VIDEO: Rachel Somekh teaches two classic Iraqi Jewish recipes — potato chops and cigars


Rachel Somekh teaches two classic Iraqi appetizers, potato chops and cigars

 

Fearful Assad Places a Risky Bet on Saddam


Syrian President Bashar Assad has inherited much of his late
father’s parochial paranoia, Israeli analysts argue — but little of his astute
political judgment.

In the first Persian Gulf War, the wily Hafez Assad lined up
on the side of the U.S.-led coalition, the analysts note, while in the second,
Bashar Assad seems to be doing all he can to bait the U.S. superpower.

It could end up costing him dearly.

Judging from his public statements, Assad seems convinced
that the Bush administration will not stop at Iraq, and that after a U.S.
victory in Baghdad, he could be next on the regime-change agenda.

Therefore, when Assad vilifies the United States and openly
aids the Iraqi war effort, he believes he is fighting for his life. In late
March, buoyed by what he saw as initial Iraqi success in resisting the U.S.-led
invasion, Assad explained the basis of his thinking in a fierce diatribe
against Israel and the United States.

The war in Iraq, he told the Lebanese newspaper, As-Safir,
was an Israeli-American conspiracy “designed to redraw the political map of the
Middle East.” In Assad’s view, the United States would take Iraq’s oil, and
Israel would become the dominant regional power.

“After Iraq, it will be the turn of other Arab countries,
and I don’t rule out the possibility of an American attempt to attack Syria,
inspired by Israel,” he declared.

When Assad took power in the summer of 2000, analysts
pointed to his Western education — he studied opthamology in England — as a
sign that he would be more modern and liberal than his authoritarian father. He
would open up Syria’s economic and political system, they predicted, and would
recognize the benefit of peace with Israel.

But such optimists have been sorely disappointed. An initial
political opening has been stifled, and the younger Assad seems even less
inclined to contemplate peace with the Jewish State than was his father, who at
least entertained negotiations.

Analysts speculate that that’s because Hafez Assad had
firsthand experience of Israel’s military might from the 1967 and 1973 wars,
while his son’s formative experiences — such as Israel’s response to the first
intifada in the early 1990s and its flight from southern Lebanon in 2000 — have
been of an Israel unwilling to risk its prosperity in military confrontations
and willing to retreat in the face even of light casualties.

Assad clearly sees the U.S. war against Iraq and the
Arab-Israeli conflict as part of the same apocalyptic struggle: It is, in his
view, a zero-sum game that will benefit either Syria or Israel.

As long as Israel exists, he said in the As-Safir interview,
Syria is under threat. He would never be able to trust Israel, he added,
“because it was treacherous by nature.”

But there’s more: Since “Israel controlled the United States
through its Jewish lobby,” Assad presumably can’t trust the United States
either.

Given this worldview, it’s not surprising that Assad has
decided to gamble on Saddam Hussein. In helping the Iraqi war effort, he
apparently is hoping that the Americans will be stopped in their tracks and
will never reach Baghdad, let alone Damascus.

So Assad has kept Syria’s border with Iraq open, making
Syria the only country to allow volunteers and war materiel through to help
Saddam.

By late March, thousands of Arab — mainly Syrian —
volunteers were streaming across the open border to the Mosul and Kirkuk regions
of northern Iraq. Syria also sent some military equipment — night-vision
goggles, according to the Pentagon — to the Iraqi forces. Before that, in the
run-up to war, Syria reportedly purchased tank engines and aircraft for Iraq in
Eastern Europe.

Moreover, Assad is thought to be hiding illegal Iraqi
weapons that were spirited across the border to Syria before the fighting
erupted. In testimony to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in
late March, Yossi Kupferwasser, the intelligence research chief of the Israel
Defense Forces, claimed that Saddam may have transferred Scud missiles and
biological and chemical weapons to Syria before the outbreak of war.

In late March, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
warned the Syrians that the United States would not tolerate much more. He
called the Syrian shipment of night-vision goggles a “hostile act,” for which
the United States would hold Damascus accountable.

A few days later, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell
indicated that Syria would have to make a “critical choice” about whose side it
is on.

“Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and
the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more
hopeful course,” Powell told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on
March 30. “Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices and for
the consequences.”

Syria is not only proving to be Iraq’s closest supporter in
the war, it is also on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist states
and, according to Israeli intelligence sources, has by far the biggest
stockpile of chemical weapons of any Middle Eastern country. It produces
chemical warheads, as well as the Scud missiles to deliver them.

The terrorist organizations Syria hosts claim to have sent
hundreds of suicide bombers to Iraq to attack U.S. troops. Ramadan Shalah, the
Damascus-based commander of Islamic Jihad — which claimed responsibility for
the March 30 suicide bombing in Netanya — declared that the bombing was his
organization’s “gift to the Iraqi people” and that hundreds of his followers
were already in Iraq to fight “the murderer Bush.”

“This excessive self-confidence could not exist without the
approval of the Jihad’s landlord, the Syrian regime,” as one Israeli analyst
noted.

By far the biggest and most potent terrorist organization
Syria backs is the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah, which has an estimated 10,000
Katyusha rockets trained on targets in Israel and which has a proven
operational capacity all over the world.

Some U.S. defense analysts see Hezbollah as the foremost
terrorist organization in the world, more dangerous even than Al Qaeda.

To deal with Syria after the war in Iraq, one idea the Bush
administration apparently is contemplating is a U.S.-imposed land, sea and air
blockade of Syria until it dismantles its weapons of mass destruction, expels
terrorist organizations from Damascus and disarms Hezbollah.

Assad seems to be hoping that a U.S. imbroglio in Iraq will
save his regime, but he also has taken out some insurance against a United
States that emerges from the war as the undisputed power broker in the Middle
East.

So far, Syria has helped keep Hezbollah in check during the
war and has relayed information to U.S. intelligence on the whereabouts of some
Al Qaeda operatives.

Assad could go further in search of U.S. approval by
introducing a degree of democratization. But he seems to fear that step as
opening a Pandora’s box that he can’t control, Israeli analysts say.

Assad’s Alawite sect, which rules Syria, constitutes only
about 13 percent of the country’s population. Exposing Syrian society to the
winds of change, he fears, might end up sweeping away his regime.

Assad’s father had similar fears. In his day, Syrian
dissidents compared Hafez Assad’s regime to Romania under Nicolae Ceaucescu,
dubbing him “Assadescu.”

Between U.S. wrath and the risk of liberalization in Syria,
Bashar Assad seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Â


Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

The Trouble with Testing


As if we don’t have enough problems, it seems there’s an unlimited supply of horrific hereditary diseases just waiting to ensnare Jews and their children. Tay-Sachs cripples infants before their first birthday and eventually kills them, Gaucher disease erodes healthy bones and organs, Niemann-Pick, cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s, Canavan and dozens of others. And that’s just among Eastern-European Ashkenazi Jews. A host of other hereditary diseases affect Sephardic, Iraqi and Persian Jews. Does somebody up there hate us?

Not according to Dr. Jerome I. Rotter, co-director of the Medical Genetics-Birth Defects Center at Cedars-Sinai. “While the Jews are very special,” he says, “when we talk about the distribution of disease, they’re not all that special. Every population has a susceptibility to its own set of hereditary diseases.” It’s an important point to make, coming as it [did] at the conference “Genetic Medicine and the Jewish Population,” was held at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Oct. 24.

While science has made enormous strides in creating tools to fight the genetic diseases that afflict many Jews, the impact of those tools have a profound and intimate effect on all of us, Jews and non-Jews alike. And as a result, our society is now confronted with some of the most complex and difficult questions we’ve ever had to face.

Our genes are the code that stores all the information needed to build a human being. Occasionally, through the process of evolution, a single gene can mutate, confusing that information and rendering an individual susceptible to disease. Sometimes an individual is just a carrier, meaning he will never develop symptoms of the disease, but might pass on that susceptibility on to his children. For recessive diseases, like Tay-Sachs or Gaucher disease, both parents must be carriers, and both must pass on an abnormal gene for a child to develop the disease.

