Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Letter to ..........

Have you ever had the experience that you have left your house to go somewhere, and you get halfway there and you have to turn around and go back to where you started – maybe you forgot something: your lunch, your glasses, your bus pass, or your cell phone, whatever. That’s sort of how I feel right now. I finished my last article about Sderot, “First, Steal a Lamppost,” and I was working assiduously, as promised on a new piece about the United Jewish Council’s General Assembly in Jerusalem, when I realized that I had to go back to the topic of Sderot and deal with some unfinished business. First of all, the ceasefire there has ended, kassams began to fall from the skies, war with Hamas appeared inevitable, and then, as we know, it broke out, first in the skies and now on the ground.
But something else had happened, albeit a lot less dramatic. After I sent out the last piece, I got back a message from a very devoted reader in Teaneck, thanking me for the article. It seems that she is in touch with a college classmate (this goes back more years than we are willing to discuss!) who she wrote has recently become “observant,” and the college buddy had sent his e-mail list an article about the sad plight of the Arabs in Gaza. My friend, after wiping away her crocodile tears, sent him my article and asked him to send that as well to his list. My feeling was that I wasn’t going to hold my breath; most Liberals I have come across recently are less than liberal when it comes to considering divergent points of view. But, to his credit, my friend’s friend, who will remain nameless, did circulate my piece, which prompted to me to look at it again – whereupon it occurred to me that a) it wasn’t intended to be “hasbara” (an explaining) to a world which doesn’t “understand” what’s going on in Gaza and why there was at times a partial or complete blockade of goods going in from Israel and why there is again open hostilities; b) I really don’t do hasbara, and there are times when hasbara is either not appropriate or a total waste of time.
Nonetheless, I began with a feeling that I should respond to him and address his humanitarian concerns. And as the crisis escalated, the war began, and the shrill cries of denunciation began to fill the streets and airwaves around the world, my sense that I should communicate to our new friend and to his circle of friends only increased. I’m sure he is a good guy, and maybe he and his wife, both of whom I understand are apparently relatively recent returnees to Torah Judaism, are still in the process of sorting things out, evaluating and coming to terms with lifelong held beliefs. So I am putting aside for now my (almost) half written article on the GA to write this piece, working on it for over a week, which I hope will find its way Lew and perhaps give him pause to think. Here goes:
Dear (),We, of course, have never met. I know you only as someone who I’m told went to school with M.; and you know me only as the author of my article “First Steal a Lamppost,” which you were good enough to forward to your e-mail list. We do have several things in common. First of all, my name – at least my middle name – is the same as yours, and I do have some very old and dear friends, who, for reasons I will not bore you with, still refer to me by that moniker. I am also someone who grew up very much estranged from the Torah and only discovered much later in life that “Its ways are ways of pleasantness.” If you went to school with M., then we are roughly contemporaries. And both of us, in our own way, feel a connection to the Land of Israel, although how we have chosen to express that commitment is very different.
We have had the good fortune, my wife, my children, and I, to move to Maale Adumim, a community of almost 40,000 Jews, which as everyone knows by now is ….. a little bit east of Yerushalayim, and which our Arab “cousins” and many others want us to “give back” – although twenty five years ago there wasn’t even a stray cat living here, and the land on which my house, my street, my neighborhood stand was as barren and “unoccupied” as any piece of property could ever be. Living here has been a revelation, strengthening my belief in the value of empirical observation. That is to say, something which you have heard with your own ears or seen with your own eyes becomes more tangible and significant than anything you have only read or heard about second hand. For example, now that I have been to Sderot and walked around the shopping mall, when I read about the kassam rockets which landed several weeks ago in the mall parking lot, I knew exactly where that was, and I could picture in my mind’s eye the exact spot and what the damage must have looked like; it was no longer an abstract place in an abstract town.
Being in a place also allows you to have a relative sense of the danger you might be in. It’s like calling a friend in California and asking, “Did you get injured by the earthquake?” And your friend responding, “That was in Los Angeles. I live in San Francisco.” A friend of my older daughter was visiting in Tel Aviv; she was scared to come to Jerusalem because someone had told her that if “anything happened” it would be in Jerusalem. Never mind that she was more likely to be injured in a traffic accident on the way to Jerusalem.
