The Temple Mount, California edition: Anti-Semitic sermons test Muslim-Jewish bonds


Sermons infused with anti-Semitic language delivered by imams in two California mosques on the same day have reignited tensions in Jewish-Muslim relations after leaders of the two religious groups around the state have worked aggressively to ease lingering conflicts.

The July 21 remarks by Imam Mahmoud Harmoush of the Islamic Center of Riverside and Imam Ammar Shahin of the Islamic Center of Davis drew strong condemnation from Muslim and Jewish leaders, fearful that such incendiary language could erode relations.

The effect was like picking at a scab on a slow-healing wound. Since the terror attacks of 9/11, American Jewish and Muslim groups have made a concerted effort to forge bonds of understanding and cooperation. Those have been nursed along despite the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, not to mention the enduring friction between Israelis and Palestinians. More recently, efforts to stigmatize Muslims generally have encouraged Jews and Muslims to push for closer relations.

The angry sermons from the pulpits in Davis and Riverside tested the strength of those developing bonds.

“It is critical to understand the mosque, a sanctuary for worship and spiritual growth, has no place for divisiveness or hate. Paranoia as a result of political unrest does not justify making these allegations against an entire religious group,” the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing understanding of Muslims, said in condemning the two sermons.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) and the American Jewish Committee, among others, expressed outrage over the sermons, with the ADL calling them “anti-Semitic and dangerous.” The Zionist Organization of America called for Shahin’s firing, and the Wiesenthal Center has urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate the Davis Muslim leader.

In an Aug. 1 statement, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) said Harmoush’s sermon was “dangerous, offensive, and entirely inconsistent with the tolerant and respectful views routinely expressed by local Muslim leaders.” That same day, Rep. Brad Sherman, a Jewish Democrat who serves the San Fernando Valley, said Harmoush’s words were “nothing short of hate speech.”

Both sermons referred to last month’s conflict at the Temple Mount, where a shooting of two Druze Israeli police officers led the Israeli government to install metal detectors for entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is part of the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem. After two weeks of internal and international outrage from Muslims, the metal detectors were removed.

In his sermon, Shahin said, “Oh Allah, liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews.”

Quoting a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad that is distinct from the text of the Quran, he said, “Oh Allah, count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last.”

Harmoush used similar language when he said in his sermon, “Oh Allah, liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and all the Muslim lands from the unjust tyrants and occupiers. Oh Allah, destroy them, they are no match for you.” 

Further, he condemned “the occupying forces of the Israeli army [that] have intervened and indeed took over the holy place and shut it down.”

“These statements are anti-Semitic and dangerous,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, said referring to the two sermons. “We reject attempts to cast the conflict in Jerusalem as a religious war between Jews and Muslims. At this time of heightened tension, it is more important than ever for the Jewish and Muslim communities to come together to condemn the use of stereotypes and conspiracy theories, and to rebuild trust so that people of all faiths can coexist with mutual respect in the Holy Land and around the world.”

Imam Ammar Shahin

 

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the SWC, called on Muslim leaders to denounce the two sermons as a more effective way to blunt anti-Semitic speech than criticism from the outside.

“Whatever changes need to take place, they cannot be forced from Christian leaders or Jewish leaders,” he said. “That change has to come from within and it has to be brought about by leaders within the Muslim community.”

If the language of the Riverside and Davis imams stood out as particularly inflammatory, the sentiments were not unique.

While his July 28 sermon at the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City in English and Arabic did not explicitly promote violence, Sheikh Ahson Syed retained a distinct negative bias toward non-Muslims and repeatedly referred to Israeli soldiers, in English, as “Zionist terrorist soldiers.”

The sermon was recorded and posted to YouTube by the mosque, and the Journal commissioned a translation of the Arabic portion.

In Arabic, he said, “O God help our brothers in Palestine to get victory and get rid of the enemies who occupy their land. O God reinforce Islam and the Muslims, take down the shirk and the mushriks and kill enemies; enemies of Islam.”

In Islamic religious thought, a shirk is an idolator and mushrik refers to Christians and Jews, those who worship someone other than Allah.

Unlike leaders of some other religions, imams are appointed to lead prayers and are not required to have had formal seminary or theological training. Nor does Islam have any central authority that specifies what imams can say or not say in their sermons.

As a consequence, it is difficult to quantify how often fiery rhetoric is part of sermons delivered in mosques in California or elsewhere. Mahomed Akbar Khan, director of interfaith and outreach for King Fahad Mosque, said mosques entrust their imams and speakers to deliver sermons however they want.

“It’s generally free rein,” he said. “The questions we ask [when choosing speakers] is, ‘Is this person qualified and is this person respected in the community?’ If there are any inappropriate comments, we make it clear that it is not the stance of the mosque. But every mosque is different.”

Despite the language of the Riverside and Davis sermons and in mosques elsewhere, hate speeches in American mosques are “few and far between” and for the most part, haven’t been proven to lead to violence, said Kenneth Lasson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, who wrote a 2005 paper on hate speech and incitements in mosques.

“It’s rare a congregation would go out to commit violence after hearing a sermon,” he said, adding that while he would prefer civility in places of worship, hate speech is protected as free speech if no violence happens as a result of it.

“That connection must be proven,” Lasson said. “In the cases in California, there appears that there have been no consequences other than hard feelings.”

Nonetheless, Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround, an organization that works to improve Muslim-Jewish relations, said the sermons reveal deep-seated differences between the communities.

“I think it blows the lid off that this is real,” Hasan told the Journal. “There are feelings between these two communities and this is how it has manifested.”

One member of NewGround, Jewish activist Tuli Skaist, reached out to Shahin to challenge his use of “such hateful rhetoric,” as he said in an op-ed posted at jewishjournal.com.

“In these turbulent times, with so much hate in the world, it seems to me that faith leaders ought to be in the firefighting business,” Skaist wrote. “We must fight the inflammatory flames of hate with the sweet waters of love. We must fight intolerance in the world by urging our people to be more kind and more tolerant.”

In his response to Skaist, Shahin accused the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organization that translates speeches in Arabic into English, bringing them to a wider audience, of taking his remarks out of context.

But he apologized for his sermon, writing, “Thank you for your comments and concerns, I will keep them in mind. As you know, when we speak with emotion, words might not be put in the right places or understood correctly.

“My apology to all your community for any harm that my misinterpreted words might have caused.”

In a subsequent press conference, Shahin appeared with Davis Mayor Robb Davis and Rabbi Seth Castleman, chairman of the Sacramento Area Council of Rabbis, and apologized, acknowledging that he allowed his emotions to get the better of him.

“I understand that speech like this can encourage others to do hateful and violent acts, for this I truly apologize,” Shahin said. “Words matter and have consequences.”

In his online op-ed for the Journal, Skaist wrote, “Let me be clear: The imam was wrong; his words were dangerous and inexcusable. Such words should not be tolerated by his community or any other. At the same time, here is a man that is not full of hate, but who simply got carried away with passion, used words that he shouldn’t have, and had them distributed to the world in a two-minute ‘got you’ sound bite.”

MEMRI denied that Shahin’s remarks were edited or mistranslated and called him “one of a group of extremist preachers who have been exposed by MEMRI to be delivering incitement to hatred and violence.” The organization said accusations of misrepresenting Shahin reflects an effort by the Islamic Center of Davis “to deflect responsibility from themselves by issuing all kinds of mendacious and libelous statements against the entity that exposed them.”

In addition to his position at the Davis mosque, Shahin is an instructor at the Zidni Islamic Institute in Brentwood. Egyptian-born, he graduated from the Institute for Preparation of Preachers with a bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies and earned an associate degree from Al-Forqan Institute, according to the Zidni Institute.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Center of Riverside (ICR) said it conducted an internal inquiry, reviewing Harmoush’s remarks and finding that his critics had misinterpreted his words.

Imam Harmoush was careful to focus his remarks on the actions of the Israeli government in and around Jerusalem,” the center said in a statement. “In fact, those parts of the sermon which have been cited as objectionable were routinely mistranslated and/or taken out of context. Nonetheless, Imam Harmoush unequivocally stated in the sermon that Islam does not call for aggression against any peaceful people.

“ICR believes that the Imam’s remarks were neither anti-Semitic nor discriminatory, but rather intended to address the unfortunate closure of the Mosque in Jerusalem to Muslim worshippers,” the statement said.

In a brief interview with the Journal, Harmoush did not disavow any part of his sermon but conceded that his words might have an unsettling effect on others.

“Oh, I learned that sometimes you have to not only have a sixth sense, but maybe a seventh sense,” he said. “Some people are very sensitive but maybe they cannot handle the truth or information, and unfortunately, we are living in a very sensitive society. Sensitive in a way we have to be careful, so we don’t need to hurt anybody’s feelings. Sometimes I talk to adults, children, male or female, and we have to be careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Imam Mahmoud Harmoush

 

According to MEMRI, Harmoush was born in Syria and has been living in the United States since the 1980s.

According to the ICR statement, Harmoush regards himself as an interfaith leader, and on July 31, 10 days after delivering his sermon, he met with Rabbi Suzanne Singer of the Riverside congregation Temple Beth El to discuss the controversy over his sermon.

Having organized an interfaith event at her synagogue this spring in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from certain countries from entering the United States, Singer said she was eager to talk to Harmoush, despite her discomfort over his sermon. Ibrahim Massoud, chairman of the mosque, also participated in the meeting.

In an interview, Singer said the meeting confirmed what she had suspected after watching Harmoush’s sermon online, that she and Harmoush have strongly different ideas about the founding of the State of Israel and Jewish intentions in the Middle East. Although they did not agree on many things, she said, they agreed to meet again to try to bridge this divide.

“I said it may be a good idea for us to talk about our different narratives around Israel,” Singer said.

As to what the future holds, Singer said she would not allow the two sermons to stop her from building interfaith relationships with willing Muslim partners.

“Obviously, I’m quite distressed about this,” Singer said. “I don’t think it represents the Muslim community [in Riverside].”

Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the views expressed by Harmoush, Shahin and others are popular in the Muslim world, no matter how they are interpreted by others.

“These kinds of views have been encouraged by governments for decades in attempts to deflect criticism away from them,” Firestone said. “And there are plenty of harsh statements about Jews in Muslim religious sources that can be harvested when there is an interest in finding scapegoats.”

The challenge now for those who have worked hard to repair and improve relationships, said NewGround’s Hasan, is for religious leaders to hold one another accountable for hateful comments made by their communities but not to let them derail interfaith work.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to have those hard conversations and not sweep things under the rug,” she said.

Why Europe is so woefully unprepared for the new refugee crisis


No time is a good time for an epic humanitarian crisis. But Europe today seems woefully unprepared for the human wave from the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa and lands reaching all the way to Afghanistan.

I was overseas for much of the last few weeks and had a chance to watch Al Jazeera and BBC coverage. In the early phase of this mass movement of people, great pains were made to depict them as migrants, not refugees, who had the legal right to relocate to Europe.

All that changed with the horrific revelations of dozens of these “migrants” found suffocated in a truck in Austria, hundreds more perishing at sea, and the photo of a dead boy from Syria, who drowned along with his mother.

It is not only the huge numbers that cause the crisis, although the mention by Chancellor Angela Merkel of 800,000 potential refugees being absorbed into Germany sent shockwaves across the political and social landscape of the continent.

It is not only security concerns, though European Intelligence agencies must be alarmed at the thought of taking in thousands of unvetted refugees from the ground zero of terrorism and sectarian violence when they are already staggering under the burden of some 8,000 European citizens trained by al-Qaida and ISIS in the Middle East who returned home poised to unleash more terrorist attacks like those in Paris and Brussels.

It is not only about the lack of political will and social cohesion. For even as French, British and German leaders talk about evenly distributing the burden, others such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have made it brutally clear that they want no part of the migrant/refugee wave; they simply want them gone. If it means constructing barbed-wire fences, posting a phalanx of police at the central train station in Budapest and duping refugees to board trains to camps, so be it.

Of course, when we see people so desperate to escape their homes that they knowingly put themselves and their children in harm’s way, when we see the lifeless body of a drowned child, we Jews are reminded of another era in Europe.

Why then is Europe so unprepared for this challenge?

It is precisely because the European Union (EU) has failed to evolve into a true “union.”

It has failed to articulate what 21st-century European social values are.

It never has addressed the failure to integrate the millions of Muslims already living in Europe.

Its foreign policy has failed to stem the killings and dislocation of Bashar Assad’s Syria. It has failed to stop ISIS.

It attempted to stop Libyans from leaving their country by removing Muammar Gadhafi. The results? The disintegration of a country and even more boat people perishing in the Mediterranean.

But are Europeans exclusively to blame for all of this? What about the United States? Tragically, the policies of “leading from behind” and “no boots on the ground” may mean fewer Americans in harm’s way in the Middle East, but the leadership vacuum has left millions of innocent people to fend for themselves with corrupt and dangerous governments who can’t even pick up the garbage.

There is one other gaping hole in the leadership of the EU: 70 years after the Shoah, rabid anti-Semitism and hate for the Jewish state infect an estimated 150 million Europeans. Seven decades after the defeat of Nazism, European governments and nongovernmental organizations have been silent over the ethnic cleansing, murder and serial rape of tens of thousands of Christians and other minorities across the Middle East.

