Sunday, September 24, 2006

Lord Considers Options !

"Lord Considers Options" read the headline in my morning paper earlier today. I read this while preparing to attend synagogue services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Given the timing, my mind immediately turned to the Netana Tokef prayer:

Who by water; Who by fire …

My son, Yehuda was even more alarmist. "Maybe he's decided to smite us all," he said. Not an unreasonable conclusion, I thought, given the other newspaper headlines. Nevertheless, I tried to assure him, that after the Flood, God forswore such sweeping acts of collective punishment. After all, fathers need to give their kids hope. But frankly, I am avoiding getting too confident until after Yom Kippur. (And, I only allow myself to write this publicly, because I know Yehuda never reads this blog.)

As for the headline in the Toronto Star, it referred to a story, about the recently ousted Premier of New Brunswick, Bernard Lord.

A Rosh Hashanah List

For the New Year, here's a list of things to worry about and things to hope for over the coming year.


1. Global Warming. This may not be a problem that I, as a 55 year old, will get to see the full impact of, but the consequences for my children and grandchildren are so stark that we should all wrap our minds around what to do, and start doing it as soon as possible. If you need convincing, or ideas about what can be done read the book "The Weather Makers" by Tim Flannery

2. Peak Oil. We are consuming oil faster than we are discovering new sources. Eventually, and not on the distant future we will begin to run out. When demand starts to vastly outstrip supply, prices will rise to the point that oil will be too expensive for most application we use it for today. Energy use, or the avoidance of energy use, will consume more and more of our money and time. Our lifestyles, from what we eat to where we live, will drastically change. The only question is, will we hit the wall in 5 years or 35 years. And will we have developed alternate energy sources in time, or not. For more info click here.

3. Iran goes nuclear – in both senses of the word. This one is much less certain then the two listed above, but the consequences could be even more severe for Jews. There are several variables here that make it hard to know who much to worry about this one. Will they get nuclear technology and when. If so will they develop a nuclear bomb, and when. If so would they use their new nuclear status to effectively increase there anti-Israel and anti-Western influence. And finally would they ever actually use the bomb against Israel. Right now I am betting that either they won't get a nuclear bomb or that by the time they do get one, the Iranian regime will have moderated somewhat. But it’s a bet based on hope, not any certain knowledge.

4. No progress on the Israel / Palestine front. Given the absolutely dire situation of the Palestinian population this would be a tragedy of the first order. Given that nature and politics abhors a stasis, no progress likely means deterioration: on the one hand an increase in Palestinian violence against Israel - including the likelihood of a full scale third intefada and a further hardening of Palestinian public opinion vis a vis Israel - and a the further disintegration of Gaza and the West Bank in to an ungovernable mess; and on the other hand and increase of Israeli settlement activities within the "approved settlement blocks" and a hardening of Israeli public opinion vis a vis the Palestinians. And world public opinion will be not be on Israel's side.
5. New Canadian elections wherein Stephen Harper and the Conservatives win a majority government. On a world scale this is not such a big worry, but as a Canadian it is for me. Harper's and most of his conservative caucus are true believers. Given a chance to do what they want to do, unchecked for four or five years, I fear for what the country would look like when there done. It would be ironic Canada adopted so many of the failed social policies of the U.S. Just as Americans are beginning to wise up that maybe private medicine, mandatory sentencing, free access to guns, unreasonably low taxes, poorly thought out overseas military adventures, anti "alien" phobias, and the religion of Individual Freedom at the expense if the public good, do not lead to a nice or sustainable place to live.


1. That "we" recognize the dangers listed above, and arewise enough and energetic enough to take timely actions to avoid or to mitigate them.

2. That we are lucky enough to avoid the worst of their possible effects.

3. That I am wrong, and in fact none of these things will come to pass.

4. That we remain decent and optimistic despite all the various reasons to worry. That we make our personal worlds models of larger world that we hope to see one day.

5. That some Toronto sports team – Blue Jays, Argonauts, Maple Leafs, Raptors – rise above the mediocre. I could use the distraction.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Three Eulogies

I came across these three eulogies recently. Two are contemporary. The third from 1956.