Walking around downtown Jerusalem the last week, you would never know that there is a military engagement less than two hours away. Shops in the “Arab quarter” may or may not be closed, but Arab workers in the Mahane Yehuda shuk are still dealing in cucumbers. (Our biggest problem continues to be maneuvering around the light rail construction on Rehov Yaffa.) I read about two opposing demonstrations at Hebrew University on Monday: Arabs on one side of the street; Jews on the other. At about the same time, my daughter Natania – on vacation from the army – and I were on that very same campus on Mount Scopus, innocently looking for the newly refurbished botanical gardens. There are signs all over the place, but no mention of the gardens. We kept asking security guards where to go, and each time we got a different and conflicting set of directions, and we then set off this way and then that way. Finally, we were sent walking through a very long tunnel under the main set of buildings, where students wait for buses. We came out of the tunnel into a dead end at the Egged parking lot. (No flowers there!) At that point, it began to rain lightly and we gave up, hopping on a bus going back to Jerusalem. So for all I know, the Arab students could have been throwing Molotov cocktails less than a mile from where we were wandering. We wouldn’t have noticed. I should mention that the next day, Natania and I were in MisterZol, our local supermarket, when Natania got the call to return to her base. The other young woman who runs the weapons depot with her was out sick; even though hers is only a training base, they wanted the neshkia open and the weapons therein available. So Natania did not get the chance to join us that evening for a wonderful production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeoman of the Guard,” instead joining thousands of resolute young men and women who are guarding us, making it possible for all of us to remain safely in The Land. Friends of ours were joining us for the performance and gave us a ride to the theater. One of their sons was in the car, and he related his experiences on the last day of Hannukah going back to his former yeshiva in Otniel (south of Hebron) for their annual “alumni” event, and seeing burning tires on the sides of the road and in the middle of the road and seeing Arab boys throwing rocks at buses passing by. It was the first time, he said, that he felt a sense of danger on these roads. He had hitched a ride to his school; he took a bullet-proof bus back to Jerusalem. Again, the only problem on our way to the theater – perhaps an hour from the yeshiva –is the on-going construction on Rehov Bar-Lev.
One problem with first hand observation is that often when you relate what happened to other people, they fail to understand why you think it is so important. Let me relate to you a seemingly trivial incident which happened to me about a year ago when I was sitting in class at Ulpan, listening to a young Arab college student give as an oral presentation an explanation of Eid el-Adha, a festive day on which Muslims still publicly slaughter goats, sheep, or cows to commemorate Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his chosen son, Ishmael. Our teacher went on asking him questions; he could have been discussing building a geodesic dome or eating a life snake, for all she cared. But I sat through this painful presentation, trying and barely succeeding in keeping my composure, trying not to exhibit any body language of discomfort and keeping my sighs of distress inaudible. It was all I could do to stop myself from screaming, “Yitzhak, Yitzhak, not Ishmael!” Now I have related this incident to many of my friends, and usually the response is one of bewilderment. It is as if I rushed in and said something as novel as, “It snowed last night, and, guess what, the ground is all white!” “Everyone” knows what the Arabs think. My point is that you can read about Eid-el-Adha in Wikipedia and find it of academic interest, but when I heard this young man with my own ears talk about our Patriarch and his favored son Ishmael, it was like my bumping into the real live Santa Claus or the Abominable Snowman. Here in front of me at Bet HaAm in the Gerard Behar Center located on Rehov Betzalel in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish People, was a living, breathing embodiment of ………replacement theology.
In case you are no familiar with this construct, this is where all the promises and rewards recorded in The Torah that were given to our Patriarchs and to Moses become nullified and transferred to other faith groups. We all know how that has been played out over the centuries by our Christian neighbors. The Muslim version is much more subtle. They have no problem allowing us to live (they even honor our prophets) and be well – as long as we acknowledge our second-class status. They have replaced us in G-d’s eyes and therefore they must rule over us. We are now theological nobodies, and it is for that reason that our holiest sites, The Temple Mount and the Ma’arat Hamachpela were turned into mosques and other shrines, and when they have been under Muslim control, we have had no access to them. The best student in this Ulpan was Rami, a big teddy bear kind of a guy, originally, I think, from Saudi Arabia, and trained as an engineer. If anybody needed an answer, we would turn to him, fairly certain that he would supply it. He mentioned in class once that every day he would go up to the Al-Aqsa mosque to pray. As sweet a guy as he is, can you imagine his response, if you mentioned to him that his mosque and the beautiful Dome of the Rock were built where our Holy Temple once stood and that there will come a time when we will want that real estate back?
