nuclear weapons, outweighed disapproval over his management style. In any event, Dagan is hardly the first Mossad chief to face criticism.

The Mossad has, in fact, historically been a lightning rod for condemnation. Even the decisions of the legendary Isser Harel, the Mossad's longest serving chief, drew -- comparatively mild by today's standards -- UN condemnation after the agency abducted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires to face justice in Jerusalem. Or take Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor, undoubtedly facilitated by Mossad intelligence, which was unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council. The Mossad's capture in London of the Israeli renegade nuclear worker Mordechai Vanunu in 1986 likely provoked a General Assembly resolution denouncing Israel's purported nuclear capacity. The 1988 assassination of Fatah co-founder Khalil Wazir (Abu Jihad) in Tunis as he was laying the groundwork for the first intifada generated a strong denunciation from the UN Security Council. And in 1997, after a spate of suicide bombings in Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, serving his first term as premier, ordered the Mossad to retaliate against Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal then based in Amman. But the mission to poison Mashaal ended in ignominious failure when two members of the Mossad team were captured. Under intense US pressure Israel was forced to provide Jordan with the antidote and release Hamas prisoners.

Invariably, when the Mossad becomes involved the stakes are already high. Its primary mission today is to block Iran's quest for nuclear weapons and to conduct counter-terror operations. Because of the nature of its work, its successes tend to remain hidden while its failures are often magnified. Speaking at a gathering for current and former Mossad operatives this week, Dagan was still standing and full of praise for his operatives as was President Shimon Peres who remarked that the Mossad’s reputation in the global intelligence community was undiminished.

John Le Carre, for all his moral relativism, may have been on to something when he had the anti-hero of his espionage classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy remark that you can tell the soul of a nation from its intelligence service. What can one discern about Israel's soul from the operations of the Mossad? That the Jewish state lives on a practically constant war-footing facing existential danger is obvious. What stands out is that Israel's quest for security is inextricably linked with a yearning to create conditions conducive for a secure peace. It is not incidental that the Mossad's logo contains – not a hawk or eagle – but a dove.

-- June 2010

Gaza's isolation

On Monday, European Foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg heard Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy czar, argue that Gaza's "dangerous isolation" had to end. The 27-nation union agreed that Israel's blockade of the Hamas-governed enclave was "unsustainable" and "politically counterproductive."

In the aftermath of the failed May 31st attempt by a Turkish flotilla to defy Israel's maritime quarantine of the Strip, and the ensuing deaths of nine Turkish mercenaries on board, Jerusalem has come under withering pressure to abandon its policy of strictly limiting the type of non-humanitarian commodities allowed into the Strip.

The EU ministers want daily life for the people of Gaza to return to normal and for Israel to relate to Gaza as if Hamas were not ruling the enclave. To that end, the ministers demanded the unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of goods and persons to and from the Strip. No claim of a humanitarian crisis was made, so what appears to be "unsustainable" in Europe's mind is the continued lack of normalcy. The ministers did not relate to the consequences normalization might have on strengthening Hamas's rule. Instead, they obliquely called for "Palestinian reconciliation behind President Mahmoud Abbas."

After Hamas defeated Fatah in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, the Quartet – the EU, US, Russia and the UN – laid down conditions Hamas needed to meet to be accepted by the civilized world: a commitment to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous Palestinian obligations. Nevertheless, several EU countries have been discreetly talking to Hamas; Russia has been doing so openly, and Hamas claims it has even had indirect contact with the Obama administration.
For Europe, isolating Gaza is "politically counterproductive" in the sense that some EU members presumably prefer the path of least resistance and are willing to accept Hamas as a fait accompli. Some see dealing with Hamas as potentially facilitating Palestinian reconciliation. And some may hope that engaging Hamas might help moderate its policies.

In fact, the path of least resistance is paved with perilous consequences. The surest indicator Hamas has no interest in moderating its opposition on peace is its rejection of the Quartet's conditions in the first place. And as for promoting Palestinian reconciliation, Fatah has made it plain that the international flirtation with Hamas is unhelpful.
Far from the continued isolation of Gaza being "dangerous," insisting on normalcy under current conditions is untenable. First, it would legitimize and solidify Hamas's suzerainty over the Gaza Strip, institutionalizing a destabilizing, intransigent and obsessively anti-Israel Iranian-backed satellite situated a short drive from metropolitan Tel Aviv. Second, it could set the stage for Hamas's complete takeover of a still under-developed Palestinian polity, dislodging the comparatively moderate Fatah government now in the West Bank. (Indeed, this week's visit to Gaza by Arab League chief Amr Moussa was viewed with consternation by Fatah officials in Ramallah.) Third, and massively important to the West, it could undermine the stability of Egypt – just over the Gaza border -- by providing an infusion of energy and succor to Hamas's beleaguered parent-body, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Gaza blockade is too often portrayed as an arbitrary exercise in Israeli power. History argues otherwise. Ariel Sharon's government, finding no Palestinian peace partner, unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in the summer of 2005 thus presenting the Palestinians with the opportunity to create a Singapore on the Mediterranean. In January 2006, however, Hamas defeated Fatah in Palestinian elections. Within six months, Gaza gunmen raided Israel killing two IDF soldiers and capturing Gilad Schalit. Israel also came under accelerated bombardment from Gaza. All the while, Arab states sought -- and failed-- to heal the Fatah-Hamas rift. Instead, Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza in an orgy of violence. To halt the onslaught of rockets that had traumatized Sderot, Ehud Olmert was obliged to launch Operation Cast Lead (December 27, 2008-January 18, 2009). That unfairly-maligned military campaign has mostly deterred further Hamas aggression.

