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Monday, December 14, 2009

What is Hanukkah about, what is history about and what is David Brooks about?

David Brooks seems to have created a bit of a stir with his article about the "true" history of Hanukkah. His main controversial but more or less unarguable points are that the Maccabees were "fanatics" who along with their good deeds also did brutal things like forced circumcision, and who revolted against a "superior" Hellenistic civilization, and that the "miracle" of Hanukkah (or "Hannukah" or as some people spell it, "Honnoker") was an invention of religious authorities. .

What Brooks writes is basically more or less true according to recorded history, but recorded history is not always unbiased, and it is certainly not true in a larger sense. Those who compare the Maccabees to current "hard core" settlers are off the mark. The Maccabee revolt was a revolt against foreign oppression, not a revolt against a Jewish government by Jews living as free people. That is the main point that seems to have escaped Brooks. The issue was not eating ham or not eating ham, but rather who makes the decisions in the land of Israel, the Jews or the Seleucid kings. There are other nuances that Brooks missed.

The Seleucid empire of Antiochus was not an enlightened Greek city state, but an Asian despotism of the usual kind that had assumed some of the superficial trappings of Greek culture. There was no great academy in the Seleucid state and there were no philosophers or writers of great literature or splendid architects fostered by that society. It was neither Athens nor Sparta nor Corinth.

Taken out of context, the forced circumcisions practiced by the Hasmoneans are barbaric. But in history, context is everything. When Pliny wrote to Trajan concerning the troublesome Christians, it was considered a hallmark of Roman tolerance that Trajan agreed that those Christians who recanted their faith would not be "punished." The other side of that judgment is of course that those Christians who were steadfast in their faith would be "punished." The "punishment" was death. Circumcision in that context seems to be a fairly mild remedy for religious deviance. The Maccabees, from their point of view, had no choice. The Seleucid rule had split the Jewish people. Those who remained uncircumcised would be lost to the Jewish people. It would be absurd to practice the mores of the 2nd century BC in the twenty-first century, but it would be equally absurd to judge force the mores of the twenty-first century on the Maccabees.

The Maccabean revolt, explained in terms that the New York Times would understand and endorse, was "legitimate resistance to occupation." The fate of Jewish traitors was no different from the fate of French collaborators with the Nazis at the hands of the Maquis. If you liked the American Minutemen, the Maquis and the Partisans, you should love the Maccabees. If you liked Benedict Arnold and Quisling, you will shed many tears for the collaborators killed by the Maccabees.

Brooks should also consider that the things that you are liable to read in the ancient history books, they ain't necessarily so. This cuts in many more directions than he might imagine. Our main source for the doings of the Maccabees and the history of that period is Josephus Flavius. Flavius seems to have been as precise as he could be about material facts that could be checked, but was probably very misleading as to motives and events that could not be checked. He was both a Pharisee and therefore opposed to the Maccabean/Hasmonean dynasty, and a Hellenizer anxious to please his new Roman masters. He had many axes to grind and he ground all of them in his books. Like all ancient histories, they should be treated with respect, but with skepticism.

The "miracle" of Hanukkah was no doubt the Pharisee way of attempting to make a secular celebration "kosher." Later, they took more drastic steps, because any display of national feeling was dangerous. They replaced the feast of Nicanor, celebrating a victory over the Seleucid general, with the fast of Esther, marking the probably mythical events of Purim, and more or less suppressed Hanukkah entirely. The Pharisees were careful to serve their Roman masters in suppressing anything that related to inconvenient manifestations of national spirit.

Brooks should keep in mind that every nation and every faith has edifying miracles associated with their history. Is Brooks going to write next about the issue of George Washington and his cherry tree, or are we going to be treated next to a scientific discussion of whether Jesus Christ was really born on December 24, whether or not there is a Santa Claus and whether or not virgins can give birth to male children, in honor of Christmas? I don't think so. If Brooks is really daring, he can take up the question of flying horses, and examine the story of Muhammad's night journey to Jerusalem on his flying horse (pretty good horse) al Buraq from the point of view of equine aerodynamics, refueling problems, wind resistance etc. It is a poor idea to look a gift miracle or miracle horse in the mouth.

It is very unlikely that Brooks or anyone else will take up subjects that are offensive to the Christian and Muslim religions, or question the national myths of other peoples, or that the New York Times would publish such stories. Why is the Jewish religion different from all other religions, and why is the Jewish people different from all other peoples?

There is a perhaps more to Brooks' innocent-seeming meanderings about Hanukkah than appears at first sight. For Hanukkah, more than any other modern Jewish holiday, was adopted by the Zionist movement as the Zionist holiday. If the Maccabees were benighted fanatics fighting "progress" and enlightenment, then how would David Brooks characterize Theodor Herzl? Is Brooks' article really about oil that lasts or doesn't last eight days and forced circumcision. or is it really about Zionism, Herzl and Ben-Gurion?

