A settler’s Nakba

Dispatches From Judea and Samaria: first in a series

How does a passionate, religious Zionist who is also committed to Israel-Palestinian reconciliation and dialogue deal with nakba, the Arabic term for the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the founding of Israel?

On one hand, I feel no guilt whatsoever over the displacement of more than a half-million Palestinians during our War of Independence. I have no doubts about the justice of the Jews’ return to our historic national land, as promised throughout the Torah and dreamt about by generations of Jews. Yes, the events of the 1948-49 war were indeed tragic — for both sides. But they occurred in the context of a war — a war started by the Arab states, lest anyone need reminding, and they occurred alongside another human tragedy similar in kind and scope: The destruction of millennia-old Jewish communities across the Arab world.

Furthermore, the whole proposition of nakba is problematic insofar as it sets up Israel’s creation as a zero-sum game: Israeli independence as a disaster for the Palestinians. When Palestinians say the “disaster” of 1948, they do not mean the disaster caused by a series of poor decisions made by Arab leaders to attack the nascent state, or the years of abuse Palestinian refugees have suffered at their hands ever since. Good for Israel equals bad for Palestine and vice versa.

WATCH: Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awad and West Bank settler Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger tell their stories of personal transformation.


That construct leaves little room for connection or relationships between Zionists and Palestinians, and no room for me. For all Israel’s faults, I think Israel has done a pretty good job in the areas of democracy, economic advancement and even human rights, an area in which Israel is routinely singled out for criticism. I am proud of our accomplishments over the past 67 years, made in the face of difficult circumstances, and make no apologies for living here.

I am proud of our accomplishments over the past 67 years, made in the face of difficult circumstances, and make no apologies for living here.

But in recent years, I’ve left that discussion behind. As I’ve built relationships with Palestinians, I’ve tried hard to replace the traditional Israel-Palestinian discussion — justification, accusation, debate, argumentation — with a new conversation, one based on empathy, connections, relationships. In contrast to my previous attempts to reach out to Palestinians, over the past year I have made good friends on the other side of the separation wall, individuals with whom I share values, hopes and fears, and especially a love of this land.

What, then, is the right way for an unapologetic religious Zionist — and a settler to boot — to balance the unmitigated joy I feel over the return of our people to the Land of Israel with the Palestinian experience of May 14, especially if just two weeks ago I asked my Palestinian friends to share in my celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut?

My friend Ali Abu Awwad does not describe the events of 1948 with his mind. He describes them with his eyes.

Although 15 years have passed since he dedicated his life to reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians (that transformation happened after he was shot by a settler in 2001, a month before his brother was killed during an oral altercation with an Israel Defense Forces soldier at the height of the Second Intifada), Abu Awwad’s description of his years as a rock- and Molotov cocktail-throwing activist during the First Intifada conveys the heat and intensity of his teenage hatred for everything Israel.

But that sense of fury is absent when the topic of conversation moves to his father’s departure from al-Qubayba, a village of about 1,200 people near the present-day Israeli town of Lachish, where Ali’s grandfather served as imam. Instead, he talks about the events of 1948 with a tangible sense of personal history and a wistful sense of deep longing for the family home that was destroyed long before he was born in 1972.

“My dad was about 22 at the time, and they walked from there to Tarkumiyeh, near where the military checkpoint is today, a distance of about 10 miles. They thought they would be gone for only a few days, but they realized quickly that they couldn’t go back. After a few weeks, they moved farther toward Hebron, and eventually settled in Beit Ummar, near where the bodies of the three yeshiva students were discovered last year,” he says.

“[To many people], accept[ing[ the term nakba is not only to accept the fact, but is also to accept the notion of who was guilty. Therefore, even to mention the word nakba as part of the Jewish vocabulary is basically to accept a narrative that undermines the legitimacy of the State of Israel to exist,” says Rabbi Donniel Hartman.

That is a tough mental barrier to get around, but an essential one if we are to reset the rules of engagement between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel’s birth was not synonymous with disaster for the Palestinians, but by opening up to Palestinians’ collective memory, we pave a two-way path for Palestinians to create receptiveness toward our celebration of our return to the Land of Israel.

Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awad and West Bank settler Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger will tell their stories of personal transformation at Pico Union Project on May 28 at 7:30 p.m. Free. For more information, visit www.picounionproject.org

Andrew Friedman is a member of Shorashim/Judur, a grass-roots movement of local Israelis and Palestinians creating relationships and friendships in Judea and Samaria, as well as of the Interfaith Encounter Forum.

N.Y. teen charged with hate crime for anti-Semitic graffiti in Arabic

A 15-year-old from Staten Island was charged with a hate crime for writing “death for Jewish religion” in Arabic at a school in the New York borough.

The teen was charged on Tuesday with criminal mischief as a hate crime and for making graffiti, and will be tried as a juvenile, WABC-Ch. 7 reported.

The student allegedly wrote the message in Arabic, using blue ink, on a poster at Dreyfus Intermediate School, a junior high also known as I.S. 49, where it was noticed by a school safety agent who could read Arabic.

Divers discover huge hoard of gold coins off Israeli coast

Scuba divers have discovered a rare haul of gleaming 1,000-year-old gold coins inscribed in Arabic on the sea bed off Israel, a find archaeologists say may shed light on Muslim rule in that age.

Some 2,000 coins dated to the 11th century, a period when the Fatimid Islamic dynasty dominated the Middle East, have so far been raised from the depths.

The treasure, which was probably exposed during recent winter storms, is thought to have sunk in a shipwreck near the ancient Roman port of Caesarea in the eastern Mediterranean.

“(This is) a great treasure from a (vessel) that was probably taking the hoard, possibly tax revenue, to Cairo but sank in Caesarea harbour,” Jacob Sharvit of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Reuters during a visit to the site.

Sharvit said amateur divers chanced two weeks ago upon a number of coins. At first they thought they were a children's toy, but a subsequent underwater search by experts netted about 1,000 coins, he said.

A second dive on Tuesday in the same spot yielded another, similar amount of coins and the total find weighed in at between five and a half to six kilogrammes (12-13 lbs) of gold. The bullion value in current terms is around $240,000.

Such coins have been found before in the region, but this batch was the largest hoard ever found in Israel, Sharvit said.

He said the coins showed Caesarea was a wealthy area at the time and may give insight into the Fatimid trading practises.

“The Fatimids were the first Muslims to have had a navy and they traded with all the Mediterranean cities, also with the Byzantines and the Christians, even though they were at war with them,” Sharvit said.

The coins, all with Arabic script, were minted during the reigns Fatimid caliphs Al-kim (996-1021 AD) and his son, Al-hir (1021-1036), archaeologists said.

Three denominations were found: one dinar weighing some four grams, half a dinar and a quarter dinar, respectively weighing around two grams and one gram.

The wealth of the Fatimid kingdom, which originated in North Africa, was legendary, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority. It had reserves of 12 million gold dinars in the capital's coffers in Cairo.

Chaos is my Heaven: Q-and-A with Itai Anghel

Rob Eshman: What year did you first meet Commander Media, the leader of the female militia you film in your documentary.

Itai Anglel: 2010.  She was already a commander. So when I saw her now, it was very good, you know. It meant for her, you know, that, “Okay, it’s fine. He can join us. “

Rob: And you just crossed into Syria?

Anghel:  I’ve been to Iraq four times and I’ve been to Syria two times. I have an American passport. I was born in the United States, but I never lived actually in the States because my parents have been studying in Columbia University in New York for six years.

Rob: But it still must give you an extra level of, I don’t know, caution or fear thinking what people would do to you in these places if they found out you were Israeli somehow.

Itai: Yeah. Of course. I deal with it a lot. I actually, you know, do some sort of techniques in order to make my way through all these very tense places. The way I see it is like that, I mean, if I will attract attention, then it is the beginning of the end. The thing is try not to attract attention. I mean, I try not to be interesting. I’m working on not being interesting when I’m working in journalism.

If I try to summarize it in one sentence, you know, whenever you feel anxious, whenever you look scared — and I’m scared, I’m scared to death — but whenever you look scared, then all the attention is on you, all eyes on you because you look like someone who has done something bad. You look like you’re guilty of something.

[MORE: The brave Israeli interviewing ISIS fighters in Syria]

When you hang around in places where there are a lot of conspiracies among other people going on, so when they see someone look at his face, immediately, “Okay, who’s this guy? Why does he look like that?” So although I feel very scared of this outside I got to a point where, you know, when I got from the border of Pakistan to Afghanistan, it was exactly on the day that America began bombarding there and there was a lot of hostility in this specific place that I had to go through. They were chanting, “Death to Israel. Death to America!” and I would put my camera and there were like hundred men. And they burned the flag of Israel and they burned the flag of the United States. 

So you know, the instinct is just to run away, but actually it’s not the place to run away. Running away was something that attracts attention. So I do exactly the other thing. I try to look at them, respond to, you know, even the problematic people around them. For example, one burned the Israel’s flag and they go straight to me. “Hello, who are you?” “I can speak some Arabic, I can speak English, I can speak whatever language you speak.”  

He was smoking a cigarette, so I asked for a cigarette. I do not even smoke, by the way, but you know the circumstance. And I think in every moment — not in every moment — in every second back there I’m engaging myself in what they are thinking about me and how they see me. And when I ask him for a cigarette, I mean, obviously he doesn’t know me, but he has an idea of, “Oh, this guy looks cool. He probably used to come in here, probably know people in here.” And this is how I make my way. And I realized, I mean, the flag of my country is melting in front of me, so what I feel in my stomach is one thing, and the outrage is one thing, but on the outside I stepped on this flag, this part of this flag that is being melted as it had nothing with me.

And I talked to him and I give him the impression like, “Oh, great that you’re here. I’ve been looking for you. What are you doing right now?” and then, you know, it’s sort of a dance  between us begins. This is actually the beginning for everything that I’ve done anywhere. I’ve been to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Gaza, whatever. This is the way I’ve been around, absolutely in contrast to what you would accept, contrary to what I would do, you know, normally. Now the situation is not normal, so you have to think out of the box. It’s what I’ve been doing in the past 20 years.

Rob: The fact that you have an American passport in a lot of these places doesn’t really protect you either. It’s not like America is that popular.

Itai: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the American passport enables me to put a step on the map, like when the Americans invaded Iraq, so with the American passport I could go inside. While inside it doesn’t have to do with nationality and it doesn’t have to do with your religion. It has to do with you being a human being. The way you manage to handle yourself socially. Normally, they don’t even ask you where you’re from. Really.  And if they ask, I tell them that I’m an American.  In Fallujah, for example, where they’re fighting against the Americans. I was there by the way, when the Iraqi sniper [Mustapha,made infamous in the American Sniper movie], you know, shot Marines.