If The New York Times is correct that Israel's efforts to weaken Hamas and drive it from power have failed, it is precisely because the international community has worked so diligently to undermine Israel's labors. The Economist complains that Israel's policy of isolation is responsible for the fact that the Islamists are creating a Gaza in their own image. But precipitously opening up Gaza now would more likely spread the Islamist toxin to the West Bank than relative Fatah moderation to Gaza.
With the Quartet and EU apparently poised to buckle, Hamas is already relishing an end to the blockade. Yet officials in Israel maintain that Hamas is in fact on the brink of political and economic collapse; its popularity among Palestinians faltering. According to a Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll released Tuesday, if presidential elections were held today, Abbas would defeat Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh 54 percent to 39%.

In short, contrary to accepted wisdom, the blockade may well be working.
Israelis are aware that Europeans unfairly view them as paranoid – supposedly suffering from a "siege mentality." Yet a devil-may-care approach to ending Gaza's isolation could permanently implant an empowered Hamas to menace not just the Jewish state and moderate Arabs, but to challenge Western interests for years to come.

-- June 2010

Turkey & Israel

Incident foretold - The developing diplomatic and media reaction to Israel's interdiction Monday of a pro-Palestinian flotilla steaming toward the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip speaks volumes: about Israel's deepening isolation in the world and the perverted moral priorities of the international community.

Even before Defense Minister Ehud Barak presented Israel's preliminary report at a 1 p.m. Tel Aviv news conference the censorious deluge had begun. The European Union called for an end to the quarantine of Gaza; Greece cancelled a scheduled visit by the commander of the Israeli Air Force; France unleashed a stinging denunciation; Switzerland called in the Israeli ambassador. A morning anchor on Britain's Sky News demanded an Israeli spokesman tell him why Israel had no respect for international law. Not one satellite news channel in the region carried Barak's English-language briefing. Only a few bothered to broadcast an earlier statement by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

As soon as operational conditions permitted, Jerusalem wasted no time in presenting its case, but what it said was promptly ignored, denigrated or dismissed.
These basic facts were known early on:
• Organizers: The flotilla was instigated by the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, an extremist Islamist organization based in Turkey in collaboration with the violence-prone International Solidarity Movement. Their moves were coordinated with Turkey and Hamas.
• Aid was a pretext: Organizers were offered the opportunity to ship any humanitarian supplies to Gaza via the Israeli port of Ashdod; a million tons of humanitarian supplies have entered Gaza from Israel over the last 18 months. They refused.
• Propaganda was the aim: IHH was repeatedly warned that under no circumstances would its convoy be permitted to sail into Gaza. Only when last-minute sea-to-sea warnings to desist were ignored were the vessels boarded by Israeli navy commandos. There was minimal resistance on five of the six boats as the troops, equipped with anti-riot gear, came aboard.
• Violence was premeditated: Instead of encountering "peace activists" the commandos rappelling down from helicopters onto the largest boat – the multi- story ocean liner Mavi Marmara with hundreds of militants aboard -- were set upon by crowds armed with knives, metal bars, and Molotov cocktails. At least two commandos are in hospital with gunshot wounds; another has a fractured skull. The commandos radioed that they feared being overwhelmed and lynched (video) and were given permission to use live fire. These are the circumstances – self-defense – in which 9 pro-Palestinian activists, mostly Turkish nationals, were killed.
Nevertheless, Israel confronts a media intifada in which rage replaces rationality. From the outset, Arab news outlets and their enablers, stoked anti-Israel sentiment with bogus claims disseminated by new media technologies that 20 "activists" had been wantonly slaughtered, and that the Islamic Movement's northern branch chief Raed Salah (an Islamist agitator who carries an Israeli passport and was on board the Mavi Marmara) had been "assassinated." He is alive and well.
Arab leaders in Israel have called for raucous a general strike; Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad has urged Hamas to put aside its differences with Fatah in the common struggle against Israel. Radicalized Turkey, now allied with Iran and Hamas, may have found a pretext for a formal break in diplomatic ties with Israel.
Liberal Europe has trotted out the usual litany of charges. Israel is accused of violating international law, notwithstanding that it is legally entitled to quarantine Hamas which has declared war on Israel. The Jewish state is excoriated for acting on the high-seas, though that's where the unlawful intent of the flotilla could best be preempted. It is criticized for disproportionate use of force, though its soldiers met with lethal opposition. In practice, any steps Israel takes in self-defense are adjudged "disproportionate."
In many ways, Monday's dawn clash off the Israeli coast was an incident foretold. At the UN, U.S. diplomats blocked a completely one-sided formal Security Council resolution condemning Israel that had demanded a Goldstone-like commission of inquiry. Instead, they tiredly acquiesced to a less equivocal censure which calls for an "impartial investigation." Yet this is an administration that prides itself on "never letting a serious crisis go to waste." It is, therefore, not too late for President Barack Obama to lead the civilized word out of its moral stupor; to emphatically declare that the season for shameless scapegoating of the Jewish state is over; to assert that Israel is in the forefront of a struggle against Western civilization by insidious Islamist fanaticism.

June 2010

Israeli Nukes

Speaking before throngs of supporters in a Prague square on April 5, 2009, President Barack Obama declared America's commitment to a world without nuclear weapons, while acknowledging that the goal might not be reached in his lifetime. With this as an apparent impetus, the Arab world has pressed for greater international attention on Israel's nuclear activities. It did so at a Washington conference devoted to keeping nuclear materials out of terrorist hands, and at a review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at UN headquarters in New York. Under Arab prodding, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the US, issued a statement -- in effect aimed at Israel – calling for a nuclear-free Middle East. In this way, irresolute international efforts to block Iran from building nuclear weapons have been further sidetracked to make Israel the issue. The Arabs are also lobbying to put Israel on the agenda when the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meets next month in Vienna. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano has reportedly invited the world's foreign ministers to offer suggestions on how to bring Israel into the NPT regime. The agency could also decide to appoint a rapporteur whose mission would be to keep Israel's nuclear program in the international spotlight.

