Tuesday, February 26, 2002

The Left Reconstitutes

Tuesday, February 26, 2002, 11:24:14 AM

The Israeli left is back and it has a new ideology: full retreat. There are, of course, a few mavericks within the Labor party, most notably Defense Minister Ben Eliezer and former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, who have internalized the fact that the Oslo Peace Process approach has failed and are now advocating tougher measures to deal with terror. Most of the Labor party, however, and especially the authors of the Oslo peace nightmare including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres have continued their leftward drift and joined up with more extreme left-wing elements such as the virulently anti-religious and anti-Zionist Meretz and Shinui (Democratic Movement for Change) factions in advocating a full, unconditional withdrawal from Yesha (West Bank Gaza Strip,) without any conditions or even the declaration of a cease-fire. Peres is now fully backing a plan whereby Israel withdraws from the territories and recognizes a Palestinian State in eight weeks.What ever happened to "Land for Peace," the marching song of Labor? Both the left and right have come out from the delusion that turning over tangible territorial and strategic assets to enemies in exchange for meaningless promises from violent warlords is going to bring a real peace. Therefore, Labor, Meretz and Shinui have reached the end of the line, and decided to simply abandon Yesha without attaining peace. This is, in fact, the logical conclusion to the ten-year peace process.The peace process began in 1993 with then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's campaign pledge of "The three no's: no negotiations with PLO terrorists, no Palestinian State, no giveaway of the Golan Heights." By the time of his tragic assassination, he had broken the first two promises and was inches away from breaking the third. The Peace Process began with the signing of the Oslo I accords with "Jericho and Gaza first," an Israeli withdrawal from these two areas as a pilot test to see if Palestinian sovereignty could be achieved without endangering Israeli lives. When the pilot test failed and Israel experienced a crippling wave of terrorist attacks, Rabin and Peres were unable to admit the failure of the pilot program and coined a new sound byte, "We will pursue the peace process like there is no terror and fight terror like there is no peace process." After every attack, the defenders of the Oslo process would come out with their slogans, "We can't let one suicide bomber veto the peace process." Peace is, by definition, the absence of hostilities, and this concept of a paper peace being superior to an actual peace on the ground was probably the most significant and tragic break with reality that the left had to make in order to maintain their illusion of progress. The fact that there was no peace, that people were being murdered in vastly greater numbers than before the peace process began, became just a distraction. It would be about as logical for Roosevelt to say on December 8th, 1941 that, "We can't let the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor distract us from making a just and lasting peace with the Japanese." This had the unfortunate effect of making the Hebrew word "Shalom," "Peace," no longer associated with calm and tranquility, but with some sort of warped and doomed scheme which cost Israeli lives and produced only despair. Strangely, as it became more and more obvious that Arafat and the Palestinians were preparing for war, those who had subscribed to the peace process built it up to be something greater and greater. While Arafat was videotaped giving blood-curdling screams to mass rallies in Gaza for "Jihad!" the Labor Party was busy dropping its opposition to a Palestinian State, while the Israeli Army was intercepting huge shipments of illegal arms crossing into Palestinian areas, Peres was opening the Middle East Center for Peace Research.Today, now that their actions have resulted in a war, the left has taken the tack of supporting a withdrawal to the 1967 border, which raises the question: why? A partial withdrawal would seem more logical. Of course, Israel has to get out of heavily populated areas to avoid becoming an apartheid state, but that's exactly what it did a decade ago, and now 99% of the Palestinians live under the full control of Yassir Arafat or whichever local warlord is running the show in their area. So why withdraw to the green line? After all, the national consensus since 1967 has been that, since these lands were used as a staging point for two massive invasions of the country in 1948 and 67, and since almost every military expert unhesitantly says that retaining some of these lands is an absolute strategic necessity, and since most of the West Bank is unpopulated, open land, what is so holy about the green line? It is not even an international border, just a cease-fire line with no international recognition. This was done at the insistence of the Kingdom of Jordan in 1948 which believed that it would soon be able to conquer more land from Israel and thus did not want to set the borders in stone just yet.What the green line really symbolizes for the left is a return to the womb. "Withdraw from the territories, return to ourselves," reads the new left-wing bumper sticker, and this is quite telling. Israel before 1967 was a different sort of country. The Socialist Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) secular minority had control of virtually all aspects of the government, from the labor unions and the hospitals to the military and the media, since they had gotten here first and built these institutions. After 1967, Israel began the gradual process of desocialization, decentralization, and free-market reform, a process which is still continuing today, and the left began to lose its sole control of the various organs of government. Today, Israel is a much more open and democratic society, and the Socialist left is in despair as its power continues to be redistributed in a more equitable and democratic manner among the religious and Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent.) Likewise, the settlements before 1967 were largely built by the Labor activists, whereas those after 1967 were built by the right and by the religious. This change was indicative of the decline of the left, and is why the settlements are so hated and scorned by the left above all else. I believe that the left correctly views the 1967 military victory as the beginning of the end of their unilateral hold on power, and therefore they subconsciously desire a reversal of this victory in order to regain their previous glory, hence the slogan, "Withdraw from the territories, return to ourselves." (to power.) Similarly, the destruction of the post-1967 settlements, all of them, is the destruction of the enormous physical accomplishments of the Israeli right. Likewise, Israel lost the sympathy of the world in 1967 when it ceased being viewed as a tiny country and became seen as a military goliath. Perhaps, then, if Israel puts itself in a completely indefensible position, living in constant terror of yet another Arab invasion, then it will regain the status of a tiny Jewish David versus the Arab Goliath?The truth is that it won't, that history has no "reverse" gear. Socialism is a proven economic failure, government bureaucratic control only hurts the economy. The right will never disappear, and the country is becoming more democratic by the hour. European sympathy for Israel before 1967 was as much a function of European guilt over the Holocaust as anything else, and Europe is now seized in a tantrum of violent anti-Semitism, so regaining international sympathy is out of the question. The clock can't be turned back, and the idea that it can is just another nostalgic illusion.When the war started, these psychological illusions came crashing down like any fictitious construct of human fantasy, and most Israelis have now faced up to the fact that their neighbors haven't changed and that the "Iron Wall" of impermeable defense coupled with strong retaliation is really the only recourse Israel has to terror. Peres and some of his friends, however, still haven't gotten it. Some day, it's going to hit him that pseudo-Communist theories about "a world without borders" and the evil of nationalism are wrong (in his biography, he boasts of having courted his wife by reading passages from Karl Marx's "Das Kapital.") Some day, Peres is going to realize that our cultural and religious distinctiveness is a source of pride, strength, and genius, not shame. Reality always breaks down the walls eventually, and the longer one waits the harder it hurts. It's going to happen to Peres and the authors of Oslo as well, but I wouldn't want to be in the same room when it does.

Sunday, February 24, 2002

The Religious-Secular Split

Rather than bring national unity, the current conflict seems to be exacerbating the problems within the Secular-Religious divide. While there are many shades and forms of religious observance, there are basically three Jewish religious philosophies in Israel: secular, Religious Zionist, and Haredi. The secular Jews do not believe in G-d or Torah, and therefore view all religion as nonsense. They tend to identify with the strict secularity and separation of Church and state of Europeans in their world outlook, rather than embracing the agnostic but respectful attitude towards religion which most secular Americans seem to have. The Religious Zionists, who wear knit, colored yarmulkes believe that the Israel is a Jewish State only as much as we make it one. I.e., to fulfill religious obligations is still a must, but they believe that the creation of the State of Israel should be taken as a religious omen, and that the religious Jews should work within the system to make the State more Jewish. While Secular Zionists were at the forefront of the pre-1967 settlement drive, the Religious Zionists took the lead after 1967. Meanwhile the Haredim (plural of Haredi), who wear black hats and suits, who were originally opposed to statehood, are becoming more and more involved in the government to obtain funds for Yeshivas and draft religious legislation, but do not serve in the army nor do they view the state as being particularly Jewish. Of course, these are general trends, and there are plenty of right-wing secular Jews and Haredim living in the settlements, and plenty of left-wing Religious Zionists (including the speaker of the Knesset) who advocate withdrawal. This week, the Supreme Court ruled that the Knesset must legislate an end to the Haredi draft deferment soon.