Ami Isseroff

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Friday, September 4, 2009

An idiotic initiative: Jews inform on Jews

The Jewish Agency and the Israel Prime Minister's Office(!) has unbelievably launched a clumsy campaign to "rescue" Jews from intermarriage. It invites people to "inform" on friends who might, HEAVEN FORFEND, be intending to marry a non-Jew:
A day after mounting a scare-tactic campaign to prevent the assimilation of Diaspora Jews, the Prime Minister's Office and Jewish Agency received some 200 calls, most of them reporting names of Jews living abroad.
However, many callers also blasted the campaign - which describes assimilation as a "strategic national threat."
The campaign, which launched on Wednesday, urges Israelis to report the particulars of acquaintances living abroad so that these people, who are "in danger" of marrying non-Jews, can be persuaded to come to Israel.
The 10-day Hebrew-language campaign has been mounted by MASA, a partnership between the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government that helps finance and market Israel programs for Diaspora Jews.
"We wanted to raise a public debate, even if it arouses argument and emotions," MASA's CEO Ayelet Shiloh-Tamir said Thursday.
"More than 50 percent of young Jews assimilate," the TV commercial informs viewers through the voice of Ayala Hasson, a top reporter for Channel 1. "We are losing them," she adds, as soft, melancholy music is played on a flute in the background.
The 33-second clip features images of missing-person posters hanging in locales in Europe and North America. The posters, in English, French and Russian, are of young people with Jewish-sounding names.
The ad then asks anyone who "knows a young Jew living abroad" to call MASA. "Together, we will strengthen his or her bond to Israel, so that we don't lose them," the announcer concludes.
We can hear the phone calls now, "I saw my nephew Sheldon with a blonde girl last week. She didn't look Jewish at all. You need to investigate, " "My niece is dating a Schwartzer! (black person). A Shandeh! (shame), Better come quick before it is too late."
What a way to render the image of Jews and of Israel totally absurd! Ziopedia and Stormfront could not have thought up something this ridiculous. How will they follow up on the leads? Will Zionist morality police bring trained dogs to go sniffing about in people's bedrooms? Are we supposed to report only those who are in danger of marrying non-Jews, or also those who are "in danger" of marrying reform Jews?
There is good news too in this report. Evidently, the Israeli economy is doing fine, our relations with the United States are excellent, the Iranian threat is under control, peace with the Palestinians is just around the corner, and Israel's image in the world has never been better. That is the only explanation for why the Prime Minister's office is worried about who Morris from Waukegan and Rachel from Manchester are dating next Friday.
In the old days, Woody Allen could have made a great movie out of this. He is out with the girl of his dreams (played by the latest version of Annie Hall). He is meeting her parents and their friends in a garden party. Suddenly a helicopter lands on the lawn. A squad of IDF soldiers steps out and sweep him off to Israel. Or, in the fantasy version, a pious devotee of the Kabbalah writes the holy name on his forehead and instantly turns him into a Hassidic Jew with ear locks and fine fur hat. The marriage, obviously, is off.
Ami Isseroff

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Friday, November 28, 2008

What Israeli Jews don't get and what American Jews don't get

Another battle in the Jewish wars. See Jewish wars at the GA of United Jewish Communities for the previous one.
Who is right? The one who stops the wars is right, because everyone is hiding something, and everyone is being defensive about something.

Ami Isseroff

Last update - 05:22 28/11/2008
ANALYSIS / What American Jews don't get about Israelis
By Anshel Pfeffer
I am very sorry. I didn't attend last week's General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the annual jamboree of North American Jewish federations and organizations. But I have an excuse. My current duties in London meant that I had to cover President Shimon Peres' visit to Britain. No matter, this newspaper was well represented at the GA even without me. Not good enough apparently for many GA delegates. My colleague at the Jerusalem Post, Haviv Rettig, published last Friday an excoriating account of how the leaders of American Jewry were hurt and indignant at the way the Hebrew-speaking media (including the Hebrew edition of Haaretz) appeared to ignore their gathering, which was actually taking place in Jerusalem.

According to Rettig, and I have no reason to disbelieve him, the Americans were so angry that they "lashed out at the Israeli media and society for failing to notice - and learn from [them]." Rettig gathered the responses of the Jewish world reporters on Israel's main newspapers and also called me as an occasional writer on the Israel-Diaspora divide, but I was too busy catching my breath from trying to keep up with Peres' frenetic pace to answer.

Let me therefore use this opportunity to disassociate myself from the disparaging remarks of those reporters who did find the time to answer. Unlike them, I think Israel's media should be extensively covering the affairs of the Jewish world in its many locations and certainly that of the largest Jewish community on earth. (I find the demographers who claim that there are more Jews in the United States more credible than those who say that Israel has more, but that is stuff for another column.)

Let me therefore use this opportunity to disassociate myself from the disparaging remarks of those reporters who did find the time to answer. Unlike them, I think Israel's media should be extensively covering the affairs of the Jewish world in its many locations and certainly that of the largest Jewish community on earth. (I find the demographers who claim that there are more Jews in the United States more credible than those who say that Israel has more, but that is stuff for another column.)

But I would also have said that this is not just the media's fault, but simply a reflection of a much wider gulf existing between Israeli society and the Jews of the world. And though they shoulder a significant portion of the blame, Israelis are not the only ones to have widened this divide. As if to answer the charges, just two days later, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's most popular tabloid, carried an interview with one of the grandest grandees of the American community, dedicating a full double spread to the fulminations of Edgar Bronfman. Bronfman has just published a book in which he explores the question of Jewish identity in the 21st century and was using the interview to have a go at the religious establishment for their rejection of those who are not halakhically Jewish and who call for the inclusion of anyone calling themselves Jews into the tribe.

Bronfman justified his stance by saying that "Judaism belongs to every Jew. There is no need to belong to any religious stream. No need for belief in God or ceremonies and prayers." All very conventional, but here he had to make this dig: "Many Israelis who describe themselves as secular are effectively cut off from their people's tradition."

I'm not sure Bronfman is the best person to carry this particular torch but I don't want to get in to that right now, nor ask why, in his 30 years as President of the World Jewish Congress, he didn't see fit to address this issue. I am bringing up the interview simply because it illustrates exactly what is it that American Jews don't get about Israelis.

Ironically, Bronfman's complaint against secular Israelis is identical to that made by those very rabbis he so vehemently attacked in his interview; they also believe that the secular Jews are ignorant and have separated themselves from tradition.