Rob: From 'American Sniper.'

Itai: I tell [the Iraqis] that I’m an American. And they say, “Hey, hey, American is not good.” But I tell them in Arabic, “I’m an American, but I’m not a soldier. I’m not from the Army, I’m a journalist.” And when I speak in Arabic, believe me, they’re amazed, because it’s not that they saw during the 10 years that the Americans have been there someone speaking Arabic, without a professional translator.

So immediately the next question is, “How come you know Arabic?” And I told them that I studied, and then, immediately the next question that I know will be asked is, “Why do you study Arabic?” because they never saw an American make an effort to speak Arabic. And I told him, “Because I want to speak with you, I want to talk to you.”

And then something happened, you know. “Okay.” They see me. I’m alone usually. I’m also the cameraman and the soundman … I do everything by myself. So I’m not intimidating. I will never be intimidating.  

Rob: But [ISIS] seems to especially hate journalists, right?

Itai: Yeah. This is in the specific territory of ISIS. I’ve been with the Kurdish guerrilla while I was taping them and knowing, without any doubts, that if I was caught within ISIS territory, I’m dead. So I went with a Kurdish fighter. I was in the front line but still with the Kurds. Had something happened to the Kurds, some sort of attack by ISIS and they would’ve managed to capture me. I mean, I didn’t even try to fool myself. I know what might’ve happened. But I trusted this guy.

Rob: Did the Kurds know that you were Israeli or Jewish?

Itai: I had, in this specific place, two people that they knew who I am. They knew the truth of me being Israeli, and because of my visit in 2010 and some Kurdish friends.

After the massacre in Sinjar, which was the biggest massacre that ISIS committed against the Iraqi Kurds, I talked to a friend and I felt like I really needed to go again and tell the story again. I tried to verify whether there is a possibility for me to hang around there. And a friend told me, “Yeah, why not?” I mean, it’s okay. I was not sure whether I really needed it, but slowly but surely I knew a conflict was built. It was two people, a man and a woman, and one of them from Syria and one of them from they were very interested in  an Israeli coming there, but they knew who I am, because of my previous work. So they said okay, and they told me that I can absolutely trust them. So I trusted them. It proved to me the right assessment. And then, you know, I got in.

Rob: And these were Kurds? The people you trusted they were Kurds?

Itai: Obviously, yeah. Absolutely. So among them … they told me, “Listen, don’t share too much that you’re an Israeli because we know there are also, within the Kurdish area, a lot of Sunni Muslims that would’ve liked ISIS to capture the place. So if there is a rumor that is spread about an Israeli in here, it would be a problem.” 

But little by little more people realized who I am. It was good, because normally I hide my identity and I occupy myself 24 hours a day, every minute and every second with what they think about me and how do a look. And it’s difficult because I’m a very honest man, but you have to live this part of lying and never tell the whole truth of who you are. I mean, I am an American with an American passport, but it’s not the whole story. You meet people, and you make friends, but you cannot tell them who you are. Even if I absolutely trust them, I cannot.

Rob: Right.

Itai: And  this specific trip was amazing. It was a great relief because they knew who I am. They knew who I am. I didn’t have to engage myself in pretending.

Rob: So, say, like the female commander Media, she knew you were Israeli?

Itai: Yeah. Definitely.  And then we kept another segment of this commander when she’s saying something specific about it because she knew that I’m an Israeli. She said, “The other people who suffer, the only people who suffer, the only community who suffer more than the Kurds, are the Jewish people. So we would’ve expected you, more than any other nation, to sympathize and to be our allies.” And we share the same enemies, by the way. And you, out of this genocide, managed to fight back to win, to have a state, an important state in the world. And this is the model we are looking for because this is our war for independence.” I was amazed.

Rob: Why did you cut that out of the documentary?

Itai: I don’t know. Instead of putting it inside the documentary, we decided, you know, when we go to the studio—because everybody was watching it live—and then you go to the studio and everybody is in love with this commander. “So now this is what this commander has to say about us.” And then we brought it up, so everybody saw it. 

Rob: I see.

Itai: She referred mainly to the fact that Israel provided a lot of weapons to Turkey and a lot of drones to Turkey and these drones are used in order to shoot and kill people like her.

Even when I was there four and a half years ago, 2010, and I hung around where they take refuge  and hide, there were drones, you know, even there. And they were Israeli drones!

Rob: Crazy.

Itai: They were operated by Israelis. Even in the toughest times of the relationship between Turkey and Israel, you still have the kid in Ashdod with joysticks between the Israeli army and the Turkish army.

Rob: So you could’ve been killed by an Israeli drone.

Itai: Yeah, exactly! That went through my head, you know. “If I’m killed now, it would be done by an Israeli weapon driven by Israeli people.”

Rob: It could be your cousin.

Itai: So, yeah, so this is, you know, she was referring to that.

Rob: And do you know if Israel is now helping the Kurds in the ISIS territory at all?

Itai: I don’t know too much about the [government], but after this documentary we made a lot of difference. So I mean, everybody was in love with the Kurds and everybody supported the Kurds…

Kurds have been enemies of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, our same enemies, and they share values like democracy and human rights. And then they see the Commander Media and then they see the respect for Israel — so everybody is absolutely in love with them. And everybody is very much enraged when they realize what we’ve done when they heard the commander. There was a lot of reaction right now.

Rob: How long total were you inside doing this documentary? How long were you inside Iraq and Syria doing the documentary?

Itai: Two weeks.

Rob: Two weeks.

Itai: More or less one week in Iraq, one in Syria.

Rob: Did you go in thinking it was going to be focused so much on this woman, or is that something you discovered when you got there?

Itai: No, I knew about [Media]. I wanted to make all the efforts to meet the woman. Obviously I didn’t know that I would be able to meet her. It was by chance. They told me, “Listen, there is a city of Mahmour that was held by ISIS and is liberated. We’re going in and we’re going to see the commander.” 

And the commander I realized she is a woman, and Media. And I told the interpreter, “Why didn’t you tell me that the commander is a woman?” And they looked at me as if, you know, something is wrong with me, because they don’t differentiate. In Hebrew you say, Mefaked or Mefakedet (Male or Female Commander).

Rob: Right.

Itai: In Kurdish there is one word for male or female. So I was surprised. This is amazing! Nowhere else in the world.  

Rob: You interviewed a man who said the woman are actually better fighters than men.

Itai: You know, in terms of feminism, it’s not that male fighters are their enemy. This is not like it happens with Western feminism. No, no, absolutely it’s like brothers and sisters are fighting together, trusting each other. It’s amazing.  So I knew about all of the women because I saw them fighting two and a half years ago. I was very, very happy to meet the commander.

Rob: America and Israel have women in their armies, but these are really hardcore combat troops. I mean, they’re—

Itai: They are absolutely frontline. In Israel, you know, the idea to say that a women have liberty to make something big of themselves in the army, which is — I hate to say it — it’s bullshit. Everybody knows it’s bullshit …

ISIS is a very serious, complicated mission for the Kurdish guerrilla. It’s not that you’re looking for the most macho male. No. Sometimes it is the women who are doing all the jobs. And Mahmour was liberated only by women. They left more than 300 bodies of ISIS behind, and ISIS ran away, even from the neighboring region. And what is amazing is that women happen to frighten the [ISIS] men because, according to their perception, the theological perception of ISIS, if you get t killed in a combat, what is called “jihad”, you go to heaven.

Rob: Right, right.

Itai: But if a woman kills him, because a woman is not exactly a human being according to their perception of Islam, so you will not go to heaven. And therefore the ISIS panic by the presence of women. So if they engage in a battle they will try to kill the women first, and they’re thinking would be, as an ISIS fighter, “I have to kill the women, because if later on I would be killed by a man it’s okay because I would be in heaven. If a woman would kill me, then this is really the end. So, you know, I will try to make the effort to kill the women.” The women know that the ISIS fighters are getting panicked when they are out, so they signal them that they are there. We call it in Hebrew, if you’re like at an Oriental wedding, we call it hululu.

Rob: The war cry.

Itai: Yeah. So this is what the Kurdish women are doing. I think it’s a very, very crazy situation that these women make this scream you know only from—

Rob: Weddings, right.

Itai: —Parties. It was so crazy. And at night, when we were sitting by the fire one km from the ISIS lines.  And I told them that I was Israeli and that these voices, you know, we call it hululu. We shout it at wedding and parties. They were laughing because they told me, “Listen, it’s not hululu, it’s pilili. That’s the way they call it. And it’s not so fun. It’s like a—

Rob: —War cry.

Itai: Yeah. Exactly.  Even in the funerals — unfortunately you have a lot of funerals of male and female fighters there. It’s very emotional.

Rob: That was part of the documentary.

Itai: Yeah. You hear in the megaphone they make this pilili, because that’s a cry to show ISIS, “You can kill us, but we’re not backing off. We will put up a fight.”  

Rob: The other really powerful part of the documentary is the interrogation of the ISIS fighters. 

Itai: They were prisoners. And to me is very emotional because, you know, I knew, not as a friend, but I saw him as a filmmaker three times, James Foley. James Foley was the first one to be beheaded by them.

Rob: Right.

Itai: And when he entered Syria it was November 2012. He entered from Turkey to Syria, and this is exactly what I’ve done in November 2012, four or five days after he did it. Me and my colleague found out what is the distance between the route he had taken and mine: About a kilometer and half. So back then we realized it was very lucky. 

But when we came in — because I saw him, you know, like three times and it was only, “Hey, take care. How are you? Take care.” We were not trying to mingle or to make friends in those places, because you know, I’m an Israeli and I want the least number of  people to know about it.

Rob: Right.

Itai: My friend told me that he was a great guy and you could trust him.. So I tell him of this specific situation in our country. And then, you know, you hear that he has gone.  When they [the prisoners] came in, you know, immediately I thought about him. What they might have done with him or not. 

And then they’re talking so openly about how they beheaded, and how killed, how they just decided to tell, which was completely crazy, completely crazy, but I have to tell you it was also very, very, very interesting. I mean, besides the initial shock of mine, it was so interesting. 

And I was given 20 minutes to talk to them, because even the process of getting this interview was, it was very abrupt. So we did the interview, and asked all the possible questions. And I can speak Arabic, but my Arabic is okay enough to get by. It’s not perfect, as I cannot understand every word, especially Iraqi Arabic. 

