President Donald Trump on April 13. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Trump’s Jewish groupies should be nervous


The near-messianic belief in President Donald Trump held by certain pro-Israel Jews dates to the campaign, when he seemed an unshakable friend to the Jewish state, especially compared to Hillary Clinton. But the president already has reversed himself on China, North Korea, Syria, Russia and NATO. Trump’s dizzying abandonment of once-unshakable positions raises the question of whether Israel will be the next ally he decides to pass over.

In fact, the Trump administration already has sent mixed signals that should worry hard-line Zionists. During the campaign, Trump firmly supported the West Bank settlement project, but in April he said expanding settlements “does not help advance peace.” His promises to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem have been downgraded to getting what Vice President Mike Pence calls “serious consideration.”

Though the many Orthodox and other conservative pro-Israel supporters of the president expect the embassy to move, they should be cautious. The man whose considerable ego is built on dealmaking has called Middle East peace “the ultimate deal” — and that means compromise. In his book “The Art of the Deal,” Trump boasted of aiming very high, but “sometimes I settle for less than I sought.” Another of his principles is to “never get too attached to one deal or one approach.”

West Bank settlers and their financial and political backers in the Diaspora see every one of their positions as inalienable. They will inevitably find any Trump-style deal regarding Israel thoroughly dispiriting.

Those confident that Trump’s commitment to right-skewing positions on Israel won’t share the fate of his promises to stay out of Syria and label China a currency manipulator point to his bedrock Evangelical support and the role of Jewish family members Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Neither is a slam dunk.

So far, evangelicals have followed (the steadfastly pro-life) Trump more than the other way around – most prominently on gay rights. The Family Research Council and similar groups muted their disappointment when Trump didn’t issue an anti-gay executive order and reappointed an Obama administration gay-rights diplomat. Evangelical Zionist fervor could similarly wane should the president waver on Israel.

Regarding Kushner and his wife Ivanka, true believers on the right may be overly enamored with their own extremist belief that anyone with a more accommodating position toward Palestinians is necessarily anti-Israel.

Trump’s Jewish daughter and son-in-law have never identified with the most religiously and politically conservative segments of Orthodox Judaism. The rabbi responsible for the very fact they are a Jewish family is famously on the more accommodating side of Orthodoxy, and three years ago, the school associated with their Upper East Side synagogue invited a prominent Muslim critic of Israel to speak. While the invitation was later rescinded, the controversy would be unthinkable at nearly all other Orthodox schools and congregations.

It’s true that Kushner has been close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for many years, but Netanyahu himself is suspect in right-leaning Zionist quarters for his support of a two-state solution and supposed excessive friendliness with Palestinian leaders. As for settlements, The New York Times says Kushner’s thinking “is not well understood.”

We may be facing a “Nixon goes to China” moment for both Kushner and Trump. That expression refers to President Richard Nixon’s 1972 China trip normalizing relations between the United States and the world’s most populous country At the time, Democrats would suffer political disaster for de-escalating tensions with the communist behemoth. But as a Republican with impeccable anti-communist credentials, Nixon was able to take that bold but important step.

The Likudniks who celebrated Kushner’s appointment as Middle East envoy were reading the wrong tea leaves. What use is a negotiator who could never budge? Trump’s thinking may very well be: if even Kushner is willing to pressure Israel to make concessions on settlements, Jerusalem, and Palestinian sovereignty, the administration will appear to be an honest and fair broker.

As a resident of Jerusalem, dual citizen of the United States and Israel, and center-right Zionist, I pray the administration vigorously defends the security of the State of Israel. But recent world events underscore what I told my pro-Israel friends when I told them I was voting for Clinton. Her pro-Israel credentials may have been suspect, but her stability and predictability were better for America – and, ultimately, Israel – than a president whose positions change radically as he learns on the job and discovers that being a president is a lot harder and less fun than being a candidate.


David Benkof is a columnist for the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Sen. Ben Cardin speaking at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, Oct. 1, 2015. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Bipartisan bill in House and Senate targets settlement boycotters with fines


A bipartisan slate of U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill that would extend fines on companies that comply with the Arab League boycott of Israel to those complying with a U.N.-designated boycotts of settlements.

The Israel Anti-Boycott act initiated Thursday in the House of Representatives and the Senate was prompted in part by the call last year of the U.N. Human Rights Council for the creation of a database of companies that deal with Israel entities in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. On Thursday, the council approved a resolution calling on countries to cut ties to settlements.

Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced the compliance bill in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, Reps. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Juan Vargas, D-Calif., introduced the measure.

“The United States should bring its foreign policy and its economic institutions, its relationships, and its leverage to bear to combat boycott, divestment, and sanctions actions against Israel,” Cardin, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “We should not stand idle when foreign countries or international governmental organizations use BDS tactics to isolate one of our key allies.”

The bill attaches fines passed in a 1979 law targeting the Arab League boycott of Israel, then in full force. The boycott has since abated in influence, in part because it was criminalized by the United States.

Liberal pro-Israel groups have objected in recent years to similar legislation, arguing that boycotting settlements — an action that some liberal Zionists support — should not be wrapped into broader boycotts of Israel, which most of the Jewish community rejects.

Cardin has argued that the new legislation is not aimed at protecting settlements, but at keeping the Palestinians from forcing Israel’s hand in determining a final-status agreement absent talks.

“We cannot allow these attempts to bypass direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to go unchecked,” he said in his statement.

His release emphasized that the bill includes language that “does not make any U.S. policy statement about Israeli settlements” and “is only about opposing politically-motivated commercial actions aimed at delegitimizing Israel and pressuring Israel into unilateral concessions outside the bounds of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.”

The bill comes on the eve of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference. AIPAC has been assisting lawmakers in drafting pro-Israel bills that would attract support from both parties, a rarity in a Washington increasingly polarized by President Donald Trump’s administration. Its activists will lobby for the bills on the last day of the conference, which runs March 26-28.

On Thursday, a bipartisan raft of senators introduced a bill that would target Iran with sanctions on its missile testing and its backing for destabilization in the Middle East, but that avoids sanctions that have been relieved by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. A similar bill was introduced the same day by Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip. Hoyer and Royce are scheduled to speak at the conference.

Democrats back the Iran deal, which trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program, while Republicans oppose it.

SHALOM HANOCH & MOSHE LEVI: THE EXIT CONCERT

Calendar: March 10-16, 2017


SAT | MARCH 11

AUTHOR NOAH ISENBERG

cal-casablancaNoah Isenberg and Monika Henreid discuss Isenberg’s new book, “We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie.” Its focus is the award-winning film that was released in 1942 featuring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and a memorable supporting cast. Isenberg, a film historian, reveals the myths and realities behind “Casablanca’s” production. Through extensive research and interviews with filmmakers, film critics, family members of the cast and crew, and die-hard fans, Isenberg reveals why the film remains so revered. He also focuses on the major role that refugees from Hitler’s Europe played in the production (many cast members were immigrants). The book is filled with fresh insights into “Casablanca’s” creation, production and legacy. 3 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. booksoup.com.

SUN | MARCH 12

SHALOM HANOCH & MOSHE LEVI: THE EXIT CONCERT

Shalom Hanoch and Moshe Levi perform their final show in the United States. 8 p.m. $100. The Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. israeliamerican.org/shalom.

TUES | MARCH 14

“BORN SURVIVORS: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORIES OF THREE YOUNG MOTHERS”

cal-born-survivorsWendy Holden chronicled the stories of three young mothers who were torn from their families by the Nazis in her powerful book “Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope.” The three women were strangers, but all a few months pregnant and in need of help to keep it a secret from their Nazi captors. Despite the odds, they all defied death to give their children life. Meet one of the Holocaust survivors, Hana Berger Moran. 7:30 p.m. Free; registration required at ushmm.org/events/holden-losangeles. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 556-3222. ushmm.org.

WED | MARCH 15

IS “ZIONIST” NOW A BAD WORD?

cal-david-wolpeAs the debate over Israel rages on across college campuses and in living rooms throughout the United States, is “Zionist” still a term of support for Israel, or is it now a loaded term? How do younger Americans interpret “Zionism”? Join the Jewish Journal and Hadassah’s Defining Zionism program as we explore how tomorrow’s leaders are thinking about and engaging with the Jewish state, and how their relationship with Israel differs from that of previous generations. Moderated by Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe; Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Sarah Bassin; 30 Years After co-founder Sam Yebri; and Jewish Journal staff writer Eitan Arom. 7 p.m. $10 in advance; $15 at the door. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. hadassah.org/jewishjournal.

“CATHOLIC AND JEWISH CONCEPTS OF FORGIVENESS”

How does our Jewish tradition understand the concept and practice of mercy and how do we live up to this ideal, which is one of the highest qualities we look for in a human being? Rabbi Steven Silver will discuss “Catholic and Jewish Concepts of Forgiveness.” After lunch, there will be a screening of “Stolen Summer,” a Project Greenlight film about a young Catholic boy who goes on a quest to help a dying Jewish friend get into heaven. 11 a.m. $14; $12 for members. The Rosenberg Cultural Center at Temple Menorah, 1101 Camino Real, Redondo Beach. (310) 316-8444. templemenorah.org.

BEING JEWISH ON A COLLEGE CAMPUS

Harkham-GAON Academy (at the Westside Jewish Community Center) is hosting this event for high school juniors and seniors to gain insight into Jewish life opportunities at college campuses across the country. The event will include a panel of experts on Jewish life at college with the opportunity to ask questions. You will also hear about challenges Jewish college students face. 6:30 p.m. Free. Harkham-GAON Academy, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 556-0663.

SECURITY RESPONSE TOWN HALL

In response to the recent wave of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers nationwide, and the vandalism at multiple Jewish cemeteries across the country, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles will hold a town hall addressing security issues at Jewish sites. Los Angeles Police Department officials and senior representatives from the FBI will speak. 5 p.m. RSVP required at SLoughmiller@JewishLA.org; no walk-ins. The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

THURS | MARCH 16

“MEMORY & CONTINUITY OF THE SOUTHERN ITALIAN JEWISH LEGACY”

cal-FabrizioLelliFabrizio Lelli will discuss the extraordinary spiritual rebirth of contemporary Judaism by comparing it with other intellectually significant phases of Apulian Judaism in the past. Lelli studies the history of Apulian Jewish culture, concentrating on written and oral testimonies of former Jewish refugees who were in transit camps in the region of Apulia. Lelli teaches at the University of Salento in Italy. Sponsored by UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. 4 p.m. Free. Pre-registration required at cjsrsvp@humnet.ucla.edu or (310) 267-5327. UCLA, 314 Royce Hall, Los Angeles. humnet.ucla.edu.

Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. Feb. 21. Photo by Tom Gannam/REUTERS.

Stop celebrating Muslim decency


Being congratulated for basic civility is no compliment

Since the recent wave of anti-Semitic bomb threats, vandalism, and cemetery desecrations, journalistic and social media have vocally celebrated condemnations, fund-raising, and volunteer efforts by Muslim groups in an attempt to bolster interfaith cooperation and rehabilitate the reputation of the Islamic community precisely when its very welcome in America is being questioned like never before.

But nobody deserves congratulations for basic decency. Condemning bomb threats and making donations to repair damage from bias crimes is something good people of all backgrounds do. Liberal hoopla over proper Muslim responses to anti-Semitism is no more than a religious riff on the soft bigotry of low expectations. When Muslims go to extraordinary lengths to show they embrace their Jewish neighbors – and they sometimes do – public praise is appropriate. But headlines about Islamic press releases condemning cemetery vandalism send the opposite message – that in normal circumstances Muslims are callous and heartless.

Imagine these headlines:

  • Asian Driver Arrives At Work Without Incident
  • Jamaican Musician Passes Drug Test
  • Black Man Marries His Children’s Mother

 

While those headlines aim to challenge nasty stereotypes, they actually reinforce their legitimacy.

News stories about broad community efforts to help besieged Jews that contain a sentence “Even the local Muslim community turned out in force” are entirely appropriate. But special congratulations when Muslims act like, well, people are not compliments.

I know how it feels to have my own group celebrated for simple propriety.

As a Zionist, I am perpetually annoyed by hasbara (roughly, propaganda) that celebrates Israeli actions that are only minimally admirable – like an Israeli soldier who shares her sandwich with a starving Palestinian child or an Tel Aviv hospital that provides an impoverished dying Arab woman with free medical care. Yes, I understand that these examples are intended to debunk the idea that Israelis are not decent (although I have yet to see anti-Israel discourse accusing Israelis of withholding sandwiches from orphans). But the very act of highlighting basic decency legitimizes the slander, which is particularly offensive given the many good Israeli actions that are far from just minimally proper.

The people spotlighting Muslim attempts to repair desecrated cemeteries may think they’re rebutting negative stereotypes. But they aren’t. Sorry to say it, but Americans who fear or hate Muslims don’t do so because they think Muslims tolerate vandalism. They do so because they think Muslims tolerate terrorism. These stories will not dent that perception.

Americans are rightly proud of the way its citizens of many groups came together to help one group among them recover in a time of distress – and Muslims should be part of that celebration. But breathless reports that American Muslims aren’t jackasses after all help nobody – including American Muslims.

David Benkof is a columnist for the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

 

 

 

McGill University. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

McGill student leader doubles down on ‘punch a Zionist today’ message


A McGill University student leader who advised on Twitter to “punch a Zionist today” is refusing to resign or retract the comment amid rising Jewish anger on campus against him.

Council member Igor Sadikov did not relent at what was described as a “tense” meeting of the student union legislative council on Thursday.

According to witnesses who attended, Sadikov appeared to double down on his stance, arguing that Jews were not a “a legitimate ethnic group,” according to B’nai Brith Canada.

“I have never felt so targeted, disgusted or disappointed in my life,” Jewish McGill student Molly Harris later wrote in a post on Facebook.

Sadikov, who also is active in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, has denied he is anti-Semitic, noting that his father is Jewish and his mother is half-Jewish. He said his original tweet, which he later deleted, was meant to criticize a “political philosophy,” not Jews.

McGill has condemned Sadikov, joining the Jewish groups  B’nai Brith, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The university’s undergraduate arts society formally called on Sadikov to resign and B’nai Brith asked police to investigate whether Sadikov had incited hatred with his tweet.

But the mass condemnation seemed to do little to appease pro-Israel students at McGill, who say they feel increasingly isolated and vulnerable on campus.

At the Thursday meeting, according to reports, council members voted by a wide margin against censuring Sadikov, while a leader of McGill’s BDS group asked why an individual “pro-Zionist” member of the council was not being impeached.

Critics at the meeting charged that council members stayed silent as Sadikov took his stand and also in reaction to the pro-BDS speaker.