A similar view is expressed by some of those interviewed for the report in the Jerusalem Post on indifference to the GA. What is it about secular Israelis that so aggravates these American Jews, many themselves irreligious?
I think deep down it's jealousy. While the Jews in America and other communities have been grappling for decades with the question of how to define a Jewish identity that is not tied down only to religion, secular Israelis simply don't have that problem. Sure, many of them lack a lot of Jewish knowledge and they certainly are not very aware of the Jewish world outside Israel. But they're not very bothered about it, because for them every moment in Israel is passed within a Hebrew speaking Jewish environment.

And that's also why, as some of those interviewed by Rettig said, when secular Israelis go off to the United States, they are not usually very interested in getting to know the local Jewish community. They have lived all their lives among Jews; once they get out of Israel they are looking for something different.

Israel, the Zionist project, was founded exactly for that reason, to serve as a secular Jewish alternative to life in the Diaspora. And while it's far from perfect, for most Israelis, it is still a credible option. They are not blind to its shortcomings, but they are still content with living their Jewish lives here.

And at least on a sub-conscious level, this contentment is galling to many Jews in America and elsewhere, especially those who are struggling to come up with an alternative Jewish life of their own that will be sufficiently attractive to a disinterested young Jewish generation

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Christopher Hitchens reviews Denis MacShane on Anti-Semitism

Perhaps this is the highlight:
And meanwhile I would never expect to read the sort of criticism of Pakistan that I read every day about Israel. Yet of these two states, born at almost the same moment at the close of Britain's imperium, can it really be said that Israel is so much the greater offender in terms of democratic rights for citizens, invasions of neighbours like Afghanistan, oppressions of non-Punjabi minority inhabitants, massacres of co-religionists as in Bangladesh, and illegal acquisition of nuclear weapons? One can just about picture a worldwide campaign to redress the injustices of Pakistan, in which unions of British teachers and journalists would join with their own courageous boycotts, but I confess to a slight difficulty in picturing the same level of enthusiasm and commitment. There is some sense in which any challenge to what can be viewed as specifically Jewish power is more exciting and possibly more "transgressive", and we might be more honest if we admitted as much. Here's a thought experiment: you get an email telling you that all the Anglo-Saxons left the World Trade Center just an hour before the planes hit (not having merely stayed away with all the benefit of their advance warning, but having actually gone to all the trouble of turning up at 8 a.m. and trustingly assuming that the terror-strike would take place just on schedule and thus give them time to check their Rolexes for an orderly and early departure). See what I mean? It's just not such a thrilling hypothesis. When directed at the Jews, however, it at least adds insult to injury, and the true bigot knows that every little helps.
However, both MacShane and Hitchens operate from the naive and optimistic viewpoint that if only we can get a logically correct description of anti-Semitism, the anti-Semites will be convinced of the error of their ways, and the problem will disappear.
Ami Isseroff
November 19, 2008
The new anti-Semitism?
How ancient prejudice and outright hostility have re-emerged since the Nuremberg Trials
Christopher Hitchens