Rob: What drugs did they take?

Itai: Hallucinogens. He was hallucinating. This is what he was saying. And one of them told that he remembers that he killed specifically three under drugs and he cannot tell how many women he raped. The one that was in Iraq told me that he doesn’t remember exactly if it’s 60, 70 or 80 people beheaded and killed.

Rob: But they almost said it with almost no emotion. Like nothing, just like kids talking about a book report or something? Was that shocking?

Itai: No, it was not shocking. You undergo under such a brainstorming. You do what God wants you to do.  And they use a knifewhich is not so sharp, in order to increase the suffering of the one you’re beheading, “This is exactly what prophet Mohamed would’ve done, would’ve like you to do,” which, you know, according to any other Muslim in the world is completely far from it. According to them this is it. So they are good and they are fine.

Rob: They didn’t seem to be that educated. They didn’t seem to be that learned or even that religious.

Itai: Most of the soldiers anyplace are exactly like that, if you think about it. Most, the great mass of soldiers are people like that. But never in the history of the Middle East  was such a conquest of territory in such a short period of time. They inflict terror among the population with a video clip. So all the people who are supposed to go out and fight them, watch it and run  away in order to not to be burned or not to be beheaded. And the Kurds are the only ones to fight, which is amazing,  the female and male fighters.

Rob: When I lived in Israel I knew some Jewish Kurds.

Itai: The Kurds are a nationality, and this is most important to more than 90 percent of the Kurds. But when you talk about religion, most of them by the way by origin are Muslim. But for them religion is not relevant. If they’re in guerilla, [religion] doesn’t even exist. 

So you have the majority are Sunni Muslim, you have some Shia Muslim, you have Yazidi, and you have almost 200,000 Jews now in Israel and maybe in Jerusalem. And by the way, the relationship between Jews and Kurds over the years was amazing. Look at even the US warfare in Iraq. You had like 4,500 Americans killed, not one in Kurdish territory. I mean, it’s something there within this darkness of region you have like a light.

Rob: Are they observant at all?  

Itai: No. I mean, they have mosques, you know, when you go to like big cities like Erbil. You hear them. But, you know, it’s not a factor. In the guerrilla army  it doesn’t exist at all. 

Rob: It’s all about the nationality.

Itai: It does exist, and you have also Christians by the way. And you have a very, very tiny minority who even go to ISIS. So you have some Muslim Kurds who are going to ISIS but then it’s a very tiny minority, but it exists.

Rob: When you told the ISIS prisoner  that you were Jewish or Israeli, it looks like he couldn’t even process it.  

Itai: Yeah.  Unlike what people think in Israel and the government, we are not like the first priority of ISIS.

Rob: Right.

Itai: They told me, “Listen, we never encountered anything like it.” And when I ask them they specifically said, “Yeah, Israel is a Muslim territory, so we have to fight and kill the Israelis.’ But this is something they would say about Sweden and China and whatever.

Rob: Did the two ISIS prisoners, the two of them did they think they were going to be killed or executed?

Itai: I don’t know. Good question. When they were brought to the room they were blindfolded. And I think by then they realized that the Kurds are not killing them, but they didn’t know what they are coming to. And when my translator told them, “Listen, we’re journalists and I’m the translator.” “Okay, okay.”  They realized that the Kurds are not killing them, not executing them.

Rob: So the Kurds really do just keep their prisoners. 

Itai: A translator of mine walked out while the interview took place. Apparently she couldn’t go on sitting there when they were explaining how they take women, kidnap women and provide these women to the commander. And now they’re being raped and now they’re being sold for $20 if a woman is old, or $70 for a [12-year-old] because she’s worth more. She went out of the room and she was very, very emotional and upset. She’s very liberal and very intellectual. She said [just shoot them]. Why provide them with good conditions and later on, you know, there will be a prisoner’s exchange. 

Rob: As an Israeli, it has to be surreal for you walking through Syria. I’m assuming you were alive in ‘73 or…? How old are you?

Itai: I’m 46. 

Rob: But you remember the ’73 war, right?

Itai: Yes, I was 5 years old.

Rob: But, I mean, it must be surreal, right? 

Itai: Totally. I was growing up with the idea that all Iraqis want to kill you, that all Syrians want to kill you. And then when I went to these places and see the reality  to be different from what was being said. And I liked it very much, because they realized that the journalist every time I go to a place I learned something new and my knowledge multiplies by ten.

So I become only more curious every time there is place I think I  know something about … I know it when I will be there. I will know for what is going on. And obviously there is a great curiosity.

Rob: And even, you’re giving these people voices. 

Itai: Yeah, definitely.

Rob: Even the ISIS fighters, you’re not so much yelling at them or screaming. You’re just letting them talk.

Itai: Never. I mean, I’m talking a place where to me it was very clear the good guys and the bad guys, but normally it doesn’t exist. I gave a lot of voice to Palestinian because I’ve been a lot to Gaza and the West Bank from people from all over. Even when I began, in Bosnia. Each and every faction has something interesting to tell me. Because I’m coming from a land of disputes, so I know that there is not one complete black and white story.  So I go to all the warring factions. There’s only two times I was not able to do that. I was not able to go into ISIS territory, but I was able to talk to the prisoners. I was listening to them, not proving them wrong, I’m hear to understand what they are doing. 

Rob: Right. Do you have family?

Itai: No, I do not have children yet. I hope, you know, it will come soon. I have a girlfriend. But not married. You know, children hopefully, you know, will come soon. In this way of life it is very difficult–

Rob: I was going to say–

Itai: [But] … I still have something to do with this world regarding this job of mine.

Rob: Are you worried that ISIS knows how to use the internet just like you know how to use the internet. Are you worried they’ll see this and it’ll be harder to be discrete and go to these places without being recognized?

Itai: Well, obviously I’m burning myself little by little. I mean in Israel, where I’m more  famous and everybody knows me, they think I’m committing suicide.  But again it’s like everybody in Israel is thinking everybody in the world is watching Israeli television. No, nobody is watching. Only intelligence services. And I go only to countries where the intelligence in the country itself is completely in chaos. All the places I’ve been to — and I’ve been to dozens of places — are only in the moment where everything is crashed, the system is crashed, and anybody who is supposed to spot me is running away for his life.

Rob: So the safest time for you is when everything is in chaos?

Itai: Chaos is my heaven.

ADL alerts U.S. synagogues to protect against online hackers

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has issued a security alert to Jewish institutions across the country concerning a potential uptick in the number of online attacks by foreign hackers targeting the websites of synagogues and other Jewish organizations, which could compromise synagogue membership lists and financial data.
The latest attack was reported last week. As Jews were celebrating the festival holiday of Sukkot, a hacker group calling itself “Team System Dz” attacked the website of a South Florida synagogue, redirecting visitors to a page with messages expressing support for the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
ADL’s security alert urges synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions to ensure their websites are secure and important online data, such as membership lists, is protected behind secure firewalls.
“Jewish websites in the U.S. have become a common target for hacker groups in the Arab and Muslim world,” said Oren Segal, Director of ADL’s Center on Extremism. “While past hacking efforts against Jewish institutions have mainly focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the more recent attacks are being carried out in the name of the Islamic State.”
The attack on the synagogue server in Florida was just one of a series of incidents reported in 2014. Jewish synagogues in Houston and Pennsylvania also have been targeted. And those foreign-based hacker groups taking responsibility for the attacks are vowing to strike again.
“Team System Dz,” for one, has bragged about its “hacks of Jewish websites especially the website of the Miami Temple” on its Facebook page. The apparently Algeria-based group is now threatening additional attacks against American and Israeli websites.
Other hacker groups such as “aljyyosh” (“the armies” in Ara­bic) claim to have hacked into per­sonal infor­ma­tion belong­ing to Amer­i­can Jews and Israelis and pro­vided instruc­tions on how to hack into such per­sonal infor­ma­tion on their var­i­ous online forums.

The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.  Follow us on Twitter: @ADL_News

Providing books to Jaffa preschoolers makes Israel stronger

The children at the Arabic-speaking Ofek preschool in Jaffa spent a lot of time this past year thinking about a mouse named Samsoum, the character in a picture book all the kids have read at home with help from their parents.  

In class, the kids did a range of Samsoum-related projects inspired by the book “Samsoum the Mouse” by Jahil Khazaal, about a field mouse who relaxes while the other field mice gather food for the winter, but who later warms the hearts of the worker mice with his colorful stories. 

The children discussed the different emotions portrayed in the book. They also learned that every creature has a role to play in the community — and that food for the soul can be as important as food for the stomach. In the process, the children fell in love with the book.  

Throughout Israel, 45,000 Arab children in government preschools read “Samsoum the Mouse” as part of a reading-readiness program called Maktabat al-Fanoos (Lantern Library). The program began in January and is modeled after Sifriyat Pijama, which for the past five years has distributed children’s books in Hebrew to hundreds of thousands of Jewish preschoolers. Sifriyat Pijama is a sister program to the popular PJ Library Jewish family engagement program in North America, both founded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Massachusetts. 

Lantern Library, created by the Ministry of Education in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and San Diego-based Price Philanthropies Foundation, provided four books that the children took home and treasured. During the 2014-15 school year, the plan is to provide eight books to children in all government kindergartens and pre-kindergartens — 80,000 children in all.  

“As people who care about Israel and about the future of Israel, we feel it’s very important to help improve the lives of the Arab citizens of this country,” said Robert Price, president of Price Philanthropies Foundation, explaining his family foundation’s long-term involvement in the Arab community and the decision to be a partner in Lantern Library.

Culturally appropriate and with a strong storyline conducive to discussions on values and emotions, the books encourage parents and children to lay the groundwork for reading. As with books in the Hebrew-speaking effort, the Arabic books are chosen by a selection committee composed of experts in child development, children’s literature and preschool education. 

On the occasion of a visit by the Price family to Ofek, Keefah Masri Bassel, who teaches the 3- and 4-year-olds, said the program has transformed her classroom. 

“The first time I held one of the books, I began to dream that every child would have a shelf in their room reserved for their books,” Bassel said.  

A week later, the teacher invited the parents to the school, where she taught them how to create a library corner at home. The parents helped the children transform T-shirts into book bags and create “This Library Belongs to …” signs.   

When the children went outside for breakfast, a speech-language expert discussed with the parents ways to cope with the differences between spoken and written Arabic, and how to best engage the children — for example, allowing them to retell the story in their own words. Together, they explored the parents’ guide at the back of the book. 