McGill’s student union also has the power to impeach Sadikov, but has not moved to do so.

The campus newspaper, The McGill Daily, which Sadikov once served as editor, recently enacted a policy to ban “pro-Zionist” opinion from its pages.

In America, politicians pay for bucking Netanyahu


This article originally appeared at ” target=”_blank”>Sienna Institute Research poll shows her leading Sanders 52 percent to 42 percent, and 60 percent to 38 percent among Jews.

Sanders is up against a powerful voice. Netanyahu has become a force in trying to get American Jews to support his policy of expanding settlements in Israel and taking an increasingly harsh line against Palestinians. He is a great ally of Republicans and a dedicated foe of any American president supporting an acceptable Israel agreement with the Palestinians, going back to the first President Bush and most especially singling out President Barack Obama.

His political team in Israel and in the United States has helped create a network of conservative Jews, mostly on the Republican side, which supports ” target=”_blank”>meeting with the New York Daily News editorial board and was a bit muddy in his answers.

Asked about negotiations with the Palestinians, he said, “I lived in Israel. I have family in Israel. I believe 100 percent not only in Israel’s right to exist, a right to exist in peace and security without having to face terrorist attacks. But from the United States’ point of view, I think, long-term, we cannot ignore the reality that you have large numbers of Palestinians who are suffering now poverty rates off the charts, unemployment off the charts, Gaza remaining a destroyed area. … [T]here are good people on both sides, and Israel … cannot just simply expand when it wants to expand with more settlements. So I think the United States has got to help work with the Palestinian people as well. I think that is the path toward peace. … If the expansion [of settlements] was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory, I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate.”

That all makes sense to Zionists like me, who can’t stand Netanyahu’s persona or his expansionist policies. But Sanders was being interviewed in New York, where the slightest slip means trouble.

And slip he did. Talking of the number of Palestinians killed when the Israelis assaulted Gaza to stop terrorist attacks on Israel, he said, “My recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right? … My understanding is a whole lot of apartment houses were leveled. Hospitals, I think, were bombed. So yeah, I do believe and I don’t think I am alone in believing Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.”

As he later admitted, Sanders got the numbers wrong. The Intercept wrote that a week after the conclusion of the fighting, the U.N. reported that 2,131 Palestinians had been killed in the Israeli bombardment, ” target=”_blank”>she told the Daily News editorial board, “that I will continue, as I did as senator, as I did as secretary of state, to do anything and everything for their security; that I will continue to speak out against the ” target=”_blank”>J Street, a liberal Jewish organization that favors a two-state solution, he expressed sympathy for innocent Palestinian victims.

That no doubt doomed him with the Netanyahu set. But Clinton, if she wins the nomination and the presidency, will also come up against Netanyahu’s no-compromise insistence on more settlements and more limitations on Palestinian power. And with his perpetual campaigning for support among right-wing Republicans, he probably won’t give up American politics.

In the end, an American president will have to—as Obama has done—remind Netanyahu that he is prime minister of Israel, and that he can’t dictate American policies.

‘Attack a civilian and you’re a terrorist; Attack a soldier and you’re an adversary’


An Israeli member of parliament (MK) triggered a torrent of criticism from fellow politicians in recent days when he refused to label a Palestinian who had stabbed an Israeli soldier as a terrorist. Palestinians could be expected to violently resist foreign military rule just as armed Zionist organizations did when they rose up against the British Mandate prior to Israeli independence, Zouheir Bahloul, the Zionist Union’s only Arab MK (member of Knesset) said.

“The (Irgun), the Lehi, the Haganah – all of these Jewish organizations went out onto the streets to fight against the British Mandate and its soldiers, to make your state – which has become an incredible state – a reality. Why can't the Palestinians do the same?” Bahloul asked during a cultural event held in the historical city of Acre.

Bahloul’s comments came in the context of a discussion regarding Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, 21, a Palestinian who, along with an accomplice, stabbed a soldier in the contested city of Hebron. Sharif was shot during the attack and then subsequently (several minutes later) shot in the head by another soldier as he lay on the ground bleeding. The second soldier, who remains unidentified due to a gag order, is now facing manslaughter charges. Since al-Sharif's was an attack on a military individual, it did not constitute a terrorist act, the Zionist Union MK argued.

He contrasted that with attacks against civilians, including Jewish civilians living in the West Bank. “Anyone who murders someone, cuts short the life of an innocent person or ambushes a family coming home from work, is a terrorist,” Bahloul later said in an interview with Army Radio.

Criticism of Bahloul's comments has been wide-ranging, including from within Bahloul’s own party.

“The Zionist Union’s position is that a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist, and it does not matter if he intended to kill Jews or Arabs,” Isaac Herzog, the party’s chairman and head of the opposition wrote on Facebook.

MK Nava Boker, from the ruling Likud party, asked that the Knesset Ethics committee suspend Bahloul, accusing him of labelling Israeli soldiers as targets and approving the spilling of their blood.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also joined in the condemnation, describing Bahloul’s comments as “shameful.”

“(Israeli) soldiers protect us with their bodies from bloodthirsty murderers, I expect every citizen of Israel, and especially MKs, to give them full support,” Netanyahu said via Facebook.

Yet despite the considerable criticism from Israeli politicians of every hue, no MK has publically disputed Bahloul’s argument that the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi conducted a violent campaign against the British military and that therefore Palestinians could be expected to use similar tactics. Instead, criticism of the Arab MK has focused on his ‘legitimization of terrorism.’

Bahloul’s point that a distinction should be made between attacks on civilians and attacks on military personnel challenges the current status quo whereby any act of violence against the Israeli army or police is automatically condemned as terrorism.

In the past, however, that distinction was made. 

“The terrorists choose to attack weak and defenseless civilians: old people, women, etc – essentially anyone, except soldiers…Guerilla fighters are not terrorists. They are irregular soldiers who fight against regular army forces and not civilians,” Binyamin Netanyahu wrote in his 1986 book, Terrorism: How the West Can Win.

This is not to say that Palestinian attackers have not targeted civilians, and at times continue to do so. But during the violence of the past six months, there are signs that some ‘lone-wolf’ attackers have chosen to target Israeli police or army personnel rather than softer targets, most notably in the frequent attacks carried out at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, a well-known hotspot flooded with Israeli security personnel.

But if some Palestinian attackers (and it’s by no means all) discriminate between violence against civilians and military personnel, it is not a distinction being made much of by the Israeli media. Most of the country's leading newspapers and TV presenters describe any Palestinian accused of using violence as a terrorist.

Violence was a tool employed by the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi to reach a political goal. The three organizations shared a similar goal, the creation of a Jewish state, but differed in their approach. More radical than the Haganah, the Irgun, whose members advocated attacking the British Mandate forces, became an independent entity in 1931. The even more radical Lehi (derogatorily referred to as the Stern Gang by the British at the time) in turn separated from the Irgun in 1940. Its members disagreed with the Irgun leadership who wished to pause hostilities against the British while the latter fought Nazi Germany.

“The Haganah was very much a mainstream organization that was not particularly keen on attacking civilian targets, even members of the British civil administration,” Ben Mendales, a researcher with the Moshe Dayan Center, told The Media Line. Evidence for this can be seen in the way the Haganah distanced itself from the other two movements after the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Irgun – an attack which killed 91 people, the majority of whom civilians – Mendales said.

Although the actions of the Irgun and Lehi were more radical, Mendales stopped short of designating them terrorists. “I wouldn’t be comfortable saying they were terrorists because it’s a very politically charged and complex issue… it’s a debate which is still being voiced today,” he explained.

The United Nations (UN), the United States and the British government regarded the Irgun as a terrorist organization. Lehi members even referred to themselves as terrorists, publishing in August 1943, “Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes.” The assassination of Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat sent to the region by the UN to mediate between the Arabs and Zionists, and the massacre at Deir Yassin, were seen as two of the more radical actions taken by the Zionists in their struggle for independence. 

Yet despite such actions, these organizations were very much accepted into mainstream society in Israel, their commanders even becoming state leaders. Menachem Begin of the Irgun and Yitzhak Shamir of Lehi both became prime ministers of Israel. And here it could be argued that double standards are being applied.

“The British regarded (Yitzhak Shamir) as a terrorist the same way that we claim every Arab who stabs a soldier is a terrorist,” Yoav Gelber, a professor of history at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told The Media Line. A desire to conduct military operations without incurring a single casualty is causing Israelis to make “hysterical generalizations,” the historian argued.

“Every Palestinian who tries to attack a civilian or a soldier is an enemy, but there are different kinds of enemies: if he attacks a civilian he is a terrorist; if he attacks soldiers he is an adversary on the battlefield,” Gelber concluded.

From left to right, Israelis sour on ‘opportunist’ Donald Trump


He’s crude. He’s blunt. He’s inauthentic. He is not a man of peace.

Left and right, religious and secular, Arab and Jew, Israelis don’t have many kind words for Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner.

In interviews this week, several prominent Israelis described Trump as an opportunist and a demagogue whose political convictions are hard to make out.

“As Israelis, we look at him and laugh a little,” said Ronen Shoval, founder of the hard-line, right-wing Zionist organization Im Tirtzu. “He looks inauthentic. Men in Israel don’t color their hair like that. He looks like he’s had plastic surgery.”

Trump, who was due to speak Monday night at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., has upset many in the pro-Israel community with his promise to be “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his questioning of Israel’s commitment to peace.

In response, Trump has pointed to his role as grand marshal of New York’s 2004 Salute to Israel Parade and his Orthodox Jewish daughter and grandchildren as evidence of his pro-Israel bona fides.

According to a poll in February by the Israel Democracy Institute, three-fifths of Israeli Jews said a Trump administration would be friendly to Israel. A survey by the Israeli news website Walla found that Israelis preferred Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton to Trump by a margin of 38 to 23 percent. Clinton challenger Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, received 7 percent support, while Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio received 5 and 4 percent, respectively. Twenty-three percent did not choose a candidate.

Like many Americans concerned by Trump’s apparent encouragement of violence at his rallies and his support among white supremacists, Israelis who spoke to JTA focused more on the candidate’s character than his specific policies.

Some Israelis praised Trump’s willingness to speak bluntly, no matter the consequences. Shoval said Trump reminds him of former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, another plain-talking politician who has drawn accusations of racism for his call to have Israeli Arabs live in a Palestinian state under a future peace deal.

But others worried that Trump’s seemingly off-the-cuff convictions could change once he’s in office.

“There’s a feeling of finally, enough with political correctness, enough with the establishment,” prominent religious Zionist Rabbi Yuval Cherlow told JTA.

“The problem is that there isn’t a feeling you can trust him,” Cherlow said. “You can’t know if he’s going to do what he says. He’s not obligated to anything.”

On the left, Israelis are just as mistrustful — and less enamored by his frankness. Columnist Nahum Barnea has written that Trump is a threat to America’s democratic values and compared him to Oren Hazan, a scandal-plagued Likud lawmaker accused of bringing clients prostitutes and drugs when he managed a casino in Bulgaria.

Speaking to JTA, Barnea said Trump could be dangerous to the U.S.-Israel relationship because he’s less of a known quantity than Clinton and has weaker ties to America’s pro-Israel community.

“I think Trump is unpredictable and unobligated,” Barnea told JTA. “Hillary Clinton is predictable and obligated. The prime minister of Israel will feel comfortable with a president whose actions he can expect.”

According to Shoval, Israelis look for consistency in their ideologues and suggested that Likud voters would prefer Ted Cruz, the arch-conservative Texas senator and Trump’s closest competitor for the Republican nomination.

“Israeli society is very ideological, and Trump is viewed in Israel as an opportunist and not ideological,” Shoval said.

Israeli Arabs appear to be less engaged with the Trump phenomenon than their Jewish neighbors. Nearly half told the Israel Democracy Institute they “didn’t know” whether Trump would be friendly to Israel. Among the some 100 Israeli Arabs polled by Walla in March, a mere 7 percent supported Trump.

“From the perspective of Palestinian citizens who live in Israel, he’ll just make the situation more extreme,” said journalist Ghada Zoabi, who runs the Arab-Israeli news website Bokra. “He won’t take a positive role in leading to peace. He’s not a man of peace. He wants to celebrate the existing conflict.”

Yisrael Friedman, editor of Yated Neeman, a leading haredi Orthodox publication, said haredi Israelis have mostly been ignoring the Trump campaign out of a belief that God — not the president — controls matters of state.

“America seems to have gone crazy,” Friedman said, adding that Trump’s popularity deserves psychiatric examination. But he said only God knows which candidate would be best for the Jews.

“God will play with him like a marionette if he’s elected,” Friedman said. “At this point I’m praying for whatever’s best for the Jewish people. What’s right and good, I don’t know.”

The mufti’s hotel was just ranked the best in the Middle East (yes, that mufti)


This week we learned that the grand mufti of Jerusalem gave Hitler the idea for the Final Solution — or at least that Israel’s prime minister believes that.

But it turns out that Palestinian nationalist Haj Amin al-Husseini was not merely a notorious anti-Zionist and anti-Semite: He was also a talented hotel builder responsible in part for the acclaimed Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem.

The luxury hotel the mufti built — which has since been refurbished considerably and is under new management — was just named top hotel in the Middle East and seventh in the world in the Conde Nast Traveler’s annual Readers’ Choice Awards.

According to the Times of Israel, the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem, previously the Palace Hotel, opened in 2014 following a $50 million refurbishment. The original hotel, located in western Jerusalem, near Independence Park, was empty for years, then used for government offices by both the British Mandate and Israel — and then vacant again.

Citing a recent Israeli TV report, the Times of Israel said Israel’s pre-state Haganah planted listening devices in the hotel’s chandeliers to spy on meetings of Britain’s Peel Commission held from late 1936 to mid-1937.

Jerusalem’s Mamilla Hotel and King David Hotel also made the Middle East top 10 list .

According to GoJerusalem, a tourism website, the Palace was built in 1928-29 “under the order of Jerusalem’s Supreme Muslim Council and supervised by the infamous mufti of Jerusalem.”

The engineer supervising the hundreds of Arab workers was Jewish and a Haganah member (facilitating the spying incident later). But, GoJerusalem writes, the Palace didn’t stay in business long:

Due to a hardcore rivalry, much deceit (during the excavation, it was revealed that the site was an old Muslim cemetery – the Mufti covered this up) and a dash of sabotage between the British-appointed Arab mayor and the mufti, the hotel was destined to fail. Management of the hotel was handed over to a local corrupt hotelier, but it was eventually forced to close its doors once the King David opened down the block.

The Iran deal is done: What history should teach us


Thirty-four senators — 32 Democrats plus two Independents who caucus with the Democrats — have come out in favor of the Iran deal, enough to sustain a presidential veto, so approval of the deal with Iran and five American partners is a foregone conclusion. The questions to ask now are what have we learned and how will we go forward?