Over the last half-century, scientists have developed methods to pinpoint specific mutations on individual genes, allowing them to test individuals for genetic diseases. And although most of us are aware of this work, few of us seem to understand its profound implications: In a very real way, science can now tell the future. Suddenly, we’ve entered a brave new world of medicine, and the benefits we already reap from this new paradigm are great.

This is uniquely apparent in breast and ovarian cancer, two of Ashkenazi women’s most serious health concerns. While all women are susceptible to these diseases, Dr. Maren Scheuner, director of the GenRISK genetic testing and counseling program at Cedars-Sinai, says that when a family history of breast cancer is present, Jewish women are at a much greater risk than non-Jews of developing the disease.

While there are currently no easy cures, women who test positive for one of the genetic mutations that cause breast cancer can take steps to improve their chances of survival if the cancer does develop. “For high risk women, you’ll just have a higher suspicion and start all the screening much earlier, usually around 25,” says Scheuner. Now, most women begin screenings at age 40.

Genetic medicine’s new tools mean that we can screen entire populations to find healthy carriers of a disease and prevent that disease from spreading, eliminating the need for any treatment at all.

Dr. Kaback is intimately familiar with this process, being one of its pioneers. He began the first screenings for Tay-Sachs in Baltimore in 1969, and in Southern California in 1971. Since then, his program has voluntarily tested more than 1.4 million adults, identifying and counseling almost 1,400 couples at risk for bearing children with the disease. “These families have had over 3,200 pregnancies, and of those, 620 were Tay-Sachs-identified,” says Kaback. “With the exception of about 20 of them, the families elected to terminate the pregnancy.” Certainly, abortion is an extremely difficult decision, but many parents found it a better alternative to watching their child develop this disease by six months of age, deteriorate into mental and physical paralysis, and finally die before age 5.

It’s estimated that one in 25 Ashkenazi Jews is a Tay-Sachs carrier. Prior to genetic screening, the disease was so common among Jewish populations that hospitals across the country had special wards to care for these children. Today, only three to four Tay-Sachs babies are born in North America each year. Similar screening programs have been implemented to help prevent Gaucher disease, Canavan disease (a neurodegenerative disease) and cystic fibrosis, among other genetic diseases .

So genetic screening is wonderful, right? Not always. The process can quickly transform the most logical questions of science into sticky ethical dilemmas. Even such issues as a doctor’s responsibility become obscured. “If I know that my patient carries a certain genetic trait, he may not be at risk for that problem, but his sister may be at risk,” says Dr. Kaback. “Do I have an obligation to contact his sister? Suppose I don’t contact her, and she has a child affected with that condition. Do I have any legal responsibility in that context?”

And the questions get even more existential. “If I’m tested for a genetic trait and have it,” says Kaback. “Instantaneously the doctor who does that test knows that my brothers and sisters are at a 50 percent risk of having that same genetic trait. They know that my children have a 50 percent chance of having that trait. Who is the geneticist’s patient? Is it the client sitting across the desk, or is it their extended family? Or is it the entire population group from which that individual is derived?”

The problem is that genetic screening can tell us the future, and knowing the future is always a double-edged sword. When you screen healthy individuals, you may find a gene for a disease that won’t show up for years. “How does it affect the person’s self-image,” asks Dr. Kaback. “To know that they have a gene that’s going to possibly cause them to have cancer or mental illness or some neurological problem or heart disease later in life? How does it affect their upbringing? How many Willie Mayses or Sandy Koufaxes might never have achieved excellence athletically, if someone knew they had a predisposition to some illness later in life when they were children?”

Dr. David L. Rimoin, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Medical Genetics-Birth Defects Center, and one of the organizers of the conference would agree.

“The reality is that we can screen for every disease,” he says. “And every one of us in the population, of any population, will be found to be carriers of several genetic diseases.”

But Rimoin feels that this knowledge can do so much good, as it’s done with Tay-Sachs, that it shouldn’t be ignored. That’s why he organized the conference, and why he is trying to start a Jewish genetics center at Cedars-Sinai.