I was once introduced, in the Cosmos Club in Washington, to Willis Carto of the Liberty Lobby, a group frequently accused of being insufficiently philo-Semitic. Mr Carto unburdened himself of quite a long burst about the power of finance capital, whereupon our host, to lighten the atmosphere, said, "Come on Willis, you're sounding like Ezra Pound". "Ezra Pound!" exclaimed Mr Carto. "Why, I love that man's work. Except for all that goddam poetry!" I thought then that if one ever needed a working definition of an anti-Semite, it might perhaps be an individual who esteemed everything about Ezra Pound except his Cantos.
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith has a different definition. For him, anti-Semitism is revealed not when someone criticizes the state of Israel, but when someone denies the right of Israel to exist. This, however, will not do, since many Orthodox Jews and Marxist Jews were opposed ab initio to the founding of a Jewish state, and indeed, for the first few years of the Zionist movement's existence, almost all its enemies were Jewish. (By the same token, the idea of a Levantine state into which European Jewry could be decanted often found favour with those who were not all fond of Jewry per se.)
The overt expression of anti-Semitic views has been extremely muted since the Nuremberg Trials, and the somewhat later decision of the Roman Catholic Church to withdraw its historic charge of "deicide" against the Jewish people as a whole. But the Labour MP Denis MacShane, who chaired an all-party commission of inquiry into the subject, argues that this most ancient and fierce of hatreds is undergoing a worldwide recrudescence. Rather dauntingly, he begins his book Globalising Hatred with a taxonomy of six distinct kinds of anti-Semitism, as compiled by the no less dauntingly named Professor Armin Pfahl-Traughber. The disease, it seems, can present as religious, social, political, racist, secondary or anti-Zionist, and of course these symptoms are not mutually exclusive and may often be found in clusters.
I would propose to begin more economically, by separating anti-Semitism from other forms of prejudice. One might certainly begin by distinguishing it from any too obvious stratification: MacShane likes to put the word "upper-class" in front of his main noun, but it was the great German socialist August Bebel who characterized anti-Jewish ranting as "the socialism of fools" and identified it as a perverted form of class resentment. This may have been slightly reductionist, as if to place a creepy and occult belief on all fours with more ordinary styles of xenophobia. British people who dislike Pakistanis, say, or Sinhalese who dislike Tamils, or Ulstermen who look down on Gaels, will tend to express themselves in fairly vulgar terms. The disliked ones are dirty and lazy, and have over-large families and a generally low cultural level. Anti-Semitism, by contrast, has something almost vicariously admiring about it. The targeted and hated tribe is believed to have awesome secret power and a positive genius for finance, as well as an ability to infiltrate and annex large swathes of professional life, such as the law and medicine. Not only this, but the Jew is seen as so protean as to have been – in the course of the past century alone – the covert engineer of both capitalism and Bolshevism. Examples of this combination of envy with paranoia are not difficult to locate: a recent New York Times report from Egypt described a settled conviction at all levels of society that, while nineteen Arabs could not have brought down the World Trade Center, the Israeli Mossad had the means, the method, the motive and the opportunity to do so. (One might pause to note the element of Arab self-hatred that is latent in this view.) When asked for proof, the believers point to the fact, which "everybody knows", that all the Jews employed in the Twin Towers left work shortly before the planes arrived. I have myself heard this alleged at elite dinner parties in Islamabad, and MacShane has heard it from educated Muslims in his own constituency of Rotherham.
Perhaps over-anxious not to single out these as if they were the only offenders, MacShane is careful to spread his net wide. Neo-fascists in Argentina and Germany, the British National Party, the anti-Israeli American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the demagogues of Radio Maria in Poland, the sneers of Alan Clark in his Diaries, the gibes of David Irving, and a few of the anti-Zionist positions taken by Noam Chomsky and Perry Anderson are all included in the trawl. Surely this is too indiscriminate, especially in the case of the last two named? More important, does it not run the risk of treating Islamist anti-Semitism as if it were merely one form of the malady among many?
In point of fact, there is only one area of the world where pure, old-fashioned undiluted Jew-hatred is preached from the pulpit, broadcast on the official airwaves, given high-level state sanction and taught in the schools. All across the Muslim Middle East and well into Muslim Asia, the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion are freely available, often disseminated by ruling circles as well as by insurgent and now quasi-government movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah. (Incidentally, it is wrong to call this toxic document a "forgery", since a forgery is a copy of something authentic. The Protocols are a mere fabrication, put together by Eastern Orthodox Christian fanatics in the pay of the tsarist secret police. Despite their suggestive name, they contain no mention of Israel or Zionism, as MacShane appears to think.)
When he does turn his attention to this region, however, MacShane's treatment of the lucubrations of Tariq Ramadan and Sayyid Qtub is fairly comprehensive. Not everybody will agree with his generally lenient approach to the state of Israel, but he does argue convincingly, with some telling quotations, that resentment at Israel's occupation of the West Bank simply cannot explain some of the more lurid formulations of Arab and Muslim propaganda. The fairly temperate Ghada Karmi, for example, speaks of Israel "encircling the Arab world" (my italics), while regional self-pity – a natural sibling of self-hatred by the way, as is self-righteousness – often blames all the ills of a backward and benighted region on arcane Jewish manipulations. The relatively recent history of Europe shows how fantastically dangerous such delusions can be, and MacShane is right to stress the comparison as well as the implications.
When all this is taken into account, though, I am not sure that he is correct in so often using the prefix "neo" to describe the resurgent phenomenon. The pseudo-intellectual and superstitious tropes of Judaeophobia are very much the same as they ever were. They involve the hatred of the countryside for the urban (and the urbane), the hatred of the provinces for the capital (and for capital), the disdain of the settled establishment for the subversive, and the visceral loathing of the tradition-minded "organic" community for the rootless and the cosmopolitan. In this, one can understand both the nastier moments that one may encounter in the study of T. S. Eliot and also the mentality of those Argentine fascists who tortured the Jewish editor and journalist, Jacobo Timerman. As Timerman recalled the obsessions of the death-squad Right in his imperishable book Prisoner without a Name: Cell without a number, his interrogators believed that "Argentina has three main enemies: Karl Marx, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society; Sigmund Freud, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space". I went to look this up after I had read MacShane citing Argentine military men who to this day believe that there is a Jewish conspiracy to annex and Zionize the remoter areas of Patagonia, the better, presumably, to extend Protocol power to the Jew-free wastes of Antarctica.
"You catch it on the edge of a remark", as Harold Isaacs phrases it in Chariots of Fire. I have felt myself "catching" it quite a few times of late, as when chaps from the BBC insisted despite repeated correction on saying Paul "Vulfovitz" with a special emphasis, instead of pronouncing the name correctly the first time round, as the BBC used to train people to do. Writing about the same person, the American isolationist and Charles Lindbergh admirer Patrick J. Buchanan referred to him as playing Fagin to George Bush's Oliver Twist which, an arresting image as it certainly is, makes rather the same point in an only somewhat different way. And meanwhile I would never expect to read the sort of criticism of Pakistan that I read every day about Israel. Yet of these two states, born at almost the same moment at the close of Britain's imperium, can it really be said that Israel is so much the greater offender in terms of democratic rights for citizens, invasions of neighbours like Afghanistan, oppressions of non-Punjabi minority inhabitants, massacres of co-religionists as in Bangladesh, and illegal acquisition of nuclear weapons? One can just about picture a worldwide campaign to redress the injustices of Pakistan, in which unions of British teachers and journalists would join with their own courageous boycotts, but I confess to a slight difficulty in picturing the same level of enthusiasm and commitment. There is some sense in which any challenge to what can be viewed as specifically Jewish power is more exciting and possibly more "transgressive", and we might be more honest if we admitted as much. Here's a thought experiment: you get an email telling you that all the Anglo-Saxons left the World Trade Center just an hour before the planes hit (not having merely stayed away with all the benefit of their advance warning, but having actually gone to all the trouble of turning up at 8 a.m. and trustingly assuming that the terror-strike would take place just on schedule and thus give them time to check their Rolexes for an orderly and early departure). See what I mean? It's just not such a thrilling hypothesis. When directed at the Jews, however, it at least adds insult to injury, and the true bigot knows that every little helps.
"The bitch that bore him is on heat again", as Brecht has his closing speaker say about Hitler at the curtain of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The next nightmare will not take the same shape or form, but it will be sure to emit the same plain and unmistakable warnings. MacShane has done a service by giving us a handbook of the signs.
Denis MacShane
The new antisemitism
188pp. Orion. £12.99.
978 0 297 84473 0
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book, God Is Not Great: The case against religion, appeared earlier this year.