What is Israel's nuclear posture? The Jewish state insists it will not be the first to "introduce" nuclear weapons into the region. Its leaders have signaled, however, that the country has a "bomb in the basement" to be used in the last resort should the Third Commonwealth be about to fall. This policy of nuclear ambiguity is now being frontally challenged.

Israeli doves historically argued that Israel's presumed nuclear capacity had already forced the Arabs to come to terms with the permanence of the Jewish state; it also obviated the need for strategic territorial depth, making a withdrawal to roughly the 1967 boundaries a viable option. Today, paradoxically, Israel is being pressed to go ahead with the withdrawal, abjure nuclear deterrence, and reconcile to the fact that even its most moderate Arab interlocutors do not accept the legitimacy a Jewish state.

Is it, nevertheless, time to jettison nuclear ambiguity? Some strategists including former Knesset member Uzi Even believe ambiguity has runs its course and that IAEA inspections of the Dimona reactor would -- at this point -- do no harm to Israeli security. The more prevalent view is that with Iran on the cusp of a bomb, an abrupt, forced, abandonment of nuclear ambiguity could make deterrence less credible and the region less stable. Emily Landau, for instance, argues that abandoning ambiguity in the present environment would intensify pressure to disarm entirely.

Yet why not discard the nuclear option altogether? Because Israel continues to face existential threats. Israeli policymakers would doubtlessly welcome seeing the region transformed into a zone free of all WMDs – including chemical and biological arms – and also seeing conventional forces considerably reduced. This goal, however, would need to be achieved in the context of a freely arrived at and comprehensive peace settlement. The first imperative toward creating an environment conducive to a peaceful tolerant Middle East is removing the risk that the dark, bellicose and fanatical leaders of Iran will wield atomic weapons.

The immediate question is: How vigorously are civilized countries prepared to defend the arms-reduction and non-proliferation agenda from those who would cynically manipulate the cause of disarmament in pursuit of their myopic vendetta against Israel?

--May 2010

Japan & Israel

Shalom Japan

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is in Tokyo this week for meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. Lieberman wants more robust Japanese pressure on Tehran to halt its quest for nuclear weapons. His arrival follows a visit only last month by deputy premier Dan Meridor, who is responsible for intelligence matters.

Japan continues to dialogue with Iran and has emphasized that any resolution of the Iranian nuclear conundrum must be diplomatic. In a recent telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Okada urged the Islamic Republic to honor UN Security Council Resolutions by ending uranium enrichment.

Lieberman's other main goal will be strengthening economic ties between Israel and Japan. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1952. Only in recent years have visits exchanged by high-ranking officials become routine. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords and the weakening of the Arab boycott, economic ties between Israel and Japan have blossomed. Tokyo has backed Israel's pending admission, this year, into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in the face of strenuous opposition by the Palestinian lobby. Israel does $3.4 billion of business a year with Japan, the country's second biggest East Asian trading partner behind China. By contrast, Japanese trade with Iran, mostly crude oil, stands at about $14 billion a year.

Japan's attitude toward the Palestinian-Israel conflict parallels those of EU countries sympathetic toward Israel. Tokyo condemned a recent rocket attack from Gaza which claimed the life of a foreign worker from Thailand. More categorically, however, it "deplored" Israeli housing construction plans over the Green Line. And like the EU, Japan has funneled millions of aid dollars to the Palestinian Authority.

One of Israel's leading Japan experts, Hebrew University professor Ben-Ami Shillony, has speculated that the new Hatoyama administration would take a more pro-Arab stance, perhaps going so far as to recognize Hamas. To date, however, Japan has taken its lead from the Obama administration regarding the Islamists. Sentiment among the Japanese intelligentsia also mimics European thinking. The country's largest conservative newspaper, Yomiuri recently sympathized with the Arab claim that it was hypocritical to focus on Iran's nuclear program when Israel remains a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Likewise, Japanese newspapers have urged Hamas to end its "resistance" while calling for greater flexibility from Israel.

Culturally, anti-Jewish sentiment has coexisted with philo-Semitism in the popular Japanese imagination. Some trace this phenomenon to a 19th century Scottish missionary who promulgated the notion that the Japanese were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. After WWI, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery made its way to Japan further bewildering a society that had little exposure to Jewish civilization. Its World War II alliance with Berlin notwithstanding, Japan did not pursue Nazi-like policies toward Jews who came under its power.

Would greater people-to-people contact benefit mutual understanding? The Israeli pop group Hadag Nachash was warmly welcomes in Japan last year. Increasing numbers of Japanese tourists, including Christian Zionists, have been visiting Israel. Tourism is hampered, however, by the absence of direct flights between the countries. The Japanese embassy in Tel Aviv is working with East Asian Studies majors at Jerusalem's Hebrew University to introduce Japanese society to Israeli high-school students. The need for a parallel program in Japan is probably no less great.

Ubiquitous dissent

The chair of Peace Now in France, David Chelma, is helping coordinate a European effort to dissent from Israeli policies by means of a nascent initiative dubbed JCall – to evoke Washington-based J Street – and featuring a web-based petition entitled "European Call for Reason" demanding "pressure on both parties" in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. More than 3,500 people have signed including luminaries on the pro-Israel Left such as philosophers Bernard Henri-Levy and Alain Finkielkraut. Israel's former ambassador to France Elie Barnavi is also a backer.