The first eulogy is that of S Yizhar, who died last month. Yizhar was the great Israeli author of the pre-state period, the War of Independence, and the early years of the state. The author of glorious “short pants” romantic Zionism. A true devotee of the Labour Zionist dream of the new Hebrew man, close to soil and the landscape, simple taciturn and true, committed to egalitarianism, self sacrifice and the good of all. Yet he also saw the conflict between the collective will and the individuals desires and conscience. Moreover, he was also the revealer of the darkest secret of the 1948 war – the expulsion of the Palestinians.

Yizhar, was the quintessential conflicted sensitive Israeli. “We cry and we shoot, we cry and we shoot.” Though his prose allowed no one to deny awful truths; neither his heroes nor he himself actively opposed or protested. He just noted and mourned.

The second eulogy is that of Roi Rutenberg a young Israeli killed, in 1956, by Arab infiltrators from Gaza. Delivered by Moshe Dayan, it is classic defence of the need for Israelis to be tough, and it is a J’Accuse against Israeli yafeh nefesh (pretty hearts) who believe that peace and justice are options actually available to Israeli Jews. For Dayan these people are naive and dangerous. Dayan understands that the Palestinians have reason to hate us – we expelled them. But he see no possibility of reconciliation, and argues that it is better to kill than be killed. No other option exists, and best to accept that without false sentimentality. Dayan would have had no patience for S Yizhar.

The third eulogy is for Uri Grossman, by his father the great contemporary Israeli author David Grossman. Uri Grossman was killed in the recent war in Lebanon. Two weeks earlier his father had signed a public letter, together with other Israeli authors – calling for a halt to the fighting in Lebanon. Both Grossmans – father and son – were firmly in the Zionist peace camp. Believing that peace and justice are possible, but not as long as Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza. Believing that even if Israel is doomed to fight for the foreseeable future, it is not doomed to being cruel and unjust. Indeed, only by removing cruelty, gratuitous “toughness”, and injustices – propagated, as if, for the higher ideal – are peace and real security possible. For the Grossman’s human life in all its complexities, burdens, and potentialities trumps both grim fatalism and nostalgia for lost innocence. Cynicism is a curse. Decency, love, sincerity are always options.

The eulogies are presented below.

· · ·

With the August 21 passing of Yizhar Smilansky, Israeli literature lost a voice of moral conscience and modern Hebrew lost one of its most gifted virtuosos. (He wrote under the name S. Yizhar, as he was and is universally known in common parlance as Samekh Yizhar.) Dubbed the James Joyce of Hebrew literature, Smilansky — who received numerous literary awards, including the prestigious Israel Prize — died one month shy of his 90th birthday.

Born in 1916 into a literary family in the farming community of Rehovot, Smilansky studied education in Jerusalem and worked as a teacher for a number of years. At the age of 22, he burst onto the literary scene with the novella “Efrayim Returns to the Alfalfa.” His capacity to challenge his readers never diminished. Later he served as a member of the first Knesset, representing the original Labor Party, and continued dabbling in politics until the Six Day War began. In the 1970s he returned to academia. He was hired by a number of Israel’s leading universities, first as a professor of education and later as one of literature.

Throughout his oeuvre of short stories and novellas, Smilansky’s protagonists tended to display the same general characteristics: single; male; resides or longs for life in a small, rural community; highly sensitive and idealistic, and takes with him wherever he goes the idealized image of a beautiful woman who must remain beyond his reach. The Yizharesque male guards his privacy jealously and is given to extended meditation and lengthy inner discourses; though never out of touch with immediate reality, he is helplessly indecisive, emotionally vulnerable and ultimately unfulfilled.

Part of the first generation of sabra writers, Smilansky portrayed both the beauty and the sins of his country. In 1949 he wrote two stories that would bring him notoriety and generate intense public debate, and that are now classics of Israeli literature: “The Captive” and “Hirbet Hiz’ah.” Both grew directly out of the author’s wartime experience and describe in graphic detail the callousness and cruelty displayed by a platoon of young Israeli soldiers toward hapless Arab villagers caught in the middle of the hostilities. Against pressure exerted by Smilansky’s critics on the right, “The Captive” and its companion story entered the curriculum of the secular education mainstream and have been long-time standards in most anthologies of Israeli literature in translation. (In the 1970s, “Hirbet Hiz’ah.” was, to much controversy, made into a TV drama. For a fascinating in-depth essay on the significance of these works on Israeli literature and the Israeli consciousness see here. )

In the late 1950s his massive work "Yemey Ziklag" ("Days of Ziklag") appeared, comprising two volumes and more than a thousand pages. This work completely changed the outlook for Hebrew prose on the one hand, and "war literature" on the other. The work earned him the Israel Prize at only 43, making him one of the youngest recipients of the prize.