It seems that Europe’s elite may have learned to mark their calendar to remember dead Jews one day a year, but too many have failed to internalize or apply any lessons from the Nazi era as to how to treat living Jews and other minorities.

There are no easy solutions to this crisis, but as Jews who come to pray for the wellbeing and safety of the entire world on Rosh Hashanah, we must find ways to do our share to help all legitimate refugees, be they Christian, Muslims or Yazidis.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Refugees a sign of unraveling world order


As the known and secret parts of the Iran nuke deal spin into place like the uncertain number of Iranian centrifuges, President Barack Obama has succeeded in winning one-third-plus votes in the U.S. Senate to defeat attempts to overturn what he deems his legacy foreign policy achievement. Soon, the shouting will be over. Optimists will hope for the best. Pessimists during this Holy Season will pray to G-d that the worst does not happen.

So now would be an appropriate time to look at the P5+1 Iran deal from “ground zero”: the greater Middle East situation—from Afghanistan to North Africa’s Maghreb and the East African Horn—as well as the spillover of the current refugee crisis besetting Europe.

Who among our friends and foes is stable — and who is unstable?

The perennial linchpin of U.S. Mideast policy — Aircraft Carrier Israel — remains securely afloat despite tensions with Washington, and increasing threats at her borders, from Iranian proxies in Lebanon and adjacent to the Golan in the North and Hamastan and the Sinai in the South. For now, a King Abdullah-led Jordan remains afloat thanks to massive help from the US and quiet security help from Israel. Egypt, despite soured relations with the U.S., has for now thwarted the Muslim Brotherhood. The promise of Tahrir Square is but a distant memory as the largest Arab nation is now led by a president whose goal is economic growth and stable security. Otherwise, the region is a total mess.

There is:

– The virtual collapse of the “post-Petraeus” Surge, precarious Iraqi State, concomitant with the rise of ISIS. Will a unified Iraq survive? Not if the Kurds are given a say. As for Christians, they no longer have a say, as the world stood by as historic Christian communities were ethnically cleansed.

– The unraveling of our alliance with Afghanistan’s Karzai regime.

– The emboldening of Iran-backed terrorists along a “Shiite arc” stretching from Iraq to Yemen.

– The panic of the Gulf States, directly adjacent to Iran with weakening U.S. support, and the rise of the Houthi insurgency on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, the very country the Obama Administration once touted as an anti-terrorist success story.

– The collapse of Libya into chaos following the U.S. “leading from behind” anti-Qaddafi coup. That move was largely engineered by Europeans who, ironically, sought to prevent the refugee exodus that they ultimately made much worse.

– A feckless U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa that has brought no peace to Ethiopia-Eritrea or Somalia, with terrorist atrocities spilling over into Kenya and Nigeria.

And now, Europe finds itself confronting a tsunami of refugees that evokes memories of the millions of displaced persons at the end of World War II.  The crisis in Europe is caused, not only by people seeking a better economic future as on our southern border, but by masses fleeing failed states, internecine violence, civil war and terrorism; people so desperate that parents are literally casting their children onto the waters with the protection of little more than bulrushes.

Refugees from Afghanistan flowing into Pakistan and Iraq, refugees from Syria (some 2 million) flowing into Turkey, Jordan and beyond, refugees from Lebanon fleeing Beirut’s fetid streets, refugees from Libya becoming Mediterranean “boat people,” refugees from Somalia and Eritrea adding to the outflow. You can read their faces and body language: these are people who see no future nor hope of change.

If they survive the stormy crossing, their reception is barbed wire or trains to nowhere in Hungary or Slovakia where neo-fascist politicians promise to give refuge only to “Christians.” Germany is their new promised land, with Chancellor Merkel desperately trying to piece together a continent-wide response.

This is a seminal moment for the European Union. It needs to show real leadership, vision and cohesiveness—but don’t hold your breath.

Not so long ago, any crisis of such proportions would spur a robust American response. But now the world isn’t sure where we stand. Washington failed to knock out ISIS/ISIL when it really was still “a jayvee team,” and failed to enforce our announced anti-Assad “red lines.” The resulting mass murder and mayhem has literally bled over into the Mediterranean refugee maelstrom.

It is into this chaos that the P5+1 — led by the US — has handed a virtual blank check (between $150-600 billion) to the Iranian regime. Tehran has its gameplan of regional hegemony-but what’s ours?

It is hard to imagine that President Obama, in homestretch of his two-term tenure is going to change course in Middle East. From his Cairo Speech to the Iran Nukes deal, he has bet the house that moderate Islamists would emerge from direct engagement. It never happened in Egypt. As for Iran? In 2009, the freedom-starved Iranian people went to the streets of Tehran chanting President Obama’s name. He never answered their plea for help in overturning tyranny,  instead, as with Assad’s Syria, he cut a deal that could keep the Mullahs in power indefinitely.

So it appears that the Europeans will have to solve this latest crisis on their own. But at the least, the American people should demand a robust debate in the media and among presidential candidates of both parties about how the U.S. can again “lead from the front” and prevent the post-WWII global order, including the EU and NATO, from unraveling.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a hisotrian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Former U.S. war prisoner Bergdahl faces desertion charges


Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a former Taliban prisoner in Afghanistan who was released last summer in a controversial prisoner exchange, was charged on Wednesday with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, his attorney said.

Eugene Fidell, a lecturer at Yale Law School, said the Army had scheduled an Article 32 hearing, similar to a preliminary hearing in civilian law, for April 22 in San Antonio, Texas, where Bergdahl is based. The hearing will determine if there is enough evidence to proceed with a general court martial.

The confirmation of charges against Bergdahl came shortly after U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg in North Carolina announced that it would provide an update on the Bergdahl case, which has been undergoing a review after questions were raised about the circumstances of his capture by the Taliban.

The update is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.

The case has been under review by General Mark Milley, head of U.S. Army Forces Command, who was asked to look at the circumstance surrounding Bergdahl's capture in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.

Bergdahl disappeared from his unit early one morning after doing guard duty. It quickly became apparent he was missing when he failed to show up for roll call, but his gun, ammunition and body armor had been left behind.

Officials said Milley could decide anything from recommending no action, to non-judicial punishment to recommending criminal charges and a court martial.

Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan last summer after the Obama administration agreed to send five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo military prison to Qatar, where they were required to remain for a year.

An initial wave of euphoria over Bergdahl's release was followed by a backlash among U.S. lawmakers angry because they were not given 30 days notice before the transfer of the Guantanamo prisoners, as required by law. Some of Bergdahl's former Army comrades said they believe he deserted his post.

U.S. weighs slowing Afghan withdrawal to ensure ‘progress sticks’: Carter


The United States is considering slowing a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan to ensure that “progress sticks” after more than a decade of war, new Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during an unannounced visit to Kabul on Saturday.

Under the current plan, the United States will halve the number of troops in Afghanistan to just over 5,000 this year, gradually winding down to a “normal” U.S. embassy presence by the end of 2016.

That schedule could now change, at least in part, suggested Carter on his first trip abroad since swearing in as the Pentagon chief on Tuesday, as the United States also rethinks the future of its counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan.

His remarks set the stage for talks next month when the Afghan president is expected in Washington.

“Our priority now is to make sure this progress sticks,” Carter said at a joint conference with President Ashraf Ghani, hours after landing in Kabul.

“That is why President (Barack) Obama is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani's security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of U.S. troops.”

Ghani said he expected to discuss U.S. troop numbers with Obama “in the context of the larger partnership.”

U.S. General John Campbell, who leads international forces in Afghanistan, suggested his focus for now was sustaining enough U.S. trainers, advisors and counter-terrorism forces inAfghanistan during 2015 and 2016, not what happens later.

“Right now I think we're comfortable looking at '15 and '16,” Campbell told reporters traveling with Carter.

The current strategy has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans in Congress, who say that hard-won gains made against the Taliban could be lost in much the same way that sectarian violence returned to Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal.

Afghanistan's national army and police suffered heavy losses last year, the bloodiest since the war against Taliban militants began in 2001.

The emergence of a small number of militants in Afghanistan aligning themselves with Islamic State, which swept into northern Iraq last summer, has underscored anxieties about the dangers as foreign forces withdraw.

Carter said Islamic State's presence in Afghanistan appeared “aspirational”.”

But he also acknowledged the future of the U.S. counter-terrorism mission was also under review.

“We are discussing and rethinking the details of the counter-terrorism mission and how the environment has changed here with respect to terrorism, since we first laid out our plans,” Carter said.

Discussions about the way forward in Afghanistan, Carter said, were possible thanks to political progress in Kabul, where Ghani's pro-Western unity government succeeded former president Hamid Karzai last year.

Once the darling of the international community, Karzai made fervently anti-Western speeches in his later years in power and resisted U.S. pressure to sign a crucial security treaty.

Carter, who this week became Obama's fourth defense secretary, is a former Pentagon No. 2 with deep roots in U.S. policy on Afghanistan. He said Saturday marked his tenth official visit to the country, even though it was his first at the helm of the Department of Defense.

Neither he nor Ghani made predictions about peace efforts with the Taliban, after senior Pakistani army, Afghan and diplomatic officials said the Afghan Taliban signaled they were willing to open peace talks.

But Ghani sounded upbeat.

“The grounds for peace have never been better in the last 36 years. Our approach is productive. We're hopeful,” Ghani said.

“But categorical answers in a peace process are dangerous.”

Tough love for Islam


We’re conditioned to respect all religions. But what happens when we’re confronted with a religion that looks more like a political ideology? When I criticize Islam, I don’t criticize its spiritual beauty; I criticize the fact that in too many places around the world, the religion has morphed into a violent and totalitarian movement.

It’s not a coincidence that, since 9/11, more than 24,000 terrorists acts have been committed under the name of Islam. After the latest murderous attacks in Paris, even a staunch liberal like Bill Maher had the politically incorrect nerve to say what so many of us are afraid to say: “When there’s this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with this orchard.”

What’s wrong with this orchard? Well, for starters, it harbors an extremist and literalist interpretation of Islam that has morally contaminated large segments of the Muslim world.

While practices and beliefs in Islam are hardly monolithic, it’s disheartening to see such widespread support among Muslims for strict religious law (Sharia) as the official law of their countries. According to polling from the Pew Research Center, this support is most prevalent in places like Afghanistan (99%), Iraq (91%), the Palestinian territories (89%), Pakistan (84%), Morocco (83%), Egypt (74%) and Indonesia (72%).

When you consider that a strict interpretation of Sharia law can often mean cutting off the hands of thieves, lynching gays, stoning adulterous women and the death penalty for apostates, it’s not a pretty picture.

And yet, in much of the West, we act as if Islamic terrorism is simply the result of some “bad apples,” and, well, every religion has its fanatics. This cozy and convenient narrative has run its course. Islamic terrorism is not an isolated phenomenon — it’s a violent outgrowth of a global, triumphalist and totalitarian ideology that is on the march and hiding behind the nobility of religion.

When French President Francois Hollande says, “These terrorists and fanatics have nothing to do with the Islamic religion,” he’s being politically correct, but not accurate. Islamic terrorism has very much to do with the extremist interpretation of classic Islamic texts. Until we acknowledge that inconvenient truth, we have no chance of combating this disease.

Moderate Muslims who “condemn terrorism” and then defend Islam as a “religion of peace” are not taking responsibility for a malignant ideology that must be confronted and rooted out, and not simply denounced.

But how do we do that?

For my money, there’s no better approach than that of Ahmed Vanya, a fellow at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an American-Muslim organization that openly confronts the ideologies of political Islam.

Vanya loves Islam, but his is a tough love. He doesn’t get defensive about the religion’s failings. He’s not out to defend Islam as much as to modernize it. In his must-read article “Beautifying Islam,” published on the website of the Gatestone Institute, Vanya confronts the monster head-on:

“A religion that prescribes killing or criminalizing apostates; condones institutionalized slavery, stoning, beheading, flogging, and amputations; which restricts and criminalizes freedom of speech and freedom of religion; commands the stoning of adulterers; develops a theory of constant state of war with non-believers; discriminates and demeans women and people of other religions is not only The Religion of the Bigots but The Religion of the Bullies.” 

He is clear-eyed about his own tradition: “Classical Islamic law, developed over the history of Islam, is definitely not peaceful or benign, and therefore not suited for this age; neither are its violent and grotesque progeny, such as Islamism and jihadism.”

But like any good lover, Vanya gives his beloved the benefit of the doubt: “If Islam is a religion that stands for justice and peaceful coexistence, then this policy of jihad cannot be justified as sanctioned by a just and merciful creator.”

To live up to these noble ideals, Vanya calls for a humanistic “reinterpretation” of classic Islamic texts: “If we Muslims want to stand up and challenge the literalism of the text-bound scholars and the militants who are beheading, enslaving and persecuting people around the world alike, we need to develop an interpretative methodology that balances revelation with reason as in other rational, religious traditions.”

In other words, it’s not enough to marginalize violence; we must also marginalize violent teachings. 

“Religious traditions have changed and evolved over time,” Vanya writes. “Therefore it is the duty of us Muslims, using reason and common sense, to reinterpret the scriptures to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values. It is our duty to cleanse the traditional, literalist, classical Islam and purify it to make it an Islam that is worthy to be called a beautiful religion.”

When Muslim leaders and preachers start to spread that tough love message throughout the Muslim world, the modernization of Islam will have begun.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Obama needs a better job


I feel bad for President Barack Obama. Here is a decent, intelligent, articulate man who had all the qualities to be a brilliant candidate but somehow ended up in the wrong job.