Campaigners say they are exasperated with the "monolithic" Jewish mainstream. Chelma wants to show that "it's okay" to criticize some Israeli policies. "Systematic support of Israeli government policy is dangerous," according to the text published in six languages on The Israeli broadsheet Haaretz lauded JCall for rejecting "automatic support" of Israeli policies especially regarding Jerusalem neighborhoods over the Green Line. Critics were further incensed over advertisements placed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel describing Jerusalem as "the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul" and urging that the city's fate be dealt with at a later stage of peace negotiations. J Street is countering Wiesel by placing a retort by former Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid in US Jewish newspapers.
The notion that dissent within the pro-Israel community is muffled is taken as axiomatic. Yet opposition to Israeli peace and security policies among Israel's Diaspora friends is hardly out of the ordinary. Nahum Goldmann, the venerable head of the World Jewish Congress, publicly broke with Israeli policies in 1967. In 1973, rumor had it, he helped finance Breira, whose 100-member Reform and Conservative rabbinic advisory council advocated the creation of a PLO-led state alongside Israel decades before Yasser Arafat ostensibly recognized the country's right to exist. Goldmann also appealed to US decision-makers to pressure Israel into withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza. Similarly, Philip Klutznik, who succeeded Goldmann at the World Jewish Congress, aligned himself with the International Center for Peace in the Middle East to further dissent from Israeli policies.

Indeed, the JCall petition recalls the 1978 letter signed by 37 prominent US Jews – academics, writers, theologians – demanding Israel show greater flexibility in negotiating a peace treaty with Egypt. In 1980, the New Jewish Agenda following in Breira's footsteps mobilized against the 1982 Lebanon War. Also in the early 1980s, Rabbi Alexander Schindler of the Reform movement asked: "Must we indulge in annexationist fantasies in order to prove that we are passionate Jews?" In 2010 his successor Rabbi Eric Yoffie said he stood with the Obama administration and against the Netanyahu government on the matter of a construction freeze in east Jerusalem. Indeed, the roster of Jewish figures that have campaigned against Israel's settlement policies includes former chairs of the Presidents Conference and a leader of Conservative Jewry. If anything, criticism of Israel's approach to peace has become institutionalized with more Presidents Conference organizations dissenting than supporting.

The one constant -- from Nahum Goldmann's day through JCall – has been the absence of any countervailing pressure on the Arab side to lobby Fatah, Hamas and the Arab League into adopting less intransigent policies.

-- May 2010

Ambivalent Jordan

Jordan's King Abdullah II returned home from Washington earlier this month having ostensibly urged President Barack Obama to offer his own peace plan to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli "tinderbox." The king's interests in a settlement are doubtlessly sincere yet by no means straightforward.

Abdullah was in the US to attend a two-day Nuclear Security Summit. He had a private lunch with the president as well as a formal Oval Office meeting becoming the first Arab leader to visit the Obama White House. Photographs showed the two leaders smiling and looking relaxed.

In a subsequent interview with the Chicago Tribune, Abdullah predicted that a Middle East war this summer is inevitable given that "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not interested in peace" and that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is set to expire in July. Contrary to statements by Arab League officials, Abdullah told the newspaper that the initiative was not "a take-it-or-leave-it document." On Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, the king professed to be sanguine: "If you solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, nobody needs a nuclear weapon."

In an earlier Wall Street Journal interview, Abdullah intimated that Israel intended to "push" West Bank Palestinians into Jordan. Jordan's Foreign Ministry recently summoned Israel's ambassador to "harshly" protest a (nonexistent) "West Bank expulsion rule." The Hashemite Kingdom, with its mostly Palestinian population, has long feared a "Jordan is Palestine" designation. Though it continues to see itself as the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy places which need defending against "continued [Israeli] provocations," Jordan does not want to reassume responsibility for the West Bank. A recent speech by Queen Rania announcing the launching of "Madrasati Palestine," an initiative to renovate Palestinian schools in east Jerusalem affiliated with the Jordanian wakf, was carefully coordinated with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty has resulted in a decidedly frosty relationship. The king says ties with Israel have never been worse and that economically Jordan was better off "before my father signed the peace treaty." Yet the Jordanian stock market is rebounding from the global economic downturn, and the kingdom continues to enjoy the trade benefits from its peace with Israel.

But Abdullah is under constant pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood and the intelligentsia to sever ties with Israel. Soon after two IDF soldiers were killed in an encounter with Palestinian gunmen laying mines along the Gaza border fence, and as news reports circulated that Iranian SCUD missiles had been shipped across Syria to Hizbullah-dominated Lebanon, an editorial in the Jordan Times accused Israel of being determined to start another war despite the prevailing "calm."

What does Jordan want? Assaf David, a Hebrew University expert believes that while Jordan genuinely wants peace between Israel and the Palestinians it simultaneously fears such an accord would permanently codify the Palestinian presence in Jordan and threaten Hashemite rule.

-- April 2010

Civil Liberties

Civil liberties - In their classic introduction to American politics, The Irony of Democracy, Thomas Dye and Harmon Zeigler show how popular commitment to civil liberties -- understood as the rights individuals have against unwarranted governmental intrusion -- can fall by the wayside when abstract principles need to be translated into practice.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the US, and the July 5, 2005 bombings on the London underground, cherishing civil liberties while tightening security became an everyday democratic dilemma. Across the political spectrum, the more people feel threatened the lower the support for civil liberties.

No democracy serves as a better "laboratory" testing the limits of civil liberties under traumatic conditions than Israel. The results are sometimes incoherent, but the common denominator is that freedoms are mostly safeguarded so long as lives are not endangered.