Today, the “debate” is continuing about what kind of State Israel is going to be. The problem is that the political leaders of these different ideologies are more interested in grandstanding and making rhetorical statements than reaching an agreement on how to live because each group is convinced it will win in the end. The Secular Jews are convinced that the Religious will “wake up” and see how silly their religion is, and the Religious Jews are convinced that the Secular Jews will “wake up” and see how empty and meaningless non-religious life is. The main fight is between the Haredim and the Secular Jews, with Religious Zionists taking flak from both sides. The problem has become so great that some of the largest parties on the left, Shinui and Meretz, state as their primary goal, “To fight the Haredim.” However, if one could get a Haredi and secular Jew to hammer out a conversation, it would look something like this:

Secular: You Haredim are all crazy. You have been sitting around studying Torah and praying in your Yeshivas for 2000 years and what exactly did you accomplish? You sat there praying your hearts out for a return to the Land of Israel with all your souls, and you got nothing. When we secular Jews decided to start up a country, we took action. It only took us 50 years from the first Zionist Congress in 1898 until we founded an independent Jewish State in 1948.
Haredi: So you think that this is a Jewish State? And what exactly makes this a Jewish State? After all, Israeli Law is based on Turkish and British law. You don’t even have to be Jewish to be a citizen here. We have the Torah. The Torah gives us a very clear guideline as to how to run a country. We have thousands of years of legal experience and precedent according to Jewish law. We have been running our own affairs according to the Torah just fine for the last four thousand years. We don’t need your state, thank you very much. We would be just as happy to live under the British as under you.
Secular: This is a Jewish State because it is a democracy and the majority of the people living here are Jewish. We share a culture and a history together. What makes an Italian state Italian or a British state British? They live together and share one national identity and history.
Haredi: And without Torah, what, exactly, do Israelis share in common? We have lived apart for 2,000 years, with very little contact between the different branches. Yemenite, French, Moroccan, Indian, Polish, Argentine, and American Jews have absolutely nothing in common except that which is contained in the Torah: language (Hebrew), history (the Bible), food (kosher), and Jewish Law.
Secular: We share a history of persecution for our beliefs.
Haredi: Beliefs that you do not believe in.
Secular: Take a look at America. They are a nation of immigrants that shares a common national identity even though they come from different countries and backgrounds all over the world. We live here now, what’s the difference?
Haredi: The difference is that you call yourself a Jewish state. If you just wanted this place to be a nation of immigrants, then why aren’t you living in Manhattan? It’s a lot less trouble than here.
Secular: We need a place for Jews to run to when they are persecuted, a homeland.
Haredi: A lot of good that’s done. This is the only country in the world where non-Jews can kill you for being Jewish, and the rest of the world is cheering them on.
Secular: Well, I don’t see you helping with that. Why won’t you go into the Army if you’re so worried? I have to send my sons and daughters into the Army and sit at home and worry every night whether they are going to make it back. I don’t see you taking any risks or making any major contribution.
Haredi: We learn in Yeshiva day and night. This is our contribution. The “Jewish State” would have no reason to continue existing if there was no learning in the Yeshivas, if nobody was keeping the faith alive. We contribute spiritually and you contribute physically.
Secular: Well, I manage a grocery store, and nobody would be able to eat if there weren’t grocery stores, yet I had to do my army service and I get called up for a month of reserve duty every year and I have to worry about my kids. The country can’t exist without automobile mechanics, engineers, sales clerks, steel workers, and house painters. If we all said that our work was too important and refused to go into the army, the state would have been destroyed long ago. I’m not asking you not to learn in Yeshiva, I’m asking you why you can’t take a three-year break and help out with the country.
Haredi: Because the army is a corrupting influence. The army is full of promiscuity, drug use, and misbehavior. Half of our boys wouldn’t be able to stay religious in the Army.
Secular: Then why don’t you do what the religious Zionists did and set up a Haredi unit in the army where you can serve and still live according to your faith?
Haredi: And look what happens to them. Many religious Zionists simply stop being religious altogether when they go into the Army. We can’t afford that! We will never be like the religious Zionists because they follow Rabbi Cook, whose teachings we believe to be inferior. In spite of this, we did set up a Haredi unit.
Secular: Yes, but almost nobody goes into it. The Religious Zionists are drafted. They don’t have a choice.
Haredi: Well, why aren’t you complaining about the Israeli Arabs who are also exempted from the draft?
Secular: Are you crazy!? If we handed them guns, they would immediately turn on us. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of very loyal Arabs in the army from among the Circasians, Druze, and Bedouin. There is even an Arab General. But this is a Jewish State, and we know we can trust you not to turn around with your gun and start mowing innocent people down. I have seen no effort on the part of the Haredim to work out a solution, to try to figure out a way around this impasse, only to resist and obstruct any attempt at bringing the Haredim into society.
Haredi: But this is not a Jewish State and we don’t recognize it as such, therefore we have no desire to join this society. I have about as much desire to serve in the Israeli army as I do in the Polish or Spanish Army.
Secular: Well, you certainly seem selective as to when you recognize the state and when you don’t. You may not recognize the state when it comes to Army service, but you do when it comes to receiving government funds for your Yeshivas, you don’t recognize the state when it comes to obeying the rulings of the Supreme Court relating to draft deferments and separation of religion and state, but you recognize the state enough to vote and pass religious legislation banning the sale of pork or mandating that places of business be closed on Shabbat.
Haredi: Remember, if it weren’t for us, you wouldn’t be here. The only reason that there are Jews today and we didn’t assimilate into Greece, Rome, Europe, and the Arab world is that we kept our beliefs and our careful practice of Torah. If we don’t continue learning and doing the commandments then Israel will turn into something totally unrecognizable. It is just as easy to assimilate inside of Israel. Already, if we look around, this place looks more American than Jewish. There are McDoalds opening up all over the country, we drink American Pepsi and you watch American programs on television. If we don’t keep our religion, what will Israel be except a more dangerous and poor version of America?
Secular: Well, I don’t believe and I don’t want to be religious, and you are just taking my money and ordering me to be more religious while refusing to contribute anything tangible to Israeli society and sending my sons out to die for you.

Another problem within the religious-secular divide is the Religious control over civil matters such as weddings, divorces, and burials. Upon independence, it was decided that because of Israel’s sharp variety of religions and traditions, with Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Bahai to name a few, each religion would form a religious council and each council would govern the civil affairs of its own adherents. The Jewish state religious authorities are known as the “Rabbinut.”

Meanwhile, in America, the Jewish people divided into four groups; Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and unaffiliated. The Reform and Conservative, while making up the bulk of the American Jewish population, decided that Jewish law is not obligatory and can be rewritten to suit the needs of the day, while the Orthodox believe that Jewish law is not something which human beings are capable of rewriting any more than the laws of physics can be rewritten. While the Orthodox consider Reform and Conservative adherents to still be Jewish, since one can never “escape” from being Jewish, they nevertheless do not consider Reform or Conservative to be authentic forms of Judaism.

These divisions are all theoretical until it comes to issues such as conversions and marriages, and divorces. According to the traditional (Orthodox) interpretation of Jewish law which has been in effect for about 3,000 years, conversion to Judaism requires three things: 1) Immersion in a ritual bath (Mikveh) 2) acceptance of the entire Torah and all Jewish law as obligatory and 3) circumcision. Because the Reform do not believe that Jewish law is obligatory, Reform converts do not fulfill the second requirement, acceptance of the entire Torah. The Conservative ideology of being able to rewrite the law is viewed by the Orthodox as a decision not to follow the law, since the law never really changes. Therefore, when someone goes through a Conservative conversion, he also doesn’t fulfill the second requirement, acceptance of the entire Torah. The conversion must also be carried out by three religiously observant Jews. Because the Reform rabbis do not observe Shabbat, and because the conservative Rabbis have “rewritten” many laws over the last 100 years and do not follow the traditional interpretations, these rabbis are not considered to be observant by the Orthodox. For all these reasons Reform and Conservative conversions are not considered valid conversions, and someone who has gone through them is not considered to be truly Jewish according to the Orthodox.

It is my personal experience that most Reform and Conservative Jews do not necessarily believe in or even know the minutia of the differences between the philosophies. The synagogue fulfills a social niche as a place of gathering and solidarity for many American Jews. In Israel, there is no need for such a function because just living in a Jewish state is enough of an act of group solidarity for most people, and there are no friendly Gentiles against whom to define one’s self. Therefore the Reform and Conservative, while making up the bulk of American Jewry, are a tiny minority in Israel.

However, it is now all coming to a head as the Israeli Supreme Court last week ruled that Jews who have been through a non-Orthodox conversion can be registered as Jews by the state for the purpose of census and statistics. This has no effect, however, on the civil system whereby marriages and divorces are controlled by the Orthodox Rabbinut. Because Israel’s definition of who a Jew is (one Jewish grandparent, married to a Jew, or went through any type of conversion) is different from the definition of who is a Jew provided by the Orthodox Rabbinut (one with a Jewish mother or who went through an Orthodox conversion,) hundreds of thousands of people now live in Israel but are not able to marry, divorce, or be buried in a Jewish cemetery by the religious authorities. Many of these Gentiles want to go through conversions to show solidarity with the country, but do not want to keep all of the commandments, so they go through non-Orthodox conversions. However, when it comes time to marry, the Rabbinut will not recognize their conversions and therefore will not help them, and they are left with no one to officiate their weddings. Most simply fly to the nearby island Cypress to get married as Israel, like all countries, is required to recognize marriages performed outside of the country.