As I see him running out the clock on his second term, gamely trying to appear in control but clearly in over his head, I think back to the days when my then-8-year-old daughter fell in love with Candidate Obama.

It was my daughter’s fascination with Obama that fed my own. We would sit together at night and watch his speeches, moved by his ability to inspire us. 

Because his delivery and persona were so mesmerizing, we couldn’t help but absorb his message. And what a grand message it was: Unity. Opportunity. Hope. Renewal. Optimism. A more perfect union. A more perfect world.

At a time when America was feeling down on itself, Obama came along to boost our morale, to remind us that there’s nothing we can’t do — a message he himself embodied through his remarkable rise.

But while fate dealt Obama a perfect storm of circumstances to help him shoot to the top, it also dealt him a perfect mess of crises that greeted him as soon as he walked into the Oval Office.

The magnificent candidate inherited a trifecta of disasters: Two of the dumbest wars in U.S. history in Iraq and Afghanistan (my definition of a stupid war: squandering trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on a country that doesn’t say thank you), combined with an economic and fiscal crisis the likes of which we hadn’t seen in decades.

On top of those disasters came a problem of his own making: He made us expect too much. This is the side effect of being a transcendent candidate. You make people dream. You get carried away with your promises. You don’t manage expectations.

Eventually, crummy hand or not, Obama had to own up to his record. For a while, his eloquence and self-confidence made many of us overlook his failings. But as the problems and scandals piled up, as the “jobless recovery” became the new normal and as the Obamacare launch turned into an infamous mess, the Obama magic waned.

His words were still strong and upbeat, but they could no longer cover up the failures.

From a high of 69 percent in January 2009, his Gallup approval rating sank as low as 40 percent in March 2014. 

Liberal admirers like Amy Goodman have taken him to task for promising “a new era of open Government,” which, she writes, “seems just another grand promise, cynically broken.”

Last year, another prominent admirer, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, wrote: “Unfortunately, he still has not learned to govern. … No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.”

Evidently, tyrants around the world aren’t scared of him, either.

And why should they be? At heart, Obama is a dreamer, a preacher, a philosopher-king. He’s simply not wired to be a hands-on, hard-nosed leader who can leverage his power.

Sure, when circumstances suit him, he can play tough guy and take down Bin Laden or send out the drones to kill more bad guys.

But his real passion is not with hard power. It’s with soft power.

He believes more fervently in dialogue and persuasion than in credible deterrence, which is the only thing that works with bullies. After seeing him violate his own red line against the murderous bully running Syria, few allies or enemies believe he has the stomach to enforce any red lines.

His reckless predecessor may have given toughness a bad name, but Obama himself has never quite found the smart middle ground between reckless and hapless. 

As a result, Obama’s wobbling, coddling and wishful thinking have weakened America’s credibility and reduced our ability to positively influence the world — on everything from fighting global warming, to reducing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to combating genocide in Africa, to standing up to tyrants. 

Of course, none of this would matter if Obama weren’t the leader of the free world. But he is. And while he’s certainly had his high moments, it’s clear he’s fallen far short of the greatness he evoked in 2008. The charisma that made him a star on his magic campaign ride has hardly been enough to navigate the world’s toughest job. 

But there’s hope.

As I see it, there’s one important job that would enable Obama to truly display his greatness: running the United Nations.

In this era of globalization, can you think of a more perfect role for our orator-in-chief? Every week, he’d deliver an inspiring address to the world about the most crucial issues facing humanity. 

He would initiate resolutions and proclamations, set priorities for fighting injustice and healing the planet, root out the blatant hypocrisy that too often infects the U.N. and shame the bullies while honoring the heroes.

In short, he’d be wallowing in his element, presiding over a global forum where ideas, eloquence and “soft power” matter more than anything. He’d be the inspirational leader, not just of the free world, but of the whole world.

President Obama still has 1,000 days to end his presidency on a high note, and I hope he does. But the highest note he'll reach, for him and the world, is not in Washington. It's in New York City.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

‘Bethlehem,’ a film of spies and intrigue and Oscar possibilities


Foreign-language (meaning non English-language) films from 76 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Venezuela, are competing for Oscar honors this year, with Israel’s entry, “Bethlehem,” pitting Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, this plot would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, it is only fair to warn flag-waving partisans on either side, who see the conflict in terms of unblemished virtue against pure evil, that they’re not going to like the way the film handles its subject.

As the film’s producer, Talia Kleinhandler, writes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed; all are vulnerable. There is no black and white in this film, only painful shades of gray – like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes it sound like a namby-pamby movie, full of on-the-one-hand, but on-the-other-hand, agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Waked, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s time and setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the relationship between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory.

Adler, who is also the film’s director, quotes a veteran Israeli secret service agent who told him that “the key to recruiting and running informants is not violence, or intimidation, or money, but the key is to develop an intimate relationship with the informant, on a very human level. It’s not just the informant who is confused about his identity and loyalties. The agent, too – and especially the good ones – often experience a blurring of the lines.”

Following this dictum, Sanfur, whose own father clearly favors the militant Ibrahim over his younger son, finds in Razi a kind of surrogate father, and Razi cares personally for the boy – even if that clashes with his professional duties.

While the Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Co-writer Waked, interviewed in a Hollywood hotel, draws an analogy between these feuds and the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, when Menachem Begin’s Etzel and David Ben-Gurion’s Haganah detested one another with as much fervor as they did the British soldiers.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much of a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevy as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Waked, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, said in an interview that his film debut is a major hit in its home country, and won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Israel’s media, which have a much higher tolerance for national self-criticism than their American counterparts, have generally come out with complimentary reviews, though the strongest raves have been in the foreign press and trade papers.

Curiously, while in most countries the political right would have condemned the film’s critical take on the national security service, in Israel it has been the left that has slammed the picture for its supposedly distorted view of the Palestinian struggle.

Thus in an article in the daily Haaretz, headlined “ ‘Bethlehem’ is yet another Israeli propaganda film,” critic Gideon Levy terms as “outrageous” what he sees as the movie’s portrayal of Israelis as the good guys and Palestinians as the bad guys.

Adler, who has steadfastly declined to discuss his own political orientation, considers such charges preposterous. His diverse cast of Israeli and Palestinian actors “made it possible to see the world through their eyes,” he said. “As director, I tried to bring their contradictory viewpoints into a single whole, without taking sides, and without judging them.”

For the Israeli Film Academy, picking “Bethlehem” as the country’s official Oscar contender marks an interesting shift in focus from the two preceding entries, “Footnote,” which dealt with academic rivalries at a university, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” which viewed life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

It will be interesting to see how the famously unpredictable Academy selection committee reacts to the picture, but the film has been touted as a real Oscar contender in a number of Hollywood publications.

A quick glance at submissions from other countries shows that, contrary to frequent predictions, the world’s producers and directors have not lost their interest in movies about the Nazi era, the Holocaust and the conflict in the Middle East.

Argentina’s “The German Doctor” follows the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’ “Angel of Death,” as he flees to the South American country and befriends an unsuspecting family there.

In years past, the U.S. Academy wrestled with the proper terminology for the “Palestinian Authority” or “Palestinian Territories,” but apparently everybody has stopped worrying about the problem, so the film “Omar” is credited with coming from “Palestine.”

Omar, the baker, lives on one side of Israel’s security wall, while the beautiful Nadia lives on the other side. But the romantic scenario turns very grim as Omar becomes a “freedom fighter” battling the ruthless Israeli occupiers.

One of the more interesting entries is The Philippines’ “The Transit,” which deals with the lives of Filipinos working in mostly low-paid jobs in Israel.

For World War II buffs, there is Russia’s “Stalingrad,” which chronicles both the epic battle and love among its ruins.


“Bethlehem” will be released in local theaters Feb. 21, 2014. Oscar nominees will be announced Jan.16 and the winners will be crowned on March 2.

After Geneva, Iran’s nuclear deal remains a conundrum


Last month’s nuclear deal with Iran has set off a cacophony of pro and con acrimony pitting public officials, academic experts and pundits against one another.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the interim accord a “historic mistake.” The Wall Street Journal headlined columnist Bret Stephens’ commentary that Geneva was “Worse Than Munich.”  Proponents took quite a different view.  Speaking to the country the evening of the deal, President Barack Obama declared “diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure — a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.” Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the accord “realistic” and “practical.”

The divide is no sanctimonious dust-up, but a genuine difference of opinion over the best strategy to halt Iran’s suspect nuclear program. The president’s stance — the hope that good-faith negotiation, however difficult, coupled with the continued application of the most onerous sanctions can resolve the issue — butts against the argument that negotiations and minimal sanctions relief simply oxygenates a regime on its last legs and riddled by economic and political dysfunction. In this latter view, now is not the time to sit with the Iranians. As famed human rights activist Natan Sharansky put it in the Wall Street Journal, now is the time to be firm and resolute. Both attributes, he argues, brought down the Soviet Union and can bring down Iran as well. 

However, history finds that both positions don’t quite compute. The fact remains, all courses of action mark a bet. Contrary to Sharansky’s portrait, Washington’s effort to bring down the Soviet Union marked a mixture of engagement and isolation. Even as Moscow’s union began to crack, the United States kept the lines of communication open. In the end, talking did not prevent collapse.    

But then there remains the other talk history. Here is where North Korea becomes the Iran-like poster child Netanyahu repeatedly reminds the international community about. And, indeed, the story is unsettling. In 1994, Washington and Pyongyang entered into an understanding known as the Agreed Framework. Under the accord, North Korea consented to freeze nuclear operations and eventually dismantle the suspect Yongbyong nuclear reactor. In return, the United States assisted in the provision of heating oil for North Korea, while assembling an international consortium to build two nuclear power plants. Then, in 2005, Pyongyang agreed to go further and abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. A year later, it exploded its first nuclear device.    

This rather poor precedent for diplomatic success has multiple antecedents. Israel proved to be the first. During years of construction, the Israeli government represented to Washington that it intended the Dimona reactor to be a civil nuclear research enterprise. President John Kennedy didn’t buy it and committed himself to stop it. Correspondence between the young president and the wily David Ben-Gurion became testy, only to fall away with the assassination of the American leader.    

In South Asia, the United States went beyond talk to stop two nuclear programs by applying economic and military sanctions against both India and Pakistan, only to find that it had to shelve the effort against Islamabad as a greater priority — Pakistan’s importance in getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan — took precedence. For India, U.S. sanctions proved more a nuisance and were entirely lifted during the George W. Bush administration. 

Cases where diplomacy proved more effective — Taiwan and South Korea toyed with the nuclear weapons option — reflected the heavy reliance each placed on the American security blanket. Washington’s clear message: Alliances will be in jeopardy if allies proliferate.

Clearly, Iran is no South Korea or Taiwan, but neither is it North Korea. As Wendy Sherman, Washington’s lead Iran negotiator, put it, Iran is “a different time, different culture, a different system.” The result: Where North Korea sees isolation necessary for regime survival, Iran sees trouble. Evidently the goods of the good life attract many Iranians, and the leadership sees them as necessary for regime survival. But the good life is not sustainable if oil exports, accounting for three-quarters of the country’s total, shrink under the pressure of sanctions from 2.3 million barrels a day to 1 million barrels. Nor is there a good life for many with inflation running at 50 percent and unemployment at 25 percent.  While international sanctions are not the sole cause of Iran’s economic malaise, they evidently have been onerous enough to bring Iran to the bargaining table to sign on to the Geneva Accord.

It is worth noting what a change this is. Although the recent bargaining has drawn much attention, it was not a de novo but the culmination of a decade-long effort that commenced in earnest in 2003, when European negotiators attempted to talk Iran out of enrichment. While there remains debate about possible missed opportunities in these and later talks, the dragging of time the negotiations allowed permitted Iran — like North Korea — to expand its nuclear venture dramatically. The question today is whether the costs of this effort have now come home to roost to force Iran to curtail its nuclear activities.

Implementation of the interim agreement will be the first test. True, it does not eliminate Iran’s weapons breakout capacity, but it does curtail the known enterprise. Significant is the rollback of Tehran’s 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile, something the international community has been striving to achieve for years. Iran also will cap its low-enrichment stocks and limit operation of its 19,000 centrifuges to the 10,000 operating today. While not ideal — ideal would be the cessation of all enrichment mandated by the Security Council — it is better than the alternative, continued unabated operations.

Arguably less impressive is Iran’s commitment not to commission the Arak reactor during the next six months, an objective it was not likely to fulfill in any event, although the agreement to halt production, testing or transfer of fuel or installation of reactor components will slow the plant’s completion.

Finally, the interim agreement expands the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) verification, allowing daily visits to enrichment sites. But here the news looks better on paper than it actually is. The IAEA already monitors Fordow and Natanz with cameras and periodic visits. However, “managed access” to centrifuge production and storage sites mark a first, giving international inspectors a far better overview of Iran’s future centrifuge capacity. Other concessions granted IAEA in separate negotiations — allowance to visit a uranium mine, heavy water production plant, access to information on all research reactors, plans for additional enrichment plants and laser enrichment — still do not get to the core of the nuclear watchdog’s effort to unravel what Iran is up to.

So what does Iran get out of this? The benefits seem rather modest — a waiver in trade of petro chemical, gold and precious metal, automobile and civil airline parts in addition to the repatriation of some $7 billion held abroad that Tehran may attempt to leverage, still a relatively small sum considering the country’s economic needs.  