Permit me to turn to history and to examine Jewish identity in relation to Israel, an identity shaped by age and by history. For Jews in their 80s and 90s, there is the direct recollection of the Holocaust and the overwhelming gratitude that they naturally feel for the establishment of the State of Israel as a haven for the Jewish people, a place of refuge and an insurance policy for oppressed and endangered Jews everywhere.

My generation, which followed these elders, was shaped by the events in Israel of 1967 and 1973, and so, in turn, we created what Jonathan Woocher described in the 1980s as the Judaism of Sacred Survival: remembrance of the Holocaust entwined with a commitment to Israel’s survival. These two elements were central to our being Jewish, whether we were pious or secular, Orthodox or liberal.

The Judaism of Sacred Survival eroded over time. 

For some, the erosion began in 1982 with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon — perceived by many in Israel and in the United States as Israel’s first war of choice — further stained by its bloody and indecisive aftermath. 

For others, the First Intifada changed their perception of Israel from David to Goliath, and raised the Palestinian question to the fore.

For still others, religious Zionists and secular nationalists, a very different segment of Jews in America, the erosion took place in 1993 when the government of Israel established relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization — hitherto Israel’s arch enemy — and it seemed as if Israel might withdraw from areas of the West Bank and compromise the nationalist and messianic dream of the Greater Land of Israel that had fueled them. Some of Israel’s most ardent Jewish-American supporters openly criticized the government of Israel, and a sharp religious division developed between Orthodox Jewish religious Zionists — who were joined later by evangelical Zionists — and more liberal Jews concerned about Israel’s future as both a Jewish and democratic State. Battle lines were drawn, and Israel no longer was a consensus issue for the Jewish-American community. Support for Israel came to be  followed by the question: “What type of Israel?”

For the millennial generation, the experience of Israel has been different, defined by three recent wars — two in Gaza and one in Lebanon, as well as the ongoing battles in the Middle East with and among the Muslim factions of Afghanistan, Iraq, al-Qaida, Syria, Libya and ISIS. More than a dozen years into the crossfire, many of even the most informed American Jews cannot tell you the difference between Shia and Sunni or divide the Muslim populations accordingly. Therefore, many Jews are hesitant about the exercise of military might — American or Israeli — for fear of igniting an even worse outcome, as happened in Iraq.

These various groups of Jews also have major differences in perceptions of Israel. Some perceive Israel as successful and powerful, an economic marvel and a regional military superpower. Others perceive Israel as dependent and vulnerable. They can’t shake the feeling that Jews are always victims, never victors, acted upon in history and not actors in history. The reality is probably that Israel is both. With all its power, Israel has had to confront the limitations of power in each of the post 1967 wars, and with all its pride in Jewish independence, we all live in an interdependent world, and Israel is no exception.

We see the same reality through two very different lenses.

So what have we learned from the Iran deal debate?

It is difficult to defeat the U.S. president on an issue he regards as central to national security. 

Some of us remember how difficult it was to oppose the Vietnam War almost a half century ago. Others will recall the contentious battle and loss in 1981 when Jews attempted to persuade Congress to vote down the newly installed Ronald Reagan administration’s plan (begun by the Jimmy Carter administration) to sell five AWACS (Airborne Warning and Command System) to Saudi Arabia. Still others will note that we still have no congressional action in the war with ISIS. The War Resolution is stalled in Congress, which does not want to assume the responsibility of a vote. Presidential power is significant, and what the U.S. president declares to be in the national interest usually carries the day — this president, any president.

The Israeli prime minister’s speech to Congress failed. 

Invited by Speaker of the House John Boehner, who sought to embarrass the president, at the initiative of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a former Republican operative, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the joint session of Congress made support for the Iran deal — any deal, because at the time the shape of the deal wasn’t known — a partisan issue. The letter sent by 47 Republican senators to Iran only made the issue more partisan, and to date, only two Democratic senators — Charles Schumer (New York) and Robert Menendez (New Jersey) — have come out openly against the deal. Someone misjudged the prime minister’s political strategy. The gamble did not work. So, too, the gambles that preceded it of going partisan in the 2012 elections, and of doing battle with the president early on over what seem like peripheral issues, if Iran is indeed an existential issue.

Today, Jewish organizations, which almost uniformly opposed the deal, have a credibility problem. 

For whom do they speak and what do they represent? One now must wonder whether they speak for the Jews of the United States, who, according to multiple surveys, were far more supportive of the deal than the general American populace, or merely for their membership and older donor base. Have they alienated younger Jews, more liberal Jews? Many may have to recalibrate their message if not their programs.

President Barack Obama’s legacy and the fate of the deal are inextricably linked. 

If the deal works, his judgment will be vindicated. If Iran cheats and develops the bomb, if in that event sanctions cannot be reimposed, or he and/or his successor are unable to engage in strong diplomatic action or effective military action, then Obama’s historical reputation is tarnished and his critics will be correct in regarding him as naïve or as having been taken for a sucker, to use a term that Jewish Journal readers are familiar with. This question provides an important convergence of interest between the president and his critics, and one that should be built upon. Assuming that the president is interested in his historical legacy — and few presidents aren’t — this will be significant leverage going forward.

As to Jews, we have to learn once again how to talk with one another without accusations, and how to fight with one another so that, in the end, we can affirm one another’s fears, values and concerns, even as we vehemently disagree over the potential outcome. Otherwise, a deep divide can grow even deeper. Jews do not speak with one voice. Perhaps we never did, and we may have to learn to harmonize discordant tones.

Now that we have the deal, we have to make it better. Because Jews will face significant problems in the future. It is imperative that we can face them together.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com

To those who hear anti-Semitism when it is not there


I’ve learned a new term: “dog whistle.” The term was used by Lee Smith, a political columnist for the online magazine Tablet, who wrote that President Barack Obama was “hinting broadly at anti-Semitic conceits — like dual loyalties, moneyed interests, Jewish lobbies — to scare off Democrats tempted to vote against” the Iran nuclear deal. Obama didn’t say Jews were leading the opposition, but he hinted at a frequency that sensitive ears could hear — he dog whistled.

As someone who has spent his life studying anti-Semitism, you’d think my hearing would be extra-sensitive. But I heard the president’s speech at American University (AU) and heard nothing of the sort. In fact, I heard a man going out of his way to make sure that he had paid attention to the concerns of Israel and American Jewish organizations even as he disagreed with them.

At AU, the president said, “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.” That is true. Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton suggested that this is an appropriate time to attack Iran — and Bolton is not Jewish. 

The president went on to say, “I do think it is important to acknowledge another more understandable motivation behind the opposition to this deal, or at least skepticism to this deal, and that is a sincere affinity for our friend and ally Israel. An affinity that, as someone who has been a stalwart friend to Israel throughout my career, I deeply share.”

The president went on to say: “No one can blame Israelis for having a deep skepticism about any dealings with a government like Iran’s — which includes leaders who have denied the Holocaust, embrace an ideology of anti-Semitism, facilitate the flow of rockets that are arrayed on Israel’s borders are pointed at Tel Aviv. In such a dangerous neighborhood, Israel has to be vigilant, and it rightly insists that it cannot depend on any other country — even its great friend the United States — for its own security. So we have to take seriously concerns in Israel.”

These certainly don’t sound like the words of an anti-Semite, but rather of a Zionist. These are the words of someone who believes Israel has the right to defend itself, and who has assisted Israel in its self-defense. These words reflect the ethos of Zionism far better than those of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who believes that the president is somehow on the verge of sending Jews to the ovens — as if Israel has no IsraelDefense Forces and is not a strong, secure nation. (After those comments, Huckabee had the audacity to travel to Israel to raise funds.)

In his AU speech, the president attacked the predominance of money in our political life. And when the president said “money,” his opponents heard “Jewish” money — which he did not say — and immediately made the anti-Semitic associations. They heard anti-Semitism. I did not.

But let’s be truthful. Let’s be unapologetic. Jews are powerful. Let us not deny it. It is much better to be powerful than powerless. We are never as powerful as our enemies imagine us to be, nor as powerless as we sometimes see ourselves.

Some Jews, not all and not most, are wealthy, let us not deny it either. It is better to be wealthy than poor.

There is a massive, ongoing lobbying effort against the agreement. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has suspended all staff vacations, amassed a $30 million fund and flown in 700 of its top supporters to oppose the agreement. Full-page ads appear in prominent newspapers — general and Jewish. The prime minister of Israel has spoken to 10,000 American Jews. Israeli officials have been flown in to speak to Jewish audiences. American Jewish organizations are mobilizing significant resources. Are we to pretend that there is not an intense lobbying effort? By calling attention to that lobbying effort, is one somehow saying that lobbying is illegitimate, inappropriate and not within the general practices of American life?

Those who hear dog whistles when they aren’t being blown reflect a deep insecurity about being American, Jewish and pro-Israel. They dread the idea of being accused of dual loyalties—as if all of us don’t live with conflicting loyalties. There is no reason to pretend that many Jews — I wish it were many more — have loyalty to the State of Israel. I certainly do, though my loyalty does not necessarily translate into support for the policies of the government of Israel and its prime minister. These same Jews have loyalty  and pledge allegiance to the United States, the land in which they live and vote. I certainly do. These loyalties are often harmonious. U.S. interests and Israeli interests most often — but not always — coincide; after all, we are allies. The best of U.S. values and the best of Israeli values often coincide; after all, we are both democratic societies committed to human rights and human dignity. When they clash, there is tension, and American Jews are torn. The president has acknowledged the legitimacy of Jewish affinity to Israel time and again. To be torn is not to be treasonous; to be torn is not to be disloyal. 

To my ears, what the president said is not anti-Semitic; it is fact. But opponents of the agreement argue that overriding the veto and embarrassing the president of the United States and making him powerless before the world, isolating Israel and the United States and permitting Iran to get the bomb without violating an agreement, is in the best interest of the United States. So they yell, “Dog whistle!” 

But there is no dog whistle. Israel’s prime minister has chosen, for reasons of his own, to become a political adversary of the president of the United States. The American Jewish establishment, in aligning with him, has pushed itself into a lose-lose situation. If the president’s veto is overturned, most of the sanctions will end; the U.S. and Israel will be isolated; Iran will be unencumbered to develop a nuclear bomb; U.S. leadership in the world will be diminished, which is profoundly dangerous to Israel; and anti-Semites — or those suspected of being anti-Semites, such as “The Israel Lobby” authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer — will have what they will regard as clear and convincing evidence that Jews control America. Many American Jews — who are more supportive of the deal than the general American populace — will be further alienated from Jewish institutional life.

If the deal goes through, American Jews will have flexed their muscles but still demonstrated that what the president determines to be in U.S. national interest almost always prevails. The American public and the world will discover that the prime minister of Israel does not speak for the Jews, and that Jewish organizations represent their donors, rather than the Jews in whose name they speak.

I would not be concerned with the charges of anti-Semitism, except that they lower the bar beyond recognition. There are real anti-Semites — dangerous anti-Semites — in this world. Jews uniquely understand the history of people who have hated and murdered us just for being Jewish. To say that Barack Obama is an anti-Semite, or even insinuate he hates Jews, dangerously misrepresents the real danger of actual anti-Semites and anti-Semitism.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.

Where does Bernie Sanders, the Jewish candidate for president, stand on Israel?


Bernie Sanders’ best friend is a Zionist who teaches Jewish philosophy, he had a formative experience on a kibbutz and “Saturday Night Live” dubbed him the “old Jew.”

Still, Sanders can’t get away from the inevitable “But where is he on Israel?” question, especially now that the Democratic presidential contender, an Independent senator from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, has pulled ahead of Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire, the first primary state.

“Do you view yourself as a Zionist?” the left-leaning online magazine Vox asked Sanders in a July 28 interview.

It’s a funny question for Sanders, who if there were an “out and proud” metric for Jews in politics would score high.

Sanders, 73, is best friends with Richard Sugarman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the University of Vermont who champions Zionism to his left-leaning students. His other best friend – and former chief of staff – is Huck Gutman, a University of Vermont professor of literature who is a passionate aficionado of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai.

When the comedian Sarah Silverman introduced Sanders at an Aug. 10 rally in Los Angeles, she shunted aside for a moment her caustic Jewish shtick.

“His moral compass and sense of values inspires me,” she said. “He always seems to be on the right side of history.”

Silverman ticked off a list of Sanders’ qualifications that align him with positions that polls show American Jews overwhelmingly favor: for same-sex marriage, for civil rights, against the Iraq war. She might have added favoring universally available health care.

“He is a man of the people,” Silverman said. “He has to be; his name is Bernie.”

Fresh out of the University of Chicago and already deeply involved in left-wing activism, Sanders spent several months in the mid-1960s on a. The Brooklyn-born and accented Sanders has been shaped by the murder of his father’s extended family in the Holocaust.

“As everyone in this room knows, I am a Jew, an old Jew,” actor Fred Armisen said while playing Sanders in a 2013 “Saturday Night Live” sketch.

Sanders’ well-known pique surfaced in June when Diane Rehm, the NPR talk show host, declaratively told him he had dual U.S.-Israel citizenship, citing an anti-Semitic meme circulating on the Internet.

“Well, no, I do not have dual citizenship with Israel,” Sanders said. “I’m an American. I don’t know where that question came from. I am an American citizen, and I have visited Israel on a couple of occasions. No, I’m an American citizen, period.”

So where does Bernie Sanders stand on Israel? Here’s a review.

He backs Israel, but he believes in spending less on defense assistance to Israel and more on economic assistance in the Middle East.

Is Sanders a Zionist? Here’s what he told Vox’s Ezra Klein:

“A Zionist? What does that mean? Want to define what the word is? Do I think Israel has the right to exist? Yeah, I do. Do I believe that the United States should be playing an even-handed role in terms of its dealings with the Palestinian community in Israel? Absolutely I do.

“Again, I think that you have volatile regions in the world, the Middle East is one of them, and the United States has got to work with other countries around the world to fight for Israel’s security and existence at the same time as we fight for a Palestinian state where the people in that country can enjoy a decent standard of living, which is certainly not the case right now. My long-term hope is that instead of pouring so much military aid into Israel, into Egypt, we can provide more economic aid to help improve the standard of living of the people in that area.”

He will defend Israel to a hostile crowd, but will also fault Israel – and will shout down hecklers.

At a town hall in Cabot, Vermont, during last summer’s Gaza war, a constituent commended Sanders for not signing onto a Senate resolution that solely blamed Hamas for the conflict, but wondered if he would “go further.”

“Has Israel overreacted? Have they bombed U.N. facilities? The answer is yes, and that is terribly, terribly wrong,” Sanders said.

