Thursday, January 22, 2009

Not So Friendly Fire

In between the time of the US residential election in November and the inauguration of the new resident, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the results of the election with some olim like us and some friends visiting form the U.S. I can report with some certainty the following trend, at least for people that we know: most Jewish women seem absolutely unable to relate to Sara Palin. I asked one woman, a friend of a friend, here for Shabbat lunch, why she so disliked a candidate who actually did keep a flag of Israel in her office, even though the number of Jews in Alaska may be lower than Joe Biden’s I.Q. Her response was interesting, although I couldn’t quite get the sense of it. She said that she thought that Palin would be good for Israel but bad for the U.S. The young woman was our guest and I wanted to get on with lunch, so I let her remark go unchallenged, although I see this as a false dichotomy: I didn’t and still don’t understand how anything that was bad for the U.S., politically, economically, militarily, or any other way you can think of, would be good for Israel. I can think of a number of scenarios whereby America would dump its ally, but in all of them the land of my birth would be sinking into a European-style mediocrity. Pardon me my “fundamentalist” approach on this one, but I believe that G-d will abandon any American administration which abandons Israel. (Some people say that this is what happened to the outgoing president.)
Most people I spoke with, even those who supported the Democrat candidates, were fully aware that the media in America had made mincemeat of Ms. Palin, playing up every rumor (generally false), half truth, and innuendo while giving a pass to Joe (a gaffe a day) Biden. So you would see a report that Palin’s husband had been arrested in the 1980’s for drunk driving, yet no reporter seemed interested in reminding the folks back home about the plagiarism scandal which derailed Biden’s presidential aspirations at about the same time. The result of the media’s assault on the Republican vice-presidential nominee could be seen in a video of some interviews with Obama supporters either directly before or after the election, in which the interviewer tried to elicit how much they knew about the candidates. Now you have to be careful here: it would be the easiest thing to interview 100 perfectly normal voters and then find ten abnormally stupid lumps of protoplasm and interview them. The people being interviewed were among those whom I describe as “cheerfully clueless,” people who feel a sense of pride in their ability to remember from day to day the names of the major candidates. Still, the results were edifying, if somewhat scary. These witless souls were asked questions like, “Which candidate said that there are 58 states in The Union?” “Palin?, Palin?, Palin!” (correct answer: Obama) “Which candidate didn’t know the year in which FDR was first elected president?” “Palin?, Palin?, Palin!” (correct answer: Biden) “Who said that you could see Alaska from his/her living room?” “Palin?, Palin?, Palin!” (correct answer: Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live) “Which candidate defeated an entrenched political machine to get elected?” “Obama?, Obama?, Obama!) (correct answer: Palin) You get the idea. We need to remember one simple rule about how many people think: they begin with an opinion or impression about other people or groups of people and then bend the facts to conform thereto; sort of like banging second-hand auto parts to fit the somewhat dented frame. You will not create a Unified Field Theory in this way, but what the heck! However, if the rest of us realize the importance of first impressions, we can then understand the power of the media in shaping world opinion.
I don’t think Ms. Palin had any idea of how the American media could take her, a gifted newcomer whom they didn’t like, and turn her into a caricature of herself (just as they could take another political neophyte whom they adored and turn him into something akin to The Messiah.) One need not feel sorry for the moose hunting governor from Alaska; she will, if she chooses to remain in national politics, have her day. And if it’s any consolation to her: “Hey, Sara, we the Jewish people collectively have had the pleasure of being “Palinized” for the last 2000 years!”