As we look forward, Iran’s compliance with the spirit and letter of Geneva’s interim accord will be a test. If Tehran fails the test, the more ambitious permanent agreement will never advance to signature. But even fidelity offers no guarantee, as U.S. and allied demands in the next round of talks reportedly will be much tougher: Closure of the heavily bunkered Fordow enrichment plant and dramatic reductions of operations at Natanz, allowing it just to produce enough low-enriched uranium to meet the country’s minimal civil nuclear needs. Dismantlement or conversion of the Arak nuclear plant to a far less threatening light water reactor. Granting the IAEA unfettered access to the totality of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Should these talks fail, waiting in the wings will be the Sharansky template to isolate Iran further. But it, too, promises no certainties of anything. Still, it may force the mullahs to make a difficult choice: One, accept the costs of economic sanctions, believing the country will adapt if it believes that maintaining a nuclear weapons breakout capability best assures national survival. The other, bend as little as necessary to P5+1 demands, hoping that tension relaxation will be sufficient to support the regime’s tottering economic foundation without undermining the hostility to the West and Israel the regime needs to justify its rule.

In the interim, the next round of negotiations will have to play out.  

Stay tuned.


Bennett Ramberg served as a foreign policy analyst in the Department of State, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. His academic appointments included positions at Princeton and UCLA. The author of three books on international politics and editor of three others, Ramberg is best known for what many believe is the classic treatment of the consequences of military strikes on nuclear installations, “Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy” (University of California Press).

The Torah of drones: Examining the complex morality of drone warfare


In 2009, an Israeli drone flying over the Gaza Strip transmitted back to its command station an image of a telltale rocket trail streaking toward Israeli territory. Many kilometers away, a young Israeli operator, Capt. Y, quickly maneuvered the unmanned aircraft to get a look at the young Palestinian who had just launched the deadly missile. Y’s drone squadron already had authorization to take him out. In an instant, a rocket struck the hidden launch site, followed by a flash of fire.

When the smoke cleared, Y saw images of the shooter lying flat on the ground. Twenty seconds passed. And then Y saw something even more remarkable — the dead man began to move.

Severely wounded, the Palestinian began to claw his way toward the road. Y could clearly see the man’s face, and in his youth and determination Y must have recognized something of himself. So, now Y and his team had a decision to make: Would they let the wounded terrorist escape, or circle the drone back and finish him off?

Y told me this story in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. He is 23, wiry and intense. When I arrived for our interview, arranged through the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Y was sitting in a small atrium, getting in a last smoke.

For security reasons, I cannot use his real name, so I agreed to refer to the captain as Y, and to his fellow drone operator, a lieutenant, as M.

M is calmer. She is 25, has large blue eyes and wears her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail — Scarlett Johansson’s tougher twin sister.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as drones are otherwise known, have been in use militarily since World War I. In 1917, the Americans designed the Kettering “Bug” with a preset gyroscope to guide it into enemy trenches. In World War II, the Nazis deployed “the Fritz,” a 2,300-pound bomb with four small wings and a tail motor. But it is only in the past few years that UAVs have made almost-daily headlines. These days, the United States, in particular, has widely employed UAVs in the far reaches of Pakistan and Afghanistan in its fight against terrorists. As recently as Nov. 1, a U.S. drone strike killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, demonstrating once again the deadly effectiveness of, and the growing reliance upon, these weapons of war.

But like all revolutionary new weapons, this success comes at a price, and it’s a price we in America prefer not to check. Just a day before I met with the two Israelis in late October, two influential human rights groups released reports asserting that the number of civilian deaths resulting from America’s largely secret “drone wars” was far greater than the government had claimed. Human Rights Watch reported that since 2009, America’s anti-terrorist drone strikes in Yemen had killed at least 57 civilians — more than two-thirds of all casualties resulting from the strikes — including a pregnant woman and three children. In Pakistan, Amnesty International found that more than 30 civilians had died from U.S. drone strikes between May 2012 and July 2013 in the territory of North Waziristan.

To Americans, news of anonymous civilians dying in faraway places may not resonate deeply, even if we are the ones who killed them. But these two humanitarian groups’ reports point to the rapid increase in the United States’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles as weapons of war, and they underline the lack of clear international ethical codes to guide that use.

Who gets to use drones? How do commanders decide whom to target, whom to spy on? If a drone operator sitting in a command room in Tampa, Fla., can kill a combatant in Swat, in northern Pakistan, does that make downtown Tampa a legitimate military target, as well?

I wanted to learn more about the morality of this advancing technology, so I talked to people who have studied drones, who have thought about their ethical implications, and who, like Y and M, actually use them. I hoped that through them I might come to understand how we, as a society, should think about the right way to use these remarkable, fearsome tools. 

I wanted to know if there exists, in essence, a Torah of drones.

From 12,000 feet up, the Heron drone Capt. Y was piloting that day during Operation Pillar of Defense offered a perfect view of the wounded Palestinian.

“You see everything,” Y told me. “You could see him lying on the ground, moving and crawling. Even if you know he’s the enemy, it’s very hard to see that. You see a human being who is helpless. You have to bear in mind, ‘He’s trying to kill me.’ But, in my mind, I hoped somebody would go help him.”

Y’s father is French, and his mother is Israeli. He lives in Beersheba, where his wife is a medical student. Y’s brother was killed in the Second Lebanon War by a Hezbollah rocket while he was piloting a Yasur combat helicopter. Y was 18 at the time.

“I believe some of the way to mourn is to go through the same experience of the man you loved,” Y said.

Lt. M’s parents both are French immigrants to Israel, staunch Zionists, and, she said, she always knew one day she’d be an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer.

In Israel, those who cannot complete pilot-training very often enter the drone corps. It may not hold the cachet of becoming an Air Force pilot, but both of these soldiers believe drones are the future.

“I like the idea that every flight you do, you’re helping your fellow citizens,” M said.

“We feel we contribute more than other people,” Y said. “But today, in the modern day, you don’t have to take risks. If you risk your life, it doesn’t mean you contribute more.”

In the United States and Israel, where the reluctance to put boots on the ground is at a high point, the fact that drones offer significant military capabilities with far less risk accounts precisely for the tremendous increase in their use.

Israel, in fact, has led the way. Its effective use of drones during the 1982 Lebanon War rekindled American interest in UAVs. During America’s first Gulf War, in 1991, the U.S. Navy bought a secondhand Pioneer drone from Israel and used it to better aim heavy artillery. At one point during that war, a squad of Iraqi soldiers saw a drone overhead and, expecting to be bombarded, waved a white sheet. It was the first time in history soldiers had surrendered to a drone.

Today, the United States increasingly uses drones for both civilian intelligence — as in Yemen and Pakistan — and militarily. Currently, some 8,000 UAVs are in use by the U.S. military. In the next decade, U.S. defense spending on drones is expected to reach $40 billion, increasing inventory by 35 percent. Since 2002, 400 drone strikes have been conducted by U.S. civilian intelligence agencies. 

At least 87 other countries also have drones. Earlier this year, Israel announced it was decommissioning two of its combat helicopter squadrons — to replace them with drones.

“We’re at the very start of this technological revolution,” Peter Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century,” told me by phone. “We’re in the World War I period of robotics. The cat’s out of the bag. You’re not going to roll it back. But you do want to set norms.”

Singer’s book, first published in 2009 when the public debate over drone ethics was nonexistent, is still the best road map to a future we all have reason to fear, but must face, in any case.

I called Singer to see where he stands on the ethical issues raised by civilian drone deaths.

Actually, he pointed out, his book dealt largely with military use of these technologies. Even he wouldn’t have predicted such widespread use of drones by surveillance agencies that are unversed in the rules of war and that operate without the safeguards built into military actions.

That, for Singer and others who parse the ethics of drones, is the rub. In the military, there are rules of engagement. There is the risk of court-martial. Strategic training is better in the military than in intelligence agencies.

“One group goes to war college,” Singer said, “the other doesn’t. And it’s very different when you’re a political appointee, rather than a military officer. Some tactics would not be allowed in a military operation.”

I asked Singer for an example. He chose one from the CIA operations just now under scrutiny by human rights groups.

“Double-tapping,” he said. “That would never make its way past a military officer.”

Double-tapping is when an aircraft, manned or not, circles back over a targeted site and strikes a second time — either to finish off the wounded or to take out forces that have rushed in to help. Exactly the ethical question Capt. Y. faced.

When Y saw that he hadn’t killed the Palestinian the first time, he and his team faced one of the most difficult, urgent questions of drone combat: Should they double-tap?

Ethical issues in drone combat come up all the time, M said — in training, in operations and, afterward, in frequent debriefing and analysis.

“I have so many examples of that, I can’t count,” Y told me.

A landmark Israeli Supreme Court decision on targeted killing provides the ethical framework for IDF drone operators.

In 2009, the court found there is nothing inherently wrong with a targeted killing — whether by an F-16, Apache helicopter or unmanned drone.

But, the court added, in order for the action to be acceptable, the soldiers must satisfy three questions:

The first is, what is a legitimate target? The target, the court said, must be an operational combatant seeking to do you harm — not a retired terrorist or someone you want to punish for past sins.

Second, has the target met the threshold level of intelligence? The drone team must have a deep knowledge that its target meets the first condition, verified by more than one source.

Finally, who is the supervising body? There must be independent oversight outside the hands of the drone operators and the IDF.

To professor Moshe Halbertal, these three conditions form the basis for the moral exercise of deadly drone force.

Halbertal is a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, the Gruss Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law and one of the drafters of the IDF’s code of ethics.

Shortly before Halbertal came to Los Angeles to serve as scholar-in-residence Nov. 1-3 at Sinai Temple, I spoke with him about Israel’s experience with drones. From what he could tell, he said, Israel has a more developed ethical framework.

In the American attacks, Halbertal said, “The level of collateral damage is alarming.”

In Israel, he said, “There is a genuine attempt to reduce collateral killing. If this were the level of collateral damage the IDF produces, it would be very bad.”

The fact that drones are less risky is not what makes their use more prone to excesses, Halbertal said.

“Because military operations involve more risk, there is more care in applying them,” Halbertal said. “But, on the other hand, soldiers make mistakes out of fear in the heat of combat that drone operators don’t.”

The danger with drones, he said, is that because the political risks of deploying them, versus deploying live troops, are much less, they can be used more wantonly.

I asked Capt. Y if he’d had experience with collateral damage.

“It’s happened to me,” he said. “We had a target and asked [intelligence officers] if there were civilians in the area. We received a negative. Later, we heard in the Palestinian press that there were casualties. We checked, and it was true — a father and his 17-year-old son. What can we do? I didn’t have a particular emotion about it.”

The people who know the people getting killed do have emotions about it. And that grief and anger can work to undo whatever benefits drone kills confer.

“I say every drone attack kills one terrorist and creates two,” Adnan Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, told me. In the Swat Valley, where he lives, the fear of American drones and the innocent lives they’ve taken has been one of the extremists’ best recruiting tools, Rashid said.

If that’s the case, better oversight and clearer rules for drones may be not just the right thing to do but in our self-interest as well.

No war is ever clean. But that doesn’t mean drone use should increase without the implementation of the kind of national, and international, norms Singer now finds lacking.

If the United States doesn’t adopt the kinds of oversight Israel already has in place, at the very least, Singer believes, we should move the drone program from the intelligence agencies to the military. 

It’s a call that has increasingly vocal support from America to Pakistan. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, argued Congress could exercise better oversight of a drone program operated by the military.

 “Since when is the intelligence agency supposed to be an Air Force of drones that goes around killing people?” McCain said recently on Fox News. “I believe that it’s a job for the Department of Defense.”

Pakistani protesters from United Citizen Action shout anti-U.S. slogans during a protest against the Nov. 1 killing of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike. Photo by S.S. Mirza/AFP Photo/Newscom

 “The killing is creating more anger and resulting in the recruitment of more people to pursue revenge,” former Pakistani Minister of State Shahzad Waseem told me. “The minimum you can do is to come up openly with some kind of treaty or set of rules to give it a legal shape, mutually accepted by all sides.” 

Will Americans rise up to make a stink over this? That may be a tall order for a populace that seems to take each revelation of intelligence community overreach — from drone deaths to National Security Agency spying — with a collective yawn. Will the international community begin to create a framework that at least sets standards for drone use and misuse? 

Unfortunately, humans, particularly in developing technology, have a way of advancing faster on the battlefront than on the legal or moral fronts. It took the Holocaust, Singer pointed out, for humanity to come up with the Geneva Conventions of 1949. What fresh hell must befall us before we at least attempt to codify behavior for the Age of Drones?

And even if we set standards and nations abide by them, it seems inevitable that the very nature of drones one day will allow non-state actors — the likes of al-Qaeda — to follow the lead of Hezbollah in using them, as well.

If, in the 1940s and ’50s, the best and the brightest scientific minds went into nuclear physics — and gave us the atomic bomb — these days, those talents are all going toward artificial intelligence. At the high end, a future filled with autonomous, intelligent killing drones awaits us.

At the low end, consider this: Singer also serves as a consultant for the video game “Call of Duty,” for which he was asked to envision a homemade drone of the not-too-distant future. He and others came up with a Sharper Image toy helicopter, controlled by an iPad and mounted with an Uzi. A promotional team actually made a fully functional version of this weapon for a YouTube video, and 17 million hits later, the Defense Department telephoned, perturbed.