Some recent illustrations: a Jewish extremist was not prosecuted for holding up a sign calling the president a "traitor." But another was for advocating on the radio the expulsion of Israeli Arabs. A right-wing activist was brought to trial for writing that the official charged with implementing Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was worse than the Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. But the case was dropped, part of a general amnesty covering everyone charged with breaking the law during disengagement protests.
A deputy Knesset speaker, an Arab nationalist, is free to hang an oversized poster of Yasser Arafat, against the backdrop of a PLO flag, in his office. A Galilee-based Islamist has not been charged for urging Arab students to sacrifice themselves as shahids [martyrs] against Israel.
But antiwar activists were barred from holding a strident rally outside the Defense Ministry one evening during the recent Gaza conflict on the grounds that they did not have a police permit. Still, left-wing organizations face no restrictions on gathering or disseminating damaging data about the army. And radical groups may encourage conscripts not to serve in the citizen army.
A story now making headlines in Israel -- initially presented as a civil liberties conundrum -- turns out to be more knotty. It involves Anat Kam, a 23-year-old budding journalist who as a corporal doing obligatory army service unlawfully copied 2,000 highly classified documents onto a (now missing) computer disk. Kam provided a copy to Haaretz reporter Uri Blau who wrote a controversial magazine piece claiming the army had unlawfully killed two Islamic Jihad terrorists.

Kam's attorneys said she copied the material because she thought a war crime had been committed. After examining the facts, Israel's attorney-general, however, certified that the mission in question was perfectly legitimate. Kam is now facing trial; Blau is negotiating the return the stolen material in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

What emerges from Israel's experience is that the country's security predicament notwithstanding, the legal system's default position is to provide citizens with the same protections enjoyed in other Western democracies.

-- April 2010

Lose Nukes

Loose Nukes - Were terrorists to detonate a 10-kiloton nuclear device near New York City's Empire State Building, everything within a third-mile radius would be utterly destroyed; anyone within 3/4 of a mile would almost certainly be exposed to fatal radiation levels; damage to buildings would be extensive; a large swath of Manhattan from river-to-river would be ravaged. Obviously, if terrorists had access to the kind of explosive power, that devastated Hiroshima (13 kilotons) or Nagasaki (21 kilotons) much of metropolitan New York would be obliterated.

Representatives of over 40 countries, including Israel, have been meeting yesterday and today in Washington under the auspices of the Obama administration at the first-ever Nuclear Security Summit. The administration's goal is to gain public (and private) commitments on a "work plan" to be implemented within four years committing countries to keep nuclear material out of the hands of terrorist groups, "combat nuclear smuggling and deter, detect, and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism."
The US government says terrorist groups have persistently sought the components of nuclear weapons. Experts agree that the hardest part about making a bomb is securing the nuclear material.
In 2007, for instance, unknown attackers sought unsuccessfully to penetrate a South African facility where enough enriched uranium was stored to build 12 atomic weapons, according to The New York Times. Approximately, 35 pounds of uranium-235 (about the size of a grapefruit) or nine pounds of plutonium-239 is enough to make a working nuclear bomb, according to political scientist Graham Allison. An estimated 4.6 million pounds of nuclear material is dispersed in 40 countries.

Unfortunately, Egypt and Turkey are set to exploit the nuclear terrorism meeting to criticize Israel's reputed nuclear weapons capability. Faced with the prospect that his attendance would be used to sidetrack the conference, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu opted to stay home and send Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, whose responsibilities include intelligence and atomic affairs, to head the Israeli delegation. In the words of US National Security Adviser James Jones: “The Israelis did not want to be a catalyst for changing the theme of the summit."
In any event, Israel will not be mentioned in the final communiqué being crafted by the administration. Moreover, the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will meet next month at UN Headquarters in New York where Arab states can be expected to claim that it is politically untenable for them to confront the real and present danger of a nuclear-armed Iran without debating Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity.

Of course, the menace of nuclear terrorism is linked solidly to Islamist extremism. A.Q. Khan, Pakistan's top nuclear scientist -- and an array of his associates -- provided nuclear knowhow to North Korea, Libya and Iran. For its part, Teheran maintains a murky relationship with al-Qaeda and open ties with Hizbullah and Hamas. These organizations have shown no compunctions about engaging in anti-civilian warfare. Worse, it is doubtful whether the Cold War strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction would deter atomic suicide bombers who have no national allegiances. That may explain why the US president calls a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist organization the biggest threat to the Western world.

-- April 2010

On the Heritage Trail

Unlike Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not have to take a stroll on the Temple Mount to provoke Palestinian Arab leaders into threatening mayhem. Instead, Netanyahu simply announced a comprehensive plan to strengthen Israel's national heritage by rehabilitating and preserving archaeological and historic sites, developing historic trails, and conserving photographs, films, books, and music of archival value. "A people," he declared, "must know its past in order to ensure its future."

Unveiled on February 2, the plan was greeted with a yawn by the mainstream Israeli media, mixed with a few deprecating remarks about Jewish chauvinism, and was largely ignored by Palestinians. Not until three weeks later did Arab riots break out in Hebron and spread to Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount, where dozens of Palestinian youths locked themselves in a mosque after hurling rocks at visitors to the plateau.

What happened in the meantime was this. Right-wing Israelis protested when it emerged that neither the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron nor Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, both of them integral to the civilization and sacred history of the Jews, was on the list of designated sites. On February 21, Netanyahu duly announced their inclusion. But the two sites (whose status remains otherwise unchanged) are in territory claimed by the Palestinian Authority, which views Israeli Jews as colonialist interlopers. PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas promptly warned that Netanyahu's "provocation" could "lead to a holy war." Forget could, said Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh, urging an intifada: should.

Yet the projected enterprise, whatever missteps may have attended its inception, is both entirely normal and entirely legitimate. It is also an urgent need. The state of Jewish identity in the Jewish state is, paradoxically, shaky. In the private lives of many, Judaism has decreasing significance. Many secular youngsters attend schools where neither Jewish subjects nor Jewish values are high on the curriculum. Meanwhile, among their insular ultra-Orthodox counterparts, civics and Zionism are hardly taught at all. And then there are the post-Zionists, some of whom fully embrace the Arab narrative and see the establishment of their country as "original sin" while others shun any emphasis on the specifically Jewish aspect of their national history.