There is much talk of beginning a non-religious civil service to take care of these problems. This would, however, generate a new problem, a problem which the Reform and Conservative will soon face in America as well. Every time a sect of Judaism modifies the practice of conversions and marriages, the adherents of that sect will eventually not be considered Jewish. Christianity was originally a sect of Judaism, with anybody who wanted to convert to Christianity having to go through a full Jewish conversion. Later, Paul modified the conversion process, requiring only Baptism (ritual immersion,) not circumcision and acceptance of the Torah. Immediately after this change, it was still known who was Jewish and who had gone through a Christian conversion. After a few generations, however, it was no longer remembered who had converted and who had married, and, since there was major doubt as to who was, in fact, Jewish, anyone Christian who wanted to become a religious Jew or have a Jewish marriage had to go through an arduous conversion process lasting several years.

The same danger faces Israel today. In a few generations, Israeli and American Jewish society may very well split into two different groups, one group of Jews who have gone through marriages and divorces by the Orthodox authorities, and another group of Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews whose status as far as Jewish law is concerned is uncertain, and who will have to go through conversion to marry into the Orthodox Jews.
It must also be remembered, however, that this may not be such an issue in America as Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews are disappearing at breakneck speed, with a 58% intermarriage rate, virtually none of the children of intermarried couples being raised as Jews, and with birth rates which are well below replacement anyway. Meanwhile, the birthrates among Orthodox Jews are astronomical (Haredi families with ten or more children are commonplace,) and Orthodox intermarriage is at about 1-2%. While the Orthodox only comprise about 20% of American Jewish households today, this number is sure to rise very quickly in the near future.

In Israel, a similar situation exists, with secular families having one to two children, religious Zionists four to six, and Haredi families, by conservative estimates, an average of 7.5. This is counterbalanced by immigration statistics, which show hundreds of thousands of largely secular, intermarried, assimilated people moving from economically depressed countries like Russia and Argentina to Israel. 70% of new immigrants are not Jewish by anybody’s definition, including their own. Assimilated American Jews will gradually lose their cultural and religious distinctiveness and "disappear" off the radar screein into the general American society. In Israel, however, there is no "greater society" into which to assimilate, and the Jewish people may very well split into two distinct groups, one of which does not consider the other to be Jewish. The secular-religious split, which was much less important 50 years ago, is now becoming one of the dominant issues in Israeli politics. The face of Israel will look very different in another 30 years.

Friday, February 22, 2002

There Will Never Be A Palestinian State

As I look out my window over the dusty desert city of Be’er Sheva, I try to imagine what life would be like if the Palestinians could live their dream. What would life be like if the Palestinian Authority were to achieve its declared goal of eradicating the State of Israel? What would post-Jewish Palestine look like?

I imagine the crisp, beautiful Jerusalem-stone faced buildings covered in graffiti and portraits of suicide bombers. Yitzhak Rager Street, Be’er Sheva’s main boulevard, is pockmarked and covered with potholes with burned-out cars left for dead on the curb. The warm desert breeze blows heaps of garbage through the main intersection. The scent of urine and excrement wafts through Be’er Sheva as chickens pluck through the piles of refuse for food. Various Palestinian warlords have taken control of the different neighborhoods and are constantly engaged in street-battles and turf wars. Neighborhood Alef, where Hamas took control after the Jews were exiled, is constantly shelling neighborhood Gimmel, where Islamic Jihad has taken control, and Fatah is trying to hold it’s own in the stronghold of the Old City. Teenage punks with jeans and AK-47s man checkpoints between each neighborhood, collecting tolls from the beaten up vehicles that pass through. The beautiful Be’er Sheva Government Square with its handcrafted stonework and modern architecture is used as a place for three-minute trials followed by public torture and execution. The State of Palestine will be just another Arab dictatorship like Libya and Iraq, it will be a destination for hijacked airliners and a source of endless terror. The State of Palestine is going to be the type of country that the United States ends up either invading or bombing from time to time.

But that’s not going to happen. There will never be a truly sovereign Palestinian State because every trapping of sovereignty which the Palestinians attain is immediately put to use in an all-out war against Israel. A truly sovereign state has control over its borders. However, during the last ten years while the Palestinians had this control, it was used to smuggle mortars, missiles, and rockets, which are now being used against Israel. Israel therefore had to reassert control over all borders and seaports to protect the lives of its citizens. A truly sovereign state has control over its budget, but during the last ten years the Palestinian warlords have embezzled and stolen virtually all of the hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid earmarked for building a country. Today, the United States and even Saudi Arabia have stopped making payments until the Palestinian Authority makes its budget transparent. A truly sovereign state has control over its airspace, but today, because of unrelenting terrorism, Israel has had to violate this airspace almost daily to strike at the terrorist infrastructure. A truly sovereign state has control over its water resources, but today Israel is being forced to reassert control over these resources as the Palestinian Authority intentionally dumps toxic wastes and raw sewage into Israel’s major waterways. In a sovereign state, citizens have freedom of movement, yet Israel has been forced to set up checkpoints throughout the territories to apprehend terrorists and prevent the movement of Qassam missiles. A sovereign state has the ability to make alliances, yet the Palestinians have allied themselves with Iran, forcing the United States to effectively cut relations and thus delegitimize the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinians will never have true sovereignty because it simply doesn’t interest them. The Palestinians (or Syrians as they were called before 1948 and Egyptians and Jordanians as they were called from 1948 until 1967) have, in fact, repeatedly and violently rejected sovereignty at every opportunity. Four times in the last half century have they been offered sovereignty, by the Peel Commission in 1937, the United Nations Partition Plan in 1947, the Palestinian Autonomy Clause of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt in 1978, and the sovereignty offer of Camp David II in 2000, and each time they have reacted violently. No counter-offers or negotiations, only terror and war. Palestinian Nationalism is the only movement of national liberation whose goal, as is proven by both word and deed, is simply the destruction of another state; the State of Israel.