“Unlike battleships or atomic bombs,” Singer told me, “the barriers to entry for drones are really low.”

That doesn’t mean we should give up on establishing ethical norms for nations — or people — but we do need to keep our expectations in check.

We may be heading toward a world of what Halbertal describes, in the Israeli context, as “micro wars,” where each human is empowered with military-like capacity and must make his or her own ethical choices on the spot.

Cap. Y made his own moral choice that day during Operation Pillar of Defense. He watched as the wounded Palestinian man managed to get to the road, where a group of civilians came to his aid.

Why didn’t Y “double-tap”?

 “He was no longer a threat,” Y told me, matter-of-factly. “And several people gathered around him who weren’t part of the attack.” That was that: The rules of engagement were clear.

In a micro-war, a soldier in combat — not just generals at a central command — must determine in the heat of battle who is a terrorist and who is a civilian, who shall live and who shall die.

In his book, Singer envisions a future in which artificial intelligence will also enable us to provide ethical decision-making to the machines we create. It would be our job to program Torah into these machines — and then let them do with it as they will.

Much like Someone has done with us.

Yom Kippur in Afghanistan


Every other morning, Army Capt. Nathan Brooks wakes up between 4 and 4:30 a.m. to go for a three-mile run before the intense heat of the Afghan desert sets in. 

Following his daily exercise at Bagram Airfield, Brooks does two things that he said have most helped him feel connected to God since he deployed for Afghanistan in April — he wraps tefillin and davens Shacharit, the morning prayer service.

“That’s my thing that I hold onto,” said Brooks, a 33-year-old, single Orthodox Jew from Los Angeles. 

Serving abroad, Brooks hasn’t been able to maintain the same level of religious observance that he did back home, where he regularly attended two Orthodox synagogues, B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Beth Jacob.

On Shabbat, because the military cannot take a day of rest in a war zone, Brooks still must complete his daily tasks for the Army. And for Yom Kippur this year, Brooks does not anticipate that he will be able to entirely fast.

“This is a war going on,” he said. “You do what you can.”

Sitting in his quarters in Afghanistan on a recent evening — morning in Los Angeles — Brooks spoke with the Journal via videoconference about his experience as an officer and an observant Jew serving the United States military for 16 years. (He joined when he was 17.)

In his role in charge of the 1106th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group (TASMG) unit, Brooks has numerous responsibilities. He flies a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during maintenance test flights and manages “depot level maintenance” activities, which refers to the issue and repair of Army cargo and helicopters.

In terms of fasting, Brooks said that although he would be unable to perform his duties if he did not eat or drink on fast days such as Yom Kippur or Tisha b’Av, he makes sure to restrict himself to water and bland foods. 

“As a pilot, particularly in the heat of Kandahar [where he was previously stationed] for Tisha b’Av, it was maybe 114 degrees, and I still had to perform and function as a soldier,” he said. “When you are an officer in charge, sometimes the needs of your unit and your troops have to come before your own personal needs.”

Despite the impossibility of remaining strictly observant in Afghanistan, while Brooks was in Kandahar he and two other Orthodox Jews met regularly on Friday evenings without the benefit of a Jewish chaplain to pray, study Torah and make the best Shabbat dinner that kosher ready-to-eat meals (MREs) can provide. 

MREs, even the kosher ones, are not exactly traditional Shabbat fare. The modest meals include dried cranberries, cereal, sunflower seeds and either a vegetarian dish, a beef stew or chicken with noodles. Not much variety — on Shabbat or any other day of the week. 

“You eat those over and over again; it gets kind of old,” Brooks said.

Although the Army usually only provides Brooks and his fellow Jewish soldiers with matzah for religious meals, organizations like Project MOT often send challah in care packages for Jewish soldiers. In fact, sometimes there are so many packages from Jewish organizations — as many as five or six per week — that non-Jewish soldiers have asked incredulously if he knows the people sending him so many packages.

Since Brooks moved to Bagram Airfield a couple of weeks ago, he has spent Friday nights in the company of Rabbi David Goldstrom, an Orthodox chaplain who will be serving in Bagram for a few more weeks, returning to his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., shortly after the end of the High Holy Days.

A 47-year-old New Jersey native, Goldstrom leads Friday night services every week. He organized services for Rosh Hashanah, and will do the same on Yom Kippur, for which he hopes to have a minyan

Goldstrom’s description of Shabbat and holidays at Bagram has little in common with how they are celebrated in America. For one, even though Goldstrom is able to observe Shabbat in Afghanistan, his attire remains a standard Army uniform. And attacks from the Taliban remain an almost daily disturbance.

“I may have to go to a bunker because of indirect fire, mortar attacks or rocket attacks,” Goldstrom said. “They do attack us almost daily.” 

Goldstrom said that when an alarm on the base rings, he and other soldiers have to scramble quickly. It can happen during weekly drills, and it can happen during Shabbat services.

“An alarm goes off, and you hit the ground or head for a bunker as quickly as possible and wait for the all clear,” he said.

While serving as a chaplain in Afghanistan — away from his wife and two sons — is certainly a challenge, Goldstrom said that one of his favorite recurring moments is when he first meets a Jewish soldier.

“When they do see a Jewish chaplain, when they see the tablet and Star of David on my helmet, on my uniform, their faces light up.”

Come January, when Brooks likely will be back in Los Angeles, he plans to either continue flying Black Hawk helicopters as part of the California Army National Guard or return to school to further pursue a graduate degree in either geographic information science or in emergency planning.

Despite all the challenges involved with being an observant Jew in the military — especially when serving abroad — Brooks believes it’s all worth it.

“I think it’s really important that we have ourselves represented in the military,” he said. “As soldiers, we have a lot to give.”

Iran looks to the north


In the United States, our focus is on Iran’s activities to its west and east. Tehran supports Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, menaces oil exports in the Gulf and threatens Israel with annihilation. On its other flank, it seeks influence in Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to withdraw. However, we tend to ignore Iran’s actions to its north, even as this — the greater Caspian region — emerges as a particularly active theater for Iran’s ambitions of regional power.

We do so to our detriment. With Washington’s focus elsewhere during the past few months, Iran has steadily pushed the envelope with its northern neighbors, in the disputed Caspian Sea and along its land borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is considered more moderate than his predecessor, since his election, Iran seems to be continuing its northward pivot.

In late June, Iranian warships sailed across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan. Their mission was to coordinate plans for a major joint naval exercise in the fall. This is noteworthy because not only is the Caspian a center of oil production that is exported to Western markets, but also a key transit hub for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces and equipment from Afghanistan. Vessels with U.S. military hardware routinely sail from Kazakhstan’s port of Aktau on the eastern shore to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, in the west. Joint Iranian-Russian naval exercises could disrupt both the energy and transit activities on the sea.

It would not be the first time. Iranian warships have, in the past, threatened to attack Azerbaijani oil fields that were at the time being explored by BP vessels. The issue of how the Caspian’s energy-rich waters are divided among the littoral states remains unresolved. While most of the countries on its shores have come to bilateral understandings, Iran refuses to cooperate with any of its neighbors — except when it teams with Russia to threaten the rest.

Iran is also injecting itself into the region’s most protracted conflict: the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran supported pro-Russian Armenia in the 1990s against secular, pro-Western Azerbaijan, Iranian clerics are now painting the conflict as a war against Islam. They recently met with ethnic Azeris seeking to liberate Karabakh. 

On the other hand, Tehran has cultivated pro-Iranian groups and extremist clerics in Azerbaijan to undermine the government in Baku. It has mobilized hacker attacks under the banner of the Iranian Cyber Army. These activities are intensifying as the October presidential election in Azerbaijan approaches.

Earlier this year, Iranian lawmakers on the Security and Foreign Policy Committee in Parliament released a number of statements demanding the annexation of 17 of Azerbaijan’s cities, including the capital Baku. They prepared a bill that would revise the 1828 treaty demarcating Iran’s northern border to pave the way for a greater Iran that could incorporate territory from across the Caspian region, from Turkey to Central Asia. It seems that Israel is not the only country that Tehran has considered wiping off the map.

These sorts of actions have actually pushed Azerbaijan and Israel closer together. The two have a joint venture on the production of drone aircraft, as well as a wider defense technology relationship wherein Azerbaijan has sought anti-aircraft systems from Israel to guard against potential Iranian attack. Such threats are all too specific for Azerbaijan, as Iran’s leadership has consistently mentioned Azerbaijan’s major oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean as a primary target in the event of conflict with the West.

Were such a clash to occur, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to be more cognizant of the northern angle in Iran’s aggressive regional policy. Even without the prospect of a major conflict, U.S. Iran policy should reflect Tehran’s threats to our interests in the Caspian and to regional partners such as Azerbaijan. For all Iran watchers, its activities to its north will serve as a key test of Mr. Rouhani’s supposed moderation.

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Times.


Alexandros Petersen is the author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).

Explosions, gunfire heard around Kabul International Airport


Insurgents launched a pre-dawn attack on Afghanistan's main international airport in the capital, Kabul, on Monday, police said, with explosions and gunfire heard coming from an area that also houses major foreign military bases.

There were no immediate reports of casualties and there was also no early claim of responsibility for the attack.

Attacks on the heavily guarded airport, used by civilians and the military, are relatively rare and would represent an ambitious target for insurgents, with recent assaults staged against less well-protected targets.

The airport, by comparison, is home to a major operational base for NATO-led forces that have been fighting Taliban and other insurgents for 12 years and is bristling with soldiers and police, guard towers and several lines of security checkpoints.

Police said the attack appeared to be centred on the military side of the airport, to the west of the civilian terminal.

“Gunmen have entered a house under construction in the west of Kabul airport and are fighting with security forces,” Kabul police spokesman Hashmatullah Stanekzai said.

“Their target is Kabul airport and all roads to it are sealed,” he said.

A spokesman for the Afghan Air Force, which is also based at the facility, also said the airport was the target of the attack. There are also a number of logistics bases in the area.

The attack began at about 4.30 a.m. (2400 GMT). Embassies in the diplomatic zone in the centre of Kabul were quickly locked down and emergency alarms were heard ringing loudly from the British embassy.

Reuters witnesses reported hearing explosions at the airport, with reports of rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. Blasts still being heard an hour after the attack was launched.

Concerns are mounting over how the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces will cope with an intensifying insurgency once most foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The airport attack came soon after assaults on the International Organisation for Migration in Kabul and against the International Committee of the Red Cross in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

Four people were killed and three wounded in those attacks.

In April 2011, a rogue Afghan air force officer shot and killed eight U.S. servicemen and a civilian contractor in the worst attack at the airport since the war began.

Additional reporting by Dylan Welch and Omar Sobhani; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Paul Tait

Soccer tourney brings Arabs, Jews together


Despite the summer heat radiating off of the soccer field, dozens of former professional soccer players from all over the world — and of varying faiths — gathered to play a friendly “Soccer Peace Tournament” on June 2 at Calabasas High School.

As athletes sprinted and fans cheered, one voice could be heard above all else. It was the biting commentary of Zouheir Bahloul, who good-naturedly teased each player during the four matches of the day.

One of the most recognizable stars of the Israeli soccer community, Bahloul is a former player who now is famous for his colorful commentary and sports journalism. As an Israeli Palestinian, he is passionate about using soccer to promote peace and coexistence between Arabs, Israelis and Americans — a triumvirate that’s had its fair share of conflict throughout the years.

So he was thrilled to be part of an event that matched up former members of the Israeli national soccer team with teams made up of local players — a U.S. team as well as teams made up of American Afghanis and American Iranians (winners of the tournament). All of the participants once played professionally.

“I think there is a lot of value within this [Israeli] team and this tournament,” Bahloul said. “Our team is a mix of Arabs and Jews playing together, coexisting together, cooperating together and living together. I think this is a very noble example of how we can solve our problems with sports, because sports are very pure.” 

The peace tournament was organized by Ben Drillings, a chiropractor who lives in Chatsworth, and sponsored by the Israeli American Council (IAC), formerly the Israeli Leadership Council.

“I was a soccer player on the Israeli national team and played with Rifaat Tourk, the first Arab and Muslim to play on the Israeli national team. … We became friends but haven’t seen each other in 31 years,” Drillings said. “But we got in touch, and we thought this tournament would be the beginning of another peace effort here.”

Tourk, who lives in Jaffa and coached the Israeli team in the tournament, has spent his entire post-soccer career working on building relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel. 

“I have a foundation for kids that has Arab kids working besides Jewish kids in order to make mixed life possible,” Tourk said. “I try my best to move these kids forward, socially, to make them share life — each beside the other.”

Dikla Kadosh, director of community events and volunteering for the IAC, said that is exactly the goal the group set out to accomplish.

“There’s not much at stake, but we wanted to create an environment of peace by playing against local Iranian teams and Afghani teams,” Kadosh said. “And the reason we wanted to be involved is because it’s something different. The whole mission of the IAC is to create programming that connects people to one another, and to the culture in Israel, and soccer is part of the culture.”

Qadir Latifi, one of the veteran Afghani players who participated in the tournament, was excited to take part in something with so many nationalities represented. 

“Our team has played in tournaments before, but it was mostly just Afghans. We’ve never played in a tournament that’s more international,” Latifi said, “so I’m proud to know that we’re going to be able to play for our country, and everyone else is playing for their countries.”