By the 1980s it was generally assumed that the writer’s literary career had peaked, given that no new work of fiction had appeared in almost three decades. But in the early 1990s, Smilansky once again stunned the literary establishment with a burst of creativity that saw no fewer than half-a-dozen new novellas published in less than a decade.

· · ·

Early yesterday morning Roi was murdered. The quiet of the spring morning dazzled him and he did not see those waiting in ambush for him, at the edge of the furrow.

Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we declare their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.

It is not among the Arabs in Gaza, but in our own midst that we must seek Roi's blood. How did we shut our eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate, and see, in all its brutality, the destiny of our generation? Have we forgotten that this group of young people dwelling at Nahal Oz is bearing the heavy gates of Gaza on its shoulders?

Beyond the furrow of the border, a sea of hatred and desire for revenge is swelling, awaiting the day when serenity will dull our path, for the day when we will heed the ambassadors of malevolent hypocrisy who call upon us to lay down our arms.

Roi's blood is crying out to us and only to us from his torn body. Although we have sworn a thousandfold that our blood shall not flow in vain, yesterday again we were tempted, we listened, we believed.

We will make our reckoning with ourselves today; we are a generation that settles the land and without the steel helmet and the canon's maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home. Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken.

This is the fate of our generation. This is our life's choice - to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.

The young Roi who left Tel Aviv to build his home at the gates of Gaza to be a wall for us was blinded by the light in his heart and he did not see the flash of the sword. The yearning for peace deafened his ears and he did not hear the voice of murder waiting in ambush. The gates of Gaza weighed too heavily on his shoulders and overcame him.

· · ·

My dear Uri,

At 20 minutes to 3 in the morning, on the night between Saturday and Sunday, they rang our bell. On the intercom. They said they were from the army. Already three days in which every thought begins with "no." No, he won't come, no, we won't speak, no we won't laugh. No, this lad with the ironic expression and the maddening sense of humor won't be any more. No, the rare conjunction of determination and delicacy will no longer exist, no, there will no longer be Uri's boundless tenderness, nor the quiet with which he stabilizes every storm. And no, we will no longer watch "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld" together, nor will we listen to Johnny Cash with you, and no, we will not feel your strong embrace and we will not see you walking and talking with Yonatan, gesticulating enthusiastically, and we won't see you hugging Ruthie, the darling of your heart.

My beloved Uri, during all of your short life we all learned from you. From your strength and your determination to follow your own path. To follow it even if there is no chance that you will succeed in it. We followed with wonder your battle to get accepted to a tank commanders' course. How you would not give in to your commanders, because you knew that you could be a good commander, and you were not prepared to be content with giving less than you are capable of giving. And when you succeeded, I thought, here is a person who knows his abilities in such a simple and intelligent way. In whom there is no pretense and no arrogance. Who is not influenced by what others say about him. Whose source of strength is within himself.

And you were like that from birth. A child who lives in harmony with himself and with those around him. A child who knows his place, who knows he is loved, who is aware of his limitations and knows his strengths. And truly, from the moment you bent the entire army to your will and became a commander, it was clear what kind of commander and human being you are. And today we are hearing from your friends and your soldiers about a commander and friend, who would wake up before everyone in order to organize everything, and go to sleep only after everyone had dozed off. And yesterday, at midnight, I looked at the house that was quite a mess after hundreds of people had visited and consoled us and I said, nu, now we need Uri to help get things organized.

You were the leftist in your battalion, and they respected you because you stood by your opinion without giving up any of your military tasks. When you went out to Lebanon, Mom said what she was most afraid of was your "Eliphelet syndrome." We were very much afraid that like Eliphelet in the song, if it became necessary to rescue someone who was wounded, you would run right into the line of fire, and you would be the first to volunteer to bring a supply of ammunition that had long run out. And just as you were your whole life, at home and at school and in your military service, and just as you always volunteered to give up a furlough because another soldier needed a furlough more than you, or because his household was in a more difficult situation - that is exactly how you would act there, too, in Lebanon, in face of the difficult fighting.