“On the other hand – and there is another hand – you have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel – a fact – and you know where some of those missiles are coming from. They’re coming from populated areas; that’s a fact. Hamas is using money that came into Gaza for construction purposes – and God knows they need roads and all the things that they need – and used some of that money to build these very sophisticated tunnels into Israel for military purposes.”

Hecklers interrupted, some shouting epithets.

“Excuse me, shut up, you don’t have the microphone,” Sanders said. “You asked the question, I’m answering it. This is called democracy. I am answering a question and I do not want to be disturbed.”

His critical but supportive posture on Israel has been consistent and has included using assistance as leverage.

As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1988, Sanders was asked if he backed then-candidate for president Jesse Jackson’s support for the Palestinians during the first intifada. Sanders excoriated what he depicted as Israeli brutality as well as Arab extremism.

“What is going on in the Middle East right now is obviously a tragedy, there’s no question about it. The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable,” he said at a news conference, according to video unearthed by Alternet writer Zaid Jilani. “You have had a crisis there for 30 years, you have had people at war for 30 years, you have a situation with some Arab countries where there are still some Arab leadership calling for the destruction of the State of Israel and the murder of Israeli citizens.”

Sanders said the United States should exercise the prerogative it has as an economic power.

“We are pouring billions of dollars in arms into Arab countries. We have the clout to demand they and Israel, who we’re also heavily financing, to begin to sit down and work out a sensible solution to the problem which would guarantee the existence of the State of Israel and which would also protect Palestinian rights,” he said.

He doesn’t think the Iran nuclear deal is perfect, but he backs it.

“It’s so easy to be critical of an agreement which is not perfect,” he told CBS News on Aug. 7. “But the United States has to negotiate with, you know, other countries. We have to negotiate with Iran. And the alternative of not reaching an agreement, you know what it is? It’s war. Do we really want another war, a war with Iran? An asymmetrical warfare that will take place all over this world, threatening American troops? So I think we go as far as we possibly can in trying to give peace a chance, if you like. Trying to see if this agreement will work. And I will support it.”

What it’s like to be an Iranian Jew


Time was, you could claim to be a patriotic Iranian, a supporter of Israel and a lover of the United States all at once and be believed by most Iranians. You could say you were all three things without pretense or contradiction, or the need to rank your loyalties in order of intensity, or to distinguish between your support for Israel as a nation, as opposed to any one of its governments. That’s what we thought anyway, we Jewish Iranians whose ancestors had lived in Iran for 3,000 years. 

The mullahs had always said differently — that Jews were not “real” Iranians; that our existence was a threat to the rest of the nation; that we had lain in wait for a millennium and a half for the Arabs to come and convert most Iranians to Islam, only so we could use the blood of Muslim children in the baking of matzahs. 

The mullahs said this, and the large majority of Muslim Iranians believed them. Then, somewhere between the late 1920s, when Reza Shah’s government began to protect us against the mullahs and their troops of believers, and late in 1978, when his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, was forced out of the country, Jewish Iranians were allowed to be both things at once, in equal degrees, and to be patriotic Iranians as well as supporters of Israel. 

Then the mullahs returned, and unless we actively denounced Israel and claimed support for the Palestinian cause, we all became Zionist spies, a fifth column in Iran whose only goal was to enslave and humiliate God-fearing Muslim Arabs. You could be a Jew who despised Israel, or you could be an enemy of God, Islam and Iran. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said this, and the large majority of Muslim Iranians believed him. Never mind the age-old enmity between Iranians and Arabs, Shia and Sunni; the collective Iranian memory of conquering Arab armies laying waste to any signs of civilization; the stereotype of the “insect-eating Arab” as primitive and intellectually challenged. When it came to the matter of a bunch of Jews getting the best of a sea of Muslims, just about every Iranian mullah became a human rights lawyer.

Khomeini said a lot of things that a lot of Muslim Iranians believed. So did — do — his political heirs. Many of those original believers have greatly benefited from the mullahs’ regime over the years and continue to support it today. Others have come to realize that they were duped. Whether still in Iran or living abroad, they distrust just about every claim made by the mullahs. Except, I’m afraid, what has to do with Israel and Zionism. 

My Muslim Iranian friends will take offense at this narrative or reject its veracity outright. They’ll tell you that Persian culture is among the most tolerant, accepting and enlightened in history. They’ll be right. That to be moved by the plight of the Palestinian people or outraged by the acts of the Israeli government is not the same as being anti-Semitic. That loving Iran and its people does not mean condoning the policies and practices of its current regime. That prejudice and fanaticism are not the sole domain of Muslims. They’ll be right. 

But try, as I have, to explain to these same highly educated, vastly tolerant, otherwise broad-minded Muslim Iranians that the same truths apply to Jewish Iranians, their loyalties and priorities and, these days, their reasons for mainly disapproving of the Iran deal. Try to do that, and what you’ll get is the same old “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” diatribe that George W. Bush and former-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were both so fond of. 

Not that it’s of any consequence anywhere, but I happen to think that the Iran deal is a very bad idea whose time has come. By this I mean that I believe it will strengthen the Iranian regime and enable it to continue to oppress the Iranian nation and terrorize everyone else in the region and around the globe; that I do not believe, for a second, that the mullahs will stop pursuing the bomb for the next 10 years or ever; that until Islam goes through a reformation as did Christianity, there is no such thing — really — as a “moderate” mullah, or a “tolerant” regime based on any religion, or a government of the mullahs that will not use Jews and Israel as a rallying cry for its armies of believers. 

But the United States needs Iran to fight ISIS; the multinational companies and their allies within Western government are champing at the bit to tap the billions of dollars worth of trade they will be able to conduct with Iran after the sanctions are lifted; that Europe, Russia and China will most likely abandon the United States should it decide to push for a better deal; and that President Barack Obama, whose foreign policy has been nonexistent, has left himself and his government no choice but to move ahead with this deal. 

I don’t like it, but I don’t see how it can be avoided. Fortunately for me and the rest of the planet, I don’t have to vote yes or no on this one. I just get to say how I feel, which, as my friends like to say, is likely to alienate both sides of the argument.

Most Muslim Iranians I know vehemently support the deal. They say they do so because they love Iran and the Iranian people, that the only alternative to this deal is war, which they don’t want, and that it’s also a good deal for the United States. I believe they’re honest in their reasoning and their intentions. I don’t think their support of the deal makes them in any way anti-Semitic. I don’t think it factors into the equation either Israel’s interests or, alas, the harm Israel may suffer as a result of the deal. In this one case, I believe they’re pro-Iran and Israel-neutral. 

Most Jewish Iranians, on the other hand, vehemently oppose it. The reasons they offer are very similar to mine: It’s bad for Americans, for Israelis, for Jews anywhere within reach of the Iranian regime, and for Iranians anywhere who would like a real alternative to what the mullahs have had to offer. 

The fact that my Muslim friends disagree with me doesn’t bother me. I happen to think they’re indulging in some heavy doses of wishful thinking, just as so many of them did when they helped overthrow the shah and invite in the mullahs. Then again, they may be right about this one. And they’re certainly entitled to being wrong.

What is painful for me and, I dare say, many other Jewish Iranians, is the Muslims’ seemingly visceral, absolute, and unquestioning certainty that we oppose the deal because we’re any less Iranian. 

In this iteration, Jewish Iranians have always placed the interests of Israel above those of Iran and the Iranian nation. Most Jews left Iran after the revolution, they say, because they weren’t really Iranian in the first place; didn’t have much of an attachment to the place anyway; their love and loyalty is to Israel and only Israel, not even to the United States, where most of them now live; they’d easily trade the lives of millions of Americans and Iranians in a war, even a nuclear one, if it were good for Israel. 

Well, my Muslim friends, I’m here to say that on the question of Iranian Jews, you’ve been wrong in the past and are wrong now. My ancestors were loyal, ardent and productive subjects of the Persian Empire and lovers of the Persian culture long before Islam came to destroy the one and try to erase the other. They were not — as the mullahs claimed after they threw anchor in Iran — spies, guests or simply “not real Iranians.” They maintained their love for the country even as they were humiliated, oppressed, beaten and even killed by some Muslim Iranians. In 1978 and thereafter, they left Iran for the very same reasons that Muslim Iranians left — because they were afraid for their lives or loathe to be subjects of the mullahs. Their departure doesn’t prove that they didn’t, or don’t now, love the country and its people. Their being given safe harbor in America, Israel or Europe does mean that their allegiance is now first and foremost to their adopted country, its flag and its constitution. That doesn’t make them anti-Iran. Or pro-Benjamin Netanyahu. Or war mongers. It makes them good citizens of the nation that gave them safe harbor when their own people were calling for their heads. 

As for the Iran deal, the only thing Jewish Iranians’ dislike of it proves is that they have a better sense of history than most American legislators, and that they may engage in less wishful thinking than most Muslim Iranians. 

Then again, this is not simply an argument about one policy or another. For Jews still in Iran, Muslim Iranians’ opinion of how “real” the Jews are can be a matter of life and death. For the rest of us Jews — as for the Iranians who escaped persecution, the Iraqis, Egyptians, Syrians and other Arabs who were driven out by force — it’s an open wound that bleeds every time we have to “prove” that we belonged.

Gina Nahai’s new novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

Theodore Bikel, actor, singer and activist, 91


Theodore Bikel, folk singer, actor, liberal activist, Zionist and multilinguist, died of natural causes July 21 at the UCLA Medical Center. He was 91.

Nicknamed Theo, Bikel was born in 1924 in Vienna and, as a 14-year-old in 1938, watched as Nazi troops march into his hometown upon Germany’s annexation of Austria. Soon afterward, the family moved to Palestine, where young Bikel spent the next few years working on a kibbutz. He began acting as a teenager, moving to London in 1945 to study dramatic art, and to the United States in 1954.

[Bikel on what wisdom he would pass on to the next generation]

Considered one of the most versatile actors of his generation, Bikel originated the role of Capt. Georg von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music.” But the performer may be best remembered as the definitive Tevye the Milkman, polishing the role during 2,200 performances of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

As a versatile and multilingual movie actor who had more than 150 roles on the silver screen, he was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor, playing a Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones.”

He performed in hundreds of television shows, ranging from “Gunsmoke” to “All in the Family,” and was in more than 35 stage productions around the world.

As an ardent political and Zionist activist, Bikel served as senior vice president of the American Jewish Congress, and held leadership roles in the Democratic Party, Amnesty International and was the president of Actors Equity from 1973 to 1982. He was an early and powerful advocate for Soviet Jews, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era, and was active in the anti-apartheid movement against the South African government.

In his 2002 autobiography, “Theo: An Autobiography,” Bikel wrote that not returning to Israel from London in 1948 was the hardest moral decision of his life. “A few of my contemporaries regarded what I did as a character flaw, if not a downright act of desertion,” Bikel wrote. “In me, there remains a small, still voice, that asks where I can ever fully acquit myself in my own mind.”

A few years later, in 2010, Bikel signed on to a letter that expressed support for Israeli actors, directors and producers who refused to perform in Ariel, an Israeli urban settlement in the West Bank. “I think I am more Zionist than anyone who thinks you should accept everything they say in Jerusalem as truth,” Bikel said at the time in an interview with the Forward.

He gloried most in the his role as a folksinger, telling the Jewish Journal in an extended interview in late 2013 that he was proudest of “presenting the songs of my people, songs of pain and songs of hope.”

Shortly after the interview, the one-time refugee returned to Vienna at the invitation of the Austrian parliament to accept the country’s highest honor in the arts. As a finale, Bikel asked the distinguished audience to rise, as he sang “The Song of the Partisans” in Yiddish. He also sang and recorded songs in Hebrew, Russian and Ladino.

Bikel never stopped working, touring film festivals that screened the 2014 documentary “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” on which he was the executive producer.

As news broke Tuesday of Bikel’s death, local friends of Bikel’s in Hollywood, politics and Jewish life extended their condolences. Zev Yaroslavsky, a longtime supervisor in L.A. County, and, like Bikel, a former outspoken advocate for Soviet Jewry, wrote in a statement that Bikel was one of his “personal heroes.” 

“I have known Theo since 1970 when I was a college student,” Yaroslavsky wrote. “He was one of my personal heroes. The times I spent with him are among the most memorable of my life. The world has lost one of its great humanitarians, and I have lost one of my greatest friends.”

Musician Craig Taubman was another of the actor’s longtime friends.

“I sat with Theo the other day and asked him what it was that made art so powerful,” he told the Journal. “He said, ‘Through the prism of art we become what we were meant to be, spiritual human beings. Souls untied from the heaviness of the body.’ Theo is untied by the heaviness of his body — may his art live on as a gift for generations to come.”

Actor Ed Asner, who used to run the Screen Actors Guild, previously said about Bikel: “To be with him is to be in the presence of greatness.”

For his tombstone, Bikel told a Journal interviewer, he planned the inscription, “He Was the Singer of His People” — in Yiddish.

Survivors include his wife, Aimee, sons Rob and Danny, stepsons Zeev and Noam Ginsburg, and three grandchildren.

Donations may be made to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger or to The Actors Fund.

FROM AARON PALEY: 

“Theo Bikel was a giant when it comes to Yiddish and Yiddish song. My earliest memories are of my parents playing his Yiddish folk songs albums in the house. He graciously leveraged his celebrity to support Yiddish, and it was his Yiddish “neshome” which informed his mentshlikhkayt. We were lucky to have him – and even luckier as a community that he chose to make Los Angeles his home.”

Why are liberals bashing Michael Oren?


After interviewing former ambassador Michael Oren last week at the Museum of Tolerance, and reading countless articles attacking him, I think I’ve figured out why his new book, “Ally,” has struck such a sensitive nerve, especially with pro-Obama liberal Zionists.

In case you’ve been on Mars lately, Oren has been under relentless attack for his candid and sharp criticism of President Barack Obama and his policies, which he believes have hurt Israel. As his friend Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in the Times of Israel, “Michael has been called everything from a publicity hound to a virtual traitor sacrificing Israel’s relations with its most important ally for the sole purpose of selling books.”

What is disappointing is that much of the criticism has little to do with the main thrust of the book, which is Obama’s record on Israel and the Middle East. Why is that?  .

After all, it’s not as if liberal Zionists who support Obama can’t handle criticism of their president – they live with that all the time. What is it about Oren’s particular criticism that has made so many of them so defensive?

The candid analysis in “Ally” serves as a cautionary tale for all future leaders and activists who care about the two-state solution.

It’s not just what you’re hearing — that the Obama administration and its supporters are concerned that Oren’s criticism of the Iranian nuclear deal will undermine final negotiations. That is a part of it, but there’s more.