Although the Israeli team was the only one in the tournament that had to travel — the other three teams are based in Los Angeles and play together in adult community leagues — it still meant a lot to everyone involved for these communities to be playing together under the banner of peace. 

“I think it will help build better relationships within the communities out here,” said Shaul Maimon, captain of the Israeli team. “Football [soccer] brings everyone together. Anyone can play, so it makes for good relationships between people, and maybe, I hope, for the countries.”

This tournament also helped to break gender barriers. Diana Redman, the first female member of the Israeli national team, made an appearance as well. 

“I saw something for the event in a magazine and e-mailed Ben [Drillings] and said, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Come on and join us!’ ” Redman said.

“It was really wonderful to be playing here as part of the event today,” she continued. “It’s the kind of thing I like to be involved in. I’ve been playing soccer my whole life, and I hope people are reminded that we have a women’s team, and there are a lot of people out there who want to do these kinds of events.”

Bahloul believes the stakes are high — much higher than a single soccer game.

“We are here,” he said, “to prove to ourselves and others that we can make it together and set a good example for the new generation.”

Sgt. Robert Bales pleads guilty to murdering 16 Afghan civilians


A U.S. Army sergeant who killed 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood last year pleaded guilty on Wednesday to premeditated murder and other charges under a deal with military prosecutors to avoid the death penalty.

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, admitted to roaming off his Army post in the Afghan province of Kandahar last March to gun down and set fire to unarmed villagers, mostly women and children, in attacks on their family compounds.

“As far as why, I've asked that question a million times since then,” Bales said, in a calm, steady voice, when asked by the judge for an explanation. “There is not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things that I did.”

The slayings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.

Assuming that the judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, accepts his plea, a court-martial jury will decide in August whether Bales, 39, is sentenced to life in prison with or without the possibility of parole.

Bales, wearing a military dress uniform, stood beside his lawyer, Emma Scanlan, as she entered guilty pleas on his behalf to 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder and seven counts of assault, as well as to alcohol and drug charges.

Reading through the list of charges himself, one at a time, later in the hearing, Bales acknowledged that he committed 10 of the slayings by shooting and burning his victims and that he killed six others by gunshot only.

“I then did kill her by shooting her with a firearm and burning her. This act was without legal justification,” he said during a matter-of-fact recitation of his crimes, delivered with no visible sign of emotion.

INTENT TO KILL

Asked by Nance if he had acted out of self-defense, or under orders, or whether he had any other legal justification to kill the 16 villagers, Bales replied, “No, sir.”

“Could you have avoided killing them if you wanted to?” the judge asked.

“Yes, sir,” he answered, adding that he “formed the intent (to kill) as I raised my weapon.” Bales said that setting fire to his victims was also done with the intent to kill, and that he was aware it was “against their cultural norms.”

Bales has claimed his memories of the killings are spotty, but he acknowledged seeing a lantern at one point during the rampage and that matches were later found in his possession. He said he learned from previous testimony that kerosene was used in the burnings.

Army prosecutors have said Bales acted alone and with chilling premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his post twice during the night to attack civilians. He is alleged to have returned to base in the middle of the rampage to tell a fellow soldier: “I just shot up some people.”

Defense attorneys have argued that Bales, the father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury even before his deployment to Afghanistan.

During a nine-day pre-trial hearing in November, witnesses testified that Bales had been angered by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier's leg days before the shootings.

Under questioning from Nance, Bales said that his use of illegal steroids, which he admitted taking to improve muscle tone and recovery time from missions, also “increased my irritability and anger.”

Bales' wife was seated behind him in the courtroom benches at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Washington.

Scanlan told Reuters last week that Bales had agreed to plead guilty to the murder charges against him in return for military prosecutors agreeing not to seek the death penalty.

The plea agreement is subject to final approval by Nance, the presiding judge, who must first determine whether Bales has provided a complete account of the events, understands his plea and accepts the consequences of his acts.

Bales requested in court that one third of the jury panel for the sentencing phase of the proceedings consist of enlisted military personnel, as opposed to officers.

The plea deal outlined by Bales' lawyers was similar to an agreement struck at Lewis-McChord in April, when Army Sergeant John Russell pleaded guilty to killing two fellow U.S. servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq, near Baghdad's airport, in a 2009 shooting spree.

Russell was sentenced to life in prison without parole following an abbreviated court-martial stemming from one of the worst cases of violence by an American soldier against other U.S. troops.

Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone, Bernard Orr

U.S. National Intelligence Council predicts ‘incremental’ Palestine


A Palestinian state will emerge by 2030, not through negotiations but incrementally, according to a group of intelligence advisers to President Obama.

The office of the director of national intelligence this week published the annual “Global Trends” report compiled by the National Intelligence Council, a group of current and former policy officials who serve as a bridge between the policy and intelligence communities.

Identifying the Middle East as a locus for developing instability, the report anticipated little progress in formal peace negotiations.

“Many of our interlocutors saw a Palestine emerging from Arab-Israeli exhaustion and an unwillingness of Israelis and Palestinians to engage in endless conflict,” the report said. “Issues like ‘right of return,' demilitarization, and Jerusalem will not be fully resolved by 2030, and there will be no complete end of conflict. The way forward toward a Palestinian state will be through a series of unofficial, independent actions known as ‘coordinated unilateralism,’ incrementally leading to statehood.”

The report anticipated increased reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and predicted that “Palestine’s borders will be roughly along the 1967 borders with adjustments or land swaps along the Green Line, but other issues will remain unresolved.”

Israel will remain “the strongest military power” in the region, it said, “but face continuing threats from low intensity warfare in addition to any nuclear one from Iran.”

The report also described Muslim anger at the United States as likely to recede, with support for Israel its only remaining major focus.

“Although al-Qaeda and others have focused on the United States as a clear enemy, the appeal of the United States as the 'great enemy' is declining,” it said. “The impending withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and decreases in U.S. forces in Afghanistan help to reduce the extent to which terrorists can draw on the United States as a lightning rod for anger. Soon, U.S. support for Israel could be the last remaining major focus of Muslim anger.”

The outlook for Israel was more positive in the report's concluding section, “Alternative Worlds,” in which the authors outline “archetypal” scenarios for the future.

One scenario, imagining the launch of a “Center for Global Integration” in 2030, describes a “recent past” in which “mechanisms for global sharing of  innovation were established by China and the United States” and “global education exchanges flourished like never before.”

This archetype posited that “Turkey, Russia, and Israel, for example, became creative hotbeds for cross-cultural fertilization. Knowledge industries spread into Africa and Latin America.”

Pakistani girl shot by Taliban defied threats for years


A 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl campaigner shot by the Taliban had defied threats for years, believing the good work she was doing for her community was her best protection, her father said on Wednesday.

Malala Yousufzai was shot and seriously wounded on Tuesday as she was leaving her school in her hometown in the Swat valley, northwest of the capital, Islamabad.

The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying her promotion of education for girls was pro-Western and she had opposed them.

The shooting has outraged people in a country seemingly inured to extreme violence since a surge in Islamist militancy began after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

[Commentary from Pakistan: Pakistan’s Anne Frank?]

“She is candle of peace that they have tried to blow out,” said one Pakistani man, Abdul Majid Mehsud, 45, from the violence plagued South Waziristan region.

In the Swat valley, a one-time tourist spot infiltrated by militants from Afghan border bases more than five years ago, her family and community are praying for her survival.

Her father, Ziauddin Yousufzai, who ran a girls' school, said his daughter had wanted to go into politics.

He said that of all the things he loved about her, it was her fairness – her democratic ideals – that he loved the most.

Malala, then a dimpled 11-year-old with dark eyes, shot to fame when she wrote a blog under a pen name for the BBC about living under the rule of the Pakistani Taliban.

The militants, led by a firebrand young preacher, took over her valley through a mixture of violence, intimidation and the failure of the authorities to stand up to them.

Even after the military finally went into action with an offensive in 2009 that swept most of the militants from the valley, it remained a dangerous place.

Malala didn't keep quiet. She campaigned for education for girls and later received Pakistan's highest civilian prize.

Her prominence came at a cost.

“We were being threatened. A couple of times, letters were thrown in our house, that Malala should stop doing what she is doing or the outcome will be very bad,” her father, sounding drained and despondent, said by telephone.

But despite the threats, he said he had turned down offers of protection from the security forces.

“We stayed away from that because she is a young female. The tradition here does not allow a female to have men close by,” he said.

“NEVER FEARFUL”

Malala had spent many sleepless nights kept awake by gunfire, had been forced to flee her home with her two younger brothers and walked past the headless bodies of those who defied the Taliban.

Her parents also wanted her to have some chance of a normal childhood, her father said.

“We did not want her to be carrying her school books surrounded by bodyguards. She would not have been able to receive education freely,” he said.

Her parents thought she would be safe among their neighbors in the town of Mingora, nestled among the snow-capped mountains that earned Swat the nickname of the Switzerland of Pakistan.

“I never imagined that this could happen because Malala is a young innocent girl,” her father said. “Whenever there were threats, relatives and friends would tell Malala to take care but Malala was never fearful.”

“She would frequently say 'I am satisfied. I am doing good work for my people so nobody can do anything to me'.”

Recently, Malala had started to organize a fund to make sure poor girls could go to school, said Ahmed Shah, a family friend and chairman of the Swat Private Schools Association.

“She had planned on making the Malala Education Foundation in Swat,” Shah said, adding that the Taliban used to print threats against her in the newspaper.

Classmate Brekhna Rahim said Malala “wished to have enough money and build schools in every village for girls in Swat”.

The entire Swat Valley was in shock over the shooting, she said, glued to their televisions and crying as they watched the endlessly repeated scenes of her being stretchered to hospital.

“Women and girls are sad as if they had lost a very close member of the family,” Rahim said.

“She was the life of the class,” said fellow student, Dure Nayab.

GUNMEN

On Tuesday, a gunman arrived at her school, asking for her by name. He opened fire on her and two classmates on a bus.

Now her father is waiting for her to regain consciousness as she lies swathed in white bandages in a military hospital.

“Doctors are hopeful,” he said. “I appeal to the country to pray for her survival.”

Ziauddin Yousufzai said the shooting would stop neither him nor his daughter from their work.

He echoed the view of many people who said that the shooting was against Islamic law and against the culture of the ethnic Pashtun region, which forbids the targeting of women.

“We will focus even more on our work with more strength,” he said. “If all of us die fighting, we will still not leave this work.”

Her classmate Rahim put it another way.

“If the Taliban kill one Malala, they are thousands and thousands more brave girls like Malala in Swat.”

Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Katharine Houreld in Islamabad; Editing by Robert Birsel and Louise Ireland

Editorial Cartoon: I’ve got your back


Your back

U.S. asks Afghan leaders to help keep peace after video


The United States embassy in Kabul appealed to Afghan leaders on Wednesday for help “maintaining calm” over the anti-Muslim video, a statement said.

President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the video amid simmering tensions in the Afghan capital on Wednesday over the video, with many fearing it could trigger protests like those seen in Libya and Egypt.

Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Alison Williams

This past month in the Muslim world


Some news items from the Islamic world in the past month:

Nigeria:

June 18 (CNN): “A militant Islamist group [Boko Haram, which means “Western culture is forbidden”] claimed responsibility Monday for bombings the day before that the Nigerian Red Cross said left 50 people dead at three Christian churches in Nigeria.

“A suicide bomber drove at high speed through a barricade at the EWCA Goodnews Wusasa Zaria church. … Within minutes, another explosion occurred at the Christ the King Catholic Church in Zaria. … At least 10 people died and more than 50 were injured in that attack. … Later, at least 10 people died in a bombing at a church in the city of Kaduna. …

“The bombings are the latest in a string of violence directed at Nigerian churches.”


Pakistan:

July 4 (BBC): “A Pakistani mob has taken a man accused of blasphemy from a police station and burnt him to death.

“Witnesses said hundreds of people looked on as he screamed for help. Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law imposes the death penalty for insulting Islam. … The man was reportedly beaten and dragged to the spot where he is said to have desecrated the Koran. The mob then poured petrol on him and set him on fire, according to witnesses.”


Mali:

Much of Mali’s history is targeted for destruction by Islamists.

The Sunni Islamist movement, Ansar Dine, which means “Defenders of the Faith,” destroyed the graves of ancient Sufi saints, unearthed the saints’ bodies and threw them into a garbage heap. Ansar Dine did this for the same reason that the Taliban, when they ruled Afghanistan, used anti-aircraft and tank fire to destroy some of mankind’s greatest sculptures, the 1,700-year-old sandstone statues of Buddha. They believe that Islam demands the destruction of anything Muslims deem non-monotheistic.

July 1 (BBC): “Islamist rebels occupying the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali have vowed to smash every mausoleum, in the face of international protests.”


Egypt:

In his first public speech after being elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi vowed that he would press the United States to release Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “blind sheik” who is serving a life sentence for planning the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The bombing — intended to bring down the building and kill thousands of Americans — killed six Americans and injured more than a thousand.

Morsi is often referred to as a “moderate Islamist.”


Afghanistan:

Kabul, July 4 (Reuters): “A 30-year-old woman and two of her children were beheaded overnight in Afghanistan’s east, police said, in what appeared to be the latest in a rapidly growing trend of so-called honor killings.”