Thursday, February 21, 2002


My former Y. came back from his trip to Hungary and decided to drop by Be’er Sheva to say hello a while ago. "Ephraim, It’s good to see you man!" he exclaimed giving me a powerful bear hug. I asked him what his plans are, and he announced that he was going back to Hungary to live as soon as possible.
I was shocked to say the least, because Y. is not the sort to leave. He’s no Oslo fan, he’s no devote of Shimon Peres, Y. is hardcore right wing. In the last elections, in the middle of the peace process, he voted for Moledet, the party of the late Rehavem Ze’evi, the party which is now advocating forcible transfer (expulsion) of the Arabs. "It’s all ours," he tells me, "every last inch of it, but I don’t want to live in it." When I ask him what attracts him to Hungary, he just says, "It’s peaceful." Not because Hungary isn’t at war, he explains, but just the atmosphere. People don’t yell at him all the time, they aren’t on the horn in a split second at a traffic jam, and they are all polite.
"In America, you get a better package," elaborates another friend who is moving to New York. "You can see that the people on the streets are calm, everybody is easy going, nobody has any problems." I am still trying to believe that it’s New York City that he’s describing.
"Living in the Diaspora was the best thing the Jews ever had, we were stupid to give it up," declares another acquaintance of mine. When I mention the Holocaust and all the horrors of the past 2,000 years of exile, he replies, "Yeah, but except for those the Diaspora was really great. I’m just looking for a girlfriend with a foreign passport. The shop is closing down and it’s time to get out." When I point to the university across the street, and the massive construction projects going on there, when I mention the million Russian immigrants who came in the last decade, when I point out that the Diaspora Jewish community is, at least statistically, experiencing rapid death, he just shrugs his shoulders. "Who cares."
All this talk makes me curious about my other friends. I ask my roommate G. if he would leave if he had the chance, "BETACH!" of course, he replies, "What is there to look for here? The only reason I’m not there right now is because I can’t afford the plane ticket. In America there is no unemployment, there is no crime, there are no taxes, there are no wars, everything is perfect." Would he marry someone Jewish? "It’s a new generation, who cares."
Living in Israel is easier said than done. It’s easy to dream or pray for the "Return of the Exiles," quite a different thing to try to live it. There is, of course, the constant state of warfare, the knowledge that millions upon millions of Muslims are out there dedicating their lives to destroying you, the three years of active duty military service combined with another two years of reserve that every Israeli has to do, and the terror. "It’s just going to go on and on forever. Everybody knows it, even Peres. They lose every single war, they lose more and more land every time, but they just don’t care, they keep attacking," my roommate explains.
But these are almost external things for most people. Army service can be fun and rewarding, you can get reserve duty over with, terrorism isn’t particularly dangerous, at least statistically. It’s the daily grind here that’s really a killer.
The basic fact is that it’s possible to live, but it seems impossible to get ahead. Each paycheck goes to pay last month’s rent and groceries. The banks don’t give interest, and even if they did, most people don’t have any money to put in them. You can tread water, but you can’t swim anywhere. A new car costs $50,000 minimum. Everybody is heavily in debt. If the average Israeli took the sum total of his income minus his debts, he would be dead five years before he was born. Whereas a tenured professor in the United States would make enough for an enormous house and two or three cars, the Israeli professors I know make do with a four bedroom apartment and an old Japanese station wagon if they’re lucky. The joke among American immigrants is, "How do you make a small fortune in Israel? Arrive with a large one."
And even if an Israeli does end up somehow getting rich here, he simply won’t have the time to enjoy his wealth. Israelis work six days a week, and up to twelve hours per day. It is possible to live the "good life" in Israel if you’re prepared to die at 55 of a stress-induced heart attack. Most middle-class Americans work eight hour days, and after six it’s free time all night long. That plus the two-day weekend means there’s even time to be bored!
Not only do Israelis make a bit less, but everything is much more expensive. Of course, you can buy the cheap Israeli stuff at the shuk, but it all falls apart. I learned the hard way that it’s much better to buy American stuff. "Even the cars they sell here are lousy," says my cousin Rafi, who is an insurance broker, "Even the exact same model and the exact same make of car that they sell in America! They use lousier parts on the ones they ship here because they know that Israelis just don’t know any better and expect their cars to be falling apart all the time." A bar of deodorant costs about $7 here, while in America I can buy a four-pack for $6. When any of my relatives visit America, they always come back loaded with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, cosmetics, clothes, even frozen meat.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the oppressive tax burden, which is needed to fund the army, immigrant absorption, the Yeshivas, the state subsistence payments to the exponentially growing and chronically unemployed Arab population, all burdens which most societies don’t have, suck the life out of the economy. God help Israel if the $3 billion per year in American military assistance aid ever stops.
Everything in life is a struggle here. Even just getting to the front of a line (a line in Israel is shaped like a triangle) you have to push. When one of my relatives had a serious medical problem, she had to go to the hospital to have an MRI scan. When she arrived, the doctor told her she wasn’t on the list and she would have to wait a few months even though she was clearly in great pain and it was an emergency. Eventually, her husband found out that he knew the plumber of the building, who threatened to cut off the water to the Magnetic Resonance Imaging department if the chief doctor didn’t admit her immediately, so he did. Two Israelis having a heated discussion sounds to most outsiders like a roomful of people screaming at each other. You feel that you have to yell at the top of your lungs just to be heard.
All of this with the feeling of being locked in a ghetto. Israel is an absolutely tiny country. No matter where you are in the country, to drive half an hour west will take you to the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, to drive half an hour to the east will land you in the prison of some third world Arab country, and now you have to be careful where you’re driving inside the country because one wrong turnoff will land you in the clutches of the Palestinian Authority. Ramallah, where the two Israelis were brutally tortured and lynched a year ago in front of the cameras by the Palestinian Authority, is a fifteen-minute drive from downtown Jerusalem. Never mind that Silwhan and East Jerusalem are only five minutes away. Sometimes, you can even just stay where you are and the suicide bombers will come to you. Tulkarm, a major Palestinian center for terrorist bombings on the Israeli city of Hadera, is only an hour away from Hadera by foot.
It all adds up to a feeling of discomfort, like the land is trying to spit you out. Every inch of territory, every shekel in the bank, every minute of sleep is a constant struggle. In order for someone to decide to live in Israel, there needs to be some sort of counterbalance to the equation to make the struggle to be worthwhile. When an Israeli can’t answer the question, "How can you stand to live in this place," then it’s only a matter of time before he leaves. Today one in nine Israelis doesn’t live in Israel.
The difference between the people who leave and those who stay is like the difference between people who love their work and those who hate it. If you have a job you hate, or you aren’t suited for, every minute seems to take an hour, every hour an eternity. Small problems become frustrating and it becomes difficult to understand new ideas. For someone who loves his job, the days fly by, and every problem is a new challenge to overcome.
The main draw to Israel today is no longer Zionism or Jewish national liberation, it’s religion. Everybody who has told me that he wants to leave is secular, everybody who has told me that he wants to stay is religious. I am yet to find an exception to this rule. While most of the immigrants of today come from Russia and other decaying countries, when these immigrants find out that I came from America, they always ask me with bewildered expressions, "Why!?" Most secular or non-Jewish Russian immigrants with whom I have spoken view Israel as a stepping-stone to greater things, a way station on the way to America. Immigrant benefits provide an education and a recognized degree which will be very useful upon arrival in the United States.
Succeeding in Israel requires a certain level of acceptance. The happy Israeli has to tell himself, "It’s okay, I’m not going to live with everything. I’ll have one car instead of two, my house will have one story instead of two, I’ll stop drinking Coca-Cola all the time and drink the lousy Israeli version." The Talmudic saying goes, "Who is rich? He who is happy with his portion."
I asked my religious roommate S. whether he could ever imagine living in the United States. He paused for a quarter second before replying, "No, never." When I mention that I will have two years of army service if I decide to make aliyah, he immediately replies, "Do it! And try to get into a combat unit. It’s hell, but the army was the best thing I ever did in my life."
When I ask the secretary at work why she moved from France, the answer is simple, "What is there in France for a Jew?"
To the proud immigrant, being poor becomes a distinction. "When I first came from Canada and married, we had nothing, and our apartment flooded every winter," my cousin tells me, "we built furniture out of scrap wood, Styrofoam, and cardboard boxes, but it was really fun!"
Emigration, known in Hebrew as "Yeridah," or "descent," is a very serious problem. Shimon Peres’ "New Middle East" philosophy, in which he attempted to turn the Middle East into a borderless common market, was supposed to be a secular remedy to the problem. Israel was to become a wealthy merchant hub, the Hong Kong of the Middle East, distributing goods and services throughout the Arab world. Even if the peace process had succeeded, the "New Middle East" wouldn’t have done anything to help with Yeridah. No matter how rich Israel becomes, the United States will always be richer. No matter how calm the situation may be between wars, there’s always another war around the corner. Yeridah takes away the best educated segment of society, it is Israel’s version of the "Brain Drain." Worse, those who leave Israel, especially the non-observant, lose the anchors of Jewish identity and face the prospect of assimilation. Those who leave may not be the idealists or the dreamers, and I may have my political differences with them, but each and every loss is an inestimable tragedy both to Israel and to them, and I for one will miss them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2002


The city of Hebron has always been at the center of Jewish history. Hebron is the city where the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the matriarchs are buried. It is the city where Ruth and Jesse lived and are buried, it is the city where King David was crowned, it was the first capital of the Jewish Kingdom under King David, and it is the second holiest city of Judaism.

From the time of King David, Hebron was continuously populated with Jews. Often, throughout the eons of history, through Rome, the Byzantines, the Muslims, the Ottomans, and the British; the Jewish community would be destroyed, exiled, or killed, but there were always new volunteers to take their place. It is said that that the Jewish people still live if there is Torah study in Hebron, but in 1929, Torah study came to an abrupt end when the Muslim population rose up, killed, mutilated, and dismembered the Jews of Hebron with passive British assistance. In 1948, the city was conquered by Jordan and remained under Jordanian control until it was recaptured by Israel in 1967. On Passover of 1968, a group of eighty-eight Jews rented the Park Hotel to celebrate holiday in the holy city. When the holiday was over, they announced that they had come to reestablish the ancient Jewish community of Hebron, and were not leaving. They remained besieged in the hotel until, five months later, the government finally granted them permission to stay. Eventually, they established Kiryat Arba, which is today the Jewish suburb of Hebron. In the heart of the city, 400 Jewish settlers have repossessed the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, site of the ancient Jewish quarter, they have refurbished the Hadassah building, the hospital built with the funds from the Jewish Women’s organization, and have established several trailer homes on Tel Rumeida, the site of the ancient city itself, all amidst a hostile Arab population of 100,000.

Hebron was the first religiously motivated settlement, and it sparked a wave of similar settlements throughout Israel of Jews returning to their ancient cities out of religious conviction rather than secular ideology. For this reason, and because Hebron is the most besieged and isolated of the settlements, Hebron is something of the “capital” of the settlement movement. When a left-wing Israeli wants to talk about removing the settlements, the first word out of her mouth is Hebron. “Hebron is full of fanatics. How can we keep 400 Jews protected in a city of 100,000 Arabs forever?” When a right-wing Israeli wants to talk about keeping the settlements, the first thing out of his mouth is Hebron. “Hebron is the second holiest city of Judaism. How can you talk about giving up Hebron? You had might as well rip the Jewish Star off our flag.” It is both the most slandered and praised Jewish community on Earth, which is why I wanted to see the place for myself.

I can tell which bus is headed to Hebron without checking the number because of the obvious retrofit in response to the recent violence. The front windshield is protected by a thick wire screen; presumably to stop rocks, and the passenger windows look to be about two inches thick to stop bullets. I give the bus driver my 12 shekels and we’re off.