Think about it. What is the crown jewel of liberal Zionist aspirations? What is the one thing they crave above all else that will secure a Jewish and democratic Israel? That’s right, the two-state solution.

Oren’s book is threatening to liberal Zionists because it makes a compelling case that their hero Obama has severely undermined the very thing they crave – negotiations towards a two-state solution.

With the sharp eye of a historian, Oren explains how, in Obama’s zeal to create diplomatic “daylight” with Israel while reaching out to the Arab/Muslim world, Obama brought terminal darkness to the peace process.

By making Israeli settlements the major obstacle to peace, Obama ignored fundamental obstacles such as chronic Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state and the teaching of Jew-hatred in Palestinian society. By pressuring only Israel — the one party that has, in the past, evacuated settlements and made peace offers that got rejected — he gave Palestinian leadership zero incentive to negotiate, let alone make any concessions.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu’s grating style and bunker mentality certainly didn’t help matters, Oren reminds us that, despite opposition from his own party, Netanyahu declared support for a two-state solution and implemented a settlement freeze that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “unprecedented.” In any case, once Obama launched his “pressure only Israel” policy at the beginning of his term, the die of failure was cast.

From the get-go, Obama’s approach turned off the majority of Israelis and made them unwilling to take more risks for peace. In one of the crucial insights of his book, Oren notes that Israelis take risks when they feel secure there is no daylight with America, and that having no daylight on military security but plenty of daylight on diplomacy simply doesn’t work in the Middle East.

The irony, of course, is that Obama’s obsession with pressuring Israel ended up killing the incentive for both sides to negotiate. This is not a personal criticism of Obama, it’s an anatomy of a failure. Even if you believe that the president was motivated by “tough love” for Israel, it’s hard not to conclude that his policy resulted in one big failure for both sides.

This is a painful pill for many liberal Zionists to swallow, especially when delivered by a reputable historian and longtime champion of the two-state solution. Oren’s credible voice has forced his critics to confront the unpleasant possibility that it was their man Obama – and not the hated Netanyahu – who failed them the most on a cause they so cherish.

The candid analysis in “Ally” serves as a cautionary tale for all future leaders and activists who care about the two-state solution. Instead of demonizing Oren, his critics should engage him on the substance. For starters, a good debate coming out of his book would be this: Who is most responsible for the failure of the peace process — Obama, Netanyahu or Abbas?

Right now, because most of the attention is on the endgame negotiations with Iran, it’s easy to overlook the sorry saga of the failed negotiations with the Palestinians. But this is an issue that will not go away. If you want to better understand the hysterical reaction to Oren’s book, his analysis of this saga is a good place to start.

Oren had the chutzpah to tell diehard Obama supporters something they never wanted to hear, and, in return, he got weapons of mass distraction.

Watch the full event: A Special Evening with Michael Oren


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

Torn between two loves: A review of Michael Oren’s new book


A plate of cheese and crackers served to hungry Israeli officials at the White House is one of the many images that lingered after I read Michael Oren’s riveting new book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.” The book is an insider account of Oren’s tenure as the Israeli ambassador to the United States during an especially stormy time from 2009 to 2013. Those storms are sure to get most of the attention, but it would be a mistake to overlook the first part of the book, a condensed autobiography that plants the seeds for a crucial theme that hovers above the entire book.

That theme is dual loyalty.

In modern parlance, “dual loyalty” is usually used as a pejorative, an accusation that an American Jew may feel more loyalty to Israel than to the United States.

The astonishing thing about Oren’s book is that he has, to a certain extent, redeemed the term. The “dual loyalty” the reader feels in “Ally” is not tinged by the poison of betrayal. Rather, it is imbued with a sense of generosity, a sense that an American with an Israeli passport can genuinely love both countries deeply, even when those countries quarrel. 

Loyalty is a charged term, because it implies one must choose, and Oren certainly “chooses” Israel the minute he gives up his U.S. passport, as is required by law to become a foreign envoy. But it is a wrenching moment for him, as he believes in that U.S. passport — “in the history it symbolized, the values it proclaimed.”

Oren is aware of the nation’s darker legacies, but that does not make him less sentimental about America: “My eyes still misted during the national anthem, brightened at the sight of Manhattan’s skyline, and marveled at the Rockies from thirty-five thousand feet.”

His love for America is filled with gratitude. “From the time that all four of my grandparents arrived on Ellis Island, through the Great Depression, in which they raised my parents, and the farm-bound community in which I grew up, America held out the chance to excel. True, prejudice was prevalent, but so, too, was our ability to fight it. Unreservedly, I referred to Americans as ‘we.’ ”

Oren’s gratitude is deepened by his own personal struggles: “Overweight and so pigeon-toed that I had to wear an excruciating leg brace at night, I was hopeless at sports. And severe learning disabilities consigned me to the ‘dumb’ classes at school, where I failed to grasp elementary math and learn to write legibly.”

Driven to succeed, Oren fought to overcome these obstacles, forging himself into an athlete, teaching himself grammar and spelling, learning to write poetry and eventually attending Ivy League schools. “All the hallmarks of an American success became mine,” he acknowledges, “thanks in part to uniquely American opportunities.”

His love for Israel sprouted as his success in America grew. As early as age 12, he had a keen sense of history, “an awareness that I was not just a lone Jew living in late 1960s America, but part of a global Jewish collective stretching back millennia.”

If America made him strong, the thought of Israel made him stronger. When he made aliyah in 1979, Oren drew upon the inner fortitude he had developed in America to overcome the enormous physical challenge of becoming a paratrooper in the Israeli military. 

There was no contradiction between his two loves. In meetings of the Zionist youth movement, he often heard the famous words of Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice: “Every American Jew who supported Zionism was a better American for doing so.”

The United States and Israel, Oren came to appreciate, “were both democracies, both freedom-loving, and similarly determined to defend their independence. One could be — in fact, should be — a Zionist as well as a patriotic American, because the two countries stood for identical ideals.”

As an author, professor and historian living in Israel, Oren could indulge in the idealized marriage of Zionism and America that so nourished his childhood. The relationship between the two countries was so organic that he never felt he had to choose — choosing one meant choosing both.

That luxury was gone when he became ambassador.

This is the real drama of Oren’s book: watching him navigate the innumerable conflicts between the country he loves and represents and the country he loves but cannot represent. At the outset, Oren acknowledges that “the two countries had changed markedly and were in danger of drifting apart,” but he believed he could “help prevent that by representing Jerusalem to Washington as well as Israel to the United States.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone better prepared for the task.

From the minute he put on his “armor,” the crises came and never let up, from the unyielding Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the existential threat of a nuclear Iran. Inevitably, the character that looms largest in the whole drama is President Barack Obama.

The book gives us a blow-by-blow of a turbulent relationship between friends, with Oren at the heart of the drama. A big part of the book’s appeal is in its narrative texture — the late-night phone calls, the emergency meetings, the interrupted family trips, the tense summons at the State Department or White House, the strategy sessions at the embassy, and so on. It is Oren's sharp storytelling mixed with his candid and insightful commentary that makes the book riveting.

While always respectful when speaking about Obama, Oren is also too honest and too knowledgeable to let the president off the hook whenever he thinks he is mistaken, which is often. The tension builds when these mistakes are seen as hurting the country Oren is sworn to protect. Oren is relentless and crafty in making Israel’s case, but he’s up against an indomitable force: The most powerful man in the world has decided to put distance, or “daylight,” between America and Israel.

Oren’s problem is not with America, but with Obama — and he proceeds to show us how Obama’s distancing policy has come to hurt Israel.

Oren recounts, for example, the infamous “daylight meeting” with Jewish leaders at the White House, when Obama disagreed with Malcolm Hoenlein’s contention that “Israelis took risks only when they were convinced that the United States stood with them.” 

Oren explains how Obama “recalled the eight years when Bush backed Israel unequivocally but never produced peace,” and then he delivers the president’s knockout punch: “When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines and that erodes our credibility with the Arabs.”

This view has always appeared reasonable to a large segment of American Jews, especially those who favor Obama and disliked Bush. But Oren punches back.

First, he corrects Obama’s assertion that Israel just sits on the sidelines when there’s no daylight: “Bush’s support for Israel had, in fact, emboldened [Ehud] Olmert to propose establishing a Palestinian state — an offer ignored by Mahmoud Abbas.”

Then, he delivers a knockout punch of his own. He’s grateful for Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security, but in the Middle East, Oren writes, security is largely a product of impressions. Seen in that context, Obama’s approach of “no daylight on security but daylight on diplomacy” leaves Israel vulnerable and reduces its power of deterrence. “A friend who stands by his friends on some issues but not others is, in Middle Eastern eyes, not really a friend. In a region famous for its unforgiving sun, any daylight is searing.”

The daylight was certainly blinding on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Emboldened by his soaring popularity at the beginning of his first term, Obama laid down the law and set up conditions to peace talks that even the Palestinians had never insisted upon: a complete freeze of all Jewish construction in the West Bank, including even Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and all natural growth, something no Israeli leader could accept.

Oren is relentless and crafty in making Israel’s case, but he’s up against an indomitable force: The most powerful man in the world has decided to put “daylight” between America and Israel.

That draconian demand essentially paralyzed the peace process and set the Obama-Netanyahu relationship on a collision course from which it never recovered. Oh, sure, there were the occasional charm offensives and make-up sessions, but they were mostly a front. As Oren’s narrative makes clear, Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu were fundamentally at odds over how to approach the Palestinian conflict.

This section is perhaps the least interesting in the book, if for no other reason than the politics feel like Groundhog Day and are entirely predictable. The minute Obama decided to pressure only Israel, the die was cast. Abbas and his cohorts could continue naming stadiums after terrorists, cleaning Israel’s clock in international forums, and sitting back and enjoying the show of two historic allies going at it.

Things got so tenuous that when Abbas called Obama’s bluff and sought a Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlements, Obama, desperate not to exercise his veto power, offered to endorse the Palestinian position on the 1967 lines, altering more than 40 years of American policy. The book’s revelation of this sneaky maneuver is getting a lot of media attention, but everyone seems to be missing an essential fact: Abbas still said no.

A vexing low point in the ongoing saga with Obama is the night Israeli officials were left alone and hungry at the White House while Obama and Netanyahu were off in a private meeting. No food was served until someone asked, and then a White House employee brought a plate of cheese and crackers, which Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak proceeded to devour.

I’m not quite sure why something so small and silly made an impression on me – maybe there's something about Jews and food – but Oren brought it up and it stuck.

In any event, all the battling and squabbling between Obama and Netanyahu were small potatoes compared to their division on the existential issue of Iran's nuclear program. “Rarely in modern history have nations faced genuine existential threats,” Oren writes, quoting a piece he wrote in Commentary. “Israel uniquely confronted many potential cataclysms on a daily basis. Three of them, alone, were posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

First, he writes, there is Iran’s attempt to produce a bomb that it could place atop one of the many missiles it already possesses and which could hit any city in Israel. Second, there is Iran’s status as the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism — meaning that if Iran got the bomb, so would the terrorists. And, last, once Iran acquired nuclear capabilities, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would obtain them as well, locking Israel into a fatally unstable neighborhood.

Oren is at his best dissecting the disagreement over Iran, candidly cutting through the public front extolling the common U.S. and Israeli goals of preventing a nuclear Iran. “Behind this outward confluence of policies,” he writes, “yawned several chasms.”

The first chasm is structural: “America, a very large and supremely armed country located far from the Middle East and not threatened by national annihilation by Iran, could afford to take chances on the nuclear issue that tiny and less-powerful Israel, situated in Iran’s backyard and slated by its rulers for destruction, could not.”

The second is conceptual: “While Netanyahu doubted that Iran would concede its nuclear program without first enduring crippling sanctions and confronting a serious military threat, Obama remained committed to the principle of engagement, in the hope that Iran could one day ‘rejoin the community of nations.’ ”

But nothing separated Washington and Jerusalem more than the possibility of military action. In one of the juicier reveals in the book, Oren quotes Barak telling his American counterparts: “One night of strategic bombing will restore all your lost prestige in the Middle East. The Iranian nightmare is a full-blown American attack.” The American response was silence.

If the Palestinian issue had a farcical and cynical sheen, the Iranian issue had a tragic one that tested Oren unlike any other: “It wedged me between a prime minister who believed it his historic duty to defend Israel against an imminent mortal threat and a president who saw that same danger as less lethal, less pressing, and still addressable through diplomacy.”

Oren diligently chronicles the tortured, interminable dance between Obama and Netanyahu on the Iranian issue, one that still awaits a final act. But there is also a fascinating dance between Oren and his boss, Netanyahu, flowing through the book. 

“Ever mindful of the opportunity he gave me to achieve a lifelong dream,” Oren writes, “I liked Netanyahu, but I never became his friend. Rendered suspicious by years of political treacheries, he appeared not to cultivate or even need friendships. … And yet, I still empathized with his loneliness, a leader of a country that had little respect for rank and often less for those who wore it … [who] presided over unremitting crises, domestic and foreign, that would break most normal men.”

Oren says he gave his boss loyalty and honesty, including “advice he did not always relish hearing.” Oren’s approach, which was more conciliatory, especially toward Washington, “ran counter to Netanyahu’s personality — part commando, part politico, and thoroughly predatory.”

In one of the most telling passages of the book, Oren writes about a “most difficult” truth he could never bring himself to tell his boss: “He had much in common with Obama. Both men were left-handed, both believed in the power of oratory and that they were the smartest men in the room. Both were loners, adverse to hasty decision making and susceptible to a strong woman’s advice. And both saw themselves in transformative historical roles.”

It’s a mark of Oren’s affinity for both countries that he’s able to see the similarities in the quarreling leaders. One way of looking at Oren’s journey across the American-Israeli divide is that he did all he could to stop two great allies from drifting apart. “Preserving the alliance remained my paramount priority,” he writes.

Oren is sharply critical of some Jewish journalists in America, many of whom he feels hold Israel to a double standard and overdose on criticism of the Jewish state. Maybe that’s why  he published regularly during his tenure, including an unapologetic article in Foreign Policy magazine, titled “The Ultimate Ally.” This is it how it opens:

“What is the definition of an American ally? On an ideological level, an ally is a country that shares America’s values, reflects its founding spirit, and resonates with its people’s beliefs. Tactically, an ally stands with the United States through multiple conflicts and promotes its global vision. From its location at one strategic crossroads, an ally enhances American intelligence and defense capabilities, and provides ports and training for U.S. forces. Its army is formidable and unequivocally loyal to its democratic government. An ally helps secure America’s borders and assists in saving American lives on and off the battlefield. And an ally stimulates the U.S. economy through trade, technological innovation, and job creation.

“Few countries fit this description, but Israel is certainly one of them.”