I can envision thousands of people at this point getting up and yelling, “Who cares which son of Abraham was chosen for what? What does that have to do with anything? This is 2009. Is that what’s holding up Peace in the Middle East? We are trying to run a world here, not referee some stupid theological argument which is completely irrelevant.” That seems to be what many Israelis think and what seems to be the consensus of non-Islamic world opinion. Now I can give you a number of reasons why we as Jews, especially we as Torah-mindful Jews should care if our Torah is truthful or not. But leaving that aside, there is one rather important point: They, that is the Arab Muslim world, believe in complete sincerity that they are rightfully entitled politically and theologically – which in this part of the planet is essentially the same thing – to the entirety of what we consider our Homeland, this tiny speck of real estate which (I keep repeating) is the size of New Jersey. They believe it, not because they are evil, mean, venal, or retarded (here’s a good, politically incorrect term!), unkind, unfeeling, or uncouth, but because they are impelled to by their religion. As far as Allah is concerned, we don’t count; they do. Agree with it or not, this idea is not that difficult to understand. It is only a Western arrogance – that if “we” don’t believe something, it must be stupid, and therefore “they” can’t really believe it either – that prevents people from accepting the fact that the Arab world really does believe in a number of things that seem “crazy” to the Western mind. And anyone who will take the trouble to remove his ideological blinders can’t help but see the Muslim version of “Palestine.” Just walk into any school in an Arab area and look at their maps or their textbooks.
As I sit here looking out the window of my office at a seemingly endless set of sand dunes, a better question than “Who cares…” might be, “Why would anyone want to live here?” Where I am sitting is close by the trade route on which in bygone days camels laden with goods traversed north and south between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Hardly so today. Birds – some 50,000,000 of them every year – still fly over this picayune piece of property on their way from Europe to North Africa and back. But the camel has long been replaced by the airplane. So there has to be another reason, something else impelling us Jews to return to a land that had few discernable natural resources, and there has to be something else impelling the Arab world to claim as their own a place which they – except for taking over our Holy sites – more or less ignored for 1500 years. It seems to me that we ought to take the time to figure out some good answers to these questions.
And if we don’t take the trouble to understand why we want to be here and why it is so important to “our cousins” that we not be here, we will wind up with some very curious ideas. Here’s an Op-Ed piece I clipped out of a recent edition of Haaretz, written with much conviction by Elia Leibowitz, who asks the absorbing question, why the left-wing Meretz party will do so poorly in the next election even though it brings “the best people to the Knesset.” The answer? “Meretz does not tell the whole truth to the public.” I know that you are dying to know what that elusive truth is, so here it is, in a nutshell: “The State of Israel cannot force the Palestinians to agree to anything, either good or bad. At the same time, Israel does not have the strength to continue to holding on to the occupied territories. The only obvious conclusion from these two facts is that Israel must prepare a plan to withdraw to the Green Line……” In other words, Meretz’s failure to say just that Israel must announce its weak position before sitting down to negotiate to is behind The Left’s poor showing with the Israeli voters. Now if we were sitting down together over a large latte or something stronger, I would ask you what you make of this convoluted logic. As we are not, let me share with you a few well-chosen thoughts of my own: a) I reject the notion that the real estate under discussion was taken – stolen – from a non-existent entity called “The Palestinians,” (there have been for several millennia, Arabs living in villages and organized in tribal groups scattered throughout what the Romans renamed “Palestine;” but to consider them a “People” or a “Nation” when they never did so is ludicrous, even if it is fashionable to do so) and that our living in the Land promised to the descendents of Avraham, et. al. is in anyway “immoral.” b) Whether you fully accept premise (a) or not, there is something baffling about the notion that because I can’t get X to do what I want, I have to do what X wants. c) This is especially true when I am fairly certain that even if I do what X wants, he still will not be satisfied and will want me to give up even more. So what brings about this logical lapse? To my way of thinking, and I have expanded on this idea in earlier articles, the problem is that many of us now consider “The Palestinian question” to be our problem, rather than their problem; and if we “own” the problem, then we are required to find a solution – which the other side can obviously veto. If the Israeli government, at great cost, expels 8000 of its citizens from Gaza, but the Arab population there considers this action insufficient, then the onus for creating a peaceful solution still rests with the Israeli government. It’s sort of like negotiating with a three year old.