All this is a prelude to a thought I had last week on an entirely different matter, one much closer to my new home. You are all aware that there has been a bit of a ruckus in this part of the world recently, and in all the ensuing carnage ten of our fighting men have been killed – about half of whom have been killed by “friendly fire,” which is the apotheosis of an oxymoron. I have seen photographs of these men in the local press, a few with kippot, some without, in fact one or two were not Jewish, Druse or Beduin. Most of them were smiling, with their whole lives seemingly ahead of them. When I looked at their faces, I had the thought, “I’ve seen this guy before. Wasn’t he sitting on a bus going to Tel Aviv; wasn’t he with his buddies on a bus in Jerusalem, with their huge backpacks and their guns, and didn’t he get up and offer me his seat?” Or perhaps, one of these soldiers was involved in the following story making the rounds, one of the endless series of “American olim mangle the language.” It seems that a young woman was getting off an Egged bus, and she wanted to remind the driver that her belongings were in the luggage area on the side. But instead of saying “under the bus,” this innocent young lady told the nonplussed driver that she had something “in his underwear.” There were, apparently, four soldiers who overheard this and couldn’t resist the temptation to inquire about their own underwear.
I could have encountered those young men who had been killed, but I guess I didn’t. It was probably a different chayal on the bus; they all have the same uniform (except for the berets which identify their assignment). For a time in Teaneck, at the early Shabbat minyon I attended, the gabbai would read out the names of any Israeli, civilian or soldier, who was killed in the previous week during one of the intifadas. And at the annual community-wide Israel memorial day/independence day event, school children would read out the names of all the soldiers who had died during the previous year. Hearing the names of men and women you have never seen is chilling enough, but when you are here, and every day you see so many of them in their uniforms, the fighting forces and the jobniks, riding the buses to and from their bases, coming and going for Shabbat, I keep telling you that it’s a lot more tangible, as if something that’s part of you has been ripped away.
Generally, the articles in JPost which described their deaths would include a statement from the bereaved family. Despite the almost unbearable anguish in losing a son, many of the parents noted a slight feeling of comfort and consolation knowing that their loved one died Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying G-d’s name) defending His people and their Homeland. Better that than having someone killed by a drunk driver in a senseless road accident. But supposing that sense of comfort were ripped away? Supposing your son’s death was as “senseless” as having your neck broken falling on an errant banana peel? Or even worse: suppose your son, the one you knew in your heart of hearts was a hero – was being called a murderer, a baby killer, a villain of the worst sort? Suppose he, and the cause for which he was fighting was being…….Palinized? Suppose that every day on the Yahoo home page and the world’s press there were half-truths, stories sensationalized or ripped out of context, and blatant lies, all the while the obvious excesses of your opponent were minimized, ignored, explained away, or even glorified?
The bereaved parents might not even be aware of the animosity being fomented against us throughout Europe and Asia. The local papers, reflecting the ninety plus percent support for the IDF military campaign, have trumpeted the military successes, highlighted the unusual popular consensus, and been supportive of the government. Even the left-wing Haaretz has pretty much confined its negativity to the cranks who inhabit its editorial pages. And, frankly, I don’t think at this time and in this situation, the “average” Israeli is particularly concerned about how the U.N. will respond. It’s only when someone like me picks up the International Herald-Tribune (which accompanies Haaretz) that I realize the feeding frenzy which has been going on around us, and which those of you in The West, if you are paying attention, see all around you.
But for some of those who are aware of the hatred being brewed in the world’s capitals, there is a sense of puzzlement. The letters to the editor in JPost are filled with questions like: Don’t these people realize that Hamas doesn’t even recognize that our State exists; that they have no intention of negotiating with us; that they conduct warfare from the middle of cities; that they deliberately put men, women, and children at grave risk while their leaders hide from danger; that they use mosques and hospitals as military bases? Don’t these people realize that all we want is for Hamas to stop attacking us, and we can’t wait while they improve their weaponry? Don’t these people realize that the forces attacking Israel will someday try to take control of Western Europe and impose Shariah law on them? Haven’t these critics been ignoring the rockets which have been falling on Sderot for eight years? And why aren’t they protesting with equal passion the starvation, rape, and pillage going on every day in parts of Africa? Personally, I am not surprised by the outpouring of venom directed at the State of Israel and Jews in general. I am not happy, but I think I know what we are up against.