You were a son to me, and also a friend. And you were the same to Mom. Our soul is linked to yours. You were a person at peace with himself, a person with whom it was good to be. I cannot even say out loud how much you were someone to run with, for me. On every one of your furloughs you would say, "Dad, let's talk" and we would go somewhere together, usually to a restaurant, and sit and talk. You told me so much, Uri, and I felt pride that I had the good fortune to be your confidant. That a man like you chose me.

You lit up our life, Uri. Mom and I raised you with love. It was so easy to love you with all our hearts, and I know that life was good for you. That your short life was good. I hope that I was a father worthy of a child like you. But I know that being a child of Michal's means to grow up in endless generosity and kindness and love, and you received all of these in great abundance, and you knew how to appreciate and how to give thanks, and nothing that you received was taken for granted.

At this time I am not saying anything about the war in which you were killed. We, our family, have already lost in this war. The State of Israel will now make its own reckoning of conscience. We will huddle into our pain, surrounded by our good friends, wrapped in the tremendous love that we feel today from so many people, most of whom we do not know, and I thank them for their boundless support. I fervently hope that we will know how to give one another this love and solidarity at other times as well. This is perhaps our most unique national resource, our greatest national spiritual treasure.

I fervently hope that we will know how to be more tender toward one another. I fervently hope that we will succeed in extricating ourselves from the violence and hostility that have seeped so deeply into all aspects of our lives. I fervently hope that we will know how to straighten up and save ourselves now, at the very last minute, because very hard times still await us.

Uri was a very Israeli child; even his name is so Israeli and so Hebrew. He was the essence of Israeliness as I would want to see it. The Israeliness that has almost been forgotten. The Israeliness that is sometimes considered almost a curiosity. And he was a person with values. This word has been much eroded and has been ridiculed in recent years, because in our crazy, cruel and cynical world it is not "cool" to be a person of values, or to be a humanist, or be truly sensitive to the other's distress, even if the other is your enemy on the field of battle. But I learned from Uri that it is indeed both possible and necessary. That we indeed need to preserve our soul. To defend ourselves in both senses: both to protect our life and to preserve our soul. To insist on defending it from simplistic might and simplistic thinking, from the corruption that lies in cynicism, from the pollution of the heart and the scorn for human beings that truly represent the biggest curse for everyone who lives his whole life in a disaster zone like ours.

Uri simply had the courage to be himself, always, in every situation. And finding his precise voice in everything he said and did is what protected him from the pollution, corruption and shriveling of the soul.

On the night between Saturday and Sunday, at 20 minutes to 3 in the morning, they rang at our door. Over the intercom they said that they were from the army, and went to open the door and I thought to myself - this is it, life is over. But five hours later, when Michal and I went into Ruthie's room and woke her up to tell her the terrible news, Ruthie, after the first tears, said: "But we will live, right? We will live and we will go on trips like before and I want to keep on singing in the choir and we will keep on laughing like always and I want to learn to play the guitar." And we hugged her and told her that we would live.

We will draw our strength from Uri; he had strengths that will suffice us for many years. He had such a strong aura of life, of vitality and of warmth and love, and its light will continue to shine on us, even if the star that generated it is extinguished. Our beloved, we had the great privilege of living with you. Thank you for every moment you were ours.

Mom and Dad, Yonatan and Ruthie

Slichot, the Pope, Palestine and Repentance

Last night I attended slichot services. These are the nightly “forgiveness” services that Jews say in the month (Sephardi tradition) or week (Ashkenazi tradition) before Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. For Jews the New Year, and entire High Holiday season, is not a time for wild partying, but rather a time to take stock of the last year and make resolutions for improving in the next year. It is a time for self reflection, and Tshuvah – repentance. The slichot services are supposed to prepare us by getting get us into the proper mood and proper frame of mind.

Central to the spirit of the period, is a laser like and honest focus on our own deeds, public admission of fault when found, acts of remediation as much as possible, and acts of charity and justice as atonement. Furhermore, we are to focus not just on private deeds, but on the acts of the collectives (guild, city, state, nation) to which we belong as well.