Kabul, July 7 (Reuters): “A man Afghan officials say is a member of the Taliban shot dead a woman accused of adultery in front of a crowd near Kabul. … The austere Islamist group dictates law even near the Afghan capital. In the three-minute video, a turban-clad man approaches a woman kneeling in the dirt and shoots her five times at close range with an automatic rifle, to cheers of jubilation from the 150 or so men watching. … ‘Allah warns us not to get close to adultery because it’s the wrong way,’ another man says as the shooter gets closer to the woman. ‘It is the order of Allah that she be executed.’ ”

This was a typical month.


Why do I note all this?

Certainly not to indict all Muslims. It goes without saying that many millions of Muslims are moral and decent people, and that the great majority of Muslim-Americans are just like other Americans. But among the American media and intellectual elites there is a denial of the evil that permeates the Islamist world. (“Islamist” refers to those Muslims — unfortunately, more than a few — who seek to have Sharia govern societies.) In August 2010, listeners to NPR and viewers of PBS, for example, were told that Islamist violence is no greater than Christian violence.

PBS host Tavis Smiley interviewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the ex-Muslim Somali writer and activist for human rights and for women’s rights in Islamic countries. After mentioning American-Muslim terrorist Maj. Nidal Hasan, who murdered 13 soldiers and injured another 30 at Fort Hood, Texas, and Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to murder hundreds in New York’s Times Square, this dialogue ensued:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Somehow, the idea got into their [Hasan’s and Shahzad’s] minds that to kill other people is a great thing to do and that they would be rewarded in the hereafter.

Tavis Smiley: But Christians do that every single day in this country.

Ali: Do they blow people up?

Smiley: Yes. Oh, Christians, every day, people walk into post offices, they walk into schools, that’s what Columbine is — I could do this all day long. … There are so many more examples, Ayaan, of Christians who do that than you could ever give me examples of Muslims who have done that inside this country, where you live and work.

Michel Martin of NPR, in discussing whether the Islamic mosque planned for near Ground Zero should be moved, compared the Muslim identity of the 9/11 terrorists to the “Christian identity” of American terrorist Timothy McVeigh: “Did anybody move a Christian church after Timothy McVeigh” bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995?

And ABC News “20/20” anchor Chris Cuomo tweeted this to his nearly 1 million followers: “To all my christian brothers and sisters, especially catholics — before u condemn muslims for violence, remember the crusades.”

Between the ongoing evil in many parts of the Islamic world and the Westerners who diminish that evil by arguing that Christians do the same thing, we are in trouble.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Obama, Karzai sign U.S.-Afghan strategic pact


President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday signed a strategic partnership accord that charts the future of U.S.-Afghan relations beyond the end of the NATO combat mission in the country.

Obama, on an unannounced visit to Kabul, acknowledged that there will be difficult days ahead for Afghanistan, but said the Afghan people were taking control of their own future.

“The wages of war have been great for both our nations,” Obama said, adding that he looked forward to a future of peace.

The two leaders shook hands after the signing, which took place in Karzai’s palace in the Afghan capital.

Reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing By Warren Strobel and Sandra Maler

Editorial cartoon: Aghast


French shooter was on U.S. “no fly” list


The French Islamist gunman suspected of murdering seven people who was killed in a shootout with police on Thursday was on a “no fly” list maintained by U.S. authorities, two American officials said.

The officials would not disclose precisely when the militant, Mohammed Merah, was placed on the U.S. watch list, but they said his name was added some time ago.

Merah, suspected of shooting three French paratroopers, three young children and a rabbi, was killed during an exchange of gunfire with police who besieged his apartment in the French city of Toulouse.

U.S. and French authorities said Merah, who was of Algerian origin, had traveled to Afghanistan around 2010 to obtain training from Islamic militants. He had spent time with militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border before being captured and returned to France.

At some point after his capture, two other U.S. officials said, Merah was held in custody by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Precise details of how and when this occurred and what happened to him next are still unclear.

Reporting by Mark Hosenball; editing by Christopher Wilson

French shooting suspect not jailed in Afghanistan, provincial governor says


An Afghan provincial governor on Wednesday denied statements by a senior prison official that French school shooting suspect Mohamed Merah was jailed for bombings in Afghanistan in 2007 and escaped months later.

Citing prison documents, Kandahar prison chief Ghulam Faruq had told Reuters that Afghan security forces detained Merah on December 19, 2007, and that he was sentenced to three years in jail for planting bombs in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace.

A senior Kandahar intelligence source confirmed Faruq’s account and said he had a file on a French Algerian of the same name, who was arrested in 2007 and broke out of prison in 2008.

But the Kandahar governor’s office said that account was “baseless”, citing judicial records. “Security forces in Kandahar have never detained a French citizen named Mohammad Merah,” the governor’s spokesman, Ahmad Jawed Faisal, said.

Merah’s lawyer in France, Christian Etelin, said his client was in prison in France from December 2007 until September 2009, serving an 18-month sentence for robbery with violence, and therefore could not have been in Afghanistan at the time of the Kandahar jailbreak.

Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, is suspected of killing seven people in the name of the al Qaeda militant network, including three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in southwestern France.

Faruq had said that Merah escaped along with up to 1,000 prisoners, including 400 Taliban insurgents, during an attack on southern Afghanistan’s main Sarposa Prison in June 2008, when the Taliban blew apart the main gate with a big truck bomb.

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and had carried out his killings in revenge for French military involvement abroad.

In Pakistan, an intelligence official who declined to be identified said Merah had never been arrested there. “We have no information about him,” the Pakistani official said.

Writing by Jack Kimball and Rob Taylor; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Paul Taylor in Paris; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich

Taliban ‘poised to retake Afghanistan’ after NATO pullout


A secret U.S. military report says that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, are set to retake control over Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw from the country, The Times newspaper reported on Wednesday.

Lt. Col Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), confirmed the document’s existence but said it was not a strategic study of operations.

“The classified document in question is a compilation of Taliban detainee opinions,” he said. “It’s not an analysis, nor is it meant to be considered an analysis.”

Nevertheless, it could be interpreted as a damning assessment of the war, now dragging into its eleventh year and aimed at blocking a Taliban return to power, or possibly an admission of defeat.

It could also reinforce the view of Taliban hardliners that the group should not negotiate peace with the United States and President Hamid Karzai’s unpopular government while in a position of strength.

The document cited by Britain’s The Times said that Pakistan’s powerful security agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was assisting the Taliban in directing attacks against foreign forces.

The allegations drew a strong response from Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit. “This is frivolous, to put it mildly,” he told Reuters. “We are committed to non-interference in Afghanistan.”

The Times said the “highly classified” report was put together by the U.S. military at Bagram air base in Afghanistan for top NATO officers last month. The BBC also carried a report on the leaked document.

Large swathes of Afghanistan have already been handed back to Afghan security forces, with the last foreign combat troops due to leave by the end of 2014.

But many Afghans doubt their army, security forces or police will be able to take firm control of one of the world’s most volatile countries once foreign combat troops leave.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul declined to comment on the report.

The accusations will likely further strain ties between Western powers and Islamabad, which has long denied backing militant groups seeking to topple the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was visiting Kabul on Wednesday on a mission to repair strained diplomatic ties with Afghanistan’s government and to meet Karzai to discuss possible peace talks with the Taliban.

TURBULENT HISTORY

Pakistan is currently reviewing ties with the United States which have suffered a series of setbacks since a unilateral U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in May last year humiliated Pakistan’s powerful generals.

A November 26 cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers deepened the crisis, prompting Islamabad to suspend supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is seen as critical to U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, a feat one foreign power after another has failed to accomplish over the country’s turbulent history.

Islamabad has resisted U.S. pressure to go after insurgent groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, and argues Washington’s approach overlooks complex realities on the ground.

Pakistan says Washington should attempt to bring all militant groups into the peace process and fears a 2014 combat troop exit could be hasty, plunging the region into the kind of chaos seen after the Soviet exit in 1989.

“They (the Taliban) don’t need any backing. Everybody knows that after 10 years, they (NATO) have not been able to control a single province in Afghanistan because of the wrong policies they have been following,” Pakistani Senator Tariq Azim, a member of the Senate’s Defence Committee, told Reuters.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said: “We have long been concerned about ties between elements of the ISI and some extremist networks.”

Little said U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “has also been clear that he believes that the safe havens in Pakistan remain a serious problem and need to be addressed by Pakistani authorities”.

The document’s findings were based on interrogations of more than 4,000 Taliban and al Qaeda detainees, the Times said, adding that it identified only few individual insurgents.

A State Department spokesman and Britain’s Foreign Office both declined comment on the report.

Despite the presence of about 100,000 foreign troops, violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, according to the United Nations.

The Taliban announced this month they would open a political office in the Qatari capital Doha to support possible peace talks with the United States.

But there has also been talk of efforts to hold separate talks in Saudi Arabia because Karzai fears his government could be sidelined by U.S. talks with the Taliban.

The report could boost the Taliban’s confidence and make its leaders less willing to make concessions on key U.S. demands for a ceasefire and for the insurgency to renounce violence and break all ties to al Qaeda.

Hoping to gain credibility with a population still haunted by memories of the Taliban’s harsh rule from 1996-2001, the group has tried to improve its image as its fighters battle NATO and Afghan forces.

The Times said the document suggested the Taliban were gaining in popularity partly because the austere Islamist movement was becoming more tolerant.

“It remains to be seen whether a revitalized, more progressive Taliban will endure if they continue to gain power and popularity,” it quoted the report as saying.

“Regardless, at least within the Taliban, the refurbished image is already having a positive effect on morale.”

Prominent Pakistani security analyst Imtiaz Gul described the report as alarmist, saying Afghan security forces backed by the international community would resist any Taliban takeover.

“This is simply preposterous to propagate this theory,” he said.

Additional reporting by Dan Magnowski in KABUL and Qasim Nauman in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Nick Macfie

From soldier to rabbi, one Afghanistan war veteran takes unusual path


When West Point’s Jewish chaplain left the academy during Joshua Knobel’s freshman year, Knobel filled in for him, running Jewish prayer services at the military school’s chapel.

In the years following his 2001 graduation, Knobel led services more than 6,000 miles east while deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. His career choice crystallized there.

Knobel decided to become a rabbi.

“As I was making the decision of who I wanted to be,” Knobel said, “I realized that my path in life is to help people build communities based on the dynamic of a people and its sacred tradition.”

Now 32, Knobel (pronounced “noble”), a native of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is midway through the five-year rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus. He expects to be ordained in May 2014, and he’s also working on a master’s degree in Jewish education.

While three current HUC students are undergoing chaplaincy training and a 2002 graduate serves as an Air Force chaplain, the reverse path is exceedingly rare. Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, director of HUC-JIR’s School of Rabbinic Studies, called Knobel’s “a very interesting career trajectory.” He is the first student in her 10 years on campus to step from military service into the Reform rabbinical school.

In an interview with JTA, Knobel said his interest in the rabbinate arose from his experiences dealing with the big-picture concerns of soldiers. As a platoon leader and later a company commander, Knobel, a captain, provided telecommunications support in the field. He also was tasked with tending to his unit’s morale and cohesion issues.

Knobel spoke with soldiers about their family and personal matters, including planning for civilian life post-discharge.

“Military deployment is like a timeout, and people are eager to get back” home, he said. “But we—myself, commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers—wanted to help soldiers figure out how to improve their lives once they returned: how to approach their relationships, their finances, what they want to do with their lives.

“By the time I was a company commander, I knew I wanted to do something other than what I was doing—communications.”  What he wanted, Knobel said, was to “help people figure out how to live their lives with purpose and intent.”

Those discussions sometimes contained spiritual and religious dimensions. The U.S. military officially tries to avoid creating an uncomfortable environment regarding religion, so only those authorized to conduct religious services and perform other religious duties may do so. Military chaplains who are spread thin may issue written orders allowing another person to fill the role of “designated faith group leader,” as was Knobel.

Knobel’s first overseas post, Kuwait’s Camp Udairi on the eve of America’s war in Iraq, didn’t always have a rabbi available to serve Jewish soldiers. So Knobel often substituted there and at the Kuwait City International Airport base. While in Afghanistan, Knobel worked with Maj. Shmuel Felzenberg, the chaplain who coordinated Jewish worship at Bagram Airfield and at other bases in the country.

Knobel filled in when Felzenberg, who is affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, was absent. Knobel spent holidays traveling between sites to lead services, sometimes at four bases. Jewish soldiers often flew by helicopter to reach Knobel and other rabbis.

At a seder that Knobel led for eight Jewish soldiers at the Naray base in northeast Afghanistan, Knobel said he was moved by a fellow captain approximately his age who had not attended a seder since becoming bar mitzvah.

He had a powerful reaction to the singing of “Dayeinu,” Knobel remembered.

“You could see that he had touched something in his past,” he said. The two spoke later about where the man’s Jewish and general lives would go upon returning to America, Knobel said.

“Those types of discussions were not infrequent,” Knobel said. “Being removed from home makes you think of things in a different way, and if you have the frame of Judaism to look at the experiences, it shapes those conversations: who you are and who you’re going to be.

Felzenberg, now serving as West Point’s Jewish chaplain, called Knobel’s “good disposition and even-keeled nature” a good match both for the chaplaincy and for being a rabbi.

“As we say in Judaism, ‘Kishmo ken hu’ ”—one is as his name, Felzenberg said. “His character is noble in that he served his country and now is studying to be a rabbi.”