The bus ride from Be’er Sheva to Hebron may only an hour, but it feels like driving through the pages of History. Be’er Sheva, where the Patriarchs lived their lives, and Hebron, where they are buried, both claim the title “City of our Forefathers,” but they feel like different worlds. The Be’er Sheva of today is a modern city. Driving through the countryside, which used to belong to the tribe of Judea, we pass Bedouin villages, Jewish towns, and gentle, rolling hills. Because of the recent rains, the usually dead landscape is carpeted in thick green. Passing the city of Meitar, the bus crosses the green line into “The Territories.” There is no sign to tell you that you’re entering Shomron, but I have the map of Israel pretty well memorized and I know where we are. The gentle hills and plains suddenly give way to steeper hillsides dusted with a thin layer of grass. Everywhere are small streams, reforestation projects, and open land. There is not a soul to be seen as we drive on and on, just more and more empty land. We come to a Jewish settlement to drop off some passengers. The settlement is built into the hillside, surrounded with barbed wire. As we stop and wait for the soldiers to open the iron electronic security gate, some men walk by with hoes and pickaxes slung over their shoulders, returning from the fields. It all looks like something from a picture book of the pre-statehood pioneers.

As we continue and approach Hebron, the land becomes more and more crowded with Arab neighborhoods and settlements, built in a haphazard, unplanned style. On either side of the road are roadblocks and checkpoints to keep road clear of terrorists, and we have a military Jeep paving the way ahead of us. Eventually, we come the to Kiryat Arba, the Jewish suburb of Hebron, and pass through the iron gate and the security checkpoint. I get off the bus and ask around on how to get to the city itself, and I eventually find the front entrance to the settlement where I bump into a bunch of people waiting there who tell me I can hitch a ride with them. A minivan pulls over to the side and we all pile in, about eight of us total. We drive by the squad of soldiers standing by the entrance bundled up in flak jackets and helmets, looking for all the world like giant green cocoons with M-16s. The minivan weaves through the zig-zag of cement barricades outside the entrance, obviously designed to stop some crazed terrorist from charging a car straight through the iron gate. I look around, no military escort. I notice the five millimeter thick tinted glass-window, about as effective against bullets as saran wrap. I look around in the car, nobody holding the customary M-16. But before I have time to ask any questions, the driver takes the minivan barreling straight into the heart of Arab Hebron.

This is when I realized that the Jews of Hebron are a different breed. Throughout the country, the vast majority of people rely on the military and police for protection. All the checkpoints and border fences and bag searches are enough to stop most of the terrorists, and if anybody gets through, well, it’s just a risk you’re going to take in life. Not so in Hebron. As the car zigs and zags through Arab Hebron, I’m too surprised to say anything. The buildings are covered in Arabic graffiti with spray-painted portraits of the Dome of the Rock, Mecca, and some faces (suicide bombers, I imagine, although there’s no way to know.) The streets are full of gangs of Arab men, sitting on the street corners, mothers walking home with their children, kids playing soccer in the dusty unpaved road.

From what I have read about the community here, I had expected to find in Hebron a besieged and terrified Jewish community, shuttled from place to place by armored convoy, always just waiting for the Arab population to get angry and attack and kill them, like in 1929. I expected to find the Jewish quarter surrounded by twenty-foot reinforced concrete walls. I expected that no Arabs would be allowed into the Jewish section, and no Jews into the Arab section, like in the old city of Jerusalem. But when we got to the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, we came to checkpoint and passed into the Jewish quarter, and it was full of Arabs and Jews trading and doing business. When I got off the van, there were several soldiers standing around, but none of the people seemed at all worried.

Walking into the Avraham Avinu neighborhood was like walking into some propaganda video trying to get you to move in. An old, teacher stood under a tree reciting Tehillim (Psalms) while ten children sat on the bench and repeated after him. The yeshiva students were running to and fro getting ready for Shabbat, people were taking groceries home. There are the Carelbacher religious Zionists, with their long beards and peaceful expressions, the women with their long dresses, who could all be mistaken for counter-culture hippies. I notice a plaque on the wall informing me that this is the site of the murder of Shalhevet Pass, a baby who was shot to death in her mother’s arms by an Arab sniper at the beginning of the conflict. I look up and can see the hundreds of Arab houses in the Abu Snineh hills, and I wonder if my head is in anybody’s crosshairs right now, but nobody else seems concerned. Two soldiers are playing tag with some children right here in the open, the old teacher is still reciting Tehillim in the open, and nobody seems at all worried. It suddenly strikes me; these people are fearless! It’s as if some psychological surgeon opened up their souls, made a few clean incisions, and pulled all the fear right out.

I find my way the Yeshiva where I’ll be staying and meet some other people who have also come in for Shabbat. I’m the only one without a black hat, but I’m used to that by now. Two guys have come in from B’nei Brak, the super religious neighborhood outside of Tel Aviv, and the rest are Lubavitcher Chassidim from English-speaking countries who are studying at a Yeshiva in Tzfat, way in the north. We all walk together to the Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs for Shabbat. I find a spot to stand, Abraham’s tomb is ten feet in front of me, Sarah’s is ten feet behind me, and I am charged with electricity, as if I am the conducting wire of a spiritual current flowing between them, even thousands of years after their deaths. We proceed with Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, singing, and learning, and the electric feeling gets stronger and stronger. We feel an overwhelming sense of peace, and I begin to understand what draws people here.

We are jarred when the loudspeakers cry out, “Alaaaaahuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu Achbar!” I am rudely reminded that this site is also holy to Muslims and there is a prayer rotation. I swear I can hear the Muslim prayer leader giggling through the microphone at having interrupted the Jews. The three hundred or so Jews packed into the cave begin singing loudly enough to shake the building to its foundation. I imagine Jacob is lifting an eyelid in his tomb.

For dinner, I am invited to a family in Tel Rumeida, on top of the ruins of the ancient city of Hebron. A single road running through the heart of the Abu Snineh hills, which is a crowded Arab neighborhood, connects each of the different Jewish locales of Hebron; The Machpelah, the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, the Hadassah building, and Tel Rumeidah. Each turn-off from the main road is barricaded. There are steel screens attached to the buildings spanning the width of the street and reaching a height of two stories, obviously to protect the soldiers from rocks and firebombs. At every intersection is a sandbag foxhole; on top of the buildings at every street corner is a watchtower. One or two soldiers man each of these positions. At regular intervals down the length of the street are rows of sandbags, which look like fallback positions. At one point as we hike up the hill we come to a strip of the road where there are no buildings on one side of the street to block the view, but the vista is ruined by six-foot high cement blocks. This side of the street faces Area A, Palestinian controlled territory, and is lined with cement barricades, “To protect us from snipers,” explains my host. As we walk along the street, there is a gap in the protective barricades. “This,” my host tells me, “is the part where we walk faster.” He calls my attention to a particularly heavily fortified turn-off, which, he informs me, is the border with Area A. Most of the buildings on either side of the street are populated by Arab families.

Eventually, we reach Tel Rumeida. The “housing” here is really just maybe ten trailers. A steel framework has been constructed to support their weight, and the trailers are stacked one on top of the other. After the meal, as we stand in the kitchen, I can see the beautiful vista of the city lights out the window. In the middle of our conversation about his family, I notice a chunk is missing out of his kitchen cupboard before realizing it’s actually a hole. Then I see another hole, and another. Making careful mental measurements, I notice that some of the holes line up with holes in the wall.
“Is this what I think it is?””Yeah, sometimes we take fire from Area A.”
“When did all this happen?”
“Each bullet hole has a different date.”
“Was anybody hurt?” I ask, sticking my pinky into one of the holes.
“No, but that one right there happened when I was in the dining room.”
“Are you at all worried, what with the situation the way it has been for the last year?”
“No, it was just as easy to get killed here twenty years ago as it is today.”