On the days preceding the slichot service became aware of three items. It struck me that two of them were examples of how not to engage in the self reflection demanded of tshuvah, while the third give me and my fellow Jews an opportunity to engage in the self examination, remediation, charity and justice required of us by the season.

The first item was the Pope’s now infamous speech in which he said – among other things – that Mohamed’s innovations in religion were “only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” What an incredibly dumb and insensitive thing for the leader of a major faith, who claims he is trying to promote interfaith dialogue - to say! Much has been written about that aspect of his words, and I don’t need to add anything in that regard. But it occurred to that his whole speech (see the full text here ) was an example of how not to focus inwardly; of how intellectual achievement can be brought low by the arrogance of self righteousness and the lack of introspection.

To be sure the speech is well constructed and demonstrates an intellectual understanding of history of western religious thought and philosophy. It was, at its core a defence of the power of Reason to elucidate religious truths, and an impassioned call to once again engage in theology – the search for transcendental and ultimate truths – by way of rational thought and reason; rather than leave it to, what the Pope clearly understands to be, poorer methods, based on taste and cultural relativism, pragmatism, irrational faith, or force of coercion.

But who does he accuse of these wrong headed approaches to religious debate. The post modern academics – and their popular followers – of cultural relativism, modernist positivist philosophers of pragmatism, the Protestants of irrational faith, and the Muslims of coercion.

Everyone is guilty of not appreciating the proper role of Reason in theology. Everyone but the Catholics. As if: Catholics never engaged in coercion (and all those Central and South American natives converted because of rational argument;) Catholics never engage in pragmatic arguments to promote religious principals (what about the argument against homosexual marriage because – they say – to allow it will destroy the proper functioning of the family and society;) Catholics never appeal to blind faith (and all the simple Catholic pilgrims praying for miraculous cures at various shrines are there by reason alone;) and Catholics never engage in cultural relativism in explaining or spreading their religion (just look at the various syncretic Catholic practices in South America, and Africa).

My point is not to criticize Catholics for these things. It is just that if the Pope wished to attack non Rationalist tendencies in theology and religious proselyzation, he could have found many examples at home. He would have been more credible if he had.

Clearly the Pope is not attuned to what the High Holiday season demands of us.

The second negative example of Tshuva that I came across, was an email circulated in the Jewish community, designed to build Jewish self confidence in light of the Lebanon war. It contained such gems as:

I'm proud to be a Jew because Jews don't kidnap.

I'm proud to be a Jew because Jewish education does
not consist of teaching martyrdom …

I'm proud to be a Jew because even when Israel is
wrongly and falsely accused of killing innocent civilians, Jewish
leaders apologize immediately for any loss of life …

I'm proud to be a Jew because the Israeli Army is
so, so good, …

And I am proud to be a Jew because when we proclaim
that God is on our side, we have the book to prove it.

I, on the otherhand am ashamed when I read this sort of stuff. None of the above statements is true. Further, the uncritical self congratulatory tone is the exact opposite of the tone required by the High Holliday season. Nothing useful can be learned about our behaviour from such clever self promotion, and no improvement in the future is possible when no fault in the past is admitted to.

Clearly the Jews who write and forward these emails are not attuned to what the High Holiday season demands of us.

The third item that came to my notice these past few days – and one that gives Jews an opportunity to be deeply self critical, and at the same time do something positive to improve things, is the arrival of a new shipment of Zatoun olive oil from Palestine.

is a project designed to improve the economic status of Palestinian farmers living under Israeli occupation. The olive oil is tasty, and the money goes to help people who, thanks to the Israeli occupation, have no easy way to sell there oil at a fair price and to make a decent living. Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, including land expropriation, unequal allocation of water, disruption of shipping, blockades, up-rooting of trees, denial of permits, etc., have reduced most Palestinians to poverty.

This is not only immoral, it is against Israelis own self interest. Hungry desperate people are also angry and violent people. The comfortable bourgeoisie or prosperous farmer is not so prone to self destructive military adventurism. Moreover, Israel’s anti-economic policy vis a vis the Palestineans is inhuman, and it is un-Jewish. It is vindictive and short sighted. (For some of the details Israel’s policies in this regard and of the Palestinians economic plight see the award winning article in Ha’aretz by my old friend Bradley Burston- Let their people go ; or this one from the New York Times - Cut Off, Gazan Economy Nears Collapse.)

