Another Republican senator backs Hagel for Pentagon chief


Chuck Hagel's path to confirmation as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense became more secure on Thursday when Republican Senator Richard Shelby said he would support the nomination.

Shelby joined almost every other Republican senator a week ago in delaying a vote on confirming Hagel in order to allow colleagues more time to examine Hagel's record, said spokesman Jonathan Graffeo.

Fifteen other Republican senators signed a letter to Obama on Thursday asking that he withdraw Hagel's nomination, saying they respect the military service of the decorated Vietnam War veteran, but he lacks the bipartisan support and confidence to serve effectively.

The White House said it still supports Hagel and expects he will be confirmed. Senate Democrats expect a vote on his confirmation next week, after Congress returns from a recess, and that Hagel will win the majority support he needs to become the chief civilian at the Pentagon.

Graffeo said Shelby now plans to vote for a motion to stop debate, ending the delay, and in favor of the nomination when the Senate considers whether to confirm Hagel, barring any surprises between now and the vote.

Shelby, a five-term senator from Alabama, served with Hagel during the nominee's two terms as a Republican senator from Nebraska. He is at least the third Republican – along with Mike Johanns and Thad Cochran – to say he will vote for Hagel.

Democrats control 55 votes in the 100-member Senate, and none has come out against Hagel. While he has long looked likely to garner the 51 votes he needs to be confirmed, his backers feel it will strengthen him as Pentagon chief to have as much bipartisan support as possible.

REPUBLICAN OBJECTIONS

Many Republicans have fiercely opposed Hagel's nomination as civilian chief at the Pentagon since it was announced on Jan. 7.

Hagel broke from his party as a senator by opposing former President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war, infuriating some Republicans. Some have also raised questions about whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel or tough enough on Iran.

Republicans also worry Hagel will be too supportive of any effort by Obama to include cuts in Pentagon spending as a way to deal with yawning U.S. budget deficits.

Hagel's performance at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services committee also drew harsh criticism. Even some Democrats said he appeared at times unprepared or hesitant in the face of aggressive questioning.

The pressure against Hagel's nomination continued with Thursday's letter from the 15 Republicans, which cited among other things statements by the former senator they said “proclaimed the legitimacy of the current regime in Iran.”

But the White House, blasting what it called continued political posturing by Republicans it contends puts the country at more risk, said there were no plans for Hagel's withdrawal.

“We firmly believe that Senator Hagel will be confirmed, but the waste of time is of consequence,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at his daily news briefing.

“There are 66,000 men and women in uniform in Afghanistan and we need our new secretary of defense on the job to be part of the significant decisions that have to be made as we bring that war to a responsible end,” he said.

Many of the senators who signed the letter have been among Hagel's most vocal opponents. They included James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate armed services panel, and five other Republican members of that committee – Lindsey Graham, Roger Wicker, David Vitter, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee.

The other nine were Senators John Cornyn, Patrick Toomey, Marco Rubio, Daniel Coats, Ron Johnson, James Risch, John Barrasso, Tom Coburn and Tim Scott.

Editing by Todd Eastham

Vietnamese Israeli family takes a long trip ‘home’


In 1977, an Israeli cargo ship nearing Japan spotted a leaking boat crammed with 66 Vietnamese men, women and children out of food and water.
 
They were among the hundreds of thousands of “boat people,” fleeing their war-ravaged country following the end of the Vietnam War. Despite desperate SOS signals, the refugees’ distress had been ignored by passing ships from East Germany, Norway, Japan and Panama.
 
The Israeli ship picked up the weakened passengers and took them back to Israel. There, Prime Minister Menachem Begin authorized their permanent admission to Israel, comparing their plight to that of Europe’s Jewish refugees seeking a haven in the 1930s.
 
What happened to the Vietnamese refugees, and the hundreds that followed them, in “the land of the Jews”?
 
In one of the opening scenes of the Israeli film “The Journey of Vaan Nguyen” (screening locally on Sept. 30), Hanmoi Nguyen, one of the original refugees, has been in Israel for 25 years. He works hard in a Tel Aviv restaurant, lives modestly, and with his wife is raising five Israel-born, Hebrew-speaking daughters.
 