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Settler Rabbi Arrested for Incitement

The Jerusalem Post

Rabbi Yigal Shandrapi, the head of Yeshuat Mordechai Yeshiva, is expected to be brought before the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on Wednesday for a remand hearing, after police from the Judea and Samaria Division arrested him on Tuesday on suspicion of inciting Jewish youth to riot.

According to the allegations, Shandrapi incited the teenagers two separate cases, the most recent of which occurred two months ago at the Yad Yair outpost, in the West Bank. During that incident, soldiers described being attacked and said that their vehicles were damaged.

Meanwhile, nearly 40 Jewish youth reportedly rampaged through the streets of a Palestinian neighborhood in Hebron overnight Tuesday, puncturing car tires and shattering windows in Arab homes.

The youths were also suspected of spray-painting a Star of David on one of the houses in the area.

While no arrests had been made, police were investigating the incident.

Responding to the latest developments, the chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee, MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor), called on Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter to clamp down on the offenders.

"This is an additional crossing of a red line by organized, dangerous thugs, and it must be responded to with the utmost seriousness and gravity," Paz-Pines said. "The police must immediately initiate a thorough investigation and start a series of arrests in order to put an end to the 'Wild West' in Hebron, and to establish, without hesitation, the rule of law."

Meanwhile, Barak warned on Wednesday that if settlers do not voluntarily evacuate the dispute four-story building in Hebron, known as Beit Hashalom, the defense ministry will evacuate them by force.

Speaking during a tour of the IDF's Hebron brigade, Barak stressed that the evacuation would be carried out by police and that the IDF would provide surrounding support.

Barak also harshly criticized the recent violence and said that any harm inflicted on a soldier or policeman or anyone who represented the state of Israel was a "grave incident which expands the rift which is already harming the gentle fabric of democracy in Israel."

Barak said Israel must "arrest these attackers, punish them with all the severity of the law, since their actions are aimed at undermining the authority of the State."

The defense minister, toured the area with IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Avram Burg: always interesting, not always right

A Chinese curse: "May you lead an interesting life." Avram Burg is always interesting, because he makes sure to be interesting. Let's face it, unless you make noisy and atrocious statements, you cannot attract much publicity for matters related to Judaism, Zionism, etc. B*O*R*I*N*G.
Therefore Burg tries not to bore us. Avram Burg is the P.T. Barnum of Jewish affairs, or he is trying to be. If he is not comparing Zionists to Nazis, he is comparing Ahmed Yassin to orthodox rabbis. In Time to attack he calls for war against fanatics essentially. "Death to all fanatics," quoth Burg, in particular orthodox fanatics of all different religions. He is willing to take a gratuitous swipe at evangelical Christians (or his idea of evangelical beliefs) as well as orthodox Jewish fanatics. The essence of his argument:
There is no theological difference between certain rabbis from Hebron, the former Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and the evangelical preacher hoping for Armageddon at the site of our Megiddo. Those who say that "God's law is first" are no different from one another, whether they wear a rabbi's skullcap, Hezbollah's turban or the cloak of a North American spiritual leader. They are all engaged in a cruel battle against me. They are the enemies of freedom and democracy, and are hostile to liberty, equality and the status of women.
It is remarkably like what I wrote in Soldiers who refuse orders. But Burg is also wrong. There are two or three differences between Ahmed Yassin and the hypothetical evangelical preacher hoping for Armageddon:
1- Ahmed Yassin was willing to use, and did use, violent methods to secure his goals. Thus far, only one or two deranged people tried to use violent methods to bring about the Christian Armageddon.
2- Yassin wanted to kill me. People like John Hagee want to defend me. From my subjective point of view, that is a very different goal.
2- Like many orthodox Jews, Burg has a stereotyped view of Christian supporters of Israel. He thinks, apparently, that all evangelicals are supporters of Israel, and he thinks that all people who believe in Armageddon want to bring it on actively by committing violent acts. These are all misconceptions about Christian Zionism.
Burg starts out to answer the same question that I answered in Soldiers who refuse orders:
The latest equation bridges between draft-dodgers and the soldiers who refuse to evacuate homes in Hebron. On the face of it, we have draft-dodgers - the left-wing bleeding hearts from greater Tel Aviv - and evacuation refuseniks - nationalistic and idealistic, but "a little" too extreme, too patriotic and too religious. And we are in the middle: We live outside Tel Aviv, but not in Hebron; we want peace but are not prepared to pay the Arabs the price. Instead of being flooded with concern over the fanatics and rabbis who have penetrated the fabric of Israeli statehood like cancerous cells, we have created an equation. We were furious for two days, we condemned them - and we went on our merry way. Everything is balanced, thank God.
But Burg has a different answer. He gives a free, blanket pass to all draft evaders, it seems, but a blanket condemnation of all right wing protest:
After the waves of demagoguery, spin and media opportunism have passed, it will become clear that this equation is extremely dangerous, because it releases us from dealing with this country's unruly elements. The more we ignore the cancer of rabbinical nationalism, the closer and more concrete the mortal danger is. The real equation is between the refuseniks of Hebron and their foundation in Torah - and Hamas, Hezbollah, Christian fundamentalists and their fanatic brethren.
And after that, he never mentions the leftist refuseniks again. I agree that protest that is not anchored in democracy is dangerous. But  protest that aims to destroy the state is equally dangerous, even if it claims to be "democratic." The Bilin protestors and the refuseniks (those who refuse to be drafted) are not against this or that policy of the Israeli government. They are against Israel as a state of the Jewish people. They are against the Zionist idea. They don't get a free pass under the rubric of "democratic protest." They should not pass Go. They don't collect $200 either.
On the other hand, the equally dangerous rabbis and refuseniks of the right do not get a free pass either. And neither do the anti-Zionist Haredi draft evaders. They should not pass "Go." But somehow, they manage to collect a great deal more than $200 from our tax money to finance activities that are subversive to democracy and to Zionism, and undermine the state as surely as the anti-Zionists of the left. Nobody should get a free pass just because we like their stand on a particular issue. That includes Burg and his immoral use of pensions and drivers granted him as ex-head of the Jewish Agency.
Ami Isseroff

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Rebuld the Jewish Temple?