For a Jew at Rosh Hashana time, buying Zaitun olive oil and soaps can be an act of Tshuvah. It is a critical inward look, admitting that we – collectively – have caused great economic hardship to our Palestinian neighbours and cousins; it is an act of partial restitution, paying back for some of that damage; and it is an act of justice allowing people to live with dignity and hope for the future.

Perhaps too, it will be an act of peacemaking, allowing the year 5767 to be a better year than 5766.

For more information on Zaitun and how to buy see here.

Moses in Indonesia

My eldest daughter, Yona, is working for an international NGO in Ache Indonesia (the epicentre of the 2004 Tsunami). Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority country, and Ache is the most “conservative” area of Indonesia, when it come Islam. It was the first area of Indonesia to convert to Islam – being closest to Arabia and having long been a sea trading post on the Indian Ocean and thus in contact with Arabia for millennia. It was once the centre of a powerful Muslim Sultanate, and it was from Ache that Islam was introduced to what is today Malaysia, Thailand, and most of the rest of Indonesia. It is the only Indonesian province that imposes Sharia Law, and so my daughter tells me, the Achenese view the rest of Indonesia as lax in the extreme in their practice of Islam.

My daughter’s job in Ache is to promote “inclusive education”, which involves getting children with disabilities to attend the regular school system. (Currently they either attend special, and usually inferior schools, or do not attend school at all.) This past week, she was leading a seminar where her and the local staff where promoting their cause with school officials in some village. And in order make his point, that children with disabilities can become productive members of society given proper opportunities, on of her Indonesian co-worker used the following line of argument.

Even the prophet Moses, had a speech impediment, yet he rose to become a great leader of the Jews.

What I found interesting is that both he and his audience where obviously so intimately familiar with the story of Moses, and the various midrsahim (and I assume here that there must be parallel Islamic tales) that he stuttered or slurred his words. What I found heart-warming was that he used religious imagery to promote tolerance and inclusiveness, things we in the West do not usually – in these time any way – associate with religious Islam.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Some Good News Items

With most recent Jewish news being worrisome – to say the least – we should take good news where we can.

  • The Jewish Agency has finally decided to stop discriminating against Israeli Arabs. Its about time! Lets hope they keep their word and keep it up.(Now if only the JNF would let Israel Arabs live on its land holdings – more than 50% of all land in Israel – and if the Israeli government would spend the same per capita on Arab schools and Jewish ones – currently its 1:7 in favour of the Jews – we would have real progress.)

  • The next Sandy Koufax has been found! And, better yet, he is Benjamin Rubin a budding Canadian Jewish hockey star. (Eat your heart out Shawn Green!) The good news in this story is both Benjamin Rubin's commitment to Judaism, but also his team's acceptance of that.

Yuk Yuk: Is Anti-Semitism the Next Big Thing?

Comedy often shows us what society really thinks and really worries about. It addresses the concerns and truths that lie just under the surface. But comedy is also very parochial. One person's funny is another's tasteless, politically incorrect, or merely "I don't get it."

And it is also true that taste in comedy (and most other things) spreads, usually from the cultural elites to the rest of us. So if you want to know what children's names will be popular in 10 years from now, look and see what California and Massachusetts university professors are naming their babies today. If you want to see what music will be hot next fall, find the right youth sub culture, and listen to what they are listening to right now.

Based in this approach, I predict that both anti-Semitism and concern about anti-Semitism will both get more mainstream in the coming year. (Of course you could conclude the same thing by reading newspaper accounts about the reactions to the recent Lebanon/Israel war.)

A cases few of where "leading edge" comedy is playing on anti-Semitism for laughs:

  • Spamalot – I went to see this extremely silly and very entertaining musical with my family. To my utter surprise, a play set in Arthurian England, and based on a movie I know half by heart, had one song and one joke about Jews - their supposed power and their fears of anti-Semitism. The audience laughed and applauded particularly loudly, and a bit nervously I thought, at these bits – usually a sign of recognition of a hidden and uncomfortable truth exposed.

    For the song "You Won't Succeed on Broadway", I imagine some in the audience thought the hidden truth revealed was that "the Jews control the media", and the others thought it was "that so many people believe the Jews control the media".