Galina Vromen, executive director of the Grinspoon Foundation in Israel, said the Arabic-language program presented the organizers with some unique challenges. One of them is the dearth of quality Arabic children’s books that are accessible to the Israeli market. 

Vromen said the program “is largely dependent on what’s produced here in Israel, Jordan and Egypt” and noted that, due to political unrest, the annual Egyptian book fair, once the largest Arabic fair in the world, has been discontinued. Turmoil also has affected children’s book production in other nations, including Syria and Iraq. 

Because of the Arab boycott of all things Israeli, some Arab publishers have refused to sell reprint rights to Israeli publishers, who repackage the books, with a parents’ guide, for the program. That’s one reason the program has an interest in supporting the local Arab-Israeli publishing industry, which clearly benefits from a sale of 45,000 copies, whether the book is an original or reprinted.  

“We want strong readers, so we need locally made books,” Vromen said, adding that “there’s tremendous excitement” about the program in the Arab sector from publishers, teachers and parents. 

These same teachers and parents say the literacy program is particularly important for Arab children because it introduces them to formal written Arabic, which is different from spoken Arabic, at an early age.  

“Our goal is to encourage reading readiness with exposure to classical Arabic,” said Vicky Glazer, the supervisor of Jaffa preschools. 

Fatma Abu Ahmed Kassem, national supervisor of preschools for the Arab sector, said the program’s emphasis on interaction with adults “is critical to learning. Reading books offers an opportunity for quality adult interaction with children at home and in the classroom.”

The program, Kassem said, “promotes and enhances a culture of expression and discussion, and raises the awareness of language and enriches language use. Exposing children to a variety of literary works of Arab literature and culture as well as world literature encourages children to become curious and enthusiastic readers.”

Small steps on NewGround for Muslims and Jews

On Saturday night, I joined 250 or so of my fellow Muslim and Jewish Angelinos at a storytelling event hosted by Mack Sennett Studios and sponsored by NewGround, an organization working to “replace the current atmosphere of mutual suspicion among Jews and Muslims” with a feeling of trust, partnership, and cooperation. At first, I thought the evening presented a missed opportunity. The performers were sincere and articulate, but most of them did not tell stories about “Standing Up for the Other,” as the title of the program promised. Rather, they told stories about friends or family members who were supportive of them in some way. Nice, but not the direct confrontation of conflict I was expecting. I was hoping we’d all be asked to wrestle with our assumptions, discuss politics, pave a grassroots way toward world peace.

I was nervous when I walked in the door, but largely because I’m anxious around large groups of strangers, even if they are all smiling at me. I relaxed when I realized we weren’t there to size each other up for “mutual suspicion,” and I also realized: we are the choir. Most folks willing to show up to an interfaith exchange don’t need preaching about the value of diversity and dialogue. It was all quite pleasant, but still, seemed purposeless. If we weren’t going to tackle anything serious, what was the point?

But then something shifted for me during a conversation with a young documentary filmmaker named Mustafa. We immediately connected as artists, and I asked him to teach me something in Arabic. He thought for a second and said, “iftah elbaab” which means “open the door.” I smiled. He’s got it, I thought. That’s exactly what we are doing here. But still, I wondered if it was enough.

We started talking about the theme of the evening, “otherness,” and we agreed that acknowledging subtle forms of resistance to the unfamiliar can have a transformative effect, so I decided to take a risk and admit something uncomfortable, thinking it might open the door to the kind of substantive engagement I was seeking. I told him about the immediate, visceral reaction I had to my German-speaking roommate when I moved into the dorms as a college freshman many years ago. I was a Jewish student with mostly Jewish friends, and it was agitating to hear my new friend speak what I considered to be the language of the enemy. I never even realized I equated “German” with “Nazi” until living with her forced me to interrogate my views.

“Oh, so did you avoid the showers when you knew she’d be there?” asked a girl who had joined my conversation with Mustafa. She saw the look on my face and said, “just a little Holocaust humor.” I do not have a sense of humor about the genocide of any group, least of all my own people. Whatever I expected about the evening, it certainly wasn’t that I’d be offended by a fellow, female Jew and feel such easy fellowship with a Muslim man. Mustafa seemed to share my discomfort with her joke, but he didn’t react to it as I did, so in some way, his presence made it easier for the three of us to acknowledge that humor is one of those means of testing a sociopolitical pulse. It can cross boundaries and open doors, at least to conversations as some form of evolution.

The friendly, relaxed environment made it easy to approach strangers and easy to ask questions. I was surprised that people were so willing to discuss former notions of prejudice. As I walked around the room listening to many of the Muslims greet each other with “As-Salaam Alaikum,” I recognized a subtle feeling inside of otherness, reinforced by my growing awareness that I was wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt around several women who were covered in fabric from head to toe. My Jewish friend suggested that I put on my sweater so as not to offend. While I’d certainly observe custom and protocol at a religious service or while visiting a Muslim community, at this event, I opted for my own comfort. I wondered how the Muslim women dressed like me regarded the women in traditional garb. Do their different choices signal different values? I hesitated to ask, but next time I will.

While we didn’t really learn to “Stand Up for the Other,” it’s worth acknowledging small steps on NewGround. We had snacks and conversations, took some photos, joked about snapchat, heard some good stories. And it felt really good. I connected with many people I’d like to see again. I didn’t hold back and wait to be invited into discussions; I extended my hand and was warmly received every time. That in itself expands my sense of home here in Los Angeles, and makes me more likely to reach out to others, less likely to judge, more likely to ask questions, less likely to make assumptions, and more likely to feel connected, receptive, and optimistic.

Casual, social interactions can seem less significant than intense political debate, but they have a powerful, cumulative effect. They can replace rigid attitudes with curiosity and increasing comfort. The organizers deliberately avoided force-fed agendas and opted instead to help us approach each other as people first rather than as representatives of difference. NewGround has been named by our Governor as 2013’s “Faith-based Organization of the Year,” and since this year’s turnout was twice last year’s, I’m confident that 2014 will open the door for many more of us to enter the conversation.

Report: Israel bombed Syrian weapons convoy bound for Lebanon

Israel Air Force jets bombed a convoy carrying advanced missiles from Syria to Lebanon, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported.

The Arabic language Al-Jarida daily cited an unnamed Israeli security official as saying the missiles were intended for the terrorist group Hezbollah.  The report, which has not been confirmed by another independent news source, did not say if the attack was in Syrian or Lebanese territory, only that it was on the border of the two countries.

The Lebanese media have not reported on any recent Israeli strikes.

Reports of heavy Israeli drone activity and over flights of Lebanon were reported over the weekend.

Israel was accused earlier this year of bombing weapons warehouses and convoys in Syria of arms meant for Hezbollah.

Producer of anti-Muslim film released from L.A. prison

The producer of the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims,” which sparked violence in the Middle East and elsewhere, was released from a Los Angeles prison.

Mark Basseley Youssef, 55, of Los Angeles, was released to a halfway house to serve the remaining weeks of his prison term. He was sentenced  to prison last November for  violating his probation in a 2010 check-kiting case.

Youssef will leave the halfway house on Sept. 26, but will be on probation for the next four years, according to Reuters.

An Egyptian-born Coptic Christian also known as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, Youssef is believed to have uploaded to YouTube a 14-minute trailer of “The Innocence of Muslims” translated into Arabic, despite not being allowed to use the Internet without permission from his probation officer.

The crudely produced film ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad touched off a torrent of anti-American demonstrations in Arab and Muslim countries. But links between the film and the assault on U.S. diplomatic posts in the Libyan city of Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the ambassador, Christopher Stevens, were debunked.

In the wake of the initial violence following the release of the trailer, two media outlets interviewed a California man who gave his name as Sam Bacile and reportedly said he had produced, directed and written “The Innocence of Muslims,” and that Jewish donors had bankrolled the production.

But his claims, which included that he was an Israeli American in the real estate business, quickly came under scrutiny and were found to be untrue. It was later revealed that Bacile was Youssef.

West Bank Hebrew language study is growing

Listening to Hebrew songs is officially frowned upon by many West Bank residents, but interest in learning the language of the “other society that is very close but still far away” is clearly picking up among Palestinians wishing to understand Israelis. One example is the Mohammed bin Rashid Bin Al-Maktoum School in Al-Bireh, a town adjacent to Ramallah, where many students in grades 7 through 10 are opting to study the Hebrew language.

A somewhat strategic explanation for this little-known fact was offered by Samer Nimer, a director of the private school, who told The Media Line that, “We want to know what is going on in Israel first hand, not what others are saying about Israel.” Perhaps even more surprising is Nimer’s revelation that “we use the curriculum issued by the Israeli Ministry of Education.”

Interaction between Palestinians and Israelis is often limited to conflict-related situations, such as Palestinians passing through Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank; or Palestinian laborers who are permitted to work inside of Israel finding themselves in need of a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew. 

For these reasons, the administration of the 600-pupil school, considered to be conservative with boys and girls separated, made the decision to offer Hebrew as the third language, after Arabic and English. “We found support from the parents who thanked us,” Nimer explained. “Some parents said they preferred their children to learn French, but we think the use of French is limited here,” he said.

According to Nimer, there are presently around 120 Hebrew students in the school, including eighth-grader Lana [her name is changed for her safety], who is in her second year of study. Her mother told The Media Line that, “This is the language of the enemy, and it’s important for us to learn it.” Nevertheless, Lana herself offers a more optimistic outcome from her Hebrew study. She said, “I visit Israeli websites and try to read. Also, on school trips, we try to speak with Israelis in Hebrew.”

Although Hebrew is mostly viewed as a practical language, many Palestinians apparently agree with Lana’s mother, and are interested in following Israeli affairs in order to gain an insight of what is going on in Israel.

The language courses are not the only indication of the Palestinians’ interest in wanting to know first-hand what is going on inside of Israel. The Palestinian Ma’an satellite television channel presents a weekly show that translates reports from Israeli media; and three daily newspapers printed in the West Bank carry a regular section of articles and op-eds translated into Arabic after having been published in the Israeli press.

Maher Safi, a private sector employee, not only agrees with this approach, but wants public schools to follow suit as well. He told The Media Line that, “There is a saying that ‘One who wants to avoid the other nation’s harm should know their language.’ I think the Palestinian Authority should teach Hebrew as part of its curriculum.”