The Jews of Hebron have a simple strategy for survival: Do unto your neighbor as he does unto you. There is no cheek-turning here. Many of the people here are followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was something of the Malcolm X of the Jews. He began the JDL, the Jewish Defense League, in the United States as a gang to retaliate against attacks on Jews. He eventually moved to Israel and started the “Kach” party, which advocates immediate forcible expulsion of all Arabs not willing to accept Jewish sovereignty, which is pretty much all of them. He actually won a seat in the Knesset before his party was declared illegal. He was assassinated while giving a speech in New York City in 1990, but judging by the graffiti around here, his ideology is still alive and well. I notice a pile of the newest bumper stickers on the table. It is a modification of the old bumper sticker “Ain Aravim, Ain Piguim,” “No Arabs, No Attacks.” The supreme court declared the bumper sticker to be incitement to violence and banned it last week, so the new ones have the word Ain crossed out and the word Yesh written over it, so it now reads, “Yesh Aravim, Yesh Piguim,” “There are Arabs, there are attacks.” Rabbi Kahane may be dead and gone, but his ideology is still alive and well. Everywhere the Arabs spray paint “Jews out!” or “Death to Jews,” the Kahanists spray paint over them the “Kach” logo, a clenched fist superposed over a Jewish star, or simply “Death to Arabs.” The Arab declarations that Hebron is an all-Arab city are mirrored by the giant Hebrew poster hanging from the barricade, “Hebron is all ours”

While the rest of the country is fighting the war physically, the Hebronites are fighting it psychologically. In most places, Israelis take what precautions they can to protect themselves. If a place is unsafe, people don’t go there. If there is a danger, you carry a gun. The Hebron Jews walk around with their heads high, totally unintimidated. While walking back downhill the next day, an Arab kid of about eight starts hurling insults and stones at a Jewish kid of the same age. Now normally, a Jewish Israeli would back off or maybe get some help, but this kid just picks up stones and starts hurling them right back. Anything the Arabs do, the Jews do right back, they don’t wait for the police to get involved. The Meir Kahane book I read last night, Referendum or Revolution, declares that if a government is unable to protect its citizens than the citizens are required to take matters into their own hands. Hebron’s Arab mayor was assassinated years ago, and there have been several attempts, some successful some not, to bomb Arab busses. I am scared to know what happened after Shalhevet Pass was killed by that sniper. They walk in the open davka, specifically to prove that they aren’t afraid, and it works. This is the first place I’ve been where Jews and Arabs interact, and the Arabs don’t follow you around and stare you down like they want to kill you. We go about our business and they go about theirs. Something tells me that if the army were to withdraw from this place, these people would do just fine by themselves.

Inevitably, when living this close to the edge, some people fall over. One morning in March 1994, a man by the name of Baruch Goldstein calmly walked into the Arab section of the Machpelah, pulled out an uzi, and started mowing down the worshiping Arabs. He was the Jewish version of the suicide bomber. 

On Shabbat day, I stayed with another family in Tel Rumeida. The husband is an “Anglo” (English speaking) immigrant, so we are able to understand each other quite well. After the meal, he walks outside and briefly talks with a soldier before returning. A giant armored truck which looks like a gasoline carrier drives by and sets up at the end of the street. He informs me that there was an attempted stabbing earlier today, so they are going to set up a fire hose at the end of the street and blast anyone who comes near. A fifteen year old Arab girl had attacked a Jewish woman walking back from synagogue with a fifteen-centimeter knife, in full view of a soldier. The soldier froze up and didn’t know what to do, so the woman pulled out a revolver and stopped the girl, who ran away before being caught.

“This whole place is built on murder,” he mutters. I ask him to explain. “We can only build after there has been a murder, because that’s when the opposition in the Knesset is lowest. When the original families took over the Beit Hadassah building, the Knesset couldn’t decide whether to let them stay or not. For five months, they were besieged in there until an Arab murdered five Jewish children who were playing outside the building. When that happened, the resistance in the Knesset was low enough that we would pass a bill allowing us to stay. We didn’t get permission to rebuild the Avraham Avinu neighborhood until there was a murder.” He points outside to a series of cement pillars, “That’s going to be our new home, but we couldn’t get the permit until an Arab broke into one of these trailers and murdered our Rabbi.” I remember when Shavhelet Pass was killed by that sniper, her parents refused to bury her until the Army retook the Abu Snineh hills. I am overcome with the eerie feeling that if I get killed here, there’s going to be a bill in the Knesset tomorrow to get another building, that if I die, it’s one more point for Hebron, that giving one’s life is expected.

After Shabbat, I am sitting by the bus stop waiting to get back to Kiryat Arba and catch a connection to Be’er Sheva. I am not a Hebron Jew, so I try to position myself next to the bus stop so that I am out of range of snipers. The sound of a huge explosion reverberates throughout the valley. The next day I read in the news that a roadside bomb had gone off as a convoy of soldiers passed, but nobody was hurt. The bus pulls up and I get the last seat, sitting next to an old Sephardi man, who immediately begins grilling me on how my Shabbat was, “Why are you sitting here? You should have sat somewhere else! There’s no room because we’re both fat! HAHAHA! How was your Shabbat? Did you pray at Machpelah? Did you like the food? What do you do? Oh, you’re an engineer? Are you married? Would you like to meet my daughter?” I politely explain that I’m going back to America in three weeks and would need more time than that to marry his daughter, and I hop off the bus in Kiryat Arba. The schedule says that the next bus isn’t coming for another hour and a half, so I start walking around the town. I eventually come to a long garden with benches and a path, lit by floodlights. I walk down the garden to the end and see a three foot by three foot by six foot rectangular stone. It must be a grave! I wonder who it is, someone pious? It must have been someone exceedingly righteous to merit having an entire garden built for him. As I come closer, I see that the grave is covered in small rocks. It is Jewish custom to place a small rock on the tombstone when visiting the dead, and so many of them indicates that this must be someone very special to have so many visitors. I bend over and read the inscription, “Baruch Goldstein.” I jump back! I’m not quite sure what to do with myself, and I just stand there numbly thinking about what I heard today.

“This whole place is built on murder.” A memory comes back to me of what my cousin told me about the Independence War. I had wanted to hear some stories about the war, so I asked him what he had been through. He just looked out the window wistfully and told me, “I was seventeen years old. My entire generation died.” I didn’t get it then, but looking at the Jews of Hebron, I get it now. These people know what happened to all the previous generations of Jews who came to Hebron, how they always ended up getting killed by the Arabs, and they are prepared to risk it all, to put everything on the line, to preserve this place. And, looking at Baruch Goldstein’s grave, I see how far it can push people.

I suddenly become very frustrated, as if some of Baruch Goldstein’s energy is still in the air. I feel my hands clenching like the clenched fist over the Jewish star in the Kach graffiti, and my mind fills with questions. Is this really what it takes? Why do we have to go through this? Why do we have to live next to people so full of hate for us that the only way to survive is to become them? Why can’t they just accept a Jewish minority the way Israel can accept an Arab minority? What is it about us that makes them so murderous? And why do we have do give so much? Nobody is asking the French to leave Paris, yet driving the Jews from the holy city of Hebron is considered justice! Why is it that, when somebody says “Jewish Settlers,” it’s always pronounced with a sneer, as if we’re all legitimate targets? Nobody ever asks what the “root causes” of Baruch Goldstein’s act of terror are, and yet they’re crawling all over themselves to declare in disinterested voices that terrorism against Jews is bad, and with passionate, angry voices about the horrible injustice that has been wrought upon the Palestinians that they should be forced to live next to a bunch of Jews! And what makes us so evil for wanting to live in our own home? And what gives everybody else the right to tell us that our home is not our home, it’s somebody else’s? And why do we have to be so perfect all the time? When the Palestinians gained control of Joseph’s tomb in Schem (Nablus,) they immediately gutted, destroyed, and burned it, yet when the Jews took control of the Machpelah, they worked out a time sharing arrangement so that Muslims and Jews could both pray there together, and yet the Jews are considered evil for being there! How outrageous! Why is it that we try so hard to be perfect, and the world seems to just hate us all the more for being so?

I’m not even close to being able to answer these questions, so I hop on the bus and head back to Be’er Sheva. We pass the green line, out of the territories, and the army escort heads back. Quiet, modern Be’er Sheva. No barbed wire, no soldiers in flak jackets and helmets, no armored personnel carriers, no “Death to Arabs” graffiti, no checkpoints, no explosions, no terrorist attacks in Be’er Sheva for the fifty three years of statehood. It seems so calm, but the very next day, two terrorists drive down the street spraying random people with bullets, killing an 18 year old and a 20 year old girl.

Despite my mixed feelings about the trip, I can definitely say that I learned more about what peace really is from one day in Hebron than from a year and a half in Israel. The settlers in Hebron taught me that peace is something that starts with us, not our enemies. The Jews of Hebron are at peace with themselves. Being in that community, one can feel that their souls are welded together as one, and that one soul of Hebron has the force of a locomotive. They are focused like a laser on what they are doing; restoring the Jewish community of Hebron, fulfilling the religious obligation to live in their homeland, and protecting the right of the Jews to pray at the Machpelah. They are prepared to make major sacrifices in their life, and occasionally of their lives, to bring this about. Fifty years ago, a generation fought in the Independence War to build the state. People who had survived five years in the concentration camps of Europe would get off the boat, be handed a gun, go to the front, and die the same day, only to be buried in an unmarked grave because nobody had time to learn their name. These people were prepared to give it all, and give it anonymously. They knew what they were doing, and the Jews of Hebron know what they are doing.

Nobody is strafing the streets of Tel Aviv with gunfire every night, nobody is sniping at babies around every street corner, I’ve never seen a kitchen full of bullet holes there, but the people are confused and lost because their paper peace of Oslo has fallen apart in their hands. Everybody used to make fun of Arafat because he kept his wife and children hidden safely in Paris. They stopped laughing last week when a report was aired on channel two that the children of almost every minister of the Labor party are living in America. If somebody doesn’t know why he’s here, then every responsibility becomes a burden, every week of reserve duty a nightmare, every bomb scare a trauma. But in Hebron, on the front lines, the people are calm and at peace with the world because they know why they are there. The hotels of Tel Aviv are empty, but I had to wait two weeks to get a free bed in Hebron. Tel Aviv has a thing or two to learn about peace from Hebron.