This may help to explain how Oren was able to navigate the sharp conflicts between the two countries he so loves — he didn’t see the relationship as a one-way street. He saw America’s value to Israel, yes, but he also saw Israel’s value to America.

As a historian, too, Oren understands that leaders come and go; that no leader, however powerful, is bigger than a country or its ideals.  Leaders may damage relationships and interests, but they don’t damage values. Oren was deeply loyal to his beloved Israel, but he was also deeply loyal to the enduring values of his beloved America. 

That is how he gave dual loyalty a good name.


Michael Oren’s “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide” will be released by Random House on June 23. David Suissa will interview Oren onstage at the Museum of Tolerance on July 1 at 7 p.m. Free. Museumoftolerance.com. Oren will also speak at the Richard Nixon Foundation in Yorba Linda on July 2 at 7 p.m. nixonfoundation.org.

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.

Hezbollah sees Yemen strikes causing more Mideast tension


Hezbollah condemned as “unjust aggression” Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen on Thursday and said it takes the region towards increased tension.

The Shi'ite group, which is backed by Iran, also called on Saudi Arabia and its allies to immediately and unconditionally halt the strikes.

“This adventure, (which) lacks wisdom and legal and legitimate justification and which is led by Saudi Arabia, is taking the region towards increased tension and dangers for the future and the present of the region,” its statement said.

“We see that this aggression secures American interests and offers a great favor for the Zionist enemy,” it said, a reference to Israel.

Non-Jewish L.A. Zionist John Henry Patterson buried in Israel


Days after announcing the dissolution of his coalition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu closed a circle in modern Israel’s history, and his own family’s history, when he fulfilled Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson’s final wish to be buried among his Jewish comrades in Israel – 67 years after Patterson’s burial in a Los Angeles cemetery.

“Your grandfather, Col. Lt. John Henry Patterson, was the commander of the first Jewish fighting force in nearly two millennia,” Netanyahu said at the reburial ceremony on Dec. 4, personally addressing Patterson’s only living descendent, Alan Patterson. “As such, he can be called the ‘godfather of the Israeli army.’ He also happened to be the godfather of my late brother, Jonathan, who was named after him. So I feel in doing what we’re doing today, we’re repaying a great historical debt and personal debt.”

Born in Ireland in 1867, Patterson became an ardent Zionist as he commanded the Zion Mule Corps and, later, the 38th and 40th battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, also known as the Jewish legions fighting under the British army in mandate Palestine. Raised Christian, Patterson grew up on biblical tales, which animated his support for a Jewish state and the resurrection of the Jewish warrior.

“He himself re-instilled in them – you’re the descendants of Joshua,” Netanyahu recalled. “You’re the descendants of Judah the Maccabee.”

Patterson died in Los Angeles in 1947, penniless, buried in obscurity at L.A.’s Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, despite three Hollywood movies dramatizing his exploits hunting man-eating lions in East Africa. (Val Kilmer played him in 1996’s “Ghost and the Darkness”). But it was his bravery in organizing and befriending Jewish fighters, much to the chagrin of his anti-Semitic British officers, that was dutifully commemorated at the Jewish Legions Museum in Avihayil, a coastal town in central Israel founded by Jewish legionnaires and whose name aptly means “my father the soldier.”

The Prime Minister described how Zionist firebrand Vladimr Jabotinsky heeded the advice of his father, Benzion Netanyahu, to move their base of operations from England to the United States. In the U.S., Patterson and Netanyahu Sr. together advocated for the formation of a Jewish army. “They, too, were dismissed sometimes as fringe elements,” Netanyahu said. “But this was the basic thing that changed our fate, and it was a grand partnership.”

Patterson’s Zionist advocacy led the British to cut off his army pension. He died in the Bel Air mansion of Marion Travis, a Zionist who looked after him.

The transfer of Patterson and his wife Frances’ cremains was spearheaded by Jerry Klinger, head of the Jewish American Society for Historical Preservation and somewhat of an expert in granting Zionist figures rightful rest in the Jewish state. He had campaigned successfully for the transfer of the remains of Stephen Norman, Theodor Herzl’s grandson and only descendent, from a neglected Washington D.C. gravesite to Israel’s national Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem.

Klinger learned about Patterson’s final wish after reading Alan Patterson’s afterward in Denis Brian’s biography “Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson.” Alan, a Boston resident, took him up on his offer to fulfill it.

“One thing I learned in the army is that you don’t leave your own behind,” Klinger, an Israel Defense Forces veteran, told the Jewish Journal while in Israel. “This is the right thing to do, and I’m glad I was able to have a part in it.”

To his dismay, the Jewish attorneys he approached asked for steep fees to facilitate the transfer. Then Doris Wise Montrose, head of the L.A.- based Jewish Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, introduced him to L.A. attorney, Myrna Strapp, who took up the cause pro-bono.

“I remember I said to him it would be an honor and privilege to help,” Strapp said in a phone interview. “I couldn’t promise any results, but I’d see what I could do. I never tried to go to court to get custody of cremains prior to the event.”

She succeeded. The ashes were disinterred at a private ceremony held at the peak of Operation Protective Edge, the day after the memorial of slain Los Angeles-born Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, Max Steinberg. “All things are linked,” Klinger remarked on the timing.

Netanyahu’s participation as Israel’s leader in this historic reburial resounded throughout the auditorium.

“In the brit [circumcision], your grandfather gave to my brother a silver cup which we have in our family – should have brought it here,” he continued to Alan. “It says: ‘To my dear godson Johnathan, from your godfather, John Henry Patterson.’ Now there's a link of fate here and it's not accidental…The progenitor of the Israeli army was at the birth of one of the future brave commanders of this army. Both of them are gone now.”

Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu died an IDF hero during the historic 1976 Entebbe raid.

As the choir and IDF soldiers performed tribute, and the Prime Minister extended his salute, Lt.-Col John Henry Patterson officially achieved the status of time-honored Christian Zionist legend.

“When I began to consider how I would accomplish it, I felt that his reburial might very well be a case of ‘next year in Avihayil,’ ” Alan Patterson told the children and grandchildren of Patterson’s comrades present in the audience. “Happily, we are here together this year in Avihayil, and the Colonel, together with my grandmother Frances, are resting under the bright sky and fresh air of Israel, far from the dusty corners in Rosedale cemetery.”

Seeing clearly in Tel Aviv


There is nothing unusual about sitting at Café Hemda on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv and spotting your teenage son zip by on a bicycle.

Unless your son does not know how to ride a bicycle.

And is not wearing his glasses.

We visited Israel for a month this summer.  Yes, for that month.  We spent more time in dark stairwells and dusty shelters than should be allowed by law in any country with a Mediterranean climate.  But there was drama before the war as well, before we even made plans to come to Israel, the kind of drama any outsider would observe, listening in on one of our typical family discussions, and sum up with a single symbol: ?

If you are a Zionist living in a small town in Virginia, on a street whose corner is crowned with a liquor store—or heck, even on a street without a liquor store—there are only so many Shabbat candles you can light, so many Jewish folktales you can toss at your children, so many jars of gefilte fish you can go through, before the whole family arrives at the same conclusion independently:  Something is not working.  

But what, exactly?

It would be folly to claim (though fun to try) that because we reside in the Diaspora, my three boys don’t know how to ride a bicycle, swim, fry an egg, or buy a loaf of bread.  But if one’s inner life works in synch with one’s outer life, and the center of the former revolves not around a synagogue or clapping at a klezmer concert, but being hammered at the dinner table with an inverted appeal by Moses Mendelssohn from two hundred years ago to “Be a Jew at home and in the street,” how will one’s posture ever be primed for activities requiring you to stand up straight?

Of course, to avoid getting struck by shrapnel while in a moving vehicle, you should follow the instructions of the Israeli Home Front Command and lie down on the ground, putting off that exhilarating feeling of being a Free People in our own Land for a few more minutes while being prepared to get your pants dirty.  But if shrapnel happens to land on Ben Yehuda Street, a few meters down from the synagogue where your son’s best friend is having his bar mitzvah the very next day, it is probably safe to wear white, as shrapnel is unlikely to fall in the same place twice, and in any case, you will be arriving on foot.

But back to that Something that wasn’t Working:  It could all be a coincidence that within a week of arriving in Israel, one of my sons learned how to ride a bicycle, another to swim, and the third to make pancakes.  Worried sick by this news, my mother demanded a return to the status quo, to their grandchildren with my chin glued to their shoulders and a threat of elderberry extract already in the mail.  But I am not naïve: just as, in Virginia, I instructed my kids not to accept any inebriated bear hugs while sitting on the front porch, so too did I inform them of a recent article I read, locating a large number of assaults on children in the stairwells of apartments.  Do not linger in those places, I stressed.  Even in the Israel that we love.

Of course, if a siren sounds and your friend’s apartment building is not equipped with a bomb shelter, that sinister space will become your savior, Kids, and anyone who had hoped to catch you alone on your way to Emanuel’s or Eitan’s with a carton of eggs tucked under your arm will be deterred by the half dozen people greeting each other like newfound family.  So, yalla, let’s thank Hamas for making Israel a little bit safer and go to the beach.

And Natan?  Put on your glasses.  Now.


Dalia Rosenfeld is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  Her work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Agni, The Daily Forward, Mississippi Review, Bellingham Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Moment Magazine, Zeek, Jewcy, and Carve. She lives with her husband and three children in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Is a two-state solution still possible?


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

A trumpeter playing sorrowful songs outside of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art seemed to symbolize the melancholy many of the proponents of the two-state solution of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel feel these days.

Former Israeli Intelligence Chief Yuval Diskin was speaking at a conference on the roadmap for a two-state solution called the Geneva Accord. He told an overflow crowd at the museum, that dividing the land is still feasible.

“I know that the risks are great and that our success is not guaranteed. It is a deep seated issue, and much blood has been spilled,” Diskin said. “There are economic, mental and cultural gaps between the two sides. There are many, many years of disappointment. But I still believe that a true leadership, with a true vision and path can push this forward so that we can provide hope for a new momentum in the Palestinian and the Israeli streets.”

The Geneva Accord, which calls for a Palestinian state in virtually all of the land that Israel acquired in 1967, was crafted in the midst of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005. Palestinians killed 1000 Israelis, mostly civilians, and Israeli soldiers killed 3000 Palestinians during violent clashes.

The Accord, released ten years ago, was meant to flesh out many of the longstanding issues between the Israelis and Palestinians in order to create an agreement independent of the political process.

Secretary of the State John Kerry is in the Middle East for the eighth time since August trying to push Israelis and Palestinians toward a deal. This time, he has brought a security plan to boost Israeli confidence after a potential withdrawal from much of the West Bank.

Some international observers believe time is running out for a two-state solution.

“This is an opportunity to capitalize on the promise of regaining peace,” said Robert Serry, the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process. “I also feel that the international community is becoming increasingly impatient. That is why we stand to lose much if the talks fail again. We cannot afford to remain complacent.”

Diskin said Israel is making a mistake by focusing on Iran, rather than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I am here because I believe that the consequence of this conflict left unresolved is much more existential than the Iranian nuclear threat,” Yuval Diskin said to a thunderous round of applause. “I know that this is not popular to say, especially these days, but I believe it with all of my heart. I believe that we must reach a resolution now before we go beyond a point to reach an agreement.”

Some of the biggest roadblocks to a two-state solution continue to be the same issues that have been sticking points for the past 20 years –the future of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

“These are very heavy decisions to make. These are decisions that touch upon the essence of both Judaism and Palestinian identity. For Israel to have Jerusalem, this is our Zionist ideal,” Professor Shmuel Sandler, a professor of political science and a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Institute at Bar Ilan University (BESA) told The Media Line.

Israeli and Palestinian officials each blame the other for the lack of progress toward a two-state solution.

“If the right position is taken, of course it is feasible. But the situation on the ground shows that the Israelis do not want there to be an agreement,” Xavier Abu Eid, an advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) told The Media Line. “The culture of impunity that Israel has continued allows it to violate international law without paying any price for its actions.”

The ongoing split between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and the Islamist movement which controls Gaza, is also an obstacle.

“The drift away from the two-state solution politics in Israel and Palestine is one of the problems,” Ghassan al-Khatib, a former spokesman for the Palestinian Authority told The Media Line. “Every new election in Israel is bringing more right-wing politics into power. Public opinion is moving away from the two-state solution in Israel. The political reality within Palestine is no less of a problem. The split between Fatah and Hamas and the fact that the last election was won by Hamas is a problem.”

The current round of negotiations began in July after a five-year freeze. Secretary Kerry has made it clear that he is going to push both sides hard for a deal.

“I think Secretary Kerry has been very adamant and has been trying his best in order to reach peace between Israel and Palestine. And we definitely do appreciate his commitment for peace,” Abu Eid said. “I think that our side is very serious with him. We have gone along with everything we have committed to with Secretary Kerry. The other side has continued to undermine everything that Secretary Kerry has said.”

Recent polls have also shown that while both populations want a resolution to the conflict, neither side believes that the revived negotiations will end successfully.

“To recognize the right of Israel to exist, that’s the main obstacle. They have to cross a Rubicon,” professor emeritus Avraham Diskin (no relation to Yuval Diskin) of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told The Media Line. “Israel is not a legitimate entity for most of the Arab world, most of the Muslim world. So to sign an agreement recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (is difficult).”

Yet many on both sides say there is no alternative to a two-state solution, and the question is not if it will be implemented, but only when.

United and divided: Inside ‘Like Dreamers,’ Yossi Klein Halevi’s extraordinary new book


The stirring scene that opens “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” by Yossi Klein Halevi (Harper, $35), is a flashback to the night of June 6, 1967, when the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces crossed the no man’s land from West Jerusalem and approached the Old City, a sacred place that had not been under Jewish sovereignty for nearly 2,000 years.

“They changed the history of Israel and the Middle East,” Halevi observes. But Halevi has not written a hagiography of those courageous young men. Some of them were secular kibbutzniks and some were religious Zionists, a fact that strikes Halevi as emblematic of the tensions that have reshaped Israel during the half-century that followed what is now known as the Six-Day War. Their story, he insists, is really about “the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams, the vast hopes imposed on this besieged, embattled strip of land crowded with traumatized Jewish refugees.” In that sense, “Like Dreamers” is as much about the future of Israel as it is about what the author describes as “Israel’s most transcendent moment.”

Halevi is a journalist, memoirist and commentator with a unique perspective on both Jewish history and the destiny of Israel. Born in Brooklyn, he was an early follower of the late Meir Kahane, a member of Kahane’s controversial Jewish Defense League and an activist in the movement to liberate Soviet Jews. As he recounts in his autobiography, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” he gradually moved from the far right of political Zionism into Orthodoxy and ultimately emerged as an advocate for rapprochement among Jews, Muslims and Christians, as he advocated in “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden.”