On Tisha B'av (ninth day of the month of Av) the traditional commemoration of the destruction of the temple, Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg asks, Should Jews build the Third Temple?. As there are a number of Jews, and many more Christian Zionists who would support this project, the question bears discussion. His answer is "no."

I have to agree, but for different reasons. He points out that each of the temples lasted only a relatively brief time before being variously looted or destroyed. Curiously, he doesn't mention the temple built upon the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile, only the temple of Solomon and the rebuilding done by Herod. The second temple built by Ezra and Nehemiah was a great national rallying point, and served as the symbol of the Maccabee revolt.

The Muslims would of course object to building a temple in place of the mosques, but perhaps this could be overcome by building a temple on the Ophel, which was probably the actual site of the first temple.

The big problems with rebuilding a temple are that Israelis do not want to live in a theocracy, do not want to engage in animal sacrifice, and do not want to support everyone named Cohen and Levy as temple acolytes and priests. I am not a vegetarian, but God might be.

Perhaps it would be OK to erect a modest structure on the Ophel, to symbolize the return of the Jewish people to our national home. That, after all, would be the real importance of the temple in a Zionist context. Instead of paying to subsidize Cohens and Levites, worshippers could voluntarily donate money to charity.

Ami Isseroff

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

American Jews: Impaled on the horns of a dilemma?

Yair Sheleg writes that the dilemma of American Jews is a conflict between liberal values and Jewish identity. Jews cannot oppose mixed marriages for example, because this would conflict with liberal values. Jews cannot accept US government support for Jewish education, because it would threaten separation of Church and state.
But the reality is that opposition to mixed marriages would not do any good, because people who have decided on a mixed marriage have often already declared their choice. They have put themselves outside the voluntary coercive framework of "institutional" Judaism and they will not be influenced by the institutional version of the irate old country patriarch, any more than the daughter of Tevye the Milkman was deterred from marrying a Russian. Sometimes, if their mate becomes Jewish, there is no conflict with Jewish identity, but that is a personal decision that is beyond the scope of Jewish instiutions and beyond their control. Sheleg's proposal is like saying that Jewish institutions are conflicted about whether or not to control the weather or stop aging. They can't do much about either, so there is no real dilemma.
The real dilemmas of American Jews are elsewhere. In the first place, they each have to decide if they want to remain Jews or not and balance all the advantages and disadvantages of the decision to accept their cultural, national and religious heritage as they see fit. 
No community can make that decision. In America this is a matter of conscience that is up to the individual. If an individual decides that remaining Jewish is important, then they will find a way to include this in their personal choices. But if being Jewish only consists of eating bagels and lox and making bad jokes in corrupted Yiddish, there is no chance that many will give up the complete American dream or the mate of their dreams in order to be Jewish. Likewise, if being Jewish consists of wearing a fur hat in summer and poring over ancient law books in Aramaic, that isn't going to attract many American Jews. Are any of these attributes essential for Judaism? Did Moses wear a shtraymel? Did King David know the Talmud and the Sulkhan Aruch?  Did Jacob eat bagels and speak Yiddish? The essentials of Judaism are social ethics, monotheism in religion, and attachment to Israel. Bagels, kippot and all the other trappings were added at a later date, or are added to remind Jews of the important issues,  and they are incidental.  
The second dilemma is that of the Jewish community. They have to decide whether they are going to continue traditions and approaches that failed to stop assimilation in 19th century Europe and are totally anachronistic in the twenty-first century, or whether they are going to adapt to a new reality and provide individuals with an attractive vision of Jewish life and ethics, and an attractive path to Judaism. The former policy will ensure that more and more individuals will choose assimilation. "Stay Jewish or else!" is not going to work. The latter policy will help ensure the continuation of Jewish life in the United States and Canada.  It is between control, hypocrisy and obscurantism on the one hand, and positive adaptation on the other, and it is a no - brainer, not a real dilemma.
The Book of Ruth  tells the story of how Ruth the Moabite became part of Israel and the Jewish people. The book of Ezra and Nehemiah on the other hand, declares that Moab and Amalek cannot be part of Israel and enjoin the Jews to divorce their foreign wives. So there are at least two traditions in Judaism about intermarriage - going back over two thousand years, and not one "hallowed" tradition, as some would have you believe.
The real dilemma of American Jewish leadership is between the book of Ruth and the book of Ezra and Nehemiah. There can't be a conflict between liberal values and Jewish identity, because "Jewish identity" is meaningless if it is not a free personal choice, and if it is not liberal, it is not Judaism.
Ami Isseroff

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Friday, March 2, 2007

Scott Shay: Saving US Jewry - Education and births

This man has hit on some good ideas. Unfortunately, telling people to have more babies is not going to have much effect unless the social and economic rewards are arranged to make it attractive to do so. Jewish education is probably the number one concern for Zionism as well as for the Jewish people. Israel should have an active part in this. All this costs money. Educating more kids costs more money and having kids instead of a career costs money. We would hope that Scott Shay, a money person, has some ideas on how to fund it.