Jihad Zakarneh, the Director General of Curriculums in the Palestinian Ministry of Education, explained that the PA schools do not teach Hebrew because Hebrew is not a language that is used outside of Israel, and therefore, “the demand for this language is not high. Students who want to study abroad seek German, French, or Russian language because it will help them,” according to Zakarneh.

For those who want to learn Hebrew, there are options. There are some 200 language and translation centers operating in the West Bank and the PA’s Education Ministry grants them permits to teach Hebrew. “Hebrew is not a forbidden language, but most of those who wish to learn it are workers in the private sector who have to deal with Israelis in their work.” He explained that “there is a demand for Hebrew among those who work in imports and exports, finance, insurance and customs.

Shorouq Mraqatan, a 30-year old public employee from Hebron who works for the Palestinian Standards Institute, has been studying Hebrew for 6 months, claiming that while it’s out of necessity, he enjoys it. “I need to know Hebrew to read the Israeli standards, and I also like to learn about Israel,” he told The Media Line.

The PA’s Zakarneh added that the decision by the Hamas-controlled education ministry in the Gaza Strip to offer Hebrew to its students was justified by need. “Gazans need Hebrew as their only outlet to the outer world.  Our students in the West Bank don’t need Hebrew.”

The PA’s Education Ministry has no estimate of the number of private schools teaching Hebrew on the West Bank because such programs are not supervised. But they make the point that “a considerable number of those who know or teach Hebrew have learned the language during the time they were imprisoned by Israel.

Two men attack Jewish schoolboy in Paris

Two men hit and threatened a Jewish schoolboy at a Paris bus stop, according to the security unit of France’s Jewish community, SPCJ.

The two men, both in their 40s, hit the 12-year-old boy with a belt on Oct. 22 and told him to remain silent, SPCJ wrote in a statement on Wednesday. The boy was waiting for a bus to take him to school.

The attackers also hurled insults in Arabic at the boy, the report said. The incident, which SPCJ defined as “an anti-Semitic act of aggression,” took place in northeast Paris, in the city's 19th arrondissement.

The parents have filed a complaint with the police and with the SPCJ, the unit’s report said.

In the first eight months of 2012, SPCJ counted 386 of what it calls “anti-Semitic acts,” the organization said in a report published earlier this month. It was a 45 percent increase compared to the corresponding period in 2011, when SPCJ counted 266 such incidents. SPCJ said the figures correlated to official data by French authorities.

Of the incidents this year, 101 were “violent actions,” SPCJ said, including the slaying of four people at a school in Toulouse on March 19 by Mohammed Merah, a Muslim extremist. The attack triggered “an explosion” of anti-Semitic attacks, SPCJ said. Most other incidents documented were cases of intimidation, the report said.

Anti-Semitic messages left on Jewish Agency Facebook page

The Jewish Agency for Israel's Facebook page was inundated with hundreds of explicitly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic messages.

The attacks earlier this month were confirmed Thursday by the Jewish Agency. The messages were deleted soon after they were discovered, it said.

The attack of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic messages coincided with the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which began on Oct. 6, 1973. Many of the message writers were Egyptian, according to the Jewish Agency.

The messages included swastikas, violent imagery and anti-Semitic messages in Arabic, English and poor Hebrew. One message read, “WE ARE COMING FOR U … JUST WAIT THE EGYPTIAN HOLOCAUST COMING VERY SOOOOOON.” Another read, “May Allah help the Mujahideen in Palestine kill and destroy your nations, your people, your army.” Some of the messages referred to the war as an Egyptian “victory.”

Anti-Semitic attacks in France rise 45 percent this year

France has seen a 45 percent increase in anti-Semitic attacks reported through August from the corresponding period a year ago.

In one of three recent incidents reported by SPCJ, the security unit of France’s Jewish communities, unidentified assailants near Paris injured a Jewish woman in her sukkah on Oct. 5.

SPCJ has counted 386 of what it calls “anti-Semitic acts” from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 this year, the organization said in a report Wednesday. In the corresponding period of 2011, SPCJ counted 266 such incidents. SPCJ said the figures correlated to official data by French authorities.

Of the incidents this year,101 were “violent actions,” SPCJ said, including the slaying of four people at a school in Toulouse on March 19 by Mohamed Merah, a Muslim extremist. The attack triggered “an explosion” of anti-Semitic attacks, SPCJ said. Most other incidents documented were cases of intimidation, the report said.

The attack on the sukkah near Paris occurred as 10 members of a Jewish family were eating dinner in their garden in Seine St. Denis, an eastern suburb of Paris. The family ignored a group of men who had shouted obscenities at them from the street, according to the SPCJ report, before the men pelted them with rocks. One of the rocks struck a woman in her back and caused her minor injuries. None of the children present, including an 8-month-old baby, were hurt.

According to the SPCJ report, the assailants shouted at the family in Arabic, as well as in French, saying “Dirty Jews, return home,” “we’ll get you” and “we’ve had enough of you, dirty Jews.” They fled before police reached the scene.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 9, a 19-year-old Jewish male was lightly wounded by a metal ball that was fired at him as he was leaving a Paris synagogue.

Also discovered on  that day in Avignon, a city in the south of France near Marseille, unidentified assailants destroyed a Star of David that was imprinted on the exterior wall of a Jewish cemetery and chiseled off the word “Jewish.”

Iran’s Ahmadinejad says election, not war, solution for Syria

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said a national dialogue leading to elections was the way towards a solution to Syria's crisis, in remarks broadcast on Tuesday.

He told Al Jazeera television that war was not the way forward, adding: “There is another way to find a solution, it is national, mutual understanding in order for there to be elections in the future.”

The interview was translated from Persian into Arabic by Al Jazeera.

Iran is a main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been battling an uprising against his rule. Opposition activists say 30,000 people have been killed in the 18-month-old revolt, which has grown into a full-scale civil war.

“Syria's case is very complex and at the same time is a very important one,” Ahmadinejad said. “Should I follow those demanding war? I don't think the language of war is a good language.

“There must be a different way to solve problems … I have opposed war, but those who want things to be settled through dialogue are a minority and perhaps the majority are in favour of going ahead in the context of war.”

Ahmadinejad, who made similar comments in a separate news conference in Tehran, said Iran had long had good relations with Syria. He said Tehran had built dams, roads and power stations in Syria and Iranian pilgrims were frequent visitors to the Arab country.

Tel Aviv council rejects proposal to put Arabic on city emblem

The Tel Aviv City Council rejected a proposal to include Arabic on the city’s official emblem.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said during the council meeting Monday that Arabs comprise only 4 percent of the city’s population, according to Ynet.

Councilman Ahmed Mashrawi had initiated the proposal, saying the unification of Tel Aviv and Jaffa in 1950 has led to the blotting out of Arabic history in the city.

“The Arab community of Jaffa is today a minority in the city, but it has a glorious history in Jaffa and it is fitting that it be honored by putting the name in Arabic on the municipality logo,” Mashrawi said last week, according to The Jerusalem Post.

The logo currently features Hebrew and English.

Synagogue vandalized with Arabic sayings

A synagogue in central Israel was defaced with Arabic graffiti.

The vandalism was discovered June 22 on a synagogue in central Israel’s Moshav Maor.

The graffiti was from an Islamic prayer and read “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.”

It came days after a West Bank mosque near Ramallah was torched and graffiti protesting the upcoming evacuation of several apartment buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood of the West Bank settlement of Beit El was painted on its walls in what is being considered a price tag attack.

Netanyahu chats on Facebook in Arabic

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a live Facebook chat with web surfers from the Arab world.

Netanyahu responded in Arabic to questions from people from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, the Gulf States, northern Africa and the Palestinian Authority, as well as from Israeli Arabs.

The questions and answers were translated by Ofir Gendelman, the prime minister’s Arabic media adviser.

In response to a question about the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians, Netanyahu said that “I am ready at this moment to go to Ramallah and begin talks with Abu Mazen without preconditions,” referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “To my regret, Abu Mazen is not prepared to come to my office. I think that this is a mistake.”

Other topics addressed included the Iranian nuclear threat, the Arab Spring and Saudi Arabia.

David Suissa: A King’s Speech

To read a response to this essay by Jordan Elgrably, click here.

Read this article in Arabic here.

If I were advising the president or prime minister of Israel, I would suggest he go on Al Jazeera this week and deliver this message to the people of the Middle East:

Dear Neighbors:

What is happening right now in our region is historic. You, the great people of the Middle East, are rewriting history. You are rising up and saying, “Enough! Enough with oppression, enough with humiliation. We want opportunity, freedom and human rights.” Young and old, men and women, religious and secular, you have risen up as one and demanded a better future.

We, the people of Israel, want to be part of that better future.

It is not a coincidence that we are descendants of the same father, Abraham. Although we might be in conflict now, this was not always the case. We had our golden eras when we cooperated and respected each other like the biblical cousins that we are. We cherish to this day stories of the great Jewish and Muslim philosophers engaging each other in search of higher truths.

One of those higher truths is that we have so much in common as children of the same God and as members of the human race. We all want to laugh, provide for our families, lead meaningful lives, fall in love and be happy. Those are not Jewish or Muslim or Christian ideals — they are human ones, and they can bring us together.

Think of how infinitely proud and happy our God would be to see His Muslim and Jewish children end their conflicts and live in harmony.

Yes, Israel has made its share of mistakes. The challenges we face have humbled us. In truth, it hasn’t been easy to build a nation while constantly having to defend ourselves. Sometimes, this has brought out the worst in us and made us look like we care only about our own security. We deeply regret the displacement of so many people that occurred in 1948, when we had to defend ourselves against invading armies after the Arab rejection of U.N. Resolution 181, which partitioned the land for two states. 

We’re human. It does hurt to feel unwelcomed in a neighborhood we have called home for 3,000 years.

We have made peace with two of our neighbors, but that is not enough. We have made further offers and even evacuated settlements, but to no avail. Because our Palestinian neighbors are deeply divided between Gaza and the West Bank, we fear we don’t have the strong partner we need to make a deal — and that further evacuations might lead to more violence against us.

Despite our fears, we still yearn for peace. But it is not enough to just meet and “negotiate directly.” If both sides don’t bring to the table good faith and a willingness to compromise, our hopes will only be false hopes.

The fact that our Palestinian neighbors refused to negotiate last year for the first nine months of our 10-month settlement freeze was not a sign of good faith. Neither are their efforts to undermine us in international forums. Israel has already demonstrated its ability to make painful compromises in all areas, including settlements. Now is not the time for either side to demand preconditions that belong to the negotiating table. Now is the time to sit down in good faith and try to resolve our differences. We say to our Palestinian neighbors: We are ready to begin tomorrow morning. Are you?