This, then, is the context in which Netanyahu's call should be understood. Nor is his a lone voice. Natan Sharansky, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency, has launched his moribund organization on a new mission: to build the Jewish people into a connected family—and to link Israelis to their Jewish roots. Both men are saying that the culture, traditions, and historical consciousness handed down through the generations comprise the birthright of the Jewish people. Is this national heritage to be lightly abdicated, and in the name of what?

-- March 2010

Trouble in Emmanuel

Israel Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levi – himself an Orthodox Jew – issued an implied challenge when he told a packed chamber: “It cannot be that rabbis’ rulings will take precedence over the Supreme Court.” A hundred thousand ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews poured into the streets of Jerusalem last Thursday to answer in the affirmative.

Levi had just ordered dozens of ultra-Orthodox (or haredi) parents to jail, until the end of the semester, for refusing to comply with a court order to send their daughters to elementary school. The parents kept their children home rather than allow them to mingle with Sephardi girls – also ultra-Orthodox, but less stringently so -- at the Beit Yaakov School in Emmanuel. Throngs of demonstrators escorted these "parent-martyrs" as they turned themselves in to authorities.

After months of failed efforts to cajole the parents into a compromise, the justices ruled that they were in contempt of court and were apparently motivated by ethnic and religious prejudice. Not at all, say the haredim. The issue is one of principle: the right to educate their children in accordance with their ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi traditions. For Israel's body politic – already split along political, religious, social and cultural lines – the Emmanuel affair is yet another slash at the polity's cohesion. On Friday, the country's leading tabloid, Yediot Aharanot split its front page with two photos. One showed the over-dressed, black-clad ultra-Orthodox rallying under a withering sun; the other showed the outlandish pop singer Elton John at a sold-out nighttime concert near Tel Aviv. The headline sought to encapsulate Israel's dilemma: "Between Two Worlds."

Emmanuel is an underprivileged ultra-Orthodox settlement in the northern West Bank. Much of the population is Sephardi (with origins in the Arab world) and loyal to the Shas Party. A minority of residents are Ashkenazi (of European heritage) mostly Hassidim affiliated with the Slonim, Bratslav, and Gur dynasties. With Emmanuel's fortunes in decline, more well off families have left and, in recent years, been replaced by newly religious Sephardim. The hassidic parents say that their children were being negatively influenced by the "intolerable" deportment of the newcomers' daughters at the town's well-regarded, state-licensed and state-assisted Beit Ya’acov School.

With the Slonim parents taking the initiative, the Ashkenazim put up a fence, and created a school within the school for 75 of their daughters – also allowing a vetted group of Sephardi girls, whose families committed to living Ashkenazi religious lifestyles, to join them. The remaining 175 Sephardi girls were left to be educated on the other side of a barrier.

Sephardi ultra-Orthodox leaders challenged the segregation in the courts which repeatedly ordered Ashkenazi authorities to reintegrate the school. When the Education Ministry took down the barrier, the Ashkenazi parents – following rabbinic orders – sought to evade the court's ruling by bussing their girls outside the district. The court blocked this evasion and the controversy came to a head last week.

What distinguishes the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox from the Sephardim is the extent to which they will go in their unceasing struggle against modernity. This quest for insularity explains why Ashkenazi haredim keep their children out of the Israel Defense Forces and why they forbid television, and strictly regulate exposure to radio, newspapers, Internet, and mobile phones. The obsession with preserving a cloistered way of life is also why many of their men never enter the work force.
Chauvinism, too, plays a role. Ashkenazi haredim maintain a sense of religio-cultural superiority toward their Sephardi brethren. In Emmanuel, for instance, while the little Sephardi girls might wear knee-length white stockings under modest frocks, more is expected of little Ashkenazi girls who are obliged to wear white waist-length tights, even more modest skirts, and long-sleeve blouses worn with collars buttoned to the top. They are also forbidden to ride bicycles – “for the sake of modesty.”

In a new twist, Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yossef, whose son Rabbi Yaakov Yosef had spearheaded Sephardi litigation efforts, declared that ultra-Orthodox Jews who turn to the secular judiciary to pass judgment on religious disputes risk losing their places in heaven. The son has now dissociated himself from the case citing temporal threats to his life not the risk of eternal damnation. Having embarrassingly aired their dirty laundry in public, the ultra-Orthodox world –Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Hassidic and Lithuanian -- has now closed ranks.

Mainstream Israel – secular and traditional -- has become increasingly jaded by the conduct of the haredi world particularly its willingness to benefit from the state while rejecting its core values. There is a prevailing sense of resignation that 10 percent of the population will continue to hold inequitable political sway over the allocation of resources unless the system of proportional representation – which artificially boosts parochial and single-issue parties -- is fundamentally revamped.


POLLING JEWS – What do predominantly liberal Asian-Americans think of President Barack Obama's policies on Tibet? Where do America's 2.35 million Muslims stand on Washington's conduct of the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan? It's hard to say. Yet minute shifts in American Jewish public opinion are carefully tracked.

Why do the views of US Jews, who comprise at most 3% of the population, seem to matter so? Just asking the question makes some people flinch because of the inference that there is something illegitimate about Jewish influence. Actually, it is America's meritocracy that has rewarded Jewish educational and socioeconomic achievement -- at least 139 of the Forbes 400 are Jewish -- allowing Jews to be "over-represented" in medicine, science, law, media, entertainment, and politics. There are no Jews in the Obama cabinet, but two of the president's top aides are Jewish as is the vice president's chief of staff. On Capitol Hill, 13 senators and 31 House members are Jewish.