Shmuel Rosner, Chief U.S. Correspondent
February 26, 2007

Rosner's Guest: Scott Shay

Scott Shay is a banker. He is the Chairman of the Board of Signature Bank of New York and is active in private equity investments through Shay Ventures LLC. Shay was previously a partner and a co-founder of Hyperion Partners, and served for eight years as a member of the board of Bank Hapoalim.

But Shay is also heavily involved in Jewish causes: He serves as a board member of the UJA - Jewish Federation of New York, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and the Jewish Agency for Israel. He is immediate past chair of the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal of UJA-Jewish Federation. He is also a member of the Birthright Israel Steering Committee and is chair of The Fund for Jewish Education.

With Shay, we will discuss his recently published book: Getting our Groove Back: How To Energize American Jewry in which he "examines the current state and future prospects of American Jewry and finds a Jewish community that is dangerously adrift and on an overall downward trajectory, due to a community-wide lack of shared purpose, focus, and mutual concern."

Readers can send questions to

Dear Scott
Your "to do list" will probably anger some members of the community. You ask parents to "encourage man to marry earlier," to "start families earlier, and to" discuss with daughters the risk of pregnancy after 35." You also ask rabbis to "promote early marriage and larger families". Can such advice be practical with the younger Jewish generation? Aren't you going to alienate them by making them feel that your policy invades their privacy?

Best, Rosner

Dear Shmuel,
You are quite right that some of the planks in the book are controversial. Interestingly, after have spoken to a fair number of audiences this position surprisingly is less so. I think almost everyone intuitively understands that there are just too many Jewish young adults remaining single for too long. About 15 percent of Jewish women do not marry until they are at the end of their child bearing years. The median age that Jewish men marry has passed 35. If you net out the children of intermarried couples who are specifically not being raised as Jewish, you get a net fertility rate of 1.2. At that rate a typical population halves in about 45-50 years. Because we American Jews are so much older on average than Americans as a whole, our population will fall by 50 percent in less time.

I think that people basically understand these facts even if they do not know the precise figures or the pace. The fundamental problem is that Judaism is not important enough for many to change their behaviors. If it is important to Jewish parents to see their children marry Jews then they need to make sure that they have Jewish experiences such as camp, youth movements and Israel trips. If it is important for Jewish parents to see their children marry Jews then they need to be models for why being Jewish is important to the world and personally meaningful. We need to explain why it is important for us to be fruitful and multiply. In modernity, bearing children is the ultimate unselfish expression of our peoplehood. None of this happens by accident, yet many in the American Jewish community expect it to be so.

In my plank on child bearing, I do not call on American Jews to suddenly begin having 6-10 children families. Rather I ask couples to think about having one more child. Those who have 2 children should think about having 3 and those who want to have 3 might think about bringing a 4th child into the world. These kitchen table decisions are more crucial to the future of American Jewry than all of weighty decisions brought down by the rarified councils of the organized Jewish community.

Probably the most satisfying part of having written the book is from hearing from some readers that they have seriously considered having another child even though they had previously thought they were done. If that happens than all of the time writing the book was well worth it.

All the best, Scott

Dear Scott,

I'll start with a more general question in order to let the readers know what we're talking about. The subtitle to your book is "how to energize American Jewry" and your answer is 300 pages long, but for this dialog we need the shorter version. So let me ask just these two quick questions:

1. Why energize American Jewry?
2. Your three-most-important-steps for revitalizing Jewish America.



Dear Shmuel,

I passionately believe that American Jewry has been and is a force for tremendous good for world Jewry, for America, for Israel and the world. When American Jewry galvanizes itself there are few limits to what it can accomplish. The success of the Save Soviet Jewry movement which directly contributed to the demise of the communist monopoly on power in the former Soviet Union is but one example. This was followed by a massive financial effort by American Jewry to pay for a large chunk of the cost if the exodus and resettlement.

The same impulse leads American Jews to be at the forefront of social justice causes, medical research, cultural contributions and political involvement. The current Congress has 40 Jewish members.

By the same token, when American Jews were divided and, partially justifiably confused and subject to anti-Semitism themselves, they did not adequately galvanize themselves to publicize and protest the unfolding Holocaust in Europe. That is not to say American ''Jewry could have stopped the Holocaust but it is possible to imagine that they could have lobbied for the bombing of the concentration camps and the like.

I also passionately believe that American Jewry still possesses the strength to revitalize its purpose, passion and numbers. But in 25 years the shape of American Jewry could be quite different and its ability to be a force for good in the world could be quite diminished. So we need to act now.

In terms of what 3 items I would place first, I would initially plead we need all ten outlined in the book. I think a good place to start is with the first three planks. They are reinventing Hebrew schools, changing the financing of day schools so that 50 per cent of American Jewish children can attend day schools and unifying Birthright Israel, summer trips to Israel and Masa in a way that insures that every American teen and young adult visits Israel on a quality experience trip.

These three steps along with the others would revolutionize the shape of American Jewry.

All the best, Scott

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Monday, February 5, 2007

Blood Libel on Lebanese TV

A reminder of the progressive and liberal forces lined up against Israel.
Special Dispatch-Lebanon/ Antisemitism Documentation Project
February 6, 2007
No. 1453

Lebanese Poet Marwan Chamoun: Jews Slaughtered Christian Priest in Damascus in 1840 and Used His Blood for Matzos

To view this Special Dispatch in HTML, visit:

The following are excerpts from an interview with Lebanese poet Marwan Chamoun, which aired on TeleLiban TV on January 30, 2007.

To view this clip visit: .