We bring the same message to all our neighbors of the Middle East: We are ready to meet tomorrow morning to begin the journey of reconciliation. We dream not only of peace but of a future in which we would all enjoy the fruits of peace. We dream of the day when delegations from Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon and others will visit Israel and see that we are not the enemy, but a friend-in-waiting.

We can cooperate in trade, commerce and culture. We can share our technological and medical innovations to improve quality of life. We can enjoy each other’s movies, poems, stories, music and food. Our rabbis can talk about God with your imams. In short, we can create a new golden era of mutual respect and cooperation.

We might disagree, even on some important things, but one of the great human values is not to allow disagreements to turn into animosity and violence.

Beyond our own disagreements, we see too much pain today on the faces of the millions of Arabs rising up throughout the Middle East. We urge all leaders to honor their people by trusting that freedom, dignity and human rights will lead to a better future. 

Israel would love nothing more than to have free and democratic neighbors, and we want to be your partner in this momentous endeavor. Cynics will claim that this partnership is impossible — that you have been taught only to hate Jews and Israel, and that it will take a hundred years, if not more, before we can reconnect as the children of Abraham.

Maybe so, but I have no doubt that if our patriarch Abraham were alive today, he would hold our hands and bless us. He would bless us that we should find the strength to transcend our animosities and embark on our journey of reconciliation.

And he would remind us that Allah is with us, watching, hoping we will succeed.

Shalom and As-Salamu Alaykum. 

David Suissa is a branding consultant and the founder of OLAM magazine. For speaking engagements and other inquiries, he can be reached at {encode=”suissa@olam.org” title=”suissa@olam.org”} or davidsuissa.com.

In Arabic

خطاب الملوك
كتب: ديفيد سويسا
لو أن بمقدوري إعطاء النصيحة للرئيس أو لرئيس الوزراء الإسرائيلي لنصحتهم بأن يظهروا علي قناة الجزيرة هذا الأسبوع لتوصيل الرسالة الآتية إلي شعوب منطقة الشرق الأوسط:
جيراننا الأعزاء:
أن ما يحث في منطقتنا الآن لهو شئ تاريخي. أنتم – أيها الشعوب العظيمة بهذه المنطقة – تعيدون كتابة التاريخ حيث أنكم تنهضون ضد الظلم والإهانة وتقولون كفي. تقولون أنكم تريدون الفرصة, والحرية , وحقوق الإنسان. فقد كانت انتفاضتكم جميعا – رجال ونساء, شيوخا وشباب, متدينون وعلمانيون – نهضة رجل واحد في سبيل الحصول علي مستقبل أفضل. 

إن شعب إسرائيل يريد أن يكون جزء من هذا المستقبل.

إنه ليس بمحض الصدفة أن نكون جميعا ورثة أب واحد وهو إبراهيم, وعلي الرغم من وجود خلافات بيننا الآن, فلم يكن الخلاف هوة السمة الغالبة في علاقاتنا عل الدوام, فلقد عشنا أجمل الأوقات عندما احترمنا بعضنا البعض وتعاوننا مع بعضنا البعض كما يجب أن يكون الحال لأبناء العم. ومازلنا نعتز بقصص الفلاسفة المسلمون واليهود العظام حتى الآن, فكانوا يتجادلون مع بعضهم البعض في سبيل الوصول إلي الحقائق العليا.
أحد هذه الحقائق العليا هي أنة لدينا الكثير من الأشياء المشتركة كوننا نعبد نفس الإله, وأيضا كوننا جميعا أعضاء في نفس الجنس البشري. أننا جميعا نريد أن نضحك, أن نحب, ونكون سعداء, فليست هذه مجرد قيم يهودية أو مسيحية أو حتى إسلامية, ولكنها قيم إنسانية تستطيع أن تقربنا من بعضنا البعض.
عليكم أن تتخيلوا حجم السعادة التي سيكون عليها الخالق عندما يري أولاده المسلمون واليهود يضعون نهاية لصراعاتهم ويعيشون في سلام.
صحيح أن إسرائيل لها نصيبها من الأخطاء, ولكن المشاكل التي نواجهها قد غيرت فينا. في حقيقة الأمر انه كان من الصعب بناء الدولة في الوقت الذي كنا نصارع فيه الزمن للدفاع عن أنفسنا, ففي بعض الأحيان تسبب هذا في إخراج أسوء ما فينا وأظهرنا وكأننا لا نبالي بأي شئ إلا أمننا القومي. إننا في غاية الأسف لتشريد عدد كبير من الناس في 1948, عندما اضطررنا لأن ندافع عن أنفسنا ضد الجيوش العربية الغازية بعد رفض العرب لقرار الأمم المتحدة رقم 181، والذي قسم الأرض إلي دولتين.
نحن بشر في نهاية الأمر, ولكن إحساسنا أننا غير مرحب بنا في المنطقة اعتبرناها وطننا علي مدار الثلاث ألاف سنة الأخيرة لهو شئ شديد الألم.
لقد عقدنا سلام مع أثنين من جيراننا, ولكن هذا ليس كافيا. لقد قدمنا عروضا أخري وقمنا بتفكيك مستوطنات في قطاع غزة, والضفة الغربية, ولكن لم يأتي كل هذا بالثمار المرجوة. جل الذي نخشاه الآن هو أن تؤدي اخلالات أخري في المستقبل لعنف أكثر ضدنا.
الآن كلنا أمل أن بحول الله أن تتحول كل هذه الشكوك إلي ثقة ويقين. ولكن الحقيقة هي أننا لا نستطيع خداع أنفسنا بتصديق أننا اقتربنا من إنهاء عقود من عدم الثقة المتبادلة بهذه السهولة, فلم يعد كافيا أن نجلس ونتفاوض بشكل مباشر, فإذا لم تسبقنا الثقة إلي طاولة التفاوض, سوف تتحول أمالنا إلي أوهام.
حقيقة الأمر هي أن رفض جيراننا الفلسطينيين للتفاوض خلال التسعة شهور الأولي من فترة تجميد الاستيطان التي امتدت لعشرة شهور في العام الماضي كانت إشارة إلي عدم الثقة, ويأتي في هذا الصدد أيضا المحاولات العديدة التي قام بها الفلسطينيون لتقويض قدرتنا في المحافل الدولية.
حتى الآن استطاعت إسرائيل إثبات قدرتها علي عمل تنازلات مؤلمة في كافة المجالات بما فيها الاستيطان. هذا يدفعني إلي القول بأن الوقت الحاضر ليس مناسبا لأن يضع أي من الأطراف شروطاً مسبقة لعملية التفاوض, ولكن من الأجدى أن نجلس سويا بثقة كي نصل إلي حلول لخلافاتنا. إننا نقول لجيراننا الفلسطينيين أننا علي أتم استعداد لبدء التفاوض من الغد, فهل الحال لديهم كذالك؟
إننا نحمل نفس الرسالة إلي جيراننا الآخرين في منطقة الشرق الأوسط, نقول لهم أننا علي أتم استعداد لبدء رحلة المصالحة غدا. نحن لا نحلم فقط بالسلام، ولكن أيضا نحلم بمستقبل نستمتع فيه سويا بثمار السلام. نحلم بيوم تقوم فيه وفود من ليبيا، مصر, تونس, اليمن, البحرين, لبنان, والجزائر بزيارة إسرائيل ويروا بأنفسهم أننا لسنا أعداء لهم ولكننا أصدقاء انتظرناهم طويلا.
بمقدورنا التعاون في المجالات التجارية والثقافية. يمكننا أن نتبادل إبداعاتنا التكنولوجية, والطبية حتى يتسنى لنا تحسين جودة الحياة. يمكننا الاستمتاع بإبداعاتهم في مجال السينما, الموسيقي, الشعر, الرواية, والطعام. يستطيع حاخاماتنا الصلاة بجانب أئمتكم.
سوف نختلف دائما علي بعض الأشياء, ولكن المبدأ الإنساني الهام هو ألا نعطي خلافاتنا الفرصة أن تتحول إلي عداوة أو عنف.
وبعيدا عن خلافاتنا, هناك الكثير من الألم في العالم الآن, نري هذا الألم علي وجوه الملايين من العرب الذين انتفضوا في كافة أنحاء الشرق الأوسط. إننا ندعو كل القادة إلي احترام شعوبهم بالانحياز إلي الحرية, والكرامة, وحقوق الإنسان.
إن إسرائيل لا تحب شي أكثر من وجود جيران عندهم ديمقراطية, ونريد أن نكون شركائكم في هذا المسعى. سوف يقول الكثيرون أن الشراكة هذه شئ مستحيل وأنكم تعلمتم فقط أن تكرهوا دولة إسرائيل واليهود, إن أمامنا مائة عام علي الأقل حتى يتوحد أبناء إبراهيم.
ربما يكون هذا صحيحا, ولكني كلي ثقة بأنة إذا كان أبونا إبراهيم حيا الآن سوف يمسك بأيدينا ويباركنا جميعا. سوف يباركنا لقدرتنا علي تخطي العداوة والشروع في رحلة المصالحة.
سوف يذكرنا إبراهيم أن الله يشاهدنا ويتمني لنا النجاح.
السلام عليكم

Some Arab conspiracy theorists seeing WikiLeaks-Israel link

Unless you’re a reader of Islamist websites, you’d probably be surprised to learn that the WikiLeaks trove of U.S. diplomatic cables is an Israeli conspiracy.

Wonder why there was so much material about Arab regimes petitioning the United States to contain Iran’s nuclear program? How about why there was conspicuously little in the trove of data that was embarrassing to Israel?

It’s because WikiLeaks founder and director Julian Assange struck a deal with Israel and the “Israel lobby” to withhold documents that might embarrass the Jewish state—at least that’s what Al Manar, the Hezbollah-run media outlet, and Al Haqiqa, which is affiliated with a Syrian opposition group, are writing. The conspiracy theories are percolating as well on far-left and far-right websites.

“Why [did] the hundreds of thousands of American classified documents leaked … not contain anything that may embarrass the Israeli government?” asked a Dec. 8 story on Indymedia UK, an independent online news organization. “The answer appears to be a secret deal struck between Wikileaks … [and] Israeli officials, which ensured that all such documents were ‘removed’ before the rest were made public.”

Israeli officials haven’t even bothered to respond to the allegations.

“We don’t comment on such ludicrous claims” was how Yoni Peled, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, put it. But the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement last week detailing some of the rumors and denouncing them as conspiracy theories cooked up by Israel’s enemies.