Jewish public opinion matters, therefore, says Hebrew University political scientist Tamir Sheafer, because Jews are perceived to be an important, well-organized and powerful interest group. They are major financial contributors to political campaigns and in certain states the high turnout of Jewish voters (usually for the Democratic candidate) can help swing an election. For Kenneth D. Wald of the University of Florida, "Jewish opinion matters because Jews, despite their small numbers, are hyper-political, far outperforming non-Jews in registration, turnout, volunteering, campaign activity, contributions and mobilization." Wald says politicians pay attention to Jewish opinion because "passion and intensity outweigh numbers."

Late last week, a McLaughlin & Associates poll showed that if US presidential elections were held now only 42 percent of Jewish voters would re-elect President Barack Obama; a dramatic drop considering that 2008 exit polls gave candidate Obama 78% of the Jewish vote. Asked if they approved of the president's handling of America’s relations with Israel only half said they did. An earlier survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee, however, found that 55% of Jews approved of Obama's approach toward Israel. Conservatives have suggested that Obama's adversarial approach toward the Netanyahu government has cost him Jewish support; liberals postulate the president's perceived drift toward the pragmatic center on domestic issues could just as easily be the explanation. In any event, 70% of Jews say they feel a bond with Israel, yet experts agree this attachment does not top their agenda.
How does all this translate politically? Oddly enough, the Obama administration would not be the first to seek support from the Jewish community to sustain Washington's long-standing approach of dissociating its "rock solid" backing for Israel from opposition to its West Bank and other security policies. With only 37% of American Jews in the AJCommittee survey disapproving outright of Obama's handling of relations with Israel, community leaders are just as likely to lobby the Netanyahu government to change its policies as pressure the administration in the opposite direction.

- April 2010

The New Shimon Peres

Marking his eighty-seventh birthday this week, Israel's president flew to Cairo for a two-hour meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, captured headlines in Britain for his frank talk about British attitudes toward Jews and Zionism, visited bereaved military families, and welcomed new North American immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport. Perceived not so long ago as among Israel's most polarizing and untrustworthy figures, Shimon Peres nowadays enjoys unprecedented status. A politician who once mercilessly undermined prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin stands loyally behind Benjamin Netanyahu while speaking publicly as an above-the-fray statesman.

Peres has been an element of the political landscape since settling in Palestine from Belarus in 1934. As a young man he became active in left-wing Zionist politics and helped procure arms for the fledgling Haganah. At independence in 1948, David Ben-Gurion placed him in the defense ministry, where for years he fulfilled key roles. Along the way, he became a Knesset member and a founder of today's Labor party, although his rivalries within Labor over the decades have been no less vitriolic than his ideological disputes with the Right. Mapai's Moshe Sharett despised him. Rabin profoundly distrusted him.

As the latter's foreign minister in the early 1990's, Peres initiated negotiations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Principles with the PLO in September 1993. That won a Nobel Peace Prize for him, Rabin, and Yasir Arafat. Prior to the signing ceremony on the White House lawn, Peres assured Israel's cabinet that Palestinian intentions toward Israel had completely changed.

In the event, Israel's terror-related casualties since Oslo exceeded those of the preceding half-century. But Peres was undeterred. Intoxicated by Oslo's potential, he took to speaking in often impenetrable aphorisms ("We must strive for fewer weapons and more faith"), as if willing the peace that Arafat conspicuously declined to enter into, insisting that it was simplistic to judge the Palestinian commitment to peace by Arafat's performance.

After Rabin's 1995 assassination, Peres served seven months as prime minister before being swept from power. Rejected by the electorate, he was embraced by European countries that provided the wherewithal to establish him at the head of the Peres Center for Peace. In 2000, he suffered another embarrassing defeat when the Knesset rejected him for the presidency in favor of an obscure figure, Moshe Katsav. Yet he was back in 2001 during the second intifada as foreign minister in another national-unity government, this one headed by Ariel Sharon. In the aftermath of the 2005 Gaza disengagement, he joined Sharon's newly formed Kadima party and in 2007 was finally elected president after Katsav resigned.

These days, Peres is honored both for redeeming a presidency sullied by his predecessor and as the embodiment of an organic link to the founders' generation. In between a hectic schedule that has taken him on 27 state visits abroad, he has managed to complete a biography of his mentor and hero David Ben-Gurion. While hardly ever looking back, seldom admitting mistakes, and never showing remorse, the man once described in a New York Times profile as "one of Israel's most mocked figures, considered an eternal loser and dreamer who harmed his career and reputation through selfishness, timidity, vanity, and political deafness" has somehow rehabilitated his public persona.

Historians will have to work on a big canvas in assessing Peres's achievements. He was crucially responsible for building Israel's nuclear deterrent, keeping the country well-armed, and in the mid-1980s, bringing down runaway inflation. Yet any balanced appraisal of his career must make sense of what many now agree was a staggering if not inexcusable strategic blunder: transplanting Arafat and his ethically corrupt, politically unreconstructed, and violently intransigent cadre from their Tunis exile to the helm of a nascent Palestinian polity in Ramallah, at the cost to Israeli society of untold trauma and civilian blood, and in exchange not for peace but for war.

Never having provided a convincing explanation for his turn from security mandarin to flighty dove, Peres is now back in the political center. Longtime observers may be forgiven for wondering whether, were he to live long enough, and were further opportunities to beckon, he might not re-make himself yet again for the sake of the limelight.

-- August 2010

Gilad Shalit

Today marks four years since Palestinian infiltrators tunneled their way from Gaza into Israel, opening fire on an open-hatched tank, killing two IDF soldiers, and taking the third, Gilad Shalit, prisoner. Before long, Hamas announced it was prepared to exchange Shalit for 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel. Then-premier Ehud Olmert declared that Jerusalem would not give in to blackmail. "We will hold no negotiations over the release of prisoners." That was then.