Sunday, February 10, 2002

Attack in Be'er Sheva

I just wanted to let everybody know I am okay. About an hour ago three terrorists drove down Pal Mach street in the Old City of Be'er Sheva and started randomly shooting people. They happened to be next to an army building, and some soldiers on lunch break killed them, but not before they were able to kill two passersby. One of the dead terrorists had a bomb strapped on him and right now the security forces are trying to defuse him. Just wanted to let everybody know I'm okay.

Thursday, February 07, 2002


Israel’s mortal enemy, Iran, is on the move. The Karine A weapons ship, and Iran’s assistance in transferring Al-Quaida personnel to Lebanon is only the beginning. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced yesterday that Iran has shipped 10,000 missiles capable of striking every city in Israel to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Jordan revealed that his army had thus far thwarted 17 attempts by Iran to covertly sneak forces over his territory to launch missile attacks on Israel, which was had a great effect in Bush’s decision to include Iran in the “Axis of Evil.” Two days ago, Yassir Arafat’s Fatah faction successfully launched a Kassam-2 rocket and broadcast a video of the test on Palestinian television. Yesterday, the Israeli Defense Forces captured a van with 8 Kassam-2 rockets at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

There seems to be an effort by Iran to coordinate attacks by all terrorist forces under a single Iranian umbrella. At first glance, this policy would appear to be both stupid and dangerous for the Iranian dictators. Already on the list of “Evil-supporting states,” one would think that the mullahs in Iran would lie low until America decides to declare victory. After all, what does all of this terror get for Iran, which has no territorial dispute with Israel, no particular love for the Palestinians or Arafat, and no interest in becoming a target of President Bush?

Clearly, this effort is intended as a distraction from Iran’s real threat: the Islamic Bomb. Iran has been working intensively for the last five years to create its own nuclear arsenal, and, according to the media reports, it’s only about two years away. Iran has officially declared that there will be no peace in the Middle East until Israel is annihilated. In order to forward this goal, Iran has begun construction of a nuclear plant at the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr which will be capable of producing weapons-grade nuclear material. Israel’s policy on the Islamic bomb is clear: under no condition will Israel permit any enemy country to obtain nuclear weapons, period. This is a fundamental pillar of Israeli defense strategy, and is considered grounds for going to war. An Islamic bomb means a second holocaust, as one nuclear weapon is capable of destroying half of the state of Israel in an instant. It is also expected that these weapons will be capable of hitting the United States by 2015. The cold-war strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD,) whereby it was assumed that the United States and Soviet Union would never launch nuclear weapons because they would guarantee destroying each other, does not apply here because the Iranian fundamentalists are already mad. This is a suicide culture, and Iran has already announced that it knows that Israel will respond with nuclear weapons to any nuclear attack on Israel, but the Islamic world can take the damage Israel would inflict, whereas Israel will be completely destroyed. In 1982, Iraq tried the same trick of getting a nuclear power plant to process weapons-grade plutonium and Israel, under then Defense Minister Sharon, promptly bombed it.

It is therefore only a matter of time before Israel or America destroys the Iranian nuclear facility at Bushehr, and Iran knows it. Yesterday, the Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani announced, “If Israel attacks Iran, we will respond in a way no Israeli politician has ever dreamed about." In an interview on Spanish television today, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced it was time to move against Iraq and Iran, “"I am totally confident that there is no way to bypass it [an attack on Iran or Iraq]." Iran will probably respond with missile attacks similar to what Israel experienced during the Gulf War, except quite possibly armed with chemical or biological weapons.

Israel is currently protected from this threat by the Arrow missile defense system. The Arrow is much more sophisticated than the Patriot system which was ineffectively deployed against Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf War a decade ago, and capable of shooting down just about anything in the air, except an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM.) Iran does not currently possess ICBMs, but is currently working on obtaining the technology from North Korea. In the last two days, most Israeli politicians have been coming out announcing the need to attack Iran soon. Very likely, the raid will be lead by the United States, in order to forward the war on terrorism and to deflect possible reprisal on Israel. Ariel Sharon is currently in Washington, where he is expected to bring up this issue. An attack on Iran is almost a certainty now, and each second brings it one second closer.

President George W. Bush

In the Pulitzer Prize winning book Maus, author Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father’s experiences in the Holocaust in the form of a cartoon. Each nationality is drawn as an animal, i.e., the Nazis are cats, the Jews are mice (an obvious analogy since the Nazi Cats were, throughout the novel, chasing the fleeing Jewish mice,) and the Americans are dogs. The dog is the perfect analogy because it embodies the characteristics which the rest of the world sees in America; loyalty, friendliness, and trusting naive.Through my dress and mannerisms, most Israelis can spot me as an American before I utter a word. When Israelis or Arabs see me, they think only one word, “Frier” (sucker.) They have one of two reactions: either they try to rip me off, or they feel sorry for me and try to help keep me from getting ripped off. When I tell my roommate I’m going to the shuk (market,) he always demands to be able to come with me to protect me. It is just assumed that I will pay any price being offered, like an obedient dog being ordered to sit, as if I don’t know the difference between a good deal and a bad one.George W. Bush fits the stereotype of the American perfectly. He is greatly resented throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world for his “moralizing” in his State of the Union address, defining his enemies as an “Axis of Evil.” His fierce, dogged loyalty to struggling and embattled democracies such as Taiwan, the Philippines, and Israel is viewed in these places as a sentimental weakness.In most of the world, politics is viewed as a dirty, amoral business. This because these countries have to deal with the world as it is, not how they would like it to be. That’s not to say that these countries don’t pretend to do what is right, but it’s more a case of changing their morals to fit the needs of the moment than it is to basing their actions on their morals. It was French President Charles De Gualle who said, “True causes have no allies, only interests.” The perfect example of the difference between America and the rest of the world is the Gulf War. When Sadaam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, there was nothing small, weak countries like France could do about it. If Iraq had ended up controlling 80% of the world’s oil reserves, then France would have just had to either deal with an evil man like Hussein or starve. France simply did not have the economic or military power to send a huge army to the other side of the world and alter the world.The only way that small countries can alter reality is by colluding together. In Israeli history, the best example of this was the 1956 Sinai campaign. France and Britain wanted to regain control of the Suez Canal which Egypt had nationalized (stolen.) France and Britain colluded with Israel to set up a situation whereby Israel would attack Egyptian Sinai, and France and Britain would offer to intervene to “prevent a war” and send in their militaries to set up a buffer zone between the two countries, a buffer zone which would just happen to encompass the Suez Canal, thus allowing them to regain control of the strategic waterway. The first part of the plan proceeded brilliantly, and Israeli forces quickly smashed the Egyptian Army and were heading towards Suez, but the plan was foiled when then President Eisenhower discovered the plan and forced Britain and France not to intervene militarily. Thus the plan, like most of these temporary alliances, ended in betrayal and backstabbing when Israeli forces were left holding the bag with neither British and French military support nor international backing.In this sense, Bill Clinton was the ultimate European-style American President. His ability to forward his political goals as moral agendas was unparalleled, and his ability to execute cold, calculating political maneuvers would have left Charles De Gaulle gaping in awe. He always knew how to get what he wanted from you while charming you at the same time. Most Israelis didn’t figure this out until it was too late, and some never did. During his election campaign, Clinton loved to tell the story about how his preacher, on his deathbed, made Clinton promise to, “always protect Israel.” I suppose they were so busy singing Zionist campfire songs that they didn’t have time to discuss matters which most people discuss with their ministers, such as “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”Clinton loved to wax eloquent to American voters about the strength of the Israeli-American alliance. At the end of his term, when it came time to put his cards on the table, his true hand was exposed. The first hint was after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Israel had occupied a strip of land in southern Lebanon to protect itself from missile attacks and shellings on its northern border since 1982. America wanted Israel out, but Israel needed a security fence along the northern border and wouldn’t withdraw without one. Clinton announced, in no uncertain terms, that the United States would gladly fund the border fence, at a cost of $60 million, if Israel would withdraw. Additionally, he made it clear that he was prepared to upgrade the American-Israeli strategic alliance. Israel withdrew, exposing its northern cities to missile and mortar attack. In response, Clinton simply reduced Israel’s military aid by $60 million and then allocated $60 million to the border fence, totaling $0. What about the strategic alliance? “Maybe later.”By embarking on the peace process Israel knew that it was taking a huge, possibly existential risk. Israelis needed the reassurance that, if things didn’t work out, then America was still behind them, and they got it from Clinton. In the end, Clinton admitted that Arafat had, in fact, rejected peace at Camp David II. But the real clincher was when the violence started. Suddenly Israel, Clinton’s favorite little “strategic ally” was under direct attack. Israel’s capital was being repeatedly bombed, the streets were on fire, and mortars were falling on its cities. Clinton’s failure to back Israel was seen here as a great betrayal. His constant calls for “restraint,” even while Israel was taking zero military action, and his even-handed equation of teargas and non-lethal rubber bullets to suicide bombs and mass killings of civilians left Israelis bitter and disillusioned. Clinton had left Israel holding the bag, just like France and Britain had in 1956.There was great apprehension in Israel upon George W. Bush’s election. It was assumed that he would take advice from his father, who was also still resented here for having strong armed Israel into the peace process in the first place. Only about 20% of American Jews voted for him, so it was assumed he would not “owe” them anything. He had mentioned Israel only in passing and did not seem to have Clinton’s sentimental affection for the place.Appearances, however, can be deceiving. George W. Bush correctly sees the world as divided into good and evil. The non-moral European approach has proved bankrupt and failed to bring peace. Bush doesn’t need complicated political theories to understand why terrorism against Israel somehow legitimate. Long before September 11th, while the state department was still issuing its hourly condemnations of Israel, Bush could cut through two hours of convoluted moral equivalence by simply saying, “I just don’t understand how these folks can strap bombs on and blow themselves up.”Bush is not an eloquent man, and he certainly doesn’t have the education of a history professor. Instead of trying to understand and theorize about the “roots of terrorism,” he’s trying to end it. For regimes which sponsor terrorism, fear is political currency. Dictators inspire fear in their subjects to keep them in line, but the dictator must always live in fear of his subjects rising up and deposing him. All political decisions in these regimes are based on this “balance of fear.” The only way to get these regimes, this “Axis of Evil,” to cease attacking America and Israel is to make them so terrified of what America and Israel are going to do to them if they sponsor terrorism that they decide it’s better not to. The condescending perception that George W. Bush is loyal and naive like a dog is an asset in the war on terror. Dogs may be friendly creatures, but G-d help anyone who gets in the way of an angry rotweiler.