Comparing it to persistent rumors that Israel was behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman called the theories “yet another manifestation of the Big Lie against Jews and Israel.”

The “WikiLeaks affair has given new life to the old conspiracy theories of underhanded Jewish and Israeli involvement in an event with significant repercussions for the U.S. and many nations around the world,” Foxman said.

Ben Cohen, associate communications director for the American Jewish Committee and an expert on anti-Semitism, said the conspiracy theorists haven’t gotten far, even in the Arab world.

“I’ve seen them, but not in any mainstream outlets,” Cohen told JTA. “Nor do I get the sense they have picked up huge traction.”

The story, however, also has surfaced in the United States, at the Arab Times and the Arab Voice, Arab-American community papers in Texas and New Jersey.

Cohen says it’s unlikely that Assange would strike any deal with Israel. WikiLeaks’ representative in Russia is a well-known Holocaust denier who spews anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli diatribes from his home in Sweden, often under aliases. His real name is Israel Shamir, a convert to Orthodox Christianity who claims to have been born Jewish.

“The idea that WikiLeaks is in league with the Israelis is hugely undermined by their relationship with Shamir,” Cohen said.

Sharif Nashashibi, chairman of Arab Media Watch, a London-based nonprofit that monitors the British media for its coverage of the Arab and Muslim world, says the articles he’s seen are all reprinting the same Indymedia story.

“This claim certainly isn’t prevalent in the Arab and Muslims worlds, and that’s most likely because it has no solid basis,” Nashashibi wrote JTA in an e-mail. He noted that Israel indeed has been mentioned in the cables leaked by WikiLeaks, contrary to what the conspiracy theorists claimed.

“Without any credible supporting evidence, this claim is merely a baseless conspiracy theory that doesn’t warrant serious attention from any concerned parties, including the ADL,” Nashashibi wrote.

Foxman says the reports do merit concern, irrespective of their veracity or number.

“These things feed on themselves and circulate and recirculate,” Foxman said, citing the persistence of the 9/11 conspiracy theory even a decade later and despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. “It’s not rational; it has political expediency. That’s what fuels it.”

VIDEO: Message from people of Israel to people of Gaza

Message to the residents of Gaza from the people of Israel

Danielle/Dahlia of Jewlicious.com narrates

Here is the English:

Dear Residents of Gaza,

This is a message from the people of Israel.
We do not hate you.
We do not rejoice in your suffering.
We are not happy when we see your children cry.
We allowed shipments of medical supplies to enter Gaza and some of your wounded are being treated in Israeli hospitals.
These are not the actions of an enemy.

We are your neighbors.
All we want is a life of peace and prosperity for your children, and ours.
Please urge your government to stop their violent actions against us.
Show to the world that you are committed to peace and a better life.
There is no glory in death; only widows and orphans, blood and tears.
For peace is not a dream but can become a reality.
We know you yearn for a better future.
Yet, acts of violence against your closest neighbor is not the appropriate way for a better life.

May God bless you.

Please excuse my flawed Arabic.

Thank you.

Questions linger about SF death of pro-Israel activist

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—Police said this week that the mysterious death of an outspoken pro-Israel activist appeared to be accidental, but friends and family of Dr. Daniel Kliman insist he was the victim of foul play.

“We almost expected something would happen to him at some point, given his activism and trips to Israel,” said Kliman’s brother, Jonathan. “We didn’t expect what seemed to have happened to him. It seems really odd, and I’m glad the investigations are continuing.”

Kliman’s body was discovered Dec. 1 at the bottom of an elevator shaft in the historic Sharon Building at 55 New Montgomery St. Apparently it had been there for six days.

Kliman, a 38-year-old internist who lived alone in Oakland, was supposed to leave for Israel on Thanksgiving, giving friends and family no reason to question his whereabouts.

As of Dec. 3, a San Francisco Police Department spokesman was saying that Kliman’s death appeared to have been an accident, citing police Inspector Matt Krimsky’s suggestion that Kliman died Nov. 25 after climbing out of an elevator stuck between the sixth and seventh floors.

That day, a surveillance camera recorded Kliman waiting for an elevator in the lobby. Authorities continue to analyze that footage, plus other evidence they obtained from the scene. An autopsy report is pending.

Kliman was taking classes at Pacific Arabic Resources on the seventh floor of the Sharon Building. It is unclear why he was in the building, as classes during the week of Thanksgiving had been canceled.

“A number of us find the circumstances of his death rather suspicious,” said Michael Harris, a longtime friend who helped found the advocacy group San Francisco Voice for Israel with Kliman. “Given that he was a relatively well-known public figure for Israel advocacy in the Bay Area, he would have people who strongly disagreed with the causes he stood up for.

“Two days before he’s going to Israel and [on] a day when there were no classes, why would he have been in the building?”

Jonathan Bernstein, the director of the Central Pacific Region of the Anti-Defamation League, said Dec. 3 that he had had several conversations with the San Francisco Police Department concerning the possible cause of Kliman’s death.

“[The police] clearly understood Dan’s background and how he was a recognizable figure in the Jewish community and was often out there demonstrating against anti-Israel demonstrations,” Bernstein said. “They understand why they need to look at this a little differently.”

Word of Kliman’s death spread quickly throughout the Zionist community in the Bay Area and beyond.

Harris said he was stunned to hear the news about Kliman, whom he met in 2003 when the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council rallied pro-Israel individuals to combat local anti-Zionist and anti-Israel protests.

A year later Harris, Kliman and a number of local activists formed San Francisco Voice for Israel. The group, an affiliate of the StandWithUs national Israel advocacy organization, was dedicated to publicly denouncing anti-Israel sentiment.

The passionate and take-charge Kliman designed and disseminated pro-Israel fliers and documented protests with a series of clips on YouTube.

“Dan had a much larger-than-life personality,” Harris said. “He was passionately committed to Israel. Without any question, he was the real driving force of San Francisco Voice for Israel.”

He added, “We would joke that Dan seemed to be somewhat incident-prone. He wouldn’t start a confrontation, but he wouldn’t back down from one either.”

Adamant about never owning a car, and very much against even riding in one—his father was killed in an automobile accident four years ago—Kliman would arrive at rallies throughout the Bay Area on his bicycle.

Harris called him a “bicycle activist” who was reluctant to take car rides from anyone. Before moving to the Bay Area, Kliman founded St. Louis Critical Mass, a monthly protest ride that aimed to draw attention to how unfriendly the city was to bicyclists.

During Bike Summer 1999, a huge celebration of bicycle culture, Kliman organized a post-ride Shabbat service in Duboce Park with prayer books and candles.

“Jews and non-Jews stood in a circle and sang L’cha Dodi,” recalled Katherine Roberts, who met Kliman when he traveled from Chicago to San Francisco for the bike event. “It was this wonderfully inclusive event, and incredibly unique and brilliant. It was the only Shabbat service I can remember.”

Roberts, a fellow bicycle activist, said she didn’t always agree with her good friend Kliman or his feelings toward Israel, but their differences never interfered with the friendship.

“If you have radical or philosophical differences, it usually causes a friction,” Roberts said. “I never had that with Dr. Dan. He was a wonderful person—the only Orthodox gay vegetarian bicycling doctor I knew. I was so impressed with his uniqueness.”

An active member of Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue near his home, Kliman attended Havdalah services regularly and always was involved when the temple had any pro-Israel programming.

A shaken Rabbi Judah Dardick said this week he still feels as if Kliman is going to walk through his synagogue’s doors.

“Dan was a very lively, alive and vibrant person,” Dardick said. “You really knew when he was in the room. To know he’s not going to be in the room anymore is a big shocker.”

On more than one occasion, Dardick asked Kliman to his home for Shabbat dinner. Dardick recalled that although Kliman found the meat on the table revolting, he still accepted the invitation.

“Dan said he never ate anything that ever had a mother,” Dardick said with a laugh. “He had a few causes that he fought for and cared about. He’s someone I learned a lot from.”

Funeral services will be held in Schenectady, N.Y., pending the arrival of Kliman’s body, according to Jonathan Kliman, who lives in Springfield, Mass.

Along with his brother, Kliman is survived by his mother, Edith, of Schenectady. Kliman was predeceased by his father, Gerald.

Shmuel of Arabia

It must have been quite a scene in that little courthouse in Jerusalem. Rav Qapah, a Yemenite Jew who sat on the Jerusalem Beit Din (court of law), was hearing a case involving a commercial dispute between a Jew and an Arab.

At one point, the beit din heard testimony from an Arab judge who was serving as a witness. Rav Qapah asked his first question in Arabic. The Arab judge did not answer. Rav Qapah asked again. The Arab judge just sat there, speechless.

Rav Qapah wondered if the Arab judge could not understand his Arabic. After a long pause, the Arab judge said no, that was not the problem. He was speechless because, as the story goes, Rav Qapah’s Arabic was so pure, so perfect, so luminous, the stunned Arab judge thought he was hearing the voice of the prophet Muhammad himself — from a Jew, no less.

That was many years ago. Today, here in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, Rav Shmuel Miller cracks up when he tells that story. He’s got a whole bunch of them, stories that speak to the ancient connection between Jews and the Arab language.

In fact, Rav Miller has more than stories. He’s an expert in Arabic. He can learn Torah in Arabic, and often does. In the pristine shul that he built in his backyard, he teaches his sons and others how to study Jewish texts in Arabic. If it were up to him, there’d be many more Jews learning Arabic.

It’s not obvious why this Jewish man would have a passion for a language that today is too often associated with suicide bombers and radical Islamists. Here is a French Orthodox rabbi who has studied at the top yeshivas in Europe; an expert in Talmud, philosophy and mysticism; a lover of Jews, Torah and the Hebrew language; a sofer who writes mezuzahs and Torah scrolls in perfect Hebrew calligraphy; and yet, when the subject of Arabic comes up, his eyes light up like he’s one of the kids at the Munchies candy store on Saturday night.

I know the emotional arguments. I’ve been hearing them for years from my parents, aunts, uncles and their friends who grew up in Morocco. They have nostalgia for the past. They love Arabic music, and they’re crazy about the language. It’s a little like my Ashkenazic friends who wax about the joys of Yiddish. There are words in the Judeo-Arab dialect spoken by my parents that light up the heart like no word in French or English can.

I remember this one word I was particularly fond of: “Shlemto.” If one of her kids would do something wrong, my mother would use that word to convey that “I really love this kid, but I really wish he wouldn’t do that, but at the same time, I want everyone to know how much I still love him even when he does something that really annoys me.”