Knobel applied to rabbinical school in 2007 while still stationed abroad, then met with admissions officials while in New York on leave. Back in Afghanistan a week later, he received a letter of acceptance. A month after his discharge in June 2008 at Fort Bragg, N.C., Knobel began studying at HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus.

Knobel says he is considering various career options, including the military chaplaincy. He served two years as a rabbinical intern at a synagogue in Yuma, Ariz., flying in one Shabbat a month plus holidays. This year he’s working in the education department of a synagogue in San Fernando Valley, Calif.

“I’ve always viewed it as my responsibility to make sure that Jewish soldiers, wherever I could find them, had a way of observing Shabbat, rituals or services,” he said. “The purpose I’ve dedicated myself to can be served in a community congregation or in the military.”

Afghanistan’s turning point


It was a decade ago that a number of terrorists conducted the most horrifying attack on the United States. They hit two big planes into the World Trade Center, targeted the Pentagon with a third, and, in a failed attempt, crashed a fourth in Pennsylvania, all together killing thousands of innocent people.

Although the tragedy shocked Americans in the United States in the extreme, it also proved to be a historical turning point thousands of miles away for another nation — the people of Afghanistan — in the heart of Asia.

Afghans who had long ago been taken hostage, choked like a rabbit fed to a snake, crippled, frozen and unable to react, needed a miracle.

And the miracle had happened.

The news of attacks on America spread all over our country through a few international radio stations, such as the BBC, and Voice of America, the morning after Sept. 11, 2001.

I remember how reactions to the terrifying attacks in New York were mixed among Afghans, ranging from congratulations and happiness to pity for the U.S. people and fear of retaliation.

The fear of reprisal heightened when the news came out that America would bomb Afghanistan into the stone age. People were horrified.

And when the bombing started, the people, already worn to shreds by wars and miseries, were shocked.

“Not again, not another invasion, not another war that will bring more deaths and destruction,” almost every man said to another on the streets of Kabul.

The ruling Taliban regime repeatedly called on people through their only radio station, telling them to be ready for a holy war. People were ordered to turn off all their lights at night. 

It seemed that the U.S. military knew very little about the kind of enemy they were facing on the ground, when they started with B-52 bombers and would drop bombs on some Taliban targets on the outskirt of Kabul from an altitude of thousands of miles.

Even most Afghans knew very little about the inner circle of the Taliban leadership, which rose out of religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1994,  seized the capital of Kabul two years later, and then ruled the country until they were ousted by a U.S. invasion in 2001.

No one had seen the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, or his guest Osama bin Laden. 

As the bombing continued for days, many people watched anxiously from their rooftops as the U.S. planes attacked Taliban targets on the outskirts of Kabul. They knew the Taliban were tough, too.

Anti-aircraft gunshots would light the dark skies of Kabul at night and looked like fireworks. People had no idea what would happen next; were those who were bombing their towns and villages doing so to free Afghans from Taliban? Or were they invaders who needed to be fought off again?

One nice, sunny morning, I woke up early as usual and went outside, wanting to see the columns of smoke around Kabul airport as a result of overnight U.S. bombing. On this day, though, the city looked strange; it looked unusually quiet to me.

I was ready to head off to work when I saw a friend riding on a bicycle. He was in a hurry. I stopped him and asked where he was going. He said the Taliban were gone, and he was going to Shahre-Naw Park,  in the center of Kabul, to see the last few Arabs and Pakistanis who were still resisting.

“Really? Are you sure?”  I was shocked. I told him it could be dangerous for us if the news was not true and they were still there. After he insisted, I hopped onto his bike, and we together rode to the center of Kabul.

I was amazed:  My friend was right — the Taliban were gone. Along our way, the Taliban checkpoints were abandoned; the Taliban had disappeared overnight. Only a couple of them remained, surrounded by people in the central park. After a while, one was killed by a guard, and the other blew himself up before anybody could reach him. That was the first time I’d seen a suicide bomber; later, I got to see hundreds.

On the streets of Kabul people were both happy and cautious.  For almost a week, people could not believe the news that the Taliban were gone and that they were free. Many didn’t really remember what the word “freedom” means.

It was a new beginning. Life after the Taliban was moving fast; millions of refugees returned home. People would call the international community’s involvement a “golden opportunity” for Afghanistan.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission, elections for president and parliament, a new currency, a sudden boom in the economy, cell phones and Internet. Everything seemed to be moving on the right track.

Girls started going to school; it looked like flowers slowly blooming in spring.

Every good thing must come to an end.

It was unfortunate that Afghanistan was introduced to the world through 9/11, but now, after almost 10 years, during which the country has dominated the news headlines,  whenever media mentions this country, it is either about Taliban and terrorism or burqas and beards. To the world, Afghanistan looks like an “untamable” nation.

On the other hand, Afghans don’t know a lot about America and the world beyond the news headlines and the foreign military they see on the streets every day, either. 

It’s been a decade now, and yet the two nations never tried to truly understand each other better. And this ignorance gave the Taliban a chance to come back.

Despite the presence of more than 100,000 foreign troops, Afghanistan is still besieged by terrorism in the form of suicide attacks, roadside bombs, drive-by shootings, home invasions, kidnappings and outright attacks on public establishments. This is causing a lot of jittery nerves and sleepless nights for our people.

While successful measures have been put in place against terrorists within the United States and other countries, thus preventing another 9/11, the fire is still kept burning in Afghanistan.

And why still in Afghanistan? It is a question that every Afghan asks. Al-Qaeda lost its base in Afghanistan when the Taliban regime that gave them sanctuary was ousted from power. Al-Qaeda’s leader was found and killed in Pakistan. Many other smaller terrorist attacks in the world have been linked to terrorist groups that emerge from the ruins of older ones in other countries.

What we need in Afghanistan is not constant military campaigns that result in tremendous mayhem and loss of life. We need campaigns to win the hearts and the minds of the people. The campaign that talks to the would-be suicide bomber and tries to dissuade him.

Instead of bombing the towns and villages, the real war must aim at capturing the hearts and the minds of people and the combatants’ supply and support network. When properly delivered, words can be more lethal than bullets.

No one has successfully addressed the would-be suicide bomber or the terrorist. No one has told him that though he might have good intentions, this isn’t the way to salvation. No one has even mentioned to him suicide isn’t sacrifice, it is haram (forbidden) and that the killing of innocent people takes the murderer to places he doesn’t want to be in. We haven’t pointed out to him that those who love God show their love by serving his creation, mankind, not by killing.

Mass media and advertisement can be the most powerful tools of persuasion invented by man, to reach out the people.  Money is the other one.

Unfortunately, much of the billions of dollars that gets poured into Afghanistan simply ends up in the wrong hands. It doesn’t reach the people. And that is why people who make up the Taliban army are those who never get an education, they have no job, no house,  nothing to lose.

A decade after 9/11, as many countries continue to find ways to make themselves less vulnerable to terrorism, it only makes them more vulnerable if the grievances are not addressed properly.

The Afghan writer of this essay is using a pseudonym for security reasons.

Face to face


I asked Aatekah Ahhmad Mir, a journalist from Lahore, Pakistan, and Emal Naweed Haidary, a journalist from Kabul, Afghanistan, what sights they wanted to see while in Los Angeles.

I fully expected them to ask to go to Disneyland, Universal Studios … Venice Beach.

“We want to see Daniel Pearl’s grave,” Mir said. “Is that OK?”

Every year since 2003, The Jewish Journal has hosted two Daniel Pearl Fellows for at least a week. They are all young, ambitious journalists who come from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, regions where freedom of the press is not a given and where Pearl, an Encino native and Wall Street Journal correspondent, lived and reported from before his kidnap and murder in Pakistan in 2002.

Mir, 30, has an advanced degree from the London School of Economics and is an editor at The Express Tribune, a partner of the International Herald Tribune. She could be mistaken for a young Christiane Amanpour, and she has a relentless curiosity and an explosive laugh. Haidary is a reporter for the Bokhdi News Agency and is the first ever Pearl Fellow from Afghanistan. He is quiet, serious and has the look of a man more along in years. That’s understandable: Born in 1980, he has never known a single year of his life without war.

The fellows come to America to work for six months at a mainstream newspaper like The Wall Street Journal or the Los Angeles Times, then, as a requirement of their fellowship, they spend one week at The Jewish Journal, or, as we like to tell them, “a real newspaper.”

The idea, according to Daniel’s parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, is to expose journalists whose native media is often hostile to, or ignorant of Jews, to the “real” Jewish community.

As in years past, it’s an understatement to say we learned as much from these two fellows as they did from us. It’s clear to us all that the veil of ignorance and misunderstanding that many have worked to lift since 9/11 is still in place — both here and in their homelands.

“People don’t even know where Pakistan is,” Mir said when we asked her what surprised her most about Americans. “They think it’s in the Middle East.”

“If I were an American,” Haidary added, “I’d want to know where all my money is going.”

And, they reported, in their countries, even after we’ve spent billions in aid and lost thousands of American lives, America is still scorned, viewed with suspicion, reviled.

To most Pakistanis, America is represented through accounts of military actions and drone strikes, Mir said. The imams and madrassahs still teach hatred of the United States, and the Pakistani media fail to give balance to all that propaganda. America doesn’t help itself either: it allows the faltering and corrupt Pakistani government to take credit for aid projects, including such achievements as new schools funded by American taxpayers.

In Afghanistan, Haidary said the perception is not much better.

Immediately following the American invasion of his country, there was a period of calm.

“The Taliban disappeared from the cities,” he said. “But the Americans never stopped to ask, ‘Where did they go?’ ”

Now the Taliban has returned to Afghanistan’s rural areas and made life in the cities even more unpredictable than before.

“Before, I knew which neighborhoods were safe,” Haidary said. “Now, the suicide bomber can be walking right beside me.”

He is engaged to be married, but hasn’t set a date. “It is difficult to know when you go to work in the morning if you’ll be back at night,” he said.

Afghanis see Americans almost solely as soldiers, barking at them to stop or stay away. He said President Barack Obama’s surge of 30,000 troops and their high-tech weapons have only exacerbated the problem.

“He sent 30,000 more targets,” Haidary said. “Why didn’t he send 30,000 engineers and architects? America is trying to solve 14th century conflicts with 21st century technology.”

“You need people-to-people contact,” Mir said. “I know this is strange to say as a Daniel Pearl Fellow, but Americans need to visit Pakistan as tourists. You need better PR.” If people see that money coming from the United States is being used to enhance their quality of life, and not just for military purposes, the perception of America will change, she said.

Mir came to America having been told that people here hate Muslims — especially Jews, who, according to the Pakistani press, control American politics and media. She found that even though many American Muslims also believe such hatred exists, in fact the Americans she met were warm, open, accepting.

At the end of her visit, Mir arranged to go to Daniel Pearl’s grave. Before her visit, she had done some research and learned that Jews leave stones at cemeteries, not flowers. She arrived at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills after closing, the day before she was to leave for home. But the cemetery staff, after hearing of her dilemma via the intercom and contacting their director, opened the gates and escorted her to the gravesite. 

On the side of a hill overlooking the Valley, Mir stood over the gray marble marker. She read the inscription:

In one of the stars
He is still living
In one of them
He is still laughing
Perhaps in foreign places
He is still lighting the path of our world.

Mir knelt down and placed a stone on the marble. Then she returned to Pakistan.

12 killed in attack on U.N. compound in northern Afghanistan [VIDEO]


Afghan protesters angered by the burning of a Koran by a U.S. pastor killed at least 12 U.N. workers in Mazar-e Sharif, washingtonpost.com reports.

At least 12 people were killed in Afghanistan Friday, most of them foreigners, when a United Nations compound was stormed by Afghans enraged by a Florida pastor’s burning of a Koran, according to Afghan officials.

Thousands of protesters mobilized after a midday sermon, then surged toward the offices of the United Nations in Mazar-e Sharif, northern Afghanistan’s largest city and normally a bastion of calm.

Some in the crowd broke into the U.N. office and attacked the staff, killing security guards and members of the U.N. mission, officials said.

The attack drew worldwide attention, which had been diverted in recent weeks from the Afghan war by upheaval in the Middle East, and threatened to undermine administration efforts to portray Afghanistan as moving steadily toward stability.

Video courtesy of AP.

Napolitano visiting Israel to check security projects


United States Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is in Israel to check on joint security projects between the two countries.

Napolitano visited Israel Monday and Tuesday as part of a multi-country tour that has included stops in Ireland, Afghanistan and Qatar. She will head to Belgium to meet with European Union and World Customs Organization officials, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

“The United States and Israel have a strong and enduring partnership, and the reason for my visit is to make sure that all the things that we’re doing in partnership with Israel—aviation security to cyber-security, to science and technology, research that we are undertaking together focused on security—that all of those activities are being done in a productive and robust fashion,” Napolitano said Monday during a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Also Monday, Napolitano visited the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, where she participated in a wreath-laying ceremony honoring the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. She also met with Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who is the minister of Intelligence and atomic energy, and Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz to discuss threats from terrorism and the ongoing security partnership between the United States and Israel, according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security.

During the meetings, Napolitano reiterated her commitment to promoting enhanced international aviation security and sharing information and best practices with Israeli aviation authorities in order to counter threats of terrorism, according to the DHS.

Napolitano was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visit the Ben Gurion International Airport to meet with airport officials.

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