Today, at 60, Halevi lives with his family in Jerusalem, where he serves as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His byline is familiar to readers of many publications, among them the New Republic — where he holds the position of contributing editor — The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs magazine. He is much sought after as a commentator on the Middle East, and he brings a hard-edged, highly realistic perspective to his work. To his credit, he refuses to mythify or idealize the people whose exploits he is writing about, and yet he is capable of showing how seemingly ordinary men and women are capable of doing great things.

Thus, for example, Halevi is quick to point out that all of the main characters in his book are Ashkenazim — Jews of European ancestry — even though nearly half of Israel’s Jewish population today is of Middle Eastern origin. And he emphasizes that the seven members of the 55th Brigade whom he interviewed over a period of 10 years are markedly unsentimental; he is impressed by their “faith in human initiative and contempt for self-pity,” and “their daunting quest for solutions to unbearable dilemmas that would intimidate others into paralysis.” Above all, their feat of arms in 1967 — which united Jerusalem as an Israeli city, taking what had been ruled by Jordan — can be seen as an augury of the problems Israel still must resolve: “To a large extent,” he writes, “Israel today lives in the partial fulfillment and partial failure of their contradictory dreams.”

Halevi uses the biographies of those seven Israeli soldiers as a device to tell a much larger tale about the influences and pressures that shaped them. Avital Geva, for example, grew up on a kibbutz that belonged to Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist movement with distinctly Marxist values.  “Avital and his friends had been raised to revere the Soviet Union as the ‘second homeland,’ ” he explains, and he reminds us that Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 was mourned on the front page of the movement’s newspaper. By contrast, Yoel Bin-Nun was a member of a religious Zionist youth organization Bnei Akiva, and when he confided his “deepest longing” to a girl of his acquaintance, it was to see the construction of a third Temple.  “With animal sacrifices and blood and all of that?” she asked. “That’s what is written in the Torah,” he answered.

Halevi allows us to see the conflicting Israeli views of the Holocaust barely 20 years after the liberation of the camps. Some native-born Israelis were astounded by and contemptuous of the survivors, whom they called sabon — the word for soap, a reference to the notion that corpses were rendered into soap. Only when Arik Achmon, chief intelligence officer of the 55th Brigade, met the survivors who had founded Kibbutz Buchenwald did he come to see that they were worthy of his respect: “They’d survived through not passivity but constant alertness,” Achmon came to realize. “Sabon: what jerks we were.” But Halevi reminds us that one of the enduring victories the 55th Brigade achieved was to “[replace] skeleton heaps in death camps with paratroopers at the Wall as the enduring Jewish image of the century.”

The centerpiece of the book, of course, is the operations that took place on the night of June 6-7, 1967, when the 55th Brigade was assigned a mission that had been a failure when it was tried during the War of Independence, in 1948. A tactical map of the battle lines will come as a shock to anyone who has since visited Israel as a tourist and strolled through the streets of Jerusalem where, on that night, the trenches and minefields were laid out. At the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces, the fast-changing situation on multiple fronts was under constant scrutiny, but at least one order was clear and unequivocal: “Be prepared to take the Old City,” Gen. Uzi Narkiss, commander of the central front, told Arik Achmon. “I hope you will erase the shame of 1948.

Exactly here, I think, is where we glimpse the unique importance of the battle for Jerusalem, and the various reasons why it was so consequential. For the battle-hardened officers of the high command, the taking of the Old City was a point of honor as well as a crucial strategic objective. For others, it was a religious undertaking with messianic implications: “Next year in Jerusalem,” sang a group of soldiers, echoing the closing words of the Passover seder. A student watching them provided a new lyric: “Next week in Jerusalem — in Jerusalem rebuilt.” For just about everyone, including the largely secular popular of the Jewish state, the strains of a new hit song called “Jerusalem of Gold” represented “the nation’s suppressed anguish for the Old City of Jerusalem.”

But Halevi presses on in his search for the layering of meanings contained within the taking of the Old City. The tensions within the 55th Brigade are now writ large in Israel — the divisions between the religious and the secular, the settlers and the kibbutzniks, and the arguments over whether and how to change the “facts on the ground” that were first established in 1967. We read of how the veterans of that fateful mission go on to live their lives, to reinvent themselves, to enter and leave relationships, to pursue careers and enterprises in civilian life, to endure illness and confront death, and Halevi shows us how the same urgent issues that stirred in their hearts and minds in the heat of battle remain the same issues that the whole nation confronts today, often with heartbreaking and even fatal consequences.

That’s why “Like Dreamers” is such a rich, complex and eloquent book, both challenging and enlightening, an extraordinary effort on the part of the author to capture a vast historical saga through the lens of the lives of seven flesh-and-blood human beings.  

“In their disappointment, some Jews had forgotten to celebrate, how to be grateful,” Halevi concludes. “It was a recurring Jewish problem, as ancient as the first Exodus.” His achievement in “Like Dreams” is his own ability to celebrate the courage of the men of the 55th Brigade, without for a moment overlooking the perplexing aftermath of their victory on that remarkable day.

Rabbi David Wolpe and Sinai Temple, together with the Jewish Journal, host a discussion with Yossi Klein Halevi on Oct. 3, 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 481-3243 or visit 

Rohani’s statement, its distortion, and what it all means


Today, Iran marked Quds day, its annual rebuke to all things Zionist generally, and Israel’s control of Jerusalem specifically.

ISNA, the semi-official Iranian news agency, quoted President-elect Hassan Rohani — much touted as a moderate — as saying the following:

The Zionist regime has been a wound on the body of the Islamic world for years and the wound should be removed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to make the following statement:

Rohani’s true face has been revealed earlier than expected. Even if they will now rush to deny his remarks, this is what the man thinks and this is the plan of the Iranian regime. These remarks by President Rohani must rouse the world from the illusion that part of it has been caught up in since the Iranian elections. The President there has changed but the goal of the regime has not: To achieve nuclear weapons in order to threaten Israel, the Middle East and the peace and security of the entire world. A country that threatens the destruction of the State of Israel must not be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction.

So, Netanyahu was right: His unspecified “they” did indeed “rush to deny his remarks.” Except not in the ya-gotta-understand-what-the-idiom-means kind of way that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s line about wiping Israel from the map is sometimes explained away. But rather, in a he-just-didn’t-say-it kind of way.

Here’s the video, for Farsi speakers, and a translation posted on Twitter by Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, which I’ve confirmed with other Farsi speakers as essentially correct:

The day of Quds, which is one of the mementos of the Imam [Khomeini], may he be admitted to God’s paradise, is the day that the people display the unity of the Islamic world against any form of tyranny and aggression. In any case, in our region, a sore has been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years, in the shadow of the occupation of the Holy Land of Palestine and the dear Quds. This day is in fact a reminder of the fact that Muslim people will not forgot their historic right and will continue to stand against aggression and tyranny.

There is no “remove.” And it’s not entirely clear what “sore” he’s talking about: Is he being hyper-specific, referring to the Temple Mount, the third holiest site in Islam known as Haram al Sharif? Or is he referring generally to Israel itself? Or to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank?

Those are questions for Rohani. Here are some for others:

– Why did two Iranian government-tied news agencies so egregiously misrepresent what he said? This might be a a situation of one lazy reporter’s screw up, followed by another even lazier reporter plagiarizing the screw-up. But it begs the question: How pervasive is the notion of “removing” Israel in Iran that a reporter can walk away and think, “Well that’s what he probably meant.” (Notably, Press TV, another government-run agency, quickly reported the misreporting.)

– Why did Netanyahu’s office not wait to check the video? There’s no shortage of Farsi speakers in Israel. Especially considering the import of Netanyahu’s implied “illusion” jibe at President Obama and a number of congressional Democrats. This is a substantive shot across the bow at an ally. Wouldn’t you want your ducks in a row in that case?

– Will the prime minister’s office walk this back? (UPDATE: It did, in a statement to the BBC and in removing tweets that reflected the original statement.) Will others who have taken up the misreporting, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and a number of pro-Israel groups?

– Finally, circling back to a question for Rohani (or at least those who have studied him most closely): Is this, as Erdbrink suggests, a sign of his relative moderation? Is it significant that a president-elect, on the one day when Iranians are encouraged to focus their fury on Israel, doesn’t say much at all?

Netanyahu’s office says his attack on Rohani’s based on bad translation


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office blamed an erroneous translation for his earlier call on westerners who believe Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani is a moderate to abandon their “illusion.”

Netanyahu’s office late Friday removed from the Twitter social media website tweets reflecting the statement and told the BBC that it was “based on a Reuters report with an erroneous translation.”

Netanyahu had reacted earlier in the day to statements picked up by wire services and originally attributed to Rohani by Iran’s semi-official ISNA and Mehr news agencies, which quoted him as saying, “The Zionist regime has been a wound on the body of the Islamic world for years and the wound should be removed.”

Netanyahu’s original statement said that Rohani had “revealed his true face sooner than expected.”

“This statement should awaken the world from the illusion some have taken to entertaining since the elections in Iran,” his statement said. “The president was replaced but the goal of the regime remained obtaining nuclear weapons to threaten Israel, the Middle East and the safety of the world. A country which threatens to destroy Israel must not have weapons of mass destruction.”

A number of news sites, quoting Rohani directly, rendered his statement differently, without the call for removal. ISNA soon retracted its original report.

“The day of Quds, which is one of the mementos of the Imam [Khomeini], may he be admitted to God’s paradise, is the day that the people display the unity of the Islamic world against any form of tyranny and aggression,” Rohani said, according to a New York Times translation. “In any case, in our region, a sore has been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years, in the shadow of the occupation of the Holy Land of Palestine and the dear Quds. This day is in fact a reminder of the fact that Muslim people will not forgot their historic right and will continue to stand against aggression and tyranny.”

Netanyahu’s blast could be seen as being aimed at U.S. President Obama and a number of U.S. lawmakers who have said Rohani’s expressed willingness to make Iran’s nuclear program more transparent should be tested.

A number of pro-Israel groups that had attacked Rohani in social media based on the misstatement, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and The Israel Project, did not retract their attacks by midday Friday. One group, the AJC-affilaited U.N. Watch, corrected its statement.

International Quds Day, held annually since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, drew hundreds of thousands of participants in Tehran, according to news agencies.

Rohani, who is scheduled to be inaugurated in two days, is believed to have garnered the votes of Iran’s more reform-minded voters, although he is a veteran of the ruling clerical establishment and his candidacy was authorized by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In his own Quds Day remarks, Khamenei vowed that “Palestine will be free” and predicted the emergence of a new “Islamic Middle East.”

Last year, Ahmadinejad used a Quds Day event to call for the elimination of the “insult to all humanity” that is Israel, and said that confronting it constitutes an effort to “protect the dignity of all human beings.” He too expressed confidence in the emergence of “a new Middle East” with no trace of Americans or of Zionists.

Anti-Zionist rabbi blames Israel for his assault in Amsterdam


An anti-Zionist rabbi said he was attacked in Amsterdam because of Israel.

Rabbi Josef Antebi, 50, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Amsterdam, told JTA he was assaulted on Sunday in the Dutch capital by a young man who “had relatively dark skin and didn’t look very Dutch, or at least didn’t look like his family has been living in Holland for centuries.”

Antebi said he was kicked in the stomach by a driver who exited his car after nearly hitting the rabbi. He was taken to a hospital, examined and released with minor injuries after filing a complaint with police.

A spokeswoman for the Amsterdam police told JTA that police are investigating but are not certain the attack was anti-Semitic.

“Currently we are assuming it is an argument about traffic that got out of hand,” she said.

Antebi took a picture of the attacker with his cellular phone.

“He shouted negative things about my religion and about my people,” said Antebi, who was born in Israel but says he does not recognize its right to exist and describes himself as a Palestinian Jew.

According to Antebi, he turned to a fishmonger operating a street stall and asked him to call the police as the attacker was approaching, but the fishmonger “just motioned ‘no.’ ”

The attacker kicked him in the stomach, the rabbi said.

“I’m not surprised he did what he did, it’s human behavior,” Antebi told JTA. “The one to blame is the Zionist state, which is doing a lot of bad things to people.”

Iran’s new president still Khamenei-approved, Netanyahu says


The election of cleric Hassan Rohani as president of Iran does not change anything, since he was shortlisted by the country’s radical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Candidates who did not conform to Khamenei’s extremist outlook were not able to run for the presidency, Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting, a day after Rohani’s election.

Netanyahu pointed out that “among those whose candidacies he allowed was elected the candidate who was seen as less identified with the regime, who still defines the State of Israel as ‘the great Zionist Satan.’ ”

It is Khamenei who ultimately determines Iran’s nuclear policy, the Israeli leader said.

“Iran will be judged by its actions,” Netanyahu said. “If it continues to insist on developing its nuclear program, the answer needs to be very clear — stopping the nuclear program by any means.”

Rohani, who is seen as much more moderate than the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will take office in August after receiving slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. Some 72 percent of the 50 million eligible voters turned out.

The combative Ahmadinejad was barred from running for reelection due to term limits.

“This victory is a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness, and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill temper,” Rohani said Saturday on state television.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “Iran must abide by the demands of the international community to stop its nuclear program and cease the dissemination of terror throughout the world.”

In its statement on Saturday, the White House congratulated the Iranian people for participating in the political process and “their courage in making their voices heard.” The statement said it respected their vote.

“It is our hope that the Iranian government will heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians,” the White House said.

On Sunday, the British newspaper The Independent reported that Iran will  send 4,000 Revolutionary Guard troops to Syria to aid President Bashar Assad against rebel forces in his country’s two-year civil war. The decision reportedly was made before the start of the presidential election.

Iran also proposed opening up what it called a “Syrian front” against Israel in the Golan Heights, according to the Independent.

Rachel Frenkel: Mezzo’s Kibbutz roots


It’s a long way from Kibbutz Dalia, where Rachel Frenkel was raised, to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, but the mezzo-soprano is completing that journey this week.

The slim and youthful wife and mother will sing and act the role of the count’s amorous page Cherubino in Mozart’s comic opera “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, opening May 17.

Frenkel was born in 1981 in Haifa, but raised by her Brazilian-born mother and Argentinian-born father on Kibbutz Dalia (also spelled Daliya), about 20 miles southeast of the port city.

Both parents absorbed their Zionism through the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, so Rachel and her three siblings were raised in the old ideologically correct kibbutz style. From the age of 3 months to 6 years, she saw her parents only three hours each evening, otherwise spending her days and nights with all the other kids in a communal building.

“Both my parents had full-time jobs on the kibbutz, but they were very musical, with my mother always singing,” recalled Frenkel, sitting near a swimming pool at the Palazzo West apartment complex.