    The joke wherein the page explains that he had hidden his Jewishness from King Arthur, because "Its not an easy thing to admit to a heavily armed Christian, is its sire?" got even louder laughter and applause then the song. I interpret this to mean that most of the audience, in fact, felt uncomfortable with the possible anti-Semitism (as opposed to anti anti-Semitism) of the song, and where relieved to be able to express their own concern that anti-Semitism in the world, and among their peers is rising. I hope I am not being too optimistic here.

  • The Hebrew Hammer II – this upcoming sequel to the silly and tasteless (but I think pretty funny) original Hebrew Hammer (which made fun of Blaxploitation films and of Jews ambivalent feelings about power, rather than any concern about anti-Semitism) opens with a scene wherein "The Hammer" stops Mel Gibson for erratic driving.

    “Hey, copper, you a f—ing Jew?” Gibson asks.

    The Hammer smiles and says: “Well, actually, yes. Yes, I am.” He then pulls out a .45 and blows the actor’s brains out.

    Here the revealed uncomfortable truths are two. Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite (well, perhaps that’s not a revelation any more); and that many Jews are frustrated that there has been so little response to this and other signs of anti-Semitism, and would really like to see his brains blown out.

  • Borat – The Toronto International Film festival screened the world premier of "Borat Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." (See the trailer here; see a review here ; and see Borat's infamous song "Throw the Jews Down the Well" here.)

    A major running gag of the film is the title character's extreme anti-Semitism. Audiences at the Toronto screening howled in laughter. The audience is made up of movie industry insiders and film aficionados. Precisely the cultural elites who typically lead the way to the next big thing. What is the revealed and uncomfortable truth they are laughing so hard about? IMO, that anti-Semitism is rising – and no one wants to discuss it openly yet.

Canada's Afghan Quagmire

You know a military operation is in trouble when: (a) the generals start lying; and (b) the operations start reminding you of seemingly endless Israeli operations in Gaza and the West Bank.

How do we know the generals are lying to us? Because they are contradicting themselves left and right. Read the newspapers. Just in the past week we have been told: The current offensive in Panjwayi district is going extremely well; but the enemy is putting up much fiercer resistance than expected. We have the Taliban surrounded; but they are bringing in reinforcements to replace the fighters we have killed We have the physically 600 Taliban fighters cut off; but they are just "psychologically surrounded". We are winning; but we need more troops to win the fight. Canada has no troops to spare for missions in Darfur or Lebanon; but we will be sending 500 more troops to Afghanistan.

How are Canadian operations beginning to resemble Israeli operations in Gaza? On Friday the Globe and Mail reported that Canadian troops "used an armoured bulldozer to carve a new road across a dry canal and smash a gap through a mud wall," and that they were "hacking at mud walls with pickaxes to open firing holes and cutting down trees with chainsaws to clear their gunners' view of the terrain." In short, they are destroying civilian buildings and infrastructures as well as orchards, and using the same tools – bulldozers, pick axes and chains saws – as Israelis have been using in their operations in Gaza and the West Bank.

So we know this mission is in serious trouble.

But why should this surprise us? It has been a very long time since a foreign army has won against a locally based guerrilla force. (And an even longer time since a foreign army won any war in Afghanistan.) The French lost in Algeria and Vietnam. The U.S. lost in Vietnam and Somalia. The U.S. is unable to win in Iraq. The Russians are unable to win in Chechnya. The Israelis were unable to win in Lebanon, and seem unable to impose their will in Gaza or the West Bank either. Local fighters are simply too difficult to stamp out, and have much more staying power and much more ability to withstand casualties than do foreigners. (The case of Israel and the Palestinians is particularly tragic in this sense. Since both are local, both have incredible staying power, and thus the conflict just goes on and on and on, with neither side being able to defeat the other.)

The above holds true no matter the "morality" of the local guerrillas. All that counts is that they think they are right, and that they have support of a significant segment of the population (15-20% will do.)

One case where a guerrilla war did come to an end, is Nicaragua. This is because both sides were local, no foreign troops were on the ground (although, of course, the Contras were funded and trained by the U.S.) And because both sides agreed, in the end, to something less than total victory – that they could live with a negotiated political compromise. Bosnia is a similar case.