Israel’s Mystery Man


The most talked-about, perhaps the most feared, figure in Israeli politics this holiday season is neither a statesman nor a rabble-rouser. He is Yitzhak Kedouri, a frail, mystical Iraqi-born rabbi, barely able to speak or to walk unaided, whose widely distributed kabbalistic amulets are credited with swaying thousands of underprivileged Sephardic Jewish voters.

With its tongue only slightly in cheek, Ha’aretz, the most secularist of Israeli daily newspapers, nominated him its Man of the Year. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu invited the white-bearded sage in the pillbox hat and flowing black gown to his office so that he could receive the rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah blessing. Former Foreign Minister David Levy, a veteran standard-bearer for North African immigrants, denounced him as a political stooge who was “dragging us back to the dark ages.”

In the 1996 elections, Kedouri instructed his devotees to vote Shas, the Sephardi Torah Guardians, for the Knesset and Netanyahu for prime minister. No one can measure his influence, but no one is underestimating it. Shas, the rising force in Israeli politics, won 10 seats, making it the third-largest party, behind Likud and Labor. Netanyahu defeated Labor’s Shimon Peres by less than 1 percent of the total vote.

Kedouri is, in the most literal sense, a mystery man. His exact age is unknown, though he is assumed to be about 100. In his youth, he was associated with Yeshivat Hamekubalim, a noted Jerusalem seminary specializing in the occult. Yet there is no record that he was ever ordained or that he distinguished himself as a scholar.

“Even with regard to kabbalists,” said Professor Menachem Friedman, a Bar-Ilan University expert on the fervently Orthodox world, “in the Jewish tradition, a man gains status because he wrote something, or because his students recorded his ideas. With Kedouri, there are no books and there are no students.”

David Levy attacked the rabbi after Shas helicoptered him into the ex-minister’s hometown, Beit She’an, to bless a candidate standing for mayor against Levy’s son, Jackie. With Ashkenazic politicians on the defensive against charges of patronizing the Sephardic Jews, perhaps only Levy could bell the cat and dare to question his lucidity.

“We are witnessing something surrealistic,” Levy told Israel Radio, “with rabbis being enlisted to do things that harm the unity of the people. This Rabbi Kedouri, with all due respect, I’m not sure if he even knows where he is living, the poor man. He is being abused. Does he know whom he is blessing? Does he know where he is being taken?”

In what was a challenge as much to Shas, his bitter rivals for the Sephardi constituency, as to the Kedouri cult, Levy went on: “The use being made of him takes us back to the dark ages, with people looking for good luck charms and attributing divine qualities to a human being. This has become a virtual industry, unfortunately based on superstition and leading us toward an abyss, blindness and near civil war. I firmly object to this cynical use of the innocent faith of people, especially the weak.”

A Moroccan “wonder” rabbi, “Baba Baruch” Abu Hatzeira, waded in behind Levy. “They’ve made Rabbi Kedouri into a circus,” he said, “just so that they can make money. Rabbi Kedouri is an elderly Jew who can’t tell right from left.”

Netanyahu, who knows a blessing when he sees one, sprang immediately to the rabbi’s defense. “I think the rabbi is so sober, so clever, so wise,” the prime minister said, “that it isn’t serious for me to even testify to it.”

The Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, celebrated Kedouri as “a holy man, who is completely clear-minded and very independent and cannot be influenced in any way.” He was, he added, “versed in every detail of daily and political life in Israel.”

Many Israelis remain to be convinced. In any case, both official chief rabbis, the Sephardi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron and the Ashkenazi Yisrael Meir Lau, went on record against the “exaggerated and improper use of rabbis.”

In naming Kedouri its Man of the Year, Ha’aretz lamented what he tells us about Israel at the end of its first half-century.

“More than any other individual,” wrote the columnist Ran Kislev, “he symbolizes the process we are undergoing: the rise of ignorance, on the one hand, and the crumbling of the values associated with an enlightened society, on the other; the decline in the value of rational thinking in determining foreign policy and our way of life; the infiltration of religion not only into matters of personal status, but also into political life in the form of a caste of ayatollahs.”

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