According to her elders, Rachel started to hum herself to sleep when she was 1 year old, and she made her debut at 8 in the kibbutz dining hall, singing (secular) Passover songs.

After finishing the Dalia high school and working in the kibbutz’s kindergarten, she enrolled and graduated from the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University and then joined the New Israeli Opera’s Studio.

Six years ago, the newlywed Frenkel won a scholarship and moved to Berlin to improve her technique and further her professional career, accompanied by her husband, Lior.

She was accepted as a member of the Berlin State Opera and in 2009 got her first real break in true storybook fashion.

“I was the understudy for Cherubino in ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ and when the designated singer became ill, I stepped in,” Frenkel said.

Although she has performed in a half-dozen countries, Frenkel makes her home in Berlin and is somewhat conflicted about her choice.

“I have found a very welcoming atmosphere in Berlin,” she said, “but when I see the stone markers in front of houses, listing the former Jewish residents who were expelled or killed
by the Nazis, I ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

But being Jewish and Israeli is rarely an issue for Frenkel during her performances in Germany, Austria, Japan, Scotland and France.

An exception was her stay in Denmark last year, at a time when the fighting in the Gaza Strip escalated, eliciting international criticism of Israel, as well as from her fellow singers while watching Danish television reports.

“We had some conversations, and I told my colleagues that there was another side to the conflict,” she said, but added, “Criticizing Israel does not necessarily make a person a Jew hater.”

Her career got a boost when she won a prize at a contest for “New Voices” in Germany. One of the judges was the director general at the venerable Vienna State Opera, who engaged Frenkel for the role of Rosina in “The Barber of Seville.”

With her opera and concert career taking off, a new dimension was added to her life with the birth of her daughter, Ruth, now 2 years and 9 months old.

Frenkel decided from the beginning that she would not be separated from her daughter and husband despite her frequent travel, putting a special spin on the conundrum facing women on how to balance family and career.

Fortunately, Lior, her husband, is a music composer for films and a Web programmer, allowing him to work most of the time from home.

“Lior and I have always shared the housework and raising Ruth on a 50/50 basis,” Frenkel said. “When we travel, we never stay at a hotel but rent an apartment for a short time, where we both do the cooking.”

She considers raising a young child a plus, rather than a drag, for her career.

“Being a performer is not psychologically easy,” Frenkel said. “But when I get home and Ruth gives me a hug and I give her a bath, that grounds me so I don’t fly away and don’t deal constantly with my own ego.”

The Disney Hall appearance marks her first trip to the United States, and she was taken both by the pleasant weather and her first rehearsals with Dudamel. “When he walks into a room, he projects joy and fills the place with life,” she said.

Among her future engagements, she will perform in “Figaro” at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival at the Lincoln Center as well as in Budapest and Vienna. Next year, she will appear in “La Finta Giardiniera” (The Pretend Gardener) at the Glyndebourne Festival in England.

Asked how she sees her life 10 years from now, Frenkel responded thoughtfully.

“My professional goal is to keep singing at the highest level,” she said. “Personally, I would want a more stable lifestyle, more children and a sense of home. I miss Israel every day, and my dream is to live there permanently.”

For tickets and more information on the May 17, 19, 23 and 25 performances of “The Marriage of Figaro,” visit www.laphil.com or call the Walt Disney Concert Hall box office at (323) 850-2000. Tickets are also available through Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000.

Syrian wake-up


Yes, America, we’ve heard: You’re war-weary.

It’s at least something our divided country can agree upon: Americans across party lines oppose sending troops, weapons or air support to the rebel fighters in Syria. “War-weary Nation Wary of Syria,” the centrist Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote. “We’re war-weary,” echoed the libertarian magazine Reason. “Americans are war-weary,” Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch said on Fox News. “War Weary: Poll Shows Little Support for Syria Intervention,” a Huffington Post headline screamed.

But guess what, America: Whether you’re weary, ready or not, you’re in this thing.  

Last Friday and Sunday, Israel carried out airstrikes that caused an L.A.-sized earthquake in Damascus. 

Friends don’t let friends launch surprise missile strikes, and Israel planned the Syrian attack with American knowledge, if not coordination, as a way to thwart the Triple Entente of Syria-Iran-Hezbollah. 

And that’s the way it is with conflicts in the Middle East. They’re not like spring colds that eventually just go away on their own. No, these things fester, grow more complex, retreat, then roar back far worse. that’s not a cold, that’s syphilis. 

Those of us who called for President Barack Obama to take firm measures two years ago to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, when the body counts were low and the violence rising, can now say, “See, the options have only gotten worse, the risks greater, the casualty and refugee counts far higher, and the power plays more complex.”

Iran rushed in to fill the vacuum created by a lack of American resolve. The mullahs are using the chaos to strengthen Hezbollah in Lebanon. That’s what drew Israel’s preemptive strike.  

“Iran has only one major diplomatic success, and that’s Syria,” former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said at an Israeli Policy Forum discussion in New York last week. “The only Arab country that goes with Iran is Syria, meaning Assad. The fall of the Assad regime [will be] a huge blow to Iran. I’m not saying the fall of Assad will bring members of the Zionist Congress to rule Syria. They may all be bad guys. But if you want to deal a blow to Iran, this is a huge blow.”

So Israel is now drawn into Syria as part of its larger war against Iranian nuclear ambitions. 

“Hezbollah and Iran are working without any inhibitions in Syria,” said Meridor, who served as minister of intelligence and atomic energy. “They put all their hopes on the Assad regime. This is the unholy triangle: Assad, Hezbollah, Iran.” 

And just because Obama hasn’t sent weapons doesn’t mean the Saudis and other Sunni powers haven’t. Those arms have gone to buttress the more radically Islamist elements, both homegrown and foreign-supplied. Those were few in number when Syria’s Arab Spring began. Now they’re more formidable.

So what should we do? Or, rather, what should we urge our president to do?

At the Milken Global Conference last week, a leader of the Syrian opposition showed up to make a compelling case for the right kind of American intervention. 

Najib Ghadbian, currently a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, has been integral to the Damascus Spring and other milestones along the path to Assad’s eventual, inevitable demise. Now, the unassuming academic presents a business card that lists him as Representative to the United States National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. 

Ghadbian sits on the coalition’s 70-member “mini-parliament.” He described how the Syrian opposition has formed a government-in-waiting with ministries, economists and factional representatives. 

In front of an American audience, in Beverly Hills, the question he had to answer 10 different ways was whether Syria is doomed to become a nest of radical Islam.

“It’s first a concern for us,” he stressed. But Ghadbian said extremist elements make up less than 10 percent of the 160,000-strong Free Syrian Army. 

“We don’t want Syria to be a failed state or an extremist one,” he said. “The way to make sure is to support moderate forces.”

Syrians once supported the radical, Iranian-backed Hezbollah in its attacks against Israel, he said. But now that the Iranian regime is supplying the Syrian army with military equipment, they changed their minds.

“The most hated country in Syria today is Iran,” Ghadbian said. “It’s not Israel; it’s not the U.S., because [Iran is] directly involved and implicated in the killing.”

I asked Ghadbian what he would ask Obama to do tomorrow if he had the president’s ear. 

“Be a leader,” he shot back. “Be a spokesperson for a free Syria. Like Vladimir Putin is for Assad.” 

The United States, which Ghadbian acknowledged has helped with relief efforts and nonlethal military aid, must now take a more active role, creating safe zones, presumably through force, and helping the opposition forces with intelligence and communication. 

“We don’t need boots on the ground; we need leadership,” Ghadbian said with the evident exasperation of someone who is, not surprisingly, truly war-weary.

 

You can see the video of Dr. Najiob Ghadbian here:

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Syrians angry at Israel


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Khalil Sharif wants everyone to stay out of his country’s business.

“First the foreign jihadists hijack the revolution and now the Israelis,” the 31 year old electrician complained to The Media Line. “Why can’t they leave Syria to Syrians?”

While Israel has neither confirmed nor denied it was behind the attacks on Syrian military installations this week, Syrians had no doubt who was responsible. What they’re not sure about, is what it will mean for the future of the civil war in Syria. On one hand, many are happy to see the regime they are fighting suffer a blow to its esteem. At the same time, Syrians fear the attack could allow President Bashar Al-Assad to marshal support by depicting an imminent Zionist threat.

Syrians are taught to loathe Israel at an early age, learning that it is the Arabs’ mortal enemy which wants to steal all their land and strip them of their cultural heritage. Daily doses of propaganda in papers and television ensure that older generations do not forget the perils Syria faces from what they call an expansionist Israel.

But today, many Syrians in opposition controlled areas have reconsidered their passionately held views about their southern neighbor. Some believe that Israel and the Syrian government are closet allies.

“Why hasn’t Syria attacked Israel in the last thirty years?,” 19 year old Hamid Shadi asked The Media Line at an Aleppo bakery. “How can Syria be Israel’s fiercest enemy if it never fights it?”

Shadi and others believe the two nations are colluding to prevent a rebel victory and that Israel has persuaded its Western allies not to intervene in the conflict.

Such reasoning has led some Syrians to postulate that the Israeli attacks were a ruse to allow the regime to shore up its sinking support in the face of the rebel led Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) revolution.

“Just when the regime is beginning to lose on the battlefield Israel attacks,” 34 year old accountant Sa’id Bunni tells The Media Line. “And what did it hit? A science research facility. How is that a military target?”

More level headed Syrians were equally perturbed by the attack.  “It will only distract people from our cause,” complained 42 year old landlord Jabir Shufi.  “We need to focus on overthrowing the regime, not sideshows and circuses.”

Shufi and others worry that a regime skilled in turning catastrophes to its advantage will do just that with the Israeli bombings.  “It will make people reconsider who the real enemy is – the Zionists or the regime, the defenders of the Arab cause,” explained 46 year old Anwar Ma’ri.”  Syrians will just get confused.  And they are good at that.”

Such confusion has already afflicted a number of Syrians. “Why is the FSA fighting the only regime willing to stand up to Israel?” asked 25 year old office supply store clerk Muhammad Sabri.  “It should support (President Bashar) al-Assad in his battle instead of fighting him.”

It is a refrain many on Aleppo’s streets echo. “The FSA is helping the Zionists bleed Syria,” said 22 year old fruit vendor Hashim Sadiq.  “This brings us dishonor.”

Despite the close ties between Israel and the United States, few here believe Jerusalem attacked on Washington’s orders.  “(American President Barack) Obama doesn’t need little Israel to do his bidding,” exclaimed 31 year old builder Yasir Umar.

In private homes far from the fears of eavesdroppers, some Syrians expressed reserved approbation.  “Assad does not fear the FSA,” said a man who only asked to be identified as Abu Ahmad. “But Israel scares him. These attacks keep him up at night and distract him from the fight against the FSA.”

Others who endorsed the Israeli strike lamented that Jerusalem did not bomb anything of significance.  “They didn’t take out Assad’s planes,” noted a man who asked that his name be withheld because he was speaking about a sensitive topic.  “They did not destroy his tanks.  So what good is the attack?”

With so many opinions voiced about an attack whose target is shrouded in secrecy, Syrians are unsure of what to think.  And that just might play into the hands of a regime that has portrayed itself as the only side that can provide stability in a land inundated with uncertainty.

Barack Obama: Leader of the free word


Words matter, especially when spoken by people of power. I once read a book that dissected the 271 words of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Would that speech have become historic if, instead of phrases like “a new birth of freedom,” he had used phrases like “a reaffirmation of our values”?

Would Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech have the same power had he said, “I’m looking forward?”

President Barack Obama is a man who understands the power of words. He introduced himself to Americans with words that electrified a nation. He did the same in Israel.

“Barack Obama came to Jerusalem to win over the Israeli people,” Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The New Republic, “and with a single speech he did. … It may have been the most passionate Zionist speech ever given by an American president.”

Halevi wrote that Obama’s embrace had “an explicit message for Israelis: Don’t give up on the dream of peace and don’t forget that the Palestinians deserve a state just as you do. But as the repeated ovations from the politically and culturally diverse audience revealed, these are messages that Israelis can hear when couched in affection and solidarity. After four years of missed signals, Obama finally realized that Israelis respond far more to love than to pressure.”

To express this love, Obama used all kinds of words — he used words in Hebrew, words from Abraham Joshua Heschel, words from the Bible, words from his heart.

As I reflected on the power of his words, it struck me that, as much as bombs and rockets play a part in the Arab-Israeli conflict, words play an equally important part.

Duplicitous words from a man named Yasser Arafat convinced America and Israel to deal with a man known globally as a terrorist.

Sincere words from a man named Anwar Sadat convinced the Jewish nation to give up the Sinai and make peace with their Egyptian enemy.

Hopeful words from President Clinton convinced much of the world that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was possible, and oh, so close.

Israeli Jews have had an ambivalent relationship with words. On one hand, words have expressed their hopes and dreams and captured their highest aspirations. Words that speak of the Jewish yearning to return to Zion — “If you will it, it is no dream”— can produce goosebumps. So can words that inspired the Jews to make a desert bloom while fighting off invading armies.

But words can also deceive. They can inflate expectations. They can lead to disappointment and cynicism.

This ambivalence — this complex and tortured relationship with words — is what greeted President Obama when he came to Israel.

Israelis wanted to dream with him. They wanted to follow his lead that we’re not just allowed to dream, we must dream.

But other words kept interfering.

While Obama was speaking of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a “true partner” for peace, the words swirling in many Israeli heads were those of Abbas denying any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, or honoring the memories of Palestinian terrorists with the blood of Jewish children on their hands.

While Obama spoke with hope and cautious optimism about the Arab Spring, Israelis could hardly forget the words of hatred that have come their way for decades from the 22 Arab countries that surround them, many of them now in turmoil.

When Obama spoke with empathy about the plight of the Palestinians — “Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes” — the words of a heckler who interrupted the president provided a rude awakening.

“Are you really here to promote the peace process or are you here to give Israel more weapons to kill the Palestinian people with?” Rabiyah Aid, an Arab-Israeli student from Haifa, shouted to the president.

Whose words were more significant? Those of the leader of the free world expressing empathy for the Palestinians, or those of an Arab-Israeli rejecting that empathy?

Obama’s reaction to the heckler was telling — he used it to make a point about freedom of expression in democracies.

Yes, in democracies, words are indeed free. But in much of the Middle East, the words that are free are those that express hatred for Jews and for Israel. Words of love for the dreaded Zionist enemy, well, those are very expensive — they can easily land you in jail.

President Obama came to this crazy land armed with a laptop full of beautiful, powerful, evocative words that make people dream. And his words did put up a good fight against the words of cold reality.

But in the end, peace in the Middle East will come only when all the peoples of the region will be free to speak words of love — words that would make Lincoln, King and Obama proud.