A peaceful solution. One thing I have figured out from trotting around many blocks a few times in my sixty seven years, something that I hope you can appreciate and understand – and it does take a considerable period of time for this to sink in; and for many it never does – is that life is often counter-intuitive. Only a certain number of people on this globe actually want bloodshed and the loss of human life. Most of us, in our own way, would prefer “shalom.” Some of us assume that because we want peace, if we insist on peace, if we demand peace, we will achieve it. “All we are saying, is give peace a chance…” “Peace, now.” “One, two, three, four, we don’t want another war.” “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.” You get the idea………. But it’s not just fuzzy faced lads and rosy cheeked lasses – as we all were once upon a time – but also great and seasoned minds that retain this level of naiveté. I came across the following summary of an article that appeared in the International Herald Tribune on December 29, 1933 “Roosevelt Calls for Disarmament,” which begins “Widely applauded at home for a stirring appeal to the people of the world to take disarmament into their own hands…” Roosevelt’s program included “scrapping of offensive weapons, refusal to open borders to the armed forces of another power and a covenant to keep the peace.” “The President maintained that at least 90 per cent of the world’s population was ‘content with the territorial limits of the respective nations.’” That’s telling ‘em!
Almost twelve years later and more death and destruction than I am prepared to contemplate, Roosevelt’s successor struck a different tone. One day after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Harry Truman said, “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold... We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake: we shall completely destroy Japan's power to make war." I know this kind of talk makes liberal cringe, but I ask you, which of these Presidents talked about peace, and which one brought it about?
You see, peace is a funny thing. You can’t will it into existence, and it doesn’t just happen by itself. Sometimes you have to fight for it – and that’s a notion that drives people batty. That’s because life is more complicated than at first it seems; sometimes things work just the opposite of how we expect them to. We do have peace of a sort in the region. The reason so many of us can live in Maale Adumim and the Jewish communities surrounding it is because we have a calm border with Jordan. We also have a grudging peace treaty with Egypt. Why do we have this détente? For one and only one reason: Because we kicked the stuffing out of both countries several times, and the leaders of both countries came to realize that there was no benefit in continuing the aggression against us, that they were better off trying to run their own countries. And there will be peace with our other Arab neighbors, in some way, shape, or form, when, and only when, they come to understand that it is in their interest to do so and, most important, they cannot and will not have it on their terms. Why should any Arab leader sit down to discuss détente when they read in an Israeli newspaper that we do not “have the strength” to continue, and he infers that the longer he holds out, the better the deal he will get? Would you negotiate with us – Israel – if you were the head of Hamas and you thought we were too weak, too addle-brained to continue? On the one hand, I do feel sorry for any Arab living in Gaza; I would certainly not want to go through what they have had to endure, what with high unemployment, limited opportunity, food shortages, and now being in the middle of a war. I also would have had a drop of sympathy for the little children of Dresden in 1945, which was being bombed without mercy by the combined air forces of the U.S. and Great Britain – and Dresden wasn’t even a major military or industrial center. And certainly, certainly, I would have had compassion for the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, victims of the most deadly weaponry known to mankind. However, maybe, just maybe, they brought it on themselves, and there were then and are now others for whom I should have a little more sympathy. Perhaps I should feel a tad more compassion for the civilians, the yeshiva students, the kibbutzniks in and around Sderot who were under attack by Hamas and other terrorist groups for seven years. Likewise for the 8,000 former residents of Gush Katif, most of whom five years after their expulsion still have not been “made whole” by their, our, own government; and whose “sacrifice” brought no tangible benefits to the rest of us.
There have always been people pleading for peace without understanding how to achieve it. Certainly there were such people in the 1930’s when some were certain that there would be “peace in our time.” We know what happened instead. In the 1940’s there were pacifists and others who cringed at the Allies efforts to win WW II. There were people in The West in the 1950’s calling for nuclear disarmament, many of whom did not realize that this was supposed to mean American nuclear disarmament. Nobody disarmed; instead The Iron Curtain fell. Yesterday, I saw photographs from the on-line New York Times of an anti-Israel demonstration in Times Square. And there in the background were a host of placards announcing, “Palestine from Sea to Sea.” You see, nothing has changed. There have always been people who will use our humanitarian concerns against us, who will try to trick us into surrendering because we feel sorrier for our opponents than we do for ourselves. You have to decide for yourself where you fit in the scheme of things; but for myself, let the battle continue until we win and they lose. Then there will be peace.
Fred Casden

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