The oldest girl, Vaan, is a writer, has served in the army and feels Israeli — except for her looks. In their classic up-front style, her fellow sabras keep asking her whether her eyes are slanted because she eats so much rice and if she is related to this or that Chinese martial arts star.

In the evenings, the father writes Vietnamese poetry and joins his friends in nostalgic songs about the beautiful land they left behind.
 
In Vietnam, Hanmoi Nguyen was the son of a wealthy landowner, and he dreams of returning to his village to reclaim the property and settle scores with the communist functionary who kicked him out at gunpoint.
 
He scrapes together enough money for the trip and returns to a land and a people he hardly recognizes. In a curious parallel to the Holocaust survivors who returned to their homelands to reclaim their old homes, he is met with suspicion and hostility by the new inhabitants and red tape by officials.
 
Even the hated communist functionary, like the Nazi bully in Germany, is now a nice old man who urges that bygones be bygones.
 
After a few months, daughter Vaan joins her father to dig for her own roots. She is happy that people on the street look like her, but has trouble negotiating the language and has no patience with the elaborate circumlocutions of social intercourse.
 
To the natives, Vaan herself has become a foreigner, and she laments, “I am a tourist, I am an Israeli.”
 
The agony of being suspended between two civilizations, without being fully at home in either one, is sensitively, at times heartbreakingly, portrayed, but the film by Israel’s Duki Dror (a UCLA alumnus) is not without humor.
 
One hilarious scene shows the newly arrived boat people being welcomed by an effusive Jewish Agency representative in Hebrew, of which the polite audience doesn’t understand a word.
 
Shortly afterward, an equally enthusiastic integration official tries to teach the refugees a lively Chanukah song.
 
On the reverse side, the returned father tries to explain Israel to puzzled Vietnamese villagers. He finally comes up with, “They have one lake and eat strange foods.”
 
The film, in Hebrew and Vietnamese with English subtitles, is presented as part of the National Geographic All Roads Film Festival, which will showcase various global cultures through films, photographs and music Sept. 28- Oct. 1 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
 
Two other films, looking at Israeli society from different, and critical, perspectives, are on the program.
 
“Zero Degrees of Separation” by Elle Flanders, focuses on an Israeli-Palestinian gay couple, and a similar lesbian couple. Apparently everyone is bitterly opposed to Israeli government policy, or, as the synopsis has it, “The stories contrast the ideals at the birth of the ‘holy land’ with the reality of the country today — an Israel mired in the rubble of occupation.”
 
“The Last Supper — Abu Dis,” a short film by Palestinian director Issa Frej, seems equally disenchanted with present-day Israel. As seen through the eyes of a young Arab woman, the people of an Arab village overlooking Jerusalem anticipate the consequences of the approaching Israeli security fence, which, they claim, will cut the village in half.
 
All three films will screen on Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd. “Journey” will start at 5 p.m. The 26-minute long “Last Supper” screens at 8 p.m., followed immediately by “Zero Degrees.”
 
For additional information about the films and other festival events, call (323) 466-3456) or visit www.nationalgeographic.com/allroads.
 

Does Buddhist Hold Mideast Peace Key?


While news of the Geneva accords hit the headlines, a group of Palestinians and Israelis were trying to make a different kind of peace — with the help of Buddhists in southern France.

Thich Nhat Hanh — Vietnamese Zen master, poet and Nobel Peace Prize nominee — has been inviting groups of Palestinians and Israelis to his practice center, Plum Village, in an effort to show them that Buddhist meditation can lead to inner peace as well as nonviolence between nations. The trips are largely underwritten by an American Jewish businessman.

Nhat Hanh preaches nothing less than personal transformation as the road to peace.

“I have lived through two wars in Vietnam, and I know what a war is. There is fear, anger, despair and if you don’t know how to manage these feelings, you will not survive,” he told his audience of 300, including 30 Israelis and Palestinians.

For businessman Amin Bara of Nablus, the palpable peace at Plum Village was an inspiration. “You walk at night, and no one asks you where you are going. You sleep peacefully with no trouble. I feel I love life more. I feel a change in my body and my spirit to be stronger in my work for peace.”