Monday, February 04, 2002

Tit for Tat

Israel is getting some new neighbors. According to American Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, “We know Iran is actively sending terrorists down through Damascus into the Bekaa Valley (Lebanon,) where they train as terrorists, then engage in acts against countries in the region (Israel) and elsewhere." Iran appears to be backing the Palestinians militarily, having supplied the weapons for the Karine-A weapons ship, and now, according to the German newspaper Die Welt, Iran is assisting in the transfer of Al Quaida personnel from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Gaza. They are apparently brought to Pakistan and then smuggled into Saudi Arabia as pilgrims to Mecca, and afterwards transferred to Lebanon. Saudi Arabia is supposedly cooperating. Saudi millionaires, including members of the royal family, supplied the funds for the Karine A weapons ship. Yassir Arafat is offering $5,000 for every Al Quaida fighter who relocates to the Palestinian Authority areas, and a few have already apparently been spotted in Gaza. The rest are heading to the Bekaa Valley to link up with Hezbollah, the terrorist organization which is supplied by Iran controlled from Syria.

In order to keep all of these bad neighbors out of Israel’s yard, the government is planning to fence off Jerusalem. The plan calls for a 33-mile long fence to be built around municipal Jerusalem, including an 11-mile solid wall along its southern periphery. The fence will enclose several Arab neighborhoods including Abu Dis and Silwhan within Jerusalem, as well as the outlying settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, and not redivide the city. Both right wingers and left wingers are opposed to the plan because they fear it will eventually become a permanent border; the left are in opposition because they are eventually going to demand a withdrawal to the 1967 border and the annexation includes too much of the West Bank, and the right is opposed because it doesn’t include enough. However, the almost daily attacks in downtown Jerusalem are proving too much, and a solution had to be reached immediately. All traffic from Palestinian areas will be funneled to a few checkpoints, which are hoped will provide a serious deterrent to terror. The success or failure of this plan will likely prove or disprove the effectiveness of the “Great Wall of Israel” proposal, whereby Israel will make a giant wall to keep the invading terrorist hordes out.

Meanwhile, Gaza Security Chief Muhammed Dahlan, who planned and executed the bombing of a school bus in Kfar Darom at the beginning of the Intifada, and Yassir Arafat are both trying to circumvent their diplomatic isolation by appealing to the public. Dahlan came out in the left-wing Israeli paper Ha’aretz with an article calling for coexistence, an end to terrorism, and solving problems through negotiations, conditional on Israel’s complete and total abandonment of the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat did much the same in an editorial in the New York Times. The statements are, however, falling on deaf ears. Israeli ears have been deafened to Palestinian calls in English for coexistence which are followed up within hours with calls in Arabic with calls for “Jihad!” and more martyrs. The Bush Administration as well, while taking a year to finally come to the conclusion that Arafat is directly and personally involved in terrorism, is no longer swayed by Arafat and Dahlan’s continued condemnations of the terrorist acts which they themselves perpetrate.

While the Bush Administration’s opinion and actions have gradually come around to embrace Israel’s point of view, there are still the calls for Israel to break the “cycle of violence” from most of the newspaper editorials, the Europeans, and even many in America. These calls are based on their picture of the conflict, in which they see each attack as retaliation for a previous attack from the other side. Indeed, there is an element of revenge. After most major attacks in Israel, Israeli helicopters will usually be in the air within a few hours mercilessly rocketing empty Palestinian buildings for the cameras, thus sating the anger of most Israelis. Likewise, every suicide attack is declared as revenge for the previous “assassination” as the Palestinians like to call them, or “removal from society” as Sharon likes to call them, of Palestinian terrorist masterminds. If there were no “removals from society” at the time of the suicide bombing, then the attack is declared as revenge for another recent event. In January, four Israeli soldiers were killed by Hamas in the middle of Arafat’s cease-fire as revenge for Israel’s seizure of the Karine A weapons ship. According to this logic, by stopping the weapons shipment, Israel violated the cease fire.

Because the terrorism and Israeli counter attacks are linked together and seen as “tit for tat,” the solution is obvious. One of the parties must simply exercise restraint and break the cycle of violence. Since the Palestinians claim to be completely unable to control themselves, and Islamic terrorist organizations have no interest in catering to western sensibilities, calls for restraint fall on Israel. According to the “tit for tat” theory, if Israel would exercise restraint and simply allow Islamic terrorist organizations to exhaust their murderous rage upon Israeli citizens, then quiet will return, everybody can go back to negotiations, and peace will reign supreme. In fact, both the Barak’s Labor government and Sharon’s Likkud government have, at times, acceded to international pressure and done exactly that. After the bombing of the Dolphinarium disco, in which 21 young people were killed, there was no Israeli retaliation and Arafat declared a temporary cease fire. Of course, the shooting continued, Palestinian rage was not exhausted, and the fighting is still going strong.

Exercising restraint is not an effective means of dealing with terrorism because the terrorism is not motivated by revenge. That’s not to say that the people who strap on bombs and blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces are not angry people. In fact, a suicide bomber has to be a person filled with such rage that he hates his enemies more than he values his life. His criteria for success is not achieving an end but simply inflicting pain on others. However, it takes more than one extremely angry Palestinian to make a suicide bomb. Suicide bombers require transportation, materials, backing, and a huge amount of support. Even most educated engineers don’t know how to make C4, the plastic explosives used by the bombers. It takes a highly educated and trained mind to make the bomb, plus money and infrastructure (such as the Karine A weapons ship) to supply the components. It also requires transportation and assistance to pass Israeli security, and money to care for the surviving members of the bomber’s family. All this implies organization, and organizations cannot function on revenge and blind rage alone. Immediately after PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa was snuffed by an Israeli missile strike in Ramallah a series of bombs went off throughout Jerusalem in what the PFLP claimed as retaliation. According to the “tit for tat” subscribers, if Israel had not killed Mustafa, then the bombs would not have gone off. This is obviously untrue. The fact that Mustaffa had just been killed had no effect on a terrorist operation which had been put into motion long beforehand. According to an interview in The New Yorker, suicide bombers have to go through a rigorous selection and brainwashing course that takes at least a month. When Israel kills a terrorist leader, and the next day a bomb goes off in “revenge,” the bombing was actually planned long before. Suicide bombings may be executed by fanatics, but they are planned by cold, calculating political minds.

Likewise, when Israel carries out “removals from society,” this is not an act of revenge. Guidelines passed by the Israeli JAG (military justice system) clearly state that targeted killings can only be carried out on those who are planning to carry out an attack in the future, not those who have carried out attacks in the past but no longer pose a threat. All this is lost on those small minds which need easy characterizations, cliches, and sound bytes like “tit for tat” and “cycle of violence.” The idea that this is just some back-and-forth tribal conflict and not about something deeper is uncomplicated, easy to understand, and dead wrong.