Over the ensuing years, Israel has found no way to rescue the young soldier, despite his being held within driving distance of the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv. No amount of leverage exerted has been able to dislodge Hamas from its original demands—not the hundreds of Palestinian fighters killed by Israel since the capture, not the imprisonment of Hamas's West Bank leadership cadre, not the immense suffering the Islamists have brought down on the civilian population living under their yoke.

In the meantime, the Shalit family, abetted by empathizing parents, scores of Israeli pundits and politicians, and a worldwide campaign—boilerplate calls for the soldier's release have become routine in innumerable international declarations—has been pushing for any approach, including capitulation, to free their son. Fears for his welfare have been exacerbated by Hamas's refusal to allow visits by the Red Cross—whose position is that Hamas, as a non-state actor, is under no obligation to allow such visits.

And so the Israeli posture has shifted from a categorical refusal to trade imprisoned terrorists to haggling with Hamas, via Egyptian and latterly German intermediaries, over the contours of such an exchange. Now Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has explicitly confirmed that Israel will acquiesce in the release of Hamas's 1,000 prisoners, just as was demanded over 1,460 days ago. Bargaining is reportedly stalled over which prisoners are to be freed and where they will be allowed to find refuge.

Few Israelis would dispute that releasing busloads of terrorists will strengthen Hamas, endanger Israeli civilians, and weaken Arab elements competing with the Islamists for the allegiance of the Palestinian masses. But as Assaf Sagiv has noted in Azure, the IDF is a citizens' army, its fighters the nation's "children," and the tacit contract between state and soldier states that the fighter's interest takes precedence over the civilian's.

In this sense, the Shalit saga is a microcosm of the quandary confronted by Western civilization as a whole: can societies that cherish life and prize liberty abide the sacrifices necessary to overcome the forces of extremist Islam? At the excruciating epicenter of this conundrum stands Israel, alone. It has already freed hundreds of Arab prisoners in goodwill gestures, to which Hamas, under no countervailing domestic pressure, has responded by releasing a single video of Shalit. Now, having essentially lifted the blockade of Gaza due to EU pressure, Jerusalem has few cards left to play.

-- June 2010

An Umbrella for British Jewry

An Umbrella for British Jewry

The Board of Deputies of British Jews is almost certainly the oldest continuously functioning representative body of Jewry in the world. Its first meeting, held at London's Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1760, was recorded in Portuguese, the language of its Sephardi founders. A new book by Raphael Langham, the first complete history of the Board, has been published to coincide with its 250th anniversary.

Operating at the center of the British Empire, the board worked to advance the conditions of British Jews at home and to harness England's global power on behalf of Jewish communities around the world. At home, its agenda included protecting the rights of Jews to observe their religious traditions, protecting shechita or kosher meat-slaughtering and absolving Jews of taking Christian oaths for purposes of employment. Abroad, for instance, it intervened with the British government in 1840, to request intercession with the Ottoman authorities over the Damascus Blood Libel.

Today, Britain is no longer an empire, the Board is no longer overseen by a small coterie of fabulously rich and powerful men and the golden years of British Jewry are behind it. The BOD came into existence when there were 10,000 Jews in England. Today there are 267,000 but this figure is down from a peak of 420,000 in 1955. Today's community is a study in contrasts: demographically contracting, with intermarriage running at about 50% yet religiously vibrant and diverse and with notable points of cultural vitality. Middle ground traditionalists are holding their own -- barely; the ultra-Orthodox are thriving, while there are also effervescent pockets of Reform, Masorti and Liberal Judaism.
Some say the BOD has lost its clout. Yet its president is still seen as the lay leader of British Jewry. The government will always turn to the board when it wants to say something to the community, even if it also turns to other bodies. The board continues to play an instrumental role in civil rights advocacy, protecting shechita (still under assault) and in grappling with occasionally violent anti-Semitism stemming from Britain's growing Muslim population and extreme nationalists. The autonomous Community Security Trust, which looks after the security needs of British Jewry, takes its cue from the BOD.

Some see today's board as too democratic. In 2003 the Jewish Leadership Council was formed after the board rejected overtures from a small group of benefactors who offered to back its activities in exchange for control of its agenda. Nevertheless, the BOD and the JLC often operate in tandem. There are other welcome signs of unity. Though the ultra-Orthodox Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations walked out of the BOD in 1971 over religious differences, its representatives did attend a recent communal gathering marking the board's anniversary.

On Zionism, from the early years of the state, the BOD has been mindful that British Jewry was faced with accusations of dual loyalty. Consequently, the deputies had tried to set Israel's position before the public without appearing boldly partisan. This stance has evolved into one of public solidarity without, though, endorsing specific Israeli policies over which the board is itself divided. In that context, board leaders have met with the the new Cameron government's top Middle East minister. Contrary to pre-election pledges from the Tories, the Board has been unable gain the government's commitment for a change in the Universal Jurisdiction law which has been exploited by anti-Israel campaigners against visiting Israeli officials.
Surveys show that 80% of British Jews are supportive of Israel, according to Langham, including those with doubts about its policies. During the 1982 Lebanon War, the Board mustered 40,000 pro-Israel supporters in Trafalgar Square. A January 2009 demonstration during the Gaza War drew, at best, half as many. To be fair, Britain's Jewish community functions in a troublingly anti-Zionist political and media environment.

Like vital umbrella organizations everywhere, the Board can speak publicly with one voice on Israel only by restricting itself to bland and non-committal statements. Yet defining and articulating communal interests that are faithful to Jewish civilizational values must surely be the truest test of leadership -- in the UK and elsewhere.

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