That’s with one word. There are many others.

In the Morocco that I remember, Arabic was the daily language of emotion.

But what about for Rav Miller, a rabbi who was born and raised in France? His first language is French, then Hebrew. Where does his mad love for Arabic come from?

If you see him, you get some clues. There’s a regal, Lawrence of Arabia quality to him. Short beard. Piercing eyes. Always upright. He looks like he’d fit right in with the romantic mystics of the Middle Ages.

But beyond that, after hanging out with him for the better part of a year since I moved to the hood, and seeing him give classes at my place on everything from the patriarchs to Spinoza, I have a simpler explanation for his Arabian passions.

He loves Arabic because he loves Judaism.

Take his love affair with Maimonides. He wanted to read “The Guide to the Perplexed” in the language in which it was written, so he studied it in Arabic. He says this gave him a deeper, “more palpable” understanding of Jewish ideas. For example, the word in Arabic that Maimonides uses for the Hebrew daat (knowledge) is eidrak, which refers to a knowledge that you “apprehend” or “take in.” It is a union between the modrak, the one who understands, and the modrik, the one who is understood. Whereas the Hebrew daat denotes something external and impersonal, the Arab eidrak defines a knowledge that is more personal and contemplative, one that ultimately becomes part of you.

Similarly, by studying Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari in the original Arabic, Rav Miller got a more subtle take on the problematic notion that Jews are the “chosen people.” Looked at superficially, the idea of being “chosen” can easily offend other groups by suggesting racial superiority. In Arabic, however, the notion of the Hebrew segula (chosen) is more layered. The Arab term khassuss speaks to a one-to-one intimacy with God. In the original Arabic text of Rabbi Halevi, Jews are more likely to be the “particular, singular, private” people, rather than the more blunt “chosen” people. It’s about intimacy, not superiority.

How’s that for a disconnect? The language of Osama bin Laden and Hamas can teach the Jews some important subtleties about their own faith.

That does take a little getting used to.

Maybe that’s why Rav Miller has no illusions about Arabic classes ever catching on in the Jewish world. Of course, that won’t stop him from continuing to give his own classes to his inner circle, and from spending long nights poring through ancient Arab texts written by Jewish sages.

One thing he won’t do is talk about politics. That’s not his trip. He did make a slip the other day, however, when he made an offhand remark wondering what it would be like if Jewish leaders started talking to Arab leaders in Arabic.

I have no idea if that would help the peace process, but I am sure of one thing: More than a few Arabs would be left speechless.:::::::::::::::::

Left Coast peacemakers mourn 9/11 in many languages

Five years and 3,000 miles from the site of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the mournful strains of calls to prayer in Hebrew and Arabic open the Islamic Center of Southern California’s fourth annual commemoration of the attacks of Sept. 11.

The audience, dressed in saris, suits, skirts or slacks, bareheaded, or wearing head scarves, kippahs, kufis or turbans, gathered to pray together and to honor three religious leaders, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, who were to receive Peace Awards for their continuing work toward interfaith understanding.

One of the recipients, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica, told the group how terror had come close to his life.

Last July, he and his wife were awakened by a call from their teenage daughter to assure them that she was all right. She was in London and had gotten off a bus moments before it turned the corner and exploded.

Now a year later, the rabbi urged a recommitment to truly care for one another’s children, by walking together toward healing and understanding.

“If we can truly change the way we are with one another, we will create a world in which no one would consider dying for Judaism, Islam or any other religion and killing others in the process,” he said.

Comess-Daniels urged ongoing dialogue, a cause at the heart of the organizations that sponsored the Peace Award, the Wilshire Center Interfaith Council and the Interreligious Council of Southern California.

Jihad Turk, the director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center, also presented Peace Awards to the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guilbord of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and Dr. Hassan Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California.

In the keynote address, Dr. Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center, denounced extremists’ twisted theology of death and destruction, while urging vigilance in the preservation of democracy — the protection of civil liberties and the Constitution.

“It would be sad if we save the buildings and lose the soul,” he said.
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, rabbi emeritus of Temple Kol Tikvah, offered the first prayer. “To stand in the ruins of New York or Beirut, or the desolated areas of Palestine is to know that what doesn’t happen in the Middle East is happening here. We are talking to each other.”

The service continued with prayers from a Buddhist, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim, a Sikh and a Baha’i, and concluded with a musical offering from representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As the group adjourned for cheese, crackers, fruit and baklava, Turk explained that this memorial service is part of the Islamic Center’s mission.

“Muslim Americans are on the front line in the war against terror in that we are charged with making sure that our institutions do not become dens of hate speech and extremist rhetoric nor recruiting grounds for extremists, terrorists or anyone who would want to do this country harm,” he said.

As Turk was about to enter the prayer room, he was approached by Suzanne Rubin, a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; they had traveled together in March on an Abrahamic pilgrimage, visiting sacred sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

She invited him and his family to a break fast after Yom Kippur.

“That’s during Ramadan, so we’ll be breaking fast as well,” he replied. “That should work.”

Now Hear This!

The radio station plays hits by Jennifer Lopez and Madonna,
and invites listeners to comment on issues such as what they’d do if they
discovered a friend was taking drugs.

It’s the type of fare broadcast to young adults from Malibu
to Miami. Except the disc jockey is speaking Arabic, and the listeners are in
the Middle East.

Welcome to Radio Sawa, the brainchild of Norman J. Pattiz,
founder and chairman of the biggest radio network in the United States. Since
March of last year, Radio Sawa (which means together in Arabic) has been
broadcasting in Arabic around the clock in the Middle East, targeting listeners
under 30 years old, who make up 60 percent of the region’s population.

Radio Sawa broadcasts a mix of Western and Arabic pop music,
interspersed with news updates and analysis, interviews and opinion pieces.
Potentially, millions of listeners can access Radio Sawa via AM, FM and
shortwave frequencies, as well as on the Internet (www.radiosawa.com) and on
digital radio satellite channels.

Pattiz, the founder of Westwood One, helped conceptualize
and launch Radio Sawa as a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
The BBG oversees the government’s nonmilitary international broadcasting
services, such as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

While serving on a committee charged with reviewing the 61
different languages in which programs are broadcast, “it became obvious that
what we were doing in the Middle East was insignificant at best,” said the
59-year-old Southern California native. Once Pattiz pointed out the deficiency,
he soon found himself chairman of the BBG’s Middle East Committee.

Returning from a fact-finding mission to the region, he told
the U.S. House Committee on International Relations, “We have a vital mission
to counter misinformation and messages of hate regarding the United States by
broadcasting truthful news and information and by faithfully representing our
country’s government and culture.”

 Polling of young adults in Amman, Jordan, last October
appears to indicate that the audience is listening. Forty-three percent of
respondents tuned in to Radio Sawa, more than any other station, and 25 percent
considered it their top source for news. Both figures were higher than those
received for any other station.

“I don’t know that we ever expected to get to these kinds of
numbers, but we certainly never expected to get to them that quickly,” said
Pattiz, noting that the percentages have increased since the October poll.

Pattiz acknowledged that Radio Sawa’s impact is “less
strong” with lower socio-economic groups than with “the more educated and more
affluent and those who have more of a connection with Western values. But we
have to start someplace,” he said.

Pattiz said that by presenting news objectively, Radio Sawa
more accurately represents the United States and its culture than other
available sources. For example, he noted that Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV
station in Qatar, recently aired a two-hour interview of former Ku Klux Klan
leader David Duke.

“This is who they chose to interview as a representative of
the people of the United States of America — David Duke. If that isn’t bone
chilling,” Pattiz said.

Like news regarding the United States, coverage of other
areas, including Israel, is intended to be presented without bias. Radio Sawa’s
news director is Mouafac Harb, a former Washington bureau chief for the
international Arabic daily newspaper, Al Hayat.

According to its Web site, one of Radio Sawa’s guiding
principles is that “the long-range interests of the United States are served by
communicating directly in Arabic with the peoples of the Middle East by radio.”
Pattiz echoes this sentiment.

“We’re certainly better off communicating with a major part
of the world where our efforts have been woefully inadequate,” he said. “If
they’re going to hate us, let them know who they’re hating, rather than just
blindly following a path that’s laid out by their government-controlled media.”

The BBG plans to expand on Sawa’s success on a number of
fronts. Soon, specific regions will receive their own individual programming
streams, with news and features of local interest delivered in regional

A new Farsi-language service, similar to Sawa, started up
last month in Iran. Plans are also underway for an Arabic-language satellite
television station to provide round-the-clock programming.

Pattiz is no stranger to Middle Eastern politics. As a
member of the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that promotes U.S. awareness
and involvement in the Middle East peace process, Pattiz has traveled to the
region to meet with Israeli and Jordanian leaders and has held a reception at
his home for Queen Noor of Jordan.

He also hosts monthly roundtable discussions at which
prominent community members meet with Israeli leaders, media representatives
and others with insights about the region.

Although his Radio Sawa efforts are performed on behalf of
the U.S. government, Pattiz acknowledged that promoting the free flow of
information in the Middle East benefits Israel, as well.

On the state level, Pattiz serves on the UC Board of
Regents. As a member of the board’s Investment Committee, he helps oversee
billions of dollars of university investments.

He expects to be part of a task force formed in response to
a controversial course description published for a UC Berkeley class, The
Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance. Pattiz said the task force will
“examine how this course description was allowed to be printed in the first
place, and look at the larger questions of academic freedom vs.

He also serves on the California Commission on Building for
the 21st Century, which looks at how the state should address future building
and infrastructure needs. Pattiz has served as president of the Broadcast
Education Association, trustee of the Museum of Television and Radio, is on the
the USC Annenberg School for Communication board and on the advisory board of
the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy.

At Westwood One, which he founded in 1974 as a one-room
operation, Pattiz spends much of his time conceptualizing projects and
arranging agreements with artists and recording companies to generate
entertainment programs for broadcast. The company has earned a reputation for
blockbuster entertainment programming, airing concerts by such megastars as
Barbra Streisand, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.

His professional, political and philanthropic activities
keep Pattiz busy, and he said he likes it that way.

“I’ve got plenty of things to keep me busy,” he said. “But
they’re all things I find incredibly interesting and enjoyable. I’m not
complaining about any of it.”

Norman J. Pattiz will be the keynote speaker at CommUNITY
Kavod on Tuesday, Jan. 28, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Irvine. For
more information call (714) 755-5555.