I have written before about replacement theology, the insistence of the religions we have inadvertently spawned that they take our place as “the chosen people.” One of the problems herein is that the Nations, while wanting the glory, do not seem to understand or be willing to accept the challenge of being “a light unto the nations.” (Of course, even when given the opportunity to perform this task, we have not done such a good job of it either.) Certainly, the nations of the West have done an excellent job over the last 1000 years in many field of human endeavor: sciences, technology, artistic and philosophical expression. But being a “light unto the nations” involves something substantially more: the task at hand is much grander, to spread G-d’s kindness throughout the breadth and width of the lands in a way that has never been understood, let alone tried. Despite a common misconception, the Nations cannot be worthy of G-d’s affection, if they are not hospitable to his People; and that won’t happen when they have not even been nice to each other – and that is one huge understatement. Why would it be a surprise that, in front of their beautiful cathedrals, they would burn every copy of The Talmud they could find – and sometimes us with it – when they were burning each other alive at the stake because they disagreed on a point of theology? You could say that they don’t do that anymore, except that people were burned alive in my lifetime – some of them family members of some of you – because of who their great-grandparents were. You could say that they don’t still torture each other, rape each other, engage in unbridled savagery one against the other anymore, and then engage in the most exquisite forms of hypocrisy to justify their actions – except they do.
Many years ago when I was a supervisor in NYC’s child welfare administration, I worked with a fellow who had had a yeshiva education which taught him about every calamity that had befallen the Jewish people and who was quite cynical about our relations with the gentiles of the world. With my secular, humanist education, I felt he was exaggerating; certainly, the non-Jewish people I had met in my lifetime, with few exceptions, seemed free of any desire to murder me, and I didn’t like to think in those terms. The older I get, the more I realize that his pessimistic view of world history was closer to the mark than I had realized. Who are these people in the pictures and videos from all over the world demonstrating in support of Hamas – or against our efforts to stop the terrorists from destroying us, which winds up essentially being the same thing? Who are these folks calling us murderers, carrying placards calling for “Palestine from sea to sea,” vandalizing our houses of worship, urging boycotts of Jewish businesses in Italy? These are the descendents of the very people who have been murdering, brutalizing, condemning, and expelling us from their midst for well over a thousand years. These are the people who are assuaging their own guilt for allowing so many of us to be butchered by the Nazis by labeling our self-defense as a “holocaust.” You may not appreciate this answer and they will deny these accusations, but perhaps they are true. The irony therein is overwhelming.
I am not in a position to say what has been accomplished by this military action. The Hamas leaders have climbed out of their rat holes and have put their uniforms back on, all the while claiming victory. The devastation on their side is appalling, but I cannot imagine that any great wave of introspection will occur. While they bewail their horrendous loss of life, many of these people would willingly strap on themselves or their children an arsenal of explosives and set off to blow up themselves with as many Israelis as they could find. The tunnels through which they smuggle weapons will be rebuilt, probably before any of the homes. Gilad Schalit remains a prisoner of war; Jonathan Pollard expects to live out his life in an American prison. The elections here will go on as scheduled in February.
During the course of the campaign, thousands of Israeli soldiers requested and received sifrei tehillim (books of psalms) and tefillin. Thousands of Israelis – even Hareidim who in theory are not supporters of The State – volunteered to recite prayers for specific soldiers who requested it. The story has been circulated here within religious circles about two soldiers who were on patrol in a town in Gaza. They were about to go in one direction down a street when they were stopped by a woman dressed in black who told them emphatically to go the opposite way. A minute later a bomb exploded where they would have been, had they gone where they intended to. The woman in black then identified herself as Rachel immeinu. Now, the story is as likely to have happened as some big cheese from Hamas coming to my home in Maale Adumim tonight and joining me in some Elmer T. Lee (my favorite bourbon.) The fact that the story is being circulated at all (ignoring the gullibility of the tellers and listeners) is what interests me. As Rav Aviner delicately put it, we should remember that the spirit of Rachel the matriarch has sustained us for these millennia. I would say, leave it at that, but maybe that is the point of all this. We are who we are, and “they” are who they are. The “theys” of the world will always be who they are. We can try mightily to forget who we are, but doing so will lead us in the wrong direction down the wrong street in the wrong place with unfriendly fire from unfriendly forces waiting at the end of the road.

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