Anael Harpaz of Rosh Pina came home with a broken heart after listening to the stories told by Palestinians, especially the sister of a suicide bomber, who revealed the difficult and tragic circumstances leading to the act.

“We fell into each other’s arms afterward. There’s no denying the love we felt for one another,” Harpaz said of the young sister of the suicide bomber. “It’s very sad for me what’s happening to the Palestinians and to our soldiers. We’re all victims.”

Harpaz appreciated what Nhat Hanh is trying to do, saying, “He comes from a place of much suffering, and he chose the nonviolent way, and he’s trying to teach us this. I’m sure it looks like complete nonsense to people who are not on a spiritual path. But I know how much peace being on a spiritual path and returning to my breath has brought to me.”

The Israelis and Palestinians, fresh from the tension of the Middle East, practiced eating, walking and working mindfully — following their breath and keeping their minds focused among the 150 monks and nuns — before meeting together at the end of the week for “deep-listening” sessions.

Eastern meditation has been gaining in popularity in Israel, especially since post-army trips to India and the East have become de rigueur. A few Palestinians are beginning to show an interest, and a Palestinian-Jewish sangha, or meditation group, made up mostly of those who have been to Plum Village, meets one day a month. The style — slow, meditative, gentle — contrasts sharply with the vociferous, combative style of the local population, and many see it as a needed breath of fresh air.

As with many peace gatherings, Nhat Hanh, in a sense, was preaching to the converted. Nearly all the participants had been involved in peace efforts and dialogue before. What might have been new to some was his stance that only when we achieve peace within — and with our loved ones — can we hope for peace between nations. Thus, he began several of his talks with advice for making marriages more harmonious.

Because of trouble with visas and permits, the West Bank Palestinians arrived at Plum Village late. They were thrown right into the dialogue without having had a chance to “practice” beforehand. Two Palestinians were turned back at a Jordan bridge.

Issa Souf of the West Bank village of Hares, formerly a physical trainer, came in a wheelchair with his brother and nephew. He had been shot, he said, by an Israeli soldier as he was attempting to get his family back into the house and away from tear gas. Souf said he believed his stay at Plum Village confirmed for him that he is on the right path — the path of nonviolence.

“I really, really, really feel — and I tell my Palestinian friends all the time — that it’s not a solution if we kill half the Jewish people, and it’s not a solution if they kill three-quarters of the Palestinians,” Souf said. “Both peoples have to oppose the policies that throw us into this situation.”

However, Souf, as well as other Palestinians, believed that Nhat Hanh lacked sufficient information about the Mideast conflict.

When both sides met together, speakers were exhorted to use “loving speech,” without blame or condemnation. Listeners were told to listen deeply, following their breath, and to be aware of their reactions without responding verbally. The idea was for each side to open its heart to the other side and to be able to acknowledge that the other side suffered, too. From this, Nhat Hanh said, compassion would flow.

After septuagenarian Kochava Ron told of her family losing five members to the conflict over 70 years, the group did a bit of walking meditation around the large hall, and Bara, the Arab businessman, walked with his arm around Ron.

But many participants were not able to take Nhat Hanh’s advice to speak gently, personally and from the heart.

Some of the Israelis made speeches about peace, and several of the Palestinians spoke passionately and angrily about the “Nazi” occupation, Sharon’s “fascist” government and the “apartheid” separation wall being built by Israel. But personal meetings between sessions were friendly.

While the Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs present were more familiar with Nhat Hanh’s teachings — he led two weekend retreats in Israel seven years ago, and groups of meditators throughout Israel follow his teachings — it was the West Bank Palestinians’ first encounter with Buddhist practice. “They don’t know where they’ve landed,” said one of the Israelis.

Dorit Shippin, the organizer of the Israeli delegation, was not disappointed, saying she got a lot of strength from the week.

“I didn’t expect loving speech from the Palestinians,” she said. “They weren’t there long enough. But [he] planted seeds. You never know how or when they will sprout.”


Ruth Mason is a writer from Los Angeles now living in Israel.