Marwan Chamoun: "How many of us Lebanese, or even Arabs, know anything about the Talmud? Or about the book, Exposing the Talmud? Or about the book, Pawns on the Chessboard? Or about another book, The Secret World Government? Or about Exposing the Talmud? Or about Blood for the Matzah of Zion, [which deals with] the slaughter of the priest Tomaso de Camangiano, who was a Sicilian with French citizenship, in the days of Muhammad Ali Pasha, in 1840..."


"[Former Syrian] Minister Mustafa Tlass wrote a voluminous book about this, in which he included all the documents written by the French diplomats and consul in Lebanon."


"The world loves the Jews. The 'ruler' is Christianity - the Christian West. Arabs, Muslims – why don't you take advantage of something like this? A priest was slaughtered in the presence of two rabbis in the heart of Damascus, in the home of a close friend of this priest, Daud Al-Harari, the head of the Jewish community of Damascus. After he was slaughtered, his blood was collected, and the two rabbis took it. Why? So they could worship their god, because by drinking human blood, they can get closer to God. Where are our diplomats and politicians? Why don't we profit from these historical matters, which are presented to us on a simple, eternal, golden platter?

"As I've said, these books can be found on the streets of Beirut. There are approximately 20 to 30 such books. I must have bought about 2,000 copies since they were published, maybe more. I'd like to say 20,000 copies, but I don't know. When somebody gets married, instead of chocolates, I give him one of these books. Whoever reads this for the first time feels a chill of horror and disbelief. He cannot believe it."

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) is an independent, non-profit organization that translates and analyzes the media of the Middle East. Copies of articles and documents cited, as well as background information, are available on request.

MEMRI holds copyrights on all translations. Materials may only be used with proper attribution.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI)
P.O. Box 27837, Washington, DC 20038-7837
Phone: (202) 955-9070
Fax: (202) 955-9077
Search previous MEMRI publications at

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Who is a Jew?

Who is a Jew?

You probably will want to read all of this article by Vic Rosenthal , and we can all agree with some of it. Vic wrote:

For example, there may not be a single set of facial characteristics common to me and the rest of my family, but in some sense we look alike: a nose here, eyebrows there, etc. A family resemblance may be more or less intense, and the decision to include or exclude a person becomes harder to make as the resemblance weakens.

For example, which of the following photos exemplifies the famous Jewish physiognomy, and which does not?

Doesn't the gentleman at left look like he should be Gabbai of your synagogue? Which of these fine fellows would you cast for the role of American tough guy? Jewish intellectual? Concentration camp victim? I promise a reply to those questions in the future.

Vic wrote:

In other words, if an Ashkenazi Jew has certain 'Jewish' characteristics and a Sephardic Jew has other, different, ones, then the result of mixing them -- both in terms of children and of culture -- will tend to have more of the overall set of 'Jewish' characteristics than we'd get from all Ashkenazim or Sephardim.

Well I don't know about. My aunt is Sephardic, my uncle is Ashkenazi. They live in Tel-Aviv. Their son ought to be much more "Jewish" than they are according to Vic's theory, but he lives in New York and has an African-American girl-friend, goes hitch-hiking in India, and doesn't eat either gefilte fish or couscous when he can help it. And nonetheless he is Jewish of course, and identifies himself as "Jewish."

What is my point?

Identity has two aspects: how others see you, and how you see yourself. It is not a collection of "characteristics." The important part of identity is how you see yourself. It should be the factor in deciding if someone is Jewish, or Greek or anything else.

Ami Isseroff

By Vic Rosenthal

One of the most persistent issues among Jews today, especially non-observant Jews living in the Diaspora, is that of Jewish identity: what is it, do I have it, are we losing it, is that bad?...

So exactly how are the Jewish people a people or a nation? Is it the same sense in which, for example, the Dutch or the French see themselves as a people?

No, it's not the same. The Dutch or French have lived in the same place for hundreds of years. They speak the same language (or dialects thereof). They do share, more or less, a culture. Maybe if modern Israel can survive Ahmadinijad etc. for a few generations there will begin to be this kind of national culture – in Israel. But it still won't explain the Jewishness of those in the far-flung Diaspora.

...human language is a tool for doing practical things in the world, not a formal structure like mathematics. So the way that we make definitions of practical concepts, like Jew, is not necessarily as neat and closed as the way that we define complicated mathematical concepts in terms of simpler ones. Wittgenstein found it explanatory to talk about family resemblances.

For example, there may not be a single set of facial characteristics common to me and the rest of my family, but in some sense we look alike: a nose here, eyebrows there, etc. A family resemblance may be more or less intense, and the decision to include or exclude a person becomes harder to make as the resemblance weakens. But that doesn't mean the idea of the family resemblance is meaningless -- language is meaningful insofar as it is useful, and a degree of uncertainty is part of life. Wittgenstein thought that concepts like 'game', for example, which are notoriously hard to define, are best understood as applying to things having a sort of family resemblance.

So I think it's not unreasonable -- and also quite appealing – to think of the Jewish people as a large family, with family resemblances. Some of the features that we find among Jews are Judaism, certain values (e.g., a respect for learning), certain languages (especially Hebrew, which unites observant and Israeli Jews), certain customs, foods, even a preponderance of certain DNA sequences...

... the overall pool of diverse Jewish characteristics is amplified when the group includes a more diverse mix of Jews. In other words, if an Ashkenazi Jew has certain 'Jewish' characteristics and a Sephardic Jew has other, different, ones, then the result of mixing them — both in terms of children and of culture-- will tend to have more of the overall set of 'Jewish' characteristics than we'd get from all Ashkenazim or Sephardim.

Of course, the place in the world where there is the most diverse mix of Jewish people and cultures is Israel. So in another sense, added to the religious and political ones, we see the importance of Israel to the Jewish people. Perhaps A. B. Yehoshua was not entirely wrong when he said that it's necessary to live in Israel to live a fully Jewish life.

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