So, Canada should clarify its objectives in Afghanistan. If it wishes to fight for decades, in order to forestall a Taliban victory, well then, - stay the course. But prepare for higher and higher costs in both dollars and lives. And be prepared to be hated by more and more Afghanis as we continue to destroy their homes and farms in order to save them.

If Canada wishes to get out with some honour, it should give the Afghan government a dead line for when they must take over the bulk of the fighting, and when we reduce our commitment to only support and training, and at the same time it should encourage a negotiated end to the conflict, even if that means a coalition government that includes the Taliban.

Or if Canadians don't like option one – fighting for decades; and we don't think option two – the Afghani government successfully fighting the Taliban while working out a negotiated settlement – is possible; then we are left with option three – packing up and going home as soon as possible, before the number of Canadians and Afghanis killed, in a losing cause, just gets higher.

Some people call this cut and run. Others will call it cutting your losses. Its the smart – and even moral – thing to do, when you don't have a better option.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Just the Facts

I like numbers and hard facts.

But reliable data has been hard to come by in the 2006 Israel Lebanon War. And when data has been available, it has been hard to put in context. How many homes did Israel destroy in Lebanon, and is that a lot or a little when compared to other conflicts? How much damage was caused in Israel? Is that more or less than other conflicts?

Below some numbers I have been able to glean. I cannot vouch for their absolute accuracy (and often there are ranges) but I believe them to give an accurate order of magnitude.

(I should also add that just because there are many immoral activities in the world, doesn't make them OK. Also, I don't mean to imply that we should become blase or indifferent to death and destruction just because so much happenned elsewhere. On the contrary, one death does not justify another.)

NATO operations in Yugoslavia (The Kosovo War), 1999

  • Civilians Killed:
    • approximately 500 - according to NATO,
    • approximately 5000 – according to the Milosevic Yugoslav government during the war,
    • 1092 – according to the post Milosevic post war Yugoslav government
  • Total refugees: 800,000 – 1,100,000
  • Direct property damage: $4 billion
  • Lost economic activity over first year from start of the war: $3 billion.

Gulf War, 1991

  • Total Iraqi Civilians killed by U.S. coalition direct actions: 5,000 – 15,000
  • Civilians killed in single bombing incident, Bagdad, Feb 13 1991: 600-1000
  • Destroyed homes: 70,000 – 100,000

U.S. Aerial Bombing Campaign in Afghanistan, October 2001 – March 2002

  • Civilians killed: 3,000 - 3,400

Iraq War, Jan 2003 – present (August 2006)

  • Iraqi civilian killed by U.S coalition actions March/April 2003: 7300
  • Iraqi civilians killed by military and insurgent activities July 2006: 3100
  • Total Iraqi Civilians killed by military and insurgent activities since January 2003: 41,000 – 47,000

Lebanon War, July - August 2006

  • Civilians killed:
    • Lebanese 854 – 1400
    • Israeli 39
  • Refugees
    • Lebanese 700,000 – 900,000
    • Israeli 140,000 – 350,000
  • Direct Property Damage
    • Lebanese $3 billion - $3.9 billion (including 15,000 homes destroyed)
    • Israel $0.5 - $1.1 billion
  • Lost economic activity over first year from start of the war (projected)
    • Lebanon $3 billion
    • Israel $2 billion
  • Military Costs
    • Lebanon $50 - 100 million (extrapolated costs of Hezbollah weapons used or destroyed)
    • Israel $1.6 billion (includes direct costs of mobilizing 40,000 reserve troops)
  • Area of Beirut destroyed by Israeli bombing: 2 km-sq ( total approx built up area – 80 km-sq )
Other Numbers

  • Number of Israeli civilians killed in traffic accidents May 2006: 36
  • Number of Lebanese civilians killed by other Lebanese, Lebanese Civil War, Jan 18 1976 in village Katrina: approximately 1000
  • Total Number of Lebanese killed in Lebanese Civil War, by all parties, 1975 - 1991: approximately 100,000

Sources used in researching this material include:

Friday, September 01, 2006

Visit Palestine

The story of this poster is one of rediscovery, multiple incarnations and blurred identity. If only Jews and Palestineans could share the land as easily as they have this poster.

Read: "How did a travel ad from the 1930s become one of the most ripped-off images
in the Middle East?"

See a larger image of the poster here.